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Saturday, 30 April 2011

Wedding Venue? Why Not Hire London? From as little as £10 million

I have returned from my temporary exile in Munich, where I enjoyed a sunny day, a fine hotel, and all enabled by very cheap and on-schedule easyjet flights.

A thought occurs to me.

Around the world, there are many very rich despots and even more very rich despots' daughters. Some of them will have already told Daddy that they want a wedding just like Kate's.

Why not make their dreams come true?

An all-inclusive wedding package could include a night at the Goring, streets temporarily closed for your cavalcade, a wedding in a restyled multi-faith Abbey, lots and lots of police protection, and - for an extra million or two - a drive up the Mall in that Open Coach (which otherwise doesn't see much use), and - for another million - ten minutes on That Balcony. A flag-waving wedding crowd could be made available so that you are properly cheered on your way, and if you spend more than £15 million on your wedding package, a free BBC News item would be included with the compliments of HM Government.

It could be a nice little earner for the public finances. The Chancellor of the Exchequer should get together now with Boris Johnson and work out an agreement on how to divvy up the proceeds. Delivering the wedding package should be left entirely in the hands of our very capable Weddings 'R' Us team at the royal palaces.

There is a precedent: you can hire the Principality of Liechtenstein for as little as £40,000 a night. Frankly, it's not in the same league as Central London. And no despot would dream of fobbing off his daughter with a £40,000 wedding.

In an Age of Austerity, how can we say No?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Another Prediction: UK Growth in the second quarter of 2011

I have three predictions outstanding from previous 2011 Blogs, and one successful prediction in the bag (Cardinal Keith O'Brien as Number One Easter sermoniser)

So to keep the ball rolling here's another prediction:

The UK economy grew by 0.5% in the first quarter of 2011, cancelling out the equivalent decline in the last quarter of 2010. My prediction for the second quarter (April - June) is that the UK economy will continue to flat line. Growth will not be higher than 0.5% nor will it decline by more than 0.5%.


This year's combination of late (and sunny) Easter and Royal Wedding has boosted domestic tourism (so that's a plus for growth), inward tourism by demented American Royalists (so that's another plus), and the manufacture of ceramic plates and mugs (up a tatfastic £500,000 so another plus). Plus a little bit of war in Libya must be doing a little bit of good for the arms manufacturers, plus a lot of police overtime about.

At the same time, planeloads of Brits have headed out of the country for short or extended periods (so that's a minus) and the whole holiday period has seriously disrupted normal business for over two weeks (another minus).

Conclusion: zero or minimal growth overall, every reason for the Bank of England to keep interest rates on hold, with a nice bit of inflation to chip away at the real cost of government and personal debt.

Results: Posted here at the end of July

26 July: the Office of National Statistics has now released its calculation of the quarterly growth figure, 0.2%. Prediction fulfilled.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Matthew Lynn, Greece, The €uro, and the Sovereign Debt Crisis

I nearly stopped reading this book on page 3. It felt like it was being addressed to American readers and therefore taking into account their woeful ignorance of history and current affairs (witness the repeated gaffes of Republican presidential hopefuls). And the prose was pretty wooden. But I knew it was a book which would challenge some of my assumptions and beliefs, so I kept going. It gets a lot better as it goes on and I finished the whole book.

Lynn writes from a generally monetarist and fiscal conservative position: they're bust, we're bust, we're all bust. Except for Germany, the real and only home of Prudence.

He reckons the €uro was doomed from the moment the EU agreed to bail out Greece, creating more debt as if it would solve the problem of old debt. If Greece had not abided by the terms of the Growth and Stability pact, simply continuing its profligate path, how would throwing money at it alter that? I felt at the time(2010) that Greece should have been allowed to go bust and this book does nothing to challenge that as a sensible view.

Indeed, a year on in 2011, everywhere I read (including The Economist) is talking about the good sense of an "orderly default". There is no possible future in which Greece will be able to pay its debts, so why not recognise that now instead of throwing good money at the riot police?

Interestingly, whereas most fiscal conservatives are unconcerned by a bit of deflation, Lynn's best arguments are designed to show that the €urozone has now trapped itself within deflationary policies. Because no individual country can devalue, every country in even a bit of trouble is pushed towards exaggerated austerity and that deflationary pressure works it way round the whole monetary area.

Quite persuasively, he argues the case for Greece's exit from the €urozone. It would allow Greece's currency to devalue, just as the UK has been able to devalue against the €uro. When the €uro was introduced, I decided to dual-price my stock. I still have stickers which say "£10 or 16€". Then I realised it wouldn't work, so I started pricing just in €uros - a decision which has worked in my favour. Today, £10 is under 13 €. If you want 16€ worth of stuff now, and want to pay in sterling, it will cost you £14.16. In other words, the pound has devalued 40% against the €uro in under a decade. No wonder Booze Cruises are a thing of the past.

But my mistake was to think of the €uro simply as a medium of exchange, in which case, one currency rather than 500 is a no-brainer. Lynn does show how the €uro was not thought through beyond this level, when in fact a common currency will only work if there are fairly standardised (and healthy) fiscal policies throughout the currency area. Greece should never have been admitted to the €urozone in the first place; it was a basket case and the €uro of itself could do nothing to change that. Except indirectly: it was the money markets which downgraded Greek public debt just because they could see that Greek governments did not give a toss about the terms of the Growth and Stability pact. Unable to devalue, Greece could not escape the judgment of the markets.

Something I did not know: in the build-up discussions on the common currency, the UK suggested a system of dual or parallel currencies: each country keeps its own money (and central bank) but alongside these there is a common currency. You take your pick (just as you do when offered dual priced goods). If the common currency works well, then its advantages as a medium of exchange will progressively reduce the role of national currencies. It will grow organically towards being the people's choice. This is an interesting idea and one which could be revived.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Worried about your State Pension? You should. It's a Ponzi scheme

As I understand things, I am one of those lucky people whose occupational pension derives from what is called a Fully Funded scheme: money is paid in and invested and the pension is paid from the yield on the investments. This is not the same as a guaranteed income: if the pension fund managers screw up on the investments, then the pension will be lower than anticipated, perhaps much lower. Mine supposedly keeps pace with inflation.

State pensions in the UK are not fully funded; far from it. They are basically paid from current taxation. And there lies the problem.

Older people are living longer but the birth rate is static or falling. The proportion of tax-paying workers relative to pension-receiving non-workers is falling. The burden of the old on the young will increase, perhaps intolerably.

It's just like a Ponzi scheme: you can only keep on paying out the old investors if new investors keep coming on board. You use the money provided by the newcomers to pay the money due to the older members. At some point, you run out of enough newcomers and the scheme collapses.

Working tax payers will expect some of their taxes to be spent on them and their children directly and on infrastructure. They don't want to see it all going to support the elderly.

Some governments - France, Russia - respond to the predicament by trying to raise the birth rate - that's equivalent to trying to drum up new custom for a Ponzi scheme. The evidence from France is that such encouragement to breed is not very successful.

Other governments - the British under New Labour - have welcomed young, single and usually male working migrants who boost the tax take but will hopefully go back to where they came from before they get old. Quite often, they do, but politicians know that immigration is an issue on which economic rationaility does not have the final word.

All governments are moving to raise the pension age. In Greece, they are starting from an amazingly low base (58). In the UK, from a historic five year discriminatory gap between female and male pensionable age (60 and 65). In addition, many public sector jobs have allowed early retirement - I was able to put up my hand to be "restructured" out and have had an occupational pension from the age of 50.

The point may come when governments may begin to think the unthinkable.

For example, they may decide to stop funding any research basically aimed at extending life expectancy. They may start charging older people for their prescriptions and their flu jabs. They may ration life-saving operations for those with only a few years to live anyway.

In other words, governments may try to damp down the seemingly inexorable rise in life expectancy. Actually, such a policy doesn't seem to me particularly cruel or unreasonable. There are limits to the burden the old should place on the young. And for many older people, living beyond 80 or 85 doesn't seem much fun.

Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat

Ben Macintyre is another journalist who knows how to do research and how to write. The result is a fascinating book, both thorough and highly readable, which has provided my relaxation this Easter weekend. Thank you!

The story (The Man Who Never Was) has been well known for over fifty years: Churchill's spooks mounted a deception exercise involving a dead body carrying fake papers washed ashore in Spain. By this means they succeeded in significantly misleading Hitler (possibly with some unexpected help from an anti-Hitler German aristocrat high up in German intelligence). As a result, Hitler had his forces in the wrong places when the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943. Thousands of Allied military lives were probably saved for a very modest outlay in pounds, shillings and pence.

Because it's in the News, I have been thinking about social mobility and internships. Put the spooks and other players in Operation Mincemeat through the grinder of those issues.

In many respects, the desperate struggle of World War Two forced the UK to open careers to talents. At the same time, as this book indicates, networks of privilege and sponsorship continued to operate - sometimes with disastrous results (think of the Cambridge circle of Soviet spies).

But I cannot at the moment convince myself that one would have got a better result than the clubland aristocrats and upper-class / upper middle-class eccentrics achieved in their Whitehall intelligence basements had one insisted on open recruitment and no sponsorship. It seems to me that these people were often the glitzy showmen or the nerds and anoraks of their day who would never had the chance to show their real abilities had they been put through some politically-correct recruitment procedure. Horses for courses, and not all courses are alike.

I will try to find something to read on this subject, specifically in relation to World War Two. Any suggestions?

We have a Winner: Cardinal Keith O'Brien

We have a Winner.

A week ago (April 16) my Blog asked who would take the Easter Number One Spot for Religion.

I predicted Cardinal Keith O'Brien (The original Blog is unchanged from the 16 April).

And there he is this morning as Number Three front page story on the BBC News website (and only there):

'The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, will use his Easter message later to attack 'aggressive secularism' '.

Well, at the BBC's Opus Dei desk that's just what they want to hear. No messages of love or peace. They want an attack and Rottweiler O'Brien is their man. The Press Release was sitting on their desk ready for this morning - no need to wait for the sermon itself: after all, who will be there?

The Archbishop of Canterbury is nowhere to be seen.

There is only one other religious story that I can see this morning, in The Observer:

'Protests on John Paul Beatification. Sex abuse controversy refuses to go away as Catholics prepare for ceremony in Rome'

Blame it on aggressive secularists, I say.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Does the Kingdom of Yugoslavia still Exist? In Ruritania, Yes

I know when I'm not wanted and don't want to spoil anyone's party, so on Royal Wedding Day I have arranged to be out of the country, somewhere in republican Europe.

But I had a peek at the Royal Wedding Guest list today:

"Crown Prince Alexander and Crown Princess Katherine of Yugoslavia; The Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia".

Back in 1943, ULTRA intercepts were showing unambiguously that Yugoslav Royalist forces (the Chetniks) had allied themselves with the Germans and Italians and that they were more or less exclusively engaged in attacks on Tito's anti-fascist Partisans.

As a result, the Allies withdrew support from the Royalists and started supplying the Partisans. Tito's headquarters became home to distinguished Allied agents like the SOEs Fitzroy Maclean.

After elections, Yugoslavia's Constituent Assembly deposed King Peter II on 29 November 1945 and declared a republic. The Allies were happy to recognise it and for most of the next thirty five years enjoyed at least reasonable relations with Tito's Yugoslavia. Then under Slobodan Milosevic, things went from bad to worse.

With the secession of Montenegro in 2006, Yugoslavia finally ceased to exist. Instead - as anyone who watches Eurovision song contests will know - we now have Bosnia Herzgovina, Croatia, the Former-Yugoslav-Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and - in a still disputed category of its own - Kosovo.

None of this - literally none of this - has been noticed in the royal palaces of Ruritania. I won't bore you by continuing through the guest list. Take a look (the Telegraph website lists anyone with a title). It hammers home in name after name how our ruling family imagines the world. It is an imagination fed from scavenging in the dustbin of history.


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog post was expanded into a chapter of my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Friday, 22 April 2011

Let Our Fame Be Great, by Oliver Bullough

When journalists are good they are very, very good. Oliver Bullough is terrific. His combination of historical research and contemporary reportage is an extraordinary introduction to the history and continuing conflicts of the North Caucasus - that barrier of mountains and Muslims which once lay between Russia proper and its imperial ambitions in Transcaucasia and is now a mess of unhappy partlets of the Russian Federation: Kabardino - Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya. Since the 2008 conflict with Georgia, add Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia comes out very badly from Bullough's stories.

Imperial Russia in the 1860s drove the Circassians of what is now Abkhazia into the sea - by the hundreds of thousand - and, if they were lucky, exile in Ottoman Turkey.

Stalin, encouraged by his fellow-psychopath Beria, deported whole Caucasian populations en masse in the 1940s in the kind of closed rail wagons which were as good at killing mountain herders as elsewhere city Jews.

Post-Soviet Russia bludgeoned the Chechens into a kind of submission in wars of appalling brutality - though Bullough acknowledges, on both sides.

I read this 500 page book with unflagging interest. It is beautifully crafted and puts to shame the kind of dull prose which academics still deploy. But I would want to enter one corrective of perspective, which does not exonerate Russia but places it as just another Imperialist power.

Uniquely, Russia - both Imperial and Soviet - built its Empire by expanding overland North, East, South and West. At no point did it have to cross an ocean. All the colonial brutality it perpetrated occurred on the Eurasian landmass. This is one reason perhaps why Bullough thinks particularly reprehensible Russians' ignorance of their own terrible history.

But I do not think Russia is unique in the horrors it inflicted or in ignorance of them.

The atrocities of a squalid Imperial bit player like Belgium occurred thousands of miles away in the Congo. It is probably still possible for Belgians to think that it is not part of "their" history.

France has a poor record in Africa up to the present day under Emperor Sarkozy. The civil war in Algeria is the one "we" know about. How different would it feel if Algeria had been attached to the south of France rather than separated from it by the Mediterranean? I think we might expect the French to be more apologetic than they are, which is in any case not very apologetic.

British subjects have until the past few weeks been shielded from much of the truth about the late colonial wars we waged in such countries as Kenya.

Probably the Germans have done most to acknowledge and deal with their own past.

What is notable about Vladimir Putin's attitudes, which figure significantly in Bullough's account of the Chechen Wars, is that he is determined that there shall be no accounting for the past or the present in his own backyard. What is perhaps most frustrating is that such an attitude is unnecessary to any sound project of ensuring Russia its rightful place in the world.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Church of England and School Admissions

Back in 1988, as the parent of a child soon to start school, I sat down to read the brochure sent to me by East Sussex County Council listing the schools from which you could Choose.

In fact, there was very little choice. Most of them were in the hands of the Church of England or the Roman Catholic church and the school descriptions consisted largely in elaborate sets of discriminatory and exclusionary admissions criteria. There was no beating about the bush: first preference to their own lot of believers, second preference to those from other Christian denominations, third preference to disabled pupils, fourth preference to non-Christian religions, fifth preference to local pupils, and so on.

As the child of unbelievers, my daughter was welcome nowhere - except, fortunately, in the non-denominational local primary school, a rarity in East Sussex.

I was genuinely appalled. I had never seen such crude discriminatory thinking paraded - and in a public document about publicly-funded institutions. So I wrote a piece in the Times Educational Supplement naming and shaming the schools with the most contorted admissions policies. They didn't like me for it and I got some cross letters. ("No Choice for the Wicked", Times Educational Supplement, 19 February 1988)

But the schools had nothing to fear. Their bigotry fitted in perfectly with the needs of aspirational middle class parents. Under New Labour, the schools were encouraged and the parents got the selective schooling they wanted - selective not on the basis of merit but on the basis of professions of religious faith. It would be hard to think of a more reactionary education policy than that pursued by New Labour and now thoroughly consolidated.

Today, the newspapers carry the story that the head of the Church of England's Education Board, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev John Pritchard wants to cut to ten percent the number of places reserved for practising Anglicans in the C of Es Voluntary Aided Schools.

Well, of course, the C of E does have a problem with numbers. There aren't many practising Anglicans left and those that are left include all the middle class hypocrites pretending to do God in order to get their kids into a Nice School. But I still don't think the Bishop of Oxford will get his way.

The Squeezed Middle doesn't believe in social mobility and it doesn't believe in equality of educational opportunity either. Socially Selective Schools, paid for from general taxation, are one of the Benefits they have come to expect.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

A thoroughly Heathen Easter

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the chap who, after consulting the stars, tells the Government when Easter falls. This year, he must be wringing his hands:

Why oh why did the stars guide us to such a late date - nearly in May. We bank on it being cold wet and miserable at Easter - but now look: a heatwave.

There will be no one in church. They will all be on Brighton beach, sunning themselves. They will start demanding a fixed Easter!

Is there no cloud to provide consolation?

Well, there will be traffic jams and accidents. The A and E departments will be crammed with drunks who have leapt off the Pier, sunburnt children and clubbers who have OD'd. At least one child will be mauled to death by the family Rottweiler.

Yes, it will be a thoroughly Heathen Easter. Except at the BBC news website now desperately running a little bit of "What do you know about Easter?" propaganda.

Manifesto of the English Republican Party

I Googled before composing this: there does not seem to be an English Republican Party. Someone with a taste for lost causes should start one.

The general idea would be to take England out of the United Kingdom as an independent republic with an elected head of state. It would be up to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to decide what to do with themselves. They already have Nationalist parties which might get what they want if England moved out of the failed UK state.

I would hope that an English republic would gravitate towards Europe, which for most of us living in England is much closer than Belfast, Cardiff or Edinburgh.

So I would hope to see the clocks aligned with those of western Europe - something which the timid David Cameron recently turned down because it does not have enough Scottish support.

I would hope to see the metric system spread more widely and motorway speed limits aligned with those in Europe at 130 kmph (about 80 mph).

If border-conscious Switzerland is comfortable joining the Schengen "Open Borders" area, I can't see why we should not. The current system of UK border controls is based on the Soviet idea that stupidity - making people queue - can outwit intelligence. The Schengen Area is based on the idea that intelligence-led policing can outwit crime. I think that is a better way of tackling cross-border trafficking, smuggling, terrorism and so on.

If Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland also signed up to Schengen, then their borders with England would remain as open as they are today.

One day, England might even be ready for the €uro.

Meanwhile, it already has a flag and a football team and only lacks its own Eurovision entry. It could have a smaller House of Commons and, personally, I would close down the House of Lords entirely.

Of course, an English Republic would have left- and right-wing political parties, but at least it would be free of the central weakness of the present "United Kingdom" in which the special pleading of the tail always wags the dog. The days would be over when the county councillors in Northern Ireland can demand audiences in Downing Street whilst those in Cornwall can never do so.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Why Schools are Bad for Young Children

A few years ago, I was in Prague and made a visit to my favourite garden there, Vojanovy Sady, the former kitchen garden of a convent or monastery, just down from the Castle.

A young mother was observing her daughter at work: the child,probably not much more than a year old and with a very large nappy, held a small basket in one hand and with the other was painstakingly picking up magnolia leaves from the grass, one by one, and transferring them to the basket. This involved the child in squatting, standing up, and toddling - all of them quite clearly recently acquired skills. It was going to take a long time to fill that basket, only half full when I chanced on the scene, but the child was determined - she got up every time she fell down - and the mother was unobtrusive and patient. The child's work would have continued until that basket was full but for a group of noisy teenagers who spilled onto the grass and sent the child scurrying to her mother.

Young children are capable of extraordinary concentration which is the public face of their extraordinary learning ability. It lasts until they go to primary school.

There teachers set out to destroy the capacity, endlessly moving children from one task to the next, and keeping up an incessant flow of their own talk - that weird teacher-talk which always sounds a bit mental. Teachers turn children into neurotics in their own image.

Monday, 18 April 2011

The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha: A Blog in Poor Taste

Such was anti-German sentiment at the beginning of World War One that Tsar Nicholas II of Russia felt obliged to change the name of his capital from the Germanic St Petersburg to Petrograd. Later renamed Leningrad, the city only got its old name back after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It is now once again, St Petersburg.

In England, the Royal Family was also under pressure and in 1917 King George V was forced to change the family name to Windsor. It could have been worse - Cheddar, Stilton, Lymeswold ...

Upon hearing what his cousin had done, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany quipped that he was off to see a performance of the Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Even though we are no longer anti-German, the Royal Family is still stuck with its artifical name. Would it not be a fine wedding present for Kate Middleton for the Queen to reclaim the family name so that Kate can leave the church as Catherine of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha?

Alternatively, since children normally take their surname from their father, and their father from his own father and wives from their husbands .... *

* To spare you the Googling time, you would then be cheering for Catherine Battenberg, the surname which under the pressure of the same anti-German sentiment was anglicised to Mountbatten

Postscript 21 May: This Blog is actually more polite than I imagined. When in April 1952, the new Queen Elizabeth issued a Royal Proclamation declaring that her children would take her own Windsor family name, Prince Philip (then Duke of Edinburgh and formerly Philip Mountbatten) is supposed to have complained "I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children ... All they wanted was my sperm. I'm nothing but a fucking sperm factory to them")[ cited from Alex von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer, p. 345]

Sunday, 17 April 2011

"They Have More Public Holidays than We Do". Is this a myth?

I was checking through that useless Information at the front of my old-fashioned Diary to see if a short-break holiday I have planned is likely to be inconvenienced by other people's public holidays. They have more than we do ...

Or do they? In European countries, if January First falls on a Sunday then there is no public holiday declared, since Sunday is not regarded as a working day, whereas here the public sector unions require that a holiday be declared on the Monday. The same system applies for other holidays including May Day (which falls on a Sunday in 2011 and leads to no European public holidays).

But in Europe, if a public holiday falls on a Saturday, it is declared as such since it is assumed that many people (even if not public servants) work on Saturdays.

The result? In 2011, the UK was supposed to have eight public holidays - increased to nine by fiat of Mr Cameron. In contrast, Germany has seven (including New Years' Day which fell on Saturday 1st January 2011), the Netherlands seven (and the same arrangement at New Year), Belgium eight (but again with a Saturday New Year), France eight (including a Saturday New New Year).

Italy matches us with nine. To find one which beats us, on ten, you have to look at that model of economic efficiency and dynamic public service, Greece.

But, of course, if you have been reading my other Posts on this subject, you will know that really I want to abolish public holidays altogether.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Who Will Take the Easter Number One Spot? My bets are on Cardinal Keith O'Brien

Easter is a time when the media are innundated with press releases from the top brass of militant Christianity, got up as Sermons or Messages to the World.

It's a very competitive period. In the UK, all the top leaders except the Archbishop of Canterbury are trying to ensure that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not the lead religious news story.

He may be head of the Established Church in England, but that doesn't mean it's going to be a walkover for him. Indeed, at the BBC they clearly feel that the Work of God is best done by favouring the Pope over our local patriarch. And if not the Pope, then his Rottweiler, Cardinal Keith O'Brien up there in Glasgow.

In fact, my prediction is that the Number One spot will be taken by the Glasgow Cardinal. He knows how to market a message better than any of them, better even than Tony Blair, who may also pitch in to the contest.

Only a week to go and I will post the results below.


Sunday 17 April and they're off. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, (Head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales in case you didn't know) has made it onto the front page of this morning's BBC News website. The Sunday Telegraph interviewed him about the Big Society and, boy, is that News ... But don't read too much into this. Sunday morning at the Beeb, the Opus Dei desk always tries to find some Roman Catholic story to lead with and only a month ago, the Archbishop's Sermon for Lent (he suggested you should give something up) was also front page News. See my Blog of 6th March.

More developments ... The Independent on Sunday has also read this morning's newspapers (or the BBC website or my Blog) and they are now running Archbishop Nichols as a lead story. No sign yet of the Archbishop of Canterbury ....

Thursday 21 April and I don't even have to make this up. The BBC News website gives front page this morning to a man you have never heard of, the Rt Rev George Stack, "who is shortly to become the most senior Catholic bishop in Wales" (I guess that's a bit like "the most senior Zoroastrian in Wales).

Stack gets to comment on the News that "About 900 Anglicans are expected to convert to Catholicism this Easter ..." driven out of the C of E by its liberal and Protestant tendencies. Another Hit for the Opus Dei desk at the Beeb. The story is "illustrated" with a shot of the Pope in militant pose. No sign yet of the Archbishop of Canterbury at BBC News, even though (according to the Independent ) he was on Thought for The Day this morning talking about the obligations of the rich to the poor. Clearly not the kind of thing the BBC News website wants to hear about. Nor has the BBC picked up on the Archbishop's good wishes to William and Kate, leaving that also to be picked up by the Independent. Very odd when you think that the BBC has cast itself as the main cheer leader for the Royal Wedding.

Friday 22 April. The BBC News website, like several newspapers, makes a main story about the Church of England in retreat. The head of its Education Board, the Rt Rev John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, wants to reduce the percentage of places in its Voluntary Aided Schools reserved for practising Anglicans.The National Secular Society welcomes the proposal as "a step in the right direction". So if you want a Church Militant, forget the C of E.

Friday 22 April afternoon. Yes, he's back on the BBC New website this afternoon. You just can't get away from him. "Pope Benedict XVI has made history as the first pontiff to take part in a televised question-and-answer session". Yep, he was given 80 minutes on Italian TV to answer 7 pre-selected questions. The BBC reportage is breathless with the excitement of it all. The Pope has quite made their Opus Day.

Still no sign of the Archbishop of Canterbury

Sunday 24 April. WE HAVE A WINNER and, as predicted above,Cardinal Keith O'Brien takes the Number One religious spot. There he is again this morning, third lead story on the front of the BBC News website:

"The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O'Brien will use his Easter message later to attack 'aggressive secularism' ".

Yep, the Press Release was on the desk, on message as far as the BBC is concerned, and the Cardinal's friends at the News desk have given him top spot - even before the Sermon has been delivered.

No sign of the Archbishop of Canterbury anywhere and no sign of the Cardinal anywhere else but the BBC.

Sunday afternoon 24 April. At last! The Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter sermon is on the front page at the BBC, at 13.30, but with Cardinal O'Brien still taking up the second half of the story and Cardinal Nichols now thrown in for good measure. I'm not quite sure this counts as Ecumenism.

Sunday afternoon 24 April, one hour later. I am afraid the Archbishop of Canterbury didn't last long. He's still there but down one position due to a new arrival - yes, you guessed - the Pope. Time for his Easter Message

This is now the end of these updates. But, just in case you've forgtotten, my prediction was fulfilled - and maybe even there is someone at the BBC News Online who now knows that they have been rumbled.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Double Jeopardy: Frank Lampl and Otto Katz

I like the Financial Times - there is always a surprise somewhere in its pages. In its April 9 / 10 issue, Brian Groom has a fascinating narrative obituary of Frank Lampl (1926 - 2011) who was Chairman of the Bovis Construction Group from 1986 to 1999.

Lampl was a Czech Jew. The Nazis consigned him first to Auschwitz then, as a slave labourer for BMW, to Dachau. The only member of his family to survive the War, he returned to Czechoslovkia but was soon caught up in the anti-Semitic pogroms of the Stalinist regime. From 1950 until an amnesty (with strings attached) in 1953, he served a sentence of hard labour in Czech uranium mines. After that he made a successful career in construction, but fled Czechoslovakia in 1968 when the Russians invaded: he could not face more punishment. In England, he started over again as a building labourer and worked his way up. An extraordinary story of triumph over adversity.

Otto Katz (1895 - 1952) was also a Czech Jew. I have just read the biography by Joanathan Miles, The Nine Lives of Otto Katz (Bantam Books). Living in Germany after World War One, Katz's ambitions were focussed by Hitler's rise. He became a tireless advocate of the anti-Nazi cause and, at the same time, a Soviet spy. When Germany was no longer a possible base, his work took him to France, Spain during the Civil War, England in the era of appeasement - Jonathan Miles has some scary accounts of just how appeasing it was - , America and Hollywood, Mexico, and - at the end of World War Two, home to Czechoslovkia. In 1952, the Stalinist regime of President Gottwald hanged him at the end of the Slansky trial, where he was one of the 14 accused. He was someone who had undoubtedly committed crimes in the Soviet cause, but he was hanged for knowing too much, and too many people, and because he was a Jew.

These are very contrasting lives. Both made me reflect on the awfulness of a predicament in which you find that the enemy of your enemy is not your friend but another enemy.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Immigration, Immigration, Immigration: the view from Brighton Pier

I live in a city (Brighton and Hove) where the "settled" population is probably in a minority of all those who go to sleep at night within the city boundaries. There are holiday makers, seasonal workers to cater for them, longer term but not permanent economic migrants, language school students, students attending two universities, and many other categories, including vagrants, touring drug dealers and visiting prostitutes.

Every summer the United Kingdom Borders Agency sends a charabanc of officers here and, accompanied by police minders and tame journalists, they raid the restaurants. Usually, they manage to haul in a handful of Brazilians working in kitchens in violation of the terms of their student visas. And that's about it. It's a very expensive day out for the taxpayer who funds the charabanc and it just gives young Brazilians another reason to take home a poor image of the UK.

A cosmopolitan city with a shifting population does have disadvantages. There are too many people with no stake in the city, notably the student population - those who are exempt from Council Tax. They may speak English, their parents may well vote for Cameron, but they still trash the place. After all, at the pinnacle of our society, Mr Cameron's Bullingdon Club proclaims that that is what students are supposed to do.

Some language students are not much better and for local residents their barbecues on the beach become tiresome. But then local residents want the beaches as places their dogs can shit on - so maybe it's quits in terms of anti-social behaviour.

For real trouble, though, you have to look to the youthful part of the settled population living on the big 1930s council estates, often unemployed and unemployable. It's these people who keep the local A and E department busy at weekends

Seasonal employees and economic migrants working long hours in the pubs, clubs and take-aways have to put up with the students and the locals, at all hours of the day and night, and they have my sympathy. I wouldn't like to work in a kebab shop open into the small hours of the morning. People can be very unpleasant, especially those who have integrated into our alcohol-sodden culture.

You do nowadays see young men in Islamic religious garb, more frequently than you see men in dog collars, and you do wonder what they are up to. It's not healthy for young men to get involved with religion. I wish Mr Cameron would say that.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

France: Criminalising Men who pay for Sex

Yesterday, I wrote about France as an authoritarian country - this by way of putting the Burka ban in context.

As if to confirm my analysis, I read on today's Guardian website that France's government is now planning to criminalise men who pay for sex. This is, of course, really an attack on women.

Many years ago, France criminalised brothels but continued to permit street prostitution, thereby making the lives of working prostitutes more dangerous and also making it easier for men to control and coerce them -as indeed they do, especially in France where legal protection for sex workers is weak. Criminalising men who use prostitutes will only exacerbate this situation.

Rosalyne Bachelot, Social Affairs Minister in Sarkozy's regime, had this to say in support of the criminalisation proposal,

" There is no such thing as freely chosen and consenting prostitution"

If she really said that, you have French authoritarianism in a nutshell.

The principled refusal to even contemplate that another woman's sexuality might be different to your own has as its principal sources both prudery and perhaps more so the fear that another woman might weaken your control over your partner's sexuality: the statistics quoted in support of the criminalisation ban focus on the fact that most men who use prostitutes are family men - married or with children.

It is this desperate need to Control, Control, which leads to the criminalisation proposal - just as it led to the closure of the brothels which maintained a "private sphere" far too closed to surveillance for the liking of fascists and communists.

Marriages can never be happy so long as women are threatend by the sexuality of other women - Bachelot's problem - or men by female sexuality in general - the Islamists' problem.

By way of contrast to France, consider something that happened recently in Turkey - the country which must not join the EU, says Sarkozy. Concerned about women coerced into prostitution, the government set up phone lines for people to give tip offs. Result? The majority of calls came from men who used prostitutes but did not like it one bit when they met women who were being coerced. Turkish men, who are commonly regarded as The Worst!

And on a lighter note, I am reading Jonathan Miles' The Nine Lives of Otto Katz, a Czech agent who worked for the Soviets from the 1920s to the 1940s before being condemned in the 1950 Slansky show trial. Katz knew and was probably one of the many lovers of Marlene Dietrich, a woman with a voracious sexual appetite. Miles throws in the following anecdote:

" After playing scarlet women in a string of films, Dietrich decided to see how convincing she could be off-screen. One night in London's Soho, towards the end of May 1933, she hitched up her skirt and wiggled to and fro along the pavement, stopping male passers-by. After half an hour of unsuccessful street walking she gave up ..." (page 205).

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

France and the Burka

The trouble with France is that it has no liberals.

Historically, half the population has favoured authoritarian right-wing regimes and the other half authoritarian left-wing regimes. The result is a centralised, powerful and entrenched bureaucracy which knows that if it minutely regulates everything - you can't breathe without a permis in France - both right and left will probably be pleased with what you are doing. Officious and small-minded bureaucrats know that they have jobs for life, as do the armies of police required to enforce the rules.

So banning burquas is nothing out of the ordinary. It is part of the French way of life. So too is entrapment and denunciation.

I recall a speed trap in France set up on a small slip road joining one motorway to another, hidden behind bushes on a curve of the road. They were flagging drivers into a lay-by and fining them on the spot. The lay-by was so small and crowded that when they had taken your cash, you had to reverse out back on to the motorway. It clearly did not occur to anyone doing the shake-down that this might be rather more dangerous than driving down the slip road above the speed limit.

As for denunciation, it has both fascist and communist roots, and has had terrible consequences. French Jews had little chance in a denunciatory culture.

The annual round of strikes and accompanying street demonstrations always take the form of generalised (and hysterical) denunciations.

I think the burqua is a form of dress enforced on women by unpleasant authoritarian, insecure, hate-filled men. I have no sympathy whatsoever for these men. Just imagine what it is like to have to walk around in a burqua on a hot or humid day!

The trouble is that the French burqua ban is about one lot of authoritarians seeking to impose its not-very-well-thought-out will on another lot. True, there are precedents in the ban on the veil in Ataturk's Turkey and in other countries seeking to break with an oppressive past. But France is not trying to break with anything. It is just more of the same: No Liberty, no Equality, no Fraternity

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Fred Halliday, Political Journeys

Since his death, Fred Halliday (1946 - 2010) has figured in the newspapers as the retired Professor of International Relations who warned his old university, the London School of Economics, against entanglement with the Gadaffi regime.

I spotted his posthumous book, Political Journeys (Saqi 2011)on my last visit to the London Review of Books shop, bought it and read it - cover to cover as I normally do.

It's impressive. It's confident, decisive, principled and - though it derives from essays written at frequent intervals for online publication in openDemocracy - marshalls an extraordinary range and depth of reference. To single out just one from nearly fifty essays, there is a brisk but erudite demolition of (my) misconceptions about Sharia law, done and dusted in just four pages (pp 213 - 17).

The focus of the book is the Middle East where all through the historical and political analyses, the red thread of principle is oppositon to viciousness, whether by their side or your own.

But Halliday is also enlightening when he writes about other areas: there is a good essay on Georgia (pp 243 - 48) and a running theme of the weaknesses of small states or would-be states: not just Palestine but Northern Ireland, the Basque country and Tibet.

Halliday despairs of the stupidity and nastiness of the Bush regime, in power when most of these essays were written, but Tony Blair's journey is so far beneath his contempt as to be barely mentioned - his name occurs just three times in 277 pages.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Sponsored Mobility: Bromley Grammar School for Boys

This is autobiography

Sociologists distinguish between Contest and Sponsored social mobility. Contests are things like Civil Service Examinations - if you pass you move to the next stage; if you don't, you don't - even if your father is a very important person. Sponsorship is usually equated with nepotism, but it also includes talent spotting of various kinds. Some people only become upwardly mobile because they are picked out, encouraged, flattered or coerced.

From 1958 to 1964 I attended Bromley Grammar School for Boys in Kent. I had passed the 11+ and this is the Grammar School my parents picked for me. Neither of my parents, none of my aunts and uncles and (I think) none of my cousins had attended such a school and they were all early school leavers, though some later acquired qualifications. My mother left school at 13 or 14 and went to work in a paper mill; my father did likewise and became a delivery boy for Messrs Potts of Dartford.

I was in the top stream, though between 1958 and 1961 my class position deteriorated as things got worse at home. After my parents separated in 1960 and my mother and I went to live with her brother and sister in law, it began to improve. Top stream boys sat four 'O' levels (English, Latin, French, Maths) in the fourth form and, if they passed all of them, could skip the fifth year (and Science 'O' levels!) and go straight into the Sixth Form as I did in Autumn of 1962, just after my 15th birthday.

By this time, I was a member of the Awkward Squad of difficult pupils, argumentative and out of line - school uniform and such like. I wanted to take 'A' levels in Economics, French and Maths. "Sticky" Richardson who had taught me Maths declined to have me in his sixth form group, so did Mr May, the French teacher. The Economics master, the charismatic Alan Charnley, had not encountered me so I got into his group. "Jack" Addison took me for History and I was also accepted for Geography by another master who hadn't previously taught me (Mr Moffatt, who was very good).

You had to sign up for General Studies (Mr Atkins), and a further 'O' level - I chose Italian. In my own time, I did a voluntary 'O' level in Art - Awkward Squad members found the atmosphere in the Art room therapeutic.

Early on in my sixth form studies, the Deputy Head took me aside and told me that I would not be made a Prefect. Too rebellious. Curiously, the same man ("Polly" Parrott) also got me to deputise for him when he could not teach our Italian class - I had a good accent and could give Dictation.

More importantly, I was also told I had been selected for the Oxbridge Scholarship group. At Bromley GS, you did not put yourself forward for Oxbridge; they selected you for the group which would stay on for an extra term after taking 'A' levels and prepare for the Scholarship exams. Not only that, they told you which University, which college and which degree. In my case, Oxford, St Peter's and PPE - exactly the same combination as for my friend John Edward King who was accelerated even faster and went to Oxford at 16 or 17 and had an Oxford extra-mural lectureship at 20.

In the meantime, you would also be pushed in various ways.

In the mornings, as we entered school, the Headmaster "Henry" Anderson would stand outside his study and observe us. Boys were called over for various reasons.

On one occasion, he spotted my Chelsea boots and dressed me down. On another, he called me in to tell me that my Father (who I had refused to see any more when I reached the age of 16) had been to the school and had left some papers for me to sign: my Father had bought National Savings Bonds in my name and now required me to sign them over to him.

On several occasions, the Head called me over to say he had something on his desk that he thought I should read. They were actually Government reports. As a sixth former I read the Beeching report on the future of the railways and the Robbins report on the future of higher education. And I read them cover to cover.

This is how you were informally prepared for the Oxbridge scholarship examinations.

My Economics teacher, Alan Charnley, also took an interest in me and wanted the school to put me up for Christ Church or some such - but he was over-ruled. The school's strategy was to maximise the number of names on the Oxbridge Scholarship board by targetting second-rate colleges like St Peter's. When I got my A level results, Charnley also suggested that I write and ask to be interviewed at St Peter's before the Scholarship exam, which I did. They gave me a place but told me to sit the exam anyway - and, indeed, out of it I got an Open Scholarship which in those days was worth £60 on top of whatever grant you were going to get (in my case a full grant of £370).

Without my school's sponsorship, I would not have applied to Oxford. There were a couple of boys whose middle-class parents intervened when they were not put into the Oxbridge group but mine would never have done so. And despite being a member of the Awkard Squad, I don't think I would have pushed myself forward. I did want to go to University and I had fall-back choices - the new universities - if I did not get into Oxford.

Of course, this little story of Sponsored Mobility also reveals one of its weaknesses. If my teachers had been just a little bit spiteful, they could have punished me for all the trouble I caused them by keeping my name off that Oxbridge list. Fortunately, for me, they were above such meanness.

There Is Always Money for Road Signs

Probably everyone has a favourite example of Government wasting our money.

Other countries largely manage without them - you aren't oppressed by them in Germany - but we have "invested" heavily in oversized electronic signs which now overhang every motorway. Supposedly, they provide "real time" information. In reality, they irritate drivers with an endlessly repetitive display of false and fatuous messages: "Queue Ahead" (when you are sitting in one), "Don't Drink and Drive" (when they are really desperate for something to say).

The fatal flaw is really the fact that they cannot (for technical and logical reasons) display real time information. That is why they end up being ignored - you've read it all before and it's usually wrong.

I guess that someone who used to sell fridges to Eskimos realised that the Department of Transport was a soft touch for giant electronic junkware. .

God knows how much they cost, not only to install but to run. I would simply switch them off. But if we can't get out of the contracts, let them display useful messages: "Is it your Wedding Anniversary?".

Friday, 8 April 2011

Paywalls, Kitemarks or Free Downloads: the future of academic work

Once a month, I work in London, in Bloomsbury. At the end of the day I sometimes go round to the London Review of Books and stock up on new books - maybe three or four, mostly history and politics. I probably read a book a week these days; when I was an undergraduate, one of my tutors told me I should be reading a Book A Day (he made it sound like one word: "Bookaday, Pateman; Bookaday") and for many years that was my target.

There is a Public Library within a hundred meters of my home, but I never use it. I use the Internet.

When I retired from the University of Sussex in 2000, I began to put my academic work on line at and yesterday the Flagcounter, installed a couple of years ago, registered a visitor from what it tells me is my 126th country, Andorra.

I don't know how many Internet countries there are in the world, but 126 seems quite good going. The Flagcounter only flags up a small proportion of visitors, since many computers are trained to withold the information it needs, so for all I know I have had readers in Andorra before. No matter. I never expected anyone in Andorra to read my work. Flagcounter reckons 66% of my visitors are coming from the UK or USA; there is then a sharp drop off - it takes four countries (India, Iran, Canada, China) to provide the next 10% of visits. I am surprised to see Iran there.

There is no paywall on my site and there is no kitemarking. This is how I think academic work - or at least old academic work - should be distributed. Most of it was written for journals before anyone even thought of the Internet and the Internet has given it an unexpected new lease of life. Likewise, the publishers who originally put out the journals at captive-market Library prices which covered their costs now find that they have unanticipated bonus income from the pay-to-view recycling of old academic work. Academic journals have always been a bit of a publishing scam and now even more so.

Pay-to-view sites for old academic work should be discouraged. I don't know how best this can be achieved. A modification of copyright laws might be the best route. A general principle should be that journal work which was originally produced by publicly-funded academics (like all those in the UK) should be in the public domain, available at no cost or only administrative costs. Different principles could apply to books.

Alternative Mobilities: Drug Dealers, Show Girls, Prostitutes.

Suppose you are born poor and want to get rich. And suppose you live in a country where all the best ways of getting rich are or seem to be monopolised by powerful families and fraternities. The barriers to entry into their ranks are very high.

That's the situation in many parts of the world, maybe most.

So you look for alternatives. It's not new for young women to exploit their attractiveness to older men. In the past they could be geishas and courtesans. Now they can attend Silvio Berlusconi's bunga bunga parties and reap handsome cash rewards. If they crave celebrity, they can hold out for jobs in his media empire. If they have a taste for power and not just for money, even a seat in parliament is a possibility. The court proceedings against Berlusconi will, in due course, show just how extensive and generous is his patronage. And, luckily for the women, Italy is full of Berlusconis.

To succeed in this game, you need to be young and pretty. But you also need to be feisty, determined, organised and even ruthless - all qualities which would be assets if the world around you really offered careers open to talents. But it doesn't. You come from the wrong suburbs, with the wrong accent and you are the wrong colour. Your education leaves a lot to be desired.

In the Berlusconi case, it is the political patronage which is most interesting. Sponsored mobility from a bunga bunga party to Parliament may not be such a bad thing. The country has a poor record on women's rights and the Roman Catholic church aims to keep it that way. A few show girls and prostitutes in Parliament could be a breath of fresh air. It's not as if they represent a tiny minority.

For young men, it's tougher. There was a traditional way of getting rich which involved starting with a barrow in the market. Nowadays, there is a quicker way up and that's drug dealing. With any luck, you will have your Beemer or your Merc in your twenties.

It's risky but not that risky, so even University students with funding problems deal drugs. After all, they have immediate access to one of the largest markets.

But if you are going to make serious money and avoid going to jail, you have to be feisty, determined, organised and even ruthless - all qualities which would be assets if the world around you really offered careers open to talents. Instead, you make your money selling to those who have already got or made theirs, some of whom will become Members of Parliament and admit to youthful "experiments". Then they will still send you to jail.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Prince Harry to Work at Tesco?

One reason, among many, why the UK has little social mobility is that no one really believes in it.

Many years ago, a very good leftist sociologist, Paul Willis, wrote a book Learning to Labour: Why Working Class Kids get Working Class Jobs which argued that people - or at least working class boys - get the jobs they want. In the days when we had panel beaters, working class boys wanted to be panel beaters and there was a lot of competition for apprenticeships. Apprenticeships, of course, were the working class equivalent of internships and just as poorly remunerated. Fortunately for the working class boys, middle and upper class boys did not apply to be panel beaters.

Working class boys weren't interested in internships and probably still aren't, leaving the field clear for sharp-elbowed middle class parents sponsoring their children.

Prince Harry left Eton with a B in Art and a D in Geography. We were told he received a lot of help and he has had help ever since, minded and managed to keep him out of trouble and keep him in some kind of "suitable" job. No one, but no one, expects him to work on a Tesco check out.

Nor does anyone expect Prince Andrew to manage a local Thomas Cook. It's not really an issue that he has a job created for him, worth £500 000 a year in expenses. After all, among the despotic families which rule half the world, he goes down better as a roving Trade Ambassador than would some shining example of upward social mobility who might be female, black, gay - or just above themselves. So we are stuck with Air Miles Andy.

Just as there are people at the top who don't intend to move down, so there are lots of people who don't really want to join the upper echelons of our Ruritania.

As an undergraduate at Oxford, back in 1967, I won two University prizes awarded on the basis of open competition with exam scripts anonymously marked: the Gibbs Prize in Politics and the George Webb Medley Prize in Economics. Shortly afterwards, I got an invitation to one of those half-secret Oxford fraternities of which the Bullingdon Club is the most famous.But I was invited to an "intellectual" rather than a drinking club; I forget its name. At the end of the evening, a silver drinking cup was passed around, "Church and Queen" people murmured. As the cup passed to my lips, I remained silent. I was never invited back.

I am sure it is a deterrent to anyone interested in public life - politics, civil service - that the culture is so heavily insistent on God and the Queen. During the Leaders' debates at the last Election, an audience member was allowed to ask a challenging question about the Pope's forthcoming State Visit. Nick Clegg, as a professed atheist, had a chance to denounce the charade as an offensive waste of money, got up by Tony Blair (who does God) and Gordon Brown (who does God) for the most miserable of motives. No chance. Clegg knows when you have to go along with our ruling class. After all, he is one of them not one of us. So he did God or, at least, Antichrist.

We only ever had one ruthless accelerator of social mobility, upwards and downwards. That was the 11+ which pulled bright working class children out of their social backgrounds and pushed them to achieve something. The 11+ is not coming back. Instead, we now have schools which select on the basis of the religious professions of parents. That is how the Daily Mail has triumphed over upward mobility.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Christopher Drake, Bill McGreavy and Modern Policing as Self-Congratulation

Detective Chief Inspector Bill McGreavy:

"Greater Manchester Police, the school, the governors and local education authority worked together fantastically and our partnership was a true example of helping in the safeguarding of children"

What did the Police do? They put together a case which has sent Christopher Drake, aged 29, to prison for six years for having sex with three pupils (two of them on a long-term basis)at Hesketh Fletcher Church of England High School.

Reason enough for feeling good?

Not quite, when you ask: How did they get the evidence?

On Valentine's Day 2010 in the early hours of the morning, one of the two long-term girls let herself into Drake's flat only to find him in bed with the other girl. She made a very noisy scene about the two-timing bastard, as a result of which the police arrived and entered Mr Drake's flat to find two of his pupils and a lot of Valentine's Day paraphernalia .... to which presumably Mr Drake's only possible response was "It's a fair cop"

So why all the self-congratulation? Well, these were long-term relationships, begun when the girls were 14 and continuing for a couple of years; Mr Drake was known in the school by his self-chosen nickname, "The Salford Stallion"; he was promoted from PE teacher to a managerial role, despite his appalling taste in nicknames. So, from what I read, it looks like there was no safeguarding of children. Hence DCI McGreavy's need to claim that there was.

I do sometimes wonder how many crimes are only solved because someone walks into a police station and gives themselves up or some very close equivalent.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Uncle Ben: Disability in the 1950s

This is autobiography.

For the first seven years of my life (1947-53) I lived in Slade Green near Erith in Kent. Auntie Nellie and Uncle Ben lived round the corner in Howbury Lane in "Delma", a small bungalow built on a plot of land bought in the 1930s. Here it is when built and, much later, decked out for the Queen's 1977 Jubilee:

Nellie and Ben were very positive influences on my early life. Nellie was one of my mother's older sisters, ten years older so about 50 when I was born in 1947. She was childless - my mother said she was unable to hold the babies - but had done a lot of informal fostering. There were always children needing temporary homes. My mother had a hysterectomy when I was three or four and then made a suicide attempt when I was seven, and on both occasions it was with Nellie and Ben that I stayed.

Ben [ Benjamin Streeton - photograph at the top from 1962 ] had been part of the labour aristocracy. Apprenticed to Fraser's Engineering Works in Erith, he had become a hands-on gas turbine engineer, well paid enough in the 1930s both to become a home-owner and to buy an Austin Seven, still in use after the War. He was an intelligent and resourceful man with a vegetable allotment adjoining the bungalow and large cherry trees in the garden.

But after the war, he developed tuberculosis. It was said damp nights spent on Air Raid Warden duties were the cause. Who knows.  [ Added 22 December 2012: In this Works photograph he is seated front row, second from left, fag in hand. To me, he looks ill. The photograph is undated but I guess from the 1940s ] :

Tuberculosis forced him into premature retirement and reduced circumstances.

Yesterday, I walked past a bed of wallflowers and it was these which made me think of Uncle Ben. When he was ill, I used to go round to Delma and sing to him as he lay propped up on pillows. One of the songs was called "Wallflowers". I don't know where I learnt it, and it may have been made up - the only words I remember are doggerel.

When he recovered enough, Ben turned himself into a Homeworker. He taught himself leatherwork and produced handbags and purses which Nellie hawked and sold to relatives, friends, neighbours. It was serious stuff: crocodile skins and leather skivers. Ben taught me to make small purses with scraps of leather, hand sewn with thong. I liked the skivers best, exotically coloured and marbled - enough to explain why as an adult I have always liked the end papers of books.

When I visited Ben and Nellie with my mother, the lights never went on until it was dark. You talked in the gloom. It kept down the electricity bill. There was no telephone and, at this time, no TV. The next door neighbours were settled gypsies who kept chickens. When you sat looking out of the window in the fading light, you would quite often see a rat run across the garden.

At Christmas, Ben and Nellie produced and sold decorations. They bought (or gathered) twigs and brightened them up with simple flowers made from melted coloured wax.

Because of these Homeworker activities, there were always people in and out of the bungalow. When Ben had recovered enough, Nellie went to work in the local paper bag factory and I used to go in and stand beside her. Noisy machines made pink and white candy striped bags.

Ben lived to a good age (75) but pre-deceased Nellie by several years. Nellie planned to leave the bungalow to my mother, but she died a year before her older sister so the bungalow came to me by default. I sold it in 1979.

Postscript, 29 August 2012

I remember Nellie washing my hair over the sink and holding me up in front of the mirror to see my lathered head. I would have been three or four years old. The mirror is now in my home.


Added 24 July 2018: I have now published a memoir of my childhood, I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers

Johann Hari and Ed Miliband

In today's Independent, Johann Hari writes a three page job application. Ed Miliband badly needs a spin doctor - and Mr Hari thinks he's the man.

I don't watch TV or listen to radio (ever), so I don't really know how bad Miliband is as a communicator. Other people tell me he's hopeless. Nor do I really know whether he's in touch with the way ordinary people are experiencing the Cameron government. I just assume he's a bog-standard Westminster politician, just more geeky. As for imaginative policies, I don't think this is something the Labour Party is now capable of. Look, this is a party which happily replaced Tony Blair with Gordon Brown and, maybe more to the point, Robin Cook with Jim Devine.

If Johann Hari gets the job, he has his work cut out.

As for his substantive anaylsis, I don't buy all his bleeding heart stuff about the Squeezed Middle. The Squeezed Middle is very adept at painting its plight in the most pitiable terms.

A while back, a Professor in North Wales had a letter in the Independent about how squeezed he was. I found it so hilarious that I Googled his name. More hilarity: he had not so long previously been featured in the Independent's motoring column as a man with £25 000 to spend on His car (Hers already taken care of) and was wondering about a Porsche... (See my Blog "Austerity in North Wales" - the subject of the Blog was kind enough to confirm the facts, though he pointed out that in the end he bought a Prius).

The Second Car Test is only one that could be applied. Another, which Johann Hari might like to check out, is this: What will be the average spend this year on a wedding between children of Squeezed Middle parents?