Friday, October 31, 2008

Unequal pay

Yesterday was the Fawcett Society’s No Pay Day - the day when women receive their last payslip of the year and begin working for free thanks to the 17% pay gap with men. Allegedly

This calculation is based on a comparison of average hourly rates of pay for full time employees, & so is, it can be argued, the ’purest’ measure of difference which is routinely available from the governments Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE)

As I was listening to a piece about this on the radio, where the presenter was jokily talking about women going on strike until after Christmas, I fell to wondering what would happen if, instead of calling out all women in solidarity, including those who earn above the average rate, the strike call went out only to those full time workers, regardless of gender, who earn below the average woman’s rate? Might we get a surprise & find that the men outnumbered the women?

Well I failed in my attempt to find the necessary figures on the National Statistics website & had to make do just with medians & means (2007 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings First Release (Pdf))

It could be quite a close run thing

I was intrigued to see the emphasis on using the median rather than the arithmetic mean in most of this press release - understandable because this is one of those examples where average really does not mean most

On the governments preferred measure based on the median, the gender pay gap is ‘only’ 12.6%, not 17.2%

What is really interesting however is that, for men, the median is only about 80% of their mean, while for women it is 86%

Average pay for men is pulled up by the vast sums paid to relatively small numbers of very high earning men, women are more equal because so few of them are really big earners

Whichever measure is used, women’s earnings have risen more than men’s since 1997 – 51% on the median or 55% on the mean

For men the median rose by a relatively measly 42%. Their average however rose by all of 48% - yet another measure of how inequality has been increasing
The conclusion from all of this?
By calling for women to be paid more equally with men, we are also calling for them to be paid less equally with each other

Related post

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The occasion for this reason

It is now being taken as a ‘fact’ that the under-30’s think that the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand row is being blown up out of all proportion, while their elders take it all more seriously

This is further being interpreted as evidence that the young have a different sense of humour than the old

I think there is a different explanation

The particular event which set this all off provides the occasion, but not the reason, for the row

The occasion for a lot of resentments & discontents to come to the fore. Disparate & different discontents, so that both Gordon Brown & David Cameron, for example, can appear to be on the same side

Among them, the compulsory payment of the licence fee & the justification we were given for the very large sums paid to Jonathan Ross. This was very similar to those used to justify the payment of bonuses to bankers & captains of industry, & thus now seem equally indefensible

As is well attested, gross inequalities of income in countries or in businesses cause unhappiness, & in this row even the BBC’s own staff are letting their resentments show

The young have just had less time to let their resentments simmer

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Childish things

When beset by financial problems & unwelcome attentions one can always take comfort from child like habits

Making the tea

Although there must, these days, be few men who get to middle age before they encounter that strange being, a female colleague, it intrigues me that you can still hear, as I did last week on the radio, a working woman giving the advice: Never make the tea

It was the mid-70s & I had just become a member of a National Committee which dealt with technical matters. I was the only woman in a membership of about 30

Meetings were held about once a month & lasted all day. We were the host department, but everybody except the chairman, secretary & I came from outside. Morning coffee was delivered to the conference room in those large, pump-action vacuum flasks & the committee secretary & I usually got up to serve our guests while the discussion continued

One day the secretary was deeply involved in the discussion when the coffee arrived. No one else moved. I got on my feminist high horse & did not move either

There followed a bit of a hiatus until two of the other men got up & did their best with an unfamiliar task in unfamiliar surroundings

I realised that I was not being feminist, I was just being ungracious & rude

When the same thing happened again I got up & did the honours. As I did quite frequently, except when I too was involved in the discussion when coffee arrived

In fact I think I benefited form this. It really helped to break the ice, I got to speak to each man (black or white? etc) so they felt easier just chatting to me over the lunch break or contacting me about work, made me part of the team

It was always easier to fight the real battles – over pensions or the right to wear trousers to work – than to sort out, tactfully, these problems of etiket

Christmas has come early

Gordon Brown, who for 10 years has presided over, even encouraged, record levels of private debt, now proposes to rescue us by taking on massive, overt, debts in the public sector

And he sounds like a child with a new toy box

And he has gone back to I ... I ... I ... in his speeches & interviews

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Showing authority

It seems strange to me that the writings of JB Priestly - the essays & novels, though not so much the plays – are so deeply unfashionable. This is one of those things I should quite like to keep coming back to check up on – see whether he has come back in to high regard

The following, from Over the Long High Wall (1972) gives food for thought in the case of Sarah Palin:

When women who have suddenly been given authority seem ill-at-ease & perhaps rather comic, it is usually because they have been forced to play the role in a masculine style: they are not being themselves, & it is society itself, with the masculine principle & its values high in the saddle, that is at fault. It can make women feel as awkward in high office as men feel in dress shops

As Gerard Baker said in The Times, It's hard to make a reasoned and fair judgment about the Alaska Governor, because of the cacophony of press comment, not least about her clothes.

The fair minded bit of me says Give her a chance, though to do what? On the basis of what I have read or heard of what she has said, the thought of her stepping suddenly in to the President’s shoes gives me the vapours. But then she reportedly has done a pretty good job as governor & may, away from the campaign trail, have a lot of sound common sense & good judgement to bring to bear on the issues

I don't get it

Plenty of people have now had their say about the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand episode with Andrew Sachs on Radio 2

Yes, it seems filthy & in bad taste from what little I have heard. But one has to be a bit careful here – neither is unknown in BBC radio comedy. I remember the disbelief with which we greeted some of the jokes in Round the Horn when I was still a teenager. And Humphrey Lyttelton was loved for his Samantha jokes on Haven’t A Clue. Personally I felt that some of these went too far – towards sexism rather than just sex – but that’s the kind of objection that invites the putdown: hairy-legged feminist!

That seems to be part of the problem here – those that should have objected being afraid of being thought of as being too old fashioned or something

The thing which I need to have explained however, is what anyone could have thought was remotely funny about making unpleasantly explicit remarks to an elderly man about his granddaughter?

I can think of 3 possibilities:

They thought it was a modern take on the kind of tongue lashing which ‘Manuel’ used to get from John Cleese in Fawlty Towers

Somehow the grand daughter is part of ‘the joke’. Here is where I feel like the judge who asked Who are the Beatles? But if she is a celebrity herself then the idea of pairing up with Russell Brand may be funny to those in the know

It was somehow a put down of Brand himself – He’s having another of his fantasies – nobody fancies him!

The fourth, disturbing possibility is that it was just the attitude of the school bully throughout the ages– We was only having a laugh!

Suppose it was the other way about – I think Ross has a daughter,

£750 an hour

A very expensive law case has opened in London. It is expected that the legal fees will amount to nearly £90 million, & could put an end to the status of London as the jurisdiction of choice for such international commercial battles

Since the case involves an aluminium smelter in Tajikistan, I wonder if the bigger problem, in the light of current difficulties, might not be whether there will be any money to pay the lawyers bills

Monday, October 27, 2008

The smallest Hair upon the leg of a Gnat

New research suggests that today's 14 year old has the complex thinking ability that a 12 year old would have had a generation ago. This is blamed partly, if not entirely, on the short attention span which is encouraged by television & computer games etc

It is interesting to compare this with what JB Priestly wrote in 1972, roughly the same time that is now being compared with 2008:

We arrive now at the subject of attention.

Ours has been called the Age of Anxiety but it could also be called the Age of Necessary Attention. Outside our houses we have only to be inattentive to begin risking our lives - & other peoples. Even inside our houses or apartments there are probably all manner of appliances that cannot be left long unattended. We live in a world that demands more & more & closer & closer attention.

Nearly a century ago Bergson declared that our brains were largely instruments that had an inhibiting function, directing us to l’attention à la vie. Since then the immense development of technology, whether creating delicate instruments or racing cars & jet planes, has sharpened attention to a very fine edge. We are more & more aware of divisions of time that would have been meaningless to our forefathers.

When I first began recording for radio I was told Ten seconds from now, & this would have seemed utterly absurd to me sixty years ago, when I was already in my middle teens. (It is worth remembering that our forefathers travelled in stage coaches that left at dawn, noon or sunset, then trains brought in minutes – the 10.35 or the 4.26; and now on television screens, before some blast-off to the moon, we can see even seconds being split.)

I doubt if our ancestors could have understood a film, which is geared to our attentiveness. We can say that our present time, our personal now, has been so tapered that reality arrives through an increasingly narrowed slit

So we gain, perhaps more than we lose, from the speed with which we can change the focus of our attention

Would you like to be unable to understand a film?

Winners & losers

Sales of the famous London black cabs have fallen by more than a third

The charter jet business is doing well – owners are having to sell up so they rent instead

Daily child care providers are doing well as mothers are forced back to work (for now). Super nannies for the super rich are losing their jobs

Queues are forming outside shoe repair shops which are busier than they have been since I were a lass. Bins which collect old shoes for recycling for charity are not as full as they were

A sandwich shop is advertising the Credit Crunch Lunch – a sandwich for £1. No extra ingredients or made-to-order

Spin until you are dizzy

Have our laws become the victim of New Labour spin?

The people of Iceland are, naturally, very upset that anti-terrorism legislation has been used by Gordon Brown to freeze assets held in the UK

People in the know say that neither section 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime & Security Act 2001, nor the order made against Iceland have anything to do with terrorism

Was it not therefore asking for trouble to try to show how big you are by giving the act such a blatant title?


Gracious living

The Saturday papers carried a picture of Lord Mandelson emerging from a house which is clearly SW (1 or 3, Belgravia or Chelsea) – a step up from Notting Hill & closer to the office

His own home? A loan from a friend? An official residence, the bestowal of which is in the gift if the Prime Minister?

Whichever, its elegance suits him

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Second Anniversary

Today is the second anniversary of my blog. What better way to mark it than with another extract from Donne’s poem, The Progress of the Soul: the Second Anniversary?

We see in authors, too stiff to recant,
A hundred controversies of an art;
And yet one watches, starves, freezes & sweats,
To know but catechisms & alphabets
Of unconcerning things, matters of fact;
How others on our stage their parts did act;
What Caesar did, yea & what Cicero said.
Why grass is green, or why our blood is red,
Are mysteries which none have reached into.

The debate about the nature & purpose of education is a never ending one

Related post: What do we know?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Ministers think

Well, I suppose they always have done, & maybe the BBC has always used this form of words to announce the new policies that are the result of all this thinking, but this week it has been grating on me

So far we have had the benefit of ministerial thoughts on

- the best way to treat a heart attack

- a new 5-a-day regime to maintain the health of our minds, to go with the one for our bodies

- how to teach children from 5 to 19 about adult things – sex, relationships, finance

I pin my hopes on the newly re-fashionable idea that governments should regulate markets. Then perhaps ministers will stop thinking that neo-classical endogenous growth theory means regulating us, will remember that education means drawing out, not cramming (either with facts or into a mould)

Anyone for tennis?

English Hours is a collection of pieces by Henry James, travel journalism sent back for publication in Boston magazines to earn him some money when he first arrived in England

I had sought the volume out to check some historical point, but was drawn in by a passage in the first essay, a description of the pleasure of walking across Kensington Gardens & Hyde Park from Pembridge Villas to Westminster

This turned me into a James convert – my efforts to read his novels had led me to the firm conclusion – as a teenager – that he was BORE-ING

The piece drew me in, a century later, becauseI often did the same walk to get to work in the morning, but only if it was dry underfoot; through some accident of history there is no route laid out which follows the north west/south east diagonal to Hyde Park Corner. To avoid wet feet in the aftermath of rain you must follow the paths down to the southern edge of the park & then turn east alongside Rotten Row. It is much quicker, & a more pleasant walk, to strike out across the unmarked territory of the grass – I learned to navigate by the trees.

A wonderful, invigorating start to the day, especially during the long hot summer of 1976 when I would set out even earlier to fit in a swim in the Serpentine

The Civil Service had (may still have) a rule that in the event of a disruption to transport you must make every effort to get to work, including walking up to 4 miles

We lived just under 4 miles from the office, as the crow flies, so I had no excuse to stay at home, barring a natural disaster such as a Thames flood

This became an issue during the not infrequent transport strikes of the 1970s & 1980s

The crow can fly over the gardens of Buckingham Palace. Pedestrians, on reaching Hyde Park Corner, must take a dog’s leg diversion through Green Park & St James’s, making the distance travelled to just over 4 miles

I sometimes liked to ponder what would happen were I ever to raise this as an issue with line management

Might the Queen (at whose pleasure I held my appointment under these terms & conditions) be persuaded to give me a key to the back entrance – to the solid, high, black, double wooden gates which I only ever saw open as an entrance for guests to the summer Garden Parties? I would promise not to cause any bother, just nip through as quickly, quietly & inconspicuously as possible

If you travel by double-decker bus round Hyde Park Corner & down Grosvenor Place you can look over the wall into the Palace garden, in the top corner of which, just inside the gates, there is a tennis court. In all my years of doing this journey I never, not once, saw anybody playing there. Even though the court was well maintained &, once, resurfaced in a different colour

One day, on that very bus, I was reading the collected works of Arthur Marshall

One was the tale of a London charlady who also often travelled this route. She was the mother of Doris, 14 years old & a promising tennis player. The (very English) problem was that Doris lacked a place where she could put in the necessary practice. Her mother conceived the idea of petitioning the Queen to seek permission for Doris to put her court to good use

I had to put the book away & try to recover myself. Stop being that mad woman corpsing & giggling uncontrollably to herself

It has recently been announced that the Queen is opening up the gardens to the public – a strictly limited number of opportunities for groups of 25, booked in advance

I wonder if visitors will get the opportunity to inspect the tennis court?

Related post

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Hedgehog Names Index XYZ

This is an (intermittently) on-going experimental project.

No links are provided. If you want to follow any of them up, use the BLOG SEARCH box above↑

Malcolm X
Timothy Yeo
Andrew Young
James Young
Jimmy Young
Kirsty Young
Kirsty Young
Benjamin Zephania

Home on the range

Thinking about Agas reminded me of the days of blackleading the grate

My grandmother's range was a wonderful thing. It was in the front room, not the back kitchen. Fuelled by coal or coke, it provided a warm room for sitting in, hot water via a back boiler, and a double oven for baking everything from Sunday roast to the sort of home made cakes & biscuits so fashionable again now we all need comfort. Nobody of my Nana’s generation made their own bread, when the baker did it so much better

The range had to be thoroughly cleaned each Friday & polished up with black lead

I am faintly disappointed to find that this process does not provide a slightly exciting sense of flirting with danger (in retrospect, having survived my apprenticeship in this housewifely task)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘A preparation of inferior quality for domestic use in polishing grates and other cast-iron utensils’, made from black lead & turpentine. It is nothing more than ‘The ordinary name of the mineral called also plumbago or graphite (The name dates back to days before the real composition of the substance was known.)

And you can still get it, should you want some

Related post
Snow on the Aga

Obesity & alcohol

A fat boy had to be rescued by the fire brigade in an alcohol-related incident in Cornwall last week

He fell into a swimming pool while trying to steal further supplies of his favoured tipple

The health police were not required to attend, & social services will not be taking any action

Fat Boy is a pony who had eaten too many cider apples

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Grammatical conundrum

This one is still bothering my brain

Simon Barnes wrote*: We made wild plans to put together a book, she doing the chiarosco & me doing the fetlocks

It’s not the grammatical inconsistency which bothers me, it sounds just right as it is

But what would a pedant say? She & I? Her & my?

*In a puff for the new book her has written with his sister

Related post

Snow on the Aga

The Agas are going out all over England

So reported Richard Morrison in yesterday’s Times2

The reason is supposed to be that they are now fuelled by Russian oil, which is grungier than the stuff which used to come from some other country

Additives are available which will stop the grunge from gumming up the works, but owners usually find this out only after expensive repairs

I do hope the additives do not contain lead, which used to be used to solve the same kind of problem in car engines

But hey! Russia was one of the few countries in the world which never went down that road

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Are we in the soup?

If Marx was wrong about the end of capitalism in 1848, 1858, 1907, 1929 …. Why should he be right in 2008?

He was a pretty good analyst of society & economic history, but he was a rotten futurologist

In particular he failed to foresee all the mechanisms which would be developed to spread both the risks & the benefits of ‘capitalism’ to those outside what he called the ‘bourgeoisie.’ Joint stock banks, limited liability, pension funds, contracts of employment …

A century after the publication of Das Kapital, the 1968 generation of western Marxists dimly perceived this when they used ‘bourgeois’ as a term of abuse for the values of the suburban classes

Toilet rolls need to grow

Just recently I have been noticing reports of all sorts of small improvements in business operations which collectively are bringing substantial cost savings. It is not clear whether these have been prompted by the need for carbon saving or financial stringency, or if for some reason I am just noticing them more

One such story really caught my imagination: joint distribution of cornflakes, nappies & toilet rolls. All bulky but relatively lightweight, needing the same kind of lorry to travel in

A deal between Kellogg’s & Kimberly-Clark will save 10 round the world trips by lorry per year

Other fascinator facts:

On any Friday evening 1 in 5 large supermarkets is out of stock of Andrex toilet rolls (perhaps they should employ puppy catchers)

Shops could pack a lot more toilet paper into the space available if there were 1½ times as many sheets per roll as there are now – the diameter of each roll would increase by only 10%

Keeping our promises

There is nothing inherently wrong or stupid in chopping up risk & spreading it about

If Sid asks me for a loan of £5 the loss is all mine if he fails to pay it back

If I ‘lend’ £5 to the bank & they lend £5 to Sid they do not give him a £5 note with a label on it saying ‘This is hedgehog’s £5’. If Sid fails to pay it back the loss is shared, & covered one way or another by other depositors & shareholders if the bankers have been prudent & clever

Even money – cash – is a way of spreading risk, the risk that some of the myriad promises or expectations of future exchanges of good or services in the market will not be met. The beauty of the system is that it requires no detailed tracking of who owes or owns specific promises of goods, services, or bits of paper – an important kind of freedom

At some level however there has to be true & fair accounting for the balance of obligations, reassurance that the weight on one side will not tip the system into instability

Generally, governments have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the risks are covered by maintaining confidence in the value of the currency & the stability of society

Throughout history people have been very good at finding new forms of money, & governments have struggled to maintain regulation of supply in the changed circumstances

Part of the problem is that people are slow to adjust, they tend to behave as if the new money works in the same way as the old

Some of the responses are incredibly stupid & rash, especially in retrospect. Like thinking a plastic card with a credit limit is the same as cash in the pay packet, a deposit in a bank account, or even a win on the lottery

In the banking scandals of the 1850s, boards of directors were found to have behaved in ways which seem downright criminal. Some deliberate fraudsters were involved, but many were decent, ‘respectable’ people who could not see anything wrong in treating customers’ deposits as loans to themselves

After such an upset, rules & regulations are painfully worked out to make sure it does not happen again

But it will. New money appears ‘because we are worth it’ & even clever people fail to recognise that the new money needs new rules – everyone is just too busy getting their share

Related post

Sing America

Barack Obama is not a descendant of American slaves (nor, incidentally, is Colin Powell). Which gives him, in one sense, an advantage

Shame has been a significant factor in the long corroded history of black/white relationships in America. On both sides

For whites because they are (generically if not genetically) descended from people who did that to other human beings

For blacks, the humiliation of the victim, the feeling that somehow it was their fault. Which makes it hard to hold your head high when other people can always just see that you are descended from people that that happened to

The unjustified feeling of the victim of any crime – something which particularly bedevils the victim of rape, when too many people see nothing wrong with adding to this feeling – She must have been asking for it. Makes them feel a bit better - they have not done anythig to deserve it because it has not happened to them

For the avoidance of doubt I am not saying that either blacks or whites in America ought (or indeed ought not) to feel like that, just observing that I think it is a factor.

What William Russell was getting at when he said the British could not have emancipated their slaves if the plantations had been in Lancashire rather than the West Indies

Related posts

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Crunchy bits

Is Geir Haarde the Icelandic form of Keir Hardie?

One person suffering in the downturn had been making a nice living by going round car boot sales to buy up gold bits & pieces & selling them to a dealer in Hatton Garden as scrap. He now faces stiff competition

Do you feel that not even cash is safe these days? Antique gold jewellery is not subject to VAT – a good store of value (if you know your rubies from your garnets)

Bernard Baruch 1932: Even in the general gloom when many may begin to wonder if declines will ever halt, it is worth repeating that two and two makes four. They always did

Oh yes?

Murder is rife in the land in its most violent & its most insidious forms, & the astounding disclosures of fraudulent dealings amongst our mercantile classes - the thousand ingenious shapes which crime has assumed in the hands of the regular criminal practitioners - are all tokens which point to the necessity of stern repression - Times Leader 7 January 1856

The experience of the past shows that it is impossible, even through the attempted exercise of prophecy, to regulate the future - Select Committee on the Bank Acts 1858

Can't tell my left from my right

Last week the Communist Party demonstrated outside the Bank of England to protest about the nationalisation of banks.

Extract from the Communist Manifesto 1848:

These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.
Nevertheless, in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable ...

5 Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state

“Socialise credit & the rest is comparatively easy” – Ernest Bevin 1931

Related post

We the people

I feel I should start this post by saying that David Pannick QC is a brilliant lawyer who has all the personal & intellectual qualities needed for appointment as a High Court judge entirely on personal merit

I say this because Pannick took issue, in his Times Law column, with William Prest, the author of a biography of Lord Blackstone, for saying that ‘then, as now, loyal parliamentary political service was a desirable if never absolutely essential qualification for would-be English judges’

The long-standing practice of sometimes using appointment to the bench as a reward for parliamentary service to a political party expired finally at only an embarrassingly recent date

And although soon-to-be-lord Pannick is now going to serve in parliament as a peer, we should be grateful that his loyalty will be to the people

Monday, October 20, 2008

A caring government

The Government is changing the treatment most people have for a heart attack, Ministers say

That, heaven help us, is how the BBC was reporting this story on radio yesterday

Well, I hope I get Lord Darzi if I am unfortunate enough to need treatment at the hands of a Department of Health minister

I have an awful feeling, though, that I would get Dawn Primarolo

Where there’s brass

The waste produced in the City of London is carried away in barges down the Thames. Its destination? A landfill site in a place called Mucking

Muck of another kind is set to earn the fortune of a PhD student who has formed a company to sell platinum, palladium & rhodium, mined from roadside dirt which has been enriched by the deposits from catalytic converters

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tidy life

Nobody who knows me would think for one moment that I have a dread of untidiness. If the young think me obsolescent, that is their problem, just an irritant, not a reason to go fossicking about trying to look with it.

None of that makes this poem any the less touching, even though I am puzzled why ones 61st birthday should hold this particular significance for the poet Alan Brownjohn

Entering My Sixty-second year

I’ve always had this dread of growing old
In untidiness: a worn tobacco pouch;
The edges of a tablecloth rubbed & frayed
Into tassels; accumulators; a deep drawer
Full of tram maps & busted pipes; a couch
Where a dusty cushion pictures an esplanade
In faded Devon; all my grandfather’s store.
Long after he was dead, & his goods were sold

(But mostly chucked away) those hoarded treasures
Seemed what it meant to live on to his age,
And I was bound to end up with a cruel
And pointless load of close-at-hand bric-a-brac
Stuck round me, like toys fixed in the cage
Of a tamed songbird. Dud capsules of lighter fuel,
Old tins, ancient Pelicans, today brings back
The dreadful sight of them, an old man’s pleasures

(And his failures) – I can feel his presence
In the junk in my own room. So now I’m able
To picture myself his age, I’ll up & set
The VTR, spread brand new books among
The dustless disks on my working table,
And fight back with Order; hoping to forget
That because this is my life, my style, the young
May see it as my trash, my obsolescence

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Not ready for everything

I have just bought a new radio. They call it retro, but I shall ignore that, just be glad that it is possible to obtain one once again

It only has LW/MW/FM – we do not have digital yet, but anyway I would not want that. It is also very large – the number of ipods you could pack into its box would be well into double, maybe even treble figures. The advantage is that it will work off nice big fat C batteries

I want to be well prepared for possible winter power cuts. Most of the radios in the house are mains only – it is ridiculously expensive to keep even a small radio in AA batteries. If this modern copy is anything like the real old ones it will keep going for a good long time even without mains supply. And there must always be a signal you can pick up from somewhere in the old fashioned ether

Candles, torches, matches, hot water bottles & blankets to wrap round the knees are a necessity for any household round here, subject as we are to regular – if brief – interruptions to supply. And I still keep up the old fashioned habit of having tins of food in the store cupboard – if the worst comes to the worst & the gas goes off too, you can eat the contents cold

Then I read that power may not be the only thing in short supply come January: we could face a shortage of medicines too. It is hard to tell whether this is because of another government bungle over the way they have introduced a new NHS pricing regime, or is just a piece of scaremongering by pharmaceutical wholesalers

I wonder if there is any point making an appointment to see if the doctors advise laying in a judicious stock of the kind of thing we might need?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Origins of the sub prime mortgage

Historically, attempts to provide – and provide finance for – housing for low income groups have, one way or another, ended in tears. Think Dorothea in Middlemarch

By one of those pieces of library serendipity I went to look again at the books for sale trolley on Wednesday. Thought of buying University Mathematics Vols 1 + 2, published in 1965. Looks like something from very much longer ago now. Maybe if I cranked my way through it would provide the kind of brain exercise which is supposed to keep dementia at bay.

But I thought better of it, too heavy in more than one sense

Then I spotted a slim volume: Housing & Public Policy by Stewart

Written at the end of 1978, Callaghan’s winter of discontent. Six month’s later, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister

Written from a leftish point of view: ‘This book aims to provide a counter view to those who argue that market forces should have freer if not free reins in shaping housing development’ – it nevertheless recognised the emergence of the idea that owner occupation is somehow the natural form of tenure, to which many aspired

From the vantage point of 2008 what really stands out is the criticism of building society lending policies. They should be more ‘socially responsible’, provide more low start mortgages with a higher % of the value of the property, more willing to lend on older houses in the inner cities, to black households, the low paid & those with fluctuating incomes, in other words ‘those … not otherwise able to buy’

The government had introduced a House Purchase Assistance Bill which Lansley criticised as doing ‘nothing for the potential first-time buyer who is unable to save’ or persuade lenders to be more flexible:

‘Previous attempts to persuade building societies to adopt different policies have proved ineffective, despite the ever present threat of greater control … they have not eased their lending criteria … are reluctant to lend above 90%’

So it was not just evil right wing stupid bankers who thought such mortgages would be a Good Thing

Still, at least we now have greater control over some of the former building societies

Related post

Can a leopard change his feeling that spots are rather a credit?

Assuming that the Brown solution does save the financial system, it seems to have buried within it a typical complication that could cause all sorts of problems to the partially nationalised banks

There is a requirement for them to maintain lending to small businesses & home buyers at 2007 levels. Are not these levels at least in part a cause of the problem?

There do not seem to be, in the public domain, any details of what this requirement actually means in practice. It may just be a clever bit of politics, aimed at mollifying those who think they would rather see greedy stupid bankers go to the wall rather than bail them out with hard working tax payers money

Or it may be there to allow the government to impose a complicated tick box system of targets & performance indicators on the people trying to run the banks, & subject them to the kind of public vilification that the universities get for ‘failing’ to recruit students from ‘disadvantaged’ backgrounds in sufficient numbers

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Children’s rights

The idea that children have rights, & that the interests of the child should come first, is not so benign as it seems

Within my lifetime it was possible for a catholic husband to be asked to consider seriously, in advance, whether he would choose the life of his wife or the baby, if it came to that; although low, maternal & infant deaths during childbirth were still not thought of as effectively zero probabilities. When I discussed this with a Jewish friend, she said that a Jew would, without doubt, always choose the mother’s life because Jewishness is passed through the mother

The problem is that children have parental (or at least adult) encumbrances, or if they do not we believe that they should be provided with them, not left to fend for themselves

You cannot lift a child out of poverty without giving money or resources to adult(s) who will deploy them on the child’s behalf (we hope)

And where that relationship is unsatisfactory we deploy comparatively expensive professionals to make good the deficiency, through advice, supervision or training

Except that we do not want to pay professional or even semi-professional salaries to those who step in to provide hands on day care. Because we want affordable child care

And if the worst comes to the worst the State takes the child into what we call care, but may be anything but

A tv programme on this subject once showed a troubled teenager being given a personal interview by the Director of Social Services. After listening to the girls complaints, she said, in what may have been an overly harsh lesson in the facts of life: You are really asking for love, and we just cannot give you that

In truth we would all like to believe that all children have the fundamental right to be loved. No law can deliver that

Related post

High heels

I lurv this poem about the madness of high heels

It comes from a new book by Michael Roberts*, whose ability with this kind of rhyme reminds me of Clive James Britannia Bright

Bien sûr, I lurv to make les shoes
I lurv les teeny footsies
I ‘ope ze penchant I don’t lose
For torturing ze tootsies.

I make ze ‘eels so very ‘igh,
Les petites filles, zey tumble
But still zey pay to go zis way
It makes me very ‘umble

I don’t know why I lurv ze cries
(I ‘ave since I was seven)
Ze screams of pain now & again
Pour moi, it’s perfect ‘eaven

Le crunch of bones on paving stones
Quelle joie de vivre I’m feeling!
But zey'll be back, it's just a crack
Zey lurv mt sexual ‘ealing.

C’est tres, tres chic, le pointy shoe
I cover with ze rosie
But footsies wide don’t go inside
So chop off all ze toesy!

*The Catty Catalogue of Stylish Casualties

Related post:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The end of property

There is one outcome of a return to financial sanity to be devoutly if fondly wished for

Please will people stop saying I have a property when they just mean they have a home to live in

Autumn leaves

It does not seem to have been a particularly good year for leaves. Around our way the autumn colours are not spectacular & leaves on the ground are mostly wrinkled & sorry for themselves

There is one exception. Many of the sycamore leaves which cover the stone staircase leading from the lane up to the road are red – something which I cannot remember seeing before

The steps usually stay quite dry there, sheltered as they are by the trees, & I usually gather up a bunch of leaves for home decoration. They are mostly quite yellow, with just a few chestnut browns to add contrast, but this year a good 5-10% are a lovely warm red

Paul Simons had an interesting piece explaining that we need warm sunny days & crisp but not freezing nights. Essentially what we then get are sugars cooked into anthocyanin pigments – just what give strawberries their colour.

So now the jar of leaves will give an extra small pleasure – the memory of strawberries in July

Who should be in charge?

This morning a Radio 4 programme about Byzantium contained an interesting segment about the role of the eunuch, often in positions of considerable power & influence. One of the contributors was the great Judith Herrin

I found myself thinking: Perhaps we need a few eunuchs in the finance industry

I am not saying this to be nasty about bankers. But in the immediate aftermath of the Lehman crash we were treated to several commentators opining along the general lines: We would not be in this mess if there were more women working in the city, if it were not all so macho. Something which I personally doubt

The idea of eunuchs is one to which we, in Western Europe, both now & in the time of the Byzantine Empire, react with an automatic Nooo!

But these are challenging times & challenging thoughts are what we need

Related post

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Light at the end of the tunnel

The Dean of Harvard Business School has said: There is no such thing as a capital markets expert, especially in these markets … None of us really realised that this course of events would expose such fragile structures

The one thing he would like to change in the world of business & commerce would be to restore the system of trust

Banking has always been a confidence trick. In two senses. The sort perpetrated by criminals is one. But the other works magic tricks with trust. When trust goes, the illusion is shattered


Liquidity problems

During the American Civil War, when the Cotton Famine brought the Lancashire mills to a halt, merchants sought alternative sources of supply in Egypt & India

One of the problems they ran into was the lack of any established system of finance. Suppliers in those countries would not accept bills of exchange or any other type of funny money derivatives of the day which were an established feature of the Atlantic trade.

Only gold would do. The merchants grumbled about the government’s failure to provide this in adequate amounts

The bit of this story which seems truly astonishing today is that, since information is just as important as money to keep the wheels of commerce turning, so the names of ships, port & date of departure & amount of bullion to be carried were announced in advance in the newspapers

Hedgehog Higgins

The English people are famous for their intolerance of mispronunciation, & I too can wince sometimes, though I generally would not dream of commenting or correcting or even just believing that my way is the right way. It is only personal taste – like broccoli, but less important

Many years ago I worked as a young assistant to a gentleman of the old school. One day I was in his office presenting my latest results with what we would now call a spreadsheet, but then called a schedule

The man kept going Sh! Sh! Sh! causing me to stop with an enquiring look, whereupon he gave a wave of his hand & said Carry on!

On about the third occurrence I had to ask him to explain

The word, he said, is not skedule

When I told my husband about this he advised me to tell him the one about Generals Eisenhower & Montgomery

Monty could not stand Ike’s pronunciation in their discussions of the timetable for the D Day landings

- I think you will find, General, that the word is pronounced shed-ule, not sked-ule

- Oh, that’s OK, General, replied Ike. It’s just that you & I did not go to the same shool

Well, I couldn’t. Not just because I would be too scared, but because any fule knowe that sch is soft before an e or an i, but hard before a, o or u

All this is just by way of introducing the fact that I am going to comment on someone else’s pronunciation

No less a person than Professor David Cannadine presented a Radio 4 Archive Hour on Saturday about the relations between the monarchy & the BBC

He astonished me by more than once, pronouncing the name of Lord Altrincham with a ch as in cheese, rather than a k sound. And this from a historian who has made a special subject of the aristocracy

I wonder how he pronounces the Cheshire town of that name?


Monday, October 13, 2008

Degrees of connection

One is learning more than one ever knew before about who owns what & how some of the deals were structured

Russian oligarchs are having to give up some of their share holdings which had been pledged as collateral for loans. So one has had to hand over his holding of shares in a Canadian car parts company. He also owns Leyland Daf, which is closer to home & so more worrying. His stake in a nickel company, owned by his aluminium company, has fallen sharply, but maybe he can make up for that with a bargain basement deal on Icelands smelters

Sir Tom Hunter wisely got rid of his Booker shares earlier this year. Baugur, another Icelandic company, was less fortunate & is now looking for a distressed sale

The chairman of the Swatch company has lost more than 3 billion Swiss francs

Lehman’s bonds fetched only 8.625 cents on the dollar at auction. This leaves perhaps 350 organisations holding about $365 billion of credit default swaps, among them AIG, the sponsors of Manchester United shirts

Our cancer hospital, Christies, has nearly £7 million, mostly raised by charity, and our local council has £2 million, locked up in an Icelandic bank

If I had invested £100 in the FTSE 100 index 10 years ago, it would be worth about £80 now

Smoking saviours

The Tempus column in The Times business section on Saturday offered advice on a prudent investment strategy for turbulent times

Boring is best. Look for strong balance sheets & predictable earnings. Eschew the more flashy sectors, geared to the whims of fashion & the moment

Among these dependables? Tobacco

So you see we smokers will be doing you an even greater favour. We do not commit murder & mayhem on the roads or in our city centres as do those who choose alcohol as their poison. We do not support some very nasty criminal organisations & consign hundreds of Third World mothers to our prisons in order to support our Class A habit

We stick with well-regulated suppliers who observe the employment laws.

And not only do we prop up the stock exchange, by paying a substantial tax on every packet we contribute more than our share of the taxes being used to prop up the rest of the financial system

Keeping your head

According to press reports, Iceland’s president, foreign minister & the governor of the central bank of are on sick leave

Our prime minister, on the other hand, is showing every sign of enjoying himself in the crisis

Of these, I think I find Gordon Brown’s reaction the more disturbing

True, in a crisis you want someone to keep their head, do whatever needs to be done & lead us through to safety. Give us courage. Someone on whose judgement we can rely

Good judgement & downright enjoyment of outright danger do not seem to go together

But then some of our most celebrated, even revered, prime ministers have been very strange characters

William Gladstone, with whom Gordon Brown likes to compare himself as a great chancellor, would, I think, find it impossible to get selected even as a prospective parliamentary candidate these days, though his intellectual abilities were recognised while he was still at school (at Eton)

His reliogisity was a problem. As was his treatment of women – and I am not even taking into account here his nocturnal missions to bring redemption to ladies of the night. His behaviour towards the 2 young women he identified as suitable to be his wife (before he met Catherine Glynne), & later his treatment of his poor sick sister, was abominable

Nevertheless, I will be just as glad as everyone else if Brown pulls off the rescue of the world financial system

But do not expect me to vote for his party at the next election

I suppose I know now how all those people felt who did not vote for Winston Churchill in 1945

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Missing links

I have recently been doing some housework, checking the links on my blog, since links which lead nowhere are just ANNOYING

I did not keep count so cannot offer proper statistical analysis, but it seems to me that links to UK government web sites are disproportionately likely to become obsolete

In part this seems to be because much of what is publicly available is on press releases carrying the name of a minister who has since moved on (probably more than once)

But the same applies in at least 2 cases to what are just technical documents giving regulatory details

And this lot promised us joined up government

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Discriminating landlords

Womans Hour had an item about letting out your spare room to help with the finances during these hard times

One woman interviewed had already taken the plunge

Jane Garvey asked how she had set about choosing someone to share her house, her bathroom, her fridge …

Did she specify in advance, man woman, old, young …

Is this not discrimination, exactly as carried on by evil people in the no blacks, no Irish days?

Related post
Desirable tenants

Comment se dit-elle?

I came across this “identity piece” On Afro-Guyanese while wandering the web. It makes for an interesting read, particularly perhaps right now, when many commentators & others struggle to find the right shorthand term to describe an American-born man with an African father who was not descended from American slaves who might be the next President of the USA

And, since it was written by a feisty young woman, it also makes an interesting comparison with Michelle Obama's Princeton thesis written almost a quarter of a century ago

Who not to vote for

Politics seem to be getting more like the 70s – an economic nightmare, not knowing who to vote for. Perhaps ending up voting for ‘anyone but …’

I only half heard on the news the clip from the end of the Brown/Cameron exchange in PMQs and was a bit surprised to find later that Brown was considered, by those who witnessed it, to have floored Cameron – it had sounded more like petty point scoring to me

I think it unlikely that Brown will gain an election victory by the way he handles this crisis. Either way. For obvious reasons if he fails. But if he is considered to be the one who sorted it out, people will be inclined to say: So he should have done. Who was in charge while we got into this mess?

And if it is really the case that ministers earlier this year responded at best equivocally to questions in both the Commons & the Lords expressing concern about Icelandic banks, then there really will not be much respect, to put it mildly

Having said all that, Cameron has not played it very well so far

And since I am not very impressed by any of the 3 locally declared candidates, at present it looks like I shall have a hard job deciding how to vote when the time comes. But vote I must, I think – it will not be a time for voting none of the above

Friday, October 10, 2008

Scary times

If Derek Draper & Charlie Whelan are part of the answer, then what on earth is the question?

The return of these two in some ways bothers me far more than the financial melt down, which at least I can in some sense understand

Where is America?

The listings preview of Griff Rhys Jones programme about New York made me vaguely wish I still had a tv to watch, though the only review I have seen made me think I should have been disappointed

It did remind me of my, & my daughter’s, first trip to the city. She was just two, & like me had never been on a plane before. We survived that, me doing my best to conceal my fear of flying, and enjoyed a week of sight seeing with family

There was just one problem however. My daughter kept asking me: When are we going to America?

This is America was clearly not the right answer. I suppose one built-up area looks very like another when your point of view is that much closer to the ground. Even the Coney Island carousel did not do it

Everything became OK however the evening we went to the top of the Empire State Building. Looking out at the lights, my daughter finally pointed & said: There is America

A 5lb bag of potatoes & the price of Coke

Matthew Parris had an amusing piece in The Times about modern size comparisons – an area the size of Wales, enough to fill a London double-decker bus, a population the size of Coventry …

I have one which I am trying to popularise

Back in the days when shopping was women’s work & involved a walk to the shop or the market, carrying home your purchases in what would have earned you funny looks if you had called it a Bag for Life, a common expression for a real chore was: It’s like carrying a 5 lb bag of potatoes

I had been hoping that lap top computers would, like everything else electronic, get smaller or at least lighter. A couple of years ago when I was looking for a new one I paid particular attention to weight, since my old one was completely impossible to carry around, which it was not worth doing anyway because the batteries lasted only a couple of hours max & not many places allowed you to plug them in until recently

The lightest one I found was 2.3 kg (and I am not sure if that included the weight of the battery & transformer). That’s a 5lb bag of potatoes I thought - & point out to as many people as possible. That’a not mobile computing. (Do not tell me about Apple – I am a statistician)

The price of Coke comes into this because of my recent need to buy the stuff for medicinal reasons

£1 (or nearly that) for 500ml seems a lot to me. I have not seen 1 litre bottles anywhere. Some larger stores stock 1.5 litre bottles for less than £1.50, but mostly the only option is a 2 litre bottle (I have to remember to do some market research to find out the price, but I do not think it is much more than £1.60)

I know about economies of scale but I suspect that these prices really represent a plot to make people just drink a lot more sweet fizzy stuff than is good for them

But anyway, from my point of view a 2 litre bottle is nearly a 5 lb bag of potatoes, & impossible to carry with my bad back

Thursday, October 09, 2008


Wolfson, the firm which makes chips for iPhones, recently reported an abrupt fall in demand

It is clearly the duty of the affluent classes to continue to indulge their taste for stuff. All this thrift is doing the poor workers out of their jobs

Water power

Two more great photos from The Times

The first I put here for pure pleasure. The way the photographer (Sean Davey/Corbis) has captured the detail of the wave is awesome, & reminiscent of Hokusai’s tidal wave. But then the surfing frog makes me giggle with delight

The second (Alamy), visually, seems almost to make a pair. I love it in the way I love pictures which inspire awe at man’s ingenuity.

It was also used to illustrate a point about unintended consequences; allegations have been made that a company has deliberately cut the amount of electricity it generates in order to qualify for renewable energy grants. This of course is disputed, & without access to the figures it is impossible for me to have an opinion either way. But I can well believe that well intentioned regulation could lead to such a perverse result

Going to the airport

Maybe this has been going on for years & I just haven’t noticed but every day recently considerable numbers of people going away on holiday use the bus to get to the airport - more than in the summer

They are clearly not tied to school holidays – the reverse, if anything, since they probably provide the child care then. And obviously the prices drop as soon as everybody is back at school, making a holiday affordable & travel less horrible

If there really are more of them on the bus it probably just reflects the way the news has spread, that the bus represents good value, much better than a taxi or airport parking. This of course is especially the case for those over 60

True, once in a while there may be nasty delays, but only the sort that affect all traffic, nothing to do with the reliability of the bus service as such

This morning however I was discussing the point with another regular; she is of the opinion that such people are taking foreign holidays again, because the threat of a terrorist attack seems to have receded a bit

This month’s holidays must mostly have been booked before the present alarm, so it will be interesting to see how it continues

Related post
Times change

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Lighting up time

I don’t suppose there is anything significant (P<0.05) about this, but today I have already been approached on the street 3 times for a light (guess how they knew I had one) – genuine request, not just an excuse to cadge a fag

But maybe people are being driven to the weed by the financial anxiety, either forgetting that they also need to buy the wherewithal to light up, or deliberately using this as a way of limiting their consumption

Surprisingly, all 3 were young women who looked as if they are in work (for now)

That tight chested, tight throated lady from ASH will get even more shrill

Related post

Cold comfort

It may come as a little bit of a relief to think that an economic downturn might mean that we get through the winter without power cuts – lower industrial demand means more capacity to meet domestic needs

One way of helping to ensure that supply continues uninterrupted may be to minimise the demand we place on the system at peak times – for example by not taking a shower in the morning

It comes as a bit of a shock to remember that washing anything other than hands & face in the morning is something of a recent habit for the British winter

In the days when you woke up in a cold bedroom with no hot water until some time after the immersion heater was switched on, the thought of stripping off for even a quick rub down with a flannel was unthinkable. And showers were in any case rare in the days, before domestic pumps became commonplace, when plumbing depended mainly on convection & gravity

Only those who employed servants to brave the cold, warm up the house by lighting the fires, bring madam a nice warm cup of tea in bed & jugs of hot water to wash with could afford to be punctilious about morning ablutions

Related post
The pump

The colour of the future

I do not agree with Steve Jones that the future is brown

It may well be true that evolution has, through natural selection, ensured the survival of brown genes in the hot countries, while favouring pale skins in gloomier climes to maximise the ability to synthesise vitamin D

But genes are expressed in the environment in which they find themselves. Even brown skinned people in tropical countries turn noticeably paler when deprived of the sun during the rainy season

Genetic hardliners are having to come to terms with the fact that the way in which genes learn to express themselves, for example in babies conceived during famine or times of extreme shortages of food, may affect progeny

So the descendants of brown people who move to gloomy countries may well become pale, even without an admixture of ‘white’ genes

The physical distinctions of race are produced by differences of climate & peculiarities of region, operating during many centuries. There are probably few natural divisions of the surface of the earth which have not a tendency to mould distinct types of men by the continual influences of sun & soil. However long a people may have lived in any particular country, however indelible may seem the constitutional bent which they may have received from its conditions, they cannot become dwellers in a foreign land without slowly & inevitably growing into the likeness in shape & colour of its original & indigenous inhabitants
WA O'Connor: History of the Irish People 1876

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Constant hot water

Thinking about hard times to come set me to thinking about hard times of the past.

During the post-war years we were exhorted to bathe in not more than 2 inches of water. Our family adapted this to sharing a bath, though not together, in the way that people assume is meant today

The little ones got in first

Then mummy topped up the water & took her turn

Finally daddy got his go – he was so tall that it was only fair he should get 6 inches of lukewarm water

In fact it was not until I was in my teens that we had the luxury of being able to have a bath any time we wanted, in as much water as we wanted, at a temperature as hot as we liked

This luxury became available after we got central heating. Before then we relied on the immersion heater – a huge copper cylinder which worked on the same principle as an electric kettle. It took ages to heat up, & ‘taking all the hot water’ for a bath was a CRIME

There used to be debates over whether it was better to lag the tank or not; lagging certainly saved on your electricity bill & speeded up the water heating process, but stopped the useful transfer of heat to the airing cupboard & bathroom – domestic, if not global, warming

I had forgotten the potency of the phrase constant hot water – abbreviated to chw in property ads, even for hotels & other places you might stay only temporarily – a bit like todays en suite

I wonder what age you have to be not to take the idea of constant hot water for granted?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Mortgage owing democracy

If you want to blame Bill Clinton for the credit crunch (&, not so subtly, also turn it into a race issue) then you will have to blame Margaret Thatcher too

For it was she who won the 1979 election on the promise of the Right to Buy, & her ministers who constantly preached the virtues of home ownership, regularly advising that a mortgage could work out cheaper than paying rent, or at least you would have something to show for your money

And then freed up the Building Societies so they could seek funds in the market & thus could afford to take bigger risks in their lending decisions

For the good of the country?

Gordon Brown invites his sworn enemy in to the Cabinet

Everybody (it seems) wishes that Vince Cable were in there too

Cameron & Osborne promise co-operation

Now when did we last have a National government in peacetime?

Isn’t science wonderful

This year’s Ig Nobel prize for medicine went to Dan Ariely of MIT for showing that an expensive placebo is more effective than a cheaper one?

Did the patient, the doctor, both or neither know which is which?

Even more intriguingly, the prize for chemistry has been split between two research groups. One showed that Coke is an effective spermicide; the other showed that it is not

Ars longa

Has The Times introduced overseers with whips?

I only ask because their columnists suddenly seem to be working awful hard. Martin Waller provided the best part of 3 pages to the Business Section on Saturday, Caitlin Moran ditto 4 to Times2 on Friday

Other names also pop up more frequently these days. Nice if they are someone you enjoy reading, ugh! if it is someone who annoys

Of course words go further now that so much space can be filled with illustrations. And, by their blogs, journalists have proved that they can produce far more words than ever used to get in to the paper

Is this a Good Thing? Or a sign that we are heading in to a future of tediously long columns written by people who do not have time to write a short one?

PM stands for

PM stands for:

Prime minister
Peter Mandelson
post meridian
post mortem

Political commentators have gone down a notch in my estimation following their failure to forecast, & dumbfounded reaction to, the return of (now Lord) Peter to the cabinet

It was, I think, a diary piece from the Labour conference, about the all hands to the wheel on the deck of the mill antics of Campbell, Prescott et al, which added parenthetically that even Mandelson was now regularly consulted by phone from Number 10

Odd, I thought, especially as no comment or explanation was offered

But when I heard the news of the reshuffle I just thought: Oh! That is what it was all about

There was clearly plenty of briefing going on; Philip Webster, for example, had an otherwise very accurate forecast on Friday morning. How will he & other distinguished journalists react to this kind of GOTCHA!?

Gordon Brown has a disturbing taste for springing this kind of surprise – after all he started his career in government with one such in the bestowal of independence on the Bank of England

But is it clever?

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Teenage embarrassment

Neuroscientists have reported that brain scans show teenage embarrassment to be in a class of its own

That reminded me of this poem by George Jowett, who sounds like a very nice Dad

Embarrassed by their father
My teenage daughters told me
Recently they’d far rather
I didn’t keep them company
When we go shopping in the town.
I might, it seems, let them down
In some way. Their friends might see.
Couldn’t I please cross over?

Today, wandering separately
Round the shops, we chanced to meet.
Well no, not quite. Seeing me
Coming, they quickly crossed the street,
Avoiding an encounter.
Watching them saunter
Past, heads turned pointedly
Away, I felt obsolete.

Still, that’s the way of it.
Pushed to one side we watch them pass.
Lear-like, I could rail a bit,
But what’s the point? Life’s farce
Not tragedy. Best face the fact
In this unfunny, final Act,
Exiled, as it always is,
Love watches from across the street

Saturday, October 04, 2008


This poem by Vernon Scannell appeals because of what it says about growing old, but also because it reminds me of an incident in a hotel bath which happened to me when I was much younger, twenty years ago

I had to go to an evening function in London. After a nearly full day at work I caught the 4 o'clock train; when I got to the hotel I was pleased to notice that the bath was very long & deep – I would be able to have a good long soak with both knees & shoulders under water for the first time in forever

No time for that right away however, just a quick shower, into my finery & out

It was nearly 1 am when I got back, looking forward to relaxing away what had been a very long day. And it was lovely – until it came time to get out.

My back just was not up to levering me out from under the weight of the water

There was a phone – no dial, so presumably went straight through to the desk or somewhere - but it was over the other side of the room

Just stay here until someone comes in the morning? To find me looking like an albino prune, & possibly dead from hypothermia?

No, you’ll just have to throw dignity to the wind & start shouting

But wait, I can reach the hot tap with my toe, so perhaps I could survive the wait until morning

But that means … Eureka! If I can reach the tap I can reach the plug – thank heavens it is not one of those fancy modern things with mysterious buttons & levers for control, just a plain old fashioned chain

And so it transpired

A strange bath in a small hotel in Durham,
Old-fashioned, long like a porcelain coffin,
He lolls in it & lingers ….

He lets his gaze
Drift down to where his toes are visible,
Breaking the steaming surface, & observes
How long his toenails are. They seem to grow
More quickly now as they, he understands,
Will go on growing after he is dead.
The treacherous little bastards are rehearsing.
He nods & smiles a faint sour smile,
And they grin back at him quite equably,
Without the faintest smidgin of remorse

It is, of course, not true that nails (or hair) continue to grow after death - it is the flesh that shrinks

Friday, October 03, 2008

Police proceedings

The idea that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is not, never has been, & ought not to be, a ‘political’ appointment is laughable

That said, I really have no opinion on the resignation of Sir Ian Blair. I live too far from London to have any feel for the specific issues involved

What is absolutely clear is that, to use a technical term, he has succeeded in getting right up the noses of an awful lot of people

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Haiku for a sleeping wife

Another encouraging & touching poem of enduring love

Ah, your hair which caught
my breath is grey; my strength just
this whisper at dawn.

Generations locked
us together; when loving
was lissom; flesh ached.

A daughter! Three sons!
Pearls made perfect in your lips’
fluted secrecy.

You sewed, I read, snow
fell & fled; children slept, grew.
This we thought we planned.

In your bones I feel
our certainty, but warm,
smile against the dark.

Drainage problems

When I first moved to the village it was still pretty usual for people to walk to the shops along the track which provides a shortcut, away from traffic

I used regularly to pass the time of day with an old man who liked to sit on one of the benches. He must have been in his nineties & was always beautifully dressed in very good tweeds with plus fours, & a pair of well polished chestnut gaiter boots which I coveted. I always assumed he must have been a gamekeeper or estate manager

The track was out of use while they laid a (much needed) new water main beneath it. The next time I saw the old gentleman he was clearly angry. In truth I found it difficult to follow what he said, but it was about drainage. Somehow the workmen had blocked something & failed to remove the blockage. “I told them, I told them. But would they listen?

He was quite right. The track became a mud bath whenever it rained. The council came & laid down a lot of hardcore, but the problem persists. I hardly ever walk that way now. Apart from the damage to shoes, I feel apprehensive about what a slip might do to my back

The incident did however make aware of manmade drainage, of which I had previously been blissfully unaware (we learned quite a lot about rivers etc in geography). We just take for granted all the work which has been done in the past, all the small drains & culverts carrying water into the streams

There are 2 new(ish) housing estates near us. One was clearly built with awareness of drainage in mind; there are sturdy brick-lined culverts to take the run-off into the stream & the front gardens are all mostly earth or gravel. Where tarmac has been used it seems to be the porous kind. New drains were installed on both sides of the lane at regular intervals

The estate up the hill has been altogether different. The site was originally acquired by one of the upmarket builders, but they eventually sold it on. (I find it a bit suspicious that this happened soon after a thorough soil survey had been done – the site slopes quite steeply. But then, volume builders have all sorts of reasons for deals on their land banks)

The eventual developer clearly struggled, with cash flow & endlessly changing subcontractors at a time when building labour was in short supply. Management & quality were poor – just the other week they were replacing slates on one roof. Some of the houses are still unsold, & a few more look as if they are occupied by social tenants

The construction period caused all sorts of disruption & interference with traffic – even for pedestrians. Complaint after complaint seemed to produce no improvement

A new access road had to be constructed off the lane, just below the main road where the lane curves gently to the left. Almost invisible to the casual glance there is a slight hump in the access road along the line where it meets the lane

The hump becomes all too obvious whenever it rains. Instead of running into what was once a large field & valuable soakway, water just runs past the opening to the access road & ripples down the lane. No wonder the bridge at the bottom has developed large puddles

So now, every evening I go home on a rainy day, I feel a slight apprehension about what I might find

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Late night listening

What has happened to Classic FM’s midnight jazz programme? It is still shown in the listings, but has been replaced by another classical programme

I loved the jazz – just the right thing for that time of night, the only station I could find at that hour which was, reliably, soothing

Times change

I was disoriented when I woke at about 7.30 this morning – something was funny about the light. When I went into the bathroom the window looked white – surely it cannot be snow?

The kitchen window gives a good view of the sky to the west. Sure enough, it was white, though not the clean bright white of snow, more like the opalescent lining of a seashell. Very odd

By the time I got back upstairs it was raining so hard that it was not even making a noise, just a solid sheet of water

The same trick of light was happening over towards the east as I came in on the bus nearer to mid-day. The tops of the hills were bleached almost white by pale but intense sunshine piercing the high thick covering of the sky

An extraordinary – for the time of day & year – number of people on the bus were going all the way to the airport. One man – 40-ish, unattached, some kind of skilled or semi-skilled job – made his purpose clear: He was getting out of this ****, having heard the weather forecast for the next 4 days. Not coming back till next week Tuesday

The bus is a good illustration of how the effects of an airport on the surrounding area go beyond the obvious. It gives us country bumpkins an almost 24-hour, reliable bus service. If you have mobility problems it provides a really good way of travelling independently all the way into Manchester itself – transfer to the train is very easy at the airport, then there are free buses (available to all, not just pensioners) which take you to almost anywhere you might want to go in the city centre. Even if you are fully fit but the weather is foul you can make the same journey without getting wet (except for the first leg to the bus stop itself)

And to think, when I was a child, going in to Manchester was a Major Event. It even made for a story in the local paper when a Senior Lecturer bought a house in the village from which he was going to travel in to Manchester every day by train