Monday, 26 December 2011

A symphony of delights

Warning: this posting contains unashamed nostalgia and inexpert musical appreciation.

On Christmas morning, Clemency Burton-Hill played Victor Hely-Hutchinson's "Carol Symphony", which instantly cast me back to my childhood. It wasn't so much the music, but the recollections of the gentleman on the phone who requested it. Like me, he remembered it not from the 1984 television adaptation of "The Box of Delights", but from a 1940s radio production. I see from wikipedia that it was first produced in 1943, but since it is unlikely that this version was recorded - cut on discs in those days - it must have been the 1948 serialisation that I first heard*. Wikipedia has just two cast members listed, implying that the rest were as in 1943, but in my mind's ear I have Carleton Hobbs as the villain Abner Brown. (Hobbs was also a memorable Eeyore to Norman Shelley's Pooh, and recounted in a radio programme celebrating his career that he had based this characterisation on the actor-manager Ben Greet of whose company he had been a young member.) I definitely remember Harman Grisewood as the narrator and the magic of his speaking John Masefield's closing words as the final movement of the Carol Symphony played in the background.

Magic is not the word I would use of the Barry Rose/Pro Arte recording which Burton-Hill used on her programme. The performance is enthusiastic, but the sound quality is poor for a LP recording and the balance is wrong. I see that it was recorded in a cathedral, which may account for my impressions. In the movement based on "The First Nowell" a rhythmic figure on the harp accompanies the melody in a lower register. (This trick was a distinctive feature of arrangements for the Glenn Miller band. It also features in Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" concerto, which I assumed to be the inspiration for Hely-Hutchinson, until I checked the dates. However, it seems that Rimsky-Korsakov in "The Invisible City of Kitezh" anticipated all of them.) It is far too dominant in the 1966 recording.

Rob Cowan made amends this morning by playing part, including the "First Nowell", of the performance conducted by Gavin Sutherland, the CD of which I rushed to buy when it was issued a few years ago. The playing of the Prague Philharmonic is superb, as one would expect, and the recording quality is excellent. If there is one slight quibble, it is that the Czech orchestra does not get under the skin of a very English piece - a complementary criticism to that often levelled at English orchestras playing Bohemian music.

This all raises the question: how does the Boyd Neel 78, which was the recording presumably used by the Home Service in the 1940s and 1950s to accompany "Box of Delights", compare? Does the BBC record library still possess a copy of this version?

Also, could Donald Macleod feature Hely-Hutchinson in a future "Composer of the Week"? In view of his slight (in both senses of the word, it appears) output, he may not deserve a full five hours, but perhaps one day's slot in a week devoted to BBC Directors of Music.

* On a Kolster-Brandes wireless set - valve, of course - on top of a cupboard in a corner of cramped married quarters in Aldershot. KB used to advertise themselves as suppliers of radio to the Queens, and it occurs to me now that grandfather Little, who had been a steward on the Cunard liners, may perhaps have obtained our set at a discount.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Clegg did his best over Euro debt

Some Liberal Democrat members were informed by a senior parliamentarian in the party soon after the Brussels "veto" that Nick Clegg had worked hard on keeping the UK in the dialogue which aimed to secure the viability of euro economies. The deputy PM had not only been in constant touch with David Cameron, but had also in the weeks before the Brussels conference spoken to many other heads of government in the EU. It is gratifying that his role has been made public by Sir Graham Watson MEP here.

There is also confirmation of the miscalculation made by the prime minister:
Aware of the difficulty Cameron was in with Conservative backbench sentiment, Nick Clegg worked hard over a six week period to try to prevent such an outcome. He met or spoke to the prime minister every day over the last three weeks to convince him of the danger and to help him devise a strategy to manage it. He also spoke to many other EU leaders. What he had no control over was how the PM would play his cards in the meeting.

By most accounts, Cameron got off to a bad start. Not having been present at the European People's Party pre-summit meeting in Marseilles (since his first act as party leader was to withdraw the Tories from the EPP), Cameron had little sense of the mood within Europe's majority. At Thursday night's supper he spoke strongly against regulation of financial services (particularly the hedge funds which finance the Tory party), which cost him sympathy among leaders who feel such regulation to be necessary. When offered by the chairman, later, a choice between agreement among 17 on closer union on the basis of Protocol 12 (which requires no treaty change and therefore remains within the existing treaty framework) and a new intergovernmental treaty, Cameron said it made no difference to him. Finally, just before 4am (when he could reasonably have asked for a postponement of business until later in the morning) he presented a list of demands to move the basis of decision making on financial services legislation within the single market from qualified majority voting to unanimity 'to protect the city of London'. He had clearly decided to go all in and, unsurprisingly, his bluff was called. At the press conference to explain his stance he was visibly shaken.

Mr Cameron may be an expert on PR, but he clearly overestimated his abilities as a negotiator.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A spiral argument

Why was Greece in so much trouble? Because she had debts which the markets thought she might have difficulty repaying.

Why is the euro in danger? Because it is the currency in Greece.

Why is Italy in danger? Because it is in the eurozone.

Why is the euro under threat? Because it is the currency in Greece and Italy.

Why is France in danger? Because it is in the eurozone.

Why is the euro near to collapse? Because it is the currency in France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal ...

Why is the (French) managing director of the (US-based) International Monetary Fund predicting global economic disaster? Because the euro is under attack.

Apparently, economists in South-east Asia and the Far East, where nations are still enjoying growth of over 4%, are bemused by the apocalyptic language emanating from transatlantic discussions. They see our current economic difficulties as a local European & North American concern. One imagines that the oil sheikhs are equally unconcerned.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Counting the b******s

I recommend "The Westminster Hour" on Radio 4 on Sunday nights for a less blinkered view than in the more often quoted TV politics programmes. In particular, the back-bench MPs who comprise the panel for the regular discussion of the week's topics are generally refreshingly objective. There were good examples last Sunday. Mike Gapes, Labour chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, presented rather more positive policy on the European Union than the party's front-bench spokesmen have been doing. On the same subject, the Conservative Andrea Leadsom sought to show that her party was rather more Europhilic than the headlines following the Cameron veto suggested. She claimed that it was only a few high-profile Tory MPs who were actually against membership of the EU.

However, she would surely accept that there are more Europhobes in the present House than before the 2010 general election. She should also have counted the most enthusiastic supporters of David Cameron's "veto" after the prime minister's statement in the House the next day. I made it 21: Sir Peter Tapsell, John Redwood, Peter Lilley, Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin, Andrew Rosindell, Dr Julian Lewis, Mark Pritchard, Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Brine, Philip Davies, David Evennett, David Nuttall, Andrew Selous, Peter Bone, David Rutley, Mike Weatherley, John Baron and Mrs Anne Main, not to mention Phillip Hollobone. There were only two or three asking questions on her side who appeared to share her views on Europe.

Some of those I have listed would protest that they do not want to leave the European Union, just that they want to remove all the regulations that originated in Brussels. But surely that would amount to the same thing? One cannot envisage the 26 EU nations, all signed up to progressive social, industrial and agricultural legislation, allowing unrestricted access to their market to sweatshop Britain, competing on unfairly advantageous terms.

I liked the contribution to Monday's proceedings by LibDem Bob Russell: "I bring some grandfatherly advice to the proceedings. I urge the Prime Minister to let the dust settle, keep calm and carry on carefully, but please to abandon the Carlos Tevez approach to Europe. Bridges need to be built, and the first bridge the Prime Minister can build is to get Tory MEPs to rejoin the group of mainstream European conservatives." This raises two points: first, that the prime minister may not have found himself isolated in Brussels last week if his MEPs had still been in the centrist conservative EPP group, talking to their fellows, and he himself had been more involved in earlier negotiations. Secondly, after passions - some of the exchanges in the European Parliament recently have been pretty fruity - on either side have cooled, Britain's relationship to the EU will be seen to have practically not changed very much. More damage has been done by the triumphalist puffing of David Cameron's stance than by the "veto" itself.

On this side of the channel, it is certainly no reason to renege on the coalition agreement. Certainly, most of the press (remember, most is Tory and no paper is philosophically Liberal Democrat) are asserting wildly that this is the beginning of the end, and even some LibDems on the fringe are speculating on the same lines. The latter should consider whether they really want to give up a restraining influence over government policy on health in England and on benefit cuts, not to mention positive contributions on business development and local democracy.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Another government agency closes local offices

News is coming through that DVLA is to close its remaining local offices. No doubt the Welsh Labour Party will jump up and down about the loss of jobs in Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea, but they should be reminded that Labour's response to the economic downturn in 2008 was to close job centres and inland revenue offices throughout Wales, with more serious consequences.

One has to accept DVLA's reasoning that, for the business it transacts, the local office network is not cost effective. On the other hand, there are times when members of the public need dialogue with a friendly official after fruitless telephone interchanges or attempts to access a busy web-site. The logical answer is to create more one-stop-shops, which have proved so successful in bringing a range of council services back to neighbourhoods. Combining the public faces of several departments which affect people's everyday lives in single local offices in strategic locations could take pressure off the centre, as well as benefiting the citizen, at a more reasonable cost than each department's maintaining its own branches. One could even make use of existing crown post office premises or local authority's public counters.

Labour outed as legislation addicts

It became clear over the Blair-Brown years that New Labour regarded the House of Commons as no more than a legislative production-line. They seemed to revel in the thousands of new offences they had created in their thirteen years in office. Because they couldn't get off the massive log-roll, they couldn't prevent a jam at the end of their administration. As a result, poor legislation was rushed through in spring 2010, while some useful measures were lost.

Last Thursday, Angela Eagle, the shadow Leader of the House, revealed that they were suffering from withdrawal symptoms. She asked (Hansard 8 Dec 2011 : Columns 419-420): "In 20 years in this place, I have never known business statements to contain so little legislative substance, especially so early in a Parliament. There has been little even resembling Government legislation in this place for weeks now. Will the Leader of the House explain why the Commons is twiddling its thumbs ?"

They still have not realised that passing laws is not a good thing in itself. Liberals down the years have instinctively resisted new legislation without overwhelming justification. At the Business Ministry, Vince Cable and Ed Davey have put principle into practice with the "one-in, one-out" rule.

New Labour have not adjusted to the new Commons where debate, especially on topics chosen by back-bench members (pdf), is returning to its traditional place in the balance of business.

Where Angela Eagle does have a point is that there should be more pre-legislative scrutiny, so that obvious nonsense can be ruled out of draft legislation before it comes to Parliament formally. The Health and Social Care Bill is a case in point. (Fortunately, the resulting Act will not apply to Wales, but it does have implications for those in the north and the Marches, who have to reply on English hospitals for some procedures.) The Leader of the House, Sir George Young, could not resist pointing out the hypocrisy of Labour who habitually denied sufficient time for discussion of Bills when they were in government. However, in answer to a later question from Diana Johnson (Labour, Hull North) he stated: " It is the objective of the coalition Government to have more pre-legislative scrutiny and more Bills introduced in draft. We think that that leads to a better scrutiny process in the House of Commons."

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Local public service pay

Mention of reviewing public service pay in the regions (presumably including Wales) in the chancellor of the exchequer's autumn statement reminded me of this idea for civil service pay, posted in another place 2 years ago:

I came up with a scheme some time ago, which I thought combined fairness and professionalism within the service with value for money.

 The principle of fair comparisons (taking all aspects of remuneration, including pensions & allowances, into account) should be revived. In order to avoid charges of prejudice, the necessary research would be carried out by a university department, management school or consultancy which is independent of government, and which has an established good record in the field of pay research.

 That would apply only to mobile (people who can be posted anywhere) general-service grades. The pay rates of local staff should be based on the minimum necessary to recruit staff of the required standard. I would see these as being agreed by local managers across departments, and reported to Treasury.


1. This is for the civil service only. I would not have the government dictate pay rates to local government.
2. Pay rates would be determined by people on the ground, not by Whitehall.
3. Civil servants who joined a mobile pay grade, i.e. they accepted that they could be posted anywhere in the country, would be entitled to the nationally-negotiated rate, wherever they were recruited.
4. The whole thing would be a package, fair comparisons for national pay, local rates for non-mobile grades.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Some naive observations about the siege of the euro

1. Why, if the euro is a failing currency which had only 24 hours to be rescued, has its exchange rate against the pound sterling remained constant within two or three pence for the last year? (and 1a. why have there been so many "24 hours to save the euro"?)

2. Why is it so disastrous for the euro if Greece has trouble repaying its bonds, while similar troubles in California and other States do not impact the dollar?  California would have the 7th highest GDP in the world if thought of as a country, well ahead of Greece and not far behind Italy. (The dollar is on credit watch, but only because the US is deemed to be paying too much for welfare benefits, it seems.)

The news that China is riding to the rescue of troubled euro-zone nations reminds me of a couplet* from the 1960s when we were alerted to the fact that communist China had the hydrogen bomb: "the little yellow uncle, with his billion-candle sword". Since then, China has come to realise that the renminbi is more powerful than the bomb, and could soon become pawnbroker to the world. Uncle indeed.

*The full poem, a prize-winner in a 1960s Guardian competition to update Rudyard Kipling, follows. It was perhaps a sign of the times that the first prize-winner was also dedicated to a white supremacist regime in Africa, that of Southern Rhodesia.

The Song of the Munt

For the bullwhip in the morning,
And the hunger in the sun,
For the fly-embroidered corpses
From the bloody Gatling gun.

For the puddle in the schoolroom,
And the eyeball at the chink,
For the short, contemptuous glances
As the frosted glasses clink.

For the fraudulent redemption
Of that butchered Jewish priest,
For the pass card on the tramway,
And the laughter of the feast.

With the certainty of sunrise,
As the vengeance of the Lord,
Comes the little yellow uncle
With his billion-candle sword.


I wonder if the author is a relation of Tony Juniper, one of the more competent junior ministers in Gordon Brown's government.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Feedback is off the air, so I shall have to complain here

The BBC is getting more partisan. Not content with broadcasting only Europhobic opinions of the current siege of the euro zone, it has started a series on the Royal Mail by a clearly biased Dominic Sandbrook. In a contribution to the Daily Mail headed: "The last post: The shameful betrayal of the Royal Mail", he states:

"it is notable that Margaret Thatcher never seriously considered privatising it. Like most people of her generation, she saw Royal Mail as one of the bulwarks of the British state — an institution of which the nation could be proud.

"All this was to change, however, when Tony Blair arrived on the scene in 1997." 

He conveniently glosses over the move to privatisation and the massive post office closure programme started by John Major and continued under Blair/Brown. It is no surprise therefore that Sandbrook implies in the radio broadcast that the closures started much later. "Since 2008, both Labour and coalition governments closed hundreds of post offices," he asserts (my italics). In fact, one of the first statements of principle by Liberal Democrat Ed Davey on taking office in the business ministry was that there would be no new post office closures, and he has clearly stuck to that.

If he is wrong on the fact of the closures, can we trust his other assertions? In fact, should not Sandbrook be described as a "political commentator" rather than a "historian"?

Stop the fat cats buying our democracy

The Unlock Democracy movement has emailed to say:
"Last year the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that he would be launching cross-party talks to clean up party funding, arguing that: 'The current rules by which funding is received and spent have got the balance wrong. They allow a system in which wealthy donors and vested interests are far too prevalent. That advantage is wholly unacceptable, and the perception of politicians in the pockets of their paymasters is deeply corrosive.'
"All of this still applies and with the recent scandal surrounding former defence secretary Liam Fox, the need to take big money out of politics has been highlighted once again."

To send a message to the party leaders that donations need capping, go to 
Unlock Democracy's campaigning activities cost money. If you can afford to give a little money to help stop Big Money, you can make a contribution here:

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Another sign of intelligence in ravens

The crow family includes probably the canniest birds outside the parrots. They clearly have a sense of fun. One of my aunts recalled watching a magpie lure a cat out along a slender branch and just as Felix was beginning to be uncertain of his grip start bouncing on it. I have seen a raven tease a cat on the ground and also heard on a radio nature programme a description of ravens in the Brecon Beacons taking advantage of a period of wintry weather by sliding down an icy slope on their backs.

Now it seems that not only do ravens have a caring side, they may also use gestures. This article reports observations of ravens picking up such objects as stones or moss and showing them to a fellow, not always a female. It is a long way short of language, but it does show that attention-seeking is not confined to primates.

Third quarter party donations figures published

The Electoral Commission has published the donations accepted and borrowing by all political parties during quarter 3 of 2011 (July, August and September). The headline figures for Conservative, Labour, Scottish Nationalist and Liberal Democrat parties are respectively £2,744,618, £3,529,270, £1,988,657 and £1,199,623. No figures are available for the Welsh Nationalist Party - either Plaid Cymru have broken the law by not reporting their donation income within 30 days of the end of the quarter, or they failed to garner as much £7,500 in the period.