Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Workhouse, Southwell

Very much in evidence at the Lowdham Book Festival on Saturday were these characters from The Workhouse, Southwell. (One of the paupers asked me for a penny, but she would only have spent it on gin.)

This museum's website invites you to:

Discover the most complete workhouse in existence. Meet the Reverend Becher, the founder of The Workhouse, by watching the introductory film and immerse yourself in the unique atmosphere evoked by the audio guide. Based on real archive records, the guide helps bring the 19th-century inhabitants back to life.

Discover how society dealt with poverty through the centuries. Explore the segregated work yards, day rooms, dormitories, master's quarters and cellars, then see the recreated working 19th-century garden and find out what food the paupers would have eaten

Sounds a fun day out!

Incidentally, there are several workhouse museums in Britain.

Spending cuts - Shropshire style!

Those who believe it may be possible to cut spending without impacting upon public spending have had their case strengthened by events in Craven Arms.

From the Shropshire Star:
Council offices in a Shropshire town are to be closed in a cost-cutting measure – after it was revealed clerks working there had not welcomed a single visitor in two years.

Simon Burns and the seven thousand dwarfs

Yesterday Simon Burns, Minister of State at the Department of Health, was heard to mutter "stupid, sanctimonious dwarf" after the Speaker, John Bercow, asked him to respect the Commons' rules of debate.

In fact, to judge by Simon Hoggart and his Guardian sketch, Burns did rather more than mutter:

He started talking, and not to himself. We heard the words "stupid" and "dwarf", more than once. Some of my colleagues claim to have detected the word "sanctimonious" in there somewhere as well.

At one point he held his hand out, at what I can only conclude would be the height of a dwarf. He went on rattling, like an ancient car whose engine continues to run even after the ignition has been cut off.

An Ulster MP tried in vain to ask a question. Later Ian Paisley Jr, a man who should have been inured from childhood to the sound of volcanic rage, later complained that it was out of order for someone to "berate, scoff, scold and hiss at the Chair while another member is trying to ask a question".

This incident interested me because, back in March, I suggested in a House Points column that:

the Tory benches’ increasingly open disrespect for Bercow tells us something important about modern Conservatives. They are simply ungovernable.

Philosophically, their views owe little to what the philosopher John Gray called the “rich network of interlocking interests, social deferences and inherited institutions” that have historically constituted British Conservatism. Instead they offer a bundle of theory and grievances, much of it market nihilist rather than Conservative and originating across the Atlantic.

And personally, unlike their predecessors, this new generation of Conservatives have not been shown their place in the scheme of things by Spartan schools and regimental sergeant majors.

Instead, they have entered adult life with a cast-iron sense of entitlement and a certainty that no one, certainly not the Commons Speaker, can tell them what to do.

The fact that a minister behaved as Burns did suggests to me that I was on to something.

Burns' apology today also tells us something about modern Britain.

He did not apologise, as he should have done, to Bercow and to the House for his rude behaviour. Instead he apologised "If I have caused any offence to any group of people" after a complaint from a pressure group for sufferers of rare forms of dwarfism.

This bogus "if you were offended" apology will be familiar to anyone who has complained to a modern corporation.

Still, having involved themselves in the case, John Connerty and his Walking with Giants group, should finish things. From now on, whenever Burns tries to hold a surgery or public meeting the building should be besieged by hordes of angry dwarfs, vertically challenged people or whatever the polite term is.

Once he has been driven out of public life he can be replaced as health minister by someone capable of behaving like an adult in the House.

Headline of the Day

Well done to the Leicester Mercury for:

Lord Mayor's trousers fall down at children's event

End of the Month Lolcat

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Steve Winwood interviewed on BBC Radio 4

The interview was the first item on this evening's Front Row.

Lembit4London... and Montgomeryshire

The story of the day has been Lembit Opik's launch of a website to further his ambition to be the next Liberal Democrat London mayoral candidate.

“I can see why people are keen on me to consider standing"
says the site. The grammar is shaky and it doesn't say who these people are.

But at the same time Opik has been telling this blog's favourite newspaper a rather different story.

The Shropshire Star reports:

Former Montgomery MP Lembit Opik is considering a sensational return to politics by taking on the man who defeated him in the General Election.

Mr Opik lost his seat in one of the surprise results of May 6 to the Conservative Party’s Glyn Davies.

However, today Mr Opik said he remained the candidate for Montgomeryshire and had not ruled out an attempt to reclaim the seat ...

“It’s up to my party whether they would want me to remain the candidate. But I wouldn’t rule it out. My home is in Newtown and I have a flat in London. I remain committed to the area and I’m looking at my present situation as an enforced career break.”
Glyn Davies, incidentally, had to postpone making his maiden speech after being hospitalised with an irregular heartbeat. Happily, it sounds as though he has made a full recovery.

Six of the Best 69

Some good sense from Chris White on Liberal Democrat Voice: "Clearly FPC, the elected policy arm of the Party, must continue to draft policy for Conference to determine. It must not be a loyalist claque. Equally, however, it will serve no useful purpose in being a disloyalist claque. Some of the interventions this week have been purist self-indulgence."

Andrew Reeves' Running Blog has the unwelcome news that the police are still harassing people for taking photographs in a public place. Personally, the only trouble I have had is at Cowley Street, but there you go.

A reminder of Nick Clegg's linguistic talents comes from Gary Allanach, who links to a video of him speaking Spanish.

The question of how much New Labour owed to Marxism is discussed by The Third Estate.

Diamond Geezer is following another of London's lost rivers: the Efra.

Also in London, the site of 100 Union Street in SE1 has been transformed into an urban orchard and community garden for the duration of the London Festival of Architecture. See The Union Street Urban Orchard (from whom I have borrowed the illustration) for more information.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Spectator: Nutjobs vs Traditionalists

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the way that public protection, which hardly featured when I studied moral philosophy 30 years ago, now dominates debates about the justification of punishment.

The was a good example in the first leader of a recent Spectator. It began:
One of the many ludicrous Liberal Democrat policies which Tories enjoyed rubbishing during the general election was their plan to send far fewer criminals to prison. But, alas, it seems that some bad ideas are infectious. Last week Ken Clarke, the new Justice Secretary, suggested that we can no longer afford to keep so many prisoners — so we should sentence fewer, and for shorter periods
And went on to justify this view with the following argument:
It may well cost £29,600 to keep someone in prison for a year. But we must set against this the fact that the average prisoner commits a remarkable 140 crimes per year before incarceration — and, according to the Home Office, the average crime costs £2,970. So out on the streets, the prisoners inflict £406,000 of damage (including the £30,500 cost of sentencing them in a crown court).
That piece of accounting was the only argument used.

As I said in the original post, once you start justifying punishment on purely utilitarian grounds it is hard to account for our sense that the punishment should fit the crime.

In fact, it becomes hard to say why punishment should be confined to the guilty. The argument above is a good example. If your only concern is saving money, why not intern the whole young male population of certain neighbourhoods?

The Spectator mind-set is an odd combination of traditional British Conservatism and right-wing American nutjobbery. While it would be a mistake to romanticise the traditional Conservatives - they would be happy to call out the militia if their property were threatened - in this leader the nutjobs are clearly in the ascendancy.

Fortunately, Kenneth Clarke has more sense.

Looking back on the leaders' debates

I have an article on the televised leaders' debates that took place during the recent general election campaign in the current issue of Liberator.

It's not the most exciting thing I have ever written, but I am including it here for the sake of completeness.

X-factor Politics

The three leaders’ debates during the general election campaign probably did not much affect the result of the election, but they may have altered the course of British politics after all.

For a while after the first debate it seemed that the wildest hopes of those Liberal Democrats who had long argued for these debates had been exceeded.

As Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian the following day:

From the start, Clegg asserted himself as the star of the show, anointed as such by a whopping 51 per cent of those surveyed by an instant Sun/YouGov poll.

The first shot had him looking alarmingly young, boyish and eager, but he soon transcended that. More than his rivals, he demonstrated an instant understanding of the format. All his answers were delivered to the camera, since that was where the audience that mattered was to be found.

Such was the assurance of Clegg’s performance, and their own comparative lack of preparation, that both Gordon Brown and David Cameron were reduced to frequent cries of “I agree with Nick”.

In the days that followed that debate, we Liberal Democrats could hardly believe what we were seeing. We did not just rise in the polls: it reached a point where we were disappointed if we saw an opinion poll in which we were not in first place.

On the internet, reflecting the particular success of Clegg’s performance in the first debate with younger voters, the position was just as encouraging. Unauthorised “I agree with Nick” merchandise sprouted everywhere, and a similarly independent Facebook group entitled “We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!”, which had less than 19,000 members after the launch of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, leapt to a membership of 115,000 in the wake of the first debate and was eventually to have more than 160,000 members.

It could not last. Though most judges and polls suggested that Clegg had shaded a generally lacklustre second debate, his performance inevitably lacked that extraordinary novelty factor the second time around. By now the other two leaders had stopped agreeing with Nick, but they did not really get around to attacking him until the third debate. Though Clegg’s performance in this third debate was in many ways more forceful than in the second, by now David Cameron had come to terms with the format and most polls awarded victory to him.

Such had been the impact of Nick Clegg’s performance in the first debate, however, that most observers still expected a major Liberal Democrat advance on election night. When the broadcasters’ exit poll showing no advance at all appeared, not even the most senior politicians believed what it said. Yet it proved to be correct, suggesting that four weeks of election campaigning – leaders’ debates included – had ultimately had little effect on the way the nation had voted. Nor did the turnout show much sign of the young having been enthused to vote. It was up on the last two elections, but given that the 2010 election was so much more open than those two, not up by half as much as might have been expected.

So was Cleggmania all an illusion? The evidence of the opinion polls taken after the first debate suggest that it was not, though we should be more wary of online evidence – in the new social media in particular, there is a tendency for likeminded people to congregate and convince themselves that they represent a far larger slice of the population than is really the case. This can be valuable for raising activists’ morale, but misleading when it comes to sensing the mood of the wider electorate.

Perhaps the best parallel for Cleggmania is one of those great by-election upsets in which the Liberal Democrats – and the Liberal Party and SDP before them – used to specialise in. They often produced a remarkable upsurge in the opinion polls; in the Alliance years they often led to polls suggesting that the two parties might well form the next government. But we never did form the next government, because that effect had long since worn off by the time that the general election came around. The polls always ask “How would you vote if there were a general election tomorrow?” but there rarely is an election tomorrow.

Looking back, it seems we also read too much into the polls asking voters who had won the debates. The assumption seemed to be that if people said Nick Clegg had won the debate then they were bound to vote for him, but of course that was never the case. Think of The X-Factor – a parallel that suggested itself to many commentators at the time. Once people have decided on their favourite act they will vote for him come what may, but they will be quite capable of admitting that he was not at his best this week and that someone else sang better. So it was quite possible that some of those who said that Nick Clegg had won the first two debates were confirmed Labour or Conservative voters who were fair-minded enough to be objective about what they had watched. That never meant they were going to vote Liberal Democrat.

The truth is probably not as clear cut as this, with people’s reactions to the debates being partly based on an objective consideration of what they had watched and partly on pre-existent partly loyalties. It was notable that by the time of the third debate the polls on who had won looked remarkably like the polls about voting intention: David Cameron was in the lead with Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown level pegging a few percentage points behind him. By then people’s voting intentions were firming up and were more likely to colour their view of what they had seen in the debate.

One notable result of Nick Clegg’s commanding performance in the first debate was that he and the Liberal Democrats became central to the later debates and the election campaign as a whole. This was a wonderful contrast with past elections, where we have often been desperate for attention, but the political wisdom that you are on the way to victory if the battle is fought on territory of your own choosing is only half right: you have to win that battle too. And we did not win enough of the important battles.

While not being like “the two old parties” was enough to win the first debate, by the time of the third debate there was much closer scrutiny of specific Liberal Democrat policies and they – or Nick Clegg – did not always stand up to it well. Our insistence on including the question of a replacement for Trident in the defence review, for instance, was made to seem a unilateralist position, when a stronger insistence that with the economy in such a state we should be very sure before we embark on a policy that will cost some £65bn.

Equally, our “earned route to citizenship” was painted as a simple amnesty that would encourage further illegal immigrants. The truth is that there will be illegal immigration as long as there is an enormous disparity in wealth between countries and easy intercontinental travel, but that point was never made and might not have been well received if it had been made. In the campaign more generally, Liberal Democrat shadow ministers had more trouble explaining how the policy of allowing people to settle in some regions and not others would be policed and it is probably as well that point was not raised in the debates.

Ultimately these two failings may not have been so damning: people wedded to nuclear weapons or immigration control are unlikely to vote Liberal Democrat anyway. More serious was the failure to get over the sense that the Liberal Democrats grasped that tax had been something that only the “little people” paid and were determined to do something about it. The policy of lifting people out of taxation was mentioned, but the thinking behind it was never made clear and it may have been less well remembered for that reason.

Despite the disappointing Liberal Democrat performance, Nick Clegg left the campaign in a much better position than he entered it, and that must surely be down to the debates. He is now known by every voter and seen, even by those who will never vote Liberal Democrat, as of equal standing with the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties. That is a remarkable turnaround and could hardly have been achieved without the concentrated exposure that the debates gave.

It may well be Clegg’s standing after the debates that encouraged David Cameron to make his offer when he failed to win an overall majority. For the Liberal Democrat leader was not just bringing his 52 MPs, he was bringing a sense of freshness and possibility that the government badly needed. So while the debates did not ultimately enthuse the young to take part in the political process or result in many more Liberal Democrat votes, they did change our politics permanently.

Will these debates become a permanent feature of British general elections? Do not bank on it. The 1960 debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon have entered political folklore on both sides of the Atlantic. What is less widely remembered is that there was not another Presidential debate until 1976, when the unelected Gerald Ford was almost as little known as his challenger Jimmy Carter.

Since then debates have become the norm in America, but they have never decided the election in the way that this folklore holds that they did in 1960. In fact they have often proved quite remarkably dull, with the Ford-Carter debates providing a particularly good example of this. Worse than that, Ford had obviously been told to try to smile and someone had told Carter not to grin so much; the result was that both spent the whole time with fixed half-smiles on their faces.

Fast forward to 1992 and the debate between the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton, when Bush was caught sneaking a look at his watch during one of their encounters. This was widely regarded as a gaffe and reinforced the idea that Clinton was much more in touch with the voters and their concerns. Yet when asked about it later, Bush said: “Was I glad when the damned thing was over? Yeah, and maybe that’s why I was looking at my watch — only 10 more minutes of this crap. Maybe if I’d have said that I’d have done better."

It will be hard for David Cameron not to agree to televised debates at the next general election – the media will howl in protest if he tries to get out of holding them – but if he is a long way ahead in the polls, do not be surprised if he tries.

Trivial Fact of the Day with Beyonce Knowles

It comes courtesy of the Spectator and Philip Hensher's review of Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World by Norman Lebrecht.

And it is that Beyonce Knowles is his eighth cousin four times removed of the composer Gustav Mahler.

I am sure we all feel wiser for knowing that.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Six of the Best 68

Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders argues that the nastiness of Labour's campaign against us shows they "simply don’t understand what has and is happening in the world around them".

David Boyle on The Real Blog thinks that Prince of Wales is right over Chelsea Barracks. "What are we, who believe that aesthetics are the proper concern of local people, to do?" he asks. "Prince Charles may not be the perfect instrument for a democratic age, but he is no less democratic than his opponents."

Missives from Doktorb supports John Leech's campaign for "Jerusalem" to be the anthem for all English national teams.

The pleasures of record collecting in the days before eBay, with special reference to Scott Walker, are discussed by Unmann-Wittering Blog.

The Economist finds that blogging is holding its own against newer forms of social media, but that specialisation may be the way forward.

Like me, Keeper of the Snails spoke at the Lowdham Book Festival yesterday. Her posting has many photographs of the day - one of my own can be seen above.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: For the Fallen

And so another week with Rutland's most popular fictional peer draws to a close.

Sunday

After every general election, it behoves us to remember those among our colleagues who fell in action: we say a prayer for them at St Asquith's this morning. In the ensuing silence - and before the enthusiastic rendering of 'The Last Post' by a member of the Rutland Army Cadet Force - I think of Richard Younger-Ross and Julia Goldsworthy, victims both of unfortunate misunderstandings over household furnishings, of Paul Rowen in Rochdale and of Sandra Gidley in Romsey.

Some of our chaps, of course, stood down of their own volition. Notable amongst them was that scourge of the “two-tier service”, Phil Willis. Willis, you may recall, had been a headmaster before entering Parliament and, when asked what he most regretted in life, was wont to reply that it was using the cane in that earlier career. This always won applause from the audience, but it struck me as trying to have your cake and eat it.

Earlier this week

Monday: Minister for Outer Space
Tuesday: Coalition in the balance
Wednesday: David Laws in his pomp
Thursday: Send for Harpo Miliband
Friday: A day on the Estate
Saturday: Avoiding George IV

Richard Thompson: Hope You Like the New Me



We last Richard Thompson as part of Fairport Convention in 1970. Since then, after a series of albums with his then wife Linda, he has become famous as a a solo performer - though he is still widely acknowledged to be less celebrated than he deserves.

This is the final track on his 1999 album Mock Tudor. It resembles a Patricia Highsmith novel: we learn that the protagonist has stolen our jokes and the way we walk, and then it turns more sinister.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Talking about blogging at the Lowdham Book Festival

Today I went to the Lowdham Book Festival in Nottinghamshire. I took part in a panel discussion on "Getting Published" with other members of Leicester Writers Club: Chris D'Lacey, Siobhan Logan and Mary Essinger.

I encouraged the audience to take up blogging, not just for its inherent pleasures but also because it has many advantages for writers. A blog can build a following for your writing, act as a shop window to editors you want to commission you, act as an online store of your writing (magazines get lost; your own laptop can blow up when you have not backed up your files for month) and be your online writers' notebook.

The session seemed to go well, and the festival as a whole is an attractive event. There were bookstalls and marquees and it takes over various venues in the village. We were in the Independent Primitive Methodist Chapel.

Listening to the questions in other sessions, I noticed two things about amateur writers. They are obsessed with the idea that other people are out to steal their work (they are not: the problem is to get other people to read it at all) and they are convinced that presenting their work to editors in the correct format (if only the can find out what it is) is the key to getting it accepted. I fear there is more to it than that.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Avoiding George IV

Saturday

I am often surprised at our tabloid press. After an enjoyable day watching my own XI defeat the Scottish Nationalists, I repair to the Library to read tomorrows newspapers - I have them brought to the Hall by fast bicycle as soon as they are published in Fleet Street.

The News of the World splashes (as I believe the word is) on the intelligence that the erstwhile Duchess of York taken money in return for promising to introduce a journalist to her former husband.

But her willingness to do this has been an open secret for years! I have myself given her money more than once to ensure that the Duke of York does not attend a function I am organising.

Interestingly, my great-grandfather once had the front of the Hall painted green when George IV was in the area in hope that he would fail to see the old pile against the surrounding fields and ride past.

Earlier this week

Monday: Minister for Outer Space
Tuesday: Coalition in the balance
Wednesday: David Laws in his pomp
Thursday: Send for Harpo Miliband
Friday: A day on the Estate

Friday, June 25, 2010

Horton's Guide to Britain's Railways in Feature Films

This book, purchased on my recent visit to the Great Central Railway in Loughborough, has revolutionised my appreciation of films.

Take my last two discs from LoveFilm.

Thanks to Horton, I knew that Murder She Said - Margaret Rutherford's first outing as Miss Marple, which is treated as a social comedy as much as a murder mystery - would feature all sorts of footage of steam trains. Hardly surprising, as it is an adaptation of Agatha Christie's 4.50 from Paddington.

But most interesting of all:
NB D600-type "Warship" diesel No D603 passes on an express - medium shot. This is the best shot in the film and so far the only known appearance of one of these short-lived diesels in a feature film.
And I have also watched The Innocents, Jack Clayton's superlative adaptation of Henry James' ghost story The Turn of the Screw. Thanks to Christopher Freeling's commentary, I know that this film was influenced by Benjamin Britten's opera - John Piper did designs for both works.

But it is from Horton I learn that the film
Includes a nice shot of a train arriving at Horsted Keynes station on the Bluebell Railway with SR "birdcage" coaches but no loco (out of shot). This is believed to be the first occasion when a feature film was shot on the Bluebell, or indeed on any standard gauge preserved line.
Magnificent stuff. Now to watch Blow-Up and look for the "green SR two-car suburban EMU" that features near the beginning.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: A day on the Estate

Friday

What with the election campaign and the burdens of office, I have rather neglected the old demesne of late. So I put matters right by spending a day on Estate business having ditches cleared, hedges trimmed, orphans drilled and so forth. Meadowcroft, I fear, is not at his sunniest and is much given to complaining that the volcanic dust has “befangled his perennials”. I stand him a pint of Smithson & Greaves in the Bonkers' Arms at lunchtime, which does much to restore his spirits.

After lunch, I write a stiff letter to the Icelandic Ambassador on Meadowcroft's part. I also assure him that I am well aware that this 'Eyjafjallajkull' volcano of theirs is really called Dave and that they are not justified in playing such a cruel trick upon our newsreaders just because they still feel sore about the Cod War.

Earlier this week

Monday: Minister for Outer Space
Tuesday: Coalition in the balance
Wednesday: David Laws in his pomp
Thursday: Send for Harpo Miliband

House Points: Defending the Budget

My House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

"You've written an editorial," Deirdre grumbled. "Can you be funny next week?"

"Funny?" I said. "After all these years you tell me I'm meant to be funny?"

Labour carping

A few months ago Gordon Brown was still refusing to allow the word “cuts” to pass his lips – a refusal whose explanation probably needed a psychologist rather than an economist. Today it is the whole Labour Party that needs its bumps felt, because to a man and a woman they are pretending that no radical action on the deficit necessary.

Alistair Darling’s last budget committed Labour to public spending cuts and tax rises of £73bn, but you will not hear a single shadow cabinet member admit this. Instead they oppose every cut and tax rise the new government makes, with the result that their position lacks all credibility.

Labour is not being helped by its leadership contest. None of the candidates wants to suffer by telling party members a few home truths – such as that we have an unsustainable public sector deficit because the last government had to bail out the banks after spending too freely for several years.

So instead they attribute the less attractive features of the emergency budget to the inexplicable wickedness of the Tories – and of the Liberal Democrats. We shall have to wait until a new leader is in place before it is worth listening to Labour again.

Here in the Liberal Democrats we should remember an old Russian proverb that Soviet grandmasters were fond of quoting in their chess annotations: “He who says A must say B.” The meaning, as I always took it, was that once you embarked on a course of action you had to go through with it wholeheartedly.

In other words, having signed up for this coalition at the special conference with hardly a voice against, we have to recognise that its economic policy will inevitably be a compromise. And do not forget that, with his characteristic lugubrious charm, Vince Cable ensured that we had the strictest fiscal policy of any of the three main parties.

Besides, governing is not just a matter of economics: the timing of the necessary spending cuts was a matter of politics too. If a government does not make brave decisions in its early months, it is unlikely to make them at all. So there was never a chance of the coalition waiting until next year to act on the deficit.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Send for Harpo Miliband

Thursday

Who will the next leader of the Labour Party be? The answer, it appears, is one of the Miliband brothers.

As an old friend of their father, the Marxist historian Sir Ralph Millipede, I have known them since they were so high. I well remember them on the hearthrug in their pyjamas, putting together Airfix models of the dams that Comrade Stalin had built to divert the rivers of Central Asia and water the Uzbek cotton fields. I was always struck by how similar David and Edward were - indeed I am not convinced that even Lady Millipede could tell them apart.

If I am honest, however, my favourite in those days was the third Miliband brother. He had a mop of golden curls and, though he had little to say for himself, was something of a virtuoso on the harp even at his young age.

I often wonder what became of Harpo Miliband: the Labour Party could do worse than turn to him today.

Monday: Minister for Outer Space
Tuesday: Coalition in the balance
Wednesday: David Laws in his pomp

Latest twist in the Harborough Focsa saga

The Harborough Mail tells us that Harborough District Council's head of legal services has written to councillors saying that that Focsa is "in breach of its £26.5m, seven-year contract".

This is because the company does not have planning permission for a depot "within or adjacent to the Harborough district" from which to run its waste collection operation.

On the other hand, at least Focsa now has a contract to be in breach of.

Six of the Best 67

The nef triple crunch blog ("new economics solutions for the interlinked credit, climate and energy crises" - and not a capital letter in sight) sees David Boyle arguing that Liberal Democrat ministers must stand up to the Treasury.

Finding it hard to get your head round the concept of "the Big Society"? Don't worry, says The Big Society Blog.

Mark Reckons defends John Redwood - and quite right too.

You can now be gaoled for five years for owning a war trophy. The Devil's Knife (that's The Devil's Kitchen after it grasped that swearing is neither big nor clever) introduces us to the worrying case of Gail Cochrane.

"The teen-on-teen 'respect' murder is a symptom not of children growing up too quickly but of failing to mature at all," argues Ed West on the Daily Telegraph site.

Tourism in Retrospect tells us that battlefield tourism began at Waterloo in 1854.

Is club football a higher standard than international football?

I was moaning at work yesterday about Capello's team selection, saying that he seemed as wedded to the 4-4-2 formation as Sven had been before him.

Who can forget Wayne Rooney limping off against Portugal in Euro 2004 to be replaced by Darius Vassell? It was obvious to every armchair fan that the thing to do was to bring a defensive midfield player on and push Paul Scholes further forward.

I contrasted this with Jose Mourinho's approach at Chelsea. He was a master at changing the formation during the game, being quite prepared to replace a defender with a striker if we were chasing the game.

He did just this when Chelsea went a goal down to a lower league team in the League Cup once and getting an equaliser to take the game into extra time.

"Extra time with only three defenders?" I remember thinking. "This could get a bit hairy."

Not a bit of it. Mourinho took off one of the strikers and brought another defender on so that Chelsea could return their normal formation. They won the game easily.

My point was that I had never seen Capello or Sven do anything like this. A colleague (and fellow blogger) replied that I should remember that club managers have their players for far, far longer than international managers. So it is possible for club sides to be drilled in playing several different formations but not realistic to try this with an international side.

I suspect he is right. The conclusion must be that, though not every club manager is a genius like Mourinho, club football at its best is a more varied and subtle game than international football.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Polly Toynbee's Elementary Mistake of the Day

Polly Toynbee writes in today's Guardian:
Rebalancing £2bn in child tax credits will help redress the worst effects of the VAT rise for the poorest and lifting the lowest-paid out of income tax will help all on the basic rate, but it does nothing for the 62% of adults who earn too little to pay tax.
Sixty-two per cent of adults don't earn enough to pay tax? It doesn't sound very likely.

A little investigation suggests that Toynbee has been reading the Institute for Fiscal Studies Election Briefing Note 13 "Taxes and Benefits: The Parties' Plans". Turn to page 34 of this and you will find the sentence:
"In 2009–10, only 62% of the adult population had a high enough income to pay income tax."
So it's not that 62 per cent of people don't pay tax, it's that 62 per cent do pay tax.
How out of touch with the lives of ordinary people do you have to be to make a mistake like that and not spot it? It hardly encourages you to have faith in Toynbee's judgement as a columnist.
You think someone at the Guardian would have spotted it though.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: David Laws in his pomp

His lordship wrote this entry just before David Laws' resignation. I once remarked to him that a week is a long time in politics. "Stuff and nonsense," he replied. "Why is a week any longer in politics than in cricket or gold prospecting?"

Nevertheless it does show how long it takes to get a magazine produced and out to its subscribers when you are used to instant publishing on the web.

Wednesday

One of the new Conservative ministerial colleagues puts his head around my door: the poor fellow is in tears! “Can't you do anything about this Laws of yours?” he sobs. “He's cut my departmental budget to ribbons”.

I put a manly arm around his shoulders and pour him a snootful of Auld Johnston, because I know what the new Financial Secretary to the Treasury is like. Some years ago, I asked him to have a look at the finances of the Bonkers' Home for Well-Behaved Orphans and he produced a report urging me to sell the orphans and invest the money in start-up funds in the Far East.

Needless to say, I did no such thing. (I had a word with a bigwig at the Bank of Rutland and he warned me off the Orient for the time being).

Monday: Minister for Outer Space
Tuesday: Coalition in the balance

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review of Steve Winwood: English Soul

You still have a few days to watch Steve Winwood: English Soul on BBC iPlayer.

It is a thorough and engaging survey of his career, though I was a disappointed that there was little archive footage that I am not familiar with from Youtube. Still, you can never watch Georgia on my Mind too often.

There were bound to be omissions when cramming such a long musical life into an hour. There was no mention of his work playing as a session man on an extraordinary range of other people's records - Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, Lou Reed's Berlin.

And there was no mention of his friendship with Viv Stanshall, who wrote the lyrics of the title track of the album that relaunched Winwood's career in the 1980s - Arc of a Diver.

London termini in the 1960s



Colour film of London's railway termini in the 1960s set to asoundtrack of pirate radio (Radio City 299 and Radio Caroline) and some TV theme tunes of the period.

Thanks to a reader for putting me on to this nostalgia gold.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Coalition in the balance

Tuesday

The coalition agreement, I will freely admit, came as something of a surprise. One day I was supervising the digging of elephant traps to catch the unwarier Tory canvasser: the next I was fishing my Conservative neighbours' lakes on the grounds that we were all on the same side now so they could not possibly complain. And splendidly fishy lakes they proved in those strange, sunny days during which the fate of our nation hung in the balance.

I did have a nasty turn when I heard we were talking to Labour as well (and was faced with the prospect of having to put the fish back), but with a well-placed telephone call or two I was able to ensure that those talks came to nothing.

Earlier this week...

Monday: Minister for Outer Space

Monday, June 21, 2010

Lembit goes to Glastonbury

The Daily Express tells us:
THE weird world of former MP Lembit Opik has taken another bizarre turn after it was revealed the wacky Lib Dem is to perform a comedy spot at this week's Glastonbury Festival.
Lembit will be performing at the festival's Leftfield event on Friday.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Minister for Outer Space

The latest issue of Liberator should be with subscribers about now, so it is time to spend another week with Lord Bonkers. He was, as he frequently reminds me, Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Monday

Another early start in Whitehall. What? You've not heard? Why, I am the Minister for Outer Space in the new Coalition Government! The position had been earmarked for poor Lembit, but on election night everyone learned what I have long suspected: the people of Mid Wales do not care for That Sort of Thing.

So here I am poring over my red boxes and undoing Socialist mischief by the hour. Already I have dispensed with the requirement for visitors from other galaxies to have identity cards and this morning I cancelled an expedition of North London social workers to Alpha Centauri designed to educate the inhabitants out of colonialist attitudes.

Next week I shall be off to Woomera, whence Raymond Baxter blasted off in Coronation year to become the first Englishman in space, and then I shall be talking to David Chidgey, once the fearless pilot of the Liberal Democrats' own spacecraft the Bird of Liberty, about getting our party into space again. The old crate has been in a barn on the Bonkers Hall Estate for some years, but I am sure it can be put back into service once we have found somewhere else for the chickens to roost.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The coalition government’s commitment to civil liberties

Statewatch has a 30-page analysis - "Rolling back the authoritarian state? An analysis of the coalition government’s commitment to civil liberties" - by Max Rowlands (pdf file).

His conclusion:

Many of their commitments on civil liberties are to be commended, but often the wording is vague and open to interpretation and some pressing issues have been ignored completely.

The devil will lie in the detail of the new Freedom Bill. It is to be hoped that the Lib Dems remain resolute during the drafting process and refuse to compromise their convictions in order to secure concessions in other areas of government policy.

Silvester Horne Institute, Church Stretton

I once wrote about the Liberal MP and Congregationalist minister Silvester Horne, who was the father of the comedian Kenneth Horne. In that post I mentioned that there was a Silvester Horne Institute erected (bold!) in his honour in Church Stretton.

Here is a photograph of it that I took last week. One day I shall go back to the town and photograph his grave. In the mean time you can read a whole book about Silvester Horne on the web.

Black Carrot: The One That Got Away



When musicOMH wrote:
When listening to Black Carrot, a band of Midlands-based Krautrockers, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Captain Beefheart had upped sticks and gone to live in Market Harborough.
I had to pay attention.

And they do sound good. According to Andy Gill in the Independent, this track is "oddly infectious stutter-funk".

More about Black Carrot on their website.

Six of the Best 66

Caron's Musings is delighted that the Liberal Democrat MPs Jo Swinson and Duncan Hames have got engaged. In a thoroughly modern way, the proposal and reply (happily not "WTF? ROTFLMAO") both took place on Twitter.

It seems that not all is well with the current Liberal Youth internal elections. So Liberal Bureaucrat finds himself "putting aside my Returning Officer hat and replacing it with my 'old enough to be your father' hat".

Spiderplant Land views Labour opposition to government cuts with suspicion.

Besides, as Mark Pack on Liberal Democrat Voice points out, Labour last budget committed it to £44bn of cuts. So why don't we ask them what they were going to cut?

Wonderfully and unexpectedly, Lynne Featherstone declares herself as a lover of boxing. I hope I haven't taken my life in my hands by borrowing this photograph from her blog.

Writing on Spiked, Mick Hume puts his finger on an important point: "Never mind all those droning vuvuzelas, the plastic horns that have been drowning out pretty much everything else in South Africa over the past week. The most irritating constant noise at the World Cup 2010 to date is James Corden."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Gordon Brown's new job



Howard's cartoon from yesterday's Liberal Democrat News. Click on the drawing to enlarge it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

La Ronde (1950)

It's a long time since I reviewed a DVD that LoveFilm had sent me. This is partly indolence and partly because I can have an embarrassing taste in films (the recent remake of Lassie is not a patch on the original Lassie Come Home). So let's write about La Ronde.

This is not a film I knew, but my mother wanted to see it because she thought she had seen it with my father in a Southsea cinema some 60 years ago. As it turned out, it was probably not La Ronde they saw. But this was a fortunate mistake for me because it is a very interesting film.

La Ronde was made in 1950 by Max Ophuls, based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler. As Wikipedia helpfully explains:
It tells a series of stories about love affairs or illicit meetings involving a prostitute, a soldier, a chambermaid, her employer's son, a married woman, her husband, a young girl, a poet, an actress and a count. At the end of each encounter, one of the partners forms a liaison with another person, and so on.
It stars Anton Walbrook as the worldly "Meneur de Jeu", who presents the action of the film to the viewer, also turning up in some scenes in minor roles. He is also in charge of the roundabout - ronde - that is both a physical presence on screen and a metaphor for the film's action.

The film is elegant and witty. When one of the men is unable to perform in bed, the roundabout breaks down and Walbrook has to mend it.

What, I suspect, most interests the theorists is that this is a film that makes no effort to hide the fact that it is a film. When we first meet Walbrook he is strolling around on what first looks like a stage set and then a film set.

And when the action threatens to get too spicy, a censor appears on screen to measure a loop of film and snip it off.

Geoffrey Hill is the new Oxford professor of poetry

Congratulations to Geoffrey Hill on becoming Oxford's new professor of poetry. As Harry Mount says, he is "worthy to follow in the footsteps of Cecil Day-Lewis, W.H. Auden, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden".

Perhaps Hill can be obscurantist at times, but I am devoted to his Mercian Hymns. These verses blend Midland history and his own boyhood with wonderful facility:

King of the perennial holly-groves, the riven sand-
....stone: overlord of the M5: architect of the his-
....toric rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth,
....the summer hermitage in Holy Cross: guardian of
....the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge: contractor
....to the desirable new estates: saltmaster: money-
....changer: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist:
....the friend of Charlemagne.

'I liked that,' said Offa, 'sing it again.'

See an article by Adam Thorpe for more on Mercian Hymns.

Hill's September Song has featured on this blog too.

Leaked email from Tory council leader appears in Harborough Mail

The impression that all is not sweetness and light within the ruling Tory group on Harborough District Council has been strengthened by the appearance of a leaked email in the Harborough Mail.

The email was written by the Conservative leader of the council, Cllr Michael Rook, just before the controversy over Harborough's handling of its waste management service was featured on the East Midlands regional segment of the BBC's Politics Show (that report is no longer available via iPlayer).

Ironically, the email was an attempt to keep the matter out of the press. Rook wrote to his fellow councillors:
No member of our Group will make a statement to any member of the press or media about this issue, whether Ward Member or simply interested member, portfolio party or town representative, without first talking to Jannette Ackerley [another Tory councillor] or I (sic).
I don't know if the email was leaked by one of Rook's fellow Tory councillors who resented being treated like this, but well done to the Harborough Mail for reproducing it in full.

House Points: Lib Dem MPs' maiden speeches

This week's House Points Liberal Democrat News was written in my hotel room in Church Stretton while I contemplated this view.

Thanks to Lib Dem Voice for assembling the materials for me.

The Maidens

There are three rules for maiden speeches. You have to say something nice about your predecessor – even if you have devoted 20 years of your life to getting rid of him. You have to describe your constituency in glowing terms – which can be more difficult in some seats than others. And you must not be controversial – though these days most new MPs mention that convention before going on to break it in an attempt to show what tough, uncompromising individuals they are.

With these rules in mind, let’s see how the new Liberal Democrat MPs are getting on.

First prize for praising your predecessor went to Duncan Hames (Chippenham). Because there have been substantial boundary changes in Wiltshire he had to praise no fewer than four of them. So he namechecked Sir Richard Needham from the old Chippenham seat, Dr Andrew Murrison from Westbury and Michael Ancram from Devizes.

But what really clinched it for him was that he found something nice to say about James Gray from North Wiltshire.

Gordon Birtwhistle took an early lead in the second contest by describing his new Burnley seat as “a special place at the heart of Pennine Lancashire, with lovely countryside and friendly people”. Stephen Lloyd hit back by describing Eastbourne as “a splendid town with a fine sea front, wonderful architecture and flanked by the stunning South Downs.” And David Ward (Bradford East) struck a rare note of honesty in this category: “I love my constituency, I really do, but it does have its problems.”

Controversial subject raised by new Lib Dem MPs included the loss of manufacturing jobs (Ian Swales, Redcar), high water bills and low incomes (Stephen Gilbert, St Austell & Newquay) and the travails of Scottish banking (Michael Crockart, Edinburgh West). Simon Wright (Norwich South) called for the dualling of the A11: “It has been estimated that for every pound required to complete the dualling, the local economy would benefit by £5.”

There is one final rule for maiden speeches: they must not be too long or you will be cut off in mid sentence by the speaker. Sadly, both Michael Crockart and Stephen Lloyd broke this one.
There is no excuse. A newspaper columnist cannot simply ignore the word length the editor has...

Plans for old Golden Wonder building approved

While I was in Shropshire, or at least preoccupied with packing to go there, Harborough District Council's planning committee approved plans for the conversion of Golden Wonder's old headquarters in the town.

According to the Harborough Mail:
The scheme involves a 60-bed Travelodge hotel plus shops and potentially two restaurants, a bar and offices in the building.

This is good news as the building (where I used to work) has lain unused for too long.

Two objectors are mentioned by the newspaper. A nearby hotel upheld the traditions of Market Harborough's business class by complaining about competition in the town.

And, bizarrely, the police were concerned about the creation of "an overnight population being created requiring a greater police presence".

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Six of the Best 65

Mark Reckons that the Sheffield Forgemasters "cut" is no such thing.

I can't find a link, but it seems that while I was on holiday Derek Simpson, the joint general secretary of Unite, invited Liberal Democrat members to tear up their membership cards. Andrew Reeves' Running Blog declines this invitation in a forthright manner.

The Critical Liberal offers Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' new deputy leader, some advice: "I’ve had a lot of sympathy with things he’s said in the past. I will probably have a lot of sympathy with anything he says in the future. However, if he decides that he is going to be the voice of the grassroots he needs to pick his battles very carefully, otherwise he will seem like a little boy throwing his toys out of the pram whenever he doesn’t get his own way." Liberal England adds: What the party needs is a deputy leader, not a leader in exile.

Farhad Manjoo, writing on Slate, suggests that Starbucks is smart to stop charging for internet access. At least in the States it is. I don't know how Labour's Digital Economy Act will affect it here. I was struck by Manjoo's opening: "Whatever you think of its coffee, Starbucks has always been a nice place to get some work done." I love the idea of writing in Starbucks - write a blog post, file a column - but the reality is that the place is full of pushchairs and kids running about. You pay for a little bit of Seattle but you just don't get it. Or is that just the Market Harborough branch?

The Glasgow Herald, in the person of Teddy Jamieson, looks forward to the After the Wave season at the Edinburgh Film Festival. "It wants to suggest that the 1970s was a more radical, more interesting period than memory allows."

Yesterday I was looking around St Laurence's, Ludlow, and came across the extraordinary memorial to Theosophilus Salwey - that's my picture of it above. PhotoReflect has also been to see it and describes it for us too: "The rather podgy putto (cherub) sits on a pedestal praying for the soul of Theophilus. To its left is an open book signifying that he was an open, honest man of learning during his lifetime. Next to it is his coat of arms, a reminder of his high status in society. Linking these two are acanthus leaves, a symbol of immortality in Classical civilization. To the right of the pedestal is a prominent skull, marked as aged by its scattered teeth, along with a few large bones. These, of course, signify death. They are balanced on a pile of closed books - a metaphor, surely, for a life that has ended. Then there is a snake with a bird-like head about to bite some fruit."

RIP Andy Ripley

I was very sorry to hear of the death of Andy Ripley. He was one of my early sporting heroes.

As I said when writing about Charles Kent a few years ago, in the 1970s you did not so much support the England rugby union team as suffer with it.

Ripley was one of the glorious exceptions to that era of mediocrity. He won 24 caps at number eight and should surely have won many more.

Steve Winwood: English Soul

From the BBC Press Office:

Steve Winwood: English Soul

No one sounds quite like Steve Winwood, not even his mentor, Ray Charles.

A major star since the mid-Sixties, Winwood progressed from fronting the Spencer Davis Group, to being the voice of Traffic and Blind Faith, to finally archiving global solo stardom in the Eighties and Nineties.

A musician's musician, Winwood is a bandleader and instrumentalist first and a star second – he led Britain's first true jam band, Traffic, away from the pop charts and into the rock stadiums of America.

Directed by Paul Bernays, Steve Winwood – English Soul enjoys exclusive access to the star in his studio in rural Gloucestershire and features extensive interviews and new performances. It also includes brilliant period archive footage from Winwood's career and a contributing cast of collaborators and musical fans.

From his early days through to his recent tour with his old friend Eric Clapton, the programme highlights key moments in Winwood's career, showing it to be a true exemplar of how the first great generation of British rock 'n' rollers evolved.

The programme includes contributions from Eric Clapton, Will Jennings, Muff Winwood, Dave Mason, Grateful Dead's Bob Weir and Mickey Hart, Paul Rodgers, Paul Weller, producer/engineer Ed Kramer and many more.

According to Talk Talk, you an see this BBC4 programme on:
  • Friday 18 June at 9.00 p.m.
  • Saturday 19 June at 00.30 a.m.
  • Sunday 20 June at 11.00 p.m.
That's my weekend taken care of.

Winwood was also the guest on the Simon Mayo Show on Wednesday - go to about one hour in.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Shakespeare at the Ludlow Festival

They were busy building the stage for Othello at Ludlow Castle today. It made things difficult for anyone trying to view the ruins, but I have fond memories of seeing both Hamlet and A Midsummer Night's Dream here.

Cathy Tyson arrived on her bicycle to play Titania - as fresh and wholesome as Felicity Kendall.

Ming headed Down Under?

Every time there is a big job up for grabs the name of Sir Menzies Campbell finds its way into the newspapers.

This time the job is High Commissioner to Australia and the Daily Mail suggests:
A move for Sir Ming, 69, would remove a potentially tricky coalition critic and suit his wife Elspeth’s social aspirations.

Lowdham Book Festival

The Lowdham Book Festival began yesterday and runs until 1 July. The festival website says:

After last year's enormous tenth Lowdham Book Festival we've slimmed down a little! But we hope there is still something for everyone, particularly on our last day when, as always, all events are free and there is a very large book fair and café.

We have quite a few events outside the village, including our Bloomsbury Reading Groups Day in Hoveringham and a free concert at Southwell Minster.

I shall be speaking about blogging at the festival as part of a panel from Leicester Writers Club. This session will take place on Saturday 26 June.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

St Wystan and Holy Trinity, Wistanstow






Three years ago I wrote about the three villages which contend as the site of the martyrdom of St Wystan. Today I visited one of them - Wistanstow in Shropshire.

The guidebook for Holy Trinity, Wistanstow, describes the stained glass in the boy saint's honour:
St Wystan stands in a window as a golden haired boy in a red cloak taking the crown from his mother, who is dressed in blue, white and gold. Below is the scene of his martyrdom. Above is a group of buildings by a river which may be to investigate his home and final resting place in Repton.
After that it would be churlish to point out that Wistow in Leicestershire has a much stronger claim to be the site of his martyrdom.

Lord Saville is Malcolm Saville's nephew

I am writing this in Shropshire.

As my discovery of the county was largely due to the children's writer Malcom Saville, it seems appropriate to mention that he was the uncle of Lord Saville whose report on Bloody Sunday is published today.

When that report was already long overdue, I observed in one of my late, lamented New Statesman columns:

Lord Saville would do well to study his uncle’s methods. Take 1950. In that year Malcolm published The Adventure of the Life-Boat Service - a tribute to “this wonderful and typical British institution”.

He also published The Master of Maryknoll - an exciting tale of a stolen violin set in the hills above Ludlow. He published The Flying Fish Adventure, which was set in Marazion in Cornwall. And he published The Sign of the Alpine Rose, set in the Austrian Tyrol.

If Lord Saville has shown anything like that industry he would have produced his report years ago and we could have spent the £180m on ginger beer.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Much Wenlock? I get my share

Today I have been to Much Wenlock and its impressive ruined priory.

When I see the results of the Reformation I think of Henry VIII as a sort of 16th century Stalin, destroying valuable social institutions to strengthen the state.

Cow brings traffic to a standstill

One of the pleasures of being in the county is that I am able to buy the Shropshire Star.

Today's issue features a story about a cow escaping from a field near the Shirehall in Shrewsbury and holding up the traffic. For some unaccountable reason it has failed to make the newspaper's website.

The Star has an endearing habit of mixing local and national news on the same page. So this story about a cow appears next to a photograph of Catherine Zeta-Jones accepting a Tony for her role in a revival of A Little Night Music.

Acton Scott historic working farm





Yesterday I visited Acton Scott and its historic working farm, which you may know from the television series The Victorian Farm.

As its website says, it:
offers a fascinating insight into rural life at the turn of the 19th century, as farm life unfolds daily and the land around is worked by heavy horses. There are demonstrations of period skills and visits from the Wheelwright, Farrier and Blacksmith, providing a picture of life as it might have been on a Victorian country estate.
The former School House, originally built by Frances Stackhouse Acton in the late 19th century, has been recently restored and is now a charming cafe.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Six of the Best 64

UK Lolitics (I think - I never understand LiveJournal) has an obsessive invaluable guide to "The many ties of Nicholas Clegg".

The problem with British democracy, says The Futility Monster, is that MPs are the new social workers. There is a lot in that, though ultimately there has to be someone to intervene on behalf of those crushed by the arbitrary machinery of public administration. Think of the man from Shropshire in Bleak House.

Craig Murray explains the current violence in Osh in Kyrgyzstan/ It's all Stalin's fault: "The Soviet Union was in theory just that - a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Kirghizstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were three of them. But whatever the theory, Stalin had no intention of allowing the republics to become viable entities or potential powerbases for rivals. So they were deliberately messed up with boundaries that cut across natural economic units like the Ferghana Valley and cut cultural and ethnic links."

Writing for The Huffington Post, Michael Roth argues in defence of traditional liberal education.

Patricia Cohen in the New York Times says: "People between 20 and 34 are taking longer to finish their educations, establish themselves in careers, marry, have children and become financially independent."

And Wartime Housewife has a recipe for elderflower cordial.

George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad



A bit of culture this week, as I am writng this in Church Stretton and the only Shropshire band I can think of is T'Pau. And you wouldn't want that.

Shropshire means Housman. And (with apologies to Ralph Vaughan Williams) Housman means George Butterworth.

So this week's video brings you Butterworth's setting of the poem "Loveliest of Trees" and then moves rather abruptly into his glorious orchestral rhapsody on the theme. It ought to be the Shropshire national anthem. Certainly before "China in Your Hand".

As a page devoted to George Butterworth says:

Although just about every English composer of the time attempted some settings of the poems of A. E. Housman (1859-1936), none caught the essence of the poetry like Butterworth – and no other composer is quite so associated with these poems, especially A Shropshire Lad (published in 1896).

As well as having a recurrent death wish theme, many of Housman's poems return to the senselessness of war and the arbitrariness of who would return and who would not. Although it was the Boer war that was the main subject of such poems, WWI brought new force to the agony of these lines.

It is with almost fatalistic irony (only too common in the world of the arts – for example Pushkin foretelling his own death in Eugene Onegin) that we note that Housman would long outlive these young men, particularly his greatest musical interpreter: Butterworth.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Somme robbed us of the most promising composer of his generation.

Cancelling the extension of free school meals

There has been some controversy in the Liberal Democrat blogosphere over the coalition government’s decision to cancel the extension of free school meals that Labour had announced. Nick Perry says "Progressives do not cut free school meals" and Liberal Burblings thinks that the lack of an explanation from the government is "disgraceful".

I am not so sure.

Was a support for this increase in the Liberal Democrat manifesto? I can recall no discussion of it within the party. It certainly did not feature in our general election campaign.

This proposed extension looks more like an elephant trap left by a Labour government that expected to leave office at the last election rather than a serious proposal for government.

So when Nick Perry says:
There are many things, in policy terms, that rank and file members will be expected to swallow as a result of the Coalition. There are Lib Dem red lines drawn in the agreement. There are abstentions arranged for the Parliamentary Party on particular issues.
he is right. But it is far from clear to me that Liberal Democrat members should die in the ditch for Labour policies.

This talk of being a "Progressive", after all, is not something one usually hears in Liberal Democrat circles. It is essentially a Labour concept - one promoted by those who hope that the Liberal Democrats will one day give up and join them. We heard a great deal of it in the days after the election from people like Lord Adonis.

I am not a Progressive. I am a Liberal. And I say I am not a Progressive because as far as the concept exists as a political idea in Britain, it implies an acceptance of the idea that progress consists in more and more areas of social life being run or policed by government. That is an idea I reject.

Behind that idea is the view that the general populace cannot be trusted. Give the poor more money and they won't use it to feed their children: it will all go on gin, the football pools or whatever their betters currently disapprove of. Better for the state to take over the feeding of all our children.

I don't think such an idea would work even if we could afford it. So this is one coalition policy that I shall not die in the ditch to oppose. Let's campaign for more generous benefits or a more successful economy with higher wages instead.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Cartoon: Cuts and Britain's credit rating


Howard's cartoon from Friday's Liberal Democrat News.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Ratlinghope sin-eater

"I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen."

This is the grave of the Munslow family in the churchyard at Ratlinghope in Shropshire. Richard Munslow is said to have been the last 'sin-eater' in the area.

A sin-eater attended the funerals of those who had died unprepared to meet their maker. By eating bread and drinking ale, and by making the short speech above at the graveside, he took upon himself the sins of the deceased.

Richard Munslow died in 1906. There is more about his grave and plans to restore it on the BBC website. The text of the sin-eater's speech comes from Shropshire Gallery.

Ratlinghope is a beautiful green bowl in the hills and there are swallows (or are they swifts?) nesting in the church porch. You can also hear the curlews on the hills above.

Later. The grave has been restored since I took this photograph.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Church Stretton sculpture trail







You can find these wonderful sculptures, the work of Dave Bytheway, in the grounds of the Longmynd Hotel.

Later. A group of bears like this could be terribly twee, but here you get the feeling that you have stumbled upon something sacred.

The Church Stretton Sheela Na Gig

St Laurence, Church Stretton, is currently undergoing extensive renovation to make it "more suitable for worship in the 21st century" - something to make any High Church atheist suspicious.

Fortunately, the church's Sheela Na Gig has survived this transformation. As The Sheela Na Gig Project website tells us:
Sheela Na Gigs are quasi-erotic stone carvings of a female figure usually found on Norman or to be more precise Romanesque churches. They consist of an old woman squatting and pulling apart her vulva, a fairly strange thing to find on a church. The carvings are old and often do not seem to be part of the church but have been taken from a previous older, usually romanesque, building.
The website discusses the Church Stretton figure in detail:

Sheela can be found on the north face of the building over an old Norman doorway. As you can see from the photograph it is quite weathered, the stone has a reddish tinge which is dissimilar from the surrounding stones but is similar to the red sandstone which incorporated from an earlier Norman chapel.

Just below the carving is another small carving of a flower which appears to be of the same stone. This would seem to indicate that this was not it's original position and might have been taken from an earlier structure.

The vagina has been filled in with a small stone this may be an attempt to make the image a little less "crude". An unusual feature of this figure is the fat thighs or knees. You can just make out vestigial ribs on the chest of the figure.

All in all the carving is quite crude which again makes it look at odds with the rest of the church. It is quite high up on the church and appears to be guarding the door below it

David Willetts: Students "a burden on the taxpayer"

David Willetts has been in the news for saying that cost of students is "a burden on the taxpayer" and that they should consider tuition fees "more as an obligation to pay higher income tax" than a debt".

I have a lot of sympathy for the view that Labour's 50 per cent target was arbitrary and not well thought out, but two things about Willetts' comments occur to me. I am not sure if they are contradictory, but here they are.

The first is that if we had a more progressive taxation system then it might be possible do away with tuition altogether. Those who earned high salaries due to their education would pay more tax and everyone would be happy.

The second is that there is something decadent about a society in which one generation is no longer prepared to pay for the education of the next. As so often, the problem with modern Conservatives is that they are not Conservative enough.

House Points: Michael Gove's plans for education

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News. Instinctively I am rather in favour of Gove's ideas, but it becomes harder to defend them when you have to set your views down in writing.

A mixed report

How do you know when the delegates for a teachers’ union conference have flown in? Because the whining noise continues after the jet’s engines have been turned off.

Unfair no doubt, but you have to admit the educational world is infected with a terrible negativity. Reading the Guardian education section on Tuesdays, which ought to be an uplifting experience, leaves you looking for an inventive way of ending it all.

So it’s no surprise that the education unions are against the coalition’s ideas for schools: they have been against every initiative for as long as anyone can remember. And such is the current malaise in education that it is hard not to welcome any proposals that will shake things up. But let’s try a fair evaluation of these ideas.

The Conservative emphasis on allowing new schools to be set up fits well with our beloved Pupil Premium. Without it there is a danger that we would just see children from middle-class families being squeezed out by poorer children in popular schools. What we desperately need are more good schools overall.

And we should be pleased if new schools are set up by parents and community groups. Such ideas were around in the Liberal Party in the 1970s and we have lost sight of them for too long. But Liberal Democrats will be less attracted by the suggestion that commercial companies should run schools and the accompanying talk of brands and chains.

Nor is the encouragement to successful schools to opt out of local authority control attractive. One thing that Labour got right was to grasp that it is the schools that are doing badly which need shaking up. And civic pride in local schools is likely to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

However these ideas turn out – as ever, some will flourish and some will not – we are going to have a get used to an education world where a lot of exotic flowers bloom. It certainly will not be one controlled from Ed Balls’ old desk in Whitehall. So it good to see that Michael Gove has trimmed the grandiose name (“Department for Children, Schools and Families”) he inherited from Balls.

And perhaps we could all stop moaning too?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Liberal England comes to you live from Shropshire

I have brought the Dowager Lady Bonkers to Church Stretton for a holiday and this is my view from my bedroom window.

The hotel has free Wi-Fi, so blogging will probably continue.

Steve Winwood interviewed in GQ

There are a lot of interviews with Winwood around at the moment because of the release of his Revolutions box set. I promise not to link to every one of them, but the interview with Dylan Jones in GQ is well worth reading.

Three quick points of interest.

Jones has used the line about Winwood being the coolest man on God's earth at Blind Faith's Hyde Park concert before.

He mentions Mick Jagger's brother Chris being in the crowd that day. We saw him more recently with Tessa Munt and Paddy Ashdown.

Winwood wrote the Spencer Davis Group song "It Hurts Me So" when he was 12 years old.