Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Till death us do part?

When I was a child it was not unusual to see small ads in the local paper: I, John Smith, of 25 Acacia Avenue, hereby declare that I am no longer responsible for debts incurred by my wife Mary Smith.

The belief that a husband was responsible for his wifes debts was one of the reasons why a married woman found it extremely difficult to get access to credit of any kind without her husbands explicit written consent - even if she had a good job & a steady income of her own. Even if they were separated.

The Sex Discrimination Act outlawed discrimination on the grounds of marital status as well as gender. These days most people assume that was to protect people who were not in a conventional marriage, but just the opposite was true. Discrimination against women per se could all too easily be excused on the grounds of these complications of the marriage contract.

How odd then that the Act was passed just as marriage, especially for young women, was going right out of favour. In 1972 getting on for half (44.3%) of girls aged between 16 & 20 were married. Ten years later that figure had dropped to less than 1 in 3 (29.3%). It is now less than 4%. Indeed we would probably be more shocked now by the idea of a 16-year old getting married than we would be by her having an abortion.

It is really fascinating to look back at the history of C20th marriages. Teenage marriages were relatively uncommon in the 1920s, but girls who were children during or just after World War II took to it with gusto - those born in 1951 held the record. Of course many of them 'had to'. The government even used to make official estimates of the number of brides who were pregnant when they walked up the aisle (still does)

And lots of other things happened around then which made marriage less attractive. Abortion & easier divorce, obviously. More acceptance of the idea that higher education for girls was a Good Thing, not simply a waste of money because 'they will just get married anyway'. And, last but by no means least, free contraceptives for all, married or unmarried, on the NHS.

Or did all these things happen because women had discovered that youthful marriage was not, after all, such a good idea?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Radio footprints

What is the carbon footprint of digital radio compared with good old AM/FM? Would a switch to digital offset my new resolution to switch off the tv completely rather than leave it on standby?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Number of acres per journey to work

How many acres would the average journey to work by car take if all the petrol came from ethanol from renewable resources? What would this do to the price of food?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

House prices (2)

In 1966 the prospective mortgage holder would almost certainly have been male & married. It would be unlikely that his wife was in paid employment, or intend to stay employed once the children came along. But even if she did, it would be unusual for her earnings to be taken into account in assessing how much money the Building Society would lend.

Feminism has probably had unexpected, & unintended, consequences for house prices.

For one thing, it became more common for 2 people getting together to each be owner occupiers in their own right. In the rising markets of the 70s & 80s the sale of 2 single person properties would provide a healthy deposit for a marital home.

And the pressure to take wives earnings into account - even if only at a multiple of 1 or 1.5 compared with the more usual 3 for the 'main earner', only further increasd the amount they could afford to pay for a home.

These effects were multiplied by the fact that like tends to mate with like. (Do I have to repeat that a tendency allows plenty of room for exceptions while still producing very real effects?). So high earner marries high earner. This just skews the distribution of house prices even further, making the long tail of high priced homes longer, & leaving over half the population unable to afford even the average (arithmetic mean) price - even on two incomes

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

House prices

I recently needed to consult The Spectator for 1966. As always, I got distracted by a story other than the one I was looking for.

There had been a press hoo-ha over the fact that the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea had recently granted a mortgage in the princely sum of £20,000 to one Nigel Lawson. Yes, that one, Chancellor of the Exchequer, father of Nigella, but then recently appointed editor of the magazine.

As a contribution to the discussion the Building Societies Association pointed out that they were doing a very good job. In 1965 their members had lent about £1billion to about 1/2 million homebuyers. Average £2,000!

Yes, I know. I too can remember when you could do a show in the West End, dine at the finest restaurant, decent bottle of wine, taxi home & still have change from half-a-crown.

But 1966 was the year I graduated & the comparison I find most intriguing is with salaries. It had just become possible for a good honours graduate to earn a starting salary of £1,030 a year as a teacher- the magic 1k ceiling had been smashed. So the average mortgage was just 2x that salary

Of course few new graduates could aspire to that. For one thing no building society would grant you a mortgage unless you had demonstrated financial stability by saving with them for some time, & you would also need a hefty deposit of 25%

Dont know how house prices compare with starting salaries for teachers now, & I sympathise with those who cant get on the property ladder. But I have never myself thought that high levels of owner occupation are a Good Thing. Not so much a property owning democracy, more the mark of a peasant society, each family tied to its own little piece of land, with a mortgage the equivalent of the rapacious landowner who owns the real power

Thursday, March 15, 2007


"Loneliness is not longing for company. Its longing for kind"

Interestingly thats a quote from The Womens Room, not my favourite book

But an intersting gloss on the golden oldie, theres nothing as lonely as being trapped in a bad marriage

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Brothers under the skin?

Intrigued by the brother-in-law quote thing, I actually made an attempt to confirm my recollection about the 1960s English political novel which used it.

Found the Edelman books in Manchester Central Library. Skimmed them only - both seem turgid now. Almost certainly, neither is the one I was thinking about. The Minister is all about The Winds of Change, but deeply serious. The Prime Ministers Daughter centres, intriguingly, round an honours scandal concerning a newspaper proprietor, & press harassment of the PMs vulnerable daughter. Plus ca change, indeed.

Thought to leave it at that - one doesnt want to get too obsessed about trivia. But then another name dragged itself out of the fog of memory. David Walder, another 1960s novelist MP

How many novelists sit in the House of Commons today? **

It sounds more Walders style perhaps. But no local library - not even Manchester- seems to have any copies of the books, so that is definitely that.

But at least the dates show that Martin Luther King used the quote before either novelist (Oxford Dictionary Quotations has it 10 September 1962, in NY Journal-American). Wonder if either of them pinched it from him? Or if it was just a common saying at the time?

And - think very hard about this - why does an American commentator (Drew Weston) writing in the 21st century think that this was a shrewd political move on Kings part, but an English novelist of the 1960s could see in it the potential ruin of a political career?

**At least two. Ann Widdecombe & Iain Duncan Smith!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


One of the things I miss now that we can usually not refer to the colour of someones skin, except in political terms, is the loss of great numbers of words to describe someones complexion.

When I was a child police appeals for wanted men always included a fairly complete description of the complexion. Ruddy, pale, florid, purple, pasty, swarthy, olive.

You immediately knew a woman was good if she was described as having a peaches & cream complexion. Tanned or leathery was a bit too independent & able to take care of herself for many tastes.

Langston Hughes could be very lyrical about the characters in his novels with their honey, mustard, milky coffee, ebony or caramel skins

Of course such words smuggled all sorts of hierarchical or moral judgements. Unspoken approval for brown-skin girl. Red, black, high yaller?

Not to mention all those wheaten prospective brides in Indian marriage adverts

Monday, March 12, 2007

l'affaire Patrick Mercer

This latest racism hoo-ha put me in mind of a 1960s political novel by Maurice Edelman, probably The Minister. Set at the time of Macmillans Wind of Change in Africa. A rising Conservative star puts a block on his career by remarking to a fellow dinner-guest: 'I said I wanted the African to be my brother, not my brother in law.'

Too clever by half!

Funnily enough, when I Googled that quote just now it came up, precisely the opposite way round, attributed to Martin Luther King

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why the 4x4 is todays third child

When the Club of Rome produced its famous report in the early 1970s, the one which used a computer model to warn that the world would run out of all its mineral resources within 400 years, it reinforced the existing worry that the worlds population growth was outstripping our ability to produce enough food

ZPG was the aim of all right thinking moral folk who cared about the future of their grandchildren. So obviously it was morally wrong to do more than simply reproduce yourselves in your coupledom. TWO WILL DO

The Guardian Womens page carried agonised letters from women who knew what was right but still felt broody

And I remembered a (for the time) rather risque joke told to us by the teacher who introduced us to the theories of Malthus during the United Nations Freedom From Hunger Campaign

A husband could not understand his wifes extreme reluctance, not to say terror, at the idea of adding to their family of 2 healthy, happy children. Eventually he persuaded her to own up that her fears were caused by the fact that she had heard that Every third baby in the world is Chinese

Pinning the blame for global warming on to the Chelsea Tractor is every bit as prejudiced & wrong headed as that joke

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The boy with two heads

When it comes to apostrophes I am with GBS - dont use em.

Not because I dont know the rules. I remember very well being taught them in primary school, aged either 8 or 9. The teacher was called Mr Price.

The examples used were The boys heads & The boys books.

I dont suppose I used these precise terms to myself at the time, but I decided then & there that if I ever wanted to convey the news that here was a boy with more than one head, I WOULD NOT DO IT WITH AN APOSTROPHE .

I confess to feeling some confusion over the plural boys books. I now realise that this is because of indeterminacy, in the mathematical sense. How to distinguish between the following?

  • Each boy has exactly one book
  • Each boy has one or more books
  • Each boy has more than one book
  • library, boys, for the use of

If you have to deploy something other than an apostrophe to make such distinctions, why bother at all?

Friday, March 09, 2007

Same or different? (3)

Back to our binary classifications again.

It is only human to view one side as good, the other bad. Or at least to consider one as more desirable than the other. So tall is better than short, thin is better than - ughh! - fat

In our mythical celestial population of 1 milllion souls, most will be a fairly even mixture of good & bad, desirable & undesirable

One poor schmuck will however be all bad - possessed of not one redeeming feature

At the other end of the scale one god-like creature will be possessed of entirely good, desirable attributes

And yet, as with everybody else, they will share each of their features with half of the population

Related posts

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Different or the same? (2)

Going back to our binary categorisation of humans. Suppose by some celestial coincidence we picked the dividing line between tall & short exactly on the median height of the population. So exactly half are tall & half short. Same for weight, intelligence, sporting ability etc etc

And suppose by another celestial coincidence we have found a population of 1million people*, each of whom fits, exactly, one of our categories. We have 1,000,000 people each of whom is unique.

Only one who is tall + fat+ intelligent + a sporting rabbit+.......

Only one who is short + fat + intelligent +a sportstar.............

And so on.

But each person will share each single characteristic with half of the population

*OK, really I mean 1,048,576. Just keeping it elegantly simple
Related posts

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Are we all different or are we all the same?

Choose 20 human attributes or characteristics. Height, weight, sporting ability, intelligence .... whatever.

Classify everybody on each characteristic, but on a simple binary scale. So each person is either short or tall, fat or thin .... whatever. Arbitrary I know, but bear with me.

Even with this level of crudity & arbitrariness there are enough categories to assign each of 1 million people to their own unique group of 1

2 possible categories of height x 2 categories of weight x 2 categories of intelligence x 2 categories of musical ability ...... 2 to the power of 20 = 1,048,576 categories in all

Related posts

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The bakery

My paternal great grandparents ran a bakery & shop. I have happy memories of visits. Custard slices or Viennese whirls as a treat. Nobody could understand why I didnt like iced buns.

The flour sacks were kept in a loft above the shop. A cat lived up there to control the rats. I never saw him downstairs, but you could sometimes see him sitting curled up at the edge of the open trapdoor. He was enormouse.

When I was about 10 I ws allowed to help serve in the shop on Saturdays. I remember the humiliation the first time I tried to make change, & being loudly instructed by Great Aunt Betty that you dont have to do the subtraction, you just go '1 penny makes 2 shillings then sixpence makes half a crown' or whatever.

I rememberd this years later when I was trying to teach the laws of algebra to a maths remedial class. My explanation of the associative law was met by loud squeals from one little girl. I had just transformed her life by teaching her how to make change. She had felt that her ambition to work in an upmarket department stiore was destined to be forever thwarted by her total inability to do subtractions in her head.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Death in childhood

1 in 10,000. That's the chance of dying in this country for a child aged 5-9.

Which must, of course, only increase the sense of shock, grief, guilt and, for parents, isolation, if it happens. This is what fuels paranoid parenthood: Please dont let me be the one who fails.

One of my great-grandmothers was proud to be able to say 'I have had 11 & reared 8' - meaning that only 3 of her children (born mostly in the 1890s) had died. She was a real martinet - that achievment made her word law. She herself lived to over 90 & died when I was about 5. I have one very vivid memory of her walking across a room, ramrod straight in her green overall apron. She was still active in the family bakery.

It makes me shiver now to think what those experiences must have been like. A childs death is no less painful because less rare - think of Darwins devastation at the death of his 10-year old daughter.

And I realise Im not just fretting about the 1 million to 1 accident or abduction but also how indefensibly negligent I could appear. After the McCanns all paernts scent witch-hunt in the air
Janice Turner: The Times 19 May 2007