Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Raining slush puppies

Wet, cold & windy. At lunchtime the rain was falling as very wet ice, the wipers could not move fast enough to keep the windscreen of the bus completely clean – easy to imagine how impossible it would be for the driver to cope in the alarming freak ice storms which have been reported in Ireland & Scotland.

We are on the edge of these, & that has been nasty enough - April arrives tomorrow, the children are on holiday and we were thinking of donning our Easter bonnets this weekend.

No mist down where we are, but we could be living next to the sea – there is no view at all to the east, just dense white fog – the Dark Peak might just as well not be there at all.

Magnets & morality

Reports in the press suggest that researchers at MIT have been able to apply a magnetic field to a specific brain region and change people's moral judgments. Frustratingly, I have not been able to locate the scientific paper on which these reports are based, though I have found other contributions from one of the researchers on the topic of the theory of mind & moral judgement.

The notion that morals might be changed by magnetic fields however makes me wonder if perhaps I should really be alarmed by my experience with the compass & the bus & modern automobiles.

What does Simon say?

Radio 4 is very excited about getting Simon Schama on A Point of View.

And so is the professor. Over excited.

He puts on a real performance, full of verbal tricks, playfulness, dramatic language.

He (& his producers) should heed the wise words of one of the earliest broadcasters: you are addressing an audience, not of millions, but of one, sitting by the fire in their own front room.

These days the listener may very well be doing the ironing, preparing the supper, having a bath or driving the car.

But even when I sit down & try to listen properly I find it hard to understand what he is saying, & gain very little idea of what he is actually talking about. Only familiar words like Macclesfield jump out of the jumble.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The weather & Gordon Brown

So here’s my latest electoral theory.

Although the sun has been teasing us a bit lately, with promises of spring, the weather just keeps turning miserable again. It is getting everybody down. But there’s nothing we can do about it, we just have to keep plodding along, doing the best we can, hoping things do not get any worse. Gordon Brown provides the perfect match for this.

It is nothing like the spring of 1997 – a real time for optimism. Then Sunny Dave might stand more of a chance, hope for better things from a change.

I can stretch this analogy further. We have lost a lot of our faith in politicians; we have stopped listening to them.

We have also become less convinced by confident assertions about the inevitability of global warming, helped in no little way by the unreliability of the Met Office’s seasonal forecasts of barbecue summers & mild winters.

At the weekend a young local tree surgeon confirmed my feeling that the daily & weekly forecasts have also become less reliable of late. I personally have given up trying to catch the last local weather forecast of the day, just after the 9pm news, & wait instead for the revised version next morning before deciding what to wear.

The young tree surgeon has the Met Office weather forecast as his home page to help him plan his work – but says that it has caused him so much waste of time recently that he is considering taking it off & just relying on his own reading of the prospects for wind & rain.

It would be interesting to see if the formal assessment of the forecasts accuracy confirms this impression; we have certainly heard a lot about the unpredictable & unusual behaviour of the jet stream. And just to add to the gloom, Paul Simons informed us that an Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallaj√∂kull, erupted for only the fourth time in 1,000 years Saturday before last & that “The effects on the UK [weather] could be severe.”

Icelandic revenge, perhaps, for having the anti-terrorism act used against them. Trouble is, if there is anything in my theory, rather than getting rid of Gordon the result will be an even more lethargic decision to stick with the government we know.

Related posts

Rolf Harris

I cannot believe it. Rolf Harris is 80.

And half a century has passed since I saw him perform live on stage.

It was at a national sixth form conference in London. Proceedings closed with a Friday night concert, but when we were told that Rolf Harris was to be the special star attraction, we world weary sophisticates rolled our eyes at how grown ups can get it so wrong. Rolf Harris was a children’s entertainer, not with it*, like us.

As far as I can remember he performed with only his wobble board for accompaniment. But we were soon wowed & won over. We shouted & begged for him to stay for just one more song, but his manager (a sharp suited, foxy faced young man about the same age as his star), said No.


*Fashionable, up-to-date; not spotted in print by the OED until 1962

Monday, March 29, 2010

Paying for access to The Times

In principle I agree with the idea that newspaper journalism has value & should not just be dumped free online. However I do also think that it would be a pity to lose casual access.

I buy The Times 6 days a week in the old fashioned paper version & I cannot see that I shall want to stop doing this any time soon. It has that unique go anywhere quality, the content is more easily assimilable in a package which comes in a familiar shape, I even have uses for old newspaper, once I have done the crossword & sudoku, other than just putting it all into the recycling bin. This costs me about £28 pcm.

The option of taking out a subscription does not really appeal; the discount offered is based on the assumption that the package also includes the Sunday Times & is fiddly to administer - it means remembering to make sure you are carrying the tokens with you, especially if you do not always buy the copy at the same shop.

I have started however to access the online version almost every day, since this became easy to do via Google – The Times own search facility often failed to locate the article I was seeking, even though I had the name of the writer & keywords (the online headline is often not the same as the paper version). I use it for fact checking or for copying & pasting quotes that I have already identified for my commonplace book. I also have a couple of Times blogs on my Google reader & I put links to The Times from my own blog – something which I like to think helps repay The Times from a (very) modest amount of extra traffic to their site. Connectivity is after all the point of the Web.

It is not just the journalism, in the sense of the written material, which has value. The editorial function is what makes a newspaper worth it - by its choice of good writers & in its selection of information about current concerns and in its long history; in short, the brand. It would be impossible to keep so well informed if I had to seek out all the individual pieces myself from among all the other content on the web - something which is often forgotten when ‘unlimited choice’ is being trumpeted.

£2 a week or £1 a day does not sound all that much for access to the online version, but if all the other newspapers & journals which I might also visit online follow suit, the cost will be simply prohibitive.

It seems to me that what we need is some form of internet cash, small change which will enable us to pay just for what we want – I do not have much interest in breaking news for example – & I do not see the point of my putting links to The Times if the follower is going to be greeted by a demand for £1.

I am thinking of some way of paying pennies to see a specific article, rather than unlimited access to the site. Some kind of central clearing house serving a range of publishers, so I am not saddled with learning & trying to remember umpty-nump new passwords & access codes.

Pay As You Go helped to transform the market for mobile phones. Who knows, this pile ‘em high & sell ‘em cheap approach might mean that I won’t even notice that more than a £’s worth of pennies has left my virtual purse today.

Until then, I shall go back to my old tried & tested method of clipping cuttings & retyping any bits of the paper which I wish to preserve in my own records.
Related posts
Its a point of view

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Camping holidays

Reading Susan Fletcher & Catherine Cox recently brought back waves of memories of family camping holidays, which for me are mostly of pure joy rather than embarrassment & disaster.

Our first camping holiday was in the summer I was 7. My father had just acquired his second car – an army surplus jeep-type vehicle which at that stage still had its canvas-covered rear section. My sister & I were to sleep in this while mummy & daddy slept in a proper tent.

We went to a farm which welcomed campers, according to the guide book of the British Camping & Caravanning Club. We were to go to the same farm once a year for the next 8 years.

It was owned & run single handed by the widowed Mrs Davis, a spare woman with a weather beaten face whom we loved. She let us help her milk the cows & introduced me to the sophistication of eating tomatoes sliced thinly, sprinkled with sugar & vinegar, accompanied by good Welsh bread spread liberally with butter.

In that first year, at least, the water supply came from a venerable cast iron stand pipe with a pump handle which stood in the field next to the road. The only toilet was a chemical closet under a wooden bench seat in an outhouse. Each morning we would carry our 2 enamel pails to the back door of the farm to collect fresh (from the cow) milk.

We camped in one of the two middle fields – whichever was lying fallow that year, in the shelter of the hedge. I cannot remember many other campers to begin with, & though the numbers gradually picked up over the years the field was never full.

The third field was always planted with a cereal or left for hay. We walked carefully round its edge to reach the cliff-top pathway, from where we could scramble down to what was virtually a private cove. Great for sunbathing, shrimping & swimming, but under water when the tide came in.

Kit Kat inflation index

We must be in for a rise in the price of Kit Kats – there is one of those magic number promotions going on – multipacks for just £1.

I wonder if the Monetary Policy Committee keeps an eye on such promotions, factors them in to their inflation forecasts.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Polyester profits

Pooh Bah (of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham etc) is backing UK technology centres because “Too often in this country we have been brilliant at research and let others walk away with the commercial benefits of development.”

I think I have been hearing this assertion for the whole of my life. As a young teenager disappointment was oft expressed, particularly about our alleged loss of all the profits the Americans were making from polyester – Terylene was a British invention we were told.

Part of the problem, & it is a very long standing one, which is why Lord Mandelson’s initiative will probably be no more successful than any of the previous ones – plain snobbery: My dear! He makes his money out of polyester pants!

PS The Word spellchecker suggested that perhaps I meant to type Mendelssohn rather than Mandelson


Pierre Boulez

His style of conducting is unique – nobody else I have ever seen uses his body in just that way, with the ripples going up & down his back. We once sat in the choir seats at the Proms just to have the privilege of having a musician’s eye view of him conducting.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Reorganising costs

I have finally got round to reading the National Audit Office report on Reorganising central government

In the first 4 years of this current Parliament, up to June 2009, there were over 90 reorganisations to central government. This cost about £200million a year on average, mostly on arms length bodies, but £30million went on government departments themselves.

The report points out that since 1980, 25 central government departments have been created, including 13 which no longer exist while the United States have managed with only two new departments in the same period.

I particularly enjoyed the Audit Office term for the most radical kind of change – Multiple carve out & merger! Prime examples of this are the Ministry of Justice & the Departments of Children, Schools & Families and for Innovation, Universities & Skills – the departments run by Messrs Straw & Balls and by Lord Mandelson. Empire building comes at a price.

The Audit Office is particularly concerned about the short notice which is given - reorganisations often start on the day they are announced!


I overheard an American on the radio use the term earbuds for what I think most English people would still call headphones, or possibly ear pieces - or is that just my Who are The Beatles moment?

Earbuds is a much nicer term.

The American surprised me also by saying that he thought people preferred listening to music through headphones - made it much more personal. I much prefer listening to music which is allowed to move around the room - sometimes it seems to float like those rhythmic gymnasts ribbons, sometimes it is more like water moving, & sometimes it reverberates with joy & exuberance.

On occasion you might want to listen through really good headphones in order to hear some detail, appreciate better the contribution of different instruments or sections of the orchestra, admire the control of a voice. And of course they are invaluable when it is essential not to disturb others.

But otherwise, leave the buds out of it, thank you.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Keeping alive

The murder rate has fallen, even though the number of violent attacks has not. When I heard this, I thought it just another example of what I have come to think of as the ‘Belton Cobb’ effect.

In his book ‘Murdered on Duty’ Cobb noted that the number of policemen murdered on duty was very much lower in the second half of the first century (1857 to 1957) of the existence of modern police forces in England, & that the explanation was, in part, improvements in the care given to injured officers. Today’s fall in the murder rate is similarly attributed to the ability of emergency services to stem huge blood loss and stabilise vital organs at the scene of violent incidents.

This change does however raise interesting, & sometimes troubling questions, especially in an age where we see no problem in revisiting judgments of the past, at the very least apologising for those which we now regard as mistaken, & in some instances issuing a formal pardon for those punished according to the standards of our predecessors. Timothy Evans was pardoned for a crime he was later judged not to have committed; some of those convicted of cowardice during the First World War have been similarly pardoned.

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry paid attention to the question of first aid at the scene – though it was concluded that the young man would have died anyway - & considered whether racism played any part in the perceived lack of appropriate action.

Now we have 5 staff suspended from a school while an enquiry takes place into their possible failure to take appropriate steps to care for a boy who was having an asthma attack & who later died. We must wait & see what training we now deem it appropriate for teachers to have in the care of the varied illnesses which children may fall victim to while in their care.

If someone convicted of a murder can argue that their victim would not have died if they had received modern standards of emergency care, or if today the victim receives care that is judged to be below that of the highest standard, could they argue that the charge should be reduced at least to manslaughter, the verdict amended retrospectively as it has been in some of these other cases?

When it comes to driving & road traffic offences we have tended to move the other way. In the past a motorist might have ‘escaped’ without being found guilty of any major offence or crime, no matter how many people died or were seriously injured because of a moment’s inattention of the type of which all motorists are only too well aware could happen to them – often has happened to them without serious consequences. Now the press & the bereaved are likely to call for severe punishment of the guilty driver, ‘simply’ because someone died without need for further consideration of the degree of culpability on the driver’s part.


Getting your own back

Is it a victory for feminism that a woman has been awarded $9 million in a case she brought against her husband’s mistress?

Or do true equality & liberation mean that neither partner should be able to bring such a suit?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Virtual Post Office

Talk of government promises to get everybody on line at home with super high speed broadband, to be followed by the closure of expensive old fashioned offices staffed by expensive human beings as everybody switches to transacting all their business with government from the comfort of their own front room.

Sounds more like a recipe for chaos, the fulfilment of the Anarchists dream, a complete breakdown of government.

Of course it should be much easier to get on line at home, but for this to be anything like universal will need more than just the right kind of wiring under the street & all the way to your sockets.

It will need some stability in hardware & software, so that when you pay out what are still quite considerable sums of money you know that it will not all be obsolete in less than 5 years time. It will be something approaching plug & play, ready to go, without needing to wade through a mass of mystifying instructions before you can even start. And you will not need at least one member of your household to be a qualified IT manager to cope with all the glitches, software updates, security, contracts with ISPs ….

Having said that, there is clearly much to be said for a simpler, less bewildering route for the citizen to follow in accessing government services.

We had such a system when I was a child – at least one friendly office in even the smallest village. It was called the Post Office.

You went there not just for stamps & to have your parcels weighed. Dog licences, radio &, later, television licences, pension, family allowance, passport, Post Office Savings Bank, National Savings – even a 7 year old could be a customer in her own right.

There is probably scope for a new virtual Post Office. A nice clean Home Page with easy to follow signs using familiar language (bus pass, not National Bus Concession). This implies a stability in government organisation, real cooperation between departments, not an ever changing cast of ministers competing for attention.

And why not think about following the model of hole in the wall cash machines? Almost everybody now has easy access to one of these, & the designs have converged so that the scope for confusion, for pressing the wrong button, has been reduced by familiarity & practice. People learn of the advantages (& disadvantages) from each other, by word of mouth, by copying family members, friends & neighbours instead of tearing their hair & screaming at the blinking machine behind the closed front door.

A rolling programme of introducing such machines – which venues work best, what kind of design, how many will be needed – that can be modified & adapted as it goes along, rather than held up for years because of the problems of trying to design from scratch one Grand Universal System.

Who knows, perhaps people will suddenly be happy to have a universal government plastic card, much as they now are pleased & happy to have cash cads from a provider of their choice. [Leave that typo - Ed]

The personal pronouns of politics

Earlier this week the posters advertising the local evening paper on every street corner announced: New test to see if YOU are fit to work [my emphasis].

The politicians on last nights File on 4 about the service which the government gives to those who are made redundant all referred to THEM.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Shame & scandal in the House

The sense of decline and depression all over Westminster has been around for a year or two already, intensified by the expenses scandal” wrote Baroness Deech on Lords of the Blog the other day.

I am uneasy about the latest two additions to the scandalous state of affairs; set ups by journalists, such as that of the invitations to pitch for jobs with a false lobbying company, always have that effect on me. The three Labour ex-ministers who were caught did indeed cut very sorry figures – did they really think their influence would be worth anything in the market after the election or was this just a hope for very short term gain?

And anyway, wasn’t it under Thatcherism that we were all taught that the primary duty is to sell yourself & your talents, no use just being a backroom boy or brilliant but scared of bigging yourself up when talking to strangers?

I have not had time to look at the details of the alleged non-declaration of interests, but then neither have most commentators; that hasn’t stopped a lot of knee jerk reaction of the they’re all as bad as one another variety

I heard the long serving Liberal Democrat MP for Portsmouth South, Mike Hancock explain his ‘mistake’ to Victoria Derbyshire this morning. It occurred to me that one way for MPs to get their own back would be just to mark with an R (for registered interest) every Written PQ they tabled. That would get the journalist/investigators scratching their heads & give them some work to do.

It has also been very interesting to hear some of this being explained to the Irish audience of RTE1.

Smoking genes & personality

It is just one of those things, I used to think, that the only two people personally known to me who have died of lung cancer were non-smokers – of course I have known & accepted since March 1962 that smoking causes lung cancer.

Most smokers do not get lung cancer – the last time I saw an estimate (a very long time ago now) the figure was 1 in 8 (the quoted lifetime risk for breast cancer, just from being a woman, is now 1 in 9). But I never knew, until this week, that non-smokers account for about a quarter of all cases of lung cancer world wide.

A new study from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, published in Lancet Oncology & reported in The Times, gives hope that the gene responsible for this vulnerability may have been identified.

Of course, as Steve Jones pointed out, if everybody smoked, then lung cancer would be accepted as a genetic disease.

But I do sometimes wonder reading, as I must usually, just reports of the ‘relative risks’ involved, whether we are really very much further forward than was Eysenck with his theories on smoking, health & personality.
Related posts

Monday, March 22, 2010


I heard 10/10 being played in both Asda & McDonalds last week.

Definitely catching on

King of the wild frontier

Fess Parker has died aged 85.

One of those names I had almost forgotten, but the news brought back washes of memory.

That film. And particularly, that song.

It inspired a real fashion for round fur hats – I had a very smart cream one. Most of us however dispensed with the tail.

Web government

I have received another email from Number 10 to let me know that “all childcare arrangements between friends which are not for monetary payment are exempt from the registration and inspection process.

Nice of them to do this. It is only slightly spoiled by the fact that I could not find the results of the DCSF’s consultation on their website at, despite the prime ministerial assurance that I would be able to.

And we are being told, very excitedly, that all government will be by web in 10 years time.

Related post

Long wave

I came across a useful map of long wave radio transmitters in Europe when I set out to identify 3 stations which have been added to my presets; RTE1, France Inter & Europe 1 provide a nice change from the BBC.

Related post

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Making the most of cockroaches

This morning on From Our own Correspondent Will Grant told us about the cockroaches in his Venezuelan home – he did not think that living in a roach infested apartment was something a BBC correspondent had to do, but the infestation is a result of the drought. Earlier he had told us all about the difficulties caused by the regular interruptions to the domestic water supply to his block.

But, ever resourceful, our correspondent has identified a powerful Blattaricide which dispatches the critters – I wouldn’t like to think of spraying something like that around my kitchen, but needs must, I suppose.

And what does he do then?

Why, he flushes the bodies down the loo.

Won’t that just make water even shorter & bring ever more cockroaches into his home?

Friday, March 19, 2010


Surprise at the better than expected figures for unemployment this month.

We have heard a lot about how workers are settling for shorter hours or lower wages so they can stay in work during this recession, but the annual growth rate for regular pay (excluding bonuses) went up too, from 1.2 per cent in the three months to December 2009 to 1.4 per cent in the three months to January 2010.

The statistics are difficult to interpret because the reaction to this recession has been markedly different from what it was in the early 1990s. Those who have had to accept redundancy have been prepared to settle for almost any job or series of short term jobs, if necessary, to keep some money flowing in instead of signing on & waiting for a job that suits their qualifications & experience. Because nobody wants to go near the Job Centre, get even more wrapped up in 'procedures' if they do not have to.

This course is made an easier line to take because relatively few of the unemployed will be the sole breadwinner, the family not totally dependent on what money they bring home. And the fact that mortgage interest payments are a fraction of what they would have been last time, making the loss of their home that much less likely, even without any generous government help with individual payments.

The standard of living will take a surprisingly small hit if the expenses of a journey to work in the city, smartly suited, plus all the other incidental opportunities for frittering away ones cash are no longer there. It has always been possible to shop for bargains for all the necessities – if you have the time - & time is what you have when you are not tied to a job every day.

And one’s house may actually be in better condition, as local radio & other advertising media are suddenly awash with No Job Too Small ads from qualified tradesmen deprived of all those lucrative public sector construction contracts.

Even the numbers of people who have told the labour force survey interviewers that they have become economically inactive, (are no longer looking for a job), are not unproductive; most do not just sit around watching telly all day. Jobs around the house & garden, helping out elderly neighbours, hobbies, group activities, voluntary work, informal bartering, education, looking after the grandchildren …

In other words they are filling the gap previously filled by unwaged housewives & mothers in the provision of all those non-marketised services in a world of relationship & trust where promises do not have to be supported by IOUs.

It is the young one really worries about.

Related post

Thursday, March 18, 2010


It is ironic that a Times article about why women need to start schmoozing like men was illustrated with photographs showing pictures only of women networking with other women. Since corporate UK is still overwhelmingly male, if women are to make progress they will have to learn how to schmooze the men who hold the power. And therein lies the rub.

How does a woman behave in such situations without giving the wrong impression or getting a reputation for herself?

That is, of course, if she can find the courage to do it in the first place.

It is an irony that the daughters of the middle & professional classes, those best equipped by background & education to be knocking on the doors of the male establishment, are more likely to have been to single sex schools, where the headmistress may be one who believes, along with the late High Mistress of St Paul’s, that “Boys can be threatening … they’ve got subtle ways of influencing how girls behave.”

Perhaps being armed with glittering academic certificates helps girls face down these threatening beings once they have to meet & compete in the workplace.

So they learn how to get along in the lecture hall, the exam room. How about one to one?

Surprising numbers of younger women have never been alone with a man who is not a member of their family or a boyfriend or partner; these days more girls will have grown up without seeing a brother & his friends at close quarters; even if they do have a brother the age gap, most commonly 3 years, will be critically different from the 18 months of previous generations.

How do you distinguish between an invitation to do lunch, dinner or a drink, or to share a taxi which is just business or professional from one which is harassing?

The recent David Frost Collection on Radio 4 included reminiscences about the evangelist Billy Graham. Frost said that Graham & his trustees had recognised at a very early stage that the preacher must be seen always to be absolutely above reproach in his personal behaviour. Apart from careful separation of the control of the organisations money, it was agreed that Dr Graham should never be seen dining in public alone with a woman, however innocent or important their discussion might be. I suspect that even today it is not as easy as it should be for a woman to cement relations with people in power in this kind of way.

And how does his wife react to his seeing you?

Is marriage (or long term partnership) a help or a hindrance for a woman wishing to make progress in this kind of public world of business or politics? Quite apart from the purely personal satisfactions it will make things easier in the sense that it makes your status more clear, stops speculation about you. But how does your husband react to this need to schmooze with others, especially if he works in a completely different world?

But then, when all is said & done, how easy is it to get the unwavering, committed support of other women? One reason why oft-criticised Thatcher did not have more women in her cabinet was that there were none who forced their way in, either on their own merits or to maintain a balance between different factions, of one of which the potential minister was a member

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Getting into hot water

A young woman on local radio this morning began an anecdote with: “I was having a bath this morning. Some people here think that’s a bit weird, but the shower is out of action ….”

There was nothing in her tone to suggest that she was being accused of a crime against the planet, making her carbon footprint too big, just weird.

Well it was 5 o’clock in the morning, we learned.

But weird??

In my lifetime we have gone from thinking that being able to have a hot bath in a bathroom any time we liked as the height of luxury, to this.

Snickers inflation index

So, they were just softening us up for a price rise – a 5 pack of Snickers now costs £1.72, a rise of 72% on the special offer, or going on 2% on the previous price.

There is also a quality adjustment problem – we are back to fewer nuts.

And – I wonder – could they have snuck in a reduction in the size or weight of the bar?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Politician as parent

The leaders of our three main political parties are all – following current fashion – parents of young children.

Current fashion also demands close involvement with ones children, attending to their every need, banishing them to the naughty step when reasoned argument fails to bring an obedient response.

And so leaders face, at the very least, hard choices when it comes to a crisis & deciding how far they can abandon, temporarily, the care of their young children to others.

It is also a common observation & source of complaint that the political class is becoming a thing apart, made up of people who go from involvement in student politics, to researcher to political adviser to MP to minister without ever having experience of running any real world organisation.

They also lack what forty-somethings of previous generations had, the experience of letting their children go, of changing from beloved parent, protector, provider & the fount of all wisdom, into an embarrassment, of finding that you have eventually to let them learn through their own mistakes, choose a path which may not be the one you would have chosen or hoped for, make their life for themselves.

Perhaps this is just one more contributory factor to the modern politicians insistence on micro-managing our behaviour - it’s the only way they have learned themselves, so far.

Related posts

Monday, March 15, 2010

Eve Green

I have just been reading Eve Green by Susan Fletcher, which I found while browsing the library shelves.

It reminded me a little of Ruth Rendell’s The Crocodile Bird – a book which I never managed to finish - probably because that was another story about a young girl & her lone mother in rural isolation.

But Eve Green is a good read, even though it is a tale about a child who disappeared, & in the end the plot did not quite convince me - the elements of knowing manipulativeness & wilful disobedience did not quite gel. But the poetic evocation of childhood on a farm in rural Wales reminded me so much of my own in similar surroundings – though I hate cow parsley.

It came as a bit of a shock therefore to realise that the little girl’s grandparents were the same age as my parents, & so her mother could have been my little sister & Eve Green could have been my daughter. And that Susan Fletcher is only in her twenties.

It seemed odd; there is such a tendency to identify with the heroine of a book you are reading; somehow there seems something not quite right about doing this when the writer is so young now – it is not a problem when reading Jane Austen for example.

By coincidence I am having another long pull at another astonishing achievement by a writer in their twenties – John Stubbs Life of John Donne.

I am reading this in instalments because I want to pause, to savour it, rather than just run through. So far, at least, it seems the most sympathetic & understanding version of Donne that I have read; as Stubbs has himself said in an interview “ people are very possessive about Donne, and rightly so,” & I have read some, to me, very upsetting (& wrong) interpretations of the man.


BOOK REVIEW / Odd jobs and strange tales: 'The Crocodile Bird .

05Oct1864, A Good Deal of Reading
John Stubbs « Interview « ReadySteadyBook - a literary site

Garry O'Connor Campions Ghost

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Oh do get on with it

It has been quite a trying week. The computer has been having persistently intermittent attacks of inability to locate the server, thus disrupting trains of thought, producing writing that is even less coherent than normal, giving time only for posting the shortest of bits & bobs on the blog.

Strange how, not all that long ago, one would just write around missing quotes, facts or references, keeping a list of points to check next time one was in the appropriate library with time to locate the relevant page in the relevant volume on the relevant shelf - & not much longer before that when one would have located the relevant spot after riffling through drawers full of index cards.

Now Google takes 3 minutes rather than 0.3 of a second to find what I am looking for & I cease to function

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Voting for what

Simon Schama took A Point of View that people prefer their leaders to be tough during hard times – hence the lack of public outcry about Gordon Brown’s alleged bullying behaviour towards his subordinates.

Schama pondered over how voters might choose the leader they prefer in the coming election. For example “You’re a granny – who do you think really knows what it’s like on a wet morning in Macclesfield waiting for a bus?”

Well. I am [almost] that granny from Macclesfield, & the answer is none of the above.

I have decided how I am going to vote however, did it towards the end of last week, largely because I found out that I live in one of the top marginals. On the grounds that, however special you think you are, you are never the only one, others must have done so too. Barring of course some absolute shocker of a development.

Simon Schama has taken a special interest in President Obama. A commentator on another recent Radio 4 programme about why people vote against their own interests also remarked on the preference for angry men:

Obama doesn’t do anger – that’s why he won.

Obama doesn’t do anger – that’s why he’s losing the policy argument.

Well, Obama seems to have learned now – maybe he has been taking lessons from the man who saved the banks (&the world)


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Plane tails from the raj

Among the general public there is virtually zero sympathy for the British Airways cabin staff & their strike, & not just from those whose travel plans are now uncertain or disrupted.

Although there has been much talk of the nation’s favourite airline, beloved British institution etc, I doubt that people actually have all that much affection for it.

It was noticeable that in a recent series of letters to The Times on the unkind interpretations which were given to the initials BOAC, those writers who leaped to the defence were children who were in the privileged position of regularly flying between school in England & home in one of the (now former) colonies.

With its image of silver cutlery & young lady air hostesses with cut glass accents, it did not seem to be for the likes of the rest of us.

Bob Ayling’s instinct about the need for a change of image (& attitude) was sound, but the silly painting of the tail fins was not – we liked the flag, it needed more than that. And the current generation of cabin crew are suffering from the legacy of that stuck up image – they need to be taken down a peg or two

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bus pass mums

Instead of worrying about births to teenage mothers perhaps we should be worrying about births to women aged at least 45. Two thirds of them were to unmarried mothers.

Children are being born to mothers who will qualify for a bus pass before their offspring have even taken their GCSEs.

And this is happening at an ever increasing rate. There were 575 such children born in 1998, by 2008 there were 2 ½ times as many.

The number of births to teenage mums (those aged under 20) had fallen to 7% below the 1998 figure in 2008.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Winter lingers

There is still some snow on the tops, despite the change in the weather. Mostly it is just limning the bottom edges of the dry stone walls, but Kinder Scout is still quite white all over; looks gorgeous in the sun from a distance; I should not like to be up there.
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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Domicile is a feminist issue

I know I am supposed to think that it is wrong for someone not domiciled in this country to play a part in our politics, but I cannot. It is a feminist issue.

“Not everyone has the capacity in law to change his or her own domicile by their own act … [including] women who were married prior to 1974.” As the newspapers have been helpfully pointing out, you can inherit a foreign domicile from your father, but not from your mother; she does not count.

It can be an emotional issue for men too, not just something to do with where you pay taxes, to be chosen according to which will give you a smaller bill to pay. It can, potentially, affect divorce, custody of the children & your children’s future rights, and your rights to the ownership of property & inheritance in the country to which your family ‘belongs’, regardless of where you reside, ordinarily, permanently, de facto or de jure.

For most of us the question of domicile will never, probably, arise but when it does it really matters. The United Nations Charter of Human Rights guarantees a right to a nationality, but is silent on this subject.

The piece of intelligence which has surprised me most during this latest snafu is that Lord Paul has been, since last October a member of the Privy Council, presumably because he is also Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords.

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Coming events

A pair of ducks were basking on one of the little sandbanks on the stream this morning, one male, one female, sitting companionably with their backs to the wall, their feathers quite puffed up.

There will be ducklings soon.

But I really do wonder why the sandbanks should be growing – all the rain must be washing down more silt than the increased flow can cope with.

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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

How very true

Downloading my brain ... is unlikely to illuminate the human condition – it may simply add to the confusion of the nations - Geoff Heath April 2009

Monday, March 08, 2010

Ten out of ten and a gold star

One part of the reason for Tom Jones huge popularity in the 1960s was that many Caribbean women felt that he sang just like ‘one of ours.’

Sometime back in the middle of January I heard a song on the radio which I thought must be from the 1960s, from the period somewhere between Millicent & Marley. That same day I tried to get the artist on Last FM only to be told that they did not have enough of his work to give him his own radio station. Not a big surprise, though they are remarkably good at finding a lot of 1960s Caribbean music which long ago disappeared from the shops (if it were ever there in the first place).

So it was, in a way, disconcerting to find that it is sung by a young man, only 23 years old, & a Scot of Italian descent.

Wikipedia informs me that the song peaked at #51 on the UK singles charts, but it is still popular on Radio 2 as well as our rural local radio station, so I think it is probably one of those very slow burners.

The rhythm is perfect, whatever your age. Gives you a lift, which is sorely needed.

It is, of course, 10/10 by Paolo Nutini

Related post
Reggae rhythm

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Growing old disgracefully

It’s really not the young we should be worried about, not even those who wear hoodies & have ASBOs.

In the USA the vast bulk of government spending goes to the elderly, whose average living standards are already significantly above $40,000 per year which represents the average share of US national income.

And how do they respond? By taking more illicit drugs, that’s how.

It’s the old people who cause all the problems – we should look at America & take warning.

Length disproportionate

Another complaint from our overburdened Appeal Court. In a case reported on March 3, Lord Justice Toulson said that that it would not be right to end his judgment without expressing strong disapproval of the volume of papers with which the court had been presented; the case in question was a grotesque example of a tendency to burden the court with documents of grossly disproportionate quantity and length. It was a practice which had to stop.

Hear, hear.

Something should be done to restrict the lengths to which the lawyers can go to collect information from anyone involved in a case before the courts & to reduce the quantity of documents which they, or their legal representatives, must plough through in order to prepare their defence

Related posts
Neighbourly duty

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The birth of class

Wednesday night’s Moral Maze discussed the question of whether worries about teenage births are really worries about class. I wasn’t able to hear the programme, but I do not doubt that the answer is, in large part at least, a resounding Yes. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I, coming from a long line of teenage mothers myself; my own mother was the exception, waiting until the advanced age of 24 to have me, there was a war on & her country needed her. I failed in my ambition to carry on the family tradition, missing the deadline by 8 days.

At the time I entered my child bearing years there was no doubt, all the statistics supported it, that to give birth at any age over 30, & especially over the age of 35, was to invite disaster; all the bad outcomes, ranging from maternal death through congenital deformity rose with the age of the mother. You were classed as elderly prima gravida from the age of 27. My obstetrician told me that, in his opinion, from the physiological point of view, 18 was the ideal age to have ones first child.

The first women of the Baby Boom – taking that as those born in 1945 – reached the peak of their fertility at the age of 23 or 24 – nearly 1 in 5 women of that age gave birth in each of those years. But their daughters reduced their fertility to about half that level – only about 1 in 10 gave birth at the ages of 23 or 24. They made up for it later on however – they gave birth after their 35th birthday at almost three times the rate that their mothers had done. Obviously they no longer felt that they were doing something very, very dangerous for the health of themselves or their child.

(Giving rise, incidentally, to the odd phenomenon of a woman who has just qualified for a bus pass out gallivanting with her own mother, still hale & hearty in her eighties, while her daughter has so far failed to make her a grandmother)

All the bad outcomes are still associated with the mother’s age, but this time it is youth that is dangerous.

The fertility rate for girls aged 16 in 2008 was more or less the same as it was for those born in 1945 – 1 in a hundred. Birth rates for 18 & 19 year olds (as well as for women in their early twenties) are running at no more than half their 1945 level.

Medical science has no doubt done much to reduce the dangers to mothers (and their babies) at any age, & abortion is legal now. But we should also remember the social class differences.

Before contraception became freely available to all on the NHS in 1973 the women giving birth at older ages were disproportionately likely to come from the lower classes & to be producing their 4th child at least; nice middle class girls (& their husbands) organised their lives more responsibly. These days women who can be educated & have careers are in a much better position to decide at what age they wish to have their children. And so it is that those giving birth at older ages are disproportionately likely to be drawn from the educated middle classes, who have decided that mature women make the best mothers. If they do have the misfortune to fall pregnant before their education is complete or their position on the professional ladder secure, social pressure, if not their own feelings, make sure that the mistake is dealt with.

In the 19th century the middle classes were alarmed by the rampant fertility of the lower classes because the Condition of the Working Class & the Irish famine seemed to confirm Malthus predictions about the consequences of lack of moral restraint, & because they were chronically worried about whether their income was secure enough to educate their sons & provide for their daughters they generally kept their own family to a reasonable size.

By the early 20th century this had changed into worries about the effect of differential birth rates on the average intelligence of the population. Serious projections proved that the average IQ in London could fall below 100 if the parents strike of the 1930s continued. This, rather than race, was the focus of the English eugenicists.

The children of young mothers are not doomed to a life without achievement or value.

Duck’s back

I saw my first duck of the year in the stream today, right outside the house. He seemed to be all on his own - perhaps he's the advanced party sent out to scout a good place for laying the eggs.

Things are looking up.

Related post
Duck report

Friday, March 05, 2010

What if

What if a young man, with a troubled background, joined the army, did quite well, maybe saw active service abroad.

Home again, he exhibits symptoms of depression & stress, seeks solace in drink & drugs, has uncontrollable outbursts of temper.

Well he’s One Of Our Boys, a hero, isn’t he? Deserves the best care & attention we can provide.

But suppose that troubled background includes involvement in a notorious crime? Well then, we told you all along he was no good, didn’t we.

String him up & hang him out to dry.

The relativity of fashion

A Times leader the other day included an anecdote about Albert Einstein’s attitude to clothes:

"When his wife asked him to change clothes to meet an ambassador, Einstein told her that if the envoy wanted to see him, he was here, and if he wanted to see his clothes, he’d open his closet and show him his suits. To Einstein, fashion wasn’t rocket science."

That reminded me of an anecdote in Otto Frisch’s autobiography, which explains how the English attitude to clothes meant that the great man could not live here:

"In his later years [Einstein] usually wore a turtleneck pullover. In fact he detested all formality, & for that reason - so I was told - did not stay in England, when Hitler came to power, but went to America instead. To give him a big welcome to their country, his English friends invited him to parties where everybody wore tailcoats or dinner jackets, & food was served by liveried servants. Einstein felt he couldn’t possibly live in a country where so many formalities had to be observed; so all that hospitality was completely self-defeating"

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Snow relief

It’s been a good day –weather warm, work productive; on the last lap home, looking forward to a cosy supper - & then the gritter passes by. Yikes!

But it is going at quite a lick, definitely not gritting here, probably racing round the tops to make sure the high roads stay clear these frosty nights.

So that’s all right then.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Radio reception

Reception on the bedside radio has been funny this week – LW,FM & MW on all stations. Always correctable by turning the set around or moving the aerial.

The weather has been a lot warmer than it has been for weeks, if not months, though we are still getting frosty nights, & the tops of the hills have been visible every day.

I cannot think of any explanation for the interference.

Related post

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Population asset

Once before when worries about how the world might cope with population growth were to the fore a distinguished welfare economist remarked that he thought it possible that there was more welfare in India than in the UK.

My – and others - immediate reaction was surely not, how can that be true?

But then I thought about oceans.

The Mediterranean is undoubtedly much warmer than the North Atlantic. But which contains the more heat, or at least more energy?

The Radio 4 programme New Global Indians is examining how the interchange between India & the rest of the world – through its people – is affecting that balance of welfare, that turning of energy into heat.

And, as one of the contributors said: Population was once considered our biggest problem, now it’s our biggest asset.


You might like to avoid it, but at some point you will die. It’s a fact of life.

That opening to an advert for Marie Curie Cancer Care took me aback. Not because of what it says, but because it says it. For years we seem to have been in denial about this.

The association between football & soccer

On The Long View this morning one of the contributors mentioned how admirably short were the minutes of meetings of the football authorities in the C19th.

In the earliest days one reason for this would have been that all the copies had to be written out by clerks by hand, using old fashioned pen & ink.

There was naturally a tendency to use abbreviation where possible –modern youngsters did not invent the technique with their texts & emails. Long words, frequently repeated, developed their own standard shorthand.

And so Association became Assoc

Say it quickly, over & over, & you get soccer.

So many of the usages which we deride as Americanisms in fact began in England.

Monday, March 01, 2010

New Labour White Rabbit

Liam Byrne has his watch set 10 minutes fast, ensuring that he arrives one minute early for every meeting.

The mathematical logic of that defeats me; add 10 to subtract 1?

The arithmetic of the public finances however has always been so fiendishly complicated that they say only two people ever truly understand it, & one of them is dead.

Mr Byrne, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is our current standard bearer. “I’m very efficient,” he says.

“Everybody knows a conversation with me is not going to be a lot of fun … Some of my older & wiser colleagues have decided they’re going to settle fast & get it done.”

I expect they have learnt over the years how to cut their losses.