Thursday, 31 December 2009

Margaret Eaton DBE - you'll not find a better local councillor anywhere.

Margaret Eaton is a great local councillor an deserves being made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). Not just because she has argued long and hard at every level for the interests of local government - for which she has been awarded this thoroughly deserved honour - but above all because she never forgets the basics of the job. The people in Bingley Rural who she is elected to serve.

Margaret will emerge from some high level pow-wow with ministers and top civil servants and do I hear what they discuss? No, because the first thing on Margaret's mind is the traffic problem outside Nab Wood School, the landfill in Cullingworth or the problem with some resident or other's bin collection, council tax benefit or housing repairs.

A while ago I wrote this about the job of the local councillor:

"What villagers here desire is a little bit of response from the council, the health service, the police, the Environment Agency and, for that matter, all the myriad other bureaucratic institutions that blight the lives of ordinary folk. And because they don't get that attention most of the time, the councillor's job is to argue, insist, cajole, badger, shout and generally get up the noses of local officialdom in the hope that they will actually listen to local people and act on what they hear."

That is what Margaret does best.

Update: In the Dissolution Honours, Margaret has been made a peer - this makes her the only proper Baroness I know and is a fantastic achievement entirely deserved. And the words above still stand.


Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Third thoughts on a limited understanding of "the progressive": the dark future


In exploring the “progressive” idea (here and here) I have stumbled upon two important aspects of the concept:

1. Progressive thought places individual rights below group rights – the rejection of individualism is central. Thus the “left” (if that is synonymous with “progressive”) place the interests of the group – however defined – above the interests of individual members of the group.

2. Since this idea runs counter to a liberal view there are considerable grounds for confusion over what are thought to be universal ideas – non-discrimination, choice and rights. Put simply the liberal places these rights with the individual whereas the progressive places them with the group.

Although I am clearly on the liberal side of the fence, it is important to understand this distinction from the progressive viewpoint. Policy choices by the left are directed to groups not to individuals – we are defined by the groups to which we belong (whether or not we have a choice in so belonging). Thus progressives see nothing wrong with granting specific privileges to a given group – as is the case, for example, with trade unions. The rights granted to unions by “progressive” governments only adhere to the union as a group – individuals do not have those rights as individuals only as members of a union.

Of course the left quite correctly point out that other (not progressive) governments have granted special privileges to businesses – indeed the Progressive movement in California grew from the corruption of regular party politics by business interests (and in particular the Southern Pacific Railway). This problem – the corruption of representative government by group interests – was not addressed by the anti-individualist progressive idea. One collection of groups – business, landowners, commercial guilds – was replaced by another collection of groups – trade unions, the muckraking media and academics: the corruption of representative government continued. The system of competing interests that we see in the polarised US and UK polities (and less clearly in European regimes) is profoundly illiberal largely because the resistance to powerful groups has been to create other powerful groups to capture political parties – or in the case of the Labour Party for the powerful group to establish a party to serve its interests.

So where are we headed with all this? Given that group politics pervade all the main political parties – certainly in the USA and UK – the likelihood is that the granting of rights to groups - the progressive approach – will continue because those groups are so powerful. Despite Adam Smith’s warning, greater credence is still given to the comments of “business leaders” and we are still expected to view the remarks of Brendon Barber, the TUC boss, as representing the views of “workers”. And to this classic division we have now added faith leaders, community leaders, the spokesmen of NGOs like Oxfam, Shelter or Greenpeace, and the vast “quangocracy”.

This corporate state – where policy discussion is mediated through interest groups with access to the rulers and where communication with the wider populace is done through granting privileged access to selected speakers in those interest groups, in the media and through the structures of political organisation. The “progressive” idea – founded in great hope at the improvement of man and man’s organisation – has become a monster. The individual has no power any more to say: “no, I don’t want to do that.” That right does not belong to him but to the group he belongs with – who have of course negotiated a “compromise” with the rulers.

Of course we remain mostly free – we don’t yet have to sign in every morning – but with each passing year that freedom becomes more curtailed. Most importantly, our economic freedom is undermined by our being more and more dependent on the state – for roughly a third of the population this is absolute since they either work for the government or are reliant on government handouts.

So a glimpse at the possible future. In his monumental “History of Government”, Finer used the Greek word oikos to describe ancient world governments. Oikos means “the household” which for the Greeks meant family under a male head including slaves and other dependents. We are headed back towards such a polity – where we are free in our daily actions within the constraints placed on that freedom by the government and its advisors. And the product of our labour belongs not to us but to the group and to the state – not through confiscation but through a combination of taxation and benefit dependency. It may even be the case that those out of work will be directed toward “socially useful” labour – a precursor of which we see in Labour’s “Future Jobs Fund”. Future jobs are not wealth creating but have a social purpose paid for either through taxation or (less likely) through philanthropy.

The idea of Liberty has always struggled next to the powerful group interests that dominate our political systems – today we are granted superficial freedoms while the real rights to free speech, free assembly, free movement and free trade are eroded in the interests of “fairness”, “security”, “society” or “community”. Were it not for my anger at this I would like Cincinnatus, return to my plough.


Wednesday Whimsy: a glimpse back as the sun sets on the first decade of the third millennium

The picture above was taken on the island of Bryher – close to the most westerly point of England – and coming across it again set me to thinking about the end of a decade. What follows are a few whimsical thoughts on the past ten years – not a list of good or bad. Not a set of achievements nor a load of political gripes and grumbles – others will do that so much better than I ever will. In a way they are first few things that come to mind about the ten years since the millennium. So – as they say – in no particular order!

1. That Kick! England winning the Rugby World Cup – against Australia with the last kick of the game. Absolutely priceless!

2. Watching from the Bradford Alhambra’s “Gods Bar” as Provincial House was blown up – paving the way for what will be one of the best public spaces anywhere in England

3. Moving into The Nook and having the central heating break down – six days later - on Christmas Eve (Ralph, now retired plumbing genius, came out and fixed it)

4. Rocky, next door’s bantam cock who would fight anyone or anything – but sadly lost his last bout to the fox

5. My wife’s cousin Maurice winning the Mott Medal for Physics – read the citation and understood one word in ten! (And he’s now an FRS too!)

6. Getting my Masters degree – never thought I’d have a degree with the word “science” anywhere near it!

7. Jethro being the first Bradford Grammar School pupil to get a Gold Medal in the Royal Society of Chemistry “Olympiad”

8. Going to my first ever game at Old TraffordTevez scores! Manchester United 0 West Ham United 1. Magnificant!

9. Presenting Bradford’s case to UECA – and getting the International Markets Festival for the City (worth the hardship of a trip to Rome)

10. Seeing Nabucco at the Arena di Verona – with Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate coming just after the sun had set. I cried my eyes out.

There were bad things during the decade –
I didn’t get to be an MP (although I halved Anne Cryer’s majority), my wife lost her job of thirty years and we have had Gordon Brown as prime minister. But I prefer to focus on the positive and on the fact that as was once said: things can only get better!


Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Back Kiwi - and get cats in the Houses of Parliament

Did you ever wonder why we are so badly governed? I know the answer….

…there are no cats in the House of Commons.

Instead this is the arrangement:

“The Commission has no plans to introduce a cat. The House Service includes a qualified pest controller, who monitors and controls pests on the parliamentary estate using humane and effective methods. In addition, an independent expert is employed to audit and advise on pest control, and inspections of catering areas are undertaken by the local council. The clear advice we have is that all effective measures possible are being taken, but that in a building such as the Palace, pests such as mice can only be controlled rather than eradicated.”

I’m sorry – get cats. They’re cheaper, friendlier, more cuddly and definitely civilising. And are recognised the world over as “independent experts” on pest control.

Second thoughts on a limited understanding of "the progressive"


It is clear that, when the left use the term “progressive” it has a different meaning from the meaning most people attach to the idea of “progress” – for the left “progressive” is another way of describing the idea that man can be improved. Clearly this idea of “progress” differs from the orthodox socialist concept of “progress”. In a paraphrase of Trotsky here:

“The greater the expansion of the productive forces, the nearer do men approach the kingdom of freedom, and the looser become the chains of necessity. The Marxist, therefore, always supports that society whose productive forces are expanding.”

But “progressives” must have rejected this approach or else how could modern Trotskyite groups and the Greens co-habit a realm of “progressive values”? If “green economics” is about anything it is about the rejection of the orthodox Marxist economics described above – and to the society implied by socialism: a society led and controlled by those engaged in production (however defined).

It seems to me that progressive values are, in fact, unconnected with economic progress but are reflections of attainable social conditions: non-discrimination, freedom of lifestyle choice and the defining of entitlements as rights.

Non-discrimination: the idea that we should not “discriminate” (in the modern sense of the word) is a core mantra for the left. Indeed accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia or other discriminatory action are central elements of the debate between left and right in both the UK and the USA. The problem is that the “progressive” conceptualisation of non-discrimination differs from what I’ll call (for the purpose of absolute distinction) the “liberal” understanding of the concept. For the left – using the collectivist group definitions they favour – non-discrimination is dealt with by the enforcement of non-prejudicial rules of behaviour: we pass laws to punish sexism, ageism, racism, homophobia and prejudice against the disabled.

A liberal says the laws should not be used to control behaviour – for sure the various group prejudices are wrong but I have a right to be racist or sexist if I wish. Saying this doesn’t make me racist or sexist and there is an argument for saying that racism or sexism represents aggression – worthy therefore of society’s intervention. But what about all the other possible prejudices and discriminations? Do they not also merit protection – must left-handers, the short-sighted, the overweight and the ginger-haired “mobilise and organise” to campaign for legislation outlawing discrimination based on these conditions?

Freedom of lifestyle choice: as with non-discrimination this “progressive” idea draws on the importance of group-think and the rejection of individualism. Social policy is formed so as to support people in their chosen alternative lifestyles rather than as a means to improve the general welfare of the population: we craft policies directed at “communities” rather than at individuals. As with non-discrimination this forms a debate between left and right – with the left accusing the right of either not “respecting” those who have made “alternative” lifestyle choices or worse of actively promoting an orthodox lifestyle through policy.

As before the liberal critique of this approach rests not in responding to the left’s stereotyping of the right as racist, sexist homophobic bigots but in understanding that it isn’t the role of the state to govern the choices of individuals. People making lifestyle choices (or having those lifestyle choices made for them by circumstance) need to be aware of the challenges and costs that choice entails. By dividing society up into groups – often into “good” groups and “bad” groups – we present again the problem of the outsider, the person who does not slot neatly into the left’s stereotypes. Because the “progressive” idea is anti-individualist there is an assumption that each person will submit to a group – and that policy will be directed at those groups communicated to them through the moderation of the selected group leadership.

Entitlements as rights: to the liberal, entitlements are not inalienable so are ipso facto not rights – not so for the “progressive”. Entitlements – to work, to education, to welfare benefits and so on – are described as “rights” even when they are self-evidently things that cannot be assured or left unchanged. Thus the minimum wage is portrayed as a “right” given to workers by a benign progressive government. Partly this remains a matter of semantics – even spin – “rights” is a far more accessible idea for the ordinary man than the more nuanced concept of being entitled to something.

Interestingly though the “progressive” view doesn’t accord the same strength to rights to property – be that land (or rights to use land) or other property. Again the liberal position relies on property rights and their absolute protection in law – the “progressive” view that property rights can be alienated to suit some specified group need runs counter to the liberal ideal of a free society. Again a debate between left and right arises – once more centred on the key difference: “progressives” focus on group needs rather than individual rights.

It seems to me that the core principle of “progressive” thinking lies in supporting group rights rather than individual rights. Good things have come from this focus – our changed and changing attitude to women, gays and those with a different skin colour, for example – but also great damage is done to property rights, economic freedoms and to freedom of speech. In the end one of the divides in politics will always be between those who promote the idea of the free individual and those who see the individual in terms of the groups into which that person falls.


Monday, 28 December 2009

Thoughts on a limited understanding of "the progressive"


The idea of progress and progressive politics has always confused me – I’ve never seen anything especially progressive in the anti-innovation of trades unions, the anti-science of greens or the illiberalism of socialist elites. Yet these groups cluster around an idea of being “progressive” – an idea that, as is often the case with concepts, is merely stated never defined or explained. Or if defined it is done so in terms of support for given institutions or specific policies. By way of example the welcome page of Labour Students describes the organisation as:

“…a campaigning organisation, fighting for progressive values.”

The examples that follow are anti-racism, sexual health and the minimum wage – worthy but not a guide to understanding. So what might these progressive values be and do they derive from concepts of community and mutuality or from the anti-business, anti-liberal ideas of progressivism that developed in the USA? From the idea that the individual must be made subservient to the collective. As Herbert Croly put it:

"The Promise of American Life is to be fulfilled ... by a large measure of individual subordination and self-denial."

The problem comes when – as Croly made clear – we arrive at the view that the existence of democratic institutions is not sufficient alone for there to be a government of the people. To achieve this mankind must progress – in Darwinian terms, evolve – from the state of brute individualism that prevails under the capitalist order. So progressive politics isn’t about progress as the ordinary person would understand but represents an attempt to drive an evolutionary development in man – it is a use of Darwin in a political context.

But then we get to those pesky values our Labour Students glibly refer to – how can we define those? First stop is Bernie Horn writing in The Nationfreedom, opportunity, security, responsibility. Not much help there – these are all pretty slippery words that could be used as successfully by the extreme right and by the ultra left (they are also rather scarily reminiscent of the world state’s motto in that great anti-progressive novel, Brave New World - COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY).

I made a little more progress with this piece by George Lakoff written just after the 2004 Bush election victory:

“If you empathize with your children, you will want them to have strong protection, fair and equal treatment and fulfillment in life. Fulfillment requires freedom, freedom requires opportunity and opportunity requires prosperity. Since your family lives in, and requires, a community, community building and community service are required. Community requires cooperation, which requires trust, which requires honesty and open communication. Those are the progressive values--in politics as well as family life.”

Indeed it’s hard not to see in these words the echo of liberty, the words of Locke, Hume, Bentham & Paine – the champions of enlightenment, liberty and the intellectual fathers of the USA. If we build a polity on these values we build it from the bottom up – from parish, town and county – not from the level of grand and important central government be it in London, Brussels or Washington. Today these great institutions of Government – now largely captured by greens, socialists and self-defined “progressives” – are barriers to that very progress, to the vision painted by Lakoff above.

As I’ve said before, a truly radical approach to government would see it returned to the human level – to real local government – and away from the endless journey towards some world government over which an elite few can reign. The choice for progressives must be either to continue the pretence that the institutions of government must grow ever larger to meet the needs of the people or to embrace the pulling down of those institutions. A true progressive would want small government that encourages participation rather than the elitist, oligarchic, pseudo-democracy we enjoy today. Sadly progressives are too often the great champions of big government.


Sunday, 27 December 2009

A thought on morality (inspired by St Trinian's)


Am surprisingly cheered by the moral message of “St Trinian’s: the Treasure of the Frittons”. But first this isn’t a film review – those turgid think pieces about, what is in the final assessment, just a piece of ephemeral entertainment. However, the central message – captured by the lyrics of the St Trinian’s song, “Defenders of Anarchy” (sung for our delectation by Cheryl, Kimberley and co):

Check out our battle cry
A song to terrify
No one can stand in our way

We are the best, so screw the rest
We do as we damn well please
Until the end
St Trinian’s
Defenders of anarchy

So scam all the toffs, the neeks and the freaks
Blackmail the goths, the slappers and the geeks
And if they complain, we’ll do it all again
We do as we damn well please

As for the chavs, the emos and their mates
To torment the slags, we offer special rates
And if they complain, we’ll do it all again
Defenders of anarchy

We are the best, so screw the rest
We do as we damn well please
Until the end
St Trinian’s
Defenders of anarchy


I live in hope that this uplifting moral message – independence, honesty and self-interest to the fore – gets more attention in our schools. It’s certainly better than the mealy-mouth, politically correct, wimpish moral code promoted by our current authorities!!


For heaven's sake Gordon, foxes are not the country's priority...really!


Here we are with an economy mired deeply in recession, public finances in crisis, our troops dying in Afghanistan, folk losing their houses, jobs and savings and the highest levels of violent crime for decades.

And what does the Labour Party want to talk about - what is the most important thing for our country's leaders?

Oh yes...foxhunting!

These pathetic people should go and go now before they do any more damage.


Saturday, 26 December 2009

"The Great Pudding Disaster" (and how panettone saved the day)!

Preparations for Christmas day’s grand feast are underway – the large bird is subdued, poked, stuffed and titivated ready for a few hours roasting. The giblets, enhanced by onions, herbs and red wine are bubbling away on their journey towards a fine gravy. And various family members are delegated vital tasks – prepping sprouts, peeling spuds, laying the table. Time to put the pudding on to steam.

The pudding has lived – for an unknown time - in a dark corner of the cellars so a trip to this netherworld is needed to bring it back to the surface. Down into the underhouse I go and, after a few moments scrabbling at the back of the keeping cellar, the pudding is located. Back up to the kitchen ready to unwrap the pudding and put it into the steamer. The foil is removed and….


The fine pudding has turned from being a mature, preserved Christmas delicacy into a mycologist’s study piece featuring more colours and varieties of mould that you can imagine. It’s 11.30 on Christmas morning and we have no pudding. NO PUDDING!!!

A moments utter panic is followed by a conflab with Kathryn and she zooms off emerging a few seconds later with a large panettone from under the tree…

“…we can make bread and butter pudding with this,” explains my wife; “I’ve read that it’s very nice.”

Brilliant, brilliant…panettone bread and butter pudding!! And what a dish it was so I decided to share what we did with you all:

You’ll need:

A panettone
Plum jam
4 eggs
Pint of milk
3 oz sugar

Slice and butter the panettone, butter a 9in x 14in (or thereabouts) dish and line with a layer of buttered panettone. You’ll need to cut the panettone into smaller slices so the whole base of the dish is covered. Once the layer is complete spread with the plum jam and then cover with a second layer of buttered panettone.

Mix the remainder of the ingredients (eggs, milk and sugar) together and pour over the top of the butters panettone layers. The liquid should be visible above the bread – if not add a little more milk.

Put in a moderate over (180C) and cook for 45 minutes to an hour. After about half an hour you can sprinkle some more sugar on the top of the pudding to give it a nice crisp brown finish.

Served with thick, double cream it made a really lovely alternative to the good old Christmas pudding.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Friday Fungus: Chestnuts & Mushroom Rarebit (oh, and Happy Christmas)

Although I have done my best to demonstrate a link between mushrooms and Christmas and have provided you with the best breakfast recipe you can imagine, there is still a little distance between our midwinter festivities and our fungal friends. So I though I'd put mushrooms together with chestnuts since those sweet nuts have long been associated with Christmas (mostly to be fair in an often vain attempt to make hard old Brussels sprouts more palatable).

It seems to me that there are three possible types of dishes we could make with chestnuts and mushrooms - stuffings, vegetarian meat replacements (you won't hear me say that too often) and tarts or flans. However a spin through the ether reveals:

Turkey with Glazed Chestnuts, Parsnips and Mushrooms
Roasted Sea Scallops on a Bed of Chestnuts and Mushrooms
Passover (oops wrong time of year) Stuffing with Chestnuts & Mushrooms
Mushroom and Chestnut Wellington (a vegan dish that would make a good Christmas dinner)

However, I still prefer the simple and so give you a grand development of cheese on toast - bacon, chestnut and mushroom rarebit.

You'll need:

Chestnuts (peeled and chopped) about 40z
Fresh mushrooms (yellow oysters are nice) about 8oz - also roughly chopped
Green bacon - two thick cut rashers cut into lardons
Thyme (a sprig or two)
Worcestershire sauce
Good cheddar (enough grated to cover two slices of toast)
Salt & pepper
Oil for frying
Bread for toasting

Heat the oil in a heavy frying pan (oh and turn on your grill - I always forget), fry the bacon lardons for a minute until they start to curl then add the chestnuts and mushrooms. Stir and fry vigorously for two or three minutes then add the thyme and a couple of good dashes of worcestershire sauce. Cover, turn the heat down and leave to cook for about five minutes.

Toast one side of your bread and then spread the cooked mushrooms and chestnuts on the untoasted side, cover thickly with the cheese and return to the grill until the cheese is thoroughly melted.

Enjoy with a nice glass of port.

Happy Christmas!


Thursday, 24 December 2009

Remember localism? It means local councils decide officers' pay not the Chancellor!


I’m probably in a minority but I think the posing and posturing from all three parties over the pay of senior public servants misses the point by quite a few miles. Now don’t get me wrong, I think that we need to be careful stewards of public funds (now that would be an original thought) but paying someone running a £1 billion plus organisation like a large local authority £150,000 or so doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. I’d like to make them a bit more accountable but that’s got nothing to do with pay.

And more to the point - if we believe in localism then what a local council pays its chief executive, director of development or chief street sweeper is nothing at all to do with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister or indeed any of the dysfunctional shower down in Westminster. It's for elected local councillors to decide. Understand Dave?


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

MYOB or Why I'm a Conservative not a Libertarian


There’s a great deal to be said about libertarianism – although it would help if those advocating it would make up their minds as to what it all means. And, as I’ve described myself as an occasionally intolerant libertarian, I guess there comes a point at which to explain why – despite the appeal of that creed – I remain a conservative.

I am – as all good conservatives should be – a sceptic. After all it was a Conservative prime minister who wrote “A defence of Philosophic Doubt” and we are led to the view that (as H. L. Mencken put it): “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong”. Libertarianism – like Marxism, socialism and assorted other –isms is one of such solutions.

The second reason is that people – how to we put it – need a modicum of moral encouragement. Since libertarians accept a role for government – again a role not necessarily specified or agreed on – it falls on us to ask about that role and how it might work. Simply stopping at enforcing property rights (however defined) seems unnecessarily limiting.

The non-aggression concept at the heart of libertarianism is fine – until we stop to think about what it means, where its limits are and how to enforce its strictures. The resulting arguments are more akin to discussion of angels dancing on pinheads that to a discourse about the reality of politics.

My worry – and the point at which I am wont to part company with my party – is that the Conservative Party accedes too easily and contains too many who believe in controlling the behaviors of others simply because we have arrived at a judgment on that behaviour. English conservatives need to ask what it is they are conserving – is it some defined set of behaviours handed down to us by some benign leadership steeped in the traditions of England (let’s call this the Scruton-Heffer position) or is the target of conservation the liberties, freedom and independence of English men and women (the Hume-Carswell position)?

For me we seek to defend the things that define what we are – some are cultural like pubs, folk music and pies while others are more fundamental such as equality under the law, property rights, free expression and free association. However, the fundamental principle of English conservatism is for me MYOB. Our inalienable right to tell whoever we want, whenever we want to “mind your own business”.


Wednesday Whimsy: Remembering a White Christmas

I was nine when I experienced my first white Christmas. My memory may be a little rose-tinted but we’d set off to walk to midnight mass at Our Lady of the Annunciation in Addiscombe – probably a mile or so. It was cold but not snowing and about 9.30 in the evening as we were serving so had to get everything ready for what would be the full on smells and bells service.

During mass – almost perfectly – it snowed and when we set out home the roads were covered with a pristine layer of snow. We walked the old organist home (he was over eighty and a little wobbly) and set out home. And it started to snow again. Perfect.

Today our relationship with snow seems angry – we don’t seem to take in its beauty. To look in awe at the way in which it covers blemished places making them fine and grand again. We run headlines saying: “Fury of the travellers grounded by snow storms” or “Transport chaos: blizzards bring Britain to standstill as more snow on way” and “Snow-hit Britain: another day of chaos as roads and airports are closed”. Snow is an obstacle to our lives, it interrupts our frantic scuttling about doing important things…we care more about whether the bookies will pay out on a white Christmas than we do about seeing a stunning white blanket out the window on the morning of 25th December.

I like snow and worry that our anger with the inconvenience of the white stuff takes away from the magic it brings. The pleasure of the “snow day”, the excitement of sledging, giggling while we throw snowballs or building the biggest snowman in the village. Pleasures that shouldn’t go away just because we’ve grown up a bit. And to those pleasures us old folk can add a glass of mulled cider or Christmas ale, a log fire and “White Christmas” on the telly. What could be better?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Why the arguments for "the great leaders debate" are wrong and dangerous


I gave ten reasons why the “great leaders debate” is a bad idea some while back – non-one has challenged any of those reasons. All I get is the ‘bestseller syndrome’ – “other democracies have them so must we”. This is a ridiculous approach and a truly crass argument.

However, it seems we are to have these debates so what to make of them...

Argument One: Only Gordon and Dave should debate as they are the only “candidates for prime minister” says Charlotte Vere, Tory Candidate for Brighton Pavilion (who I guess doesn’t want the Green Party leader in on the debates either). Sorry Charlotte, much though I want you to win, you have to find better arguments – we aren’t electing a prime minister. In your case the voters of Brighton are electing an MP – hopefully you.

Argument Two: This is a bad idea because we’re ahead/behind in the polls. The cynics approach to politics – we’ll agree to something because it’s to our political advantage not because it’s right. So a big fail to Tim Montgomerie for his “Christmas comes early..” post.

Argument Three: It will rejuvenate politics by getting the otherwise unengaged involved again through the goggle box. Well I’m with Constantly Furious on this – it ain’t gonna happen guys. Those good idiots, my neighbours won’t be watching so long as there’s something else to watch – and there will be for sure. Only the already interested will watch and it will be accompanied by a ghastly, frothing, ignorant and self-serving barrage of political point-scoring, name-calling and bigotry. I really can’t wait!

Argument Four: Every body else has one so we should – or as Dave put it: “I think it's a step forward for our democracy and I think it's something that, in such a bad year for politics and Parliament, we can proudly celebrate. We've joined the 21st century, when every other democracy seems to have leader's debates, we're now going to have them right here in Britain and I think that's a very good thing.” So places with party-run pseudo-democracies have leader debates – and this advances democracy? I don’t think so – in fact it’s a backward step. What about the smaller and regional parties – Scots Nats, Plaid Cymru, UKIP, BNP, Greens? Or the independent candidates? Are they to be crushed by the Westminster steamroller? How exactly does that enhance democracy?

All the political anoraks out there will look forward to the debates – not because they make democracy better but because it’s more of what we like on the telly. Just as the football fan applauds more football and the music fan more music, the politics fan wants more politics. Hiding behind “enhancing democracy” simply doesn’t wash – debates are a retrograde, anti-democratic, controlling, demagogic innovation that will not get a fairer election, a better government or an improved turnout. It would be better to have no election coverage at all and make candidates go out on the doorsteps and into the high street to make the case rather than merely regurgitating the party line that trots out in these debates.


Monday, 21 December 2009

Let's forget about Copenhagen and just get on with the job


I had promised myself that I wouldn’t write about climate change, Copenhagen and the futility of boondoggles but it appears I lied. So let’s start with the heart of the debate at the moment:

1. Climate change is real –as a brief perusal of our planet’s history shows, anyone denying this is being just a little daft

2. The greenhouse effect is the main driver of climate (and without which we would all be dead)

3. The actions of man have increased the volumes of greenhouse effect producing gases in the atmosphere

On the basis of these three facts, I’m prepared to accept the likelihood of climate change being (in part) anthropogenic. However, I do not see that this truth requires us to extend the power of government. Nor do I see any remote justification for having pointless and offensively expensive boondoggles in nice places to agree meaningless communiques just so as to argue for having more offensively expensive boondoggles in nice places to talk about it all again....

It seems to me that we were toddling along quite nicely on the fighting climate change malarkey – reducing energy consumption, switching gradually to more sustainable fuels, building more efficient homes, wasting a little less and thinking more about the impact our lives have on the environment around us.

Here’s some good stuff:

The Woodland trust’s “Trees for All” programme has now planted 6.6 million trees – on top of the 20 million other trees planted in the UK in the last twenty years

From 1992/3 to 2007/8 Britain’s recycling rate increased from below 5% to nearly 35% and there is some evidence of a decline in household waste arising

New building regulations promoting “zero carbon” development should mean new houses meet these standards from 2016 onwards (our houses produce nearly a third of total carbon emissions)

Belatedly the Government confirmed future plans for nuclear power – the quickest way to achieve rapid reductions in carbon emissions

These are a combination of locally-driven policies – Cambridge’s cycling strategy is another good example – and policies deriving from a realistic approach to the business of energy generation. All the grand statements about “reducing carbon” that emanate from boondoggles like Copenhagen are of less importance than making the common sense case for us using fewer resources in our everyday lives.

Rather than directing millions to meetings about climate change, why don’t we redirect that money to research into the technology that will decouple our leisure and pleasure from consumption of those pesky fossil fuels. And rather than painting barely believable disaster scenarios we should be making the case for thrift – and providing real incentives to support that case.

Grandstanding is a substitute for action not a route to action. Let's stop meeting like this and get on with the job.


Sunday, 20 December 2009

Simon Cowell and the bestseller syndrome


Now all the hoo-hah about this year’s Christmas number one record is over, I thought I’d take a rather more sideways look. Plenty of others have loudly proclaimed the (frankly rather ludicrous) politics of the campaign, a further set have seen it as a big dig at Simon Cowell for his terrible crime of making huge amounts of money from selling other people’s music and others – perhaps more quietly – have just gone out and bought the dreadful dirge that Mr Cowell is flogging to us this Christmas.

Instead of taking sides in the Joe vs. “Rage Against the Machine” debate (for the record I can’t work out which record I dislike the most); I thought I’d look at how Simon Cowell – and others in the music business – exploits what we might call the “bestseller syndrome”.

The “bestseller syndrome” is where we are more inclined to buy something because it is (or has been described as) a bestseller. Mail order marketers have known this for years – and when we say know in mail order we mean that we have tested it and shown that we get a measurably better response from calling something a bestseller than when we say nothing. And Cowell makes great use of this syndrome – watch how the guest acts on X-Factor are always introduced as “best-selling” artists and at how past volumes of records shifted is the central predictor of future success.

The new artists created by X-Factor are made to be bestsellers from the outset – none of this tedious audience-building is needed since the x-factor Christmas record is a bestseller. Throughout the programme the focus is on selling records – for the past year or two a charity record by the X-Factor finalists has been a feature thereby creating another number one record, another bestseller.

The point about the bestseller – and the psychological truth that Simon Cowell exploits – is that we are drawn to the safety of the bestseller. Just as in times past “nobody got fired for buying IBM”, we scuttle to the safety of numbers and buy the mass-produced tunes that Simon Cowell and others present as “popular music”. Indeed, this approach to music isn’t new as anyone reading the history of Motown (Berry Gordy is feted now but was a very similar businessman to Cowell) or the song factories of Tin Pan Alley would know. And we have always had a choice and the artists or song writers have always had a choice. We can either buy something else or nothing at all. And the artists can – as Gershwin did, as Elvis did, as the Beatles did and as Will Young appears to have done – the artists can break away from the production line once their name and fame are set.

But in truth we will return to the bestsellers – Simon Cowell and whoever comes after him in the popular music business will carry on manufacturing music and using brands and the bestseller to create a new generation of artists to “exploit”. And with each renewed generation there is a backlash – a call for “independent” music, for authenticity, for artistic control. And this backlash – taking advantage of the spirit of youthful (and not so youthful) rebellion – will see some artists and writers become rich and famous enough to achieve the accolade of “sell-out”. At which point they can appear as guests on X-Factor!

And tell me how many set out to be rock stars without even a passing thought for the cash?

Friday, 18 December 2009

Friday Fungus: Snow Mushrooms

Seemed appropriate given the current weather to talk about enoki - Japanese Snow Mushrooms (Flammulina velutipes). If you've an interest in Chinese or Japanese cookery you will have encountered these delicate mushrooms but I bet you didn't know they grow wild in the UK where we call them velvet shank. In the wild they do not look like the picture above but are yellowish brown and rather larger - the cultivated version is produced in huge quantities in the far east (over 100,000 tonnes annually).

The snow or winter mushroom description comes about because these fungi fruit very late and can survive a temperatures close to freezing. Golden Gourmet Mushrooms * describe them as follows:

"...enoki are found in the mountains often right at the snow-line growing in clusters on deciduous logs. Under outdoor conditions, wild specimens of this mushroom are short-stemmed with caps as wide as the stems are long. The lower portions of the stem have a darkened, velvety fuzz, hence the common name "The Velvet Stem" or "The Velvet Foot". Under artificial cultivation conditions first developed by Japanese growers, cultivated varieties of this mushrooms look entirely different. Manipulation of light, carbon dioxide and temperature conditions creates a beautiful bouquet of delicate, white, long-stemmed (4-5 inches), small-capped (1/3-1/2 inch) mushrooms."

*There's a recipe for smoked oysters, fried spinach and enoki on the Golden Gourmet web-site that looks good although I haven't tried it so can't vouch for it!


Thursday, 17 December 2009

Food, regulation, hypocrisy and the success of supermarkets


When it comes to my libertarian instincts, food has always been a weakness. I hate the damage done to the quality of what we eat by the destruction of local food networks, by the homogenisation of fresh produce into a tasteless lowest common denominator. And I find the continued success of fast food retailers like Greggs, Subway, KFC and McDonald’s profoundly depressing – poor quality, barely edible crap sold at the lowest possible price and without any thought to what us poor proles are stuffing in our gobs. It’s no surprise there are so many fat people around when so many graze almost non-stop on such fat, salt and sugar stuffed awfulness.

Despite this my liberal hackles rise when "campaigners" get so mixed up over what they’re opposing in the “great food debate”. The arguments wielded by the greens, by "hyperlocal" fans and by the "transition towns" movement are inconsistent, anti-trade and exclusive. Consider these issues below, for example:

Are the “campaigners” opposing the sourcing of vegetables, flowers and other produce from cheap labour countries? Do they understand how these provide a good growth and development opportunity for countries like Kenya, Ghana and Colombia? Or are they just so bothered by the environmental costs of air freight that those African and Latin American workers can go hang?

Do the “campaigners” appreciate that so-called “fair trade” isn’t fair? Have they stopped and asked what happens to the workers picking coffee or bananas on plantations when those plants are rooted up as no longer viable because of “fixed” trade preferences derived from the “fair trade” concept? Fair trade – rather like Tesco really – destroys as many jobs as it creates, saves or protects.

The “campaigners” rail against something called the “trade balance” (a mythic concept invented by so-called poverty campaigners with slightly less economic reality that the idea of “competitiveness”). But at the same time “campaigners” support geographical protections placed on processes, subsidies to wealthy western farmers and the extension of tariffs on imported fresh produce. Protecting feta or parma ham takes precedence over supporting the economic development of Africa.

Our “campaigners” talk to us about local food networks, the impact of the local multiplier and such worthy sounding “new economics”. Sadly the economics isn’t new at all – the multiplier features in Keynes and is widely criticised as an analytical tool. Tiebout argued that the multiplier is not stable over time or across economic groups making it a difficult measure to apply with high degrees of confidence. The glibness of the LM3 model covers over its weakness as a means of understanding local economies (along with very little sound empirical testing of the approach) - yet it is still used almost without challenge or question.

I am happy to fight the good fight – supermarkets destroy jobs because they employ fewer people than traditional retailing models. But my concern isn’t just about that indisputable fact but that supermarkets also destroy quality, contribute to the drunken, violent urban culture we have seen grow in this country and continue to secure privileged cost advantages through favourable tax and planning treatment when compared to town centre retailing (and especially markets). Sadly the New Economics Foundation and others seem to have lost sight of the 'non-free' nature of the market environment in retailing and development - focusing on rational business behaviour rather than contrary and sub-optimal regulatory and tax regimes.

Maybe we bring all this on ourselves through the decisions we make about shopping but those convenience decisions come about because supermarkets have a cost advantage they would not enjoy if public authorities allowed town centres to compete on a level platform. Lower business rates per square foot, free parking and more flexible planning regimes - a more free system in fact – would go a long way towards restoring convenience shopping to our market towns and suburban town centres. Right now the anti-car, high tax regimes in our towns only serve to increase the success of supermarkets.


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Wednesday Whimsy: "Away in the Manger" and the spirit of Christmas


Whether it’s the choir stalls of a fine cathedral, the nativity at a school in the rough end of town or a family gathered round a piano (or more likely these days an on screen karaoke) there is one carol we all know…whether we’re five or ninety five - “Away in a Manger”. It’s the first one we learn (fighting it out with “Little Donkey” for that privilege) and the simplest and easiest to learn.

For me it sums up everything about Christmas – yes there’s the God stuff but, as importantly, there’s the sense of wonder, anticipation and excitement we see in the faces of children (and old softies like me).

Now some grumpy humbugs want to portray our modern Christmas as an unwarranted and excessive festival of consumption. Every year some self-appointed guardian of the “real Christmas” pops up to lecture us on how all that eating, drinking, partying and spending isn’t what it’s all about – we should instead be all puritanically frowny about the sins of the world.

Not me. I love our modern Christmas with all the over-the-top kitsch, the tear-jerking movies, the schmaltzy music, the excessive lights and the over-eating (especially the over-eating). It is the great celebration of all the things – good, bad, highbrow and lowbrow, Christian and secular – that define our culture. And, for me, “Away in a Manager” with its plodding melody, it’s slightly maudlin lyrics and its simplistic message is part of that culture.

Oh, and "Away in a Manger" is guaranteed to make me cry – every time!


Getting paid more than Gordon - as if!


The PM gets paid £197,000 (I hesitate to use the term “earn” in this case) and various pundits are frothing about the fact that some people in the public sector get paid more than this. Like so what?

Leaving aside the fact that my cat could do a better job of PM than Gordon for the cost of a bowl of IAMS and a soft bed, we shouldn’t be comparing the pay of politicians with the pay of officials. Moreover Gordon gets two free houses, fed and watered, ferried around everywhere – I doubt that beyond indulgences, Gordon has any of the outgoings you and I have.

So lets assume that we spend a third or our income of housing and 25% on essential spending (food, drink, travel, etc) – for ease of estimation we’ll call that 60%. Since Gordon doesn’t have this expenditure his real salary is somewhere in excess of £300,000.

That’s more than the head of the civil service, any local council chief executive and most of the quangocrats. After all from their bloated salaries they have large houses, foreign holidays and school fees to pay – without the access MPs have to an expenses free-for-all.


Housing policy - a couple of modest suggestions


I was struck by a piece in New Start Magazine about how the UK's planning system is a drag on the development of housing - and especially housing for rent. The article draws comparison with planning regimes in France, Germany and Holland where performance is a little better than in the UK.

Thinking about this it struck me that there is a further issue - land value. We know that land values are far higher in the UK than in France (mostly a function of the amount of developable land available - France is a lot bigger than the UK) and that those land values represent a significant element in the cost of housing.

So why not eliminate land value entirely? Rather than providing subsidy to the housing associations to build affordable homes on public land (and in effect turning the subsidy into a capital receipt for the public agency owning the land) why not require those agencies to gift the land at no consideration? This would make building affordable homes affordable and the subsidy could go directly as grant for the purchase of land - a major saving and a more effective system.

And while we're about this we should extend a duty onto developers to retain an interest in the properties they build for at least 25 years - whether in the form of a freehold or an equity share. This would provide an incentive to build better, more efficient housing.


Monday, 14 December 2009

Sorry but cleaners are not more valuable than bankers or ad men - however much you may wish this to be


“Cleaners more valuable than bankers” screams the headline – written to get the most attention the Unison press release celebrates the publication of a report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) dubbed “A Bit rich”. A boy is it a bit rich – and for that matter a lot ignorant and very worrying.

I could go on for a long while taking apart the economic illiteracy of the NEF report – it purports to show that cleaners, child care workers and recycling employees contribute more value than do bankers, advertising executives and tax accountants. And it does so by applying something the authors call the “Social Return on Investment” – precise figures for the value added by the carefully selected professions are presented that show just how evil bankers, ad men and accountants are and how we really should be paying cleaners and child minders more money than these spawn of Beelzebub.

However, I have trawled through the full report and there is no model, no econometrically valid methodology – just some adding and subtracting based on sweeping assumptions about the chosen jobs:

“We attributed the entire measurable loss to the UK’s economy and public finances to an elite few thousand very highly paid financiers – those earning over £1 million in bonuses.”

Big assumption that one! Those 1000 bankers are really bad boys! Clearly this is a ridiculous assumption with no theoretical foundation and certainly no validation.

“The calculation for the advertising executive centred on the notion of overconsumption – that we consume more than we need and that this has damaged environmental and social impacts.”

This is based on something invented by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as a means of assessing what the lowest reasonable income should be – the Minimum Income Standard. Most of the consumption above this level is, according to NEF, down to wicked advertising folk making us buy stuff we don’t want.

For the tax accountants “…there is clearly an opportunity cost in terms of foregone public service value that could accrue to society from having this revenue available.”

Obviously tax accountants are bad because they help their “wealthy clients” avoid tax. This is also known as paying the right amount and is no different from making sure that the folk on benefits get their entitlement surely?

This is not economics – there is no replicable model that I can test on say “Equal Opportunities Officers” or “Five-a-day Co-ordinators” to find out what they contribute. Moreover the argument builds on:

1. The lump of labour fallacy. The “iron law of wages” (that they always trend to a minimum) is so comprehensively false it’s hard to countenance the arguments made just on this basis. Empirical observation tells us that Ricardo was right (as he was on trade) innovation will always raise wages above subsistence.

2. The determination of utility by money. My jaw dropped reading the statement that “…orthodox economic thinking tells us that our utility is derived from money.” Again this is a comprehensive misrepresentation – the only way to measure economic value is money but the utility of something isn’t derived from money. Utility (probably the first thing you learn on an economics course) is determined by how much it is of use to the consumer.

3. The confusion of earnings with spending. The work of public sector workers – however we value it and deem it important – is consumption. What bankers, ad men and accountants do is earn – without that earning we cannot have the spending. Simple really – the private sector earns and we spend it (sometimes through the mediation of taxes)

4. Ignoring consumption. It’s not at all clear whether the authors recognise that it’s consumption that matters rather than production? The banker, the ad man and the accountant either spend or save their ill-gotten gains (and roughly half of that spending will be taxes) – that spending employs shop workers, plumbers, holiday company executives, car salesmen and adult entertainment providers. The model does not recognise how valuable all that spending is to our economy.

5. And the saving supports investment. All those savings – the deferred spending – go to invest in industry, commerce and (too much these days) providing borrowing for governments. It isn’t wasted.

There is within the NEF report a great deal of information, much referencing but no evidence of research. Was I assessing its academic value I would suggest that the whole idea is to substantiate an initial (and economically illiterate) ideological position rather than to extend the body of knowledge. It is a triumph of selective desk research over a genuine understanding of economics as a science and does cleaners, bin men and child minders no favours. I'll believe when some models are constructed, data is collected, assumptions are challenged and this shows the headline is right - theory says it's wrong and the market says it's wrong. 'Nuff said.


Sunday, 13 December 2009

Why we need to understand cheese (not to mention beer, bread and football)


How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese? Charles de Gaulle

…or for that matter twenty different names for a teacake, hundreds of different beers and around 200 professional football teams. De Gaulle’s point was about governing but it seems to me that much of this relates to identity – my cheese is different from your cheese and (probably) better. Even if – as is the case often with football – your team is better than my team that makes no difference as I still like my team more.

Much self-important guff and piffle is talked about sovereignty, national identity and allegiance. Someone from Carlisle probably has more in common with his near neighbours in Dumfries than with his fellow Englishmen in Basingstoke. But that Carlisle resident will fly the English flag; proclaim allegiance to England while in the same breath castigating soft southern nancies for being inadequate wimps. A view doubtless shared by the lowland Scots.

It seems to me that these allegiances to food, to sport, to drinks and to clothing are more significant to us than adherence to some political identity, supposed national personality or supra-national polity. In truth political leaders and governments simply make use of identity – local or “national” – in securing and sustaining power. Such leaders and governments do not create that identity and will belittle it or cast it aside if it stands in the way of “progress” (also known as extending the power of government).

My cultural identity is shaped by the things I like (or dislike), by those I live with and around. That identity cannot be changed by fiat, through the passing of laws or the imposition of controls. And that identity extends beyond the political to a much broader set of values, views and interests. I hope these next few things will help illustrate:

1. In Denmark, voting patterns show a surprising correlation with the distribution of a glottal stop used differently in different Danish dialects. Strange Maps who report this finding have shown similar distributions with Socialist votes in France, political allegiance in the Ukraine and election results in Poland.

2. Bradford Council uses self-identification to place individuals in communities with remarkable effectiveness – ask a set of people where they live and map like responses and you’ll get a good definition of the local boundaries (and you’ll hear just how resentful Keighley people are at being ‘lumped in' with Bradford)

3. Most associations with “home” fade pretty fast in immigrant communities – but check out support for football clubs and you’ll see it passed down the generations especially where clubs have a wider cultural association (Celtic, Rangers, Barcelona, Lazio)

The idea of sovereignty makes little sense at this local level – these cultural associations and personal identities are not manifestations of sovereign power. Yet we talk of sovereignty as if it is simply shaped by a “national identity” rather than imposed by those in power upon the people they govern.

Finally – and before people get too excited about this description – none of this justifies supra-national government. Indeed, I see supra-national government as a backward step, as the reinvention of the bonarpartist myth not as progress towards better government. After all, in a peaceful world we should need no national government just local governance in whatever form local people choose to order that government.

And that’s why cheese, the names we call bread, batter pudding and the way we drink our beer are far more important than the pomposities of administration or the ordering of political power.


Saturday, 12 December 2009

Stephen Bayley Cultural Snob - bah, humbug!

Oi you fancy designer types lay off my kitsch!

Apparently Stephen Bayley is “…one of Britain's best known cultural commentators.” As happens for such people, Mr Bayley gets a nice big space in the Spectator to bemoan what he (rather sadly) dubs “Happy Kitschmas”. I smiled at this passage:

“And what can I see from my office in Carnaby Street? I can see a giant, pneumatic, puce-coloured reindeer with white spots suspended from tension wires in space.”

Yay! Loving it…we need more of this it’s good. It’s what our festival of consumption is all about. It’s what we like Mr Bayley…it really is. We like our Christmas kitsch.

But Stephen Bayley and his ilk wouldn’t understand this – schmoozing round their charmed circle of the cultural trendsetters, these folk are nearly as out of touch with the real world as Ed Balls. And they annoy me…I like my inflatable reindeer, grossly overblown santas, great fat snowmen, kids singing “Away in a Manger”, over the top lighting on private houses, German Christmas markets, re-runs of “White Christmas”, happy drunks in plastic reindeer horns…all the trappings of Kitschmas. I loved it that the car parked next to mine outside PC World had horns and a red nose.

You’re welcome to your smug little view Mr Bayley – but it doesn’t reflect what the rest of us want. So we’ll go on having a cheap, slightly tacky, but great fun Christmas thanks (and if you want some good Kitsch jewellery this Christmas – go to the Kitschen Sink)


Friday, 11 December 2009

Made me grin.....the Gordon Brown fan


A teacher asked her class how many of them were Gordon Brown fans.

Not really knowing what a Brown fan is, but wanting to be liked by the teacher, all the kids raised their hands except for Little Johnny..

The teacher asked Little Johnny why he has decided to be different...again. Little Johnny said, 'Because I'm not a Brown fan.'

The teacher asked, 'Why aren't you a Brown fan?'

Johnny said, 'Because I'm a Conservative.'

The teacher asked him why he's a Conservative. Little Johnny answered, 'Well, my Mother's a Conservative and my Daddy's a Conservative, so, I'm a Conservative.'

Annoyed by this answer, the teacher asked, 'If your mummy was a moron and your daddy was an idiot, what would that make you?'

With a big smile, Little Johnny replied,

'A Gordon Brown fan.'


Poor by-election results - why the Conservatives should worry but not panic


Various folk are getting excited over the rather poor showing of the Conservatives in recent local by-elections. Even leaving aside the arrant nonsense from twits like Gerald Warner (what is it about men who wear coats with velvet collars?) normally sensible folk like Iain Dale are expressing a degree of worry. Here are a few thoughts:

The Conservative’s should worry – not about Labour winning back a few once safe wards, that’s to be expected given the scale of Labour’s collapse in the 2008 and 2009 local elections. The Party should worry about a continuing loss of seats to Liberal Democrats, Independents and special interest groups.

A comparison with 1996 & 1997 helps – in that time (remember just prior to the wipe out of 1997) the Conservatives made 52 gains in local council by-elections against 10 losses including gains from Labour in Dover on the same day we lost the parliamentary seat

The 1996 and 1997 gains show exactly the same pattern as we see today with the Governing Party winning back seats from all other parties and from independents. Indeed, the Conservatives appear to have done rather better than Labour is doing at present

The Conservative Party has not always been that well organised in local by-elections –too often the Party struggles to mobilise wider support and doesn’t do the leg work in places local supporters think of as “unwinnable”. There is room to learn from the effectiveness of Liberal Democrat mobilisation for these by-elections – we have seen in places like Leeds just how much ground can be shifted in a short period of time by hard-hitting (and often pretty cynical) campaigning on the ground.


Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Friday Fungus: Fairy Rings

One of the most well known edible mushrooms – and one of the less popular – is Marasmius Oreades the fairy ring mushroom. Some of you may recall a lawn lover regaling you with the terrible trauma of removing the fairy ring from the otherwise pristine lawn (rather than leaving the ring there and eating the lovely little mushrooms every spring).

Elsewhere in Europe the rings or arcs made by this mushroom are the result of witches dancing, the depredations of dragons or the evil work of sorcerers. But in England, the rings were where the fairies and elves came to dance – and with this came risk. Falling asleep within a fairy ring was asking for trouble and for some even stepping inside the ring could result in dire consequences – blindness, miscarriage, disease and even death awaits the foolish.

By far the worst punishment – be warned you lovers of lawns – fell on those who ploughed up or dug up the ring. The wrath and vengeance of the fair folk would be visited on the miscreant and upon his descendants. Madness, loss, despair and other evil consequences befell such ploughmen. Of course, left well alone and allowed to flourish brought the boon of the fairies on the house and those living there with crops growing better, animals thriving and good fortune being a close companion of those good folk who tolerated the fairies.

Like all fresh mushrooms, fairy ring mushrooms are best not overcooked and, because these are springtime mushrooms, they work very well with a salad. But be warned – there are other slightly poisonous mushrooms that grow in rings so be careful. A good description and guide to identification is here on Atomic Shrimp. The Clitocybe dealbata mushrooms (which are very poisonous) grow in a similar ring but are different shapes having a more concave cap.

The sadness of Silvertown


The journey on the Docklands Light Railway from Bank out past Canary Wharf to West Silvertown and Pontoon Dock gives an insight into the continuing challenge of regeneration. The contrast between the shiny skyscrapers and posh apartments that cluster round the DLR and the old communities are stark. And nowhere shows it more starkly than Victoria Dock, London City Airport and their environs.

Silvertown and North Woolwich are run down, deprived, depressing places – poor quality, badly maintained housing, an almost complete absence of real local facilities and a sense that no-one is doing anything to really change these places. Instead – as if in some science fiction novel – a gleaming bright (well concrete) new trainline slices through. And it’s user look down into the depressing streets beyond – streets full of people who have no use for the new railway since they have little or no money to spend and don’t have jobs in the shiny skyscrapers.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this depressing scene is an argument for not building the DLR, for leaving the docks as a sorry memory of a different age or for building only social housing. In their way these developments – along with the airport and the exhibition centre – are helping to transform the area. But we have missed out on the opportunity to make the strong connections with what is already there – the new roads, rail and apartments are built with their backs to the existing communities.

Those old communities now have no decent shops, no pubs and only the institutions of poverty – SureStart, a “learning centre” and a church-based community building – remain. Institutions that may do good but cannot make a place in the way that shops, pubs, eateries and markets might do. And the dwellers in the posh flats? Their time out is either behind the barriers of their gated world or elsewhere – whisked to a brighter place by the shiny new railway.

Policy-makers, planners, architects and developers have failed these places - reinforcing division and creating new barriers. Above all this is the disaster of our technocracy – which specialists, experts and governments dictating to local people. The new meritocratic Labour Party has failed the new East London just as comprehensively as the patriarchal Labour Party failed the old East London.

In stead of fencing in the poor we should be giving them access to these better places. We should be teaching and training their children better, letting them control their own institutions and promoting real local ownership and control. Above all we should worry less about security and more about community.


Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Wednesday whimsy: On words and wishes.


The curtains are drawn, the lights dimmed, the birthday cake arrives bedecked with candles, the child’s face sparkles with joy and excitement. Time to blow out the candles…

“…wait,” someone cries, “you have to make a wish.”

The child pauses, catches breath, eyes are shut…

“Don’t tell us your wish,” another voice whispers, “or it won’t happen.”

The candles are blown out in one breath and the wish floats away with the last wisps of candlesmoke.

Lovely….but we worry. There is still something a little dirty about a wish, a little risky and dangerous. Wishes are tricky – not to be entered into lightly.

Stepping back from the moment of childish innocence above, we can see the risks – the way in which the selfishness of wishes may cause damage. “I want to be rich” – but at whose expense? “Make me more beautiful” – through some picture in the attic? “Make John love me” – and destroy some unwished for true love?

Wishes are important in fairy lore – often offered in reward for some service and quickly forgotten or regretted by the elf such wishes are the trickiest of all. The problems come from:

Haste: in the old tale of the Three Wishes the Goodman gets a sausage for a nose and wastes his wishes by thoughtless haste.

Payment: taking boons for payment from fairies is very risky as the princess found in Rumplestiltskin – the use of riddles, catch questions and deceit is a classic trick to avoid granting the wish

Pedantic interpretation: the wish granter interprets the wording very precisely – as Tom Holt’s hero in “Expecting Someone Taller” found. Asking to be the most handsome man simply made him Siegfried. Maybe wishing to be the richest would simply leave you owning Chelsea?

Wishes disrupt the normal world – which is why fairies promise them so readily yet deliver so reluctantly. For us to be a granted a wish near always means some change – and not always change we might desire.

As they say…beware of what you wish for, it might just come true.


Monday, 7 December 2009

On "doing something"...


I have often been accused of inaction. My defence is that my inaction is positive – I am resisting the endless push for us to “do something”.

...about “climate change”
...about “poverty”
...about “third world debt”
...about wicked property developers

...about an endless stream of noble causes. And politicians have “done something” – precisely the only something we can do.

...pass laws and regulations
...raise taxes

And has this “solved” these problems? Nope.
And will it solve these problems? Nope.


Sunday, 6 December 2009

A moment of whimsical generosity


Kathryn & I went to see Nativity - very sweet, uplifting and...well, whimsical. Queueing up to contribute my small amount to NCP's coffers I realise I'm short of change...

"Kathryn" I yell, "I don't have enough money!"

Before Kathryn can respond a young woman holds out her hand in which was a couple of quid in change...

"Take this," says the young woman.

Quite made my day especially after a good cry at a soppy film! Proves again that the world is mostly full of decent, generous folk. Just like whimsy tells us!


London - you've had all the Country's transport investment so shut up moaning


It seems hardly a day passes by without some London-dweller whining on about the city's transport systems. Whether is the bloody obvious about crowding (as reported by Al Jahom here) or endless phone ins, news reports and workplace grumbling.

Speaking from West Yorkshire....can you all SHUT UP. I mean it...

London has the most extensive, comprehensive, reliable and accessible transport system of any major city anywhere in the world - between the underground, the bus network and the 'overground' anywhere within 30 miles of the City has easy, effective connections.

Why? Because you've had all the transport investment - £614 per head compared to a measly £215 per head here in Yorkshire. And with Crossrail, the Olympics, the new termini for the Channel Tunnel, billions poured into the tube system and double the road investment, London and the South East continues to get the transport investment it needs. Almost entirely at the expense of the remainder of England.

So, as I said....shut up about your transport system - it's very good and very well funded.


Saturday, 5 December 2009

More people watch a football match than march on Westminster - says it all really


Arsenal vs Stoke: 60,048
West Ham vs Stoke: 34,980

So that's a shade below 100,000 people going to a premier league football game in London. So what you ask? Well...

Rather fewer folk (police estimates 20,000-25,000) decided to waste their Saturday by going on a march. Now that’s fine but frankly I don’t see the point – unless you fancy a trip to London with some mates, a brisk walk and some shouting. Followed I assume by a pint or two and earnest discussion about the ways in which the concerns of the marchers can be made to “count” (a popular concept with marchers that means precisely nothing at all).

On this occasion the issue of the day was “climate change” – and specifically stopping “climate chaos”. The organisers – something called the Stop Climate Change Coalition – told the papers that everyone was there:

“We’ve got so many people coming together. We’ve got faith-based groups, anti-poverty campaigners, green groups, students, community groups, women’s groups and unions”

…there you have it. The usual bunch of marchers, self-appointed guardians of the national ethic and assorted loony lefties.

Total waste of time, annoying and pointless. How does walking, shouting and waving banners inform a debate dependent on science, detailed appraisal of policy options and tough choices for political leaders? Not in the slightest.

Next time go watch a football match...


Friday, 4 December 2009

Friday Fungus: garlic mushrooms (if you really insist)

You’ve all encountered the mushroom dish from hell: grey-brown lumps that might be button mushroom surrounded by a similarly coloured soup. “Garlic mushrooms” cried the menu – or maybe “garlic mushrooms in a cream sauce”. Whatever, it is an evil concoction, a relic of the days when restaurants believed that all posh food had to have cream sauces. And it is disgusting, an insult to mushrooms.

I’ve written before about the best way to cook really fresh mushrooms and nothing has changed. But is you insist on garlic mushrooms (personally I find garlic an overpowering flavour that reduces the pleasure from the mushrooms themselves – fresh thyme, cumin or even mint are a better option I think) here’s what you do.

½ lb fresh mushrooms (roughly chopped)
One small clove of garlic (finely chopped)
Oil or butter (I use olive oil) – not very much enough to line the frying pan
Salt & pepper

Get the pan very hot, add the oil or butter and make sure the whole pan is covered, whiz round the garlic for a few seconds then add all the mushrooms and the seasoning. Cook for a couple of minutes (until the mushrooms start to soften) then cover the pan tightly, turn the heat down as low as you can and leave for about 5 minutes or so. At the end you should have well-cooked mushrooms in garlic flavoured mushroom juices.

Eat on toast – my wife scrapes some parmesan on the top. You can do this if you insist.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

How supermarkets are snide

On Tuesday I posted a practical piece on the proposed new Tesco just outside Bingley. I thought however that something more thoughtful on the subject was needed – mostly to explain how we got to the stage we have with supermarkets and similar mass retailing.

Supermarkets are a child of the swag man – “pile it high and sell it cheap” was the motto of Manny Cohen, Tesco’s founder. And that’s just what he did – self-service, limited in-store service and sharp buying. The fundamentals remain the same – supermarkets succeed because people believe they are cheaper and, much of the time, in most places this is true. Nothing snide about that at all.

What is snide** is when supermarkets lay claim to sharper prices just on the basis of price comparison with other supermarkets. When did ASDA or Morrisons last compare their greengrocery prices to the prices on a market stall and brag about their cheapness in an advert? That’s because the market greengrocer is almost certainly cheaper. And in many cases the same goes for butchers on the market and much else besides. The price promise is a promise to be cheaper than other supermarkets – not discounters, not markets stalls, not van sales – just other big supermarkets.

So you’re warned about price now. What about the impact of supermarkets? The claim these big firms make is that they will create hundreds of jobs – and taken at one level this is true. A large supermarket will employ up to 400 people (rather fewer in “full time equivalents”) and most a quite well-regarded as employers. But what the supermarket doesn’t tell you is the known effects they have on small shops selling convenience goods, markets and, increasingly comparison retailers, pharmacies, newsagents and stationers.

The New Economics Foundation conducted a large study of food markets in London that included price comparisons for a basket of fresh produce between the market and the supermarket:

“The street market prices for fruit and vegetables are significantly cheaper than supermarket prices...”

Supermarkets spend a great deal on telling us about price and about their fresh produce. What they never tell you is that the cheap stuff isn’t the “fresh” stuff. Even farmers’ markets – widely perceived as expensive – were competitive in terms of prices for fresh produce compared to supermarkets.

Supermarkets also destroy towns and destroy jobs – here’s what I wrote in my MSc dissertation on the subject:

“The main findings of the early reviews (BDP Planning et al, 1992, DETR, 1998) showed that out-of-town and edge-of-town retail development did negatively impact on the vitality and viability of town centres: 1) development reduced the levels of town centre convenience shopping by at least 20%; 2) the loss of convenience trade affects the comparison trade within the town centre; 3) that, in most cases, the net employment impact of superstores was negative (DETR, 1998)” *

Yet the Government then and the Government now continue to promote supermarkets – taken in by the snide nature of their marketing, the misinformation and the manipulation of consumer opinion. Opposing supermarket developments isn’t about some sort of cuddly green agenda – it’s about stopping the wholesale destruction of other business through the exercise of effective monopoly power.

BDP Planning & Oxford Institute of Retail Management (1992), The effects of major out of town retail development: a literature review for the Department of the Environment, London, HMSO
Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) (1998), The impact of large foodstores on market towns and district centres, London, The Stationery Office
**Snide is market trader slang for misleading, fake or deceptive