Monday, May 31, 2010

Hedgehog names index: F

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project. No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

In order to find all references it is probably best to use surname only in the search.

UA Fanthorpe
Eleanor Farjeon
Peter Farthing
Lynne Featherstone
Roger Federer

MW Feldman
Edward Fennell
Gabriel Ferez
Sir Alec Ferguson

Tom Fielden
Tim Finch
John Findlay
Danny Finkelstein
Tula Ellice Finklea

Harald Fischer-Tine
Michael Fish
Neil Fisher
Ross Fisher

Donald Fleming
Ian Fleming
Martin Fletcher
Sheila Fletcher
Nancy Folbre

Steve Forbes
Anna Ford
John Forrest
Tom Forrest
Chichester Fortescue

Phyllis Fountain
RE Francillon
Dick Francis
Anne Frank
Margot Frank

Maurice Frankel
Aretha Franklin
Alexandra Frean
Otto Frisch
David Frost

Robert Frost
Stephen Fry
Peter Fryer
John Fuller
Harry Furniss


Holiday Monday

There has been a notable lack of suitcases on the bus to the airport these last few days.

Traditionally Whit Sunday marked the beginning of Wakes Week for many towns & villages in the north west, the week when all the mills & factories closed & the workers got their only chance to go away – most likely to Blackpool. Rhyl was also popular, with Llandudno, Southport or Scarborough attracting those who wanted something more refined. In more recent years the fixed date Late May Bank Holiday has tended to replace the movable feast of the church calendar, & workers have more generous & flexible holiday entitlements, but the tradition lingers on, even in this age of the sunseeker & the package holiday.

This year however I have not seen any family groups setting off at all. A worrying sign of recession, perhaps.

Whitsun too used to be a very popular date for weddings, partly no doubt because the happy couple could then have the luxury of a honeymoon. I also think I remember that there was some particular financial advantage to do with the way that the Married Man’s Tax Allowance was operated, but have not been able to confirm this.

I remember the distinct shock I felt on reading Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings. Somehow I had forgotten all about that commonplace scene of Saturday afternoons, particularly Whit Saturday, as the wedding guests saw off the bride & groom at the station. Even more hilarious was the sight of a couple who had said their good byes to their guests at the reception & would be sitting on the platform trying to look as if they had been married for years.

The last time I can remember such a Saturday afternoon sight (though it wasn’t Whitsuntide) was in 1970 on a train from Swansea to London.

Larkin captures so well the less than romantic view of England-from-a-train which unfolded before the couple:

Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: & now & then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new & nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars

There is a reading by Larkin of his own poem on the Poetry Archive.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The cost of living: England: 1860

I think it was something in George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life which first made us wonder how much a salary of £100 pa was worth in the middle of the C19th. Although various indices are available to allow one roughly to calculate the equivalent in today’s money, the way of life was so very different in so many ways that it seems more useful to look at what real things cost & what real people were paid.

The following is a not very systematic list of examples culled from a variety of sources, including the invaluable newspaper small ads, many of which come from editions published in 1867. Odd to remember that the front page of The Times carried nothing but small ads in those days – could they really have been the main attraction for readers? - & that that tradition continued until 1966.

Jobs & pay

Wm H Russell went to report the American Civil war for The Times on a salary of £1200 a year. He owed his wife’s doctor (complications of pregnancy) £500 & sublet his house for £210 pa. He also had a book advance of £750.

Governor Eyre of Jamaica earned £6000 pa.

A Maid of Honor [sic] to Queen Victoria was paid £400 a year in 1863.

As governess in a school - a lady, teaching English, French (acquired abroad), good music & drawing. Good references. Salary £30 to £35.

A German lady, teaching thoroughly German, French & music with English, singing, drawing, Italian & work, desires an immediate RE-ENGAGEMENT. Salary £100.

Governess (superior FINISHING) who has held good appointments in families of distinction, desires a RE-ENGAGEMENT to perfect advanced pupils in French, German, Italian, the higher branches of English, music & good singing. First class references & certificates. Salary £80.

Upper Nurse - WANTED. In a private family, a respectable young woman about 26 years of age as UPPER NURSE where the youngest child is nearly 2 years old. She must be a thorough needlewoman & be able to dress the children’s hair. Good personal character indispensable. Wages £20 all found. Apply this day between 10 & 6 o'clock.

SCHOLASTIC - WANTED MATHEMATICAL, classical & English MASTERS. SALARIES £50 to £200. Apply personally or by letter to Griffiths & Williams, educational agency. Interviews daily from 10 till 4.


Bayswater - Ladbroke Gardens near St Johns & St Peter’s churches. CORNER FAMILY RESIDENCE, high & dry, & overlooking beautiful pleasure gardens, to be LET, furnished or unfurnished. Six capital bedrooms, bathroom, 5 reception rooms, large hall & spacious light & dry basement with housekeepers room, butler’s pantry & accommodation for a first class family. Held, unfurnished, at the very low rent of £125 until March 1869, £135 afterwards

Transport & communication

1 January 1867 Complaints about cost of "telegraphic messages" to the USA. £10 for 20 words

12 August 1867 Postage from the United Kingdom to USA down from 1/- to 6d

American steamship ATLANTIC fares to New York: First Class £18 & £20; Second Class £12 & £14

Double-seated BROUGHAM and harness £65

Saturday, May 29, 2010


History is putting the events of the past into the language of the present.

The emotional harm of football

How are we going to manage to get through the next endless weeks, when World Cup fever is already showing itself. Lots of cars carrying two flags of St George. Even Radio 4 treads on the toes of Radio 5 with an Archive programme this week. The thing has not even started yet. It can only end in tears.

I was recently in Sainsbury’s one evening at a time when a lot of young children are out shopping with their parents. It was like a mass fashion parade of England football strip.

Is this pester power, I ask myself? And if so, by whom of whom? Do children somehow catch the fever at nursery, or do parents insist that their children abandon their favourite clothes in favour of patriotic fervour?

How does this fit with one football associations policy, which is a non-competitive one: “Years of research has shown that young children’s emotions can be negatively affected by competition?”

Well, that was the Scottish FA spokesman speaking; I do not suppose he will be overly concerned with the emotions of English children, given the kind of opinion often expressed by his countrymen. But we have very similar policies in England.

We should be shielding children from the possibly very harmful effects of missed penalties, not multiplying the emotional damage by encouraging such close identification with fallen heroes.

Related post

Friday, May 28, 2010

Question time

The question is not whether the government can tell the BBC who to have on the panel of Question Time, but whether the BBC can tell the government to make a minister available to the programme.

The answer most clearly is no, it is up to the government to decide if they want to be formally represented on a programme aimed more at producing what some people see as ‘good tv’ rather than a discussion of the latest political developments.

Personally I feel that watching that poor sad angry man, Alastair Campbell, declining slowly into the status of embarrassing uncle with his stories of When I was in Patagonia or of How I used to be a contender is more like a freakshow than a programme worthy of the political wing of the BBC.

Not slain yet

Commentators were having a lot of fun this week comparing David Laws the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury with William Gladstone. The Times even ran a headline over Ann Treneman’s sketch declaring Laws becomes Gladstonian.

Mr Laws, who shows every sign of relishing the challenging position of being a Liberal who is seen as wielding the Tory axe, was not shy of bringing Gladstone into it either.

But whoa there.

Gladstone’s own political ‘journey’ was not exactly straightforward, the arc of his political narrative hardly monotonic. Comparisons could be dangerous as well as odious

Remember Gladstone started as a Conservative MP.

For now, let us just savour the moment in December 1852, while a thunderstorm shook the windows of the new House of Commons, & Gladstone delivered the speech denouncing Disraeli’s budget which was followed by the defeat of the government.

Thereafter Gladstone was known as ‘the man who slew the Tories.’

Related post

Thursday, May 27, 2010

New politics

Two men in conversation on the bus, one well past retirement age, the other somewhere in the middle.

Both rather liked what they had heard so far from this coalition - seems quite sensible really. That Vince Cable is good – talks about economics in a way we can understand, unlike Gordon Brown spewing statistics in a way which meant no one could follow at all. Cable is a clever man though – used to be Chief Economist for Shell didn’t he? Knows his stuff, watched a tv interviewer trying to trip him up, but no chance.

We don’t talk about politics enough, do we, said the younger man. Nobody has all the answers; we need team work to work it out.

Well we do talk about issues, said the older one, who obviously had experience on committees or councils or governing bodies. He did not think much of the Local Education Authority, thought it would be good to get them off the backs of the schools.

Related post

Trying to pay your way

A boy got on the bus with only a Scottish bank note with which to pay his fare. The driver explained that they had been told not to accept those, the system back at the depot could not cope.

The boy looked really put out, desperate even, hung his head. The driver explained that he was not going to put him off the bus – he would take him into town where he would be able to change the note, buy a ticket when he came back home. The boy sat down, still worried. Got up to speak to the driver when we got to the next village – If you wait a minute, I’ll run into the newsagents & change it.

Don’t worry about it, said the driver again; just change it when we get to town. Any bank will do it.

Well, I’ll pay a return fare when I come home, said the boy.

If you like, said the driver.

Poor lad.

Related post

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Royal & political gossip

The press have been going rather over the top about the charms of Spanish women, part of their too close for comfort interest in the wives of our political leaders, & in particular in the suitably feisty Miriam González Durántez, who is married to Nick Clegg.

It is not the first time that the role of a Spanish woman in the life of a senior Liberal politician has been the subject of speculation & even of prurient gossip. George William Frederick Villiers fourth earl of Clarendon was appointed by Lord Palmerston as Minister plenipotentiary to Spain in 1833 where he stayed for 6 years & was, as they say, very popular with the ladies. In particular it was well known that he had been especially close to countess de Montijo who was the mother of Eugenie, the last Empress of France. People liked to tease him about the belief that he was the biological father of the empress & that this was the basis of his significant influence with Napoleon III; even Bismarck believed that Clarendon might have been able to avert the Franco-Prussian war had he not died suddenly in June 1870.

Queen Victoria had strongly objected to Clarendon being appointed as Foreign Secretary when Gladstone became prime minister after the 1868 election; she said that he was the only minister who had ever been impertinent to her & he had been gossiping about her relations with John Brown. Gladstone however stood by Clarendon as the best man for the job.

As well as feeling unhappy about the press treatment of political wives we are sometimes uneasy about the royal gossip which is served up to us – particularly the recent entrapment operation on the Duchess of York (whose younger daughter is coincidentally called Eugenie); sometimes we think this kind of thing an unhealthy symptom of our over intrusive age.

That the Victorian press may have been circumspect about marital & sexual peccadilloes does not mean that there was an absence of gossip – the interest in the stories about the Earl of Clarendon & about John Brown & Queen Victoria is testament to this.

The vehicle & the methods by which scandal & gossip are spread, & the degree to which we admit (even to ourselves) our interest may vary over time, but the interest is always there, part of our fundamental human condition.

The Trials of Frances Howard: Fact & Fiction at the Court of King James is an absorbing study by David Lindley of royal scandals from half a millennium ago . In it he makes comparison with our modern experience of stories of the collapse of royal marriages, the emotional investment we make in our own fairy tales, & how they have made us sharply conscious of the power of scandal & gossip. And our stories are nowhere near as hair raisingly shocking as that tale of impotence, murder, witchcraft & execution at the first Stuart court.

Fairy tales, even gossipy & scandalous ones teach us a lot. But as Phyllis Rose observed in Parallel Lives, her study of Victorian marriage ‘It is, of course, one of life’s persistent disappointments that a great moral crisis in my life is nothing but matter for gossip in yours.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


On Saturday evening I came across a programme, Dialogue, on RTE1 in which Andy O'Mahony talked to Antoin Murphy about his book The Genesis of Macroeconomics.

My attention was caught in particular by a quote from Richard Cantillon an C18th Irish economist of whom, to the best of my knowledge, I had never heard. Sometime I must take down the old textbooks on History of Economic Thought or Development of Economic Analysis to see if Cantillon really did not figure in my day, or if the name simply passed me by.

The quote: An entrepreneur is someone who buys at a known price (un prix certain) to sell at an unknown price (un prix incertain)*.

Professor Murphy argued that this distinction between the uncertain income of entrepreneurs & the fixed wages of employees makes for a more fruitful & less divisive analysis than the distinction made by Marx (who ignored Cantillon) between the ‘lumps’ of capital & labour & the fate of surplus value, which breeds social tension.

In our own day we might extend the distinction between uncertain & fixed (or at least agreed or predictable) income to the wages of public & private sector employees. The latter are easier to make redundant, & do not these days have secure & predictable pensions to look forward to; in this case however there is certainly some social tension involved, though hardly Marxist in scale.
The entrepreneur furthermore has acquired, or been saddled with, via legally imposed conditions in the general contract of employment, a whole raft of extra obligations (& therefore costs) to those to whom he pays the fixed wages such as the granting of paid holidays, equal treatment & duty of care.

*This quote is not reproduced in the OED which finds the earliest refence to entrepreneur in English in 1828 with the meaning 'The director or manager of a public musical institution.'

Related posts

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Co-operative country

Your Community Retailer was not being very community minded this afternoon. Parked his rig in the bus stop. Moved off after about 5 minutes – only to do a U turn right across the A6.

Cuts & consequences

One of life’s rules – drummed into us by both our parents: when making a phone call, never let it ring out more than 7 times – if it was not answered by then the person you were calling was not at home, or at least unavoidably detained elsewhere. The rule has not stood the test of time, no one had dreamed of call centres then.

Those were the days. When you eventually got to the top of the queue for a landline of your very own, a GPO engineer would call to inspect your house & decide where the handset could go – one of the important criteria was that the bell should be audible from as many rooms as possible – hence the custom of putting the phone in the cold draughty hall rather than by the fire in the cosy sitting room. I know because my father was a telephone engineer & when I was very young I sometimes went with him on these visits.

Fast forward to 1976, the year of the IMF cuts. I think Telephones had been hived off from the Royal Mail side of the Post Office, but were still a nationalised industry. Years of underinvestment, with the consequence that there was still a waiting list for home phones & the system struggled to cope with the demand from business users. One tactic adopted was to charge more for all phone calls made at the busiest time of day, from 10.30am to 1pm.

Civil servants were instructed that, in the interests of reducing the deficit, calls to outside numbers should not be made at these times, save in exceptional circumstances.

I wondered if it really did help to have one bit of government reduce the income of another part of the public sector in this way.

I have been having similar thoughts about the new ban on first class travel for civil servants. I am hazy about the details, but I believe that the government still subsidises rail travel in various guises. Has anyone worked out whether the loss of income to rail companies from the loss of all that first class revenue will, in the end, bring about any meaningful ruction in the deficit? [Leave that typo - Ed]

My father took the early retirement offered as part of the 1976 cuts, with a slightly enhanced pension. This went a little way to soothing another long standing grievance – that he received no pension credit for his war service because on leaving the army he took up a new career as an engineer rather than go back to his pre-war employer, Martins Bank.

Related post

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Keeping the Queen secure from terrorist attack

Queen Victoria was on holiday at Balmoral in September 1867 when a panic over national security broke out following an attack by Fenians on a Manchester prison van during which a police sergeant was shot & killed.

Only 5 years into her widowhood she was all but at the nadir of her popularity & the subject of intense gossip over her bond with John Brown. In her reaction to the Fenian panics she was at her most difficult in relations with her government: on the one hand she demanded the greatest security, on the other she refused the kind of close personal protection which would involve supervision of her private life.

On the 14 October The Times reported that it was hoped that the Queen would return south in early November & gave details of the size of operation involved. The Queen’s journey by train usually cost ‘upwards of £2,000’ (this in an age Wm H Russell went to report the American Civil war for The Times on a salary of £1200 a year) and took 19 hours.

The next day there was real alarm based on ’intelligence received’. Troops & experienced police were despatched to Balmoral, but nothing happened & nobody suspicious was found in the neighbourhood. The Times was annoyed even so: ‘If Her Majesty would consent to have an escort in driving out, the remotest grounds for uneasiness would be removed.'

The Queen eventually set off for Windsor on 1 November in a special London & North-Western train of 16 carriages, 422 feet long in all (not counting the engine). The whole train was fitted out with Mr Martin’s system of electric communication, so that guards & drivers would know at all times what was going on. These & other arrangements ensured that the train met with no obstructions of any kind on the long journey south.

Members of the public were kept away from Windsor station by police guards, but crowds who respectfully lined the streets outside were able to view the Queen, still dressed in her widow’s weeds, but otherwise enjoying apparently excellent health.

The Times, Thursday, Oct 17, 1867; pg. 10; Issue 25944; col E
The Times, Monday, Nov 04, 1867; pg. 10; Issue 25959; col F

A hedgehog names index: Ca - Ch

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project. No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

In order to find all references it is probably best to use surname only in the search.

Vince Cable
James Callaghan
Philip Callowe
Margaret Calvert
David Cameron

Alistair Campbell
Lord Jock Campbell
Naomi Campbell
Nicky Campbell
Rachel Campbell-Johnson

David Cannadine
Eric Cantona

Will Carling
Thomas Carlyle
EH Carr
Lewis Carroll

Jimmy Carter
Martin Carter
Stephen Carter
Thomas Carter

Bill Cash
Barbara Castle
Kim Catcheside
Andrea Cavagna

Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Bentinck
Julius Cavendish
Lady Frederick (Lucy) Cavendish
Lord Frederick Cavendish
Spencer Cavendish
William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Bentinck


Martin Chalfie
John Chambers
Willie Chandran
Jim Chanos
Roma Chappell

Erwin Chargaff
Cyd Charisse
Charles II
Prince Charles
David Chater

Geoffrey Chaucer
Rupak de Chaudhuri
GK Chesterton
John Chilcot
Adrian Chiles

Constantius Chlorus
Agatha Christie
Winston Churchill

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sunshine at last

It is almost impossible to remember the last time we had a day which was truly warm & promised nothing but uninterrupted sunshine. A good time to remember Mary Oliver’s poem The Sun, for the pleasure that fills you.

from The Sun

do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world—

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

Mary Oliver
Related post
Early or late

Who needs HRT?

I thought it was the sunshine.

The bus was full even when it reached my stop – mostly families or teenagers, not gallivanting grannies. Fortunately a fair number got off in the village, so it was not standing room only all the way to town.

The sun no doubt contributed, but the main cause was another biker accident, causing serious congestion & delays.

Roads round here often feature in lists of the most dangerous in England because of the number of accidents, overwhelmingly involving bikers. So apart from family tragedies (sometimes the accident involves a motorist taken by surprise on a bend) there is the disruption to many peoples weekend plans.

I haven’t checked the ages of those involved, but I suspect they split pretty evenly between daft young things & menoporschal. They need seeing to.

Still, as the bus driver said, At least I’ll get an hour’s overtime out of it.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Prime ministerial security

The press have been carrying photographs which illustrate David Cameron’s determination to relax the personal security which surrounds him & his family. While I wholeheartedly agree with, & applaud, this approach, yesterday’s photo of him walking down Whitehall with Permanent Secretaries Sir Gus O’Donnell & Sir Jeremy Heywood made me think about the Phoenix Park murders.

On 6 May 1882 Lord Fredrick Cavendish arrived in Dublin to take up the post of Irish Chief Secretary following an emergency cabinet reshuffle. That very same afternoon he was knifed to death while walking in Phoenix Park with Thomas Henry Burke, the senior civil servant at Dublin Castle. Prime Minister William Gladstone went personally to deliver the news at midnight to Lord Frederick’s widow, his wife’s niece Lucy Cavendish.

The published diaries of Lady Fredrick Cavendish end at this point & I still remember fighting back the tears as I closed the book at nearly closing time in the library. So it is not just a heart of stone which makes me say that I think prime ministers have almost a duty to take the kind of risk that the security services consider too high. Too high for them perhaps, but if the terrorists really want to get to a prime minister they will find a way – it is impossible to to provide perfect protection. If not they will launch their ‘spectacular’ on other victims – innocent members of the population. The life of a politician should not be ostentatiously given a value which is so much higher in the minds of the security men.

The level of security which has become commonplace in recent years serves only to distance politician from people while at the same time making everybody feel nervous, tetchy or even guilty at the sight of weapons, which could kill us too, being openly carried in public places.

David Cameron is not the first prime minister to rebel. Gladstone did too – as shown by another anecdote from the Oxford Man

After the terrible assassination of the Late Lord Frederick Cavendish & Mr Burke, Mr Gladstone was constantly escorted by a detective from Scotland Yard & about half a dozen policemen. They were with him all the time, & took such excessive precautions that it was almost dangerous to look at him. Even the Duke of Westminster was stopped one evening in the park as he was on a visit to Hawarden. Now this excessive surveillance was not altogether relished by Mr Gladstone. One afternoon he got through his study window unobserved by the detectives, made his way through the park, & walked up to Buckley, a distance of four miles. As soon as it was known that he had left the Castle there was great consternation among the police. Diligent search was made in the Castle grounds & through the park, & no end of surmises were current. About six o’clock in the evening he leisurely returned to the Castle, & put all their troubles to an end.

That conclusion seems unlikely – no doubt disciplinary action was taken to punish this failure of the police to do their duty.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Something to celebrate

Matt Harvey has been appointed Championships Poet 2010 at Wimbledon in collaboration with the Poetry Trust.

I am taking the liberty of reproducing here on this blog a poem he read on Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4 two years ago. Tennis champions get plenty of publicity; would that the same could be said of our champion mathematicians.

Sonnet celebrating the elegance, ingenuity and sheer cerebral power of Darren Crowdy’s creative use of Schottky Groups to complete the Schwarz-Christoffel formula so that it works with irregular shapes and those with holes.

You’re clever, you. Far out. You’re way out there
Beyond the bozone layer where we reside
You plot the line fantastic in the air
Where Ancient Greek and Modern Geek collide
You do Jazz Geometry – it can’t be taught –
Express yourself in dancing neuro-glyphs
Placing in brackets things that can’t be taught
Then multiplying by their absent widths
You’re out there where the holy grail or chalice is
Where masthmatics like me can hardly breathe
Then with applied complex analysis
You bring it down to Earth – just for a wheeze
You’re far out. So far out. And so, so clever
Yet when you say Eureka! we say Whatever…

Seems like only yesterday

It was only in 1997 that we got a prime minister who was younger than me. Now we have both a prime minister & his deputy who are younger than my first born.

And just to rub it in, the 1980s are suddenly being called the decade of nostalgia. I even heard someone praise a new tv series on the grounds that they had got the ‘period detail’ just right.

Deprived of that existential good

In the 1960s existential meant black. Black polo necks, black straight hair, black framed glasses & no doubt black lungs from smoking all those Gitanes.

Jean Paul Sartre. Montmartre. Simone de Beauvoir. The Left Bank. Juliette Greco. And late night student discussions putting the world to rights.

Fifty years on & existential is back as a buzz word, a media cliché.

World War II was an existential struggle for the UK, according to someone taking part in a radio discussion on the morality of war.

According to The Times front page, Angela Merkel has said that the single currency is in the midst of an existential crisis.

Existential now seems to mean one’s very being.

Related post

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Evening light

The evening light at this time of year has a sensuous quality which will last, with any luck, until just after the first yellowing of the leaves in August. It is very difficult to describe, but makes me catch my breath, especially when we finally leave the built up area of the city to be given our first unobstructed view of the hills.

Tthe air seems full of an invisible spray of mist which gives a gauzy effect, reducing the palette to subtle greens, greys & fawns against the pale blue wash of the sky. The edges of the hills are rounded & softened, seeming more relaxed & expansive, lying back with their feet up rather than gathering closely to protect us from Siberian winds or putting up their fists to the Atlantic gales. Even the dry stone walls fade into the background.

It is one of those scenes to which it is almost impossible for any art from to do justice – because really you just want to paint or photograph the light without anything solid at all. Artists ink on glass might do, or possibly embroidered silks – but they would only work if seen in exactly the right kind of light to catch the gleam of glass or soft glow of the threads. It might be possible to achieve this under artificial lighting to bring that same feeling of joy to the winter gloom, but really I suspect it is simply inimitable, something to be stored & treasured in the mind’s eye only.

Related post

Not just about politics

Daniel Finkelstein has written about the need for Tories & Lib Dems to find ways to meet more socially, to make spaces in which they can talk & discuss ideas, to explore common ground, to knock some of the edges off the notion that they are competing political tribes.

It will be fascinating to see if the wives play any part in this, by reviving to some extent the tradition of political hostessing. The wives of the prime minister & his deputy of course have plenty enough to keep them busy as things are, but they must have had social lives before their husbands assumed their current roles, there need not be any much greater burden other than a tweaking of the guest lists. But thing s could get very sticky if Mrs Cameron & Mrs Clegg find that they cannot get on together at all.

Those who were saddened by the notion that Sarah Brown abandoned a successful career to become a mere wife & mother missed the point. She may have lost an independent source of cash income but she gained an awful lot from her position, which could even be regarded as an investment should she ever want to resume her outside career in public relations. Some women decide to return to university to improve their qualifications – a course for which they have to pay their own fees. And of course as far as job satisfaction goes, she had a tough challenge in the use of her skills to improve her husband’s public image. There are many ways to live a full & satisfying life which do not involve being tied to a contract of employment or the whims of paying clients.

The leaving of Downing Street was a triumph in terms of the image presented to the world & the gracious wording of her husband’s speech; it may even have helped him enormously to appreciate that by no means everything was lost. And if I am being a tad cynical, I would say that that campaign is ongoing – the picture of the children leaving Downing Street was a first in their fiercely protected lives, but there were more photos in Monday’s papers of them going to church with their father.

Do we Do God now? All three party leaders were reported to have gone to church on the Sunday before the election, even though Nick Clegg famously told Nicky Campbell, live on air, that he does not believe in god, & David Cameron has described his faith as one that grows hotter and colder by moments.

All three of our party leaders are however being very coy about the precise nature of their child care arrangements. It often seems as if they manage without any extra help at all, with the fathers doing their fair share of getting up in the night, preparing breakfast or doing the school run.

On the evening that the prime minister resigned I heard one radio commentator say that the audience with the Queen would be a less formal affair than usual because of the presence of those two small boys, but a press report the next day said that the two children were ‘handed over to a nanny’ at the gates of Downing Street while their parents went off in the car to Buckingham Palace. With both Mrs Clegg & Mrs Cameron (until recently) in full time employment & husbands who are often away from home, that simply cannot be the whole story, there must be some outside help which can NOT of course be financed by an MP's expenses. The coyness may quite properly said to be none of our business, even simple enquiry being an intrusion on the children’s right to privacy, but I suspect that it represents a parental desire to avoid some kind of political embarrassment, intrusion into or speculation about family finances or comment along the lines of ‘It’s all very well for some.’

Independent government

We have so many independent authorities now, standing behind or over traditional agents such as government departments or even Parliament. The latest is the Office for Budget Responsibility which will make independent forecasts on public finances for budgets.

I often ask myself – independent of what? Democracy? We do not vote for them, the members are usually appointed by the time we hear about them. Are their terms & conditions of service, remuneration, reward packages, pensions & expenses a matter of public record? What happens if we just want to say SHAN’T when they tell us what to do?

There is no such thing as an independent forecast anyway – the assumptions on which it is based are necessarily rooted in the knowledge, experience & beliefs of the forecaster(s). A truly independent approach all too often leads only to rejection by ones peers – as Wynne Godley, who sadly died this week, found out.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The King's Breakfast

On Sunday Poetry Please gave us a real treat – a perfect performance by Bonnie Hurren of AA Milne’s poem The King’s Breakfast .

He whimpered,
‘Could call me
A fussy man;
I only want
A little bit
Of butter for
My bread!’

A teacher told of introducing the poem to a class of ‘difficult’ children, then carrying it over into the art class & asking them to draw a picture; the overwhelming majority chose to show the king sliding down the banisters.

I also strongly suspect that it was collective national subliminal memory which made that sneaked photo of Queen Elizabeth II's breakfast table so shocking – the silver porringer had been replaced by Tupperware.

The King's Breakfast can be heard on Listen Again for the next 11 days but not, unfortunately, downloaded.

Related post

The true human addiction

The one true universal human addiction is to communication. Driven by a form of anxiety - curiosity – a need to know what the rest of the world is doing, what the world is like, what the world is.

Communication requires connection – up close & personal or at a distance. One defining feature of human ‘progress’ is the development of ever more methods of communicating at a distance, be that across time or space. We have to move ourselves or to move information.

As things stand today the most powerful methods of communication & connection - flight, motorised travel, electronic computers & networks - depend very largely on oil.

We are not addicted to oil, we could manage perfectly well without it if we had alternative ways of providing the motive power for moving ourselves or our bits.

It makes no sense to focus on oil & to conclude that the only way to reduce our dependency is to reduce our desire for communication & connection. To withdraw into our own little corner of the space time continuum. It is an extreme evil to depart from the company of the living before you die - Seneca

Image control

I recently saw for the first time a photograph of Norman Lamont announcing late at night that the UK had fallen out of the ERM, at the end of a day when interest rates had been raised from 10% to 12%, then to 15%, to no avail. Only history will tell whether this was truly a lucky break, in the longer term; for now it certainly seems that way, given all the problems with the euro.

The photo was of interest because it shows a young David Cameron off to one side, looking almost unperturbed by this devastating turn of events as his master made what must have been a shatteringly demoralising appearance before the tv cameras. I remember Peter Jay on Newsnight asserting that the Permanent Secretary under whom he had served as a young Treasury official would never have allowed things to happen in such a humiliatingly disorganised way.

Political opponents have often tried to capitalise on Cameron’s association with this debacle, but in other walks of life the ability to get right up, dust yourself down & start all over again is regarded as a strong plus point.

The Conservatives are making a determined effort to present a more flattering picture of this new government – taking a leaf out of Obama’s book they have an official Conservative party photographer, Andrew Parsons.

Coincidentally, A History of the World in 100 Objects is back on Radio 4 this week, looking at how charismatic leaders in the ancient world knew as much about public relations as any modern politician.

Related post
Family photos

Gold in them thar walls

The newspapers are all reporting that you can now get mini gold bars from a hole in the wall machine in a hotel in Abu Dhabi.

Is this the first machine that TG-Gold-Super-Markt has actually managed to sell since its unveiling last year?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Beyond the rainbow

It is as well to remember that the political rainbow extends beyond the visible spectrum to include infrared & ultraviolet.

Private sector or free market housing?

In an interview with Jeremy Paxman, Gordon Brown is reported to have said that housing is “essentially a private sector activity.”

Aneurin Bevan, who did not want to encourage speculative builders who built for sale, must be turning in his grave but Labour learned a hard lesson from the attempt to turn local councils into the nation’s landlord of choice.

But there is still no sign of letting the market build where it really wants to, restoring a free market in land for housing & stopping forcing builders into providing rabbit hutches.

The politics of the family

Jo Johnson, brother of Boris, has been elected Conservative MP – for Orpington, scene of the famous by election win of Eric Lubbock which marked the modern revival of the Liberal Party – or so it seemed at the time.

Harriet’s husband also won election & so joins his wife in the Commons, alongside Mr & Mrs Balls - & the brothers Miliband of course. Mohammad Sarwar’s son succeeded to his father’s Glasgow seat.

So despite the loss of at least two husband/wife pairings on the Conservative side, politics is still very much a family business. That is without taking account of any partnership pairings of which I may be unaware. If you add in the number of MPs who are closely related to a member of the upper house that is quite a haul. Makes the attempt to bar the employment of family members in an MPs office seem even more pointless as well as unfair.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Blame it on the poll tax

The Conservatives still have only 1 MP in Scotland.

It is said that the Scots continue to bear a grudge over the way that Margaret Thatcher imposed the Poll Tax on them, or rather tried it out on them a whole year before inflicting it on the English, thus proving that she regarded the Scots as mere guinea pigs or lab rats.

The Scots are, of course, entitled to their own opinion (& do not need my permission for it) but I personally have always blamed the Scots for the fact that we English ended up having it imposed upon us.

It is well known that the poll tax proposals were developed by a team of outside advisers brought in because the civil servants could not be trusted to produce workable proposals for a tax about which they were sceptical.

When the Green Paper was published with its glossy green cover & what may have been the first ever full-colour graphs in such a publication, I was almost convinced by the case for a poll tax laid out in the first few paragraphs. Then common sense prevailed. I was far from being the only sceptic - many Conservatives spoke against it too. A lengthy consultation period began.

But the Scottish Conservative ministers were in trouble.

The existing unpopular system of financing local government, based on the rates (a type of property tax) relied on periodic revaluation of all properties in each local area. This exercise always produced big political trouble – those who ended up paying more complained vociferously while everybody else of course kept quiet. A rating revaluation due in England had been postponed pending the new Green Paper but Scotland had gone ahead with theirs. Middle class voters in more expensive homes were not happy, & the Scottish Conservatives feared punishment at the next election. Then they heard of this wizard new wheeze in England. They asked for & were given permission to rush it though north of the border.

The chances of the proposals getting defeated by a rebellion of English Conservative MPs were probably slim anyway, but all hope of this disappeared once the tax was up & running in Scotland.

That is my way of looking at it anyway.

Related post

A hedgehog names index: Ba - Be

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project. No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

In order to find all references it is probably best to use surname only in the search.

Kevin Bacon
Richard Bacon
Paul Badura-Skoda
Rosemarie Bailey
Beryl Bainbridge

Carrie Baker
Danny Baker
Gerald Baker
Sally Baker
Joan Bakewell

Jill Balcon
Clare Balding
Bob Ballard
Ed Balls

Edward Bancroft

Inspector Banks
Tony Banks
Matthew Bannister
William Banting
Theodore de Banville

Noma Bar
John Barbirolli
Lindsey Bareham
Ken Barlow
Nora Barlow

Harry Elmer Barnes
Simon Barnes
Harry Elmer Barnes
Elizabeth Barrett
Halle Barrie

John Barrow
John Barry
Bernard Baruch

Matthew Battles
Leona Baxter
Mark Baxter

The Beatles
Simone de Beauvoir
Gilbert Becaud
Miss Lydia Becker

Patricia Beer
Johnson Beharry
Harry Belafonte
Hilaire Belloc

Richie Benaud
Robert Benchley
Frederick Benger
Marina Benjamin
Mark Bennett
Connie Bensley
Jeremy Bentham

Mark Berelowitz
Bishop Berkley
Sir Isaiah Berlin
Marcel Berlins
Silvio Berlusconi

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Aneurin Bevan
Ernest Bevin

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Saucepans grow in the ground

For various reasons, not least worries about obesity, it is fashionable to decry the idea that today’s children no longer understand where food comes from, nor do they have any basic understanding about food & nutrition, or about how to cook a meal from basic ingredients.

Whilst I do of course share these concerns to some extent - I have even fantasised about running a cookery course for small children - we need to be careful about joining in with an over idealistic view of the past or with a Germanic romanticism about Green issues.

The sort of person who invites us to worry about the fact that children do not know that leeks are pulled out of the ground as mud covered objects of varying sizes, not as neatly trimmed green & white sticks wrapped in plastic, or that chicken nuggets start out as the flesh of tortured battery animals, or that steaks start out as the haunch of a magnificent beef bull, or that milk comes from the udder of a cow, not naturally from a bottle …

Such people rarely invite us to worry about the fact that those same children do not appreciate that the aluminium foil, in which we bake that healthy salmon or rainbow trout, that bright shiny foil which comes in such a convenient roll, actually starts out as a kind of red mud. Or where anything else manufactured 'comes from.' Or that electricity does not somehow live by magic in a socket.

Green government

The young man who serves in the newsagents on Saturdays asked me this morning how I felt about being governed by the Greens. It took me a moment to catch on, since I somehow was not expecting him to have taken much notice of politics.

Just goes to show how things have changed.

Related post
Colour coded forecasts

Friday, May 14, 2010

When the personal became political for the prime minister

William Gladstone spoke in what were, even for a Victorian, unusually long, rolling sentences – John Bright described him as unable to resist the temptation of tracing a navigable river to its source when following the coastline of his oratory.

It is said that it was in Manchester in 1853, there to unveil a statue to Sir Robert Peel, that Gladstone found that he could not only control a large unknown audience but could elicit from them a single response.

He remained punctilious about his style, however, even speaking extempore. It was during a speech in Liverpool that he got into trouble over his use of the word ‘persons’.

He paused & substituted the word to correct himself for using the word ‘gentlemen’ twice in the same sentence; his audience sniggered & applauded.

Gladstone made a gesture of annoyance, signalled to the reporters to take no notice of the interruption & settled for repeating the word ‘gentlemen,’ "preferring a faulty sentence to one that was thus proved to be ambiguous & was open to the suspicion of discourtesy."

The Oxford Man who compiled the Liverpool anecdote presents it as an example of Gladstone’s "impatience of any applause given to him unworthily at the expense of his opponents."

But why might calling someone a person be considered discourteous?

The Oxford English Dictionary provides two possibilities, both of which were current in the 1860s.

  • An individual considered to be of low rank, status, or worth
  • The human genitals specifically the penis. The term is, (or was) enshrined in English law relating to the crime of indecent exposure. The Vagrancy Act of 1824 says that "Every Person wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely exposing his Person in any Street ... or in any place of public Resort, with intent to insult any Female.., shall be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond."

Heavens to Betsy! Do the feminists know? Well yes, I expect they do. That’s why the person in charge of a meeting must be referred to as if they were an article of furniture.

Vagrancy Act 1824 (c.83) - Statute Law Database

Related posts
A terminological debate
It really ought to be perdaughter
An –ity bit of difference

Achieving political balance

David Cameron came up with an impressive response to the journalist who cheekily asked if he regretted having once described Nick Clegg as ‘his favourite joke.’

We’re all going to have things we said thrown back at us … if it means swallowing some humble pie & eating some of our words, I can’t think of a more excellent diet with which to provide the country with good government.”

A cynic might say that advisers had spent hours coming up with that, having seen it from a mile off. But I prefer the innocently optimistic response of believing it was quick witted & off the cuff.

The more you think about it the more these two young men have come up with a breathtaking attempt to solve our political malaise. Even if it does not work, it has shown that it is no use just carping & sniping all the time.

If anything it is going to be even more interesting to watch how the press respond to all this. They were the ones who looked like the worn out old has beens at the press conference, with an outdated framework (& contacts book) for ‘The Story’

And it will be great fun to watch how the BBC decides what constitutes balance in discussion when sometimes the counterweights are on the same side.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The number after zero

It seems to be widely accepted, finally, that the decade just ended be referred to as The Noughties.

But what do we call the one upon which we are now embarked? The Tenties? The Teenies?

I definitely support the idea of calling it The Oneties
Related posts

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Interesting times

I am beginning to understand why GM Young wrote that "Of all decades in our history, a wise man would choose the 1850s to be young in."

Lord John Russell was prime minister as the decade started; he was succeeded by Lords Derby, Aberdeen, Palmerston, Derby (again) & the decade ended with Palmerston once again in power. The party label of the government went Whig, Conservative, Peelite, Whig, Conservative, Liberal. All as the Conservatives tried to recover from the upheaval of the Corn Laws (& even more importantly, the Maynooth grant & support for Catholic education) & the Whigs tried to reach accommodation with the Radicals. The question of reforming the electoral system to extend the vote to the working classes was always in the background, the Irish Republican Brotherhood was stirring, but was still over there rather than over here as far as the English were concerned.

Once again we are living in interesting times with political upheavals to match. Proportional representation is the new marching cry, & we now look fearfully towards the east for religious & terrorist threats.

Related post

Cabinet & co-education

So far Theresa May is the one to have really drawn the short straw, though she may not feel that way. Wish her luck as Home Secretary – she will need it.

Adding to the comment about the lack of leading women among both commentators & politicians in this election, Womans Hour this morning made comparison with the numbers of women cabinet ministers in other European countries.

How many of them have had to stand for election I wonder, & how many may be prime ministerial or presidential appointments?

Even more crucially, I wonder if there is any correlation between the proportion of women cabinet ministers & the proportion of girls who go to co-educational schools?


Related posts

The servants done well

We shall have to wait for the memoirs & diaries & the opening of the national archives in 30 years time (or however long it is now) to know what has really been going on behind what Ann Treneman calls the teal door of the Cabinet Office building, but the civil service has done a great job so far in helping the politicians come to an agreement about how to meet the wishes of the electorate.

By drawing up a written rule book, available to all, about the constitutional conventions & procedures to be followed; by facilitating the negotiations with accommodation & administrative advice & support. No briefings & leakings, helping everybody to be serious, grown up & clear about what they have decided (we hope). No sofa government here!

Let us hope that relations between politicians & civil servants have started as they mean to go on & our administrative system can be put back into good repair

Related posts

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Taking the prime minister’s photo

Thinking about Gladstone chopping down trees sent me in search of a book I bought – must be the best part of twenty years ago - in one of those higgledy-piggledy second hand shops which have now mostly migrated to the web. The last time I took it down from the shelf must have been over a decade ago, when I needed support for my contention that there was nothing particularly original about Tony Blair’s (or Alastair Campbell’s) formulation ‘The People’s …’, since Gladstone had been The People’s William.

It is a small volume - less than 100 pages with a dark blue, scarlet & gold cover. The Liberal Leader: Anecdotes of Gladstone by An Oxford Man, jointly published by Joseph Toulson with Hamilton, Adams & Co of London*. The name Arthur P Gilman is inscribed on the flyleaf together with the date 10-4-10 so it is now more than a century old.

I reproduce one anecdote in its entirety, just to give the flavour.

"A number of excursionists from Bolton, Lancashire, came to Hawarden for the purpose of strolling in the Park & having a look at Mr Gladstone. Amongst the number was a photographer, who conceived the idea of taking the Premier’s portrait in the act of felling a tree. He, however, failed to induce him to stand for the picture. Disappointed & crest-fallen, he made his way back towards Broughton Station. On the road he fell in with a resident of Hawarden, to whom he told his grief. The villager persuaded him to return, & promised to do his best to influence Mrs Gladstone to induce her husband to have his likeness taken. He succeeded. Mr Gladstone striped off his coat & vest, & with braces down, & axe in hand, was photographed by the Bolton artist. The photo had an enormous sale, & it is said that the photographer made his fortune by it."

Well it cannot be the same photograph included in my previous post – I expect that despite Gladstone’s reluctance on this occasion he probably posed for many such.

How interesting though to hear of another wife whose superior PR skills softened the image of her husband who had been, by common consent, one of our greatest Chancellors & went on to become (in the eyes of some) an equally great prime minister, but who suffered from deep psychological flaws

*Google failed to find any record of it, as curiously does the British Library catalogue, though it has a shorter book of the same title by an author described as both an Oxford Man & a Hawardenite published in Mold in 1884

Monday, May 10, 2010

Colour coded forecasts

Sir Robert Worcester has been quoting the Sweet FA Prediction Model for forecasting elections – just look at the colour of the shirt worn by the current holders of the FA cup.

I don’t think the current holders wear either green or orange (and definitely not purple), so the method has failed this year.

Old fashioned values

Ben Macintyre spotted a true blue rinse in the audience for a Cameron campaign visit to Scotland.

Isn’t that just a journalistic way of calling an older woman a bigot?

Related post

Political pastime

David Cameron spent part of election day chopping logs, a form of relaxation he has recommended, according to Will Pavia of The Times.

'The People’s William' (Gladstone) was famous for chopping down trees – the voters used to make pilgrimage to Hawarden in the hope of seeing him at it.

But surely Cameron cannot expect to win any brownie points from his party for emulating such a Conservative hate figure?

"Randolph Churchill derided Gladstone’s penchant for cutting down trees, as proof that even in his pastimes his instincts were purely destructive."

Earl of Midleton: Records & Reactions 1856-1939


Related post
Political society

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Hedgehog names index: A

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project. No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

In order to find all references it is probably best to use surname only in the search.

David Aaronovitch
Qadir Abdulla
Danny Abse
Fiona Adams

Maude Adams
Fleur Adcock
Dotun Adebayo
Aravind Adega
Baroness Afshar

Patience Agabi
Bertie Ahern
Anjana Ahuja
Brian Alexander
Wendy Alexander

Jim Al-Khalili
Richard Allsopp
Fred Allen
RGD Allen
Louise Fredericke Auguste von Alton

Lord Altrincham
Martin Amis
Ilham Anas
Anita Anan
Stephen Anderton

Sybil Andrews
Elizabeth Garret Anderson
Natalie Angier
Catherine of Aragon

Doris Archer
Phil Archer
Jeffrey Archer

Duke of Argyll
Dan Ariely
Louis Armstrong

Sir Elkanah Armitage
Lisa Armstrong
Gaynor Arnold
Matthew Arnold
Arthur Ashe

Catherine Ashton
TS Ashton
Nancy Astor
Kate Atkinson

Clement Attlee
Augustine of Canterbury
Richard Austin
Jane Austen

WE Axon
AJ Ayer

Sorrows & sufferings

It was the middle of the 3 day week – things were quite gloomy. My GP sent me for a blood test at the local hospital.

It was the first time I had come across this system – on previous occasions something as simple as a blood test had always needed an outpatient appointment, but all I had to do was trot along to the local hospital any day between 10 & 12 with my pink form.

The hospital was in an old Victorian building. Hospital signage was still not intended to be patient friendly, so I asked a passing nurse where to go: second door on the left, she said.

The door opened inwards on one of those narrow twisting wooden staircases, descending to the basement. A handwritten notice pinned to the wall pointed down to PATHOLOGY.

At that stage of my life I still associated pathology only with the forensic dissection of a corpse. I had been directed to the morgue. Surely I was not that ill?

I beat a hasty retreat, & asked someone else. The answer was the same. So, deep breath, heart in mouth, I went down the stairs, not knowing what on earth to expect.

I found about three or four mostly elderly cheerful patients sitting hugger mugger in a small untidy room, waiting their turn with the phlebotomist, who sat at a desk pushed against the far wall.

And not long after I found out that pathology does not necessarily involve death & dissection

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The secret of buying votes

A commentator on RTE1 gave an interesting perspective on the art of coalition building, or of persuading nationalist parties to support the governing party.

Scotland, Northern Ireland & Wales are (even together) so small in terms of population that they can be bought much more cheaply than can the 50 million people of England.

Job share

The idea that Vince Cable might be offered the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Cameron-led government stretches credulity too far.

Chief Secretary would be more like it – a much more pivotal & crucial role when it comes to cutting budgets, & therefore something of a poisoned chalice.

Michael Portillo did his ministerial reputation no harm in the role. But most of all I can see Vince Cable in the job because he always reminds me, for some reason, of Joel Barnett, & we need a new Barnett formula

Faut pas souffrire

Why do so many people who, as I do, accept the case for animal testing, because it can play a vital part in research leading to cures for some very nasty & distressing human diseases, draw the line at testing cosmetics on animals?

Unless you take the line that vain silly women (men too, if it comes to that) deserve anything they get, just as smokers do, then cosmetics should be tested. Although we no longer (I hope) use substances such as arsenic, strychnine or lead for the purpose of beautification, there is no way of knowing what harm some new chemical, or an old one used in novel ways, might cause when applied to the skin, especially in such delicate areas as lips, eyes & vulva.

And just where do you draw the line between cosmetic & pharmaceutical when it comes to things such as dandruff shampoo & rough skin cream, or sun screening lotions? And where do baby products fit in to this scheme?

Friday, May 07, 2010

A backward movement

The day before the aircraft were grounded again this week the cloud cover was heavy, though with more than enough blue to make a sailor a pair of trousers.

The clouds were moving very, very slowly in a generally southern direction & I was watching the process of docking as I stood at the bus stop. To my surprise I saw one cloud actually reverse direction & start to move back north as it was being pulled into the much larger one coming from behind.

Helps you understand how difficult it must be to forecast the behaviour of these clouds of volcano dust & ashes

A healthy campaign

The Liberal Democrat candidate (who did not win) told listeners to local radio that thanks to the exertions of canvassing & campaigning he had lost a stone in weight. The interviewer informed us that the spring sunshine had also given the candidate a real holiday tan.

Cue joke about how everybody will want to stand for parliament when they hear about these benefits to health & good looks.

Voting hours

Another administrative disaster – not allowing some people to vote after 10 pm. That will add a lot to the force of our argument when we lecture other countries on the need for western style democracy.

I wonder if the law really is so prescriptive & proscriptive – wouldn’t be at all surprising, this must be an almost unprecedented problem. Just shows how far the 24 hour culture has spread; twenty years ago, even ten, people would have looked at you uncomprehendingly if you had suggested that there could be queues outside the polling stations at that hour. A good proportion of voters would already have been in bed. Our worries have all been focused on the problem of getting people to turn up at all, queues being extremely unlikely at any hour.

But most of all I suspect that Jack Straw did not help by bowing to pressure from the political classes (including the media) to have all counts done immediately the polls close, except in exceptional circumstances. With the extreme pressure on local government budgets during this recession, the temptation to pare costs must have been compelling. Why not use fewer polling stations, covering a larger area; why print ballot papers in numbers sufficient to provide one for every voter when turnouts are so low these days; why not use fewer staff, & start to pull some of them back to base in the evening to begin the arduous procedures for counting & checking postal votes? Etc, etc

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Election blues

It has been strange to see the resurgence of Gordon Brown – once again he seems to be benefiting from a feeling of public shame about having been nasty to him. A strange trick to be able to pull off, given how nasty he is to others, even if it is always the fault of some proxy minion.

This election nevertheless seemed to fall suddenly flat yesterday – or perhaps I am just reading too much from my own mood.

The excitement of the debates has faded – we have already had the final. Now it is serious, not at all like choosing the next Jedward or Susan Doyle. And nobody is going to relieve us of taking responsibility for not taking the whole thing seriously, as John Sergeant did by bowing out of Strictly Come Dancing; we have to go through with cocking a snook or be serious about really serious questions.

The weather has not helped, nor has the return of the cloud of volcanic ash.

There is not much excitement on the streets, not even around the polling stations – in fact I have not seen a single person going in or coming out of one.

Perhaps it will after all be a very low turnout, a massive majority for none of the above.

And I for one shall be surprised if the Liberal Democrats have, in the end, been able to translate their novelty into a significant addition to the number of seats they hold.

Just hope the result does not leave us in hock to the DUP

The fascination of dust

With remarkable timing, given our sudden interest in the role of dust in our earthly atmosphere, In Our Time today was about the way in which infrared astronomy is being used to reveal the mysteries of a universe of dust.
Three stellar guests, Carolin Crawford, Paul Murdin & Michael Rowan-Robinson were able to explain all this with enthusiasm to a lay audience.
And, to my very great delight, Paul Murdin explained the difference between what we see with our eyes as light & what is revealed through infrared by reference to Orion, where we can observe tens of millions of newly formed stars.

We have been having some fantastically clear nights recently, making it possible for the first time in ages to stand in the backyard last thing at night making reacquaintance with the stars. Unfortunately it looks like being overcast tonight, but at the first chance I get ...
"The telescope collects buckets of light; the spectrograph makes rainbows" said Maggie Aderin-Pocock on a recent Desert Island Discs. Buckets of dust can be just as enlightening it seems.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Florence Nightingale, passionate statistician

Last night I tuned in to Radio 3’s Nightwaves midway through an item about the new Florence Nightingale museum. It was good to hear the discussants express the hope that all Nightingale's work on statistics & public health will become better known & that she might become a role model for girls interested in mathematics as well as nursing.

As I listened I realised that one of the reasons for the difficulties about her reputation is that she was, quintessentially, That Woman, a focus for all our ambiguity about females with power.

Florence Nightingale has always been a hero of mine, partly because she featured in every Book of Heroines for Girls when I was a child, but even more importantly because she was also a Derbyshire girl.

Her family home at Lea Hurst was quite a regular destination for one of our Sunday outings, especially in spring when the grounds put on a wonderful display of daffodils.

The crossroads near Lea Hurst also provided the meeting point for the first midnight hike I was allowed to go on, at the age of 14. Such hikes were a popular pursuit, involving both Girl Guide Rangers & Boy Scout Rovers. It seems strange now that children as young as 14 were allowed to join in, but for our parents, or even older siblings, 14 had been the normal school leaving age (at the end of only an elementary education) for the vast majority until the 1944 Education Act changed things. But 14 still remained the beginning of adulthood in many activities.

I cannot remember whether I caught the last bus to the meeting point or whether my father dropped me off, but what seems even more strange to modern sensibilities was that I was just left to wait on the grass verge until company arrived. I sat with my back to the wall, which I had to get up & peer over occasionally to reassure myself that it really was just resting cows, not strange men, indulging in heavy breathing & coughing on the other side.

The hike was probably about 6 miles. We then spent the rest of the night in our sleeping bags on the floor of what I guess was a village school – at least it had a well-equipped kitchen where we were able to cook a breakfast of tinned beans, tomatoes, bacon & toast before making our various ways home.

I learned more when I was able to read the biography by Cecil Woodham-Smith, by which time I counted myself a statistician, & felt both delight & outrage that I had known little or nothing about this aspect of her life.

Matthew Sweet considered it a ‘top fact’ that Nightingale invented the pie chart. In the interests of balance it should be said that this claim has been disputed, but even if earlier examples can be found, there is no evidence that she was aware of them. She also corresponded with Quetelet, & it was Sir Edward Cook’s biography of her which first alerted me to the most probable origins of that damned lie about statistics.

She also kept up her campaigns despite being in great pain, confined to her couch.

Really, instead of wasting time arguing about the claims of Florence Nightingale or Mary Seacole, feminists everywhere should recognise the strengths of both.