Monday, October 23, 2017

Norman Bowler on John Minton



One of my early heroes was Detective Sergeant (eventually Detective Chief Inspector) Harry Hawkins in Softly, Softly and then Softly, Softly: Task Force.

He was played for a decade from 1966 by Norman Bowler, who turned up many years later as Frank Tate in Emmerdale.

Before Softly Softly, Bowler was an artist's model and bodybuilder. He was a member of the Soho set alongside John Minton, Francis Bacon and Daniel Farson. He married the model and writer Henrietta Moraes.

Here he shares his memories of Minton.

"The following programme may be an ice-pick in your brain"

Don’t worry: this is not about students. And it’s certainly not about Cambridge University. But I have been thinking about trigger warnings.

Late on Saturday evening BBC2 broadcast the film In OurName. Its blurb on iPlayer describes it thus:
On returning home from Iraq, British soldier Suzy struggles to readjust to normal life. Haunted by memories of the death of an Iraqi child, she becomes obsessed with the safety of her own daughter and becomes increasingly paranoid and scared of everything around her. Meanwhile, husband Mark, also a squaddie who served in Iraq, turns out to have serious problems of his own.
I didn’t watch it, but it sound like a serious attempt to look at important issues in modern Britain. And at least it’s not another romcom or British gangster film.

What I did see were the warning before it began. We were told that In Our Name contained:
  • very strong language
  • some sexual content
  • prolonged violence
  • some upsetting scenes

My first, flippant, reaction was to wonder what they though viewers wanted from a Saturday night film.

Since then I have been wandering what effect this proliferation of trigger warnings has on viewers.

You can say that their appearance is a sign that broadcasters, the BBC in particular, have more concern for them these days. I suspect it has at least as much to do with fear of litigation or being monstered by pressure groups – we’ve all seen W1A.

But I think of the time when some filmmakers set out to upset, or at least discomfort, viewers.

As Wikipedia says of Cathy Come Home from 1966:
The play broached issues that were not then widely discussed in the popular media, such as homelessness, unemployment and the rights of mothers to keep their own children. It was watched by 12 million people – a quarter of the British population at the time – on its first broadcast. Its hard-hitting subject matter and highly realistic documentary style, new to British television, created a huge impact on its audience. 
One commentator called it "an ice-pick in the brain of all who saw it". The play produced a storm of phone calls to the BBC, and discussion in Parliament. For years afterwards Carol White was stopped in the street by people pressing money into her hand, convinced she must be actually homeless.
Should it have been preceded by a warning? What would the effect have if it had been? Would it have had fewer viewers and less impact?

No doubt part of this is my nostalgia for an era 10 years Cathy Come Home when a marxist Play for Today could attract a similar audience, though even I recognise that this was largely because there was not much else to watch.

Mind you, in that era if you went to the theatre you risked being harangued by the cast for being bourgeois and going to the theatre. We can’t go back to those days and I am not sure I would want to.


But I do think it is worth asking whether trigger warnings reduce the audience for challenging work and, if so, whether that is a price worth paying for making sure viewers feel comfortable.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Six of the Best 736

Chairman Meow
Chris Dillow explains why a new centre party would likely fail: "Political parties are powerful brands that have been built up over decades. This loyalty doesn’t only attract millions of voters. It means that members stick with the party through thick and thin, even if they profoundly disagree with their policies and leaders."

Good news. Cicero's Songs is back with a post on Estonia.

Nicole Vassell on the experience of the few Black students who do make it to Oxford or Cambridge.

The Pledge of Allegiance in American schools was promoted by a man who made a fortune selling pricey flags to schoolchildren, reports Andrew Belonksy.

"There’s books and biographies. Friends of friends of someone who knew them and they’re the ‘experts’ that write about John’s life. After John died, stories about our family became wild and he’s no longer around to do anything. I thought I’ve got to do something." Kelly Maile talks to Julia Baird, John Lennon's sister.

The Pub Curmudgeon tours the pubs of Leicester and even meets Chairman Meow.

The shorter Sajid Javid

We don't encourage reliance on experts, particularly foreign experts, in this school. We will now sing the national anthem and if I catch any boy not singing loud enough he will be beaten.

Jon Boden: All the Stars are Coming Out Tonight



M Magazine interviewed Jon Boden last week:
‘The future of folk is hanging in the balance, and is in danger of turning into just another branch of the performing arts… passively consumed by the audience rather than being a participatory social art form,’ warns Jon Boden, ex-frontman, composer and arranger with Bellowhead. 
As a leading light in the British folk scene, over the years he’s added to our nation’s canon while also exhuming forgotten works for contemporary audiences. 
It’s an endeavour that has seen him pick up many plaudits along the way, not least from the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, which has bestowed him with 12 statues for his efforts.
Since Bellowhead’s official split last year, Jon’s been working on the follow-up to his 2009 solo album Songs From the Floodplain,  with the stunning results landing on 6 October. 
Called Afterglow, it’s a concept album – and part of a trilogy inspired by post-apocalyptic literature and a post-oil future.
Post-apocalyptic and post-oil were very much in the air in the late 1970s. You can find them, for instance, in Jethro Tull's 1979 LP Stormwatch, which is the darkest and least remembered of their folk-rock trilogy.

All the Stars are Coming Out Tonight is my Sunday music video. It comes from Boden's new album Afterglow.

I have chosen it, not only because it sounds good, but also because Boden told M Magazine:
Literary inspirations were many and various! After London by Richard Jefferies is a touchstone...

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Railway Mania Bar at the Royal Station Hotel, York



One of my watering holes when I was a student at York was the Railway Mania Bar at the Royal Station Hotel (now called The Principal York for some reason).

After a day out on the railways, we would retire there to drink keg Old Peculier. I have never found it being served anywhere else.

Years later I stayed at the hotel in the course of my day job. I found that the bar, which was in the basement and reached by external stairs, had long since been converted into a gym.

Put it down to privatisation: the Royal York Hotel was run by the publicly owned British Transport Hotels until 1983. It was a different world, kids.

But the Railway Mania Bar is not quite forgotten. A short segment of Anthony Burton's 1980 television series was filmed there.

It's a wonder I am not to be seen in the background.

Stephen Reicher on the psychology of authoritarian populism



This an audio recording of Professor Stephen Reicher's lecture on the psychology of authoritarian populism that I attended last month.

As I blogged when I got home that evening:
Professor Reicher's argument that if we are to understand the appeal of Donald Trump (and of other authoritarian populists) we have to get away from the idea that the people who voted for him are merely wicked or stupid.
It is worth taking the time to listen to it. His arguments are obviously relevant to winning the debate on Brexit.

Matthew Engel on the existential crisis of cricket (and me on the President of the MCC's buttocks)

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Matthew Engel has a magnificent polemic on the state of cricket in today's Guardian:
This is not the game that enraptured me when I was six years old. Nor the game I have written about happily for much of my adult life. 
I don’t care about the St Lucia Zouks. And I won’t care about whatever names the 12-year‑olds in marketing invent for the new made-up teams when the existing English Twenty20 is engulfed by yet another new competition in the years ahead. 
This wretched idea was sold to the county chairmen by bribery – an annual £1.3m sweetener per county – with a tacit undercurrent of threat.
My only interest – in common with many other cricket lovers – is the hope that the damnable thing is a total flop and that we can somehow save the game I once adored, and still love more than the people who have seized control of it.
Do read the whole thing.

You can argue that Twenty20 has led to batsmen being more aggressive and even inventing new shots. And leg spin has returned - if only because every bowler gets caned now.

But there have been greater losses. Few batsmen now seem equipped technically or mentally to play a substantial defensive innings. And I have heard Graeme Swann say that a spinner who has grown up keeping things tight in limited overs cricket has no idea how to take wickets if he is thrown the ball in the fourth innings of a first class match.

At the heart of cricket's crisis - and Peter Tinniswood's Brigadier did once accuse Engel of fomenting revolution in concert with Vic Marks - is money.

As I wrote in my Liberal Democrat News column as long ago as 2004:
People think the cricket authorities are stuffy, but really they are the most shamelessly commercial administrators of all. There are now logos on the players' clothing and painted on the field of play. For the right price you could probably get your company's slogan tattooed on the President of the MCC's buttocks.
Engel asks:
When did you last see a group of children (public schools and Asian community partially excepted) playing cricket without an adult?
For me, I think it was in the summer of 2005 as England finally won back the Ashes and the authorities decided to sell the rights to screen future tests to Sky.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Lauren and Giles Cheatle

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The things you discover when you Google obscure county cricketers from the 1970s:
In many ways, Lauren Cheatle’s life is like that of a typical Australian teenager: school, study, exams, friendships. 
Except Cheatle’s life during the six months since she burst onto the international cricket scene in late January has been anything but typical. 
The 17-year-old has logged plenty of frequent flyer points since that first Twenty20 at the MCG in late January, with the left-arm quick travelling to New Zealand and India with the Commonwealth Bank Southern Stars and attending a training camp with the Sydney Thunder in Dubai.
Lauren Cheatle is the daughter of the former Sussex and Surrey left-arm spinner Giles Cheatle.

Norman Baker's new electric bus - and a Reform Club song



The former Liberal Democrat MP and transport minister Norman Baker, you may recall, is now the managing director of Brighton's Big Lemon bus company.

The city's newspaper The Argus caught up with the firm last month:
The Optare Solo EV has spent the last month on trial with Brighton-based bus company Big Lemon. 
Big Lemon MD Norman Baker has praised the new electric bus. 
He said: “Our mission is to enable everyone to get around their community in an affordable, enjoyable and environmentally-sustainable way and it would seem the Solo EV has delivered just that. 
“We have been extremely impressed with the Solo EV and all our drivers have loved driving it. 
“The feedback from passengers has been extremely positive with many commenting how quiet, comfortable and smooth the Solo EV is.”
Time for a song from Norman Baker and his band The Reform Club. I wonder who this song is about?

Leicester City legend Gary Lineker WILL wear pants after nude ad row


The Leicester Mercury wins our Headline of the Award.

My paparazzo photograph shows an uncharacteristically fully clothed Gary Lineker at Leicester station.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Crosskeys Bridge at Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire



I have had an affection for the Crosskeys Bridge at Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire ever since we won the Ashes there in 2009.

This is a good video of it in operation with an equally  good backing track - Human by Rag'n'Bone Man.

Six of the Best 735

Arron Banks, the self-styled ‘bad boy’ who bankrolled the Leave campaign appears to have exaggerated his wealth. So, ask Alastair Sloan and Iain Campbell, how did he pay for his Brexit spree?

David Boyle on the way monopolies no longer seem to concern us: "I'm not sure why the forces of Liberalism worldwide should have abandoned their most important economic doctrine."

"I have been speaking and writing about misogyny in Tower Hamlets for a long time – now feels like the right time to put something more comprehensive on the record," says Rachael Saunders.

"I really wish it was clearer that I am just one among many of the ‘unseen’ and smart people, who get these programmes onscreen." Mary Beard reminds us who really makes a television documentary.

Tristin Hopper on Up Against It, the film script Joe Orton wrote for the Beatles. Commissioned at the band’s height, it featured the Fab Four assassinating a female PM, sparking a brutal civil war and engaging in group sex.

Clare Wadd searches South London for a scene painted by Camille Pissarro 146 years ago.

Jonathan Meades after dinner

The Times Literary Supplement has published a speech Jonathan Meades gave in the summer to the annual dinner of the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

A couple of morsels:
The last time I attended this dinner, thirteen years ago, the speaker was the late Robert Hughes. In contrast to Casson he was supremely indifferent to whether or not he was liked. Hughes evidently considered that a writer who is not causing offence is a writer who is not doing his or her job. The volume of disconsolate muttering that Hughes provoked in this room might be taken as a sign that he was doing his job.
And
Satire is not to be confused with parody, which is a mere lark. Satire is didactic. It’s a sharp jolt. It’s often cruel. It’s meant to hurt. As Swift said, it is intended to vex rather than divert. It is, if you like, secular blasphemy.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Vince Cable: Government must tackle personal debt crisis

The Liberal Democrat leader has written an article for the Independent calling on Theresa May to act on the level of personal debt in Britain.

He writes:
Weak growth and falling real wages mean living standards are only being maintained through personal borrowing, growing by 10 per cent a year. 
Recent Bank of England figures show unsecured debt (credit card spending and personal loans) growing at four times the rate of mortgage debt, while the household savings rate is at a historic low. 
Hence the recent news that total unsecured debt has surpassed £200bn, the amount it climbed to just before the financial crisis a decade ago. 
High levels of personal debt increase the vulnerability of financial institutions to economic shocks, as the Governor of the Bank of England has warned, and when interest rates rise again, many individuals will struggle to cope. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

St Pancras in the 1960s



Some precious footage of this great London station.

Though passengers for the East Midlands are no longer its first concern, the restoration of St Pancras seems like a miracle to those of us who knew it 20, 30 or 40 years ago.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Vince Cable says the government has left pubs in the lurch


The Sun quoted Vince Cable's condemnation of the government's failure to provide the business rate relief it has promised them the other day.

The Liberal Democrat leader was commenting on the party's own research showing that 4500 pubs across England have been left out of pocket and lacking any funding from the government since the revaluation of rates.

Vince said:
"Thousands of pubs faced with crippling tax hikes are being left in the lurch by this government. 
"This rushed scheme has been plagued with problems from the start. Local councils have had to deal with software glitches, a lack of clear guidance from ministers and little time to prepare. 
"Pubs form the bedrock of local communities across the country, but many now worry they will have to close their doors. 
"Instead of this temporary sticking plaster, we need to properly protect pubs by capping business rate rises at 12.5 per cent."
Many voters who supported Brexit did so because they had a sense that British culture was somehow under threat.

One of the most valuable institutions of that culture is the pub, yet this Brexit government appears perfectly happy to allow it to perish.

Which suggests that Brexit will not provide its supporters with what they wanted from it.

The railways want you to travel to London and nowhere else

Melton Mowbray station - a long way from Cambridge
On Saturday I had an enjoyable day in Cambridge with some old Liberator friends.

But if anyone doubts that the railway network in England is dominated by the needs of London, they should try making a journey from West to East like this.

Market Harborough and Cambridge are 48 miles apart. To get there from there you first have to travel north to Leicester and then take a train to Cambridge.

Because that train takes a circuitous route via Peterborough and the connection at Leicester is not very good, the journey takes two hours and 40 minutes. That is an average speed of 18 mph.

After an hour you are at Melton Mowbray station and further from Cambridge than when you started.

In fact it would be as quick to reach Cambridge via St Pancras and King's Cross, though you would travel more than twice the distance.

There used to be better cross-country alternatives, but none survived Doctor Beeching.

There was a line from Rugby to Peterborough via Market Harborough, but that was closed because it did not go through any other places of any size.

There was a branch from Kettering that reached Cambridge via Thrapston, Huntingdon and St Ives. You can see trains on the final stretch between St Ives and Cambridge elsewhere on this blog. Today the trackbed is occupied by a guided busway.

And there was a line from Bedford to Cambridge, which may one day be reopened as part of the East West Rail project.

My conclusion: if you have to travel across country in England, take a good book with you.

Scenes from Brexit Britain 1

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It's 2023 and members of the Grayling Youth are growing vegetables to save the need for expensive imports.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Railway poster for a forgotten county

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Reviewing Engel's England, I concluded:
Local boundaries have been rubbed out or redrawn in a way that would be simply unthinkable in the more federal United States. My jigsaw, for instance, can be dated to between 1965, when Huntingdonshire absorbed the Soke of Peterborough, and 1974, when it was itself absorbed into Cambridgeshire. 
Some counties have resisted their erasure from history, notably Yorkshire (the largest) and Rutland (the smallest). Elsewhere Berkshire is fading from memory and no one seems to have heard of Huntingdonshire at all. 
Soon it will be as lost as the Cotswold county of Winchcombeshire from the 10th and 11th centuries.

Trivial Fact of the Day with Winston Churchill

One of the great tweets from James there.

Sir Peter Tapsell (who is still with us) was Conservative MP for Nottingham West between 1959 and 1964, and for Horncastle (1966-83), East Lindsey (1983-97) and Louth and Horncastle (1997-2015). He was Father of the House between 2010 and 2015.

William Wither Beach was also a Conservative. He sat for North Hampshire between 1857 and 1885, and for Andover between 1885 and 1901.

He too was Father of the House, dying while holding that title when he was run over by a cab.

Six of the Best 734

Will Dyer was the Liberal Democrat candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow at this year's general election.

One of the last interviews the philosopher Richard Rorty gave was to Robert Harrison for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Talking of philosophy, Peter Worley believes it should be at the centre of education: "So, what is a suitably philosophical spirit and how can it be taught? I would suggest that it is not merely responding to a problem or question but doing so reflectively and using reason to progress."

"Everybody now spoke as though at last, after decades of shock therapy, debilitating or addicting drug treatment and a stigma that psychoanalysis had done little to dispel, the late twentieth century had simply discovered a cure for depression." Brian Dillon remembers the central place Prozac briefly held in our culture.

"We Are the Martians is everything we hoped it would be and possibly even more." Folk Horror Revival reviews a tribute to Nigel Kneale.

Rob Baker on Ted Lewis, his Brit Noir novel Jack’s Return Home and the film Get Carter.

Robert Wyatt: Heaps of Sheeps



Robert Wyatt is a sort of Gandalf of the music scene, but I find a little of his voice goes a long way.

I prefer, for instance, Elvis Costello's version of Shipbuilding to Wyatt's, though I'm not sure the cool kids would agree with me.

This track I do like though. It comes from Robert Wyatt's 1997 album Shleep, It is a collaboration with Brian Eno.

Trivial note. Robert Wyatt is the half brother of the actor Julian Glover, Their mother Honor Wyatt, a friend on the novelist Barbara Pym, adapted several of Malcolm Saville's children's books for BBC radio.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Friday, October 13, 2017

Six of the Best 733

"Being female in a culture that sexually objectifies the female body has effects. Girls and women are socialised into internalising the outside view of their bodies." Clinical psychologist Jay Watts on what men like Harvey Weinstein do to all women.

Eduardo Porter explains why big cities are thriving and smaller ones are being left behind: "Opportunity in the information era has clustered in dense urban enclaves where high-tech businesses can tap into rich pools of skilled and creative people."

Flo Clucas explains why we need more statues of women.

"If more women walked alone, then we wouldn’t be alone. Let’s regender our community spaces by doing something shocking: taking a walk." Romany Reagan likes walking alone in cemeteries.

"A load of OAPs came to the first recording thing thinking it was a circus, and they saw sketches with a dead body in a binbag and undertakers and God knows what, the atmosphere was amazing!" We Are Cult talks to Barry Cryer about being Monty Python's warm-up act and much else.

Matt Brown visits the various candidates for the source of the Thames.

Philip Hammond should remember who his real enemy is

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It may have been a slip of the tongue or it may have been an attempt to placate the headbangers who now dictate Conservative policy.

Either way, calling European negotiators "the enemy" has made the claim that Hammond is the sole grown up in a cabinet of muppets and vegetables less convincing.

And he should remember who his real enemy is.

One of my favourite pieces of political wisdom goes something like this:
A keen new Conservative MP was sitting in the house, staring intently at the Labour benches. 
"What're you doin', young Tompkins?" asked an old buffer, sitting down next to him. 
"Staring at the enemy, sir." 
"No, that's the opposition. The enemy is on this side."

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The River Severn through Shrewsbury



Much of the Severn through Shrewsbury is surprisingly rural. Meanwhile, the large institutional building of Shrewsbury School looks like the former foundling hospital and workhouse that it is.

Me? I finished Peter Parker's Housman Country in a pub by the river and then caught the train home.





David Laws nearly resigned over 30 hours free childcare policy

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Speaking at the Schools Northeast Summit in Newcastle today, the former Liberal Democrat minister David Laws said free childcare for working parents operates as "negative early years' premium" benefiting the wealthy.

He also said it almost prompted him to resign from the Coalition.

According to the TES, he told the event:
"I think it’s utterly nuts to have.. an early years offer where the children of two investment bankers can get a 30-hour provision and the children from very disadvantaged backgrounds get 15."
David Laws also said:
"It’s ironic that all of the debate in Westminster and the big announcement at the Conservative Party conference recently was all about subsiding higher education more – we spend a truckload of money as a country on HE. 
"On the other hand we have an early years system which compared with other countries is underfunded, which pays its staff significantly less than other developed countries and as a consequence has a much lower qualified staff." 
Mr Laws added that previous early years reforms had mainly focused on "improving access to childcare, with a back to work agenda, rather than improving the quality of early years education".
The 30 hours free childcare was in the Conservatives' 2015 general election manifesto. The Lib Dems had resisted its introduction under the Coalition.

As David Laws explained today, it was designed to trump Labour's offer of 25 hours free care at that election.

Its implementation since the Conservatives' 2015 victory has been beset with problems.

Ruth Bright calls on the Lib Dems to apologise over Cyril Smith

The Chief Executive of Rochdale Council has apologised for letting down the victims of Cyril Smith. It is time that the Liberal Democrats, as successor party to the Liberal Party made an apology to the victims too.
So says Ruth Bright, former councillor in Southwark and parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East, on Liberal Democrat Voice.

She goes on to detail the action she wants to see from party:
An apology from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats that the party was unknowingly used as a front for Smith’s respectability. 
An inquiry into any remaining evidence about him within the party. 
A direction to the pastoral care officer to support any party activists who wish to talk about their own experiences with Smith. 
A direction that all references to Smith be removed from the Rochdale Lib Dems website (which has an extraordinary archive with cheery references to his 80th birthday and other events),
Every loyal to the party, Lib Dem Voice (which has disabled comments on Ruth's post) adds without comment the party's response to the Cyril Smith affair.

This states:
His actions were not known or condoned by the Liberal Party or the Liberal Democrats.
But that is not true. Anyone in the Liberal Party who read Private Eye would have been familiar with the allegations.

As I blogged in 2012:
I first heard of the allegations against Cyril Smith when I read them in Private Eye in 1979. The Eye had picked them up from the Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP - those were the days when any self-respecting town had an 'alternative' newspaper). ...
My instinct has always been to assume that they were true, if only because I could not see why anyone would trouble to invent anything so tawdry - he "'told me to take my trousers down and hit me four or five times on my bare buttocks" - about someone who was then only a local politician.
Of course, I did not know the allegations were true in 1979, and what was printed in Private Eye was a tame version of what has since emerged.

But those later developments cannot have come as too much of a shock to many people at the top of the party.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Leicestershire Conservatives condemn "Clunky, heavy, slow and smelly" bi-mode trains


When the government cancelled the electrification of the Midland main line north of Kettering we were promised new 'bi-mode' trains. These would take power from the wires as far as Kettering and then switch to diesel power.

But Nick Rushton, the Conservative leader of Leicestershire County Council, is not impressed.

According to the Leicester Mercury, he told a recent council cabinet meeting:
"I am disappointed we are getting so-called bi-mode trains. 
"They are clunky, they are heavy they are slow and they are smelly. 
"We expected to be treated better when the day after cancellation they [the Government] could find £25 billion for Cross Rail in London."
It could be worse than that.

Theresa May, in an interview she gave to the East Midlands section of Sunday Politics - one of numerous media appearances her office had her make during the Tory Conference, thus wrecking her voice and her set-piece speech - referred to them as "bio-mode" trains.

When I asked on Twitter what this meant, someone suggested they would run on bullshit.

Now that really would be smelly.

Six of the Best 732

Ed Thornley on the prospects for the Liberal Democrats in the North of England.

"I waited patiently for my turn to come. You don’t know if you will speak until your name gets called so all I could do was sit and hope." Ryan Lailvaux made his first speech to Lib Dem Conference in Bournemouth last month.

"To be of the radical centre does not, it seems to me, mean the kind of tiptoeing towards little tweaks to the system here and there, especially when the global economic system is designed to create billionaires and to enslave the rest of us, little by little." David Boyle demonstrates how to be a radical centrist without being a centrist dad.

Kate Raworth reminds us that the game of Monopoly was invented to demonstrate the evils of capitalism.

"I do now suspect that, a couple of miles off the Irish boats, we housed a Magdalene Laundry of our own here in Liverpool." Ronnie Hughes has been researching a dark episode of local history.

Simon Williams surveys his career from James Bellamy to Lillian Bellamy.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Happy Birthday Nicholas Parsons



Happy Birthday to Nicholas Parsons who was 94 today.

One lesser known role on his c.v. is in the Spencer Davis Group's 1966 film The Ghost Goes Gear, where he plays the band's manager.

According to Parsons' memoirs, the weather in which they had to film was so bad that he assumed the project had been scrapped. He was surprised there was a film to release.

What made the cinema was basically a collection of largely undistinguished musical performances, apart from those by the Spencer Davis Group themselves.

But this clip from the start of the film gives a hint that, with better weather, it might have been possible to produce something better.

Richard Rorty: The thinker who foresaw Trump and Brexit

I have been meaning to write an article for Liberator about Richard Rorty for years, if only because I was attracted by the possible headline ‘RORTY BUT NICE’.

In the last issue of the magazine I finally got round to writing it, but I am not sure it is much good.

I had imagined I would write about the ideas in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, but the quote from Achieving Our Country foreseeing the coming of Trump was too good to ignore and that book rather took over the article.

Having written about it, I wonder if the book’s distinction between the reformist left and the cultural left is ultimately much different from the claim of a thousand dull newspaper columns that the left has abandoned the working class and become too concerned with what they call political correctness.

And when I did get around to Contingency, Irony and Solidarity its arguments were so fragile they fell apart in my hands.

Maybe the moral is that, ultimately, we value thinkers for an approach to the problems of living that they represent rather than the fine detail of their doctrines.

Rorty, for me, stands for a recognition that the institutions of the liberal democratic state are among the most valuable things the human race has devised. But he combines that with a recognition that they are far from perfect and that there is much of our lives that they do not touch.

Anyway, let me know what you think of the article.


The thinker who foresaw Trump and Brexit

The days when we expected philosophers to be prophets are long gone, but the widespread sharing of this quotation after the election of Donald Trump reawakened interest in the work of Richard Rorty:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. 
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….  
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
What particularly impressed people was that Rorty wrote this back in 1998 when Bill Clinton had been elected for a second term and Tony Blair was enjoying his extraordinarily long honeymoon with Britain’s voters.

Rorty, who died in 2007, is the most interesting liberal philosopher of recent decades. He managed to combine being at the cutting edge of postmodern thought in rejecting the idea that philosophy’s role was to discover ‘The Truth’ or ‘Things as They Really Are’  – so much so that his name carried with it a whiff of brimstone in more traditional academic departments – with a reasoned defence of the institutions of the liberal democratic state and draw for enlightenment upon the Western literary canon.

Beyond that, as the quotation above shows, he stood out among philosophers – particularly postmodern philosophers – for the clarity of his prose and his commitment to carrying the non-specialist reader with him. So much academic work today is written to be published rather than read, and so many philosophers seem determined to dazzle or obfuscate rather than enlighten. To those who doubt this I say two words: Slavoj Žižek.

That quotation comes from Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. In the book Rorty draws a distinction between the reformist left that flourished in America until the 1960s and the cultural left that supplanted it.

The reformist left, he argued, shared “the conviction that the vast inequalities within American society could be corrected by using the institutions of a constitutional democracy – that a cooperative commonwealth could be created by electing the right politicians and passing the right laws.”

This reformist left covered a broad spectrum of opinion from Marxists to moderate Democrats, but they were united by a belief in pragmatic reform. There were no purity tests for membership – some of the reformist left cared little for the rights of American Blacks, others were keen supporters of war in Vietnam – but, says Rorty, they were “feared and hated by the Right because they laid the foundations of the modern welfare state.

Rorty was well aware of this, but in a characteristically wry style, he pointed out that “in democratic countries you get things done by compromising your principles in order to form alliances with groups about whom you have grave doubts.”

It was Vietnam that broke this coalition. It was not just that the war was morally wrong and impossible to win: it was that younger leftists saw it as in indictment of America as a whole. And that meant, argued Rorty, they lost interest in the idea of moderate reform:
For if you turn out to be living in an evil empire (rather than, as you had been told, a democracy fighting an evil empire), then you have no responsibility to your country; you are accountable only to humanity. If what your government and your teachers are saying is all part of the same Orwellian monologue – if the differences between the Harvard faculty and the military-industrial complex, or between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, are negligible – then you have a responsibility to make a revolution.
I thought of this when I heard Harriet Harman interviewed by Peter Hennessy recently and she said had gone into politics wanting to “change everything about society”. Change everything is an expression of personal despair, not a programme for government.

This trend towards cultural leftism accelerated on the British left after Iraq. Tony Blair won three consecutive general elections, but his name is really heard in Labour circles – unless it is part of the insult ‘Blairite’. We Liberal Democrats suffered our own miniature moral catastrophe over the Coalition’s decision to increase tuition fees.

Instead, the left has embraced Jeremy Corbyn, a figure whose appeal lies precisely in the fact that he has never held power and is thus innocent of the compromises it demands. Labour now expends little effort on policy formation as its 2017 general election manifesto, an unconvincing document that escaped proper scrutiny during the election campaign because of the supreme incompetence of the Conservatives. 

A style of argument flourishes on the left, perhaps encouraged by social media and certainly most apparent there. It is summed up in a widely used quotation whose origin is not clear: “The right looks for converts, the left looks for traitors.” Someone’s words – and it is usually words and not actions – are examined until they are found guilty of some departure from the prevalent moral view on the cultural left, whereupon they can be given a pejorative label and their opinion on every subject ignored.

The right has not been idle while this has been going on. Rorty, confirming his uncanny ability to see where politics was leading in 1998, wrote: “While the Left’s back was turned, the bourgeoisification of the white proletariat which began in WWII and continued up through the Vietnam War has been halted, and the process has gone into reverse. America is now proletarianizing its bourgeoisie, and this process is likely to culminate in bottom-up revolt, of the sort [Pat] Buchanan hopes to foment.”

If all this sounds familiar from a thousand comment pieces blaming the left and ‘political correctness’ for the rise of Trump or of Ukip, it is worth emphasising that Rorty came from a left-wing background himself and his sympathies already remained with what he described as the reformist left:
For the Right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past. It sees the Left’s struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness. The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved.
And even when being critical of the cultural left in the New York Times in 1994, he paid it a generous tribute, saying it was “doing a great deal of good for people who have gotten a raw deal in our society: women, African-Americans, gay men and lesbians. This focus on marginalized groups will, in the long run, help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized.”

But he warned in the same article that “A left that refuses to take pride in its country will have no impact on that country’s politics, and will eventually become an object of contempt.”

So it is not such a surprise to find that the opening words of Achieving Our Country are: “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.”

If these words seem strange on the left today, Rorty would no doubt have said, it is because the reformist left has been displaced by the cultural left.

For a way out of this impasse we could turn to an earlier (1989) book of Rorty’s: Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. It has many virtues, among them this descripton of it is that we actually argue about politics and other important things
All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. ...  
A small part of a final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as “true,” “good,” “right,” and “beautiful.” The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, “Christ,” “England,” “professional standards,” “decency,” “kindness,” “the Revolution,” “the Church,” “progressive,” “rigorous,” “creative.” The more parochial terms do most of the work.
Rorty also emphasises the importance of being an ‘ironist’. That is, we should recognise that our own beliefs cannot ultimately be grounded on bedrock beyond our own chosen ‘thick’ vocaulary yet still be prepared to act upon them. He approving quotes Joseph Schumpeter: “To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.”

These days the idea that studying the great writers can teach us lessons about how to live our lives is deeply unfashionable in English departments with their poststructuralists  (and quite possibly postpoststructuralists too). Yet it is too this rather traditional view of literature that the avant-garde philosopher Rorty turns in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, with chapters on Proust, Nabokov and Orwell.

He suggests that what Orwell did in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four was to give readers an alternative vocabulary with which to understand totalitarianism. 

Postmodern liberal or not, I still want to say that Orwell gave us a picture that is nearer the truth, but however you describe it Orwell’s view of the subject prevailed for many decades. Indeed, while one could have suggested 20 years ago that this view was now of only historical interest, it seems again compelling in the world of 2017.

We liberals like to insist that we are not mere centrists but have a radical view of our own. I see nothing wrong with centrism in as far as it represents a defence of institutions like the National Health Service and public service broadcasting that made Britain a better country to live in.

But if we seek something more exciting, then the postmodern world view, which accepts the breakdown of the great narratives and is tolerant of local difference, is a promising one to explore. And there is not better guide to it than Richard Rorty.

John Buchan casts light on the strange views of Pete North

The talk of Twitter today has been an extraordinary blog post by Pete North, who bills himself as "Editor @LeaveHQ - The Leave Alliance".

If you doubt me:
What I do expect to happen is a lot of engineering jobs to be axed since a lot of them are dependent on defence spending. It will kill off a number of parasitic resourcing firms and public sector suppliers. Basically it will wipe out the cosseted lower middle class and remind them that they are just as dispensable as the rest of us. 
We can the expect to see a major rationalisation of the NHS and what functions it will perform. It will be more of a skeleton service than ever. I expect they will have trouble staffing it. Economic conditions more than any immigration control will bring numbers down to a trickle. 
In every area of policy a lot of zombie projects will be culled and the things that survive on very slender justifications will fall. We can also expect banks to pull the plug in under-performing businesses. Unemployment will be back to where it was in the 80's. 
And:
I'm of the view that in recent years people have become increasingly spoiled and self-indulgent, inventing psychological problems for themselves in the absence of any real challenges or imperatives to grow as people. I have always primarily thought Brexit would be a reboot on British politics and culture. In a lot of ways it will bring back much of what is missing. A little austerity might very well make us less frivolous. 
Didn't put that on the side of their bus, did they?

I have been trying to decide which other group this extreme Brexiteer puts me in mind of.

Many Greens used to be like this, spending decades telling us that we could not go on as we are. Austerity, they said, was inevitable - and quite possibly desirable too.

But these days the Green Party paints itself as austerity's greatest opponent.

Still anxious to understand the world we live in, I turned from Conrad's The Secret Agent to John Buchan. Greenmantle is set during the First World War and tells of a German attempt to raise the whole of Islam in support of Turkey, thus defeating Russia on the Eastern front and turning the course of the war.
I ended it by quoting Charles Moore's exegesis of Buchan's view of Islam:
One message of the book is the importance of understanding cultures different from our own. This produces a sympathy with Islam. Sandy, who knows "something of the soul of the East", explains that: "The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by and by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked. "  
And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft ... It isn't inhuman. It's the humanity of one part of the human race.  
"The problem comes, Buchan/Arbuthnot says, when this longing for purity is perverted. The "simplicity of the ascetic" is usurped by "the simplicity of the madman that grinds down all the contrivances of civilisation".
Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceI think that is a fair account of Pete North's blog post: "the simplicity of the madman that grinds down all the contrivances of civilisation."

Monday, October 09, 2017

London: We Live by the River (1955)



This film was made by the BBC in 1955 as part of a series called Cities of Europe.

Two boys are mute witnesses to a long day in London taking in the sites, some of which are now lost to us.

The Pool of London and bombsites. Fleet Street and Westminster Abbey. Piccadilly Circus and Theatreland.

If you enjoy this you may also like All That Mighty Heart, which shows London a few years later.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Snailbeach mines with thunder in the air


The day I first saw the remains of the lead mines at Snailbeach was the day that England beat Poland with surprising ease on their way to qualifying for Italia 90. (Gazza, Gary Linker, Nessun Dorma and all that.)

Which means I can date that experience precisely. It was on 3 June 1989.

A few years after that the white hillocks at Snailbeach were landscaped, but Christina Samson once wrote me a memoir of life in the village back in the 1950s.

The site is tidier today, though even in the late 1990s it was possible to enter the blacksmith's forge and find the tools lying where they had been left the last time they were used.

I was back at Snailbeach this summer. The weather was capricious and there were thunderstorms about.

This made me nervous of sheltering among the remains of the mining buildings as many are patched up with corrugated iron.

Hammy the pig finds new home after attacking neighbour

This heart-warming story from the West Midlands wins BBC News our Headline of the Day Award.

Later. The Shropshire Star reveals that Hammy is currently living at an animal sanctuary near Cleobury Mortimer.

Sparks: Amateur Hour



Sparks, I once wrote, were "a beacon of wit and lightness of touch in an ocean of of clumsy glam rock" and " get rediscovered every few years, which is more that you can say for most bands of their era".

That remains true 10 years on, so it's high time we heard from them again.

There was a good interview with the Mael brothers, who make up Sparks, on Front Row last Wednesday. I listened to it when I was over at my mother's house cooking her a meal.

The brothers, who came from California, said how much they enjoyed the music scene in Britain in the early Seventies. They were less keen on the power cuts and being told by their producer, Muff Winwood, that there might not be enough vinyl available to press their first LP.

And my mother remembered watching the keyboard player with the toothbrush moustache on Top of the Pops with me over 40 years ago.

After his intervention this week, Amateur Hour is dedicated to Nick Clegg.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Six of the Best 731

"The way to influence the Conservatives and Labour on Europe isn’t to join them, it’s to scare them but joining a clearly pro-European party and helping it achieve greater political success." Nick Clegg's call for pro-Europeans to join Labour or the Conservatives is bad anti-Brexit tactics, argues Mark Pack. It also shows an extraordinary lack of gratitude to the Liberal Democrat activists who put him where he once was.

Joris Luyendijk lived in the UK for six years. He left feeling disappointed, hurt and immensely worried.

"The Strange Death of Liberal England is now alive and real in a way that it simply was not 37 years ago." David Nash revisits George Dangerfield's book on Edwardian England.

Sameer Rahim interviews Armando Iannucci, who says: "People keep telling me, why don’t you do a Brexit Thick of It, but I think it would make me have a heart attack. The absurdity of what’s going on now is real, that’s why it’s frightening rather than funny."

Boys rejected by football academies can face a difficult time, says David Conn.

Never drink in a pub with a flat roof? Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey on council estate pubs.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Shropshire: "It's more like it was now than it was then"


In an episode of The Green Green Grass, the Shropshire-based spin-off from Only Fools and Horses, an American who had been stationed in the county in the 1960s proposes looking round to see how things have changed.

"It's not changed," comes the reply. "If anything it's more like it was now than it was then."

It would be nice if it were true, but in the 30 years I have been visiting the county things have changed.

I used to be struck but how much cheaper houses were than in Leicetershire, but that all changed when the weekending classes discovered the gourmet restaurants of Ludlow and then the countryside around them.

These days, you have to head for the part of Shropshire that is almost in Wales to find the county as I remember it - or would like it to have been.

I took these photographs in Snailbeach on my last visit.







The return of Liberal Democrat good third places

Before the general election we all got very excited about the #LibDemFightback,

In a week where there were a dozen local by-elections we would get very excited about a spectacular Liberal Democrat gain and ignore the other 11 contests where there was no Lib Dem candidate or we polled only three per cent.

This summer I suggested this was a classic case of confirmation bias - noticing the evidence that supports our beliefs and disregarding that which does not.

Which is why so many Lib Dems were unpleasantly surprised by our general election result in June.

A couple of years ago I argued that:
we will know the Liberal Democrats are thriving again when we regularly score 20 per cent in wards where we have no history of success.
We haven't reached that happy land yet, but the local by-election results of the last couple of weeks suggest that we are at least getting into double figures in such unpromising territory.

Take yesterday's results, which Mark Pack has helpfully collated for us.

The headlines were that we managed an impressive gain in Redcar and just failed to gain a seat in Hinckley and Bosworth.

But I was more impressed by some of the other results. In wards with no history of Lib Dem success we managed 11 per cent in Warwick, 12 per cent in South Buckinghamshire and 14 per cent in Borehamwood.

There was a sad case where we went backwards in Adur, which was a rare Liberal-run authority in the 1980s, but overall the picture was encouraging.

Let me end by again recommending the by-election previews posted on BritainElects by Andrew Teale.

The other day he spoilt things by calling Oadby and Wigston "one of the UK’s smallest and, it has to be said, more pointless local government districts," but they are usually immaculate.

The shorter Nick Clegg

I screwed up the Liberal Democrats so comprehensively that there's no point joining them any more.

This just in...

Watch your own slogan fall off the wall behind Theresa May


Thanks to the genius of The British Drea, you can compose any slogan you like and then watch it fall off the wall behind Theresa May.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The Bedford to Hitchin line today



Before the Midland Railway built its London terminus at St Pancras its trains reached the capital by taking the Hitchin branch from Bedford and then running into King's Cross.

The Bedford to Hitchin line closed to passengers in 1961 and the last goods train ran in 1964.

This video explores what remains of the line today.

Being Jacob Rees-Mogg is a full-time occupation

Embed from Getty Images

The thing about really posh people is that they make it look effortless. Think of Prince William or David Cameron.

True, Cameron's inner Flashman could soon appear if he was thwarted, but Prince William probably does not even think of himself in this way. It just comes naturally to him.

At the other end of the spectrum are those for whom being posh is hard work. They make everything a little bit too obvious.

Take Boris Johnson. He was plucked from the same North London primary school the Miliband brothers attended and sent to prep school and then Eton. 

You feel that he has been trying a little too hard to fit in ever since.

It was good to have an allusion to Shakespeare when he announced he would not be a candidate for the leadership. The pause and self-satisfied smile while he waited for everyone to notice were less admirable.

The point of this post is to suggest that Jacob Rees-Mogg is a Johnson and not a Cameron.

From taking his nanny canvassing to turning up at a conference fringe meeting with a framed photograph of Margaret Thatcher, he has made it obvious that he is desperate for his aristocratic eccentricity to be noticed.

In fact, being Jacob Rees-Mogg is a full-time occupation.

All this reminds me of a story from the days when Princess Michael of Kent - "Princess Pushy" - was a fixture in the columns of the tabloids.

The Queen, so the story goes, was reading a list of all the Princess's titles.

"Oh dear," she said, "she sounds much too grand for us."

Rees-Mogg is Princess Pushy and not the Queen, you might say.