Thursday, December 31, 2009

Responsible parenting

Who said there was anything modern about binge drinking & irresponsible parenting?

Here’s another ditty from Arnold Silcock for any parents out celebrating New Years Eve

Ultra-Modern Nursery Rhyme

Hush-a-bye, baby, your milk’s in the tin,
Mummy has got you a nice sitter-in;
Hush-a-bye, baby, now don’t get a twinge
While Mummy & Daddy are out on the binge

Arnold Silcock

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

You can’t take a goldfish for a walk

The title of this piece sounds like a gnomic utterance from a sage, or a surreal battle slogan.

A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.

In fact it comes from the first pop song which I probably considered as my own – How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?

It was also the first piece of sheet music I bought after I got my piano (inherited from a great aunt).

This was going to be a simple memory piece but things got murky when I started looking for links to details on the web.

I remember the bright red cover to the music & I was perfectly certain that the singer pictured was Rosemary Clooney, so it was disconcerting to read that the Number One Hit in 1953 was achieved by Patti Page, but that Lita Roza scored the hit in Britain.

Rosemary Clooney did also record it however – don’t know when, but since she is the aunt of the gorgeous George, I prefer to believe that hers is the version I remember.

The memories came flooding back when I heard it as Bertie Ahern’s inheritance track on Saturday morning.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Lucky escape

I wonder if British Airways cabin crew & their union are breathing a sigh of relief & thanking their lucky stars, or the judge who ruled their proposed Christmas strike illegal.

People have been remarkably stoical, cheerful even in a resigned kind of way, despite the frustrations of the weather, its incredible ability to stop the trains even in a tunnel, & now a renewed terrorist alarm to disrupt holiday travel.

But I cant help feeling that something like lynch mobs might have formed if those lucky enough still to have jobs had thrown it all in people’s faces, for the sake of what exactly?

Student radicals or radicalised students?

There is an added curiosity in finding myself reading Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels at the same time as we have the latest failed attempt by a young man to bring down a plane in the USA in the name of radical Islamism.

It is also startling to hear, in the year which marks the centenary of the assassination of Sir Curzon Wyllie, that the young man who has been arrested for this latest terrorist incident was a student of mechanical engineering at University College London, as was Wylie’s assassin.

I hasten to add that I do not mean in any way to imply that UCL encourages or fosters such acts.

The first university in England to admit students of any race, class or religion & the first to welcome women on equal terms with men, UCL has Jeremy Bentham (& his preserved skeleton) as its spiritual father & came above Oxford University in the latest world university rankings . Some of my best friends ….

Engels, Dhingra & Abdulmutallab come from very different eras but were all very bright young men from comfortable backgrounds who, from quite an early age, began to show signs of rebellion, particularly against their father's values (students of my generation would have been quick to diagnose an Oedipus complex) & became students of & passionate adherents to a cause & a route to a better world.

What we now call radicalised.

There were plenty around in the western world of the 1960s & it became fashionable to bemoan the lack of passion or political conviction in later generations of students.

Such numbers of thoughts in your brain

“Lewis Carroll” by Eleanor Farjeon is a clever & nicely imagined verse which addresses (obliquely) something which I have recently noticed – the way that people who have made an academic study of physics can address the imaginations of children.

The Reverend Charles Dodgson was not, of course, a physicist but a mathematician & logician, but those disciplines are closely intertwined.

I am reminded of AN Whitehead’s explanation of why he opted for the study of mathematics rather than physics at Cambridge in the 1880s: it was thought that physics was, basically, completely known by then, just a few loose ends to be tidied up. The fundamental problems of arithmetic which were being exposed seemed to pose a more interesting intellectual challenge.

Then along came a man called Einstein.

Lewis Carroll

‘You are wise, Mr Dodgson,’ the young child said,
‘And your forehead is getting a wrinkle;
And yet you’ve so twinkling an eye in your head –
I’m wondering what makes it twinkle?’

‘In my youth,’ Mr Dodgson replied to the child,
‘I acquired mathematical habits
To keep my odd thoughts from becoming as wild
As March Hares, & as frequent as Rabbits.’

‘You are wise, Lewis Carroll,’ the child said again,
‘And the College you live in is hoary;
But if you’ve such numbers of thoughts in your brain –
Do you think you could tell me a story?’

‘In my youth, if you must know the truth,’ whispered he,
‘I kept those same thoughts very supple
By letting my stories run quite fancy-free –
Allow me to tell you a couple'

Eleanor Farjeon

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fixer fixed

I wonder if the politicians are still as keen as they were reported to be before Christmas to get advice from Simon Cowell about how to run, even maybe how to win, an election?

The Affair of the Christmas Number One, which saw Rage Against the Machine beat X Factor winner Joe McElderry indeed teaches many lessons.

It teaches how few people can have such a big effect, about how a small, but passionate group, whose views are deeply felt, can overcome a silent, perhaps a more complacent majority. It teaches that people may react very sharply against being taken for granted by someone who thinks he is in control (because he deserves it by virtue of his superior knowledge & skill)

The total number of voters, as measured by reported sales was less than 1 million, out of a total population of 60 million. When you allow for multiple purchases – the scope for screening these out is limited, & indeed there is a valid point to be discussed about which multiple purchases should be discounted at this time of gift giving, when the Christmas Number One may seem the solution to many peoples problem – only about ½ million real live individuals may be involved.

There is even something in the tale for the conspiracy theorists among us. For the real winner is the company which published both records. Now they couldn’t have engineered the whole thing. Could they?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Donkey's Glory

Sad to hear the news that Eric Boswell died recently. His song, Little Donkey, is such a Christmas favourite, even though he reportedly had mixed feelings about the way its success overshadowed his other work.

He was another children's favourite who had a degree in physics. It must be something about the imagination.

Little donkey, little donkey,
On the dusty road.
Got to keep on plodding onwards,
With your precious load.
Been a long time, little donkey,
Through the winter's night.
Don't give up now, little donkey

I don't think Nan Goodall had a degree in physics but she wrote Donkey's Glory which was one of the very first books that I owned. The illustrations by Clare Dawson played a large part in fixing it so vividly in my memory. The little donkey, after many other adventures, was chosen to carry Jesus on Palm Sunday.

If I remember rightly the book also contained the story of Tobias & the Angel, which impressed me mightily. It came as a surprise later on to learn that some disapproved of this because it is considered to belong in the Apocrypha.

Related post

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A challenge to philosophy

We are so used these days to the idea that ‘other people’ have their own culture which we must learn to accept & to live with, we forget that some of the hardest cultural adjustments are those we must make with people ‘just like us’

Take how we celebrate Christmas.

Zadie Smith addressed just this point in her recent collection of occasional essays Changing My Mind:

Family represents the reality of which Christmas is the dream … You know [there is an animating spirit to Christmas rituals] when you start your own little family … he tries to open the presents on Christmas Eve because that’s what he did in his family & you have the strong urge to run screaming from the building. It is a moving & comic thing …. To watch a young couple as they teeter around the Idea of Christmas, trying to avoid internecine festive warfare.

People are people everywhere, across both space & time. But those most difficult to understand are often those who are closest to us, who share our upbringing, environment, genes & love.

A friend of mine, an academic, likes to say that marriage represents the biggest challenge to philosophy that there is.

You spend all your time pondering questions such as:

  • How can I prove that the world exists?

  • How do I know what I know?

  • Do I exist?

Then you meet, or suddenly recognise, your other half.

Validation! Someone who thinks just like you, sees the same things as you do, knows how you feel before you even know it yourself.

But – there will always be that first moment. Big or small – the declaration of World War III or squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle.

How can that possibly happen? How can someone exist in the same world as you, even live in the same house as you .. how can all that be true & yet they think/behave LIKE THAT!

Related post
The speech of Aristophanes

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day, 1797

Is this really the sort of poem one would want to read on Christmas Day?

The story behind it is certainly a grim one. In September 1796 Mary Lamb had killed her mother with a kitchen knife. The family had been living under the strain of poverty, with a senile father & a bed ridden mother.

Charles Lamb, against the wishes of other family members, gave surety which allowed Mary to be released into his care, rather than be committed to the Bethlem Hospital (more popularly known as Bedlam).

They lived together for over 30 years (though Mary required periodic hospitalisation). Modern diagnosis suggests that Mary suffered from bipolar disorder.

Or perhaps she just read too much as a child! Even in my youth there were some grown ups around who believed that a child who read too intensely risked damaging her brain.

Although the brother/sister relationship, particularly as expressed in this poem, seems uncomfortably intense to modern ears, their writing collaboration was a fruitful one, which lives on to this day.

Tales From Shakespeare was still popular when I was at school; many homes, including ours, introduced children to the bard in this way.

So, all in all, a tale of optimism, of a kind.

Count your blessings.

Written On Christmas Day, 1797

I am a widow'd thing, now thou art gone!
Now thou art gone, my own familiar friend,
Companion, sister, help-mate, counsellor!
Alas! that honour'd mind, whose sweet reproof
And meekest wisdom in times past have smooth'd
The unfilial harshness of my foolish speech,
And made me loving to my parents old,
(Why is this so, ah God! why is this so?)
That honour'd mind become a fearful blank,
Her senses lock'd up, and herself kept out
From human sight or converse, while so many
Of the foolish sort are left to roam at large,
Doing all acts of folly, and sin, and shame?
Thy paths are mystery!

Yet I will not think,
Sweet friend, but we shall one day meet, and live
In quietness, and die so, fearing God.
Or if not, and these false suggestions be
A fit of the weak nature, loth to part
With what it lov'd so long, and held so dear;
If thou art to be taken, and I left
(More sinning, yet unpunish'd, save in thee),
It is the will of God, and we are clay
In the potter's hands; and, at the worst, are made
From absolute nothing, vessels of disgrace,
Till, his most righteous purpose wrought in us,
Our purified spirits find their perfect rest.

Charles Lamb

Related posts

Thursday, December 24, 2009


I love sprouts – always have done. As a young child I would pinch them from the plants growing in the garden & nibble them raw – even frozen, given the kind of winters we had in those days. Of course the old gardeners always used to say that they don’t taste right until the frost has been at them.

So I am not one of those who is oversensitive to the taste of glucosinolate conjugates or isothiocyanates & I would not dream of insisting that anyone who is – certainly not a child - eat them just because they are ‘good for you.’

But for those who share the pleasure, just imagine any of the following.

At this time of year when they come healthy, deep green & tightly packed – just plunge for no more than 5 minutes into a pan of water which is at a rolling boil. Drain & eat just as they are, or with melted butter, a squeeze of lemon juice & some black pepper. You could use oil instead of butter, but never olive oil – something unobtrusive, like corn, vegetable or soya.

Nuts go very well with sprouts, so for something more elaborate combine with flakes of toasted almonds: melt a good knob of butter (or oil) in a pan, add the (lightly boiled, as above) sprouts & whirl over a high heat. Turn off the flame & scatter with the almonds.

Walnuts mix pleasingly with sprouts – providing they are not all dried up & bitter. Divide into halves or quarters & add to the sprouts as above, instead of almonds.

Fried Spanish onions also work well – cut into rings & fried until deep brown but not carbonised, they are just deliciously sweet.

For a very English version of sweet & sour pork – grilled pork chops with potatoes & sprouts - marmalade makes an enjoyable & unexpectedly good sauce. Admittedly I can verify this only if the marmalade is made from my mother’s recipe. This is quite runny, a little sweet, & has thick-cut peel, but is boiled until the peel is soft, not at all like Oxford marmalade.

Sprouts always work well as a kind of ‘stew’ which will serve as both vegetable & gravy for meat & potatoes, even a pasta sauce, with lots of cheese. Soften some sliced onion in oil or butter, add sliced sprouts & a tin of tomatoes & simmer for about 10 minutes.

If none of the above, perhaps weird-sounding, combinations is enough to counteract the (to you) unbearable taste of glucosinolates then just don’t eat them, remove them from your diet; make your refusals polite but firm.

I am a great believer in the idea that your body tells you what it needs, providing that it is given a proper chance to find out. There must be a genetic basis for the unpleasantness for you of what is scrumptious for me; it may even be a genetic signal that your genome is not designed to get the benefit of all the vitamins delivered in that particular package.

But it is personal, not a universal law of good taste.

Related post

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A proposal which wholly or chiefly benefits the proposer

This was a diary story in The Times, so it may be a little exaggerated or embellished.

Energy-efficient bulbs in traffic lights do not give off enough heat to melt the snow that falls on them, so in America the snow clearers have one more job – cleaning it all off by hand. They should press gang Green campaigners into doing the job.

The campaign to force us all to use energy efficient light bulbs has been a classic example of how not to do it. Usually technical advances succeed on their own merits – everybody wants to get on the bandwagon, for the comfort & status on offer.

Instead we have been nagged & confused, seemingly by evangelists from the knit your own yurt & yogurt brigade, without any good word of mouth at all. All you hear is expense, not enough light & delay in coming to full power. And if the figures on More or Less are any guide, they will not even save many of us any money – it’s like the official inflation rate, an average which does not match any one households pattern of purchases.

I speak as one who was trained from my earliest years NEVER to leave the lights on in an unoccupied room (unless it was the fluorescent bulb in the main living room which should be left on for short periods because it took more to fire up than to stay lit), nor, for safety reasons, to leave electrical equipment switched on while totally unattended. I still stick to those rules, except that I now leave the light on the stairs on, partly for safety reasons, but also because it makes a noticeable difference to the temperature, takes the chill off so there is no need to leave the radiator on.

I did buy an energy efficient bulb for the reading lamp, feeling I ought to find out what I was really in for if push comes to shove. It certainly makes it hard to read the newspaper, & does not take the chill off the room, meaning some other source of heat is needed. Now I am torn between just switching back or leaving it to see if it really does last as long as is claimed

Frugalist Christmas

It occurs to me that I haven’t seen a Christmas shop this year – one of those which would otherwise be empty, taken on a short lease to sell nothing but decorations; the usual wreaths, baubles, lights & artificial trees plus large model Santas, angels & fairies. Green silver & grey have been the tasteful colours de rigueur for some years now – no vulgar red or gold. There are usually at least two or three in town.

Well, there are certainly plenty of empty shops whose landlords would be glad of some extra cashflow, but obviously the customers have decided, or the traders have decided that customers have decided, that they do not need such conspicuous fripperies in hard times.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Blocked, stopped, or covered with snow

The wellies went to town again yesterday, feeling quite confident that nobody notices – it’s just pure self centred self consciousness that makes one imagine everyone is looking, pointing a finger.

But – someone (Chinese, I think) actually came up & said they were exactly what she needed for this weather – where could she buy some?

I was nonplussed. Where does one buy wellies in town? I could only suggest the camping shop.

My (proper) green ones were bought at the shooting & fishing shop in the village – one of my first, I assumed necessary, purchases when I moved here.

Odd how it is only when we have global warming to worry about that the lanes are calf deep in snow once again, side roads impassable, delivery vans parked all along the main road because the drivers do not want to risk trying to get down, then back up again, or vice versa, on any of the side roads, people walking or taking to public transport because they prefer to leave the driving to a professional or because they simply cannot get the car out of the steep driveway.

Monday, December 21, 2009

An excuse for a souse

I have only just started to read The Frock Coated Communist, Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels, but this (written while he was still a very young man in Germany) is worth quoting:

“… the mass of the working population fell victim to drink. From nine in the evening, in great crowds & arm in arm, taking up the whole width of the street, the “soused men” tottered their way, bawling discordantly, from one inn to the other & finally back home.

Sir Liam Donaldson seems keen to blame our binge drinking culture on middle class parents who give their small children watered down wine to drink; Engels was blaming cruel capitalists & the loss of jobs in weaving & textiles because of competition from industrial Manchester with its global connections.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Love you because

I wonder how many popular songs of the twentieth century will live on as pure word poems on the page (or screen) in the canon of future centuries?

No idea, your guess is as god as mine. But if any do we would probably be very surprised if we ever got to come back to find out which they were.

These thoughts passed through my mind because twice this week, for the first time in I do not know how long, I happened to hear Jim Reeves singing Leon Payne’s I Love You Because – once on Harry Belafonte radio on Last FM, then on Terry Wogan’s farewell Radio2 Breakfast show.

I would not want to suggest that it deserves to last for its literary merits; in any case, I cannot hear it just as a poem, divorced from the music, & certainly not from intense personal memory of how it was Our Song in 1964.

I love you because you understand dear
Every single thing I try to do
You’re always there to lend a helping hand dear
I love you most of all because you’re you

No matter what the world may say about me
I know your love will always see me through
I love you for the way you never doubt me,
But most of all I love you cause you're you

I love you because my heart is lighter
Every time I’m walking by your side
I love you because the future’s brighter
The door to happiness you opened wide

No matter what the world may say about me
I know your love will always see me through
I love you for a hundred thousand reasons
But most of all I love you ‘cause you’re you

Related post


The rhetorical trick of switching the gendered third person singular pronoun in alternate sentences really has caught on, beyond the realms of our new Supreme Court. I have heard it several times this week.

Well it beats the politicians trick of being careful to say always HeOrShe (rhymes with Treorchy) – that is after they got over saying (condescendingly) he – or, of course - she.

And it certainly beats He/She, She/He or (shudder) S/he.

Weird, how one of those binary divisions of the human race is between those who believe that they is* acceptable as a singular pronoun & those in whom any such assertion produces apoplexy

*Or should that be are?

Related post

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sober second thoughts for diplomacy

I have been enjoying hearing the reports from the Copenhagen conference.

Schadenfreude, except that I am sorry for those who have lost reputation & been ‘replaced’ because of their failure to control such conflicting groups & aims to bring about a conclusion satisfactory to all concerned.

Will this occasion live on in infamy, or will it just meet the same fate as has the London Monetary & Economic Conference of 1933, despite the golden microphone?

Related post
Pure gold

Folly with a full-moon tide

We seem to have gone back to the 1970s. Then whole country seemed to shut down for a week after Christmas when New Year’s Day became a Bank Holiday in England in 1974. Until people got fed up of being cooped up with the family for such an unbearably long time & shops started opening up, even on Boxing Day.

This year, everybody seems to be ready for a fortnight off – everywhere was remarkably quiet yesterday, even though we are not snowed in or even disrupted by the weather. The bus driver welcomed me even more enthusiastically than usual when I got on to rescue her from her Billy No Mates status.

Today everybody is telling each other to have a good Christmas, clearly not expecting to see them again until after it is all over.

I predict an even bigger baby boom in autumn 2010, especially since the moon will be full on New Year’s Eve.

Cue anxiety headlines about our soon to be 70 million population forecast.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Madam Madonna

Only when I went to the dictionary to check historical usage of the word madam (in English) did I realise that, at root, madam & madonna are the same – my lady, French or Italian, ultimately Latin, although I suppose I would have realised it if I had ever stopped for one moment to think about it.

Contemplate those two words together – tight packed, waiting to explode all the meanings & associations acquired over time, part cultural, part religious, part political – what with Italian being the language of the Church of Rome & our ambivalent feelings about the French. All our own conflicted attitudes towards what it means to be a 'proper' or a 'desirable' woman.

loose or flirtatious a prostitute The Virgin Mary
a woman of high rank mistress of a house brothel-keeper

An affected fine lady A kept mistress a courtesan

prostitute conceited precocious girl

a hussy

a minx

Further evidence that is the thing, or rather our attitude to the thing, not the word itself, which can offend or please us.

Thinking about this has made me want to read Marina Warner’s book, which I missed out on somehow.

And perhaps Ms Ciccone was all along just instructing us to call her madam

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Call me madam

Memories of school uniform brought back something else I had not thought about for years: at my (co-ed) grammar school we were required to address all women teachers as Madam. It seemed a bit strange, even in the 1950s, but then I can not improve on the OED for an explanation:

"A form of respectful or polite address (substituted for the name) originally used by servants in speaking to their mistress, and by people generally in speaking to a woman of high rank; subsequently used with progressively extended application, and now, though no longer as frequently as in previous centuries, employed in addressing a woman of whatever rank or position"

It was a lot better than calling all teachers Miss, (though they almost all were, up to 1952, when it no longer became compulsory to retire on marriage, as my very first infant’s teacher had to – to floods of tears from all her charges).

It is also, of course, the female equivalent of Sir – the form of address we had to use for all male teachers (with considerable irony, in the case of our young geography master).

Madam is yet another word for female which has acquired a layer of derogatory meanings, such as brothel keeper or ‘little madam.’ It strikes me as ironic (or something) that perhaps the only word which never acquired such disparaging overtones was the one we have rejected – Mrs. And that applies even in its slightly humorous form of (the) missus.

On a related point Baroness Deech was sorry that her Question about courtesy titles for the husbands of Life Peers was not treated with the kind of seriousness it deserves.

One problem would be just what the title should be. To call him lord, or baron would be difficult, not least because I suspect most people would then just leap to the conclusion that the honour was his to bestow on his Lady Wife, not the other way round. Baroness Deech suggests “the Honourable,” which seems pretty fair

Discrimination against Men

House of Lords: Titles: Asked By
Baroness Deech

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Too precocious for comfort?

Another great example of the obituarist’s art from The Times, which expands on the joke which was current in my undergraduate days:

'For graduate studies he transferred to Harvard, where he was the beneficiary of exchanges with great economists including, among others, Joseph Schumpeter, Wassily Leontief and Gottfried Haberler. Intellectually he continued to impress; his research output was prodigious and his post-doctoral future seemed assured … yet before his PhD was awarded Samuelson discovered that, “Harvard’s revealed preference consisted of no majority insistence that I stay”.

Although suspicions persisted that anti-Semitism played a part in his rejection, they were supplemented with a feeling that the young Samuelson was perhaps too precocious for comfort. He transferred instead to MIT.'

The obituary reminds us also that Samuelson was not just a theoretical economist. His basic textbook, which sold more than four million copies, making him a multimillionaire, & remained available in college bookshops six decades later, did so not just by being the first of its kind but, by producing a new edition every year, ensured only the weakest of second hand markets as an economical source of supply for cash-strapped new students.

Related post

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Music's faint echo

I read that Simon Cowell (not Cowbell, as Word’s spellchecker suggests) believes that music peaked in 1959 with Mack the Knife by Bobby Darin.

That took me back.

Actually I think the 1956 rendering by Louis Armstrong was superior.

But what really gave me pause was a vague memory of dancing the quickstep to Victor Silvester’s strict tempo version in the school gym during lessons* – surely far too advanced thinking on the part of the teacher?

But no – you can still get hold of it, & today’s celebrity dancing stars are dancing the quickstep to it once again.

*Wearing our cerulean, Grecian style, cotton gym tunics, whose hem must land precisely 2” above the knee (as measured when kneeling upright on the floor).

Related post

Monday, December 14, 2009

Eminent genius

Flummery will be back – God has said so: Return of 'Yes Minister' etiquette marks end of era in Whitehall

The sweeping of the leaves

Another innovation by the local authorities in their attempts to reduce localised flooding – sweeping up the leaves.

Twice now I have been at home to witness a contractor’s large tanker-like vehicle drive up & down the lane hoovering up everything in sight; all the pavements & gutters in the village are similarly clean – wonder how they cope with the parked cars, which have always inhibited the process in the past?

The dyno rods seem to have worked too - there has been no more flooding on the bridge

The trains went back to their normal timetable on 13 December – took me by surprise because I thought that the 5 extra minutes inserted to allow for leaves on the line was there for the whole of the winter, not just for the 2 months from mid-October.

There has also been some determined lopping, or even cutting down, of trees. Well, it's not just leaves that fall, as we found out last year when the giant sycamore keeled over.

It does mean, sadly & however, that I have nor been able to gather interesting coloured leaves for home decoration this year.

Related post

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Politicizing Nature

Son of a doctor, brother of a geologist, winner of a scholarship to study natural science at Oxford (though he graduated with a degree in English), WH Auden had more than ‘just’ a poet’s interest in science.

In his poem After Reading a Child's Guide to Modern Physics Auden contrasts science (=physics) with the experience of being human, and asks why we want to know & if we may ignore, to not know the science, especially when it tells us about life, or the universe, on such a non-human scale.

His phrase ‘politicizing Nature’ has nothing at all to do with tricks with data published in support of the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis, but recent events have given those such as Andrew Watson, Royal Society Research Professor at the University of East Anglia, an abrupt lesson in how ‘media savvy’ opponents may behave when challenging the political claims of scientists.

from After Reading a Child's Guide to Modern Physics

And whether our concern

For … politicizing Nature

Be altogether wise,

Is something we shall learn.

WH Auden

The complete poem may be read at BBC - Arts - Poetry: Out Loud, where you can also hear Auden in a recording from 1965


Saturday, December 12, 2009

The cost of kindness

Uwe E. Reinhardt suggests an interesting explanation for the difficulties which face attempts to introduce universal health care systems in America: On Health Care, Are Europeans Just Kinder People?

Are we perhaps facing a similar danger of having kindness priced out of our collective souls? The arguments over NICE (non)approval for expensive new cancer drugs, & the subsequent demand for co-payments to be allowed, would seem to suggest so.

Related post

Forecasting uncertainty

2010 will be the warmest year on record, predicts Met Office” proclaimed the headline in the hard copy Times.

Oh dear! Another barbecue summer in prospect then.

The Met Office is more cautious on its website: Climate could warm to record levels in 2010

I was going to look at the details, but they do not seem to be there yet, the latest available are for 2009.

The very idea of estimating a single, meaningful, global average temperature is a daunting one; I note that last years report promised a different method would be used for future forecasts since “Previous optimum averaging methods probably underestimate the component of uncertainty due to data gaps.”



Friday, December 11, 2009

£20,000 a year

So Alistair Darling is going to raise National Insurance contributions for those on over £20,000 a year.

Sounds a bit familiar.

Ah yes. 1992. John Smith’s Shadow budget, proposing an increase in national insurance contributions for high earners - those getting more than about £20,000.

I remember one televised interview where John Smith looking surprised, & a bit pained, said that he could not understand objections because most people would not be affected.

But there were many people, especially in London, earning about, say £15,000 a year, who fully expected to be earning that kind of salary soon – their talents & hard work were worth it.

It was that aspirational aspect which Labour was failing to recognise, but which informed the whole New Labour project.

And I was hoping to add something about actual cash earnings then & now, but the ONS website has defeated me again.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On not using one's bus pass

Whew! Free bus passes seem to have survived the PBR – well they would, wouldn’t they, with an election still to be fought over.

Much angst among the better off about this handout they do not need. All those dreams of on the road trips from London to the Lake District on a Freedom Pass – at the cost of several times what would have been the bus fare spent on hotels for the unavoidable overnight stays along the route.
This is a fine example of one of the unavoidable dilemmas of publicly-funded services: means tests are humiliating, possession of a pass a stigma. But the better off benefit disproportionately from universal benefits (except for those they do not want, such as the attention of social workers or prison officers), simply because they consume more of everything.

Matthew Parris has even ‘flipped’ his residence from Derbyshire to London so he can have a Freedom Pass which entitles him to free travel on the tube – his Derbyshire go-anywhere pass which would work only on the buses in London is not good enough.

Well, I suggest he takes a half-day out from his busy schedule & uses his Freedom Pass when he next visits his second home - that's if the bus drivers have been trained to recognise 1t (though now I come to think of it, I do not think there is any reason why he should not also apply for a bus pass from his local Derbyshire council, as this will not entitle him to any extra travel privileges. Nor will make a difference to which council pays the bill.)
Catch the green Manchester bus to Buxton, then change to the red airport bus which takes a more leisurely route through the villages. Talk to his fellow passengers about the difference free travel across local council borders has made to their lives.

There is actually a simple way for the well off to do their bit to save unnecessary government expenditure in these straitened times; there is no law, no automatic fine, for not using your pass, so just leave it in your wallet (when you get it back) & pay the fare.

Related post

Playful affectedness

Can one still get vanity car number plates under the new system?

Or is it the luck of the draw that has allocated to the vehicle of a firm which offers dog walking services a plate which reads POO ….

Strange sense of humour!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Death, dying & feeling better

Death itself is rather like zero, it is the limit which you approach but can never experience as a living human being.

Being dead is a state; it may be that, like zero on the number line, death is a point which you can pass through to the other side. What may be on that other side is a matter of pure conjecture, belief or definition.

Dying, however, is a process which we experience while we are still alive. After long years not wishing to think about this process, suddenly there is discussion everywhere.

Doctors, in particular, are not the best people to lead our thinking about this since, for them, death is the ultimate failure. And with all the growth in treatments & cures available, they have also become less good at dealing with those patients they cannot cure, for whose illness there is no pill. In far too many cases they have lost the art of simply making us feel better – which it is always possible to do, however ill we are.

I used to have a fondness for books of household management, mostly those of the first half of the twentieth century. They were treasures of (still) useful advice & eye-opening insights into how life used to be.

Any such book published before 1950 invariably had a chapter or section devoted to The Care of the Invalid.

A word you hardly ever hear as a noun these days. Indeed post-baby boomers may imagine that in these days of rules & regulations it is simply an adjective, meaning without legal force, void, a word that applies only to licences, permits or passes.

In the days before the NHS it meant anyone who was ill or “Infirm from sickness or disease; enfeebled or disabled by illness or injury” – which could mean a small child with one of the common diseases of childhood, a frail elderly person or many in between.

The principles of care were fairly straightforward:

  • A clean, warm but airy room

  • A comfortable bed

  • Plumped up pillows

  • Regular washing of the body & gentle brushing of hair

  • Food which was nourishing, easy to eat, tempting to an appetite which may be weak. (Personally I always felt that the prospect of being fed on calves foot jelly & blancmange was a very good reason for staying valid)

  • Treats & amusements

  • Engagement with visitors & family life

It is easy to forget that a hospital was originally a place for the reception and entertainment of pilgrims, travellers, and strangers – a sense still recognised in the field of hospitality studies in which a very important element is the provision of food & beverages.

It was particularly distressing to follow the recent debate on the ‘ethics of hydration in the terminally ill’, for example in the correspondence columns of The Times.

While it would clearly be, at the very least, unnecessarily intrusive to insert drips into someone with only a short time to live, it is, again to say the least, inhuman not just to moisten their lips.

Even with a finger – for a loved one.


Death of Lady Mary Lyttelton

Related post
The inevitable

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Telling us who we are

In his book Colonial Policy of the British Empire (1837) Robert Montgomery Martin made A Statisticians Apology for going to the great trouble of presenting his readers with estimates such as the following about the life style of the inhabitants of the Empire:

26m consume flesh abundantly
10m sparingly
15m occasionally
9m seldom
70m live entirely on a farinaceous diet & fish

These circumstances may, to the general or superficial reader, appear of trifling importance, but the philosopher & statesman know full well that causes apparently minute produce very great effects, & that the capabilities, habitudes & temper of men are influenced by every day occurrences which are therefore each & all deserving of relative consideration. Moreover, there is, in the present instance, an essential object in contemplation in making such calculations; it is to demonstrate that the British is not an homogeneous empire, to prove that peculiar care is requisite in its government, that ordinary rules & abstract principles, though of unquestionable justice, cannot be applied without great caution to vast & varied masses of men, under different degrees of civilisation, & it is hoped that by such a contemplation the ruling authorities may be induced to examine, whether the present system of home government is the best that can be devised for administering the distant affairs of so many & such varied millions of the human race.”

Baroness Scotland, speaking on Desert Island Discs, mentioned that one of the taunts that used to be flung at her in the street by children who took exception to a black family living in their midst was “What do you eat?”

Apart from dogs in South Korea, & (possibly) celebrity rats in Australia, it seems like a very long time since anybody in this country, whatever their colour, cast aspersions upon another group, or inhabitants of any other country, because of what they eat (allegedly), except, possibly, as part of a comment on their religious beliefs.

We may still (rarely) wish to call the French frogs, but we do not feign disgust at the very idea of eating snails.

I suppose this is because we have all now, through real life, travel, or just the medium of tv & film, acquired a less timid attitude, at least in respect of the cultural meaning of diet – we have instead acquired a whole other list of terrors about the symbolic risks of animal fat, salt, cholesterol, ‘bad foods’ generally, health pollution rather than spiritual or racial contamination.

Related post

Monday, December 07, 2009

Saccading the web

I learned a lovely new word on Saturday, can’t imagine how I got to be this old without it.

Found it just trying to check that ‘grey among green’ the title of the John Fuller collection I was quoting from was not in its turn a quote which I had failed to recognise.

Short answer, no, but by pure chance Google led me to a scientific paper about visual search by Professor John Findlay which contained the word saccade.

The eye does not move continuously along a line of print in reading, but executes a regular alternation of rapid jumps, called saccades, and fixational pauses.”

I wonder what the eye does with a computer screen. And does it matter if you have your head up, or are looking down at a laptop? Experience tells me that it does.

In turn I thought we needed a word for these nice Google coincidences.

Googledent? – no, sounds like toothpaste.

Googlestance – that’s it, combines with happenstance.

But, of course, lots of other people have had the same idea

Related post

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Art of Forgetting

This poem by John Fuller comes from his collection The Grey Among the Green published in 1988.

Such confusions – is all of life but a dream – come at any age, but I think you need to have put in a certain number of years to really recognise those rapt drenchings.

The Art of Forgetting

Swivelling from a damp duvet at an hour
Too late for sleep, too early for work,
I wonder if sleep & its rapt drenchings
Are part of the art of forgetting or remembering.

Since whatever grips the mind in these dark hours
Is distinct, pungent, but elusive as smoke.
In the morning it is there & it is not there.
Who knows what it meant or what it means?

Writing this, it occurs to me to recall
A prep-room thirty years ago: Lister, owlish
At chess, scornful of fooling; Campling cutting card
For trains; brown Ryback laughing, tamping a rocket.

All is gone, the room, the house itself gone,
To allow for a widened road easing the traffic
Into & out of the seething heart of dreams.
Forgetting? Remembering? It seems to be all the same.

John Fuller

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A problem common to parents of young children everywhere

Any data set needs to be cleaned up, manipulated if you like, before proper analysis can begin. This applies even to a comparatively well controlled collection exercise, limited in its coverage in both space & time, such as a census of population.

Can a 10 year old girl be married, or a 17 year old boy a doctor, or should the records be amended?

How to deal with missing data?

What groupings may we safely or properly use to collapse the detail into useful categories without sacrificing or concealing important information?

Decisions have to be taken on matters such as whether forced consistency - a One Number Census - overrides all other considerations.

All of these discussions can - & do – lead to heated debate, some of which may be intemperately expressed. Life long enmities may be formed.

The answers adopted will always, to a greater or lesser degree, depend on how you think the world really is – there is just no getting away from that. Even when you are dealing with proper science (ancient tree rings & where modern thermometers are placed) & not just the softy social kind.

The least you can do is to be as honest & open as you can be about the process & to keep it well documented (though that can also result in just another indigestible pile of records).

If you can collapse all the important information about the earth’s atmosphere & climate over the last several millennia & extract from that one indisputable equation which is stable enough to project over the next N years to tell us what the future WILL be – well congratulations.

But please, there must be questions to be asked about the details.

Boys, boys: stop fighting. You should learn to share.

Related posts

Friday, December 04, 2009

Smart people read The Times

News International is really doing its best to expand its market, find new readers who will pay for the paper version at least.

Genetically modified mosquitoes … the astonishing number of robots already at work in Japan … the first person destined to live to celebrate their 150th birthday …

Eureka! Three good reasons to be part of The Times while you are here, said the voice on the in-store radio.

Because with the paper (while stocks last) you will get a free copy of the whizz-bang fancy-that new science magazine which will explain all this & much, much more.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Reverend William O’Con(n)or

William Anderson O'Connor was born in Cork in 1820; his family name was spelt with 2 n's, though in later life he preferred the more traditional Irish spelling of O'Conor.

In his teens he had to leave school because of illness, which seems to have been psychological [schizophrenia or manic depression?] and spent perhaps the best part of a decade living a largely solitary existence at the family’s second home in Kerry, roaming the hills with his gun under his arm and his books in his pocket.

By his late twenties he had recovered sufficiently to attend Trinity College Dublin, but again had to leave, perhaps this time because of family financial difficulties (this would have been during or just after the worst years of the Famine). He moved to St Aidan’s theological college, Birkenhead where he supported himself by acting as a Latin tutor to fellow students. Ordained into the Church of England in 1853 he served as curate in Liverpool and Chester before being appointed Rector of SS Simon & Jude in Granby Row, Manchester in 1858.

Granby Row, now part of the university campus, runs from the main London road, near to Piccadilly railway station, to Upper Brook Street, then an expanding residential area. It was also close to the viaduct of the Liverpool/Manchester railway line & the winding river Medway, & so was partly built up, partly surrounded by waste land, & was gradually being taken over by warehouses. SS Simon & Jude was built in 1842, the first endeavour of the Manchester & Eccles Church Building Society, & was almost directly opposite Manchester’s second oldest, & very fashionable, Roman Catholic church of St Augustine.

Although established for 16 years, the parish to which O'Connor was assigned was not very promising, especially for one of his sensitive & intellectual character. While not a slum area, at least in comparison with the worst the city had to offer, the population of working classes & small shopkeepers did not have the education to appreciate his learned sermons, & in the midst of a heavily Catholic area, O'Connor found that his school was decorated with orange lilies & was a centre of Orangeism. Although an Anglican he was a Liberal & an Irish nationalist, & saw it as his first task to root out these symbols.

All seems to have gone well at first; soon after his appointment he married Charlotte Temple, whose brother was a clergyman, & in 1864 The Builder reported that the church had been improved by the inclusion of new stained glass windows.

But O'Connor was always an eccentric & difficult character & somewhere around this time things seem to have begun to go seriously wrong; the Reverend O'Connor began to see conspiracies all around him, beginning with the alleged insertion in one of the local papers of advertisements accusing him of kleptomania & book-stealing.

The mid-1860s saw increasing anti-Irish hysteria in the press, fuelled by the Fenian activities in Ireland, America & Canada; in Manchester these feelings came to a crisis in 1867 with the rescue of Kelly & Deasy, the murder of Sergeant Brett & the sentencing to death of the Manchester Martyrs; O'Connor played a prominent part in the unsuccessful movement to win a reprieve for the 3 men sentenced to death for the murder of Sergeant Brett.

Somewhere around this time he had also become involved in a fight with his trustees over the control of his parish schools - a fight which he lost. As he saw it, one of his chief enemies was Hugh Birley, a prominent merchant who, in 1868, became conservative MP for Manchester, thus helping finally to break the long hegemony of Liberal Manchester Men; Hugh Birley was probably one of the trustees of his parish since the foundation stone of the church had been laid by his father.

In May 1869 Captain Palin, the Chief Constable of Manchester, was called to an incident at a bookshop involving Reverend O'Connor, who, according to his own later account was then taken to Captain Palin’s office at the Town Hall & left for the rest of the day without food or drink; eventually, after being examined by 2 doctors, he was committed to the county asylum at Prestwich, his wife having refused to commit him to the private asylum at Cheadle. Two days later he was released & went to recuperate at his brother-in-law’s parish in Leeds.

In 1870 O'Connor aired his grievances in a pamphlet which took the form of a letter to Gladstone, revealingly called The Irish Difficulty, in which, among perhaps more paranoid assertions, he claimed that the Manchester constabulary was riddled with Orangemen & was Conservative to a man - a large number of the force were indeed born in the Protestant counties of Ireland. In May 1877 he once more gave a public account of the events of 1869 when he gave evidence before the Select Committee on the Lunacy Laws; he may well have been prompted to give his side of the story by the fact that Hugh Birley was one of the MPs on the committee.

With a difficult parish & no hope of promotion within the church the outlook for O'Connor looked bleak; but he had always had a facility for writing - just before his breakdown in 1869 two of his religious pamphlets - Faith & Works, & Truth & the Church - had been favourably reviewed in The Spectator, and from the mid-1870s he found a much needed outlet in the Manchester Literary Club. Here his critical ability, his learning & his dry sarcastic humour found an appreciative audience; he also became a member of the Manchester Statistical Society to which he contributed papers on his radical views of the economics of Poor Laws, land, & wealth distribution.

His health continued to be fragile, however, and in 1885 he was sent for a time to be chaplain in Rome; he returned to Manchester, still unwell, until near Christmas 1886 'his brain power failed' one day in the street. His wife took him to Torquay, where he died in March 1887 'anxious only that when he was gone his wife would forgive his enemies as fully as he himself had done'. He left no will & his wife - they had no children - was granted administration of his personal estate valued at little over £200.

WE Axon edited a posthumous collection of O’Connor’s essays with a view to publishing more if demand was sufficient; no other edition appeared.

SS Simon & Jude was closed & demolished under the Manchester Churches Act of 1906.

The once fashionable St Augustines, whose fabric was being damaged by vibration from machinery in the adjacent Municipal Technology College, was bought, together with its rectory & school, by the Corporation in [1911] for [£30k]; the church moved to All Saints Square further down Oxford Rd.


Faith and works, William Anderson O'Conor, Download - Barnes & Noble

NATIONAL EDUCATION UNION. /3, Chairman: Hugh Birley, Esq., M.P. ...

Related post

Spell that

One of the characteristics by which we can be divided into ‘two kinds of people’ is the way we react to having our name(s) mis-spelled, or to being asked “How do you spell that?”

It need not be because of exotic unfamiliarity; like French irregular verbs, or most English spelling, you just have to learn them, there is no other way of classifying & remembering: Ann or Anne?

The person I knew who was most likely to make a federal case out of someone getting it wrong was called Davis WITHOUT AN E.

It must be especially frustrating if you are blessed with a name which is so unusual that the standard response is Er – how do you spell that please? Your reaction is, however, a very good indication of character – petulant or easy going.

It is a nightmare for designers of database query languages, search engines, spell checkers – though not as bad as in the early days. And not nearly as bad as it was for the compilers of old-fashioned card indexes or telephone directories, librarians or booksellers, Anglo Saxon chroniclers or prime ministers writing letters of condolence.

A nightmare for students & researchers too – especially those of family history.

Even for periods as recent as the 19th century there seems to be remarkably little standardisation. Particularly when, starting as they meant to go on, the newspapers which so multiplied in number after the removal of taxes in the 1850s, could be relied upon to provide as many variants as possible. Not helped by the predilection for changing ones name, sometimes in order to inherit under the terms of a will, sometimes it seems on just a whim.

Irish names prove a particularly fruitful source of confusion.

Take O’Connor. The o could be capital or lower case or just omitted altogether; separated by ‘, space, or just right up against the c, which in its turn could also be capital or lower case. With 2 n’s or a single 1 – a total of 24 possible variants (though not all of them were likely to be used in practice).

It therefore took a deal of devotion to track down details of the life of one particular 19th century Manchester clergyman, of whom I actually became rather fond, which helped keep the determination going. Even in today’s computerised world he appears in the Dictionary of National Biography as O'Conor [O'Connor], William Anderson.

I was reminded of his story by reading the Boy with the Topknot, & all this is just by way of excuse for putting the outline biography here in my next blog post.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


This post was just going to poke a bit of fun at BBC newsreaders & presenters on Radio 4 this morning who could not quite make up their minds if climatic, as in the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, should be pronounce the Climactic Research Unit – which it must be right now, in the midst of so much attention.

Even the OED recognises that there can be confusion. But then it comes up with this delicious quote (not, I hasten to add, meant to serve as an example of such confusion but as an example of one meaning of the word climax in ecology: The point in the ecological succession at which a plant-community reaches a state of equilibrium with its environment, able to reproduce itself indefinitely under existing conditions). It comes from PW Richards: Tropical Rain Forest , “known to generations of botanists and tropical biologists as THE book in the field”

“Since the Tropical Rain forest is a climatic climax, it must, by definition, be in a state of equilibrium.”

[No, I do not know what that means]

I also found the following to illustrate the use of another climate-related adjective – climatarchic, meaning presiding over or influencing climatic conditions. It comes from an 1874 book by BF Taylor called World on Wheels

That a railroad should influence the weather is the very last thing that would be suspected, but it must plead guilty to the charge, for in certain regions it is almost climatarchic a presider over climate.

They knew about the problem even then!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Point of view

I hesitated before writing about The Boy with the Topknot because for most of the time I was reading it my reaction was distinctly unfriendly. All’s well that ends well however & I now feel more kindly towards both book & author.

It was the misogyny wot done it – glancingly recognised by the author sometimes. And the two books with which I kept comparing it – ER Braithwaite’s To Sir With Love & Naipaul’s Half A Life, neither of which was written in the style of a modern misery memoir.

It was something of a shock to realise that Naipaul & Braithwaite experienced the life of a young male 20-something ‘New Commonwealth’ resident of Britain over half a century ago. Both share with Sanghera the privilege of an Oxbridge education, but the similarity ends there – for one thing of course neither was born here or had family in this country.

Back to what I see as misogyny. Although there is much about his agonising over keeping secret from his family the relationship with the girl he calls Laura, there is nothing – except the ‘inevitable end’ – about what this may have been like for her, nor whether he had been introduced to her family. I found myself reading most of the rest of the book from the point of view of the prospective bride, & also saying at many points – It’s not just Punjabi Sikhs who have problems you know.

For example I knew one couple in the 70s who were in a very similar predicament, needing to hide the precise nature of their relationship from the girl’s parents. In this case however their backgrounds could hardly be more alike – white, English, middle class, same university. Still they needed to employ subterfuge to disguise the fact that they were living together, complete with joint mortgage; the clash a generational one, modern free versus old fuddy duddies for whom this was Living In Sin.

I am also reminded of one of my student flatmates who returned from a date spitting nails, incandescent with rage. [I should explain that in those days a date, certainly a first one, was usually, though of course by no means always, an extremely chaste affair, the most difficult problem whether to stick to the old way of letting the boy pay for everything, or insist on going Dutch].

Do you know, he explained to me that he would never be able to marry me because I am not Jewish. WHAT DOES HE THINK I AM? We only went to the pictures, for heaven’s sake. Why ever should I think of marrying him?

Towards the end of the book – when it finally sank in that I am even older than his mother, & had carried out something like her journey in reverse by the time she arrived in Wolverhampton, I started wondering how I might react to the idea that his mother might be my granddaughter’s mother in law. With a certain concern, I think, but more about my prospective grandson in law, who still does not seem entirely to have rid himself of the idea that a girl is lost to her own family when she marries.

I was also taken aback by the journalistic arrogance with which he approached the attempt to get hold of his father’s health & criminal records. I know it is all too easy to ascribe such reaction to a kind of racism – because it does happen so often – but to expect neatly typed NHS records going back to the 1960s – that’s just doctors for you, and not just Indian ones either. He should see mine – or better still, the racks of them in the old NHS Central Registry. Just look how long it took for any of us to acquire the right to see them.

And misogyny is there again in his encounter with a ‘less slim, less friendly, & less young colleague, with the charm of a wet dishcloth’. He also seems to fail to realise that the explanation for her mistake about when the Wolverhampton Crown Court came into existence is given a few lines above from his own memory – friendliness & charm work two ways, if only he had tried to steer her into thinking about that.

One other tangential thought which struck me. What an intriguing coincidence that Wolverhampton, the focus for Enoch Powell’s infamous speech on immigration in 1968, should in its multicultural way, have produced, instead of rivers of blood, streams of ink from two writers for the Top Peoples Paper of today. Caitlin Moran refers often to her experience of life in Wolverhampton during that same period, as the eldest of a large catholic family. She has also written about her own experience of what the city had to offer by way of education – very different from what it gave to the boy with the topknot.

Every marriage affects many more than just the two people directly involved. Although social, cultural, religious & racial differences can add to the difficulties of adjustment & compromise needed, in the end it is our own personality & effort which make the difference.