Saturday, 24 October 2020

Peter Cheyney

Talking Pictures TV gives the following preview:

 Uneasy Terms (1948) on Saturday at 7.50pm sees Michael Rennie in the lead as private eye, Slim Callaghan. When his client is murdered, suspicion falls on the man’s stepdaughter, but Slim is determined to find the real culprit. Also stars Moira Lister.

It was a reminder of one of the almost forgotten figures of British crime fiction, Peter Cheyney. He was a successful writer of sub-Hammett hard-boiled thrillers in the 1930s and 1940s, which still sold well in the decade following his death in 1951. There was a dark hinterland. He had been an enthusiastic organiser of Oswald Mosley's bully-boys before the war. If I recall correctly, he passed himself off to his New Party colleagues as "Captain" Cheyney, a rank above that which he actually achieved in the army. His friend and fellow writer Dennis Wheatley is quoted as summing him up as "the greatest liar unhung but a magnificent story teller." 

He must have thought better of anti-Semitism after the war, because he wrote a sympathetic novel about a holocaust survivor.

Friday, 23 October 2020


 The Institute for Government is worried about the way the Johnson government is changing the rôle of special advisers. I have always worried that their introduction by Wilson's first government was the thin end of a wedge whose thick end was the American system of changing officials wholesale with each change of presidency. Their numbers were bearable until Blair-Brown came in and swelled their ranks into the eighties. Cameron promised to cut their numbers but did not. 

The IfG does see a need for them:

Special advisers – or ‘spads’ – play an essential role in the UK government, providing ministers with the political advice that civil servants, as impartial government employees, cannot.


Certain advisers in the current government, particularly Dominic Cummings, have attracted much public attention. But behind the headlines, the government has also been making changes to the recruitment and remit of, and relationships between, special advisers. Many of these changes are helping advisers to do their jobs more effectively, but others risk undermining advisers’ ability to provide support to their ministers. 

They are particularly worried about the centralisation of power in No. 10, the reduction in the power of ministers to appoint the advisers of their choice and the weakening of the relationship between minister and adviser. They want to see an increase in the number of advisers per minister to five.

That would further dilute the expertise available in the civil service, as these appointments are virtually all political, advancing young people with little knowledge outside their party allegiances. It would aggravate the silo mentality of government departments begun under Thatcher and Heseltine. The battle-lines between them have become all too obvious in the uncoordinated handling of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Thursday, 22 October 2020

Kings and Queens

Anu Garg yesterday quoted the great Martin Gardner on his Word.A.Day page:

Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals, the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all. -Martin Gardner, mathematician and writer (21 Oct 1914-2010)

[In the US, of course, public really does mean public]

This side of the Atlantic, we were in my day at least taught about the people who forged the Industrial Revolution, the engineers and inventors, who certainly fitted Gardner's criterion of radically altering history. There was also a trend in the 1960s to teach more social history, I believe. However, recent election and referendum results lead me to believe that the teaching of the following generation must have reverted to the illusory patriotism exemplified by kings and queens.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

US opioid scandal

 There is a reminder from the US today of the dangers of a predominantly commercial health service. For nearly thirty years, a once-respected pharmaceutical company, Purdue, made profits in the same way as Insys - commented on here last month - by pushing an addictive drug by criminal as well as legal means. Indeed, Insys may only have been following where Purdue led with its OxyContin. The US Department of Justice has closed a case against Purdue, extracting fines from the company and from those members of the Sackler family who control it. (The English descendants have dissociated themselves from the business.) However, the company is practically bankrupt so there will be hardly any compensation for the victims of the opioid scandal. The owners are barely touched.

This imperfect outcome may well have been aided by pressure from people close to president Trump, who wanted to see at least one of his manifesto promises fulfilled before general election date.

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

SARS/Cov2 "fire-break" in Wales

 The metaphor is unfortunate. An actual fire-break consists of clearing ground, often including controlled burning, ahead of a fire, not something one would want to extend to human lives. However, one must applaud the concept of a short but deep shock to the system while wishing that it had been applied earlier. 

Education minister Kirsty Williams has written:

As the virus has taken hold, I have said repeatedly that children would be our top priority and that education must continue.

As a result, I have tried to keep disruption to education to a minimum:

  • Primary schools and special schools will re-open after half term on Monday, November 2.
  • Secondary schools will be open for children in years 7 and 8, whilst other pupils will continue their learning from home for that week.
  • College students will also continue their learning from home for the week beginning November 2nd.
  • Universities will continue to provide a blend of in person and online learning.

We will be issuing guidance for the period which will include minimum expectations for learning. This will include teachers delivering online lessons from the classroom.

I would have liked to see an extra safety-first measure of extending the half-term holiday for a week, not for the sake of the children who it seems have more resistance to the disease the younger they are, but to protect teachers who are more vulnerable, not to mention any parents who have to meet. However, the eleven days when they will all be isolated from each other is probably enough to keep them safe.

When will the swithering government in Westminster take the same responsible decision for England?

Monday, 19 October 2020

Coverage of US general election

 I have complained in the past about the excessive coverage of the four-yearly American boxing match on domestic BBC TV. The issues are always domestic and personality-driven. There seldom seems to be a change of foreign policy when Democrat blue turns to Republican red or vice versa.

It does give work to the huge staff of BBC America, which does seem to be a staff benefit. BBC America does sell output to other stations round the world, but does it pay for itself? Why do we see around a dozen BBC reporters from the States, while Canada - a fellow Commonwealth member - receives little coverage and then from a US-based reporter? Why does the whole of South America merit only a couple of reporters, who do not seem to stay very long?

But this year is different. The nature of the contest and its outcome have implications for the UK.

Prime minister Johnson and his manager Dominic Cummings clearly draw their inspiration from the way the presidency was won and the style in which it is conducted. Trump's grotesque chauvinism and appeal to the worst aspects of human behaviour, especially his racism, have their echoes over here. Johnson also lies consistently and is happy to set different groups of the population against each other. Manipulation of voters' feelings via social media was a significant contribution to election success on both sides of the Atlantic, though the technology behind it was almost certainly applied to traditional campaigning also. If there is a decisive anti-Trump vote on November 3rd, so decisive that Trump cannot convincingly challenge it in the courts, it will show that US voters have had the scales lifted from their eyes. Those moderate Conservative MPs (there are some) who have so far gone along with Johnson on the sole grounds that he has been successful may well have second thoughts as a result. 

As to foreign affairs, the world needs a president of the US who honours treaties and realises that he does not know better than the experts. One expects less interference in others' affairs from a Biden presidency. We should expect a Democrat presidency to be at least as tough to negotiate a treaty with as any; Democrats are traditionally less keen on free trade than Republicans. However, one can count on Biden to negotiate in good faith and be consistent. His record suggests that he listens to expert advisers. Consequently, there would be a serious attempt to reverse policies which potentiate global warming under Biden. One trusts that he would also restore America’s contribution to the WHO – indeed, also cooperate more with the UN in general.

Of course, as is entirely possible, voters who turn against Trump could give a consolation vote to the Republicans in the Senate and Lower House. There could be deadlock in Washington.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

The Roche limit

 Also the Roche Lobe and the Roche Sphere owe their names to Édouard Albert Roche, born on 17th October 1820. He was pre-eminent in the field of celestial mechanics. His bicentenary does not seem to have been marked here, presumably because he published only in French.

Saturday, 17 October 2020

Death of the last Liberal newspaper

 I was reminded by a post on Liberal Democrat News that this is the sixtieth anniversary of the Cadbury family's forced merger of the News Chronicle with the Daily Mail. There is nothing to add to what I wrote on the fiftieth anniversary or to what Michael Meadowcroft has to say about the socialist Guardian.