Monday, March 31, 2008

Calder's Comfort Farm: Malcolm Saville and Enid Blyton

The latest of my fortnightly columns for the New Statesman can be found on the magazine's website:
Ever since he started talking about ending selection in Northern Ireland’s schools Martin McGuinness has been popular with the British left. That’s not so surprising. It has always been more exercised by the 11 plus than terrorism.

BritBlog Roundup 163

This week at Philobiblon.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kate Bush: The Man with the Child in his Eyes



Back in the 1970s a secondhand bookshop appeared in the back streets of Market Harborough and I got a Saturday job there when I was in the sixth form. There are worse ways of earning money than serving customers and cataloguing books.

The shop was run by a couple and the woman - now a Famous Author - bought Kate Bush's first LP The Kick Inside when it came out and played in continually while I worked there. If you hear a record that often you either love it or hate it, and I loved it.

Kate Bush was 19 when the LP came out, and she wrote and recorded "The Man with the Child in his Eyes" when she was only 16. I am not sure it is the best track on the album: try this demo version of the title track.

This LP is so laden with nostalgia for me that it is hard to judge the music objectively. Certainly, the range of literary reference in Kate Bush's lyrics were just the thing to appeal to a bookish teenager.

But looking at this video today, I wonder if there wasn't another reason why I was so keen on her.

The Dirty Dozen 3

My selection of the best and worst in Tory and Labour blogging from the past month can be found on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The VW Polo singing dog commercial

It is clear that this blog is surfing the Zeitgeist. No sooner do I develop an obsession with Steve Winwood and the Spencer Davis Group than their song "I'm a Man" is featured in the nation's most popular TV commercial.

You can find the VW Polo advertisement here. But note that the version of "I'm a Man" used in it is not by the Spencer Davis Group. It is by a current-day singer called Charlie Winston.

But if you want to hear Steve Winwood sing it, go to the particularly fine live performance by the Spencer Davis Group that was my Sunday video a few weeks ago.

But not everyone is happy with the advertisement.

According to the Daily Telegraph:
The RSPCA is investigating the commercial after 286 viewers complained to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) that the dog appeared to have been mistreated ...
A spokeswoman said: "We have asked how it was filmed and have been told the dog was acting. But we are very disappointed that Volkswagen feel it necessary to portray a dog suffering to sell cars, whether it was genuine or staged."
She added that the dog should be wearing a harness while it is in the car, and should be travelling in the back of the vehicle.
I can just about see why someone might find the dog shivering distasteful, but a harness? Listen, people: It's not a real dog.

And what would the RSPCA have made of the film Rescued by Rover, as described by Matthew Sweet in Shepperton Babylon? In it the canine hero:
pounds off in hot pursuit, jumps into the driving seat of the abductor's car and, paws on the steering wheel, chugs his charge back to safety along the road from Shepperton to Walton.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Carla Bruni trivia

Thanks to On An Overgrown Path I can reveal:

French first lady Carla Bruni has some interesting classical music connections. Her mother Marisa Borini is an actress and classical pianist who is reported to have had an affair with Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.

Depending on your sources Bruni's biological father is Maurizio Remmert, an Italian businessman who now lives in Brazil Marisa or Marisa Borini's husband, the contemporary composer Alberto Bruni Tedeschi ...

Tedeschi's distinctions included writing four operas and having one of them filmed with a cast including Charles Aznavour, his own daughter Valeria Bruni and Isabel von Karajan, the daughter of the conductor.

House Points: William Hague and Iraq

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Turning Tories

There should be a public inquiry, of course. Not an inquiry into the Iraq war, but an inquiry into William Hague.

It could look at the effects of allowing children to take an interest in politics at too early an age and also at the effects of teenage binge drinking -- they can be almost as damaging.

But what it should really look at is Hague’s conduct over Iraq. When war was declared in 2003 he was all Churchillian cadences. Like almost all his fellow Conservatives, he was determined to prove himself even more pro-American than Tony Blair was. (Several knights of the shires ruptured themselves in the attempt.)

As Charles Kennedy has written: "The Tories were derisive of those of us arguing the alternative case; I recall being labelled "Charlie Chamberlain" both inside and outside Parliament."

But on Tuesday Hague led calls for privy councillors to conduct an inquiry into the decision to go to war. How does he face himself in the mirror when he shaves his scalp every morning?

Labour’s reasons for not holding an inquiry were unconvincing. They tried two arguments. The first was to concede that one will be appropriate at some point, but not while "important operations" are going on in Iraq. The second was to claim there have already been four inquiries. The contradiction between them did not trouble David Milliband. Perhaps he had not noticed it?

Besides, it is increasingly hard to see British troops in Basra as engaged in important operations. Any action there now is taken by the Iraqi armed forces and Iraqi police. The British presence is dictated by a political wish to please the Americans rather than military demands.

Earlier, when asked about demonstrations over Tibet, Milliband talked of the need for free passage of the Olympic torch through Britain.

The tradition of a world tour for the torch dates back as far as 2004, while our expectation that there will be a grand opening ceremony for the Olympics comes from the Berlin Games of 1936. There the it was designed by Hitler's architect Albert Speer, who had previously created similar effects for the 1934 Nuremberg rally.

You can see why the Games appeal so much to the dictators in Beijing.

John Stuart Mill: Victorian firebrand


Tessa Mayes reviews Richard Reeves's book of this title in the Spiked Review of Books.

I wrote an article on Mill in a recent issue of Liberator.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Henley by-election?

Writing on the Guardian website, Andrew Sparrow speculates on what a Boris Johnson victory in the London Mayoral election would mean:

According to his spokeswoman, Boris has said repeatedly that, if he is elected mayor, he will not try to hang on as MP for Henley until the next general election.

It's possible, of course, that he could "change his mind". Andrew Gimson, in his biography of Boris, quotes Conrad Black on how Boris gave "his solemn word of honour" before becoming editor of the Spectator that he would not try to become an MP and on how Boris broke his promise almost immediately.

Gordon Brown gets lost at Sarkozy's state banquet

Or so Andrew Pierce claims in the Daily Telegraph:

Gordon Brown, who is hoping that the two day state visit by President Sarkozy would chart a new course in Anglo-French relations, lost his own sense of direction at the state banquet at Windsor Castle.

Amid the pomp and pageantry of the white tie occasion there was no sign of Mr Brown as the Queen and Mr Sarkozy took their places at the centre of the top table.

The Queen, who hosted the banquet for 150 guests, looked bemused and was overheard clearly saying: "Has the Prime Minister got lost?" after he failed to appear as scheduled.

Perhaps he forgot to bring his moral compass with him?

Boris Johnson: Trivia overload

To London for lunch with my new friends at the New Statesman.

While I was down there I bought a copy of the magazine - it seemed the least I could do. But to a provincial it does seem terribly decadent getting it on a Thursday. It does not reach Leicester until Friday.

This week's issue contains a couple of good articles on Boris Johnson. In one of them Sholto Byrnes provides more trivial connections than even I can cope with:
Boris's stepmother Jenny, the second wife of his father Stanley, is the stepdaughter of Edward Sieff, the former chairman of Marks & Spencer. This also provides a link to two politicians he was later to encounter in the House of Commons: Edward Sieff's son Adam, the urbane record executive, has the distinction of having been in a Seventies rock band, Jaded, that was promoted at different times by both Tony Blair and Chris Huhne.

The Aylestone Panther

It's not only Shropshire where you find big cats.

You get them in Leicester too.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why is Northern Rock the FSA's fault?

I am mystified by today's media consensus that it is the Financial Services Authority that is to blame for the debacle at Northern Rock.

This Times leader is a good example:
The Financial Services Authority gets full marks for frankness, but nothing else. The regulator of the banking industry is there to safeguard the interests of customers and the integrity of the financial system. For all its boast of light-touch regulation in principle, the FSA appears to have taken a lackadaisical approach in practice. The findings of its internal inquiry into the demise of Northern Rock could not be any more damaging to public confidence. It is not so much that the FSA took its eye off the ball; the financial referee was only occasionally at the game.
And so it goes on without mentioning the people who are really to blame. Why is no one talking about Northern Rock's directors?

It was they who devised and implemented the strategy that ran the organisation into the ground and has potentially cost taxpayers billions of pounds.

If at any point you had queried the large salaries paid to those directors you would have been told that they were justified by the huge responsibilities they bore. Yet now things have gone wrong they are being treated almost as victims of the FSA.

They are like spoilt teenagers who demand to be allowed to stay out all night, get into trouble and then say to their parents: "You should have stopped me doing it. I'm only a teenager."

Why don't we treat the directors as adults and blame them for their appalling conduct of the business?

Compliment of the Day

According to Ministry of Truth I am "normally fairly sensible".

Cheers!

PMQs show David Cameron's weakness

I had the chance to watch prime minister's questions on television today. David Cameron chose to devote all six of his questions to the state of the economy, but he did not shine.

His problem was twofold. The first is that he is clearly not a master of the economics brief. His questions were wordy and Gordon Brown was armed with some good quotes to answer him. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Cameron's case over the Financial Services Agency, you have to score the contest to Brown.

David Cameron's second problem is that he is, er, David Cameron. The only time he threatened to engage public interest today was when he talked of the price of bread, milk and eggs. Yet if ever someone gave the impression of not knowing how much bread, milk and eggs cost, that person is David Cameron.

I always wondered, in a society where being "posh" is just about the worst sin out, if David Cameron's background - and even more the fact that he looks like a public school boy - would count against him. This is one issue where it will.

If you want to run this sort of prices campaign, you need someone who looks as they go shopping regularly to do it for you. Shirley Williams used to do it very effectively, complete with shopping basket, in her Labour days. You do not choose a shiny-cheeked Old Etonian.

A final point... My mother remarked the other day what a relief it is that you no longer hear older people moaning endlessly about the price of things. Is that because we are all better of? Or is it because we now have a saner attitude towards food and are prepared to pay more for quality?

The answer will probably determine whether a Tory campaign on prices - fronted by someone more credible than Cameron - would have any effect.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Norman Baker on the buses

Well done to Norman for getting lots of press coverage on the lunatic effect of new EU legislation on buses. He is quoted in the Daily Telegraph, the Sun and the Daily Mail.

As the Sun explains it:

A Brussels ruling has banned local services longer than 30 miles to ensure drivers don’t spend too long at the wheel.

As a result, drivers have to pull in as they hit that limit and order everyone OFF their bus.

They then change the route number on the front and invite passengers to jump back ON before resuming the trip.

An example of a route affected is Western Greyhound's Newquay to Plymouth service, which now involves three buses and requires passengers to buy three separate tickets, but uses only one driver throughout.

The Sun report goes on:

Last night Lib Dem transport spokesman Norman Baker blasted the “lunatic law”.

He said: “These rules don’t stop buses running more than 30 miles.

“All they do is inconvenience the passengers who have to keep getting on and off. It’s like an Ealing comedy.”

He has written to Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly demanding an opt-out.

An opt-out would be welcome, but why are local bus routes a matter for the EU in the first place?

These days the past is more liberal than the present

Blood & Treasure remarks on the Guardian headline:
Teachers call for return to the liberal 1980s
The liberal 1980s under Mrs Thatcher? It sounds odd, but as B&T goes on to say:

Yet the eighties were more liberal in at least one important respect: there may have been violent disagreements about the government’s role in the economy but there was little urge to make the whole of private life the territory of endless management, incentive and punishment initiatives.

Now I feel like I’m on the wrong end of a political Doppler shift. The general assumption I grew up with was that past in general was always more reactionary. The sixties may have seen a struggle towards greater social liberalism, but that just went to prove the point. We now seem to be getting to the stage where the past – at least, the fairly recent past - is always more liberal because there was a general acceptance of much greater personal autonomy.
That is true, but why has it happened under a Labour government?

The first reason is simply that many Labour politicians do not care that much about freedom.

The second reason is that among more thoughtful Labourites there is a view that liberal, democratic reforms were all very well in their day, but those battles were fought and won long ago. What matters today are battles for economic and social rights.

The truth is that the battle for liberalism and democracy has to be won in every generation. And we Liberal Democrats should remember that the opposition we face in those battles will not come solely from the right.

Nude photo of Carla Bruni up for auction at Christie's New York

The Daily Telegraph reports:

The portrait, by photographer Michel Comte, shows a younger Miss Bruni gazing thoughtfully into the camera with nothing but her crossed hands to cover her modesty. ...

Miss Bruni and her husband, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, are to arrive in the UK on Wednesday for the start of their two-day state visit, and will be meeting the Queen and the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown

We never had this trouble with Denis Thatcher, did we?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Gretna and Third Lanark

The Guardian has an article on the travails on Gretna FC, whose meteoric rise to the Scottish Premier League threatens to be followed by a meteoric fall.

This brings to mind the last Scottish league club to go out of business: Third Lanark. I can dimly remember hearing the classified football results being read out on Grandstand and hearing Third Lanark's game described as "cancelled".

The photograph - taken from the Kerrydale Street site - shows what remains of the club's Cathkin Park stadium in Glasgow. The overgrown terraces now form part of a public park.

Tyrants love Olympic ceremonies

Congratulations to the pro-Tibet activists who attempted to disrupt the lighting of the Olympic torch this morning.

Last year I suggested that the overblown ceremonies that accompany the modern Olympics have their roots in the Nazi-choreographed Games held in Berlin in 1936. Now Malcolm Redfellow's World Service provides chapter and verse from a book by Maurice Roche:
At the opening ceremony the symbolic Olympic flame was dramatically lit for the first time ever by a torch from the torch relay carrying a flame originally lit at Olympia. The world's biggest ever aircraft, the 300-metre long Hindenburg airship flew over the stadium and the city trailing huge flags. At night Hitler's architect Albert Speer created impressive new dramatic 'light architecture' effects with powerful searchlights over the stadium, which echoed his similar 'theatre of power' effects at the 1934 Nuremberg rally.
And who is Malcolm Redfellow? Wikipedia explains.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Traffic: Freedom Rider



Last month I wrote about Traffic, the band Steve Winwood formed after he left the Spencer Davis Group as a veteran of 18 with two number 1 hits behind him.

Here they are on stage in Santa Monica in 1972. Traffic had a complicated history: Winwood had already temporarily ended the group in 1969 so that he could join Blind Faith, the short-lived supergroup, with Eric Clapton. Dave Mason the guitarist came and went, but it seems that Jim Capaldi and Winwood could never quite forgive him for writing "Hole in My Shoe".

At one time Traffic were a trio: here there are half a dozen of them on stage, including the African percussionist Anthony "Rebop" Kwaku Baah.

I chose this song chiefly because it shows the importance to Traffic's sound of the flautist and saxophone player Chris Wood. As a teenager I loved Jethro Tull, but I suspect Ian Anderson had listened to a lot of Wood and Traffic before he took up the flute.

Wood, who died from liver failure before he was 40, was also the chief influence on the idiosyncratic outlook that made Traffic more then just another rock band. In an interview published in 1994, Steve Winwood said:
"He was probably the greatest influence on Traffic, in that in many ways he had the spirit more than Jim or I ... He had a way of identifying certain unnoticed elements and touching on them, both musically and in his other interests. He was interested in, you know, geological make-up, earth's crust, astronomy, he'd learn about different constellations, ornithology, he was a keen bird-watcher. And then at the same time he played sax in a soul band. So he had a mixture of not only musical elements but also a way of life which really profoundly influenced Traffic."
Enjoy too this promotional film for Traffic's wonderful first single "Paper Sun". They are just about the only band you can imagine going round a museum for pleasure.

BritBlog Roundup 162

Welcome to the Easter edition. What with everyone being busy eating chocolate and skiing, we are a bit short of nominations this week. But, no doubt, what we lack in quantity is more than made up in quality. Thanks to all those who did flag up a posting or two.

Blogging

The Debatable Land informs us that LOL-Blairs are the latest thing in the British blogosphere. The example below is taken from Pickled Politics...

Looking at competition between blogs and the mainstream media, Iain Dale asks if size always matters.

Clive Soley reports on an interesting development - a group blog by members of the House of Lords. You can find it at Lords of the Blog and the peers contributing are:
  • Lord (Clive) Soley himself;
  • Lord (Philip) Norton of Louth;
  • Baroness (Frances) D’Souza;
  • Lord (David) Lipsey;
  • Lord (Paul) Tyler;
  • Lord (Navnit) Dholakia;
  • Lord (Robin) Teverson;
  • Baroness (Lola) Young of Hornsey;
  • Baroness (Elaine) Murphy.
The Arts

Another blogging peer - Ros Scott, writing at Because Baronesses are People Too - looks forward to the television adaptation of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe books and mourns Anthony Minghella.

The Daily (Maybe) believes George Galloway is a Byron for our times.

And Liberal England (I told you I was short of nominations) speculates on what happened to Enid Blyton's Famous Five in later life.

London Mayoral Election

The Daily (Maybe) (again) looks at the more leftward-leaning candidates, while Sian Berry defends her decision to tell Green supporters to give their second preference to Ken Livingstone. It's the newts, you know.

Public Services

Burning Our Money is sceptical about what will be achieved by the government's £52bn programme to rebuild the nation's schools.

Random Acts of Reality discovers rudeness and inefficiency in an unnamed hospital.

And Unmitigated England reports on an incident that tells us a lot about our glorious new privatised railway system.

Environment

Ruscombe Green tackles the menace of heavy lorries.

And Philobiblon reviews Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern England by Sylvia Bowerbanks.

Odds and Sods

You know what it is like: you work out a series of subheadings, only to find there are still some postings left over. So here they are.

A Very Public Sociologist considers Britishness in great depth.

Michael Meacher turns his mind to Iraq, five years after George W. Bush claimed victory.

These days being bisexual is not enough. Writing on the f word, Laura Woodhouse explores the concept of the "cisexual".

And Elizabeth Chadwick: Living the History looks at medicine in the 12th century.

Next Week

So there you have it. Next week's roundup will appear on Philobiblon. All nominations to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com please.

Goodbye.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

More from Sian Lloyd's memoirs in the Mail on Sunday

Lembit's talk of legal action appears not to have done the trick.

The article is here.

Andy Goode, Andy Goode, he's Andy Goode

It was good to see Leicester Tigers outplay Wasps this afternoon. And particularly good, in view of the pundits' pre-match obsession with Lawrence Dallaglio and Danny Cipriani, to see Andy Goode win the man of the match award.

Even better - for Leicester and England - Harry Ellis has returned from a long injury break and looks as sharp as he did in last year's Six Nations.

Friday, March 21, 2008

House Points: Moura Budberg and Percy Harris

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. You can find out more about Moura Budberg and Percy Harris on this blog.

Family stories

The banking system is collapsing around our ears. At times like this I find history a great consolation - particularly the family history of Liberal Democrat MPs.

I am indebted to Nick Clegg’s great great aunt Moura Budberg. This formidable lady knew all the leading Bolsheviks and was the lover of both Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells. She was portrayed in the 1934 film British Agent, directed by Michael Curtiz who went on to make Casablanca.

But when she became a society hostess in London after World War II, Moura was thought to be a Soviet agent. The Moscow Embassy warned that she was a very dangerous woman who had once given Stalin an accordion. But MI5 should have listened to her: she told one of its agents that Anthony Blunt was a Communist years before he was exposed.

Moura died in 1974, late enough to have dandled the infant Nick on her knee. I am in her debt because, after writing about her for the New Statesman website last year, I was offered a regular column.

Readers of The Times will know another family story. Matthew Taylor was adopted as a baby and a few years ago decided to trace his birth mother. She turned out to be the granddaughter of a Liberal MP.

Sir Percy Harris was returned for Harborough - the constituency where I live - at a by-election in 1916. There was a wartime truce between the parties, but he still had to beat a strong Independent backed by the Daily Mail.

Although he was on the social reform wing of the party, Percy remained loyal to Asquith because he did not trust Lloyd George’s scheming. As a result he did not receive the Coupon at the 1918 general election and Harborough, which had been Liberal since 1891, was lost to the Tories.

In 1922 Percy was elected for Bethnal Green South West and was to keep the seat until 1945, serving as chief whip for many years. Even after 1945, he sat on London County Council. Percy Harris died in 1952, but his son Jack - Matthew’s grandfather - is alive in New Zealand aged 102.

So make room on the window ledge. There are many more stories to tell.

Cat of the Day: Dorofei

Well done, Dorofei, who belongs to the newly-elected Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev.

Pravda tells us more than we really need to know:
The blue-eyed cat has an experience of “political” struggle. Dorofei once had a fight with a cat owned by Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader, who used to live next to Dmitry Medvedev. Dorofei did not win the fight with Gorbachev’s cat. The Medvedevs had to treat their cat with antibiotics for a month. Afterwards, they decided to castrate the cat to protect him from possible unpleasant situations in the future.
Boney M add: There is a cat that really is gone.

Thanks to Popbitch.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lama drama ding dong

Jeremy Page writes in the The Times:
The Dalai Lama was criticised yesterday by prominent Tibetan radicals who say that his non-violent campaign for greater autonomy within China has failed and who are demanding a boycott of the Beijing Olympics.

Tibet’s spiritual leader has won international acclaim for eschewing violence since he fled Tibet after a failed uprising in 1959 and set up a government in exile in the Indian town of Dharamsala. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

On Sunday he stopped short of calling for an Olympic boycott after two days of rioting in the Tibetan capital, although he did call for an international inquiry. Tibetan radicals, who are organising protests around the world, criticised his conciliatory approach, contrasting it with the successful drives for independence in East Timor and Kosovo.
A reader asks: Are you taking a position on this?

Liberal England replies: No, I was just looking for an excuse to use that headline.

Is the European project still internationalist?

Removed Ghanaian dies of cancer

Gurkha veterans seek equal rights

We are used to being told that the European project is internationalist and, even more, that those who oppose it are absurd Little Englanders.

But it is worth stopping to ask whether this is still the case. On the one hand we have tens of thousands of people from Eastern Europe entering Britain.

If anyone had predicted that they would come in anything like these numbers a few years ago, they would have been accused of peddling an anti-Europe myth. Nevertheless, this development certainly has its positive side, even if the benefits are more apparent to those who employ cheap tradesmen than to those who are competing with them.

On the other hand we see the government acting with less and less compassion to those coming from outside Europe - hence headlines like those above.

I believe that the more lurid predictions of those who see environmental and economic catastrophe around the corner are wrong, but we may yet see a rise in sea levels and greater competition for raw materials.

If we do then the prospect we face is of a Fortress Europe which allows free movement within its borders and deploys its armies to keep other people out. This European nationalism is not an inviting prospect.

The Telford Panther

In case you have been missing those quirky stories from Shropshire...

The Shropshire Star reports that a panther has been sighted in Telford.

Enid Blyton's Famous Five return to television

Or so the BBC reports.

Enid Blyton has long been a brand name rather than an author - the books in print under her name bear increasingly little relation to what she originally wrote. So it's no surprise when the BBC says:
the Famous Five's offspring are now multicultural; their enemies include a DVD bootlegger and they sport modern gadgets like iPods and mobile phones.
One of the new characters is a:
12-year-old Anglo-Indian Jo, short for Jyoti - a Hindu world meaning light - who, like her mother George, is a tomboy and the group's team leader ...

"We tried to imagine where the original Famous Five would go in their lives," Jeff Norton from Chorion, which owns the rights to Blyton's books, told the Press Association.
"Because George was such an intrepid explorer in the original novels we thought it would be only natural that she travelled to India, to the Himalayas, where she fell in love with Ravvi. That's the back story (to Jo).
Hold on a minute. I know that it is a law of the modern British media that any group of three has to contain one person from a visible ethnic minority. And I am quite prepared to believe that George reached the Himalayas.

But if she did so it was in the company of a blonde Swedish gym instructress. George, I fear, was simply not the marrying kind.

This does raise the question of what became of the others.

Timmy was stuffed after he died and can currently be found in a glass case at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature.

Anne married a stockbroker and is steadily drinking herself to death in a large house in Surrey.

Dick lost his life through a useless act of bravery in some late colonial war.

Julian was elected to Parliament as a Conservative MP, became a thorough-going Thatcherite minister, but was forced to flee the country after one of the more entertaining scandals of the Major years.

I continue to prefer the work of Malcolm Saville. You get more believable plots, real English locations and no protofascist subtext.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

BritBlog Roundup and The Dirty Dozen: Nominations please

On Sunday this blog will again be hosting the BritBlog Roundup.

If you see any posting on a British blog this week that you think should be included, please send the URL to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

And a reminder to my Lib Dem readers...

I shall also be choosing another Dirty Dozen for Liberal Democrat Voice at the end of the month. If you have seen any postings on Labour or Tory blogs during March that you think particularly good or particularly silly, please send me the URL.

The address for this one is bonkers.hall [at] btinternet [dot] com.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Calder's Comfort Farm 4

My latest column is up on the New Statesman website:
About this national identity business. On the whole, I think we are rather good at it.

For centuries my ancestors coped with being English and British, and with all the subtleties those identities involve. They were there to tut and say “Well, really” when the Romans invaded. Later, they gave the Jutes a hard stare.

BritBlog Roundup 161

On The Wardman Wire.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Matthew Taylor's great-grandfather was Liberal MP for Harborough

This has to be the story of the day - or of any day - given my love of trivial connections. Except that this one is not trivial at all.

This morning's Times revealed that Matthew Taylor, the Lib Dem MP for Truro, who was adopted as a baby, has traced his birth mother. It turns out that she is the granddaughter of Sir Percy Harris, who was a prominent Liberal MP.

Sir Percy was first elected to the Commons for Harborough at a 1916 by-election. There was an official truce between the parties, but he had to overcome strong opposition from Thomas Gibson Bowles, an Independent candidate backed by Lord Northcliffe and the Daily Mail.

Like Charles Masterman, Harris was identified with the social reform wing of the Liberal Party but remained loyal to Asquith because he did not trust Lloyd George and his machinations with the Tories. The result was the he failed to receive the Coupon in Harborough in 1918 and the seat was lost to the Tories for the first time since 1891.

Sir Percy returned to the House as MP for Bethnal Green South West in 1922 and was to hold the seat until 1945, by which time he was the last Liberal MP left in London. When the Liberals ran Tower Hamlets in the 1980s canvassers reported meeting old people who still voted Liberal "because of Sir Percy". I have also heard it suggested that beer flowed freely on election day when he was the candidate.

Matthew finds himself a member of an interesting family. Sir Percy's wife Frieda was an artist and associate of the notorious Aleister Crowley. Just as interesting is Percy's son - Matthew's grandfather - Sir Jack Harris, who is still alive at the age of 102 and has recently published his memoirs in New Zealand. I wonder if he remembers the Harborough by-election of 1916?

Families do have an amazing way of rolling back the years. In a second Times article on the story, Matthew writes of his birth mother:

She has visited us twice and when I was Liberal shadow chancellor she sat in the Commons for the first time since she watched her grandfather speak as a little girl, to see my response to the budget.
And now I understand why Lord Bonkers has always taken such an interest in Matthew's career. I wonder what other stories he has not shared with me?

It is now a crime to be a poor child

There was a lot of concern yesterday about the Observer's front page story.

It involved a suggestion by Gary Pugh, director of forensic sciences at Scotland Yard and the new DNA spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), that children as young as 5 should be put on the national DNA database because of their family background.

For comment on this see Spy Blog and Action on Rights for Children.

But there was another story in the Observer which was just as worrying:

Children as young as 10 will face compulsory programmes to tackle drug use and other offences under government plans to overhaul the Asbo system, which will be unveiled this week by Ed Balls, the Children's Secretary.

Up to 1,000 teenagers considered at risk of criminality because of truancy, drug use, family breakdown or other warning signs will be put into so-called family intervention projects. They will be required to sign a contract governing their behaviour and accept help such as drug treatment. Refusal to co-operate will leave the teenager open to an Asbo.

The trouble with the New Labour concept of "antisocial behaviour" is that it lumps together all sorts of different things. In this case drug use, which is a crime, is being bundled up with family breakdown, which is a misfortune for which the child bears no responsibility.

It may be that these "family intervention projects" are admirable schemes, but it is extraordinary that a child can be threatened with an Asbo for declining to take part in them. Failure to comply with the terms of an Asbo can lead to a custodial sentence even when any offences committed are trivial.

So do not just worry about the Philip K. Dick world Gary Pugh's proposal might lead to. We are living in something like it already.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Joe Jackson: It's Different for Girls



Another song from my university years at York. It gave Joe Jackson his biggest UK hit, reaching no. 5 in 1979.

Jackson writes clever lyrics and is fluent in every musical style from jazz to classical. But his heyday was the New Wave years of the late 1970s, which means that he is inevitably compared to Elvis Costello as a songwriter. As almost anyone would, he comes off second best from the comparison.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Not House Points: China, Tibet and the 2012 London Olympics

There is no House Points column in Liberal Democrat News this week.

I have been struggling with bronchitis for a fortnight and a few days ago was contemplating the grind of writing a column. It suddenly occurred to me that the editor had the Lib Dem Spring Conference to report and would probably be glad of the extra space. That proved to be the case when I phoned her, so I decided not to be a martyr.

What you would have got was another rant about the Olympics. I would have made my usual points: that if you want to revitalise sport in Britain you would be better of giving a chunk of the Olympic budget direct to community sports clubs; and that it is absurd to believe that modern Britons are insufficiently active because there is not enough sport on television.

But I would also have talked about the way that the prospect of hosting the 2012 London Games is stifling British government criticism of repressive regimes. In particular, it would be natural for us to use the 2008 Peking Olympics as a way of highlighting our concerns about China's actions in Tibet. But we are terrified of doing that in case they threaten a boycott of London in 2012 as retaliation.

Now visit the Free Tibet Campaign.

Michael White reviews Ming's memoirs

From this morning's Guardian:

Yet by most standards Sir Ming has had a wonderful life, full of laughter and the clink of glasses, one in which persistent naivety towards colleagues and the media reflect greatly to his personal credit. As does his evidently blissful marriage to the formidable, chain-smoking Elspeth Urquhart, daughter of an Arnhem general.

"That's good. My father told me never to trust men who order half bottles," she explains when Ming buys a bottle of white on their first date. Now if Elspeth had been leader of those soggy Lib Dems she'd have court-martialled the lot of them. And won.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The British B movie

Matthew Sweet - one of this blog's heroes - has an article in today's Guardian on the lost world of the British B movie:

Observe, say, 1950s Britain through its top-of-the-bill films and it emerges as a land populated by pipe-smoking, twentysomething men who drive vintage Bentleys, usually with Muriel Pavlow in the back.

Explore it from the bottom of the bill and you'll encounter something different: tracts of featureless industrial estates, a world in which Wolseley police cars clatter under railway bridges in Croydon and mid-price actors occupy frowsty suburban drags. It is threadbare, unspectacular territory, where compromised people spend their time committing adultery and double-crossing each other, often while drinking pre-mixed American cocktails.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Europe: Shirley rules out one theory, so here's another

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the story - originating with Dominic Lawson - that:

Baroness Williams of Crosby and former leader of the LibDems in the House of Lords, had threatened to resign and rejoin the Labour Party, unless Ming Campbell likewise abandoned the dangerous policy of giving the British people a vote on the Lisbon treaty.

The artificial and insincere idea of offering us instead a vote on 'in or out of the EU' was Ming Campbell's way of wriggling out of the Liberal Democrats' commitment to a vote on the amended constitutional treaty without making the party look "undemocratic".
Shirley Williams has a letter in The Times today denying that there is any truth in the story.

So why were we saddled with this absurd policy?

Again writing a couple of weeks ago, Nick Robinson thinks he knows. Writing of Nick Clegg's decision to impose a three-line whip to force Lib Dem MPs to abstain on the vote on a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Robinson says:

So why did he order his MPs to sit on their hands, to vote neither yes nor no in this week’s referendum vote in the Commons? That is the question being asked not least by those heading today to the Lib Dem spring conference in Liverpool.

The answer is that he feared something much worse. Given a free vote, a vast majority of his MPs – some suggest as many as 50 - would have voted with the Tories to try and force a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and to defeat the government.

The problem is that a number of key figures would have refused to join them. The former leader Charles Kennedy, the man Nick Clegg narrowly beat, Chris Huhne and above all, Mr Clegg himself.

Worse than that, the bulk of the Lib Dem MPs would have been led through the Aye lobby by Vince Cable, the media's favourite Liberal Democrat and the whispering about the leadership would have started all over again.

Support for the European project used to be the policy which proved the modernity and continued releveance of the old Liberal Party at a time when everyone else was making unkind jokes about telephone boxes and bar stools.

Today, our unconditional support for that project is beginning to have a tinge of nostalgia about it. Nick Clegg's appeal is that he seems prepared to challenge some of the party's sacred cows, such as support for the producer interest in public services.

Is he also prepared to do so on Europe?

We shall see.

Was Eliot Spitzer brought down by a Wall Street conspiracy?

Writing for The First Post, Alexander Cockburn thinks so - "above and beyond his own diligent efforts in the same cause".

Cockburn says:

It is clear that the federal investigators' probe started with Spitzer, not the prostitution ring. Spitzer's bank wire transfers led them to the Emperors Club, the call-girl business efficiently administered by a 23-year-old Blair Academy grad, Cecil Suwal, on behalf of her 62-year-old boyfriend, Mark Brener, from a high-rise in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, with fine views of Manhattan.
And tonight's Snowmail from Channel 4 News gets very excited about the affair too:

Elsewhere, the ripples from the prostitution ring in which the governor of New York was ultimately forced to resign as client number nine is extending its waves across the Atlantic to ensnare British clients. What was at first being investigated as an inter-state crime in America is now being investigated as an international crime and a number of British clients are shivering in their beds, or conceivable somebody else's.

One wealthy aristocrat has denied that he is client number six and assorted references have been pulled down off the web. However, other references to the same individual having used the services of Emperors Club VIP are still on the web.

Happy hunting! Adam Fresco in The Times will tell you more about the Emperors Club's London connection.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What is behind Bob Spink's sacking?

Or behind his resignation, depending whom you believe.

Greg Hurst thinks he knows:

Westminster sources said the origin of Dr Spink’s feud with local Tories lay in his affair with a former Conservative councillor, Gail Boland – the long-term partner of the local association’s deputy chairman, Bill Sharp.

Dr Spink uses his Commons staffing allowance to employ both his ex-wife Janet – who works from Dorset 150 miles from his constituency – and Mr Sharp and Ms Boland’s student daughter Ashleigh Sharp.

Since Dr Spink started his relationship with Ms Boland, he and Mr Sharp are said to have been involved in a bitter feud. Mr Sharp reported the MP to the Parliamentary Commissioner for standards, while Dr Spink has complained to the police of Mr Sharp’s “criminal harassment” and sought injunctions to restrain him.

In one incident – which also ended in a complaint to police – the MP complained that his adversary tried to trap him in a room while Mr Sharp, who ended up on the floor, claimed that Dr Spink had “decked him”.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Part 2

Read the first part of his lordship's latest diary here.

Thursday
In all honesty, it is chiefly for the sake of Thurso’s grandfather, my old friend Sir Archibald Sinclair, that I am undertaking this journey. He led the Liberal Party between 1935 and 1945, and was altogether a splendid fellow. He was orphaned at the age of five but (despite my family’s best efforts) was brought up at Thurso Castle by his own grandfather Sir Tollemache Sinclair. He too was a splendid fellow, who had pulled down the sixteenth century castle and had a new one built to his design. He had a passion for the orchestra – a superior sort of mechanical organ – and could often be heard belting out some such tune as "Ride of the Valkyries" on the latest model.

I have to confess that the steam organ here at the Hall – which Professor Webb once managed to blow up with too enthusiastic a rendition of Kumara – was installed after I heard Sir Tollemache’s machine in full voice. Yes, the Sinclairs are altogether splendid fellows and I shall do whatever is needed to rescue poor Thurso.

Friday
I arrive in Berwick Upon Tweed, only to find it besieged by the hairier members of the Scottish National Party. I am told that they are plotting to seize the town and bear off Alan Beith and Lady Maddock so that they can exhibit them in Edinburgh, forcibly dress Beith in a kilt and oblige the lovely Diana to spend the rest of her life cooking porage for SNP backbenchers at Holyrood.

Well, the Nationalists shall not have Berwick nor Beith nor Lady Maddock: they are as English as cricket and corporal punishment. I hand out my supplies of orchard doughties to the brave Berwickians, together with some Bonkers Patent Exploding Focuses (for use in marginal wards) that I happen to have in the boot, and the Scots are soon put to flight.

Saturday
To Inverness Zoo at last, where I find Thurso disconsolately shelling peanuts while being groomed by a charming lady gorilla. "I’ve told them that I am the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross," he says, "but they just laugh." I complain of his treament to a passing keeper, but he very reasonably replies: "Sir, if I believed every hard-luck story I heard from an animal in this zoo, our cages would soon all be empty."

Having sacrificed my orchard doughties to help raise the Siege of Berwick, I am forced to employ guile rather than brute force, but a couple of crisp Bank of Rutland notes soon have the desired effect – once I have obtained an undertaking from Thurso that he will not be putting up for this year’s Liberal Democrat Moustache of the Award. I also secure the release of the charming lady gorilla as I have her in mind as our candidate in a ticklish council by-election in Lincolnshire – the voters like the touchy, feely approach nowadays.

Sunday
I write these words in the trophy room at Brig O’Dread with a tumbler of Auld Johnston at my elbow. The charming lady gorilla occupies the armchair on the other side of the roaring fire and Thurso is doing the washing up after our well-earned dinner. I felt it was the least he could do.

New Statesman Rape Crisis campaign

Peter Black flags up the New Statesman campaign to secure proper funding for Rape Crisis. The number of centres affilated to the group in England and Wales has nearly halved since 1984 from 68 to 38.

You can read more about the campaign on the magazine's website and also sign their petition.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Steve Winwood speaks

One reason for the slight mystique that surrounds Winwood is that, with the exception of an extraordinary period in the 1980s when he invented himself as an AOR MTV star in America, he has been quite reticent. You do not hear many interviews with him.

The most substantial one I can find on the net can be downloaded from the site of NRK - the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. It was recorded at the Notodden Blues Festival in August of last year.

Winwood is interviewed with Jeremy Spencer, Tom McGuinness and Paul Jones (left to right in the photo) by an endearlingly enthusiastic and slightly inept Norwegian journalist. Much of the conversation is about the British blues scene in the 1960s and it is fascinating stuff. Winwood arrives shortly after the conversation has begun and the whole thing last around 40 minutes.

Jones mentions Winwood's brilliance as a teenage blues singer with the Spencer Davis Group. Try Mean Woman Blues.

Dainite Mills, Market Harborough

Unmitigated England kindly photographs the building site I pass on the way to the station every morning.

A few weeks ago the part of the site in front of the old building was flooded. That building, standing above the water and surrounded by piling, looked just like an abandoned dockside counting house.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Part 1

Many Liberator subscribers will have collected the latest issue from the magazine's stall at the Liverpool Spring Conference last weekend. So it is time to reporoduce the latest diary from Lord Bonkers on this blog.

This time we shall present the old boy's thoughts in two parts. Here is the first.

Monday
I am pleased to see young Clegg has made such a promising start as our party’s new leader, albeit that it was sheer good fortune that I happened to be in Westminster on the day of his debut at Prime Minister’s Questions and was thus able to persuade his advisers that it would not be a good idea for him to lead on the problem of schools with inexperienced heads. In particular, the contract he has been awarded to model Barbour jackets will stand us in good stead with the voters here in Rutland – and quite possibly as far afield as Market Harborough.

I just pray that he will have the good sense not to dismiss Constable Heath because of his Doubts over Europe. Our village bobby is a dab hand at escorting old ladies across the road, proved himself an adept detective and clipper round the ear during last autumn’s unfortunate outbreak of scrumping and, arguably more importantly, commands respect on all sides of the House when he rises to speak.

Tuesday
Last year I was again pipped at the post for the Liberal Democrat Moustache of the Year Award by John Thurso. I am not one to bear a grudge, as my readers will know, but I think it worth recording that while my moustache spends the summer as nature intended, grazing in the Welland Valley – the finest pasture in England – Thurso's facial appendage is packed off to the Atom Plant at Dounreay, where it is bombarded with gamma rays or something equally beastly to make it grow to an unnatural size.

It was when I noticed at the Brighton Conference last year that the normally dapper Thurso also sported a beard that I realised something was wrong. Late one evening in the bar he confessed that the radiation had affected more than his moustache: he is now covered with luxuriant hair from head to foot and has to shave his neck and wrists before going on television. As I say, I am not one to gloat, but I was not surprised when Clegg failed to find room for him in his first shadow cabinet.

Wednesday
The morning post arrives bringing with it the usual circulars, bills, appeals to me to speak at constituency dinners, appeals to me not to speak at constituency dinners and so forth. One letter, however, stands out. It appears to have been written with the end of a burnt stick on the inside of a banana skin and reads: "Help! I am being held against my will in Inverness Zoo. They think I am a gorilla. Please come and rescue me. Thurso."

My duty is clear. I have the Bentley loaded with thermoses, sandwiches and a supply of orchard doughties (those rugged staffs that every gamekeeper swears by) and point its nose towards Brig O’Dread, which for centuries has been the Highland retreat of we Bonkers.

Now read part 2.

Monday, March 10, 2008

BritBlog Roundup 160

I am assured that this week's selection of the best in British blogging will appear on Amused Cynicism later this evening.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

St Louis Union: English Tea



This Sunday's video is taken from that seminal 1966 movie The Ghost Goes Gear. Most of the acts featured in the film, apart from the Spencer Davis Group, are pretty ordinary, but the St Louis Union are really rather good. Groovy mod sounds.

St Louis Union were a Manchester band who had already enjoyed a top 20 hit with the Beatles' song "Girl". They had also won the 1965 Melody Maker National Beat Contest, beating - amongst many other groups - something called The Pink Floyd from Cambridge.

And, yes, that is Nicholas Parsons at the start of the clip. The other actor is Jack Haig, later to be a stalwart ("It is I, Leclerc") of 'Allo 'Allo.

Later. The original clip has disappeared and sadly the replacement does not have Parsons and Haig at the start.

Even later. And now there is no clip from the film at all.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Jersey rally in remembrance of abuse victims

Channel Online has a video report of today's rally in Jersey's Royal Square. The report says:

The chance to call for political reform in Jersey in the gaze of the national media didn't pass the organisers by.

Montfort Tadier told us: "The government we have in Jersey that may have worked in the past, in a different time, is not working today. And it's really just been to highlight that as well as, you know, initially remembering victims of abuse and making sure that justice is done both socially and politically in the island."

Tomorrow's Sunday Times will report that the current police investigation has faced sustained obstruction from retired officers trying to cover up their own failure to investigate complaints of abuse at Haut de la Garenne.

A Freudian slip?

Every day those helpful people at Cowley Street send me an e-mail listing the recently added news stories on the Lib Dem website.

This morning's bulletin has a story headed:
PMQs: Clegg "has bottled it" on Europe, says Clegg

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bad Grammar of the Day

Well done, BBC:

Mr Yam cried in court after being asked about his life in China before seeking asylum in Britain in 1992.

Shortly after telling the jury that he had set up internet blogs in 2002 and 2004 criticising the Chinese government, the press and public were excluded from court.

I don't think the press and public should be allowed to talk to the jury like that.

House Points: A DNA database?

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

DNA madness

Sarah Teather called an adjournment debate on Friday about the growth of the national DNA database. The UK now has the largest in the world. It stores 4.5 million profiles - about five per cent. of the population.

It includes profiles of half a million people who have never been convicted, charged or cautioned. It includes the profiles of children under 10 and - most worryingly to Sarah - those of three-quarters of young black men.

Sarah said: "At the moment, 27 per cent. of the entire black population, 42 per cent. of the male black population, 77 per cent. of young black men … are on the database, compared with just 6 per cent. of the white population."

And she quoted research to refute the lazy assumption that this is because black people commit more offences. They do not.

The other day Polly Toynbee said that if everyone goes on the database it will be "fair". It’s a little like dealing with miscarriages of justice by locking us all up,

But there are Liberal Democrats who favour a national database. Andrew George had a letter in the Observer last Sunday. He said legislators should create a non-compulsory service operated by academia and overseen by the judiciary. And he asked "Whose liberty are we protecting? The perpetrators' or the victims‘?"

A voluntary approach sounds very Liberal - perhaps we could finance it with jumble sales? -- but to get the people you really want on the database it will have to be compulsory. Besides, as the law stands, once people have submitted their DNA - say to help with a major investigation -- they can never revoke consent.

And think what a compulsory database will mean. Parents cooing over their newborn baby will be asked: "Do you mind if we take a sample now? Just in case he grows up to be a rapist of murderer, of course."

Perhaps the real problem is the way we see society as divided between perpetrators and victims. The more stringent the measures government brings in, the less secure we feel as a result.

We should remember that we are all citizens and that government exists to serve the people, not the other way round.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Quote of the Week

We have a royal winner. The prize goes to Prince Harry for his:
I generally don't like England that much.
That is a shame when you are third in line to the throne of England. Perhaps we should find someone else?

There was another strong candidate this week. Paul Holmes was widely quoted as defending his signing of a Commons motion congratulating Fidel Castro in the following terms:
"It is true Cuba has political prisoners and no free elections, but it has very good dentistry."
But the source for the quote appears to be the Daily Mail. As the paper does not say where or when he is supposed to have said the words, the judges could not consider it.

Unless you can help, of course.

Cann Hall Primary and the smiley faces

Blimey! In my day all we got was milk...


It is against the Bloggers' Code to use the phrase "Political Correctness gone mad" but sometimes it is tempting.

Cann Hall Primary School has been in the news today after using Acid House-style smiley faces to conceal the identities of pupil pictured on its website.

As ever, the voice of sanity comes from Frank Furedi. He is quoted by Metro:
"Every time a school takes silly measures, it says we see the world through the eyes of a paedophile."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

It Always Rains on Sunday

Village Voice has an article by Scott Foundas on this 1947 Ealing Studios film. It was directed by Robert Hamer, who is best remembered for Kind Hearts and Coronets:

But Foundas writes:
Yet if Kind Hearts is an undeniable comic triumph, Hamer was ultimately better served by tragedy. It Always Rains on Sunday is a masterpiece of dead ends and might-have-beens, highly inventive in its use of flashbacks and multiple overlapping narratives, and brilliantly acted by Withers and McCallum. Compacted into a breathless 90 minutes, the entire film exists in a state of high anxiety—not a frame is wasted. Finally, day gives way to night, the despair thickens, and all points converge on a fever-dream train-yard finale of long shadows, deep focus, billowing smoke, and rear projection.
The IMDB page on It Always Rains on Sunday is here. Both its stars - John McCallum and Googie Withers - are still going strong.

Can anyone explain what Nick Clegg thinks he is doing?

The root of Nick Clegg's troubles is his failure to quietly drop Ming Campbell's policy of demanding a referendum on Britain's continuing membership of the European Union when he became leader.

As I have often said, it is a policy calculated to prevent what is probably the majority view of the British people - supportive of European cooperation, sceptical of ever-closer union - being expressed.

Nor has this week's argument that the majority of the British people support the policy been terribly edifying. Presumably, most of the people who want a referendum on membership of the EU want it so they can vote to come out? Are they the people we now think the Lib Dems should appeal to?

Gordon Brown's accusation in the Commons today that it would involve going back to the 1970s was exactly right. It is a point I have made myself - once seriously and once satirically.

Having a three-line whip to enforce abstention confirms every prejudice that our opponents have about the Liberal Democrats. Given that most of our MPs believe that there should not be a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, why did they not vote that way? And why didn't we make it a free vote?

Does Nick Clegg think today events make him look "tough"? That is not the adjective I would chose.

Nick has not yet served 100 days as Lib Dem leader, but he has already lost three front-bench spokesmen. Moreover, he has lost them over such an obscure point that it is hard to see what he imagines he will gain by it.

All in all, it is not the most encouraging start.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Merger: It was 20 years ago today

Or 20 years and a day, to be precise. But my article looking back on the process is now on the New Statesman website after a few production delays:
Blackpool’s Norbreck Castle Hotel does not lift the spirit at the best of times, and in January 1988 its Soviet ambience was enhanced by the trams and melting snow in the streets outside.

Calder's Comfort Farm 3

The third of my fortnightly columns can be found on the New Statesman website:
I was excited when I saw pictures of Plane Stupid protestors on the roof. Not because there is anything remarkable about getting up amongst the gargoyles. Before all this nonsense about security came in - and I for one will not venture down Whitehall unless I am properly tooled up, given the people you are in danger of meeting - there was a whole tribe existing up there. They lived off pigeons and the occasional tourist who wandered too far from his guide.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Gophers! and 1990

Last year, writing about the John Bird and John Fortune sitcom Well Anyway, I worried that I was the only person left alive who remembers certain television programmes. Apart from Well Anyway the examples I gave were Gophers! and 1990.

The good news is that I am not. Gophers! has an entry on Wikipedia:
Gophers! was a Channel 4 children's programme about a family of American gophers who move into a new neighbourhood, called Sycamore Heights, living next door to a family of uptight but well-intentioned rabbits, The Burrows. 
There were many recurring jokes within this short lived show such as Arthur Burrows' vegetables planning a rebellion to escape his garden, also a mad scientist ferret called Dr Wince, whose ambition was to conquer the world by obtaining a crystal buried in the Gophers' garden with the help of his reptilian servant Sly, and an alien in love with a zucchini determined to get home. Also there were Mexican cockroaches who lived in the Gophers house always trying to steal their food.
You can see why I was afraid that I might have dreamed the whole thing. It seems that the show went out in 1990. Most of the major characters were played by human actors in costumes, though there some puppets too, as I recall.

Gophers! is all over YouTube too, often with exotic subtitles. Here are the opening titles.

And 1990?

Action TV has a complete episode guide, which shows that there were two series: one in 1977 and one in 1978. It was a dystopian vision of the future, with Edward Woodward - as journalist Jim Kyle - fighting the sinister Public Control Department

While Mulhollandnet appears to have watched the first series recently, even though it has never been released on DVD:
What, then, is to recommend this? Well, it’s so NEARLY brilliant. The premise has enormous potential that every now and then flowers into moments of genuine crusading outrage. Woodward is never a chore to watch. Also the central relationship between Kyle and PCD Deputy Controller Barbara Kellerman is fascinatingly complex and watchable. She smoulders and flirts but terrifies at the same time, and the mix of fascination and repulsion that she inspires in Kyle makes her a uniquely fascist femme fatale. 
And finally, finally, in the last two episodes things start to become credible. Kyle is made the subject of a show trial, and then, when that fails, all his cards are revoked, he’s turned into a non-person and forced to scavenge on the streets to stay alive. Suddenly the show has become gripping, the enemy has shown their teeth and the hero is genuinely threatened. Things start to feel a little bit real. 
The subplot of the finale is good too, as the PCD come up with a unified ID system, doing away with ration cards, identity cards, driving licenses et al, and combining them in one document designed to put an end to the black market but which, brilliantly, is so easy to forge that it brings down the economy. Again. It’s the first time this vision of the future feels genuinely prescient.
Two more obscure TV series from the 1980s to finish. Does anyone else remember Brond or The Marksman?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Who wrote the Lib Dems' referendum policy?

I am not a great believer in conspiracy theories. In my experience they are drawn up in secret by close-kint groups who wish to control the world.

But the Liberal Democrat policy of demanding a referendum on whether Britain should contiue to belong to the European Union - invented by Ming Campbell and maintained by Nick Clegg - is so bizarre that some such theory is needed to explain it.

We may have found one.

Nich Starling points us to a story by Danny Finkelstein who points us to Dominic Lawson who writes:

I'm told that after Gordon Brown had decided to abandon the Blair commitment to a referendum Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams of Crosby and former leader of the LibDems in the House of Lords, had threatened to resign and rejoin the Labour Party, unless Ming Campbell likewise abandoned the dangerous policy of giving the British people a vote on the Lisbon treaty.

The artificial and insincere idea of offering us instead a vote on 'in or out of the EU' was Ming Campbell's way of wriggling out of the Liberal Democrats' commitment to a vote on the amended constitutional treaty without making the party look 'undemocratic'.
Whatever the truth of this, the Daily Telegraph claimed this morning that the policy is causing Nick Clegg enormous problems:

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, faces having to sack several members of his front bench team next week in a damaging internal row over Europe.

He will spend this weekend trying desperately to contain a growing rebellion over the controversial Lisbon treaty.

As many as a quarter of Lib Dem MPs are preparing to defy Mr Clegg's orders and vote in favour of a referendum on the treaty in the Commons next week.

The rebels include members of Mr Clegg's shadow cabinet and frontbench spokesmen, who have been told they will be sacked if they insist on backing a referendum on the treaty, which is based on the defeated European Constitution.

Time to rethink the policy even if it does mean the delightful Barness Williams returning to her ancestral home. That staged walk out from the Commons last week will look less and less clever as time goes on.

Jonathan Meades on urbanism

There is a review by the great man in this week's New Statesman:

Urbanism, if it signifies anything other than what used to be called town planning, is an ill-defined pseudo-discipline that covers research into the economic, infrastructural and demographic ingredients of cities and supposedly draws upon such research in the creation of schemes to improve cities. Such schemes usually mean, in practice, building. Hence the construction industry's conversion to urbanism.

There no longer exists such a thing as a builder. That man in the Day-Glo hard hat wolf-whistling is now an urban regenerator and the tempting cleft peeping from his waistband announces his urban regenerator's bum. The question, of course, is: What is he building, and where?

Why were so many children in care on Jersey?

It is not just the political background to the Jersey scandal that needs to be understood. There is an economic background too.

When Ceaucescu's regime fell in Romania it was revealed that thousands of children were suffering in primitive orphanages. It took a while for people to ask why there were so many orphans there. When they did, it turned out that may of them were not orphans at all.

As an Observer article explained last year:
The dictatorship encouraged breeding to staff state-controlled industries. Contraception and abortion were not available. Parents travelling to towns to find work were forced to stay in dormitories and leave their children behind in state care. A 1954 law described children as the property of the state rather than of their families.

Ceausescu also had a fascist streak. Any child who was less than physically or mentally perfect was immediately taken away and put in a closed institution where they couldn't be seen. A hair lip brought a life sentence.

Equally, it has always concerned me that there is never any shortage of inmates at the Bonkers' Home for Well-Behaved Orphans. Is there something about Rutland that the old brute has not told me?

Writing in today's Daily Telegraph Gordon Rayner raises a similar question about Jersey
One more disturbing question presents itself in the light of the child abuse scandal: just why, on a such a small and supposedly idyllic island, did so many hundreds of children end up in care homes? 
The answer lies in another little-publicised fact about Jersey - its unexpectedly high level of poverty, which brings with it the sort of social problems that lead to children being taken into care. 
Although Jersey, with its £250 billion financial industry, has the second-highest gross domestic product per capita in Europe, the island's wealth is largely held by the privileged few. Some 13,000 people - more than one in seven - live in social rental properties, Jersey's equivalent of council houses, and half of all households suffer from one or more of the internationally recognised measures for relative poverty. 
The crumbling 1960s council estates of St Helier are testament to the years of neglect. Rusting cars rot on rubbish-strewn drives, windows have bedsheets for curtains and the paint is peeling off walls and doorframes. "This place is run by the finance industry for the finance industry," says one resident. "Anyone else just doesn't count."
Even if the eventual discoveries do not substantiate the most Grand Guignol aspects of the story we are being told at the moment, this week's events show the need for fundamental reform of the governance of the island.

Finally, three radical voices from Jersey:

Prince Harry and the media

The media were right not to report the fact that Harry was serving in Afghanistan. They have to be responsible when Britain is at war. You may think the war misguided, but reporting it in a way that puts British troops at risk is not the answer.

But there is a scandal surrounding the coverage of Prince Harry.

It is not the media's failure to report Harry's presence in Afghanistan. It is their cloying treatment of him once the story broke. They have allowed themselves to be used in a campaign to restore his image in the eyes of the British people.

Last time Harry was pictured so widely in uniform, it was a Nazi one. This time he has been broadcast in stage mangaged and recorded footage designed to show him to best advantage - though I am old-fashioned enough not to like seeing the third in line to the throne wearing a baseball cap with the Stars and Stripes that extolls the gung ho attitudes of US forces.

I admire Harry's courage, but does that fact that a young officer in the current-day British army has been sent to serve in Afghanistan make much of a story? It certainly is not worth the whole of the evening bulletin, which is what ITV gave it on Friday.