Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bring back Treasury independence

I have had a quick look at the Treasury’s own review of how they handled the financial crisis – intrigued to check out the background to the Times report that those whose job it is to look after the nation’s finances are paid much less than other civil servants in Whitehall.

This is certainly supported by the medians displayed in Chart 8 in the report, which ought nevertheless to be interpreted with a degree of caution. First because of youthfulness– two thirds of them are under 40 -& secondly because they tend not to stay in the Treasury for very long – three quarters have less than 10 years service.

These make disentangling cause & effect tricky – do bright young things want to join the Treasury for the value it adds to their cv when they move out to a much better paid job in the private sector, or does the Treasury suffer by not being able to pay good staff highly enough?

For now I just want to note one startling claim: that house price inflation is
“ leading to a situation where only staff with other income could afford a long term career in the Treasury, which could lead to a narrowing in the diversity of Treasury staff..”
There is no elucidation of whether ‘other income’ means a high-earning partner, or a trust fund.

But Nevil Shute would welcome the way we will in future have Treasury civil servants who truly independent & are capable of standing up to a Chancellor who is difficult or unreasonable

Taxonomy of oddity

This year’s honour of being named as the book with the oddest title has gone to Cooking with Poo – cruelly, making mock of the name of the name of a successful Thai cookery school entrepreneur.

I was glad to hear of another contender A Taxonomy of Office Chairs by Jonathan Olivares; taxonomy is a necessary first step in the development of a theory of evolution in all things.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Crisis consequences

Someone speaking on the Today programme this morning told of how, during the last petrol shortage/crisis it had taken the national emergency team some time to work out why hospitals in some areas were struggling to stay open even though medical staff had priority for fuel supplies.

Turned out the problem was that teachers had no such priority; if schools closed then nursing mums stayed home to look after their own children.

I wonder how many mums or grandmas they had working on the emergency team?

Such a long time

Quite a week in politics. Who’d have thought it? Well, hardly anyone who is actually paid to do, or to inform us about, the real work in the world of Westminster.

The Chancellor & his advisers seem to have expected that the decision to make us pay VAT on hot pies, sausage rolls & pasties would be greeted as only fair to those who already have to pay VAT on their fish & chips.

I heard the head of the project to simplify taxes express genuine astonishment – no one guessed it would be seen as a tax on poor old grannies.

In retrospect this reception may serve to persuade all political spinners that you can have too many leaks, that there is something after all to be said for budget purdah. That way the press & public are not left to hunt around for something new when the official details are finally revealed & will just concentrate on those issues you expected to be trouble & hoped to defuse.

Then all the confusion: panic - don't panic - oh well, panic just a little bit, about petrol supplies.

The Germans pulling the rug out from under our plans for nuclear energy.

The result of the by election in Bradford - also a very real shock to the politics professionals – I was listening to Radio 5 Live as the first rumours of the upset came in.

This morning neither the Today programme nor any of the BBC news bulletins which I heard were leading with the news; I am still puzzling over why not - whether it was because they thought it genuinely not the top story,did not know how to explain it, or just did not want to give the winner too much oxygen of publicity.

Related post
Political messages

The law of the internet

The media have been having fun with the policeman from Caerphilly who told a shopkeeper that it was illegal for him to sell bongs, & read him the letter of the law to prove it.

The police had to issue a formal apology to the shopkeeper after it was discovered that the policeman had failed to notice that he was quoting from an Act, which he took from Google, which applied to the Australian [New] South Wales, not the old [UK]one.

It actually took me several minutes hard work to track down the version of the NSW Drug Misuse & Trafficking Act 1985, amended to take account of the kind of ice pipe or water pipe which is a device known as a bong.

But then I am a total innocent in such matters.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

D-Day for jerry cans

This was going to be a satirical piece about the hapless minister who, in an echo of his predecessor who advised the British population to ‘Clean your teeth in the dark’ during the miners strike of 1974, yesterday advised us to keep petrol in a jerry can in our garage in anticipation of a possible strike by tanker drivers.

I am old enough to recognise the term as a familiar one. I assumed it must have something to do with the Germans, but wondered what, if any, relationship it had with the other jerry, the chamber pot which used to sit under the beds in nana’s house, so naturally I turned to the OED.

The jerry under the bed is presumed to be a shortened form of jeroboam (a very large wine bottle) & is Victorian slang.

The jerry can – originally jerrican – led me unexpectedly to a stirring tale of how the Second World War was won by jerricans, made in British factories & supplied to the Americans under reverse Lend-Lease.

The OED led me to The Times of 8 November 1944 which reported the story which could finally be told.

A British Government White Paper (Cmd 6570, price 2d) detailed the amount of help given to allies under Lend-Lease or Mutual Aid. The total came to over £1,000,000,000 (which the British did not then call £1 billion). The overwhelming majority of this went to the USA (£604,730,000) and USSR (£269,457,000). The contribution to the Americans inluded the cost of more 7 million jerricans.

On the same day President Roosevelt submitted to Congress his 17th report on Lend-Lease. Under the headline : GETTING PETROL UP TO THE FRONT - STORY OF THE “JERRICAN” The Times told its readers of the President’s account of a story which had not been revealed earlier for security reasons.

The British 8th Army had not been able to exploit its initial success against Rommel in North Africa in 1942 because they ran out of petrol.

Rommel’s supply system worked better in part because of a very efficient 5 gallon petrol can.

The 8th Army captured some of the cans. They were sent back to England & the British started manufacturing them. They were dubbed ‘jerricans’ after a common English abbreviation of ‘German’.

The first of those produced in British factories were all sent to Egypt by every available means of transport. By Oct ’42 when the 8th Army launched its offensive at El Alamein it had enough petrol available & they drove(!) the Germans 1,500 miles across the desert, all the way from El Alamein to Tunisia.

In 1943 it was decided that the Brits should try to produce enough cans to meet most of the anticipated needs of the US army in the European theatre as well as the British Army because carrying them over from America would be wasteful of precious shipping space.

In the months before D Day the Brits more than doubled production, so many millions were filled & ready to go on D-Day.

Said the President to Congress:
“They were among the first supplies landed on the beaches of France.

When the US 1st & 3rd Armies broke out of Normandy it was in these jerricans that the petrol our tanks & lorries needed to keep going was sent forward.

Without these cans it would have been impossible for our armies to cut their way across France at a lightning pace which exceeded the German blitz of 1940.

Cargo planes & even combat planes were loaded with them & carried them forward to airfields.

Lorries of every size, jeeps, armoured cars – everything that rolled on wheels – loaded up with jerricans & rushed them to the front lines.

They were tough enough to be dropped off lorries in motion without bursting open. They could even be dropped from the air into rivers & streams, or they could be dumped overside from ships, because they have airpockets at the top which make then float even when filled.”

So perhaps it is just age & patriotism, not social class, which made Francis Maude (whose father was captured in North Africa in 1942 & spent the rest of the War as a PoW) call the receptacle he had in mind a jerry can, forgetting that it is now illegal to store 5 gallons of petrol in your garage.

But, as minister with oversight of the Census of Population & Housing, he may care to consider whether to add a question about the availability of a garage to the housing section of whatever vehicle is used to collect the information in 2021. That way future ministers will have accurate data on the number of households do not have a garage in which to store their spare fuel.

No quiet stars

To be an Olympic athlete is a deeply enviable thing. It’s not a cross that some unfortunate people have to bear, it’s something everybody would like to be. You may as well talk about the great sacrifices a person makes to be a rock star.
So said Simon Barnes in powerful piece in The Times deriding the notion that to become a great sporting star involves sacrifice.

I object to those assertions, while agreeing whole-heartedly with his general sentiment.

I cannot be the only person in the world who views the idea of being either a rock star or a champion athlete with horror, something which sends me running away screaming with my hands clasped over my ears.

But now everybody is having another think about the virtues of the quiet ones – paying us way too much attention.

Please. Just go away & leave me alone!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Death by place of birth

In the first episode of the Radio 4 programme about England’s North/South divide Danny Dorling put forward the interesting proposition that the marked difference in mortality – much higher in the north – would disappear if you could analyse the figures by place of birth, rather than place of residence at death.

This on the perhaps contentious grounds that those who have the skills & the get-up-and-go to make it into higher education & hence the better paid jobs & professions tend to migrate south – the gravitational pull of London is very strong.

I think there is quite a lot in this – without of course believing that those who stay put are just too thick & too stupid to follow the advice about lifestyle which would prolong their lives.

Was it Dr Johnson who said that, by moving to England, Scots managed the feat of thereby raising the average IQ in both countries?

But the Dorling hypothesis ought, in principle, to be testable by using the ONS 1% Longitudunal Study.

Putting the cushion on the bus

In the second of two programmes on Radio 4 about the north/south divide in this country Ian Marchant spoke to Dominic Watt about accents.

One of the great giveaways is – still – how you say cup and put (and bus).

Which reminds me of one of the most excruciating embarrassments one could undergo when I was a teenager – especially as a sixth former at a school in part of England we were never quite sure was north or south – well, it is still called the midlands.

The Friday morning school assembly was more participatory than on other days of the week & in particular prefects took it in turn to read the lesson. The one that nobody wanted to get rostered for came from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – a passage which had obvious attractions for those in charge of our education:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things
No matter how hard you tried, that put all too often just came out pat or putt.

The other terrible trap (though I do not remember it cropping up in the Bible) was cushion.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Contributary taxes

The Chancellor has announced that we are all going to get personal statements which give the breakdown of how our tax money was spent. That is a breakdown of the ££££ we personally paid to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs as income tax or national insurance, broken down into broad categories – eg ‘Housing & environment’ - pro rata to the share each takes of total government spending.

There will be lots of room for quibbling about the breakdown & the labels put on each category; the effect (if any) on the public perception of whether or to what extent & for what purposes they want to continue having their money hijacked & spent in this way can only be guessed at.

A Times leader has already commented that voters may be surprised to see that we still spend more on Defence than on Public Order & Safety at home; I wonder what will be the effect of the revelation that we spend more on paying the interest on our national debt than on either of those two fundamental requirements – indeed ‘debt interest’ is the single biggest category, after the two real biggies of Health & Welfare which together account for more than half of what the government need all that money for.

My main worry about the possible effect of these statements is however a more subtle one – that people might think that these services cost us, collectively, a lot less than they really do. This is because income tax & national insurance provide, between them, less than half the government’s total income & even all the other ‘hidden’ taxes which we pay, one way or another, fail to fill the gap - the Chancellor still needs to borrow, in our name, nearly £1 in every £7 that he spends.

The personal statements I fear will also serve only to make rates of income tax even more the focus of the fairness debate by ignoring indirect taxes which, other things being equal we would expect the rich to pay more of simply because they buy more of everything

True fairness demands that we also, each & everyone of us (including babies) should receive an annual personal invoice which shows the true cost of all the benefits, goods & services bestowed upon us by ‘the government’ which have cost our fellow taxpayers so dear.

But – one step at a time. It’s a long journey

Blue skies

A cloudless blue sky today, & no breeze to speak of at ground level.

And yet the planes are flying & leaving their contrails – short ones only that rapidly dissipate, leaving no visible traces.

So another theory - that cloudless skies are a thing of the past for as long as jet engines fly –bites the dust (again)

Related post
I saw a contrail

Monday, March 26, 2012

Knowing where you stand

A magical sight as I walked home down the hill on Saturday evening: Jupiter, Venus & the new crescent moon aligned to make the points of a finely proportioned, elongated, obtuse triangle, right over the village.

There is an entryway to negotiate just before the bridge so I had to watch my feet rather than the sky.

When I stopped above to look again at the planets – they were no longer there. Must be leaves, sprung into life on the trees by the warm weather, blocking the view.

But no – the planets had moved behind the house.

Well I knew they moved fast – one evening last week when the bus was delayed I stood at the stop, gloved hand shielding out the light from the street lamps in town, watching Venus & Jupiter as they moved in stately glacial fashion, & reminded myself at what unimaginable speed they must really be going.

Of course they had not moved that fast, from where I stood, on Saturday night; it was just that I had failed to take into account the very slight curvature in the road & its effect on my angle of view

Coincidentally I have just started to read The World of Gerard Mercator by Andrew Taylor, with its account of how Columbus, with the notoriously untrustworthy navigation devices available to him, literally never knew where he was, particularly when wrestling with them on the pitching & tossing deck of a ship. And yet by 1582 the English seafarer George Beste could write:
Within the memory of man, within these fourscore years, there hath been more new countries & regions discovered than in 5000 years before; yes, more than half the world hath been discovered by men that are yet (or may very well for their age be) alive.
And we think that we live in a world that is changing more rapidly than we can comprehend.

Still, the experience has inspired me to dig out my compass & make an effort once again to be in a position to orient myself at all times.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dangerous wives

The three widows of Osama bin Laden have been held in detention in Pakistan since the day they were widowed.

Now they have been charged with entering & with staying in Pakistan without a visa & face a maximum of 5 years in prison. No further details are available.

Well they can’t just be let loose, can they, or they might become a threat to civilisation as we know it, just as has, allegedly, the White Widow now on the loose in Kenya.

Are any of their children with them, I wonder.

What kissing is worth

Love's Philosophy

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever,
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one another's being mingle;--
Why not I with thine?

See! the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower would be forgiven,
If it disdained it's brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea;--
What are all these kissings worth,
If thou kiss not me?
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Instead of money?

Radio 5 Live has been trailing an auction of things which money can’t buy in aid of Sport Relief.

The main events are over now & I haven’t been able to find out what sort of things were on offer.

More importantly I am left forever with the niggling question: If you cannot use money, how do you pay for them?

Sport Relief

Related post
Its my money

Taxing Granny

I wonder whose idea it was to call it a granny tax? A brilliant political stroke, but it makes me angry.

And I speak with my anti-ageist feminist hats on. Makes us sound like poor old things who need looking after, not the active, confident beings we really are.

Why should those over 65 get a bigger personal allowance to set against income tax? We don’t pay National Insurance, have mortgages to pay, or an expensive commute to work. We also get lots of goodies paid for out of taxes – state pensions, free bus passes, free prescriptions; winter fuel allowance, reduced library fines …

The numbers of people over 65 are set to boom – the first post-war baby boomers turned 65 last year. At the same time as the numbers of 35-45 year olds – those hard-working parents - will fall because of the low birth rates of the 1970s. Do we expect them to carry the entire burden for us?

The changes for pensioners will affect only those who have at least £5,000 a year on top of the state pension and will take just 20p out of each £ of that; wealthier pensioners (those whose income is above the line at which the 40% tax rate kicks in) will pay more.

Since relatively few women in this age group will have worked long enough to earn a significant pension of their own, it is more of a granddad than a granny tax.

The changes will also mean that fewer of us have to cope with the tedious business of filling in self-assessment returns – that’s worth a bit extra in tax of anybody’s money.

All this fuss about granny’s income tax is in any case a red herring - the real damage is being done by the innocuous-sounding QE, which destroys any hope we might have had of using the interest on our nest eggs whileinflation nibbles away at their value, & makes mockery of the careful pension plans made by those retiring now, while giving those mortgage paying middle-agers an almost free ride.

And while I am on the subject of Stop Moaning – the ‘unfairness’ of the withdrawal of child benefit from higher income families with only one earner is just the price you pay for independent taxation & the right to cohabit without benefit of clergy or state certificate.

That single piece of paper was, however distasteful, a useful way of telling the taxman not to ask impertinent questions every year when deciding whether you are entitled to child benefits.

Granny tax: the official version:

1.199 The Office of Tax Simplification’s (OTS) interim report on pensioner taxation identified age-related allowances (ARAs) as a source of complexity in the tax system.21 Changes to the personal allowance made by this Government mean that the difference between existing ARAs and the personal allowance is reducing. In 2010 the difference was £3,015 and it will fall to £2,395 in 2013.

1.200 To support the goal of a single personal allowance for taxpayers regardless of age, and to spread the tax relief fairly across working age people and pensioners, from 6 April 2013 existing ARAs will be frozen at their 2012–13 levels (£10,500 for those born between 6 April 1938 and 5 April 1948, and £10,660 for those born before 6 April 1938) until they align with the personal allowance. From April 2013, ARAs will no longer be available, except to those born on or before 5 April 1948. The higher ARA will only be available to those born before 6 April 1938. These changes will simplify the system and reduce the number of pensioners in Self Assessment.

21 Review of pensioners’ taxation: Interim Report, OTS, March 2012.35 Budget 2012

Friday, March 23, 2012

Science speaks

Nevil Shute had an interesting view of how to ensure that civil servants stand up to difficult ministers: make sure that they are not totally dependent on their salary to ensure the financial wellbeing of their wives & children.
“ … in a wealthy country with relatively low taxation & much inherited income, a proportion of the high officials will be independent of their job, & the standard of administration will probably be high.

I do not know the financial condition of the high officials in the Air Ministry at the time of the R101 disaster. I suspect, however, that an investigation would reveal that it was England’s bad luck that at that time none of them had any substantial private means. At rock bottom, that to me is probably the fundamental cause of the tragedy."
Nevil Shute: Slide Rule: An autobiography
Shute was involved with the design & construction of the R100, in a strange kind of government sponsored public/private competition to build the first British airship capable of inter-continental travel, which project also collapsed after the disastrous crash of the R101. He thought the tragedy was caused, in large part, by decisions driven by political expediency, insufficiently challenged by the engineers who worked for the government.

Of course in that particular example the unfortunate politician (Baron Thomson of Cardington, Secretary of State for Air) paid for his obduracy with his life.

I do not imagine that the House of Lords Select Committee on Science & Technology had any such fate in mind for any existing or future Minister of the Crown when they recently set their minds to working out how to improve the effectiveness of Chief Scientific Advisers within government departments.

I cannot work out if the noble scientists are feeling particularly unloved & underappreciated, or if they are attempting something of a coup d’état – do what Simon The Science says, or else. Or maybe they just want to create jobs for the boys (& girls).

In order to make sure that science is given its due weight in government policy they are recommending the appointment of persons of ‘standing and authority within the scientific community, nationally and internationally’ to posts which are part-time (but at least three days a week) and for a period of three years (with the possibility of renewal). That is one post in each of 15 Departments of State.

For the avoidance of doubt, their Lordships take “science” to include the social sciences, as well as the natural and physical sciences and engineering, though not, apparently, economics & statistics which have their separate professions within the civil service.

But standing will not be enough. The scientific advisers will also need the ability to:
• engage in effective dialogue with internal and external stakeholders, including academia, industry and the wider public;
• work in and manage a multi-disciplinary team;
• evaluate evidence and to weigh up conflicting evidence from a wide range of disciplines;
as well as understanding of the policy environment & the techniques of project delivery.

Since It is considered unlikely that any scientist who has spent a whole career in the civil service would possess these qualities, recruitment must be from outside. One wonders what effect this might have on recruitment, retention & morale of those who know that the top job is for ever closed to them.

The Committee also recommend that a Chief Scientific Adviser should have a right of direct access to departmental ministers to ensure that they can challenge effectively at the highest level. This means that CSAs should ‘be able to see ministers at the prompting of the CSA and as often as judged necessary by the CSA’.

This strikes me as the kind of right which, if invoked on the basis of a formal clause in the CSA’s written contract, will signal that the battle is already lost. The aim should be to work oneself into the position where people ask (wanting genuinely to know) ‘What does Simon think about this?’ & rather than provoking the response ‘What does he want to shout at me about this time?

To be in a position to dictate policy one has first to engage in politics. The right decisions do not just fall out of mathematical models or randomised experiments – would it were that easy. But those who do understand this evidence have an important role – to advise & to warn the decision makers about the likely consequences.

Politics is about the distribution of power – Esperanza Spalding on Front Row 22 March.

Lessons in probability

An interesting take on calculating the Bayesian probability that the sun will rise tomorrow from Allen Downey on Probably Overthinking It - The sun will probably come out tomorrow

And a variation on (corollary of?) Simpson’s paradox operating on equal pay, from Nigel Hawkes on Straight Statistics - Squinting hard at the gender pay gap

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Reading up to date

Two people were reading Kindles on the bus in to town this lunchtime – one male, one female (not travelling together), both middling sort of age.

Gold beneath your feet

We have grown used to the idea that the only way to get a bigger house in London these days is to dig deep, to excavate a basement (or sub-basement if you already have one of the first order).

Until yesterday I had not realised that rich bankers are doing some excavations at the office as well. They need somewhere to store the gold – in all, an estimated 5,000 tonnes of the stuff, worth $290 million (that was yesterday’s price according to The Times).

I wonder what will happen if the current water shortage turns into a drought on the scale of 1976, which brought all sorts of subsidence problems in its wake.

We were, although we did not know it at the time, fortunate to have faulty, cracked drains; all the waste water produced by the occupants of the house had, instead of being carried through to the public sewers, seeped out to keep the clay subsoil moist & resilient instead of dry & cracked.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Blameless font

Christina Squitieri has been waxing lyrical on the blog of the NY Center for Book Arts:
... Times New Roman, the typeface equivalent of the quiet girl next door: beautiful in its own way, with an understated elegance that can often go under-appreciated.

I was intrigued to read that, since 2004, all US diplomatic documents use 14-point Times New Roman, replacing the previously used Courier New.

Casting around the web I find that the font has also been accused of conspiracy, theft & empire building.

There must be a film in this. Who should play the girl next door?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Children do grow

Over on the Straight Statistics Nigel Hawkes lets off steam about ‘a classic case of a Government ignoring the message its own statisticians provide.’

A spat about the ‘crisis in primary school places’ which can be put down to the failure of policy makers to realise that a baby boom will inevitably - & soon - be followed by a rise in demand for school places.

I went through my primary school career being pushed out by pesky little boomers crowding in behind – quite literally as the top classes were often moved out to some kind of emergency accommodation, in at least two cases a fair distance to walk from the main school site.

I seem to remember that there was some sort of emergency programme to train teachers – many of them men who had been in the forces during the war. Partly as a result three out of my four class teachers at what we used to call Junior School (Years 3 to 6), were men, though my top class teacher was much older & had spent his life in teaching.

By coincidence I have just been reading Harold Wilson’s speech on the white hot heat of technology, delivered at the 1963 Labour Party conference.

I was surprised to read that those same post-war boomers were still taking the educational world by surprise:
There are students this year who are failing to secure entry to universities & other colleges of higher education who possess qualifications which a year ago would have got them in. Last year ¼ of those who had the necessary qualifications at A level could not get in because there were not enough places.

This year a much higher proportion will have been excluded … To give students today the same chance to get a place by the late 1960s as they had even in the late 1950s would need between 180,000 & 200,000 places in universities … the governments plan provided only for 150,000

Perhaps politicians had better start planning now for 2020.

In the meantime those boomers have a good riposte with which to counter complaints from today’s student generation who point to the one-time availability of full grants.

Only for the very lucky few.


How did this happen? Viv Richards is 60. There were parties in Antigua to celebrate.

One of the great showmen, nobody ever dominated a match –or a whole ground - like Sir Vivian.

At Lords this would start even before play began; he was the last to walk the length of the field on his way to the nets at the Nursery End, swirling his bat.

To reinforce the point he could sometimes, just a few minutes later, be the first one back, alone; he only needed a bit of a loosener.

It is salutary to remember now that on his first representative trip to England, for the 1975 World Cup, he failed to impress with the bat: just another over-hyped youngster, some said, saved by his performance in the field (especially in that heart-stopping final). West Indies management had to justify their faith to the press – an English hopeful would have been sent away to prove his worth in the county game until he matured.

But next year, Richards was back, to prove his point & justify the faith of the selectors. Helped only a little bit by English pitches so dry & sere from the drought that they seemed to favour the visitors rather than the home team.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Shifting the horizon

Critics of today’s announcement on how we are going to find the money to build & repair our roads are still focused on the old Thatcherite bogey model of privatisation.

There is nothing radically new in looking to foreigners to finance your road building programme. I was involved in such projects over forty years ago.

Only then the investors were called Aid Donors & the recipient was classed as a Less Developed Country.

And the investor did not own the road.

Shopping shock

It is being widely leaked that, in his budget speech to Parliament on Wednesday, the Chancellor will announce an emergency amendment to the Sunday Trading Act 1994, to last for one summer only.

This is being presented as a welcome chance for all those Olympic visitors to go shopping in the West End & thus give an extra boost to our ailing economy.

This move will also save a lot of red faces all round.

For, in January, a serious flaw was discovered in the draconian law which was passed in 2006 to meet the stringent advertising & trading requirements of the owners of the Olympic 'brand'

Nobody had realised that the super-size ‘retail opportunities’ within the precincts of the purpose-built stadium are covered by the provisions of the same 1994 law on Sunday trading as every other large store in the UK – allowed to open only for a maximum of 6 hours, between 10am & 6pm.

The closing ceremony takes place on a Sunday evening, after 7pm. So nobody present will be able to buy presents

Let us hope that the attempt to force this legislation through does not meet with the same embarrassing defeat as did the Thatcher government’s 1986 attempt to liberalise shopping hours.

The Games have so far also failed to deliver on another promise, according to a report from Hometrack: houses in the area are still selling at prices 1/3 below the average for the rest of London.

We should not take this too much to heart – I suspect that even those who are attracted by a move to the regenerated area are holding off until after the disruption of construction & the influx of so may visitors.

And anyway, we should rejoice that housing in one part of London remains (relatively) affordable. The average home on the other side of the city, in Kensington & Chelsea, will now set you back a cool £2 million, according to another report today, this one from Rightmove.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Made by love


FOR God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love ;
Or chide my palsy, or my gout ;
My five gray hairs, or ruin'd fortune flout ;
With wealth your state, your mind with arts improve ;
Take you a course, get you a place,
Observe his Honour, or his Grace ;
Or the king's real, or his stamp'd face
Contemplate ; what you will, approve,
So you will let me love.

Alas ! alas ! who's injured by my love?
What merchant's ships have my sighs drown'd?
Who says my tears have overflow'd his ground?
When did my colds a forward spring remove?
When did the heats which my veins fill
Add one more to the plaguy bill?
Soldiers find wars, and lawyers find out still
Litigious men, which quarrels move,
Though she and I do love.

Call's what you will, we are made such by love ;
Call her one, me another fly,
We're tapers too, and at our own cost die,
And we in us find th' eagle and the dove.
The phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us ; we two being one, are it ;
So, to one neutral thing both sexes fit.
We die and rise the same, and prove
Mysterious by this love.

We can die by it, if not live by love,
And if unfit for tomb or hearse
Our legend be, it will be fit for verse ;
And if no piece of chronicle we prove,
We'll build in sonnets pretty rooms ;
As well a well-wrought urn becomes
The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs,
And by these hymns, all shall approve
Us canonized for love ;

And thus invoke us, "You, whom reverend love
Made one another's hermitage ;
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage ;
Who did the whole world's soul contract, and drove
Into the glasses of your eyes ;
So made such mirrors, and such spies,
That they did all to you epitomize—
Countries, towns, courts beg from above
A pattern of your love."
John Donne

Counting 1,2,3,4

Once upon a time, when nobody had a pocket calculator & only a privileged few had access to a computer, statistical frequency counts were often carried out by hand , even by grown up statisticians. You kept tally with pencil marks, usually in bundles of five using the familiar 5-bar gate notation.

A clerical assistant who once worked with me used to use a system of small squares, with both diagonals included – ie bundles of six. Since he was Turkish-Cypriot I assumed that this was an echo of the Babylonian base-6 number system. Of course we still use this system too in our daily lives, in the way that we count time & the number of degrees in a circle.

If he had added a dot to each corner of the square he could have counted in tens.

The other day somebody on the radio mentioned the Babylonian system & called 6 a perfect number, the sum of 1, 2 and 3; he then went on to say that the next perfect number is 10, the sum of 1, 2, 3 and 4.

This left me a bit confused, but I was then diverted by another thought.

We are often told that primitive man could not count beyond three because languages have words only for one, two, three & many; and under the radio man’s definition 3, the sum of 1 and 2, is the perfect number before 6.

Having realised that he was talking about what I know as triangular numbers, I wonder if this gives us a different way of looking at why 3, 6 and 10 emerged as number bases in common use.

Triangular frames make a very easy way of counting – even without words for the numbers. After all, pharmacists (used to) use them for counting pills.

I cannot remember seeing anything about triangular counting frames in any of the tomes on the history of mathematics which I have read – perhaps I wasn’t just paying attention or didn’t find it interesting enough to remember.

Needless to say there is now plenty of information about tally marks on the web

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Time's up

Suddenly the number 23 seems to be everywhere. I have previously commented on its appearance in the works of Donne & Ha-Joon Chang.

On Thursday the radio preview for Radio 3’s Night Waves promised a discussion of 'Four Horsemen which features the views of twenty three thinkers on the world in crisis'. I haven’t had chance to listen to it, but reviews of the film suggest that ‘The simple premise of this film is the that capitalism has not failed.’ Perhaps 23 because it is a direct response to Ha-Joon Chang’s scepticism about western capitalism?

And I have just been reading Nature's imagination: the frontiers of scientific vision which reminded me that the problems which Hilbert posed as a challenge to mathematicians in 1900 also numbered 23.

But I now read that Hilbert posed only ten of them to that famous conference, & that he actually had a 24th which was omitted from his final list.

So probably all just a coincidence, nothing to be read into it at all.

Must be all this millennial doom & gloom – the Eleventh Hour is upon us.

The rain it raineth

The weather went back to its bad old habits overnight – more of this new rain pattern, very heavy but thankfully short lived & highly localised downpours.

At least we have had a good week with no rain at all. The sun managed to pierce the early morning mists on Monday & Tuesday, but could not chase away the cloud cover on Wednesday.

When I went to put out the bins at midnight the ‘mist’ was hanging in highly visible water droplets right down to ground level.

The tops of the hills were completely shrouded all day Thursday.

Yesterday was dry & cloudy, but cold.

Now this.

I expect that was our summer for this year.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sausage wars

The sausage sandwich is a superior British version of the hot dog.

A highlight of Danny Baker’s Saturday morning show on BBC Radio 5 Live is the Sausage Sandwich Game. At its climax, contestants are asked to guess whether the celebrity guest, when presented with a sausage sandwich, asks for red sauce, brown sauce or no sauce at all.

I have not kept any statistics but I would bet that he usually opts for the red one.
So if our prime minister took red sauce on his American hot dog (one Tweet does not constitute a proof of the allegation) then he was only doing what his fellow citizens would expect of him.

What's happened to grandma?

I have been waiting a long time for this news – thirty years (or thereabouts).

Sometime in the early 1970s what was then the Office of Population Censuses & Surveys began to include, in its new General Household Survey, questions about fertility & contraception directed at all women aged over 16, regardless of marital status. Not entirely without some trepidation – there could have been a How dare they response.

Unwanted, or at least unplanned, pregnancy was a subject of particular policy interest, not least because worries about worldwide population growth were high on the agenda.

One question asked each woman how many children, ideally, they would like to have.

The big shock came when girls born in the 1960s started to be included in the survey. As many as 25% would answer None.

Should population projections take account of this, or should the statisticians assume that they would change their minds later, when the nesting instinct kicked in.

Well now girls born in 1965 have reached the end of their (statistical) childbearing life & in December ONS issued a Statistical Bulletin to tell us what really happened. (For statistical purposes fertility is assumed to end on the day before a woman’s 46th birthday. Of course there have always been births to women beyond that date, but the numbers have always been too small for statisticians to hang around waiting to finalise the figures. Something else which may have to change.)

And 20% - one in five - of women born in 1965 have never had a child.

The ONS Bulletin compares the 1965 cohort with their mothers – for this purpose, women born in 1938, because the average age of women who gave birth in 1965 was 27. Only 10% of their mothers remained childless right up to the age of 46.

The proportion of childless women had doubled in a generation, not because of economic barriers to marriage & household formation, nor because of a shortage of men inthe population.

For me the most startling element in the bulletin however is a chart (Figure 2) which shows – for all cohorts of women born since 1920 – the percentage who reach the age of 30 without having given birth to a child.

This gives dramatic confirmation of something I felt I knew from my own experience & observation: something began to change quite radically for girls born in the years after 1945.

More than 4 out of 5 of their older sisters had had at least one child by the time they were 30, but then began a seemingly inexorably upwards trend in the number who delayed things, so that fully 45% of the 1980 cohort reached the milestone of that 30th birthday unencumbered.

I should like to see the parallel line – the one that shows the number of women who have reached the age of 60 without having had a grandchild to cuddle.

If the average generation length is 20 years then on average women become mothers at 20, grandmothers at 40 & great grandmothers at 60.

If the gap between generations widens to 25 years then the corresponding ages are: mother at 25, grandmother at 50 & great grandmother at 75.

And a generation length of 30 stretches that out to 30, 60 and 90.

So at the age when the post-menopausal grandmother starts to fulfill her evolutionary purpose of helping to bring up her daughter’s children (assuming she is not too far away either geographically or socially), her knowledge of childcare is in some ways more & more out of date & she will also be needed increasingly to help care for her own mother.

Meanwhile her daughter will have no choice but to rejoin the labour market as soon as possible to help produce the goods & services needed by all these non-working dependents in the population.

No wonder we are so concerned about how to provide affordable third party care for children & the elderly.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Snuffing it

I have found another use for bottled Guinness.

The label on a large scented candle stresses the need to snuff, not blow it out. Quite why, I am unsure.

But in the interests of empirical investigation I thought I would experiment to find out.

I don’t have a candle snuffer. Casting around for something suitable with which to improvise, I thought of the cap from a bottle of Guinness – it’s not a cone but if I put it right down over the flame it should do the trick.

Like magic. In fact you don’t have to push it right down to the surface of the candle, just placing it over the top of the flame will work instantly.

I feel ridiculously pleased about this discovery.

Keeping a cap on alcohol

Guinness has been placed into the basket of goods which national statisticians use to calculate consumer price inflation.

Well, other brands are available, so it’s not just Guinness, but any old stout.

I thought maybe it was a side effect of an aging population – those who remember when Guinness was so good for you that your doctor could prescribe it on the NHS – but no “the item has not been added because spending has increased or because the product is new on the market. It is purely as part of the rebalancing of the basket to improve its representation of overall price change.” And it is cans, not bottles, which are being added.

If the oldies are buying more Guinness it is more likely to be in a bottle.

First you can buy cans only in packs of four at a time.

And secondly Guinness may well be the one remaining beer which comes in a bottle with a screw cap. This means that if all you want is to drink one small glass at a time – never underestimate the value of a small aperitif in helping you find the appetite which may sometimes wane – or as a nightcap, then you can safely store the rest in reasonable condition.

If the government really wants us to cut down on alcohol consumption it should pay attention to questions of minimum (or should that be maximum) quantity, not just price. Cans rarely come smaller than 440 ml these days, & once opened they have to be finished.

Whatever happened to the good old British half pint? Or even the gill. Or the third of a pint of school milk.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Planetary stirrers

The skies were clear last night, so we went out to observe Venus & Jupiter.


And as an added bonus Orion was so low down he seemed to be just over the garden wall.

Problems then & now

There are, the government estimates, 120,000 ‘troubled families’ living on the edge of pauperism, crime & immorality who cost the taxpayer about £9 billion a year.

The dark underbelly of unemployment, truancy, family breakdown & poverty that threatens the rest of society, these problem families are characterised by their inability to improve their lot by their own ends, the parents often of subnormal, though not deficient, mentality & temperamental instability reflecting itself in indiscipline in the home.

Their fecklessness often results in early marriages & large families, many of whom exist in wretched conditions. Clearly, they will reproduce at an increasing rate unless the process is checked.

The underclass is where failings in education, health, welfare & crime policy meet. Parts of society are not cracked but smashed to bits.

In some quarters sterilisation has been suggested, but that is probably repugnant to the general sense of the country. Nor do these people always benefit from teaching them the ordinary methods of contraception.

Can the country afford to carry the burden of these families? On the other hand, can it afford to increase expenditure on social services? The cost of education & health is fantastic, but the existence of social problem families is a challenge to society. More nursery schools, better housing conditions, & family limitation are essential in meeting this challenge.

The prime minister must make this the defining mission of his time in power instead of leaving it to local councils to decide what to do. Something more than local action is required; better housing conditions are essential, & a big increase in the provision of nursery schools is an important long term policy.

With apologies to Rachel Sylvester, that is my mashup of her column in yesterday’s Times with a news report which was published in the same paper.

The two items are separated by almost 60 years – the first reporting an address to a conference of Educational Associations held in London in January 1953 given by Mr CG Tomlinson, recently organising secretary of the Problem Families Committee of the Eugenics Society.

A massive effort went into slum clearance & providing better housing conditions.

The pill, long-acting contraceptives, sterilisation & legal abortion have been added to the methods of ‘ordinary contraception’ which were available in 1953.

Much effort & resources have been put into affordable childcare & nursery provision.

But is the number of problem families now smaller than it was?

Today’s 120,000 families is, proportionately, not many out of a population which has grown to 27 million households, but would have presented a much larger proportion of the 16 million or so in 1953. And each family would of course have been much larger, since even with the recent flows of net inward migration the population has not grown nearly as fast as the number of households able to be accommodated in the improved stock.

The problem families have not all been magicked away, even though people don't marry young these days.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Shirt sleeve order

Revisiting my (minor) obsession with sloping shoulders made me realise that it looked like an obsession merely with the female form.

In fact my fascination began with the male form, at a time (the 1970s) when social rules of all kinds were being relaxed in favour of greater informality.

And so, in Whitehall at least, it began to be OK for a man to remove his jacket in the office, to work in shirt-sleeve order, even when ladies were present. No doubt the spread of central heating helped encourage this relaxation.

One thing that constantly amused me was that a man would always put his jacket on when receiving a summons to go to the office of a higher authority.

Even at the end of the decade men would always wear their jackets to formal meetings; chairmen of the more old-fashioned kind would, on an especially hot day, in a non-air-conditioned room, announce that ‘Gentlemen, you may remove your jackets.’

In my childhood police officers had always to wear their full uniform when on duty – this extended to wearing their heavy serge tunics while directing traffic during a heatwave. If the sun blasted down for more than a day or two the Chief Constable would magnanimously announce shirt-sleeve orders, & we used to marvel at the sight of the constabulary’s linen.

But the thing that most took me aback about the men in the office was that some of them had really sloping shoulders – something men’s tailoring was always very careful to disguise.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that shoulder pads became such an essential weapon in the wardrobe of women who stormed the workplace in such numbers in the 1980s.

Or that sloping shoulders continue to be just so OUT.

Checking the OED for the origin of shirt sleeve order, I came across the phrase shirtsleeve(s) diplomacy: management of political affairs which is characterized by lack of formality or sophistication.

These days the phrase is sofa government.

Womans football

BBC Radio 4’s series One to One gave us another inspiring interview between two women today.

Samira Ahmed talked to Lucy Mathan about blindness, football & child marriage.

And in the process presented a real challenge to our cosy assumptions about how liberated are we in this country when it comes to issues of gender.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Professor Daphne Brooker

Daphne Brooker, fashion teacher, died in February aged 84. I must admit I had never heard of her until I read her obituary on the same page as that of Araminta, Lady Aldington.

For 30 years she taught at [what is now the University of] Kingston, stressing the need for teachers to give as much emphasis to the doing, making & organising, and to the skills of craftsmanship, manufacturing & marketing of goods, as to analysis, criticism & the acquisition of knowledge.

A true heroine for feminists.

What really caught my eye however was a photo taken in the early 1950s when she had a brief & personally unfulfilling career as a model, which included a front cover of Vogue.

Sloping shoulders!

It’s that woman again

Araminta, Lady Aldington, hostess, committee woman & founder of the Jacob Sheep Society, died in January aged 91 & was obituarised in The Times last Saturday.

The account of her colourful & lively life includes an anecdote from 2003 when, after dinner at the Carlton Club, she declared loudly ‘I am not getting into that lift with that woman.’

That woman was, of course, Lady Thatcher.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Do people with dyslexia use text messaging?

Maybe the general ‘creativity’ involved makes it easier for them to use their own idiosyncratic spelling.

Or perhaps the extra layer of being able to relate sounds to symbols makes it even more impossible.

Testing time

I have not been able to trace the name of the author of this poignant poem.

In the age of ever-available 24-hour media in a multitude of formats, today's young people probably require footnotes to explain the mixture of emotions any child - not just one bereaved - could feel at the times when the test card was all the television had to offer

Noughts & Crosses

The day I didn’t have to go to school
I watched our silent tv screen instead.
The Trade Test Pattern was all I had to fool;
I stared until its frozen colours bled.

I watched our silent tv screen instead
Of figuring out where Father might have gone.
I stared until its frozen colours bled:
A girl played noughts & crosses with a clown
(Figuring out where father might have gone?)
For hours & hours. I sat there gazing as
A girl played noughts & crosses with a clown.

I didn’t see the point but there I was;
For hours & hours I sat there gazing as
The world contracted to a grinning face.
I didn’t.
Author not known

BBC: Test card special

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Credit where it is due

I misheard an item of news on the radio again yesterday.

The Greeks have come to an arrangement with their predators.

That is probably a more accurate account of how many Greeks feel about the arrangement.

Great Depredatours of the Earth bidde their creditours gooe whistle

Spooks spooked

Yesterday morning on Radio 4 we were treated to a poetic account of London seen by night from a police helicopter.

The most spooky thing about it?

With night vision cemeteries glow in the dark as all that marble releases the heat it stored during daylight hours.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Boots for the high jump

Yesterday I noticed a pair of men’s sport boots hanging over a cable strung the short distance between the roofs of two buildings which front the main road as you come into town.

Nothing so very remarkable about that – lads larking about on the way home, after a game & a visit to the pub.

Nothing to draw the eye, not the sort of thing you would usually even notice, unless you happened at that moment to be looking idly out of the window of a bus.

But I remember the same image, in exactly the same location, must be more than a year ago at least.

The thing is, I do not think they were the same boots. My memory tells me those were a rather tatty pair of trainers; these were smart, black & even looked polished.

But perhaps that it just some strange effect of weathering – all the ice, snow, hail, rain & wind, with little sunshine or even warmth to encourage the growth of mould.

Or perhaps it's a regular local sport

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Laws of statistics

Statistical information is not real information. A statistical description – this includes models – is, like a painting, only a representation of reality, although, as with a portrait, some have more ‘likeness’ than others.

Statistics apply to populations, not individuals.

Post-selection randomisation is not the same as selecting a random sample from the population you wish to study.

Increasing the size of a biassed sample reduces sampling error, but not bias. So the ratio of bias to sampling error increases.

If P is set at 5% then expect 1 in 20 of your tests to give ‘significant’ results even when H0 is true

An insignificant result is God’s way of telling you your sample is too small

Parochial correctness

Potential volunteer helpers at the London Olympics are, reportedly, being issued with My Games Maker Workbook which will help them respond sensitively to tricky situations.

But the examples quoted serve merely to demonstrate the utter parochialism of our concerns & obsessions about cultural practices which we may regard as just not British but which MUST BE TOLERATED* by all good liberal, inclusive folk.

Example 1: A spectator complains about two men holding hands. You are supposed to explain that ‘there is a huge diversity of people at London 2012, which includes gay, lesbian & bisexual couples.’

Just don’t pass on the information that in some cultures it is perfectly normal for friends to hold hands – how dare you presume to know anything about their sex lives? Even though it is perhaps probable that anyone from those cultures who can afford to come to the Games is likely to be a rich international sophisticate, well aware of British social norms.

Example 2: You are unable to tell whether the person who is asking for directions to the toilets is male or female. You are expected to tell them the way to male, female & ‘accessible’ toilets, not ask them which they require.

Well of course you are. Even if you are 100% certain of their gender why assume that they are asking purely for their own needs & that, since they are not in a wheelchair, they have no problem with ‘inaccessible’ toilets.

Example 3: Should anyone object to a woman being allowed to wear a headscarf, you are supposed to explain that she is wearing a hijab, a form of Muslim headwear which some women ‘choose to wear as part of their faith.’

Well tell that to anyone who asks why the Queen is wearing a headscarf in that photo of her riding in Windsor Great Park. And good luck to you if you can reliably distinguish between a headscarf, hijab, & a nun’s veil.

And wasn’t ‘An Olympics spokeswoman’ herself being a tad insensitive when she explained the need to ‘ensure that all volunteers would be singing ‘from the same hymn sheet’?

*From Latin tolerāre to bear, endure

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Don't just sit there

Experts now realise that for many of us what is missing from our lives is the kind of incidental activity that one used to take for granted – performing household chores, pram pushing, stair-climbing – indeed just moving – the lack of which is having a more profound effect on our waistlines & health than any failure to attend the gym.

So The Times advised us yesterday.

Future historians of medicine & science my have a fine time working out how scientists & others were so long obsessed with the need for exercise as sport.

In part it stems from what is both the strength & a drawback of ‘science’ or rather the scientific method: the need to isolate one particular factor & to eliminate confounders or interactive terms, any other thing which may affect our search for underlying universal ‘laws.’ To work with phenomena– inputs & outcomes - which can be measured reliably & in a controlled way, one which does not depend upon who is doing the measuring.

It is a kind of paradox that, although we know real life just is not like that, that it is messy & in constant flux, with nothing fixed, we could make no scientific progress without behaving as if some things can be ‘fixed’ – one at a time.

A slow process.

One which extends over more than the lifespan of one generation of humans.

So what are we supposed to do while we are waiting for The Truth to emerge?

Keep calm & carry on.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Telling stories

What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory – meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative & thereby rescued from oblivion – is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind & often changes with the telling.

Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, & possibly it is the work of a storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In my case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.

Quoted in epigraph to John Irving's Until I Find You

The price of sin

Last Friday a 500ml bottle of Guinness cost £1.99. The week before it had been £1.69 in the same supermarket. That’s a price rise of almost 18%.

Back in November I thought I had detected a drop in the size of a Snickers bar, at least those sold in 5-bar multipacks. I suspected a disguised price increase.

My suspicions were unfounded – comparison of the weight (& contents & nutrition information) given on the back of the pack were exactly the same as one from a wrapper from a year earlier which happened to be lying around the house.

Last Friday I thought the pack looked a bit smaller as I lifted it off the supermarket shelf, but when I turned it over to check the weight, it was still the same.

It wasn’t until I was extracting a bar from the multipack yesterday morning that I realised that it actually now contains only 4.

That’s a 25% price rise.

We are back to 1975.

Never mind the wages, it's the price of sin which is killing me.

Monday, March 05, 2012

George Brinham

Fifty years ago George Brinham died at the hands of a 16 year-old boy; a version of the story forms part of my personal memories, & I wrote a blog post about it four years ago when something (which it now annoys me to see that I did not record) reminded me of it.

I have been thinking about it off & on since then, pondering what my reactions would be if I were hearing the story for the first time today, when so many of our attitudes & assumptions have changed.

There is now more about the story available on the (free-to-public) web & I have also been looking at how it was reported by The Times – my public library ticket provides free access to the digital archive.

The first surprise was that all this happened in 1962 – later than I had remembered it &, crucially, after we had already moved away from the boy’s home town.

I am left wondering how I heard the news: national newspapers, certainly; maybe tv news (if the BBC thought it fit to broadcast), & possibly letters from, or visits to, friends still living in the town. My parents may also still have been getting a copy of the local town newspaper – I am pretty sure that this was the source of my idea that he came home to a sympathetic welcome.

I also have a distinct memory of a grainy newspaper photograph taken inside the dead man’s flat – dark, heavy old fashioned furniture, fireplace & mantelpiece, armchair, standard lamp & a small occasional table bearing whisky bottle & decanter.

But only local gossip could have told me who the boy was, if I knew before it was all over, since his name was not published until he appeared for trial at the Old Bailey.

The second surprise is how quickly it was all over: Brinham died on 17 November; the trial at the Old Bailey took place 2 months later on 21 January 1963.

But the third surprise was that Larry had run back home after the killing &, reading between the lines, it was his mother who decided he should tell his story to the local police. This meant that Larry was already at Kensington police station on the evening of Thursday 22 November, the day the body was discovered; when the prosecution case was presented to the Marylebone juvenile court on 10 December a detective constable from the Derbyshire police gave evidence of a statement the boy had made to them.

The story was the subject of just 6 reports in The Times, a total of some 1700 words, nearly 5% of which are accounted for by repetitions of “Mr George Ivor Brinham, aged 46, a former chairman of the Labour Party”

The general attitude towards the boy was one of sympathy & concern, partly because of his age & vulnerability, & also because of his confessions, made, it seems, without benefit of any legal advice or representation. When the chairman of the juvenile court asked about legal aid at his first appearance, the detective superintendent replied that ‘the matter would receive attention.’

And concern also, of course, because he had been subject to an illegal sexual advance – all homosexual activity was illegal in those days.

Nevertheless the lack of sympathy, not to mention the open disdain or distaste shown for the dead man, is shocking.

When the prosecution case was outlined in court for the first time on 10 December the pathologist reported that he had found ‘features which indicated the practice of homosexuality or of a perversion’ & that it appeared that ‘the practice had been going on over a long period’. He had also found that Brinham’s skull was thin so that ‘less force would be needed to fracture this skull than that of a normal man.’

At the Old Bailey trial the judge, Mr Justice Paull, instructed the jury to ignore the charge of murder; when the prosecution said that they would nevertheless proceed with the charge of manslaughter Mr Edward Clarke, QC*, for the defence, said there would still be a plea of Not Guilty to this & that he would submit that ‘one is entitled to kill if a man commits a forcible & atrocious crime against you.

When shown some documents produced in evidence the pathologist agreed they were ‘the literature of a male pervert.’

At the end of the prosecution’s evidence the judge opined that ‘I cannot see how any jury properly directed on the evidence can fail to find there was provocation’. The trial duly stopped & the prisoner was discharged.

The problem with this is that there was nothing in the evidence about a forcible assault by Brinham; the boy’s own statement described what happened as ‘He kept on at me to stay the night with him’, ‘He put his arms round me’, & he said ‘Give us a kiss’.

The prosecuting lawyer described this merely as an ‘improper suggestion’ & even the judge referred only to an attempt to make homosexual advances.

The boy’s account was never challenged in court, & although forensic science was less advanced in those days, if there was any evidence to cast doubt on his version (which included the claim that he made a mess of the flat after Brinham was dead in order to make it look like a burglary) then that evidence was not used.

This case has been used, in academic or campaigning works, as evidence of unfairnesses in the way that the police & the judicial system dealt with deaths involving sexual motives, whether homo- or heterosexual.

Women who killed a long term abuser were, almost invariably, found guilty of murder, with no reduction from the mandatory life sentence because of provocation; the alternative manslaughter verdict was not available because such women usually employed a degree of forethought or planning, to attack the man when he was drunk or asleep.

And the police were seen as not investigating murders of homosexual men or prostitute women with the same vigour & determination as they did cases involving a victim who didn’t ‘deserve it’.

As George Cant says in Radical Records George Brinham paid a high price for ‘a kiss & a cuddle.’

But could he expect a very different reaction today? In a climate where child abusers are reviled, & grooming is practically a crime in itself.

What these days is described as ‘street grooming’ was in those days described, even by the victim, as 'a pick-up', which in this case took place in the Strand. The case would be made even more sensational today by the fact that it took place as the boy was standing admiring the display in the window of a gunsmith, & the would-be seducer’s first move was to offer the boy a cigarette, before treating him to tea & cake, a trip to the cinema to see a Tarzan film, interspersed with & followed by what seems to have been a fair quantity of alcohol.

In fact for today’s reader the most shocking aspect of this report comes in the very last sentence published in The Times:

Answering Mr Clarke, Detective Superintendent Francis Davies agreed that for some time there had been complaints by various boys concerning Mr Brinham’s behaviour.
There was nothing to suggest that any of these complaints had ever been followed up.

In the, perhaps unlikely, event that George Brinham had survived long enough he might have found himself facing retrospective charges of child abuse & be sent to join the increasing numbers of elderly sex offenders whose care imposes an unfamiliar challenge to our prisons.

And if one of those girl victims of on-street grooming we are hearing about today should happen to kill one of her abusers by cracking him over his thin skull with a handy decanter, the Crown Prosecution Service might, conceivably, decide that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute.

And the court of public opinion would cheer.

*There is nothing in The Times report to suggest that there was a QC leading for the prosecution