Friday, 31 July 2020

Leb' wohl, Polarstern!

It just so happened that I was reviewing an old Inside Science feature when the closing press release for the MOSAIC expedition was being issued.

On Friday, 20 September, a powerful German icebreaker named Polarstern set off from Tromsø, Norway, with the aim of getting stuck into the polar ice. This echoed a famous experiment by the Norwegian explorer Nansen in his ship Fram in the 1890s.

The plan was for the ship to drift past the North Pole, enabling scientists to collect unprecedented data on the Arctic. The Polarstern is the ‘mothership’ of a substantial international collaboration called the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (or project MOSAiC). Scientists from over seventy research institutions across 19 different countries were involved, and a total of six hundred experts were aboard at various periods throughout the expedition. They planned to construct a ‘research city’ around the vessel with different neighbourhoods, each focused on a particular scientific area including: ecosystem, bio-geo-chemistry, ocean, atmosphere and sea ice. Adam spoke to UCL’s Professor Julienne Stroeve, who was to look at the depth and density of snow in order to improve our understanding of the Arctic, and enhance our ability to predict effects of global climate change. She was concerned that surveys of ice thickness from satellites such as ESA's Cryosat-2 over-estimated the thickness of ice because of the take-up of salt by young snow affecting the radar signal. Measuring on site would assist any necessary re-calibration of the satellite data.

MOSAiC is spearheaded by the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. There is more here.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

Norman Smith

BBC political correspondent Norman Smith has resigned, to spend more time climbing and walking the dog, he said.  There have been newspaper reports of his decision, but strangely nothing on the BBC news pages.  The corporation did have space for the retirement of her West Midlands political editor, however. It does raise the question of how far Smith's decision was voluntary. Certainly, his style of reporting seemed increasingly out of place with the earnest Tory-Socialist polarised output of the BBC newsroom of recent years. He will be much missed.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

British arms aid civil repression

There has been some agistation about the story carried in the Byline Times that the protests across the United States have been put down forcibly with the aid of weapons provided by British firms. These exports appear to be one of the success stories of Check, Change, Go! Britain. "Crowd control equipment" has also been sold to the Chilean government and, the current Private Eye points out, to the Uyghur-suppressing Chinese state, along with other military and quasi-military equipment.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Discrimination against any group matters

When the "Black Lives Matter" movement first came to international prominence, I felt like joining the "All Lives Matter" movement. I recalled being annoyed at the publicity surrounding Holocaust Memorial Day which tended to obscure the fact that not only Jews, but also homosexuals, Slavs, communists and the mentally-handicapped were swept up in the Nazis' elimination of "Untermenschen". (Indeed, it was the latter group which was the first target of German genocide.) I felt like pointing out that Latino, Korean and South Asian lives did not matter to the race rioters of 1990s America. There has also been a streak of Antisemitism in some militant "black" movements - admittedly matched by racism on the part of some better-off Jews in the States.

So it was no surprise when some person named Richard Kylea Cowie Jr. (trading as "Wiley" in the popular entertainment business) gave further evidence that being discriminated against does not cure one of racism or religious discrimination oneself. (Priti Patel in relation to Muslims is another example.) It was not a surprise that he was allowed to spout his noxious bile on Twitter, which is remarkably laisser-faire when it comes to expressions of race hatred, and of perverted history and science, (with the sole exception of the Trump family, it appears). So to give a slap on the wrist to Twitter over this particular effusion smacks of virtue signalling. Why not boycott the platform altogether?

Monday, 27 July 2020

Covid-19 developments

Israelis are out on the streets in protest against the government's handling of the epidemic. (Incidentally, congratulations to BBC News Channel in reporting on the start of this unrest. Foreign news coverage had dropped off markedly in favour of domestic reporting, but it is good to see the corporation making use of its extensive world-wide network of reporters again.) Much has been made on social media of the way that female leaders had handled the pandemic, but it seems to me that the distinction is between liberal democratic heads of government and those elected on an ultra-nationalist ticket, playing on electors' baser instincts. Trump, Putin, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi and the Gantz/Netanyahu coalition fall into this category; the more liberal - and male - prime minister of South Korea has handled the emergency well, in the face of difficulties which have not challenged the others.

Carrie Gracie, BBC's former China editor, has obtained an interview with Hong Kong microbiologist Prof Yuen Kwok-yung which confirmed that Chinese politicians suppressed information about Covid-19 ascertained by the country's scientific experts. In her Guardian article, she draws attention to a three-week period in which, according to Prof Andrew Tatem of the University of Southampton: “If the same interventions that were put in place on 23 January had been put in place on 2 January, we may have seen a 95% reduction in the number of cases.”

Given that we now know that a few well-off citizens of Wuhan must have carried the virus to France and Italy on their holiday tours in early winter (and business travel might have triggered the outbreaks in Iran) before it was even noticed in China, that 95% may be slightly on the high side. However, it shows the dangers of blinkered politicians' ignoring clear evidence from their country's scientists. The USA and UK have ostensibly more open societies. Yet President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson failed to act on the knowledge which was already in the public domain in January. Johnson delayed not for three weeks but for two full months and it could be argued that Trump and Republican state governors have not properly taken scientific evidence on board yet.

The UK applied lock-down, then face-covering and is only now quarantining incoming travellers from Covid-19 hot-spots. It was the wrong way round. If quarantine or at the very least, testing and tracing, had started from early January as it had in Taiwan (whose citizens were already conditioned to face-covering at any hint of widespread respiratory disease) then a nationwide and economically-damaging lock-down might have been averted.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Anglican investments

Following revelations by journalist Fran Rankin that Church of England dioceses have almost £18 million invested in fossil fuel companies, including BP, Shell and Total, it appears that the Church in Wales is not 100% ethical in her investments. The Church's statement of ethical investment policy reads in part:

It is the policy of the Church in Wales not normally or knowingly to invest in any company:
  •  - which derives more than 20% of turnover from a primary focus on gambling, or the production or sale of alcoholic beverages or tobacco products;
  •  - which derives more than 5% of turnover from pornography, predatory lending activities or the proliferation of armaments beyond areas of legitimate defence and international peace-keeping;
  •  - which derives more than 10% of turnover from the extraction of thermal coal or the production of oil from tar sands.
 leaving permission to invest in companies extracting petroleum by other means.

Saturday, 25 July 2020

Westminster prevents English public health officials from fulfilling their statutory duty

That is the charge brought by this week's Inside Health special Covid-19 programme on Radio 4.

In this special edition of Inside Health Dr Margaret McCartney investigates the serious questions being raised about the UK's public health response to trying to stop the spread of the virus, and how tension, over the performance of the government's Test and Trace programme, has spilled out into the open.

Margaret hears from Directors of Public Health who feel that their role and expertise in local communities working closely with local Public Health England teams has been overlooked. Instead a new national Test and Trace system has been set up using private companies outside the traditional public health infrastructure. The DPH for Wigan and lead director of public health for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Professor Kate Ardern, tells Margaret she believes government didn't understand the role and the experience of local public health teams and so instead of empowering them to oversee test, trace and isolate services, set up a new national system, from scratch, using private companies without public health experience. And the data needed locally to identify and deal with Covid cases, she tells Margaret, just hasn't come through. This is despite the fact that the law is clear; Covid is a notifiable disease and local directors of public health should receive the information.

One wonders whether the pressure from commercial organisations to acquire centrally-gathered data is determining government policy as much as ignorance of the structure of government, central and local, in this country.

Friday, 24 July 2020

Centenary of Bella Abzug, American feminist pioneer

On Jul 24 1920, Bella Abzug, the first Jewish woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, was born. She was memorably played by Margo Martindale in the recent "Mrs America" TV miniseries.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

On this day ...

... in 1970, two canisters of CS gas were thrown into the chamber of the House of Commons. Two men were later charged in connection with the incident, claimed by a group calling itself the “Present from the Bogside Committee”.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Suppression of journalists

It used to be that the most powerful nation on earth was a shining example of democracy at home while exporting suppression of the people to client states like Cuba, Egypt, Iran and various countries in Central and South America. Things have changed for the better in one respect: with the exception of Egypt, those states have either escaped from the US ambit or become democracies, or both.

There has been another change. In the land of the free, freedom of expression has been taken for granted. Journalists are heroes. But not for President Trump. Local police have taken their lead from him, abetted by federal officers in plain clothes, as British journalist, the Independent's Andrew Buncombe found out to his cost. (The ex-Western Mail man also gave a first-hand account to Vaughan Roderick.)

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Why Scotland needs another independence referendum

I cannot understand the Liberal Democrats' opposition to a post-Brexit referendum in Scotland. The federal party is clearly following the lead of the Scottish party who in the face of repeated rebuffs  from the electorate stubbornly maintain their "union right or wrong" position.

The assumption appears to be that a referendum will inevitably lead to a "Yes" vote and that will force the government to grant independence. Neither of these are givens. Referendums in this country remain advisory.

The 2014 referendum was flawed because it was based on the false premise that the Tory government would maintain our membership of the EU and that Scotland, if it achieved independence, would have to apply to join the EU, an application unlikely to be granted because Spain (for one) would veto it.

We now know that there was an irresistible force within the ruling Tories to withdraw from the EU. Today's revelation that Russia interfered in the 2014 referendum shows that it was even more flawed than previously realised.

For the sake of democracy, the Scots need a second chance to express their opinion, free from secret influences.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Uncle Sam and your personal data

A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice reminds us that protection of our personal data has been diminished since we left the EU.

The case goes back to the Austrian lawyer and privacy activist Max Schrems who had filed a complaint saying that Facebook had violated his privacy rights when his data was transferred to the US.

By ruling that the deal was invalid because US security and intelligence agencies could still access data stored by Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Microsoft and other companies, the court issued a strong reprimand to the European Commission and the US. It said that the data of EU citizens was endangered and ruled that the US should not be considered a country with adequate data protection policies.

It is the second time that the European Court of Justice has delivered such a scathing verdict. In 2015, it declared invalid Privacy Shield's predecessor, the European Commission's Safe Harbor agreement with the US, which was not very different from its successor.

The court's message is loud and clear: It does not think that the Commission or the US have drawn the right conclusions since the scandal triggered by whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations regarding the activities of the US intelligence agencies and the mass surveillance of citizens, including in the EU.
EU offers considerable data protection

In the European Union, however, there has been some progress since the first verdict in 2015. The General Data Protection Regulation has come into effect and is considered to offer extensive protection by comparison to other policies around the world.

The European Commission only recognizes a few countries, such as Switzerland, Japan and a few more, as providing similarly adequate protection. The US was on the list so long as the Privacy Shield deal was in place but will now join other "ordinary" countries such as China, India, Brazil and most of the world.

[One presumes that the UK is now on this list - FHL]

Despite the verdict from Luxembourg, companies will still be able to exchange and transfer sensitive data to third countries. However, companies in the US or China will have to guarantee that they are complying with European data protection regulations by signing Standard Contractual Clauses.

All of us are affected by this. Each time, we book a journey or buy a product online our personal data can be sent abroad.

Deutsche Welle's Brussels correspondent concludes:

In the long term, the European Commission and European companies will have to ensure that European data is processed in accordance with EU law, on servers located on the continent. The idea is to increase the number of clouds in the EU and thus improve data sovereignty. For now, most clouds are in the US and China.

Friday, 17 July 2020

In the midst of life ...

It has been a sombre week. Three people have died who I knew only at one remove, which somehow makes it more difficult to bear. If I had known them personally, I could have from first-hand knowledge shared the grief with those left behind.

The first death that I became aware of was that of a member of the local Liberal Democrats. He had been ill for some time, and not expected to recover, but even so it must have been a blow for his wife. Keith Davies, our chairman, is also active in parish matters and tells me that our late member was a communicant of the Church of Wales, which will surely provide some comfort to his family.

Then the sudden death was announced of a Labour councillor in the Aberavon ward, someone who was acknowledged as a good constituency man but also respected by his political opponents - a good man to have an argument with, is how one of my colleagues expressed it. Such straight-dealers are all too rare in politics.

The biggest blow was the death of a husband of a correspondent of several years, someone with whom I have daily exchanged emails on the subjects of cryptic crosswords, cricket, football and just occasionally politics. Theirs was a happy and mutually-supportive marriage and if there is any consolation it is that he seems to have passed away in his sleep.

My thoughts go out to the family, friends and colleagues of all three.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

Bravo, Julian Lewis!

A headline I would have had no conception of writing when he effectively presided over a public meeting for the Conservative party during the 1970 general election campaign. In the audience, as a voter in Swansea East (though as yet politically inactive because of my civil service post) I put a question to the candidate Michael J Murphy. I questioned the feasibility of the Heath manifesto's proposed anti-trade union legislation. I predicted that if the established trade unions were legally emasculated, then unofficial action would lead to industrial anarchy. Lewis took over and harangued me for what must have been five minutes hardly drawing breath. Looking back, it was an impressive performance for an eighteen-year-old,  though I took him for a 20-something Central Office apparatchik at the time. I don't remember what he said though I regarded it at the time as dishonestly failing to answer the question. (In the event, the Conservatives won the election but the TU legislation had to be abandoned because the public and the judiciary revolted at the effects of using the criminal law to sanction strike action.)

Since then, the antipathy grew as he revealed himself to be generally illiberal, bellicose and against the European Union. He has consistently voted for a Trident replacement and one suspects he is itching to use it against China.

But there is one issue on which I fall in behind him, and that is the UK's unpreparedness for conventional warfare. Our lead in electronic intelligence-gathering is also under threat due to Treasury penny-pinching, as a former chairman of the defence select committee, Rory Stewart complained. The transparent attempt to have Johnson stooge and failed minister Chris Grayling voted in as chair of the intelligence and security select committee (ISC) was the final straw for Dr Lewis. According to BBC parliamentary correspondents, he persuaded a majority of the ISC including Labour members to vote for him instead of Grayling. The reaction of Johnson was not to accept this outbreak of parliamentary democracy but to petulantly have his party withdraw the whip from Dr Lewis.

So, MPs have shown that they are not simply rubber-stamps for the Johnson-Cummings dictatorship. Moreover, there seems now no reason why the long-delayed report on Russian involvement in our elections should not be published.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

A little bit green

At the time as Radio 4's Thinking Allowed featured a book by Emily Cockayne ("Rummage: A History of the Things We Have Reused, Recycled and Refused to Let Go"), I was finishing reading an article in Clean Slate magazine by Judith Thornton. Ms Cockayne is a professor of early modern history. While the period covered by her latest book was as noted for conspicuous consumption by the well-off as is today, she details many examples from the 19th century of cast-off materials being recycled, from paper and sail-cloth to buttons and cherry-stones.

Judith Thornton's article is online here and is well worth reading in full. She sums up:

The difficulty with the environmental impact of ‘stuff’ is that it is made up of so many individual items that it is difficult to know where to start when trying to reduce its impact in our own lives. It is also the case that most of it is beyond our control; we are not in control of whether or not another country producing manufactured goods is decarbonising its energy system, for example. But in terms of what we definitely can do, the most important thing is to calculate your carbon footprint to determine whether or not ‘stuff’ is a significant part of your impacts. If it is, then you can congratulate yourself; you are in a minority. In terms of what next:
  1. Buy as little as possible.
  2. Avoid owning where you can – share instead
  3. Prolong the life of goods wherever possible – repair and reuse things, or pass them on to other people with those skills
  4. Do not buy ‘eco’ products when you didn’t need a product in the first place  
  5. Buy second hand.  

I am certainly loth to buy anything apart from food and drink. I have several working personal computers which are perfectly adequate if only I could prevent software bloat (Microsoft are chief culprits) and excessive graphics downloads. It looks as if I shall soon have to upgrade when there is no good reason to. The planned obsolescence of 1960s motor and white goods manufacturers has been adopted by the computer industry. I own neither the house that I live in nor my own personal transport. However, I do regret not switching from gas to electricity for cooking and heating when I could have afforded to. I did not realise then how quickly renewable power would be viable or how efficient induction hobs would become.

And I am not eating fast enough into the mountain of stuff - mainly paper - which I have accumulated over the years.

Finally, a word of approval for those people who use social media to advertise furniture surplus to requirements which others can use.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

TV licence (continued)

I wrote yesterday of mixed feelings about the BBC. I still blame the corporation for creating the climate of EU scepticism based on ignorance which allowed the Brexit campaign to flourish and ultimately triumph. However, that is in the past - for now - and of more immediate concern is the cost of the BBC.

To start with, there are the salaries. Listed here are the earnings of the top-paid employees for 2018/19. Note that this list excludes the pay of those people provided by third parties, such as BBC Studios, which also do not have to abide by BBC equal-pay guidelines. (By the way, we are overdue a report on the 2019/20 pay rates.) Now, Gary Lineker is a good presenter, a pleasant fellow who is on the right side of most of today's arguments, but is he really worth £1.75m a year? No doubt the argument is that he would decamp to another broadcaster if his salary were to be cut, but does it really matter if he dispensed his wisdom on another channel?  It is not as if the BBC were the sold provider of football coverage.

Surely the BBC TV should be an alternative to the commercial channels, not a "me-too" outfit. It has pioneered nature programming, the presentation of women's football and of athletics meetings, to name just a few of the worthwhile subjects that were not felt to be viable by independent television. (Nature is now a hot subject, but ironically other channels are largely meeting the demand by re-showing BBC productions, or co-productions involving the BBC.)  That is why the BBC should be holding the ring on local radio, not following the commercial sector into cynical cost-cutting, neglecting the whole point of local broadcasting.

Rather than cutting at the grass roots, a more Reithian move would be to eliminate, or at worst minimise, the overblown central political unit, which probably survives because it tickles the egos of politicians. I doubt that it informs or entertains many of my fellow over-75s.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Over-75s and TV licences

In various newspapers, Esther Rantzen is quoted as saying: “The BBC probably feel that their reputation is very high at the moment. They’ve been a fantastic source of news, they’re offering educational programmes for children who can’t go to school. So they’re taking advantage of this moment but I think that they should have left it until September, when life would have eased up a bit for all of us, particularly for older people.”

But she added: “But my main criticism at the moment is for the politicians. I do think that (Culture Secretary) Oliver Dowden, who said he felt let down by the BBC, was shifting blame… 

 “It was Gordon Brown who decided to make this gift of free television licences, and it was George Osborne (then chancellor)* who took it away and said the Government would no longer fund it.”

One can have mixed feelings about the BBC's reputation, but surely Rantzen is right about the responsibility for the licence concession. It is a social measure, and not something the BBC should have been dragged into, linking the corporation to government. It was announced in the first place by Chris Smith, the then Culture Secretary, and perhaps this was a mistake of presentation. It could not have gone ahead without the approval of chancellor Gordon Brown, who was clearly stung by the criticism of his recent niggardly 75p/week pensions increase and needed some gesture of compensation.

The coalition made a major step towards bringing the level of state pensions up to the continental norm by introducing the triple lock. We are not there yet, and until we are, it is surely right for the government to reinstate the TV licence concession, paid for out of taxation, not the licence fee.

* The concession was shifted on to the BBC after Tories gained a majority in the 2015 general election and ended the coalition.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

"The Last Hurrah"

is a notable film about American politics which unusually Mark Pack has not commented on. Perhaps it escaped his attention because it was not a commercial success (I came across it for the first time only last night on the Sony Movies Classic channel). Perhsps it was because director/producer John Ford undercut the drama with comedy, sometimes too broad for modern tastes. Personally, I also found the sentimental finale too long-drawn-out, but one has to accept both  the  comedy and the pathos as part and parcel of a Ford film.

The Last Hurrah is based on a novel of the same name by New England journalist Edwin O'Conner, who is given the credit for making the term part of political parlance. It was his first big success and the studio's tag-lines sought to capitalise on that ("All the fun, the fury, and fabulous characters of the famous book!"). It is rooted in Irish-American politics, something which Ford (born John Martin Feeney) must also have known much about. The plot revolves around Frank Skeffington (played by Spencer Tracy) the widowed mayor of a city which bears a strong resemblance to Boston, Mass. Over many years, he has built up a political machine with strong links to the Irish Catholic community - but not forgetting the Jews - and he now seeks to crown his career with a final re-election campaign. He invites his journalist nephew Adam to witness the campaign from the inside*. Adam has clearly become like a son to him, his own prodigal offspring being a considerable disappointment. The difficulty is that not only does Adam work for an influential local newspaper (in the days when towns of any size in the States could boast several) whose editor supports the opposition, but also has married into old money. His father-in-law, along with fellow blue-bloods who control the local financial institutions is inherently opposed to Skeffington, clearly motivated by class and religion. Adam starts off with affection for his uncle but indifference or suspicion about his poltical career. However, this turns to respect during the campaign on his part and even that of his wife.

It is possible to enjoy the film without being interested in politics. The personal conflicts and allegiances - sometimes shifting - are absorbing. The acting is excellent and there is a Fordian repertory feeling about the production.  Also, there are some splendid set-pieces, involving many extras and uncredited actors, something which must have added to the costs of the film. It seemed that everybody involved, no matter how minor their part, had a contribution to make.

But the main theme running through the movie is stated by Skeffington early on, that the days of the personal political campaign are over in the face of advancing technology. In the 1950s, that technology was television and to some extent radio. Today, social media and their manipulation by big money are even more influential. However, at council level there are still Skeffingtons around. It is certainly true of south Wales and surely also of America that all politics is local.

* "Embedding" started in politics before it became a feature of armed conflict.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Face masks

When nose and mouth coverings were in short supply at the start of the covid-19 epidemic in the UK, the scientists who warned that they gave minimal protection to the wearer, but helped to reduce the chances of wearers' passing on the infection themselves, were given much publicity. Now, as supplies become more plentiful, we are urged by the media including social media to wear masks in public at all times. Indeed, this was the direction taken in England last month by authorities who needed a public display of an initiative in the face of morbidity figures which were coming down too slowly.

Now comes further evidence that any covering short of self-contained respiration is no guarantee of protection from corona viruses.
The WHO says SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, spreads primarily through small droplets expelled from the nose and mouth of an infected person that quickly sink to the ground. But in an open letter to the Geneva-based agency, published on Monday in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal, 239 scientists in 32 countries outlined evidence that they say shows floating virus particles can infect people who breathe them in. Because those smaller particles can linger in the air, the scientists are urging WHO to update its guidance. "We are aware of the article and are reviewing its contents with our technical experts," WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said on Monday in an email. How frequently the coronavirus can spread by the airborne or aerosol route - as opposed to by larger droplets in coughs and sneezes - is not clear.

So it seems that the original advice is still valid. Having suffered from asthma from childhood, I genuinely do have difficulty with anything that restricts my breathing. However, if the public wearing of face masks is mandated in Wales as it is in England, I am not one to brazenly bare my face in populated spaces as some irresponsible people threaten to do. I shall merely isolate myself even further. Let us hope that it does not come to that and that the measures taken so far in Wales are sufficient.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Getting the economy moving again

Chancellor Sunak's mini-budget yesterday seemed to be aimed at stimulating the housing market and helping those who habitually eat out. However, though the stamp duty cut finds favour with the neo-liberal think tanks, as well as with the Mail as one might expect, the Express is a bit sniffy.

The cut in VAT, though limited in time (which would make it permissible under EU rules, if we were still in the Union) and scope, goes against the conservatives' traditional affection for regressive taxes. The chancellor appears to have realised that cutting taxes on income encourages the well-off to save more rather than spend more. Apart from that, the statement appears to appeal to the Conservative core vote, rather than addressing the real troubles in our economy.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020


In the course of some unrelated research, I came to realise what an impact an American improvement to the humble roller-skate made. The Smithsonian records:
In 1863, James L. Plimpton changed the skating world forever when he patented the forerunner of the modern roller skate. Safer and easier to use than existing versions, which were little more than wheels attached to rigid boards, his "rocker skate" allowed skaters to steer simply by leaning left or right.

Roller-skating boomed. In the 1860s, Plimpton set up a skate factory and opened America's first roller-skating rinks in New York City and Newport, Rhode Island, where he leased skates to customers. Skating soon became a popular family activity. The New York Roller-Skating Association—the first of its kind—and other clubs held speed and distance competitions in cities across the United States.

That surge soon spread across the Atlantic. Roller-skating rinks sprang up all over the British Isles, in some cases replacing traditional rinks using artificial ice. The peak was reached in 1909 with the Maida Vale Roller Skating Palace and Club, the largest indoor rollerskating rink in Europe, complete with its own orchestra balcony - just before a collapse in interest, coinciding with the rise in moving pictures. (The loss by the roller-skaters of North London was the BBC's gain.)

The National Archives reveal a string of bankruptcies and windings-up of skating rink undertakings between 1909 and 1911. Among the people caught out was the enterprising John James of Ammanford, founder of the bus company still remembered with affection today. Vernon Morgan writes:
In 1910, John James ventured into a separate business that had no connection with the Mews. Forming a partnership with local haulier, David Evans, they had plans drawn up in March 1910 to build a roller skating rink at Margaret Street, Ammanford. Two years later they submitted another plan to the Ammanford council to alter the building into a cinema and roller-skating rink complex.

The partnership however, dissolved after a very short time and the building was sold as a going concern to Mr. J. R. Pooles of Edinburgh, from whence it was known as ‘Pooles’ Cinema.

There must have been other rinks in the area, perhaps even in Neath. A cursory web-search turns up nothing, but perhaps a reader may recall something.

A nerdy footnote: I can claim a rare distinction. I rode on that first Atlantean mentioned by Mr Morgan, not long after, in Wallasey, riding the first Atlantean to enter municipal service.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Bridgend: it looks like Out-eos

Brexiteer boss of Ineos, Jim Ratcliffe, has switched his interest from South Wales to France for a factory to build his 4x4 car.  He has clearly had a good price from Daimler AG for a Mercedes factory the German-based multi-national wants rid of. In any case, Bridgend always looked impractical once the decision to leave the EU had been made. Two questions are: how soon did Ratcliffe realise this was the case, and did he cynically mislead the potential Bridgend workforce?Another pair of queries is: how much has the Welsh government laid out in getting the site ready for a new factory and how likely are we taxpayers to see a return on the investment?

Incidentally, the politician who criticised Ineos for betraying the good old English name of "Grenadier" in favour of France cannot have studied history - or the French language/

Monday, 6 July 2020

Support for the arts in the UK?

Prime minister Johnson has made a big splash with a promise of £1.57bn of new money to support the arts in the UK through these difficult times. Interestingly, the first organisation to break the news was not the BBC nor any of the main arts bodies, but Rhinegold Publishing, part of the Mark Allen Group. One wonders whether Rhinegold broke a publishing embargo or there is a link between No. 10 and the publishing conglomerate.

Another question is how much of that money is going to be apportioned to Scotland and Wales, and whether governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff will then help to survive the little theatres, galleries and museums which are such a vital part of local life and which, having few resources to fall back upon, have suffered more than the national institutions during the Covid-19 lock-down.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Independence of taxes

On US Independence Day 1920, Leona Helmsley, former hotel executive, was born in Brooklyn. The "Queen of Mean" is known today for one typical aphorism: "We don't pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes".

Friday, 3 July 2020

When we build cycle paths, the cyclists will come

A Netherlands ex-pat writes:
When I first moved to the UK from Holland almost eighteen years ago, someone told me I had to use the bus lane as a cyclist - I laughed. Then I realised they were serious.

I know I'm spoilt. I grew up in a country where there are more bikes than people. Where cycling is part of the national psyche and where the cycling infrastructure is the envy of the world. But it wasn't always that way. In the 1960s and 1970s, increasing numbers of road fatalities led to civil activist campaigns with titles like 'Stop Child Murder'. Coupled with the 1973 oil crisis and car-free Sundays, these campaigns gradually fed the political will that led to far-reaching improvements in cycling infrastructure over several decades.

Although in Holland bikes were never truly marginalised, the improved infrastructure had a massive impact on cycling uptake. It is now an every-day mode of transportation for people of all ages, carried out in normal clothing on bikes that are functional and often laden with shopping and children. Virtually every motorist is also a cyclist, and knows how to look out for them. And thanks to well-designed, segregated lanes that are still integrated as part of the wider transportation infrastructure, it is safe.

[a] combination of segregation and integration is key. Where I live in Edinburgh, a network of old railway lines was converted to shared cycling and pedestrian paths some years ago. Although in theory that sounds lovely (and certainly has its advantages) there are several issues. First of all, and especially in times of social distancing, there is simply not enough space for both pedestrians and cyclists to maintain their distance. This is not helped by the inherent speed differential between people on foot and people on wheels, and causes a lot of frustration. Secondly, the network is limited and doesn't go near the centre of town where most people work, nor does it really link up with other cycle paths. This means its functional use is limited.

But finally, and often overlooked, is the fact that most women simply don't feel safe at night on cycle paths that are secluded and separated from other roads and houses. Essentially, this type of provision excludes half of the population for significant parts of the day. To me it is absolutely key that cycling infrastructure is accessible and safe for all to use. We should therefore be aiming for a true network of segregated cycling lanes that exist alongside other forms of transport, linking up places where people actually want to go.

In Holland, it took two crises (oil and road deaths) for the political will to emerge to deliver systemic improvements. Perhaps today's equivalent, the perfect storm of global pandemic and climate emergency, will finally wake up those in charge of transport infrastructure across our local and national governments and help deliver the change we need. When we build cycle paths, the cyclists will come.

To repeat the message from an earlier post:

The boom in cycling shows that folk are taking matters in their own hands (or feet). Those continental nations which incorporated cycle lanes into the reconstruction of their cities after the world war have been shown to be more far-sighted than they knew. Those of us who are less mobile than we used to be bemoan the fact that our local authorities (with honourable exceptions, like the New Towns) went the other way, as we dodge squads of young people on bikes on already too-narrow footways. It is ironic that the cycle-lane-to-nowhere outside Port Talbot Parkway station was not extended, but removed as part of the piazza project just before the Covid-19 lock-down hit.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Status and ability of civil service to take another lurch down

Liberal Democrats and others are rightly concerned about the latest threat to the independence and corporate expertise of the British civil service. The stated rationale is contained in this report from the Daily Telegraph:

it was confirmed that Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, would be leaving the role in September. The announcement had been planned for later in the year, but was rushed out after The Telegraph and the Financial Times reported on the plans.

While Sir Mark officially resigned, it seems fairly clear that he was forced out. The head of the Civil Service, who also served as National Security Adviser, had been expected to be cleared out as soon as Johnson came into office, but, initially at least, was said to enjoy a good relationship with the new PM and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings.

In recent months, however, it has soured considerably and Sir Mark has been subject to considerable briefings against him to the media, especially over the coronavirus crisis.

– Here comes the hard rain –

The departure of Sir Mark, who will become the shortest-serving Cabinet Secretary, means that three of the top four civil servants in Whitehall have all been cleared out under Johnson, with only the permanent secretary at the Treasury remaining.

While Sir Mark was a key ally and effectively a creation of Theresa May’s, this is, for obvious reasons, being seen as part of Cummings’ plans to upend Whitehall, following his briefing to advisers this month that a “hard rain” was coming for the Civil Service.

On Saturday, Michael Gove gave some indication of the plans. He talked of breaking up departments and moving civil servants to the Midlands and the North, getting more scientists involved and making Whitehall and the Government “closer to the 52 per cent who voted to leave”.

[One of Cummings' key objectives]  is to redress the balance of power between No. 10 and the Whitehall departments. The UK is unusual in that the PM has plenty of official power but very few resources to enforce it. Pulling a lever only for nothing to happen is a familiar feeling among former prime ministers.


Wednesday, 1 July 2020

England and Wales not yet ready to rejoin EU

In spite of what some business-orientated media are saying, there is no unambiguous signal that the UK population south of Hadrian's Wall is itching to get back into the European Union. The opinion surveys show that those with fixed views are as roughly equally divided as the "Yeses" and "Noes" of the period before the last referendum. The mistake commentators seem to be making is to count all the "Maybes" as people who will vote for Remain parties or candidates at the next general election.

As Prof David Kynaston pointed out on last Friday's Long View - Rethink, Britain is a very conservative country. That applies to Labour sympathisers as well as Conservative voters. So those Maybes will melt away as they did in 2017 and before last year's election. There is going to be some hardening on the Conservative benches, too. We have already seen that Conservative MPs whose instincts are that it was better for business to be in have had to follow the Johnson line or be deselected by their local constituency Tories. The infiltration of local parties by National Front sympathisers and other xenophobes is only going to make matters worse.

It will take an economic decline so severe that even Johnson will not be able to attribute it credibly to the Covid-19 emergency to cause a change of heart. The trouble is that, the more Britain's fortunes decline, the less attractive we will be to the EU27. One must also bear in mind that a decision by the EU nations to admit an applicant must be unanimous.