Tuesday, March 31, 2009

SOB story

I am very cross about the media coverage of bus passes. Take this headline:

End of the road for go-anywhere bus pass

or this from the BBC web site:

Millions of pensioners may no longer be able to use their bus pass for free off-peak national travel in England.

Ever since the concession was widened last year The Times & others have treated this as some kind of freebie for affluent retirees, with the emphasis on jaunts from Lands End to John o’ Groats

In London free travel on public transport has been available to those over retirement age (Twirlies) for well over a quarter of a century. This is a valuable concession in an area where use of public transport extends much further up the socio-economic & income scales

And Greater London covers a huge area. Free travel would be much less valuable (& tedious to apply) if available only within your home borough

I have written here before (under the Economics of the bus pass label) about the complications caused by local authority boundaries outside London, which affected in a seemingly arbitrary way the use of bus passes for ordinary trips for things like shopping or medical appointments, never mind gallivanting

The only sensible, straightforward, easy to understand & apply solution to this problem seemed to be to make passes ‘go anywhere’ on all local bus services

Well before the new rules were introduced last April someone in the local bus company had worked out a way of using the pass to travel ‘free’ all the way to London

I cannot remember how many days it would have taken, but the implication was clear. Unless you were prepared to sleep in bus stations (passes are available for travel only between 9.30 am & 11 pm) or could find people to put you up overnight, it is much cheaper, simpler, more comfortable & convenient, as well as quicker, to buy a Senior Rail Card & go by train

The new system has caused a few obvious problems , though we hear most about the effects on tourist areas. I suspect the burden may fall more heavily on large urban centres. One would hope that the Transport Department is monitoring the real patterns of usage to identify where the costs really fall

The solution now proposed is to withdraw the concession for services, such as London to Brighton, or sight seeing tours, which do not seem to be exactly local, by withdrawing free passes for services on which more than half the seats are bookable

My fear is that, either through sloppy drafting, or ‘clever’ interpretation by bus companies or councils, the term ‘bookable’ may well turn out to be applicable to most bus services. What, for example, is the status of the paid for, available to all age groups, ‘go anywhere’ daily, weekly or period passes? Do they count as booked seats?

If so, we risk losing all the social & economic benefits of independent mobility for people who have no other means of transporting themselves


Monday, March 30, 2009

Something new every day

Ants can & do talk to each other. They have a built in washboard & plectrum thingy which they rub together to produce sound

The queens issue instructions to the workers

Some other creatures have learned to take advantage of this by imitating ant sounds to bend them to their will

Time to pay off our debts

Suppose you are a junior Treasury official charged with actually making the real arrangements to pay off our national debt

You do it by doling out £1 coins at the rate of 1 per second

If you had started at midnight on Saturday, working round the clock, you could pay off £1 million in time to go off for this year’s Easter break, starting with the ½ day privilege holiday on Maundy Thursday afternoon

£1 billion might mean delaying your retirement until Easter 2041

If you have to pay off £1 trillion, & time’s arrow goes into reverse, you could celebrate completion by going to see the new paintings at the Chauvet Cave


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Keeping an eye on children

I was trying to get more details of ContactPoint, the £224 million child protection directory that contains the names, addresses, dates of birth, GPs & schools of all 11 million people aged under 18 in England, but the web sites are, to put it mildly, very slow to load & unavailable

I was particularly interested in finding out who is responsible for providing the information in the first place, who checks that it is correct, & who is responsible for keeping the whole thing accurate & up to date. Are parents obliged to register the child? What, if anything, is the responsibility of the school or GP if a child leaves? Is there a link with birth registers?

And what about emigration?

There used to be a responsibility on patients, (which may still exist for all I know, I just no longer have a current NHS card to tell me so) to inform your doctor if you expected to be out of the country for 3 months or more. Those were the days when a GP was paid a fixed amount for each patient registered, & he would not be paid for the period you were away

Not surprisingly, many people did not think to do this, even if they were emigrating permanently. The NHSCR still picked up details of a surprising number of emigrating families however – from milkmen

Doorstep delivery was still the norm in those days; milkmen collected the vouchers which paid for a pint of milk a day for each pre-school child who had been weaned off powdered milk

Come close – let me whisper: the Government was pushing full fat milk on children

Rosemary Hignett would not approve

But the milkmen often passed on the intelligence as to why vouchers were no longer required

I wrote the above on the same day, but before I had read, The Times report that work on the database had been halted because of security flaws

Most alarming, to me, of these flaws is that the ‘shielding’ of the records of vulnerable children disappears every time that the database is updated automatically from central government databases such as the one for child benefit. This can mean, for example, that original birth details of adopted children can be exposed

Automatic correction of one database by another, which is under completely separate administrative control, is the sort of thing which ought to ring alarm bells & set the red lights flashing for anyone who has the slightest experience of such systems. It is just asking for trouble, except, perhaps, when introduced slowly & carefully to allow all concerned to appreciate the kind of problem which may arise - not all of which can be foreseen, & especially not in such a sensitive area

Take the example that was reported just a day or so later, of the letter sent to the parents of a girl who had died, telling them they must improve her school attendance. Of course the record cannot be completely wiped in such circumstances – that would just lead to another set of hurtful happenings such as They just wiped out her name, it was as if she had never been – but the software was not designed to cope. As the school said, ‘We should have checked every single letter before it was sent’, but that of course would put a dent in the kind of efficiency savings such systems are supposed to deliver

My final worry about the database is: What happens when the child reaches 18?

Here is a record containing sensitive information, some of which the ‘child’ may wish to dispute, & almost certainly has the right to demand should not be accessible to anyone else, ever, without their express consent. The State cannot, I hope, claim any over-riding right to it


We are all sinners now

Less than a decade after Emma Darwin wrote to her husband about her fears for eternity Charlotte Bronte put an alternative solution into the mouth of 10 year old Jane Eyre when she was interrogated by Mr Brocklehurst about how she proposed to avoid going to Hell:

I must keep in good health & not die

A determination which seems to have been adopted on our behalf by the NHS & the politicians who set targets for it

Sometimes it is hard not to conclude that these people believe that, rather than just its wages, death itself has become the Sin & Life its penance (to be measured out in numbers)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Westminster School

Consider a small school – just 20 teachers, total budget £1 million a year

So each teacher earns £50,000 a year, right?

Well, right if you think that education is the business of a school, education is provided by teachers, so all that the school earns is earned by its teachers

But they need books & pens, papers & computers. A school secretary, a caretaker, a dinner lady. The buildings have to be heated, cleaned, repaired & maintained

By the time all those costs are taken care of the teachers will be lucky to get an average of £25,000 in their personal pay packet, or £20,000 after tax, National Insurance, pension ….


Barristers are often said to earn high 6 or 7 figure sums, usually on the basis that someone adds up the total of the fees that have been paid for each of their cases

But barristers must pay for the rent of their chambers, the salaries of the clerks & secretaries, the computers & everything else a law office needs. How much is left for their personal pay check & do you subtract the sums they must pay for wig & gown, travel to court, maybe a stay in a hotel if the case is long & the distance away from home great, before or after it gets called personal income?


Back to our school. Suppose it is in the private sector. The headmasters wife does a lot of the administrative & pastoral work & organises speech day etc. Is she entitled to her own personal pay check for this? Can the head employ his brother or his daughter as a teacher in the school?


Now consider another type of ‘job’ – one which dictates which area you live in (but provides no actual accommodation) for as long as you hold the job, even though you have no contract of employment & are periodically forced to undergo what may be a very whimsical reselection process.

You are also required to work for a number of days each week in Central London, even though the journey from your home is too far, or takes up an unreasonable amount of time, for it to be done each day. So you need somewhere to stay in central London on the nights in question

It is unthinkable that people should be excluded from this job because of arbitrary rules which make it impossible for some to carry its responsibilities while making sure their family is cared for. All we can do is try to adjust the individual salary so that no one is excluded by the cost of all these requirements

We could attempt to write a set of rules which would be fair to everyone (including the tax payer) in all the circumstances which might arise, & would also be transparent & easy for everybody to understand

Well, we could, of course we could. One should always try

Who is Simon Cowell?

Prince Philip has made another gaffe – allegedly

He is accused of calling Simon Cowell ‘a sponger’ after the Royal Variety Show

A Buckingham Palace spokesman had the perfectly judged answer:

The Duke “does not know enough about Mr Cowell to make any sort of comment about him

Friday, March 27, 2009

Together in eternity

Until I read Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life in Poems (which I cannot recommend too highly) I had not fully understood the effect that his wife’s Christian faith had on him

I never bought the idea that this was just the superstitious beliefs of a silly woman standing in the way of scientific progress

Darwin himself wrote about how difficult he found it to write a coherent argument, rather than just a narrative or factual account of his observations & experiences

In the context of Ruth Padel’s poems, Charles & Emma’s own words have tremendous impact

Charles, when considering the future:

Sometimes I see ahead a cottage of rusty brick
hiding in light green, & before it some white thing
like a petticoat – which drives the forms of granite clean
out of my head in the most unphilosophical manner

Charles again, soon after marriage:

………. I cannot say how happy
you make me in this one, nor how dearly I l love you

Emma, approaching her first confinement (&not long after the death in childbirth of)

I should be most unhappy if I thought
we would not belong to each other for eternity

because if Charles did not have faith he would not make it to heaven

Charles kept this letter & left it where Emma would be sure to find it when he died

….. When I am dead, know
I have kissed & cried over this many times

It says much for Darwin’s intellectual honesty that he did not consider Pascal’s wager a solution to this predicament

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The twoness of two

The online magazine Plus has an interesting article, complete with animation, about the different ways of expressing risk

The basic message is that mathematically equivalent choices – 90% chance of winning v 10% chance of losing – are not perceived to be the same

I was reminded of the point Menninger made about how it seems to have been very difficult for early man to have grasped ‘the two-ness of two’- that two sheep have anything in common with two lions for example

We still seem to get a lot of our understanding about number in ways that are very attached to certain things, circumstances or processes. 9 out of 10 in primary school is better than 90%

A 90% vote for one candidate or party in an election is probably too good to be true, or at least a source of concern about the state of our politics

A contraceptive with only 90% reliability is no use at all

The number is almost irrelevant – in what sense do any of these events or experiences share 90%-ness in common?

I recently heard on the radio an interview with Margaret Calvert, the designer with Jock Kinneir of the signs needed for Britain’s new motorway system. I was particularly struck by the insight that names have a shape – a shape which is lost, particularly on someone passing at speed, if capital letters only are used on the signs

Numbers have all kinds of shapes, not just those we can see with our eyes

Related post
The verb TO BE

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pricking the List

The Court Circular for March 18th records that the Queen held a Council at which Her Majesty pricked the List of High Sheriffs for the Counties of England (other than Cornwall & those in the Duchy of Lancaster) and Wales

After the Council the Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP had a separate audience of the Queen when Her Majesty pricked the List of High Sheriffs for the Counties of the Duchy of Lancaster. (Since the Local Government Act 1972, the Duchy of Lancaster holds and exerts the right to appoint Sheriffs in the ceremonial counties of Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Lancashire & Liam Byrne is its Chancellor, as well as minister of soup)

Tree insomnia

Lovely to see the forsythia in bloom

The trees are still not looking in the best of health

An interesting Weather Eye by Paul Simon back in February gave an interesting explanation

Because we have not been having really cold winters the trees have not been getting enough rest. So they look like anyone who just needs a good night’s sleep

The cold snap this year should have done them a lot of good

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


The reaction to insurers bonuses and bankers pensions is getting out of hand, beginning to look a bit like a moral panic

This crisis has been a long time coming & most of us were only too happy to grab our share while the going was good – only our fair share, what we had earned & what we were worth of course

And now we feel virtuous about not buying a new car or other needless gizmos or cheap clothes, or going out for a meal, while feeling fearfully sorry for those who lose the jobs they had making all this stuff or waiting at our table

I am as happy as any one to see arrogant money men getting their come- uppance, economists having to accept that their interpretation of the fundamental assumptions about how markets work are wrong

But I almost worry more about this pack mentality, even wonder if it doesn’t suit somebody, somewhere, to have us all looking the wrong way

And just what good would it do to get rid of Geithner or Myners at this stage? Who would you put in their place? Are we so blessed with people who are just raring to get into those jobs?

Tin we?

A headline writer had fun yesterday in The Times Business Section


The article is about how we are turning back to canned food for economy, comfort & convenience; sales of sponge puddings up by nearly 10%, rice pudding by 5%. Some of Britain’s 14 can making plants are working 24/7 to keep up with demand, helping to keep 5,000 people in jobs

I do not know what a full environmental audit would show, but cans may well be the greener option; long shelf life without the need for warming or chilling the atmosphere (though humidity needs to be controlled). And of course a stash of tins in the store cupboard at home will keep you fed when the electricity goes off

I wonder if sales of can openers have risen too?

Monday, March 23, 2009

It's not fair

The March wind doth blow and we shall have snow,
And what will poor hedgehog do then, poor thing?
She’ll rush to the barn to keep herself warm
And hide her head under the bed, poor thing.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

How to fill in a crossword puzzle

These are the first & last verses from a poem by Vernon Scannell. Unfortunately I have not been able to find anywhere on the web which will provide the bits which I did not copy out when I first came across it

First adjust your spectacles & take your pen,
(A pencil will serve equally well) & pick the easiest clue:
Here you are: five letters down – “What is Man?”
Clown, Rogue, Beast, or even Saint would do.

The snag about these clues is the alternatives are endless.

Write in the words faintly because you may have to alter them,
And be warned. When the puzzle is solved, & like a satisfied lover
You lean back sighing & sleepy, then you will find
That the black squares hide the secrets you will never uncover

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Blogging child protection

It is all very well for Ed Balls to fume & fulminate about the failings in his empire, & for Lord Laming (a good man) to say “Just do it” but it seems to me that in pinning hopes on an integrated database they are literally attempting the impossible

It is not easy, particularly with only press reports to go on, to know exactly what anyone means these days by the word ‘database’, which seems to have become an all purpose term for any set of data held on a computer, no matter what the structure or formal query procedures

It is also true that database technology has moved on a long way since I last wrapped a wet towel round my head at midnight

But going on the comments I have seen or heard, the Integrated Childrens Database does seem to rely on breaking down information into byte size pieces with a record for each child

This inevitably involves much repetition & duplication. The way to reduce this would normally be to create different records at other levels eg family, household etc

This is challenge enough – I am thinking here of the way the Census is set up to provide a once a decade snapshot of the structure of the population

But to keep track of that part of the population which is, by definition, chaotic & unstable – that is what makes me think it impossible. Child P for example was 'involved' with his mother & father, a child minder, 2 other men & several siblings, & had 60 recorded contacts with health or social service professionals

And even if it is possible, writing & using the software to reassemble it all into meaningful information to answer questions such as “Where is this child now?” or “What is the history of the new man in Mum’s life?” – just takes too much time, time in which disasters will happen

Then it occurred to me that blogging might offer a more ‘natural’ structure for social workers & others who need to keep records & keep in touch, to share information

Blogging offers automatic addition of 2 important pieces of information to each report – time & author. It also uses narrative form, much more suited to the nature of the task, the ability for others to add their comments, & offers natural keyword searches

Of course it would need to use formally structured blogs set up by the institutions involved, with for example special ‘forms’ for different aspects of a case, & an official set of labels or tags & case numbers

It should also be relatively easy for a separate grade of officer – maybe called child protection analyst – to extract the information needed for more formal, management reporting as a separate exercise

It ought to be possible to implement relatively quickly, & to adapt as it goes along as use & needs develop

And those at the top of the management tree of the Integrated Childrens database should remember the golden rule: bygones must be bygones, it is never worth throwing good money after bad

Spring crunchy bits

Expensive Parmesan cheese has to be kept in secure displays in a supermarket in Bedford

British industry uses 6% less electricity than a year ago

Penguin profits rose to a recod £93 milion last year, helped by record sales of The Great Crash by JK Galbraith

Bank workers can no longer get redundancy insurance

The cost of syndicating bond issues has doubled

More men are wearing ties at work – dress down looks too unserious for serious times

Municipal car parks are producing dramatically less income for hard pressed city councils as people cut down their shopping trips

A 3rd pub in the village has become a Business Opportunity

Tolley's Tax Handbook has doubled in length since 1997

Legal & financial advisers earned £79 million (from taxpayers) from the Northern Rock debacle

Next years British International Motor Show - established 1903 - has been cancelled

The Chelsea Flower Show will have fewer showpiece gardebs [leave this misprint - Ed] this year

Friday, March 20, 2009

Tactile laments

I stopped to look at one of the culverts yesterday – very well made with stone walls lining the water course. I think it may belong to the water authority & be connected to the reservoir– I have occasionally seen a man who looks like a water bailiff or some such, patrolling it in his waders

But not for some time, & it is looking in a bit of a sorry state, not least because it got badly damaged last year when one of the big old sycamores keeled over & smashed a part of the wall

There is quite a lot of stone & other debris lying in the water, but then I noticed that one looked a bit different. I changed my angle to get a better look – it is a lump of tactile paving. Someone holds it in the same sort of contempt as I do

But where could it have come from? None of the bits laid along the main road, when all local authorities had that mad frenzy this time last year (or was it the year before) in response no doubt to some government diktat, target or bribe, was missing

Then, with sinking heart, I realised that those bits where they had been digging up the pavement last week were not, as I had fondly hoped, a sign of the coming of the fibre optic, but yet more blister stuff in any last remaining spot where someone might be crossing ‘the roadway’ – including the bit just as you get to the yard at the side of the pub which is used as a car park – for about 3 cars. And just to add to the fun, it is right outside the gate of the house next door – someone will get their teeth rattled when they put the wheelie bin out

I thought the world had gone completely mad when I saw they were even marking out a space on what seemed like a random piece of pavement, until I realised there was a matching spot directly over the road

They are obviously marking a place for a pedestrian crossing near the bus stop!

No sign yet whether it is going to be controlled by traffic lights – I would have thought lines of sight, particularly for traffic coming towards the village, would have been insufficient. But then I still have not really got used to how efficient car brakes are these days – how quickly, quietly, & skid mark free, they can come to a stop

Forecasting technology

We usually think that technological inventions come out of a blue sky to change society. We less often think that inventions are a response to pent up demand

In Library Matthew Battles says that “the appetite for books in large quantities was already whetted by the time the printing press made its appearance

In the years just before the railways came to Britain a stage coach left Manchester for London every 15 minutes, 24/7

It was not a comfortable journey. The only protection from the elements for outside passengers came from their sturdy woollen great coats, hats or blankets

When the stage got to Topley Pike the outside passengers had to get down - & sometimes they had to help push the conveyance up the hill

Few women travelled this way

You could fill whole libraries with books & academic papers which analyse the effects of the coming of the railways; I personally have never come across one which looks at the role played by the railway in the liberation of women – but then train spotting has always been a boys' thing

When the London to Manchester railway finally arrived, shop windows in Manchester were filled with popular pictures of mournful horses: What is to become of us?

In fact, as FML Thompson pointed out in The Rise of Respectable Society, there was a three- or fourfold increase in horse-drawn traffic on Victorian roads because of the railways' success in generating new traffic, for all the feeder services bringing freight & passengers to the railway stations were horse-drawn

Nay, … hast thou always worn clothes … rejoiced in them as in a warm movable House, a Body round thy Body, wherein that strange THEE of thine sat snug, defying all variations of Climate? Girt with thick double-milled kerseys; half buried under shawls and broadbrims, and overalls and mudboots, thy very fingers cased in doeskin and mittens … and, though it were in wild winter, dashed through the world, glorying in it as if thou wert its lord. In vain did the sleet beat round thy temples; it lighted only on thy impenetrable, felted or woven, case of wool
Thomas Carlyle: Sartor Resartus

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Income or product

In his book, Butterfly Economics, Paul Ormerod dismisses as merely technical the difference between GDP & GNP

In the context of his argument this is fair enough, but I find myself wondering just how real is the difference these days

Back in the heady 1960s, the decade of independence, new countries, new economies, new development plans, the difference was far from technical

Put simply GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was the value of everything produced within a country

GNP (Gross National Product, more often called Gross National Income these days) was the total income of the people living in the country

Income from capital – rent, profits, dividends – was the main cause of any difference

In many countries the differences were not large, but generally speaking, in developing countries GNP was lower than GDP because more of their productive assets were owned by foreigners

In the UK, though the difference was shrinking rapidly, GNP was more than GDP

The definitions have not changed. I expect in these mobile days wages & salaries earned/sent abroad play a larger role but I cannot really begin to imagine where all those ginormous international financial (or credit) flows showed up in national accounts

Sadly I have not been able to find a source which makes it easy to make direct international comparisons

Wild life in the garden

My inner child still loves the Cautionary Tales of Hilaire Belloc especially those about Henry King, Lord Lundy, &, of course, Matilda

As an adult I would lose the will to live if forced to listen to a standard radio football phone in but Danny Baker’s brand of inspired lunacy is different. The stories he inspires the audience to tell!

This week one caller told of playing football in the garden as a child. One of the makeshift goalposts was provided by the mound which marked the grave of a lion. Which reminded me of these Belloc ditties

The Lion & The Tiger

The Lion, the Lion, he dwells in the waste,
He has a big head and a very small waist;
But his shoulders are stark, and his jaws they are grim,
And a good little child will not play with him.

The Tiger, on the other hand, is kittenish and mild,
And makes a pretty playfellow for any little child.
And mothers of large families (Who claim to common sense)
Will find a tiger well repays the trouble and expense.

Every mother, even of only one, has had her tiger moment


Every mother of 4 knows that a garden surrounded by a wall is worth all the labour saving devices yet invented

Lancelot Hogben - Dangerous Thoughts: Planning for Human Survival

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Things that we might meritoriously do to our targets

So far this year we have the example of Haringey social services, who had been given a top rating by OFSTED, & the Mid-Staffordshire NHS who had been given Foundation status.

Both had been meeting all their official targets


Even herrings have targets now: 175,000 tons of fish are being ‘targeted’ to yield 17,000 tons of oil a year - Observer 14 March 1948

Related post
Could do better

A coming & going man

Sam Dale, on Radio 4’s Book of the Week, is doing a very good job of making Chris Mullin sound just like Mr Pooter

In the stacks

I have just been reading Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles

Two quick things to mention here.

Arcimboldo’s 1566 portrait of The Librarian is new to me. What a lovely thing to be introduced to

Battles also claims that the first Europeans to adopt Arabic numerals were not, as we are usually told, the mathematicians, but book makers, scribes, those who index books – just as today the lines of a poem or text may be numbered, because nothing else available did the job so well

Now there’s a really interesting idea to play with

Related posts
My idea of heaven

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Oh please!

I thought I was mishearing Dr Waljit Dhillo on Woman’s Hour this morning

But no: a protein called kisspeptin triggers the cascade of biochemical changes that leads to puberty and turns children into hormonally challenged adolescents. It may also help to cure some forms of infertility

What I haven’t managed to find out yet is whether the name was given to the gene fortuitously (which would be funny), or whether it is a geneticist’s heavy handed idea of a joke

Related post

Indirect effects

The Kashiwazaki nuclear power plant was closed in 2007 because of earthquake damage, leaving Tokyo struggling to generate all the electricity it needs

Salmon stocks in the Shinano gawa (in the north of the island) dwindled. Investigations revealed that East Japan Railway (JR East) had been fiddling the meters

JR(East) had a permit to extract up to 317 tonnes of water per second from the Miyanaka dam for its hydro electric plant

The gauges were set never to read more than 317. The salmon were left with not enough water to swim in

The Japanese government have revoked JR’s permit

If an alternative source of 450 MW cannot be found, Japan’s legendary trains will no longer run on time

So glad to have you back

This deceptively simple poem is another familiar from childhood. I particularly liked the bit about ice cream

The author, Thomas Carew, was a younger contemporary of John Donne. It is only today that I have found out that there is more to the poem than I knew

The Youthful Spring

Now that the winter’s gone, the earth hath lost
Her snow-white robes; and now no more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;

But the warm sun thaws the benumb’d earth,
And makes it tender; gives a sacred birth
To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree
The drowsy cuckoo and the humble-bee.

Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring,
In triumph to the world, the youthful spring:

Related post

Monday, March 16, 2009

The significance of curls

When I was doing O level biology (half a century ago) we were taught that the degree of curl in hair depended on the shape of the follicles – cork screw or straight. This was devastating news for one girl, who lived in hope that there was something she would be able to do, when she was a grown up, to straighten out permanently her unruly mop

Years later I saw some programme on tv which said actually it all depends on whether the hair shaft is elliptical or circular. Corkscrew follicles were not mentioned

I was wondering what evolutionary geneticists have to say According to Wikipedia it is all to do with UV light & vitamin D

It cannot be a single gene however, or why would ‘mixed race’ children have a mixture of textures on one head?


A good friend of the family came to visit me & my new daughter in hospital. The babies were in cots at the end of mum’s bed – mostly, at 2pm, fast asleep. But the baby directly opposite started to cry & so was picked up. My friend turned to look, & then turned back, a look of genuine horror & concern on his face

“Hedgehog,” he hissed, “That baby is bald!!!!”

A Vincentian, he had never seen such a young fair haired English baby before


I had been on HRT patches for about 4 years. I had just been to the hairdresser to keep my short hair in trim.

On Sunday morning my 5 year old neighbour came to the back door, early, soon after I emerged from the shower

What have you done to your hair?

- I’ve just washed it

No you haven’t, it’s all curly

Sure enough, when I looked in the mirror, it was

I asked the hairdresser what she had done. Just the usual, she said

It got curlier

I tried a different hairdresser, explained the change. After she had had a good look she said: Are you sure you haven’t done anything? Well, it must be hormones then

And proceeded to tell me various hair raising stories, mostly pregnancy related

I still beleived the corkscrew theory. I could imagine my skin twisting

I asked the doctor if I could come off HRT just for a while just to see what happened

Osteoporosis, he said

The curls got tighter. I either had to buy an Afro comb or …

I remembered the time the pharmacist had accidentally dispensed some patches which were half my usual dose (the packets were identical except for the number 25 or 50). So back to the surgery. I want to step the dose down

My hair straightened out, quite quickly. Eventually I went back up to 50. My hair stayed straight


Are there still white people in this country who, given the opportunity, ask to be allowed to touch a black person’s hair? And express surprise to find it soft

One of the lesser arguments for the undesirability of inter-racial adoption was that white foster or adoptive mothers in this country in the 1960s did not understand ‘black’ hair. Which is true – few had any experience & there were few black hairdressers around

Part of the problem is that the way you have to pull on the hair in order to put it in bunches or plaits (never mind corn row) seems brutal. The only time I had to put up with such ‘torture’ was when my mother put in the rags for ringlets (which I loved) for special occasions. And well worth it, I thought

But the misunderstanding works both ways. The most highly qualified hairdresser, skilled in the arts of straightening or weave, does not understand ‘white’ hair either

In particular, they do not understand the need for preliminary vigorous rubbing with a towel. I have sat for an hour under the dryer hood with my long hair wrapped round jumbo rollers. And still it was not dry


Last week I was in the coffee shop. Could not help but overhear some of what was clearly a family conference. Mum, gran, older sister; young sister suspended from school until the purple grew out of her hair

My best friend’s brother was suspended from school when, for a bet, he shaved all the hair off his head


It was the late 60s – the heady days of Black is Beautiful

Our office manager – a stunningly elegant woman – wore her hair short & straight & dyed a dark auburn. Some suspected a wig, that underneath she had what was called ‘hard’ hair, so tightly curled that it provides only sparse cover

A traitor to the cause, in other words

It started with what was probably meant to be mild teasing from two of the young firebrands in the office. The rest of us joined in the defence: True freedom is when anyone can wear their hair any way they please

Somehow it went from what counted as ‘natural’ (and therefore allowable) hair styles to whether women should wear tights And ended up nearly out of control on the subject of whether men should be allowed to wear socks


And so it goes on. Since time began, & probably until it ends


The physical significance of the curl of a vector field is the amount of "rotation" or angular momentum of the contents of given region of space. It arises in fluid mechanics and elasticity theory.

The feelings of others

Last week I found myself thinking about the painter Georgia O’Keefe

There was an exhibition of her works at the Hayward Gallery in the early 90’s.

I remember it especially for some simple charcoal sketches, more than for her well known flower paintings,

One in particular, the catalogue said, she had always been reluctant to exhibit

It would hurt the feelings, she said, of the friend whose (unflattering) portrait it was

To anybody else, it was just a line

It was the fuss over the Julie Myerson book which brought that to mind

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Faith in budgets

“One government project executive has told Computer Weekly that budgeting in government is a game: if the Treasury and the department in question want the scheme approved, they turn a blind eye to irrationally low initial estimates of the cost and the timescales”

There is absolutely nothing new in the idea of Fantasy Budgets in government

In my time I have dealt with a budget which, year after year, contained provision for a large investment project which would never go ahead. Its appearance was vital to keep, literally, the peace, since it would bring benefit to a group who felt themselves hard done by, but unfortunately it did not fall into the ‘area’ of any of our aid donors

Back then Aid Donors each had their own ‘areas’ which they would be willing to finance: one country did planes, another Pure Water Supply, another roads etc

Each donor organisation had their own rules for how projects should be assessed for economic viability. In one particular case a project which I had (in accordance with the appropriate manual) analysed failed to meet the funding criteria. Oh that’s OK, they said, just change the discount rate to give the required answer

But I treasure one memory above all

An awful lot of work had gone in to one mega project dear to the prime minister’s heart. Despite all best efforts the proposal could not be formulated in a way which even approached financial viability

The governor of the central bank attended the meeting at which the project team broke the bad news to the prime minister

Are you telling me we can’t do it? he thundered, as we quailed. You disappopint me, I expected better of you all

Well, prime minister, said the governor, there is no doubt what all the technical analysis is telling us, that just has to be accepted. But there is always one thing you could rely on if you really wish to go ahead


The governor, a devoted catholic, offered ‘The eye of faith’

I think the prime minister found that he had lost the sight in that eye

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Genes & generations

The main point of the post about the life of Darwin in poems was going to be, until I got sidetracked, about generations

Ruth Padel is Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter. Her grandmother, Nora Barlow is remembered with great affection in her preface to the poems

I was wondering if Nora might have met Darwin, but alas no, for she was born in 1885, 3 years after her grandfather’s death

My own great-great-grandmother, born in 1867, died in 1970. I can remember only one visit to her house, a cold (but not damp) place full of looming large pieces of furniture & smelling of polish, but strangely have no memory of what she looked like

I once mentioned her to a friend, who sort of gulped then said: My grandfather was born in 1855!

We looked at each other & tried to get to grips with this extraordinary difference (her grandfather married late & was 55 when her father was born; I come from a long line of teenage mothers)

As far as I know historical demographers still believe that the average length of a human generation in recorded history has remained pretty constant at around 25-30 years.

This surprises those who think that people used to start their families at a very young age – maybe 12 or 13. But the date of birth of your first child is not the determining factor. In order for there to be generations, there must be grandchildren, so at least one of your children must survive long enough to have a child of their own. Childhood mortality, as much as maternal age, determines the average generation length

On average therefore there are only about 50 ancestors standing on the direct maternal or paternal lines which link us back to the fall of the Roman Empire, though the further back you go the more likely it is that the maternal & paternal lines will curl round each other in a complicated braid or plait

When I was introduced to ‘drunken walks’ as an undergraduate one of the standard questions we were set was about the expected time before the ‘extinction’ of a family. (We were still in Neanderthal times, so a family was deemed to die out with the generation which contained no son who would carry on the family name)

I cannot remember the details, & I certainly do not care to try & work them out again now, but the length of time was surprisingly short

In modern times in this country fertility has been analysed with respect to the female line, since we do not have detailed records of paternity. Last time I looked, the average generation length was about 27, though I expect it has lengthened a bit since then

In genetics generally, & population genetics in particular, there seems usually to be an assumption that generations & genes move together, more or less in a phalanx across time – essentially assuming that cross sectional is the same as longitudinal analysis

Although this is obviously mathematically convenient, the truth may have more in common with the way the sea breaks upon the shore, with some ripples moving up the beach more quickly than others

If it were possible, it would be interesting to explore what, if any, are the implications of allowing generation length to vary

Related post

Friday, March 13, 2009

To kiss or not to kiss

The Court Circular can have the same soothingly hypnotic effect as the shipping forecast

The precision of precedence

The punctiliousness of the wording

The dimly glimpsed significance of the rituals

Sometimes I find myself wondering: Why do they do that?

Why do ‘Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Slovenia’ and the ‘Governor of Anguilla’ kiss hands upon their appointment, but not the ‘British High Commissioner to the Republic of Malta’

Is it to do with sex? (Guess which one is a woman)

Or some deeply significant, though obscure, constitutional point

Land of waters

I have just started to read Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life In Poems

I was a bit hesitant, fearing they might turn out an overhyped disappointment, a bit like Poet Laureate poems for official occasions.

Anything but, a real tour de force.

I am particularly impressed by the way the words of Darwin (& others) are incorporated into the poems, so that they seem like a real collaboration of different voices

I got a bit irritated & had to put it down –(oh, do get over such pettiness) – when she ended the section on John Edmonstone (the freed slave from Guiana who taught Darwin taxidermy) with

“he sees a harvest moon. A shadow-bruised melon
as over the Amazon”

as if that had something to do with Edmonstone. The Amazon does not flow in Guyana

Mind you, Edmonstone was born in the C18th when Guiana was not Guyana either. But the book written by Charles Waterton (the plantation owner who gave Edmonstone his freedom) specifies a trip “through the wilds of Demerara and Essequibo, a part of ci-devant Dutch Guiana, in South America” - nowhere near the Amazon

But then I discovered that these days ‘The Amazon’ covers much more than just the river

Not unlike Sir Walter Raleigh’s “large, rich & beautiful empire of Guiana”

The name of the modern country, Guyana, which occupies a small proportion of the coast of the Guianas, was derived from an Amerindian word meaning Land Of Many Waters, but that of the original spelling remains in dispute

It certainly means something much broader than a single, albeit most important, river, the Amazon, which has been adopted by modern romantics, Greens & climate change campaigners – who of course focus on the trees more than the waters

If I were back in the deeply Freudian 1960s I might worry about the subconscious of those who prefer to associate themselves, romantically, with a race of mythic warrior women, whose name supposedly derives from the Greek for 'without a breast', to describe the sacrifice they were prepared to make in order to wield the bow more efficiently.

Related post
Before science

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Moral education

There are quite a lot of poems by C Day Lewis in my commonplace books, mostly the more personal ones about relationships

This one longs for a return to something like hero worship, & has an epigraph from AN Whitehead, another favourite


Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatnessA N Whitehead

Saints & heroes, you dare say,
Like unicorns, have had their day.
Unlaurel the compulsive tough!
All pierced feet are feet of clay.

Envy - & paucity – of what
Men lived by to enlarge their lot,
Diminishing your share in them,
Downgrade you & not the great.

The saint falls down, the hero’s treed
Often, we know it. Still we need
The vision that keeps burning from
Saintly trust, heroic deed.

Accept the flawed self, but aspire
To flights beyond it: wiser far
Lifting our eyes unto the hills
Than lowering them to sift the mire

That comes from C Day Lewis collection ‘The Room & Other Poems’ published in 1965, so just after the beginning of the age of television satire & aggressive interviewing. Now that we have had the misery memoir as well, it is high time we got back to a bit of innocent hero worship

Red nose bag lady

I popped into the £ store yesterday (incense & spring socks). I was quite surprised when they were put into what seemed to be a Red Nose carrier bag

It was one of the Asian run stores not one of the larger quoted chains, but then the sources of their bags are as various as the rest of their stock, their marketing skills a match for any of the big companies with their executive bonuses & MBAs

When I got home & put my glasses on I saw that, in fact, it was a redundant Woolworths Big Red Book bag

There’s a moral in here somewhere, just not sure what it is

Related post

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Where are the missing schools?

An article in Monday’s Times by Alexandra Frean contained the following:

“Last year 38 per cent of students achieving straight As at A level were at fee-paying schools, compared to 28 per cent at comprehensives and 16 per cent at grammar schools”

Since that adds up to 82% my first reaction was “Not Again! When will journalists, subs, revise editors, the lot of them, start to be as pernickety about percentages as they are about apostrophes? !!!****”

But other information given in the article made me think that in this particular case all those concerned did know which way up they were

So then the question becomes what are these institutions which produce 18% of students who get straight As at A level?

The answer presumably is sixth form or FE colleges

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


In the Land of Google are to be found many small & unexpected treasures for your surprise & delectation

Among those I have found this week:

Wanting to go to my cloud, I typed ‘docs’ into the main Google search box. On the results page, over to the right, was a link to a website offering to show me how to find a doctor in Stockport, complete with maps

Put “rakel tongue” into the search box & you will find links to a variety of useful medical information on diseases of the tongue written or edited by Robert E Rakel MD

“Gol” is, in some languages, the word for “GOAL!!!!!” Especially when scored by a soccer player

The results page for a search for ‘Downloading My Brain’ may solicitously enquire “How old is your brain?”

Abbreviated language

Heard Will Self on the radio this morning speculating about the possibility of writing poetry in txt

I don’t text myself - my thumb ain’ able with tha’

But it reminded me of a popular poem of my youth*


Telegraphese has not lasted as a form of written language though it produced a few memorable quotes & jokes – notably General Napier’s “Peccavi”

There was no phone service which could be used to inform my husband when he became a father for the first time. We were still in the delivery room when my mother arrived & one of her first concerns was how to word the telegram which, while considerably less than the £10 for 20 words of 1867, was still expensive enough

I suggested “You have a kettle without a spout”, based on what was supposedly the popular way to announce the birth of a son to soldiers on active duty during WWII

My mother did not even deign to reply

Secretly I was very impressed by her “Mother & daughter well”

Related post
I love radio transmitters

* Translation:
Too wise you are
Too wise you be
I see you are
Too wise for me!

Monday, March 09, 2009

Political managers

Matthew Parris wrote a piece for Saturday’s Times which expresses the hope that we may be about to see the end of managerial politics

No more devoted follower of the blinkered cult has arisen than our present Prime Minister” he said.

Which reminded me again of the Auden poem, the last lines of which now seem to offer another clue to the Brown psychology

There has been much comment recently on his apparent inability to proffer the slightest apology for his role in what has happened to the economy

I am not actually an advocate of prime ministerial apologies – which reached their nadir when the last one apologised for the Irish Famine

But is it possible that Gordon Brown thinks that we might start feeling sorry for him, were he to apologise?

And that that is the idea which he really cannot stand

A bad taste in the mouth

The Monty Hall problem is one oft quoted by fundamentalist economists to ‘prove’ that mere humans cannot recognise a rational course of action when it is staring them in the face

It is based on a familiar kind of television game show. The contestant is offered three locked boxes, in one of which lurks a valuable prize. The other 2 contain mere trinkets. The contestant gets to choose which box to unlock

The twist is that Monty Hall the quiz master first opens one of the others to reveal - a trinket (he of course knows what is in each box)

And offers the contestant a chance - change their mind or stick with the original choice

Which box should a rational contestant choose?

The economist’s answer is that a rational man would always change his mind & go for the box which Monty did not open, because the odds are 2 to 1 that the prize lurks in there

There are several ways of working out this ‘correct’ answer.

There was a 1/3 chance that the contestant chose the right box in the first place, so there were 2 chances in 3 that the prize was in one of the other boxes, at least one of which must contain a trinket. The fact that Monty revealed the trinket does not alter the original 1/3 probability that the first box the contestant chose contains the prize versus 2/3 that it did not

For those who really need some convincing it is quite a good idea to take the frequentist approach of listing all the possible outcomes

Many people might think it ought to be 50:50, because at that stage of the game the original box either does, or does not, contain the prize, & the same applies to the box which Monty did not open

The producers of the show, or those who finance it, must hope that most contestants will stick with their original choice, for they will pay out less in the long run of the show

If contestants could get together to agree a strategy they might agree always to change their mind, & divi up the winnings afterwards – though this would require a large degree of trust between them

In reality however each contestant gets only one chance at the game. This is not the long run, it is now or never. Maybe this is the one time in 3

And in a sense the 50:50 assessment is right – he is either right or he is wrong, he picked the prize first time or he did not

If he just chose wrong first time, well that is just the luck of the draw, the rub of the green, plain bad luck

If it does turn out that he was right first time, but that Monty persuaded him to change his mind, then there is a very real chance that the contestant will feel that he was tricked, bamboozled, somehow talked out of his prize

Maybe the rational economist knows that he was right to change his mind

Funnily enough scientists have discovered that the feeling of being cheated evokes the same revulsion response as foul-tasting food & drink. They even have an evolutionary explanation for it

So unless the economist knows he can resist the feeling of being cheated, even when his friends make a point of sympathising with him, why then he is a rational masochist

Because Monty knew all along - there's the rub

Sunday, March 08, 2009

All that I have

This is a poem to make even strong men weep. Like many others I first heard it 50 years ago being recited to Virginia McKenna in the film Carve Her Name With Pride, & have never forgotten it

I have been racking my brains, without success, trying to think of another purely monosyllabic poem. Perhaps that is the reason it appeals so powerfully to men

It was written by Leo Marks

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours


Saturday, March 07, 2009

A moderately amusing statistical anecdote

I usually draft what I write in Word, because it is what I am used to & because it gives me the nearest I can get to a nice blank page of A4, which is what I was used to writing on for most of my life. Somehow the words flow better & I can judge how it ‘looks’ – even though it will look completely different when it gets transformed into Blogger or Google Reader or ….

Just as manuscript used to when it got typed out – goodness, imagine that somebody else had to do your typing for you!

And then different again when (if) it got into print – astonishing how such a great pile of typescript shrinks to such a slender volume

I tend to make use of Word’s autocorrect because I am such a rotten typist. It is worth the chore of having to say, sometimes, Stop it! Undo Automatic Capitalization! (which is especially likely if I have been typing out verse by one of our more modern poets)

I did not realise until last night that this kind service extended to the Greek alphabet, though I suppose it is only logical

I had been writing about something vaguely statistical & needed a σ, something I also know how to do in Word

I spotted, only just in time, that Word had kindly changed my σ into a Σ

Speaking of which, I am ashamed to confess how old I was when I realised that ∫ is simply the old extended S, the one that gives rise to so many jokes when pronounced as an f instead


Things on top

Katherine Whitehorn gave an interesting Point of View about Women on Top last night

But oh dear! “And of the journos who were low paid, 29% were women, only 16% men”

I wonder what the other 55% were? Martians?

I suspect women were both bottom & top in the 29% calculation

Related post
The verb TO BE

Previously in favourite quotations (6)

Facts are stubborn, wilful things. You can arrange them in either logical or chronological order, but very seldom at the same time in both – TS Ashton

I am not old enough to cope with age - Vernon Scannell

Maths is a language, not the language, & its symbols can be explained in other idioms - Natalie Angier

A fundamental rule of journalism demands the insertion of murders - WA O'Connor: A History of the Irish People, 1884

This year’s BBC Proms season is practically oestrogen-soaked, with new works by five bona fide women – Neil Fisher

There are only about 30 people on the planet capable of diagnosing the problem when huge, complex, real-time systems crash - The Times

A judge can decide in accordance with an article of law or according to his intimate convictions; but the one thing he cannot do is fail to decide - Alain Desrosieres

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

Mathematics is a way of describing the universe but not necessarily of understanding it - Kip Hodges

The road to unhappiness is counting other people's money - Michael Hintze

There is no culture without a creation myth & Darwinian evolution is ours - Laurence Hurst

It is more shameful to distrust ones friends than to be deceived by them - La Rochefoucauld

Shakespeare has no heroes; he has only heroines - John Ruskin

Science is about creating the alphabet. With art you are creating the words - Marc Quinn

There are plenty of people for whom Oxbridge success represents the high point of their lives - Andrew Brown

If a book does not make its own scope & purpose plain in the course of some 600 pages its author need not try to make them plainer in a preface - Duke of Argyll

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

Friday, March 06, 2009

Out of the shadows

The summer before last I was walking through the shopping centre one evening. It was after half-past-five – most of the shops had closed but there were still quite a few people about

My attention was caught by a little girl, who could not have been very much more than a year old, running along (tottering? teetering?) up ahead. Mum was behind her, a young African woman. I say African advisedly – you could tell by the way she dressed & walked & I doubt that, these days, anyone who had lived in England long enough to learn about paranoid parenting would be so relaxed about such a small child running on so far ahead, even though the area is completely traffic free

The little girl was clearly delighted with herself & you could sense her concentration – just staying upright, I assumed. Until I gradually caught up & could see that her concentration was fixed to something on her right

Just as I realised that she had found her shadow, the little girl made another discovery – the shadow’s arm moved up if she waved. And then, even better, she could make the shadow spread its fingers too!

I felt a wave of memories, of having just the same sort of fun on sunny days long, long ago. Mum was too far away to speak to without shouting, but I turned to share a smile

And remembered Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, which seems to me an almost perfect poem for children (I have taken the liberty of making one tiny change to bring it in to the C21st)

I Hava A Little Shadow

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow -
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an indiarubber ball,
And he sometimes goes so little that there's none of him at all.

He hasn't got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close behind me, he's a coward you can see;
I'd think shame to stick to mummy as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Related Post

Fuzzy fuzzy wuzzy

Still pondering off & on about whether any more childish names might be considered racist – today if not then

Well I would be very careful, at least, about Fuzzy Wuzzy

Some definitely think it derogatory

Curiously in its origin as a racial term, it referred to Arab tribes in the Sudan

The fact that Kipling wrote a poem with that title probably does not help, at least in the eyes of those who consider Kipling to be an unreconstructed & unreconstructable, imperialist

The Fuzzy Wuzzies often featured in Boys Own Adventure stories, some of which I read as a child if there was nothing better to hand. They might also have figured in playground games as an alternative to cowboys & Indians

If memory serves, the term was also used in the film Zulu

In all these uses however I do not think you can say the term was derogatory, more like a nickname, even perhaps a pet name. They were considered worthy opponents, to be respected as such, even though war is war

There is also the nursery rhyme

Curiously, the version, available on various websites does not match the one I knew, which goes:

Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear
Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair
Fuzzy Wuzzy did not care
Because he wasn't fuzzy,
Fuzzy wuzzy bare!

(The last word to be said very loud, accompanied by much tummy tickling, if the child is very small)

All the other versions miss out the bit about how he ‘did not care’ – perhaps because it is considered unkind to men with a comb over or toupé?

However, according to one web site, it is not a traditional nursery rhyme at all, but a popular song from 1944 by Al Hoffman, Milton Drake and Jerry Livingston

I do not doubt that there are plenty of people who have been at the receiving end of the term used in a way which was definitely meant to hurt & insult - particularly perhaps those growing up in the UK in the 1970s & 1980s & the age of the Afro hair style. (I wonder if anyone ever applied it to Kevin Keagan?)

So, definitely best left, at least for the time being, unless you are very sure your companions will understand if you need it & no other term will serve in the context

I would not avoid using the nursery rhyme game however; this ultimately deserves to be uncoupled completely from any racial connotations & become just good word play

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Youth never learns

I think most of us would gulp now at the idea of “Pert Sylvia” talking of “wedlock-scenes” even though she has barely “entered in her teens”

(And be surprised to see that word used in the C18th when ‘everybody knows’ that teenagers were only invented after WWII)

But the C18th psychology seems only too applicable today

Wedlock was presumably pretty soon followed by motherhood, the price you pay, perhaps the price worth paying, compensation or even a gift

If even those awe-ful words, “Til death do part” were not enough to deter her, what hope can we have that “sex & relationship education” will deter her modern counterpart from dreams of motherhood, when school & life seem to have so few other satisfactions to offer

These days she can dispense with the lock since the state will always provide for the child

Early Thoughts on Marriage

Those awful words “Til death do part”
May well alarm the youthful heart:
No after-thought when once a wife;
The die is cast, and cast for life;
Yet thousands venture every day
As some base passion leads the way.

Pert Sylvia talks of wedlock-scenes,
Though hardly entered on her teens;
Smiles on her whining spark, and hears
The sugared speech with raptured ears;
Impatient of a parent’s rule,
She leaves her sire, and weds a fool;
Want enters at the guardless door,
And Love is fled, to come no more.

Attend, my fair, to wisdom’s voice,
A better fate shall crown thy choice.
A married life, to speak the best,
Is all a lottery contest:
Yet if my fair-one will be wise,
I will ensure my girl a prize;
Though not a prize to match thy worth,
Perhaps thy equal’s not on earth.

‘Tis an important point to know,
There’s no perfection here below.
Man’s an odd compound after all,
And ever has been since the Fall.
Say, that he loves you from his soul,
Still man is proud, nor brooks control.
And though a slave in love’s soft school,
In wedlock claims his right to rule.

The best, in short, has faults about him,

If few those faults, you must not flout him.

Nathaniel Cotton (1705-1788)

Related post
Teenage pregnancy

First name terms

Gordon Brown kept calling the president ‘Barack’ in a clip I heard yesterday

Well, isn’t that just the modern informal British way?

Only if he calls the Queen ‘Liz’ – or ‘Lilibet’, just to prove he knows what real intimates call her, or used to when she was a child

Of course there are precedents. John Major determinedly called the father of George W plain folksy George. Mind you, he was making him a gift of a cricket bat at the time

It makes me cringe. It’s just plain rude & ignorant

Americans maintain the courtesy, even when their president is an ex


Related post

GOL's revenge

I feel as if I am peering through fog, writing in mud. My throat is sore, my head full of cotton wool

I have half term flu

Perhaps I am being antisocial, coming to the library. But it is just a Grumbly Old Lady’s revenge

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Arm in arm

When did you last see a couple walking along arm in arm?

It is one of those things which just seem to have gone completely out of fashion. You still see people holding hands, or with arms draped round each others shoulders, so it cannot just be distaste for public shows of intimacy

Perhaps feminism has something to do with it – there’s just too much of a hint of the little woman who needs support?

Or maybe it was the fashion for handbags which made it too awkward

Life events

There was a discussion on the radio the other evening about the morality or propriety of major events which are only live ‘as if’ – the classic music performance at the Obama inauguration was one of those discussed. Lesley Garrett took a particularly hard line – if the audience have paid for live that is what they should get, warts & all

I was thinking this is all a bit too precious, when I remembered The Beatles

Our response to the shocking rumour that The Beatles did not actually sing live on stage any more was simply to refuse to believe it. Even when it was more or less admitted – it had become impossible for the Fab Four to hear each other because of the volume of screaming from the audience – we preferred just to pretend it was not so

One evening back then I emerged from the tube station on Holborn Kingsway at about 7pm one Friday evening to be met by an astonishing sight: hundreds & hundreds of little girls running about in a state of near hysteria

Turned out that The Beatles had been appearing on Ready Steady Go which went out live each week from the basement studios at the corner of Aldwych & Kingsway

The building later became the home of the General Register Office Indexes of Births Marriages & Deaths which had been moved out of nearby Somerset House, & became familiar to many as St Catherine’s House, the place to go if you needed a copy of your birth certificate

The explosion of interest in Family History meant that larger premises were needed & so the Family Records Centre was set up near Sadler’s Wells

Even that is no more. The general public can consult the records these days only ‘as if’ live on microfiche in a few centres. Otherwise they exist in the virtual world of the internet

And nobody would let hundreds of little girls go out unaccompanied in Central London on a dark evening

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


I think it is (just about) possible to interpret as a favour to us all Harriet Harman’s threat, on the Andrew Marr programme to change the law to claw back Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension

By making so stark & clear just what would have to be done she may have succeeded in making everybody think: Whoa there. Who will they come for next?

You could also say that she very neatly fingered the prime minister ‘who has said it is not acceptable so it will not be accepted’

Then on Monday Ed Balls was on Radio 5 sympathising with a listener whose second child had failed to win a place at the same secondary school as the first. As a parent, I think you're right - siblings ought to be able to go to the same school

But not me guv, as secretary of state I don't make the rules for each local authority, though I'm going to put an end to this lottery nonsense if that's what the person I have asked to look into it for me recommends

And no, he couldn't comment on what Harriet had said because he had spent Sunday mugging up the school admission rules ready for his appearance on this programme ...

Post script One of the best comments I heard - sorry, did not catch the name - was "We spent centuries getting rid of the Divine Right of Kings. We are not about to replace it with the Divine Right of Harriet"

I think I know what you mean

Forestiere is shorthand for mushrooms

– Lindsay Bareham, dinner tonight

The real university scandal

It is beginning to look as if the BBC is having a nervous breakdown

There are two real scandals behind the University Challenge fiasco

First the BBC production/commissioning process which demands that the filming be spread over 2 academic years. (It is not clear what is supposed to happen if a team member, unexpectedly perhaps, has to leave college before the final round – does the whole team have to withdraw or are substitutes allowed?)

But the real scandal is that, according to reports, a young man got a first class degree in chemistry but failed to get funding for a PhD. So he went off to study accountancy instead

That is just what we need to rebuild our economy for the future

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Guard thy rakel tongue

I took down the Oxford Book of Children’s Verse from the shelves at the weekend, on the hunt for something

It’s not something I take down often, if at all, since acquiring it in the 1970’s. Much of the verse seemed disappointingly admonitory to me

So I was rather pleasantly astonished to see the first poem in the book, since we have been subject to so much news & debate about what we may or may not say these days

And it uses a lovely word from my childhood, used in the phrase Many a mickle maks a muckle

It is called Controlling The Tongue, by Geoffrey Chaucer

My son, keep well thy tongue, & keep thy friend.
A wicked tongue is worse than a fiend;
My son, God of his endless goodness
Walled a tongue with teeth & lips eke, [also]
For man should him avise what he speak. [consider]

My son, full oft, for too much speech
Hath many a man been spilt, as clerkes teach; [ruined]
But for little speech avisely
Is no man shent, to speak generally [harmed]

My son, thy tongue shouldst thou restrain
At all time, but when thou dost thy pain
To speak of God, in honour & prayer

The first virtue, son, if thou wilt lere [learn]
Is to restrain & keep well thy tongue;
Thus learn children when that they been young.

My son of muckle speaking evil-avised,
Where less speaking had enough sufficed,
Cometh muckle harm, thus was me told & taught.

In muckle speech sin wanteth nought
Right as a sword forcutteth & forcarveth
An arm a-two, my dear son, right so
A tongue cutteth friendship all a-two

*Do you know what a rash & hasty tongue is good for?

So next time I hear someone use sexist, racist, ageist, heightist or any other -ist language in my presence, instead of accusing them of an ISM I shall simply ask that they please guard their rakel tongue

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