Thursday, March 16, 2006

A few hundreds

It is one hundred days* since David Cameron became the Tories’ leader – it seems like only three months – and, according to the Times, one hundred years since the invention of the perm. By happy coincidence this is the one hundredth post on this site. The first two mentioned will, no doubt, continue in their own ways to provide happiness to some but, for the time being at least, the last mentioned won’t. Until after Easter it is unlikely that I’ll post anything more here. This hiatus is the result of a number of things that will be occupying my efforts for the next few weeks.

Whilst you wait until Easter Saturday** for my pearls possibly to return, why not enjoy reliving the joys of the previous 99 entries and the splendid variety of comments they’ve attracted? Or perhaps you’d rather visit one or more of the ‘blogs I read’.....

à bientôt

* the Guardian leader writer thinks it might be 101 days but still seems mildly impressed with Mr C.

** the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Day is not Easter Saturday.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Overexcited Political Commentators

The education Bill votes this evening have sent the UK's political commentators into hyperdrive. Familiar grave pontificating about 'Blair's authority being fatally weakened, his reform programme in tatters etc. etc'. How often has such stuff been heard in the last eight years? I wonder if these 'professional' analysts have remembered that we're probably over three years away from an election or that Mr Blair has said he won't fight it.

Most of them seem to have overlooked the fact that this was a 'safe' rebellion for Labour MPs who knew the Bill would get through. As the Times leader writer puts it (tomorrow) "If this had been a political life-or-death division for Mr Blair, it can be assumed that some of those Labour MPs who revolted against him yesterday evening might well have stayed their hands."

Life has been pretty dull of late for political hacks and there are so many of them now competing for our attention. But, if any of them think that this evening's votes will have the slightest influence over the result of the next general election, they should be sacked!

A PMQs blog becomes a letter...

In just under a week a blog has metamorphosed into a letter. I should get out more....

As a follow-up, in today's PMQs, Mr Horwood's elderly boss seemed to forget to ask his first question. You can watch him from here (about 10 mins in).

Bertie Bus's busy day

"Ah", sighed Bertie, "if only Margaret Thatcher hadn't sold me off for a knockdown price, perhaps every day would be as exciting as today!" But, as he settled quietly down to sleep at his dépôt, he knew it could never be. Just as she had with all her other privatisation money, the nasty lady had spent the proceeds on tax-cuts for her supporters instead of repaying the national debt . So now there was nothing left to invest for the future. How he envied his chums in London where there was at least an effective system of regulation unlike out in the sticks where his routes ran.

Bertie's day had started normally. His driver arrived at six o'clock whistling even more merrily than usual. He started Bertie's engine and left him to warm up for a bit. Then off they went to pick up the children all eager to get to school for another thrilling day. They started down the winding country lanes where rabbits and foxes waved cheerfully as they passed. There are never many children to pick up in these neat little honey-coloured villages but soon they were on the edge of town and there were loads more merrily playing pranks as they waited at their stops.

How Bertie loved the sound of their jolly voices laughing and joking all the way to school and how quiet it always seemed after he'd left them and driven back to the dépôt for elevenses. But, instead of turning left as they normally did, today his driver had hauled his steering wheel to the right as they left the school. Soon Bertie found himself at the station where lots of cheerful folk were waiting to be taken to the racecourse. All day he ran happily back and forth twixt racecourse and station until it was time to return to school to collect the tired but merry children and take them back to their stops.

But his day still wasn't finished. They raced back to Presbury Park to ferry all his new race-going friends back to the station. It took many trips to get all the cheerful bunch back for their trains. At last they were finished and off to the dépôt they drove where Bertie and all his chums could tell each other happy tales of the day's derring-dos and adventures. And there were three more race days to look forward to....

Poll puts Labour ahead

An ICM poll in the Guardian shows Labour on 37% and the Tories on 34%. Given the +/-3% accuracy often quoted for such polls this is in line with many recent ones showing the two parties more-or-less equal. This latest one tends to reinforce the view that issues which greatly excite political journalists and some bloggers have little impact on real voters.

The local elections in May may provide a more accurate guide but so few people vote in them and local issues really do sometimes have an influence that we'll have to be patient and wait at least three years for another general election. But, in today's 'news' hungry world where journalists compete to bring us the 'news' before it happens rather than after, speculation will continue apace......

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Do our faces look bothered?

Nick Robinson declares on his Newslog that "the big political question ahead of tomorrow's big vote is whether it will be a Labour Bill passed with Labour votes." Now who am I to argue with the BBC's chief political correspondent? I'm sure it's jolly interesting to those in his trade and a few of us political anoraks but is anyone else bothered? Does anyone else look bothered?

Beware the Ides of March

As the BBC magazine points out, it seems an odd day to have the Education Bill vote given what happened to Julius Caesar on this day 2050 years ago according to a Mr W Shakespeare......

Euros welcome in Cheltenham

It's 'race week' in Cheltenham which culminates in 'Gold Cup' day on Friday which, conveniently, is also St Patrick's day. For one week only each year many of our shops and pubs happily take euros because of all the Irish in town but I'm not sure what sort of exchange rate is on offer. I need some euros for my holiday, perhaps I should set up a little bureau de change. I hate paying for foreign money, it seems such a rip off. The so-called no commission con is easy to detect just by looking at the difference between the buying and selling prices.

They ought to have somewhere at airports where people leaving the country could exchange directly with those arriving. But, as airports make more money out of their shopping and banking activities than they do out of 'planes, that's never likely to happen. Can you buy cash on ebay?

I've pretty well given up hope that Britain'll join the euro in my lifetime and, despite my extreme European enthusiasm, even I'm not convinced it would be A Good Idea.......

Monday, March 13, 2006

Complexity, religion, science, horror, employment

On a day when there seems to be no news*, it’s a pity that the BBC has to cram so much into a 45 minute programme. As so often, at least three of the five items on Radio 4’s Start the Week this morning could have more than filled the whole show. With Richard Dawkins, The Rt Reverend Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, Daniel Dennett, Barbara Ehrenreich and Hamish Mykura as his ‘guests**’ even Andrew Marr wasn’t quite as good at segueing as I implied he was a few posts back.

You can listen ‘again’ from their web-site or, starting this week, download a podcast. And there’s a shortened repeat tonight at 9:30***

Daniel’s book is about science and religion. It discusses the reasons that religion might have evolved from simple explanations of why things go bump in the night through folk beliefs into the organised faith systems of today. With the assembled crew it’s unsurprising that there was so much discussion. Does faith mean blindness to evidence that contradicts it, is being ‘merely’ a carrier of genes a ‘bad thing to be’?

Richard Dawkins’s ‘selfish gene’ book is (amazingly) thirty years old and he’s just produced a new edition. He expressed concerned about the motives behind Hamish Mykura’s programme for Channel 4 about the people who chose to jump from the WTC rather than wait to be burnt to death on 9th September 2001. Astonishingly apparently they’ve been criticised in some quarters for ‘taking their own lives’. It does seem a pretty intrusive concept for a programme to me and I doubt if I could watch it. Certainly their plunges were some of many powerful images on the day of this most horrific event which happened ‘live’ on TV and the internet. Individual horror vs. collective tragedy – which is the more awful? I recall my rather selfish almost first thought on watching the reports on a colleague’s computer just as the second plane’s strike made it clear that the first wasn’t an accident; this was going to change our deceptively comfortable world forever (or at least for the rest of my lifetime).

Ms Ehrenreich’s new book is about her attempt to infiltrate corporate America and to discover what life is like for middle class employees. She found a non rational world where positive attitudes score more highly than proven ability and where sudden falls from grace (into the pit of unemployment and no health care) are not uncommon. Even the Bishop complains that clergy CVs nowadays contain no humility! 'Selling the sizzle rather than the steak (I thought it was 'sausage'?)'. What no one remarked on was that steady employment for ‘white collar’ workers is a comparatively modern phenomenon – less than a century old. What a shame they hadn’t invited me onto the programme......

* how else can one explain the BBC radio news leading with the “Ian Blair recorded my phone call horror” and the clip from the self-righteous lady who heads Liberty? I guess there is still war, famine and pestilence bedevilling the world but our media isn’t very interested by such run-of-the-mill foreign stuff.....

** guests isn’t quite right given that they all have books to sell or events to publiscise.

*** it would be fascinating to work out what they leave out.

Friday, March 10, 2006

John Profumo

The Profumo affair happened in the year in which the first episode of Dr Who was broadcast and US President Kennedy was assassinated. I guess that many bloggers and our readers are far too young to remember the scandal but I can, just, from my soon-to-be-teen days.

In those long distant times we had no 24 hour news and only two TV channels - ITV was less than a decade old. The News on both TV and radio was read in deferential tones by gentlemen who spoke 'received pronunciation'. There was none of the gossip and speculation or door-stepping and paparazzi which public figures must take for granted today. But changes were afoot, satire was starting to appear on BBC television and, as prosperity grew, people were less inclined to put up with the status quo and 'knowing their place'.

It would be interesting to know how great statesmen of the past would survive today's media onslaught. I have some concerns about the way that the media treat politicians these days; we seem to have swapped one form of hypocrisy for another. But there's no going back and, on balance, it’s better now than it was then.

I admire John Profumo for the way he led his life post-scandal. Not many who have been in the spotlight can so successfully move into the shadows whilst still doing worthwhile work. But if he'd been around for much longer as a Tory politician I'm sure he'd have done things of which I'd’ve disapproved! I’m indebted to an anonymous Guardian Unlimited blog writer for telling me that, as a new MP, he’d "voted against the government ... the result was the fall of Chamberlain and the formation of the wartime coalition under Churchill."

Lessons for today's politicians? Don't indulge in bizarre affairs. If you must, don't get caught. If you get caught don't lie to the House (that's what he was thrown out for). If you get sacked or have to resign do something other than writing anguished books about your conversion to goodness or popping up on television whenever you can get a booking.

* these events are not necessarily listed in order of significance.

Tony Blair and God

There's a good letter in the Guardian today in response to Terry Jones's feeble column on Wednesday about Tony Blair's televisual conversation with Michael Parkinson. The letter comes from a rather more prestigious address than did mine on the same topic which they've sensibly chosen not to use.

David Hill's (for it is from him) says: ".... the prime minister did not say, suggest or imply in any way was that he knew what God's judgement would be. .... But without this distortion, there wouldn't have been much of a column to write, would there?".

After graduating from being the least funny of the not-really-terribly-funny-but-there-were-some-very-good-bits-and-it-seemed-wonderful-at-the-time Python team, Mr Jones has taken to light journalism and lighter history. Aided by some low-budget animation, he has made some amusing but not terribly accurate jokey history programmes for BBC2. A similar lack of attention to boring old detail is often evident in his Guardian columns.

He rather spoils his understandable and perfectly honourable anti-war arguments by ignoring anything that doesn't support them. His anti-Blair blindness is a symptom. You might think that an historian would understand complexity but he's not a very serious one so perhaps the simple view he takes of our fascinatingly complex modern world isn't a surprise.

And why should he let facts get in the way of a good old rant?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Our MP speaks....

Sporting a bright yellow tie and a bright yellow button-hole our new LibDem MP rose to ask a question towards the end of PMQs today (he, and the rest, can be watched from here but it wasn’t much fun today). It’s a shame he chose to ask one on behalf of the Tories.

The forces of darkness and reaction, who believe that life was perfect in 1958, are currently running a campaign against “creeping regionalisation” in the South West even though it was the Conservative party which, in 1995, put in place the present structure of regional government offices.

The dapper Mr Horwood droned out about the health service in Cheltenham becoming less local but failed to mention that it was our local PCT rather than some remote government department which made the decision to integrate ours with nearby Gloucester hospital. He railed about: the police but failed to mention the increased local divisional accountability that would come about if our tiny force were merged; the ambulance service but didn’t mention the widespread support both inside and outside the service for the recently agreed merger; the fire service but failed to mention the life-saving technology that the new regional call centre will bring or that the existing one gets only about two calls a night. And so on and so forth.

Told you so. LibDems are Tories in disguise (although now moving to that Party’s right it would seem).

New Tory legal test?

It's bad form to lampoon another blogger, especially when he's a real one* with a well-presented site. But Iain Dale seems to have been on the planet zog late last night. Writing about Tessa Jowell and the Old Monk share "scandal"** he admits that "she had obviously asked her husband if he owned the shares and he said no" but declares "ignorance is no defence" and, in the comments area, that "whether she knew she was lying isn't the point".

Iain declares himself to be a middle of the road, moderate sort of Tory (even though he supported David Davis to be leader). So the moderate Tory view is perhaps now that you're guilty until..... well forever. Iain isn't married so perhaps doesn't understand that two minds do not become one the moment the vicar or registrar declares a couple to be man and wife. But his ignorance is, in his opinion, clearly no defence.

If this be a moderate Tory..........

* as distinct from a dilettante such as I
** as I commented elsewhere - on a meter which included Archer, Aitkin, Hamilton to name but a few senior Tories from the time of their last administration, the Tessa Jowell affair would hardly cause the needle to move

Monday, March 06, 2006

Glenda Jackson and damage to Labour

Ms Jackson (MP for Hampstead and Highgate, Labour majority: 3,742) has declared on the wireless that she’s concerned about the impact on the Labour Party of the furore surrounding Tessa Jowell (MP for Dulwich and West Norwood, Labour majority: 8,807). Ms Jackson says she’s especially worried because of the local elections in May.

It’s curious that she’s never seemed to be especially concerned about the impact that her own frequent high-profile slagging off of her party’s democratically-elected leader might have on the party. Perhaps it’s the Clare Short (MP for Birmingham Ladywood, Labour majority: 6,801) syndrome; never mind that one owes one’s status to Labour, if there’s cash to be had in books and TV studios let’s go for it. Loyalty? That’s for Tesco’s customers.

My mild distain for Ms Jackson owes nothing at all to an incident in Greenwich in 1973. She almost ran me over on a zebra crossing. I was an assertive pedestrian in those far off days and I’ve always regretted that I couldn’t hear what she was mouthing at me through her windscreen. She lived around the corner near Blackheath which was then (and may well still be) a sort of poorish person’s Hampstead.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Wot no engineers, wot no trams?

Two little reports caught my eye in the IoS's business section. The number of electrical engineers graduating in the UK is tiny. They report that "Only around 50 electrical engineers are graduating each year from UK universities, forcing some companies to recruit engineers from countries as far afield as Serbia and Poland to make up the shortfall." No wonder so much of the debate about how to secure the future of our electricity supply is so ill informed. (Even David Cameron has been conned into buying a wind turbine for his roof believing it will help eliminate climate change (or, more likely, believing that it might help win him a few green* votes). But he's rich and, as Hilaire Belloc put it 'it is the business of the wealthy man to give employment to the artisan**'.)

Elsewhere they report that "Blackpool trams face the end of the line" because "The 100-year-old tramway needs considerable investment and campaigners claim it will have to close if the Department of Transport fails to support an £88m funding application from local councils." I love trams, I even made a special trip to Croydon (my birthplace) to ride on their shiny new system in 2000 whilst the rest of the family enjoyed the Dome. But I can't fault the DoT for its reluctance to fund tram schemes, investment in them is unlikely to be justified except in exceptional circumstances in densely populated urban areas. The Fylde Coast doesn't make the grade. Maybe they should try the heritage fund.

* green as in environmentally concerned or as in naive? You choose.
** or, in this case, snake oil salesmen.

What Tony Blair really said to Mr P

It's quite amusing that there was so much comment yesterday about what Tony Blair was alleged to have said to Michael Parkinson on his chat show. It wasn't broadcast until 10pm GMT so these commentators were relying on a few snippets that reporters had picked up (and puffed up).

There isn't much comment around now after the broadcast probably because it's obvious to anyone who watched it that a proverbial mountain was being made out of a proverbial molehill. There were only a couple of brief mentions of religion in a long conversation. He didn't say he'd been driven to war by religious motives or that God would be his only judge. He did talk about the strain of decision making (circa five a day of which two might be major ones) and he did say that it was for other people and God, rather than for him, to judge his actions.

Not quite how the eager anti-Blair zealots put it. I guess that most of them rarely have to make any decisions of great consequence which is why they can happily be so certain they're right.

John Rentoul in the Independent on Sunday puts it rather well but you'll have to pay to read the best bits (I bought the IoS to get the book to go with the teach yourself Italian CD in yesterday's Independent - so that's my excuse out of the way). Under the title "As God is his witness, Tony Blair did not say what some people think he said" he writes: "It is not news that Blair is a Christian - and it is utterly conventional for Christians to say that God is ultimately their judge. But for those people, many of whom work for the BBC, looking for ulterior motives that explain what is to them the inexplicable decision to go to war, religion is the key."

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Choice, monopolies, moderation and the pursuit of happiness

Choice is much vaunted as the key to universal happiness these days. Certainly I wouldn't want to return to the days when monopolies provided many of our services - the days, for example, when one had to become a subscriber of the GPO if one wanted a telephone and one had to wait six-months for a black Bakelite one unless one was Important or a Doctor in which case one could jump the queue (as we did in our house in SE10 because one of its occupants knew how to pass himself off as Important) - but you can have too much even of a Good Thing. Moderation in all things my dears.....

I haven't bought a digital camera because There Are Too Many To Choose From. I'd be certain to meet someone the next day who could have got me A Much Better One At A Fraction Of The Cost (although one of the joys of no longer working for a Big Corporation is that I meet fewer such Smart Alecs). And when we bought a car it was awfully difficult to convince the salesmen that we wanted a car and not a status symbol. I began to wish I lived in an eastern European communist state in the 1970s. Then I'd have gone to the town hall to apply for a form that would (eventually) have entitled me to a certificate that I could (after a couple of years) taken to a grey warehouse on the outskirts of town to get added to the waiting list. And a decade or so later I could have gone back for my car.

Michael Bywater has some thoughts along similar lines in his sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, sometimes irritating but generally fine book Lost Worlds (see under Shoes, Just). I got given it for Christmas because he'd managed to arrange for it to be the Radio 4 Book of the Week just when lists were being drawn up for that great festival of consumerism. The admirable Stephen Fry was the reader, it's spooky getting to a passage that was included in the radio abridgement because my reading voice suddenly changes into his.

I hope we never reach the day when we have to consult comparison web-sites before calling an ambulance because we've broken one of our legs......

Thursday, March 02, 2006


As with politics so with friendships; my interest is primarily in the practice rather than the theory. Nevertheless today's In Our Time on BBC Radio Four about friendship was fascinating. When this programme is at its best (i.e. most of the time) it's rather like eavesdropping on a group of intellectual friends chatting around a topic. As ever you can 'listen again' via their web-site.

There was some politics as well as friendship throughout the programme. One speaker mentioned how important friendships are to us nowadays in private but how suspicious we are of them in public or business life – they provoke cries of nepotism or special treatment. Earlier a theory had been advanced that what we think of as friendship nowadays couldn't really have existed before the market economy got going because relationships were then so much more about power, influence or simply survival.

They spoke about the different sorts of friendships and why some last and others don't. As usual the Greek and enlightenment philosophers had much to say on the subject and were duly called upon to enliven the discussion.

I was interested by the mention of friendships developed at work. These can be tricky for the reasons they must have been at medieval court - power play lurking in the background. So it is within political parties; you may be friends with someone but competing for the same safe seat or step up the greasy pole.

I guess Friends Reunited has been successful partly because some friendships weren't strong enough to prevent the friends losing touch. I wonder how successful subsequent reunions are? I've been very friendly with people at work but have sometimes found that meeting them years later is a disappointment because the things that brought us together are no longer there.

Anyway, nurture your friendships. Like houseplants they may take time to blossom and will wither if neglected. Best not to wait too long for the other half to get in touch. E-mail should help today's generation but my parents are still friends with people they knew sixty odd years ago and with whom they exchanged nothing more than Christmas cards for forty years or so. My longest friendship has endured for 45 years so far and some lengthy periods without any contact - perhaps its time to send an e-mail......

(btw - I'm sorry if anyone has found this site whilst searching for gossip about a long-running American sit-com featuring the deeds of men who shrug wryly and ladies who squeak rather more than one might reasonably hope)