Sunday, March 31, 2024

Spook-friendly intelligence firm courts Labour - and what it's got to do with this blog's hero Vaughan Wilkins

The current Private Eye brings news that the "spook-friendly" intelligence firm Hakluyt is helping build bridges between business and the Labour Party.

In the last year or two it has hired Emily Benn from the party dynasty, former Labour minister Shriti Vadera and former Labour candidate Andrew Hilland. The last two were both close to Gordon Brown when he was at Number 10.

Not only that, says the Eye. Hakluyt also invited Darren Jones to its "secretive" conference last year and helped to fund Peter Kyle's recent trip to California to meet tech bosses.

The Eye reminds us that Hakluyt was set up by former MI6 officers to sell intelligence skills to the private sector.

One reason the firm is of interest to this blog is that one of those former officers was Christopher Wilkins. He is the son of the historical novelist Vaughan Wilkins, who has his own label here.

Christopher Wilkins may have been named after the hero of his father's first novel, And So - Victoria. Which gives me an excuse to end with a reminder of how the authorities thought it was thought far too scandalous to be filmed when it was published in 1937.

The Easter service by the grave of William Hubbard at St Mary in Arden, Market Harborough

Every Easter Saturday, a short service is held at the grave of William Hubbard in the churchyard of St Mary in Arden. The small disused church stands near Market Harborough railway station.

Hubbard died in 1786 and this ceremony has been held since 1807, so the old boy has got good vale for the guinea he left to pay for it.

I suddenly remembered this service yesterday afternoon, so I went along to see it. There was a vicar, half a dozen women to sing, a man with a cross and I found myself one of a congregation of getting on for 20.

Not long after proceedings had begun, there was a loud bang behind us. It turned out one car and run into the back of another and closed Great Bowden Road. An ambulance was called for one lady, and I hope she is all right.

I was reminded a little of the christening of the new bell that went wrong in the BBC's 1982 adaptation of Iris Murdoch's novel The Bell.

St Mary in Arden was a place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, perhaps because it was close to the site of a holy well, and looked after a parish on both sides of the Welland. By the 17th century it had become somewhat disreputable. One day I shall find out more about it. 

Anyway here are some photos I took yesterday. The gravestone is William Hubbard's.

Philippe Sly: The Trumpet Shall Sound

What better for Easter Sunday than a song about resurrection?  This is one of the pieces I played for my mother in her last weeks, so excuse me if I get a bit teary.

I didn't play it to her for any theological reasons, but because she had always loved The Messiah and because Philippe Sly's voice is simply magnificent. Though it is interesting to be reminded by this that, for early Christians, there was nothing metaphorical about their expectations of bodily resurrection,

A word too for the trumpeter here. Apparently, the baroque trumpet, which does not have valves like a modern trumpet, is extremely difficult to play.

If you like Handel and baroque trumpets, I can recommend some of the recordings Aksel Rykkvin made with Mark Bennett - Let the Bright Seraphim, for instance.

I heard Rykkvin give an impressive baritone recital at the National Liberal Club last year, but it's not so long since he was the most celebrated treble in the world.

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Parents of Nigel Farage’s daughter’s boyfriend ran Lewisham drug line

After the judges had drawn up and pored over a family tree, they resolved to give today's Headline of the Day Award to the News Shopper.

Thank you to the reader who nominated it.

Photo by binks from MorgueFile.

Friday, March 29, 2024

Discovering Sauvey Castle in Leicestershire

I visited Sauvey Castle many years ago. As this video shows you, it stands among the hills of High Leicestershire close to the border with Rutland.

Our guides include The Walkabout Wazzock, whom we met when he helped take us along the tunnel that takes the Willow Brook under the Midland main line in Leicester.

You can read more about Sauvey Castle on the Gatehouse website.

BOOK REVIEW Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the Post-War Country House by Adrian Tinniswood

We think we know the history of the English country house in the 20th century. Their heyday was in the Edwardian era, but death duties and then requisition during the second world war led to mass demolition, until the tide turned when an exhibition - The Destruction of the Country House - staged by the V&A in 1974 alerted people to what was still being lost.

The trouble is that, as Adrian Tinniswood shows in this endlessly entertaining book, every part of this version of events is questionable.

By 1900, the owners of large country houses were already finding it hard to maintain the large staffs necessary to run them. You may recall that Nevill Holt Hall, held by many to be the model for Bonkers Hall, had already been vacated by the Cunard family when Suffragettes tried to burn it down in 1914.

Where it remained possible to continue to operate on the 19th-century model, it was often because an American bride brought a new fortune across the Atlantic with her. There's a 1 in 20 chance that the first Lady Bonkers was American.

Death duties were indeed a heavy burden on country estates, particularly during the first world war when more than one set of them might have to be paid, but then we Liberals brought them in precisely to reduce the economic and social dominance of the landed interest.

But before 1950 the solution most houseowners came up with was to sell off part of the estate and perhaps to demolish unwanted wings of the main house - no doubt to their architectural advantage in many cases.

The worst period for country houses was the 1950s, when many were demolished after failing to find buyers. There's a Malcolm Saville story from 1958, The Secret of the Gorge, which pictures the demolition gangs moving in on a country house. 

The same landscape - the Teme Gorge on the Shropshire and Herefordshire border - features in Tom Sharpe's Blott on the Landscape, as does an attempt to demolish a house. That's because both Sharpe and Saville's eldest son were pupils at Lancing, which was evacuated to Downton Castle during the war. This was another indignity that befell such houses at the time, but Downton Castle is very much still with us. 

Around Market Harborough, both Gumley Hall, which became a training centre for agents to be dropped into Nazi-occupied Europe and was then home to Leonard Cheshire's first community for service veterans, and the Lutyens house Papillon Hall near Lubenham were demolished. But Nevill Holt Hall survived by becoming a prep school, which lasted until it closed following a police raid that included helicopters.

The mood of despair at the future of country houses was captured by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited, which was published in 1945. But events moved on, and in his preface to its 1960 edition he wrote that the novel had proved "a panegyric preached over an empty coffin", but who reads prefaces?

They do watch television - or they did in 1981, when the ITV adaptation was screened. I enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed the novel when I went through a Waugh phase at university, but I have never found a more profound message in either than the thought that old money is nicer than new money.

The damage wrought upon a whole generation of Oxford-educated politicians by the TV version, however, is enormous, and the damage they have wrought upon the country as a result probably incalculable.

Yet even in the Fifties new country houses were being built, and their precursors were about to experience a revival thanks to a new phenomenon of the Sixties: the rock god. The Beatles did not live together in four knocked-through terraced houses: they had a country house each. So did several members of the Stones and the Who.

In his own quiet way, Steve Winwood is worth notice here too. He bought a Cotswold house when he was 20, in an area where only rock stars and royalty can afford to live. The result was that one of his daughters married the nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles and his grandson was one of the Queen's pages at the Coronation.

And that exhibition at the V&A? Tinniswood paints it as, in large part, an attempt to ward off Denis Healey's plans for a wealth tax. But then it's often been hard to distinguish where calls for the maintenance of the country house end and calls for the maintenance of their owners begin. 

The current controversy over the National Trust, for instance, must surely be born of impatience with those of us who insist on asking awkward question about where all this affluence came from. Why can't we do the house and gardens, have a scone in the café, buy some out-of-the-way chutney in the gift shop and then leave them in peace?

With so many memoirs and diaries of upper-class eccentrics, Tinniswood had loads of enticing material and made good use of it. What I want to do now is read The Last of Uptake, a 1942 satire by Simon Harcourt-Smith that he draws on. It ends with Titmarsh the gardener burning the old pile down.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

Purple's guide to Northampton's abandoned railways

Purple and his companion show us Northampton's abandoned lines to Bedford and to Wellingborough, And parts of them have definitely been abandoned rather than dismantled.

Desmond Morris, surrealism, The Naked Ape and Richard Jefferies

Embed from Getty Images

The Rest is History podcast on history's greatest monkeys was a disappointment in that there was no mention of the Barbary ape that bit King Alexander of Greece in 1920 and caused his death - perhaps it didn't go to the right school? - but it was invaluable for another reason.

Because it mentioned that Desmond Morris is still alive and living in Ireland at the age of 96. This led me to look at Morris's remarkable career and discover that his grandfather was a school friend of Richard Jefferies, about whom I wrote my Masters dissertation many years ago.

Morris's book The Naked Ape was a bestseller, and a scandal to some, in the Sixties. It sought to explain human behaviour as the result of the conditions under which we evolved, annoying both the religious right and the cultural left.

His qualifications for writing the book were that he had a doctorate in zoology and had worked for the Zoological Society of London in various capacities for some years. He was also, alongside David Attenborough, a well-known presenter of natural history programmes on the BBC.

But before all that he had enjoyed a radically different career. In his early twenties Morris was one of Britain's foremost surrealist painters.

All of which explains Getty's caption for the photo above:

16th December 1966: English zoologist Dr Desmond Morris at home. Morris, who has been the curator of mammals at London Zoo since 1959, leaves in the new year to take up an appointment as director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Morris is a keen artist himself and the walls of his home are decorated with many of his own contemporary paintings. 

There is a full chronology of Desmond Morris's life on his website.

Morris came from Swindon - if you saw him in the Seventies it was often on a chat show where he was paired with the town's most famous daughter, Diana Dors.

Desmond Morris's great grandfather was William Morris (not that William Morris), who founded Swindon's first newspaper and was an importance influence on the young Richard Jefferies.

Walter Besant wrote in The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies:
His chief literary adviser in those days was Mr. William Morris, of Swindon, proprietor and editor of the North Wilts Advertiser. Mr. Morris is himself the author of several works, among others a "History of Swindon," and, as becomes a literary man with such surroundings, he is a well-known local antiquary. 
Mr. Morris allowed the boy, who was at school with his own son, the run of his own library; he lent him books, and he talked with him on subjects which, one can easily understand, were not topics of conversation at Coate. 
Afterwards, when Jefferies had already become reporter for the local press, it was the perusal of a descriptive paper by Mr. Morris, on the  "Lakes of Killarney," which decided the lad upon seriously attempting the literary career.

Richard Jefferies died in 1887 at the age of 38. If he had lived to 79, he could have dandled the infant Desmond Morris on his knee.

The Joy of Six 1216

Sian Norris meets the Polish activists supporting Ukrainian women fleeing war horrors.

"We are in the midst of a major shift in the way we think about mental distress, away from unproven theories about 'chemical imbalances' or genetic flaws and towards a closer look at the circumstances of people’s lives." Lucy Johnstone on changing understandings of mental distress.

"The justification for early boarding is based on a massive but common misconception. Because physical hardship in childhood makes you physically tough, the founders of the system believed that emotional hardship must make you emotionally tough. It does the opposite. It causes psychological damage that only years of love and therapy can later repair." George Monbiot makes the case against sending young children to boarding school.

Owen Hatherley argues that it's possible to provide social housing at scale without making the design mistakes of the past.

"Many venues have their time in the sun as the place to see new bands on the up, but then their roles roles change - covers and pub rock bands might not be my cup of tea, but they perform an important function for everyone involved." Luke Turner says we must value music venues for what they are, not as stops on the road to fame.  

Kevin Sturton marks the 40th anniversary of Robin of Sherwood with a post on The King’s Fool, the final episode in series 1. It subverts the traditional telling of the encounter between Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Raw sewage was dumped into the Welland in Market Harborough for over 1300 hours last year

A shocking report from HFM News:

There has been a big increase in the amount of raw sewage dumped into the River Welland in Market Harborough.

117 separate incidents were recorded last year – a 44% rise on 2022.

Sewage flowed into the watercourse for over 1,300 hours, which is nearly double the amount of time it did during the year before and equates to 54 days continuously.

Water companies are permitted to allow untreated waste to be released into rivers during heavy rainfall to stop sewers backing up.

The data has been released by the Environment Agency, which monitors three points along the river through the town where sewage can enter the water.

We phoned Ofwat for a comment:

"I'm just the cleaner. dear. They've all gone home."

Neil O'Brien is 45.

Rallings & Thrasher: Conservatives set to lose half the council seats they defend in May

Writing in the Local Government Chronicle, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher forecast a bad  night for the Conservatives in May's local elections:

"If the Conservatives repeat their poor performance of 2023, when the NEV [national equivalent vote] put them below 30%, they stand to lose up to 500 seats - half their councillors facing election.

"Labour may make about 300 gains, with the Liberal Democrats and Greens both likely to advance. We will not know the extent of any Reform party challenge until nominations close, but it cannot be completely discounted."

One reason the Tories stand to make such large losses is that the seats being contested on 2 May were last fought in 2021 (postponed from 2020 because of Covid lockdown), when the Johnson government was still quite popular.

As key contests for the Liberal Democrats, Rallings and Thrasher nominate Wokingham:

The Liberal Democrats are only just shy of a majority on Wokingham, and their performance against the Conservatives will be seen as indicative of opinion in the so-called ‘blue wall’ – normally Conservative and affluent parts of the south of England which voted Remain in 2016 and tend to take a more liberal view on social issues. 

though it's worth remembering that large parts of affluent Southern England voted Leave.

They also mention Hull, where we have control and Labour are the challengers, and Brentwood:

In Brentwood BC, where the Conservatives are the largest party, the Liberal Democrats will be hoping to take majority control for the first time since 2003. A repeat of last year’s results would be sufficient.

And if you would like more encouragement, John Curtice - answering questions after a public lecture at the University of Strathclyde last night - has said that Labour has a 99 per cent chance of winning the coming general election.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Rigby Graham at the Goldmark gallery in Uppingham

The obituary for Rigby Graham  quoted at the beginning of this video describes him as an "irascible painter whose idiosyncratic landscapes are among the 20th century's best".

Though I met Graham as a teenager, I never experienced that irascibility, but I agree with the obituarist's judgement of his work. I wonder that Graham is not better known, even wildly popular.

The best place to see his work is at Goldmark gallery, which is also one of my lost bookshops of Uppingham.

In the video, the gallery's owner Mike Goldmark, who published Iain Sinclair's early novels at Uppingham, talks about Graham, his art and his working methods.

Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas on The Strange Brew

One of my favourite music podcasts is The Strange Brew, and it recently had a stellar episode that interviewed Michelle Phillips of The Mamas & The Papas.

She gave a great picture, not just of the rise and fall of her own band, but also of the Sixties folk scene in the US. You may never see the Byrds in quite the same light again.

The dangers of schismogenesis: Beware of adopting a view because of the people it will upset

The problem is not so much that social media has led us to support policies on the grounds that they will "upset the right people": it's that we go on to invent principles that will justify this understandable but ultimately base instinct.

So it was fine to smile when Nigel Farage had his account closed by Coutts - he has done a great deal of damage to this country, after all.

What worried me was when people who imagined themselves on the left started defending the proposition that banks are private business with a right to act they choose within the law. With it's denial of any wider social responsibility, that sounded a very right-wing view. but no one on the left seemed to care, as long as it justified their giving Old Frogface a miserable time.

Yes, I know the Farage Affair was more complex than it first seemed, but many had taken up their positions before that became apparent.

And, only a few days ago, justified dislike of Laurence Fox led many to take up a position on whether or not one of his sons needed treatment for ADHD, when they have never met any of the people involved.

Being a cool kid, I read Cory Doctorow's Pluralistic blog, and his latest post has a lot to say about the dangers of this kind of thinking:

It's totally reasonable for non-experts to reject the conclusions of experts when the process by which those experts resolve their disagreements is obviously corrupt and irredeemably flawed. But some refusals carry higher costs – both for the refuseniks and the people around them – than my switching to bottled water when I was in Charleston.

Take vaccine denial (or "hesitancy"). Many people greeted the advent of an extremely rapid, high-tech covid vaccine with dread and mistrust. They argued that the pharma industry was dominated by corrupt, greedy corporations that routinely put their profits ahead of the public's safety, and that regulators, in Big Pharma's pocket, let them get away with mass murder.

The thing is, all that is true. Look, I've had five covid vaccinations, but not because I trust the pharma industry. I've had direct experience of how pharma sacrifices safety on greed's altar, and narrowly avoided harm myself. I have had chronic pain problems my whole life, and they've gotten worse every year. When my daughter was on the way, I decided this was going to get in the way of my ability to parent – I wanted to be able to carry her for long stretches! – and so I started aggressively pursuing the pain treatments I'd given up on many years before.

My journey led me to many specialists – physios, dieticians, rehab specialists, neurologists, surgeons – and I tried many, many therapies. Luckily, my wife had private insurance – we were in the UK then – and I could go to just about any doctor that seemed promising. That's how I found myself in the offices of a Harley Street quack, a prominent pain specialist, who had great news for me: it turned out that opioids were way safer than had previously been thought, and I could just take opioids every day and night for the rest of my life without any serious risk of addiction. It would be fine.

This sounded wrong to me. I'd lost several friends to overdoses, and watched others spiral into miserable lives as they struggled with addiction. So I "did my own research." Despite not having a background in chemistry, biology, neurology or pharmacology, I struggled through papers and read commentary and came to the conclusion that opioids weren't safe at all. Rather, corrupt billionaire pharma owners like the Sackler family had colluded with their regulators to risk the lives of millions by pushing falsified research that was finding publication in some of the most respected, peer-reviewed journals in the world.

I became an opioid denier, in other words.

I decided, based on my own research, that the experts were wrong, and that they were wrong for corrupt reasons, and that I couldn't trust their advice.

When anti-vaxxers decried the covid vaccines, they said things that were – in form at least – indistinguishable from the things I'd been saying 15 years earlier, when I decided to ignore my doctor's advice and throw away my medication on the grounds that it would probably harm me.

For me, faith in vaccines didn't come from a broad, newfound trust in the pharmaceutical system: rather, I judged that there was so much scrutiny on these new medications that it would overwhelm even pharma's ability to corruptly continue to sell a medication that they secretly knew to be harmful, as they'd done so many times before.

But many of my peers had a different take on anti-vaxxers: for these friends and colleagues, anti-vaxxers were being foolish. Surprisingly, these people I'd long felt myself in broad agreement with began to defend the pharmaceutical system and its regulators. Once they saw that anti-vaxx was a wedge issue championed by right-wing culture war shitheads, they became not just pro-vaccine, but pro-pharma.

There's a name for this phenomenon: "schismogenesis." That's when you decide how you feel about an issue based on who supports it. Think of self-described "progressives" who became cheerleaders for the America's cruel, ruthless and lawless "intelligence community" when it seemed that US spooks were bent on Trump's ouster.

The fact that the FBI didn't like Trump didn't make them allies of progressive causes. This was and is the same entity that (among other things) tried to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr into killing himself.

The morals you can draw from this are that politics and life are always more complicated that they are made appear on social media, and that your enemy's enemy is not necessarily your friend.

Alan Titchmarsh’s jeans blurred by North Korean TV censors

The Guardian wins our Headline of the Day Award.

As the judges noted, North Korean has banned jeans since the early 1990s because it sees them as a symbol of US imperialism.

Lord Bonkers's gardener Meadowcroft, I feel convinced, still wears a smock.

Monday, March 25, 2024

101 Charles Darwins gather to boost campaign against Shrewsbury's North West Relief Road

As local government in England subsides through lack of central funding, the Conservatives running Shropshire become more determined to build an environmentally damaging road - the Shrewsbury North West Relief Road - even though it's by no means clear that the funding for it is in place.

The people campaigning against the road have highlighted one of the many trees that will be felled if it goes ahead. That tree is estimated to be 550 years old, and the campaigners have christened it the 'Darwin Oak' because the Darwin family lived nearby.

They reason that Charles must have known it, even climbed it, as a boy. He certainly investigated the geology of nearby quarries as a young man.

On Saturday, 101 people dressed as Charles Darwin assembled by his oak to publicise the campaign against the road. And here they are.

Flying saucers over Market Harborough

The Leicester Mercury has a round up of three recent UFO sightings in the county. Among them is:

Last year also saw reported UFO sightings above Market Harborough when "highly reflective" objects were seen moving slowly in the sky. The objects, which also flashed at times, had an "unusual hue" according to the reports, while they were also irregular in shape.

Talk of UFOs naturally makes me think of our Conservative police and crime commissioner Rupert Matthews.

Sadly, a search reveals that, not only has the introductory video for his course for the International Metaphysical University disappeared from the web, but so has the American site where he said:

"The evidence for UFOs and for the humanoid creatures linked to them is pretty compelling. However, most of the evidence that suggests some sort of global threat is a lot less convincing. It rests on dubious testimony or simply does not mesh with the mass of evidence about UFOs available elsewhere."

I suspect the Men in Black have been at work online.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

I owe Earl Shilton an apology

Not Earl Stilton, who is probably an old friend of Lord Bonkers, the father of the Rutland heiress Paris Stilton and quite capable of being rude himself, but the Leicestershire settlement Earl Shilton.

Writing about one of those forgotten disasters or scandals that intrigue me, I described it as "a fairly nondescript village".

First, Earl Shilton is a town not a village. Second, I don't know how I thought myself qualified to judge it when I'd never been there.

Well, I went there on Friday and it's not "fairly nondescript at all". No place is dull to someone with eyes to see and a little knowledge or curiosity.

As you can see here, I found plenty of interesting buildings, including the headquarters of the town building society above. And I didn't get to the church, which has a castle mound nearby.

And the visit, whose first purpose was to photograph the town's Edward VIII postbox, also cast new light on my horror at Desborough's decision to demolish its high street.

Both Earl Shilton and Desborough have populations a little over 10,000. Earl Shilton has a long and straggling hight street lined with shops. Some are the result of piecemeal redevelopment, some are smart, some are shabby, some are empty, but the centre is as busy as the centre of a market town should be.

Desborough, by contrast, is quiet and empty.

The Joy of Six 1215

Charlotte Thompson, who lives there, challenges the government's contention that Rwanda is a safe country: "Many Rwandan citizens are extremely proud of the position their country is in now and support the government entirely, one can hardly be surprised having watched the transformation. But many do not, and the price of not supporting the government can often be, well, death."

Ofcom will have to change its attitude towards GB News as the general election approaches, says Stewart Purvis.

"Having just stepped into public life, Magyar is still unknown and somewhat of an enigma. On the one hand, he is extraordinarily self-possessed, sharp, tough, articulate, and strikingly patriotic. On the other hand, he often comes off as idealistic and naïve. Like an escapee from Plato's cave, only slowly adjusting to the light and coming to recognize the extent of his previous illusions, Magyar is a man who still doesn’t fully understand the nature of the political regime he's turned his back on." H. David Baer asks if Péter Magyar is the leader the Hungarian opposition has been looking for.

Jonathan Haidt argues that we underprotect children in the virtual world and overprotect them in the real one.

"In the suppression of the Mau Mau, Britain defaulted to blunt collective punishment, detaining thousands of suspects behind barbed wire, under observation from watchtowers. As a boy in Kenya, even if he’d been made aware of it, such action would have been unfathomable to Rankin. 'What I could not conceive, as I sat on the floor of my father’s study in my shorts and shirt and Bata sandals, was that we, the brave British who I knew had won "The War" ... were now building ... concentration camps.'" Colin Grant reviews Kenya, Mau Mau and Me by Nicholas Rankin.

Tim Rolls remembers the night in 1971 that Chelsea, 2-0 down from the first leg, beat Bruges 4-0 in a European Cup-Winners Cup quarter final at Stamford Bridge: "After the third goal Osgood 'jumped the dog track and fell to my knees and saluted the human cauldron that was The Shed. In that moment, the fans and I were one, united in euphoria. It was a special moment in my life.' It was also, arguably, his greatest moment at Stamford Bridge."

Bird in the Belly: After the City

The opening of Richard Jefferies's After London is a remarkable piece of writing. In an early essay in science fiction - the book was published in 1885 - Jefferies describes how nature takes over when man stops tending the fields after some unnamed natural catastrophe.

We then see what human life has become after this change, and it's no rural idyll. Jefferies hero then goes on a journey and finds the remains of London covered by stagnant waters - it's as though Cobbett's 'Great Wen' has burst.

These later episodes fail to keep up the standard of the book's opening, but they still make you think of Conrad, Ballard and Tarkovsky's Stalker.

As I blogged a couple of years ago, After London has inspired a modern folk album. I quoted Folk Radio:

Brighton-based folk group Bird In The Belly (singer Ben ‘Jinnwoo’ Webb, Laura Ward on flute and vocals, guitarist and percussionist Adam Ronchetti and multi-instrumentalist Tom Pryor) have created a concept album that provides a kind of musical prequel or backstory to the novel, a creation myth for a future world, combining new lyrics with old ballads and poems as well as songs based on passages from the novel.

This is the title track of that album, After the City. It takes its lyrics from Jefferies opening of After London.

When the album came out, the Guardian asked, "In a culture steeped in dystopias, do we need another?" and concluded "Apparently so. An album of well-realised ambition."

Saturday, March 23, 2024

The Exorcism: The scariest thing I have ever seen on television

Written for Terence Towles Canote's 10th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon.

What’s the most frightening thing you’ve seen on television? I can remember an episode of Sexton Blake, shown during children’s hour on ITV, in which Tinker, the great detective’s resourceful young assistant was measured for his coffin by a sinister undertaker while he was still alive.

A bit of research tells me that the Sexton Blake story involving Mr Tapp the undertaker was screened in two parts when I was seven years old. 

Don’t listen to the Haunted Generation mob and their claims for the Seventies: we Boomers had a harder time of it in the Sixties.

If I’m allowed to mention films I saw on television, then the scene in the Bob Hope picture The Cat and the Canary where a hand reaches through the wall behind a bedhead and searches the bed while the occupant sleeps hit me pretty hard. 

Until then I’d assumed that if my back was to the wall then at least I was safe from attack by bogeyman from that direction.

Finding The Exorcism

But if I have to name just one frightening programme then it has to be a television play that I saw when I was 12. For decades, as I waited impatiently for the internet to be invented, I didn’t know even what it had been called.

But then I bought a collection of television criticism by the influential Welsh academic Raymond Williams. I began reading his review of a play by Don Taylor called The Exorcism, and it became clear that this was what had scared me all those years ago.

The Exorcism was broadcast by the BBC on Bonfire Night 1972, as part of a series of seven plays called Dead of Night. Originally there were meant to be eight, but the now-famous The Stone Tape came in at 90 minutes and so did not fit the series format. Only three of the seven survive today and the good news is that The Exorcism, which was the first in the series, is one of them.

You can buy those three plays on a DVD from the British Film Institute. The website there describes The Exorcism well:

The best known and perhaps the most terrifying of the episodes – four wealthy, middle-class friends (Clive Swift, Edward Petherbridge, Anna Cropper and Sylvia Kay) gather for a Christmas dinner in a country cottage only to find that the past will not rest while they feast.

But as I don’t want to have to worry about spoilers here, and as I’m sure you are busy, I suggest you watch The Exorcism on YouTube now while I add some spoiler space. 

You may want to have a stiff drink by you.

Are you OK? I did warn you.

When I discovered The Exorcism was on YouTube it took me a while to pluck up the courage to watch it. When I did, it wasn’t as frightening as the first time and not because I was no longer 12 years old. It was more that I knew what was coming. I found I had remembered for 40 years the wine that turned to blood, the total blackness outside the windows and the news bulletin at the end about a bizarre Christmas tragedy.

My motivation for writing this post was to alert readers to this extraordinary piece of television drama. I don’t want to go on saying “Wasn’t it scary when…?”, but if you want to hear a discussion of the play you’ve just watched, then I recommend an episode of A Very British Horror. One of the participants says The Exorcism is the only thing he has watched in the making of the podcast that has given him a nightmare.

What I shall do is offer some thoughts on the individual television play as an art form, some notes on the cast of The Exorcism and, finally, a look at its fortunes after this first broadcast.

The television play

Watching The Exorcism today, it speaks of the year 1972 in three ways. First, it is an essay in folk horror, in that the rational outsiders encounter something dark and rural and come off second best – it is the cottage that has exorcised its new inhabitants, not they who have exorcised the echoes of past horrors.

Second, it is a piece of popular entertainment that wears its politics on its sleeve: there is a discussion of whether it’s possible to be a rich socialist, and the play gives a very definite answer in the negative. Just ask the police officers who had to turn out on Christmas morning.

There would be questions in the House today, but such overt political content was unremarkable in 1972. The BBC broadcast a series call Play for Today between 1970 and 1984 that, by the end, encompassed more than 300 individual plays, and many shared The Exorcism’s politics. It’s been said that if you watched nothing but Play for Today, you would have forecast a Communist revolution in 1979 rather than Margaret Thatcher’s election victory.

And there is a third way in which The Exorcism speaks of 1972: it is a television play that does not aspire to be a movie. Though television drama’s critical standing today is perhaps higher than it has ever been, it does give the impression that it hankers after the sheen of Hollywood. But when The Exorcism was broadcast, the television play was seen as a discrete art form and it, at least, looked to the theatre at least as much as it looked to the cinema.

Don Taylor himself, in his memoir Days of Vision, described the television studio as:

…an empty space. A prepared canvas ready to paint on; the vacuum of an open mind waiting to be filled. It can offer the landscape of the imagination, ready to be entered, a world inside the head as vivid, often more vivid than the world outside the eyes that the film camera photographs so faithfully. It can offer nothingness, waiting to become something, a world waiting to be created out of the chaos of four characterless walls, a shiny floor, and a grid of lights. It is something waiting to happen, a statement ready to be made. One object or person placed within it makes a quite specific and individual point. Two, and the play begins.

You can hear about Taylor’s approach to television drama from his son, the actor Jon Dryden Taylor, in an edition of the podcast The Box of Delights. It’s worth mentioning that part of what makes The Exorcism such a claustrophobic experience is his use of close ups, and another part is that the play takes place in real time - it follows the verities.

I grasped this difference in approach, when compared to today’s television, through watching the 1961 Granada Television production of John Arden’s play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance. When I say it was clear that the aesthetic behind it was that of the theatre rather than the cinema, I don’t mean that Granada had just filmed a stage performance or that the acting was too broad. The cast - Patrick McGoohan, John Thaw, Freda Jackson, Stratford Johns - was far too good for that.

What I mean is that the viewer is aware the performance is taking place in a television studio, and even expect to see the cameras at any moment. You don’t, but you are left wondering if it would matter if you did. Has anyone ever produced Brechtian television?

The cast

Of the four actors in The Exorcism, only Edward Petherbridge is still alive. Like the rest of the cast, he appeared on television far more than on film – it is harder to trace people’s stage careers, but all four were considerable theatre actors too.

Petherbridge is best known for playing Lord Peter Wimsey in BBC adaptations of the Dorothy L. Sayers novels. He also appeared in The Ash Tree – one of the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas. 

Anna Cropper, who is so impressive here, made her career principally in television plays. She was married for a time to William Roache, who has played Ken Barlow in Coronation for 64 years now, making him the world’s longest-serving actor in a continuous role. Their son Linus Roache had a huge reputation as a Shakespearian actor when he was a young man, but his star seemed to fade. He was very impressive in Stephen Poliakoff’s television series Summer of Rockets in 2019. Anna Cropper died in 2007.

Sheila Kay also worked more in television than films, often appearing in situation comedies, and she later trained and practised as a psychotherapist. She died in 2019.

Clive Swift was a mainstay of British television and is the most recognisable face in the cast because of his years opposite Patricia Routledge as Mr Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances. He appeared in the first two Ghost Stories for Christmas: The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious. The way he carries off those Seventies threads in The Exorcism is greatly to be admired. He too died in 2019.

The afterlife of The Exorcism

The Exorcism was put on as a stage play in London in 1975. Don Taylor, as his son explains in The Box of Delights podcast, was unhappy with changes that had been made to the script and wanted his name taken off the production. His agent, the famous and fearsome Peggy Ramsay, threatened to disown him if this was how he reacted to his first West End opening, so he relented.

Rachel, the part played by Anna Cropper in the original television production, was played on stage by Mary Ure. She had been married to the playwright John Osborne and been in the cast of his groundbreaking Look Back in Anger. But by the early Seventies, her career and health were in decline, but the opening night of The Exorcism was seen as a triumph.

Ure had drunk her share of champagne and then took her prescription medication on top of it. The mix was enough to kill her. Anna Cropper stepped in to play the role, but the press made great fun of the idea that The Exorcism was a cursed play.

Nevertheless, its small cast and gripping story have made it a favourite with amateur theatre companies. But would I want to watch it again?

The casting of Margaret Rutherford in Passport to Pimlico

When I tweeted my post about the Guardian's ranking of the Ealing comedies, someone replied  that Passport to Pimlico is her favourite among them and that Margaret Rutherford's performance in it is wonderful.

That reminded me of a story from the memoirs of T.E.B. 'Tibby' Clarke, who wrote the screenplay for Passport to Pimlico.

He had written the part of the professor with Alastair Sim in mind, but when the time came to make the film, Sim was not available. The more that alternative actors were suggested, the more strongly the filmmakers felt that Sim was irreplaceable.

Then someone had a brainwave and suggested Margaret Rutherford. The mood brightened. 

"We'll have to rewrite the screenplay, of course," said one. When Clarke sat down with it, he found he had to change only one line.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Big Chum? More on Danny Chambers and Bobi the world's oldest ever dog that wasn't

Remember my post about Danny Chambers and the world's oldest ever dog that wasn't?

It concerned a press story about Bobi, a Portuguese mastiff who died last year, supposedly at the age 31 years and five months. Bobi was briefly listed as the world's oldest ever dog by the Guinness World Records, but it has now withdrawn that recognition.

Danny, who is a vet and a council member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, was quoted as saying he didn't believe the claim about Bobi and he didn't know any vet who did.

Well, the story has made the new Fortean Times:

Bobi's owner Leonel Costa, 38, blamed the withdrawal of his records on "a veterinary elite with a vested interest in the dog food industry" who are in denial about the virtues of Bobi's diet of natural food".

Our Danny in the pay of Big Chum? I refuse to believe it.

This story does give me the chance of positing another video involving Danny, who is one of a roster of impressive Liberal Democrat candidates who will be standing in winnable seats at the next election. In his case it's Winchester.

Here he talks to James O'Brien about the roots of people's resistance to having their children vaccinated.

Another Leicestershire Edward VIII postbox: Earl Shilton

You'll find this one in the small town of Earl Shilton, which lies 10 miles south west of Leicester.

I believe it used to stand in the centre, but it's now on the corner of a road called Doctors Fields towards the edge of town.

This move may explain why it's in such lovely condition.

I photographed my first Edward VIII box in Leicester itself and, after Earl Shilton today, I have just one more in the county to find. Legend has it that there used to be a second one in the city - somewhere north of Uppingham Road - but it's no longer there.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

All 19 Ealing Comedies ranked by the Guardian

Andrew Pulver has ranked all 19 Ealing Comedies for the Guardian. In the process, he notices some films that even I have not seen. But I've seen most of them, so here are a few thoughts on his reviews and rankings. 

Following his counting up the list up from 19th and last place, my first comment is that Hue and Cry is ranked far too low at 16th place. The film a celebration of the way boys ruled London and its bombsites - this would never be seen in such a positive light in a British film again - and there are fine performances by Jack Warner and Alastair Sim.

I can't make much of a case for The Magnet, which stars an 11-year-old James Fox, being placed much higher than the 14th place where Pulver has it, but he gets some things about the film wrong. Fox did not go near a drama school until he was 16: the accent he has in the film is that of a prep school boy of the day, and this is just what he is playing here. Parts of  The Wirral were very posh in 1950. 

Barnacle Bill is at 13. Pulver, quite fairly, says Alec Guinness never gets out of third gear in this film, but then Guinness in third is better than most actors in fifth. When you see his walk at the start of the film you believe absolutely that he is a former Naval officer. The film also sees Ealing take the side of teenagers against the stuffy establishment of the seaside resort where it is set. And where else will you see Guinness boogying with Jackie Collins?

Harry Secombe's star vehicle Davy is too high at 10. As Pulver admits, he isn't much of an actor and the film's approval of his character's surrender of his operatic ambitions for the sake of the family variety act is a bit Ealing-by-numbers.

I'm pleased to see the The Maggie (which is rather like a harder-edge Local Hero) in seventh place, which is one above the more celebrated The Titfield Thunderbolt. For me, the latter film's awareness of its own quirkiness is a sign of the studio's decline. The train must be saved because its quaint, not because it helps anyone get to where they want to go.

From now 6 down to 1, Pulver gets it pretty much right:

6. Passport to Pimlico

5. Whisky Galore!

4. The Man in the White Suit

3. The Lavender Hill Mob

2. The Ladykillers

1. Kind Hearts and Coronets

They are all celebrated films, though maybe The Man in the White Suit deserves to be even better known. Its satire hits the spot more accurately than the Boulter  Brothers ever managed, perhaps because it doesn't star Ian Carmichael.

It's also worth noting that Kind Hearts and Coronets, with its period setting, is far from being a typical Ealing film. And Pulver gets it right in saying that Dennis Price is its real star.

Football Club Name of the Day: Southwell City FC

Bob Hardy, the late Bishop of Lincoln, once described his diocese as "two thousand square miles of bugger all". But it used to be even bigger. In 1837 it reached as far south as Hertfordshire.

In the same year, the Archdeaconry of Nottingham was transferred to Lincoln from York. In 1884 it became a diocese in its own right with Southwell Minster as its cathedral.

But Southwell has never been a city, even though the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica described it as one.

According to the Wikipedia article on city status in the United Kingdom it was not made one in 1884 because it was a village without a borough corporation and therefore could not petition the Queen.

That article is an entertaining rabbit hole, incidentally. You will learn that Rochester lost its city status in the 1990s because it failed to react nimbly enough to the endless local government reorganisations we ow go in for.

But the point of this article is to salute the chutzpah, or whatever its Nottinghamshire equivalent is, of the local football team, which has always played as Southwell City. 

The club's website (sort of) explains:
Southwell City was formed in 1893 and plays its football on the Memorial Ground in the shadow of the magnificent Norman Minister which became a Cathedral just prior to the club’s formation. Hence the name Southwell City, despite the fact that City status has never officially been conferred on the market town.
Good for it!

Is the question of city status closed? Southwell may not have been a borough in the 1880s, but it does have an active town council now. And if it were the smallest city in England, taking the title from Wells, that would surely attract visitors and boost its economy.

If this were an old British film, there would be a meeting of townsfolk about this continued slight and a spirited girl would get up and say "Come on! What are we waiting for?"

Matt Green: This minister is NOT running for leader!

I often retweet Matt Green's videos, but this one is particularly good so I'm blogging it.

Reader's voice: You mean you can't think of anything to write. Anyway, don't we stand for office rather than run in Britain?

Liberal England replies: Thank you for voicing that observation, which I was far too polite to make myself. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Stand by for the Much Wenlock Gold Rush of '24

Embed from Getty Images

I've been prospecting in Shropshire.

Much Wenlock?

Yes, there are always women around the camp.

Exciting news from the Guardian:

A metal detectorist in Shropshire has unearthed England’s largest ever gold nugget worth £30,000 – despite turning up an hour late for the dig with a faulty metal detector.

Richard Brock, 67, travelled three and a half hours from his home in Somerset to join an organised expedition on farmland in the Shropshire Hills last May, and ended up arriving late. He also had problem with his metal detecting kit, and was forced to use an older machine that was not working properly. ...

But just 20 minutes later, Brock unearthed a huge 64.8g golden nugget buried about 13–15cm (5–6in) underground. The metal, which has been named Hiro’s Nugget, is now expected to fetch at least £30,000 at auction and is believed to be the biggest find of its kind on English soil.

My first thought was that this was probably in the Stiperstones, were a little silver was mined alongside the lead ore. 

My second thought was that there would now be a gold rush in those hills.

But the reality is rather different:

The nugget was found on a site near the village of Much Wenlock believed to have been an old track with railway lines running through, containing stone possibly distributed from Wales – an area known to be rich in gold.

It's all a bit vague, but it sounds as though the nugget was first unearthed in Wales rather than Shropshire,

The Joy of Six 1214

Chris Grey on the right's desire to recover a past that never was: "This is also almost invariably what lies behind contemporary demands to 'get my country back', with Allison Pearson writing that “our nation is being abducted by aliens” (though also, inadvertently, demonstrating the endless recurrence of these claims by opening her article with a mournful lament for England written by Philip Larkin in 1946)."

Using the government's new definition of extremism, argues Nafeez Ahmed, Michael Gove is an extremist.

"'If you ask young people, would you like a job where you won’t see daylight in the winter, digging underground, and you might get killed - they would laugh at you. When our generation goes, people won’t even know what a lump of coal is.' But the former pit villages that continue to play cricket carry the history of industry around not only in their names, but in their heritage." Tanya Aldred on the links between cricket and coal mining and how well they have survived the 1984-5 strike.

Catherine Bennett says that, in the name of anti-elitism, Arts Council England has declared war on opera and excellence.

Fortesa Latifi lays bare the terrible price of having your childhood turned into content: "Being the child of an influencer, Vanessa tells me, was the equivalent of having a full-time job - and then some. She remembers late nights in which the family recorded and rerecorded videos until her mother considered them perfect and days when creating content for the blog stretched into her homeschooling time."

"I was the second eldest, with an older sister and three younger brothers. I shared with my brothers until I was 15, sleeping in bunk beds, after which I slept in the front room for a couple of years. There was a communal yard for the 48 flats to share, and we would play ball games and cycle. I also had my first ciggy in the cellars there. I was a pupil at Haberdasher's Askes grammar school, but between the ages of 3 and 16 I spent about four years at Queen Mary's Hospital, in Carshalton Breeches, as I had caught polio in the 1950s epidemic." A glimpse of the young Steve Harley - born Stephen Nice - from Transpontine.

Leicestershire's police and crime commissioner vs Jack the Ripper

Here's an unexpected sight in our local outlet for remaindered books. For, as well as being a prolific author and publisher of volumes on esoteric subjects, Rupert Matthews is the Conservative police and crime commissioner (PCC) for Leicestershire.

I can't accuse him of neglecting his duties here to pound the streets of Whitechapel as I'm pretty sure this is a reissue of a book he first published in 2013.

But it may explain where he got his funny idea of installing Victorian 'Police Station' signs even where there is no police station.

This may be a good week to say that I've never seen the point of PCCs. Their offices seem to consume a remarkable amount of public money with little to show for it.

And in Northamptonshire the Tory PCC is facing open revolt by pretty much everyone, as the Northampton Chronicle & Echo reports:

The county’s most senior fire and police officers have launched an unprecedented attack on commissioner Stephen Mold after he called his incoming fire boss a ‘b**ch’.

Northamptonshire Police Federation Chair Sam Dobbs said that Mr Mold’s remarks were ‘abhorrent’, while Acting Chief Constable Ivan Balhatchet said it was a ‘disgraceful episode.’

This morning (Wednesday, March 20) the Acting Chief Fire Officer Simon Tuhill also weighed in, saying that the Northamptonshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner’s remarks ‘clearly made it impossible for him to legitimately hold me and this service to account’.

He has already announced he will not be standing again in May following what may fairly be described as a series of controversies.

Breedon on the Hill from the sky

Blogging about the Church Langton Chappie, I mentioned St Mary and St Hardulph at Breedon on the Hill elsewhere in Leicestershire.

This video shows that church, and in particular its remarkable situation.

St Mary and St Hardulph is on a hill - in fact Breedon on the Hill means 'Hill Hill on the Hill' - above the village and above the surrounding countryside. You get good views of planes taking off from and landing at East Midlands Airport.

And, as you will see, that hill is still being quarried away.

If you google videos of Breedon, the first that comes up is of Andrew Bridgen in the churchyard explaining how globalists are poisoning his precious bodily fluids, but I thought I would spare you that.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Our problem is landlordism not a shortage of housing

The conventional wisdom is that house prices are so high in Britain because we do not build enough new houses. It also holds that this is because of restrictive planning laws and self-centred Nimby campaigners.

Several things puzzle me about this view. The first is that every town I know is ringed with street after street of new housing.

Take Desborough, whose vanished high street so occupied me last month. There is almost a second town at Desborough, built in recent years up the hill from the original town, that has its own Sainsbury's and M&S food store.

The second is that district councils cannot turn down planning applications just because they are unpopular with existing residents. They have targets for housing approvals to meet and the pressure on their budgets means that they are wary of turning down applications in case they have to bear the costs of a successful appeal.

And the third is something I blogged about five years ago. However many permissions to build councils grant, the interests of developers will dictate how many new houses are built.

In that post I quoted the late great Ian Jack:

The hardly radical figure of Oliver Letwin identified the real brake on house-building when he published the interim conclusions to his inquiry into low completion rates last year. What governed the numbers, he decided, was the absorption rate – "the rate at which newly constructed homes can be sold into (or are believed by the house-builder to be able to be sold successfully into) the local market without materially disturbing the market price". 

For ‘materially disturbing’ read ‘lowering’: to protect profits, developers are sitting on land that has been given planning permission. ‘Efficiency’ in this instance is a concept confined to the shareholder.

I have never seen anyone in the 'build baby build' camp address this point. They tend to see the answer as lying in even more market freedoms for developers and campaign for the loosening of planning controls. How those developers will be prevailed upon to act against their own economic interests is made clear.

But there is an article in today's Guardian that does address the point, and it agrees with Letwin:

The yimby argument has always seemed flimsy. Its strange logic is that speculative developers would build homes in order to devalue them: that they would somehow act against their own interests by producing enough surplus homes to bring down the average price of land and housing. That would be surprisingly philanthropic behaviour.

The article is by Nick Bano, who also argues that there is no evidence that Britain has a housing shortage:

In London, as the Conservative Home blog notes, there is a terrible housing crisis “even though its population is roughly the same as it was 70 years ago”, when the city was still extensively bomb-damaged by the second world war.

In terms of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, the UK has roughly the average number of homes per capita: 468 per 1,000 people in 2019. We have a comparable amount of housing to the Netherlands, Hungary or Canada, and our housing stock far exceeds many more affordable places such as Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. It is impossible to make a case for unique levels of housing scarcity in Britain, in comparative international or historical terms. 

Bano argues that our problem is not a shortage of housing but its cost. And the reason for that is landlordism.

For an answer to our current crisis, he looks back to the Seventies. Then, as a response to the evils of private landlordism highlighted by the case of Peter Rachman, Labour and the Conservatives agreed that private rented dwellings should be taken over by local authorities.

So successful was the move that the private rented sector declined from nearly 60 per cent of dwellings in England and Wales in 1939 to just 9 per cent in 1988.

It was when the Conservatives then began to argue again that being a private landlord should show an attractive economic return that the seeds of our current crisis were sown.

I did know a fair bit about housing in the Eighties when I chaired Harborough's housing management subcommittee, but I don't know enough now to judge how accurate this historical account in Nick Bano's article is.

But he has encouraged me to think that the conventional wisdom on housing is wrong. I suppose though, in the current climate, it is easier to blame local authorities for our problems than promote them as the solution to them. But maybe that's what needs to be done.

Monday, March 18, 2024

The Corncrake and the Croft: A 1977 film about North Uist

I loved the Outer Hebrides. When I was there in the summer of 2008, the colours of the sea and sand rivalled the Caribbean and the drowned landscape made it feel like, in the words of the Runrig song, the end of the world.

While I was there, I read Finlay J. Macdonald's three books about his boyhood on Harris in the 1930s. I remembered these from the 1980s, when his readings of them had been popular with Radio 4 listeners.

MacDonald is the narrator of this leisurely film from 1977 about crofting on the neighbouring island of North Uist. I could listen to him all day.

It seems incredible now, but the cry of the corncrake was the sound of the English summer too, less than a century ago. I believe it is now threatened with extinction even on the Outer Hebrides.

And the peewit or lapwing was so common in Shropshire that when the children in Malcolm Saville's first book Mystery at Witchend formed a secret society, they found it natural to adopt the bird's call as their secret signal to one another. I have never seen one there.

MacDonald died in 1987, but when I reached the visitor centre at Culloden later on that holiday, it was still his voice narrating its film about the battle.