Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Trivial Fact of the Day ends in a tie

All day the sounds of raised voices, overturning furniture and muffled gunshots have been heard coming from the room where the judges for our Trivial Fact of the Day award meet. As there appears to be no one left standing, I hereby declare the contest a tie between the following two facts.

The actor Leslie Nielsen, who died yesterday, had a brother who was the deputy prime minister of Canada.

Erik Nielsen, who died in 2008, served in that capacity between 1984 and 1986. The CBC website has an engaging audio of the two of them being interviewed together. The accompanying photograph suggests that, sadly, Erik did not look exactly like Leslie. That really would have been funny in the cabinet photographs.

The England cricketer Alastair Cook spent five years as a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral.

And it appears that you can here him singing a treble solo on a 1997 CD of works by Blow, Boyce and Handel: Music for St Paul's.

Lord Bonkers adds: The finest classical performance by an England batsman since Brian Luckhurst's Winterreise.

More in sorrow than in Ongar

Earlier today a party member happily tweeted a link to an article on the Brentwood and Ongar Liberal Democrats website.

Under the headline:
Shock at lack of safety checks for "Lighting Up Brentwood"
it complains that the local council has allowed people to act as volunteers at a public event without having Criminal Record Bureau checks.

The arguments deployed range from the toe curling:
"I express my concern over this matter in the strongest of terms, both as an elected councillor representing hundreds of Brentwood families and as the auntie of a three year old boy.
to the spurious:
"CRB checks are also in place to protect the employee/volunteer too and they could be putting themselves in a vulnerable position of facing an accusation.
Fortunately, the relevant minister, Lynne Featherstone, takes a more sensible view:
In the wake of Soham, we were all so horrified by what had happened – that child protection concerns resulted in the introduction of the Vetting and Barring Scheme. All those who would wish to work with vulnerable adults and children had to go through this scheme (which would include CRB checks) to be vetted and if necessary barred from such work. Lists are kept of those who are barred from such work by the scheme.

The consequences of this scheme would have been nine million people having to register – had it become fully operational.

So – the allied action the Government is taking is a review of the Vetting and Barring Scheme to scale it back – as per the coalition agreement – to common sense levels. We are just in the process of setting the Terms of Reference for this review.

The world of suspicious minds we all inadvertently created went too far. Together, these two reviews, Vetting and Barring and the Criminal Records checks, will help us get the balance right.
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Monday, November 29, 2010

Six of the Best 111

More good humoured are Laws’s accounts of Paddy Ashdown, who comes through in the book as having played a central role as an advisor to Nick Clegg and others and who hasn’t changed his habits: “I switched off my phone only to be woken half an hour later by Paddy who, having failed to get through on my mobile, had managed to track down my pager number instead. I cannot remember what he said to me at 3:15am, but I have the distinct recollection of thinking that it could have waited until a more civilised hour.” Mark Pack reviews 22 Days in May by David Laws.

Liberal Bureaucracy can handle the consorting. It's the travelling that gets him down.

"The staff of local councils often embody the values of public service more than the senior management do, especially where managers have been brought in from the private sector to run local authorities 'as a business'. Giving staff a greater stake could have the effect, therefore, of strengthening, rather than weakening the public sector ethos." Localopolis argues for the extension of staff mutual councils in local government.

Adventures in the Print Trade looks at George Grosz.

"Is English song like the (supposed) English psyche, reticent and unassuming?" asks Classical Iconoclast after attending an innovative performance of works by Britten, Finzi and Tippett.

geoffpages blog has some lovely photographs of the Stiperstones in the snow.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Herd: I Don't Want Our Loving to Die



This is another of the sixties tracks where I have always known the song but probably could not tell you the name of the band that recorded it.

The Herd was a South London band given, in the happy phrase of Wikipedia, "a unique blend of pop and flower power" by the songwriters Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. This was their most successful single, reaching number five in March 1968.

It's most significant member was Peter Frampton, here a fresh-faced young guitarist who must have been all of 18. Indeed, he was named as "The Face of 1968" by the teen magazine Rave.

He was later to form Humble Pie with Steve Marriott of the Small Faces, before enjoying a brief but spectacular period of success in the US with the LP Frampton Comes Alive! The singles from that LP had a gimmick, using a voice box with his guitar - try Show Me the Way.

In 1978 he starred with the Bee Gees in Robert Stigwood's film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and was rarely heard of again.

David Mitchell: Trying too hard

Nick Thornsby rightly takes aim at David Mitchell's column in the Observer today, saying that he uses it:
to join the long list of lefties who have set their sights on enemy number one: Nick Clegg. And there was I thinking comedians valued originality.

On top of its tedious lack of creativity, the column is also hopelessly misinformed.
You can read the whole Mitchell piece here.

It is feature of modern Britain that we take the political pronouncements terribly seriously. Biting the hand that briefly fed me, I commented on this on the New Statesman in my first New Statesman column:
if you open it today you find that every comedian in the country has a column. And Julian Clary has a big one.
It wasn’t like that in the seventies. The contents page didn‘t read:
Freddie "Parrot-Face" Davies on the future of the Common Market;
Dickie Henderson on the Palestine Question
And coming next week:
Mike and Bernie Winters debate the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy.
Though it has to be admitted that one reason for the reverence towards comedians was the weakness of the opposition parties during the Blair years. For a time Rory Bremner and then Armando Iannucci really were among the government's more telling critics.

As to David Mitchell, I have never taken his political views seriously since I caught one of his appearances as compere of Have I Got News for You. It was the week that Damian Green was arrested over Whitehall leaks and Mitchell implied that he found this funny and pleasing.

When challenged over his attitude by Ian Hislop, Mitchell justified himself by pointing out that Green was a Conservative MP.

I don't believe for a moment that Mitchell really think Conservative MPs should be arrested. What he was doing was affecting the left-wing views that are obligatory in the arts world and doing it unconvincingly because those views do not come naturally to him.

And why should they? Mitchell's education was prep school, public school and Cambridge. His parents were both university lecturers. Why should we expect him to have left-wing views?

I suggest that the real David Mitchell is a far more subtle and interesting person than he allows himself to appear in today's Observer. He can be found in a piece about the Wimbledon tennis tournament he wrote for the Guardian at about the same time that Green's arrest was in the headlines:
And "unthinking adherence" is fundamentally what is both old-fashioned and inspiring about it. Their mission statement, if they were unpleasant enough to have one, would just be: "This is quite simply what we do." It's an example of the English common law approach, Burkean conservatism as opposed to a French revolutionary "start from scratch" strategy: valuing things that have evolved and are fit for purpose in the knowledge that we probably wouldn't be able to make them again.

I'm glad to live in a fairly questioning culture and age, but it can be tiring - and it's so relaxing to spend a day in a place where the only question they ask themselves is whether they've maintained their standards, not where those standards came from.
A good rule for all writers - including bloggers - is to say what you really believe, not what you think you ought to believe.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sweeney Todd on the South Bank Show



If you enjoyed the film - where Johnny Depp sounds like David Bowie and you fear little Toby may break into a tap dance at any moment - on Channel 4 tonight, you will love this.

This is a South Bank Show from 30 years ago which shows the preparations for the opening of the first London production of Sondheim's original musical. Watch the first part here and Youtube will guide you to the later ones.

When Bragg celebrated and mourned the end of the South Bank Show, an edited version of this was shown. I was a little shaken when I realised I remembered the original.

Market Harborough station in the 1950s



An ex-Midland 0-6-0 on the up Midland line at Market Harborough. The former LNWR lines (from Rugby and Northampton to Stamford and Melton Mowbray) passed on the other side of the signal box. Frustratingly, the Bonkers Hall Branch diverges just out of frame.

This photograph is by Ben Brooksbank, who says he began taking shots of the railway in 1946. I do not know precisely when it dates from, but I would guess the 1950s. Even in the 1970s though, there was a daily mixed freight train like this (albeit drawn by a diesel) that set back into the goods yard from the up Midland line.

And remember to insist on Ketton Cement.

The Scottish referees' strike

The referees' strike in Scotland reminds of something I wrote back in 2005:
I am writing this listening to Arsenal vs Manchester United. Like all good Chelsea fans, I am hoping for a draw.

The commentators are saying that the players and both benches are yelling at the referee every time he makes a decision. This typifies our modern inability to submit to any authority at all.

I am reminded of David Mellor and his successful attempt to reinvent himself as a populist football pundit on BBC Radio Five Live. He did two things. The first was to do affect an estuary accent - rather like Tony Blair on Richard and Judy. If you had heard Mellor broadcasting on classical music in his normal voice Radio 3, and then doing his football show on Five, you would not have realised it was the same person.

The other thing Mellor did was to acquire some attitudes that he thought would appeal to the masses. Chief among these was contempt for referees. The most one-eyed fan ringing in to complain his team had been robbed was sure of a sympathetic hearing.

If former Tory cabinet ministers have no respect for figures of authority like referees, what chance is there that anyone else will? This supports the claim I made the other day that Conservatism no longer exists as a political philosophy in this country.

Richard Sennett's Authority is supposed to be a good discussion of the subject from a left-wing point of view. I borrowed it recently from Leicester University's library, but some bastard recalled the book before I could read it.
Since then the rise of David Cameron has meant that something recognisable as traditional Conservatism can be seen in British politics again. But apart from that I still agree with that posting.

Incidentally, did anyone had more luck in reading the Richard Sennett book?

The Guardian is turning into a comic

Today's Guardian has a feature introduced as follows:
"Ellen White took part in this week's protest. George Norman did not. We brought them together to thrash out their differences.
An interesting idea. But guess which school George Norman used used to attend?

Go on, guess.

That's right. Eton.

It's a classic pieces of polytoynbeeism. And so the poor old Guardian's decline into a comic for public sector workers steepens.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Another photo of Conwy's town walls

My speech to Leicester Writers Club annual dinner

Last Thursday I gave the speech at the dinner of Leicester Writers Club. I won't reproduce the whole thing here, but it leant heavily on some of my old House Points columns in Liberal Democrat News.

It also included two of my favourite jokes:
Two prawns talking: "I'm really worried about Mum and Dad. They went to a cocktail party last night and they haven't come home yet.
And:
My friend drinks brake fluid. But it's all right: he says he can stop any time he wants.
I leaned heavily on Julian Critchley's no doubt greatly exaggerated anecdote about the Conservative MP David James. In the general election of 1964, where Harold Wilson scraped in with a majority of three, the closest result was at Brighton Kemptown where James lost to Labour by seven votes.

According to Critchley, he spent the campaign by the shores of the loch, sending occasional telegrams to Sussex saying: "Have almost found the monster. Hope all goes well with the campaign." Happily this did not prevent his finding another seat.

Oh, and I repeated my favourite political story:
A keen new Conservative MP is sitting in the house, staring intently at the Labour benches.

"What're you doin', young Tompkins?" asked an old buffer, sitting down next to him.

"Staring at the enemy, sir."

"No, that's the opposition. The enemy is on this side."
I also won one of the club's awards: The Penfold Media Trophy, which takes the form of an optical toy (a sort of kaleidoscope, except that it distorts the view) I can keep for a year. It was chiefly for my trip to New York for Oxfam.

Two years ago I won the Trudy Dubb Award for non-fiction - the first cup I have won since my chess-playing days. This is all very generous of them, considering how rarely I read my work at the club. These days as soon as I have written something I press Publish or Send.

This is very generous of the club, considering how little of my work I have read there.

Why were Howard Flight's comments so offensive?

The always sensible Stumbling and Mumbling points out:
For the second time in as many weeks, a Tory has had to apologize for saying something that contains a lot of truth. This time, it's Howard Flight, who said:
"We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that's not very sensible."
But the truth - of course - is that people do, at the margin, respond to incentives. If you raise the cost of having children, people will have fewer of them.
Yet while I had some sympathy with David Young, because many people have done well out of the low interest rates of recent years, I found Howard Flight's remarks despicable.

Why the difference?

It was that word "breeding". You talk about animals like that, not people. By speaking as he did Flight gave me the impression that he holds great swathes of his fellow men - those with less money than  H. Flight - in contempt.

For that reason, I do not want to see him given a peerage.

He also makes me feel enthusiastic about an elected upper house. Though, come to think of it, popular election has not kept right-wing nutters out of the lower house.

Six of the Best 110

Rather improbably, since it was the paper that forced his resignation, a leader in today's Daily Telegraph calls for David Laws to make an early return to the political frontline.

Liberal Burblings is happy with a reply he has received from Elwyn Watkins about his views on human rights. Paul Walter, who writes the blog, looks forward to returning to Oldham East and Saddleworth very soon to help Elwyn and his very capable team. Elwyn will be the Lib Dem candidate if there is a rerun election in the seat.

Congratulations to Tim Farron for getting ministers to promise to look at proposals to make second home owners pay full council tax, says A Lanson Boy.

John Hemming writes about the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street station. Personally I would rather see it razed to the ground and the land ploughed with salt, but it sounds as though the new station will be better than what we have now.

Thoroughly Good Blog reports on an event he ran at City University under the title #pimpmyblog. He includes videos from several different speakers.

"It's always good fun to confront the bourgeois left," says Freedom and Whisky after yesterday's student demonstrations in Edinburgh.

Tanya Gold is a timid conservative

I'm going to be tried for treason for saying this, but a royal wedding still makes idiots of us Brits
says the standfirst on Tanya Gold's Guardian article today.

This is, of course, nonsense.

The only way to commit treason in a Guardian article would be to criticise Tony Benn or say you don't agree with comprehensive education.

So far from being a rebel, Gold is being conservative. A column defending a constitutional monarchy would have been braver.

Daphne Oxenford is still with us

[Later. Daphne Oxenford died just before Christmas 2012. The Daily Telegraph ran a full obituary.]

I was pleased to discover today that Daphne Oxenford - as in "When the music stops, Daphne Oxenford will be here to speak to you"; as in Listen With Mother - is still going strong at the age of 91.

Here is a Theatre Archive Project interview with her from 2005.

Take it away, girls...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

David Laws interviewed - and returning to government?

David Laws is interviewed by Helen Duffett on Lib Dem Voice about his new book 22 Days in May:
Why have you published this book now? You said you wanted to get matters on the record, but why not write it now and publish it in ten years? That’s the way memoirs used to work, so why so keen to publish after only six months? Isn’t history better judged from a distance?

I think it’s important for us now that people in the country understand how we made the decisions we made in May 2010, and what factors were uppermost in our minds. And also that we nail some of the misrepresentations that have come out from some of the others involved in the talks, particularly on the Labour side, where people have attempted to claim that we went into the negotiations with some sort of preconception about what type of deal we wanted. And actually what the book shows is that if we went in with any preconceptions at all, it was that a coalition with Labour would be considerably easier to deliver if the electoral maths enabled it, than a coalition with the Conservative party.
Meanwhile, BBC News is reporting that the prime minister has said that he would like to see Laws return to government:
Asked if he would like Mr Laws in his top ministerial team again, Mr Cameron told journalists "yes, and soon".

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dr Who's grandson becomes captain of Warwickshire

Warwickshire have named Jim Troughton as their new captain following the resignation of Ian Westwood.

The 31-year-old, who has played six one-day internationals for England, first appeared for the Bears in 1999 and made his first-class bow in 2001.
What this BBC News report does not mention is that Jim Troughton is the grandson of the actor Patrick Troughton - the second Dr Who and also Cole Hawlings from The Box of Delights.

Readers intereted by this trivial fact may also be interested in the theatrical forebears of Toby Flood.

British Pathe visits Conwy in 1941



In 1941 British Pathe visited Conwy, where I finished my holiday last summer. Click on the picture above to see the newsreel.

Of particular interest is the Tudor house Plas Mawr, which I shall show you another day. It has been restored and the outside walls have been rendered, as they would have been when it was first built, making it look very different from how it appeared in 1941.

The mock Tudor front (brick rather than black and white) the town's Castle Hotel was given in the 19th century to match Plas Mawr now looks quite out of place.

Nick Clegg should speak about liberalism not "progressivism"

Nick Clegg has an article in today's Guardian contrasting the "new progressivism" of the Coalition with the "old progressivism" of the last Labour government.

I have a lot of sympathy for the view of Contrasting Sounds:
the word “progressive” should be taken outside of UK politics and shot. Or rather, restricted to its technical meaning in tax discussions. I’m a reasonably well read chap and had never heard of “progressive” politics in the UK until the whole hung parliament circus this past May. I thought it was simply the word used by American liberals who had given up the fight against the Republican smear machine.
Because Nick is really talking about is the contrast between liberalism and socialism. He complains of socialists' belief that higher public spending is a good thing irrespective of what it is spent on and of their enthusiasm for narrow and static measures of poverty.

Solution Focused Politics complains that attacks on Labour will drive voters away from the Liberal Democrats. But there is plenty of time to be more consensual before the next general election. Besides, Labour activists are still at the stage of grieving where they believe that Liberal Democrats eat babies. They will not be interested in talking to us for a while yet.

More urgent is the need for Nick Clegg to give the Liberal Democrats a bit more ideological backbone and to explain the voters - and to the party itself - what we are seeking to achieve by being part of the government. His Guardian article is a useful step along that path.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Lembit Opik: A nice boy when you get to know him, says his Mum

The Leicester Mercury has an interview with Lembit's mother, Liivi Opik, who lives in the city:
"There is nothing he will not do," she says, swelling with pride. "He is like Action Man."

But he always was, she says. He didn't even like to sleep when he was a boy, because he feared he was missing out on the fun.
She will be pleased that the TV critic of the Shropshire Star thinks "he is proving to be one of the nice guys".

Monday, November 22, 2010

Conwy


From Blaenau Ffestiniog I took the railway to Conwy, a perfect walled town with a huge Medieval castle:
The first time that visitors catch sight of the castle, commanding a rock above the Conwy Estuary and demanding as much attention as the dramatic Snowdonia skyline behind it, they know they are in the presence of a historic site which still casts a powerful spell.

Conwy, constructed by the English monarch Edward I between 1283 and 1289 as one of the key fortresses in his 'iron ring' of castles to contain the Welsh, was built to prompt such a humbling reaction.
It is equally impressive glimpsed across the river as the train takes you to Llandudno Junction.

Brian Eno in the New Scientist

It makes no mention of his role as Nick Clegg's adviser on youth affairs, but the New Scientist has a positively gushing piece about Brian Eno:
Eno's own work on music technology dates back to the start of his career. Though he began with glam rock and Roxy Music in the early 1970s, he quickly began experimenting with new styles: pioneering ambient music, flirting with "generative music" and commissioning the development of software that would allow him to process sounds in strange and interesting ways.

Philip Pullman commits polytoynbeeism in public

Last month we caught Stuart Jeffries and Armando Iannucci committing polytoynbeeism. Between them they argued that anyone who wished to see public spending cuts must be a supporter of the Tea Party agenda.

In today's Guardian the children's writer Philip Pullman did much the same thing. In an article on cuts to the library service he is quoted as saying:
"Those who think that every expert can be replaced by a cheerful volunteer who can step in and do a complex task for nothing but a cup of tea are those who fundamentally want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished."
I am a great supporter of public libraries. That is despite the fact that I hardly ever borrow from them these days. Still, there have been times in my life (when I was a child and when I was young and poor) when I was very glad to do so, and there may be times like that again. So I am instinctively against any cuts to public libraries.

But two things in what Pullman is quoted as saying really will not do.

The first is the notion that, when it comes to books, anyone who is not a professional librarian is a cheerful volunteer who dispenses cups to tea. What, on this analysis, does he make of the explosion in readers' groups and local literary festivals? You would expect any professional writer to find these developments immensely encouraging. If Pullman really believes what he told the Guardian, he must find them embarrassing.

The second is the implication that if you are prepared to support cuts in the library service then you must "want to see every single public service sold off, closed down, abolished". You have only to type that out to see that it is nonsense. What about someone who wants to see more spending on the NHS or education, but believes public libraries have had their day. On Pullman's analysis he or she should not even exist.

Much of the Guardian now consists of polytoynbeeism. Anyone who suggests it might be necessary or desirable to move on from the policies pursued by the last Labour government must be a crazed right-winger.

As someone who has read the paper for all his adult life, I find this profoundly depressing.

Six of the Best 109

Northern Neil reports from the front line in Oldham East and Saddleworth: "The seat is a fascinating mix people with rich and poor, rural and inner city and a wide ethnic mix in the area. You probably couldn't get a more representative seat for Britain."

The Lib Dems need to get more emotional to win over voters, argues Solution Focused Politics.

Keynesian Liberal writes on the fall of Lord Young (for telling the truth or something close to it) and the perils of wearing short trousers in winter.

"There was a time in New York, in the 1920s when scientists proposed a great wall along the waterfront to shut out rats completely, to seal out rats and, thus, forever end rat fear. Eventually, though, the idea was deemed implausible and abandoned: rats will always get through.” BLDGBLOG considers the challenge of achieving a rodent-free metropolis.

Rye Castle Museum has a list of books set in and around the town, including works by this blog's hero Malcolm Saville.

Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker is discussed by Subtitle Literate.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Percy Faith: Theme from A Summer Place



The other day some people were discussing what the number one single was the day they were born. With me it was Running Bear by Johnny Preston (hubba, hubba). But in looking that up I discovered that this track had also been in the top 10.

Which helps to explain why I cannot remember a time when I did not know this tune, even if I did not know what it was called. It turns out to be not Theme from a Summer Place, but Theme from A Summer Place - the theme from the film A Summer Place.

Are we allowed to like easy listening at the moment? (If not, then I refer you to Frank Zappa from a couple of weeks ago.) Personally, I always associate tunes like this with getting up early to go somewhere as a child and hearing Radio 2 playing on the coach.

A short biographical piece on Faith records that between 1951 and 1976 recorded some 85 albums for Columbia:
Faith's worst sin may have been that of being too good a craftsman. He worked strings, woodwinds, and brass together so seamlessly that the result often achieves a surface of schmaltz that belies the fine work underneath. And with that many albums, there is a certain amount of crap to be expected.
This tune is not among the crap. One day I may hit you with Raymond Lefèvre or Horst Jankowski.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Alternative Vote explained

Later. If you are looking for a serious guide to how AV works, try this video.







John Reardon was mentioned here when Nick Clegg's first speech as Lib Dem leader persuaded him to resign from the Labour Party. It wasn't that it made him join us: it made him despair of British politics altogether.

Judging by his blog - whence I have borrowed this illustration - he has since joined the Greens.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Blaenau Ffestiniog


At the other end of the Ffestiniog Railway from Porthmadog stands Blaenau Ffestiniog. This little town is dominated by the relics of the slate industry and is now trying to make a living from tourism, even though it was pointedly excluded when the boundaries of the Snowdonia National Park were drawn.

The slate industry must have been enormously profitable at one time. The little railways that traverse the landscape of North Wales were built to service it, and the standard guage Conway Valley line that links the town with the coast almost at once dives into a two-mile tunnel.

Calder on Air: Lembit in the jungle

My column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

"Celebs" and Comedy

The frustrating thing about Lembit Opik is that deep down – very deep down – you sense there is a serious politician trying to get out. I remember a meeting of the Federal Policy Committee where he came in halfway through a discussion on defence and illuminated it by drawing it by drawing on his family’s experience of foreign occupation.
But moments like that have been rarer of late. It is not often I can claim to have been prophetic, but two years ago, in the wake of his defeat by Ros Scott in the election for party president, I wrote on my blog Liberal England:

Lembit has tested to destruction the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity. He now needs to take himself more seriously in order to persuade others to take him more seriously. He has a Westminster seat to retain and will no doubt return to the Lib Dem front bench soon.
Otherwise... As I write this, Neil and Christine Hamilton, as if in dreadful warning to him, are appearing on Hole in the Wall.
Well, he wasn’t asked to return to the front bench, didn’t hold his seat and failed to heed my warning. And today he is in the jungle.

Or as Lembit put it in a thumping non sequitur in the opening show of this year’s I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here (ITV1): “I used to be a Member of Parliament. I’m not any more. That’s why I’m here.”

There is something deeply unlovely about I’m a Celebrity... True, none of the contestants are forced to be there, but already Gillian McKeith is emerging as the least popular girl in the school, forced to undergo an ordeal every evening by a vengeful public while that strange Geordie quadruped Antndec capers around like a giggling little boy allowed to be part of the school bully’s entourage.

Lembit’s hopes he will emerge from the jungle as the natural choice to be Liberal Democrat candidate in the next London Mayoral election. I don’t quite get the logic – is he expecting to be up against Wagner and Felicity Kendall? – but there is a precedent of a sort.

Except that Brian Paddick went off to the jungle only after being the party’s last Mayoral candidate. Perhaps that was wise. if London’s voters had seen his inability to deal with David Van Day and the double-decker first, they would have had less confidence in his ability to run Transport for London.

******

The Armstrong and Miller sketch with the RAF pilots who talk street is popular for two reasons. It is linguistically clever, marrying two forms of speech you would think are incompatible. And, by juxtaposing wartime sacrifice and our modern sense of entitlement, it points an unfashionable but valid moral.

Beyond that it is hard to remember which sketches are from Armstong and Miller and which from Mitchell and Webb. In fact I may not have got that right. It could equally be Mitchell and Miller and Armstrong and Webb.

The difference, if I have got this right, is that Mitchell and Webb are the better actors, while Armstrong and Miller too often rely on the university revue tactic of putting on a hat and doing a funny accent.

If you want original comedy at the moment look to The Trip (BBC2), where Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are developing the edgy, semi-fictionalised partnership they began in the film A Cock and Bull Story.

This time they are on a tour of restaurants across the North of England, indulging in impression duels and sparring for superiority. With Coogan and Brydon playing exaggerated versions of themselves, we are in Extras country.

But your uncertainty over how The Trip will develop keeps you watching, whereas the appeal and limitation of shows like Webb and Miller and Mitchell and Armstrong is that they are the same every week.

Six of the Best 108

About Power complains of the poor standard of current political commentary - particularly in the Guardian: "Many (but not all) politicians, journalists and some people in non-mainstream media seem to be indulging in a frenzy of vitriol. Sometimes the sheer lack of perspective and the level of self-delusion is staggering. Much of it seems driven by a hatred of the Tories and a disbelief that the Lib Dems did not do their duty and form a coalition with the Labour party seems to blind people to the context of our current politics."

"The Libel Reform Campaign has today made out its case for radical reform of libel laws as they affect the internet and in particular the "citizen journalist", reports Evan Harris on his Political Science blog for the Guardian.

The Contented Lib Dem dissects a very odd Guardian article by Grace Dent.

Could we rethink the Euro? asks The Real Blog nicely.

The Idiot's Lantern pays tribute to Jack Duckworth and Bill Tarmey.

Tiddles, the church cat from Fairford in Gloucestershire, is remembered by a suitably shaped gravestone, finds English Buildings. Philip Wilkinson also makes the sage observation: "Often, of course, the process of ‘getting’ a cat is rather passive. A cat arrives, and if the humans are welcoming enough, the cat stays."

Happy World Toilet Day

More on the WaterAid UK site - and it wins our Day of the Day Award.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Nick Clegg is the Spectator's Politician of the Year

The Spectator held its annual Parliamentarian of the Year Awards ceremony earlier this evening. And congratulations to Nick Clegg for being named the magazine's Politician of the Year.

You can find the full list of awards on the Spectator website.

Incidentally, you don't have to be a right-winger to win one of them. Ed Balls was named Parliamentarian of the Year.

New beer brewed in Gloucestershire to celebrate the Coalition

From the Stroud News & Journal:
A new beer launched this week may help to make the public spending cuts easier to swallow.

Called Neil's Coalition Brew, it has been launched by Stroud's Conservative MP Neil Carmichael to celebrate the historic Tory-Lib Dem government.

Produced by Nailsworth Brewery, it was launched by Mr Carmichael and Lib Dem district and county councillor Dennis Andrewartha, who stood against Mr Carmichael in the general election, at the Village Inn, Nailsworth on Friday.
One local drinker who has tried the brew is quoted as saying: ""It’s a bit bland but it’s good."

British Pathe takes the Ffestiniog Railway



In 1964 British Pathe visited Porthmadog- or Portmadoc as it was billed in those days - and the Ffestiniog Railway. Click on the picture to see the resultant film on the Pathe website.

That website also has eight minutes of silent black-and-white footage on the Ffestiniog Railway's centenary, shot the previous year.

A couple of days ago I said I would go back to Porthmadog one day to take the Welsh Highland Railway. The nice people who run it read that post and have offered me a footplate pass when I do.

A trip to New York, a Domino's voucher and now this. There is a lot to be said for writing a blog.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kate Middleton and the fall of Western civilisation

Congratulations to Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Middleton family fortune comes from a mail order business providing fancy goods for children's party bags. I thus see them as complicit in the collapse of our civilisation. What is wrong with a balloon and a piece of cake?

The truth is a little more complicated than that. According to an article by Claudia Joseph (sometimes the Daily Mail is indispensable), the Middleton's fortunes owe much to the family's background as Yorkshire cloth merchants.

And, promisingly, Kate is a direct descendant of Cromwell's general Thomas Fairfax.

Vince Cable to star in Christmas Strictly Come Dancing

Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, President of the Board of Trade and Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, is to appear in a Christmas edition of Strictly Come Dancing, reports BBC News.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Ffestiniog Railway


I left Porthmadog by way of the Ffestiniog Railway.

Last time I travelled on it, in 1977, the line was open only as far as Dduallt. The last stretch into Blaenau Ffestiniog had been lost when the Central Electricity Generating Board created the Tanygrisiau reservoir in 1954. The railway people finally won compensation in 1972 after one of the longest legal cases in history. Weren't nationalised industries wonderful?

The Ffestiniog was even more spectacular than I had remembered. I will have to go back one day to try the Welsh  Highland, which sounds more remarkable still.

Six of the Best 108

Following the Liberal Democrats' internal elections, Liberal Bureaucracy is dissatisfied with the rules for them: "Why on Earth don't we allow candidates for the Presidency access to the membership list? After all, they're meant to represent the members, and the more able they are to reach them in the campaign phase (and don't worry, the £7,500 spending limit prevents anyone from going mad...), the better."

The Guardian claimed that "anti-Tory" candidates did well in those elections. As Caron's Musings points out, all the candidates were anti-Tory.

Northern Neil argues that "What we need is less graduates not more tuition fees". Make that "fewer" graduates and I am with you.

Birkdale Focus writes about my hero Charles Masterman and reminds us that his widow, Lucy Masterman, survived him by more than 50 years and was still around in Liberal circles in the 1970s.

Jonathan Rée writes about the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for New Humanist: "Nietzsche’s star has been rising since the 1950s: his life and work have benefited from tremendous efforts of scholarship, translation and interpretation, and eminent professional philosophers have taken to sporting a few Zarathustrian exotica – the assaults on truth, on morality, and on philosophy itself – to add dash and dazzle to their otherwise sombre intellectual wardrobe."

Flannelled Fools reveals Arthur Conan Doyle's claim to cricketing fame. He took only one first-class wicket:, but it was that of the legendary W.G. Grace.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lembit Opik wins Non Sequitur of the Week

The Award goes to Lembit Opik. Introducing himself to his fellow contestants on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here, he said:
“I used to be a Member of Parliament. I’m not any more. That’s why I’m here.”

Steeleye Span: Boys of Bedlam



Time for another choice inspired by Rob Young's Electric Eden.

After Ashley Hutchings had left Fairport Convention and hung out with Mr Fox, he formed a new band called Steeleye Span with, among others, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior, a folk duo from St Albans.

For their second LP "Please to See the King" the band was joined by Martin Carthy, who sings the lead on this track.

As someone who remembers Steeleye Span from the days when it was in the charts and dominated by Maddy Prior's voice, I find this incarnation infinitely preferable. Prior's voice can be irritating in large quantities, and it is hard to forgive her for not being Sandy Denny.

Incidentally, I once read an article that argued that the widely held belief that people used to pay to see the inmates at Bedlam for entertainment is mistaken. But I can't remember where I read it or how this misunderstanding arose.

Later. The original video has disappeared from Youtube, so here is one with the cover Paul remembers.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Duncan Hames is a have-a-go hero

The Lib Dem MP for Chippenham chased a man who snatched a bag from a woman in the town, reports BBC News:
Duncan Hames said he had been sitting in his car at traffic lights on Friday when he saw the theft.

He pulled over, spoke to the woman to make sure she was unhurt and chased after the thief through Monkton Park.

He said a cyclist who also saw what happened managed to retrieve the bag. Mr Hames said he had reported the incident to Wiltshire Police.
We Liberal Democrats have a talent for this sort of thing. Three years ago Andrew Phillips made a citizen's arrest of a 10-year-old. (They can be quite big these days, you know.)

Six of the Best 107

At times like this Colin Rosenstiel is simply indispensable. Hurry over to his website for stage-by-stage coverage of today's internal Liberal Democrat elections.

Aung An Suu Kyi's release this morning has prompted Mark Cole to recall his own flirtation with Burma.

Conservative MP Douglas Carswell (I am not sure how to describe his politics, but he is no one's idea of a traditional Tory) has doubts about Michael Gove's announcement on school funding: "It puts in place the architecture of even greater central state control. Can you imagine ministers starting to attach various conditions in return for the funding schools get? We might like the bit about "proper history", but what about the things lefty ministers will demand?" He also links to a paper he has written that suggests an alternative way of reforming education funding.

Landscape PING! is not at all impressed by De Montort University's new business school.

Whereas The Widow's World now understands Coventry Cathedral.

Finally, the Huffington Post has some striking photographs of an abandoned station on the New York subway.

"We were lost, but we knew where we were"





To get to Portmeirion I caught the Ffestiniog Railway across The Cob and got off at Minfford, the first station up the line..

On the way I chatted to a retired man. He said that he could join the railway society for a few pounds a year. This meant that if the fancy took him after he had come into Porthmadog for a coffee, he could take the train to Blaenau Ffestiniog and back for no extra fare.

He had grown up in Porthmadog and he and his friends used to play in the extensive woods around Portmeirion as a boy. "We got lost. Well, we were lost, but we knew where we were."

There is something profound about the nature of play in there somewhere.

Friday, November 12, 2010

There is only one thing worse than beng widely reviled...

I am giving a talk next week and wanted the correct version of a passage from the Britain in Pictures volume on the Liberal Party that I have heard David Grace - aka Disgruntled Radical - recite more than once. I emailed him and he kindly sent me a link to the whole book online: The Liberal Party by R.J. Cruikshank.

The passage I wanted comes at the very beginning of the book:
People on the whole are very civil and obliging to Liberals nowadays - at least in public. How times have changed! When this writer was a small boy in the days of the last Liberal Government, quite nice, rosy Conservatives threatened to hang Ministers on lamp-posts, and there were Shelleyan Socialists who promised that at the coming revolution their first tumbril would be reserved, not for Tories, but for Liberals.
In those days, Lloyd George used to tell a story of a man who saved a stranger from drowning at risk to his own life. Presented with a medal by the Mayor, the hero said diffidently, "I did only what any other Englishman would have done in my place. I first turned him over to make sure he wasn't Lloyd George, then I dragged him out of the water."
The moral is that you cannot be in government without making yourself unpopular with an awful lot of people. So perhaps we should have been better prepared for what it would be like to be in government.

David, incidentally, has quoted a passage from this book that points a different moral.

Stabilisation at Bonkers Hall


It is by now generally accepted by literary scholars that Nevill Holt in Leicestershire is the model for Bonkers Hall. So I was pleased to find this account of major stabilisation and refurbishment carried out there.

These works included works included converting the 17th Century stable block into a theatre. In reality, Lord Bonkers is more likely to convert a theatre into stables.

And I do worry what might be found if a JCB were let loose on the Bonkers Hall Estate like that.

Six of the Best 106


Writing on Liberal Democrat Voice, Simon McGrath suggests that the Guardian story about the Coalition's cap on housing benefit driving the poor out of Southern England is nonsense.

Virtually Naked finds Phil Woolas "continuing his tantrum like a petulant toddler".

Thanks to Tom Watson MP, we now know which artworks Coalition ministers have chosen for their offices. The coolest turns out to be George Osborne, who has a 7ft long engraved map (seen above) by Grayson Perry depicting "a divided country, at war with itself". I also envy Vince Cable his Eric Ravilious lithograph.

Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness finds that the savage beating of a journalists lays bare the problems of Russia's system of government.

"TV shows and films remind you more of the time they were made than the time they were set. Bonnie and Clyde is very 1970s, High Noon is very 1950s and so on. Downton Abbey is very 2010. It's Daily Mail 2010," argues The Ex-Communicator.

Wartime Houswife thinks The Jeremy Kyle Show is "absolutely brilliant". Hear her.

The shorter Tim Farron

I am going to court popularity by voting against tuition fees while hoping that enough of my colleagues abstain to keep the Coalition in place.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ha-Joon Chang on the death of the Washington consensus

A coupe of days ago I blogged about a Financial Times report that the current G20 summit in Seoul is likely to see the end of the Washington consensus that untrammelled markets are the best way to secure development in poor countries. I have since heard similar reports from other sources in the development field.

The case to this move was provided by the Korean-born economist Ha-Joon Chang in a Guardian article earlier this week:
In my lifetime Korea has lived through one of the greatest development miracles – half a century ago, its annual per capita income was around £50, less than half that of Ghana at the time. Today, it stands at £12,000, putting it on a par with Portugal and Slovenia. How was this possible?
Korea of course did things that most people agree are important for economic development, such as investment in infrastructure, health and education. But on top of that, it also practised many policies that are now supposed to be bad for economic development: extensive use of selective industrial policy, combining protectionism with export subsidies; tough regulations on foreign direct investment; active, if not particularly extensive, use of state-owned enterprises; lax protection of patents and other intellectual property rights; heavy regulation of both domestic and international finance.
You read more from Ha-Joon Chang, who teaches at Cambridge, on his own website.

He is also quoted in a recent Christian Science Monitor article:
The government’s emphasis on free trade over aid in its G20 development agenda, however, has left some wondering whether Seoul has wandered from its own development model.

Korea received millions of dollars in aid from the United Nations Development Program and other international donors throughout its development process. Last year, Korea became the first major recipient of overseas development aid to become a major international aid donor.

Korea’s economy also benefited from relatively closed markets during the cold war. Professor Chang calls Seoul’s call for freer markets “fundamentally at odds with how Korea itself developed."
I suppose it is rather like the way you become in favour of strict discipline in the classroom as your own schooldays recede in your memory.

The Twitter joke trial: Judge Jacqueline Davies hands a victory to the terrorists

Terrorism works by spreading fear among the population, forcing us to live diminished lives. The security precautions we have to undergo at airports and the screen that divides MPs from the public gallery at Westminster are both victories for the terrorists.

They were handed another one by the confirmation of Paul Chambers' conviction in Doncaster today. At a magistrates court hearing in May he was found guilty of sending a menacing electronic communication after posting a joke about blowing up the local airport on Twitter. According to BBC News, he was originally was fined £385 and ordered to pay a £15 victim surcharge. Today he was also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £2600.

Chambers' conviction strikes at our conception of what it means to be English. Whatever faults we might own up to, we value our ability to make a joke of everything. That was how we won the war, wasn't it?

Or as Heresy Corner puts it:
What has been on trial is the possibility of humour itself, the right of a freeborn Englishman to be facetious as and when he feels like it, about any subject whatsoever.
Against that age-old national instinct to make light of adverse circumstances - the spirit that got us through the Blitz - we now find a new and alien notion that there are some things that are beyond joking, that even an obvious joke must be treated seriously. Because it's no laughing matter. Because you can't be too careful. Because any imagined threat, however patently absurd, must be ritually investigated.
And the person making the joke must bear the responsibility for the time-consuming and costly process of investigation, even though the possibility of such an investigation never crossed his mind, just to drive the message home that You Cannot Make Jokes About Terrorism.
So I imagine Al-Qaeda are toasting the name of Judge Jacqueline Davies in the Tribal Areas tonight. She has handed them a significant victory.

We also need to ask why the Crown Prosecution Service insisted on bringing this case, apparently against the wishes of the police. Though the fact that it wastes time and public money in this was does give a clue as to why it was unable to bring any charges in the case of Ian Tomlinson.

Today has also seen the arrest of Gareth Compton, a Conservative councillor from Birmingham, for (again on Twitter) calling for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to be stoned to death. I have been known to say harsh things about certain columnists myself, but I have to say I find that a bit extreme.

Unless, of course, you think it was a joke.

I suppose you could argue there was a tinge of racism in associating Alibhai-Brown's name with stoning. But it is hard to resist the view that the West Midlands Police must have many more important things to do than trawl Twitter for off-colour jokes.

And the sooner the Coalition's Freedom Bill appears the better. These are the sort of cases that can unite in opposition both lefty Liberal Democrats and Daily Mail reading Tories.

For Remembrance Day

Profesor Alan Winters on the principles of development



A 17-minute tutorial with the chief economist at the Department for International Development.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The railway bridge at Porthmadog


I rather like this picture of the bridge that carries the Cambrian Coast line over the Afon Glaslyn just outside Porthmadog and of the mountains beyond. Which is just as well, because I got eaten alive taking it.

Walking home from Portmeirion, I noticed that a footpath ran to either end of this bridge. Perhaps there was a path running across it too?

Not a bit of it, it turned out, so I had to retrace my steps. But while I was down by the river here I was bitten by lots of mosquitoes. The lumps came up the following day.

Rachel Smith (Mrs Vince Cable) attacks Coalition housing plans

On his blog for the BBC, Michael Crick writes:
Rachel Smith, the wife of the Business Secretary, Vince Cable has attacked the coalition's plans to end life-long tenancies in social housing.

They would lead to a bureaucratic nightmare and solve nothing, she says in the new edition of the Liberal Democrat grassroots magazine Liberator.

"It is a seriously bad idea, though it tries to deal with a real problem," she says. "The review process every five years would be a nightmare. If you found yourself threatened with the loss of your home, wouldn't you make sure your household was at its biggest and poorest at the moment of review?"
I can see the practical problems, but I have some sympathy for Tim Worstall's complaint:
we’ve this crazed system whereby if at one point in your life you need a housing subsidy then you get that subsidy for all your life.
Anyway, read more from Liberator on the magazine's website.

If only Lembit Opik had listened

So the rumours were well founded. Lembit Opik is to be one of the contestants in this year's I'm a Celebrity,... Get Me Out of Here.

Has it really come to this?

Two years ago, in the wake of his defeat by Ros Scott in the Lib Dem Presidential election, I wrote:
Lembit has tested to destruction the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity. He now needs to take himself more seriously in order to persuade others to take him more seriously. He has a Westminster seat to retain and will no doubt return to the Lib Dem front bench soon.

Otherwise... As I write this, Neil and Christine Hamilton, as if in dreadful warning to him, are appearing on Hole in the Wall.
If only he had listened.

G20 to ditch Washington consensus on development

Chris Giles writes on the FT website:
The Group of 20 leading economies will ditch free market recommendations for the poorest countries on Friday in favour of a more rounded approach that puts “resilient growth” at the heart of development strategy.
According to a draft communiqué seen by the Financial Times, dated November 3, the G20 agrees that “there is no single formula for development success” and stresses rich and poor countries should work as “partners” to foster enduring growth.
The agreement is termed the “Seoul consensus for shared growth”, an attempt to supplant the Washington consensus of the late 1980s that recommended free market solutions to lift countries out of poverty.
Instead of promoting deregulation, fiscal discipline and privatisation, as in the Washington consensus, the agreement in Seoul will suggest nine “pillars” for generating growth. These include building infrastructure to eliminate bottlenecks in the economy, securing private investment, financial inclusion, social protection, good governance and food security.
Interesting stuff. I was convinced by Joseph Stiglitz's Globalization and its Discontents (which was adopted by many as an anti-market book) that free trade was the route to development for Third World countries. But history shows that those countries who have trodden this path successfully have often deviated markedly from the pure free market route.

All in all this move by the G20 looks a victory for the sort of pragmatism that a modern Liberal instinctively supports.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Prisoner Shop, Portmeirion


From the shop's website:
This is located in a building called The Round House (1959-60, listed Grade II, 1971) one of a pair of Baroque shops linked by an overhead walkway. ...

In 1966 Patrick McGoohan used the Round House as Number Six's residence in The Prisoner. The interiors were filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, Borehamwood. The interior of No. 6's house was an exact replica of his London home which is seen in the first episode.

The Round House is of course too small to accommodate a spacious lounge, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen and this can come as a surprise to visitors who know it from the television series. The building now houses Number Six, the Prisoner Shop.

The Woolas Affair: Where is Ed Miliband?

Harriet Harman is coming under attack from Labour backbenchers because Phil Woolas was suspended from the party following the election court's finding that he had knowingly lied about his Liberal Democrat opponent.

So beleagured has she become today that her husband, the newly elected Labour MP and former trade union leader Jack Dromey, has felt obliged to tour the nation's television studios as a slightly improbable spokesman for truth and decency.

But where is the Labour leader in all this?

Is Ed Miliband silent because he too lacks authority over Labour MPs? After all, he was not their choice as leader.

Perhaps they share the widespread view of him as a bright sixth former? Though to be accurate, he is more like that sixth former's ink-stained younger brother.

Meanwhile, the theory that Ed Miliband exists for only 30 minutes a week - at prime minister's questions on Wednesday lunchtimes - will be finding new adherents.

Later. As discussed in the comments, Ed Miliband is on paternity leave. We shall see if he makes a decisive return to the scene when the two weeks are over.

Even later. Michael Crick has offered a different analysis on Newsnight. There is considerable anger amongst older Labour MPs at the strong line Harman and Gordon Brown took with them over expernses in the last parliament. The Woolas affair and Ed Miliband's absence has given them an opportunity to vent that anger.

Much later than that. I conceded too much to my critics. Ed Miliband broke off from his paternity leave to criticise Lord Young's comments on the recession. If he had time to do that then he had time to issue a clear condemnation of Woolas's campaign tactics.

So I was right after all. Miliband chose to hide behind Harriet Harman so that he did not have to condemn Woolas and risk upsetting Labour MPs.

Six of the Best 105

"I'm no Tory; I'm a radical, authentic liberal," Jeremy Browne tells Lib Dem Voice. Personally, I worked out some time ago that not watching Question Time is one of the secrets of a happy life.

Writing for Liberal Vision, Andy Mayer explains why it is the Liberal Democrats' "no tuition fees" policy, rather than tuition fees, that will eventually be scrapped.

Duncan Borrowman has posted the most objectionable local newspaper front page you have ever seen. It is quite unbelievably bad.

On the New Economics Foundation's nef blog, David Boyle is delighted to find a Conservative minister supporting small shops and quoting William Morris and John Ruskin: "It is now a century or so since the Guild Socialists set out their platform in the New Age, in opposition to the Fabians who populated the New Statesman. It seems extraordinary, after so long, that their language might have found its way into a speech by a Conservative trade minister."

Jack Shafer on Slate identifies a phrase much used by lazy journalists. While accurate numbers are hard to come by, it is certainly very common.

Londonist reviews the Fortean Times UnConvention: "[Jan] Bondeson is an expert in exploring the bizarre byways of history and his second talk for the UnConvention covered the adventures of the ‘Boy Jones’: an odd-looking, rookery dwelling boy who was captured inside Buckingham Palace three times before being press-ganged into the navy to keep him out of trouble."

Donate to the Phil Woolas Appeal Fund

I am not tempted, but Liberal Conspiracy has the text of an extraordinary letter from a Labour councillor inviting you to do just that.

Headline of the Day visits Shrewsbury

There's the Shropshire Star, then there's the rest:

Escaped sheep closes A5 at Shrewsbury


Later. The Evening Standard has applied for Judicial Review after this headline failed to win:

Wild At Heart giraffe killed by lightning

Monday, November 08, 2010

International alliance urges Robin Hood tax on G20 leaders

When those nice people at Oxfam sent me off to New York a few weeks ago I managed to remain a good Liberal in what I wrote. In fact, as I learned more development issues I found that principles like political reform and a free press were immensely important in this field.

The only time I forgot myself was when I posted a Richard Curtis video.

That video made the case for a financial transaction tax, better known as the Robin Hood tax. With world leaders about to meet in Seoul for the G20 summit, an alliance of 183 organisations from 42 countries has written to them, urging them to bring in such a tax:
The letter, addressed to G20 leaders including Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama, is signed by development, health, education and environmental charities and unions from 16 of the G20 countries.

It says that a financial transaction tax would help meet the costs "of the global financial and economic crisis, including reducing the unacceptably high rate of job loss, and achieve key development, health, education and climate change objectives in developing countries".
There are still many to be answered about this tax - Is it meant simply to raise money or curb the banks' more speculative activities? What will the proceeds be spent on? Will it be the banks who pay or their customers? - but I continue to find it an appealing idea.

The Welsh Highland Railway reaches Porthmadog



The reliving of my summer holiday, you will recall, has reached Porthmadog. Whist there, I was intrigued by the rails of the Welsh Highland Railway running down the main street near the Harbour station. As this film shows, they are now in use.

What you are watching here is explained on the Ffestiniog Railway website:
Saturday October 30th saw the first trains ever to run from Caernarfon to Porthmadog Harbour Station. (The original Welsh Highland never achieved the final three mile link from Dinas Junction to Caernarfon).
Note, too, that the tracks cross the Cambrian Coast line on the level. I bet that took some negotiating in this age of health and safety.

There will be a regular passenger service on the Welsh Highland from April next year. But as the Ffestiniog site explains, it will be possible to get a preview of it for a week in February.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Lord Bonkers' Diary: A bright speck near Andromeda

And so another visit to Bonkers Hall draws peacefully to its close.

Dusk has now fallen in Rutland, Meadowcroft has been retrieved and brushed down, and I am in my observatory on top of the West Tower scanning the heavens with my telescope.

A bright speck near Andromeda draws my attention: I study it intently for a few moments, then wind my field telephone, lift the receiver and ask for a number in Shropshire...

Earlier this week

Autumn has come to Rutland
At the first hint of an asteroid
My new friends, the Conservatives
Evan Harris on a trampoline

British Pathe on Portmeirion

Talking of Portmeirion, British Pathe has two newsreels about it - one from 1939 and one from 1962.

In each case, click on the picture to go to the Pathe site and play the film.



Frank Zappa: Son of Mr Green Genes



As this weekend has seen a celebration of what would have been Frank Zappa's 70th birthday at the Roundhouse, it is high time we featured the Grand Wazoo here.

I am a good friend of a Zappa completist, so I have heard a good deal of weird stuff over the years, but this is really rather lovely.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Evan Harris on a trampoline

In London yesterday I was astounded to bump into our own Dr Evan Harris. I had assumed that he perished when the locals, armed with pitchforks and flaming torches, finally succeeded in breaking into his laboratory in the surprisingly mountainous country between Oxford and Abingdon and flung his experiments into a passing mountain stream.

While in rude health, he turns out to be at something of a loose end and I am pleased to be able to offer him work on the British mission to Mars – albeit as a trampoline coach.

Earlier this week

Autumn has come to Rutland
At the first hint of an asteroid
My new friends, the Conservatives

Across the Cob to Portmeirion


One reason for spending a couple of nights in Porthmadog was its proximity to Portmeirion. So the next morning I took the narrow gauge railway across the Cob and got off at the halt at Boston Lodge. From there Portmeirion is a short walk.

All the book describe Clough Williams-Ellis's model village as "Italianate", but there is also a large element of English country house fantasy about it. This part springs from the same roots at Brideshead Revisited, and indeed Portmeirion also acted as a refuge for monumental architecture deemed surplus to requirements in post-war redevelopment.

It may have arisen out of aristocratic eccentricity, but today Portmeirion is the leading tourist attraction in North Wales. And boy does it know it. You may also have heard something about a television series being filmed there...

Lembit in the jungle?



I am not saying this is necessarily true, but it is being widely reported that Lembit Opik has signed up to take part in the next series of I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

According to the Sun, his fellow contestants may include Sheryl Gascoigne, Gail Porter, Britt Ekland, Nigel Havers, Linford Christie and Stacey Solomon.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Lord Bonkers' Diary: My new friends, the Conservatives

So what are our Conservative friends like? It has been what the young people call “a steep learning curve” for me as, until recently, I generally saw Tories from the saddle as we hunted them across the fields of Leicestershire and Rutland. I recall a good run a county councillor gave us until he went to earth near Billesdon Coplow...

Anyway, in the spirit of cross-party co-operation, I here offer pen portraits of a few of my new colleagues.

My older readers will recall that popular programme from the early days of the moving television, “Have a Go with Eric Pickles”. With his catchphrases “Are yer courting?” and “Give him the money, Barney”, Pickles soon became a household name. He disappeared from our screens amid persistent rumours that he had eaten one of the Dagenham Girl Pipers, but later resurfaced as MP for Brentwood and is now Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

George Osborne, a scion of the biscuit dynasty, made his first worker redundant at the age of 10. His parents must have been so proud.

A little bird told me that, had the Conservatives won an overall majority, then Nadine Dorries would have been prevailed upon to accept my Outer Space portfolio. I take it as a tribute to Nick Clegg’s skill as a negotiator that he was able to win the post for a Liberal Democrat.

Iain Duncan Smith is known as “the quiet man”. I am told that he intends to revolutionise the Social Security system in Britain, but am unable to hear a word he says.

In 1977, at the age of 8, William Hague brought the Conservative Conference to its feet with his peroration: “I hate Socialism and, besides, you lot will soon be dead anyway”. Thirty-three years later, now aged 87, he is Foreign Secretary. Isn’t it strange how things turn out?

“Do you know Theresa May?” a civil servant asked during one of my first visits to my new department. “No,” I replied, “but I am grateful for the tip.”

Earlier this week

Autumn has come to Rutland
At the first hint of an asteroid

Six of the Best 104


The hyperlocal Saddleworth News has been at the centre of the blogging world today for its coverage of the Phil Woolas court case. Meanwhile, BBC journalists have been on strike. So up yours, Andrew Marr.

Also on that case, Norfolk Blogger argues: "Many ordinary Labour voters have found the campaigning from Labour in Oldaham to be distasteful and counter productive. There is a line which many people in politics push against, but few so blatantly step over it (although I feel the Dr Death leaflets distributed in Oxford West and Abingdon - not by Labour - in May 210 against Lib Dem Dr Evan Harris were equally as shameful)."

Sandy Walkington ponders the importance of being Chris Huhne.

David Blunkett's guide dog Sadie is finding it hard to come to terms with life in opposition, reports The Questing Vole.

Elected mayors are the latest gimmick to afflict local government. David MacLean has the latest gossip on who might be the Labour candidate in Leicester.

Talking of Leicester, the Guardian has a guide to the city's best budget restaurants. Of those listed, and others are available, I happily endorse Kayal in Granby Street.