Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Women, hair & politics

Shirley Williams, interviewed last week by Jenni Murray, told of being introduced by her father to Nancy Astor

- This is my daughter, who is interested in becoming an MP

- Not with that hair,

was Lady Astor’s devastatingly brief reply

Male politicians are not of course immune from tonsorial criticisms – Michael Fabricant & William Hague come to mind.

But these are both examples of the extremes of the distribution of masculine hair style – nobody used Norman Lamont’s unruly hair as a metaphor for what happened during his late night tv appearance to announce Britain’s withdrawal from the erm

Comment on male hair is almost non-existent, except for styles deliberately chosen as a sign of youthful rebellion or tribal allegiances – Beatles, Punk, Goth, Afro … and these of course are group, rather than individual labels.

In the 1970s Shirley Williams was often spoken of as possibly our first female prime minister – she had the intellect & the political nous – except that her unruly hair was often taken as a sign of lack of organising ability & discipline.

Margaret Thatcher kept an iron discipline over her hair. Bernard Ingham, unaccustomed as he was to working for a female boss, soon learned that time had to be allowed in the diary for her to make sure her appearance was just so before any public or media appearance.

Barbara Castle was noted for her red hair in her younger days, though this was more as an absolute gift of a cliché, to represent her fieriness.

Others, such as Cherie Blair & Hilary Clinton, have really struggled to find a style which suits, is easy to keep under control under the fierce glare of the camera & the media harpy.

It could be that any woman hoping for a successful career at the top in politics would do well to think hard about her hair at an early stage. There is a lot to be said for ignoring fashion & opting for something a bit staid, which will stand you in very good stead in the longer term. The Queen, for example, was the butt of a great deal of criticism, especially in the 1960s, for her frumpy style – in vain did her defenders point out that it was well chosen to suit her role: off the face & a good frame for the kind of hat (or crown) which, together with the simple blocks of colour of her clothes would make her stand out no matter how great the crowd.

So a good relationship with a good hairdresser (especially one who really knows how to cut), & who cares more about the clients well being & comfort than the cutting edges of fashion, should be high on the list of every aspiring prospective parliamentary candidate.

Long hair, regrettably, is out, unless you can find a secure & attractive way of pinning it up or tying it back – there will come a point when long hair looks simply blowsy or sad, & having a major change of style at what should be an age of authority & gravitas is just asking for trouble from the commentators.

And finally, it is a good idea to find a friendly photographer, & also access to a tv studio, so that you can learn how different your hairstyle may look to the vast majority of people who will only ever see you in 2, rather than 3 dimensions. The real you, with a smile & a convincing interest in the people you are with, does not need to worry half so much, if at all, about bad hair days, but that strangely distorted flat one does.

Related posts

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Labour’s war cry

The problem with Labour making the word fight its mantra, watchword, rallying cry, is that they manage to make it sound as if they are fighting us – the voters.

An impression which is only reinforced, as Rachel Sylvester wrote in today’s Times “… as they find themselves compared to paedophiles if they drive a group of children to a swimming class, they feel increasingly that Labour disapproves of them. Somehow the Government has also managed to alienate the hard-working families it claims to represent, from the dinner lady fired for reporting bullies to the policewomen who cannot babysit for each other’s child unless they join a childminders register.”

And, as Libby Purves added “No, really, this is it. Bring on the revolution … Today, it seems, ordinary life has been made illegal. Do you remember voting for that?”

Do you get the feeling that Labour may have lost the womens vote?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Class alive

Two examples at the weekend of how the British understanding of ‘class’ endures.

Gordon Brown told Andrew MarrI have had to fight in my life for everything I've got.” Although it is possible that he had in mind political fights, especially with Tony Blair over the premiership, the context makes it clear that he is especially resentful of those born to ‘privilege.’

Brown has undoubtedly had his difficulties, tragedies even, some of which could have overcome lesser men, but to talk as if he is a poor boy made good is ludicrous. He clearly cannot stand the Etonian toffs who may replace him in government. One wonders what benefits he thinks he could, or should, pass on to his own sons from the position he has earned with all this fighting – after all it is only 4 generations since the Brown & Cameron families enjoyed equally modest worldly success:

“Both Brown and Cameron's paternal great grandfathers are listed in the 1841 Scotland Census working the land in Fife and Invernesshire respectively. The Cameron family went on to enjoy much greater success than the Browns in the 19th Century.”

Meanwhile, in a review of Harold Evans “Paper Chase” for The Times Philip Howard wrote that
“[Evans] exaggerates the poverty of his working-class credentials. His father was a driver of steam engines, a position of responsibility and glamour. His mother started a corner shop selling ice cream and groceries in Eccles, on the outskirt of Manchester.”

Later Howard asserts that “Not all Etonians are rich snobs. Charlie Douglas-Home, who replaced [Evans], was a King’s Scholar, a poor boy educated free by the bounty of Henry VI.

Poverty is not the same thing as lack of privilege

Regulation,regulation, regulation

I should like to have been a fly on Harriet Harman’s wall since the news broke of the two detectives ‘illegal’ child minding arrangements.

I don’t suppose that the Balls household has been too happy either.

As Lord Rees-Mogg wrote in today’s TimesIs it possible to get through life in modern England without breaking the law? … We’re all lawbreakers nowadays.”

But the worst thing about this case is that it seems pretty clear that someone who did understand the rules snitched to Ofsted. There may have been snitching too in the case of the housekeeper who was an illegal immigrant.

I heard this poem by Cecil Rajendra on Poetry Please. Although it is about very much more serious oppression (Rajendra donated it to Amnesty International), it is a warning of how bad things can get if we keep trying to make everything (and everybody) perfect & safe, by law.

from The Animal and Insect Act

Finally, in order to ensure Absolute national security they passed the Animal and Insect Emergency Control and Discipline Act. Under this new act, buffaloes cows and goats were prohibited from grazing in herds of more than three. Neither could birds flock, nor bees swarm...This constituted unlawful assembly.

As they had not obtained prior planning permission, mud-wasps and swallows were issued with summary Notices to Quit. Their homes were declared subversive extensions to private property.

Monkeys and mynahs were warned to stop relaying their noisy morning orisons until an official Broadcasting License was issued by the appropriate Ministry. Unmonitored publications and broadcasts posed the gravest threats in times of a National Emergency.

Related posts

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Blame it on Oliphant

The ILN supplement on Manchester carried an article under the title The Fragrant Weed which celebrated 60 years of cigarette smoking in this country.

According to the ILN, the exotic Laurence Oliphant, well known journalist, traveller & novelist ‘stood sponsor’ for the introduction of cigarette smoking in this country when (around 1850) he became the first person ‘of note’ to smoke, in public & in London, the ‘slender paper covered little rolls of tobacco.’

Until then smoking was regarded as vicious & vulgar. Indeed Charles Greville was wont to reprimand younger men whom he found smoking in the region of St James’s: “Do you wish to be taken as an omnibus conductor?”

The Muratti cigarette business was established in Manchester in 1885. Their finest products, of Turkish tobacco, were made by hand since the ‘flavour [is] so delicate [it] would lose much of its subtle charm & aroma if treated by machine’.

To judge by the photographs in the ILN the workers were all women. Not all lines were made by hand however – inferior Virginia cigarettes were made with machines – 200 lines in all.

One hundred and sixty years later smoking is pretty much back to being regarded as vicious & vulgar in this country.

Economy & disease

In dealing with problems that depend for their solution upon varied, fluctuating & so necessarily uncertain data, there is always abundant scope for plausible speculation. Ingenious hypotheses thus become formed, which curious & earnest minds, seizing upon partial & one-sided materials, ultimately work up into a dogma; a process which is constantly seen to be going on in the domain of political economy … & in an especial manner in that division of human enquiry which comprises theories of disease.
That was written in 1859 by Daniel Noble MD, President Manchester Statistical Society in a book on Epidemic Diseases.

It is interesting to see that the kind of opprobrium which has recently been reserved for bankers & economists was around 150 years ago, & linked so directly with wrong headed theories of disease

Dr Noble was not just interested in epidemics – he also produced several publications on phrenology.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Second Question

Back in the early 1970s, as the UK was preparing for a national system of computerised driving licences, a draft of the proposed application form came round for comment.

The question on sex gave a choice of 3 options: male, female, other.

How we laughed – these systems analysts have it drummed into them that they must allow for all possible options, however unlikely or even impossible.

Although I have grown up a lot since then, & become better informed, it was only when listening to Sarah Graham on Saturday Live this morning that it really struck home how odd that we should insist on a clear cut binary division for something which is obviously so complicated.

One of those ‘things’ which has intrigued me now for many years is the way that very small children – say from around the time, even before, they first begin to walk – will always notice & be interested in any other similarly-sized child they see, will look with a special kind of concentration, & maybe then start to make overtures if circumstances allow. I always have the feeling that they somehow are aware of gender, or perhaps I should say something different about the other child, something interesting & just a little bit of a puzzle, possibly introducing a slight wariness which is not there if both are of the same gender.

These children are far too young to be asking questions of mummy & daddy about difference, even if they have a sibling, so this speculation, if at all correct, just adds to the argument that the constituents, manifestations & signs of gender are subtle indeed.

Stop digging?

The latest idea for saving the environment, one of our ministers thinks, is to stop ploughing. My immediate reaction to the news was the same as that of other people I guess, Is that the agricultural equivalent of political correctness gorn mad?

But no, it seems very sensible, almost in a Why did we not think of that before? kind of way

Well partly we did not abandon ploughing because it is difficult to do without modern technology. The lovely, lovely horse is hardly capable of precision engineering & soils are an engineering problem as much as an agronomic one.

Soil is a very important store of carbon, so the less disturbance the better – though I cannot help wondering if carbon release is a major contributor to the gorgeous smell of freshly ploughed loam – I shall be sorry if the new methods mean we are to lose that.

Archaeologists will also worry that it will put an end to the kind of – sometimes very exciting – finds of buried treasure brought back to the surface after ploughing.

But on the plus side – especially for the more aged among us – it is a good excuse for not digging the garden


From The Diary of Lady Frederick Cavendish:

28Sep1867, The New Steam-Plough

HOLKER, September 28th, 1867.—Walked to see the new steam-plough, which did remind me vividly of Tennyson's old farmer's description : "Huzzin and maazin the blessed fealds wi' the divil's own teàm." However, in spite of a hitch or two, it did manage to do 4 deep furrows at a time, which no doubt is striking.

Sir, A 13-year-old girl beating 40 experienced farmers to first place in a ploughing competition after only four hours’ practice (report, Oct 6) is a perfect example of sod’s law.
Peter Sergeant, Loughborough, Leics
07 October 2009 The Times

Friday, September 25, 2009

Where should bad people live?

There is a pretty extensive literature on the attempts to provide decent housing for all, concentrating mainly on issues of finance, design, even social engineering. Much less has been written about the kinds of people who lived there, or on the allocation policies, particularly of local councils, which as recently as 30 years ago were the landlords of more than 2 out of every 5 families in England.

I have not, unfortunately, had chance to read Council Housing and Culture: The History of a Social Experiment by Alison Ravetz, but I should be particularly interested to see how she feels that the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act of 1977 contributed to the decline in the status of council housing & council estates as home for the proud working classes.

This Act of Parliament, in part a (belated) response to the iconic BBC Wednesday Play, Cathy Come Home, in which a mother had her children taken into care after the family became homeless, laid an absolute duty on local authorities to provide accommodation for anybody who was homeless as defined by law, which almost certainly included any adult with a child.

Although there have been amendments to the law, & large numbers of individual cases decided by the courts, the fact remains that local authorities cannot simply wash their hands of the duty of providing a home for children who are not actually removed by some other court process.

Which is why, in part, authorities, even with their community safety teams, antisocial behaviour officers, acceptable behaviour contracts, safer neighbourhood teams, community support officers & even the police may be powerless to deal with determinedly anti-social families.

Even a civil court order for notice of repossession of their council house may be suspended by the court, as happened with the notoriously problematic family who (according to evidence being given to the inquest) tormented Fiona Pilkington for years until she committed suicide by setting her car on fire, while both she & her disabled daughter were inside it.

Qadir Abdullah (not his real name), an Iraqi Kurd, a former dentist who speaks five languages and works as a Home Office interpreter and a classroom assistant, had a similar experience, though the outcome was not so grim, for his family. After many complaints to the police & the authorities, their next door neighbours “left suddenly, accompanied by a fleet of council vehicles and police cars” a few days after two of the sons had carried out an horrific attack on two other young boys.

Michael Clark was a dangerous sex offender who went to live in Leeds when he completed a prison sentence, to be housed by the council, because, according to Councillor Les Carter, “We were told that we had a responsibility, a legal responsibility to house this person, because he’d finished his sentence and at that time we had a responsibility to house him because he wanted to come and live in Leeds and he claimed he had some connection with Leeds.”

So why was he put in a house near to where children were living? “I don’t know of any street in Leeds where there’s no children.

Michael Clark then murdered a 14 year old girl who lived next door but one.

These are classic examples of the age old liberal dilemma - how to deal with people who behave in a very unliberal way. But they are also classic examples of how 'human rights', far from catching the imagination of the people (the voters), have led to the cynical view they bring reward only to people who behave badly while the authorities are powerless to protect the rest.


Well I never

Cole Porter was right. It is in the stars. Or rather, it is in a computer simulation of chaos theory & planetary motion.

He was wrong about which planets though – the possibility is that Mercury could collide with its closest neighbour, Venus. The Earth is not, after all, destined to collide with Mars.

And the catastrophe is a lot further off than next July – it will be several billion years before it happens.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Theatrical extravaganza

Today we have Ben Hur playing on stage at the O2 arena in London.

One hundred years ago saw the single performance, considered then to be the costliest ever, of an English translation of Schiller’s Maid of Orleans, starring American actress Maude Adams & a cast of 1300:

"Joan of Arc" was presented on the evening of June 22, 1909 in the presence of over fifteen thousand people. It was a magnificent success, and proved to be unquestionably the greatest theatrical pageant ever staged in this country. The elaborate settings were handled mechanically. Forests dissolved into regal courts; fields melted into castles. A hidden orchestra played the superb music of Beethoven's "Eroica," which accentuated the noble poetry of Schiller.

One for the cockles

I was the only person waiting for the 7 o’clock bus last night when a young man approached & asked if I was waiting for the same one he wanted.

He was definitely hyper, could not resist telling me the reason – he had just become a father for the first time.

Made all the right noises, asked the right questions, put on my glasses to admire the photo on his mobile. Heard all the gory details.

But after I picked her up I just didn’t want to put her down again

What impressed me most, in a way, was his pleasure that he now has 4 weeks off work (two of them unpaid). And that he already has set up a trust fund for her - £10 to be directly deducted from his wages.

Related post

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Making the tough choices

A recent survey shows that the voters of the UK are not persuaded of the need for cuts in spending – at least, not in the services on which they rely; prisoners, smokers, fat people – well yes, they deserve to suffer the pain.

The voters do not much like tax rises either, although the survey found that if forced, people are more willing to accept rises in the taxes they do not pay every day - business taxes or inheritance tax - than in the ones for which they do see the bill - council tax, income tax or fuel duty.

A century ago it was the prospect of higher taxes on the rich & landed proposed in Lloyd George’s People’s Budget which was causing the furore.

Winston Churchill fought back, in a speech to the City Liberal Club: “There is the woeful wail of the wealthy wastrel, the dismal dirge of the dilapidated duke, & the hard case of the substantial citizen, who is angry at having to pay his share.”

Then he turned his guns on the real enemy, Mr Rudyard Kipling “who is astonished when he is asked to contribute to all the Dreadnoughts for which he has yelled. The great poet of reality, when confronted with any issue so concrete as the arrival of the tax collector, can find no words to express his opinion except words which predict the headlong surrender of the country to any invader, however small.”

Churchill’s ire had been raised by the ‘harsh gibberish’ of Kipling’s poem The City of Brass, first published in The Morning Post, June 28, 1909.

They said: “Who has hate in his soul? Who has envied his neighbour?
Let him arise and control both that man and his labour.”
They said: “Who is eaten by sloth? Whose unthrift has destroyed him?
He shall levy a tribute from all because none have employed him.”
They said: “Who hath toiled, who hath striven, and gathered possession?
Let him be spoiled. He hath given full proof of transgression.”

The eaters of other men’s bread, the exempted from hardship,
The excusers of impotence fled, abdicating their wardship,
For the hate they had taught through the State brought the State no defender,
And it passed from the roll of the Nations in headlong surrender!

For Kipling, the Liberals had “given to numbers the Name of the Wisdom unerring,” & this abandonment of wise virtues & leadership could bring only disaster – a view which he thought found confirmation in the industrial unrest which soon followed.

As he wrote to a friend in August 1911, in the wake of the Tonypandy riots & when facing the prospect of being stranded in Folkestone by the first national railway general strike on return from France with his family:

Re-read my City of Brass & see if there aren’t a few quotations now fairly apposite which were considered extreme & pessimistic when the verses appeared. Seriously, the whole thing is set out there in black & white: but even I did not guess it would come so soon.”

For now the consensus seems to be that we are through the worst of the credit crunch & the recession is ending. Almost no political commentator seems to believe that the election will bring anything but a Cameron government. I am not so convinced.

Yes, people are badly rattled & Gordon Brown seems simply incapable of providing the mass audience with the reassurance that it needs. But people are also disillusioned, let us hope not terminally, with our present political system & there are no voices saying – Well they may be Tories, but at least they will … (as for example Mrs Thatcher was promising to get the council-as-landlord off people’s backs in 1979). There may be a further wave of recession or depression to come – though maybe not till after the election. Either way, I would not completely rule out (the disaster) of another Labour government.

But can you imagine a politician feeling the need to attack a poet from a political platform today?

And we still have not completed the reform of the House of Lords begun by Lloyd George in the wake of that budget a century ago.

Old joke

Do you like Kipling?
I don't know - I've never kippled

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Web of the World

On 10 July 1909 The Illustrated London News carried a special supplement, with the title: The Web of the World.

The subhead explained: Being an account of Manchester & its Great Industries.

The occasion for the supplement was the visit of King Edward VII to open the new Infirmary:

“A particularly fine building & particularly well planned. The hospital has some 50 blocks of buildings, connected by some 3 or 4 miles of corridors; has 5 staircases & 18 lifts; & can accommodate 600 patients. EACH SURGEON HAS HIS OWN OPERATING THEATRE.

Manchester has led the way in removing its Royal Infirmary from … the very heart of the city to new buildings on the outskirts, where the surroundings permit hospital work to be carried out under the best possible conditions.”

The supplement contained an admiring section on the kitchens of the new Infirmary: “ If our ultra-civilisation has inflicted the modern man with ‘nerves’ & a bad digestion, it has at least also created a new era in medicine … from the serious study of food & food values has evolved the modern science of dietetics.” Much of this advance is credited to Sir William Roberts the first professor of medicine at what later became the Victoria University of Manchester. He collaborated with Manchester chemist Frederick Benger to produce the eponymous food which ‘digests itself’

[ Simon Singh may or may not like to note that Roberts's role also involved attempting to reduce the influence of homoeopathy. In 1862 he issued a pamphlet entitled Homoeopathy as Practised in Manchester Contrasted with its Alleged Principles, which showed that many homoeopaths administered large doses of powerful drugs rather than infinitesimally small doses of homoeopathic remedies.]

A Google search for “the web of the world” (with the quote marks in place) produced nearly 9 million hits, mostly relating to the modern usage of the phrase. But fine tuning revealed that the phrase was quite commonly used in the early years of the twentieth century, inspired by thoughts of Empire & the connectedness that this gave to the world.

I also discovered that Swinburne was very attached to the image of the web, the connectedness between things; there are several uses of the word in his 1871 collection, Songs Before Sunrise. To quote just three examples:


Is there change in the secret skies,
In the sacred places that see
The divine beginning of things,
The weft of the web of the world?


O many-childed mother great and grey,
O multitudinous bosom, and breasts that bare
Our fathers' generations, whereat lay
The weanling peoples and the tribes that were,
Whose new-born mouths long dead
Those ninefold nipples fed,
Dim face with deathless eyes and withered hair,
Fostress of obscure lands,
Whose multiplying hands
Wove the world's web with divers races fair
And cast it waif-wise on the stream,
The waters of the centuries, where thou sat'st to dream;


For a continent bloodless with travail
Here toils and brawls as it can,
And the web of it who shall unravel
Of all that peer on the plan;
Would fain grow men, but they grow not,
And fain be free, but they know not
One name for freedom and man?

Songs Before Sunrise also contains Swinburne's An Appeal to England , which was origianlly published in pamphlets & newspapers as an appeal for reprieve of the Manchester Martyrs.

That 1909 building is now the HQ of the Central Manchester and Manchester Children's University Hospitals Trust, while the constituent hospitals all have even more modern homes nearby. I wonder what happened to those former operating theatres which are now 100 years old?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Cycling to the future

So now we are told that we may be in for a cold decade – natural background variation, oscillations, around the inexorable upward trend of man-made global warming. Just noise, no reason to abandon the effort to have a carbon-free lifestyle.

Well yes, such fluctuations in complex systems are normal, only to be expected.

But what if the entirely natural cold brings catastrophe enough to cause a massive disruption – to our society, economics, culture, politics & life style - all of its own?

The total human population of the globe has been rising pretty steadily since the day (whenever we currently think that was) when the first recognisably human pair emerged from the genetic lottery. But an assumption that the rise can be characterised by an uninterruptedly upward curve - while quite possibly confirming our population to be of the expected size today, & therefore with a certain circularity confirming our hypothesis about the pattern of growth - leads to the erroneous conclusion that there are now more people alive than have ever lived before – that the living now outnumber the dead.

Comment so far on the news of the possible cooling is centred on the political difficulties this will cause for governments trying to persuade voters to support the actions necessary to avoid the consequences of warming. But problems now are always more pressing than problems which may arise only after our three score years & ten are well & truly over, however much this might dismay our more confidently far sighted scientists.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


The Oxford English Dictionary confirms my thought that “Soudanese Warrior” – a term common in the 1890s - is the same as, in fact is the definition of “fuzzy-wuzzy.”

It also adds to my feeling that, although for understandable reasons, the f-w word is now considered derogatory, it was not really so to begin with.

A warrior is a worthy opponent. To quote again from the OED - the definition of warrior:
One whose occupation is warfare; a fighting man, whether soldier, sailor, or (latterly) airman; in eulogistic sense, a valiant or an experienced man of war. Now chiefly poetic and rhetorical, except as applied to the fighting men of the ages celebrated in epic and romance and of primitive peoples, for whom the designation soldier would be inappropriate. The word found a memorable application in the designation of ‘The Unknown Warrior’, who on 11 Nov. 1920 was honoured with a stately funeral in Westminster Abbey as the representative of all who had given their lives for England in the great war. To which of the services he belonged was kept a secret, so that the comprehensive word ‘warrior’ was both necessary and felicitous.

War, roughly speaking, can be divided into those which are fought against worthy (& honourable) opponents, & those which are fought against vermin. In the first, the fight is recognised as a tussle for power, territory, or control, & in the sporting sense, the best man wins. While battle is raging however, there is naturally a need for a word for the enemy, one which clearly marks him out as recognisably different in some way from us.

Unworthy opponents, the vermin need, quite simply, to be exterminated. Their very existence is a threat to good people everywhere.

Unfortunately we can no longer maintain the fiction that sport is honourable, can we? And if even sport is without honour, can we maintain that any of our wars is ever honourable?

Is this a mostly-male thing? Politics can be divided this way too, even in our modern western democracies. Some politicians, or those involved in our Westminster version, seem genuinely to believe that the other side are evil, should not even be given a hearing, are, by definition of their upbringing, class, or background unable to do good for the whole of the country.

Nathaniel Weekes: Barbados

This poem, was published in 1752 (the Age of Enlightenment), but according to the Notes in The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verseno later writers refer to it

The verses about sugar, which trace “the noblest plant …. Thro’ all its various Toils” show what we might most neutrally describe as a conflicted attitude to slavery, accepting the necessity for slave labour, acknowledging the “work-hating” attitude of the gangs who must work the plantation, but putting in a strong plea to the slave-drivers to show mercy, spare the whip, & recognise their common humanity.

Even when I was at primary school we were taught that workers for the sugar plantations "had to" come from parts of the world used to tropical conditions, because white skinned people were simply incapable of labouring in such heat.

In 1966 there were complaints from British athletes about the Commonwealth Games being held in the heat of Jamaica

These days the Barbados tourist industry has been able to extend its season beyond just October-Easter as the British quite happily, of their own free will, take their holidays there in August!

To urge the Glory of your Cane’s success,
Rich be your Soil, & well manur’d with Dung,
Or, Planters! What will all your Labours yield?
A faithless Profit, & a barren Crop.

When heavy Rains in pleasing Floods descend,
And all your Land with finished Holing smiles,
Swift to the Task of Planting call your Slaves,
While yet the Weather favours your Designs.

Close watch, ye Drivers! your work-hating Gang,
And mark their Labours with a careful Eye,
But spare your cruel, & ungen’rous Stripes!

They sure are Men, tho’ Slaves, & colour’d Black,
And what is colour in the Eye of Heav’n?
‘Tis impious to suppose a Difference made;
Like you they boast sound Reason, Feeling, Sense,
And Virtues equally as great & good,
If lesson’d rightly, & instructed well.
Spare them your tyranny, inhuman Men!
And deal that Mercy you expect from Heav’n.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Children & other animals

It was sad to hear today that Professor Hugh Pennington has said that children under five should not be allowed to touch animals at petting farms.

As someone who had a (semi) rural childhood I was in regular contact with animals, especially while under 5. I sometimes wonder how we survived.

Especially perhaps one particular, but all too rare a treat.

These were the days when mummy said “We’ll go mushrooming in the morning.” Usually in the autumn, around this time of year. We got up early in the misty light of dawn, climbed over the wall into the field & made our way up to the copse at the top – keeping beady eyes open for any tell tale dark green rings in the grass which betrayed the presence of a (not too) fresh cowpat, a promising site for mushrooms, providing nobody had beaten us to it. Even if there were none in the field the edge of the dry stone wall or the fringes of the wood on the other side would usually provide enough to fill our bag.

Then back down the hill to one of the Best Breakfasts In The World, mushrooms fried in bacon fat, perhaps on their own with toast or with a fried egg with a lovely runny yolk to dunk the yummy mushrooms in.

Of course our history has been one long story of a withdrawal from close contact with animals, which has undoubtedly reduced the danger of all kinds of illness & may be a major contributor to the astonishing increase in expectation of life.

On the other hand, perhaps there is something in the ‘too clean’ theory & we pay for this with other ills

Give a girl a leg up

I could not possibly comment on this one, from Economic Woman:

Give your daughter an edge: Name her Cameron

Friday, September 18, 2009

A new narrative for the wars of the sexes

Helena Kennedy has a series on Radio 4 about unintended & unwished for consequences of some of the changes in the law which sincere campaigners have fought for as a way of improving justice, eg for battered women. Those campaigning for changes in the law or in court procedures in cases of alleged rape would do well to take heed.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we need, first, to improve the way such cases are investigated, & secondly, to change the narrative.

We heard on Radio 5 this week about a case of sexual abuse by a step father which was not forensically investigated at all – in terms of scene of crime etc, not sure about medical examination of the accuser; the CPS dropped the case, for insufficient evidence in the absence of a confession. I have also now heard of several cases of ‘too drunk to remember’ where it is clear that these were not stories of women who changed their mind at the last moment. These cases should be investigated with the same thoroughness as other crimes, not just with interviews & intrusive examination of the accuser.

When you think about it, it says something rather good about our country that (however much you, or I, might deprecate the behaviour) women can go out for the evening, get paralytically drunk, or even just very merry, & feel confident that they will wake up safe next morning with nothing more than a hangover to regret.

There have always been, & always will be, predatory men who choose the easy prey & take advantage. We used to call them wolves, now we seem to want to call them rapists. Debutantes passed on to their friends the names of men who were ‘not safe in taxis’, other groups had similar ways of giving a dog a bad name.

Once upon a time (pre drink sodden days), even a confident woman would wonder whether an invitation to a cup of coffee to her escort might be taken the wrong way, though she would probably be thinking only of embarrassing misunderstanding; if he turned nasty & forced himself upon her she might well decide to put it down to experience - & who can blame her. A court case, even one which sends him to prison, does not really seem a proportionate way of trying to regulate such behaviour.

Such men - the wolves - were not admired or approved of – even by other men. But now we have let the narrative get turned round, so that every man can feel that ‘There but for the grace of …’ Any nice man who has ever nervously wondered when is the right time to make a move, in any way, to express his admiration for a woman, can feel sympathy for the guy who found himself with one who suddenly changed her mind at the last moment, or even after the event, & feel that the poor fellow deserves the benefit of the doubt.

It is also time that the ‘can’t stop’ myth got treated with the derision it deserves. I once witnessed a group of men, who were trying to deploy this, reduced to shamefaced silence when asked if they meant not even if their mother walked in to the room. But that is too crude; the message should be that, used properly in happier circumstances, the ability to control oneself can be used in the opposite sense, to the mutual pleasure of both parties involved. A truly manly accomplishment, in other words.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Eating ones own tail

Piscivore: A fish-eating animal, esp. an ichthyophagous fish.

Ichthyophagous: Fish-eating; that feeds on fish.

Lobster cloud

The clouds have, unusually, been moving west (& south) these last two days. I have been watching more of the way they coalesce & mate – may as well get something out of the lack of sunshine.

There were some quite large patches of blue yesterday, with a stiff breeze at ground level, though the clouds were not moving very fast.

One smallish cloud, stranded in the middle of a large bowl of pale blue, was being pulled in two directions – towards the much bigger masses of cloud in front & behind. At one point it took on the shape of a lobster with its claws held up by the side of its head; the process of being pulled apart accelerated as a piece broke off from the cloud behind and endeavoured to reach its mate, but both just slowly evaporated from view.

Is this attraction caused by what one would call gravity, or something other?

Fair play

I heard on Radio 5 the other day that Paddy Kenny is not even allowed to train with his team as part of his punishment for the crime of taking cough mixture.

I still cannot see how this kind of thing is meant to be fair

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Soudanese warrior

Henry Harrison, Victorian Navy Paymaster, was a keen amateur photographer, some of whose pictures recently came up for sale.

Among them a Soudanese warrior, which is remarkably similar to the photo of one of the original “Fuzzy Wuzzies”

Great fish need lesser fish

I would not mind at all having one of these rather beautiful images hanging on my wall.

The picture shows, floating near to the surface in an artist's conception, a group of new high tech cages intended for fish farming, initially of tuna off the coast of Hawaii, though in practice they would be tethered in the deep. Each is 162 feet wide.

As Frank Pope points out however, farmed fish need lesser fish to feed on; fish meal, herring, mackerel, anchovy and sardine and other low-value fish have been feeding our farmed animals on land since the 1950s, but these days it takes 5 kg of wild fish to produce 1 kg of farmed salmon. So “Unless substitutes to wild-sourced feeds appear, the future of oceanspheres will rely not on how well the technology works, but on careful regulation of wild stocks … other small fish”

National debate

Sir Roger Singleton made a telling point during his interview about the new safeguarding children arrangements on the Today programme this morning.

He said that the current objections should have been raised at the time the legislation was going through Parliament in 2006. But they were not. Political commentators were among those who should bear the brunt of criticisms that the implications of the proposed scheme had not been spelled out, & that no vigorous debate had been promoted.

Many say that this kind of stifling of debate is typical of the New Labour regime but it is something that has bee annoying, irritating & sometimes alarming me for over 30 years now. Time after time the Today programme & others wheel out the studio guests for a vigorous debate – or the minister for a hard hitting interview - on the day that the law comes into effect. Almost never during the period when something could be changed – that is just reporting, the province of Today in Parliament.

PS Mary Beard has taken the trouble to check Hansard to see what our MPs had to say at the time: Vetting and barring. Where are the sensible MPs when you need them?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mean words

Asnide, n: A barbed digressionary footnote, a la Richard Dawkins - Anjana Ahuja

Age specific fertility

One of the most interesting features of the recent birth statistics is the rise in the fertility rate for women aged 25 to 29 – although it is still nowhere near the levels of the 1980s. The fertility rate for women aged 20 to 24 has also stopped falling.

This may well be due in large part to the growing contribution of births to women who were not born in Britain – (& one wonders how many of the babies might now have returned with their mother to Poland or other countries in Eastern Europe). But it is even more interesting to speculate on whether this also represents a return to childbearing at a younger age for women born here.

Perhaps those warnings about the ineluctable fall off in fertility with age are being heeded & acted upon.

It may also be, in part, a determination not to do it the way your mother did, having seen the disadvantages of that.

Young women may also have realised – as have their mothers - that if you wait until well into your 4th decade to have children, you may well be almost in your 8th before you become a grandparent.

The jury is out on whether younger parents are more relaxed than older ones – less inclined to go the helicopter route. On the one hand age brings maturity, but it takes you further away from youthful insouciance.

And if women – at least those who want to be mothers – have decided to try a more female-friendly trajectory for building a career, post maternity, rather than in the frantic twenties & early thirties, so much the better.

Younger parenthood should also see an end to the Calamity for gap-year adventurers as Mum and Dad tag along

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Relationship tangles

It’s true – nobody is married, has a husband/wife these days.

There are only partners.

But partners do not have, are not in, a partnership.

They are in, or have, a relationship. Children may come from one of these.

But when is a partner, or a child, a relation? Or a next of kin?

Monday, September 14, 2009

True talent

The release this week of the remastered Beatles albums has been a pretext for all manner of theories about why they were so good, so much better than other pop groups of the time.

Here’s mine: they were grammar school boys.

There is another. I caught the last part of a programme on Radio 2 about the technical side of the remastering – really interesting. It just goes to show what can be achieved with ingenuity, skill, determination & yes, genius, even without the miracles of digital technology – the original recordings were a triumph of engineering along with everything else. But as part of the explanations in the progaramme they sometimes played just original takes of a single track, in particular 2 which had just Paul, then John singing unaccompanied. I was very surprised to hear how sweet & true were their voices - not at all what you think of when you think of the Beatles.

Precautionary tale

Today we have a fine example of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

The media is full of criticism: dithering, children at risk …. Because the farm at the centre of the e coli outbreak was not closed immediately the first case was reported to the Health Protection Authority. Both The Times front page and BBC News have been leading with this censure.

That would have been on August 26th, just before the Bank Holiday weekend.

And if they had?

Well then, it would have been Health & Safety gone mad wouldn’t it. Family holiday disrupted, children deprived of the valuable experience of learning where their food comes from, threat to rural businesses etc etc all because of just one case

"Farm visits for recreational and educational purposes are popular in the UK. About 250 open farms receive up to nine million visitors each year and several farms have more than 100 000 visitors annually. The risk to visitors of contracting zoonotic infections is cognised."

"The public need to be educated about the risks and about their responsibilities, which include the need to wash hands thoroughly and to avoid hand to mouth contact when visiting farms."

Perhaps the authorities were negligent or careless in this case. But I wish we could be in a place where, until we have more than just hindsight, we start from the assumption that professionals always do their best. Unless we do that, they will naturally choose always the precautionary wet blanket


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Safeguarding the safeguards

You know someone knows they have not really got a proper argument when they fall back on ‘If it saves just one child it will be worth it.’

The new registration arrangements for safeguarding children are, according to reports, expected to identify some 20,000 dubious people among the 11 million adults to be checked. That is a strike rate of less than 2 in 1000, though it will double the number of people who are known to be too dangerous to be allowed near a child. But as someone said, if you are looking for a needle in a haystack it does not seem sensible to increase the size of the haystack.

I have not heard anyone mention the problem of false positives - & these will happen.

Even if the rate of false positives is only 1 in a million 11 people will be falsely denied clearance. Even if – when – the authorities acknowledge their mistake, mud will stick; the unfortunate person, their families, will suffer.

Is that worth it, if it protects just one child?

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

What makes someone dangerous

This poem by Romanian born Carmen Bugan was included in Oxford Poets 2001, where I first came across it. It was also included in her collection Crossing the Carpathians.

It is a stark reminder – or lesson for those of us who have never had to face such dark days – of what it is like when just to be ordinarily alive is to be dangerous to suspicious authority.

Fertile Ground

I was pruning tomato plants when they came to search
for weapons in our garden;
they dug the earth under the chickens, bell peppers,
tiny melons, dill & horse radishes,

I cried over sliced egg plants
made one with the dirt,
over fresh dug earth & morning glories.

Their shovels uncovered bottles
with rusted metal caps – sunflower cooking oil
my father kept for ‘dark days’, purchased in days equally dark.
Their eyes lit – everyone got a bottle or two –
a promise for their families’ meals.

And when the oil spilled on the ground, shiny over crushed tomatoes
they asked me about weapons we might have kept.
‘Oil,’ I said: ‘You eat & live.
This alone makes one dangerous.’

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Berlin Wall

In an interesting article, What Thatcher and Gorbachev really thought when the Berlin Wall came down, in yesterdays Times, Michael Binyon wrote that:

Mrs Thatcher … was all for freedom. But she liked order, she liked predictability and she liked institutions such as Nato, in which Britain could play a commanding role. The deal at Yalta was that Russia had its sphere of influence and the Western allies had theirs. And that deal had provided — at least for the West — 40 years of stability and prosperity.

I had my own teeny insight into the niceties of this diplomacy from a friend who had had to attend (as sole UK representative) a technical meeting held under the auspices of UNECE.

At that time the West German Environment ministry was, for some reason, located in Berlin rather than in Bonn. Because of this at every such meeting, as soon as proceedings had been opened, there would be an official Russian objection, on the grounds that the location of the ministry was contrary to the 4 power agreement. France, UK & USA took it in turns to stand up & say, with appropriate diplomatic nicety, Nonsense.

My friend had been briefed about all this, but told not to worry, it was the Americans turn.

The UK representative, as a new boy, was naturally in his place well before time. The hour for the meeting to be called to order drew near. No sign of any delegate from the USA, nor indeed of anybody French. My friend was told to be ready to do his bit.

I was quaking, he said. Having visions of being single handedly responsible for the launch of World War III.

The cavalry came over the hill just in time.

Thing is, my friend said, unless you knew all about it you would probably not have taken any notice, it was all so mumbled & quick. Not sturm und drang at all.


I was staying with my regular French exchange family, outside a village in the Midi, when the Berlin Wall went up. I thought something about my imperfect grasp of the language meant that I had misunderstood some idiom or metaphor in which the news was couched. Even when Paris Match arrived, with photographs, I was still simply bewildered. I remember distinctly visualising a wall going up across Trafalgar Square & thinking that kind of thing simply can not happen in a big city.

The next summer I was working as an au pair in a very run down chateau in the Ardennes. Two German girls of my age were also working there, in the kitchen, & naturally we became friends. Their father had been killed in the last days of the war, & the younger sister was in fact born posthumously.

I was shocked at the treatment they got from some of the people around – one estate worker in particular would utter a foul word & spit on the floor whenever he came across them.

I told them about my initial bewilderment about the Wall, how I should really like to be able to go & see it with my own eyes.

They said that if I cared to go & visit them at their home in Bonn (they were due to leave before I did) their mother would be delighted to meet me (partly because I had just been their friend in hostile territory) & I would be able to get a visa to travel to Berlin by train to fulfill my ambition. Which I duly did.

As an aside, one thing which always struck me during the summers in France was the very real idealism of fellow teenagers I met, particularly the French & Germans, about the European Project

That trip to Berlin still seems like a dream – but then not knowing the language often has that effect. I don’t know how complete the construction was by that stage, & of course I had no idea of what the place had looked like before. I could not see over The Wall at all – got no closer than standing at a very respectful distance from one of the checkpoints, before it was time to get back to the station & back to The West before my visa expired.

I had my own European technical meeting to go to in the spring of 1980, this one actually held in Berlin. Our British Airways flight went via Hannover, where most of the London passengers got off & it became, essentially an internal flight with mostly German speaking passengers. It was pretty bumpy; the pilot came on to make an announcement, in German. The passengers gasped.

Fortunately my fellow traveller had, as had a surprising number of the men I worked with, done his National Service as an ‘interpreter’ – trained to monitor broadcasts etc in German or Russian to pick up certain key words. He was able to tell me that the pilot was just relaying the results of an important game of football involving a German team.

The plane really yawed on its descent into Berlin – I had the fanciful notion that, rather than just cross winds this might be an established routine in case of unfriendly fire. I guess I was thinking of a friend at university who had a useful addition to his grant from the West German government – earned at the cost of losing his RAF father in the Berlin airlift.
It was the first visit for almost all the delegates, & we ganged up on the chairman to make it clear that the meeting had to finish by lunchtime on Friday so that we could have an afternoon to see round the city.

My fellow UK delegate was keen on the idea of a tourist bus trip – which I feared might be a bit naff, but it was good thinking, especially given our limited time. The Wall itself – now approachable so that we could look over to The East – still had that quality of a dream.

As did, in some ways, the Tiergarten Soviet Memorial, stranded in the British Zone, guarded by what looked like boy soldiers dressed in uniform coats which their mothers had sensibly bought a size too big so that there was room for them to grow into.
Security checks were very tight at the airport coming home – all passports were being scanned & we had to wait for some kind of OK, it was not just left to the official.

I took the tube home from Heathrow, deciding to change at Hammersmith, despite the long walk to the Metropolitan line. It was about 7 or 8pm. Bleak, sheets of paper blowing about. Another urban dystopia.

I thought I was being fanciful, imagining something more than just the normal Friday night gloom in the air – until I saw the Evening Standard posters announcing the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Under the lid of the sky

I am very disappointed in Paul Simons. In his Weather Eye column on Thursday about Britains topsy turvy weather he described the gale in western Scotland & the landslide near Loch Lomond, but asserted that “for the rest of the country …. Summer returned with warm sunshine”, with temperatures of over 80º in Kent, Gravesend holding the absolute record.

Kent is not the rest of the country, much of which (even outside Scotland) had another day of overcast skies, wind & some heavy rain.

True, the last three days have, at a stroke, more than doubled the number of days on which we have been able to go out justly confident that there would be no rain.

Correction – only yesterday & today have been like that – we simply did not believe them in their forecast for Wednesday, not after Tuesday.

I do not know how much of the country, outside Scotland, had a similarly enraging Tuesday –the BBC, the Met Office, not even Paul Simons, want to tell me. But we are 300 miles south of Loch Lomond & only 200 miles north of Gravesend, so it must have been a pretty large number of people who are owed an apology.

Melanie Reid got it right in her Times column of the same day as Paul Simons: This year the real untold tale is of two Britains divided by climate. Cumbria, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, parts of Wales and the West Country and the entire West Coast of Scotland have endured almost constant rain for the past ten weeks.

We have not had it as bad as Scotland, being more on the fringe of all these Atlantic depressions, nor is our ground as water logged. Our problems with mud & surface water have been almost zero, in stark contrast to last year, thanks to all the good housekeeping on the drains.

But we too feel depressed & oppressed by the heavy sky & lack of light.

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Proof at last

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mystery visitor

Just as I got down to the bridge last night there was a small, very dark brown animal about to run across the lane. I am pretty sure it was a stoat - much too small to be a mink - though I am puzzled by the colour. Or was it a weasel?

Whichever, I have never seen one down there, or anywhere around the houses before.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Proof at last

It is a very long time since I have felt as furiously angry as I did yesterday evening.

Paul Simons told us in Weather eye: Weather pattern about-face that “A deep depression will batter northwest Scotland with heavy rain and wind, while the southeast corner of England will enjoy a remarkably warm day, possibly reaching 27C (81F)” The map, taken from The Times, shows yesterdays Met Office regional outlook. We sit just under the bottom of the nice white cloud in between Sheffield & Manchester. The forecast for NW England says “mainly dry at first with some brighter spells but turning cloudier & with isolated showers during the afternoon.” Local radio confirmed this - basically a dry day.

I had my doubts by the time I reached the bus stop. There were some squalls strong enough to really rattle the glass & clouds were beginning to race in.

Well, it was certainly all completely overcast by 1 o’clock & there were vicious bursts of wind. Rain threatened, a few spots fell, enough to keep you inside unless you had to go from A to B.

At about 6.30 the rain started to fall with a vengeance, so heavy you could not go out – an umbrella was useless with the wind. Even when it eased off after about 20 minutes, it was still falling steadily & running down the pavements deep enough to soak your feet. The rain (and squalls) kept up for at least an hour & a half – when I got home you could not see the tops of even the closest hill, & for a while even the tops of trees were hidden. And so I arrived home, feet, trousers below the knee, bags, gloves, ringing wet.

Not the worst we have had this summer, but not what was forecast either – many, including me, had planned the day accordingly.

Just to make matters worse, I listened to the detailed account of the past days weather on Radio 4 at half past midnight, hoping for some sort of explanation of what had gone wrong. Not even a mention. Just that Kent had had temperatures in the high 20s (but they’ll be back to where they should be today) plus parts of poor old Scotland had had near-gale conditions. No mention of the weather in the rest of the country.

This morning Radio 5, just before 7.30 am told us that the country would be mainly dry today, with possibly some patchy rain in the south east. Over on Radio 4 Sarah Montague was telling us that “Most places are going to be fine but there will be showers in the North West”.

We have been told, over & over: Anyone relying on the weather this summer is taking a tremendous gamble. The jet stream has been behaving oddly all year, winning the battle with the Azores highs; we do not have enough data on the ocean temperatures which can play an (as yet little understood) important part in our weather; there is an El Nino going on.

And, as Brian Sharman pointed out in a letter to The Times on August 4: As climate change would presumably make the weather more difficult to forecast, inaccurate weather forecasts might be proof of climate change.

Well, I have been unable to get the Met Office website to tell me what they mean by isolated showers, but yesterdays one did not meet my criteria for isolation in either space or time. But even if they cannot get the forecasts right, the least they could do is put an easily located landlubbers glossary of terms on their website, as they do already for the marine forecasts.

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Population growth

Since my skills for handling any kind of image or graph on a computer are rudimentary I lifted the chart from the Times reports of the UK population estimates for 2008. A much better copy can be found in the original ONS report.

It shows one half of the population age pyramid, rotated so that the peaks & troughs in the numbers of babies born over the last 60 years show up – mortality will not have reaped much of a toll on those numbers so far, & the net effects of migration into & out of the country will not have greatly affected the overall shape of the age structure.

It shows how the 1946-48 baby boom (those aged 60 to 62 in 2008) was really just a spike, compared to the great boom of the sixties & the smaller one of the 1980s.

Equally it shows clearly the trough in the 1970s, when (very) broadly speaking, the ability/desire of women to have smaller families coincided with a wish to start them later & was facilitated by the Pill & the availability of contraception on the NHS.

The last decade of the last Conservative government was accompanied by a long decline in the number of births, and we have seen a steady upward curve again since the millennium.

Roma Chappell, deputy director of demography at the Office for National Statistics, said that “It’s actually quite exciting because it’s the highest fertility rate we have seen in the UK for some time. You have to go all the way back to 1973 to find a time when the fertility rate went higher.”

Curiously that was the year of the publication of the Ross Population Panel Report, which was commissioned to look into the effects on the UK of the high population growth rates of the 1960s – nobody really believed that the recent fall in fertility could be sustained

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

VS Naipaul’s Half a Life

I have just read VS Naipaul’s Half a Life – picked up off the returned book shelf in the library. I haven’t read his books for years, went off him rather, but I am very glad I read this one.

I don’t think enjoy is quite the right word, but it is impressive & certainly leaves its mark.

Although a novel, it seems very autobiographical, a meditation on the interior life (though nothing like the one by Mauriac). A story of migration, of (not) belonging, a dream; of the dislocations that come with the end of Empires. Verging sometimes on the magically realistic (“Just after the birth of her second child something had happened in her head, & she found herself walking in a part of the capital that she didn’t know ….”).

It tells the story of Willie Chandran who, “when he was 20 … the mission school student who had not completed his education, with no idea of what he wanted to do, except to get away from what he knew, & yet with very little idea of what lay outside the world he knew, only with the fantasies of the Hollywood films of the 30s & 40s that he had seen at the mission school, went to London.”

It may also be the only book I have read which gives a (delicately put) mans view of sexual awakening & infidelity: “It was like being given a new idea of myself.”


“If you are not used to governments or the law or society or even history being on your side, then you have to believe in your luck or your star or you will die.”

Another universe

"A vast & unreachable universe of numbers & connections"

Peter Curran, on his visit to the Isaac Newton Institute of Mathematics in Cambridge, on Radio 4’s The Tribes of Science

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