Friday, 30 October 2009

The Friday Fungus: Why reindeer can fly

As the festive season approaches I thought I touch on a topical subject - the uncanny ability of reindeer to fly. Now we all know that they can since Father Christmas delivers us all those lovely prezzies every year - and how would he do that without the sturdy assistance of Prancer, Dancer, Blitzen and all the reindeer crowd. But what you didn't know is that a mushroom - Amanita muscaria - might be the reason for Rudolf's aerobatics.

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) - pictured above - is the classic toadstool on which should sit a fairy, gnome or pixie and is common right across the northern part of Eurasia (including Britain). And it is also the "magic mushroom" - sometimes called the sacred mushroom. Most books list it as poisonous - which is shorthand for saying this is the toadstool that contains a hallucinogenic drug. And deep in the bowels of the BBC's web-site is a lovely piece entitled; "The Influence of Fly Agaric on the Iconography of Father Christmas".

The gist of this little piece goes as follow:

"The Sami have a custom of feeding fly agaric to their deer and collecting the urine to drink. The reindeer's digestive system metabolises the more poisonous components of the toadstool, leaving urine with the hallucinogenic and psychotropic elements of the fungus intact. Drinking the urine gives a 'high' similar to taking LSD. Under the hallucinatory effects of the drink, the Sami thought their reindeer were flying through space, looking down on the world. The reindeers' liking for the toadstool hallucinogens are such that they, in turn, have been known to eat the snow on which intoxicated humans have urinated, creating a reciprocating cycle."

A whole new take on the term "pissed"!

Take a little closer look - you may think that American fizzy drink advertising was responsible for Santa's outfit? Look at that toadstool and think again!

"Siberian shamans live in tepee-like structures made of reindeer skin, called yurts, with a roof supported by a birch pole and a smokehole at the top. At the midwinter festivals of Annual Renewal, the shaman gathers the fly agaric from under sacred trees. Interestingly, whilst harvesting the toadstools, the shaman wears special attire, consisting of red and white fur-trimmed coats and long black boots ie, very much like the modern day depiction of Santa Claus. He then enters his yurt through the smokehole, carrying a sack full of dried fly agaric, and descends the birch pole to the floor. Once inside, the shaman performs his ceremonies and shares out the toadstool's gifts with those gathered inside. Following this, he leaves up the pole and back through the smokehole."
A great deal has been said about dear old Santa - but they never told you he was a drug dealer!


Thursday, 29 October 2009

We won't go to Tesco when West Ham win the world cup again! Thoughts on the role of town centres

As ever Julian Dobson provokes thought in his observations of town centres - and saving them. And here - inspired by an earlier piece as well - are a few of those thoughts provked.
In 2005, Susie Pryor and Sanford Grossbart published “Ethnography of an American Main Street” (International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management), reporting on the findings from a long-term field investigation of the main street in an American mid-west town. In discussing their findings the authors suggest dimensions to the characterisation of activities in the main street. These are:

1. Structure – is the activity formal or informal
2. Function – ranging from the purely commercial to the wholly noncommercial
3. Festive – encompassing the commonplace and routine through to highly festive occasions

Main Street is not simply a place of commerce – a shopping centre. Nor is it (as if in some Soviet dream) just a place for formal events and celebrations. It is a place of engagement and co-operation between merchants, consumers and “ancillary actors”. It is alive.

The driver to the success of Main Street isn’t the shop – although to hear us talk about town centres you would think that – it is the relationship we have with that place and the space it provides for the events and activities of our lives. In Bradford, when Pakistan win at cricket, hundred of fans head for the local centres. Not to shop but to share their happiness at victory.

Yet we distrust such a use for the spaces of our town centres. Many of us grumble about public drinking, about young people gathering together, about hen parties and stag dos. And we certainly dislike political campaigns and religious promotion (unless of course it’s an official and state-sanctioned occasion) – to the point of complaining about these activities.

To make town centres work we need to start thinking about them differently:

1. places of performance – planned or otherwise
2. centres of culture not temples to shopping
3. a locus for excitement and discovery rather than the workaday
4. as venues for communal celebration, sharing and festivity

So rather than beating down the door of John Lewis, Selfridges or some other “iconic” store should we not be finding impresarios to programme and create the framework on which the community's events and occasions – large and small – might be hung? After all we won’t go to Tesco to celebrate when West Ham win the world cup again!

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Apps for Hobnob: My biscuit of choice

Unlike a certain incompetent, bullying political leader I know where I stand on the biscuit front. My biscuit of choice is the Hobnob (pictured above). Such biscuits are versatile and can have many apps:
1. Just Crunch
2. Dunk (2.1 In Tea; 2.2 In Coffee)
3. Crumble Topping
4. Cheesecake Base
5. Ice Cream Bits
6. Plus Butter (6.1 Plus Butter +Cheese)
7. Honey Drizzled
8. Chocolate
9. Chocolate Dunk (9.1 In Tea 9.2 In Coffee)
10. Vin Santo
11. Marsala
....feel free to add to the apps. And next time Mumsnet ask you what your favourite biscuit is, just say "Hobnob"!

£175,000,000,000 in debt and the Government produces glossy brochures!

Home from work. Cup of tea. Post (this being a non-strike day it seems). Blood pressure soars.

Why? Because this organisation - a waste of time and money if ever there was one - spent your and my money on producing a 16 page full colour glossy brochure featuring the joyous headline:

"Overcoming climate change together"

...and it's worse. The whole magazine - page after page - features examples of Government squandering our money:

  • The Yorkshire & The Humber Regional Grand Committee
  • Non-executive Directors of GOYH (of a civil service branch - why?)
  • A puff for European Structural Funds (aka our money filtered through Eurocrats and given back)
  • How "Faith Communities bring £300 million to the region" (and how much goes out to pay for the international superstructures of the various religions - damn sight more I suspect)
  • Loads of inconsequential money for the housing sector (not enough to make any difference but still millions)
  • Plus a double page spread featuring the money wasted by government in holding endless meetings to talk about climate change
...there's folk out there trying to keep businesses afloat, worrying about whether they'll have a job next week, stressed about paying the mortgage...and the Government Office wants to talk about how its talking about "climate change" and send out expensive glossy brochures. It makes me want to scream and shout and tear down their posh (and expensive) offices in Leeds.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Gerry Sutcliffes Guide to Regeneration: No 2

Seems that Gerry Sutcliffe, bumbling sports minister and MP for Bradford South has been caught out making up stories about developments in Bradford? Now Gerry has form on making sloppy, rather ignorant statements about development but this is his most strange comment - and he made it to Roger Owens, a highly respected former Morrisons director. To see Gerry placing his boots firmly in his mouth watch the first of these clips on North of Westminster's blog (another example of making stuff up btw). And then read the statement below from Tony Reeves, Bradford Council Chief Executive. What is the truth?

Tony Reeves, chief executive of Bradford Council, said: “There have categorically not been any discussions between Westfield and the Council about the Council buying back the Broadway site. The Council is asking Gerry Sutcliffe MP to clarify the statements that he has made today regarding the Westfield development in Bradford.”

Magic, religion & science - how close to the triumph of ignorance?

In his great masterpiece of cultural history, Religion & the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas - having explained some of the background to the rationality and common sense that led to the enlightenment, to the extension of scientific enquiry and to the rejection of superstition - made the observation that:

"If magic is defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effective means are not available, then we must recognise that no society will ever be free from it."

In Britain today we are in danger of taking one further step - using ineffective techniques when effective ones are available. And of continuing to believe things that are wholly wrong - just because some bloke tells you God doesn't agree with those facts. We place our faith in horoscopes, we lap up programmes on ghosts, we have our palms read...and worse we get ripped up by charlatans selling cod cures, psychic healing and other such nonsense. All this while we reject proven and effective medicine in favour of homeopathy (it's just water you know folks), faith healing and crystals.

And when public authorities begin to present such things without challenge or question, we really do have a problem.....

Yesterday, on the primetime within a programme intended to inform and educate - Countryfile - there was an item about the Pendle Witches. OK, it's Halloween, it's a good story and Pendle Hill is a fantastic place. But this item was ruined by this...

"Tim Moorhouse, a modern day medical herbalist may be able to shed some light on what else they may have been up to."

What, you ask am I on about. Well it's not that there was a herbalist on but that the viewer was told that his flu treatment was better than the medicine you get at the chemist. Them witches knew better you see and Mr Moorhouse made a nice little syrup from elderberries, spices and sugar like they would have made for a cold. Can we be clear now: on the one hand we have a nice fruit cordial not tested at all as a treatment for flu, while on the other hand we have treatments subject to careful clinical testing and a licensing process. I know which one I'd trust and it's got no connections to witches - Lancastrian or otherwise.

Having calmed down from this nonsense I stumbled across this:

"More than half of Britons believe beliefs such as creationism should be taught alongside evolution in school science lessons, a survey reveals."

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. So over half of parents believe that children should be taught a load of complete mumbo jumbo about creation - AS IF IT WERE SCIENCE! Reading on I hoped I would find that science teachers are not prepared to teach lies just so as not to upset a few religious nutters. So many thanks to Christine Blowers from the NUT for this:

"It would be wholly wrong to include creationism in the science curriculum. An overwhelming body of evidence, not assertion, supports the concept of evolution and therefore evolution must form the basis of the science curriculum"

All good except that her oppo from the ATL, Alison Ryan seems to this its OK!

"Science teachers could introduce creationism as a theory that some people hold, but that is not based on evidence."

Look Alison, science teaching is to teach kids about science - not to hold metaphysical discussions or to put the lies of creationism on anything like the same footing as evolution. Got it?

I do not want to live in a scared, ignorant and exploitative world. Yet with each unquestioning featuring of so-called alternative medicine, of clairvoyance, telepathy and other rubbish we move closer to that world.

Only science and scientific enquiry can free us from the tyranny of ignorance. It needs our support. And it needs to escape from politics too as the Salted Slug succinctly put today in his comment on Sir Liam Donaldson and swine flu. We also need fewer folk in power who support the merchants of woo - nutty apologists for homeopathy and medicinal astrology (whatever that is) like David Tredennick MP or sectarians who pass motions to try and force the teaching of creationism in schools.

Science is a force for good. It makes our lives better. It cures cancer. And it will save the planet. The "alternative" is not only rubbish but is often dangerous and damaging. We cannot allow ignorance to push science aside.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Ox-tail stew - with and without chocolate

First catch your ox....

...or else bob down to a good butcher and buy an oxtail (get that butcher to chop it up and remove any obvious lumps of fat).

To complete the stew you'll need:

Couple of onions
A leek
Teaspoonful each of Cumin, black onion seeds & caraway seeds
Bottle of white wine
2 cans of tomatoes
Some kind of fat or oil

(I'll get to the chocolate bit later)

Heat the oil or fat in a heavy casserole dish and sear the pieces of oxtail. Add the chopped onions and leeks plus the spices and salt. Cook for a few minutes until soft then cover with the white wine (you'll need the whole bottle I'm afraid). Bring to the boil and then turn down to a low heat and simmer uncovered until the wine has almost boiled away.

Add the tomatoes, bring back to the boil, cover and then transfer to a warm oven (c150 degrees). Cook for ages and ages (today's stew had 5 hours). Remove from the oven - I usually boil away some of the sauce to make it thicker and gloopier. Serve with big chunks of wholemeal bread, jacket spuds or mash.

The chocolate bit: for an interesting tweak stir in half a teaspoonful of cocoa powder before putting it in the over for the marathon 5 hour session. Don't be tempted to put more in as that small amount will give a great chocolaty aftertaste to the stew - any more and it'll be like dropping a bar of CDM in just chocolate and no stew!


There are many joys to having a large garden and this includes having mature forest trees - we have ash, rowan, willow, holly, yew, oak and beech plus an array of rhododendron. All magnificent, glorious and bringing pleasure.

Until autumn when the problems with trees hits in - leaves. Vast blankets of leaves. Leaves drifting into the front room. Leaves making the steps into a slide. Leaves clogging up the pond and the fountain. Everywhere you look - bloody leaves.

And those leaves can also bring about the second of the problems - neighbours. Not that I fall out with the neighbours you understand (and, with a large garden we have around 20) but they don't have the same happy relationship with our trees. The trees fill their gardens up with leaves, take away their light and, when high winds come, lead to worries about trees blowing over onto garages, cars or garden sheds. When Sir Anthony Steen got into trouble for his expenses, I sympathised with his tree problem - if not his source of payment!

I've only 50 or so trees - can you imagine just how many leaves 500 would generate! It would justify one of these rather than one of these.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

A reminder why the private sector is better than the state

In a recent post Tracey Cheetham takes to task a business that wrote to her regarding the delivery of wine and the postal strikes. Now I could take her to task over the position she took - business should use the post office because of its social mission. Sod whether or not that business gets a decent service from said business.

But what really struck me was the nature of the response Tracey received from the business - they'd taken the trouble to read the letter, consider the point she made, examine their business practices and respond accordingly. It looks likely that, through this action, that business has a friend and advocate (albeit not sufficiently for them to be named in Tracey's blog-post) - someone who'll buy some of that there wine!

Does Tracey think that a similar letter to a nationalised industry, a government department or one of those myriad agencies of the state that she loves so much would get such a positive caring response? Does she think that a random e-mail raising a slightly critical point to - say - the Royal Mail would get that kind of response? Somehow I very much doubt it - what Tracey would get (eventually) is a series of excuses wrapped around with a half-hearted apology. The person answering the letter doesn't give a monkeys whether Tracey is happy with the response or not -it's just another letter off the pile or e-mail from the box.

For me, Tracey's post is a timely reminder of why private business - and certainly small business - delivers so much better service than we get from the state. And the reason? Because - unlike the government - they care about having our business.

Help, help!!! Man the barricades!! Break out the ammunition!! The fascists are coming! The fascists are coming!!

Rather too gleefully for my liking the newspapers are reporting an increase in the level of support for the BNP following Nick Griffin’s train crash of an appearance on BBC Question Time. Says the Daily Telegraph:

“Support for the party has increased in the last month, a survey for The Daily Telegraph indicated. The findings will lead to accusations that the BBC’s decision to invite the far-Right MEP on to its flagship current affairs programme may have backfired by giving him a national platform.”

The headline could read:

BNP support soars following Griffin’s Question Time ordeal!”

After all the YouGov poll does show stated support rising by 50%! The fascists are on the rise! What can we do?

Well for starters we should look at the facts – after an unprecedented period of publicity with BNP-related items heading every news broadcast and leading on every front page; after weeks with Griffin’s delightful mug gazing statesmanlike from every magazine – what have we got

The BNP’s support has risen from 2% to 3% (that’s half what it got back in May).

Anthony Wells provides his usual sound assessment of the figures on his UK Polling Report blog and concludes:

“Despite all the hoohah and protests, despite the millions of people who watched Question Time, it doesn’t seem to have made any significant difference to how the public view them, or how likely they are to support them (or at least, not yet).”

So can we put an end to the panic, to the frantic flapping and look at the truth – there are 7% of the UK population who are very likely to vote for the BNP. Too many for sure but not enough to usher in the fascist state.

And instead of shouting and name-calling perhaps we need to make the case for a free, tolerant, and open society - one that doesn’t use the law to shut down debate.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Friday Fungus: Warm Porcini Salad

These fresh porcini - can't you just smell them - were photographed at Radda-in-Chianti during late September. Early days for the harvest in truth (and they may have been shipped in from further north in Italy or higher in the hills) but they are glorious mushrooms - almost without peer when it comes to versatility & flavour. With these (or a couple of them as they're bloody expensive to buy) we are going to make - as they say on the telly - a warm salad.

You'll need:

2 good sized fresh porcini
A couple of those chunky red shallots or a small red onion
Some thyme, some sage and rosemary
Olive oil
Salt & black pepper
Fresh leaves, tomatoes and cucumber for the salad

Slice the porcini - not too thinly as it loses bulk in the cooking, chop the shallots or onions and tear up the herbs.

Heat some oil in a heavy-bottomed pan (with a lid) and, when hot, soften the shallots. Add the porcini, herbs, salt and pepper, stir and cook for about 3 or 4 minutes. Cover the pan tightly and turn of the heat leaving to stand on the hob - will carry on softening and cooking.

Prepare a simple salad of leaves, cucumber and tomato. Dress a plate with a salad, uncover the cooked porcini and service on the salad with slices of ciabatta.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

SHOCK: Mayor of Doncaster complies with Labour Government advice on translation!

A huge furore greeted the announcement by the newly elected Mayor of Doncaster that translation services should be scrapped. This was proof positive that said mayor was either mad, stupid or racist - or possibly all three.

However, Peter Davies' proposals are, in truth, pretty close to the best practice advice from the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG):

“As our guidance on translation makes clear, we believe translation needs to be targeted and evidence-based; and provide a stepping stone to learning English. So we would expect areas to find out whether new migrants can speak English, only translate where they cannot and then make information packs bilingual or be clear about how people can learn English.”

Given that the implementation of the Mayor's policy is resulting in the redirection of funding to the provision of ESOL courses and support perhaps we should applaud Doncaster for being one of the few local councils to follow John Denham and the Labour Government's advice? Courses that, in a classic piece of dysfunctional government, Labour cut!

Is it time to take the Local Eduction Authority behind the barn and shoot it dead?

Last night Councillors on the Shipley Area Committee of Bradford Council received a brief report entitled: "Review of Education Services Consultation". The committee members were asked two questions:

1. What are the factors currently delaying our aim of improving the educational outcomes that will prepare Bradford's children and young people for an active and prosperous life?

2. What changes are required to make a difference?

Is the change we require the abolition of the Local Education Authority? Would giving schools control over admissions, transport, educational psychology and the support of governors make for a more responsive system? And would this not also remove the classic school excuse - blame it on the Council?

Update: Mike Chitty's comment below links to a brilliant take on the issue from Alvin Toffler - thanks Mike

And another Update: Balls has "signalled an end to intervention" in Bradford - we can cock it up all by ourselves now!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

In praise of idiots

The ancient Greeks used their word for ‘private’ as a derogatory term for someone who took no part in “public affairs”. That word ἴδιος (idios) is the root for our term for a stupid person – idiot. Today – in the Greek sense – most of us are idiots and I think this represents progress rather than a problem. That barely more that a third of Bingley Rural electors took the opportunity to vote last time I stood isn’t a disaster and those people are well aware of the purpose and value of voting - which I guess is why most of them don’t bother.

So let’s look at our typical idiots. Round here they’re probably in their thirties or forties, employed at a middle management level in business and industry. They worry about how well their kids do at school, they concern themselves with making their family safe, they grumble a bit about paying taxes but have enough cash afterwards for it not to really matter. Such folk are ordinary, hard-working and inherently conservative. But they also see little or no link between the act of voting in a politician from one party or another and the significant things in their lives.

To the political classes – and especially those on the left – this apathy is a terrible thing – to the point of demanding compulsory voting. The process of the election sits at the heart of our polity, voting defines us rather than the exercise of choice or liberty. As our good friends at the Guardian put it back in 2004 following one or other survey:

“… most people do not know who their MP is. Most are also mainly ignorant about basic political facts. Just one in seven considers themselves to be politically active. Only 51% say they would vote in a general election, and only half of all potential voters say they are interested in politics. Just 27% have trust in politicians generally (and this in one of the least corrupt and most transparent political systems on the planet). The media, local councils and business are all seen as more important than Westminster and the prime minister. For most people, politics is something that is done by and for others, in a system with which the majority feel little connection.”

Now the good left-wing liberals at the Guardian think this grumpiness, this disengagement, this disinterest is a problem. And that’s where I disagree – the core consideration is the extent to which we are able to live as Greek idiots. Quietly, privately, without bothering our neighbours with our problems – and when such people want change they will get up from their armchairs, walk away from the telly and vote. The idea that not being bothered with voting most of the time makes them bad people is a misplaced idea – they are the good folk.

Above all we should listen quietly to what this “apathy” calls for – it is less bothersome, less interfering, less hectoring and more effective government. Such people want government to be conducted at their level not to be the province of pompous politicians with overblown and lying rhetoric. And they want the language of common sense, freedom, liberty and choice to push away the elitist exclusivity of modern bureaucratic government.

Above all today’s idiots want to be left alone to live their lives as they choose. For me that’s the essence of politics – I praise these idiots and applaud their apathy.

Monday, 19 October 2009

A little rant: I'm in favour of cycling but....


1. Ride in the road when there's cycle lane
2. Go the wrong way up a one way street
3. Bob on and off the pavement regardless of pedestrians
4. Jump red lights
5. Turn across the road without signalling
6. Weave in and out of semi-stationery traffic
7. Ride on the pavement and in pedestrian areas
8. Allow huge queues of traffic to build up behind you and not pull over.

...and when some poor driver has nearly killed you because of your stupidity (bloke who crossed in front of me on red today) why do you think it's OK to shout and swear, make rude gestures and generally act like an idiot? Have you never considered that you'd get a little more respect and consideration if you didn't behave as if the rules of the road were invented for others.

Keep on cycling but for god sake stop trying to pretend you're better than those of us in cars. You're not.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Is government futile? Two premises of government defined.

It’s not often that I’m reminded of this truth – and never before by someone claiming to be a Liberal Democrat!

The first premise of government is that we the people are unable to organise our lives by ourselves. We can’t be trusted not to mess up. Or worse we’ll commit dire crimes such as not recycling, educating our own children or eating the wrong combination of green stuff. But we’re good at looking out for ourselves – its human nature, instinctive, visceral – we don’t need a government to do it for us.

Government organises our lives in the social interests of the rulers not the ruled

The second premise of government is that markets don’t work. We cannot be allowed to trade free from intervention, from rules and from paying the bureaucrat his slice for managing such intervention and rule-making. Despite the fact that we have proof that markets work – under any condition.

Government intervenes with economic behaviour to the economic benefit of the rulers not the ruled.

I am prepared to accept government only under the conditions where the rulers and the ruled are coterminous. Under all other conditions it is my duty to seek to change it so as to achieve such conditions. I must never defend the actions of government just because they accord with my interests – those actions must accord with the interests of all.

BNP: can we get a little perspective please!

To read the comments of some you would think we were in imminent danger of the BNP winning hundreds of seats across the country, of fascists sweeping to power in town halls and of assorted racists strutting their stuff on the Andrew Marr Show every Sunday morning. And all because the BBC, in its bumbling, pinko-liberal way, has decided that Nick Griffin, the BNP's rather pompous and podgy leader should appear on Question Time.

Now this decision by the BBC is pretty sound from the producers perspective - think of the publicity for a rather fading format! Following on from the "expenses" editon of the show, this will get enormous attention and will increase the show's audience. Definitely a win - and, as I've said before, the right decision.

So why all the sound and fury - from Peter Hain, Alan Johnson and other voices from the left? Why the ongoing (and self-righteous) "no platform" arguments? And why the scare stories about the prospect of the BNP winning? Perhaps - I don't know - it suits the left politically to adopt such a position? Probably, it's because they're stupid.

So here's some perspective on the BNP. Since they swept into power (getting significantly less that 10% of the vote nationally and barely 10% in Yorkshire and the North West where the damn silly electoral system we have for European elections got them two MEPs) there have been 123 local council by-elections in Great Britain spread across the whole country. And the BNP?

1. Of the 123 local by-elections the BNP have contested just 32 - fewer than UKIP (34) and fewer than the Greens (39). They did not win a single one of these contests - the Greens won three (Brighton, Scarborough and Lancaster) and UKIP won three (Newcastle-under-Lyme, Cambridgeshire).

2. The BNP got more than 10% of the vote in 19 contests, more than 20% in just 6 and more than 30% in just one (a rather odd by election in Boston following the disqualification of the new Conservative Councillor - the first in this traditional Labour ward)

3. Even in places like Ashfield, North West Leicestershire and Broxtowe where the BNP seems well organised and has won elections, the party has failed to contest seats and lost a seat it was defending in Brinsley near Nottingham

There is no place for complacency in campaigning - there remains a solid basis of support for the BNP and all the laws, court cases and stern lectures won't change this fact. But we need to challenge the BNP rather than push them back once again onto the forums, into the pubs and onto the streets. But a little perspective might not go amiss!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Pitstop on the road trip to Copenhagen. Truth, lies and climate change.

Like 99% of bloggers I ignored the call to post about climate change on the 15th October. Mostly because the whole climate change & global warming "debate" (if it can be characterised as such) has become more akin to some millenarian cult rather than an informed response to scientific enquiry. Just search the phrase "...if we don't act now on climate change" and you'll find endless doomladen scenarios - some from organisations with a specific financial interest in the campaign and other from ordinary people frightened by the apocalyptic predictions of the pundits.

I am sceptical about all this campaigning - not because I wish to deny the self-evident fact of climate change but because of the hubris and the deliberate use of questionable facts to promote one or other favoured outcome. And those who claim there is no climate change are just as bad - as anyone who has read Christopher Booker's Sunday Telegraph column will know!

Before looking at the options facing "the planet" (like the planet gives a monkeys) we should start by disconnecting a great deal of supposed environmental outcomes from the climate change discussion - such as climate change meaning more hurricanes, for example. We should concentrate on the incontrovertible rather than the challengable.

For me there are three options:

1. Run about like chicken licken telling everyone we're all doomed, that whatever the latest boondoggle it is the "last chance" to respond to climate change and that anyone who questions the wisdom should be treated in a manner akin to 17th Century witches (albeit, and in a very modern way, stopping short of burning).

2. Deny the whole climate change argument - it's just a big scam and an excuse for more big government and the introduction of socialism on the back of "saving the planet" (or, if you're Booker, it's all part of the Great European Conspiracy to destroy democracy).

3. Do what humans have always done - respond to changes in our environment by adapting what we do, through technology and by applying our highly developed brains to the problems around us. This doesn't require "co-ordinated international action" or a new raft of regulatory constraints on behaviour. And it does not require more Government just giving ordinary people the incentive to change behaviour.

So let's not waste our time (and other people's money) gathering in Copenhagen to discuss climate change - it's not there that we will find the answers. Let's stop spending millions of "climate change strategies" resourced with expensive officers paid for with taxpayers money. And let's stop the hectoring of ordinary people over their supposed environmental misdeeds.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Friday Fungus: why we like mushrooms

A non-mushroom eater (all the more for me!) asked me why we eat mushrooms. Especially when so many are either unpleasant to eat or down right poisonous. Unfortunately I don't know - except to show you the rather overexposed photo above taken at the grocers at Radda-in-Chianti. Imagine our hunter gatherer ancestors, wandering around central Italy when there it is - a great fat, brown pugeant porcini mushroom. Something as plump as that has to be food, doesn't it? And some of the older ceps have been nibbled by small animals (or even by the hairy wild pig we've been chasing) and we take a risk by seeing if it kills the dog! It doesn't and the rest is history.

Having tried the big plump porcini and found them good, our ancestor settled down (don't want to stray too far from the place where those glorious fungi grow) and tamed the pig. Which gave a great opportunity to test out all those other mushrooms growing in the forests - if they don't kill the pig we can eat them and if they taste good we eat them again! And the pig - or maybe the dog - turned up another joy by rootling up the truffle.

In truth fungi are an important part of the diet for many mammals:

"It's clear that fungi are a dominant food item for many species of small mammals, particularly among squirrels, mice, and voles, and, in Australia, among several groups of small marsupials, such as bettongs, potoroos, and rat-kangaroos. Some of the more notable fungivorous mammals include the California red-backed vole (Clethrionomys californicus) and the northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus), for whom over half their diet is from hypogeous fungi, and the long-footed potoroo* (Potorous longipes), who's diet is over 90% fungi." (from Mycoweb)

So mammals eat mushrooms and we're mammals - QED! And mushrooms are not without their nutritional value either (although, as the saying goes, should be consumed as part of a balanced diet - we aren't all potoroos!).

Thursday, 15 October 2009

20 reasons why we get the MPs we deserve.

Have you ever:

1. Inflated an insurance claim
2. Claimed expenses for something you would have paid for regardless
3. Not owned up to being undercharged
4. Purchased smuggled booze or fags
5. Bought something you know (or suspect) was stolen
6. Watched a bootleg video
7. Lifted a top shelf magazine (boys only) or some sweets
8. Claimed back VAT on a non-business purchase
9. Paid for goods or services in cash to avoid VAT
10. Not declared cash earnings
11. Raised a false complaint just to get a refund
12. Taken something from your work for personal use
13. Had a day off when you weren't sick
14. Fiddled an hour or two on a time sheet
15. Attended to private matters on work time
16. Dodged a bus or train fare
17. Charged a client for more time than was spent on his business
18. Asked a taxi driver or restaurant for an inflated receipt
19. Made up a family or personal problem to get time off
20. Taken towels or a dressing gown from an hotel

I could go on with this list for some while but I think the point is made. If you've done some of these things do you really believe that - given the opportunity to fiddle that our MPs had - you wouldn't have fiddled? Thought so!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A little flavour of West Africa made simple for us lazy white folk!

My wife spent her young childhood in West Africa - firstly in Sierra Leone and subsequently in the delta area of Nigeria. Now the memories of someone who left the continent for England at the age of seven are very different to those of older folk. And Kathryn's memories are of small things - of the fence that grew into a hedge, the wild cat on the suitcase, the "bad snake" in the hotel room, and of floating down the river on a lilo to Abraka - then a small little town now a bustling university city! Among these memories are those of the cook pounding groundnuts (rather like the boy in this picture) and killing chickens!

From this West African experience comes this recipe for Groundnut Stew. It's no more a real African dish than my mum's lovely curry is an authentic South Asian experience! But it is really easy to make and quite delicious.

Groundnut Stew


11/2 lbs of dead animal cubed or chopped (I use shin beef but any good beef, mutton or goat will do)
One large onion (roughly chopped)
2 oz butter (or equivalent in vegetable oil)
Couple of teaspoons mixed up ground cumin & coriander (optional)
Salt & ground black pepper
2 pts stock (I tend to use a good beef stock cube but any rich meat stock will work fine)
2 or 3 heaped tablespoons coarse peanut butter (you can of course get your ground nuts and pound them into an oily paste & mix with ghee if you prefer but peanut butter is quicker!)

Heat the oil and fry the onions until soft. Add the meat and seal. Add salt, pepper, cumin & coriander and mix well. Cover with the stock and simmer for about an hour or so (until the meat is tender - for some meat this can take longer of course). Make sure there is plenty of liquid - you may want to add a little more stock.

Mix in the peanut butter thoroughly and heat through. Serve with freshly boiled white rice or in bowls with bread or nachos.



The broken society revisited (plus a little on big government)

Since Julian Dobson has smothered me with kind words and references to West Ham winning the world cup it would be churlish to return to the debate. However, I am nothing if not a churl!

It seems to me that we are – as we often do in these debates – tearing down carefully constructed straw men. There are a few things that should be said to develop the thesis on the ‘broken society’ and the significance of Government as a factor in this thesis. But first I should discuss what we mean by “broken society” – it is after all a loaded term.

I have a vacuum cleaner sat under my stairs. It is broken but can be repaired. Perhaps this is what we mean by “broken” in this context. I certainly hope we don’t mean “broken” in the manner of a broken glass – beyond the possibility of repair! To continue the vacuum cleaner metaphor, we have some parts of our society that are not working properly and those broken parts affect how well the whole operates – to the point maybe of threatening its viability.

I would also like to remember what one person said on the subject of society:

“I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”

A great deal of rubbish has been said about what this means but, in the context of government, it defines a very important point in the debate. Government – whatever its intent – is not a neutral player, a benign agent. And my biggest worry is that the delivery of social and welfare services directly through the coercive agency of taxation affects incentives – society’s problems become somebody else’s problem – the surest way to vanish something as Douglas Adams observed.

Government squeezes out individual social initiative by giving people the incentive to disengage

The next element of Julian’s post relates to myth-making (hence the West Ham references). Now leaving aside the contribution of mythopoeia to human joy and understanding – I am concerned not to confuse longitudinal study with the creation of myth. My argument wasn’t that the late 1960s and early 1970s represented some sort of mythic shangri la of social condition but that, after a long period of social stability, certain indicators of social breakdown (crime, worklessness, etc.) began to increase dramatically at that point. I’m certainly not suggesting we return to a time when homosexuality was barely tolerated, when racism was so ingrained we hardly blinked at language that would get you fired today and where women in senior positions were so unusual as to be borderline weird!

However, the telling of stories is an integral aspect of how we understand the world in which we live – those stories provide empathy, understanding and appreciation to the dry, dusty facts & figures. But stories are dangerous since they can also use emotion to mislead and misdirect – the construction of socialism and fascism is founded on the preference for the qualitative over the quantitative in our search for understanding.

The problem with Government is that 30 years of relentless pressure (redoubled in the past ten years) on these social problems and challenges have resulted not in the end of poverty, the elimination of crime or the banishing of unemployment but in these problems becoming more intractable, a permanent feature of our society’s landscape. Despite directing one pound in every ten we earn to the relief of poverty throughout that period, there is no sign of poverty’s elimination.

The big government discussion isn’t about the aims – it is an observation that decades of bureaucratic initiative (if that isn’t an oxymoron) have failed. David Cameron quite rightly seeks an alternative – perhaps looking to that new age of mutuality and private initiative presaged in David Beito et al’s The Voluntary City.

I close with two quotes from the great Ronald Reagan:

The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”


I know in my heart that man is good.That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there's purpose and worth to each and every life.

It is this sentiment that informs my thinking rather than a narrow, selfish perspective. Given the right incentives and the means people will respond to their neighbour’s suffering – but so long as governments proclaim a misplaced capability to solve the problems we will not grasp any incentive and respond.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Forget the rhetoric - the fact's say we have a shattered society. Accept the truth and ask what we should do.

Julian Dobson looks at the manner in which the tragedy of Fiona Pilkington has been used by pundits and politicians to provide the basis of arguments in support of particular policies or positions. And Julian focuses on the ‘Broken Britain’ analysis that informs much of the current Conservative leadership’s thinking on social and welfare policies.

Julian Dobson’s analysis is right is one crucial respect – using the specific to make judgements about the general is a dangerous activity in any field and especially in the field of policy-making. Yet this is the default position for much research in social policy – show me an MA dissertation in sociology or social policy that has a quantitative basis and its a rare exception! But, grumbles about the basis for policy-making aside, Julian’s “it’s not broken” argument doesn’t bear much scrutiny – unless of course you take the narrow and rather partisan starting point of 1997.

It seems to me that Ian Duncan Smith’s argument doesn’t solely reflect the failings of the current labour Government but represents a far wider critique of the welfare state as it evolved from the early 1970s to the present day. And Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice makes a compelling case – even for those of us who worry about the muscular Christianity that underlies much of the motivation for those doing that research.

On crime, indictable offences known to the police have risen from around 20/1000 population in 1970 to almost 100/1000 population today. By anyone’s assessment that is a major shift – there is a great deal more crime today than when Julian and I were young! (It is interesting to note that over the same period that crime has increased five-fold the prison population has merely doubled). (source: Trends in UK Statistics since 1900, House of Commons Library)

In the case of male economic activity we see the same trend – roughly a fifth of the male working age population is not economically active today compared to only a tenth back in 1971. There is a great deal more unemployment – systemic, intergenerational worklessness – than there was when Julian and I were young.

I could go on I’m sure and show how levels of teenage pregnancy, single parenthood, divorce, abortion and substance abuse have risen considerably since the 1970s. What we should conclude is that that prescription of new Labour – the promise of New Deal, Sure Start and “Neighbourhood Renewal”- has not resolved the issue. Nor have ASBOs, curfew orders, CCTV cameras, DNA databases or the rest of the surveillance state.It may not be worse but for sure it isn’t better.

Last Friday an innocent, well-brought up young man was kicked nearly to death in a Northern town – it doesn’t matter where this happened but I ask just one question. Should we treat that incident as a single, isolated case? Should we deal with its tragic consequences as one event unconnected with other events on the same Friday elsewhere in England? Should we carry on suggesting that such a young man was just in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Or should we conclude that – along with a legion of other assaults, insults, intimidation, bullying and dissolution – we really do have a broken society. And until we address the challenge this poses – to instill that sense of social responsibility, to remake good manners, to encourage self-discipline, to challenge bullying and exploitation – until we let the good values of the majority be enforced, we will continue to read of tragedies like Fiona Pilkington, of cruelties like the killing of Baby P and of the senseless injury to young men who committed the terrible crime of going out for a Friday night drink with their mates.

We can no longer afford to trim and parse, to excuse and explain the failings of our society – it really is a mess. It’s probably broken. And we certainly can’t afford to claim that there is no problem – or not the problem the statistics describe. We can’t go on as we are now with lives destroyed, families ruined and children abused – all because we can’t face up to the need for people to be responsible and our continuing failure to enforce such responsibility.

Sorry markets folk this is not the most important day in your history - the Government have set up a committee, that's all!

Today the National Association of British Market Authorities (NABMA) has been getting all frothy and excited over the reaction of the Government to the recent report from the Communities and Local Government Select Committee into traditional markets. Afficionados of The View from Cullingworth will know that I blogged on this report just following its publication in July. And the main substance of my response was this:

“There was…too much producer interest apparent - the market traders' association's desire to maintain their business through regulation rather than through competition and a stream of worthies from local government arguing for different types of new regulation and control. And I could scream at the prospect of a "national strategy" for markets under the malign aegis of the Department for Communities & Local Government.”

The Government’s response seems to take just the view expressed by the committee – the way to get better markets is to set up a new committee and a special interest group somewhere in the bowels of DCLG - replete with producer interests and selected local councillors:

“The Government will champion the interests of all markets with a new body that will bring together key government departments, representatives from the retail markets industry and the Local Government Association. Communities and Local Government will lead the group and assume the strategic lead for markets across Government.”

So there you go – brilliant! Markets are saved and protected by swift Government action. I think not, but the producer interests at NABMA and the Retail Markets Alliance seem to think this is the biggest and most important day in the history of our municipal and street markets.

All I would ask is:

1. Why no encouragement for non-municipal models of delivery?
2. How does having 2 or 3 meetings a year constitute “championing” markets?
3. Is there an agenda of real actions to support markets?

But above all, where are the proposals to stop supermarkets killing markets through predatory pricing and the planning changes needed to protect town centres?

Friday, 9 October 2009

Friday Fungus: Truffles and why the Duke must be patient!

There are a load of myths about truffles - not least that the white truffle can't be cultivated. This picture from somewhere near San Miniato in Tuscany is a deliberately planted truffle wood. And as you drive through the area around San Miniato you will see quite a few of these truffle orchards - some with hazel, some with oak and most with poplar.

And the black truffle associated with France and with Piedmont has been cultivated for hundreds of years - and has been successfully transplanted to North America and to Australia. Plus of course to the UK. And in a newsworthy (and so far unsuccessful) way to Sandringham. It seems that the Duke of Edinburgh's lovingly planted truffle impregnated oak trees have so far failed to produce a truffle - or at least one that the skill of a Lagotto Romagnolo hound can find. The Duke will persevere - his supplier Truffles UK says up to eight years is need for the truffles to emerge, so there's time to go yet!

And let's be clear. Truffles have an intense, powerful mushroom flavour that can turn ordinary cucina povera into the food of the great. A few scrapings of white truffle into your spaghetti carbonara and it is transformed. And added to that classic Tuscan ribollita soup and - as I discovered here - you have a truly great dish.

So the good Duke - and anyone else setting out to cultivate truffles - needs to be patient. It's worth the wait!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Why three days in Doncaster hasn't put me off having an elected mayor in Bradford!

I have spent that last three days as an "accredited member peer" in Doncaster - a really interesting place and a fascinating council! And, as I'm sure you also know, Doncaster has a directly elected executive mayor. Furthermore many of you will also know that - after eight years of a Labour mayor (following 30-odd years of Labour control) - the good folk of Doncaster elected Peter Davies standing as an English Democrat as their mayor.

Experiencing from within the Council the effect of this surprise has been particularly interesting. The press coverage of Mayor Davies has focused on his less-than-liberal views but little of no attention has gone to what the new mayor is actually trying to do. And the processes involved in developing strategies and programmes that respond to Mayor Davies' agenda (while at the same time recognising that he has no party, that Labour remains the largest political group on the council and that there are wider regional or national agendas to take account of as well).

Now those who oppose elected mayors cite election results such as this one, the election of H'angus the Monkey in Hartlepool (who is now in his third term of office - amazing what free bananas can do) and the chaos that is politics in Stoke as arguments against elected mayors. The relatively successful mayoral systems in Bedford (where there's a mayoral by-election following the death of that mayor), Newham and North Tyneside seem to get less interest or attention.

For me though - and this comes at a time when Bradford Council is consulting on whether to move to a directly elected mayor or for councillors to elect a leader and cabinet for four years - elected mayors provide a real opportunitiy for new, independent and better directed local leadership. But my dear colleagues who lead the main Bradford parties are all firmly opposed to having an elected mayor. For the record here's my take on those colleagues views:

1. Opposition from many Conservatives isn't about the principle (will an elected mayor lead to better governance in Bradford and/or a more effective council) but is about a feeling that we wouldn't win! As Conservative's we're supposed to be sceptical not cynical! It's also party policy as far as I know!

2. Those who talk about the "root of the problem" not being addressed (like Bradford's Liberal Democrat leader) fail to articulate what that problem might be. Here's a guess: assuming it's not a Liberal Democrat mayor, that party would lose much of its ability to hold much larger parties to ransom and to play one side off against another. They would need to begin to engage positively in local politics.

3. Apparently the local Labour party believe that a mayor isn't right for Bradford - what on earth does that mean? Most often it is suggested that having a mayor would exclude the Asian community - as if we're likely to get an Asian council leader in the foreseeable future! Electing a mayor reduces the Labour Party's ability (and other parties for that matter) to use ethnicity and the politics of faith in manipulating support from these communities - surely that would be a good thing? Unless you're just interested in power!

Even having seen up close the impact of a mayoral system in Doncaster, I still think it has great merits. Above all elected mayors allow for independent candidates to get elected and, even from the main parties, reduce the power of party dictat and the whip. And it is a far better system than electing a leader and cabinet for four years - that's much the same (although Bradford's Liberal Democrat leader clearly hasn't read the policy) as electing a mayor directly. Except less democratic and less transparent.

Bring it on in Bradford!!

Monday, 5 October 2009

A couple of thoughts from somewhere other than Manchester - on what matters and mental illness

I'm sat in the Earl of Doncaster Hotel (a fine art deco building in Donny) and have decided - nothing better to do you see - to post a couple of comments about politics that aren't informed by the hothouse of a party conference.

The first thought relates to the point at which the rather occult discussions around politics that we all know and love actually impinge on the public consciousness. As conceited politicians, wannabe politicians, hangers-on and anoraks we tend to assume that everyone out there takes the same degree of interest in politics and - more importantly - sees the same things as important. I'm pretty sure this isn't true - ordinary folk care not one jot about the niceties of governance, the endless titttle-tattle of political gossip or the semantic deconstruction of the party leader's speech. Such people - and that's most out there - see the party conferences as needless posing rather than as serving any useful purpose. But they also get a feel for politics from the coverage - not the content but the body language, the questions asked of political leaders and the confidence with which the leaders present their great thoughts.

What we see, hear and feel about the conferences is far more important than the content of speeches, the decisions made or the who's up and who's down gossip.

The second thought more significant. Yet again we have seen the manner in which, as a society, we stigmatise mental illness. I don't like Gordon Brown, he's a self-important, bullying and rather nasty man. But if he has a mental illness and is taking medication to manage that illness he is no different to other politicians - or indeed anyone else - taking pills to control a heart condition, an over-active thyroid or chronic arthritis. Yet we act as if Gordon being a little depressed is a big deal. It's not so long as he faces up to it and gets treatment. But of course we're assured he isn't ill and doesn't need pills.

Is it not time to start changing how we view mental illness - to address the discrimination against the mentally ill in the same way we have done for women, gays and the disabled?

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Look, you puritans, students want to have some fun - and a drink!

Now I know he has just packed his precious daughter off to college but this article by Max Davidson in the Sunday Telegraph is truly, unutterably awful. It's inaccurate, stigmatises students, assumes they're all drunken louts and credits none of them with a modicum of common.

Davidson is wrong. The students I know are pleasant, hard-working, interested and yes, occasionally they get drunk and have a good time. Get used Max.

Opinion polls and the science of the dead cat bounce

There appear to be different opinions about the veracity or otherwise of claims that deceased felines rebound when dropped from a great height. The evidence of large amounts of force on animals suggests more squish than bounce – at least judging from the too frequent roadside evidence. It seems to me however that the propensity for bounce from our dead moggy depends on these factors:

A. Condition of the dead cat
B. Height from which the dead cat falls
C. Nature of the surface below the falling pussy

Using a recent suggested “dead cat bounce” from UK politics let’s examine whether the bounce is real or an illusion. The example is a daily tracking opinion poll on 30th September 2009 (from YouGov) that showed the Conservative lead over Labour down to just 7 percentage points. Coming during Labour’s annual gathering this poll resulted in some excitable comment from Labour supporters and the suggestion (from some perhaps more rightwardly inclined) that even dead cats bounce when dropped from a great height!

Condition of the dead cat. In this case the dead cat is the Labour Party. To be fair the cat’s condition could be quite a lot worse (indeed some are insisting that there are signs of life in the old mog yet) and I doubt whether rigor mortis has set in. So: a) Definitely dead; b) Died recently but no longer warm

Height from which the dead cat has fallen. The highest point for Labour’s opinion poll rating since 2005 was 44% in a YouGov Poll for Channel 4 in September 2007. The poll reported above with a 7 point lead put Labour on 30% and the lowest rating they have received (ignoring the 19% achieved in the real European election) is 23% in a ComRes poll for the Independent only three days earlier on 27th September 2009. A long way down!

Nature of the receiving surface. The fall is I surmise onto the pliant surface of the media as a proxy for the rather rougher and tougher surface of public opinion in general. It seems to me a little like those weird spongy surfaces we find under swings and roundabouts these days. As soon as one lot are down the media switches to talking down the other lot in a frantic and often purile attempt at balance. These surfaces are designed for kids to bounce so we have to conclude that our dead cat will bounce too!

So to conclude:

1. The Labour Party is a cold dead cat but not yet stiff
2. The Party fell a long way – 48% of the political slippery pole’s height
3. The spongy surface of the media (plus wall-to-wall coverage) provided bounce

Dead cats do bounce (ceteris paribus) – and recent polls bear this out as Labour’s poll rating falls back again!

Saturday, 3 October 2009

These sheep are forgiven for waking me up every morning for the past week!

These sheep are guilty of waking me up every other morning for the past ten days - half of them have bells round their necks and the clunking and baa-ing at five in the morning wasn't all that cheering. But I've forgiven the sheep as their milk contributed to the cheese from these people - Pinzani. Some of the very best pecorino and ricotta you'll ever taste including one infused with white truffle that I'll speak of later.

The older pecorino is almost as hard as a Parmesan and can be used as a substitute whereas the younger ones make great cheese on toast, are fantastic as a starter with olives or can be used in cooking as an alternative to cheeses like Emmenthal, Gouda or Edam. And the ricotta? Make a cheesecake. Or better still a cheese & truffle souffle!