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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Brighton and Hove City Council and North Street - Recycling failed ideas

Fifteen years ago, I moved home to Brighton and Hove a coastal city of 250 000 familiar around the world thanks to Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock,  the Language Schools, accessibility for a day trip from London, its LGBT scene, the Green MP Caroline Lucas (England’s only Green member of Parliament), a Royal Pavilion – and more.

Soon after I arrived, the city council (I forget who was running it then, but it would have been Labour or Conservative) embarked on a pavement narrowing exercise – this in a city which is often overwhelmed with pedestrians. Along the length of the east – west thoroughfare of Western Road and Church Road, it began installing very large black cast iron containers at frequent intervals along the pavements.  I think they had been offered a Special Price for a bulk purchase of these containers and the council always needs things to spend money on – it has a very large income from Parking charges (which must be spent on transport related things)  and has never really known what to do with the money.

Anyway, the big black obstructions contained earth, planted with shrubs which soon died from neglect and the salty air. So they just became litter bins, the earth covered with cigarette ends and take-away food leftovers. Eventually, the Council conceded its mistake and removed the bins. I hope they got something for the scrap metal.

At the same time as narrowing the pavements with the bins, the Council was licensing every shop along the route to put out sandwich boards on the pavement – that brings in more money for the Council. The overall result was to turn the pavements into an obstacle course.

Fast forward fifteen years. Yesterday, I was walking in the city’s North Street – a rather unpleasant and dangerous area which functions as a super highway for the city’s over-numerous buses - Pedestrians beware! There are lots of pedestrians.

You’ve guessed. Not black bins this time - there is a Green council now - but very large grey manufactured stone containers. With shrubs. At frequent intervals. The shrubs already look pretty sickly though this is a recent “improvement”. I don’t think the chill east winds which sweep up North Street will help. The stone urns are already being used as litter bins. Worse, each container is twinned with two harsh metal seats – this in a street where the last thing you would want to do is sit down next to very large and fast moving buses. 

More intelligently, there are bike racks which were in full use. But the overall effect is, once again, pavement narrowing.

The shrubs will die and eventually the stone containers and the seats will be removed, unattractive hazards.

It gets worse. The area around Brighton railway station is always crowded with pedestrians. A pavement narrowing scheme has been put into place there. Large areas are blocked off with lethally sharp concrete borders, and more seats in an area where people are hurrying to catch trains and hurrying home from work or down to the beach. Expect accidents.

There is a larger issue. In this country when local government makes mistakes we set up Enquiries – into failures to identify children At Risk of abuse, failure to spot Care Home scandals, and so on. The Enquiry Reports are often savage. Councils respond by promising to Learn from their Failures.

They never do. They have no institutional memory. If they can’t Learn from Failures for something as simple as pavement schemes, they are unlikely to do it for more serious matters.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

The Poisoned Chalice: How I Failed my Oxford Initiation Ceremony

British Prime Minister David Cameron is in trouble for things he is supposed to have done as a student at Oxford, notably for sticking his cock in a dead  pig's mouth - though only as part of an all-male Fraternity Club (that's American I know) initiation ceremony. So we have #piggate. There are other allegations in an unauthorised biography ( by former ally Lord Ashcroft ) which are rather more important, but still this is the Press and Twitter's favourite one.

I was reminded of my only encounter with Frat Club initiation ceremonies.

In the autumn of 1967, as an undergraduate student at Oxford, I sat two examinations - traditional sit-downs with unseen papers and invigilators. But they weren't ordinary exams. You volunteered yourself for them (though you had to have a tutor's support) because they led to the award of Prizes with prize money attached. In one exam, you had three hours to answer just one question. I chose "Is Economic Growth a Good Thing?" which was a hot topic then and had been the subject of a recent (1966) book, Is Economic Growth a Good Thing? by E J Mishan. I had read it.

Anyway, I ended up  the winner of the Junior George Webb Medley Prize in Economics and the Gibbs Prize in Politics. To win one Prize was regarded as a distinction (it was recorded on your Degree certificate); but winning both was almost unprecedented. Especially for a Pleb attending a plebeian Oxford college, St Peter's.

Shortly thereafter I received an invitation to a Frat Club meeting. Not one devoted to sex, drugs and smashing windows (the sort you need to belong to if you want to become Prime Minister) but one devoted to elevated intellectual pursuits - a club where members met and listened to a paper and ate a meal. I guess it was Oxford's answer to the Cambridge Apostles. I can't remember the club's name and Googling has not solved the problem.

The Club did meet in the same college as hosts most of the more boisterous fraternities, Christ Church - Oxford's answer to Sodom and Gomorrah. I went along, recognised a few people but not many, listened to the paper. Then we ate.

And then the Chalice was passed round. Everyone sipped from it and uttered the words "Church and Queen". The chalice arrived in my hands (nice bit of silverware) and all eyes were on me. I passed the Chalice to the person next to me.

I didn't do Church [of England] and I didn't do Queen. I still don't. I never heard from the Frat Club again.

Monday, 21 September 2015

My Thoughts on National Anthems ...

First Blogged here - just before the London Olympics - on 17 July 2012:

There are going to be a lot of them on the airwaves in the coming weeks and someone will surely organise an Olympic contest to pick a winner.

It won't be the United Kingdom; it doesn't have a National Anthem - loyal subjects call on God to make the Queen feel good and that's about it. If you don't believe in God or the Queen, you are a bit stuffed.

God has by now clearly heard better tunes: He has sent Her very few victories in her very long reign. The camera can cut to Team Argentina to illustrate successful invocation of the deity, but it can't cut anywhere else.

In the old days, when concert halls started the evening and cinemas ended with the National Anthem, I was one of those people who stayed seated. I recall one occasion when the concert-goer behind made valiant efforts to yank me to my feet. Another occasion was more interesting.

There used to be a cinema in Oxford Street which showed European films and was popular with students. They screened Ă…dalen 31 (Bo Widerberg, 1969), a powerful Swedish film about bad employers and good workers in the years before the social democratic party secured the hegemony which made Sweden a model for progressive politics (so much so, that I made Sweden the first foreign country I visited, in 1964).

The audience was clearly moved by the film, but no sooner ended than the Anthem struck up. The juxtaposition was jarring and, without thinking, I shouted some protest. To my surprise, it was taken up and afterwards people gathered round to talk. More usually, in ordinary cinemas, people simply walked out during the Anthem which is the real reason they gave up playing it. The Monarchy wasn't as popular then as it is this year.

Nowadays, I stand up for the Anthem, not to embarass those I am with. But in the sixties, we were all in it together.

When England throws off the yoke of the United Kingdom and declares itself a Republic, it will already have a flag and a football team. But it will need an Anthem.

An Anthem should reflect a nation's better self and aspirations; the words should be well-known and well-loved. Ideally, a football crowd should be able to turn in a half-decent performance.

That reduces the choice to two:


Sir Hubert Parry set Blake's words to music in 1916 at the request of the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. It was designed as a contribution to the war effort. Parry soon had doubts about contributing to that senseless slaughter and may well have withdrawn the music but for the fact that Jerusalem was also quickly taken up by more progressive forces: the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (the Suffragettes)adopted it and Parry promptly assigned them the copyright. The Labour Party also took it up. ( I am relying on the very detailed interesting Wikipedia entry "And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time" ).

So as a National Anthem Jerusalem would nicely incorporate England's conflicted political history. Its God is not the primitive deity of the National Anthem and there is nothing in it an atheist cannot live with.


First released in 1971, but not as a single until 1975. John Lennon's words are very well known (the world over - though in America they have a version which replaces "Imagine no religion" with "Imagine one religion"). I think it is regarded with great fondness though it did not become a #1 Hit until after Lennon's death. The words do appeal to our better selves and aspirations. Whether a football crowd could sing a verse, I am not so sure. But they'd give it a try.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

It Could Have Been So Much Better: Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson on Day One

Every few years, there is an event which attracts me enough to watch it live or nearly live: the 2010 Leaders' Debates for the UK General Election, the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games, and today the Declaration of the Labour Leadership election - about which I was actually quite excited (though not excited enough to have watched any of the "Hustings" debates).

Oh dear, is this really the best they can do?

Tom Watson gets up and sounds like a one man Tribute Act to the past. That doesn't matter so much. But then we get to the new Leader ...

This is going to go out live and be endlessly played as clips on TV News. It's Mr Corbyn's first big chance to sound like a Leader who means business ...

Mr Corbyn takes from his pocket his notes, and goes through the List of people who have to be Thanked ...

Yes, maybe they do have to be thanked. But not like this. You have just been elected Leader of the Labour Party and thus Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. You hit the ground running:

"Thank you to all of of you who have made me Leader of the Labour Party and - as a consequence, I suppose -  Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. I think we need an Opposition. What is there not to Oppose? The Tories now have all the power in this country thanks to the recent votes of 25% of the electorate. And they have already made it plain that they intend to make the most of that power to serve the interests of the few not the many. That is what we are going to oppose. 

Nor it seems are the Tories going to show any humanity in how they go about things. Mr Cameron's lack of compassion has become clear to everyone in the last couple of weeks. It is to Yvette Cooper's great credit that she found time during this leadership Election campaign to stand up for a decent, generous response to the plight of refugees. That is the kind of thing we stand for. "

Enough said. You work your Thank You's into your speech. You speak to the whole country not just to the party faithful. With a good speech writer, it's easy enough do both at the same time ... and your speech writer can make sure you can find variants on the word "passionate", something Mr Corbyn was unable to do - a real passion-killer that.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Is There Too Much Medical Research?

Just as there is an important (and often unhealthy) relationship between the Police and the Press, so too there is a relationship between medical research and the Press which strikes me as often unhelpful to “the general public”

In the UK, we have one newspaper – The Daily Express – which as a matter of editorial policy devotes all its front page stories to less than a dozen topics – the Weather, Migrants, Miracle Cures …  rotated on a basis which means that they all recur regularly. It assumes (correctly) that its elderly readership is unhealthy and full of health anxieties. So it feeds them stories of Miracle Cures for arthritis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and death.  Today, however, it has an uncharacteristic scare story which several other newspapers have picked up on too: You Can Catch Alzheimer’s. An editorial misjudgement? No, not if the next story is an Alzheimer’s Cure.

Other newspapers with a more up-market readership also drip feed the results of medical research but perhaps with more emphasis on Life Style research. The trouble with these research findings is that many of them contradict each other. In addition, if you read the small print, the findings are rather less striking than a headline makes them appear. For example, suppose some medical research concludes that eating X or not doing Y (usually exercise) increases your chances of succumbing to something nasty (usually a cancer) by 10%. That’s alarming. Until you do the maths: in the course of their lives, 1 in 10 000 people overall will succumb to this particular Nasty. The chances for those who eat X or don’t do Y are 10% worse. That means (doing this as Amateur Statistics) that about 1 in 9000 of the higher risk group will succumb. True, they are 10% worse off. But their chances of getting this Nasty are really not dramatically different to everyone else's.

Over many years, I have fallen into habits and practices which reflect Things I Have Read in the Newspapers. I switched from white to brown bread, from red meat to chicken, from full cream to semi-skimmed, from butter to margarine and then back again (new research). I stopped taking milk in my tea (anti-oxidant benefits) and gave up ham and bacon and other things which are over-processed and carcinogenic. I never add salt to my food (blood pressure). I don’t really manage Five A Day but it’s a sort of Target. I have always been a moderate drinker ( hepatitis in my twenties secured that) but now I am even more moderate, kept going only by all that research on the benefits of red wine …

And so on. But the more I read in the papers, the more I wonder if there is just too much medical research and too much that is inconsequential. A lot of it consists in running statistical computer programs endlessly over past research findings. A lot of it consists in modest empirical studies which simply can’t control for enough variables. A lot of it, of course, is Drugs research and here the pharmaceutical companies are probably guilty of trumpeting minor improvements as major ones, possibly helpful new drugs as breakthroughs. 

There is a rather sinister industry devoted to producing very expensive drugs to prolong by a month or two the lives of people who are soon going to die. Some of these life-extending drugs make people feel more ill than they would without them.

At the same time as routine medical research churns out an endless stream of often inconsequential results, it seems that we have major problems with resistance to antibiotics and major problems in ensuring that hospitals are safe places to be. It is now almost assumed that hospital treatment involves catching something. How did this come about?

It would be nice if we could have our newspapers debating what kinds of medical research we, the patients, think would be worthwhile with medical researchers joining in to tell us how they arrive at their own priorities for research.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

The Open Back Door, The Closed Front Door : Ireland and Calais

At no point in the past 200 years (and more) has migration from Ireland (the whole island) to Great Britain (the whole island) been controlled, and vice versa. Not that many British people want to go to Ireland; the movement has always been the other way. But movement has been free and most (all?) of the time, no one has had to show a passport, obtain a visa or report to the police when they move from Ireland to Britain.

In 1841, Ireland had a population of about 8 million. That dropped to 6.5 million by 1851 thanks to deaths by starvation in the Great Famine and the emigration of around a million people, most to the USA or Britain.

The mis-named Irish Free State was an unpleasant clerical-fascist dictatorship for the first forty or so years of its existence (never forget that in May 1945 Taoiseach Eamonn de Valera went to the German Embassy in neutral Dublin to express his Condolences on the death of Hitler) and millions left to escape poverty, the priests and the nuns. By 1951 the population of Ireland had dropped to 4.3 million. Most emigrants headed for Great Britain and, in many cases, war-work or the construction industry.

Northern Ireland, brought into being after World War One by reactionary Protestants and continuously a nasty area of religious persecution and sectarian violence, also sent its contingents of migrants to Great Britain - but even at the height of IRA violence in England there were no restrictions on movement. Northern Ireland, after all, was part of the Union and in the Union there was, of course,  free movement of goods and people.

In 2001 Ireland had a population of 5.6 million. In Great Britain at that date, about 6 million people out of a population of around 60 million had at least one Irish grandparent.

The door has always been open.

"The Right Honourable Member for Woodford [Winston Churchill] thinks that the 'wogs' begin at Calais" - Labour MP George Wigg in the House of Commons, 1949

Mr Cameron thinks so too; so does much of the British population.

They should be reminded of our open back door and asked why they are so keen to close the front door - indeed, keen to brick it up, blow it up, anything in fact ...

[ All the information on Irish migration from Wikipedia's "Irish migration to Great Britain"]