Monday, January 31, 2011

A sad story

The Wrexham & Shropshire Railway – one of the few independent, unsubsidised private railways, popular with its passengers because of its superb standard of service – cut its losses & closed down at short notice last week.

The service was owned by Deutsche Bahn, the German state-owned railway which despite the closure will retain ownership of the Wrexham train station whose refurbishment was financed with the aid of a £1 million grant from the Welsh government.

Wrexham General Station photo by Steve J O'Brien (On The Road)

Good news on BSE

Surprisingly little media coverage has been given to the good news that mad cow disease has finally (almost) died out – the New Scientist report on this earned only a nib in The Times.

Only 17 cases of BSE were reported world wide last year. And there were only three recorded cases of the human version.

Whatever happened to all those scary prions? Are they extinct?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Michael Finnegan

Singing Together was a radio programme for schools broadcast by the BBC which involved us doing literally that – singing along to mainly traditional songs. There was a booklet of words, printed on thick shiny dirty coloured paper together with a simple line of music for the tune.

One of the few songs which has stuck in my mind is the one about Michael Finnegan, many versions of which can be found on the web.

There was an old man called Michael Finnegan,
He grew whiskers on his chinnegan,
The wind came out & blew them in again,
Poor old Michael Finnegan
Begin again.

It is one of those songs which can go on forever, with each verse offering a different reason why Mr Finnegan had to begin again. Our favourite however involved simple repetition of the same verse, but with the tempo increasing at each repeat until it became simply impossible & everybody collapsed into giggles.

My search for links on the web produced a real treasure – a copy of the schedule for BBC schools radio programmes in the summer of 1951.

I was immediately transported back to the Monday morning classroom singing away with all the gusto we could muster, fortified by our statutory third of a pint of milk at break time.

Freedom calls

Last Saturday I was slightly disappointed to see that the seat I favour on the bus at times when it is likely to get full was already occupied.

It is the one next to what is affectionately called the ironing board, in fact the back rest for wheelchair users, which provides a useful cushion against the lurches imparted by the very inadequate suspension in the new buses, & gives plenty of leg room.

However the seat was being used for its intended purpose by a young woman who is a regular passenger, though I was surprised to see that she wasn’t with her usual lively group of friends – not that she needs their support to get around: her wheelchair is electric, large & comfortable but very manoeuvrable, & she is bubbly & outgoing, not afraid to ask for help if needed, or shy of making her requirements known.

Two older women boarded in the village, sat in the adjoining seat & were almost immediately in conversation with her. Talk turned to The King’s Speech which the girl had already seen & which the older women were hoping to see soon.

I cannot remember the last film which everybody was talking about this way – but I suppose it has everything really, at least for an English audience: Mr Darcy, the Queen Mum & posh misery memoir.

The girl offered to check the internet for local screening times – even I assumed she must mean later, when she got back home. The two ladies demurred – Oh no, we couldn’t ask you to do that - but within moments she was announcing that there was a screening at 3 o’clock & another at twenty to six. She explained that, on the advice of her friends, she had taken out a phone contract which offered her free internet, which was more than proving its value.

I expect the two ladies, & many of their friends, will soon be getting such phone contracts too. Older people in general were slow to take to the mobile – I think that, like me, they probably thought they would never manage to dial with their thumb – but now you just take it for granted that everybody has one, whatever their age. And nobody jeers or points at the sight of someone dialling by stabbing their finger.

One of its great advantages for older people is the freedom it brings – to be able to pop out to the shops while still keeping check on your increasingly frail partner at home, or by providing the perfect answer to grown up children who really would prefer for you to wait until they can take you out – We don’t like to think of something happening to you Mum.

Don’t be silly – if I need you I will call.

And since just about everybody is now comfortable with a mobile phone, the government might do better to encourage those still without internet access, especially those who may be afaid of computers, to get themselves on line via a phone rather than by a cheap laptop with cheap software & all the accompanying need for IT services.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Paul Simons yesterday wrote a column to reassure us that there is no prospect of a return to ice & snow in the near future – though winter is always treacherous, so it might come back later.

Well I don’t like the look of the sky – or more particularly the light – these last two days. Although pellucid, there is something heavy about it. Oddly isolated smallish clouds, thick & smoky coloured with flat bottoms, are being held motionless in suspended animation by some kind of force & last night the sky was more orange than red just above the horizon. It feels like impending doom – a really fierce dump of snow just biding its time.

But hey, all my predictions are rubbish.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Science on the radio

Gwyneth Williams, Controller of BBC Radio 4, has announced plans for a new regular programme to be broadcast at 9 am each Tuesday which will cover science & working scientists across the whole range, including engineering.

I am really looking forward to it. Radio 4 has struggled to find the right tone for programmes devoted to science, veering from the over-enthusiastic to patronising to hushed reverence. However Andrew Marr, who is not afraid to mix science into Start The Week & Bridget Kendall on World Service Forum have shown it can be done well for the intelligent listener without a science degree. Scientists have also provided some of the highlights of Desert Island Discs & over on Radio 5’s Up All Night Rhod Sharp does confident interviews with scientists who are up in the daylight in Australia or America.

I hope Jim Al-Khalili agrees to present it – apart from anything else he has a fine radio voice.

Every little helps

Heard on the radio that the council owns the rights to Buxton water.

So if you ever buy a bottle just think that you will, in a very small way through the royalties, be helping us out in these straitened times of government cutbacks, rallying round to provide the money to keep our bins emptied, our drains mud-free & our pavements clear of ice & snow.

Our Peaks
Related post
Snow lottery

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Batty Britain

A recent decision by the Supreme Court was reported in The Times under the inspired headline:

Whether bats needed protection from buses

which pithily sums up a case which took bundles & bundles of documents (including an Updated Bat Survey) & three court hearings to reach a conclusion.

This non-car user believes there should now be a case to consider whether buses need protection from bats.

Woods & trees & paper money

Oberthur Technologies have dropped their bid for de la Rue.

I note that, among all the protests about the proposed sale (sell off or sell out) of Forestry Commission assets, has been not one expression of concern over the possibility of foreign ownership.

The English forests sailed the oceans of the world & found new lands full of wildernesses & more forests waiting to be cut down - Kate Atkinson: Human Croquet

Not many people ...

The new head of McDonald’s in the UK is called Mrs McDonald (no relation).

The bad news is that the company relies heavily on just 10 key foodstuffs & there will be a lot of pressure on prices this year.

Other fascinating facts: eight out of ten British families & seven out of ten adults visit a McDonald’s at least once each year.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I should cocoa

It has been reported that Barclays bank is considering paying some bonuses in cocos.

No, not coconuts, those are what you give to monkeys, if they don’t steal them first.

There is a nice animated graphic on the FT website which explains more about these financially sophisticated animals.

Darkness at night

The Peak District National Park is inviting people to take part in a survey of light pollution, by going out to look for Orion & comparing what we see with a set of sky quality charts.

With luck I might see something like this

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Building for a fall

The old Central Statistical Office had a saying – If a figure looks interesting it’s usually wrong.

The figures for the contribution of the construction industry to the growth in our economy between April & September of last year look strange, & therefore interesting. Whatever the weather that mid-year boom could not be sustained.

Hanging on air

All the recent news stories about Peter Woods reminded us that the powers that be at the BBC once pulled the plug on one of his news bulletins because he was slurring his words.

He was not the only newsreader to come under such suspicion; people used to tune in to News At Ten for the fun of seeing whether Reggie Bosanquet could make it though a bulletin without disaster.

And let us not forget Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Woodrooffe’s description of the Spithead Review of 1937 when it was not just the fleet that was lit up.

There was official disapproval of such incidents, as I suspect there would be today if a professional presenter were involved. This is not the case when it comes to obvious hangovers however, when presenters, guests & contributors to radio phone-ins boast of the severity of their symptoms, invite us to admire their fortitude & pass on our congratulations or commiserations as appropriate.

It is change in this kind of social attitude, not marginal adjustments to price, which will be needed to make Britain a more sober state.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Doing business with the enemy

An article by David Leonhardt on the Economix blog reports on a finding by The Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington that the growth in traffic has fallen behind the growth of GDP since the late 1990s.

I have not checked the UK figures, but I do remember how the traffic in London fell markedly in the recession of the early 1990s, & that this was put down largely to the loss of outsourcing work which meant that florists, cleaners, providers of technical services or directors lunches were no longer racing around in their small white vans.

This came as a welcome relief - traffic had increased unbearably during the late 80s boom, so that it was often quicker to walk in central London. I even remember one afternoon setting off to walk towards Piccadilly & the Royal Academy from Kensington High Street, expecting to hop on a bus when one came along. I moved faster than the traffic, to such an extent that the first Number 9 to pass did so as I approached the portals of Burlington House.

The contrast when the recession ended doubtless did much to quieten protests at the prospect of a congestion charge.

Is there any possibility that the reduced mileage in America reflects a reduction in speed because of environmental concerns? If there is anything in the assertion that time spent travelling is a constant, reductions in speed must lead to reductions in distance travelled.

Clear thinking

On Start The Week this morning Andrew Marr talked to John Gray, Kathleen Richardson, Paul McCauley and Dai Smith about the quest for immortality, robots, what it means to be human & the shaping of identity.
I wasn’t able to listen to all of it but I was intrigued to hear the phrase downloading the brain put in more than one appearance: nothing new in that, said Kathleen Richardson, Marx was downloading his brain in his writings.

The phrase has become much more common since I started this blog four years ago; then it seemed to me a useful (& original?) phrase & mildly amusing metaphor for getting rid of the junk in the attic, decluttering the brain by downloading the accumulated rubbish into the ether rather than the page. And a Google search (with the quotes on) produced very few - less than one page – of results; today it produces nearly 100,000.

One might almost say it’s a meme – another useful metaphor, even if the theory does not hold up.

Richard Dawkins recently opined that the stuff that scientists persist in calling junk DNA is probably there in the same way that a modern computer hard disk is stuffed with unrelated clutter, fragments of old programmes, & documents. But that is the case only because we currently have the luxury of having the space to be so profligate. It’s not like the old days when storage was at such a premium that a lot of thought & effort had to go into being as tidy & as economical as possible.

Although Nature can be profligate, I just do not believe that she would go to the trouble of all that constant & repetitive copying of something that is merely junk.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Character formation

This was definitely a top favourite in the nursery rhyme stakes for me – how very true, how very wise, but what a lot for a Sunday baby to live up to.

Monday's child is fair of face,
Tuesday's child is full of grace,
Wednesday's child is full of woe,
Thursday's child has far to go,
Friday's child is loving and giving,
Saturday's child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay

Friday, January 21, 2011

Feeding the baby

It is hard now to comprehend how it could be that the medical experts who advised my mother’s generation were quite clear that babies should be fed only once every four hours, & that if they cried in between feeds they should be left to themselves to get on with it.

It is equally hard to believe that my generation would be asked if they intended to breast feed or if they wished to be given the appropriate hormone to stop their milk coming in at all – this in an age when mothers spent the first ten days in hospital with their baby where all the necessary help could be given. The breast fed babies were weighed before & after each four–hourly feed & if they were deemed not to be getting enough might be moved on to three-hourly feeds or given a supplementary bottle.

It is an obvious nonsense to say that all babies should be fed exclusively on breast milk for six months. Even if it were true that there were some underlying scientific law which dictates this, it is a statistical law applicable only to the standard (mean) baby; real babies vary. The idea that English mothers should follow this rule because it is right for poor women in countries without adequate hygiene is as daft as the exhortation to eat up all your dinner for the sake of the poor children in Africa.

But for some reason it seems to be a law of human nature that these rules must change with every generation.

Perhaps it’s a way of keeping your mother, & especially your interfering mother-in-law, off your back.

Or even a grandmother-in-law. Great Grandma the bakers wife had no compunction at all about ordering my mother to pick up a crying baby; as a true empiricist she knew whereof she spoke, because she had “had 11 and reared 8.”

Playing the spoons

I was looking for a video of spoon playing which might remind me of my grandfather. No luck – lots of choice, but none remotely like grandpa, modern spoon players seem distressingly fond of aggressive t shirts - Granpa was Harris tweed jacket & grey flannel trousers.

I did find two extraordinary examples however.

One old man, in what to my eye looks like a distinctly Caribbean setting, playing a guitar with a spoon.

And Artis the Spoonman, whose fame was previously unknown to me.

Even better, for a realy remarkable souindtrack, play both videos simultaneously.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Stories of science

An interesting edition of Word of Mouth on Radio 4 on Monday looked at the history of the microphone. We even got another chance to hear that recording of Au clair de la lune which gave Charlotte Green the giggles on the Today programme two years ago.

John Liffen, Curator of Communications at the Science Museum was one of the contributors, which reminds me to mention the excellent blog Stories from the Stores where staff of the museum share the stories and information emerging from their research.

Counting the days

The BBC World Service radio has a new trail/promotion which is going to drive me mad over the next 100 days.


Misty for me

Extraordinary weather again at midday today.

I did not notice anything unusual in the village – except that it was extremely cold, frost still riming the front gate.

But only a mile or so north I suddenly wondered if something had gone wrong with my eyes – I could not see anything out of the window. Or rather I could see the trees & the road, but beyond that – nothing.

The window was not dirty & a watery sun was shining brightly overhead out of a washed blue sky.

It was mist – like an aerosol, uniform density, like gauze. Things seemed pretty normal if you looked ahead straight along the road, but we seemed to be eerily alone on either side.

Things got more complex as we reached the stretch where an even more complicated system of valleys leads to the Dark Peak– the mist was gathered more thickly where the land was lowest, filling up the valleys to turn them into blank canvas. And all the time the sun was shining.

As we began to get into the built up area of the city the mist spread more thinly, covering the sun & the sky, not interrupting visibility at all

Related post

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Beware of explanation

There is a salutary story on the blog written by a serving probation officer about the fate of a man who was an arsonist, allegedly because of a trauma he suffered as a young boy. A cautionary tale indeed, even for those with a sneaking sympathy for child arsonists.

The creation of Solomon Grundy

In a recent interview with Andrew Billen of The Times John Lennox, Oxford professor of mathematics & writer on god & science said that ‘Genesis does not say the world was created in six consecutive days but on six separate days of the week, with aeons of time between them’.

Is this the Solomon Grundy theory of creation?

The illustrations to that well known nursery rhyme always made it clear to this infant that Solomon Grundy lived to a ripe old age.

Solomon Grundy,
Born on a Monday,
Christened on Tuesday,
Married on Wednesday,
Took ill on Thursday,
Grew worse on Friday,
Died on Saturday,
Buried on Sunday,
This is the end
Of Solomon Grundy!


Very curious light at midday today. The sky only a couple of miles to the north was black, but sun was shining over the village. The grass in the fields on the hills in the near distance looked very etiolated, as if not exactly frosted, more covered with a slush puppy kind of dew. The highest tops were covered by brown brume.

Once we moved under the dark skies the grass turned into that very unpleasing shade of olive green, the tops of the distant Dark Peak mostly hidden by mist, but lower down the odd startling vision of an apparently white field iluminated under a shaft of weak sunlight.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Autre temps, autre moeurs

Reading Julian Webb’s revelations about his father made me think of another (tangential) link between the BBC & this story.

At the beginning of 1962 (the year after Justin was born) the BBC began a new soap opera, Compact, set in the offices of a women’s magazine.

At one point in this soap opera the secretary of the magazines female editor became pregnant, following a brief affair with a married man. As I remember it the story was a bit of a crusade for her & others in her plight, as represented by what was then still called the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child & is now Gingerbread. There was no question of marriage to the father.

Justin Webb’s statement that he does not believe that his mother was abandoned has caused some surprise to younger listeners, but the plain fact is that in those days it was pretty much taken for granted that the mistress had no right to expect anything from the father since his loyalties must lie with the woman to whom he had made his vows & their children.

What does seem very odd now is that many people thought that the age of the unmarried mother would soon come to an end with the ready availability of reliable contraception.

Greengage summer

Susannah York has died at the age of 72.

I remember her most vividly from the film The Greengage Summer, which I saw at a very impressionable age.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Dependency, privilege & bankers bonuses

I am looking at a mini-notebook, 60x100mm, containing 50 sheets of high quality plain white shiny paper. It has a pretty light blue cardboard cover, laminated or coated to give it a reasonable water resistance. In the bottom left hand corner is a white outline drawing of a rhinoceros. At the top of the back cover are some postage stamp size adverts for the registered charity, Save The Rhino & at the bottom a bar code, a reference number & a web site address, reference to which tells me that it comes from an old-established company in Northern Ireland which has a manufacturing office in Estonia. I think it was priced at 50p when I bought it in Ryman’s about a year ago, but I got a three-for-two offer.

When I was a child paper was precious, husbanded carefully & gratefully received as presents for birthdays or Christmas. This was in part because of post war austerity, but partly because of folk memories of a time when paper really was an expensive & valuable commodity, out of reach of the pockets of many. Think of how frugal were the old maids of Cranford. And if you ever get to examine letters written by ordinary Victorians much later in the century, after the abolition of paper duty, you will see that, although they usually start laid out with header & margins, if they reach the end of the (very small) sheet & have yet more to say they will continue writing all the way round the borders – the sort of letter which today you would immediately assume came from a member of the loony brigade.

Today we take paper completely for granted, even if soon to be totally redundant when we finally reach the goal of a paperless world holding information only in electronic formats. My notebook is the kind of small cheap everyday object whose loss I probably would not notice or mourn. At least not before I began to fill it with my infinitely precious notes.

We are often these days enjoined to think hard about where the food we eat & the clothes we wear come from, but rarely of all the other products which we are privileged enough to believe are just part of life, readily available, the way things are supposed to be. We probably have some left over yearnings for a romantic past where an individual craftsman gained satisfaction from making objects from first to last by his own hand & entirely of his own conception.

And yet there is tremendous romance, & something awe inspiring, about all the processes & people which had to link together to give me this one small thing.

The paper & card started as a tree in some Nordic forest, but where did the blue for the cover come from?

At least one designer must have imagined how it would look, chosen the images & typefaces. Although it is not a standard A size format, there is presumably some kind of formal or informal agreement over sizing to make life easier for all those who have to handle, transport, store & display such products. But where does the bar code come from? Do you have to apply to some kind of central registry, so that there is no chance of a till mistaking my notebook for a tin of shoe polish?

Where did the little (plastic?) spiral binding in a very well chosen shade of french navy come from? Where is the factory that makes them & what kind of people work there? How much work might have been involved for the charity, deciding whether this was an association/sponsorship which they were happy to be involved with?

How did my notebook travel to England?

And then of course there are all those involved with the management & running of the two companies which I know were involved in this process, to make sure the notebook was on the shelf of a conveniently placed store at the time I wanted, perhaps on a whim, to buy it.

Will I be able to find new ones when I need them soon – plain paper mini-notebooks are surprisingly hard to find, & lined paper just does not suit my working method.

Just how many people do I depend on to provide me with this one small object? What, if anything, do I owe to them, apart from a few pence?

And what would that multiply up to if I repeated such a detailed contemplation of all the other objects in my life?

I never forgot someone telling me that there were two ways to make real money as a shopkeeper. One was to specialise in something rare, expensive & desirable (Louis Quatorze antiques). You would need expensive premises, exquisitely arranged; customers would be rare, you would make few sales a year, but each sale would give you a very handsome profit. Your cash flow would be very lumpy; you need a cushion to get started & to see you through the lean times. A trade for a knowledgeable gentleman, hardly a trade at all really.

The other way was to specialise in things which everybody needs, piling them high & selling them cheap; your profit on each sliced white loaf might be only a fraction of a penny, but a million customers a day would see you in clover. Cash flow would be healthy, initial investment minimal, provided you had the common touch & the right kind of gifts as a salesman.

Some businesses combine both. For example the cinema; Marilyn Monroe earned large sums of money because millions of people were willing to pay heir pennies to see her unique talent in films. But those pennies could only be garnered through an expensive industry infrastructure of studios, cinemas, distribution networks & publicity. Others earned the handsome profits due to such hefty investments of cash.

In the world we live in, where my being able to buy just one mini-notebook depends upon many others in a complex, interconnected web, which needs the lubricant of money & finance to keep it going, bankers get it both ways. Whether providing what, in their terms, are tiny everyday amounts of working capital, overdrafts, payment services & finance for overseas trade, or the big stuff needed for investment in transport infrastructure, factories & high-priced machines, they earn both the pennies & big handsome wodges.

No wonder their bonuses are so big.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Great-great granma's song

I have mentioned how my nana would often tell how her grandmother used to like to sing (and to weep over) Don't go down in the mine, Daddy.

When I got my piano bequeathed by Great Aunt Adie I also inherited an old fashioned piano stool covered in striped green & black velvet which held a treasure trove of musical scores - principally songbooks from the first decades of the twentieth century. And yes, that song featured in one of them, though I do not remember ever being asked to accompany anyone singing it.

Don't go down in the mine, Daddy,
Dreams very often come true;
Daddy, you know it would break my heart
If anything happened to you;
Just go and tell my dream to'your mates,
And as true as the stars that shine,
Something is going to happen today,

High ambition

Michael Gove’s so-called English Baccalaureate, a notional award to pupils who gain at least a C grade at GCSE in English, mathematics, science, a humanities subject (either history or geography) plus a foreign language sounds to me suspiciously like the old English School Certificate which lasted through most of the first half of the C20th until replaced by GCE O levels in 1950.

The flexibility of O levels in both range & number of subjects which a pupil could sit was considered to be a great advance, as was the fact that you got credit for each & any subject you passed, not penalised because you failed in maths or English.

Of course the main purpose of the School Certificate was to produce a nation of clerks or liberal romantics with clean hands, not engineers, not even of the ilk of Brunel or Lord Simons, & certainly not the horny handed sons of toil.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Getting to the shops

Tesco is said to have been beaten by its rivals in the battle for Christmas sales. Finance Director Laurie McIlwee blamed the weather. The company had spent £15million on keeping stores open, their car parks were clear, but many customers could not, or chose not, to drive anywhere in those icy snowy conditions.

Well yes, but why were not rival supermarkets just as badly affected?

Could it be that even more people than usual recognised the benefit of stores which are easily accessible to those who travel by public transport or on foot.

Obesity biography

I have just started to read Obesity: The Biography, a short but important account by Sander Gilman of the medical & social history of fat, whether as a sign of disease or, sometimes, of health, from Hippocrates to the present day.

One of my first acts was to check the index. Quetelet has no place in this history.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Hedgehog names index: E

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↑

David Eagleman
Clint Eastwood
Maurice Edelman
Jamie Edmiston
John Edmonstone

Edward VII
Mrs Geoffrey Edwards
Lesley Egan
Sergeant Egglestone
Albert Einstein

General Eisenhower
Garabed Eknoyan
Francis Eliot
George Eliot
Elizabeth I

Herb Elliot
Tracy Emin
Robert F Engle

Kenneth Erskine
David Morier Evans
Harold Evans
Sir Martin Evans

Governor Eyre
Jane Eyre

Perils of pronunciation

In one of his essays Jeremy Bernstein expresses surprise at someone pronouncing WH Auden’s first name: somehow ‘Wystan’ became ‘Whistan’ – like whisk.

This puzzles me in turn. Is it an over aspirated ‘h’ sound which was unexpected, or did Bernstein think the name should be pronounced like Whystan? Just goes to show the perils of attempting phonetic spellings for those who do not share your pronunciation conventions, & how small differences can cause much confusion.

I was a sixteen year old au pair girl in Brussels. Madame’s brother was in the process of renovating a beautiful house on the outskirts of the city, reputed to have once been a hunting lodge of Charles V.

One Sunday the whole family, me included, drove out to inspect the work in progress.

The owner was particularly proud to show me one room – 'You will really like this one,' he said.

And I did indeed. I suppose you could call it a garden room, long & quite narrow with three pairs of windows down each of the long sides.

‘You like thees, it’s ver’ Eenglish?’ asked monsieur. ‘Two door, two door.’

Yes, I said dubiously. The doors were indeed double doors, even though there were more than two of them. And although each was topped by a pointed stone arch, rather than a horizontal frame, I would have called them French windows. So what was meant to be so English about them?

I am ashamed to say how many years passed by before this story suddenly popped into my head one day & I realised far too late that I had been invited to admire a fine example of Tudor architecture.

Weather warning

Paul Simons has warned that terrible cold weather could be on the way back.

Watch out for mother of pearl clouds shimmering in pink, red, orange & turquoise, high in the sky as the sun dips below the horizon.

There does not seem much point in trying to get away if that happens - nowhere seems safe from 'worst ever this' or 'worst known that' at the moment

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sunday concerts

The songs of my childhood have started coming back thick & fast now.

Sunday evenings, after tea, was concert time when I was little – back in the dark ages, before we all had TV. Maybe even the radio provide no programming at that hour when grownups should have been at Evensong.

The entertainment was mostly provided by me & my sister. Singing, dancing, recitation. Sometimes we laid on our own version of something like Sleeping Beauty. Bompa might do a magic trick or recite Albert & the Lion. Nana related how her grandmother loved to cry over Dont go down in the mine tonight (Daddy). Sometimes we had a comb & Bronco orchestra with Bompa whistling the tune or playing the spoons.

One that stands out in my memory however was when my little sister & I played baby birds. Escaping over the furniture or behind the settee, with much giggling & squealing, to escape Horrible Uncle. He was playing the part of the dastardly predator in a spirited performance of I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Cat, , a new song at the top of the hit parade.

I am a little tiny bird, my name is Tweety Pie
I live inside my birdcage a hanging way up high
I like to swing upon my perch and sing my little song
But there's a cat that's after me and won't let me alone

I tawt I taw a puddy tat a creeping up on me
I did I taw a puddy tat as plain as he could be

I am that great big bad old cat Sylvester is my name
I only have one aim in life and that is very plain
I want to catch that little bird and eat him right away
But every time that I get close to him this is what he'll say

I tawt I taw a puddy tat a creeping up on me
You bet he saw a puddy tat that puddy tat was me

That puddy tat is very bad he sneaks up from behind
I don't think I would like it if I knew what's on his mind
I have a strong suspicion that his plans for me aren't good
I am inclined to think that he would eat me if he could

I'd like to eat that Tweety Pie when he leaves his cage
But I cannot get close to him it throws me in a rage
You bet I'd eat that little bird if I could just get near
But everytime that I approach this is all I hear

I tawt I taw a puddy tat a creeping up on me
I did I taw a puddy tat as plain as he could be

And when I sing that little song my mistress knows he's back
She grabs a broom and brings it down upon Sylvester's back
So listen you bad puddy tat let's both be friends you see
My mistress will not chase you if you sing this song for me

I tawt i taw a puddy tat a creeping up on me
I did I taw a puddy tat as plain as he could be

Who'd have thought it?

A survey has found that the best jobs in America are all mathematical. Statistician comes in at number 4, behind software engineer, mathematician & actuary.

Nuclear plant decontamination technician comes in at #150, journalist at #188 & taxi driver at #196. Lowest of the low (#200) is roustabout.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

He done her wrong

I was vaguely disappointed when I got the words to Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron from the web, disappointed that it wasn’t a song about how he done her wrong.

It took the rest of the day – I was getting ready for bed - when the song I had been confusing it with finally started running through my brain. I probably had never even thought about it since leaving school, it was an odd feeling as the words came back.

It was a great favourite with adults & children – we just found it hilarious, admired the soldier’s chutzpah. After all, if that was the worst betrayal she ever suffered … And a useful warning to beware of blarney & excuses, learn how to cut your losses.

Soldier, Soldier, won’t you marry me
With your musket, fife and drum?
Ah no, Sweet Maid, I cannot marry thee
For I have no shirt to put on.

So off she went, to her grandfather's chest
And brought him a shirt, of the very, very best
And the Soldier put it on.

Soldier, Soldier, won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum?
Ah no, Sweet Maid, I cannot marry thee,
For I have no tie to put on.

So off she went, to her grandfather's chest
And brought him a tie of the very, very best
And the Soldier put it on.

Soldier, Soldier, won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum?
Ah no, Sweet Maid, I cannot marry thee,
For I have no suit to put on.

So off she went, to her grandfather's chest
And brought him a suit of the very, very best
And the Soldier put it on.

Soldier, Soldier, won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum?
Ah no, Sweet Maid, I cannot marry thee,
For I have no boots to put on.

So off she went, to her grandfather's chest
And brought him some boots of the very, very best
And the Soldier put it on.

Soldier, Soldier, won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum?
Ah no, Sweet Maid, I cannot marry thee,
For I have no coat to put on.

So off she went, to her grandfather's chest
And brought him a coat of the very, very best
And the Soldier put it on.

Soldier, Soldier, won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum?
Ah no, Sweet Maid, I cannot marry thee,
For I have no hat to put on.

So off she went, to her grandfather's chest
And brought him a hat of the very, very best
And the Soldier put it on.

Soldier, Soldier, won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum?
Oh no, Sweet Maid, I cannot marry thee,
For I have A WIFE OF MY OWN.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bad grooming

Where did that horrible phrase ‘grooming for sex’ come from? We have had plenty of moral panics over people grooming children for sex over the internet, & are now in the midst of another one over the belief that no white girl is safe from marauding gangs who will groom them for sex on the street.

According to the OED the first use of to groom in a figurative sense - to prepare as a political candidate or to prepare or coach for a career, a sporting contest - began in America with the earliest quotation in print found in the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal in 1887.

Curiously the OED gives a third meaning of the verb - To be made a bridegroom. This is labelled nonce-use, which seems to be a special OED term meaning used only once, in this case in Byron’s long poem, Don Juan.

But in current British criminals' slang nonce means A sexual deviant; a person convicted of a sexual offence, especially child abuse.

A curious chain of meanings

Dying fall

Something I forgot to mention when writing about the death of Nigel Pargetter in The Archers: do people really scream when they fall, especially when it is unexpected & accidental rather than intentional? I think I have read somewhere that they do not – something to do with air pressure constricting the lungs.

Certainly the man did not scream in the only such incident that I was ever anywhere close to; he fell 19 floors into the car park below. The office nurse who had been called to see if there was anything she could do was just coming back into the building as I went out – I hope I never have to feel how she looked.

Monday, January 10, 2011

BBC betrayal

Radio 4 yesterday subjected us to 7 hours of readings from the King James Bible, sweeping aside several of the usual programmes.

I share the love of the bible as a work of literature & do not object to there being special programmes to mark the 400th anniversary, but this was really too much, with all the readings done by the usual suspects with, for the most part, nice BBC tones. I should have particularly enjoyed hearing at least some read in something like the accents of the time the translation was produced.

More or Less was one of the programmes bounced from the schedule so I missed hearing the calculation of the height of Loxley Hall, as judged by the length of Nigel’s scream as he fell from the icy roof.

This fall was so well telegraphed from the moment Nigel first climbed up to install the banner that I did not even deign to listen to the much hyped 60th anniversary episode. Even the answer to the question Did he survive? – was given away on the Today programme.

I am not happy about this. It seems to have been shoehorned in to match the kind of hysteria being generated by tv soaps. It does not really fit the characters, as for example did Grace Archer’s dash into the burning stable to save her beloved Midnight, neither Nigel nor David were given to such reckless behaviour. With all the advance promises of something which would reverberate in Ambridge for years to come, paraplegia seemed much more likely & plausible.

You need a strong reason to kill off a popular character like Nigel & unleash the spoiled child turned avenging widow in Elizabeth. Perhaps it is the Archer’s belated revenge on Graham Seed for that time he deserted them to go to the Crossroads motel.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Dashing Away With The Smoothing Iron

This traditional folk song was naturally a favourite when I was a child labourer at the ironing board.

'Twas on a Monday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble, O
A-washing of her linen, O

Dashing away with the smoothing iron
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
She stole my heart away.

'Twas on a Tuesday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble, O
A-hanging out her linen, O

'Twas on a Wednesday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble, O
A-starching of her linen, O

'Twas on a Thursday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble, O
A-ironing of her linen, O

'Twas on a Friday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble, O
A-folding of her linen, O (Refrain)

'Twas on a Saturday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble, O
A-airing of her linen, O

'Twas on a Sunday morning
When I beheld my darling
She looked so neat and charming
In every high degree
She looked so neat and nimble, O
A-wearing of her linen, O

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The limits of statistics

Three interesting reports have come to my attention this week, all dealing with the perils, problems & pitfalls of incorporating science, via mathematical statistical models, into the policy making process.

The first is 'A Statistical Analysis Of Multiple Temperature Proxies: Are Reconstructions Of Surface Temperatures Over The Last 1000 Years Reliable?' to be published in Annals of Applied Statistics. The short answer, given by authors Blakeley McShane of Northwestern University and Abraham Wyner of the Wharton University of Pennsylvania, is ‘No’. But the paper has 'discussion' status & comments are being published simultaneously. It is a serious contribution to the debate, & it will be fascinating to see how, if at all, the paper is reported in the wider media & on the BBC.

As someone who concentrated on the often underrated business of data collection I can but cheer editor Michael L. Stein’s remark that data are more important than models and models are more important than specific modes of inference.

Data problems loom large in the story of the fallout from what are now seen to be hopelessly wrong estimates of the number of swine flu deaths to be expected during last year’s epidemic. David Spiegelhalter had a Thunderer column in The Times about this & there is a version with links to original documents on his website under the rather alarming title Stalin had a point.

The paper on Lessons Learnt is especially instructive. One impression I gain from this is that there was a distinct lack of clarity in the organisation, responsibilities & reporting lines in the Department of Health – what a surprise from New Labour.

I was diverted by the conclusion that it is all about managing expectations, & especially by the idea of producing a general epidemiological primer for ministers & senior officials which would, among other things explain ‘how early analysis can be impacted by stochasticity’. However the report ends with a humble recognition that experts too need a much better understanding of the types of questions that ministers and senior officials need to ask (& answer for & to press & public) during an epidemic while making decisions in conditions of huge uncertainty.

The third report also concerns problems over what are said to be inadequate collections of official data on the effects of vaccination & came in a programme on Radio 4, The Vaccine Casebook. As the BBC’s own webpage rather excitedly puts it “Richard Phinney reports from the West African country of Guinea Bissau, where a team of Danish and African medical sleuths have pieced together evidence that could change public health care forever.”

The work, led by Dr Peter Aaby, consists mainly in the keeping & analysis of long term health records of children, has been reported extensively in the specialist press & illustrates the very real problems in this area. It may have detected harmful effects, it may even have established that gender really does matter, even in babies, when it comes to differential responses to medical prophylactic treatments, but for the moment there seem to be only observational studies. Meanwhile international health experts must, surely, continue with what may in the end turn out to be well meant interventions which did a deal of harm.

We are not in an MMR situation but some good people may end up with a loss of reputation at the very least. Either someone will end up as the visionary hero, others the stubborn deniers of evidence which challenges their cherished assumptions, or it will all prove to be a misguided but understandable misinterpretation of evidence caused by overenthusiastic adoption of a novel hypothesis.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Nor will it be easie to inquire the particular reasons of these Ails

In October the British Medical Journal published a review article on Chronic Pelvic Pain in Women. This is a condition for which doctors can often find no physical cause, though modern methods of investigation have gradually added to the list of things that can go wrong; in the meantime psychological morbidity, previous abuse & cultural beliefs are often cited as important causes, & psychological treatment recommended.

In December the BMJ published an article on Investigating & Managing Chronic Scrotal Pain. Many possible causes are mentioned, ‘although in many cases it is idiopathic’. Just one sentence refers to psychological or psychiatric counselling ‘as part of a multidisciplinary approach’, which ‘may help patients to deal with the pain’ in a pain clinic when the doctor, sadly, has to admit that medicine has no other method of treating this awful condition.

Anyone with half a brain could think of half a dozen psycho-sexual explanations for such symptoms in the absence of any discernible physical cause.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Winding me up

Alarming reports of how little electricity was produced by our 3,000 wind turbines during December – the coldest since records began in 1910. The wind just has not been blowing, hot or cold.

That’s the trouble with Mother Nature – she is just so capricious & unpredictable.

Ironically, it seems to have been the sunniest December on record across Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Water, water

Over the past several days it has struck me that a series of graphical, map based animations which can be shown over & over again should be able to do a much better job of explaining to the people of Ireland what happened to deprive them of their usual water supply after the thaw. Some basic education about the facts of water supply is badly needed.

In the Republic they are freely admitting that they have been, to some extent, paying the price for a lack of investment in upgrading & repairing the Victorian mains, concentrating instead on providing supply to all the new housing developments & putting rural areas on to the mains. I don’t suppose there will be too much hope of rectifying the problem through investment in the near term future.

Politicians in the North have not risen in my estimation after the way they dumped the blame on to the officials of the water company. All parties have been pandering to their electorate’s view that they should not have to pay for water which just falls freely from the sky – a view which we used to hear often enough on this side of St George's Channel. I expect that they too are suffering from long neglect of necessary upgrades & replacement – apart from financial considerations any wide scale programme of digging up the roads must surely have posed a security nightmare during the Troubles.

I for one take back all the rude comments I ever made about the water companies digging up our roads & causing traffic jams again.

On Tuesday Paul Simons told terrifying stories of the winter of 1947 in his Weather Eye column. England suffered burst pipes on the same sort of scale as has been happening in Ireland: London firemen dealt with nearly 1,500 flood calls over a single weekend; when the thaw turned back into a freeze bonfires had to be lit in the streets to keep the standpipes from freezing. Emergency workmen in Devon had icicles hanging from their ears & eyebrows.

Gas pipes fractured too, killing at least five people inside their own homes.

Thank heavens for modern plastic pipes.

Related post
Drainage problems

Blue is the colour

Department of small coincidences.

The Times yesterday carried an obituary of Air Commodore John Sowrey who died on 30 November, age 90.

Among the other anecdotes we are told of how, after his retirement from a very distinguished flying career, he helped his wife with her fashion business. And so he personally delivered to Buckingham Palace the blue engagement outfit which was worn by Princess Diana & has been in the news again recently.

Princess Diana was an established customer of Regamus, where among other outfits she had bought the dress which was donated to Madame Tusssauds for her first wax figure.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


Christmas radio was very disappointing. I cannot now remember anything of real interest.

Except that Chris Patten (former Cabinet Minister & Governor of Hong Kong, current Chancellor of the University of Oxford) invited us to remember always that the title of the book by our last dear leader but one is published in Germany under the title Eine Fahrt.

Related post
Blair reaction

The daze of Christmas

If I have done the calculations correctly then Christmas Day will not fall again on a Saturday until 2021.

For this relief much thanks.

The English system of Public Holidays turns a Saturday Christmas into a real trial – one four-day weekend followed by a three-day weekend. In the spend, spend, spend days many places closed only for Christmas Day (though public transport often stayed away on Boxing Day as well) but this year has seen much more extensive closures.

I got a particular shock in Marks & Spencer last Friday, when I went in to find the shelves almost bare of fresh produce before 4 o’clock in the afternoon; they were going to be closed on New Years Day (Saturday) & so obviously were minimising the amount of waste. Plan B – Sainsbury’s – proved equally disconcerting.

Fortunately Plan C – another branch of Sainsbury’s away from the town centre – was well stocked & provided something for supper, but we decided to write off Saturday, even though that branch & so presumably some other shops as well would be open - & laid in for a snug weekend indoors.

Finally everything is back on a normal timetable, everything will be just fine - just as soon as we can get ourselves back to knowing what day it is.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Kepler’s moon travellers

In his book The Dream Kepler imagined the day when humans might fly to the moon, & considered very carefully what sort of person would be best suited to such a trip.

Anyone who is inactive, fat, or pleasure-loving should obviously be barred.

To be German or Spanish would be good.

A life spent on horseback, in between sailing often to the Indies (thus becoming inured to a diet of hard tack, garlic & dried fish) would put you into the highly recommended category.

But the best space travellers would be ‘dried up old crones who since childhood have ridden over great stretches of the earth at night in tattered cloaks on goats or pitchforks’.

I have put my name down.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

On the Death of Mr. Robert Levet, a Practiser in Physic

The sort of doctor, & the sort of death, which we would all like to have.

On the Death of Mr. Robert Levet, a Practiser in Physic

CONDEMN'D to Hope's delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts or slow decline
Our social comforts drop away.

Well tried through many a varying year,
See Levet to the grave descend,
Officious, innocent, sincere,
Of every friendless name the friend.

Yet still he fills affection's eye,
Obscurely wise and coarsely kind;
Nor, letter'd Arrogance, deny
Thy praise to merit unrefined.

When fainting nature call'd for aid,
And hov'ring death prepared the blow,
His vig'rous remedy display'd
The power of art without the show.

In Misery's darkest cavern known,
His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless Anguish pour'd his groan,
And lonely Want retired to die.

No summons mock'd by chill delay,
No petty gain disdained by pride;
The modest wants of every day
The toil of every day supplied.

His virtues walk'd their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure th' Eternal Master found
The single talent well employ'd.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm—his powers were bright,
Though now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then with no fiery throbbing pain,
No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
And freed his soul the nearest way.

Samuel Johnson

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Giving generously

The government has come up with some ideas of how to nudge us into giving more to charity – is this one of the fruits of the much-vaunted Behavioural Insight Team?

The ideas I have heard about in the news are old ways of persuading us to give small amounts of spare cash, updated for a plastic age.

When I was a child most small shops had a ‘collecting box’ outside – usually in the shape of a large papier mâché model of an animal or child into which you could feed your pennies. Sometimes a stranger would give you coins just so you could have the pleasure of putting them in. Some of the portrayals – especially the ‘spastics’ - would definitely be regarded as offensive these days.

They finally disappeared in the 1970s or early 1980s when they became distressingly attractive to those who thought nothing of just wrenching them away from their moorings & making off with the change.

McDonalds have a modern purely geometric design which makes the coins whizz round & down a helter skelter, & of course have long encouraged customers to ‘round up’ their bill by dropping their change into the charity box on the counter.

It is not clear who will decide how the money collected under the government scheme is to be distributed – another expensively managed quango I assume.

People are probably much more ready to give if they know which charity it is going to, as I found out in a rather odd incident over Christmas.

I was waiting for the bus home when a young man approached & asked for a cigarette.

I refused, as is policy.

He then proffered 50p & tried again – No, I have only one left & that’s my ration (true). Moments later he tried again - this time proffering £1.50. I laughed & said Oh go on then – I don’t want your money, it’s Christmas.

That really should have been that, but soon he was at it again – Please, I want to pay you.

Stop it – you’re embarrassing me it’s Christmas.

No, I really want to.

Well then give it to charity.

Which one?

I don’t know.

How about animals – what pets have you got?


Well then, which charity would be a good one?

Oh – probably Macmillan Nurses.

Oh dear! That set off the story of how they looked after his grandfather who died early this year but who had been able to leave hospital for Christmas at home thanks to the MacMillan nurses. He insisted I take the £1.50 to give to them, and then emptied his pockets to give me yet more change.

When the bus came, he gave me the change after paying his fare. In all £4 something.

He may well have been high on something – though he did not seem at all spaced-out & was not blurring his words. He was definitely a rather simple soul, & may even be unwell. I thought it would be kinder to accept his commission than to tell him in my sternest voice just to stop being a silly boy.

NB The Cabinet Office has a webpage - Big Society plan for a new culture of generosity -
which tells us The Cabinet Office has today published the Government's initial ideas for building a stronger culture of giving time and money – without, as far as I can see, any indication of the date – one can only assume that it is recent.