Friday, July 31, 2009

A line of boys

It was Stockport Carnival last Saturday

I arrived in town just as the procession was making its way up the hill during a fortunate dry spell so I was surprised to find my eyes were moist as the brass band marched past

My nana & my mum always used to cry at brass bands.

As did many other women. In a good way – almost as good as Gone With The Wind

Perhaps it was the music

Or perhaps it had something to do with two world wars. Men marching off to war. Women too, of course, in my mother’s case

And then the death of Harry Patch was announced & I found myself, along with so many others, reflecting on what World War I meant for my family

My granpa – born in the same year as Harry Patch – volunteered at the age of 16. I do not know any of the details – he never talked about it, except to mention (almost fondly) the names WIPERS & GALLEY-POLE-EYE

By the age of 23 he was a proud husband & father. He had survived – seemingly unscathed - & spent a lifetime working as a cotton dyer & printer

When he retired he & Nana went on an awfully big adventure. Round the world

I, now living as a student in London, saw them off at Tilbury, together with horrible uncle. They were sailing away to visit their second son & his family, previously known only from letters & photographs, in New Zealand. They came home via Tahiti

They lived long enough to celebrate their Golden Wedding, & died within a few months of each other in 1975

Granpa was 5’ 3½“ tall

My other grandfather was a tall man – a Regimental Sergeant Major. He & G’ma married in Dover in 1915. He died young from a ‘bad chest’ which he got during the War, leaving a widow & 2 young sons

Oddly I cannot trace his death certificate. Either there is a secret here or – more likely I think – he died in Ireland, where G’ma came from

Political animals

Goats have been culinarily fashionable for their cheese for some time. Now they have come to the fore in British politics

I am grateful to Antonia Senior for a new take on an old warning:

You have two cows. The communist steals both your cows, and may give you some milk, if you’re not bourgeois scum. The fascist lets you keep the cows but seizes the milk and sells it back to you. Today’s Green says you can keep the cows, but should choose to give them up as their methane-rich farts will unleash hell at some unspecified point in the future. You say, sod it, I’ll keep my cows thanks. Tomorrow’s green, the Bolshevik green, shoots the cows and makes you forage for nuts.

Sir Alexander Bustamante used a version of this in the campaign which led to the 1961 decision, by popular referendum, for Jamaica, the largest and & most prosperous member, to leave the West Indies Federation. He claimed that a Jamaican who had 2 goats would have to give one up to help the less developed small island members

We have had our GOAT (Government Of All The Talents) too

But – sadly? – it seems that the goat “not only lacks much talent, it also lacks much interest in government”


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Expert patient

An extraordinary report says that blue food dye reduced local inflammatory responses in traumatic spinal cord injury (in rats)

It turned the rats blue, temporarily, but they did get back to normal

So now I am off to buy a good supply of Liquorice Allsorts

My emergency treatment kit for the next time my dodgy disc goes now consists of:

1 large packet of frozen peas (wrap in a tea towel, apply externally to reduce the inflammation)

2 litre bottle of Cola (for drinking, as required)

Airtight tin of blue liquorice allsorts (dose to be ascertained)

Related post
Cola analgesia

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The politics of social or geographic mobility?

The book Small Town Politics, about Glossop in the 1950s has provided food for thought, not just for reasons of personal nostalgia but as background to current concerns about the health of our national political system.

One point came as a bit of a surprise, though I suppose it should not have done:

Except in London & the biggest provincial cities, the majority of managers, scientists, lawyers, clergymen, surgeons & senior public officials in a town are likely to be immigrants rather than natives. In Glossop this is certainly the case.

(It should be stressed that immigrant here means mostly from elsewhere in Britain or Ireland).

In fact 60% of professionals & managers were immigrants to Glossop, compared with 35% of the adult population as a whole – and for those in the highest positions the proportion was more like 4 out of 5.

How had this come about?

At the beginning of the C20th the social, political & economic structures of the town pretty much coincided.

The manufacturing industries (overwhelmingly cotton) provided the towns wealthy families who dominated the leadership of civic affairs.

The only way to rise from the ranks of the working class was by making money in business. Those who succeeded generally stayed in the town, & full participation in civic life was a way of further enhancing their status.


In recent years this avenue of advancement has been largely replaced by the examination system.

The way to grammar school & university is now open to all children who can pass the required examinations & the importance of this is not lessened by the fact that, because of class differences in intelligence & home environment, the proportion of middle class children who pass is higher than the proportion of working class children who do so … formal education has become the requisite for advancement in more & more fields

To an increasing extent, it is the education system itself which selects the people who will fill positions of responsibility in industry & commerce

So the towns managerial & professional classes were not rooted in the community as they had been. They might belong to the golf club, but not the council

At the same time, one unlooked-for consequence of the new opportunity for social mobility offered by a grammar school education was that the towns own brightest & best children moved away. The change to industries run by large companies with employed managers (rather than capitalist owners) & the burgeoning public sector all relied (outside London) on geographic mobility for promotion through the hierarchy

One startling finding of the Birch study was that only ⅓ of the boys who left the grammar school in the early 1950s found employment in the town (only ⅓ of the girls moved away). By contrast, about ¾ of the secondary modern school boys found local employment

An even more surprising finding was that, of those who went into further education, less than 10% returned to the town – and all of them were school teachers. The book does not say, but it would be no surprise to find that most, or even all, of them were female

This loosening of local ties could have had an important effect on the chances of the next generation of children. At the beginning of the process the whole community would have known, & had an interest in, those children identified as bright. Although parental support would have been important then, as now, the parents themselves would have received a much wider range of encouragement. Not just the school teachers but the towns doctors, clergy & other worthies - & the local paper - would have invested something in their prospects, if for no other reason than to bask in a little of the respect they would earn for the town & its institutions. What we now call mentors. But this would have fallen away with the reduction in the internal connectedness of the town

In the last half century geographic mobility has increased still more, & not just for reasons of social mobility or advancement. The relative ease of daily travel, with the coming of the car & the reduction in cost relative to income, have broken the close link between the place where you live & the place where you work, helped, hindered or enforced by the way the housing market operates. The increased participation by mothers in the labour market, plus the fact that even children may commute quite long distances to school, means that the daytime population of an area has little in common with the one that is there in the evenings, weekends or holidays.

And so social circles are no longer limited by geography or bounded by locality. We are, in a sense, all Man U supporters – famous for having no other personal connection to the city that gives the team its name.

One plot beloved of authors of classic crime novels made use of the fact that nobody ever remarked on the presence of the postman at every scene of crime – his familiar presence was simply unremarkable. At the same time everybody would notice the stranger on the street, watch, make sure that his purpose was an honest one. Now the home town is full of a constantly changing cast of strangers, & we may not know even our neighbours by sight. Even the childrens friends are not the neighbours, & the postman is a stranger

The idea that politicians & their parties represent ‘interests’ is viewed with suspicion these days, we are no longer (even if we ever were) defined by our interest in land, capital or labour.

We find our friends & social groups through other interests, be they work, cultural, sporting or ‘other’. We talk of metaphorical communities. We may even define ourselves that way

So really it should not be a surprise that we have now developed a political class or community, whose members have more in common with one another than with the rest of us

Our system of political representation however remains firmly based on the idea that our community of interest resides in the area where we live. We generally do not have a vote in the area where we work, or for the body which governs the provision of the public services which we use, wherever that may be.

Because our closest personal or family links may be with people who vote in other areas, we naturally take note of what is provided there & demand the same, complaining about the postcode effect

Curiously, representation in the House of Lords – whose historical justification lay in locality par excellence (their Lordships owned the land) is increasingly being based on special interest, expertise or experience (including experience as a member of the politician community). And although Members of the House of Commons, constitutionally speaking, represent nothing but a locality, there are moves now to drop the habit of referring formally to each other as The Member for …

Is there any way we could take away the geographical basis of parliamentary constituencies, move towards

The Member for the Royal Statistical Society

The Member for the Football League

The Member for the Star Trek Fan Club

Those specific suggestions were just plucked from the air, partly in jest, & it is unlikely that any such system could be introduced for elections to the House of Commons any time soon

But we are still stuck on whether, or how, to elect members of the House of Lords. Many dread the idea of straightforward extension to the kind of party battles we see for the Other Place, & there would certainly be problems persuading candidates who were not seasoned veterans of that electoral process to put themselves forward

Unless we follow the existing geographic divisions, & have one Lord, one Commoner for each (a mind boggling idea) there will have to be yet another layer to add to town/parish, local authority, constituency, county & European region (with even more in Wales & Scotland), & maybe more voting systems which do not rely on single votes & simple majorities

So it would be worth considering whether to think in terms of other kinds of constituencies of interest – tapping in to organisations which already exist. There would certainly be problems of definition (& duration), of how to determine who is entitled to vote in each constituency, how to guard against multiple voting (maybe we could have fractional, rather than proportional, votes!)

Thinking about the use of modern IT based methods for registration rather than just voting could present a really useful way to go (it might even provide a more obviously useful justification for ID)

There would be questions to address on how these fitted in with political parties, whose skills we do need. The constituent organisations need not necessarily be linked uniquely to one party , though they could say which policies they would support (much as even a candidate standing “in the Liberal interest” could promise to support Lord Derby on a particular issue in the 1860s)

Parties would have to engage with a wider range of interests – this could have a galvanising effect. It could even loosen the grip of the mass media on the coverage of elections, as each constituency would look for supplementary coverage of its special interests

"Let's have quality of votes not quantity of votes. If you don't know - don't vote"

Frank Skinner

Related posts

Why is Ken Barlow still in Coronation Street?
Feminism trumps equality
Limiting the spread of democracy
We the people
Are exams getting easier?

Talent spotting

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Culinary report

I bought a whole M&S chicken for roasting on Saturday. Didn’t think too much about it at the time – it was a good price & just right for Sunday dinner in this weather

It wasn’t until preparations for cooking began that I realised that it came with its own foil roasting tin with detailed instructions. Just season with salt & pepper & cook for the time shown on the label – no fat added. Good for untutored or unconfident cooks, but I know the right way to do it – based on the Penguin Cordon Bleu. Produces a fabulous crispy skin, involves lots of lovely butter

Then I had second thoughts – why not try it their way, just to see. Even though the baking tray looks small (no room to breathe) I don’t have the giblets to make a proper job anyway

Worked a treat, cooked just so, in the time specified. But didn’t taste of anything very much. Nor, crucially, did it leave the house (or even just the kitchen) permeated with delicious aromas

There was still half a chicken to be eaten cold last night. I made up for Sunday’s lack of scentsation by doing a dish of rice perfumed with cardamom & cloves & some very buttery leeks with lemon juice & black pepper

There is still enough meat to eke out for dinner tonight. With the weather so abysmal, at the moment my mind is turning towards dumplings – in July!

Then there will be the carcase, for soup. Is that prophylactic for flu?

PS that will be 4 meals for well under a tenner, what with the chicken being on special offer

Penguin Cordon Bleu Cookery

Related post

Yet more signs of the times

Monday, July 27, 2009

Trying our best

In a very instructive post on the OUP blog Brenda Gregoline writes of the AMA Manual of Style

There is a whole THOUSAND-PAGE book that tries to encompass all aspects of medical editing!

In an effort to help those who do not have time to absorb all this information Gregoline provides a list of the 10 most common errors which authors make

Number 9: Values in a table don’t add up—oh, it’s because of rounding

Well, at least it is not Number 1

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Prayer before Birth

I came across Louis MacNeice’s powerful poem Prayer Before Birth in his collection Eighty-Five Poems selected by the author published by Faber & Faber in 1959

In a rather gnomic introduction MacNeice says that “these … are not, I assume, my 85 best poems – nor, even though I like them, the 85 which I like best”, & also that “The order of this Selection, divided into eight groups, is meant to be more or less significant

I am afraid that that significance escapes me

It is however intriguing that, standing on its own, before the Foreword, is the poem To Hedli dated 1948 which contains the lines:

I stand here now dumfounded by the volume
Of angry sound which pours from every turning
On those who only so lately knew the answers

Prayer Before Birth comes very near the end of the Selection, dated 1945. I cannot resist reading it as a Prayer for the Baby Boomers 0f 1946-1948


I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak to me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

Hear a reading of the poem at
Related post

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mot juste

“Like a boy band with knobs on”

Jane Garvey, live on Womans Hour, speaking of the BBC tv version of the Pre-Raphaelite Botherhood [& let that typo stand – Ed]

Handled at least twice, maybe more? (4,5,2) - Times Crossword #24,281. Saturday 18 July 2009

Friday, July 24, 2009

Cheer up

Whichever genius coined the phrase Barbecue Summer deserves to win this years Michael Fish Hurricane Memorial Award for weather forecasting

The authorities usually fear a long hot summer but all this rain is beginning to get everybody really down. Small vicissitudes, normally taken in ones stride, cause unreasonable vexation. Still, coming on top of recession & flu, I guess the reaction is mainly just a depressed What else can you expect? rather than an explosion of anger

When the sun does shine again & my mood improves I am going to give up oxygen for my healths sake

Of the hazards of being alive, Dr Mark Porter wrote that “The onslaught comes from all directions — everything from sunlight to tobacco smoke — but the main villain is oxygen. We need it to create energy, but in the same way that it turns a newspaper yellow and iron rusty, it also eats away at our structure.”

Which neatly sums up the paradox of life, I guess

Related posts

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Significant cricket

The most significant Test match to end on Monday was not the one in which England beat Australia at Lords for the first time in 75 years

Bangladesh beat West Indies in Grenada to end the series 2-0

Somehow I do not think that the West Indies loss can have the same galvanizing effect as did the equally surprising loss to India in 1970/71. But we can live in hope

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Taking a break

The more we insist that politicians spend all their time ‘at work’ in Westminster the more they will become a separate group united more by their own interests than by ours; the more Westminster will become an isolation unit, a madhouse, a zoo, a private club

Not representative of Us. Them

Related post

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


“You have to be good at making decisions. Once you have made those decisions you also need to be able to communicate to people what you have done and why. Good politicians take decisions on the basis of what’s good for the country then think about how to handle it politically. A bad politician is one who first thinks what’s the political answer then briefly considers whether it’s the right thing for the country.”
Related post
Qual der Wahl

Monday, July 20, 2009

The birth of golf

Listening to the coverage of The Open on R5 – I am not a golf fan, but it is one of those programmes enjoyable for itself, like TMS used to be. Audio wallpaper for a dark afternoon of ‘showers’

Very struck by how all commentators marvel at Tom Watsons total relaxation at the prospect of winning at the age of 59

All mention a similar calmness in Ross Fisher, the imminent father, also in contention for the prize

Reminds me of Arthur Ashe, beating Jimmy Connors to win the Wimbledon crown, although I do not think that relaxed is quite the right word for Ashe. He was in a place, a zone where he just knew – or rather had determined – that his time had come

Summed up really by Connors anguished cry: I AM trying! in response to a remonstrance from a voice in the crowd


People of my generation are a bit bemused by the serious tone of the discussion about whether Ross Fisher should simply drop his clubs, walk off the course & proceed to the private jet which is on standby for when his wife goes into labour

Even though we are now used to hearing of sportsmen doing their familial duty in this way

Things were just beginning to change in my day, some hospitals would let father into the delivery suite if he insisted. By the 1970s one started to dread yet another blow by blow account from a male colleague who had had the privilege of being there

Many of us were born to fathers who were otherwise engaged at the time, to mothers who could not be certain that they were not facing a life of widowed single parenthood

Do they fly our soldiers home from Afghanistan to do their duty?

The complete change in expectations is interesting but I feel for men who would like to be able to say “Well, you know, I would really rather not” & with women who would like to be able to say the same

It has just become the focus, a metaphor in a way, for the change in mens role as fathers

One which runs the risk of missing the point, aiming at the wrong target, just as NCT classes in contractions ignore the main problem.

How do you cope, what on earth do you do with this baby, possibly the first you have ever been in the same room with, let alone held, fed, bathed, comforted – just been totally responsible for, less than 48 hours after the emotional tsunami of the birth


And after all that, neither new dad nor old dad fulfilled the Open dream

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Troubled times

David Spiegelhalter has a thoughtful piece in The Times about how swine flu could return us to rates of child mortality not seen for 25 years in this country – but still nothing like what it was in my great grandmothers day

What with war, ‘Dignity’ & now flu we are having to face up to death in a rather more clear eyed way than has been customary for some time

I just hope that we may start to have less time for the ersatz version in books, tv & film

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Heartless tender

Economic Woman has a tale about Scottish banknotes being more difficult to use in England these days

I have no idea if this is the case or not – I do not think I have seen a Scottish banknote for over 20 years now

And that is the main part of the problem – not “Irrational anti-Scottish prejudice.”

Things are further complicated by the fact that (at least when I did see them regularly) there is no one pattern – the different banks had their own designs. This, rather than counterfeiting, is a problem. How do I know if a piece of paper bearing the name “Bank of Ochtermurty” is the real deal or not?

If English banks were still allowed to issue their own notes, I expect some whose names have been recently in the headlines, & not in a good way, would find that their notes were being accepted less easily too. And who knows, what with the amount of quantitative easing & mushrooming government debt, perhaps the Bank of Englands promises will start to seem a tad unreliable soon too

If I am a small local shopkeeper, I know I am going to have a lot of trouble persuading my customers to accept the note as part of their change. With the nearest bank 20 miles away, that is potentially going to give me a cash flow problem in these hard times

Of course the national chains ought to have procedures for dealing with Scottish money, but will every till operator be trained? Waiting for superior sanction seems no less burdensome than having to wait for approval for one of the young ones to be able to sell me a bottle of wine

But look on the bright side. At least, as far as I know, providers of goods & services in Scotland are still perfectly happy to accept Scottish notes. It is not like some Latin American country in the 1960s where hotels, taxi drivers, bars & restaurants want to be paid in Yankee dollars

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hall & Knight

This very funny poem by EV Rieu reminds me of schooldays

Hall & Knight

or 'z + b + x = y + b + z'

When he was young his cousins used to say of Mr Knight:
'This boy will write an algebra - or looks as if he might.'
And sure enough, when Mr Knight had grown to be a man,
He purchased pen and paper and an inkpot, and began.

But he very soon discovered that he couldn't write at all,
And his heart was filled with yearnings for a certain Mr Hall;
Till, after many years of doubt, he sent his friend a card:
'Have tried to write an Algebra, but find it very hard.'

Now Mr Hall himself had tried to write a book for schools,
But suffered from a handicap: he didn't know the rules.
So when he heard from Mr Knight and understood his gist,
He answered him by telegram: 'Delighted to assist.'

So Mr Hall and Mr Knight they took a house together,
And they worked away at algebra in any kind of weather,
Determined not to give up until they had evolved
A problem so constructed that it never could be solved.

'How hard it is', said Mr Knight, 'to hide the fact from youth
That x and y are equal: it is such an obvious truth!'
'It is'
, said Mr Hall, 'but if we gave a b to each,
We'd put the problem well beyond our little victims' reach

'Or are you anxious, Mr Knight, lest any boy should see
The utter superfluity of this repeated b?'

'I scarcely fear it', he replied, and scratched this grizzled head,
'But perhaps it would be safer if to b we added z.'

'A brilliant stroke!', said Hall, and added z to either side;
Then looked at his accomplice with a flush of happy pride.
And Knight, he winked at Hall (a very pardonable lapse).
And they printed off the Algebra and sold it to the chaps.

EV Rieu


Thursday, July 16, 2009

A model life

For a while I was following the Boing Boing website, which is truly wonderful & energetic but its just too much for me – I cant keep up the pace

The “lampshade … made from bazillions of toothpicks (12,500 or so)” took my fancy, but it made me wonder if anybody still makes models out of matchsticks these days

David Reynolds does

He has made an oil rig from getting on for a bazillion bazillion matchsticks (4 million plus)

Matchstick train kits are available if you want to take up this hobby

Duck report

The ducks were there again yesterday evening, on the mud bank island under the bridge. I had not seen them at all since the day of the really bad weather last week, though I had been looking

Perhaps its somewhere they only go for a Wednesday night out?

Related posts

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Who sanctions the sanctions?

I found myself confused by a news report about sanctions this morning – was something being banned, or approved of?

When I went to the OED for the history of its usage I found that the verb & the noun seem to have moved in different directions

The verb began by meaning

“To ratify by solemn enactment; to invest with legal or sovereign authority; to make valid or binding; to authorize, encourage by express or implied approval” with for example, a quotation from a surgical textbook of 1807:

“The employment of bandages in these cases is sanctioned by high authorities”

So when in 1978 it was used in the sense of “To impose sanctions upon a person, to penalize” the Daily Mail complained:

“Sir Geoffrey Howe referred to Ford's being ‘sanctioned’... Nobody made a protest about this violence being done to the English language (or about normal meanings being stood on their head).”

As a noun however it was used more commonly for “The specific penalty enacted in order to enforce obedience to a law” & no less a writer than George Bernard Shaw was using it in the modern political sense in his 1919 Peace Conference Hints

“Such widely advocated and little thought-out ‘sanctions’ as the outlawry and economic boycott of a recalcitrant nation.”

Then, somewhere along the line it came to mean “An express authoritative permission, countenance or encouragement given (intentionally or otherwise) to an opinion or practice” to the extent that in the latest extension to the OED, ADDITIONS SERIES 1993 we find:

sanction, n.

Add: [6.] c. spec. In military intelligence, the permission to kill a particular individual. Also, a killing due to this.

with a 1983 quote from Peter Niesewand:

” His apartment was on the third floor, so the agents knew they would have to use another method of sanction... It was clear that Ross alone would kill that night while Lyle watched.”

Truly a quantum word

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Forty days

The weather forecast for tomorrow – wet. Very wet

Cheer up. I can assert with confidence that the old saying does not work

Cui bono?

The Charities Commission, in the combative form of Dame Suzi Leather, has come out fighting on the question of bursaries for private schools

I shall be fascinated to follow the next stage in this debate, the one on how the beneficiaries of these bursaries should be selected

Related post
Choice schools

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bite your nails

So Englands last pair hung on for 40 minutes to force a draw in the first Test against Australia at Cardiff

It doesn’t match the last wicket stand for the West Indies at Edgbaston against Pakistan in the 1975 World Cup

I was there, but I missed it

When West Indies, needing 267 to win, lost their 9th wicket on 203, with only ANDY ROBERTS!!!! & Deryck Murray left, I decided it would be best to leave – I had to get back to London for work in the morning, it was my first trip to Edgbaston & I needed to make sure I got to New Street with plenty of time to spare

I thought I must have misheard something when I finally got home & switched the radio on

West Indies had won with 2 balls remaining

As far as was humanly possible, I never again left a cricket match before that was definitely that

Smoking guns

Friday evening I took a stroll down memory lane, after hearing the news that the US military aims to go completely smoke free within 20 years. That is, smoke free in the tobacco sense

When I was at Nana’s house (which was often) one of the most absorbing toys was a battered tin box – about 7”x5”x3”, the colour of gun metal or pewter, a bit blackened & battered

Embossed on the lid – a roundel containing the head of a bearded sea captain, the familiar logo of Players Navy Cut

Nana was proud that her eldest son had qualified for the government issue rations – the 100? 200? 500? non-filter cigarettes which had been packed inside

Now it was packed mainly with cigarette cards. I remember the series of famous cricketers, film stars, aeroplanes, birds & wild flowers. There may have been more. Most were very old & seemed to have come from packets of Woodbines, probably Granpa’s weekly ration of 10

I loved looking through, sorting, & later reading the information on the back

I knew I had to be very careful with them. They were precious. Memories

My uncle had died, aged 19, in the North Atlantic

I was no more than 5 years old – perhaps as young as 3 – the day Nana & I went for an unusually long walk. It was summer, a hot sunny day. The grass was high, the wild flowers rampant. Nana was carrying a bunch of garden - or perhaps florists – flowers

I sometimes think I only imagine that our destination was a graveyard

Nana was crying, still crying on the way home. I picked an especially big bunch of wild flowers to decorate the house when we got home

I was puzzled, disturbed. I knew that my uncles death made Nana (& mummy) sad. But why cry now about something which happened long, long ago – before I was even born? She never cried about her own brother, the one who drowned in the canal when he was a daft daring lad. He was just an Awful Warning - the canal is NOT A PLAYGROUND

I could check the details – was his body returned for burial? Or was Nana perhaps marking an anniversary at some other family grave?

Somehow I prefer to leave it be, undisturbed, a memory respected. We never went there again

Two world wars did much to foster – with government encouragement – the spread of smoking cigarettes for their calming effects. And, as women were conscripted during WWII, they too adopted the habit in greater numbers

Then it was payback time, with the BBC television news telling us in 1962 that smoking causes lung cancer

But I wonder if my feeling, that the smoking epidemic coincided with a (historically unusual) decline in Anglo Saxon alcohol consumption & public drunkenness would stand up to analysis & scrutiny

Manchesters magnificent Temperance Hotel – the Trevelyan, opened in the 1860s, boasted a grand gentlemens smoking room

All human societies have their mind altering drugs, & their methods of social control, mixed with social disapproval

So, when you add everything up (in a metaphorical sense – I am not turning this into the kind of cold cost benefit analysis so excoriated by Michael Sandel) are the harms done by tobacco worse than those done by alcohol?

Is the damage done by a well regulated market, supplying secure tax-paying employment, so much worse than what flows from illegal drugs, whose consumers these days, despite the Just Say No campaigns, are regarded as so much cooler than poor sad nicotine addicts

Even Prince Harry ‘confessed’ to having succumbed to the weed during his tour of Afghanistan (though only OPCs)

I wish the US military well with its efforts to get rid of smoking in the forces, but I really do have my fingers crossed about what might replace it

By coincidence, on Saturday morning a group of young boys got on the train – aged about 3 to 7. Though clearly very excited about whatever expedition they were embarked upon they were well behaved & sat down quietly

The 2 who were in my sight each had a large plastic folder full of cards – footballers I think. They were happily comparing their collections & discussing the finer points

Some attractions stay the same


And still the young men die:

More booze than surf: teenagers and the Newquay experience

Crowds line streets as bodies of eight soldiers arrive home from Afghanistan

Related posts
The national birth, death & sickness service

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Abbreviated purchases

When I was taking a close interest in supermarket receipts & VAT I started to take note of the strange abbreviations used for some items. I expect I knew what they were at the time, but many just leave me bemused now

Which makes me wonder what a Telegraph journalist would have made of them if my receipts were of as much interest as an MPs - or how many guilty secrets he might have missed


































Saturday, July 11, 2009

Empire of Liberty

Simply standing behind a podium bearing the Seal of the President of the United States of America was enough. The man was the message

David Reynolds, summing up the impact of the election of Barack Obama at the end of the Radio 4 series, Empire of Liberty

The land of liberty, rooted in bondage” was another of his great phrases

This has been a really good series (in contrast to the new Americana, which I find curiously unformed & unsatisfactory, definitely no substitute for Alistair Cookes Letter)

I have been listening to the Friday night omnibus edition. Reynolds is a great master of the material, the language & the story. Magisterial almost, even though you do not always agree with his interpretation

He dealt well with the new realisation that to be Black in America is not necessarily the same as being 100% of slave descent, though the idea that this kind of multiculturalism is new is an odd one – how did people such as Tiger Woods or Colin Powell get to be ¼ this or ⅛ that if the mixing did not start several generations ago?

This American conviction has had consequences of unexpected kinds. There was a paper in Nature about the Out of Africa theory which looked at, among others, the DNA of Black Americans for support of the hypothesis. The authors argued, ludicrously, that any admixture of non-African blood would not affect the results because it would have come from the (slave owning) paternal line, while the study looked only at maternal (mitochondrial) DNA

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Friday, July 10, 2009

A thousand times a thousand

In an article in Wednesday’s Times Matthew Taylor referred to the day when “Margaret Thatcher handed a delighted family in Aberdeen the keys of the millionth council house purchased under right-to-buy

On a small point of correction it was not Aberdeen, it was Morayshire (Forres). Not far from Balmoral, where Mrs Thatcher had just been staying on the annual prime ministerial visit

I always suspected that secretly she hoped that a member of the royal family might go along to make the presentation

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Previously in favourite quotations (8)

Time wastes our bodies & our wits. But we waste Time, so we are quits – Old sundial inscription

Do not think you can make a girl lovely, if you do not make her happy - John Ruskin

In the study of man it is easier to understand the species than the individual - LaRochefoucauld

Man would not know how to create a maggot, but he creates gods in the dozens - Montaigne

Our great hospitals, which should be storehouses of exact observations, made on a large scale, and for which accurate ideas should be disseminated throughout the land, are almost completely without the means of fulfilling this very important object – Benjamin Philips (1838)

The outbreak of Fenianism had furnished a rude commentary on Sir Robert Peel's statistics - Sir Spencer Walpole

Previously in Favourite Quotations
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Weather report

We have had some drama with the weather recently

The heat wave started to break rather dramatically one morning a few minutes after 10 when the bedside radio suddenly went dark & silent. Just as I was deciding that someone working on a nearby loft conversion had somehow cut through a cable, the radio came back to life, accompanied by a clap of thunder. Miraculously, all its settings were intact

I hadn’t noticed the lightning flash but I noticed the next one, a few minutes later – almost simultaneously accompanied by a loud crack of doom, indicating the storm was now directly overhead, & heavy rain. The sky was black outside the window

Rather nervously I went down to the kitchen – the sky was already brightening to the west. There was however a strange smell, a bit metallic – a century’s worth of dust shaken up in the roof space I decided

About 40 minutes after the storm began, rolling thunder rumbled round & round the hills like an aircraft doing a valedictory roll

The rest of the day was less dramatic, even sunny in the afternoon, but noticeably fresher

Tuesday saw torrential bursts of rain – localised & quite short-lived, what the Met Office call showers. I managed to miss most of them, being safely on the bus or inside when they passed by

I was woken about 4am on Wednesday by sounds I have previously heard only in the tropics – rain sheeting on to the roof, enough to make it sound as if it were covered with corrugated iron rather than slates

That too soon passed but the early morning news on local radio spoke – alarmingly – of land slips affecting both the railway line & the road. Thankfully later travel bulletins did not mention any disruption to buses or trains & by the time I ventured out at midday everything seemed pretty normal

The stream was in full spate however, all the culverts spewing & the water level high enough to make you calculate how much further it could rise before starting to breach the banks. But the recently cleared drains had done their job: there was no lake on the bridge, just lots of gravel on the road surface, resting after its roll down the hill. The air was notably cool, the skies still heavy & grey, rain ever-threatening, but my umbrella & rain jacket never needed to come out of my bag

I glanced up as I was coming home shortly after 7. The sky above the hill top was deep blue grey black, but a shaft of light from the setting sun (hidden by the row of houses on the right) turned the transmitter dramatically silver – you could even make out the shapes of all the dishes it has sprouted near its base


The view was interrupted by houses until I reached the top of the lane, by which time the shaft of light had gone, to be replaced by the kind of dusk which turns the grass a vivid emerald & the transmitter just a black finger pointing skywards

I stopped on the bridge to inspect the stream – the water still rushing & brown, but only trickling out of the culverts, the level low enough to expose the quite large mud bank which is developing there & is even getting covered with vegetation

As my eyes adjusted I noticed the ducks

At least a dozen, including ducklings, mostly just settled down & at rest

They often come up this far from the river – some of the ducklings even get born here

But they were definitely not there in the morning – the bank was covered with rushing water. It is possible to imagine the adults managing to paddle up against the flow – or did they fly? Even the ducklings?

When I finish this post I will have to see if Google can find me an explanation

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Choice schools

It is rubbish, pie in the sky, a pipe dream, to suppose that we can achieve a fair system for allocating children to schools, with or without the prosecution of 'cheating' parents – not at least, one that is universally accepted as fair

Even a lottery is not fair, in that it may only increase the number of people unhappy with their allocation. And we still have to solve the problem of who is eligible to enter any given lottery – it will have to have its post code element, unless we are contemplating a Camelot style completely blind allocation which could send children from New Mills to Newquay

Nor is it just a question of shortage of good (or even good enough) schools. Those in a position to exercise the choice are just as likely to have strong views about which of Winchester, Westminster or Wellington is right for Tarquin

Sometimes it is worth turning the problem around, to see if that may provide a way of doing things. So instead of asking parents to list the schools they want, how about asking them to name the 3 schools that they would refuse to let their child attend?

The results would at least provide something new for the media, politicians, bloggers & people who ring up radio stations & the NUT to talk about

(The cartoon was published in the Times July 4 2009, p11 – sorry I cannot detect a signature to give credit to)

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009


By adding two other conjunctions, and and or, Mr Russell opens up a new domain to logic. The signs and and or follow the same laws as the two signs x and +, that is to say, the commutative, associative, & distributive laws. Thus and represents logical multiplication, while or represents logical addition. This, again, is most interesting

Whatever possessed anybody to use the words and and/or or? Especially since and means add in many contexts

It must sound like a wail like in French? – the quote comes from PoincarĂ©’s Science & Method

I love that ‘most interesting’

PoincarĂ© himself was a most interesting, & kindly sounding man – I really appreciate his insistence that the teaching of maths should start with the concrete & then move to the abstract

It must be 35 years ago. Theres a gentleman I know by sight as a regular passenger on the bus. Past middle age, well dressed, always wears a hat – a brown trilby (like Denis Thatcher)

One afternoon he is forced to take the seat next to me – no regular passenger on the old Routemasters took an outside seat on the top deck. Always bag an inside seat when you can, to avoid the bumps to your shoulder from people passing up & down the gangway

He was clearly – but discreetly – following my progress with the crossword puzzle. When it was plain that the final clue had defeated me, he could not resist

Sorry to interrupt – can you really not do that one?

I conceded defeat


To tell the truth, I was a teeny bit shocked. In the same way that a small child is shocked – hand to mouth, eyes wide – then giggles, with the realisation that a Grown Up has said something THAT’S RUDE

I cannot remember the clue in detail, but the cryptic bit was something like chamber pot in the market square

To this day I am a teeny bit shocked – or at least surprised – if the Top Peoples Paper is ever so slightly rude with its clues

And I can almost never think of Poincaré without thinking of the porcelain under the bed

Monday, July 06, 2009

Financial relations

Saturday morning, Radio 5 Live. Someone, speaking of Judy Murray (mother of Andy & Jamie) described her as “the kind of woman you would not want to hand over a breached pay packet to

Goodness me! He did not sound all that old. How interesting that he should expect today’s Radio Bloke audience to understand

Are there still husbands obedient enough to do that? Or any who still get paid in (perfectly legal, through the books) cash?

Are there couples where the wife is similarly obedient to a stern-faced husband?

Or children, now so many more are staying on to live in their parents home?

By the time I joined the British civil service I do not think there was any option but direct bank transfer for new entrants. Existing employees were being tempted to trust the computers to pay them reliably (the correct amount, on time) by the offer of charge-free current accounts

It seems as if we may soon rediscover what it is like to have banks which charge for every debit entry

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Talent spotting

Arlene Philips told of how she saw the Bolshoi Ballet in Manchester in 1956. I too remember that ground breaking visit – the Russians are coming!

Not that it inspired me to dance. Kirsty Young told of how she was thrown out of ballet school at the age of 4, on the grounds that she was hopeless. Much the same thing happened to me

I was so excited by the idea of ballet classes. I got to wear my white organdie party dress & a pair of pink satin ballet slippers. I was OK, in my opinion, at prancing around & pointing my toes. Disaster struck when we were told to lie on our tummies & touch the back of our head with our feet

The teacher came to pull up my legs so I could get the hang of it. To no avail. I think mummy must have been advised not to waste her money, because the classes stopped for me

Children learn early on about things they cannot do

Avenues used to get closed off early for those who were not ‘academic’ enough for grammar school, but fortunately academic tests were not, for me, the equivalent of touching my head with my feet

I have just made a disconcerting discovery about the process of selection for 11+ education, thanks to the book Small-Town Politics: A study of political life in Glossop by AH Birch

Until January 1956 selection in Derbyshire was made by junior school head teachers, who were each given a quota of grammar school places. There were also written exams, & meetings to discuss the results, but only to decide on cases where the exam results did not match the heads assessment

It is possible that that system was not used in the part of Derbyshire where we lived – the county was split into divisions with executive responsibility for education. But I am astonished

As far as I personally was led to believe, all depended on the 11+ exam


Related post

Discriminating damsels

I am surprised to know that this organisation exists

I think it is a Good Thing, but I can remember the days when firms providing services (such as taxis), AND employing only women specifically for the purpose, were deemed to be in breech of the Sex Discrimination laws. On the grounds that you cannot have your cake & eat it too

I expect Harriet found a way round that

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Saturday, July 04, 2009

The fire

I am surprised that the fire at Lakanal House has not been attracting more news coverage – there do not seem to be lots of reporters & satellite vans on the spot

No Questions Must Be Answered about how a fire could spread so quickly

No unbearable emotion about children dying

Reaction seems very muted, in comparison say with Ronan Point

Of course its in south London. An Estate

We all know what that means

Losers. Mostly immigrants. Asylum seekers

Not white

Not much by way of implication for our lives

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Bang to writes


A wonderful new word coined by the Plain English Campaign

It describes a 102 word sentence in a document produced by the Association of Chief Police Officers

Ironically, the document welcomes the demise of the Whitehall imposed box ticking strait jacket of performance indicators

Friday, July 03, 2009

Which was that?

“The Conservatives say ministers are in a state paralysed indecision”

The BBC news reader did not quite get his intonation right

It took me a moment to work out whether we were being informed that:

“The Conservatives, ministers say, are in a state of paralysed indecision”


“The Conservatives say that ministers are in a state of paralysed indecision”

Come to think of it, both interpretations may be correct

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Vatted things

I thought it would be instructive to keep a check for a while, to see how much VAT I actually paid

I soon gave up that idea – too much like hard work. But I have, in a desultory, unsystematic kind of way been noting some of the items from the supermarket on which I have saved money (in theory) since the Chancellor reduced the rate of VAT last December

It’s quite instructive

I hadn’t really grasped the treatment of plain sparkling, fizzy water. This usually costs the same, or a bit less than the fashionably flavoured – with natural fruit, naturally

But flavoured water is VAT free. I do not believe that the flavours can cost all that much. It seems like a con, to me

Mens T shirt
Basic briefs
Strong mints
Vanilla ice cream
Bath lotion
Mouth rinse
Surgical spirit
Household matches
Cheese omelette
Pot of tea
Table water
Chocolate digestives
Moist toilet tissue
Cricket lighter
16oz fizzy drink
Cheese & onion sandwich
Throat lozange (sic)
Sparkling water
Food bags
Baby lotion

I also note that a "medium" ice-cold fizzy drink is actually a whole US pint

Well, that is less than a good Olde English pint, so I suppose it's fair to call it something less than large

And I did save 3p on it because of the VAT cut. Sainsburys receipt told me so

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Talking of numbers

David Spiegelhalter, in an entertaining talk to the East Midlands group of the Royal Statistical Society (reported in the May edition of RSS News) estimated that “there are over 2,800 ways of phrasing two numbers if you consider options such as positive or negative, percentage or frequencies, relative or absolute numbers etc”

No wonder we haven’t got a proper handle on names for ratio numbers - yet

Time flies

I have been surprised by how many people (all male) have said they cannot believe that the Sony Walkman is 30 years old

Makes them feel old

Really old people are surprised that it was only 30 years ago – seems to have been around for ever