Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Government security lapses continue

egyptian queens, vers libre poets and ... wotthehell

Don Marquis was born 130 years ago today in Walnut, Illinois, and died on 29th December 1937.

He is best-known for creating the all-lower-case poems of archy the cockroach, perhaps inspired by the loftier aspirations of e e cummings and rainer - oops! - Rainer Maria Rilke.

Marquis takes a swipe at theosophy (trendy in the early years of the twentieth century) and the belief of its founder, Madame Blavatsky, in reincarnation, in the introduction to the collected poems.

He goes on: "We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning, and discovered a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys.

"He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machiine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just suffient to operate the amchine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a greate deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor, he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a
nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.

"Congratulating ourself that we had left a sheet of paper in the machine the night beofroe so that all this work had been in vain, we made an examination, and this is what we found:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook on life

i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale i cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what whe is supposed to be for

Mehitabel the cat reveals to Archy that she was Cleopatra in a former life, though the poems she has Archy transcribe for her reveal a salty turn of phrase, "wotthehell" appearing frequently (though she is also "toujours gai").

The complete "the lives and times of archy and mehitabel" is well worth looking out for, especially as it includes the illustrations of another cult figure, George Herriman.

The collection should be dipped into, as with most poetry collections. However, my acquisition of the complete volume thirty years ago coincided with a long period of bed rest, and I read the whole volume at a stretch. It has to be said that the carefree verses of the early years are gradually replaced by gloomier thoughts, culminating in rather isolationist opinions, presumably dating from the early thirties. At the very end, the poetry returns, and is more philosophical. The final words could be prophetic (my italics):

men talk of money and industry
of hard times and recoveries
of finance and economics
but the ants wait and the scorpions wait
for while men talk they are making deserts all the time
getting the world ready for the conquering ant
drought and erosion and desert
because men cannot learn

rainfall passing off in flood and freshet
and carrying good soil with it
because there are no longer forests
to withhold the water in the
billion meticulations of the roots

it wont be long it wont be long
till earth is barrne as the moon
and sapless as a mumbled bone

dear boss i relay this information
without any fear that humanity
will take warning and reform

But I prefer to think of Mehitabel's enduring optimism:

but wotthehell do i care
i neithe whine nor fret
what though my spine is out of line
there s a dance in the old dame yet

Friday, 25 July 2008

Unfinished Books

I shall be found by the fire, suppose,
O'er a great wise book as beseemeth age,
While the shutters flap as the cross-wind blows,
And I turn the page, and I turn the page,
Not verse now, only prose!

- Robert Browning, "By the fire-side"

Peter Black's posting about books only started, never finished, causes me to reflect on my unachieved ambition to catch up on the great works of literature which I missed out on during my working years.

I didn't miss out completely. I read Ulysses through twice, the first time devouring it over the span of a week, aided by long train journeys and long nights in a hotel room while working on a contract in England. What drew me on was the fascination with the different language and styles with which Joyce plays in the book. Perhaps A-level English and other languages prepared me for this. "Ulysses" also cured me of any delusion that I, too, could become a great writer.

There were many others, mostly modern. Two come to mind: Nigel Balchin, because it is his centenary this year; and Don Marquis, whose birthday falls next week. More then, if I can remember.

Unfortunatly, when I found I had more time, I also found that my concentration was less fierce than it used to be. This can't be just old age; Gladstone in his later years would think nothing of reading a classical work in the original, and writing an extensive commentary on it.

Television must have something to do with it, and possibly the sheer weight of written material which passes in front of ones eyeballs. Though newspapers are less dense than they used to be, there are more journals out there, largely as a result of joining charities and societies. When programming, one had to wade through turgid systems specifications, which made reading a chore rather than a pleasure. Now there is the load of council papers, written in 21st-century pudder.

For the record, the unfinished books on my bedside table include "The Arabs" by Albert Hourani, "Collapse" (Jared Diamond) and the memoirs of Peter Walker and Don Shepherd. This is no reflection on the quality of writing (though Hourani can be hard going), more on my inability to keep my eyes open for more than ten minutes at the end of the day.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Liberal Democrats and tax-cutting

Nick Clegg, introducing the party's new glossy, "Make it Happen", to the media, said that he was looking for ways to reduce the overall tax burden. This laudable aspiration was seized on by the media as an attempt to seize the Conservative ground.

The media commentators (who mostly have their own agenda, and would like nothing better than for the Liberal Democrats to disappear) either did not read the document or wilfully ignored it. There is nothing in it to comfort the wealthy. The main points are:
- to cut taxes for ordinary families
- to switch taxes from people to pollution - so it pays to go green
- to put Britain at the heart of Europe to make us a force for good in the world
- to stop ID cards so we can keep control of our privacy
- to change the voting system so everyone's voice counts
- to bring communities together with local people in charge
- give communities a say in how offenders pay for their crimes

The first two points make it obvious: lower-paid people will be taken out of tax; the people who pollute most, overwhelmingly those with higher disposable incomes, will pay more.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

MPs expenses - have we heard from the Nationalists?

LibDem MPs led the way in voluntarily publishing their expenses, the Conservatives have partially followed, but where are Plaid and the SNP?

One trusts that Alex Salmond, who spends hardly any time in Westminster (media events apart), does not have the gall to claim for a second household in the capital.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Abraham report - a deliberate leak?

The Ombudsman's report on the government's conduct leading up to and during the collapse of pension provider Equitable Life has been much delayed. It is now scheduled to be issued later this week. However, at least two economic commentators, James Daley of The Independent and the Daily Telegraph's Damian Reece have already seen the contents, which lay the blame on government.

One wonders whether someone in the Ombudsman's office, or in No 10, fearful of yet another postponement of publication, has tried to force Gordon Brown's hand by leaking the report.

Certainly, although the Conservatives under Thatcher and Major created the economic climate in which Equitable made its rash promises to clients, it was Gordon Brown's Treasury which was responsible for regulation of the insurance market in the two years before the collapse, and let its failed customers swing in the wind thereafter. It would be understandable if New Labour attempted to bury this bad news.

Monday, 14 July 2008

WISE nearing completion

Not "Women In Science and Engineering" (another estimable institution), but the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education. It has come a long way since it started (illustration here is from 2006) taking shape in the redundant quarry it shares with the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth. The latest photos are here.

If you want to join me and others in WISE's final push for funds for completion, go to the support page.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Lib Dems hold English district council seat

So what? This has been happening every month for years - except that this time the winner is a famous name in psephological circles.

A leading Liberal Democrat has calculated this as a 2% swing to Steed.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Post Office closures

Sitting in the public gallery of the council chamber this afternoon, I thought that the scrutiny committee debate on post office closures within the county borough was like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark - or, perhaps, the Scottish play without the Thane of Cawdor, since we are talking villains here.

The Labour councillors could hardly attack their own government, so they laid into Post Office Ltd for the closure programme. The sub-postmasters' representative was unequivocal about where blame lay: the loss of government business. Most of his members couldn't make a living from post office business alone, and some were even subsidising the latter from their savings. The Post Office people, for their part, emphasised that government demanded that the business be not only made viable by the end of the decade, but that it also start showing a return on capital then.

It was clear where the sympathies of at least one of the PO reps lay, as he actually sought good evidence which would justify removing sub post offices from the closure list. Earlier, his colleague had presented a slide-show which stressed Post Office Ltd's flexibility in entertaining various models of service to replace fixed, wholly-owned, buildings with their overhead costs.

Hanging over the discussions was the future of the Post Office Card Account. There will be a replacement in 2010, but Post Office Ltd. is only one of the bodies tendering for the right to sponsor it.

It is hard to see how another organisation can provide both the security and the breadth of outlets which the Post Office does. If this decision goes against them, it is yet more confirmation that Gordon Brown's government is as dominated by Friedmann-Hayek "economic liberalism" as ever Mrs Thatcher was.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Philip leads Welsh LibDem Euro challenge

The Welsh Liberal Democrat European result was:

1. Alan Butt Philip

2. Kevin O’Connor

3. Nick Tregoning

4. Jackie Radford

Alan Butt Philip therefore stands an excellent chance of getting in to the European Parliament next year. Based on the 2007 Regional Assembly Election, an election that resembles the European Elections in its proportionality, the Welsh Liberal Democrats need only a 2.45% swing from Labour to take the fourth seat. Taking the constituency vote, the swing required drops to less than 1%. If turnout at the 2005 General Election were repeated, the Welsh Liberal Democrats would win the seat comfortably.

Chris Davies and Graham Watson, as English Liberal Democrat MEPs, are already working hard to uncouple the European gravy train. A MEP from Wales should soon be ready to assist their efforts.

More details at the Welsh web-site.

Sorry to see South Wales West's Nick Tregoning and Jackie Radford tailed off.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Euro list - last chance to vote

- if you still have a Saturday mail collection. Votes for the Welsh LibDem European election list have to be in Cardiff by noon next Monday, 7th July.

As the Labour vote collapses, and has little prospect of recovering by the time of the Euro elections, there never was a better chance to have a Liberal Democrat MEP in Wales, so our choice is important.

The two candidates who bothered to send me an email advancing their case are my top two preferences. I'm sorry to see Peter Price having retired from the fray after so many years carrying our flag, but whoever takes over at the head of the list has many years campaigning experience behind him or her.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Let's not forget Jim Griffiths

60 years after the founding of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan is quite rightly receiving his due as the man who pushed the scheme through, using his powers of persuasion and (as he later admitted) downright bribery.

Lloyd George is recognised as having started the state welfare ball rolling in the UK with his "People's Budget" of 1909. Beveridge, whose 1942 report gave the vital kick* to the five giant programmes, including health, which formed the core of the post-war government's programme.

However, it was JH Griffiths from Betws who forced a vote in the House of Commons on the Beveridge Report in 1942, against the coalition government, who wanted to kick it into touch. (Ironically, it was Herbert Morrison, the most vigorous advocate of Beveridge within the cabinet, who was deputed to put, successfully, the government case.) As we now know, the Attlee government of 1945 was to reverse that decision.

As Minister for National Insurance in that government, Griffiths introduced the 1946 Industrial Injuries Act, which effectively nationalised routine compensation, taking it away from the employers and the private insurers.

Jim (short for "Jeremiah") Griffiths secured a more lasting place in history under a later Labour PM as the first Secretary of State for Wales, but his part in the setting up of the Welfare State should not be forgotten.

*The words of Nicholas Timmins, from his book "The five giants - A Biography of the Welfare State"