Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Nepalese nannies

I have recently been struck all over again by the reasoning abilities of young children – those aged between about three & five. This has come just from random bits of overheards, not proud parental or grandparental satisfaction at having a genius in the family.

But it has led me to wonder why so many people say they have no memory of anything that happened to them at these ages – if memory is not linked to the ability to reason, then where does it come from?

If I try to analyse my own memories they do seem to be linked more to emotional reactions – whether simple surprise, pleasure & delight, or darker ones such as worry & fear.

The Cameron children ought to have plenty of memories of the past few months, what with daddy getting to be prime minister & the move to Downing Street; then to cap it all they go on holiday to Cornwall & get a baby sister who, as said a Times leader no less, earned a mention in the history books as soon as she was born. Myself I think all this coverage is a bit much – especially that photo of daddy nose-to-nose with his darling. Of course it is a very nice picture, but surely one that is too private to be gawped at in the press.

The coverage did however provide one very intriguing tidbit – the Cameron’s have a Nepalese nanny who has been ‘with them for years’ according to a seemingly well informed Alice Thomson, also in The Times.

Then on Saturday the paper carried an article about French families desperately seeking English-speaking nannies or au pairs for their children, since an ability to speak & understand the language is essential in today’s world. One family who failed in the search settled for a Nepalese au pair instead.

Good gracious! Is this the new must-have for the status-conscious family throughout the EC? A quick Google confirms that this appears to be so. How, why have Nepalese women acquired such a status & reputation? Has it got anything to do with the gurkhas?

Shout it out loud

Somewhere on the radio this weekend I heard someone pronounce vociferous as voiciferous.

Which is rather brilliant, actually.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Maternity does & donts

Maternity leave did exist as a right, for some at least, when I started my full time working life; there even used to be a belief, when I was a student, that the Civil Service was particularly liberal in allowing this privilege to unmarried women. There were limits – the story went that more than 3 pregnancies & you were out.

This was in the days when the most liberal of university authorities would send you down for the remainder of the year if you got pregnant, prepared to allow you back on the assumption that the baby had been adopted. Many educational establishments simply sent you packing altogether.

If I remember rightly (the details can be checked, but I am relying on memory here) you were entitled to 3 months maternity leave with some kind of pay, with a possibility of an extra 3 unpaid.

There was however a very significant catch: you had to stop working at 7 months. The medics were unbending on this one – to carry on working full time was dangerous to the health of both mother & baby. This view no doubt dated back to the days when only working class women in manual jobs, which might expose them to all sorts of dangerous substances or practices, would dream of working at all while pregnant. There was also a question of taste & decency – somehow it wasn’t quite right to have a heavily pregnant woman around – where are you supposed to look? No proud display of bumps then, keep it decently hidden behind a voluminous smock!

We fought & won that one, but still we, the medical professions, the breast feeding brigade, or just fashion, find ways to try to govern how women behave during or immediately after - & sometimes even well before – they get pregnant. Purely in the best interests of themselves & the baby, you understand.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bank holiday delights

Even in my childhood we never went out on Bank Holidays – or not very far. As my father used to say: Why spend the holiday stuck in a traffic jam?

The number of cars on the road rose dramatically during the 1950s from under 2 million at the start of the decade to almost 5 million by 1960; even so, that seems nothing at all compared with the 27 million on the roads today. But the first stretch of the M1 was opened only in November 1959; for holiday travel to the seaside or inland attractions only old-fangled roads were available to drivers.

It wasn’t just the cars but the nervous drivers who contributed to the jams, especially the dreaded Sunday Drivers. These people owned a car, but drove it only rarely. Many of them were elderly ladies. I had two maiden aunts in that category, & my French teacher at school was the owner of a splendid cream Armstrong Siddeley with a navy blue soft top & brass fittings, which made barely more than one outing a year.

So Bank Holidays on the road came to be seen as especially dangerous. It became normal for the BBC to lead the evening television news with the count of the number of people who had died (so far) on what should have been a happy day. It was only in the 1970s that the tradition was stamped on, as road safety experts pointed out that in fact Bank Holiday deaths were not unusually high, & that a false sense of security about the safety of the roads at other times meant that drivers were failing to pay due care & attention.

But I still don’t understand why some people willingly submit themselves to the misery of a Bank Holiday on crowded roads – there are always alternatives. The herd instinct is astonishingly strong – it used to be particularly noticeable in London parks; walk into say, Hyde Park on a sunny day through one of the gates on the Bayswater road & the number of bodies on the grass would rival Blackpool beach; walk just a short distance into the centre of the park & you could be in one of the most remote parts of the countryside.

Nowt so queer as folk

In No Strange Land

This poem by that troubled man Francis Thompson is a well judged corrective to the more anguished questionings of depression.

In No Strange Land

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air -
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumor of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars! -
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places -
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry - and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
Cry - clinging to Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking on the water,
Not of Genesareth, but Thames!

Francis Thompson

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Osiris & Seth, Cain & Abel

The story of the Nile journey undertaken by Florence Nightingale reminded me of the story of Osiris & how he & his brother Seth each married one of their own sisters – all four were the children of Nut, the goddess of the Sky & Geb, the Earth god.

Which in turn reminded of the question – Who did Cain & Abel marry?

This was one of those I tried Googling while I was still just learning – I was surprised to find that nothing much turned up. It is just one indicator of how the web has grown that today my query produced 399,000 results.

It is not that I want to ‘know’ the answer, but how it is dealt with. After all if The Bible is supposed to be an infallible handbook of sexual morality for all time, must there not be an implication that brother/sister incest is condoned – or even mother/son? Or did god create at least one other couple to get round these problems?

It is fascinating how some of the attempted answers rely on the supposedly extreme length of life lived by these earliest members of the human race. Marrying a sister who is a couple of centuries younger than you is absolutely not the same as …

But the questions around the first man, or the first member of any new species, are not just problems for moralists or theologians. Scientists too talk about the first humans in the plural, leaving the details a bit vague. Is there an intermediate stage where there are the equivalent of ‘mixed race’ beings? Must all the first members of a new species come from the same two parents or is there the equivalent of a line of near relatives evolving together like waves rippling to the shore? Is there a minimum number of members for a species to be a species?

I think we should be told.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Poetic nostalgia

Fell off the book buying wagon again this week – the library is having a bit of an extra clear out ahead of a reorganisation, so there are some very tempting bargains on offer.

One little treasure is Where’s That Poem: An Index of Poems for Children compiled by Helen Morris & originally published in 1967. It was aimed at teachers who might be trying to track down a particular poem, or were looking for suitable poems on a particular topic. It also contains a useful set of pithy reviews of the main anthologies available for schools back then.

So something for me to both wallow in nostalgically – Oh yes, I had forgotten all about that one - or take as an inspiration to track down something which is new to me – for example [Alan] Brownjohn’s Beasts.

Helen Morris took a robust view on what counted as suitable for children: “To classify poems as suitable for a particular age group is to err … To say that a particular poem is suitable for a child of a particular age is to try to cram every child into a teacher-designed & teacher-enforced scheme of development which bears no resemblance to real, personal individual growth.”

But nor was she on the side of those who, in the Seventies, took this attitude to the lengths of saying that teachers should not enforce schemes of grammar & spelling on children but rather encourage them to use their own creativity to produce their own kind of poetry. She confirms my memory that the poetry of Andrew Young was very popular in schools “Recommended for use … to teach children to look closely & describe accurately.” That advice may have worked better for children who had more experience of rural life & nature than it does for today’s urban, car-transported offspring, though he may once again speak to children if they are to experience much ice & frost & snow in our changed climate.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mediocre regression

Our year were the first to do General Studies in the Sixth Form. There was an external exam, but it did not count formally for anything, was just one of the early steps in the various efforts that have been made to broaden out the curriculum, which was even tighter, & started to be so at an earlier age back then, not least because of the need to do Latin.

Latin O level was a condition of entry for those aiming to study for a BA in virtually any subject at most English universities, & in the days when 8 'O' levels were regarded as plenty, keeping up Latin usually meant dropping at least one of your science subjects from the mix.

At our school the teaching load for general studies was shared between different teachers. I especially remember one term being taught by the RE teacher, who was also the parish priest, who had us discussing what ‘being normal’ means & introduced us to Galton’s study of the heights of parents & children. When I said that I was exactly half way between my parents in height, he told me that meant I was the perfect regression. I think he meant it to sting – we didn’t really get on for some reason, perhaps because he was a very short (and rotund) man - & until that lesson we thought of regression as a going backwards, back to animal nature, the opposite of progress & civilisation.

Edna Healey says in her biography of Emma Darwin that her husband Charles was, like his father Robert & grandfather Erasmus, ‘well over’ 6 feet tall’ (various internet sources say 5’ 11½”). That surprised me because for whatever reason I have always thought Darwin was quite short, as were many Victorians; thinking of him on the Beagle meant he was always, in my mind, associated in some way with the short-of-stature Admiral Nelson. Darwin’s height can only have added to the discomforts of that voyage – it’s no wonder he liked to spend long hours riding & roaming free when he was on dry land.

Francis Galton was of course a cousin of Charles Darwin (his mother was Charles’s father's half sister by Erasmus’ second wife). It occurred to me to wonder if Galton had a particular family reason for investigating the relation between the heights of parents & children – perhaps a little cousinly jealousy at Charles’s superiority? I haven’t been able to find any information on Galton’s height but the explanation for his choosing height shows that my suspicion was unworthy – there were good technical reasons for his choice. Still, by deciding to call it ‘regression to mediocrity’ Galton leaves a suspicion in the modern mind which regards the mediocre as simply not good enough.

Galton deploys a nice clear argument from first principles about why height should follow ‘the beautiful regularity’ of what we now call the Normal curve.

The Normal curve, or Law of Error, depends first upon there being many separate sources or causes of difference between individuals & then that these differences add together (rather than, for instance, multiplying up) to produce the overall difference from the mean. Finally positive differences must be just as likely to occur as negative ones, & small differences must be more likely than large ones.

For Galton height depends on many elements all of which vary between individuals – the lengths or thicknesses of more than a hundred parts of the body ‘each so distinct from the rest as to have earned a name by which it can be specified’. These include fifty separate bones, two cartilages at each joint, the thickness of the scalp & the soles of the feet.

A long way from current popular ideas of a gene ‘for’ everything, & one that we would do well to remember, particularly when thinking about why some people are fatter than others.

Related post

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fathers job

Ed Balls has been trying to alter the perception that some have of him as a bully by, for example, letting it be known that he is the family baker of birthday cakes for his children.

Why does that make me feel even more uneasy?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I came across this very nice quote from Jane Carlyle in Joan Perkin's Women & Marriage in C19th England.

In spite of the honestest efforts to annihilate my I-ity [sic], or merge it in what the world doubtless considers my better half I still find myself a self-subsisting & alas! self-seeking me.

The full context of the quote can be read through the link below.

Joan Perkin's book is a useful corrective to the usual easy assumtions about what marriage really entailed for women in legal, financial & social terms, but one wonders at Jane Carlyle's ability to put up with Thomas under any circumstances.

Related post

Monstrous regiment

Yet again a politician is making the news because of problems with ‘that woman’, in this case a Treasury civil servant who has upset Iain Duncan Smith.

Of course men (& women) say extremely rude things about male colleagues, but it is true to say that they are more likely to be very specifically aimed, rather than this generic cat calling, which makes the use of 'that woman' arguably misogynistic or sexist.

In the days when women were relatively rare in senior positions, dislike or dissatisfaction with one particular woman was always expressed in the kind of terms which implied that women are just not up to the responsibility. So that if you had two unsatisfactory people, equal in grade or responsibility, the man would always be complained of, & thought as being unsatisfactory, simlply as ‘Roger’ (for example); Joan’s shortcomings would always be identified as those of ‘women’.

Related post

Monday, August 23, 2010

Telling a liar from his lies

“Unemployment went up by 100% last month” (exaggeration for political effect).

Interviewer: Do you know how much unemployment rose last month?
Interviewee: No (even though I do know I am letting you tell us).

Particiapnt A: Unemployment rose by 2½% last month, according to official statistics.
Participant B: You’re lying because the government is fiddling the figures.

Actually, the truth about unemployment (now, today this minute) is unknowable – whatever you mean by that term, it cannot be measured instantaneously in real time.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Snow patrol

The county council has begun to recruit teams of volunteer snow clearers, just in case we have another winter like the last one. As they say, they cannot possibly (or at least not at reasonable cost) clear every single pathway in this rural county & yet so many people were trapped at home for the want of no more than a few yards of cleared pavement or path.

I wonder how – or if - they have managed to get insurance to cover these volunteer activities.

Related post

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Social mobility

One thing I have noticed during these long school holidays – there seem to be many more children about in wheelchairs.

It could be just that odd phenomenon – once you have noticed one you just keep noticing more & more, something which was actually there all the time. I don’t think there can have been some sudden upsurge in accidents at birth, or congenital problems, or nasty disease which we would probably have heard all about by now.

The children I am thinking of are aged about 3 to 7 –part of the current baby boom, so you would expect the numbers to increase. It may also be that there is an almost uniformity in the wheelchairs – perhaps a new, or at least local, NHS standard. None is electric, they still need to be pushed by someone & they look rather like a snazzy director’s chair in black. The seat is pretty high off the ground & they have very manoeuvrable wheels.

My best guess is that this just reflects the great improvements that there have been in making everywhere, at least in towns, much more accessible to people with all kinds of mobility problem – ramps, automatic doors etc etc so that now any family with a disabled child can go out just as easily as any other. I have even seen a bus driver have to tell one family, which he clearly hated having to do, that they would have to wait for the next bus because he already had a wheelchair on board. Fortunately on that particular route they should not have had more than 5 minutes to wait.

The other thing, which is going to make me sound patronising at best, is that these children seem to be extremely lively, healthy & happy. My reason for mentioning that fact is that it makes me feel that the kind of therapies & hard work described in Blue Sky July are now the norm, rather than the old fashioned way of a sadly head shaking “They’ll never amount to much.” And of course being able to join in & socialise, experience the same outings as everybody else, can only help with that process.

Related post

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mr Bennet & Mr Nightingale

William Nightingale, father of Florence & Parthenope, had a lot in common with Mr Bennet of Pride & Prejudice.

He had inherited a comfortable fortune from his great uncle, on condition that he change his name to Nightingale; unfortunately this great uncle also specified that the fortune could not be passed on to any female, but must go to some other male relative if William were unfortunate enough to have no son.

It seems not to have occurred to William, who came from a long line of Sheffield traders & bankers & who had studied at Cambridge despite being a Unitarian, that he should do anything to acquire some other form of capital that he could use to secure the future of the two daughters who were his only children; he lived the leisured life of a gentleman, the business of running his estates seems not to have been very onerous. At least he took charge of the education of his daughters.

It was left to his wife to do her best to ensure that suitable husbands were found for the girls.

Mr Bennet was also a loving father with an estate entailed to the male line; he had a tendency to hide in his study ignoring as best he could his wife’s continuing vulgar and insensitive behaviour in pursuit of husbands for her daughters.

It wasn’t that it was not worth bothering to provide a fortune for a daughter – the idea that it would just become the property of her husband could be circumvented by the use of private contracts. So why did they just shrug their shoulders of the responsibility.

The fortune inherited by William Nightingale was said to be £100,000. this sum seems to have served the same role as did ‘millionaire’ in the middle years of the C20th , shorthand for well-to-do.

It also became a journalistic clichĂ© in reports of C19th elopements – the woman involved was always said to be worth £100,000 in her own right, even when, as in the case of Robinson Fowler, Manchester’s stipendiary magistrate, she was the mature wife of a fellow magistrate.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wet dry weather

We had some funny weather on Wednesday, minutes of blue sky & sunshine followed by heavy clouds which plopped down the kind of raindrops which make you run for cover but never follow up on their threat.

We journeyed home along alternating stretches – a mile of heavy rain, followed by a mile of dry surface – all the way to the village, where the centre was almost awash while up at home the road down the hill was dry.

Good news this morning however – the hosepipe ban has been lifted.

You only breathe through your eyes

Florence Nightingale & the burka.

I have just started to read Anthony Sattin’s ‘Winter on the Nile’ about a journey in 1849-50 undertaken by Florence Nightingale & Gustave Flaubert. There are all the signs that I am in for a tremendously good read – starting with a string of satisfying coincidences.

Here were two people aged about 30, each facing something of a crisis as they wondered if their life's ambitions might ever be fulfilled. Before the new decade was over Florence Nightingale had been to the Crimea & Madame Bovary was published.

There is no evidence that they ever met or socialised – their being on the same ferry was pure coincidence - but Anthony Sattin came across the evidence through first a glorious episode of library serendipity, a eureka moment, when he discovered letters written home from the trip & then by following up other leads.

The reason for this post is that I want to note Florence Nightingale’s description of how & why she came to dress one day in a burka.

Florence was escorted on the trip by family friends, the Bracebridges. At the end of a week in Alexandria while they waited for the ferry which would take them on to Cairo, Florence expressed a particular desire to be able to go to the mosque during prayers – something, it was thought, that no European woman had done before. Undeterred by the advice that the only way was to go disguised as a local woman, she, Mrs Bracebridge & her maid donned the required dress. Even so they were advised not to show their hands or to speak.

The women were only in the mosque for 15 minutes, observing from the minaret. The description of the less than reverent occupations of the large congregation – basket making, story telling, sleeping – reminded me of the description of the old St Paul’s, to which John Donne was expected to bring some kind of order & control when he was appointed dean.

Unlike Mrs Bracebridge, who was shocked, Florence rather approved of all this bustle, & anyway, when the faithful heard the call, they all bowed down together & for 5 minutes were totally absorbed in their prayer. She however was outraged at the way the women were treated – no better than animals. “If I could have said where any woman may go for an hours rest, to me the feeling would have been perfect.”

Here is her description of being harnessed into the trappings of a burka.
First an immense blue silk sheet (the head comes through a hole in the middle); then a white stripe of muslin which comes over your nose like a horse’s nose bag, & is fastened by a stiff passementerie* band, which passes between your eyes & over & behind your head like a halter; then a white veil; & lastly the black silk balloon** which is pinned on the top of your head, has two loops at the two ends through which you put your wrists in order to keep the whole together. You only breathe through your eyes.
*Decorative trimming of gold or silver lace or (in later use) of
braid, beads, or other material.
A balloon-cap
An extended version of Florence Nightingale's experience at the mosque is available online at Florence of Arabia

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The illiterate vulgar X

Everybody knows that "X" marks the spot, whether it comes to locating buried treasure, winning spot-the-ball competitions or casting a vote on polling day” or so opens the BBC item on ‘Why 'X' does not always mark the spot.’

But why does X mark ones choice of an MP? Or alternatively, why do teachers use X for no, wrong?

Somewhere there must be fascinating documents or discussion about how this came about - I rather assume it came with secret ballots. And indeed the 2nd schedule to the Ballot Act of 1872 which first gave us secret voting in parliamentary elections contains these very precise guidelines:

The voter will …with the pencil provided … place a cross on the right hand side,
opposite the name of each candidate for whom he votes, thus X.

and warns that the vote will be lost if the X is omitted.

I have not been able to check if there was any controversy over the precise form of mark to be used (as opposed to controversy over whether secret voting would be a Good or a Bad Thing), but as the use of a cross, made in place of a signature by a person unable to write was a very old tradition, I assume not. The whole emphasis of the new voting arrangements was on the secrecy, privacy, confidentiality of the individual voter, so the traditional inscrutability of a nameless X in place of a signature carried an obvious symbolism.

Which custom our illiterate vulgar do ... keep up; by signing a cross for their mark when unable to write their names - William Blackstone 1766

Related post

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

David Cameron

I am beginning to wonder if David Cameron might be as lightweight as some have always claimed, careless of detail, cavalier with the facts, dangerously flip & loose lipped.

Witness his slip up over whether the Americans were fighting WWII in 1940, & his failure to recognise how others, particularly the Commonwealth, had come to our aid from the beginning. Witness the remarks he made in India about Pakistan.

Or is he just very clever at shifting the debate, deftly establishing the notion of junior partnership, disengagement from special relationship & Blair-lite adoration.

Incidentally I noticed from an article about his educational career that his A levels were History of Art, History, and Economics with Politics – no A level mathematics required to study economics (albeit with politics & philosophy) at Oxford in 1985.

How can anyone understand

In the 1960s it was the elders who were on the back foot, mocked by the babyboomers for asking questions such as Who are The Beatles? Ever since then politicians have been getting themselves into trouble over questions about their favourite Spice Girl or whether they have the Arctic Monkeys on their iPod. New Labour were so terrified of being fuddy duddy that they invented the ludicrous business of Cool Britannia, observed with tolerant bemusement by experienced heads of state.

Now the boomers are getting old & the tables are turning; it is the young who are being regarded in disbelief. They have never heard of John Wayne!

David Crystal had the draft manuscript of his new Little Book of Language read by a 12-year-old who asked exactly that question. She had neither seen nor heard of the movie Stagecoach. Crystal describes this as ‘a yawning chasm between our cultural mindsets.’

It is of course not just a question of knowing, or even admiring, John Wayne who never appealed to me very much. That whole culture of westerns on tv as well as at the pictures, morphing into the idea of Reagan’s America.

The name of Wayne was introduced into Crystal’s book as an example of a pseudonym. We English 12 year old sophisticates were used to mocking the choice that some film stars made when they abandoned their real names for one more suitable for the silver screen, but in this case the reason was only too obvious. Imagine being a boy called Marion!

Not just the films but that whole raft of cultural beliefs would seem strange to today’s young, living in a world where the western means Brokeback Mountain & ideas of the masculine ideal veer more towards the metrosexual.

The yawning chasm can open up even between those much closer in age than Crystal & his 12 year old reader. I remember a casual conversation in the office about the arrangements for the approaching Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. What did you do on Coronation day, I asked?

Such pitying looks for an old lady. Answers ranged from I wasn’t even born, to I was only three. Imagine not being able to remember the Coronation, or to be the proud owner of a Coronation Crown (a commemorative 5/- coin), a small blue-leather bound New Testament, & memories of first glimpsing tv & first tasting beer – someone’s idea of a joke when I wandered into the kitchen where my father & all the other men were having a glass was to give me a sip from his glass – ugh!
And so it will continue. Just recently I had the pleasure of watching the face of a five year old struggle with the very concept of ’11 years ago’ – when there had actually been another film of the same name.

When I first began writing on this blog I often used to pause to think about whether my cultural references would mean anything to readers who might be anywhere in the world. I used to try to put in helpful links for those which might be obscure but you end up with annoying blue underlines all over the place. In the end it seems best just to leave readers to fend for themselves – after all, that is what search engines are for – to check what on earth it is that someone is on about.

Monday, August 16, 2010


One should always be very wary of pointing out others slips of language or grammar, but one the other day eally tickled my fancy.

A letter to The Times claimed that England's enduring problem with alcohol had been exasperated by Labour's relaxation of licensing laws.

I am certain that at school we learned to distinguish between exasperate - to irritate or annoy - & exacerbate - to make worse. Even so I felt exasperate was really the mot juste here, because we are all so cross about the kind of behaviour that has been unleashed on our streets - & not just in city centres.

But, just to check, I consulted the OED & found that exasperate did indeed carry the meaning 'To make harsh or rugged; to add harshness to (language, sounds, etc.); to render (laws) more severe.' though it is now marked as obsolete. I was wrong to think I had spotted something that Times editors had missed.

A cutback in the size of New Zealand

Those everyday helpful comparators – a country the size of Wales, a double decker bus, Nelson’s Column – can get irritating. They can also be helpful & illuminating – one of my favourites is ‘a dispirin dissolved in an Olympic sized swimming pool’ to put something like environmental limits for water quality into context & make us suitably amazed by the power of modern methods of chemical analysis..

Now it has been reported that if the NHS were a country, its spending would total more than the entire GDP of New Zealand. It is also supposed to be the organisation with the largest number of employees of any other country in a Europe which includes Russia & its Red Army.

That puts things in perspective. It cannot sriously be planned & managed from the centre, even in an age when we expect no geographic variation (aka post code lottery) in the provision of services & prime ministers can make off the cuff management decisions such as all requests for appointment to be met within 48 hours.

Related post

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Alan Brownjohn

This poem by Alan Brownjohn was published in The Spectator in February 1993.

It feels a good one to re-read at a time when drivers have been told by the new government that the ‘war’ against ‘them’ is over, they are free to speed without fear of punishment by speed camera, using their own skill & judgement of the road conditions. Those who share the road space on foot must of course just look out for themselves to make sure that their lease does not run out too soon.

The poem also uses the word statistical – there are more poems than I ever suspected which do that.

Over the Road

The woman, holding her face after the dentist,
Has crossed the carriageway safely towards
A known-to-be sympathetic long-haired cat;
The pain is over & the two are smiling.

The tall man wearing pressed corduroys
Has crossed behind her with the jaunty pace
Of a reassured lover, so he too survives
A very high statistical risk.

There is more black death on the M25
Than there was in Surrey in1349.
It was safer to c be in Kuwait than Oxford Street.
It is safer to cross the Atlantic than Belsize Park.

I am half across & stand in the draught
of an island left between two deathly streams.
I rest my hand on a bollard, no protection,
And the venerable rust of antiquity stains me,

But I stand & breathe, in the unforeseen sunlight,
In one of those minutes when nothing can touch me,
as certainly as the woman & the cat
Can touch each other & the man stride on.

There’s a feel of new leases being taken out.

Alan Brownjohn

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Visual information

Just a note of some of the sites I have come across with great examples of data visualisations or mappings.

Bill Rankin

Doug McCune - Data Visualization Engineer


If San Francisco Crime were Elevation

The Beer Belly of America

The worlds population by latitude & longitude

The making of ... pictures to explain mathematical formulae & the phenomena they describe, is not a step towards, but a step away from, reality; it is like making graven images of a spirit - Sir James Jeans: The Mysterious Universe

Shopkeepers to the nation

Mrs Thatcher looked to M&S (in the person of Sir Derek Rayner) to identify efficiencies in public expenditure.

Mr Cameron prefers BHS (in the person of Sir Philip Green) to start all over again.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Limits to technology

Computers plus internet offer us much, but:

You cannot hammer a nail on the internet - Matthew Crawford;
There is no app for taking a shower – Hugo Rifkind;

And you cannot kill a wasp with a rolled up copy of Times Online.

A picture tells the story

Thanks to RAILBlog I have been introduced to the world of the kind of computer animations which now form a regular part of accident investigation reports in the USA.

In just a few minutes these convey the kind of information that it would take hours to absorb from a detailed written report full of technical terms; they show yet again how our world of information is being changed by computers & computing.

I watched the one where Chelsey Sullenberger landed in the Hudson River. I had my heart in my mouth watching the altimeter spinning down, even though I knew it would end happily – I do not think that even a ‘sexed up’ written account could have produced such empathy. Calm voices of the pilots & the air traffic controllers, going round in my head like an earworm, especially that repeated warning of ‘terrain’ to warn the pilot that the plane was in danger of coming down on the bank of the Hudson instead of being perfectly lined up with the current in its centre.

We moan about all the effort young men put in to working out how to make & play computer games; we have grown used to hearing worries about the effects that watching computer screens may have on the brains & neurological development of children – short attention spans, inability to concentrate etc etc. I would argue that these effects are mostly for the good – we do not have to waste time struggling to make sense of words if images can convey the same information in a fraction of the time.

But by the same token we are all going to have to learn new ways to evaluate information, to understand how an animation is compiled, what it can & cannot tell us, & to challenge the view being presented to us, not least (in the case of accidents) during legal proceedings.

The eye takes in at a glance what tongue cannot tell or hand write in an hour - William Russell

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The nineteenth century millennium bug

The new series of Fry’s Turkish Delight opened with an examination of the qwerty keyboard.

The reason for one of its idiosyncratic 1870s compromises between logic & technological imperative was the desire to make it easy to type dates. Hence I is just below the 8 - & so of course is the 9.

Perhaps the inventor thought that keyboards would have ceased to be in use by the time we needed the O to be just below the 2.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Saving milk

David Cameron has quoted the example of how an airline achieved big savings by simply removing one olive from salads to show the virtue of small economies – every little helps.

In that spirit I offer an idea for cutting the budget for milk for pre-schoolers.

The daily allowance is still what it was when I were a lass, one third of a pint or 189ml.

Why not go fully metric & adopt a sensible number. Even 175ml would produce savings of 8%. Coming all the way down to 125ml would reduce the cost by one third.

Related post

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The black swan of marriage

What with the recent resurgence of interest in the role of the black swan in financial markets & forecasting, I was amused to come across this quote on the black swan & marriage from a C 19th feminist.

The married woman who is content with marriage, maternity, & domestic life alone, is as rare a being as the black swan of the past.
Eliza Lynn Linton: The Revolt Against Matrimony: The Forum Jan 1890

Eliza Lynn Linton is all but forgotten now but she earned her own living as a writer - She joined the staff of the Morning Chronicle in 1848, & was the first woman journalist in England to draw a fixed salary of twenty guineas a month. She also wrote novels.

She lived by herself except for a brief marriage which ended on amicable terms.

One of her articles from 1874 On the Side of the Mistresses can be read here.


Monday, August 09, 2010

The milk of human politics

We have had quite an instruction in the art of politics rather than of rational considered budget cutting this weekend. Which is as it should be, though it surely did not merit leading all the BBC news bulletins on Sunday & giving John Humphrys a chance to observe this morning, for our further education, that all politicians are chancers & opportunists. Of course by Sunday lunchtime the political wing of the BBC had itself become part of the story, through the delicious accident of having a government minister explain live on air why the proposed cut might be a good idea just as Number 10 Downing Street was announcing that the prime minister had firmly turned down the suggestion.

Anyone who is old enough to remember the 1970s would have reacted instantly to the news that the government was considering cutting the provision of free milk to pre-school children with Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher! - the slogan which greeted Mrs Thatcher’s decision (while Minister for Education) to end the provision of a free ⅓ pint of milk a day to children in primary schools. The image of a hard & uncaring woman could never completely be shaken off.

David Cameron recognised immediately that such reminders would bedevil rational debate over cuts & made the political decision that the proposal, whatever its merits, had to be scotched.

There must be many such proposals floating around Whitehall, given that all departments have been told to consider how cuts in departmental budgets of as much as 40% could be achieved. So another interesting question about the dark art of politics is how come this particular one was leaked. It is not a big coincidence that the leaked letter was one which had been sent to a minister in the Scottish government – the Scots have sharp memories of the iniquities perpetrated upon them by Mrs T.

And finally the policy of providing free milk seems to be rather curiously placed from the administrative/legal/constitutional point of view. Responsibility for Scottish health services is generally a devolved one, but this letter seems to suggest that a decision in Whitehall would apply to the whole of GB; the Minister of State for Children and Families has responsibility for School food, Healthy Schools & other health issues, but the proposed cuts came from the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health at the Department of Health which finances & administers Welfare Food Scheme: Nursery milk as well as the School fruit & vegetable scheme.

Although milk has always been the subject of politics, Government provision of milk for children was an unproblematically Good Thing from its beginnings in 1940. As a child I had no problem obeying the injunction to Drinka Pinta Milka Day, in fact in my teens I got through at least two. I had to cut down on doctor’s orders at the age of 19 however to get rid of excruciating cramps in my legs due to pregnancy. Nevertheless I remain optimistic that I drank enough to lay down the kind of bone structure strong enough to avoid osteoporosis.

We are told that there is no evidence that the cuts would do any harm; that is presumably true, but are we sure we have looked for it? It is tempting for those like me, who believe there is good evidence for the benefits of milk, to believe that the public health community is now dominated by those suspicious of cow's milk, the enthusiasts for extreme breast feeding, & the lowering of cholesterol through dietary means.

Related posts


An owl in the backyard last night could manage only a few piercing tu-whits.

Maybe it was just too young to woo.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

A Bird came down the Walk: Emily Dickinson

This is a perfect poem.

Short. Uses words you can understand.

Observes one of the small ordinarinesses of everyday – an unidentified bird - & turns it into mystery with a hint of the transcendent.

Every poem has a clunk however, & at least for readers of my English generation the one in this poem is ‘plashless’ which immediately brings to mind William Boot’s "Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole" from the novel Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home—

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.
Emily Dickinson
Related post

Cloud movement

The skies have been so overcast these last few weeks, mostly a fairly undifferentiated mass of shades of grey. They have not been without interest however, even if I do get some funny looks when I take out my sunglasses to take a look through their polarised lenses.

I can confirm that some clouds do sometimes start to travel backwards, against the prevailing wind. They are always small, often looking like a piece which has just broken off from a larger cloud, or sometimes just a small one isolated in a temporary bowl of blue. They are always being pulled back towards a much larger, darker, angrier mass.

Another phenomenon I noticed for the first time is clouds converging from slightly different directions. I took me some time to make sure of this, sure that I was not just getting giddy & confused, what with having to keep turning my head & my relatively poor sense of spatial awareness.

The clouds have been coming mostly relentlessly from the west, but on days when they are moving quite fast, if I look to the south those clouds are travelling slightly towards the north east, while those on my northern side are travelling slightly towards the south east. Turns out they are converging on the nearest sizeable cross-Pennine valley, roughly a mile from where I stand, to give them an easier quicker crossing & avoid the pile up on the top of the hills.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Weather forecasts

On Radio 5 this morning those in the studio were admiring weatherman Chris Fawkes ability to present a forecast. Just to show off even more he handed his single sheet of paper to somebody else & did the whole forecast without any notes.

He had his geography of the rain corrected by the person who had the piece of paper.

Oh, said Chris, that is just the model. I am a forecaster; I take account of other information such as what the radar shows is going on.

More evidence that the forecaster is always a part of the system.

Mind you, an experience from yesterday evening reinforces the sympathy one can feel for someone with such a difficult job to do. The bus ran into very heavy rain about 4 miles from home; it was still pelting it down when we stopped in the middle of the village to pick up 3 drowned rats, the windscreen wipers going at full speed.

I zipped up my jacket & pulled up my hood, but then as I walked towards the front of the bus for my stop (only about a mile up the hill) I realised that the wipers had just stopped – no rain was falling there.

But I find from his BBC biography that Chris Fawkes comes from this part of the world, so he will know all about such variable conditions.

Related post

It depends on what one is used to

Journalist John Harris chose John Lennon for his Great Life on Radio 4 last night.

He made rather much of how the early Beatles - & John in particular - seemed to play with gender in a way that seems fairly commonplace now but which then went very much against the grain of the macho world of rock’n’roll.

That reminded me of my shock at finding that The Beatles had not made all that great an impression in the Caribbean of the mid-60s. ‘They sound like girls!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Vegetable strawberries

One of the sadnesses of modern life is that it is so difficult to get proper ripe fruit to eat if you rely on shops as your main source of supply.

Despite what they tell you fruit does not ripen after a few days sitting in the fruit bowl even if it is perched on a sunny window sill; it will do little better if you can actually put it outside directly under the sunshine (if we ever get any). Sure it will get soft, but it will never get really juicy or the sugars properly developed & the perfume never scents the room. I am left to conclude that either something about the chilled storage irreparably interferes with the ripening process, or that the fruit has to be left attached to its parent to achieve this successful transition.

I do not expect to be able to repeat under a grey European sky the sinfully sensuous pleasure of using my teeth to tear the skin off a mango fresh from the tree, with the perfume in my nostrils & the juice trickling down my chin, but surely we can manage ripe strawberries?

(Actually I was off even real luscious juicy strawberries for several years; the chateau at which I spent the summer as an au pair had extensive strawberry beds & it was strawberries twice a day, lunch & dinner. I thought I never wanted to eat another after that, but I got over it eventually).

Seems not. After years of the wrong sort of strawberry tart for pudding, this year the idea suddenly came – why not use them for savoury salads. After all, with the sourness, they are not all that far removed from tomatoes in flavour as well as in colour, & we already know that strawberries & black pepper work really well even as a dessert.

And they do work remarkably well in savoury salads. So far we have tried them with cucumber (not so revolutionary for anyone familiar with the idea of Pimms) & courgette. They also work well with slightly spicy leaves, such as rocket, or even watercress. They are a gorgeous addition to a new potato salad (creamy dressing, not mayonnaise), work well with crisp sliced green peppers or, real revelation this, thinly sliced red onion.

Getting steamed up

The kitchen windows steamed up last night as I was cooking aubergine curry for supper.

It’s still August.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Some are ungrammatical

Are we supposed to read any political significance into the fact that Michelle Obama has a YOUNGEST daughter, she & her husband together have an OLDER daughter, while Sarah Palin has an OLDEST daughter? All appeared on one page of yesterday’s Times.

I cannot think what the coded message might be.

Perhaps the rules about correct usage (elder, not older, for siblings; youngest implies more than two) which was drummed into us at school areconsidered too fuddy duddy for today.

A hyperbolical tongue

“If I had a bomb, I would put it on London.”

There it was, in black & white, in yesterday’s Times.

Well the guy who said it owns a seafood business in Louisiana, & he is angry at BP. So its understandable hyperbole, no need for alarm.

But if he had brown skin & a beard & a turban?

Or an Irish accent.

"I have a hyperbolical tongue: it catches fire as it goes. I daresay I shall have to retract," said Will. George Eliot: Middlemarch

The first computer error

I am reading one of Galton’s original papers on regression which was published in 1886 in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute – of which more anon. But this one made me smile:

It happened that, owing to a mistaken direction, the computer to whom I first entrusted the figures used a somewhat different factor, yet the result came out closely the same.”

Of course this was the age in which the typewriter was a lady who earned her living by bashing the keys – too fast, necessitating the invention of the qwerty keyboard to stop her gumming up the works - and a computer was not yet a machine either.

And I don’t suppose he was really the first to make a mistake either. But I should like to know whether he had a calculating machine to help him in his endeavours, or even a slide rule or log tables.

CALCULATING MACHINES: Under this head the present Paris Exhibition shows no advance over that of 1862, the few calculating machines exhibited being of a very elementary nature.

The celebrated Pascal constructed a machine for executing the ordinary operations of arithmetic & Liebnitz invented another by which arithmetical computations might be made. The only calculating machine in the Paris Exhibition worthy of notice is that by CX Thomas, France. It multiplies 8 figures by 8 in 24 seconds. Price £20.

It is to be regretted that none of the extremely ingenious & beautiful calculating machines of Messrs Scheutz of Stockholm is exhibited. One of these machines is in the office of the Registrar General in London where it is performing very useful work. It not only calculates to 16 places of figures but simultaneously prints the results.

Illustrated London News 5 Oct 1867

Related posts

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Dr Ikwueke

It was good to hear that Dr Jerome Ikwueke had not been struck off the medical register for the ‘crime’ of failing to prevent the murder of Baby P and that the GMC did not consider that he presents a danger to patients.

Dr Ikwueke had an ‘unblemished record’ with testimonials to the fact that he was hardworking & conscientious, often going beyond the call of duty. But the panel chairman, Judith Worthington, told him that he had limited insight into his failings, & took false reassurance from the fact that the child had an appointment for his development to be assessed by a paediatric consultant.

In fact Dr Ikwueke had been the first to realise, in December 2006, that the baby might be being abused. But it was not enough for him just to ‘light the fuse’ under the system by referring him to a specialist: ”You as a GP were at the centre of a network &, by virtue of your role, in a position to share information.” He was found guilty of a series of failings, culminating in grave error, & has been found unfit to practice unsupervised for 12 months.

The same issue of the British Medical Journal which reports those findings also carries an article about the problems facing doctors acting as witnesses in child protection cases, which opens with a statement from the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health on his reason for turning down such work: “My feeling was ‘why take the risk of losing my livelihood?'"

It is not the doctors who murder children. Putting their livelihoods at risk cannot be the best way of ensuring that children are protected from those who would do them harm.

Being a GP used, at least, to mean being a family doctor, with responsibilities to all the members of the family. If doctors took drastic action every time ‘possible abuse’ crossed their mind, they would be failing in their duty of care for the needs of the adults or other children in the family, & mothers, especially vulnerable ones, might become reluctant to take their child to the doctor for any reason at all.

We should not let those deliberately manipulative people who are prepared to do things to children that the rest of us can barely bring ourselves to even try to imagine spread their poison through the whole system, tainting all of us.

At least three professionals have already been punished for this episode.

Related posts


Is the value of a coin determined by its head or by its tail?

Is the area of a rectangle decided by its length or by its breadth?

Is the fate a living being determined by nature or by nature?

Going round the houses

Housing minister Grants Shapps has announced a housing Freedom Pass & a National Home Swap Scheme database.

David Cameron has signalled the end of council houses for life, according to reports.

I think it was the Thatcher government which introduced formal security of tenure for council tenants – it was needed as part of the law which introduced the Right to Buy.

So far I have been able to track down only the following from Grants Shapps illustrious predecessor as Housing minister (now Sir) John Stanley:

“A tenants' charter will form part of the housing legislation which the Government intend to introduce in this Session of Parliament. It will include provisions on security of tenure.” (16 July 1979).

The question is therefore whether the Right to Buy can continue without security of tenure. Well I am not a lawyer, so haven’t a clue. But it makes me wonder if perhaps that is not part of the aim of the exercise – after thirty years the Conservatives wish to abandon a flagship Thatcherite policy to stop the draining away of the stock of social housing.

I am also beginning to think that young master Cameron is a master of the magicianly art of misdirection – pensions, Pakistan …

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Mystery logs to burn

This poem was chosen by Diana Quick for her With Great Pleasure programme 0n Radio 4 & read by her long term partner Bill Nighy.

It sounded immediately familiar, I felt sure I had known it as a child.

The With Great Pleasure web page calls it an unattributed poem, but I found this claim about its authorship via Google: “This poem was written by my grandmother -- Honor Goodhart -- during the 1926 coal strike in England. It was originally published in Punch in 1926, and has been variously reprinted since then.”

Interesting that it should be on something called Gladstonefamily.net, given the way William Gladstone loved chopping logs.

A good poem for putative arsonists too.

Logs to burn

Logs to burn; logs to burn;
Logs to save the coal a turn.

Here's a word to make you wise
when you hear the woodman's cries;
Never heed his usual tale
That he's splendid logs for sale
But read these lines & really learn
The proper kind of logs to burn.

Oak logs will warm you well,
If they're old and dry.
Larch logs of pinewoods smell
But the sparks will fly.
Beech logs for Christmas time;
Yew logs heat well;
'Scotch' logs it is a crime
For anyone to sell.
Birch logs will burn too fast;
Chestnut scarce at all;
Hawthorn logs are good to last
If cut in the fall.
Holly logs will burn like wax,
You should burn them green;
Elm logs like smouldering flax,
No flame to be seen.
Pear logs and apple logs,
They will scent your room;
Cherry logs across the dogs
Smell like flowers in bloom,
But ash logs all smooth and grey
Burn them green or old,
Buy up all that come your way
They're worth their weight in gold.

Honor Goodhart, 1926 ?

Related posts
Political pastime
Burning desire

Abominable corduroys

Thanks to Gillian Dinsmore of Glasgow my vocabulary of complaint has been extended to include corduroy paviors.

Matthew Parris recently complained in his Times column about how these were appearing over seemingly random bits of pavement in East London. Ms Dinsmore wrote to point out that, at the top & foot of stairs, such paving is a boon to the blind but may cause confusion if used elsewhere.

So, just as with the atrocious blister type of paving, the authorities are being counter productive in their enthusiasm for these abominable corduroys, hindering if not always actually injuring both the sighted & the unsighted.

Related post
Tactile paving

Monday, August 02, 2010

Rumsfeldian grammar rules

Correspondents to The Times Feedback column have been much exercised lately by the misuse of who & whom by those who write for the paper.

Mr Lionel Phillips wrote in with some handy tests for journalists to apply when in doubt, but pointed out that ‘Writers who do not know, & do not know that they do not know, cannot be helped.

Related post

Rum & coke: no joke

You can’t get decent rum over here – not easily anyway, only that white stuff or the heavy navy rum – so someone who gives a whole bottle away is generous indeed. But this story is definitely one for filing under unbelievably bizarre & unfortunate.

A sixty-three year old man died of a suspected heart attack. It was only after two friends suffered seizures at his home while on a visit to pay their condolences that the true cause of death was discovered to be pure liquid cocaine which had been mixed in to a bottle of good Caribbean rum.

The rum had been given by one man to an acquaintance who agreed to carry it so that the first could avoid excess baggage charges. The first man was detained in customs at the airport, so the man who had been doing him the favour gave the bottle to a friend of his in London; she in turn gave it to the man who died after he gave her a lift as a favour.

Hedgehog names index UVW

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.

Alison Uttley

Luis Van Rooten
Sir Peter Viggars
John Vincent
Jeremy Vine
Sarah Vine
Virginia Wade
Erica Wagner
John Wain
David Walder
General Walker

Lord Walker
Alfred Russell Wallace
Martin Waller
Sir Spencer Walpole
Andy Warhol

Marina Warner
Hugh Warwick
Charles Waterton
Alan Watkins
Andrew Watson

Tom Watson
Daisy Waugh
Paul Waugh
Bernard Weatherill
Beatrice Webb

Sydney Webb
Philip Webster
Nathaniel Weekes
August Weismann

Dorothy Wellesley
Charlie Whelan
William Whewell
Tom Whipple
Arlo White

Peter White
A(lfred) N(orth) Whitehead
Katherine Whitehorn
William Whitelaw
Walt Whitman

Giles Whittell
Ann Widdecombe
Earl Wild
Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson

Charlie Williams
Emlyn Williams
Rowan Williams
Shirley Williams

Bob Willis
Lord Willoughby
Paul Wilmott

David Wilson
Francis Wilson
Graeme Wilson
Harold Wilson
Mary Wilson

Dale Winton
Jeanette Winterson
Rosie Winterton
Cardinal Wiseman

Terry Wogan
Humbert Wolfe
Lynn Faulds Wood
Tiger Woods
Steffie Woolhandler

Martin Woollacott
Virginia Woolf
Harry Worth
Sir Curzon Wyllie


Sunday, August 01, 2010

Darwinian, but politically incorrect

I have just been reading Emma Darwin by Edna Healey. Most of what I had read about her before left me with the impression that she was something of a country mouse of a cousin, but far from it. She was well travelled & well connected & had a lively mind; she even managed to get on well with, & be admired by, Thomas Carlyle.

She & Charles were the kind to indulge in ‘cousinly badinage’ in their letters to each other while they were engaged – their pet names for each other had that slight edge which can be disconcerting to an outsider (though considered by others to be infinitely preferable to the kind of sickening childish names adopted by others which often clog up the newspaper columns on Valentines day). Two of Emma’s pet names for Charles were curmudgeon & toad.

A third came in the letters she addressed to Dear Nigger; even in later years she often wrote to Dear N.

This could have been part of a private family language in use in such a large & intertwined group such as the Darwins & Wedgewoods, much like the Glynnese adopted by the Glynnes & Gladstone tribe.

It might have been adopted as a way of teasing the Charles who had returned tanned & weatherbeaten from his voyage on The Beagle – though the Richmond portrait of him shows a fair young man with a slight, though disconcerting & unnerving resemblance to Richard Dawkins.
Or it could just be part of the complex history of the N word in English English, used genuinely to indicate affection, albeit of a sometimes condescending kind, dropped eventually from polite usage (even in things like the name of shoe polish & children's nursery rhymes) when circumstances changed, & the offence it was causing became clear.