Thursday, July 31, 2008

Temper, temper

It is many years since I was anywhere near Whitehall & I am sure things are a lot different now

When I first joined the British Civil Service people would sometimes talk about Richard Crossman who had been the minister in the previous Labour government. He had been capable of being very rude & even used a four letter word sometimes. People then regarded this with a real sense of shock, which seemed a bit oversensitive to me, who had served in more robust administrations overseas

I had occasionally had to attend international meetings of one sort or another. My briefing had always included a warning to ‘watch’ the UK very carefully. They would be perfectly polite & charming to my face, but would have absolutely no hesitation in putting the knife in my back if it suited

But I got used to the Whitehall style & came to appreciate it greatly – it suits me, I do not like rows

I can hold my own if need be however. Working for a boss who is rude is in one sense a liberation, because you can be rude back, you do not have to search for the elegant killer phrase

I have worked for two notably rude men. One, a politician, turned it on as a deliberate act of intimidation. Things were fine so long as I was in favour, but it was not a good place to be & I left as soon as possible

The other was one of those people who just blow up from time to time, the sort who tells you you ought not to get upset because he’s forgotten all about it 5 minutes later. Yeah

Still, he was very good to me in my career & taught me a lot. In one sense it is easy, in that you do not have to take it personally because he does it to everybody. He never managed to keep a secretary for more than 6 months & in the end had to retire a bit early when he reached a level where colleagues decided they just would not put up with him any longer

In my day it would have been almost unheard of for a civil servant to give a journalist a quote about the difficult behaviour of a minister, which of course is not at all the same thing as letting it be known as part of background briefing over lunch or at the club

Which is why I was astonished to see the following in Rachel Sylvesters column in The Times:

He’s incredibly rude. He doesn’t remember names. His e-mails are brusque demands. And his defining characteristic is anger. I’ve seen him kicking furniture

This is Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister

Surely he did not learn to be rude in the Manse?

So where has all this anger & frustration come from? How come he just has not learned that simple politeness gets you an awful long way, builds loyalty etc etc

When I remember that other unprecedented event, the staff of the Treasury lining the stairs to cheer him in in May 1997, (as seen on tv) I really do want to weep

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Alphabetical order

If you go to the BBC Radio 5 presenters page you will find a list in alphabetical order – of first names. Bob Ballard & Brian Alexander under B for example. If you go in search of further information you will find one of those jokey questionnaires

Radio 4 on the other hand lists presenters in alphabetical order of surname – Clare Balding & Matthew Bannister under B. Further information consists of an old fashioned potted cv

I suppose I can understand something of the motive behind the lack of formal cv-type info about Radio 5 presenters – it is who you are & what you can do that really matter, not which university you went to. But I find I really would like to know a bit more. It is not as if they are shy about telling us about themselves in the general on-air chit chat

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Potent music

Interesting juxtaposition of listening last night. At 11.30 I listened to Suzie Quattro interviewing Bobby Vee on Radio 2. Ah me! He belonged to the age of pop when I was in my early teens, when it can all seem so special & just for you. Take Good Care of My Baby

A nice man. He got rather eclipsed in the Beatles era, but has had a good career &, as he says, still maintains a certain degree of anonymity, can walk down a street etc

When the programme finished I was reflecting that in so many ways the music you listen to at that age stays poignant forever. I was that crucial bit older for the Beatles so my reaction was not nearly so emotional. Anyway, they were so big, they were everybodys. Even The Times got in on the act. Grown ups were not supposed to do that.

The pop music from the time just before retains the ability to be much more personal. Mine

It was also interesting, listening on my not very high quality bedside radio, to hear how the voice was very much in front & on top in those recordings, the music almost a whisper behind

Then I switched over to Radio 5 to find a discussion on whether the Beatles are overrated. All the participants were too young to have experienced the impact live as it were, & Iain Dale made my point about the crucial factor of age by claiming that Abba were better

Incidentally Rachel Burden has been a revelation filling in on this spot. She has been doing a superb job, just right for that time of night

Monday, July 28, 2008


The picture of the OOCL Shenzen was used to illustrate an article about a new generation of ship engines developed by Rolls Royce, based on technologies already in use for power stations & jet aircraft

Just thinking about all this, wondering at mans ingenuity, skill, all that lies behind the necessaries, or the fripperies, of our life, on which we so depend, is so much better than thinking about the miserable mithering domestic political arguments occupying so much of the airwaves at the moment

Kings ransom

Who will own the equity?

Sovereign wealth funds

Other countries kings

Call of the running tide

Just south of Manchester Piccadilly station, on the eastern side of the tracks, there is a large yard which is used for the storage of freight containers

It looks like a large abstract with its flat rectangles of ever changing colours. Industrial geometry.

The colours change with the light, & grim grey overcast has always seemed to suit the rather battered & rusty nature of the surfaces better than bright sun

I have always loved to look at it & so I guess that is why this picture, by Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters, particularly caught my eye in the Times

The mind just boggles at the thought of packing all those containers like that. It barely looks stable. Can she cope with really heavy seas or does she just cruise up & down the Suez Canal in a rather stately fashion? Imagine driving a thing like that!

I am amazed to find that she has a crew of just 19 & travels between Asia & Europe. There is also a tracking map available to watch her progress. I am enchanted

Saturday, July 26, 2008


We had another power out the other Saturday – no thunderstorm but some very heavy rain might have been responsible

Then later in the week I woke about 2am & thought there must be another one

Ever since they built the new estate we have been blessed with street lights & there is one which shines into my bedroom window. But the room was completely dark. I had to go outside to persuade myself that they were all still working, just at a much lower intensity. The same was happening with the lights inside the house. This went on for a few days, then they brightened up again. Now all is gloomy again

What is going on?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Humming words

Words are like eggs: when they are hatched they have wings

Madagascan proverb, published in yesterdays Times


Anglian Water are no longer allowed to pump sewage out to sea

So they sell it back to farmers

It is the phosphates which are so valuable apparently

But I thought we used to complain about those, coming from detergents. Or have I just become thoroughly confused

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Downloading my brain (that's a scarry thought)

I thought it was just the equivalent of clearing the junk out of the attic

Cult of celebrity

The modern cult of celebrity is really just an ignoral, or ignorance, of history

When I was a child my heroines were all historical figures.

Elizabeth (soon to be) the First.

Florence Nightingale. Marie Curie. Mary Slessor. Violet Szabo

Who do todays young girls admire or want to emulate?

Nevertheless, who are the figures we most remember from history?

For 6 years this woman, Anne Boleyn, neither very beautiful, nor very intelligent, nor very virtuous, brought up in the lax morality of the French & English courts, her brother a libertine, her sister the Kings cast off mistress, none of her nearest relatives, not even her mother, free from the impeachment of scandal, had managed to defend her technical honour against the Kings assaults while living, during most of that time, unprotected in his household, constantly in his company, & publicly believed to be his mistress

Garrett Mattingly: Catherine of Aragon

In Britain we have witnessed in the stories of the collapse of royal marriages the emotional investment we make in our own fairy tales, & at the same time have been made sharply conscious of the power of scandal & gossip

David Lindley: The Trials of Frances Howard: Fact & Fiction at the Court of King James

The inevitable

The NHS is an organisation which was set up to fail

At the beginning people thought that soon all would be well & the need for expenditure would fall

Now, the main test of success is the mortality rate

The one thing which, at the level of the individual, is guaranteed to be 100%

Not even taxes reach that level

Get better soon

The sky looks as fed up as I am today

It is July, for heavens sake

More signs of the times

Asda have changed their signs

No longer are they congratulatory: If you are lucky enough to look as though you are under 21 we may have to ask you for identity

Now they are apologetic: If you look as if you are under 25 we will have to ask you for proof of age

Everybody under about 40 looks 25 to me

Monday, July 07, 2008

What do bad bookshops sell these days?

I lived for a time in Canada in the late 1960s. This was not long after the US Supreme Court had made the ruling which led to a lot of literature being freely available which had earlier been the province of the seedy back street shop or the British Library’s special collections. Since I had spent my whole life up to that point believing that such stuff was upsetting to read, there was a kind of interest in finding out what the fuss was all about

Natural curiosity led us to read some of it

Most of it was really bad genre writing-by-numbers, selecting from a pathetically narrow range of fantasies

What really finished my interest however was a story which I had to give up reading about halfway down the second page.

Interestingly there was absolutely no detailed physical description at all of who was doing what to whom, except that it seemed to be what missionaries do

It told the reader what was going on inside the man’s head. For him the Devil really was a woman

That is what I mean by real misogyny of the scariest kind

A fine line

The most astonishing bit of the story about the Federer/Nadal match comes in the statistics

Total points won: Federer 204, Nadal 209

Barely 2% of all the points played made all that difference

The clue lies in the more impressive sounding 31% to Nadal versus only 8% to Federer. The difference between 4 & 1 out of the 13 break points each had to convert

Federer blinked first

A lot of us wanted him to be Gary Cooper in High Noon

Nadal is just the new Clint Eastwood

Welfare officer

On Saturday someone was speaking of the need to look after the welfare of those who cannot cope with women bishops. Bit different from the sort of job the old LCC welfare officers used to do

It is now well over 30 years since I was warned that my soon to be new boss had a problem working with women. His previous assistant had provided his first experience of working with such a strange being. When he was first told the news he actually wrote a formal submission to explain why, although he had no objections to the employment of women in principle, he thought he personally should be excused this imposition

Until the late 1980s I tended towards the view that, since we ought not to have priests anyway, I did not care if women could be ordained. But when the subject came up for serious discussion in the press & the synod, so much real misogyny of the really scary kind came out, in some really unexpected quarters, that I became a convert to the cause

Why did every Anglo-Saxon king need a bishop at his side?

It’s a power thing, stupid

Hotel service

I heard a man on the radio this morning say that a new Marie Curie hospice had been described as being like a 5 star hotel. It did not sound as if it had been meant entirely as a complimentary remark

That reminded me of something I had been meaning to muse about in a post sometime

How the Victorians coped with ill health & sickness

In particular, hospitals were for the poor. Gave them an improvement on the conditions they lived in at home. Or, in the case of Florence Nightingales campaigns, in the barracks

The rich or comfortably off might have gone into a nursing home but even these were rare. Mostly they were looked after in the comfort of their home

Or in a hotel if they needed a real specialist, say for cancer, which only Harley Street & visits to London could provide

I do not know if this was just considered part of what a hotel was there for, if they all expected to be catering for guests who were ill, or if it was a speciality for them too

But at least 2 of the men whose Manchester lives I researched had been living most of their last few months in an hotel in London

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Great bales of hay

I saw my first black plastic hay bales of the summer last week

Bring back haystacks, I used to think, when I saw these ‘monstrosities’. But they are nearly as old as I am, & clearly have many advantages

And certainly these days I am not going to want to clamber up a rickety ladder with my picnic of a bottle of ginger beer & a cheese sandwich. Still less have a bit of hows your father on top

I miss corn stooks much more. When I was very little you could creep inside to hide, & if you were very lucky, you might find yourself sharing the space with a dormouse

A few years ago I was on my way to Loughborough to do a Summer School. Surprisingly, the train was fairly empty & I had one of those table seats all to myself. Just south of Alfreton I was leaning forward, reading the paper, when there was a pop just to my left – a small hole had appeared in the outer skin of the window, but not come all the way through

Looking round, there were just stubble fields as far as the eye could see. I guess someone had been after rabbits rather that wanting to vandalise the train

I made what I later thought was the mistake of pointing out the hole in the window to the ticket collector

Funny how embarrassing it can be to be interviewed by the police in Nottingham station even if you are simply giving a witness statement

Saturday, July 05, 2008

White gloves

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much & so much
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,

Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering-sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

I have been trying for a while now to do a post on this poem, wondering what to say about why it is a favourite

When I first came across it – in my twenties I think – it seemed almost to be recounting an hallucination. And why do I feel sure it tells of a scene seen from a train?

Fat white woman whom nobody loves’ is piercingly sad – I have never been fat, but I can imagine how that might feel

Missing so much – why, what?

Most of all, it is the gloves

Both my Nana & my Mum placed great emphasis on the importance of being a lady

Among other things, a lady never goes out without her gloves

Women’s magazines used to devote much time & space to the question of whether ones accessories – bag, gloves, hat, shoes – should match, tone or contrast

In summer, everyday gloves were white & cotton. They were difficult to keep clean, you had to soak them in bleach to keep them sparkling

Real ladies had soft white hands. Women who had to work hard had red, chapped, rough skin

Mean mothers in law wore white gloves to run their fingers across the top of shelves to check that their sons house was being looked after properly by his wife

The shaking of hands in greeting seems less common now. But when it was a commonplace it was also considered a bit indecent to place ones naked hand in a mans

Most of all, the wearing of white gloves made it abundantly clear how much dirt one is exposed to in every day life.

We needed no reminder of the importance of washing ones hands

And I have just found out that Frances Cornford, the poet, was Charles Darwins grand daughter

Friday, July 04, 2008

The end of the blue blazer

Charles Wheeler died today. A man who did much to shape my view of America, at least before I went there

The BBC also replayed one of Alistair Cooke’s Letters From America this morning, recorded around the time of Bill Clintons first election. How strange to hear the real shock in Cooke's voice at seeing film of Clinton & his friends dressed casually in torn jeans & checked shirts. So different from buttoned down George Bush senior

I remember another broadcast in which he shared his effort to come to terms with a changing world, which must have been broadcast at much the same time – or was it a decade earlier?

New Census results had revealed that Wasps were, or were about to become, just another ethnic minority in New York.

Hearing his voice as he wrestled to come to terms with this astounding revelation was a lesson all by itself

Gay Paree

Kirsty Young is a star

Did you hear her persuading Posy Simmonds to make chicken noises on Desert Island Discs?

I did not expect to become a fan when she took over. All that fuss about her showing her knees while reading the News on 5

Actually I stopped listening to the programme on principle when Sue Lawley asked Gordon Brown 3 times if he was sure he wasn’t gay

Quite apart from whatever one might feel about the merit of the question, is that the way you would behave to a friend, or someone you knew?

Would you stay friends with someone who was that pushy?

It was just embarrassing

Sure, there is usually a moment in the programme with Kirsty when you know she is backing away from a difficult area – but that in itself is interesting, informative, & unembarrassing for the listener

Before we got to the chickens I was lost in remembrance of Paris & the tale of Posy’s mother’s reaction when she came home Frenchified & dressed all in black

Does any adolescent nowadays dream of being initiated into some of the mysteries of the adult world in Paris in the springtime?

Eating frites on the street, smoking un Gitane, dunking a croissant in very black coffee on a Left Bank pavement, devouring ice cream in Le Drugstore, being given chocolate sandwiches or Petit Suisse for tea, riding around on the back of une mobilette, listening to Gilbert B├ęcaud

Ah me. What has happened to the world?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

An alien sounding name

I expect there are lots & lots of 4-letter acronyms/abbreviations. But I wonder if any is as popular as SPOC?

Something subliminal going on here. Star Trek or bringing up baby?

Columbus Single Point of Control (DMS-SPOC) - provides a "one-stop shop" for monitoring and controlling the entire Document Management Solutions (DMS) infrastructure

Satria Performance Owners Club
Saturn Performance Owners Club
Scandinavian Pediatric Obesity Conference
Science Planning and Operations Center
Scottish POstgraduate Composers List

Search and Rescue Point of Contact
Sefton Partnership for Older Citizens
Self Propelled Outdoor Club
Sex Professionals of Canada
Sierra Pacific Orthopaedic & Spine Center

Single Person of Contact
Single point of contact
Single Point of Control
Single Point Orbit Calculator
Southampton's Portable Occam Compiler

Space Operations Center
Special Access Required (SAR) Programs Oversight Committee (USAF)
Spen paralog and ortholog C-terminal
Spindle-organizing centre
SPontaneous Oscillatory Contraction

St. Petersburg Online Communicator,
Statistics Poster Challenge
Student Perception of College
Student Perception of Course

Subsea Plant Operator Course
Supplemental Purchase Order Condition
Supply potential optimal control model
Sydney Paralympic Organising Committee
Systems Programmer On Call

Rules are made to be broken

Long ago when I was a young civil servant I got very upset about something at work - I cannot remember what

An older hand, technically junior to me, took me off to the pub for a lunchtime break. He was the kind of man who had a hand made calendar in his drawer on which he ticked off the days to his retirement

After letting me sound off he gave me some fatherly advice

You have been here long enough to know that the Civil Service is an organisation that lives by rules

Some rules are made to be bent

Some are made to be broken

Some must be adhered to in all circumstances

The trick is, to know which is which

I still do not always know which is which, but I find the advice very comforting

A Hedgehog Names Index LA to LE

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project. No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

Cawas Lalcaca
JM Labat
Cawas Lalcaca

Charles Lamb
Mary Lamb
Lucinda Lambton
Lord Laming
Norman Lamont

Sir Osbert Lancaster
Steve Landsbury
Stewart Lansley

Lao Tzu
Folosade-Melleke Lapido

Philip Larkin
Marghanita Laski

Sue Lawley
DH Lawrence
Stephen Laws
Nigel Lawson
Nigella Lawson

Heath Ledger
Byron Lee
Sir Thomas Legg
Speaker Lenthall

Donna Leon
Wassily Leontief
Quentin Letts
Bernard Levin

Cecil Day Lewis
Gwyneth Lewis
Jerry Lewis
RC Lewontin

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


When I was a child compulsory education ended at 15

One consequence of this was that, if you passed the 11+, the offer of a place at grammar school was conditional on your parents signing an agreement that you would stay at school until your 16th birthday

Two girls in my class – farmers daughters from outlying villages – got engaged at 15. They both left, mid-term, on their 16th birthday. Their last few months at school were preoccupied with plans for their life ahead, how to be good wives, etc

They had both been given, by whom I know not, a small pamphlet which gave advice on married life which included family planning

One fact spread like wildfire through the school: the value of margarine as a (spermicide) contraceptive

Which merely reinforced my vow, made after a Choir Outing to Port Sunlight, that I would never, of my own choice, eat margarine again

Butter is best. It’s natural

More birthday parties

My mouth fell open at the opening of Ann Treneman’s piece about David Cameron’s NHS 60th Birthday Party with 3 finalists from Britain’s Got Talent

But as I read further I decided that this was something nicely judged & well worth doing

The clue came buried in the middle of the piece: He spoke of his own experience at St Thomas’ with his son

I still have to make up my mind about the new Cameron Conservatives. There is undoubtedly some impressive thinking coming from the party & a determination to move away from being the nasty party. A new humility

But it is the Bullingdon Club history which gives me pause. That kind of thing is not just youthful high jinks; it betrays a really nasty contempt for the lower orders who have to put up with your behaviour

And clear up after you

NHS Birthday

Another brilliant photo spread in the Times

On the left, Aneurin Bevan with matron at Park Hospital in Davyhulme, Manchester at the official launch of the NHS. On the right, Gordon Brown with the district nursing team leader at Leatherhead to celebrate the golden anniversary

The pictures are almost identical. At first sight the difference is that the older picture includes a patient – a young girl

Look more closely at yesterdays picture & you see a rather lugubrious, pyjama clad man peering quizzically over nurse’s shoulder

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Statistically speaking

I am 5 feet 4 inches tall, Derbyshire born & have 20.7 more years to live

In real life I am 5 feet 10 inches, Manchester born, & who knows?

Two points:

Statistics are not real information

Statistics apply to populations, not individuals

They are nevertheless wondrous, beautiful things

They give you absolutely the best guess you can make in the absence of real information

They allow you to discern patterns & relationships to inform your judgements & decisions about how the world works & what you might do to improve it

They can show you patterns of woodland development where before you could see only trees

Applied unthinkingly, especially in decisions about the medical treatment of individuals, they may do more harm than good


Joining up the SPOCs

The SPOCs have taken over while I wasn’t looking.

There are all sorts:

Scandinavian Pediatric Obesity Conference (SPOC)

The supply potential optimal control model, SPOC, for identifying the optimal harvest of old-growth forests

An extranuclear spindle-organizing centre (abbreviated SPOC) possessed by Physarum amoebae

Large proteins characterised by N-terminal RNA-binding motifs and a highly conserved C-terminal SPOC (Spen paralog and ortholog C-terminal) domain. The function of the SPOC domain is unknown

But the Government attaches importance to the SPOC concept and to the training of SPOCs. Caroline Flint, then a Home Office Minister, told Parliament so on 4 November 2003.
They are meant to be everywhere in Government – problems with the SPOC contributed to the loss of the Child Benefit data

But, as a citizen, I have a problem

Don’t I also have a JUG (Joined Up Government)?

So, if I have a SPOC, should they not also answer all my questions about everything the Government does?

The connectivity will be infinite