Saturday, 31 July 2010
What more could we want? Oh yes - a fine lunch - which we obtained at The Cross Keys in Holbeck. Two cracking sausage sarnies and some beer brewed at the Goose Eye Brewey in Keighley. Wonderful.
Maywood in California sacking its entire staff and outsourced everything. Yep, everything! And...
“I’ve seen a lot of change – it’s quieter and calmer,” said Emma Sanchez. “I don’t see the gang members now, nor the graffiti. And it was overflowing with garbage before.”
Now there's a thought.
Friday, 30 July 2010
Once a year we gather the currants. We load the freezer, summer puddings are made, pies are baked and the odd red berry is nibbled. And these are the kings of currants - the daddies. Sharper yet sweeter than the bland blackcurrant, superior to the dull, flat-tasting blueberry and the pointless white currant.
Possible reasons relate to it association with ash and willow – well known weeping trees – but the most likely reason relate to the black veil on the upper stem and the way in which the ripe head oozes droplets. It is indeed a wonder that the idea of bereavement can be transferred to nature – that a simple and common woodland mushroom like Lacrymaria velutina can form such a natural metaphor in the minds of our ancestors.
Perhaps we have lost some of the symbolism of widowhood – not the tears, they remain – but the wearing of black, the sense that loss should be displayed physically and the idea of personified respect for what has gone. Maybe too this is for the better – perhaps the black veil and weeds are rightly in our past? The idea that life goes on and that, especially for women, it can continue without the prop of a partner is central to modern understanding. We no long need the veiled remembrance of the juggernaut. Women share rather than join and their life does not end – even metaphorically – with the death of a husband.
The idea of the black, veiled widow is an anachronism and, like our weeping widow mushroom, unpalatable!
Thursday, 29 July 2010
I find that books do tell you something about a person - my bookshelves (part of the biography section is in the picture above) will tell you that, when it comes to literature, we're pretty middlebrow - there's no Jane Austen, no Thomas Hardy and very little in the way of 20th (or 21st) Century literary novels. But then, as the shelf above tells you I'm firmly in the "Tolkein was the greatest 20th century writer" camp and watched with enormous pleasure a few years ago as The Lord of the Rings pipped Pride & Prejudice to the title of best ever book (or whatever). And the greatest pleasure came from seeing the disappointment of the clever-clever luvvies who would never admit to liking the book!
I'll be honest. I've tried to read these 'great novels' that make up the canon of English literature. I really have. But I can't get into them. The stories are thin, the characters are unattractive, the writing is stolid and you get page after page of 'oh so clever' description. Give me a good science fiction novel or a decent thriller any day - real stories with beginnings middles and ends. Yet, such delights are seen - somewhat sniffily - by many literary folk as somehow not proper writing even when they write the stuff. Here's Jeanette Winterson:
I hate science fiction. But good writers about science, such as Jim Crace or Margaret Atwood, are great. They take on science because it’s crucial to our world, and they use language to give energy to ideas. But others just borrow from science and it ends up like the emperor’s new clothes, with no understanding of the material. But you shouldn’t fake it because science is too important, it’s the basis for our lives. I expect a lot more science in fiction because science is so rich. I certainly learn from my books as I go along.
See what I mean? And we get round the problem by calling Margaret Atwood's science fiction, 'speculative fiction' instead. Which rather makes the point - most people can't see beyond the politically-correct banalities of Star Trek or the childish good humour of Doctor Who. Such people don't consider Frankenstein to be science fiction yet it undoubtedly qualifies - after all it explores the use and abuse of science, the ethics of humans creating life and the problem of identity (explored also by Asimov in 'I, Robot' and, delightfully, by Douglas Adams in 'The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy').
But I ramble - the point is that my tastes are mine. They are not better or worse than those who like literary novels and have read 'Sense & Sensibility' for pleasure. So why do people who have those highbrow tastes feel qualified to peer down at us lesser folk? Why is it that the great and serious literary discussion on TV and radio is always about the latest batch of dreary novels selected as some prize's shortlist (unless, of course, that prize is for horror, for crime writing or for fantasy)? The truth is that - just as is true across all of the arts - the public likes what the public likes. And the great and the good discuss the stuff most of the public think is crap and bemoan the fact that romance novels, musicals, twee pop songs and Jack Vettriano are preferred by us proles!
And Jack has it about right too!
"Every year the national galleries are given a budget from which to purchase new work for the collections and that money is the taxpayer's, but it seems to me that they take little notice of the taxpayer's money. Maybe, if they did take notice of what the taxpayers wanted then the b––––––– would actually show my work."
Wednesday, 28 July 2010
A few cheap headlines are worth a lie it seems – we all know that “24-hour drinking” has been a scourge, that towns and villages are visited by a terrible plague of drunken youths tearing the place up. I hate to disabuse you all.
Alcohol consumption has fallen since the liberalisation of licensing laws – yes folks we’re drinking less
Alcohol-related emergency admissions to hospitals have also fallen since the liberalisation of licensing laws
Levels of violent crime – and especially alcohol-related violent crime – have fallen in the same period
Nowhere have these facts been set out – at best the “24-hour drinking” rules have had a positive impact on our drinking habits and at worst they have made no difference. Any changes are just a knee jerk reaction to the ignorant and worse to the new prohibitionists who’d rather like drink to be banned along with any other slight risqué pleasure.
Tuesday, 27 July 2010
Every now and then my colleague Huw draws my attention to writings within that evil rag, The Guardian. I am now strong enough to stomach short exposes to this kind of stuff so was quite delighted to read this today from Julian Glover:
This bill introduces no new brand of school; no extra cash; no anything, really, except the extension of what we already have, which was anyway the aim of the last government when Tony Blair promised "every school an independent school". That was before it became inconvenient for Labour to take the side of consumers over providers.
And there you have it – people like Fiona Millar are paid to argue the case for the producers of education services. For the people who produced a system where it’s a source of celebration when nearly half of Bradford’s kids get five good GCSEs.
So yes let’s have that school system run for the consumers of the service – children and their parents – rather than run for the continuation of producer interest. We surely can’t carry on with the sorry state we’ve got now.
In the discussions about the ‘Big Society Bank’ there have been spluttering observations featuring the word ‘stealing’ – and the makers of these comments maybe have a point since neither they nor I have any real understanding as to what actually constitutes a dormant bank account (by which I mean the nature of the former ownership). They could be accounts where it is simply too expensive to track down the owner. Or we could be talking about small accounts for defunct little associations – local fishing clubs, ladies tea clubs and the like. Or even where there are no heirs meaning the money really does belong to the Government.
Which rather begs a question as to whether we should simply leave the money there in the (probably) vain hope that somebody will arrive with proof of ownership? After all it doesn’t belong to the government, does it? But then it will just sit there with the only people profiting from it being the banks who have control of the money. Indeed given the very small risk of substantial claims, the banks are able to treat the money as their own.
Alternatively – as has become the case – the Government can seize the money saying that it is, in effect, unclaimed treasure (using the same droit du seigneur as is the case with real treasure). And this does not seem an unreasonable approach given that the alternative of ‘finders keepers’ isn’t applicable. The only difference relates to age of the trove - treasure only applying to coins and precious metal more than 300 years old whereas the Dormant Bank & Building Societies Act 2008 only requires there to have been no customer activity for 15 years. Moreover, the Act requires any monies to go for charitable purposes whereas treasure trove is the explicit property of the crown.
It seems to me that, if treasure (whether governed by the treasure act or dealt with under ‘finders keepers’) isn’t theft, then using money in dormant bank accounts could also be seen in this light. Whether 15 years is long enough seems to me a matter for discussion and the success of unclaimed finance websites suggests that a review of this time period might be sensible. However, the principle underlying the Act seems reasonable even though an absolutist approach might define it as theft.
Sunday, 25 July 2010
Do we still build stuff to last as long as this abbey? Do we think about forever - 600, 700, even 800 years - when we build public buildings? Or has our loss of any idea of eternity been replaced with a prosaic, practical perspective?
The only way to keep up these days is to cook properly. You have to know your cuts of meat, the right oil to use (never fry using olive oil, for instance), the difference between mascarpone, fromage frais, ricotta. And how do we all know about this? Cooking courses. That's how.
Now leaving aside the ignorance of this paragraph – if they’re saying don’t fry with olive oil that rather rules out any Italian cooking – what on earth is this writer on about? Cooking courses? They’re things you buy a foodie for a fancy present not things you can afford to pop onto at a whim. Unless you’re Lucy of course:
I can't move for friends going on courses. They're either off to Hugh (Fearnley-Whittingstall) or Rick (Stein). They are at Sarah Raven or Darina Allen in Ireland, or up in Scotland smoking fish.
Not my friends. Nor do my friends have that foodie angst about what to serve, where the meat’s from, whether it’s organic or how the lettuce comes from the allotment. But angst sells the cooking courses:
Yet Jay Rayner believes our lust for cooking has a deeper psychological meaning. "It's all about us desperately trying to prove we have a hinterland," he says. "People think it's bored housewives going on cooking courses, but it's not. No one has time to be bored now. It's because cooking is self-contained. It has a beginning and a middle and an end, which is unlike all the areas in the rest of our lives such as rearing children, work, and so forth."
No Jay. People go on cooking courses because they’ve the time and money to do so. And because they want to learn how to cook well. Existential angst is what you’re selling – scaring people whose Friday night dinner party involves escaping from work at 4.43, driving like an idiot to Morrison’s grabbing a selection of goodies and some booze, going home and turning it all into something good to eat for the guests.
I’ve never yet experienced any of the ‘one-upmanship’ that seems to bother Lucy – the suppers, dinners and teas I go to at friends are just a nice meal with good company. Which is the point of a dinner party. However, Lucy can’t resist finishing with a snobby quote from Escoffier and an aside from Jay Rayner that:
Rayner doesn't think there's anything wrong with our quest to learn more skills, however - as long as we realise that that doesn't necessarily make us good cooks.
There, there you troubled posh darlings. It’s OK, you learn how to bake. And self-important food writers like Jay (can he actually cook?) will take the piss out of you. In the Guardian!
The real middle classes – people like me – will carry on untroubled by not having anywhere to put a wood-burning stove (let alone any desire to own one) or by the need to go and learn complicated and fiddly, over-flavoured dishes just to impress. Cooking is pretty easy – good ingredients, simple processes, the right timing. Bingo – great food.
But then what do I know? I taught myself.
Saturday, 24 July 2010
I'm not qualified on the matter of whether Tangent carve good websites from the living rock (or whatever it is that the web design wallahs do) but I am qualified to spot bullshit when I see it - especially marketing bullshit.
And, as every good marketer knows, any statement containing the words "integrated", "marketing" and "strategy" is communications wiffle-piffle of the first water.
I try very hard to be positive about the planning system. But this (starts on page 19) makes me want to weep:
A full application for construction of a new livestock building together with retention of part of a general purpose agricultural building. Land at Beckfoot House, Beckfoot Lane, Harden, Bingley.
This application is recommended for refusal despite letters of support from neighbours and there being no local objections at all. Those people who will be affected by the development think its fine – why do planners think they know better?
And what do the planners seem to think? Well it appears to me that despite the weasel words used the main driver for the decision is a belief that the applicant isn’t a proper farmer.
the main issue to consider in determining this application continues to be the impact of the building on the openness of the green belt and the character and appearance of the landscape due to its bulk and scale and its prominent siting - especially given the relatively small size of the land holding and the scale and prominence of the building.
The building is too big and therefore might be used for dreadful, nefarious purposes (in this case the rumour is that the applicant intends to keep his racing cars in the new barn – odd given he has a perfectly good garage for them). The other problem is that the planners want to dictate precisely where on the holding a barn should be cited rather than allowing the landowner to decide according to his needs.
And the planners return to their innuendo again:
The building will have to be significantly adapted to make it suitable to accommodate livestock which casts some doubt on its original intended purpose.
Of course they have no evidence to support this statement – it’s just lobbed in there to cast doubt on the applicants farming credentials despite this:
…an agricultural statement from agents representing the applicant describes the applicant’s intention to establish a pedigree beef herd and sheep flock. It says that the location of the building is justified in terms of practicality for the farming enterprise, topography and access and to avoid potential conflict with neighbouring properties. The size is said to be justified by reference to welfare standards and regulations governing the housing of livestock and by reference to the amount of feed, straw equipment and ancillary items such as medicines required by the intended number of livestock. The applicant anticipates keeping up to 8 cows, each with calves and a maximum of 20 sheep. The cows will have to be housed indoors over winter. The portion of the building that needs to be rebuilt to accommodate livestock seems to have been designed to reflect DEFRA recommendations and welfare guidance.
Despite this the planners are back with their ‘you’re not a proper farmer’ implications:
It has not been explained why a building of the proportions and in the position agreed under the Prior Approval procedure would not suffice given the small scale of the holding.Er...did you not read the Agent's statement?
None of these issues is material to the planning decision but they provide important background noise for the planners – substantiating their argument that this barn is too big and in a prominent position. The crux of the planning argument relates to whether the development is allowed in the ‘green belt’ – and, ceteris paribus, if it has a clear agricultural justification then planning permission is not required.
What I find most disturbing about this case is the manner in which rumour and innuendo about the applicant’s purposes in building the barn appear to have influenced the decision and, in particular, the assessment of the agricultural case for the development. In the view of neighbours this development is, at worst, of no impact and for some a real advantage. But the treatment of the case by the planners – the questioning of the applicants motives, the dismissal of planting schemes and the constant reference to the scale of the farm – serve to create the context for those planners to propose refusal on the grounds of impact in the green belt.
An impact that has been mitigated:
The impact of the building when viewed from Beckfoot Lane has been heightened by removal of mature trees from along the lane during 2008. These have been replaced by new planting carried out in conjunction with the Forest of Bradford. A previous letter from the Trust confirms that 350 whips and 45 light standard trees have been planted on the applicant’s land as an initial phase of a planting programme which will continue with new tree planting and new hedgerows to be planted on the holding in November 2009. The applicant intends to plant at least 3 acres of the holding as woodland copses.
Pretty good stuff – just what the planning system should support? But in this case the planner isn’t happy:
…it would be some years before such planting provided effective screening to a structure that is 31 metres long and over 7 metres high for 2/3rds of its length.
But - as this statement suggests - it will screen the development in years to come.
But it gets better - the planners even go so far as to criticise the tree planting itself!
…the new planting proposed may, in itself, detract from the open pasture character of the landscape.
I’m laughing now – anyone who know the ‘twines’ and the Harden Beck valley will know it is a mixture of woodland, copse and fenced grazing – there isn;t any ‘open pasture’. The statement appears designed to substantiate the view of the planners rather than to describe the valley in which this development is proposed.
It is likely that a proposed development that improves life for local residents, provides facilities for a local farmer, is supported by several letters and by ward members will be refused.
The planning system really is a joke.
Taken from the comments on this post from Alex Tabarrock (a mighty fine blogger for those who like their economics 'in your face'):
Humans are trashing the planet. Who's allowing us to do that? Why is being allowing to happen, and who is benefitting from the destruction? One specific environmental disaster is bad enough, especially if you're the bird who is drenched in oil and dies a painful death. But it is the accumulated affects of human actions that will ultimately lead to ecological collapse (such as Global Warming), and nuclear war fought over resources. George Mason University will be destroyed in the blast and you will die. No cat will be needed to put you out of your misery.
Mind you the bizarre debate about how many birds are kiled by cars that runs through these comments makes me wonder whether the whole thing might be an elaborate construct created to provide me with pleasure. Either that or eco-obsessives are a bunch of loons. Make your choice?
Thursday, 22 July 2010
But take a look at it. Isn't it a stage - a place oozing with the magic of interaction? A place ripe for an explosion of cultural wow. Why?
Because of the people, because of the audience. Just look closer at the few folk in the picture - people who aren't attending a 'cultural event' out of noblesse oblige or ethnic cringe but are doing the same thing in the same place, experiencing the same pleasure. Sharing the magic.
Tear up the strategies, give up on trying to use the arts as a cipher for better health, community cohesion, regeneration or anything but what they are...the things that animate, excite, challenge and make fun. The magic that - to borrow from Piers Anthony - makes the world something other than mundane.
Tuesday, 20 July 2010
It's not often you get to read something that not only makes you think but also changes the way you think. This, from The American Spectator does just that - here's an early quote from a fairly long article:
When pollsters ask the American people whether they are likely to vote Republican or Democrat in the next presidential election, Republicans win growing pluralities. But whenever pollsters add the preferences "undecided," "none of the above," or "tea party," these win handily, the Democrats come in second, and the Republicans trail far behind. That is because while most of the voters who call themselves Democrats say that Democratic officials represent them well, only a fourth of the voters who identify themselves as Republicans tell pollsters that Republican officeholders represent them well. Hence officeholders, Democrats and Republicans, gladden the hearts of some one-third of the electorate -- most Democratic voters, plus a few Republicans. This means that Democratic politicians are the ruling class's prime legitimate representatives and that because Republican politicians are supported by only a fourth of their voters while the rest vote for them reluctantly, most are aspirants for a junior role in the ruling class. In short, the ruling class has a party, the Democrats. But some two-thirds of Americans -- a few Democratic voters, most Republican voters, and all independents -- lack a vehicle in electoral politics.
It seems to me that we have long ago passed this point in the UK, that the electorate are not represented well by their governors and that my Party is competing to be a party of the social democrat elite instead of reaching out to those people who aren't in the ruling class. There are moments of epiphany but these are quickly swamped by decisions to let criminals wander about freely, to ban, control and restrict our pleasures in the name of "public health" and to employ a vast army to count, check and corral us as we go about our daily lives.
When we spoke the language of the ordinary bloke - the ex-miner, the lorry driver, the accounts clerk and the bank teller - we broke through, raised hopes and brought a glimmer of a smile to the nannied, brow-beaten and hectored man and woman in the street. People want their government to help them when they're down not lecture them about their diet. People want their government to care for them when they're ill not wag (carefully scrubbed) fingers at us for the dread crime of having a fag and a pint. And people want a government that provides schools that teach kids to read, write and add up not schools that weigh and measure the children or police the contents of lunch boxes.
Go and read that article - it might just change how you think too?
While watching the wonders of Sky TV yesterday and on spotting the endlessly repeated Sky Broadband offer a thought struck me.
Perhaps Mr Murdoch ain't as daft as y'all think - any bets on when the Times content is bundled up as part of an "enhanced" broadband offering? Or even packaged as a "news & comment" add on to the TV packages? After all the free newspaper stuff - other than the BBC - is all going to die.
Just a thought.
Monday, 19 July 2010
Now on the competition point, I rather agree. But it isn’t addressed by getting a desperate sound bite or by shouting at the banks. If you want more competition, you have to allow people to start new banks without the huge financial and regulatory barriers to entry (that are keenly supported by the evil “Big Banks” in their eagerness to protect the consumer from rapacious fly-by-night outfits). So, Vince, either do this or else shut up.
On the matter of evil bankers confusing us poor folk and thereby charging very high rates of interest (I think the official term is obscene), I see either a finely crafted straw man or else a degree of informed ignorance that only innumerate BBC journalists can achieve. Put simply, Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is a pretty lousy way of assessing the price of short term credit. And that is what we are talking about here – banks generally don’t offer rates in excess of 1,000% for general loans but for small amounts borrowed without prior clearance the fixed costs are such that very high rates are inevitable (just consider, for example, a whole floor filled with people just processing the results of our financial incompetence – and that’s just the start of it).
The banks could simply bounce your payment and, as is their right, charge you a few quid for doing this (such costs will be in the terms and conditions of your account that the bank sends you every year). But in their blessed wisdom they don’t do this but allow your water bill or whatever to pass unheeded – and then charge you a few quid for that kindness in the form of interest. It all amounts to the same cost in the end – you’re either going to borrow without permission for a few days or else the bank isn’t going to let you borrow in that way. In both cases the cost to you is the same – which would you prefer?
Today’s Times makes a mountain from the wholly unsurprising news that big oil companies have funded research organisations and lobbyists. And that part of this funding relates to the debate around anthropogenic climate change. Apparently such funding is officially a bad thing – at least so far as the media are concerned. Presumably this is done on the “whoever pays the piper calls the tune” principle – or rather the jaundiced belief that intelligent, ethical scientific researchers would never take money from wicked bad business. Only nasty corrupt scientists would do that.
All this, of course, puts us at the heart of the debate about the funding of scientific research, the impact such funding has on the integrity of the researchers and whether the funder really does call the tune in terms of research findings. Others are more able than I to answer these questions but there is a further point relating to state and NGO funded research.
It seems to me that, if the cynics are right and private sector funded research is compromised by the agenda and/or objectives of the funder then we must ask the same questions of research funded from public and charitable sources. After all these organisations (and those who manage them) have an ‘agenda’ – a set of aims and objectives – and would not be too happy if the findings of the research compromised or undermined those objectives. What would happen, for example, if research funded by the Department for Energy & Climate Change or by WWF raised serious doubts about anthropogenic global warming? The little devil on my shoulder suggests that such findings would be lost somewhere in the vast overhang of paperwork within the funding organisation!
And this is the point – all research runs the risk of being compromised by the requirements of the funder, whoever that funder might be. This does not mean the research is wrong, badly conducted or unreliable (although all of these things can apply it is a logical fallacy to link them to the funding) or that such research doesn’t contribute to the totality of our understanding. However, I find it rather sad that we have reached this juncture.
Let’s speculate that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation funds me to conduct a study of social capital in Cullingworth. Do you, dear reader, think that I will be somehow less of a laissez faire liberal because I’m funded by a bunch of statist, interventionist lefties? Thought so – my integrity on such matters is clear (which is probably why JRF won’t be funding me)!
So why then do some of you think other ethical, responsible researchers are compromised by being funded by an oil company, a publisher, a charity or the Government?
Sunday, 18 July 2010
As you leave Cullingworth and head for the A629 in the direction of Denholme there is a fuzzy moment. It’s OK, there’s not some discontinuity in the space-time continuum – one of those shaky camera moments beloved of Dr Who. The fuzzy moment refers to the boundary. There are two rows on terraces either side of what is called Doctor’s Bridge (for reasons unknown to me) one of which is in the Parish of Cullingworth and one in the Town of Denholme. However, the post office thinks both terraces are in Cullingworth and the Council thinks both are in Denholme. The boundary here is fuzzy but that fuzziness really doesn’t matter – it seems unlikely that open warfare will erupt between the two villages making the fuzzy boundary a quaint curiosity rather than a potential problem.
However, where we live is important to our sense of being. I may be able to announce myself – in a fit of libertarian grandiloquence – as a ‘citizen of the world’ but when it comes down to it, that’s a pretty meaningless statement insofar as you want to understand who I am. I’ve said before that one of the great weaknesses of fundamentalist liberalism is that is doesn’t grasp the idea – let alone the importance – of place. The response to my fuzzy boundary observation might well be ‘so what’ which rather misses the point.
Which takes us to how we determine the boundaries of place – and just as importantly, who decides those edges? We could talk about how betopied colonialists with bristling moustaches and swagger sticks drew arbitrary lines on the map thereby creating the conditions for all the wars of today’s world. But this discussion is to laden with preconceived ideas, sacred cows and bigotry for us to understand the issue of the fuzzy boundary. So, in the spirit of understanding, I shall stick close to Cullingworth and will consider the “Great Ward Boundary Dispute” of 2003.
In 2002 and 2003 there was a review of ward boundaries for the Bradford Metropolitan District. This was needed to equalise the size of the wards and to capture – in our political boundaries – the changes since the previous review back in the 1980s. As a result of this review – and I’ll spare you the full gory detail – it was proposed that a small part of Bingley Rural ward would be moved into the adjacent Heaton ward. This small part consisted of a little place called New Brighton and thirty or so houses on Stoney Ridge Road and North Bank Road.
In the end New Brighton remained happily located within Bingley Rural but the transfer of the Stoney Ridge and North Bank area resulted in a terrible outcry. They were being moved ‘into Bradford’ which would reduce their house values, raise their insurance prices and visit upon the all kinds of terrible plagues. These houses are in Bingley and should not be moved out of Bingley – every historical, moral and social imperative said this (to borrow from Peppone) and the proposal was an outrage. (I have added some extra eggs to this to make the point).
We now have a fuzzy edge – thirty or so houses that the post office places in Bingley were now in Heaton ward. The ancient boundary between Bingley and Bradford has been corrupted just as the Shipley-Bradford boundary was breached by the attaching of Frizinghall to Heaton. On one level it doesn’t really matter but it does rather illustrate how the imposition of boundaries by well-meaning outsiders can prove something of a problem. Indeed the result may just be as Giovanni Guareschi imagined!
Fontanile was divided from the "capital" by just such a stream, and for twenty years no one had seen so much water in it. Night had fallen, but Don Camillo paced nervously up and down the road leading along the bank. His nervousness did not pass until he heard the brakes of a big car. The car was full of policemen, and with their arrival Don Camillo went back to the rectory and hung his shotgun on the wall. After supper Peppone came to see him, looking very glum.
"Did you call the police?" he asked Don Camillo.
"Of course I did, after you staged that diversion at Case Nuove in order to have a free hand for your other mischief, yes, and after you cut the telephone and telegraph wires, too."
Peppone looked at him scornfully.
"You're a traitor!" he said. "You asked for foreign aid. A man without a country, that's what you are!"
Or, God forbid, worse.
Saturday, 17 July 2010
There’s a dawning realisation that – while the ‘cuts’ will result in an net increase in Government spending by 2014 – they are going to have a massive impact on the delivery of services. Already we see the doom and gloom headlines:
Birmingham City Council to make £230m of savings
Chief executive Tony Reeves can't rule out compulsory redundancies
5,600 Bristol public sector jobs are set to be axed within six years
The volume of ill-informed shouting is rising (such as describing £230 million from a £3,500 million budget as 25%) and this is drowning out those voices asking whether this really is a chance to do things rather differently. And within the Councils themselves the focus is on those elusive, mythical beasts – “efficiency savings”. Recruitment freezes (a further joyous nail in the Guardian’s coffin I hope), better sickness management, senior management restructures, facililies consolidation and the delights of ‘cuts talk’.
What I don’t hear from these big councils is – we’ll stop doing it. Let’s hand our assets over to community organisations, to parish councils, to new trusts. Let’s find out whether effective, flexible public service delivery is possible without the superstructure of massive local council bureaucracy. And let’s try out other solutions – social enterprise, the voluntary sector, small business, co-ops, self-help groups – to delivering local services.
Perhaps we might take the idea of a ‘place cheque’ promoted so keenly by the Local Government Association and apply it to local communities – handing over the cash the Bradford spends in Cullingworth on street cleaning, emptying bins, filling in potholes, fixing street lights and providing a warden service. And the parish council, the ward members, the village hall management and others can buy the services we need – back from the Council or from other suppliers if that’s our wish.
It has to be worth a try – but I’ll be holding my breath a long time before we see it happen!
Friday, 16 July 2010
“…to “cut us but don’t kill us,” warning that if belt-tightening was drastic and immediate, museums would cancel blockbuster shows, theaters would go dark, and 200 of 850 state-funded bodies would lose their subsidy.”
The problem is that – unlike other sectors – the lion’s share of arts funding doesn’t go to the grass roots but to the elite establishment run by those whining about how those cuts will damage them. There is no doubt that the way in which we support the arts needs to be changed – elite art should be able to pay its own way, indeed should contribute to the development of new art, the support of emerging artists and the encouragement of audience.
Art – and especially performing art – should learn from another part of our cultural sphere:
The Football Foundation was set up as a partnership to oversee youth development and football at the grassroots. Premier League chairman Dave Richards said: "This is an exciting and important moment for English football. "We have pledged over £7m to the Foundation for the rest of this year and £27.5m each year for three years from 2001 under the terms of the new TV deal - a total investment of almost £90m.”
And that funding continues today backed up by ongoing commitment from the Football Association and the active involvement of individual clubs and players. Without a single penny of taxpayers funding football supports the development and extension of the game.
Why can’t theatre do that? Or opera?
Thursday, 15 July 2010
Instead, I shall speculate about how it feels being Number One. Now remember that – other than my childhood when I had two younger brothers to dominate – I have very little experience of first place (and even that was moderated by having a big sister). However, I have a very vivid imagination and can speculate on the feeling of victory – standing on the podium (even the metaphorical podium of bloggerdom), champagne bottle in one hand, trophy in the other as I delight in my vanquishing of lesser folk. The smugness that flowing from my body will be almost palpable – verging on a material thing.
And being Number One will bring other rewards – TV appearances, magazine interviews and a flood of new readers – some groupie-like in their desire to be close to me in that virtual bubble of minor celebrity. Others will ape my style, search for the simple truth – the genius, if you will – that lies behind my elevated status. And I shall bask – no, wallow – in the mud hole of Number One.
Wednesday, 14 July 2010
Once upon a time we used to turn to the magician for the resolution of our weather problems – most usually for the summoning of rain. Todat drought is solved by the announcement of a hosepipe ban.
As Fraser points out control of the weather is a central requirement of a wizard:
Thus, for example, in a village near Dorpat, in Russia, when rain was much wanted, three men used to climb up the fir-trees of an old sacred grove. One of them drummed with a hammer on a kettle or small cask to imitate thunder; the second knocked two fire-brands together and made the sparks fly, to imitate lightning; and the third, who was called "the rain-maker," had a bunch of twigs with which he sprinkled water from a vessel on all sides. To put an end to drought and bring down rain, women and girls of the village of Ploska are wont to go naked by night to the boundaries of the village and there pour water on the ground. In Halmahera, or Gilolo, a large island to the west of New Guinea, a wizard makes rain by dipping a branch of a particular kind of tree in water and then scattering the moisture from the dripping bough over the ground. In New Britain the rain-maker wraps some leaves of a red and green striped creeper in a banana-leaf, moistens the bundle with water, and buries it in the ground; then he imitates with his mouth the plashing of rain.
This is sympathetic magic – the imitation of rain brings on the reality of the storm. Sometimes it works – in as much as the wizard’s actions are followed by rain (we need not get all sceptical and worry about cause). Now we find a modern phenomenon – negative sympathy. Whether it’s the appointment of Dennis Howell as Minister for Drought – a magic trick that brought the great drought of 1976 to an abrupt end – or the impact of hosepipe bans on the weather, this seems to have the effect of summoning rain. It’s almost as if the act of doing something to save water offends the rain gods.
And as we know offending the rain gods can prove something of a problem.
Two issues that have exercised the febrile minds of our chattering classes – anonymity in rape cases and banning (or not banning) the burkha. And there’s a link in the hypocrisy and self-righteous smugness of the cuddly lefties who like to pontificate on such matters.
Banning the burkha is wrong but authorities should be allowed to require the veils removal for justified reasons of identification. And, other than when that person’s safety is at risk, there should be no anonymity in the court system – whether in rape or any other crime.
The arguments put up by those most indignant about the proposals to grant some anonymity to those accused of rape are a pile of piffle constructed from the ruins of an army of straw men. If –dear lefty women – it is right to grant anonymity to the victim, it must also be right to grant anonymity to the accused. I know you like the word – that is FAIR. Stupid…but fair. A bit like granting anonymity to victims who might otherwise “not come forward because of the stigma” (one of the more nonsensical notions in all this debate).
In all this the lefties share common ground with the frothing nutters (and the French it seems) who think that the law should have anything to say about what we should or shouldn’t wear while going about our normal business. Ah, they say – we don’t know who they are, we can’t see their faces, they might be terrorists! This is the same argument as that used to argue against granting anonymity to men accused of rape – they might be serial rapists, there might be other witnesses, they might be allowed to walk free!
I don’t like burkhas or rapists but find the arguments about special treatment in both cases to be without any logic or sense – but that’s what we expect from the racist left and the cuddly left.
Back in the dark ages when computers needed their own office block let alone their own room, the word “fud” was coined. “Fud” – as I’m sure you all know – described the disinformation and attack campaigns directed by IBM salesmen at people who might switch to competitor organisations. These campaigns leant heavily on the “no-one got sacked for buying IBM” adage and sought to question the reliability, support and capability of competing machines. Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt – fud – was sown in the minds of customers.
It seems to me that we haven’t used this word enough! The strategy of casting doubts (not to mention fear and uncertainty) in the minds of the target audience is central to political campaigning – and especially to the left’s campaigns. The entire Labour strategy in the recent general election was founded on fud – disinformation that spread fear, uncertainty and doubt among those tempted to desert the party. Key targets – middle-class public sector workers, ethnic minorities, union members – were bombarded with negative stories about what the Evil Tories would do in power, how this threatened them, was based on questionable evidence and would probably make things worse.
What we had was the strategy of the father in Hillaire Belloc’s Jim on being informed of Jim’s death:
When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:—His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, “Well—it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!”
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James’s miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.
Or, as we now know it, fud!
Sunday, 11 July 2010
I don’t lay claim to knowing what is or isn’t good football but I do know stupidity when I see it. And the phrase, “money has ruined football” is in the premier league of stupidity because it simply isn’t true. In fact, English football – not to mention the British economy – has benefitted enormously from the cash that has flowed into the game from commercial interests in the form of sponsorship, broadcasting rights and merchandising. If we saw it as a normal business we would be lauding the success of the Premier League – a massive business success.
Yet people like Andy Burnham, the former Labour culture secretary, persist in promoting the view that somehow football is worse for all the cash.
"I think money has poisoned our national game. Our game has rampant commercialism. We have put money before the sport and we are reaping the dividends of that”
I’m sorry but can somebody show me some substantive evidence of the negative impact of money in football. And can we put the argument that the national team suffers to one side – England failed to qualify for the World Cup finals twice in the 1970s when the game was broke, there were no foreigners playing in the first division and players earned peanuts.
Today professional players are employed by teams not even in the top four divisions, attendances are good and the numbers playing and watching are at an all time high. Indeed, the criticism might come from other sports – cricket, athletics, tennis – that has been squeezed out by the ubiquity of football. Football in England is played at a higher standard, gets more support and contributes substantially to our exports. It is a success story.
In an otherwise pretty moaning and self-justifying article in the Sunday Telegraph, former school governor, Joanna Leapman raises the question as to why (almost uniquely) teachers appear to deny the existence of any bad teachers.
Teachers take criticism less well than any other professional body I can think of. The teaching unions line up regularly to wheel out quotes attacking their portrayal in television dramas in a way no others do. I can’t recall ever seeing quotes from pub landlords or shopkeepers saying that they are unhappy with their latest characterisation on screen.
Sadly Joanna Leapman goes onto a whole array of unconnected attacks on the profession – there aren’t enough “top graduates” in teaching (I really fail to see how being a top graduate will assist in teaching 6 years olds to read and write or 11 year olds to string a coherent sentence or two together) and teachers can’t spell – this latter accusation arrived at through quoting anonymous posts on a teachers on-line forum, most of which seem to have had liquid assistance in their creation.
Mrs. Leapman misses the point. It isn’t that teachers are in denial about poor teachers but that this really doesn’t matter to them. If you work in a private business incompetence matters – it might cost you your job. In a state controlled and directed industry like education the presence of incompetence is irrelevant if annoying – there is absolutely no need and certainly no incentive to complain about another teacher. And despite the best intentions of Government and of organisations like Ofsted, these are not a substitute for raw self-interest.
Saturday, 10 July 2010
The transformation of New Orleans' education system - and the lives of poor kids - after Hurricane Katrina is spectacular especially given its starting point. And it's the result of choice, freedom and local initiative. It's the power of free schools to change. As one of the people quoted on this video observed: "we're a service industry".
Watch it and then get behind the liberation of our schools from government, unions and the deathly hand of bureaucratic direction. Free schools work - watch it here.
Friday, 9 July 2010
The next question was, of course, to ask how we are serving the mushrooms. For this experiment the plan is just plain, pan-fried with some herbs and maybe a dash or two of Worcester sauce. And ideally wild mushrooms – a little more oomph than cultivated mushrooms.
So to the suggestions – as yet untried – but gratefully received:
From Jon Beech – serve with a good dry sherry. I like this idea – I’ve cooked mushrooms in sherry before and it’s a good combination. Think I’ll serve the sherry cold – just need to test a few.
From The Wine Sleuth – a good red wine is suggested, specifically a Cahors (which for my Gnostic connoisseurs would be perfect, of course) which will have some nice spicy notes to it!
In the Washington Post there are some suggestions from a top sommelier, Scott Calvert:
"Earthy mushrooms pair best with earthy wines," Calvert advises, in explaining why he pairs black trumpets, chanterelles and shiitakes with earthy reds such as Burgundy, nebbiolo and pinot noir. We've found earthy mushrooms a great match with one of the best-value earthy reds around: Kenwood Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.
Likewise, meaty mushrooms -- such as cremini, morels, porcini and portobellos -- pair best with meaty wines, among which Calvert counts pinot noir (which "can go either way" as earthy or meaty), sangiovese and syrah/shiraz. We recently sampled a meaty Kenwood Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon that shined with a portobello-topped steak.”
I’ll be trying out some of these suggestions (once there are a few more mushrooms around) and reporting back. But, in the meantime, do add your own ideas and suggestions!
Thursday, 8 July 2010
Instead of junk food these bossy folk want us to eat more green stuff. You know those smelly sprouts, cabbages and spring greens you hated as a kid but eat now under sufferance because some self-appointed expert on the telly tells us it’s good for us. In fact many folk wonder what all the fuss is about with brassicas – other than how one plant can produce such an array of annoying vegetables (although it was always a disappointment to me that sprouts didn’t turn into big cabbages if you left them on the stem, in fact that big cabbages are in fact just giant sprouts – which explains a great deal). As a small relative of mine once observed, ‘if God had meant us to eat cabbage, he would’ve made it taste nice.’
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not a big consumer of so-called junk food (in the case of Big Macs not a consumer at all under any circumstances other than near death from starvation) but I really don’t see that what other folk eat is any concern of mine – or, more importantly, any concern of the Government. If people want to stuff their faces with fattening food and wash it down with fizzy-pop or cheap lager (while smoking bootleg Lambert & Butlers) that’s their business. And, if as a result such folk die a terrible painful death at 55 (as appears to be the case with half Glasgow’s population if the figures are right) that’s their problem not mine.
If you like eating cabbage – eat cabbage (or how about deep fried sprouts – might they address the Glasgow diet problem?). If you enjoy a juicy venison steak pan-fried with a red wine jus that’s great too. And if you want pizza, chips and a deep-fried mars bar, go for it. And when you’ve digested all that get out a pen and paper (or fire up the old laptop) and tell the government to butt out.
Tuesday, 6 July 2010
The World Cup finals have proven to be everything we might expect – England performing in the manner of a damp squib, the TV pundits frothing about special kinds of football not played by Englishmen (samba, total, passing etc.) and everyone being consistently wrong in their predictions. Apparently, with the exception of an especially clever octopus.
There have been some oddities – an Italian player with a full beard (as opposed to one of those trimmed affairs more usually associated with footballers). Presumably de Rossi is studying at the Martin Castrogiovanni school of beards. This trend of bearded Italians is – while odd – faintly encouraging for those of us who have struggled in the sartorial stakes besides assorted Latin types (although inexplicably, as observed here, Vicente Del Bosque, the Spanish boss wouldn’t look out of place in Last of the Summer Wine).
A further oddity of this World Cup has been the failure of any pundit or commentator to attach the term ‘cat’ to any player (not of course that it ever did Peter Bonetti any good). I was under the impression that some sleek, probably South American player has to be likened to a cat at some point – surely it’s in the rules? Such fickleness really isn’t acceptable (as is the fact that the Argentine team is not referred to as The Pumas – this is also wrong).
All in all, not a bad World Cup – and one in which the teams playing good football in an organized way (or in Spain’s case passing the ball in endless triangles until David Villa wakes up and scores) appear to have risen to the top. For my part I’d like the Dutch to win – they deserve it for playing OK football but mostly for failing to win it when they were the best team on the planet by a mile.
Hup Holland Hup!
Since Eric Pickles is a working-class lad from Keighley rather too many people underestimate both his intelligence and his sense of mission. Perhaps, in the latter case, they’ll wake up following his speech to the Local Government Association Conference:
“Is it really right, in this day and age, to have separate planning departments? Lawyers? Communications teams? Wouldn’t it be better if people were working together?
That’s especially important for the highest levels and the most expensive people. It’s obviously a bad week to raise things that Germany does better than us, but they’ve really got the idea in local government. Where they’ve ended up with chief executives and executive leaders doing more or less the same thing; they’ve flat out stopped it.
Couldn’t chief execs bring more to the table by working across boundaries, rather than replicating what the leader should be doing?”
Those who remember 1988 in Bradford will recognise the objective – streamlining the council, fewer senior officers, outsourced services and an all-together blunter approach. Eric’s is very much that of what we once called the ‘soft loo paper’ Tory – what matters are the ordinary, everyday services delivered to local residents. None of this “change”, no social engineering and the barest smattering of political correctness. Give people what they want from their council at a fair price and they’ll love you for it.
To do this we don’t need libraries full of strategies, floors crammed with policy officers or whole phalanxes of people employed to count black people. We need what we had in that rose-tinted past – solid folk, doing a steady job, in the local neighbourhood trying to make it a comfortable, pleasant and tolerant place to live, work and play.
And helping Eric deliver this will be my ward colleague and Chair of the LGA, Margaret Eaton – who was Chairman of Housing & Social Services in Eric’s Bradford administration. A formidable and successful team then and, I’ve no doubt, a great team today. I shall enjoy the fun!
Sunday, 4 July 2010
There has been some debate about News International’s decision to put the new content of The Times behind a pay wall – to make us pay for “quality journalism” as dear old Rupert put it. Most of the views have tended to go something like this:
“It’s not going to work because we’ll get our news on-line from somewhere else. Doesn’t Murdoch realise that times have moved on. Duh!”
Or like this…
“We hate Rupert Murdoch and hope that his initiative fails so we finally get the chance to point our fingers at him, laugh and chant, ‘fail, fail, loser, loser’.”
I don’t know whether or not Murdoch’s decision will work but I’ve a suspicion that those clever online ‘experts’ will be shown up in the fullness of time. After all, journalism – quality or otherwise – has to be paid for somehow. It really is a simple as that and we should be asking how long The Guardian can be bailed out by the Scott Trust, whether the Telegraph’s ‘reader offer’ strategy will bring in the income and how many other newspapers will put their copy behind a pay wall over the next few years.
And then there’s the BBC. At present the BBC’s news is available free on-line (or rather ‘paid by the license fee’ online) and this undoubtedly acts as a malign drag on the development of an effective, sustainable on-line supply of information. So long as the BBC’s journalism is paid for by a poll tax on the populace, making us pay for news content on-line will present a challenge.
Murdoch’s criticisms of the BBC’s market-making activities and cross-subsidising of news on-line through are valid and we should pay more attention to them if we are interested in sustaining a free press. It’s hard not to agree with this from James Murdoch:
“The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country. Funded by a hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered to offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market.”
It is the last part of Murdoch’s observation that should exercise us when thinking about on-line news. At present the BBC’s actions are preventing the development of a market by, in effect, forcing competing news providers to continue distributing their on-line content free. Again young Jimmy nailed it:
“Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the Internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it. We seem to have decided to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market, and get bigger to compensate."
I hope The Times succeeds behind its paywall – it certainly deserves to for have the bravery to say that the emperor has no clothes and that if we want good journalism we have to pay for it.
Saturday, 3 July 2010
Saturday morning post. The usual mix of bills invitations to take out credit cards and council stuff. And as usual the council stuff outnumbers the rest – agendas, pleading letters from organisations that mustn’t lose their funding or else the skies will darken and the demons will walk the earth again.
Looking through this pile my eyes lighted on a glossy brochure with a nice photo of the Sheffield Winter Gardens on the front. What’s that, I wondered?
Turns out it’s the “Annual Report Executive Summary, Highlights of Year Two” for an organisation calling itself (rather ridiculously), YoHr Space – sounds a bit like some kind of trendy architects or designers but you’d be wrong. It’s a publicly-funded body that’s really called ‘Yorkshire and Humber Improvement and Efficiency Partnership’.
The summary starts out well with talk of ‘cashable savings’ (note to non-local government reader: this doesn’t actually mean any real cash has been saved) and co-operative programmes. There’s reference to ‘Total Place’ – a programme where loads of meetings are held to plan doing the obvious, namely joining up the delivery of services in a given place. And then comes the rubbish – community cohesion, climate change and “innovation”. I was especially taken with the introductory line for “Innovation”:
Implementation of a range of innovative and community based projects designed to
build capacity and support the region’s priorities
Like what, I hear you ask? Oh yes – the ‘Muslim Women’s Leadership Network’ is the case study we’re given and I guess that rather sums up local government’s idea of innovation. We really shouldn’t be wasting money on this rubbish – whatever gender or faith you are, you’re a leader because you choose to lead not because you’ve been on a course or joined a network.
YoHr Space is, I humbly submit, a prime candidate for closure. It achieves nothing that couldn’t be done in the organisation’s absence, it costs several millions and provides little more than a series of talking shops, a few grants to favoured group and a place for a few of us pompous self-important councillors to sit on a board.
And any organisation supposed intended to promote efficiency that thinks spending thousands on a flash full colour brochure to send round to every councillor is either efficient or improving definitely needs the chop.
Friday, 2 July 2010
So no soup. I was planning to make this Balinese mushroom soup with some shitake mushrooms and, as I’ve made some consommé, a lovely fresh soup with dried porcini and cardamom. The first is fiddly and complicated but the consommé is simple and tasty – making a really fancy looking posh soup for that all-important dinner party (not that I ever have any of those but I’m told that’s what we’re supposed to say when doing preambles for recipes).
To make the soup take some beef stock (or ‘bouillon’ as the fancy recipe books like to call it) – or make some beef stock – enough to serve the ravening hordes at your important dinner party. Take a big handful of dried porcini, crunch them up in you hands and drop them into the boiling stock along with 5 or 6 green cardamom pods. Simmer for about 30 minutes, add some black pepper and a little salt if needed. Serve in warmed bowls.
Pretty simple really – why faff about with fancy Balinese soups!
Thursday, 1 July 2010
I have decided that we're all just a little shallow - preferring the slightly witty and the terminally inane to deeply considered and thoughtful commentary on the human condition. Except you, of course, dear reader. You are a paragon of thoughtful consideration, accurate analysis and don't mind my meanderings round the less savoury realities of economics.
But this shallowness of others (it's a bit like those who, despite being wholly unaffected by advertising, call for controls because the poor uneducated proles will be taken in and made to buy bad stuff like pop, crisps and fast cars) is really rather important. Not because there's a school of economic thinking ('behavioural economics' these folk like to call it) that likes to argue that, far from being rational and incentive-driven beasts, humans are emotion-driven and irrational. As ever with hypothesis-derived, evidence-light economics our dear old friends at the New Economics Foundation are there with the behaviour stuff - anything to have a dig at incentives I guess (even when there's a paucity of solid evidence supporting the jolly hypothesis that we aren't all selfish, greedy bastards after all).
But I digress - shallowness is everything and shallowness is good. Not, of course for us dear reader, even though we don't read the Guardian and know everything about everything as a result. What shallowness is about is a realisation of the utter cosmic futility of what we each do with our lives - an idea that eludes Guardian-reading statists (perhaps the only thing they share with Zaphod Beeblebrox). And if it's futile, why shouldn't we pass our time with idle pursuits - watching silly games on the telly, laughing at crap jokes, shortening our lives by drinking, smoking and scoffing luscious fat-laden goodies and generally not being in the slightest bit serious about it all.
So if I'd rather sit in the shed, bottle of whisky in one hand, Romeo y Juliet in the other and watch re-runs of Benny Hill on the little portable telly that's my business and, as importantly, is as significant an act as the activist's endless mobilising and organising, the political hack's leaflet distribution or the lefty academic's discussion about how they would organise it so much better than the uncontrolled actions of individuals would ever achieve (if only you'd give them the chance).
Just because "people-who-know-better-than-us" say we're shallow, selfish and will die young doesn't make our actions irrational. In truth our selfish behaviour is rational and, when we engage in communal or collective activity, that's rational too. Those who deny rationality to argue that decision-making is somehow tripped by emotional triggers are the same people who believed "The Hidden Persuaders" and that the medium is the message.
And the word for such people is....wrong.
Amidst all the froth and bother about scrapping laws (and Nick just amend the smoking ban and allow all shops to open on a Sunday), I've been struck by a thought.
If 'crowdsourcing' laws is such a good idea (and I'm not really so sure that it is) then why do we elect politicians? Surely such participation eliminates the need for represtentation?
So maybe we should just scrap politicians?
Just a thought.