Wednesday, December 31, 2008

End year crunchy bits

The London Olympic Delivery Authority has cut from 30 to 18 the number of days it takes to pay its bills to improve cash flow through a supply chain which extends to 4000 companies

Wikipedia is appealing for monetary donations

693 hedge funds crashed between January & September

The hryvnia has lost half its value since September

Selfridges had the sale of the century on Boxing Day – 40,000 transactions in the first hour of trading were the highest in their history

Onion growers are prospering. Sales are booming as home cooking makes a comeback

TaxiWalker is selling well in Japan. Basically a pedometer, it tells you how much you would have spent if you had made your journey by taxi instead of on foot

You probably do not have to wait so long to get your car repaired after an accident – there are fewer of them as people drive more steadily to save money on petrol. But the companies which provide temporary replacement cars are suffering

Soup sales have risen

Remortgages have slumped. Either people cannot find new fixed-rate deals to replace those coming to an end, or they think variable rates a better bet

At least one couple have learned the hard way that most mortgage agreements contain a clause allowing the lender to demand repayment of the full amount lent at any time – you do not have to be in arrears

Recognising that world-class standards of financial management are essential, up to £75,000 a year is on offer to someone who can act as an ambassador for HM Treasury, forging strategic partnerships at the highest levels of the profession

There was not a single vacant space in Sainsburys car park when we came past today at about 1.30

We should have been passing about 20 minutes earlier, but the tailback was horrendous

Nice work if you can get it

It is astonishing how long BBC political presenters & journalists can go on for – unlike the ‘here today – gone tomorrow’ politicians. David Dimbleby must be coming up to – if he has not already reached – his half century, albeit that in his early days he honed his skills putting scripted questions to schoolchildren on Top of the Form. Not even civil servants last that long

They have unprecedented protection – rarely interviewed, almost never challengingly. Their personal lives, though not necessarily uncovered by the press, do not attract much comment, & certainly not of the If he can lie to his wife he can lie to us variety. We just carry on believing them

And, although we pay through the licence fee, we are not allowed to know how much they are paid. Even if you buy that one, there is absolutely no reason why we should not be able to pour over their expenses claims. Is the BBC covered by the Freedom of Information Act?

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pinning the blame

I read in the obituary of Samuel Huntington that he once worked on an address by Adlai Stevenson called A Nation of Homeowners

As we seek for someone to blame for a credit crunch which started in America with reckless mortgage lending (© G Brown), or with Bill Clinton’s misguided equal opportunities policies, or Labours 1983 election manifesto threatening to nationalise the banks …. It would be interesting to see what that address was all about


Related posts


I was 14 or 15 when I took down a book from the shelves of the town library. On reading the blurb I hesitated about whether it was something I ought to read, but decided that I should take the risk

I can remember neither title nor the name of the author, but it was published in England some time during the 1950s It was a slim book with one of those greyish brown rexine library bindings – no dust jacket as an aid to memory

It told the whole story of the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis – from Kristellnacht to the liberation of the camps. Although I remember it as a factual book, I think it may have been a kind of docu-novel, possibly telling it as the story of twin sisters

I was very nervous about reading it, not because I thought it would be too shocking – it would not be on the library shelves if it were deemed to be that - & anyway the librarian would have refused to issue it to me if she thought it unsuitable

I cannot remember a time when I did not know something about the Holocaust, though I do not remember any specific lessons. Our parents certainly knew, & I think by then I had seen film footage of the liberation of the camps or heard one of the BBC radio broadcasts replayed

It was a given that Hitler & his works were evil. But I was old enough to have been thinking about ‘the problem of evil’. My concern was – if I read the book & in some sense understood evil, would that very understanding make me evil too? Or at the least, make it more possible for me to fall into evil ways?


I had a similar experience not much more than a decade later when I came across a paper back edition of Emlyn Williams book on the Moors Murderers, Brady & Hindley, when I was abroad on a working trip. Although I was a fan of true crime (in the days before serial killer & post mortem porn), I did not know if I could stomach this one. I bought a copy anyway, but decided to wait until I was safely home before reading it

I was curiously dissatisfied by it. It gave a lot of detail about when & where; I skipped any bits about the how – as a mother myself by then, I just did not need to know – but nothing which came near to telling me why

Brady had, among other things, introduced Hindley to the works of the Marquis de Sade

By this time I had read them myself, in Canada at the end of the 1960s when under the influence of First Amendment judgements works which would have been kept well away from ‘decent people’ were available in every bookshop

I was upset when my husband brought a copy of the collected works home; Why would you want to read something like that?

Because if you do not know what human beings are capable of, you cannot be ready to deal with them

So I read the books, or at least quite a lot of them

Again I was slightly puzzled by my almost non-shocked reaction. It seemed more like a boring instruction manual for some deeply boring hobby or activity. Which fails to answer the question: Why would I want to do that?

To be continued

Monday, December 29, 2008

Lost energy

JK Galbraith, rather surprisingly, pointed out (in his Ambassadors Journal) that you cannot stay successful as a woman in the world of work:

If energy goes, & what little is left is expended on the basics of feeding & keeping oneself clean, that's it, you've had it

This happens to everyone, with age - Raymond Biggs recently said in an interview that one of the problems with age was the amount of time you take ‘just living’

You can lose this mysterious energy at any age, usually though not always in the wake of an obvious & diagnosed illness. Galbraith noted that this was a particular tragedy for women because, on the whole & even in this day & age, it is more likely that a man will be able to rely on others to help him cope with the basics. They do not even necessarily have to be married or have a family. Women are usually quite happy to work for a man, wash his socks. For a woman it can be difficult. There are even still taboos about washing another womans personal clothing

As an interesting byway to these musings I looked up the word stamina

To my surprise I found that it comes from stamen, ‘The thread spun by the Fates at a person's birth’ & then was used to mean a warp thread in weaving - Pliny applied it to the stamens of the lily

Other things being equal the duration of life, unless cut short by violence or disease, was supposed to depend on this. Its use in the sense of ‘vigour of bodily constitution, staying power’ is more recent

Thanks to the OED for information on stamina

Loosened tide

I do not know what it was like in other places, but the shops locally were very quiet on Saturday. That entire grab a bargain madness of Boxing Day seems more like a febrile grab what you can while you can thing

Just to add to the misery, the sense of things falling apart, the lottery was out of action. Although there have been occasional local glitches, I cannot remember a whole system shutdown before

People were taking it remarkably stoically – I saw no anger or rudeness to counter staff. But pity those who choose the same numbers each week; if they would have won, even if it were only £10, the resentment will fester

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Privacy & food

The growth of personal privacy is a key, if contradictory, feature of the modern in our western world, a world which thinks of itself as connected as never before by new methods of travel & communication

Many, if not most, children now grow up with a bedroom of their own; most families have at least one private bathroom not shared with other families - even hotel guests no longer need to walk down the corridor carrying sponge bag & towel

We have seen a massive growth in the numbers of people, not just the elderly bereaved, who live entirely on their own - one person households, to use the jargon

This increase in privacy goes along with a welcome increase in the anonymity of our public transactions; we do not have to face the disapproving bank clerk when withdrawing our last £10, or the disapproving keeper of the corner shop when buying that bottle of sherry or packet of chocolate biscuits

One person sharing household was a term adopted by statisticians in the 1930s to allow them to distinguish those who, though single, lived happily with others from those who, ideally, would prefer their own space & independent living arrangements. The test then was the sharing of meals; boarders who shared meals with the host household were presumed to enjoy sharing; lodgers - those who merely rented space but made their own catering arrangements - were assumed to be forced into sharing accommodation by the lack of anywhere else to live. How ironic that even the most close-knit of families are now unlikely to share most of their meals

The facility for eating on ones own, whenever one feels like it, is a consequence of changes in the technology & division of labour in food production & preparation, most recently the explosion in the availability of ready meals & the microwave. A century ago the people who prepared the food would have had to operate much closer to the consumer; if you were lucky enough, & rich enough, an army of servants would be living in your house ready to cater to your whims, but this privilege came at the price of lack of privacy

It is very uncomfortable to have people constantly there to observe your foibles, to make you feel constantly watched; it is at least equally uncomfortable for those whose survival & comfort depends on serving your whims. When the servers belong to an identifiably different race from those they serve, the potential for grievance multiplies & the likelihood of explosion is so much the greater

These musings have been prompted by my reading of William Russells Indian diary of 1858/9. William Russell is the man who is credited as the first modern war correspondent, who made his name reporting the Crimean War for the Times. Not long after that he spent a year following the last stages of the Indian Mutiny & the transfer of power from the East India Company to the British crown. As with his Crimean reports, his Indian dispatches compelled a change in policy; the army had to stop its tactic of indiscriminate retribution (a soft word for hanging, torture & pillage) against anyone they thought guilty of the least kind of support for the Indian mutineers - guilt which could be manifest simply in the colour of skin or the village one lived in

In this Diary William Russell displays a fascinating combination of the most modern arguments in favour of respect - for different cultures, religions & peoples - with the most hair-raisingly racist comments, not just about mutineers but about the servants who were closest to him. He also takes a relaxed attitude towards looting, from which he sometimes benefited personally, & shows an almost unquestioning acceptance of the right & duty of the British to govern an Indian empire

Travel in India was difficult then, & for Russell it was made even more so after an accident in which he was kicked in the groin by his horse. The available medical treatment consisted of bleeding or blistering, which one can only marvel at his ability ultimately to survive. Out in the field with the army, he had no option but to keep on the move, but the only way in which he could do this was in a kind of litter or palanquin, carried on the shoulders of 'coolies'; since he weighed 13 stone he had to have more than the usual number of bearers &, though he never says so, he must also have depended on servants for much more intimate kinds of help

Modern disability campaigners make a point about the need for as much independence as possible; psychology tells us about the resentments nourished by unavoidable dependency. Even Princess Diana resented not being able to make herself the occasional cup of coffee

And so we can understand the ambivalent feelings of the English in India who believed that they came from a superior civilisation, but who at the same time depended on Indians not only for the essentials of every day life but for the organisation of economy & society as well. And we can understand the resentments of Indians forced to serve these people, people whose sense of superiority was often not matched by their behaviour

Today we mourn the loss of extended family, of community; we bemoan the fact that we may not know our neighbours. But community & family also confine us, put us in boxes: I am the musical one, you are the plain one, she is the mad old bat who lives down the street. In a wider world, one which is less restricted & enclosed, I can also be the one who doesn’t understand jazz, you can be the model with the very interesting face, she can be the world expert & famous writer on medieval religions

Family or community can also be confined by the wider group. Thus the family has to keep its secrets, to hide the member who brings shame by not conforming to the norm; the community has to react with aggression to criticism of its beliefs

The modern combination of anonymity & communication provides alternative safety valves; the internet or radio phone-ins provide both platforms for sharing with others what otherwise had to be suppressed and opportunities for the relief of finding that you are not uniquely shameful as a group or as an individual

The modern focus on self brings its own problems of victimology, itself a kind of avoidance of responsibility. The old stiff upper lip, the getting on with it, the determination to ignore the gossip, had considerable advantages. We need people who can just get on & solve the next problem. To dwell on past hurts, to mix only with others with the same problem, to demand the pity of others, is to put yourself in the position of the leper

The paradox then, as so nicely illuminated by the current battles over press intrusion, is that in order to be able to operate properly in public space, we each & all need a totally private space to retreat to; in order to operate in that space to which we cannot control access we need a space where access is strictly by invitation only


Final aside: nudity was particularly offensive or shocking in a world that did not provide the personal space for physical withdrawal. The nudist imposes on the viewer an unacceptable intrusion, & vice versa

Famously the definition of a dwelling for the 1981 Census was characterised as 'a space in which you can walk around naked if you want to'. Is it a coincidence that public nudity has become less shocking, now that withdrawal to a private space is possible for the one who does not want to be forced to watch as well as for the one who does not wish to be exposed?


Further research: Servants in C19th novels - often not mentioned though they must be there

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Believe it or not

It is said that in 1662, after its settlement, the whole coast was ceded by Charles II to Lord Willoughby, the Governor of Barbadoes, who named the principal river wherein Paramaribo is situate, & in fact, the whole colony, Surryham (in honour of the Earl of Surry, the term being afterwards changed into Surinam) & that the colony was purchased from the heirs of Lord Willoughby by the British Crown, & exchanged with the Dutch Government for New Holland, on North America (now New York)

R Montgomery Martin: History of the British Colonies 1834
Vol 2 Chapter 1 British Guyana p3,fn

Trollopean advice to the Home Office

A certain number of persons had been garrotted annually in London during the past 8 years. We decline to state the number on which we alighted. Not intending, in this essay, to work on statistical principles, we will not subject ourselves to the annoyance of having our statistics questioned

St Pauls Magazine (edited by Trollope) January 1868

Previously in favourite quotations (4)

If you try to make all your theories consistent, the penalty is that you might be wrong in everything - Fred Hoyle

Nature creates merit: chance allows it to operate - La Rochefoucauld

A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen - Kate Atkinson

There are masked words droning & skulking about us just now - there never were so many, owing to the spread of a shallow, blotching, blundering, infectious “information,” or rather deformation, everywhere, & to the teaching of catechisms & phrases at schools instead of human meanings – John Ruskin

An ethical decision is one where you feel uneasy whatever you decide - Raymond Tallis

The opposite of faith is not doubt. It is certainty - Unknown Jesuit priest

It's a pretty poor doctor who can't cure one disease without giving you another - Sir Thomas More: Utopia

Quarrels would soon be over if all the faults lay on one side - LaRochefoucauld

The scientific method can be compared to washing dishes: dirty plates, dirty water, dirty cloth - &, miraculously, clean crockery (philosophy is the same without the water) - Niels Bohr

There’s a certain freedom in anonymity - Erica Wagner

Previously in Favourite Quotations
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Friday, December 26, 2008

Motion pictures

Well Father Christmas has been & gone without bringing me some presents I should really like to have

Not surprising really, since I did not ask for them

I am not usually an early(ish) adopter of new technology – in fact many things have been & gone without ever crossing the threshold of the hedgehog homestead

For one thing I like the price to come down. Imagine paying 700 in 1970s pounds for a video recorder or £3000 for a do not-very-much huge great dust trap of an early 1990s home computer

I should however very much like to have one of these Canon cameras so I could play at being Edward Muybridge

And something called a ZPen which promises to save in electronic form anything I write, no matter what I write it on

Then there is a hand-held satnav thingy for use while travelling on foot, complete with Ordnance Survey maps

And a dongle

I should also like a new laptop & a super fast personal broadband connection out in the boondocks
Most of all, a wi-fi bedside radio, with which I could recreate the world I found when my father built me a MW/LW/SW radio when I was 10

But not before I get my own personal IT manager constantly on call to manage contracts, security & sort out all glitches & conniptions – NOW, THIS MINUTE, INSTANTLY.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The bright stars were my angels

As a child I really loved this poem by Andrew Young - said everything needed about how I thought about Baby Jesus

Christmas Day

Last night in the open shippen
The infant Jesus lay,
While cows stood at the hay-crib
Twitching the sweet hay.

As I trudged through the snow-fields
That lay in their own light,
A thorn-bush with its shadow
Stood doubled on the night.

And I stayed on my journey
To listen to the cheep
Of a small bird in the thorn-bush
I woke from its puffed sleep.

The bright stars were my angels
And with the heavenly host
I sang praise to the Father,
The Son and Holy Ghost.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Another N word

It occurred to that there is another N word which, certainly in the 1960s, was considered offensive in this country


The ones who were getting restless

I have had no success in tracing the origins of that phrase, but in my memory it was a common phrase of B movies (the sort which had jungles rather than rain forests), & was usually followed shortly by not shooting until you saw the whites of their eyes

“A member of an indigenous ethnic group. Freq. with a suggestion of inferior status, culture, etc., and hence (esp. in modern usage) considered offensive” as the OED puts it

Fellow students, especially those from Commonwealth countries, used to like to tease us by calling us natives

And indeed I always assumed that was the origin of the word: “A person born in a specified place, region, or country, whether subsequently resident there or not”

Nowadays native does not usually make people flinch – Native American is the term of choice. We refer happily to native species of the non-human kind – though some environmentalists refer to non-native species in terms which would be undoubtedly racist if applied to humans

But imagine my surprise when the OED informed me that the word comes from “post-classical Latin nativus a person born in bondage (frequently in British sources from the late 12th cent.)”

Not so unrelated to the other N word after all

Sea horses

These beautiful horses would make a perfect Christmas gift for anyone in a position to give them a good home
They are sculpted out of driftwood by Heather Jansch
Not this Christmas however - there is a 3 year waiting list
Something which has definitely been added to my imaginary game of winning the lottery
The game has an added advantage these days: I only have to imagine how to spend the money, without having to worry about where might be a safe place to kep it
I saw the picture in The Times - Barcroft Media

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What do they look like?

One of the complaints about our current parliamentarians is that they do not look like us

Too male, too white, too middle class

As a bit of fun, I am wondering how like us they look in other respects too

Height – they always say the tall man beats the short one in elections. What about the women? Do we have any parliamentary Napoleons or Naomi Campbells?

Baldness – say no more

Blondeness – bottle or otherwise

Fatness – it would actually be a public service to publish the BMI of all MPs since they lecture the rest of us so much about this

Glasses – or are contact lenses de rigueur?

Intelligence – how many qualify to speak for the 50% of the population who have an IQ below 100?

Age – how many MPs qualify for a bus pass? How many use them regularly?

I also find myself wondering whether there was ever a time when the Lords was younger than the Commons

Long decline

Another poem about growing older, not very optimistic, for women. But you get the feeling UA Fanthorpe is content with her own choices

Teacher's Christmas
(from Watching Brief: Peterloo Poets 1987)

It’s not so much the ones whose cards don’t come,
Friends of one’s parents, old distinguished colleagues
Who taught the colonies &, retiring home,
Did a spot of dignified coaching. Their sudden silence
Is a well-bred withdrawal, not unexpected

But those who move from address to more sheltered address,
Whose writing gutters gently year by year,
Whose still hoping to see you again after love
Is bluff; or those who write after Christmas
Because cards are so expensive now. Ah those, how those

Punctiliously chart their long decline.

First the stages grow familiar, like disease.
First it’s my dauntless Mini, less staunch now,
But I could come by bus, with sandwiches.
I shall enjoy the jaunt

WEA classes go. Then television
Becomes remote, & radio’s
Hard for the hard of hearing. Still they write,
They write at Christmas. Prithee, good death’s-heads,
Bid me not remember mine end.

Season as well of cards from brilliant girls,
A little less incisive every year,
Reporting comings & goings: another Hannah,
Another Jamie; another husband going off; and
Writing my thesis is like digging a well with a pin.

You, the storm-troopers of a newer, better world.

Down with you, holly. Come down, ivy

It was my own brief experience of teaching which put me off the idea of sending Christmas cards - I received nearly 400 that year when those from girls at school were included. Which was excessive, to say the least

Related posts
Christmas yet to come

U A Fanthorpe

The loan of life

Monday, December 22, 2008

BBC & political respect

There was an interesting discussion on Westminster Hour on Sunday about the lack of respect for politicians in this country

It is difficult to work out when we started on this path. Certainly That Was The Week That Was shocked most of us – not just politicians – by the disrespectful way it treated our leaders. It was undoubtedly delicious but we felt a bit like 4 year olds shouting Bum!

And in truth respect for politicians was hardly ever the norm in English life

A little while ago I was shocked to find myself suddenly thinking: The BBC is a big part of the problem

Not because of the alleged metropolitan liberal middle class bias – though that is undoubtedly there. And not because anyone set out to cause this problem

I think it stems from 2 of the fundamental rules which apply to the BBC – the need for balance & the need not to be seen to be beholden to the government of the day, whichever party that is

So we end up with a BBC which thinks it is its job to hold government to account, and to be equally hard on all other parties & politicians. In effect to take on the role of Opposition - to all, from its own Millbank redoubt

This has combined with a modern fad for hard, tough, and especially, challenging interviews: Why is this lying bastard lying to me?

And the taste for irony. Even Yesterday in Parliament takes a mocking tone these days, & virtually the only parliamentary correspondent given prominence in the broadsheets is the sketch writer

So even if somebody thought they could cope with all the other problems that becoming a Westminster politician entails, the thought that part of the job is putting up suavely with John Humphries at 8.10 am & rounding off the evening with Jeremy Paxman is just too much

Under every stone lurks a politician - Aristophanes

Sisterly love

Own up time. I have to confess that I do not like Anne Frank. Nothing major, just an inward face pull whenever I hear the name. Gives me that uncomfortable feeling of not being as nice a person as I should like to be, the same as not liking anybody does

Worse though, since she is supposed to be a heroine, an icon, a story of our time. So I never really thought about why not

Until this morning when I heard that they would be talking about her on Start The Week

I realised that it was the 1950s film that did it. Still a teenager, I just did not like her. Much as there were some girls at school I did not like – nothing major, but by unspoken consent, just some whose company you tended to avoid

Then, when Deborah Moggach was talking about how she had had to put herself, one by one, in the place of all the other characters who were in hiding with Anne, light dawned

For one of those was Anne’s big sister Margot. She had to be good, she could not get away with the things Anne got away with. She had probably, when younger, even been blamed if Anne got into trouble – You’re older, you should be looking after her

How well I know that feeling, as a big sister myself

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Nearly-Christmas crunchy bits

2008 has been a record year for temporary ice rinks in Europe

135 of the world’s largest container ships are lying idle

Harvard’s endowment lost $8 billion in 4 months

Working in the public sector has become much more appealing to this years graduates

The price of carbon permits in Europe’s emissions trading system has collapsed

On 11 December airline passengers were the first to find they got less than €200 for £200 if they changed their currency at Liverpool or Birmingham airport

The world’s largest manufacturer of solar cells is planning a production shutdown over Christmas to clear stocks. The collapse in the oil price ahs undermined the rationale of renewable energy schemes

Christian Science Monitor will print only once a week to cut costs

In November, customers opened more new savings accounts with Tesco than they did in the whole of 2007. The supermarket group bought out its partner, Royal bank of Scotland earlier this year

52% of UK finance professionals come from overseas. One third of them do not expect to be here next year

The Financial Services Authority is increasing its workforce by 10%

Steve Forbes believes that we will not find the bottom of the market until mark-to-market accounting is abolished

China’s November electricity production was 10% down on a year ago

Divorce petitions from couples with more than £7 million in assets have spiralled

Selfridge’s sales of suspender belts & stockings are almost double what they were a year ago

The Italian government is helping a struggling industry by buying 200,000 wheels of parmesan & donating them to the poor

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Off the reins

You hardly ever see a child under 3, or even 4, walking around much these days. The buggy is never far away. Toddlers do not toddle any more

There must be many reasons for this – not least the motor car, which makes walking along almost any pavement hazardous for a toddler who may, in a moment’s inattention, step off the curb

There is also the issue of stranger danger – we all saw, in this country at least, repeated cctv footage of just how easy it can be to walk away with a toddler from a shopping centre

And so children ride around in their palanquins like little mini caesars. And today’s models come equipped with trays & hooks so that all sorts of comforts are at hand to keep the little blighter quiet – they can drink whenever they like & disturbing numbers of children have buns, crisps, biscuits or chocolate laid out on their tray

And yet children of that age always used to seem to need to let off a tremendous amount of steam - a fact which used to puzzle me. At an age when you would have thought that they needed all their energy for growth & development, any toddler used to walk at least twice as far as the accompanying adult and, when space allowed, took great delight in running round in circles

I wonder if the new research, which showed that a child’s tendency to excess weight is well established by the time they reach school age, looked at whether this was in any way related to whether the family had a garden.

As Hogben wrote in the 1930s Planning for Human Survival,

5 children in a house surrounded by its own garden in a locality where there is
little traffic are far less trouble than one child in a London flat … Every mother of 4 knows that a garden surrounded by a wall is worth all the labour saving devices yet invented … You may provide crèches, school feeding, family allowances, holidays with pay for expectant mothers, & 1001 other inducements. If you do not give people space you will not make parenthood endurable

Hard Frost

Andrew Young was a favourite poet for children when I was at primary school. We were much more familiar with hard frosts then, especially in the winter of 1947, but the weather recently seems to have been running it close.

Frost called to water 'Halt!'
And crusted the moist snow with sparkling salt;
Brooks, their own bridges, stop,
And icicles in long stalacitites drop,
And tench in water-holes
Lurk under gluey glass like fish in bowls.

In the hard-rutted lane
At every footstep breaks a brittle pane,
And tinkling trees ice-bound
Changed into weeping willows, sweep the ground;
Dead boughs take root in ponds
And ferns on windows shoot their ghostly fronds

But vainly the fierce frost
Inters poor fish, ranks trees in an armed host,
Hangs daggers from house-eaves
And on the windows ferny ambush weaves;
In the long war grown warmer
The sun will strike him dead and strip his armour

Related post

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sea platform

This photo (GP Bowater/Alamy) inspires awe, even though I am not certain whether it is real life or some kind of model - I know The Times has a strict policy of not enhancing photos, so it is real in that sense

It makes me think of The Fighting Temeraire

Phone or click

Waiting to catch the weather forecast on local radio this morning, waiting for the adverts to finished, I suddenly became aware of a new usage:

Phone xxxx or Click zzzz

No www

Just the name of the

I wonder how long it will be before we get one of those handy little icons, like the one for telephone numbers on letterheads

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The President, the Premier & the Shoe

The story of the journalist who threw a shoe at President Bush made me wonder if there might have been any similar kind of symbolic contempt in Kruschev’s choice of a shoe with which to bang the desk at the United Nations in 1960 – an event which made a huge impression at the time

Apparently not, according to The case of Khrushchev's shoe by Nina Khrushcheva

Nana state

Hazel Blears was quoted recently as saying that problem mothers ‘need a personal worker who helps them to get up in the morning, get breakfast & get the children off to school’

And be there again in the evening, to make sure everybody gets to bed & reassure Mum that the baby who has been fretful all day is not seriously ill, will be safe through the night

Well yes, they all need someone like my Nana, who looked after me a lot until I started school. It all seemed wonderful & perfectly normal to me then, but now I can see that my mother was having some problems coping with life, & the completely new world of motherhood & household management, for which her wartime army experience had done little to prepare her

My Nana though did not need a salary & her interest in & commitment to my welfare lasted for the rest of her life. She was a great manager (my grandfather cannot have been earning more than about £3 a week) and I in turn absorbed much that is practical from her, along with her strong values. And I knew I was loved

It would be wonderful if every young struggling mother could have such a prop, even if only for a few short years to help her get into a better routine of life. But it will need a lot of effort, search, training & planning just to find the (mostly women) prepared to take on this kind of thing, still less to commit themselves to a particular family for longer than their contractual period of notice. It may be cheaper in the long run than it is to deal with all the criminal, educational, health & social consequences of neglected childhood, but politics is mostly an overlapping series of short runs

It will take more (or less) than reams of documents detailing the approved time for setting the alarm, the precise nutritional content of what today’s expert believes is a decent breakfast, the correct type of school bag & a daily tick box report card of developmental milestones

Related post

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Post script on gas

So I turned to Language Log to find this serendipitous post – Gas, blas and chaos

Related post

Boiling over

Lynne Featherstone, Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey, has got embroiled in a nasty little spat, the sort of thing that gives politics a bad name. It is also dispiriting to be reminded that there are still men like her critic in public life

The incident which sparked the spat involved a boiler, so to put myself back in a more sunny frame of mind I looked to see what is available on Google about one of my favourite Victorian self-help can-do organisations – The Association for the Prevention of Boiler Explosions. A ponderous name, but it did exactly what it said on the tin

Boiler explosions were distressingly common – hardly a week went by without at least one being reported in the press. These days we mostly assume that boilers are safe, as is a domestic gas supply, but are only too ready to distrust anything new & possibly dangerous

Victorian engineers decided to do something about it & founded their Association ”on the most philanthropic principles, and having in view the saving of property, but above all the saving of life”


Engineering Facts & Figures

Pressure Equipment Directive 97/23/EC

Related posts


It is hard to resist a chuckle, if not for those who have been badly burned or ruined, then for those who have been stung by the Madoff affair – at least it proves that it is not just the poor & poorly educated who do not understand the finer points of high finance

Of course it has all happened before – not least in the 1840’s & 1850’s, as chronicled in the entertaining works of David Morier Evans

Makes me feel almost smug that at least the smoke that some of my money has gone up in was real


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The politics of large numbers

Jacqui Smith was keen to play down the criticism from Sir Michael Scholar, about the misuse of statistics, when answering parliamentary questions yesterday. She admitted only to being ‘too quick off the mark ’ and implied that statistical pernickitiness was detracting from the real achievements of the police in tackling the real problem of knife crime

As disputes between politicians & statisticians go, this one does not match the gravity of Sir Claus Moser’s standing up to Harold Wilson, when the prime minister wanted to change the definition of trade statistics to exclude BOAC’s import of the first 2 Jumbo jets because of the alarming effect this had on the UK’s apparent trade deficit

And Jacqui Smith’s displeasure does not have the same force as that of Margaret Thatcher when she realised that the Retail Prices Index would reflect the large rise in VAT – from 8% to 15% - in Geoffrey Howe’s first budget, but not the offsetting cuts in Income Tax

They do not make statisticians or politicians like that any more

New Labour’s pursuit of headlines, plus journalistic lack of numeracy, plus the widespread belief that anyone can produce statistics with a spreadsheet, a few clicks of a mouse and a survey on a website, have not helped

I wonder if the prime minister, a voracious reader, has read The politics of large numbers by Alain Desrosières, which traces the important a role statistics (state figures) played in the construction of the identity of nation states – today a state can hardly be said to exist without at least a population & a GDP. Undermining trust in the nation’s statistics could equally well work to undermine trust in the state itself

I dislike slippery slope arguments, but please let us not inch closer to a position where statistical claims by our politicians are met by the sort of reaction given to Mugabe’s ‘no cholera here’

Sense of proportion

Viewers of Celebrity Come Dancing on Saturday may have learned the lesson that no voting system is perfect – though at the moment people seem more inclined to blame the BBC for not anticipating the problem. Even the BBC’s own radio presenters prefer to roll their eyes rather than try to understand what happened

Perhaps it is time that the BBC employed Duckworth-Lewis for more than just cricket

Monday, December 15, 2008

Long life and ...?

Takashi Shimokawara smoked a packet of cigarettes a day until he was 80. He enjoys a glass of sake with his meals

He eats healthily however- a traditional Japanese diet, low in fat, rich in fish, vegetables & soy

He says the most important thing is to remain supple – you will be stiff enough when you are dead

Perhaps that explains why he is a double world record holder in shot put & javelin at the age of 102

And why he, & others like him, lead the way in making Japan the country heading most quickly to another kind of economic crisis, one where there are simply not enough workers to pay the old their pensions

Related post

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mid-December crunchy bits

1 Stagecoach has no vacancies for bus drivers for the first time in years

2 One and a half million people visited Oxford Street & Regent Street on Saturday 6 December

3 Sales of home sewing machines have gone up 50% in John Lewis. Sales of haberdashery & dress fabrics are also up

4 Jamie Oliver is making Sainsbury’s cheese on toast this Christmas

5 Lawyers specialising in State aid are thriving

6 Ryanair carried 4.32 million passengers last month, a rise of 11%

7 Lobbyists are asking that restrictions on foreign ownership in American airlines should be lifted so that foreign investment can help the struggling industry

167,500 – current annual rate of house building in England
133,000 - the number of 3-bedroomed houses which could be built with the current stockpile of 1.2 billion unused bricks

9 Supermarkets are struggling to combat an outbreak of theft of expensive cuts of meat

10 The Spam factory in Austin, Minnesota has introduced double shift working 7 days a week to keep up with demand

11 London’s poshest builder has gone bust. These days there is just not the demand for high price projects such as building a special chute for quick access from the bedroom to the basement swimming pool

12 British expats in the Dordogne & the Riviera are feeling the pinch, especially if they have euro mortgages

12,000 British companies had credit insurance withdrawn last week. Euler Hermes, which has 36% of the global credit insurance market, have issued a profit warning

14 Sales In Asda stores show:

Curry ingredients up 40%, ready meals down 40%

Champagne up 100%

Hair dyes up 27% but 40% of customers are cutting back on hair


A poem by John Fuller from his collection The Grey Among The Green . It puts a personal twist on Bishop Berkley's tree falling in the forest


The wind is never freer
From having hair to blow
When we have left the mountain
Before the early snow.

The grass can grow no taller
Beneath our absent tread
And flowers are never wasted
When all the flowers are dead

The night comes as it has to.
The moon &Wilbur kiss.
With no one there to see it,
What memories will we miss?

The seasons have no hunger
To please us with their sport,
And only words as restless
Betray what we have thought.

And even those emotions,
From being once exposed,
Are like the closing chapters
Of books forever closed

I have one question though: Who is Wilbur?

Related post
Turnip children

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Smoke screen

According to Ian King in The Times:

“of 96,515 submissions to the Department of Health consultation [on tobacco displays], 49,507 came from something called Smokefree North West and a further 8,128 from Smokefree North East.”

So what is this something?

Smokefree Northwest is led by the Department of Health’s Regional Tobacco Policy Manager based at Government Office for the North West at Piccadilly, Manchester

… There are five strands to Smokefree Northwest’s work in 08/09:

4. National and regional advocacy activities for tobacco control, with a focus
on influencing the expected National Tobacco Control strategy

… On November 2nd, 2007, Smoke Free North West held a summit where North West leaders signed up to a bold vision to achieve a tobacco free region

… A £1.8m programme to support tobacco control is now under way in the North West during 2008 and 2009.

Something a bit circular here?

Financial storm

An extract from The Storm, one of John Donne’s verse letters (To Mr. Christopher Brooke) gives an appropriate allegorical description of our current financial state:

With hideous gazing to fear away fear.
Then note they the ship's sicknesses, the mast
Shaked with this ague, and the hold and waist
With a salt dropsy clogged, and all our tacklings
Snapping, like too high stretched treble strings.
And from our tottered sails, rags drop down so,
As from one hanged in chains, a year ago.
Even our ordnance placed for our defence,
Strive to break loose, and 'scape away from thence.
Pumping hath tired our men, and what's the gain?
Seas into seas thrown, we suck in again;
Hearing hath deafed our sailors; and if they
Knew how to hear, there's none knows what to say

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sound broadcasting

There was a moment of perfect radio towards the end of To the North on Radio 4 this morning

The slightly clichéd sound of the car crash which killed the doomed lovers morphed into a perfect piano chord from a gentle piece which continued playing under the last closing scene

It is perhaps to my shame that I did not recognise the piece, & I cannot find it mentioned on the website, but the name of the director, Deborah Paige, is one I shall keep an eye out for

Precious bits

I heard Billy Bragg talking on the radio about some of the problems arising from all the new ways of downloading music

One problem he highlighted: Why entrust your record collection – your whole record collection! – to something no bigger than a biro which can be so easily lost?

That’s how they should teach people to be more careful with personal data: get them to pretend it is their very own personal record collection

Related post

Sursum deorsum

As I was crossing the bridge at the railway station at around mid day on Tuesday I glanced to my left, towards the small valley where we live. It was filled with brownish grey clag

Turned my head to the right – ironically looking towards the Dark Peak - & all was sunshine & blue sky. Only about a mile separated the two

Which explains why, in this area of micro climates, we rely on local radio for our weather forecasts

Paul Simons wrote an interesting piece about the recent temperature inversions. They cause surreal FM broadcasts too, which is why it is particularly annoying that Long Wave is given over to cricket at the moment

Almost annoying enough to wish that England were a team of real scaredy cats, afraid to visit a country where terrorists are active

Woolworth connections

The 1944 Education Act brought new opportunities to go to Grammar School & into higher education – at least for those of us who were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus

The education was free but there was still a burden of support on parents – especially the father, who was the sole legal guardian in those days. So if your father said he was not prepared, or unable to support you beyond the age of 16, that was that

I had two close friends this happened to. Their fathers did not believe in educating a girl who was only going to get married anyway

These fathers would not have been thought of as unacceptably harsh. The question of whether it was worthwhile investing precious resources in the education of girls was still a subject for an economics seminar when I was an undergraduate. (Another question for the same seminar was: Why is Marilyn Monroe paid so much?)

And then there was still the worry that being a bluestocking could actually bring down your value in the marriage market

Even in these days of student loans an economist will tell you that the greatest element of the cost of higher education is that of earnings foregone

I was lucky in that there was never any question that my parents would support me in whatever I wanted to do. But neither do I remember ever having any doubt that I should also contribute to my upkeep in any way I could. Hence my job in Woolworths, among other things

So Woolworth played its part in my education, both financially & in the things I learned about work

And now there are some unexpected consequences of the company’s downfall. The damage spreads in unexpected directions

Ownership of the stores is spread around among a large number of freeholders, some of them pension funds

Time Warner’s revenues will be hit

The massive sell-off of stock affects all other retailers struggling to compete – the ripples spread all the way up to Harrods, who held their own half price sale day

And I am just so thankful that a job in Woolworths was just a very helpful stepping stone for me, unlike for those who today know that they will not be paid beyond Christmas

Related posts

Thursday, December 11, 2008

What are they up to?

A BBC news report yesterday informed us that a woman was dragged ‘up to’ 60 feet along the ground

Everybody is ‘up to’ a lot these days

Medical researchers find that life is ‘up to’ several times more risky for some than it is for others

Shops offer discounts of ‘up to’ 50%

I am just about up to fed up with it all

Does the left hand know?

According to a report in the paper the Office of Fair Trading has ticked off retailers for discussing how best to implement the sudden changes in VAT

It seems the retailers were using their common sense & sharing expertise in order to do their very best to help in these difficult times. And I do not suppose any of them wanted the kind of public dressing down from our beloved leader that the banks have been getting for failing to respond instantly to cuts in the base rate

But I wonder if the psychological effects of the cut may not be the opposite of what the government intended?

Many outlets have signs apologising for the fact that they have not had time to change all labels & price lists, but will adjust the price paid at the till

I was in Primark on Tuesday where they had managed to change all the big price signs on top of the displays. Which means that instead of familiar figures of round pounds we see strange numbers such as 7.91 or 3.47

My guess is that this only adds to the sense of a world turned upside down & impending doom

And people are probably not even bothering to keep the change

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No jangle bells

The shops are remarkably quiet in a different sense this year

No music

I quite like a bit of music when I shop, especially if it is a bit jaunty and/or nostalgic. I put a spring in my step & sing along inside my head

But Christmas had become too much. The music started far too early & if it drove me mad what did it do to the poor staff?

Did everybody realise this & just shut it up, or is it just the general gloom?

On a not entirely unrelated point, I hear that teenagers have a new ring tone fad – that high pitched whine which is supposed to stop them hanging around in places they are not wanted. They can break school rules by using their mobiles in the classroom – because the teachers cannot hear it!

Related post

Tall for her age

I only discovered last week, when we had the snow, that I have lost my walking stick. Turned the house upside down at the weekend, it is definitely not there

That’s the trouble with a stick. You have to put it down if you need to use your hand for something else & it’s easy to forget to pick it up again if you don’t need it to walk with every single step. So I tend not to carry it unless I absolutely might need it, could have lost it as long ago as September

Should be simple enough to buy a new one, till I discovered that the local Boots stock the one I had in mind in only one length, 31” – for midgets! Or petite, as the nice lady in the bigger branch in Manchester put it yesterday when I tried there. It is only the little old ladies who need such a thing yet, not all those tall young things

Still, she gave me a catalogue so I can order a longer one by post

I shall still have to find one somewhere else to get one to keep me going however. They only ‘aim to despatch within 14 days’ & ask you only to contact them if you have not heard from them within 28 days

Now that I know I no longer have a stick Sod’s Law dictates that we shall have snow & ice, & I shall put my foot down wrong at the bottom of the stairs again before Christmas arrives

Related post

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The male embrace

In one of the programmes celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the BBC played a clip of Eleanor Roosevelt saying: This is for all men, everywhere!

I came over a bit warm & nostalgic – I am damn sure that Mrs Roosevelt never thought for one moment that anyone might think that she was excluding half the human race from the charter

Then I heard the last quarter of Westminster Hour on Sunday evening, an intriguing new series The Draftsman's Contract about the people responsible for turning policy into the legal language of Acts of Parliament. We overheard a snippet from a meeting at which the First Parliamentary Counsel, the splendidly named Stephen Laws, could be heard congratulating staff for the good progress made in gender neutral drafting

This must be welcomed in an age when, for so many people, man excludes woman

But I can’t help but feel a pang of regret for the loss of the male embrace

Related posts

All in the mind

Another choice of a poem by Elizabeth Jennings, from her Lucidities, which I guess she wrote at a time when she was finding life difficult. It is a great comfort


Some say they find it in the mind,
A reason why they should go on.
Others declare that they can find
The same in travel, art well done.

Still others seek in sex or love
A reciprocity, relief.
And few, far fewer daily, give
Themselves to God, a holy life.

But poetry must change & make
The world seem new in each design.
It asks much labour, much heartbreak,
Yet it can conquer in a line.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Know the facts

Everybody knows’ that Karen Matthews had 7 children just to get extra benefit payments

So it is worth reiterating what one of her neighbours told a radio interviewer: ‘I don’t see how you can say that when she gave 3 of them to the father, so she can’t be getting benefits for them, can she?’

Interestingly, on Womans Hour this morning a panellist pointed out that while everybody was happy to criticise Karen Matthews as a mother, nobody seemed to be criticising the 5 different fathers – a very fair point, but one made seemingly in ignorance of the role being played by at least one of them

Cheap’n’cheerful Santa

Obviously it’s in the air

At the weekend I thought about a cheap, cheerful (& edible) Christmas decoration that I have not made for years, since the children were small. My Nana taught me how

It’s at least as good as Tracy Emin’s angel in Times2 today, & I am passing it on now, getting in quick in case one of the Times’ team of experts comes up with the same idea later in the week

Adult supervision & help required

For each Santa you need

1 dressmakers pin
1 walnut in its shell
1 orange
1 strip red crepe paper, about 2” deeper than the orange
Cotton wool
Paint for the eyes & nose
Nut crackers

Squeeze the walnut gently in the crackers so that the top just opens

Insert flat head of pin into the hole in the nut, then let go so the shell closes up again

Push the sharp end of the pin into the centre of the top of the orange (The walnut is Santa’s head & the orange his body)

Drape the strip of crepe paper so that the centre of the long front edge sits at the top of his face. Gently fold & squeeze it round his neck, to make a hooded cape. Glue it together under his chin

Glue cotton wool round the edge of his hood & down the front edges & round the bottom of his cape. And give him a beard

Paint eyes & nostrils on his face

Burning desire

I have a rather romantic attitude to fire.

Fire lighting was one of the earliest skills I acquired, whether laying the fire in the hearth, or to brew a cuppa on a day out hiking in the country, or for cooking while camping, burning waste or just for something to do in the garden

I always feel a faint twinge of sympathy for an arsonist – at least for juvenile ones. Who knows, if I had not had those opportunities I might have been one myself

Smog was mostly a thing of the past in this country by the time I grew up, but I enjoyed the few I did experience, even the alarming time when a bus chased me (at very very slow speed) to seek shelter in a shop doorway – the driver had not realised he was on the pavement.

It seems incredible now to think that we then thought that black was the natural colour of the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey & all other buildings in our cities. Just as now we take their wonderful honey hues for granted

I know air quality was bad, it was an iniquity that so many should die from smog, the state of our buildings an outrage. It was good that we took action to limit burning & smoke production

But things have moved on now & I am hopeful that we will follow the advice in A Wasted Opportunity

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Early December crunchy bits

1 The administrators of Woolworths have 8 main banks to deal with. Companies owned by private equity firms have debt owned by hundreds of hedge funds

2 Lawyers are to hold a high-priced conference about post credit crunch legislation early next year.

3 The Futures & Options Association will hold a debate in January: Is this the end of the financial world as we know it?

4 £1.8 trillion - the total liabilities of Royal Bank of Scotland:
.....£1.4 trillion - UK total GDP, 2007

5 Local councils are showing their distrust of banks. In the first 3 weeks of October they deposited £10 billion, compared with a more usual £1 billion a month, in the Treasury’s Debt Management Account Deposit Facility, which offers a below market rate of return

6 The Red Cross, unable to find a corporate sponsor, has cancelled its winter gala. Shelter has had to lay off 30 staff

7 The BBC is considering whether to take over the whole of 2Entertain, a joint venture with Woolworths which sells DVDs. £50 million of the £100 million price tag will go to the pension fund

8 Toyota has lost its AAA credit rating

9 Organic food sales are down

10 On 7 November not one customer even entered one well known luxury fashion shop on Madison Avenue

11 The number of high quality applicants for jobs on the board of UK Financial Investments, the company which will manage the government’s bank shares, has been ‘staggering’

12 Uniqlo, Japanese owners of a chain of clothes shops, are looking to expand in UK & US now that premises are so much cheaper & easier to find

13 Bonuses have been paid out early to the partners in one firm of solicitors. The money is carefully distributed in personal accounts of not more than £50,000 each, so that it is entirely covered by government guarantee if the banks fail. Nobody is going on any spending spree however – the partners have all agreed to repay the money should the firm need it back for cashflow reasons

The mathematics of sunshine

The first verse of a tender poem about mother & son by the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke, from her Selected Poems

The Sundial

Owain was ill today. In the night
He was delirious, shouting of lions
In the sleepless heat. Today, dry
And pale, he took a paper circle,
Laid it on the grass which held it
With curling fingers. In the still
Centre he pushed the broken bean
Stick, gathering twelve fragments
Of stone, placed them at measured
Distances. Then he crouched slightly
Trembling with fever, calculating
The mathematics of sunshine.

Related posts

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Political cycles

When Sir Keith Joseph gave his (in)famous speech on the cycle of deprivation in 1972, the reaction was one of outrage & he was widely derided as uncaring & lacking compassion, a typical Tory toff

How the wheel turns – now everybody is talking of generations on benefit

History might have been different if he had perhaps just chosen to speak of the problem in slightly different language. Until that time he had been regarded as a possible future prime minister; with his own chances gone he became a firm backer of Margaret Thatcher for the job

The PACE of enquiry

A law report yesterday cast some light on how come the police may seize computers etc when they have arrested someone – one of the points of puzzlement in the Damian Green affair

A firm of solicitors argued that a search warrant could not authorize seizure of a whole computer or hard disk because it would contain other material not relevant to the enquiry

The judges found that, on the contrary, the Police & Criminal Evidence Act uses a very wide definition of ‘material’ which may be seized

The Police & Criminal Evidence Act was seen as a big step forward when it was passed in 1984. It brought to an end the practice whereby police could invite someone to ‘accompany’ them to the police station in order to ‘help with their enquiries’, only later to use something which had been said in the ‘friendly’ interview as evidence in court. It introduced the caution in the form that we know so well from all the tv shows, & ensured that a legal adviser could be present at the interview

At the time it was being discussed in Parliament & elsewhere, desk top computers were barely used in many offices, let alone private homes, & even where they did exist they would not contain a very great deal of information. It was around that time that we acquired our first in the office, & I have to work hard to convince myself that my memory is correct when I say that this top-of-the-range model cost over £6,000 & had a 20Kb hard disk

But in these days when the information which is on the computer or other electronic equipment may be vital to a whole family, it may be time to revisit this definition of ‘material’. Especially as the police, quite frankly, do not seem to be very good at knowing what to look for, so keep the computer for an unnecessarily long time while they comb through

Unless, that is, the whole notion of a hard disk is not about to become irrelevant as we all move on to the clouds

Related post

Demob happy

A small paragraph in the paper tells a story which I find strangely touching.

To quote it in full:

Condoleezza Rice, The US Secretary of State, played the piano at Buckingham Palace, accompanied by Louise Shackleton, the wife of the Foreign Secretary [David Miliband] & a [violinist] member of the London Symphony Orchestra. The Queen gave Dr Rice a recording of the recital

This can hardly have been an impromptu occasion, & one wonders how it was all arranged. I should like to think that it was actually the Queen’s idea

Friday, December 05, 2008


The Times chose to lead its letters page on Thursday with one from Maurice Frankel, which reminds us that the Official Secrets Act of 1911 was replaced by a 1989 Act. Unauthorised leaks now constitute a criminal offence only if they are about security & intelligence etc; other leaks might lead, at most, to disciplinary action

This cleared up one small mystery – why Damian Green was arrested on suspicion of an obscure common law offence.

But it also came as a bit of a shock – if I had known about the 1989 change in the first place I had completely forgotten about it

I first signed the Official Secrets Act when, as a student, I had a temporary job delivering the Christmas mail – in those days all post office workers (including those who worked for what is now BT) were civil servants. I felt suitably admonished, but also mystified – what secrets might lurk among the cards?

Come to think of it though, it might be seen as a kind of privacy law – you must not tell anyone about the delicious news that snobby Mrs Smith from number 4 was getting red bills from the electricity board

When I went to work in Whitehall I was required to sign all over again. I was told that technically it applied to all information which I acquired through work, even the number of coat hooks on the back of the office door. And also that the law applied to everybody, civil servant or not; signing was just a way of making sure that we knew

A letter I received when I left asked me to make sure I had returned any property which belonged to the department, reminded me about the Official Secrets Act, & reiterated the instruction not to travel to certain countries without first seeking security advice

Until yesterday I would not have dared reveal that last paragraph. As I have been known to joke to friends when I pretended to have interesting things to reveal, not only could I be sent to the Tower, but they could be sent there too, just for listening to me

Shahid Malik

Shahid Malik gave a very good interview to Radio 5 news at noon, about the Karen Matthews case. Without sounding at all as if he were dodging any issues or just being all things to all men, he spoke for the point of view of the police, the local residents, the council & people living on benefit

He has of course been well & truly tested since his election in May 2005, shortly before the London tube bombings.

But not everybody can learn & sound as impressive as he did today.

One to look out for in the future

Related post


Why is Gordon Brown ordering banks to punish the elderly & charities – among others – whose income depends on interest on their savings?

Because he wants to be the one who steps in to fiddle around & ‘give’ us tax credits & means tests & hand outs to control how we live?

Or does he somehow really & truly believe that base rate cuts can be passed on to borrowers but not savers

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Even worse than it seems

How to construct a measure of house prices which best summarises changes in the market? That has always posed a real intellectual & practical challenge

But whatever solutions or compromises one adopts, one usually measures only the prices of houses which are actually sold

So in a falling market one would expect the recorded fall in prices to underestimate the true fall in the value of all existing properties, since those which cannot be sold at any price, or those which the owners cannot afford to sell at the price offered will not be included in the index

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Women & political argument

I was trying to think if there has ever been a major political debate when 2 women Cabinet ministers were, at least briefly, the main protagonists on opposite sides

The arrest of an MP & the searching of his parliamentary offices may not on the end lead to a major debate. And there has not been all that much discussion in public between different ‘wings’ of Labour

But at least Harriet Harman & Jacqui Smith have had a mini public debate on the principles involved

But how sad that Jill Pay, who has worked at the Palace of Westminster since 1994 when she was Head Office Keeper, has had the finger pointed at her

The current Speaker does not seem to have much luck with his serjeants


A friend used to make useful amounts of money to add to her pension by investing in stocks & shares. I do not know how much she meant by useful, but she was happy to spend on holidays & good clothes

She used to make all her own buy or sell decisions & concentrated mostly on the retail sector. She said she could easily check these for herself – you could tell at once if a store was on the up or on the slide

I think my friend would have been selling Tesco before now. Straws in the wind, but there was a niff about them even in the spring. Then there was a CEBR report which put Tescos inflation rate at 6.1%, higher than that of other major supermarkets – they are rowing back now

There was the embarrassing publicity over the refusal of a cashier to sell wine to a customer who was shopping with his 14 year old daughter, & the libel cases in Thailand

My own personal beef about Tesco is the way they show complete contempt for those who may wish to use one of their larger stores without having to go by car

All the Sainsburys I know have level access & a bus stop practically outside the door. The one in Hazel Grove is set a long way back from the road but a covered walkway is provided

The nearest Tesco to me does not have level access, unless you ignore their signs & walk down the access road. Access is otherwise impossible for those who cannot manage steps. There is an unreliable & inconvenient bus service which finishes at about 5.30. And it is a longish walk all along the side of the store with no cover at all. Similar inconvenience attends the only other large Tesco I pass, which necessitates crossing a very busy main road

Add to that their cumbersome & vaguely insulting voucher reward scheme & a seeming determination to ban all full fat from their shelves, & I stoppped ever even bothering to go there over a year ago

Ignorance is no excuse

Compare & contrast:

1 Thousands of motorists who litter Britain's roads every day are escaping penalty because of a bureaucratic blunder … changes to the Environmental Protection Act, which were required to give councils extra powers, were made to an outdated version of the legislation and so the Bill could not pass through Parliament, according to a report in The Times

2 “The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 is the usual hotchpotch of measures, with no theme, with much of the detail tucked away from close scrutiny in the schedules, and consisting in large part of textual amendment to earlier legislation. Much of the amendment is by way of undoing this Government's earlier legislation”
Archbold, quoted by David Outterside, Nottingham in a letter to The Telegraph

3 A new "Fair Rules" document from Downing Street advises: “Be clear in laying out the rules. The rules may be obvious for some, but we can’t always assume that everyone knows what the rules are, especially in a period of rapid change”

Who are you calling a terrorist now?

For the second time in a month unnecessary upset has been caused by the inappropriate use of the term counter terrorism in the context of British law & order

Sir Paul Stephenson, a very down to earth sounding Lancastrian, was explaining to the metropolitan police authority this morning why counter terrorism officers were involved in the arrest of an MP

It is just an organisational thing – the old special branch was merged into the new more macho sounding counter terrorism division. There is no suggestion that the MP was involved with terrorism in any way

But surely there was no need to change the name of Special Branch? That began life in the 19th century as the Special Irish branch, set up to deal with the Fenian threat, so it was countering terrorism from its very inception


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Faux souffrire

63% of laptop users suffer from severe pain & discomfort while travelling

A physiotherapist has identified a condition called laptop shoulder

Clean hands

WASHING your hands may make you less morally judgmental, says a Plymouth University study.

Students who washed their hands before being asked to make moral judgements were far less well, judgemental.

“We think we're making conscious, rational decisions in moral judgments, but are influenced by how clean or pure we feel,” said Simone Schnall, the lead researcher.

Washing your hands is scientifically proven to make you cleaner, reduce the spread of infections etc

What, I wonder, would have been the effect if students had been merely symbolically cleansed, perhaps by some kind of religious rite?

Monday, December 01, 2008

A leaky constitutional umbrella

In the late summer of 1976 Denis Howell was appointed Minister For The Drought. The heavens soon opened & much innocent fun was had with pictures on the nightly news of the Minister inspecting stand pipes in a downpour

Also in the picture, just behind the Minister, stood a young man, holding an umbrella. For a time, ‘the umbrella carrier’ became a nickname for any minister’s private secretary

This picked up on the name commonly given to a minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) – the bag carrier. But the PPS is always an MP.

The Private Secretaries are civil servants who staff the minister’s Private Office. They see all correspondence & papers, monitor phone calls, keep the diary, fill up the red box at night, sit in the chamber of the House of Commons whenever the minister speaks or answers Questions, sit in on meetings & attend all official (but not Party) engagements & take notes – as much for the minister’s protection as anything else, so they cannot be claimed to have made unwise promises or commitments

Jobs in Private Office were much coveted & went to the cream of the cream of the Fast Stream, despite the long hours, late nights & weekends

Much must have changed since those days. Parliament no longer sits for such long hours, modern communications have reduced the necessity to be at the minister’s side during all the hours they work, & New Labours desire for a less formal, sofa style of government, together with the increased use of political advisers, will have affected the private secretary’s role

Some private office jobs are even advertised externally these days – no doubt this is why ministers have been encouraged to produce notes about working with Liam,
or Tom

Discretion & trustworthiness are prime requirements for private secretaries

When it comes to civil service leaks, there is, I would suggest, a difference (though not necessarily a legal one) between those which come from somebody who is simply in a position to copy sensitive papers, & those which come from someone in the wider department, charged with developing or administering a policy, with which they are unhappy, or with keeping secret some information which they feel should be in the public domain.

The first is rather like finding that someone you employ as a childminder or cleaner in your house, or someone who works as a secretary in your solicitor’s office, has been copying your private documents

And so, in the 1980s, Sarah Tisdall was convicted of offences under the Official Secrets Act, while a jury declined to convict Clive Ponting

Whether the police would feel they needed to investigate your private complaint would be a different matter

If there is suspicion that someone outside has been inciting, encouraging or still worse, paying for the copies, then they too deserve - well opprobrium at least

That the police should investigate the series of leaks from the Home Office seems reasonable.

A young man, said to be an assistant private secretary has been arrested.

If there are grounds for questioning Damian Green, that seems reasonable too

The search of his offices & home, & particularly of his Parliamentary office has raised constitutional issues which will be widely & thoroughly debated

For me this case brings once again to the fore another worry about how police go about collecting evidence these days

At least there have been no early morning raids, as we saw with the Maxwell brothers & read about with Ruth Turner & Harry Redknapp.

Harry Redknapp won a case against the City of London police for the way in which they conducted their search of his home

But these fishing expeditions, during which all kinds of documents, communications equipment & computers may be seized, to be perused by police at their leisure, continue

In the case of Damian Green it is reported that his wife, herself a barrister, was able to prevent the removal of the family PC by claiming legal privilege. Others are not so fortunate

I was under the impression that similar powers which used to be exercised in civil cases under Anton Piller orders are not much used now

How much does this trawling for evidence reflect the advice of the CPS, who were (again, according to press reports) advising the police in this case?

A recent report by the Inspectorates of Constabulary & of the Crown Prosecution Service showed that this relationship is still causing problems

One thing is for sure however. This case will be discussed by tomorrows students of law, politics, or the British Constitution just as that of Crichel Down was discussed by the undergraduates of my generation

The rain it raineth on the Just
And also on the Unjust fella
But mostly on the Just because
The Unjust stole the Just’s umbrella
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