Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Breast screening outcomes

The press coverage being given to today’s report about the national breast cancer screening programme tend to suggest that there are only two possible outcomes for a woman who chooses to accept an invitation to attend for a mammogram: a life saved through early detection of cancer, or ‘overtreatment’ of a cancer which will never develop into anything threatening.

In fact the most likely outcome by far – the great majority of women (say 90%) will be told ‘All clear, dear.’

A rather expensive method of achieving the reduction in harm.


4G Scotland Yard

The Met have announced that they are considering getting rid of their current headquarters building, known universally as New Scotland Yard, on the grounds that it is expensive to run & increasingly fails to meet the needs of modern policing.

I am old enough to remember when they moved out of the first New Scotland Yard, so called to distinguish it from the old Scotland Yard which was sited in Great Scotland Yard, a street which still exists, further up Whitehall just south of Trafalgar Square. I hope that is clear.

The first New Scotland Yard still stands by Westminster Bridge, conveniently just over the road from the Houses of Parliament and is now used as offices for MPs. There was an outcry when the police moved out of such an iconic building, as familiar an image of London as was Big Ben, from its appearance in so many films.

Renamed Norman Shaw North, (after the architect) it was left mostly unoccupied for several years after the police moved out in 1967, save that parts were used sometimes to provide temporary accommodation for civil servants, then growing quite rapidly in numbers.

Some time in the very early 1970s a friend of mine was one such, & he invited me to go there one evening for a private view, on the grounds that I would love it. It was indeed a very rewarding couple of hours, roaming at will through the completely empty building; I cannot even remember seeing any security guard – perhaps it was thought that the proximity of Cannon Row police station was sufficient, in those more innocent days, to deter anyone who had no right to be inside.

Three particular memories stay with me.

The ladies loo was a marvel of marble, brass & mahogany; the cubicles had centre opening double doors (a more modest-preserving version of the entrance to a wild west saloon) which must have made getting in & out much more easy. I have often wondered who exactly they were built for – there were no lady policemen when the building was opened in 1890, & its grandeur makes me think it was there for the convenience of ladies of much higher social status, perhaps a Commissioner’s wife visiting her husband’s place of work.

The Commissioner’s own very spacious office occupied a prime corner location, overlooking the Thames. It was completely empty, but I was very impressed by the windows, double glazed, but not as we know it. There were two complete sets of windows, separated by a window sill at least 6” or maybe even a foot wide. The sound proofing against the noise of traffic along the Thames Embankment was complete, but must have been much less effective in summer when, in the absence of modern air conditioning, both sets of windows could be opened to let in a breeze from the river.

But the memory I treasure most is of the filing system. Covering the whole of the attic floor, row upon row of open wooden racks or shelves, like a library. No stray files left behind, sadly, but the hand written paper labels remained glued to the edges & sides of the shelves. These bore legends such as:
Willesden: Rape 1890 to 1905.
1906 onwards → 4 racks along, 3rd shelf down

If the police do dispose of their, frankly undistinguished, current headquarters I am sure they will make an enormously large sum of money – prime central London site, close to Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Supreme Court & the Queen Elizabeth Conference centre. But, assuming that it does not stay in the public sector, it seems unlikely to stay under British ownership.

Related posts
Picture of New Scotland Yard, Victoria Street, London SW1 New Scotland Yard, Victoria Street by John Salmon

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Prime ministers beware popular culture

I have a distinct memory of seeing Jim Callaghan say ‘Jim won’t fix it’ in a televised speech to the nation. I think it must have been during a prime ministerial address (for which they used to be able to claim the right – can they still?) very soon after he succeeded Harold Wilson in April 1976, when he was, in his avuncular way, telling us that prime ministers cannot be omnipotent. I don’t think he would have risked such a jokey way of conveying that message later on, during the winters of discontent, & especially not after his bruising over the allegation that he had been sunning himself in the Caribbean while Britain was in crisis.

I have not been able to bring up any reference to the quote using Google, however I varied the search; it just kept insisting on
“Showing results for jim callaghan "jim will fix it"
No results found for jim callaghan "jim wont fix it"”

The Jimmy Savile show ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ was first shown in May 1975, so if my memory may be relied upon this was an early attempt by a prime minister to show that he was in touch with popular culture, something which politicians today are overly anxious to demonstrate.

When I did persuade Google point me to pages which contain the phrase ‘Jim won’t fix it’ (without mentioning Callaghan) the results show only too clearly how dangerous it can be to find oneself in any way associated with a popular celebrity who has fallen so spectacularly in public estimation.

The Times today published a large photograph of Margaret Thatcher posing with Savile at an even to raise money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Historic crime

It is slightly disconcerting to find that books which you enjoyed (when hot off the press) as a young woman are now being described as forgotten or even unknown classics, the progenitor of all the Scandinavian crime fiction now in vogue. But such is the case with the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, which I devoured eagerly in their familiar yellow Gollancz jackets in the 60s & 70s, until the series ended with the 10th tale.

I have read barely any of their successors – which tend to be too grim & violent for my taste, as is the case generally with modern day contributions to the genre.

The police procedural was a sub-genre virtually unknown in English crime fiction of the time. With the possible exception of John Creasey’s Commander Gideon of Scotland Yard; even where the hero detective was a policeman, rather than an amateur sleuth, they tended to follow the Sherlock Holmes model of getting to the solution by pure ratiocination (bounced off a sidekick) rather than any hard forensic slog or teamwork.

That was not true of American crime writing however, although it came as quite a surprise to hear in Mark Lawson’s programme that Sjowall and Wahloo took their inspiration from Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series. It leaves me wondering how well similar authors would stand up to rediscovery – maybe Hilary Waugh’s Chief Fellows or any of those by the prolific Elizabeth Linington under her various noms de plume.

All those American policemen were uxorious (especially Luis Mendoza & Steve Carella) &, in many cases, devoted fathers of small children. What had not occurred to me, until I heard it on the Mark Lawson programme, is that Martin Beck is the prototype for all modern (compulsorily) non-philogamous policemen.

BBC Radio4 blog: Martin Beck
BBC Radio 4: Foreign Bodies
John Creasey
Gideon of the Yard
Hillary Waugh
Elizabeth Linington
Related posts
Why can’t fictional policemen be philogamous?
Anonymity anonymous
Non-standard deviation

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Breaking down in tears

Not long after the trouble in Libya began Tony Livesy on late night Radio 5 was interviewing people who had managed to get back to Heathrow. One man was clearly a profoundly unsatisfactory interviewee: invited to tell of his torment, he said no, he was fine, there had been no real danger, he was happy to be in a hotel before travelling the last leg home next morning.

Mind you, I metaphorically tapped the side of my nose when he said home was in Hereford, home of the SAS. And thought Ha ha! when news of the abortive ‘diplomatic mission’ came through a couple of days later.

On another occasion I noticed a similar disappointment on The World Tonight with those interviewees who were too calm about the Japanese earthquake & Pacific-wide tsunami. And thought back to the contrast between Irish & British reactions to the reporting of problems caused by the earthquake.

 Some days there seems to be nothing on BBC speech radio programmes except tales of woe;  the audience for tv programmes such as Who Do You think You Are? watch with only one question in mind: When will the celebrity cry?

I can remember the days when the camera used to turn away from tears – to watch would have been ghoulish, intrusive & heartless, sprung from the same impulse which drew crowds to Bedlam or the freak shows of old.

Then John Freeman made irascible old Gilbert Harding cry – or at least made him catch his voice & wipe something from his cheek.

And Desmond Wilcox kept the cameras indecently rolling during an edition of Man Alive even though the subject was crying. That really caused an outcry, probably a BBC investigation of its own policies too.

But, another measure of how things have changed since the Bad Old Days is that a great interview now is one which demands we shake our heads & make ourselves human by empathising with the victim .

I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be diminished by it - Maya Angelou

Wait a while

A Meeting with Despair

As evening shaped I found me on a moor
Which sight could scarce sustain:
The black lean land, of featureless contour,
Was like a tract in pain.

"This scene, like my own life," I said, "is one
Where many glooms abide;
Toned by its fortune to a deadly dun -
Lightless on every side.

I glanced aloft and halted, pleasure-caught
To see the contrast there:
The ray-lit clouds gleamed glory; and I thought,
"There's solace everywhere!"

Then bitter self-reproaches as I stood
I dealt me silently
As one perverse--misrepresenting Good
In graceless mutiny.

Against the horizon's dim-discerned wheel
A form rose, strange of mould:
That he was hideous, hopeless, I could feel
Rather than could behold.

"'Tis a dead spot, where even the light lies spent
To darkness!" croaked the Thing.
"Not if you look aloft!" said I, intent
On my new reasoning.

"Yea--but await awhile!" he cried. "Ho-ho! -
Look now aloft and see!"
I looked. There, too, sat night: Heaven's radiant show
Had gone. Then chuckled he.
Thomas Hardy

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Psychological mothers

One of the striking elements of the tsunami of commentary on the Savile affair is the eagerness to assert how different things were in the 1970s, & how much things have improved since.

But in the 1970s people were telling each other how much things were improving as bad old ideas got discredited.

One of the things that changed was the role of Mother. Back in the old days, mothers were responsible for autism (through being too cold or distant), homosexuality (by being over-devoted to her son, or domineering of his father), & schizophrenia through some other maternal style.

And – not surprisingly, in view of the above - teenage menstrual cramps used to be caused by a deep subconscious fear of getting married & having babies

Friday, October 26, 2012

Blog posts I liked this week

Bad news for hunters & bears 
The perils of AND

On Probation: The legacy
More on Savile

The challenges of discoverability
How do you ever find anything on the ever-expanding web?

Wellcome Trust Book Prize: Circulation – William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea, by Thomas Wright
“For me, these essays were a tantalising glimpse of how the physician’s consideration of the human form, could have influenced, or been influenced by, the poetic forms of his period. John Donne spoke of the body as “a little world made cunningly”; he could just as well have been talking about a sonnet. These forays may not be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed being invited to explore beyond Harvey’s research chamber”, writes the reviewer, reminding us of just how many of today’s scientists are convinced that they are mere rational empiricists, driven by Popperian logic.

Wellcome Image of the Month: Osteoporosis from  Mun-Keat Looi

If Primary-Care Doctors Were Taxed Like Hedge-Fund Managers
Only in America!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sharing knowledge of the world

In my (very brief) career as a school teacher one of my tasks was to attempt to teach French to the girls in Year 5 (O level year in those days). It was pretty hopeless – they seemed to have acquired less than no knowledge of the language in the preceding 4 years, motivation was lacking, & my plan to try a crash course starting from scratch was turned down.

So I had to plough on with Whitmarsh Book 5, the very same textbook from which I had been taught. I think it must have been his Complete French Course, dating back to the 1930s, which was pretty much the standard text for all English Grammar Schools in the 1950s. To be the author of a standard text was the ambition of every school teacher in those days – it was the only way to get anything like rich in your chosen profession, & could be very lucrative indeed.

But I was using it to teach Caribbean girls, of varied ethnicities & religions, in the second half of the 1960s.

As I remember it the very first passage for translation from the French described a lane in winter – snow, icicles, hedgerows, robins …

If ever I needed a vivid lesson to demonstrate how reading, comprehension & translation involve much more than a knowledge of grammar & a dictionary, then I had it right there. How do you even start with girls who have never experienced snow, for whom the word robin does not conjure up myriad associations, & Please Miss – What is a hawthorn?

frenchteacher: Whitmarsh
BBC Radio 4 Analysis: The school of hard facts
Core Knowledge®
BBC4: Top of the Form Story

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Culture & intelligence

In the 1960s psychologist Hans Eysenck published two popular books on IQ testing, then still a hot topic, centre stage in the nature/nurture debate.

Check Your Own IQ carried an introduction which discussed the essence of what it is that IQ tests set out to measure, illustrated by a question in the form of a story.

A dwarf lives on the 20th floor of a New York skyscraper. Each morning he gets into the lift, pushes the correct button, is taken to ground level & goes off to work.

Each evening he comes home, into the lift, presses the button for the 10th floor where he gets out. He continues his upward journey via the staircase.


Imaginative answers, such as ‘To keep fit’ or ‘Because he visits his mistress who lives on the 10th floor’ will not earn you good marks.

The tester of IQ is looking for those who understand that the required answer makes use only of the information which is helpfully contained within the question.

So it really does matter that he is a dwarf. Once you realise this you will reply that he is too short to reach up to the button for the 20th floor – 10 is the highest numbered button he can reach.

A burst of angry irritation made me fling aside the book – not in a fit of politically correct reaction against the use of the word dwarf, but at this final piece of proof that, contrary to what we had always been told, IQ tests do not measure some fundamental underlying ability to reason which is independent of culture or general knowledge, & so can be used to make valid inference about differences between groups.

In those days, even if your language was English & you were familiar with the idea of a skyscraper, it was perfectly possible that you had never been in a lift, especially not one which was self-service, automatically controlled with buttons. I lived in a country which had only one building – built within the last few years – with such a lift. It was all of four storeys tall. Locals used to go in simply for the experience of going up in the lift – just to the first floor, which was as far as public access could take them. (A decade later I observed a similarly unique building - the Bali Holiday Inn, then & perhaps still, the only structure which was ‘taller than a coconut tree’- which actually had organised tours for locals keen to experience the lift).

And if, like me, you tended to think that lift buttons were arranged in two vertical columns, & were used to the English system of numbering floors, you might wonder why he did not go to the 11th floor.

Even more importantly it taught me how motivation can have a major effect in one’s ability to perform well in these – or any – tests. To this day I flinch at the very idea of being asked to undertake one, in complete contrast to the enjoyment I used to get from meeting the challenge. These days I have much more sympathy for those who feel mutinous when asked to do ‘stupid’ or ‘useless’ things at school – it is not hard to think of tasks or activities which would have made me react that way at that age.

We studied IQ testing as part of 6th form General Studies. One boy in the class specialised in thinking up ingenious , but usually laboured, reasons for choosing an answer which was not the one obviously expected by the tester. He was also an annoyingly inveterate punster, but that was no bar to his getting a place at Cambridge.

A friend who teaches English & drama maintains that she truly prefers teaching the no-hopers in Class 4G to the A* girls in the 6th form. This on the grounds that a question about Romeo & Juliet will produce 30 different answers from the supposedly less able group but 28 identical answers out of the 30 from the latter, who are smart enough to know what answer is required & to repeat it dutifully.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Strolling with a buggy

Last week brought two separate pieces containing comments by American women on the differences between the UK & the US in paternal involvement in childcare.

Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, told Hugo Rifkind in an interview published in Saturday’s Times that she hopes her 9 year old son ‘will be able to be seen in the middle of the day in the playground with nobody passing by the playground thinking ‘what’s wrong with that guy? He must be out of a job’'

In an Atlantic interview with Jordan Weissman on the question of why women are still paid less than men, labor economist Francine Blau remarked that ‘Just traveling in Europe recently, I've seen a lot more men pushing strollers during the day’.

Hugo Rifkind himself wrote that Rosin’s comment made him ‘feel very British’ because neither he nor any of his friends has ever felt any stigma when out & about with small children, whatever time of whatever day of the week that might be.

That confirms my observation of men – of all classes, - seen out & about in sole charge of young children which I first identified well over a decade ago. Formal arrangements for paternal leave do not seem to have very much to do with it, rather it seems to be that shift work is often seen as a solution to child care problems. Plus I think full-time help at home is less affordable in this country. In at least two cases known to me the father takes the baby to childcare provided at their place of work. Though undoubtedly many of the men clearly are unemployed, & they, if anything, have had even more need for the stigma to be removed.
Hanna Rosin
The Atlantic: Why Are Women Paid Less?
 Related post
Caring fathers
Technology & the rise of fertility

Monday, October 22, 2012

Damaged goods

When I was about 13 or 14 I was, to use an anachronistic term, being groomed by the local vicar, (a married man with children a few years older than me).

He would arrive at the house & ask permission for me to accompany him on one of his parish visits – These old folk like to talk to a young person & they don’t often get a chance. Off we would go, me riding pillion on his large scooter, which was decked out to resemble a powerful motorbike with the addition of metal cowling & an oversize windscreen. At some point – especially going up a steep hill – his hand would grasp my knee to make sure I did not fall off.

I found all this (including the stilted conversations with the old folk) excruciatingly embarrassing, but it seemed like one of those helpful, caring things one was supposed to do.

It all ended one day in the school summer holidays. My mother & I were outside, she wearing apron & yellow rubber gloves, washing a window, me doing a bit of weeding. He arrived, delivered his usual spiel - & my mother, after giving me a swift warning look, told him a lie about us having some other engagement to go to.

Somone must have warned her.

We never spoke about it; in my innocence & naivety I think I just thought that, for once, she had taken pity & relieved me of a chore I so obviously disliked. Even  a few year later, when we had moved away from the town, we heard that the vicar had been required, by the parish council, to relinquish his living & someone said ‘He must have gone too far this time’ I still did not think of myself as having been at risk.

I have another memory, dating back to when I was eight or nine. We were at a daytime social function in what counted, for us, as a posh house, a large double-fronted Edwardian villa with bay windows. There were lots of mothers & children & I think fathers were there too – which means it wasn’t a child’s birthday party. An older man, perhaps an uncle or grandfather who lived in the house, was sitting in an armchair near the fireplace. One of the mothers, coming in from the kitchen, looked across & said Now "Susan" you’ve been sitting there long enough, give "Uncle" a rest & come & play with the other children.

My face must have registered some kind of surprise at her tone – a bit too bright, like Joyce Grenfell. He likes to put his hand in your knickers, confided the girl standing next to me, keen to display her worldliness. Although this astonishing idea made little sense to me I remember a vague feeling of relief that I was far too big, well past the age where I could be expected to sit on anyone’s knee.

I’m not sure what age I was when I was sitting on a wall with my best friend when a girl we knew went past, carrying some shopping. It’s probably for that old man, said my friend, the one who lives in the corner house on the council estate. She’s allowed to go round & help him. She gets paid for it. If she likes you she might invite you to go round with her sometimes – he’ll give you half a crown. She won’t ask us though.

My friend – who had older brothers & bohemian parents - may have understood whereof she spoke. I still was not completely clear about what was being implied, but the words dirty old man hovered unspoken between us. And I was surprised by the new idea that a man that old could still be dirty.

The point of telling these stories is not to prove that child abuse existed even in the staid & upright world of 1950s happy families, but to illustrate that it did, that it was dealt with in some ways, accepted in others, & that that is instructive.

Middle class mothers (perhaps fathers too) had their own information networks to pass on warnings, & warnings off, did their level best to protect their children from danger which did not come from strangers. If they knew about cases of girls from less fortunate backgrounds – well that was all very sad; maybe their mothers were inadequate, too ground down or ignorant to care; perhaps those half crowns provided a welcome, much needed, supplement to the family budget, helped to feed all the other children; perhaps it was just one more demonstration of the grimness & horror of poverty, of not being respectable.

And economics must explain the lack of action against those of their own class, in an age when wives & children depended on the father’s income to maintain a decent standard of life, to avoid destitution, even if that father had distressing urges.

Above all there would be the shame, & not just for the perpetrator but for the victim too. I am not even certain whether any action could have been taken in an era when even the law may have felt that children were either not competent, or should not be asked to give evidence & be subject to cross examination in court about such matters. Far better to try & forget about it all, to keep it a secret. A girl after all would suffer the added disadvantage of being damaged goods in the marriage market.

We tended to hear less about the threat to boys – but then homosexuality was still the great unmentionable to many. But judging by the seeming lack of action in response to complaints to the police about George Brinham, the same sense of tact, distaste or perhaps plain helplessness applied also to those who preyed on boys.

And then the 1960s burst upon us – Lady Chatterly, the Pill & the Beatles first LP, the first wave of babyboomers experiencing the hormone rush of adolescence; an important function of the pop industry seemed to be to make little girls scream & wet their knickers; I don’t remember too much open concern being expressed about their being at risk from predators. Hunter Davies felt no need to include the groupies in his account of the life of the Beatles.

There must be plenty of now elderly men hoping that the focus of blame for the exploitation of the more vulnerable amongst them remains firmly fixed on the latter-day BBC.

Related posts
George Brinham
Teeny boomers
Life events

Trust in equality & human rights

Interesting to see that Onora O’Neill has been appointed Chair of the Equality & Human Rights Commission, when one half of the coalition seems very lukewarm about its mission.

Somehow I missed the announcement that responsibility for this body passed from the Home Office to Culture Media & Sport during the September reshuffle & now comes under Maria Miller. No doubt that this signals a determination to build on all the good that came out of the Olympics & Paralympics

Equality Commission welcomes appointment of new chair
Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve
Changes at the top of the Equality and Human Rights Commission
Related posts
Untimely birth

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Lily of Laguna

Sir John Major mentioned the song Lily of Laguna during an interview with RTE Radio 1 about his new book on the music hall. I thought to include it as a Favourite Poem, (in the category of songs which meant a lot in my childhood) since it was certainly still popular then & I am sure it was included with the piano music I inherited. The tune, in particular, is one that sticks in my head.

But I got a shock when I went searching for the words: the racially charged language has no place on this blog unless the context justifies it.

I am certain those were not the words in the version I knew, or even as sung by the Black & White Minstrels on the then popular BBC tv show.

I cannot find any sanitised version of the words, so will just settle for the chorus.

She's my lady love,
She is my dove, my baby love,
She's no gal for sitting down to dream,
She's the only queen Laguna knows;
I know she likes me.
I know she likes me
Because she says so;
She is my Lily of Laguna.
She is my Lily and ma Rose.

My Old Man: A Personal History of Music Hall
Lily of Laguna: Melody & Text - Leslie Stuart 1898 (1863-1928)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Language on the radio

Heard on Radio 4’s The Bottom Line, during a discussion about product placement & celebrity endorsement: retail expert Kim Winser advised that ‘You should be careful to choose only subjects which complement your brand’.

Would compliment-with-an-i be just as valid here? Or better even, if only as word play.

Later, on Radio 5 Live sports news we were told that the move by Mark Cavendish to join the Omega Pharma-QuickStep team will ‘maximise his potential going forward’

Which team will he join for those races in which he is required to ride backwards?

Team Sky rider Mark Cavendish to join Omega Pharma-QuickStep
BBC Radio 4: The Bottom Line

Blog posts I liked

Cyanobacteria and Smarties
Will this natural blue dye work for back pain?

Something a bit different on the Savile business:
We Got This One Right Anyway
Guardian Datablog: Jimmy Savile at the BBC: who was in charge?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Observations on observation

When I was 10 I acquired my very own copy of Scouting For Boys. At that age I loved it for all its information on firelighting & other practical tips on surviving, learning & just having fun in the countryside.

I also took very seriously the injunction to be observant at all times, self-consciously & self-importantly reminding myself of this duty every time I left the house.

I was particularly stirred by the idea that I might achieve the status of vital witness, should I observe & remember the registration number of a car which turned out to have been involved in a crime – with so few cars on the road, especially in a rural area, the idea of being able to commit to memory the number of each  that you saw was not totally daft, & the numbers of ‘wanted’ cars were regularly broadcast on the BBC news or published in the newspaper.

Registration plates had also acquired extra interest for me because of what they could tell you about where the car came from; each county, still responsible for car registration in the days before we had a national agency, had allocated to it several 2-letter combinations. A third letter plus 2 or 3 digits made up the rest of the identifier of the individual car. We knew that the letters for Derbyshire were RA, RB, RC or NU.

Games involved in spotting cars from different counties could help to while a way long car journeys - the AA Members Handbook (passed on to us by a Great Aunt when as each new year's version was sent to members) contained a list of all these 2-digit county codes.

However my career as Super Observant Girl Detective soon ran into a major snag: it is impossible to observe more than one thing at once, & while you concentrate on memorising the number (as well as the make & colour) of one car, you might, even on a quiet country road, know nothing of the details of one or more other cars which passed.

Nor could you simultaneously be observing & noting which birds were flying, or what the clouds in the sky might be telling you about the weather prospects, or which trees were there. And although I never had much faith in learning to track animals or humans by the traces they left, I couldn’t even take simultaneous care to look where I was going, to avoid falling down that hole, tripping over that tree branch, or walking into that patch of nettles.

And no time at all for just thinking my own thoughts.

Related post
Romantic books for boys
Is North up or down?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A record of things that hath been

This morning’s In Our Time on Radio 4 was an enjoyable canter round Caxton & the coming of printing to England. What made it all the more illuminating was the way the discussion introduced notions, - more familiar to our age – of the business model & marketing strategies, rather than rather than just a reverential regard for scholarship & cultural blossoming.

One of the discussants pointed out that printing did not bring instant redundancy to the makers of manuscript: “The thing that killed off the scribe was the typewriter” – which made its appearance only 400 years later. Some comfort there for lovers of printed books & newspapers.

But scribes were, I believe, almost exclusively male, while the typewriter was famously a female occupation, which provides more food for thought. Was it that the sheer explosion in the making of paper records devalued the occupation, typing what others dictated considered demeaning, or pure hamfistedness which kept men away from the keyboard until the advent of the computer.

Another intriguing thought: scribes have disappeared linguistically – we call them calligraphers these days, prizing their art for precious personal documents such as deeds, diplomas & memorials. But Steve Jobs gave some of the credit for the artistic sensibility, which made Apple computers so popular, to a course on calligraphy that he took as an undergraduate.

BBC Radio 4_In Our Time: Caxton & the printing press
Smithsonian: A Tribute to a Great Artist: Steve Jobs
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National feelings
The betrayal of clerks
Consultation in the space/time continuum
The first computer error

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Not that man again

When I spotted this photo in The Times I thought it was Tony Blair.

Odd that - other views show no resemblance at all. But just as well that there will not be too many occasins when a Russian property developer is mixed up with our former PM

24 inches in circumference

Timber is an Anglo-Saxon word for a house, said Helena Hamerow on last night’s Essay on Radio 3, bringing me up short. How come I had never heard of that before?

Well the OED has no record of it being used in that simple sense since 1330.

But how it suddenly changes my view of the world. Before 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) they were just home.

Professor Helena Hamerow
Early Medieval Settlements
Radio 3: The Essay: Anglo-Saxon Peasant Farmers

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Credit won by learning

Cambridge University has been given a triple-A credit rating.

About a year ago I read that the Wellcome Trust was the only UK organisation – apart from the government – to have such a rating.

Being a well-endowed organisation with a good track record in scientific & medical research is obviously the place to be in today’s world.

Moody's assigns Aaa debt rating to the University of Cambridge's bond issuance
Wellcome Trust: Bondholder information

Monday, October 15, 2012


I had a nightmare the other night.

I had somehow been co-opted on to one, or possibly more than one (there is a plethora to choose from), of these independent enquiries/investigations into possible/alleged past wrongdoings

It all got very surreal & I ended up trying to run away.

Perhaps because of the prospect of being sued if we got things wrong, blamed the wrong person, failed adequately to take account of today’s expectations.

Pension funds & other private infrastructure investors could sue the Department for Transport if official forecasts for long term traffic growth fail to materialise’ according to a report in The Times on October 8.

The dispute is about whether the fall in average number of miles per driver, which began in the late 90s, will continue, whether we have now passed the point of ’peak car’, or whether the century-long growth in traffic will resume once this recession is over.

My solution: Go back to making our forecasts by examining the entrails of chickens, rather than pretending that mathematical models & computers can draw back the veil which shrouds the future.

Or play a game of chicken with potential investors – they make their own forecasts, & when the future arrives the one who was closest to the truth wins the prize of a big fat bonus profit.

Or utilise the wisdom of crowds & the law of large numbers & ask every citizen to make their own guess of car mileage in 2035. Then just take the mean.

One thing is for sure: as a public sector forecaster in a world of private investors, always err on the low side: traffic congestion means that their money is safe; those who will lose constitute too large & heterogeneous a group to mount a legal claim.

Who, in truth, do we wish to entrust to have visions of the future we wish for ourselves, who & how should it be paid for?

Times reports that DfT could be sued about road traffic growth forecasts that are too high
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Sunday, October 14, 2012

La Mer

Celia Birtwell chose Charles Trenet on Desert Island discs. Back to my youth again..

La mer
Qu'on voit danser le long des golfes clairs
A des reflets d'argent
La mer
Des reflets changeants
Sous la pluie

La mer
Au ciel d'ete confond
Ses blancs moutons
Avec les anges si purs
La mer bergere d'azur

Pres des etangs
Ces grands roseaux mouilles
Ces oiseaux blancs
Et ces maisons rouillees

La mer
Les a berces
Le long des golfes clairs
Et d'une chanson d'amour
La mer
A berce mon coeur pour la vie

Charles Trenet : Toutes les chansons
Desert Island Discs : Celia Birtwell
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Y'a de la joie!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shakespeare's O, 0, Oh!

I am one of those who was (almost) terminally turned off Shakespeare (the plays) by English literature classes at school. The pace of reading was funereally slow, the footnote-strewn words dead on the page, & then we had to write boring essays with titles like ‘A character study of Macbeth.’

I might finally get round to realise my, until now half-hearted, resolution to read all the plays (perhaps when confined to my bed in the old lady’s home), after the revelation, (merci Daniel Tammet , that, on top of everything else, there are interesting references to the new mathematics.

Shakespeare would have been one of the first generation of English schoolboys to learn about the figure – cypher, place holder – zero, along with the Arabic system of numerals – thanks to Robert Recorde’s textbook The Grounde of Artes, Teachying the Worke & Practise of Arithmetike, (1st ed 1543, expanded 1550).

Learning about the mysteries of place value & a number which is no number left their traces on the Shakespearean imagination.

For example, in Cymbeline:

Three thousand confident, that act as many -
For three performers are the file, when all
The rest do nothing – with this word ‘Stand, stand’,
Accommodated by the place

And then this coda from Tammet himself:

In the Globe Theatre, round as an O, an empty cipher filled with meaning, Shakespeare’s loquacious quill drew crowds with his dreams.

I wish I had had a book like this when I was a child – interested in both words & numbers but defeated by school mathematics; see the essay ‘Classroom intuitions’

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Blog posts I have enjoyed recently

In need of a number - Not just a problem for scientists – politicians often need them too

Assessing the Value of Medicaid to Its Enrollees - Especially the kind remarks about government statisticians with which it ends

2012 Wellcome Trust Book Prize shortlist announced - Pleased to see Thomas Wright’s Circulation, about William Harvey up for the prize. Since this is the only one on the list that I have read, I should very much like to see it win.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Ending up approximately where you want to be

A couple of weeks ago there was a discussion on the Radio 4 Today programme of that hoary old question of which sex is better at navigating.

Tristan Gooley, author of the Natural Navigator, has come up with a non-scientific comparison, based on his experience of teaching his methods.

Women are very good at making use of all the information that is available to them; for example they noticed the lights on in the houses, deduced that it must be evening rather than early morning, & so did not need to work through other methods, based on natural science, in order to distinguish east from west.

But is this because men simply do not notice, or are reluctant to rely upon such soft information based on ideas of human behaviour which do not provide reliable (invariant) rules.

Once in a while at least there will be some very good local reason for all the neighbours to be up so early (or late)

BBC Radio 4 Today programme 17 September
The Natural Navigator

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cancer casualty

A study has revealed that a quarter of all cases of cancer in England are diagnosed only when the patient goes to hospital as an emergency. Prospects for survival in such circumstances are poor, & the over-70s are disproportionately affected.

The immediate reaction has been that greater efforts must be made to identify all cancers at an earlier stage, through increasing public awareness of symptoms which may need to be investigated & by improving GPs ability to recognise those that do.

Hard to dissent from that, except for a small, but important minority.

In some of these cases the patient would have had a shrewd idea of what was wrong, but simply preferred to accept their fate.

Cancer treatment can be brutal, &, as one friend told me, your life simply gets taken over by doctors until one day they say, That’s it. We don’t need to see you again. Sounds a lot like we don’t want to see you.

And in today’s climate people fear that No treatment thank you is no longer an acceptable response to a cancer diagnosis.

The elderly know that they are much closer to the last day of their life than to the first one. For some that simply increases the value of any extra day that can be squeezed out.

But what most fear more than that is loss of independence, of mobility, or of mind.

We are promised that the physical pain can be eased, & some prefer simply to accept their fate, on their own terms & responsibility.

 English people will not accept efficiency as a substitute for liberty - RH Tawney

Abstract only: British Journal of Cancer: Routes to diagnosis for cancer – determining the patient journey using multiple routine data sets

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Whitehall gets its sums wrong

Once upon a time, many moons ago, when newspapers came in black & white only with lots of words & few pictures, a national broadsheet carried, bottom of page two, a short story under the headline Whitehall gets its sums wrong.

I was surprised by the number of colleagues who found a reason to ring me that morning. Each conversation ended with a By the way, have you seen The Daily Broadsheet this morning?

For, on this unique occasion, to those in the know Whitehall meant me.

Of course I had not got my sums wrong with a careless slip of the pen, or finger on the calculator. They formed the basis for one part of the then fiendish process for setting the next year’s budget allocation to local authorities; naturally the local authorities felt the resulting allocations to be too low. It was blindingly clear, to me at least, which one of their negotiators had briefed the journalist with the story that the assumptions behind the forecast were wrong.

Actually I belong to the generation which abjured the use of the word forecast to describe such an exercise, preferring instead to speak of projections ‘if current trends continue’, as if there were no question about what those trends might be, or in what form they might continue.

I was listening to Radio 5 when the news of the abandonment of the new franchise for the West Coast railway line broke at one minute past midnight, heard the stunned voices of all those asked to comment or explain this totally unexpected development, all blamed on unacceptable mistakes by civil servants, felt personally both sick to the stomach & wanting to cry. Surely this must be the ultimate proof of the fact that they are not up to the job, deserve all the carping & complaint they have been getting from ministers recently.

Well maybe. But something is not quite right with this version.

Perhaps the traditional Oxbridge generalist qualifications do not equip today’s mandarin for the modern world of competition, contracts & information technology. Perhaps the quality of recruits has sunk alarmingly in an era when the brightest & best graduates all fly straight from university to the financial industries. Perhaps ministers cannot be expected to understand complicated spreadsheets & so must operate on trust, taking these very important decisions entirely & literally ‘on advice.’ But in my day – go back far enough & I was one of those young turks who understood statistics & computers – I would have expected to be called upon to explain in plain language what were the differences between the bids & why our model said that Bid X was best. And the most impressive ministers (& senior civil servants) had a way of unerringly putting a finger on the difficult points – not all of which you would have thought of yourself - & if necessary telling you to go away & think again.

In this particular case there were many commentators outside government who, having probably never had to read a spreadsheet in their lives, were able to spot why the original bid decision came as a surprise.

The idea that taditional civil servants were in charge of this process is not exactly & entirely right.

The Permanent Secretary previously worked in Vince Cable’s DTI & before that was a corporate finance banker at Morgan Stanley; one of the suspended civil servants, who has made her own public statement on the matter, is a former Goldman Sachs banker. Even the minister who made the original decision to award the franchise to First Group has an accountancy qualification & an MBA from the London Business School as well as experience in industry. And the Cabinet Secretary, who according to one newspaper report was asked by the prime minister to cast his own eye over that decision once Virgin had made their legal challenge, that manadrin’s mandarin with years of experience in the Treasury & as Private Secretary to chancellors & prime ministers, also spent three years as a Managing Director including as co–head of the UK Investment Banking Division at Morgan Stanley also reportedly failed to spot a flaw in the process.

The Department for Transport also had the benefit of advice when devising the franchising system from a major transport consulting company & an outside legal firm.

But it was not until an outside firm of accountants was called in to assist the department, presumably in its defence to the legal challenge, that serious flaws were discovered.

So if it is not the quality & experience of civil servants that explains the disaster – by no means the only one to have engulfed our system of politics & public administration of late, what could it be.

The hoped for stability & clarity, following the long years of annual ministerial reshuffles, sofa government & trying to serve two masters, in Treasury & Number 10, with their own different agendas, has not really emerged, with tensions between the coalition partners

The Secretary of State for Transport who had to make the hapless decision to pull the plug had been in the job for a month, the thirds Secretary of State since the election, & his impressively qualified permanent secretary has been in post (his first at that level) for only 6 months.

And governments are still just trying simply to do too much, blown hither & yon by the frenetic & unpredictable pace of comment & news & changes of sentiment.

Not to mention the small detail of a major economic & financial crisis.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Untimely birth

Prime minister David Cameron & the entire Conservative party spin machine could be forgiven for asking themselves ‘How did this happen’ at the weekend, on the eve of the party conference.

Our unfeasibly boyish-looking, father of two, 45-year old Secretary of State for Health earned himself the main front page headline on Saturday’s Times with his support for a 12-week limit on legal abortion. ‘Insulting to women’ reads the sub-head.

Then there is a double-page spread on the inside news pages (6&7), complete with scan pictures of foetuses at various stages of development, an analysis by the papers health correspondent including unfriendly quotes from the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, & highly personal contributions from star columnists Caitlin Moran & Alice Thomson.

You have to work through to pages 38 & 39 of the paper to find out how this came about.

A regular Saturday feature, another double-page spread, an interview/profile of a person in the news conducted by, usually, two journalists, most often, I think (without keeping a tally) both female: this week Rachel Sylvester & Alice Thomson ‘meet’ Jeremy Hunt.

His abortion comments come right at the end, after discussion of the reforms to the NHS structure, the treatment of the elderly, hospital closures, the nanny state, protecting the NHS budget, & assisted suicide. The editor of this page thought that the nanny state provided the most eye-catching quote for the headline: ‘I don’t want a fat tax. I like my Coca-Cola & crisps.’

It is not clear from the way the article is written whether the remarks about abortion were prompted by a specific question or were offered up spontaneously. It would not be surprising if the journalists had raised it - Maria Miller, who took over Mr Hunt’s old job as Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport in last month’s cabinet reshuffle, sparked renewed interest in the issue when she said last week that she favours a 20-week cut off, & Mr Hunt’s vote for a 12-week limit when the issue last came before Parliament is a matter of record.

For of course abortion policy is regarded as a question of individual conscience in this country & MPs are free to vote on it accordingly.

But what makes his view worrying to many is precisely his current job. To quote him directly from the interview ‘You go into politics to make a difference & in this job every single meeting makes a difference to hundreds of thousands of lives.’

Also worrying to some is his claim to have (fashionably) 'considered the evidence' before arriving at his view. In this case it seems to be the evidence ‘about the moment we should deem life to start.’

It is possible that this view would have been shared by RH Tawney, who argued that ‘The first step towards an improvement in social life is to judge our social conduct by strict moral standards. I venture to say – though it sounds heresy – that there are certain sorts of behaviour which we know to be right, & certain others which we know to be wrong’, but it is worrying for those who take the view that ‘evidence-based policy’ demands a utilitarian calculus of benefits & harms, rather than a more rigid attitude based on a moral, philosophical or religious principle, such as ‘a human life becomes sacred (or sacrosanct) the moment that it begins’.

Mr Hunt denies that he holds his view by reason of his Christian faith, but nor does he believe that abortion at an earlier stage should be made illegal, which suggests some other unspoken assumptions, in particular the one which says that any sane, sensible & well-informed woman would realise that she is pregnant in good time to seek an abortion under a revised law on grounds which are already acceptable. If only.

The fact that over 90% of legal abortions in England & Wales do indeed take place before the twelfth week suggests that this is overwhelmingly the case, or at least that there is no widespread desire for later abortion. But it still leaves several thousand women a year who would realise their predicament, (a predicament shared by other members of their existing family) too late to do anything legal about it under a new timetable.

I would normally shy away from speculating in print about how the Secretary of State’s personal circumstances may influence his views, but I think there is an interesting point to be made here. Mr Hunt married in 2009 & is father to two young children which (& this really is presumptuous of me) suggests no nasty dilemmas to be faced. But his wife is Chinese - & as the Times profile reminds us, he travelled to her childhood home in the mountains of southwest China to ask her father’s permission for her hand in marriage & they had a traditional Chinese wedding. The horrors of some aspects of the enforcement of China’s One Child policy are well known – not least through the recent world-wide publicity given to a husband’s photos of his wife as she lay recovering from an enforced (very) late term abortion. The closer you feel to such horrors the more you might be inclined to draw the line earlier rather than late.

Coming at it from the other side it is – touchingly or ludicrously – ironic that, when asked, this millionaire, public school educated son of an admiral should describe himself as ‘probably half way’ between posh & pleb.

Under-age, ill-educated girls from the lowest social classes are among those who, it is claimed, would, through delay induced by ignorance or fear of owning up to being pregnant, be harmed by any lowering of the abortion time limit. In fact many of these girls delay precisely to avoid any suggestion of what they, their friends, family & community consider to be no different from murdering a living baby. While any girl from the posher half of the class divide, especially one educated at great parental expense & with the prospect of an Oxbridge degree& a glittering career before her, would find it practically impossible, even if she should be so inclined, to resist the pressure from those around her to get rid of her mistake as quickly as possible.

Mr Hunt is right however when he says that ‘you can be a strong feminist & have a view one way or the other on abortion’, though more so on the question of time limits than on the basic issue of choice, as this makes clear.

In truth most women hope to be lucky enough never to have to face that choice for themselves, though it would be wrong to conclude from this that abortion leads to uniquely lasting regret & emotional pain. Any woman who has had, or failed to have, or has lost a child, under whatever circumstances, will have at least moments of ‘What if?’

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Sunday, October 07, 2012

Poetry archive

Poetry Please on 30 September consisted entirely of recordings drawn from the extensive BBC sound archives.

Many of these archives are now being made available on line – often with valuable supporting material –& are as delightful & useful as, though of course in no way a complete replacement for, any library of books. Desert Island Discs & In Our Time spring particularly to mind.

It came as a bit of a surprise to find that a fair proportion of the poems in this edition already feature in the favourite poems strand of this blog; I guess that just reflects the age of the archive & of those sending in the requests – we would have first learned & loved many of them during childhood, at school.

One of the poems new to me was the Elegy of Chidiock Tichborne, which he wrote in the Tower of London in 1586, in contemplation of his imminent execution for his role in the Babington plot to murder Queen Elizabeth I in the hope That this would lead to throne going to the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.

It is, intriguingly, another example of a monosyllabic poem; which leads me to the (very tentative) speculation, that men in the grip of powerful, passionate emotion reach naturally for the plain & unflowery language to express their love & pain.

Tichborne’s Elegy
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

BBC Radio 4: Poetry Please 30/9/2012
Chidiock Tichborne
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Saturday, October 06, 2012

Public affection

Two boys – possibly young men but they looked still of school age – were sitting holding hands on the bus the other evening.

Actually they were a more snuggled together (but not kissing or snogging) when I got on the bus & made for the seat across the aisle from them; without thinking about it at all I just assumed a boy & girl: it was their later conversation – what language is that? - which drew my attention away from my book.

Sounded to me like they were discussing German homework – unusual these days but why else would they be talking about some nicety of translation into English.

It is of course not the first time I have seen such public demonstrations of affection, even outside such recognised ‘safe areas’ as Manchester’s Canal Street, but the fact that two such young men could feel comfortable doing so on a bus marks something of a step change for me

At least outside, on the street, you can run away if you meet the worst kind of adverse reaction. There’s no escape on the bus. So obviously they weren’t expecting any bother.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Previously in favourite quotations

To say that a man is made up of certain chemical elements is a satisfactory description only for those who intend to use him as fertiliser - Hermann Muller

As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil that they set out to destroy - Christopher Dawson

Useful things disappear more completely than meaningful & pleasurable things. We keep old paintings, jewels & suchlike, but not tools. They disappear as soon as they no longer have practical use - George Kubler

There is no action we can take which has only the effect desired - Michael Frayn

I feel happy & secure when I am in my room, on my bed, with a good book - Francoise Hardy

When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me acommunist - Helder Camara

When you stand on a cliff you are not afraid of falling, you are afraid of jumping - Icelandic saying


The leaves are falling fast off the trees now. No doubt helped by the winds that have been gusting this past week. Some of the sycamore leaves are very bright red.

This is happening a good few weeks earlier than in the last couple of years. I hope the council are ready & waiting to send out the leaf clearers to save the drains – we are going to need them with all this rain.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

On the buses

We had a ticket inspection on the bus one day this week. One passenger asked what it was all about & received a very lucid explanation about the gathering of statistical information about the who, what, when & where of the use of the various kinds of tickets or passes on offer.

Will it be used to take away our passes? the anxious lady asked.

Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about that, he said. I doubt it will happen, not any time soon. There’s so many of you. And you’re vocal

He was a very smartly dressed youngish African man, I suspect a bit overqualified for the job of interviewing for routine passenger surveys, charming & pleasant too – he called me love.

But it was his eyes which most intrigued me – large & round, with very clear whites – white with a distinct tinge of blue – I could almost remember him as having blue eyes.

I may have been primed particularly to notice because the eyes of John Dramani Mahama as a boy which adorns the jacket of his book, My First Coup d’Etat shows similarly clear whites. This is fairly unusual in my expereince, but prhaps I have just got used to seeing what I expect to see, or have just grown out of the habit of looking others in the eye

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You still have a few days left to win this coveted collectors item & world first. Just go to Competition time for 'Archie'

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Three weeks in politics

Extracts from UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 584-i

House of COMMONS Oral EVIDENCE TAKEN BEFORE the Transport Committee on the Work of the Department for Transport Wednesday 12 September 2012

Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport: … we are trying to take a more sophisticated and more evidence-based approach to the assessment of risk. That involves more detailed financial models being supplied by bidders and a more detailed scrutiny of those financial models by the Department. Critically, it involves an assessment, which is never going to be entirely free from some element of judgment, but, in so far as we can, we have sought to make an assessment of what level of financial risk a particular bid involves, and then adjusting the amount of capital that the bidder has to put at risk as part of its bid to us to reduce the risk to the taxpayer ...

… I do not want to get into too much of the detail about the bid, because some of this is commercially confidential; it is also, as I say, subject to legal proceedings. We looked at the profiles for all the bids and made an assessment of the level of risk involved for the taxpayer that was attached to those profiles. We also made a judgment overall as to which of the bids offered the best value for money for taxpayers, and the judgment on that was very clear-very clear by a significant margin ...

… We are always looking to make sure that our methodology is absolutely the best that we can make it …

Secretary of State for Transport: I would hope the Department will always learn if things have gone wrong.

What a difference 21 days make. Today the Department has announced that the award of the franchise for the West Coast mainline to First Group has been cancelled & that three (unnamed) civil servants have been suspended.

DfT Press Notice: West Coast Main Line franchise competition cancelled
DfT Press Notice: West Coast Main Line franchise competition cancelled – update
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Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Use your bus pass if you want a bath

For some reason I found myself wondering where the term slipper bath came from.

Slipper baths were provided as a service by local councils up & down the country in the days before constant hot water & internal bathrooms became a standard feature of every home. For a small fee you could have a proper, probably weekly, (timed) scrub & soak in a hot bath tub; for a few pennies more the council might even provide you with soap & the hire of a towel.

Caribbean friends shook their heads in horror at this further evidence of English casual attitudes to personal hygiene.

According to the OED the phrase originally described ‘a partially covered bath shaped somewhat like a slipper’ – ie one which presumably covered the bather’s modesty. In more modern times usage was reserved for ‘single baths of the modern domestic style installed for hire at public baths’, doubtless reflecting the fact that in earlier times true slipper baths would have been provided, grouped in a more communal setting.

I was surprised to see that the OED has a quote, from The Times, referring to the closure of municipal slipper baths as late as 1981.

Tracing this back to the original article in The Times of 25 February 1981 revealed – protests over cuts in public expenditure! In this case the Thatcher government’s attempts to rein in profligate local councils which culminated, before the decade was out, in attempts to make everybody pay their fair share for these services through the doomed poll tax.

Pensioners from Wandsworth in particular were protesting about cuts in the services which they most valued, including public libraries & lunch clubs. But the council’s insensitive response to protests over the closure of the local slipper bath led them to demand a meeting with Secretary of State, Michael Heseltine.

Their case was that slipper baths were essential, not only for any pensioner who lived in a bed sitter but also for those who were afraid of running up bills to heat enough water for baths at home (‘fuel poverty’ had not yet been invented).

They were told that they could use their free bus passes to go to another borough where the slipper baths remained open …

File this under plus ca change.

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Monday, October 01, 2012

Green is the colour?

I am reading, thanks to a recommendation by Matthew Parris in a recent Times column, My First Coup d’Etat by John Dramani Mahama.

He describes the colours of his mother’s home town of Damongo, in northern Ghana:
The sunsets went from orange to violet; the sky was pristine blue, save whatever feathery white clouds were floating. Between earth & sky were as many shades of green as imaginable, trees & bushes & shrubs & more trees, more bushes, more shrubs

That in turn revived memories of some of my own experiences of the colour green.

The idea of England’s ‘green & pleasant land’ was so engrained in my childish mind that it came as a real shock to me to find that other countries too were green. (Ireland was Emerald, which was different).

The country in question was northern France & I was only 10 years old. I suppose my ignorance may be further excused by the fact that many of the images of foreign landscapes to which I had been exposed were in black & white - & certainly no satellite images in those days.

I later learned that not all of France was green – at least not the Midi in August – but I was once again taken aback, at the age of 16, by the discovery that Belgium was pretty green too. In that case I think my expectations had been shaped by school geography which taught us that Belgium was one of the world’s most densely populated countries. So it must be that Nimby nightmare of concrete everywhere. However, the aspect of density which most impressed me was the intensity of the way the land – at least in the environs of Brussels - was used for food production, with fields planted right up to the edge of the road & even traffic islands given over to crops – I am sure remember seeing greenhouses full of tomatoes on one particularly large roundabout.

But my biggest shock came at the age of 21, when I found that even the tropics can be green.

Obviously deserts can’t be green, but I am mystified now, trying to recall the colour of the jungle in my mind (rain forest had not then been invented).

I think it must have been khaki, since that was the colour of the tropical gear worn by film stars and explorers (both male & female). Surely that was the colour chosen to provide them with camouflage from unfriendly natives? And the impression of sludge & gloom could only have been reinforced by those horrible David Attenborough BBC documentaries which ended with him taking a baby animal from its mother & packing it in a crate to be sent to London Zoo.

Public Personality Profile: John Dramani Mahama
My First Coup d’Etat
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