Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2014 CE


The worst things seem to happen to me in even-numbered years, so I approach midnight with some trepidation. Moving away from the personal, so many signs look good. Admittedly, international clouds have yet to disperse: Syria and Egypt seem to be getting worse, while trouble is flaring again in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. However, the UK employment figures are heading in the right direction, although a rise in incomes at the lower end is long overdue. The party has passed its lowest point in terms of membership and there are signs that clear gold water between the Liberal Democrats and their coalition partners is becoming evident to the public.

So here's hoping for a good 2014. We must brace ourselves for media overkill on the centenary of the Great War, but also hope that celebrations of Dylan Thomas do him proud.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Refugees need practical help, not gestures


It struck me as odd that Nigel Farage was quite ready to open British doors to 2 million refugees from Syria even though he has objected to "millions" of Bulgarian and Romanian fellow-citizens of the EU entering the country. His media release would be more convincing if he had previously spoken out against the consistent discrimination against refugees not only by this government but the previous one. Crucially, there is rarely any safe place to go for individuals facing extreme prejudice in their country of origin. This is not the case with the Syrian refugees, who are, I suggest, best helped in the camps established just outside the Syrian border. They are as safe here as in the UK and do not have to make major adjustments to their life-style. Nor will they be any less liable to sexual exploitation, sadly, if our own recent history is anything to go by, nor to racial prejudice which increases in proportion to the size of an incoming identifiable community.


Tuesday, 24 December 2013

So Little Time


I've picked up this Bantam paperback again. I come back to it every ten years or so, and each time find a different facet of the book. The pages are now brown at the edges and will surely become brittle before long. That is not surprising, as I see from the printing history page that it was the second Bantam edition, printed in 1963. It would therefore have been on sale in the UK in '63 or '64. Looking back over fifty years, I can't remember where I bought it, but I do know why.

The author

John P Marquand started out as a journalist before achieving a comfortable living writing spy thrillers featuring a Mr Moto. He then turned to the novels for which he would want to be remembered, depicting "certain phases of contemporary life", as he put it. Those which lasted longest are this one and H. M. Pulham Esquire. 

The story

On the face of it, it's just another depiction of a mid-life crisis. Jeffrey Wilson, an ex-journalist and first world war veteran, who didn't quite make it as a playwright, is now a successful script-doctor on Broadway and in Hollywood. He becomes obsessed with memories of the past and attempts to recapture the spirit of his youth by writing a play for the actress with whom he has a brief affair. This is all set in the period when the United States is about to enter the second world war. 

The adaptation

Bernard Braden, who, with his wife Barbara Kelly, was all over BBC radio in the 1950s, mostly in light entertainment, made a rare foray into serious drama with a serialisation of So Little Time in 1956. It was this that made such an impression on me that I bought the book. Braden was largely true to the story, as I recall, though he had necessarily to make large cuts. However, he introduced one powerful feature: the reading before each episode of the verses form Ecclesiastes which end: "A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace."

The decades

I was a very nostalgic young man. In the 1960s, I revelled in the accounts of Jeffrey revisiting the places of his youth. I was also struck by the clear influence of Thomas Mann - I had been reading Buddenbrooks, K├Ânigliche Hoheit and Der Zauberberg as background for my A-levels - right down to the annoying repetitious speech-patterns of the minor characters.

In the 1970s, it was the theme of war that stood out, unsurprisingly given the times we were living in. Jeffrey had a "good" war in Europe, but realises that the coming war against the Nazis is going to be rather different. His eldest son, encouraged by Jeffrey's more gung-ho fellow-flier from WW1, Minot Rogers, is keen to join up, but Jeffrey tries to prevent this.

The 1980s were the time of routine at work and in the home. In the 1990s, the patter of the adviser managing Jeffrey's investments while making money by churning struck home. This was even more striking in the Noughties, though, as my own income became even more intermittent, just as striking was the comfortable existence of all the main characters, with the exception of Jeffrey's incorrigible brother, Alf.

Picking the book up now, it is noticeable how the figure of Walter Newcombe dominates the early chapters. Newcombe is an ingenuous foreign correspondent who has risen without trace, David Frost-like, though without Frost's attention to detail. Perhaps, virtually retired now, apart from politics, and becoming an armchair critic, I now come back to the craft of writing and the realisation, like Jeffrey, that originality is a rare gift. The references to ageing also resonate more, though Jeffrey is no more than middle-aged in today's terms.

It may not be a great book, but it is certainly a good one and one that reflects sections of American society as Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh did of British. The book finishes, as I should have remembered, in the period between Pearl Harbor and Christmas 1941. Appropriate then, to finish with this paragraph from the last chapter:

You could not tell what anyone was thinking. The windows of the stores were full of Christmas decorations; the dogs were being aired; the trucks were rumbling up the avenue. There was a familiar background of sound that pulsed through the air like heartbeats. There was the smell of spruce from the Christmas trees on the sidewalks. There was the clatter of ash cans from a truck, on which was written the admonition about keeping the city clean, and the signs wre still on the green busses: "Welcome to New York." It was astonishing to see everything move on as it had always moved - too much in the shops, too much traffic in the cross streets, too many people, too much of everything. But everyone  must have known there would never be a day quite like that again. Everyone must have known that everything was changing. The trouble was you could not see it change.


Monday, 23 December 2013

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The next Holy Roman Empress?

I have long felt that the most ardent supporters of a Federal Europe are from countries which have closely bound in to a historical empire: Italy, obviously (Mussolini traded on restoring imperial splendour); France, dreaming of a new Bonaparte; Austria and Spain thinking of the Hapsburgs; and those lands which were the core of the Holy Roman Empire (neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire at the end in 1806). Nations north and west of Germany, cherishing longer periods of independence, are more resistant.

There was a reminder when the Independent ran a story that Ursula von der Leyen was the clear heiress to Angela Merkel's throne. The gracious lady is said to be a passionate advocate of European integration. (Angela Merkel is wary of this, recollecting no doubt the downside of being brought up in the Soviet empire.) What is as worrying is that vd Leyen clearly shares with the Poles the belief that Christianity is the bedrock of Europe. According to a potted biography on a feminist website, when she took over the Family portfolio she "succeeded in making such issues as childcare and family policy important political concerns in Germany once again. 'I want us to have more children in this country again. That’s the most important thing!' She pushed through a new law for 'Elterngeld' (one-year parental pay for parents who stay at home to care for their children), which despite massive protests from all sides includes two months for fathers. (During these two months the state pays parental support only if the father stays home.) Among her conservative colleagues and voters, of course, she did not only win friends with this provision.

"Virtually simultaneously she alienated the opposite side when she set up an 'Erziehungsgipfel' (education summit) which was limited to representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches and excluded all other religious and pedagogically concerned groups."


Saturday, 21 December 2013

Crosswords

I was thinking about crosswords anyway when by chance I discovered that today is a significant anniversary. It is appropriate that the inventor was a Liverpool man, though he had to cross the Atlantic to make history. My father hailed from Merseyside.

Probably the most enjoyable part of my visits back home was the lazy Sunday morning exchange of puzzles - the general knowledge and skeleton in my mother's Sunday Express and the Ximenes (succeeded by Azed) in my father's Observer. The latter would usually be passed or thrown across to my mother or myself with the remark: "I've left you the easy ones".  They weren't, of course, and there would follow collegiate solving accompanied by much twitting of each other's abilities. My habit of insulting people I like stems from that family atmosphere and I regret that it has often been misunderstood.

Nowadays I have a renewed interest in joint solving of cryptic crosswords through my long-distance friendship with Norah Clewes who I "met" through the crosswords forum on Cix. The Independent has replaced the Observer as the source of my exquisite torture, but it is almost like old times - apart from the insults.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Centenary

My father - engineer and soldier - was born one hundred years ago today.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Santa's Big Bang Theory

Jenny Gristock, materials scientist and science writer, has begun to republish some of her earlier articles at sciencewriting.net. The latest is a reworking of one she wrote for the Evening Post in 1996.

British Scientists investigating the source of some mysterious bursts of electromagnetic radiation think they have made the ultimate discovery: how Santa manages to deliver presents to the whole world in one night.

Each burst is so brief it was a miracle that the radiation was detected at all. [...]


For more, go here.


Sunday, 15 December 2013

CDC: questions need to be asked

The recent article in the Independent reporting the anniversary of the appointment of Diana Noble as chief executive has a traditional, rosy, view of the former Commonwealth Development Corporation. According to Lucy Tobin, it "invests taxpayer's money into poverty-stricken emerging markets" including "a scrap metal plant in Kenya, a textile business in Bangladesh and an engineering business in India".

Regular readers of Private Eye have a different picture. I cannot give a direct link to a PE article, but articles from the Tax Justice Network detail the story: just search on "CDC". Note that though this channel for possible financial rort was opened by Tony Blair, it has continued unchanged (so far as I can see) under the coalition government. A report by the Commons International Development Committee in 2011, chaired by Liberal Democrat Malcolm Bruce recommended an investigation by HM Treasury into the use of tax havens, and for CDC to adopt best practice on tax. Chancellor Osborne and Secretary Alexander, who have declared war on tax avoidance, should surely be interested. Perhaps their firms of treasury advisers have their own interests to protect and have warned ministers off an investigation.

Not only is CDC itself using tax havens, but it also, according to Private Eye, recommends the use of tax havens to companies exploiting natural resources in third world countries, thus diverting tax revenue which could help those nations in their development. Oando plc is a case in point.

One would expect that Justine Greening, the minister for International Development, after nearly eighteen months at the Treasury in her first appointment, would be ideally placed to put CDC back on the strait and narrow. At worst it could be sold off to the highest bidder, but if not, its policy on tax havens should be reversed and it should be refocused on helping the small businesses in developing nations which need it.

What is more surprising, considering how high the readership of PE in the Commons must be, is that not only has there been no debate about CDC since the IDC report, there has been only one (written and innocuous) question to minister Greening on the subject. Labour is clearly sheepish about raising yet another dubious policy which started on their watch, but why has no backbench Conservative or Liberal Democrat raised it?


Saturday, 14 December 2013

Chris Howland

The Independent has just caught up with the death of Chris Howland. Someone who has reached the age of eighty-five should be celebrated rather than mourned. He had a very full life as an entertainer in Germany from his early days as Sergeant Howland, C at the Hamburg end of Two-Way Family Favourites right up to the end, it seems. However, he could have been a successful TV host back in his native Britain but the vehicle which should have made his breakthrough was unfortunately tainted with allegations of fixing. Twenty-one was never proved to be dirty, but as far as I know Howland made no regular appearances on our screens again.

I still remember with affection his Saturday morning record shows on British Forces Network in Germany. His play-in and play-out music was, if I recall correctly, Robert Farnon's "Melody Fair", but this was often accompanied by a caged bird which he brought into the studio (self-operated of course). In summer, the tame bird would be joined by the local sparrows outside the open windows.

Friday, 13 December 2013

John Donne's "A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day"

 
'Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Madiba

When we see David Cameron pay his tribute - clearly sincere - to Nelson Mandela, we should remember that behind him on the Conservative benches are heirs to these views:

  • 'This hero worship is very much misplaced'- John Carlisle MP, on the BBC screening of the Free Nelson Mandela concert in 1990
  • 'The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land' - Margaret Thatcher, 1987
  • 'How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?' - Terry Dicks MP, mid-1980s
  • 'Nelson Mandela should be shot' - Teddy Taylor MP, mid-1980s

We should also remember that it was the Liberal Party which consistently set its face against discrimination and segregation, even when it was not financially advantageous to do so.

I can add nothing to the many real tributes which have been paid but regret that Mandela's last days were so undignified. Those who have temporary control of his ANC party assiduously cashed in on his barely-living image in photo-ops. As a correspondent in South Africa wrote: "Sad but significant that he had to be twice martyred -- by two very different brutal regimes.".

Thursday, 5 December 2013

It is really Plan B, but a mean version

I am glad to have Stephen Tall confirm my assertion that Osborne G effectively abandoned Plan A when he consented to the coalition agreement.

Small business Saturday in Neath

I trust that residents will be supporting this initiative, which is supported by all political parties at the national level. More details here: http://neath.fyinetwork.co.uk/my,4232-12-Neath-Business-Champs

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

More on PISA

Further to yesterday's posting, Welsh LibDem education spokesman Aled Roberts' response is here. It is typical of Tories' approach to education that Michael Gove, in the House of Commons yesterday, placed the abandonment of league tables at the head of reasons for the Welsh slide. Kirsty Williams was more realistic on "Good Evening Wales", pointing out the huge funding gap between English and Welsh schools, which is only just being addressed by the Welsh Government.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

PISA: England, Wales stand still while others overtake

The performance of Welsh teenagers in mathematics, reading and science after thirteen years of Labour education ministers was the major subject of First Minister's Questions today. Kirsty Williams and Peter Black will have commented elsewhere on the worst attainment scores in the UK, so I will confine myself to another important factor. The snapshot published by PISA (pdf here) shows that the best-performing nation, mainland China, also has the lowest proportion of low-achievers. Again, the UK as a whole is no better than the average for OECD countries. It is important that in a desire to increase the number of high-achievers, as appears to be the aim of English education minister Michael Gove, the people at the bottom of the cornflakes packet, as Boris Johnson put it, are not neglected. Everybody deserves education to make the most of their abilities, and exclusion tends to lead to social disorder.


Sunday, 1 December 2013

Science-based policy

Round about the time that the government, after two false starts, finally embarked on an evidence-based approach to cigarette packaging, the Independent drew attention to the continued shunning of serious scientific advice by Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State at the Department for the Environment. Mr Paterson was appointed by David Cameron to replace Caroline Spelman at DEFRA last year. The Independent comments:
At the time, Tory MP and environmentalist Zac Goldsmith noted that the appointment was “odd”, and that if the Conservatives wished to retain their green credentials, then it would have been better to appoint someone who didn’t dismiss environmentalism as a left-wing issue.

A year on, Goldsmith’s view hasn’t changed. At his party’s conference in Manchester, he joked to a fringe meeting that Paterson had recently said there could be advantages to climate change.

Goldsmith said : “This is a huge step forward. As far as I know he previously didn’t think global warming was happening. Matt Ridley has famously claimed there would be a 'net global benefit to human or planetary welfare' from global warming up until temperatures increased 2.2C from 2009 levels.

In step with his brother-in-law
[Matt Ridley, of Northern Rock fame], Paterson has stressed the positive rather than the overall negative effects from global warming. He recently said: “Remember, for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer.”

In addition to his brother-in-law, Mr Paterson seems to rely on informal advice given him by a network of other climate change sceptics, rather than his chief scientific advisor, Professor Ian Boyd. The Independent is calling for DEFRA to "open its books" on all the sources of advice given to its ministers.

Just how much Mr Paterson is divorced from settled scientific conclusions on global warming is exposed by this response to his performance on AQ earlier this year.