Monday, November 30, 2009

Feet first

A disconcerting picture in The Times of just the hem of the dress which the Queen wore to the State Dinner in Trinidad for the Commonwealth Heads of Government last week.

Two beautifully embroidered birds (by the Royal School of Needlework?) – scarlet ibis & chachalaca – in honour of the hosts.

But in this degree of close up the dress looks positively tatty – in need of a good iron & having the hanging threads trimmed. In reality I expect it is beautiful, sumptuous, silk.

But it was the shoes which really caught my eye. They look like grey leather, & very well worn.

Hooray! I thought. That means they must be comfy; Her Majesty is giving encouragement to all old ladies who would prefer to put comfort first, because they know it is impossible not to have a grumpy face if your feet hurt.

Alas, no. The full-length PA picture published in The Mail shows that this was just a trick of the light – the Queen is wearing a very nice pair of silver court shoes.

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Stripey socks & polka dots

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Writing legacy

Anne Bradstreet’s life overlapped in time with that of John Donne – born in 1612, she emigrated to America with her husband in 1630 – the year before Donne died – when she was 18 years old.

Their lives could hardly have been more different – she was a puritan, he a catholic-born convert to the Church of England & Dean of St Pauls. He a wild youth, she a devoted wife & mother.

Both wrote beautiful, sometimes deceptively simple, poetry.

I have chosen this one for today – typical woman, unwilling to seem to be pushing herself forward, but also all-too recognisable feelings of any author exposed in print.

Partly I have chosen it because it seems to go with a quote which I have only just come across from Edward Bulwer Lytton which shows that even a best selling author can be well aware of the modest fragility of his legacy

The Author To Her Book

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).

At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.

I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun cloth, i' th' house I find.

In this array, 'mongst vulgars may'st thou roam.
In critic's hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy father asked, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

Anne Bradstreet

"We authors, like the Children in the Fable, track our journey through the maze by the pebbles which we strew along the path. From others who wander after us, they may attract no notice, or, if noticed, seem to them but scattered by the caprice of chance; but we, when our memory would retrace our steps, review in the humble stones the witnesses of our progress, the landmarks of our way"

Edward Bulwer Lytton
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Saturday, November 28, 2009

The revenge of the machine

Former civil servants Sir Thomas Legg & Sir Christopher Kelly have had their go at MPs & their expenses. Now we have Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry which, so far, has seen a procession of serving or retired civil servants giving their side of the story.

Thus exposing, as Oliver Miles put it on Radio 4, ‘The apparent separation between the official machine & the PM & his close coterie of advisers.

And Anthony King is working on a new book which will examine his observation that administrative disasters seem to come more frequently & on a bigger scale than ever used to be the case. I suspect, expect, that, if indeed this is true, the reason will be, in part, an even more painful but unpublicised series of separations between politician & professional advisers - not just Sir Humphreys, but specialists such as scientists, economists, statisticians & engineers – who, like those working in the public sector outside of Whitehall, felt that their professional knowledge, expertise & principles were being ignored or ridden rough shod over after 1997.

Cynics overheard

The advantage of peer review is that people who believe what I believe get to say that what I say is true.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

These people

I have finally got around to reading Sathnam Sanghera’s book, called “The Boy with the Topknot” in the paperback edition

For now I just want to copy an extract from one of his footnotes, which is in turn from a book written by John Selwyn Gummer, together with his father Canon Selwyn Gummer, & published in 1966. The title of the book was “When the Coloured People Come: an analysis of Sikh settlement in Gravesend.”

I used to be a sort of connoisseur of this kind of stuff. You could fill several libraries with worthy, or respectable, academic tomes, which explained the disadvantages suffered by other races – science, medicine, ethnography, anthropology, sociology, development economics, all sorts of experts turned their attentions to it.

The taste in baby wear is unusual to European eyes … One baby appeared at the age of three weeks wearing a white knitted mob cap, a colourful flowered dress stamped 'Pride of Bombay', a black & yellow coat knitted in a key pattern & blue & red striped leggings … the percentage of literate Asians in the older age-groups is infinitesimal. Naturally the children of such parents are backward … Many of them … are of low intelligence as distinct from illiterate …. When the women are in labour they make a lot of noise which appears to be traditional rather than activated by pain (How would they know about that?) … Rubber condoms & caps irritate the skin of these people & for that reason they are not very popular … the Sikhs are strangers in a strange land & they are intellectually & educationally ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of a modern civilisation.”

The thing is I am sure many of the authors considered themselves kindly souls, enlightened about, & of course tolerant of, such differences. John Gummer lists the publication among his achievements in Who’s Who (2009 edition).

And I expect he did his best to make sure appropriate provision was made for the education of the children of coloured people in the capital when he was a member of the Inner London Education Authority 1967-70

Power symbol

Does this photo show the ultimate modern power symbol? Why else would Catherine Ashton & Dalia Grybauskaite choose identical pins for their lapel?

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Getting restless

Any Questions, disgracefully, allowed a question last Friday: “Should members of Cabinet be routinely issued with hands free car phone kits?” The younger Dimbleby invited Harriet Harman to be the first to answer. Quite properly, she declined & Dimbleby pressed, sounding very snide about it.

To their credit, the other (all male) panellists supported her position.

The next question was: “After the ‘main de dieu’ should football give technology a chance?”

Dimbleby felt it necessary to tell the listeners that Harriet looked as if she did not understand the question. When she assured him that she did, & started to answer, he interrupted to say that he had not been going to come to her first, anyway, leaving her sounding punctured & lame.

She turned the tables magnificently when he finally deigned to invite her to comment, which she did briefly & to the point, ending with “I think there was nothing ‘hands free’ about Thierry Henry’s football.

Dimbleby was deliciously disconcerted; to an audible “Oh well done!” from at least one of her fellow panellists, he could say only “I don’t know quite how to handle this.”

I have never counted myself among the fans of Harriet, but she really showed something of how she has managed to survive in politics (is there any other survivor of that 1997 Cabinet, other than Gordon Brown & Jack Straw?)

It almost puts her into the Thatcher of-course-I-don’t-agree-with-her-but-you’ve-got-to-admire-her class.

Also last week, I took the trouble to follow up a link from Paul Waugh which promised a neat programme that allows me to line up a tv clip at the exact point – which did not work when I tried it. And I was so excited to hear about it!

For the first time in over a decade I watched Newsnight. I might never have been away with its pretentious set & portentous music, same presenter, same reporter & saw another disturbing BBC political piece, involving a Jeremy Paxman & Michael Crick on the possible deselection of Elizabeth Truss by Norfolk Conservatives - cue giggling about Turnip Taleban.

The recent Milburn report showed that journalism is one of the professions which has shown the biggest decline in social mobility of entrants. With pieces like this one from Newsnight we are increasingly getting the impression that BBC political reporters in particular think of themselves as Victorian explorers of the far flung corners of the Empire whenever they have to leave their Westminster redoubt.

It is not just the potential Tory government who can be characterised as sneering public school boys

Going through a faze

I seem to be seeing the word phased used much more often these days where I should have expected fazed.

Perhaps it is a ‘mistake’ – phase is a (French) term from physics or engineering, or something to do with the moon, nothing to do with the good old English word meaning disturbed, upset or discombobulated.

The mistake seems to be made much more by men than by women – huge generalisation, I know.

They are much more likely to go through a phase when they are teenagers, so perhaps that explains it

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Language in mind

This is just a note to myself to remember to listen to All In The Mind next week
when we are promised an item on whether it is time for e new name for schizophrenia.

Related posts

Still a mystery

In yesterdays Times Robert Crampton rather wickedly (& with his tongue in his cheek) dubbed the response of the ordinary middle aged man having to face something more physically challenging than usual in his daily routine as a fantasy of “the possibility male redemption through the medium of very bad weather.

But there is cockle-warming news of real initiative in the Railnews blog: there is going to be a new temporary railway station at Workington in Cumbria, only half a mile from the existing station, on the other side of the river - the only other way to travel that half mile at the moment involves a 40 mile round trip because the road bridges have been destroyed by the floods. the existing rail bridge has survived.

The new station is expected to be ready by the weekend.

Shows what can be done by romantic but practical engineers when freed from all the usual red tape & politicking of site identification, planning, consultation etc etc.

What I want to know though, is how they are going to build platforms in such a short time? I guess that as temporary structures some sort of scaffolding will be deemed sufficient

Charge of the bank brigade

I do not think I have ever heard so many angry people ringing in to the BBC as I have this morning – angry to the point of incoherence. Most of them presumably drawn from the cohort of some 12 million people who regularly incur charges for unauthorised overdrafts, not from the 42 million or so who are in the fortunate position of never (or very rarely) incurring such charges.

Lord Walker did his best to spell out at the outset of the Supreme Court judgement that the Court did not have the task of deciding whether the system of charging personal current account customers adopted by United Kingdom banks is fair, but that of course is no comfort at all to those who believe that banks have committed theft.

For the moment I am most distracted by Lord Walker’s careful gender-inclusiveness, when he wrote that the fairness of the charging system is “an imponderable question which depends partly on whether one’s perception of the average customer who incurs unauthorised overdraft charges is that HE is spendthrift and improvident, or that SHE is disadvantaged and finding it hard to make ends meet. But it is not the question for the Court.” [capitals added for emphasis]

But is it sexist to suggest that the male is spendthrift & the female disadvantaged?

And if so, would it still be sexist if the pronouns were reversed?

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The end of the world is nigh

I am a believer in man made climate change. I am on the side of the angels.

You are a sceptic, a denier, a sinner responsible for the mess my children will be in.

They do not even have a right to exist. Population control is the answer.

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Thundering judgement

The Times leader comment on the appointment of the EU High Representative – “The British Government put forward Baroness Ashton of Upholland without consulting anybody… At least we have found someone who might stop the diplomatic traffic.” - shares the tone of others written about disappointing government appointments since 1785.

In 1859, for example, on the appointment of a High Court judge a leader enquired: "Who is the new judge? Everybody has been going about town asking his neighbour 'Who is Mr Colin Blackburn?"' & concluded “when there are many men of acknowledged merit, of large professional experience, & of Parliamentary reputation from whom to choose, it does seem strange that the choice should fall upon a gentleman who is unkown, without professional experience or Parliamentary name. We cannot but look upon this appointment as a most unfortunate one, & as a grievous mistake …” (The Times, Wednesday, Jun 29, 1859; pg. 9; Issue 23345; col A)

In this case the leader writers judgement was off beam. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, in 1876 when Blackburn became one of the first two lords of appeal in ordinary, “his appointment was not greeted with consternation by the legal profession but was applauded. His judgments in the queen's bench had demonstrated his profound knowledge of the principles of the common law. They continue to be read with admiration and cited as authoritative

Perhaps Lady Ashton will turn out to be a similarly pleasant surprise

Monday, November 23, 2009

High level diplomacy

My reaction, like, I suspect, that of most people listening to the announcement of the name of the new EU High Representative, was Who?

More surprising, in its way, was that the BBC did not do very much to enlighten us at that stage, other than to say that Baroness Ashton was already an EU Commissioner, &, sometime later, add in the fact that she had been the Leader of the House of Lords. I would have expected a bit more biographical information, at least.

Some of this could be explained by the fact that the journalists were, possibly, even more surprised (& certainly more shocked) than I was. A week earlier, for example, Bronwen Maddox had written that ‘The European composite leadership that will emerge … will be dull, and paralysed by its incompatible parts (nor will any be British, as it is panning out).’

So, after all their predictions, analysis, discussion of Blair, Miliband, even Mandelson, they were rather left with egg on their faces - they are so used to telling us what ministers are going to do.

Next day Philip Webster, The Times political editor (for now - his Labour contacts are going to decline in usefulness, according to Iain Dale), called Gordon Brown’s decision to support her ‘astonishing.’

Philip Collins – now a Times leader writer, once a Tony Blair speechwriter, noted that Lady Ashton ‘frankly, hasn’t been a great success as EU Commissioner.’ Which was another surprise since, by the time I read that, such reports as there had been on the radio were generally agreed that she had done a good job, both there & in the Lords. And doubly odd because in the (no by-line) information panel which formed part of The Times double page spread we were told that:

She has built a reputation in Brussels as a competent negotiator who achieves results. “She may not stop the traffic but she is a good bridge builder and that is her job,” said one diplomat. “She has made an extraordinary impression in her short time at the European Commission. The job is to build consensus among 27 leaders, and she is ideal for that.”’

By Saturday another double page spread revealed all, thanks to the combined efforts of Philip Webster, David Charter, Francis Elliot, Sam Coates, Suzy Jagger & Russell Jenkins.

For one thing ‘The poor relationship between Lord Mandelson and his successor as Trade Commissioner is an open secret at the top levels of the Government.’

And, as if that were not bad enough ‘She was recorded as “a communist sympathiser” [by MI5] on the ground that she shared a house with a member of the Communist Party’ & had once worked for CND. Good heavens, she would never have got past first base if she had applied for a job in the home civil service, never mind the Foreign Office.

No wonder there was a hint of sulphur in the air.

Further evidence of her suspicious background came from the reporter dispatched to deepest Lancashire, to the village of Up Holland, where the baroness grew up. Nobody (except the local rector) who spoke to the reporter could remember her. Even worse, Lady Ashton did not stay at her grammar school for nice safe A levels in arts subjects but went instead to the Wigan & District Mining & Technical College to study sociology, business & law.

There are also lots of revelations about who said what in various private meetings between EU leaders; for example when, finally, Mr Brown said ‘It’s Ashton’, Mr Berlusconi replied ‘Je suis d’accord’ – well French always was the language of diplomacy.

We can but hope for the best. It will be interesting to see what does happen, now that we have women leading the foreign policy of both the US & the EU.

The price of sin

Cigarette prices are going up this Christmas, by 25p a pack, or so I have been warned. 13p is a manufacturers price increase, the rest comes form the restoration of VAT to its old 17½% rate.

Well we sinners mustn’t grumble, & I for one never really expected the Chancellor to remove the ‘off-setting’ rise in tobacco tax once VAT came back.

The manufacturers increase may however signal something of wider concern – it is of the order of 7 ½%

Further evidence perhaps for the Bank of England’s expectation that CPI inflation is likely to rise sharply to above the 2% target in the near term


Sunday, November 22, 2009

On his parting from her

It is high time there was more from John Donne on this blog. So another passionate poem about love, loss, hope & survival.


SINCE she must go, and I must mourn, come night,
Environ me with darkness, whilst I write ;
Shadow that hell unto me, which alone
I am to suffer when my love is gone…

O Love, that fire and darkness should be mix'd,
Or to thy triumphs such strange torments fix'd !
Is it because thou thyself art blind, that we,
Thy martyrs, must no more each other see ?
Or takest thou pride to break us on the wheel,
And view old Chaos in the pains we feel ?
Or have we left undone some mutual rite,
That thus with parting thou seek'st us to spite ?
No, no. The fault is mine, impute it to me,
Or rather to conspiring destiny,
Which, since I loved in jest before, decreed
That I should suffer, when I loved indeed ;
And therefore, sooner now than I can say,
I saw the golden fruit, 'tis rapt away ;
Or as I'd watch'd one drop in the vast stream,
And I left wealthy only in a dream …

Was't not enough that thou didst dart thy fires
Into our bloods, inflaming our desires,
And madest us sigh, and blow, and pant, and burn,
And then thyself into our flames didst turn ?
Was't not enough that thou didst hazard us
To paths in love so dark and dangerous,
And those so ambush'd round with household spies,
And over all thy husband's towering eyes,
Inflamed with th' ugly sweat of jealousy ;

And, after all this passed purgatory,
Must sad divorce make us the vulgar story ?
First let our eyes be riveted quite through
Our turning brain, and both our lips grow to ;
Let our arms clasp like ivy, and our fear
Freeze us together, that we may stick here,
Till Fortune, that would ruin us with the deed,
Strain his eyes open, and yet make them bleed…

For Love it cannot be, whom hitherto
I have accused, should such a mischief do.
O Fortune, thou'rt not worth my least exclaim,
And plague enough thou hast in thy own name.
Do thy great worst ; my friend and I have charms,
Though not against thy strokes, against thy harms.
Rend us in sunder ; thou canst not divide
Our bodies so, but that our souls are tied,
And we can love by letters still and gifts,
And thoughts and dreams ; love never wanteth shifts…

And dearest friend, since we must part, drown night
With hope of day—burdens well borne are light— ;
The cold and darkness longer hang somewhere,
Yet Phoebus equally lights all the sphere ;
And what we cannot in like portion pay
The world enjoys in mass, and so we may…

Be then ever yourself, and let no woe
Win on your health, your youth, your beauty ; so
Declare yourself base Fortune's enemy,
No less be your contempt than her inconstancy ;
That I may grow enamour'd on your mind,
When mine own thoughts I here neglected find.
And this to the comfort of my dear I vow,
My deeds shall still be what my deeds are now ;
The poles shall move to teach me ere I start ;
And when I change my love, I'll change my heart.
Nay, if I wax but cold in my desire,
Think, heaven hath motion lost, and the world, fire.
Much more I could, but many words have made
That oft suspected which men most persuade.
Take therefore all in this ; I love so true,
As I will never look for less in you.

The whole poem can be read here

Threat or promise?

Reading that the government is proposing that all children should have a legally enforceable right to a good education reminds me of a spot of bother at work – well over 30 years ago now.

New bodies were being set up to run what had previously been run by local government.

One clause in the Bill gave the Secretary of State powers to ask these bodies to provide him with information about their activities.

As statisticians we pointed out that there was no corresponding obligation on the bodies to provide the data, no sanction if they simply said Shan’t!

The Assistant Secretary in charge of the Bill Team sent back a rather short & sharp response (as only an old style mandarin could) to the effect that boring statisticians were making an irrelevant point.

Eventually we got it across.

Ah yes! Well, I shall give it some thought. Though I must say, my view is always that if you get to the point of ever having to use it, you’ve lost anyway.

How do children enforce such a right if, in the extreme, there are simply no capable adults prepared to attempt to teach the little blighters?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What kind of question is that?

Steve Landsburg has a piece about marking university exams in America which makes for an interesting contrast with Mary Beard’s guides to marking or to coping with the entrance interview at the University of Cambridge.

Landsberg’s role, as an outside examiner, was to determine which of the graduating seniors was worthy of an honours degree in economics. There was a written exam, followed by personal interviews.

Five of the exam questions are posted on The Big Questions blog, translated from “the original economese to something approximating English.” A link is also provided to the questions in the original economese. The comparison between them is instructive.

I found myself pondering which version would pose the bigger challenge, which would test whether the student had truly grasped & absorbed the principles & purpose, as well as just mastering the techniques of economic analysis.

The jargon used in the exam gives the student a pretty strong steer towards which bit of the theory, which chapter of the textbook, is being examined – for example the reference to ‘indifference curves’ in the first question about Frieda, the root beer & the peanuts. The simple version requires the student to decide for themself which part(s) of the theory are relevant to the question.

For this is one of the hardest things to do once you leave college with your impressive scroll & grapple with real world problems. Faced with an undergraduate assignment in statistics, you knew it was a χ2 problem because that was what you had been studying that week. Even in finals you knew you were expected to choose only one of a limited range of options. In the real world it might be χ2, it might be some other technique, or it might be a problem whose solution requires a method so far unknown to statistical science, & there is no teacher handy to tell you which.

Except of course that these days there is always the magic of the web.

Related post
Toil and tears

Friday, November 20, 2009

Grumble alert

I have wasted half my computer allocation time today just trying to find some basic government information about bus passes.

It was only after I had, with the help of the Public, found that, in the jargon, this is “Special Grant Funding 2010-11 (National Bus Concession)” that I was able to track down the relevant documents on the Department for Transports own website. I have given up, for now, trying to find the relevant background statistics on the Communities & Local Government website – they are secrets that, like their cousins on the ONS website, are not going to be yielded up easily.

But, since those figures are just one small part of the vast array of local government financial statistics, without much relevant detail, the transport department is now hoping that they will be able to start a new collection of data to provide:

- Quarterly returns on year-to-date actual spending on the statutory minimum concession
- Quarterly returns on full-year forecast spending on the statutory minimum concession
- Annual returns detailing the reimbursement arrangements entered into with bus operators, including details of revenue reimbursement rates, additional cost arrangements, average fare data and concessionary bus patronage data.

I am astonished that such arrangements were not put in place when the new ‘go gallivanting anywhere’ national pass for pensioners was introduced last year.

These passes have led to a very marked increase in bus travel round our way. People who, two years ago, would have considered that buses were only for losers, now have a real ‘if it’s free, I’m having some’ attitude, & hence have learned the benefits of the bus. So much so that it can be difficult to get a seat some days. It’s déjà vu – those pesky little brothers & sisters (the post-war baby spikers) coming & spoiling it all for us again!

The government remains confident that the overall level of funding is right, but that the distribution between authorities may have gone awry, & so are proposing changes to the distribution for next year.

I was thinking about this after finding out that we are to have new buses with new ticketing machines which will know exactly where you got on, through the use of GPS. If this is, eventually, combined with an ability to read the individual pass, & if comparable technology is adopted by all, then the government will have access to more information than it can dream of now. Used imaginatively, it could provide a way of ‘means testing’ the provision of this benefit without a vast array of rules, regulations & filling in forms about your income. For example there might be a basic free allocation which could be topped up at concessionary rates for those who wish to travel more. Or it could be used to make all travel to the hospital free, with small charges for other trips. Major supermarkets could offer top ups to those who travel to their stores by bus.

The extra cost of the ‘go anywhere’ element which is what was added to the basic local travel concession last year, is about £220million annually. Given the mobility, independence, mental & social stimulation which it brings to anyone who can just get themselves to the bus stop, it is cheap at the price.

Special Grant Report (No. 129) Department for Transport Local Government Finance (England)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Footnote on Shipman

I was on a bus travelling in to Manchester, along Hyde Road, as it happens, late one morning. The surroundings just there are desolate, with one of the grimmer housing estates set well back from the road on one side.

We stopped for passengers – even before I could see them I knew to be a bit wary – two young men whose loud voices & way of talking marked them as potentially volatile; I made sure to focus obviously on my paper as they made their way past me & the only other passenger to the back of the bus – just to make sure there would be no upset about what I was looking at them for.

I need not have concerned myself – they were just interested in their own conversation. And soon, so was I. By the time we got into the city centre my feelings might best, if ridiculously, be described as maternal.

Each had just got out of some kind of rehab & had been given a council flat of his own - making it virtually certain that they had spent their childhood in care. Notes were being eagerly compared: “My kitchen is painted green.”

Then they agreed: “It’s good to be able to sleep through & not wake up in a sweat.”

The conversation took a darker turn. The younger of the two – who, to judge by the way he spoke, loudly & slowly & dragging slightly on his words, had some kind of intellectual impairment, was awaiting a court appearance. He seemed to accept it philosophically, just a normal part of life. He had been shoplifting – at someone else’s behest, he confided. It was the simple wonder in his voice that made your heart go out to him.

"They were waiting for me as soon as I came out of the store! And – they had been watching me all the way down there – they showed me the cctv footage!"

He fully expected to go to jail this time.

And he was scared, scared of Strangeways.

Some sympathy & encouragement from his friend.

"Yes, but Shipman’s in there. I’m scared."

"Oh him! You don’t have to be scared of him. He just thinks he’s above everybody else. As long as you let him think you believe that, you’ll have nothing to worry about."

Related post

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I have just been reading A History of British Serial Killing by David Wilson – a very interesting analysis which focuses on the victims. Wilson (a former prison governor & now a professor of criminology) does not believe that a useful explanation can be found by ‘entering into the mind’ of the murderer.

He notes that ‘Children, young people living away from home, gay men, prostitutes & the elderly are the prime victims of serial killers’ & that ‘most elderly people who have been murdered by a British serial killer were victims of a medical practitioner’ [nurse or doctor]

Harold Shipman of course holds the grisly record as a killer of elderly people, & Wilson notes that we can know nothing about his psychology, even if we thought that a useful line to pursue, since even Dame Janet Smith was ‘unable to attempt any detailed explanation of the psychological factors underlying Shipman’s conduct’ despite the assistance of 4 forensic psychiatrists (none of whom was able to interview him).

I do share Wilson’s distaste & concern with the current obsession, lionisation almost, of the serial killer in popular entertainment. But I was surprised one day when a hypothesis about the psychology of Harold Shipman popped unbidden into my mind, which, in the way common to amateur psychologists, I continue to find persuasive.

A professional was talking on the radio about shopaholics – those who find themselves compelled to spend large sums which they cannot afford on a designer jacket, shoes or handbag which then sit pristine in the carrier bag at the back of the wardrobe or in the attic.

It’s an anxiety thing – the tension builds & builds until a purchase provides the only relief. The sufferer experiences euphoria & an immediate release of tension, followed by remorse & a determination never to do such a silly thing again.

They will. The cycle always starts again. Disaster & discovery are virtually guaranteed once the debt collectors come knocking on the door. Sometimes the sufferer is able to seek help & find relief another way, but shame, or just the universal human wish to have it all – to be able to go out & feel the thrill of purchase while retaining the respect of others, without the disaster of debt.

Such explanations are quite commonly given for addictions & compulsions of various kinds; the mystery lies in the specific choice of action to take or substance to ingest in order to bring relief. As sympathetic or empathetic as we might be, we find it hard to comprehend, even when we have compulsions & anxieties of our own.

The explanation must, in part at least, lie in the personal history of the sufferer – if only in the crude sense that if you have never been exposed to, or do not have access to alcohol, you cannot become an alcoholic.

Harold Shipman was a working class boy who won a scholarship to a good grammar school. When he was in the Sixth Form – aged 17 - his mother died of lung cancer. According to a tv biography broadcast just after his trial, one way he found relief from the tension & anxiety of this (a truly terrible thing to have to witness back then) was to go for long walks on his own around the city at night.

It is not hard to imagine the legacy of almost unbearable feelings of anxiety which this might have left him with.

That does not mean that his future ‘career’ was set – another person would have found some other way of putting these feelings to a more constructive use.

But it is tempting to think that just the knowledge that his patients would, eventually, die, perhaps horribly, produced in him the compulsion to put them out of their misery while there was still time.

Some supporting evidence from Wilsons book:

Shipman liked to pose the bodies of his victims before he left them, because he wanted to give the impression that they had peacefully ‘slipped away’

And speaking of another serial killer of the elderly, Kenneth Erskine, the Stockwell Strangler, Wilson uses a quotation from Dr Edmund Hervey-Smith taken from an article in The Times 28 July 1986 byMarcel Berlins:

"It is possible … that his preoccupation with old people stems from something that has happened to him. Perhaps his mother died after a lot of suffering & as a result he feels sorry for old people. If he is schizophrenic he may genuinely believe that he is putting his victims out of their misery

None of this is to suggest in any way that Shipman should be a sympathetic character. His arrogance has been noted, fed probably by his repeated ability to get away with it. ‘Silly little people’ starts to be as important as the warped benignity.

And these warring attitudes bring their own tension. To quote Wilson again: We do not need to ‘enter the mind’ of a serial killer to appreciate how bizarre it must be to spend ones life killing people … while all the time appearing ‘normal’ to ones friends & acquaintances, discussing the weather, work, current affairs, or the latest trials & tribulations of family members.

That is just about the end of my hypothesising, except to say that it seems possible to fit in the idea that at least one part of him was wanting to be caught (hence the foolish & obvious forging of a will) while at the same time wanting to see how far he could continue to get away with his breathtakingly outrageous behaviour. It would also fit with his absolute refusal ever to speak to police or any other authority once they had shown him the evidence that established his guilt – the little people had finally caught on & he had nothing to explain.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What do people NOT die of?

I do not think I have ever seen a set of charts showing cumulative mortality by age for the major causes of death – either for birth cohorts or cross sections of the population centred on the decennial census. Such charts would help to illuminate whether, for example, cancer mortality has really fallen, or whether it has just shifted up the age scale. And we know that death becomes much more miscellaneous among the very old.

Death was almost just a part of life when I was a child. Helped in some ways by the fact that I had a large number of much older relatives (all my grandparents had multiple siblings), & of course the memory of those who had died during the War.

There were usually one or two half-orphans in my class, & a couple of total orphans at school – the ones we knew about, who were being looked after by a relative who was their legal guardian; we did not usually know the background of the children who were adopted.

To be widowed in your forties was not uncommon – womens magazines ran regular features on how to cope. These days the phrase widows & orphans has almost no place in the pension scheme.

Death – among family, friends, or acquaintances seems almost more rare now than it used to be, despite our advancing age.

Death in anyone under 70 is rare, & then almost always, if not accidental, due to cancer or one of the nasty neurological diseases, with one or two clearly the result of couldn’t-careless-ness or unwisdom in the choice of lifestyle.

The last person I knew who died of a heart attack before he reached 50 was over 20 years ago; yesterday it occurred to me that it is at least as long as that since I heard of anyone having a stroke – is that because they do not have them, or because treatment has advanced so much that it is no longer the kind of thing that makes people say – Did you hear about …?, to the shaking of heads because, at the very least, that meant that they would never work again.

The astonishing reduction in mortality remains something of a mystery, not entirely explained by advances in treatment or changes in lifestyle.

I have been wondering if we may have underestimated the effect of improvements in medical treatment. For example, the elimination of many of the common diseases of childhood does not just prevent death directly; it also avoids the debilitating effects which may make the body more vulnerable to future shocks & insults. Much the same can be said about the use of antibiotics to treat severe infections at any age – the concomitant scarring & damage to tissue is much reduced. And of course the huge improvements in antenatal, maternal & paediatric care has meant healthier children right from the start, in smaller families with more intense parental care & attention for all.

Advances in anaesthesia have made it possible to operate on those who would have been considered too frail not all that long ago. It is less than 20 years since I had to do my best to support a friend whose mother was dying, distressingly, with cancer which was ‘of course’ inoperable ‘at her age’; such callousness would usually seem unthinkable now.

Then there are the huge effects of advances in A&E – not just in preventing immediate death, but, through the care & repair of wounds making the patient stronger & less vulnerable to insults to health even years down the line.

Last but not least there are all the improvements in emergency services, stabilising patients, removing them from dangerous situations & getting them to hospital ASAP. As Belton Cobb found, much of the reduction in the ‘murder’ of policemen on duty in the second half-century of the existence of modern police forces was due to the simple availability of improved care for the injured.

Which means that we should not of course forget the telephone – without which such prompt provision of care would not be possible.

And which also means, paradoxically perhaps, that the internal combustion engine has made its contribution too; yes, it has been responsible for more than its fair share of needless death & destruction, but when speeded along with blues & twos it plays an essential role in the reduction of mortality.

Related posts

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mustn't grumble

Next time I want to do a grumbly old lady about government regulations I shall remember this:

Life is much too drab nowadays. No one possesses the capacity for enjoying simple pleasures – they seem much too docile: too wrapped up in forms & encompassed by government restrictions. It’s time there was a revolution!

and ponder whether that is the kind of company I want to keep.

It comes from a letter written by John Haigh to his parents while he was in Brixton prison awaiting execution

The saga of the drain

Today when I came out there was yet more work being done on the drain on the bridge which has been causing all the trouble – just as well, given the forecast for later this week.

This time it was a man from the county council, equipped with something like dyno rods.

At least it shows there is widespread awareness among the authorities now about the importance of the drains

Related post

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On not saying everything

I was thinking about this beautiful poem by Cecil Day-Lewis after the events of the past week, when we have seen the prime minister coming under very personal attack, & had revealed to us more details about the personal salaries of those in public service – in this case the BBC top brass.

It is a deeply personal poem, written about the tension between domesticity & the need to explore, but I think it can be interpreted more widely, about the tension between the need to possess the beloved while giving them freedom to grow; while giving them the privacy or private space in which to reach their own potential.

In these days when transparency is all, & power must be held, sometimes aggressively, to account, it reminds us of the importance of also sometimes giving those who serve the public the appropriate amount of space & privacy, to observe the proper boundaries in order to allow them to grow, rather than to shrivel, & to do their best, for us as for themselves.

I reproduce only the first & last verses. You can read the whole poem here & listen to a recording of it by Jill Balcon, the poet’s widow.

On not saying everything

This tree outside my window here,
Naked, umbrageous, fresh or sere,
Has neither chance nor will to be
Anything but a linden tree,
Even if its branches grew to span
The continent; for nature’s plan
Insists that infinite extension
Shall create no new dimension.
From the first snuggling of the seed
In earth, a branchy form’s decreed.


But when we cease to play explorers
And become settlers, clear before us
Lies the next need – to re-define
The boundary between yours and mine;
Else, one stays prisoner, one goes free.
Each to his own identity
Grown back, shall prove our love’s expression
Purer for this limitation.
Love’s essence, like a poem’s, shall spring
From the not saying everything.
C Day-Lewis


Saturday, November 14, 2009

The mystery of paternity

Professor Jardine related a very modern take on an old story in her lecture on The Family. Like many of the others, it may be more myth than substance.

A couple were seeking IVF with pre-implantation diagnosis to avoid the birth of a second child with a rare genetic condition which led to a short painful life with a distressing end.

Examination of the fertilised embryos demonstrated, beyond doubt, that the first child could not have been the offspring of the 2 parents presenting for treatment.

There is a story dating from the 1970s or early 1980s (before we had most of the modern DNA techniques) which regularly does the rounds – sometimes cited as fact (by some very eminent authors), sometimes dismissed as urban myth.

A team in Birmingham wished to study the inheritance patterns of the immune system. They started to recruit a large sample of families with children.

The research plan had to be abandoned because fully 30% of the children recruited could not possibly be the offspring of the putative father.

Even old fashioned ABO had its (limited) ability to uncover family secrets. Still has. Radio 5 recently spoke to a young woman who learned that she had been donor conceived after she realised her dad could not be her father because of her blood group (established as a normal part of early ante-natal screening).

When I was a youngster, if an unmarried girl got pregnant there was no form of support other than from your parents or charity. You could try to pursue the father through the courts for maintenance. The popular myth was that he would just get one or more of his mates who shared his ABO blood group to come to court & testify that, well, yes, he might also be the father. Your reputation would be irreparably shattered. So best just stay a good girl.

There used to be many cases where the mother would take on an unmarried daughter’s baby, pass it off as her own, with the child growing up in the belief that his mother was his sister. I knew somebody who did this in the 1970s- though I was incredibly slow on the uptake. A neighbour in the same flats, I had not seen her for ages, & next time I did she was manoeuvring a pram. I blush even now at the memory of my gushed Gosh! I never guessed

I am not at all clear how easy it might have been to get away with this on the official registration of the birth, or if the child might have had to be told eventually when the certificate needed to be used.

There have always of course been cases where a husband has accepted – with greater or less equanimity – a child born to his wife by another man, often for the sake of keeping the family together. And in fact it could be extremely difficult to have paternity legally denied, in the days before DNA.

There have even been plenty of cases where a man has married a pregnant woman in the full knowledge that the child was not his, for the admirably simple reason that he loved her.

Still, in my youth, it was not unknown for adoption to be a guilty secret – for the parents, that is; a public admission of infertility. People would go to extraordinary lengths, if not actually to deceive neighbours & family, then at least to allow them to assume that the birth had taken place somewhere away from home. It could be hard on the husband, but infertility was somehow even more shameful for a woman, because of course it was always her fault.

For Queen Soraya of Persia however such deception was not an option. I can still remember my proto-feminist outrage at the idea that the Shah ‘had to’ divorce her because of her inability to provide an heir – that & the way most adult women in this country seemed to go along with the idea that it was ‘sad but necessary’.

The idea that DNA defines family is undoubtedly likely to be every bit as distressing, if we are suddenly to make & remake the family we have known all our life on the basis of a barcode. It brings back the old fashioned romantic in me – surely love is more important?

Even perfectly ‘legal’ children often go through at least a phase of believing that they cannot possibly be the child of their parents – they must be a foundling or a secret adoptee.

And I return to an earlier question – do we really believe that the younger sibling of Baby Peter should be told the truth, the whole truth, about his DNA parents once he reaches 18?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Out of the warming pan

We all learned the story of the Warming Pan baby at school – the would-be James III of England who was widely believed to have been a foundling smuggled in to his mother’s bed in a warming pan to provide an heir to the otherwise childless James II.

I always believed that, officially at least, certain personages, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, have since then been required by law to witness every royal birth to ensure that we do not have foisted upon us a monarch who is not of the royal blood.

I assumed there was some residual formality involved in this, but have been unable to track down the details.

The last time there was an attempt at a symbolic witnessing was at the birth of the late Princess Margaret.

"So the Home Secretary, J R Clynes, a former organiser of the Lancashire Gasworkers' Union, had to be present when the child was born.

Although the Home Secretary was no longer obliged to be in the room, as Sir James Graham had been (behind a screen) when Queen Victoria's eldest son arrived, the fear that a substitute heir might appear in a warming pan was still officially maintained.

The baby was a fortnight late. So the wretched Clynes was lodged in the neighbourhood for weeks on end. This tradition was subsequently abandoned

I was thinking about all this after hearing a tour de force lecture on “Newfangled families” given by Professor Lisa Jardine at the Gateshead Freethinking Festival & broadcast last night on Radio 3. One of the audience used our adherence to the idea of royal descent by blood to challenge the ideas put forward.

Starting from the examples of Erasmus & Sir Thomas More, Professor Jardine pointed out that in the past family has not necessarily meant blood, & blood has not necessarily meant family; it was instead a more fluid concept of mutual obligation, care, support & living together, far broader than our modern idea of a tight nuclear family or even one that is broken & reconstituted.

Our current obsession with the idea that family (& identity) come (only) from shared DNA together with the availability of ever more techniques of assisted reproduction will cause dilemmas & emotional problems, but she ended with a ringing “I hope we can avoid allowing the genetic connection to trump all other models”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Life in the old woman yet

I had rather assumed that no one would dare to speak about ‘the British housewife’ as if she were still a recognisable species these days. I set out to find when she made her last appearance in unironic print.

She was still in The Times in 1985, the last year covered by the historical archive, but in the obituary of Sir Martin Roseveare, designer of the wartime ration book, so that doesn’t prove that she had not become extinct.

I tried the modern Times. To my astonishment she was spotted in March this year, as reported by Iain MacSween, chairman of Seafood Scotland, who said “Part of the problem is the British housewife has lost the culture of being able to handle and cook whole fish” in Crunch puts langoustine on menu

To be fair, there are 22 other results of my search, though mostly slightly ironical or plain historical, until, back in 2007 Paul Trebilcock, chief executive of the Cornish Fish Producers’ Organisation said that “Squid is something we want to see the British housewife getting her teeth into” in The cod’s off, but fishermen are hoping that squid’s in

What is it with fishermen?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Before Polish plumbers

In 1950 it was the movement of Polish geese to Britain which was causing some controversy. Dead ones, that is, for human consumption.

It was while Googling around more generally on the subject of post war austerity that I came across 4 Parliamentary Questions on the topic – from different MPs to different government departments, so it was not just 1 MP with a bee in his bonnet.

What was that all about – the kind of question I cannot resist.

The Times Archive provided more details.

A Polish/British trade treaty had been signed in January 1949 “in spite of her strong ties to Soviet Russia.” Among other things, this would supply Polish pigs, cattle, bacon, eggs, tinned meat & geese to alleviate the continuing food shortage here.

However concerns about fowl pest had led to the issue of the Poultry (carcasses) Importation Order & licences for Polish geese (though not chickens) were refused. This led to anxiety about a shortage of geese for the traditional English Christmas dinner.

Turkey had not yet become the first choice for every family, but by Christmas 1952 The Times could report that turkey (& even chicken) were threatening the popularity of goose for Christmas. Smaller turkeys – those weighing less than 16 lbs - were finding an easier market that year, & in November the new truly small turkey – weighing in at about 6 lbs – “in which breeders hope to create a constant market” had attracted much attention at the annual National Poultry Event.

Polish geese had eventually been allowed in, but the story did not have a happy ending. Cold storage costs of £25,600 together with import duties (payable to the Exchequer) of £86,000 contributed to a loss of £119,000 for the Ministry of Food on the deal in the first year, & there were complaints that many people found them inedible because the British housewife did not like having her Polish geese stored for so long

Hansard links

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Deliberate prosecution

An interesting Law In Action with Sir Ken Macdonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions.

He said that after the London bombings of July 2005 he had felt "a peculiar sense of responsibility" that he could have done something to stop them. "The guilt felt by people in the top jobs led to a danger that people will overreact, which some governments across the western world did".

He also went on to say that it was an early, deliberate decision to go after anybody who had assisted the bombers (who, since they were dead, could not be prosecuted themselves), & to prosecute if there were sufficient evidence.

I suppose it was then logical (& proper) to go after anybody who assisted the failed bombers of 21 July.

I feel somewhat reassured to hear that these were deliberate decisions rather than knee jerk reactions, but I am still uneasy about the treatment of Yeshi Girma & her sister

When the Wall came down

Those of us of a certain vintage will remember watching the live pictures of the wall coming down twenty years ago” wrote Ian Dale.

And some of us are even old enough to remember it going up – it makes me feel very old to learn that Master Dale was not even born then.

I longed to go to see it coming down in 1989, but no easyJet or bargain break city weekends in those days. No second runway at Manchester airport. A long and/or expensive tedious trip in other words, involving time off work.

I decieded it was not worth it.

And it is strange to find that I really have had more than I want in terms of radio reminiscence. We overdo anniversaries.

Related post
Berlin Wall

Monday, November 09, 2009

Writing in disguise

A 41 year old man was drunk in an alley in Manchester. He found an old fountain pen lying on the ground. He made several attempts to sell it to passers-by.

One of these called the police & the drunk has just been sentenced to 5 years in jail.

Because this was no ordinary nuisance & this was no ordinary pen. It had been turned into a gun, complete with bullet.

The drunk had recognised this – was offering to sell it as a gun.

If I, even perfectly sober, had come across such an object, I do not think I would have realised that.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Cigarette packer

More evidence of concern for the welfare of our brave boys - cigarettes by the thousand being packed (in tins of 50) for our soldiers serving overseas in 1939.

What happens now? Is smoking a criminal offence in the barracks & in the field as well as in the bus sttation back home?

Are smoking cessation advisers embedded with the troops?

To remembrance & to warn

How oddly disconcerting that our symbol of remembrance should be the Flanders poppy, at a time when it is the poppy fields of Afghanistan which have their part in contributing to the war which is killing so many today.

My father was not a religious man, but he always went to the Remembrance Day parade. It was the only time I ever saw him fighting back the tears.

I worked extra hard at polishing, pressing & whitening my Girl Guide uniform for the parade – especially for him, not to let him down, to show I cared. It seemed the least I could do.

Let us look for the sword next, to remembrance and warn us. As there is a time of peace, so is there a time of war; no prosperity lasteth always.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

High flight

I always feel that the last line of this poem lets it down – it is overcooked.

The rest of the poem however does capture the feelings one can have, at least in a small or smallish plane when you can see out all round.

I expects Hopkin’s Windhover had the same feeling

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high unsurpassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee

Mixed blessings

Another poignant poem by Hilaire Belloc, about The Telephone.

To-night in million-voiced London I
Was lonely as the million-pointed sky
Until your single voice. Ah! So the sun
Peoples all heaven, although he be but one.

But the telephone has always been a mixed blessing. For one thing, it can bring on reactions like those of Peter Robinsons Inspector Banks, always having ‘that same empty, lonely feeling after he had spoken to someone he loved over the telephone, as if the silence had somehow become charged with that persons absence.’

“Andy Warhol said the telephone was 'the most intimate & exclusive of all media' but that was before the portable” wrote Martin Woollacott in 1998 – how quaint that ‘portable’ sounds now.

Feelings were mixed from the beginning. Lady Frederick Cavendish called it ‘a wretched new craze’, & Sir Edward Grey found it ‘a deadly disadvantage; it minces time into fragments & frays the spirit’

The inventors of new technology, or at least those of our betters who make it their business to decide what is good for us, usually have lofty aims for the use to which it can be put.

And so it was seriously thought that the prime use for the telephone, once enough lines & exchanges were in place to make it possible to imagine one available in every home, was as a medium to bring culture to the masses – sit round your phone & listen to Carmen live from Covent Garden!

Oddly enough, such a system was set up – Matthew Parris did a Radio Archive about the Electrophone not so long ago. The producers had even found a woman who was old enough to have experienced it in her grandparents house.

But no, what we really want it for is gossip & keeping in touch with friends & family.

The mobile was thought of as something only for (self) important people who believed the world could not get by without instant access to their sage advice or decisions. Why would the rest of us want to be at the beck & call of the office?

But it was the teenage craze for texting & gossiping which really stimulated the market conditions which made it possible for most of us to have them – though some of us still keep it turned off more than on

Friday, November 06, 2009

Teeny boomers

Nearly 55 million 45rpm records were sold in 1961, double the total of 1958, according to an article by Bob Stanley: "Snap judgements on the Sixties," Times Saturday Review.

Not surprising, given that the post war baby spikers were then entering their teens, just as the Dansette & the transistor radio ushered in an age of teenage bedroom technology.

(These baby spikers are now of course taking full advantage of the arrival of the totally free over-60s bus pass)

Nice though to have further confirmation that things did not get druggy till later on:

"Her misgivings about pop's new direction, seen from the epicentre of the Fab offices -'things were getting peculiar, druggy, a bit hairy' - probably echoed those pf the public at large. She quit the country once again in 1967” - Stanley, on Fiona Adams who took the Beatles 'jumping' photo used on Twist & Shout EP cover 1963.
The photograph shows old fashioned police control methods, as applied to Beatles fans.

Nunquam satis singularis

"IPSA - the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority - is to pay the salaries of MPs; to prepare the MPs' allowances scheme ("Scheme"), to review and revise it as necessary (having conducted suitable consultation); and to pay allowances to MPs under the Scheme."

It should not be confused with any of the following:

Information Protection Solutions of America - the number 1 choice for document destruction anywhere and everywhere in the United States.

International Professional Surrogates Association.

Identities, Performance and Social Action.

International Professional Security Association which was formed 50 years ago to ensure professionalism in the management of security operations.

IPSA Group PLC, an expanding independent power producer with operations in South Africa.

The International Political Science Association, an international scholarly association founded under the auspices of UNESCO in 1949. Its objectives are to promote the advancement of political science through the collaboration of scholars in different parts of the world.

IPSA Power, a world-class independent consultancy group providing leading-edge technical consultancy services and software products to the global power industry.

The Association of Independent Personal Search Agents, a non-profit-making representative body and support group for search agencies across the UK.

The Institute of Purchasing and Supply South Africa.

Internet Professionals Society of Alabama.

Institute of Packaging (SA).

International Peace University South Africa.

IPSA Institute, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a private and independent consulting company.

Told you so

It's official.

ONS website "rubbish" says National Statistician

Has Sarah Brown dyed her hair?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

'Twas ever thus

Some of Hilaire Belloc's views on politicians.


Lump says that Caliban's of gutter breed,
And Caliban says Lump's a fool indeed,
And Caliban and Lump and I are all agreed.

Here richly, with ridiculous display,
The Politician's corpse was laid away.
While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged
I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

This, the last ornament among the peers,
Bribed, bullied, swindled and blackmailed for years:
But Death's what even Politicians fail
To bribe or swindle, bully or blackmail.

The Politician, dead and turned to clay,
Will make a clout to keep the wind away.
I am not fond of draughts, and yet I doubt
If I could get myself to touch that clout.

Fame to her darling Shifter glory gives;
And Shifter is immortal while he lives.

Such opprobrium is part of the deal - comes with the pay & rations.

But recent events suggest it still comes, even when there's little pay & almost no rations.

Get out of my way

Why are supporters of Tony Blair so keen on stopping the traffic?

Perhaps it’s just an immature male car thing.

But to anyone who has lived in a country where the presidential motorcade is truly a demonstration of power, deliberately meant to intimidate the populace, the repeated use of this imagery is concerning.

Related post
Pomp & cavalcades

Cloud dreams

Between the ages of 10 & almost 16 I had a wonderful three-quarter bed inherited from a great aunt. Complete with goose feather mattress. Sadly there was not room for it in the new house, so it went to a new owner.

I found myself remembering that mattress yesterday, looking at the dramatic sky over the Pennines. A bit of everything.

Big black angry clouds, lots of brown clag underneath, here & there a gap showing a glimpse of watery blue sky & sunlit fluffy white or silver cumulus. These clouds looked so comfy among all the rest, I could imagine myself curling up & snuggling down for a snooze until the drama passed.

The story that Einstein, as a child, imagined himself riding through space on a beam of light has, for some reason, been quoted a lot recently by all sorts of people, mainly to illustrate that science is not the cold, hard, clinical, pursuit that some creative types imagine.

Anyone can imagine themself riding that sunbeam.

The trick is then to work out the math.

I know I cant do the math but I wondered what I might achieve, if I could. What new scientific insight could sleeping on a cloud bring to the world?

Then I thought, probably much the same as imagining yourself in a tumble drier being tossed up & down, thrown across space while performing cartwheels.

Shapes somewhat resembling human beings

Childhood obesity is in the news again but yesterday I had another sharp reminder that our shape is changing in all sorts of ways.

Primark has started to sell ladies trousers in a choice of Regular or Long - & the long ones (34”) are too long for me.

Fifty years ago it was simply impossible to buy trousers which were long enough - except from a few rare specialist outlets; thirty-odd years ago Marks & Spencer came to the rescue with extra-long; for some time now, mysteriously, one size seemed to fit all (except petite); now I am not even long.

Waistlines – even on the slim – have expanded dramatically; as have bra sizes.

Mens arms have got longer too. A smart white mans cotton shirt was always part of my wardrobe - £ for £ much better quality than a ladies. Not any more, not unless I get out the scissors & the sewing machine on the sleeves.

But the trousers are a bit of a mystery. Although girls are definitely getting taller, there are not very many who are 2” taller than I am – nowhere near enough to account for that high a proportion of Primarks stock.

The fashion for high heels may contribute to the need for longer trouser legs.

My own legs are, relatively, not all that long – much of my extra inches lie between shoulder & waist (a fact again I know from my own home dressmaking days).

But a good part of the growth must surely come from girls getting proportionately longer legs.

Do we have theories about what it is in our diet that is precipitating these changes?

Related post

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Learning to do without crutches

Our economic models were our crutches, said one of the contributors to last night’s Analysis programme The Economist's New Clothes.

It is possible to come to rely on a crutch long after the need for it has passed. It may even be doing you more harm than good, as I have found out over these past several months having decided to dispense with the walking stick except for those times when I cannot even stand without it.

It was not doing my shoulder any good, & I think it probably was not even helping my back. It was just fear that made me carry it – fear of suddenly not being able to get on without it, fear of not being able to keep my feet in a strong wind, etc, etc, etc

Without it I walk straighter & taller.

And, if there is a sudden awkward problem such as steps to go down, I have learned to just ask for help.

It should not have come as a surprise, but young (or youngish) men are particularly considerate & concerned – if you ask.

So the moral for economists is ….

Changing locations

While listening to local radio I suddenly realised just how far the supermarket has taken over from the pub for more than just sales of alcohol.

More than once an organisation was located, or directions given, by saying ‘just near to’ one of the well known names – even if it is just one of the small ‘local’ versions.

They have become our landmarks & our signposts.

They are even finding their way into bus timetables as the recognised names for stops (except Tesco of course).

But its not as romantic as the Queen’s Head or the King’s Arms.

Another kind of academic poacher

If you thought that it was only bureaucratic, socialist Britain that has problems with pushy ambitious parents making fraudulent claims to get their children in to popular state-funded schools, take a look at this report - Academic poachers - from the land of the free

Monday, November 02, 2009


It is a commonplace that we do not, on the whole, appreciate our parents properly, leave it too late to take a real interest in & talk to them about their lives before we came along to share them.

I have been getting a dose of these regrets recently, all because of reading Punch for 1947.

Actually I have a lot of personal memories of that year, all of them precious. But it is only now that I feel real gratitude, admiration even, for how my parents worked & coped to make them so during that annus horribilis.

When 1946 began I had not even met my father – it would be a few weeks before he got home from Burma.

In the autumn we had a brand new house (a prefab) and my mother was having to learn how to be a housewife, her husband often away during the week while he was training for the new profession he had decided to adopt; his war experience had shown him that engineering was more to his taste than banking.

By the time the year had ended I had a new baby sister & by the end of 1947 there had been one of the worst winters on record.

Electricity cuts

A draconian budget.

Continuing shortages & rationing.

I got whooping cough late in the year.

My mother was initially pleased that I did not get the whoop, but she learned how wrong she was when it turned into bronchial pneumonia.

I do not really remember being ill, except for Christmas Day. I had been put into my parents bed while the rest of the family had Christmas dinner. I remember Nana sitting, rocking & cuddling, & asking ‘Won’t you just try a little bit of chicken?’ No, wailed the ungrateful child; I want some semolina.

In later years my mother, when defending the NHS, quite often spoke of the difficult decision they had had to make: should my baby sister be immunised against whooping cough? [NB Note how Bevan quotes his medical advisers!]

This was not because of worries about its safety - it might simply be too late, & the expense would blow a real hole in their budget.

Raymond Tallis (in Hyppocratic Oaths) tells of getting pneumonia in the same epidemic; in his case he was fortunate enough to be treated with penicillin. I have a generalised memory of having to swallow M&B tablets, which were so big they seemed like horse medicine to me.

Rather puts our present problems into perspective.

But I still love semolina pudding.

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