Saturday, May 31, 2008

Oh dear

On Today this morning a man with a slight Irish accent was talking about David Cameron

The 'v' was so soft as to be almost silent

I was startled to hear it as Dead Cameron

Friday, May 30, 2008


It was back near the start of the year. I had popped into McDonalds for a reviving afternoon cup of tea (before they changed supplier)

Three boys aged about 17 came to the next table. Casually dressed & a bit noisy, but it was soon evident that they were what in my youth would have been called grammar school boys

One had bought some kind of small electronic gizmo in the usual impenetrable packaging. Wait for so-and-so, said one. He has a knife

So-and-so arrived. When asked, reached into the calf pocket of his combats & produced a penknife

That’s a bit estate, isn’t it? said one of his friends

The knife was just like the one I used to carry, when in Girl Guide uniform, hanging from a special hook on the belt. His was even quite venerable looking – might have been passed down by one of his grandparents

I wonder if he is still carrying it now, risking arrest if he gets caught by the increased police search activity

It is not the first time we have had a panic about young men & knives. I remember a great to-do about flick knives in the 50s. And wasn’t Brighton Rock about knife gangs?

This panic has been building for a long time. A few high-profile incidents. More than one article by anxious London-based columnists, wondering how to tread the line between mithering molly-coddling maternal concern & raising a confident, street-wise hero son

I have recently been wondering what kind of knives are being used these days – something the press reports seem strangely silent about. Sir Ian Blair gave the answer yesterday. Kitchen knives

This just illustrates how the carrying of a knife can not be an absolute offence. Even I sometimes carry a craft knife or Swiss Army knife in my bag

And it cannot be yet another If you look as if you might be under 21 offence

However it seems pretty clear that boys themselves will be profoundly grateful if grown ups really can sort this one out

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Lyricists old & new

Such a silly fuss about one question in the Cambridge University English finals

The OED defines lyric as "Of or pertaining to the lyre, meant to be sung." It also quotes Ruskins maxim: "Lyric poetry is the expression by the poet of his own feelings"

Compare, with reference to these diverse senses of lyric,

Sir Walter Raleighs 'As You Came from the Holy Land'

with 1 or 2 out of:

'Love is a Losing Game' – Amy Winehouse & Mark Ronson
'Fine & Mellow' – Billie Holiday
'Boots of Spanish Leather' – Bob Dylan

Copies of all 4 lyrics were provided for the examinees

This strikes me as a brilliant question – unexpected but patently fair. One which would really sort out the A*s from the As

And if it is the behaviour of Ms Winehouse which prompted the outcry, it is as well to remember that Raleigh himself was a celebrity showboat (putting his cloak over a puddle in front of the Queen) & turned England into a nation of drug addicts (nicotine)

Related posts: A Church Romance

Ask a simple question

Immigration statistics & the Eton question

I find it a minor, but delicious, irony that the question of how we count the population should be high up the political agenda when, particularly by the time of the inevitably controversial Census in 2011, it looks as if we shall once again be governed by Etonians

Among the questions which were once used as in introduction to the intricacies of establishing the size of the population of local areas was: Do the boys of Eton count as part of the population of Eton & Slough? Or should they be counted as members of the family household, wherever that may be?

In one sense, they should be counted both ways of course, depending on your purpose. But we have to have some discipline & consistency, one agreed national population figure. It was partly for this reason that Winston Churchill established the Central Statistical Office, to stop tedious time-wasting arguing figures in Cabinet

The question of who counts as part of the population of England used to be relatively unproblematic, compared with local authorities. But with globalisation, EU rules, cheap flights, tax breaks for non-doms etc etc …

The nation state itself has become fuzzier round the edges

Auden on pride & suffering

I had forgotten that the second part of Audens Musée des Beaux Arts is a description of Breughels Icarus

The terrifying opening: About suffering they were never wrong, puts me in mind of two World Wars & the holocaust

I always think of Breughels as humorous paintings. Heart-warming. The cheerful ignoral of Icarus plunge is comic

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on

The story of Icarus, at primary school, introduced me to the sin of pride, the importance of not thinking yourself a cut above the others, & the sins of pushy parents. No sympathy, just just deserts

So in truth I find the two parts of the poem do not really fit together

But perhaps that was Audens point


Related posts:

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Photo journalism

The Times is really getting good with its pictures these days

The two I have picked as illustrations both come, as it happens, from the Business pages

I am a sucker for the stark geometric beauty of the man-made industrial landscape credited to Alamy

We have seen many heartbreaking & terrifying pictures from the Sichuan earthquake. This pained & puzzled pig (credited to Nicky Lom/Reuters) may be the one which sticks in my memory

I have 2 beefs with The Times & its picture policy:

I have no idea of the name of the picture editor

Save for the news pages, they are very bad at, remiss about, picture credits
Times writers long ago came out of the anonymity closet; time the photographers & artists did so too

Climate & political geography

I had uploaded this picture to illustrate a rant about the uselessness of weather forecasts on national radio. It appeared on the news pages to illustrate a story about howling winds & torrential rains which had affected much of the country the day before. Weather for which I had gone out fully prepared, only to be miserable & sweaty beneath sunshine & clear skies

It is hard to work out which bit of a forecast on national radio applies to us. You listen to a 2-3 minute explanation, trying to concentrate all the way through because there is no standard order. Try to remember the geographical areas mentioned, then try to work it out

Are we Northern England, the Midlands, The North West or just Elsewhere today?

A similar confusion about electoral geography jogged my memory

In a fascinating comparison of the Mid Staffs by election of 1990 & the recent one in Crewe & Nantwich, Tim Hames managed to place Crewe in northern England & Mid Staffs in Middle England

Well psychically, socially, demographically & politically these may be valid descriptions

Physically & geographically they are next door neighbours

Related post: Regional government & the choice of supermarket

Young Jane Austen & the older woman

Except for the heroines mothers we are not actually told the ages of any of the 'older women' in the early novels of Jane Austen. The mothers are all rising forty-something. Mrs Jennings in Sense and Sensibility is described as elderly but has two daughters in their twenties.

If we rely only on Pride and Prejudice we might come to the conclusion that Jane Austen, not altogether unusually for a young woman, had little time or sympathy for the older woman.

Mrs Bennet, Mrs Phillips, Lady Lucas and Lady Catherine are far from sympathetic characters and are very unsympathetically treated. Of course Jane Austen was only 20 when she began this novel, not far from the age at which the young generally consider the middle-aged to be an embarrassment.

I shall consider the heroines mother first. In this I am following Jane Austens example since in all three novels the mother is introduced on page 1 and in two of them mother is introduced before daughter. And when we consider all three mothers we see that Jane Austen does not always have such an unforgiving view of the older woman as appears from Pride and Prejudice alone.

The business of MRS BENNETs life was to get her five daughters married; and since their social circle in a small country town was limited, and there was real necessity to marry off her daughters because of the entail on their fathers estate, we might start with some sympathy for her.

Such sympathy is however difficult to maintain in light of her continuing vulgar and insensitive behaviour and of the authors refusal to give her sympathetic treatment.

She is quite mercilessly shown as too self-absorbed to realise when her long-suffering but ineffectual husband of twenty-three years is teasing her; too vain and shallow to grow old gracefully and protect her youngest daughters from chasing injudiciously after the officers, (whose scarlet coats she still dreams she is herself young and pretty enough to chase and be chased by); too mean spirited not to wish a patently unpleasant husband on to her least favourite daughter; and too stupid to realise that her transparent plots to throw her eldest daughter at the eligible Mr Bingley could backfire and even endanger her daughters health.

Even her failure to conceive again after the birth of a fifth daughter is treated almost as proof of silliness.

In short "a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper". Not even the achievement of two good marriages for her eldest daughters could "make her sensible, amiable, well-informed .. for the rest of her life .... she was still occasionally nervous and invariably silly"

In contrast the second MRS HENRY DASHWOOD was the good hearted mother of three cheerful daughters who was much loved by her husband; she coped with fortitude with his relatively early death and her unexpectedly reduced circumstances, albeit that her fortitude was sustained by a certain romanticism and an unrealistic attitude to the need for economy.

She was moreover, unlike Mrs Bennet, open to advice from cooler more sensible heads such as that of her eldest daughter, and was thus restrained from an impetuous break with her stepson. Jane Austen also treats Mrs Dashwood with more generosity than Mrs Bennet, in allowing that it is not too late for her to learn how to govern her strong feelings. In the meantime she, like her middle daughter Marianne, is "everything but prudent."

Nor does she escape the authors censure when she is careless over Marianne and Willoughby's behaviour and reluctant to tackle them about it; "common sense, common care, common prudence were all sunk in Mrs Dashwoods romantic delicacy."

In the end Mrs Dashwood does recognise that her own poor judgement had helped endanger her daughter's life, spends her time after Elinor's marriage "acting on motives of policy as well as pleasure" to bring Marianne and Colonel Brandon together and ultimately is prudent enough, when her aim is achieved, to stay at the cottage rather than move to Delaford, thus staying tactfully out of her daughters married lives

MRS MORLAND, mother of ten, wife of a comfortable but by no means rich west country parson was a woman of "useful plain sense, with a good temper and ..... a good constitution."

She has an intensely practical turn of mind and either ignores or is unaware of her 17 year old daughters romantic longings and imaginings. This causes her to issue only mundane warnings about wrapping up, keeping warm and keeping accounts when her daughter embarks on her first independent adventure in the dangerous waters of Bath.

She is equally calm and down to earth when Catherine returns so ignominiously from Northanger Abbey:

I am glad I did not know of your journey at the time; but now it is all over perhaps there is no great harm done. it is always good for young people to be put upon exerting themselves; and you know, my dear Catherine, you always were a sad little shatter-brained creature; but now you must have been forced to have your wits about you, with so much changing of chaises and so forth; and I hope it will appear that you have not left anything behind you in any of the pockets

Nevertheless she, like all three mothers, does seem a little too careless about her daughters love life, given the age they lived in. And her husband was equally careless. "They never once thought of her heart, which, for the parents of a young lady of seventeen, just returned from her first excursion from home, was odd enough! "

This treatment of the Morlands as quite naturally a team in the upbringing of their children is typical of them. We are not told whether Mr Morland, like Mr Bennet had married slightly beneath him, for we are told nothing of Mrs Morlands background and fortune, but their family life is certainly a contrast to the Bennets.

We get to see other mothers coping with unmarried daughters in LADY LUCAS AND MRS THORPE. Both are sharply, even unkindly, portrayed by the author.

LADY LUCAS is "a very good kind of woman, not too clever to be a valuable neighbour to Mrs Bennet"; a bit lackadaisical but sharp enough "to calculate with more interest than the matter had ever excited before how many years longer Mr Bennet was likely to live" once her daughter married Mr Collins; and who "could not be insensible of triumph on being able to retort on Mrs Bennet the comfort of having a daughter well-married; and she called at Longbourn rather oftener than usual to say how happy she was, though Mrs Bennet’s sour looks and ill-natured remarks might have been enough to drive happiness away".

We hear very little more of Lady Lucas; she does not accompany her husband and second daughter on their visit to the Collinses (perhaps because she had to stay at home to look after an unspecified number of smaller children) but she does take the earliest opportunity to enquire "across the table after the welfare and poultry of her eldest daughter”. Mrs Bennet also refers to Lady Lucas' sharp household management, reflecting her struggle with a reduced income after her husband so rashly retired on his receipt of a knighthood

MRS THORPE is a lawyer's widow who has 3 sons and 3 daughters to settle in life and no great fortune. We are told that she is gossipy but does not listen to her friend Mrs Allen's gossip in return, that she is over-indulgent as a mother and lacks the clear eye to see her children’s shortcomings. However she disappears abruptly in the middle of the novel so we never get to hear how she copes with the disappointment of her son's failure to get engaged to Catherine Morland or her eldest daughter’s loss of two eligible suitors

LADY CATHERINE DE BOURGH is another mother with a daughter to get off her hands. She is also much the grandest older woman we meet in these early novels - daughter of an earl, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, sister of the late Lady Anne Darcy and in possession of some fortune.

None of this is enough to keep her from being totally unhinged.

In the earlier chapters this derangement is partly hidden by Mr Collins obsequiousness towards his patron. All is revealed however when Lady Catherine descends on the Bennets to confront Elizabeth and order her to deny a non-existent engagement to Darcy while asserting his equally non-existent engagement to her daughter.

I can only assume that this derangement is caused by sadness at not having more children and anxiety about who but a cousin would marry and be kind to her sickly daughter.

That a reconciliation with Darcy is eventually arranged "by Elizabeth’s persuasion” shows that this 20-year old heroine of a 20-year old authoress is just too good to be true.

MRS FERRARS was another mother who held the purse strings. She was the widow of a man who died very rich, and had already seen her only daughter married to a man (John Dashwood) who was at least very comfortably off. She was equally concerned that her two sons should marry wives of suitable fortune and was also ambitious for them to achieve worldly success, preferably in politics.

She too is described with sarcasm and without any generosity as "a little thin woman upright, even to formality, in her figure and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect. Her complexion was sallow: and her features small, without beauty, and naturally, without expression: but a lucky contraction of the brow had rescued her countenance from the disgrace of insipidity, by giving it the strong characters of pride and ill-nature."

As usual our heroine can discern no redeeming features in this ogress but all ends happily when Mrs Ferrars comes to love Lucy as a favourite child and her son Robert is restored to her favour.

MRS JENNINGS is a wealthy widow, a mother who has safely married off her two daughters and is free to take a kindly interest in other girls.

"A good humoured, merry, fat, elderly woman who talked a great deal, seemed happy and rather vulgar", her humour on the subject of lovers and husbands was not always appreciated by shy young things such as Marianne Dashwood. She is garrulous and prone to repeat herself - within weeks of their acquaintance she had "repeated her own history to Elinor two or three times." She is also nosey and not ashamed to pry, despite the remonstrances of her daughter, Lady Middleton

Overall however her portrayal is affectionate. She is very generous as well as aware of her faults - she invites both Dashwood girls to London so that they can laugh at her odd ways together. There is more than an element of snobbishness in the attitude of Elinor and others to her humble origins as the wife of a man in trade.

Generous to the end, almost the last we hear of her is when she gives the ruthlessly abandoned Nancy Steel 5 guineas when, following her sisters marriage to Robert Ferrars, Nancy is left with no money to get back to Devon

MRS ALLEN is the only older woman in these novels whose shortcomings cannot in part be attributed to the strains of bringing up a family, because she has none.

Lack of maternal shortcomings however does not save her from the author's barbed pen. She is "one of those numerous class of females whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius, accomplishment nor manner"

She is, of course, gossipy, though in what she and Mrs Thorpe called conversation there was "scarcely ever any exchange of opinion and not often any resemblance of subject for Mrs Thorpe talked chiefly of her children and Mrs Allen of her gowns" She is also generous in a way which other characters do not always appreciate, not only taking Catherine to Bath but always ready at home to receive her when she needs an escape from her numerous siblings.

As I've said before, I do detect in all this something of the young woman – you would never mistake it for something written by Beryl Bainbridge

Jane Austen had such a notably sharp pen that I suspect that looking at other categories, such as younger men, would find similar kind of treatment

It is instructive that we are not generally shown these women having any kind of hobby or occupation that really absorbs them. Even Lady Catherines voluntary work in sorting out the problems that the villagers have is treated with great derision as being nosiness

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The end of happy buses

Bus drivers have a saying: An empty bus is a happy bus

Driving a bus is a great job, with only one drawback.


The ones who blame the driver for every delay. Who cannot find their money or their pass or expect the bus to wait if they have not reached the stop yet. Who fail to see any connection between the latter & the former

Then there is going-home-from-school time. And Friday & Saturday night drunks

Well, happy buses are going to be a thing of the past if a recent press report is anything to go by. Bus company shares are holding up well. Most bus companies have hedged their fuel costs. Contracts for regulated services have clauses to claw back higher fuel costs. And the rising cost of motoring is likely to attract more passengers for those essential trips to work, school or shopping

The over 60’s will be disproportionately tempted to switch to the bus as petrol prices rise, thereby just adding to the pressure on council tax

Faith & foundations

I heard most of Cherie Blair’s own reading of extracts from her autobiography on Radio 4. It did come across as a more interesting & thought provoking work than was suggested by the Times extracts, so I shall read (but not buy) the book

I hesitated before adding my bit in an earlier post , but my interest in contraceptive equipment was not merely salacious. And I find her flippant explanation – We all do or we would have families in double figures. You can always go to confession - insulting

If I wanted to be really nasty, I would say that her husband delayed his conversion not because of Alistair Campbell but to spare himself the embarrassment of having to go to confession himself. Or does the Catholic church regard the use of contraceptive equipment other than condoms merely a sin of the wife?

I understand the dilemma of course

It may be easy for educated western couples to find the arguments which make them comfortable with ignoring this ruling of their Church

But this Roman Catholic doctrine affects policies on population growth, womens freedom & the spread of AIDS throughout the world

Politicians often get accused of hypocrisy on specious grounds (If he can lie to his wife he can lie to the electorate)

I find it true hypocrisy on the part of a man about to set up a Faith Foundation to promulgate the virtues of religious guidance to have acted in his own interests in this way

Derbyshire oatcakes

I made a daring experiment last night – life is quiet up here

Derbyshire oatcakes are not at all like the hard Scottish biscuits. More like pancakes or crepes – thin, flat, soft & pliable, about 8” across

Best fried in bacon fat, part of the kind of decent breakfast which every proper mother would have made sure was inside her children before they set off to walk to school

Good for tea as well. You can toast them, but I prefer them cold. With honey, Golden Syrup or a crumbly white cheese. Derbyshire White Stilton for preference but Wensleydale, Cheshire or Lancashire will do

I think the authentic traditional ones must have used suet for the fat content – why else did we buy them from the butcher? But last nights came from the supermarket & are made with vegetable oil. The ones from Sainsburys are actually labelled Staffordshire oatcakes

We had a curry supper. My tried & tested repertoire – creamy prawn curry, aromatic yellow rice (Madhur Jaffreys recipe) & same old, same old accompaniments: very garlicky cucumber raita; sliced bananas with coconut, brown sugar & lemon juice; tomato, spring onion, coriander salad; green leaf salad; mango chutney

Tired & tested perhaps. Need to try something different

I have been meaning to try oatcakes instead of roti for years. Should have tried in private first. But –

I also meant to buy some naans, as a fallback, but I forgot

Hey! Oatcakes work really well. Though you are perhaps slightly more likely to get gravy dribbles down your chin than you are with more absorbent naan or roti breads

Tomato ketchup

Why does a 300 ml glass bottle of Heinz Tomato Ketchup cost 62p but a plastic sqeezy bottle of the same size £1.09 – very nearly twice the price?

The ingredients – as listed – are the same

Are they having to practically give away the old stock?

Related post: Casareep

Fare dodger

I took a train trip yesterday without paying for a ticket. Not deliberate fare dodging: the guard’s machine just refused to issue my kind of ticket – other passengers were not affected. He told me to pay at the other end, but there was no one there. I was not prepared to queue at the ticket office just for that

In general I am punctilious about paying my fare – quite apart from the embarrassment of being caught, I prefer to pay the price & keep the service

But I have been musing over who gains & who loses from this incident

I am obviously better off to the tune of nearly £3

But half my fare would have been “funded by HM Government & your local authority”. So fellow taxpayers are better off by the same amount

I long ago lost track of how our railways are funded. But the line is one which was saved from the Beeching axe & used at least to get some kind of social need subsidy to keep going. Perhaps tax payers will have to fork out to make up for the loss of revenue. In which case the train company benefits

But all things considered, I am half way to persuading myself that everybody benefits from this minor misdemeanour

Related post: Bus pass latest

Monday, May 26, 2008

A safe country

For some time now I have been trying to track down a quote which I think comes from one of the Anglo-Saxon kings. I thought it was in Bede, but if it is I have developed a total blind spot for it.

The nameless king expressed an ambition to turn England into a safe country. One which a mother carrying a baby could travel on foot from end to end without being molested by marauding hordes or gangs of one sort or another

Well, I cannot even walk to the other end of the village without threat from marauding hordes hurtling around in tons of metal

All of whom seem to believe that I am a poor deluded soul who believes she has a right to be there, even on a quiet lane or side street with no pavement. I have no business getting in their way & I certainly do not have right of way

And we wonder why children are not allowed freedom these days

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Computers & army intelligence

Thinking about exam marking reminded me of the first computer joke I ever heard – over 40 years ago now.

The Americans still had conscription. All recruits were given an intelligence test to help determine their assignment.

Almost as soon as he arrived on the base it was clear that one young man did not offer 10 cents to the dime in the intellectual department. Everybody was astonished therefore when he scored 100% in the IQ test. Could he possibly be one of these idiot savants?

The best thing was to ask him to take another test. By the time these results came back – 100% again – everybody was sure that he could not have undiscovered genius. An investigation was ordered.

Being a nation at the forefront of technology the IQ test was in multiple-choice, tick-box format, marked by a computer using an early form of optimal mark reading.

The computer checked that there was a tick in the right box.

But only the right one.

The young man had achieved his perfect score by ticking every box on the form.

Which is, after all, a form of genius

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Dover Beach

This poem resonates with me for a couple of reasons, apart from its own virtues. It reminds me of the last family holiday we took, before I left home to make my own way in the world. And it was published in 1867

I have very ambivalent feelings about how I would feel if my husband had written such a poem on our honeymoon

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold

Friday, May 23, 2008

Precision marking

A fuss in the media this week about comments from Kathleen Tattersall, chair of Ofqual about inaccurate marking of exams

There is here a classic confusion between accuracy & precision

A bomb may be aimed with perfect precision. It will only be accurate if it is aimed at the right target

Precision can usually only be achieved by the elimination of pesky human variability. In the case of exams this means, eventually, that both examiner & examinee must be able to know, in advance, which is the right, or at least the required, answer

So teaching must be to the test & the quality of teaching is judged by performance in the test. The aim of education becomes the production of young people able to parrot back to us those things which we already know, those views which we already hold

The system does not require the exercise of individual human judgement

It certainly precludes the kind of judgement exercised by Professor Smellie

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bus pass latest

Finally got round to digging my new bus pass out of the pile this week. I was slow to realise that new cards would be issued, since my old one was still valid. I had assumed the letter from the council just contained bumf about shopping discounts & put it in the pile Deal with when you get round to it

It is odd that I feel a bit sad that the new card does not proclaim itself, & me, to be proudly, Derbyshire.

The new card finds it necessary to declare Concessionary travel funded by HM Government with your local authority. Is the lack of an is in there a modern fashion, or a subtle nod in recognition that it is funded out of my, & my fellow tax-payers pockets, after the authorities have taken their cut?

I think the basic colour & red ribbon are meant to be common to all cards throughout the country, to make them easier for bus drivers to recognise. It causes complications at the train station however. They now ask: Is that a Derbyshire pass?

The London Freedom Pass definitely has a different design, according to the website. And the leaflet which accompanies our new pass sternly reminds us that we are not entitled to free travel on the Tube Because those benefits are paid for by the London authorities. I think I foresee another campaign coming on

I have also just discovered that there is an organisation ITSO, dedicated to building and maintaining a specification for secure 'end to end' inter-operable ticketing transactions, utilising relevant ISO and emerging CEN standards.

Which is, actually, reassuring to know

The new system has been rolled out with remarkably little trouble. Most people seemed to be using their new cards right from 1 April, & bus drivers were gently reminding or giving information to those who were still using the old ones

Of course no new major government computer system was required, nor any new data collection. Just the sending of letters to a relatively immobile demographic - immobile in the sense of tending to stay put at one address

The cream

Since I am a confirmed believer in the importance of animal fat in the diet I avoid, on principle, anything with LO or LITE on the label

It is distressing to find therefore that The Times Crossword editor has endorsed the use of LITE as a valid word

Select English, low in calories (6) [Crossword # 23,917]

And another one:

Cream, with lo-calorie drug? (6) [Crossword # 24,041]

Champions days

I am surprised at how pleased I am that United won in Moscow – I don’t take much interest in football

In so far as I do ever call myself a fan, it is of course of United. I was born in Manchester, it was the nearest big city to where we lived, & my grandpa was committed to the team. We always had to keep quiet when the results were read out on the wireless at Saturday teatime

I was also surprised at the evidence of how much it meant to the people of Stockport when I went to do my shopping yesterday teatime. Not groups of noisy men outside pubs, but a real family affair. It was all the red shirts which gave it away

I saw one 40-ish couple. The tight red shirt did nothing to flatter the mans torso. His wife was dressed in a lime green shalwar kameez & a black cardi. Both were in high good humour

A family group. Dad, two older children, & a girl of 4 in red shirt, black socks & what may have been football boots – don’t they look like slippers these days. As they turned in to the shopping centre the little girl decided to run around & up the ramp, giving Dad a momentary conniption as he realised she was not with them. I am sure she had a ball at her feet as she ran

Mother & daughter in the checkout queue: So where are you going to watch the match then?

Two middle aged ladies in the coffee shop, bemoaning the absence of any kind of parade: They are punishing us for what the Rangers supporters got up to. We’re not like them

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Size 18

Philip Treleaven contributed an article to Significance: How to fit into your clothes. This suggests that harmonised European labelling will lead to labels which carry the garments principal measurements in centimetres

This essentially means going back to the past. Although it will probably be an improvement on the current, seemingly random, sizing, it will not necessarily make it easy to find the clothes which are the right size for you

It all depends on what you mean by ‘fit’, & these are as much questions of fabric & fashion as of centimetres.

Then there are the compromises: trousers to fit your long legs or your slim waist? Your broad shoulders or less than ample bosom?

The article also gives some fascinating figures about the change in the average woman’s measurements since 1920

I am particularly intrigued by the big increase in waist size. It seems extraordinary to me that journalists can scoff at Mrs Beckham’s 25” waist as suggestive of an eating disorder. When I was young 24” was a bit much, & 26” the absolute limit. More than that was our equivalent of having to admit to being more than size 16 today

I just wonder whether it is all to do with body mass, as such, or whether corsetry & posture have anything to do with it. Even teenagers might have worn a garment called a roll-on, which was a kind of lightweight elastic corset. As to posture, we were nagged constantly to stand up straight, pull up our rib cage & tuck our bottom in

You expected an expanded waistline after childbirth, one which would never go back to its maidenly span. Nothing to do with weight; your rib cage had been pushed out by the baby & often failed to spring right back. Allegedly

Does the moon still shine in June?

I have only recently found out that the monthly pattern of births in this country has changed quite dramatically since 20 years ago

September has taken over as the busiest month on the maternity ward. We used to have two smaller peaks, in March & May, which were popularly attributed to the Moon in June & annual August holidays

Now Christmas has taken over. I wonder if this is the result of planning – time-poor career couples taking advantage of the guaranteed break - or alcohol-related accident? [Cue joke about Virgo births]

It does help to explain the modern mothers puzzlement about the old habit of putting the baby outside in the garden. Nobody put babies outside in winter, despite the strong belief in their need for fresh air. I seem to remember not a few medical research reports on the adverse heath effects (both short & long term) of a winter birth.

A spring baby also meant that the house would not be draped in nappies steaming dry instead of blowing outside on the line

The graph comes from The birthday problem by Mario Cortina Borja & John Haigh which was published in Significance September 2007

Related post: A breath of fresh air

Mystery woman

Anna Ford?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Please explain to the Court

In simple paternity cases DNA profiles from the child, mother & putative father are used. But often the putative father is unavailable & DNA from relatives is used. Features such as mutation, silent alleles, laboratory & handling errors, introduce additional complications. Bayesian networks can be a solution - Philip Dawid, University of Cambridge

When I read that my first reaction was Interesting. My second was that I am very glad not to be put into a position of having to explain, particularly in a court of law

Fortunately Professor Dawid is an experienced expert witness.

For some that would sound like a double disability, implying sarcasm on my part. Anything but

Monday, May 19, 2008

What puts the blue into chlorophyll?

The hot sunny spell has finally brought a full-on spring. All the trees are covered in leaves & the blossoms are blossoming. The candles on the horse chestnuts are large & cream & proud, though not noticeably plentiful. A neighbour planted a lilac a few years ago which hasn’t done much until this year, when it has suddenly produced large, deep purple panicles

But the green is definitely much more yellow than it has been in recent years. Nearer to lime than emerald. This is much more noticeable in the leaves than it is in the grass on the hills

Which set me thinking. If this were paint you would just say: Add more blue

So, what does put the blue into chlorophyll?

Some kind of nutrient which is relatively lacking this year?

Or is it an effect of the light? Somehing in the atmosphere filtering out the blue?

Or just a bit of etiolation due to poor light, too much cloud cover during March & April?

Related post: Has spring sprung?

The trial of James Bond

When I arrived at college both the Union Handbook (Things You Can Do For Free) & various lecturers recommended trips to court. To sit in the public gallery & really learn about, or be entertained by, the world & its ways

Since the Old Bailey, Bow Street & the Royal Courts of Justice were nearby this was good advice, which I took to heart

My first venture into the Royal Courts offered real excitement. James Bond was on trial! Or, at least, Ian Fleming was being sued

It was surprisingly easy to get in - the public gallery was crowded but not full. The well of the court was crowded too, though not much seemed to be happening. I caught a glimpse of the Fleming profile

Then the usher approached. Asked me to Hutch up a bit, make room for this lady

The seats, highly polished narrow wooden benches, were steeply raked. So I first noticed the legs, which were elegantly crossed. Well polished leather court shoes, & very expensive stockings

I started to take covert peeks at my new neighbour. Fully tailored dark green suit (which we called a costume in those days) – straight narrow skirt reaching below the knee; jacket with buttons, collar, full length sleeves & nipped-in waist. Hair dark, in a grown-up style. She may have been wearing a small hat too, can’t remember now. Full make-up, perfectly applied. Powder, deep red lipstick, well-plucked eyebrows, mascara. And a beautiful fur stole which seemed to ripple even as she sat still

Think Joan Crawford in a 1950s film

But she was quite young – in my own mind I put her at 27 or 29, max

This was the beginning of the Swinging Sixties! Pale pink lipstick, false eyelashes, eye liner! Mary Quant & the Kings Road!

Why would someone who could afford anything she wanted settle for clothes which my mother (even my gran) would be proud to wear?

The proceedings bored me. No dramatic cross examination, just polite & barely audible conversation. I left

In the corridor the usher came up to me

Do you know who that was?

Ian Fleming
, I said

No, no. The lady I brought in


That was Bobo Sigrist

I decided that being an heiress was not all it was cracked up to be if it brought with it that kind of repression – (pseudo-Freudian analysis was one of the intellectual pretensions of the time)

And I was very surprised to read, in among all the coverage of Bonds 50th anniversary, that the Thunderball case was finally settled a mere 10 years ago

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Why can't fictional policemen be philogamous?

Years he'd been fighting the bastard; it was about the means & the method too. Years he'd been fighting the bastard, & now technology & some bespectacled penpusher might end up finishing the job. No mess, no blood

There should be mess
There should be fuss
There should be blood

That is a quotation from Ian Rankins la[te]st Rebus novel, End Music

Sums up the books really. And a kind of Arts & Crafts attitude to policing: Get your hands dirty (craft), despise modern methods & clean clothes

I used to find Rankins books difficult to follow unless I wrote the names down in the back as I went along. More than 80 in Black & Blue for instance, some with at least 2 nicknames (Malcolm 'Malky' 'Stanley' Toal), or aliases. It seems a compulsion to give all his characters names, even those such as waiters or barmen who never reappear. Other characters seem to be of that ilk but then crop up as crucial to the plot several hundred pages later.

I got tired of this & I just stopped bothering to read him, until this latest

Rebus is a brother under the skin of Banks & Resnick. Lonely cops with maverick tendencies. Not good at relationships, as they say

Nothing new about that. Since the days of Sherlock Holmes, at least, there has been something about crime fiction which demands The Outsider to observe & interpret human foibles, to see through the façade of civilised behaviour

Sue Grafton has said that personal ties & family life can get in the way of the plot. Kinsey Millhone would not be able to do what she does if her energies went on caring for those close to her

But Rebus, Banks & Resnick bother me. They seem so far down that they are almost not there at all. No wonder they cannot sustain a relationship. To live in the same house, to share a bed with, someone who is not there would be scary

Melancholia, depression, or a realistic reaction to the disillusion of police work, of the kind described in Roger Graefs Talking Blues?

Some fictional policemen have had a reasonably rounded private life. I used to be pretty keen on John Creaseys (writing as JJ Marric) Gideon of the Yard. And Ruth Rendells Inspector Wexford. I also used to enjoy the prolific outpourings of Elizabeth Linington (Dell Shannon, Lesley Egan, Anne Blaisdell), all featuring uxorious family men. I doubt, though, that I would want to reread any of them today

Rankin, Robinson & Harvey each tries to give their character emotional depth by letting us know their musical tastes. Too much detail for me, verging on the obsessional going on autistic. And does not provoke empathy if you do not know the tracks involved

You can have too much of a good thing however. Faye Kellerman gives too much information about Deckers wife & marriage


For me, the idea of flying in a Trident or a VC 10 brings waves of nostalgia

But to hear that they are still being used to ferry troops to & from war zones …

We used to call it the VC-When? Its unreliable time keeping was caused not by any kind of mechanical problems but as a consequence of the vagaries of BOAC scheduling

I wonder if passengers on RAF civilian flights still have to sit facing the rear?

In my experience only the Trident did this on commercial flights, & then it was only a few seats. I had the misfortune to occupy one once. Not an experience I should care to repeat, it was very disconcerting

The reason for the RAF rule was supposed to be passenger safety. ‘Everybody’ knew that many of those unfortunate enough to be involved in an air crash might have survived the impact, what killed them were the abdominal injuries caused by being thrust forward against the seat belt

Years ago now, though, I heard a radio programme about the Kegworth air crash. One of the contributors was an abdominal surgeon who had been called in, with his team, expecting to be very busy: they sat mostly just twiddling their thumbs

So I wonder if seat belts technology now means that what’Everybody knew’ is now just an old wives tale

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Getting to the point of delivery

One of the people I know who has been making good use of her bus pass to travel daily from the next village to help take care of her father was on the bus to the hospital

Her father died last night. She was having to go in again today to pick up his clothes. She had not been allowed to take them home with her last night because there is a procedure to go through, lists to be checked, papers to be signed

At least the journey cost only time. The bus pass took care of the cash cost

With the new polyclinics ordinary visits to the doctor will cost patients more in time & travel costs. But these will not have to come out of the NHS budget, treatment will still be free once you get to the point of delivery

Related post: Parents & children

Friday, May 16, 2008

A woman once in politics

The women in politics I have always felt really sorry for are those who never expected to be there in the first place

Mary Wilson is the main example during my lifetime. She thought she was marrying an Oxford don & ended up, very uncomfortable, in Downing Street

But now I almost feel sorry for Cherie Blair

She got exactly what she wanted. But now, 50 something, she finds herself not free – all the security that still surrounds her. Unlikely to find that being released from the awkwardness (from the constitutional separation of powers point of view) of being PMs wife will allow her judicial career to soar

Older children leaving the nest

Hardly ever seeing her husband who travels the world he is keen to save, where she has no official role as his wife

No wonder she wants to Speak For Herself

But – oh dear

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Whatever happened to Elastoplast?

Well, of course I know its still there on the pharmacy shelves. Im really talking about childrens knees. Or fingers, elbows. Even foreheads

Mind you with child protection worries the way they are, I expect any parent would be tempted to lock a child with a bruised or grazed face out of public view for the duration

But why do you never see children with grazed knees? Do they really never fall over these days?

Or are there magic potions which stop all bleeding & prevent all scars?

I still have a good one on my knee the legacy of a satisfyingly large piece of gravel which made its way in there when I ran too fast down the lane

We used to be quite proud of our scars. Proved what brave children we were

Qwerty 1

My mother & my 5th form mistress (a formidable WWI spinster with degrees from Oxford & the Sorbonne) both told me: Do NOT learn to type. If you can type then, whatever job you do, all the men around will expect you to act as their secretary & do their typing for them

They meant touch typing. We had a family typewriter, an ancient metal sit up & beg Imperial which my father acquired somewhere & set into working order. I typed The quick brown fox … over & over to learn QWERTY

In later years I made half hearted attempts to learn properly, but it seemed too much trouble to make my little fingers do any work when hard 2-fingered bashing would do all I needed. By the time it would have been really helpful to be able to watch what was happening on the teleprinter terminal while I typed I felt it was too late to learn

Isnt it odd how men elbowed women aside in the rush to the keyboard

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Football harmony

There was a crowd of football fans in blue shirts at one of the bus stops in Davenport. Nothing unusual in that, Edgely Park is not far away, or they could be Man City fans if they have a match today

It was not until I passed the flag-bedecked pub that I realised that Rangers also wear blue, so the parties have spread throughout Greater Manchester, not just the city centre. I guess though that these are mostly local rather than travelling fans

Interestingly some people outside the pub were wearing England shirts & I also spotted a flag of St George & a Union Jack

Related post: Football crowds

Oven smells

If you are out all day there is nothing nicer than opening the front door to the delicious smell of cooking

A conventional electric oven with a timer is what you need. If your hours are unpredictable, or with congestion how it is these days, the timer should be capable of switching itself off as well as on

Good old fashioned potato pie (the one which does not actually have any pastry) provides a particularly warm welcome, but any stew or casserole will do the job

Related post: Microwave smells

Balmoral to Eastlands by way of Terminal 5

Some years ago a new contraceptive product went on sale. It offered a superior kind of rhythm method which measured hormone levels

Before long complaints were being made. The marketing was misleading

I remember one surprised new mother on tv saying that she had relied on the claim of 94% reliability. She would never have gone ahead with something which had a failure rate of 1 in 16

That kind of misunderstanding is very common. Over 90% sounds so very reassuring

And fertility is not the only human variable for which new methods of measurement are being sought. Biometrics is a growth industry.

Yesterdays Times carried a letter from Malcolm Windsor from Edinburgh about how 'faulty' biometrics frustrated his plans to fly home from Heathrow

I do not know what is the quoted reliability of the new BAA biometric system at Terminal 5. Nor do I know how many passengers they expect once the terminal is fully open. But say the figures are 99% reliability and 1 million a year. Then nearly 30 people a day can expect an experience like Mr Windsors, without any 'fault' at all

One final thought: Mr Windsor was trying to fly to Scotland. Ms Booth had her contraceptive accident at Balmoral. Is this significant?

Is the link royalty, or Scotland?

Oh no! 100,000 Scotsmen are visiting Manchester today (I am not). Should we be very afraid?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Nuns, clogs & serendipity

I undertook to search the web for a piece of information for my new friend

By chance, one of the first, not-being-looked-for items to come up was an item from the local paper just a couple of months ago: the nuns who taught her are finally leaving Stockport

Two other interesting snippets, from a man who bought the lasts of Stockport’s last clog maker, & the memories of a wartime evacuee from Guernsey who was also struck by clog-wearing children

Links: Sisters will leave a long legacy behind - News - Stockport Express

Phil Howard clog maker

BBC - WW2 People's War - Margaret's Story - An Evacuee in Stockport

Related post:
Serendipity proves I exist in a world

Too much information

We already have far too much information about Ms Booth’s obstetric experiences

But I am dying to know one thing more

What sort of equipment was so embarrassingly unpacked for her by the servants?

Or was it just the mere fact that, as a good Catholic mother, she was carrying any such equipment at all?

Weights & measures

When it comes to cooking I am one of those who still ‘thinks’ Imperial when it comes to weights. Or spoonfuls. Or American cups. When it comes to grammes & kilogrammes I have to stop & work it out. Except that I tend cheerfully to assume that 1 kg = 2 lbs & 500 grammes = 1 lb

But these days I (along with many others, I suspect) shop mostly by eye. Does that look like enough broccoli, mince, … ? 4 slices of ham please. 3 apples will do. Just a small tin of tomatoes

Even if I do cook from a recipe I am likely to use my own skill & judgement (!) as to quantities. I do not possess a pair of scales & have usually thrown away the till receipt which tells me how many grammes of mushrooms I bought

But I still remember the frustration of getting letters from my Nan, when I had requested her recipe or advice on some matter of cooking: Mix some sugar & flour, … cook it until it is done

Monday, May 12, 2008


I fell into conversation with a lady on the bus

She told me that she had been a pupil at the convent school which occupied the site where Stockport Grammar School stands today. This surprised me because I had been under the impression that the Grammar School had moved to that site much earlier than 1948

We fell into reminiscence. She mentioned the extreme poverty which could still be seen in Stockport in her childhood – children without shoes

I told her the story of how my mother had begged – fruitlessly – for clogs instead of proper shoes. The great attraction was that you could strike sparks off the cobbles with the metal studs on their soles

My new friends brother had done exactly the same at the age of 8 or 9. He then complained that they ere too uncomfortable – he should not be made to wear them

It did not just start with trainers

Related post: Jumping in the river

The last plane out of disaster

When I dug out my venerable Penguin Auden to check on Lullaby I was surprised to find a scrap of paper marking the page of The Managers

Auden wrote this over half a century ago, but it could well have been written about a certain Twenty First Century Prime Minister. Here is the closing section:

To rule must be a calling,
It seems, like surgery or sculpture, the fun
Neither love nor money
But taking the necessary risks, the test
Of one’s skill, the question,
If difficult, their own reward.

But then
Perhaps one should mention
Also what must be a comfort as they guess
In times like the present
When guesses can prove so fatally wrong,
The fact of belonging
To the very select indeed, to those
For whom, just supposing
They do, there will be places on the last
Plane out of disaster.

No; no one is really sorry for their
Heavy gait & careworn
Look, nor would they thank you if you said you were

Loves mysteries in souls do grow

I heard Auden’s Lullaby on the radio the other day, the one which starts:

Lay your sleeping head my love
Human on my faithless arm

The phrase enchanted slope sprang out at me. Was that a direct reference to/quotation from The Ecstasy by John Donne?

Well, no. I guess it just reminded me of the opening lines:

Where, like a pillow on a bed,
A pregnant bank swelled up

Reading through the whole poem (yet again), another few lines from the Donne put me in mind of Larkin’s Arundel Tomb:

We like sepulchral statues lay;
All day, the same our postures were,
And we said nothing all the day

Another quotewhich always goes direct to the heart:

When love, with one another so
Interanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow
Defects of loneliness controls

Another passage (on the relationship between body & soul) always, for some reason, recalls to me the Speech of Aristophanes

Our bodies why do we forbear?
They are ours, though they are not we, we are
The intelligence, they the sphere

We owe them thanks, because they thus
Did us, to us, at first convey,
Yielded their forces, sense, to us,
Nor are dross to us but allay

On man heaven’s influence works not so,
But that it first imprints the air,
So soul into the soul may flow,
Though it to body first repair

Two more quotes – no comment needed

That subtle knot, which makes us man

That mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book

And, set in its full context, Auden’s enchanted slope is indeed reminiscent of The Ecstasy

Soul & body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love & hope

Read the full texts; The Ecstasy


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Caring fathers

Doing ones share of childcare is not just a liberal metropolitan middle class thing

It is some years ago now that my timetable made it convenient for me to break my journey to work & stop off for a proper (bacon & egg) breakfast. I was astonished to find out how popular these had become – everybody from McDonalds to Debenhams were providing them

It also made me realise how many men are in sole charge of toddlers at that time of day. It was pretty obvious that these were men with jobs, who arranged their shifts so that they took charge while Mum was at work. Easier to let someone else do the food prep & washing up though

Just recently I have noticed lots of teenage dads pushing a buggy around on their own. Don’t know of this is a new trend, or just another change in my timetable letting me see what was there all along

I even saw one young man with a very new baby. It was in a newsagents, so he probably had not come very far. He looked quite terrified, not sure how to manoeuvre the buggy & all. But you knew he was the Dad – he had that slightly stunned look & enormous, hovering grin that they all get. I wonder why he had been let, or sent out, alone? Train them early, or something more sad?

Actually I doubt if the way men feel about (their) children has changed very much with time, though practicalities & social pressure put limits on how they can express it. During my childhood it would have taken a brave man to wheel a perambulator in public, on his own

Unless it was being used to transport something too heavy to carry, rather than a baby

Trollope was very good on fathers. In one book he writes movingly of a gaunt, ascetic pastor who loved but also frightened his young children. Trollope sympathises that he was just unable to be one of those avuncular, unselfconscious baby danglers, expert at using his pocket watch to entertain

Related post

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The heavy roller

Peter Hennessy used an interesting quote from Clem Attlee: Nothing grows under the heavy roller

Attlee was referring to Eden’s disastrous failure as PM. The heavy roller had been the dominance of Winston Churchill

Hennessy’s point was about the lack of young pretenders in the Labour Cabinet. While it is always possible for someone to surprise us, not one of them seems to have the maturity, authority or just what used to be called bottom to make the step up

As an aside, it is a mystery to me why Jack Straw’s name never crops up in discussions of Labour leadership. Not that I am advocating this, it just seems strange

With the Blair/Brown dominance it was perhaps always going to be impossible for anyone to learn how to shine

But I always thought that it was, in this sense, a very serious mistake to make a binding pledge to keep to the Tory spending plans in 1997. It may have been a political necessity at the time. With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to believe that Labour could have won with a threat of 90% taxes for all

Anybody who knew anything at all about the then cycle for setting Departmental expenditures would understand the problems which this would cause. Even in that tired old comparator, the ordinary family budget, nobody would expect to have to adhere, in two years time, to a line by line estimate of what could be spent on potatoes, new shoes, car maintenance, trips to the cinema …

But most of all it really put the fetters on a set of new & untried Ministers who were unable to perform one of their most basic roles of prioritising & decision-making. Completely unable to learn to grow into the job

Child protection costs

Some special event for schoolchildren was taking place one day this week. Lines of children approaching from all directions. Lots of adults too

It was only when one such procession passed me on the pavement that I realised all those adults may well have been needed under regulation or whatever to ensure the childrens safety. They were all very young – no more than 5 or 6 - & in the group which passed me there was one adult to 2 children, hand in hand, one on either side. Admittedly this was alongside a very busy main road

I expect most of these (all-women) escorts were parents/volunteers but wouldn’t they all have to have had Criminal Record checks? How much would that have cost?

A friend of mine took early retirement as a primary head nearly 20 years ago now. She had mixed feelings about this – it was one of those moves which, in the early days of school budgets, eased the pressures considerably because she was paid right at the top of the scale

She said that she had not anticipated how much she would feel the sheer relief of not being responsible for the safety of other people's children every day. How much worse it must be now

Then we read of the case of a boy who has been awarded damages, expected to be £1 million, because of an accident on a bouncy castle. The award has been made against the parents who had organised the birthday party for their 10 year old triplets

Of course the important point about this story (buried in paragraph 7) is that the parents were insured, so it will not be a personal financial liability for them

The judge found that there had been inadequate supervision. The point that worries me though is that the other boy involved in what was accepted as a pure accident is described as a gentle giant & enormously tall

The implication is that particular care & supervision are needed for such freaks, who should not be allowed unfettered play with normal children

The price of reading

A propos of nothing really except thinking about what has happened to the price of plane tickets

Back in the 1960s The Guardian cost 4d – that is less than 2p in decimal money. We used to sell it to fellow students for a 1d commission

These days The Guardian costs 70p, more than 40 times as much as 40 years ago

I wondered how that compared with the cost of paperback books

At the end of my second year in college I went on a splurge in WH Smith & bought 6 books, all novels – I had hardly read one for over 4 years, what with A levels, travelling & college. Total cost £1. I don’t remember them all now, but they included High Wind in Jamaica, The End of the Affair & Brave New World. The total would be at least £42 now I think. A steeper rise than newspapers, but essentially in the same ballpark

Friday, May 09, 2008

Cars go faster too, these days

In 1931, when there were only 2.3 million vehicles on the road, 7,000 people died in road accidents

Today – 30 million vehicles, 3,500 deaths

So progress, of a sort

It is nevertheless true that the thing which is most likely to kill me any time soon, the most dangerous thing I do in my daily life, is crossing the road when I get off the bus on my way home

There is not, & almost certainly could not be, any kind of controlled crossing

Some method of guaranteed enforcement of the 30 mph speed limit would do

The problem is in checking whether any traffic is coming from your right before you step off the pavement. The road climbs up a short fairly gentle hill but there is a bit of a dip about 100 yards back, alongside some very tall trees. In winter you can at least see the headlights but when the evenings, though light, are falling in to dusk, it can be impossible to see pale, grey or even black cars

Even this would not be a problem if they were moving at only 30 mph, but so many drivers, anxious no doubt to get home or maybe to relieve the frustration of having had to negotiate their way through the cars parked on either side of the road in the village proper, just put their foot down

As a fellow passenger once said: I am sure that 30 miles an hour was never as fast as this in my day

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Last post for clavicles

I must put an end to this obsession with sloping shoulders. It is only made worse by the daily bombardment of pictures of the naked clavicles of current fashion

This time, with the help of Google Books, I found an explanation in A Handbook of Anatomy for Art Students by Arthur Thomson

I should have known it would take an artist to teach me how to see
The clavicle – the one part of the female anatomy that is fat-proof throughout her life - Lisa Armstrong

More monoglot angst

On the Continent, translated fiction accounts for 30% of the book market. Here the figure is a mere 3%

That report does not tell us how much of that 30% is made up of translations from English. Nor whether Continentals are any more likely than the British to read fiction from Egypt, Japan, S America …

Related post: A really modest proposal on the teaching of languages in English schools

Airline turbulence

Some fairly detailed figures in the paper in the wake of the Terminal 5 fiasco

I was a bit surprised to see that the BA transatlantic load factor dropped ‘as low as’ 72% in April compared to 79% last year. Ryanair (all routes) dropped to 79% from 83%

Even the higher figures for last year are lower than I expected. You get the impression that planes are usually completely full these days. I wonder what the annual figures are

In the 1960s – national flag carrying pre-jumbo days – airlines usually operated on an expectation of a 60% annual average load factor. Since August & December were usually close to 100%, the rest of the year gave those who did fly a luxurious amount of space, even in Economy

Luxury came at a price however. The return fare London-Barbados was about £300 (in 1960s £s) – one-third of a years gross salary for a young teacher

You can probably get a ticket for not much more than that in 2008 £s

Related post: Baggage

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Big Brother is bluffing you

The trouble is, people are not afraid of the cameras. So said Chief Inspector Mick Neville, explaining why the widespread introduction of cameras has not led to the hoped for reductions in crime

I expect he meant to say Bad People. Good People are not afraid of anything

For, as those wheeled round the broadcasting studios this morning to defend the use of lie detectors on those applying for housing benefits from local councils were quick to remind us: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of

Related post: Im only watching - what have you got to hide?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Stalin, Mr Bean or David Brent?

If you have to keep talking about leading you are not the leader

If you keep talking about team building you havent got one

If you talk about listening you admit that is something you do not do

Sheila Gunn made an interesting point on radio. The latest polls show that Gordon Brown is not respected, not admired, not liked. Great politicians usually have a 'but', whatever you think of their policies or personality. Maggie Thatchers guts. Even John Majors niceness

Mr Brown has got himself into a position where he seems to have no buts

Related posts: Cross purposes Take me to your leader

Wedding traditions

There were 3 wedding cars parked outside Stockport Town Hall when I walked past on Saturday afternoon. Nothing unusual about that: the Town Hall looks like a wedding cake itself & is a very popular wedding venue.

The traditional ribbons on 2 of the cars were red.

Only the chauffeurs were outside, the ceremony was obviously still in progress inside. So I had no sight of the happy couple or their guests.

But it reminded me of a scene I saw on another sunny Saturday afternoon from the window of a bus as we passed through Longsight.

Four or five nervous-looking young Asian men standing on the pavement. Brushed & scrubbed & dressed in dark formal lounge suits. An older man fussing around, bearded & be-turbaned. A tiny elderly lady in a sari sitting in one of the two parked cars.

Both cars were adorned with wedding ribbons. Not white (or, possibly, pink) as I would have expected, but red. The colour of Indian weddings.

I just thought That is the kind of multiculturalism I like to see. Mix & match blending, adaptation to changed circs, whatever you feel comfortable with.

For no other reason than that this is a piece about weddings I am posting one of my favourite holiday snaps. It was taken from the window of a taxi speeding through Bombay traffic on another sunny (& very hot) Saturday afternoon. The horse galloping alongside should have been carrying a bridegroom to the home of his bride, but he had other ideas & managed to bolt.

It is a miracle that the survived for the length of time he was in our view. I do not know what was his ultimate fate.

Bon mot: Pink is the navy blue of India - Diana Vreeland

The affect of art on science

1 Art is a way of making you see

1.1 New art brings new ways of seeing

2 There are books about the influence of science on art or the art of scientific illustration eg CH Waddington's Behind Appearances: 'The case I am arguing - that our developing scientific understanding of the nature of our material surroundings has had important effects on the ways in which painters have worked '

2.1 There is no work on the influence of art on science

3 Major advances in science follow the development of the ability to see the phenomena under study [Aristotle etc]

3.1 Telescopes, microscopes, X-rays, physical models, electron microscopes, computer simulation, colour reproduction, film, video, mobile phones

3.2 How does a scientist know what to see or how to look at something never seen before? By comparing it to or with something else, something seen before

3.3 Available art, visual representations of the world, must play a part in this

4 Even phenomena detectable by other senses – hearing – are made visible to be more easily recorded, remembered, interpreted, communicated

4.1 Language
4.2 Music
4.3 Medical monitoring
4.4 Chaos theory

Question: does art affect or effect science?

Related posts: Compressing the Human Memory File
No longer a black & white world

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Do we all pay 40% tax?

It is quite a long time ago now that I made a determined effort to find out exactly how much tax I paid. In all forms, not just Income Tax, Council Tax, National Insurance & VAT, but the contribution I make to ERNIC, fuel duty, business rates, corporation tax every time I go shopping

After much sweating over Blue Books, Red Books & departmental reports I came to the conclusion that one might just as well take the overall average which was then near enough 40%

This should not have been such a big surprise. Many more years ago I made some even more interesting estimates for work about tax incentives for industry which showed, broadly, the same phenomenon: what you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts & everybody (government & industry) would be better off with a simpler system with slightly lower rates of tax. A point beloved of politicians on the right

Of course in real life & politics things are not that simple. Time & cash flows make a difference which is not always captured by economic theory

And perception is all. So many people believe that the abolition of the 10p tax means that their tax has doubled overnight, & attempts to explain why this is not so are destined to suffer the same fate as Harold Wilson's Pound in your pocket

Non-doms arguing for continued favourable treatment when it comes to income tax are the only ones currently arguing on the basis of the total they pay in all forms of direct & indirect taxes

What I wonder is, do we all, unwittingly, pay at the same overall rate?

Business opportunities

The Times City Diary carried a piece about a £ store in London which is making a virtue out of the current difficulties

Beat the credit crunch. Everything £1. Same price since 1990

Up here yet another £ store has taken a different route & their sign now reads All Items from £1. An explanatory notice informs that Due to customer demand we will now stock items which cost more than £1

They have even closed for 2 weeks for a refit, presumably to fit the upmarket image

Related post: A sign of inflation

Pantomime politics

We have really entered a different era in politics with the election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London. He has even gone global, or at least occidental. 'Boris' kept penetrating my brain through the headphones from Radio Vlaanderen on Friday. Then New York's Gabby Cabby had to put in a few references too

Thats a lot of power, used wisely

He may be one of those starry politicians of whom historians say He could not cope with the cares of administration. So much will depend on those who work for him in the next layer down. They will have an interesting time of it, just so long as they really do know their stuff & are well organised. And can live with an unpredictable but very sharp witted boss. Sort of Sir Humphreys without the ego

Not least because of his hair Boris reminds me a bit of Robert Lowe, a Victorian politician who was born an albino & was very nearly blind. He overcame all the ribbing he got at Winchester, learned Latin & Greek through prodigious feats of memory, went to Oxford & eventually became MP & Cabinet Minister with an extraordinary reputation as a parliamentary debater

Am I the only one who remembers that Boris has been taking politics seriously for a long time now? He has not just waltzed in on the back of playing the buffoon on tv & a made-for-a-toff safe seat in Henley. He did the traditional new boy slog of fighting an unwinnable seat (in Cardiff?)

I also treasure the memory of an article he wrote in The Spectator on the vagaries of the law on British nationality, probably around 1990. My Daughter Is A Belgian!

Related post: What am I?

Friday, May 02, 2008

Another unexpected effect

Overheard on the bus: two women discussing a friend

She is really having to look around now. The bottom has dropped out of entertainment since the smoking ban – none of the pubs pay singers any more

Well, I suppose singing in smoky pubs was not ever so good for ones health. But its also another job loss one can blame on the Government when people are in a mood to do that anyway

Nature walk

Earlier this week I decided to walk to the station along the other side of the valley – no road, no traffic, but nowhere to sit for a rest if the ground is wet

But it was a lovely morning & the signs of spring are really there to see. The ducks have come quite a long way upstream, but only to the point where our stream meets the river. No sign of any females, I guess they were all sitting on the nests hidden somewhere under the bank

I saw one of the herons but he was being lackadaisical & just feeding peacefully, he did not bother flying away

The water level is pretty low despite all the recent rain. Most of the showers have in fact been quite gentle, as well as scattered, so the water will not have been rushing down the drains

The daffodils are still very sad & a bit sorry for themselves, heads down & a bit anaemic – not at all the usual glorious display. They need a good spell of unbroken sunshine to perk them up

Don’t we all

How Horatius Kept the Bridge

I must have been about 10 years old when I set out to learn this poem – all 70 verses of it - by heart. Nobody made me do it, I just loved it for the strange language & the rhythm – and the heroism

I succeeded, briefly. But I can still remember the first verse:

Lars Porsena of Clusium by the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more
By the Nine Gods he swore it
And named a trysting day
And bade his messengers ride forth
East & west & south & north
To summon his array

I have just looked it up & some parts come back instantly:

``Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber!
To whom the Romans pray,
A Roman's life, a Roman's arms,
Take thou in charge this day!''
So he spake, and speaking sheathed
The good sword by his side,
And with his harness on his back,
Plunged headlong in the tide.

No sound of joy or sorrow
Was heard from either bank;
But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
With parted lips and straining eyes,
Stood gazing where he sank;
And when above the surges,
They saw his crest appear,
All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
And even the ranks of Tuscany
Could scarce forbear to cheer

And then the end:

And in the nights of winter,
When the cold north winds blow,
And the long howling of the wolves
Is heard amidst the snow;
When round the lonely cottage
Roars loud the tempest's din,
And the good logs of Algidus
Roar louder yet within;

When the oldest cask is opened,
And the largest lamp is lit;
When the chestnuts glow in the embers,
And the kid turns on the spit;
When young and old in circle
Around the firebrands close;
When the girls are weaving baskets,
And the lads are shaping bows;

When the goodman mends his armor,
And trims his helmet's plume;
When the goodwife's shuttle merrily
Goes flashing through the loom;
With weeping and with laughter
Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.

Thomas Babbington Macaulay, in Lays of Ancient Rome

Link to full text: Lars Porsena King of Etruria

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Microwave smells

I have been wondering why Sainsburys use micro-wave only trays for their Super Natural ready meals. Is there something ungreen or unhealthy about using a conventional oven?

At least it is simple to decant the meal into an earthenware dish for cooking

You cannot do the same with their individual sponge puddings. I forgot that these are microwave or steam only on about 3 occasions. The last time I just thought What the heck & gave it a go in the oven. With predictable results

So I hope I will always remember in future to buy a sponge pudding from one of the other supermarkets who provide the option of conventional oven cooking

Many moons ago when I was considering whether to buy a microwave a friend said Before you get one you will wonder what on earth you are going to use it for; after you get it you will wonder how you ever managed without it

Well, at the last house move it was left behind as part of the fixtures & fittings

I can see the point if you have a family – being able to keep plenty of bread in the freezer & defrost on demand is a great boon if you have teenagers

But otherwise they seem of very limited use. I find home cooking with it fiddly & more trouble than it is worth (even though it saves on washing up)

Most of all I find the ritual & time taken to prepare a meal, even if it is just reheating a ready meal, somehow an important part of appetite. Pinging & wolfing down in the space of a few minutes just does not appeal

I discussed this after the move with another friend

Its because you cant smell it, she said. My son cannot eat meals from the microwave for that reason

Of course