Thursday 27 July 2017



We'll soon be setting off on our Suffolk holiday, so limited blogging for a while.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

In the midst, there was a darkness

In Lytton Strachey’s book Eminent Victorians, there is an interesting observation about William Gladstone. Interesting because with only slight alterations to the wording, Strachey’s viewpoint could be applied to modern leadership. For example, if we substitute Tony Blair for William Gladstone we end up with a passage which does not fit Blair exactly but is close enough to be interesting.

There is absolutely no intention to imply that Blair is another Gladstone. It is a question of leadership and different types of leader. Here is the passage with the alterations.

In spite of the involutions of his intellect and the contortions of his spirit, it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in Mr. Gladstone Mr Blair. He adhered to some of his principles that of the value of representative institutions, for instance with a faith which was singularly literal; his views upon religion government were uncritical to crudeness; he had no sense of humour. Compared with Disraeli's Thatcher’s, his attitude towards life strikes one as that of an ingenuous child.

His very egoism was simple-minded; through all the labyrinth of his passions there ran a single thread. But the centre of the labyrinth? Ah! the thread might lead there, through those wandering mazes, at last. Only, with the last corner turned, the last step taken, the explorer might find that he was looking down into the gulf of a crater. The flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst, there was a darkness.

Lytton Strachey - Eminent Victorians (1918)

If we choose to expand this, then we might say it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in the very concept of modern democratic leadership, impossible not to perceive how necessary it is for modern leaders to adopt and project an uncritically crude view of government capabilities.

There is no need to stick with Tony Blair to see this played out in modern leadership. Political ideas must have wide appeal to chime with the millions who do little or no research, being satisfied with crude maxims and naive allegiances.

We evolved, to navigate our way through life by evading surprises. A crude standpoint enables us to do that, especially when it comes to the infinite complexities of political life. If nothing is irretrievably anchored to reality then everything is explainable, especially after the event. This is the political world in which all would-be leaders must cast their nets.

A further point is Strachey’s claim that Gladstone really had a strain of naiveté in his character and his religious views really were uncritical to the point of crudeness. It was no facade and perhaps that was advantageous too.

We have certainly seen this kind of thing in modern leaders and maybe we see now in Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps this is the source of his appeal just as a lack of a sufficiently crude outlook is the source of Theresa May’s credibility problems. In which case she is unlikely to resolve those problems because other people do it better. Boris Johnson for example, although he made the mistake of adopting a clown persona. An oddly naive thing to do – it displays the facade.

Yet facades work too. Leaders do not have to be like Gladstone. They do not have to be naive themselves to see the value of naiveté, neither need they have a crude notion of government in order to promote crude political maxims. On the other hand, leaders who are genuinely naive with a genuinely crude notion of government may be very effective political leaders, especially in a world of Twitter storms.

Of course this is politics. It is the other lot who always adopt the crudest notions of government and promote the most naive policies don’t they?

Monday 24 July 2017

Three Mercedes ads

Via Mercatornet we are treated to three Mercedes ads where the cars are barely seen. All is emotion, soul-searching and glutinous modernity. The three ads are called.

Grow up: “Be a good parent”
Grow up: “Settle down”:
Grow up: “Start a family”:

The second and third ads are here and here. Meanwhile the Telegraph treats us to another, more familiar angle which may help us to explain what must be a substantial advertising spend.

Germany’s biggest car manufacturers shares plunged in early trading as investors digested allegations about decades of collusion between Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler.

Investors dumped the shares after reports, which first appeared in the German press late on Friday afternoon, claiming the companies may have secretly worked together on technology, forming a cartel that could have led to the “dieselgate” emission scandal.

The allegations come just days after Daimler recalled more than 3m of its Mercedes Benz cars for work to lower their emissions. The week before, Audi - which is owned by Volkswagen - recalled 850,000 vehicles.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Ercol revival

Over the past few years a mild air of dissatisfaction has begun to taint the musty atmosphere of antiques centres. At least it has for us and the culprit is Ercol furniture. Nothing wrong with Ercol if that is how your tastes evolved. The quality seems pretty good and the company is still around making more of it, but we have two problems with it infesting the antiques trade.

Firstly there is the disconcerting fact that a style we grew up with is now labelled as 'antique'. Oh dear - are we that old? Labelling it as 'retro' helps a little but 'vintage' is no great improvement. Not that we ever bought any Ercol but it helped define the seventies interior and now gives an unwelcome nudge about those aspirations we nurtured only a few decades ago.

Secondly it is too obvious where much of this Ercol is coming from. Oldies who bought it to furnish their houses are downsizing, moving into retirement homes or dying. As it is now worth money, their lovingly polished furniture passes into the antiques trade.

I suppose one might call it recycling. Even that sounds better than 'antique'... or maybe it doesn't.

Friday 21 July 2017

Vinegar, salt and sardines

Via we discover the delights of shopping in Venezuela.

Rosalba Diaz pushes her shopping cart through what, at first glance, seems like a well-stocked supermarket in Caracas. But looking closer, she can see that many of the shelves are jammed with bottles of vinegar, boxes of salt and cans of sardines.

Diaz, 66, is an economist at a Caracas consulting firm, but she says her salary cannot keep up with Venezuela’s near 800 percent inflation. Last year, she stopped traveling and eating out. She has shopped at this market for more than 20 years but now, she says, many basic items are missing from the shelves — things like bread, rice, coffee and corn flour. And what is on the shelves is unaffordable.

“Food is so expensive,” Diaz says, as she pushes her cart. “I can’t buy heavy cream. I can’t even buy cereal or fruit.”

She checks out the onions, which cost 4,000 bolivars a kilo (about 50 cents at the black market exchange rate). That’s twice as much as last week, so Diaz says she’s only buying two.

Thursday 20 July 2017

Best job in the world


John Reith (1889-1971) was the founder of the BBC. He was its first general manager when it was set up as the British Broadcasting Company in 1922; and he was its first director general when it became a public corporation in 1927. He created both the templates for public service broadcasting in Britain; and for the arms-length public corporations that were to follow, especially after World War Two. Reith fought off the politicians' attempts to influence the BBC, while offering the British people programmes to educate, inform and entertain.

The recent BBC pay issue has been interesting on a number of counts, but surprise is not one of them. We have always known about celebrities attracting huge salaries, yet even though the information provided by the BBC is far from complete we are not talking about vast sums when compared to corporation's overall income.

Two aspects do stand out though. Firstly the distribution of the lucre seems oddly haphazard. One might expect to see talent rewarded in a fairly systematic manner, but that does not seem to be how it is actually done.

For example, it is not at all obvious why Gary Lineker earns between £1,750,000 and 1,799,999. Personable football pundits are not rarities. Somebody deep in the bowels of the BBC will have a justification, but it probably seems haphazard because it is. Similarly we learn that talking heads may earn £500,000 or more doing a job any competent actor could do and would probably enjoy doing at least as well for far less. 

Secondly we note how the BBC makes no attempt to apply its aggressively egalitarian public ethos to its own internal affairs. That is no surprise either. The BBC has adopted the ethos of the entertainment industry even though it need do no such thing. As a dominant UK player with much to offer in terms of security and satisfaction it could have been a very different organisation with a less hypocritical ethos. For example.

BBC Radio 5 live Breakfast's Rachel Burden, who co-presents with Nicky Campbell (who's in the £400,000 - 449,999 bracket), was under no obligation to reveal her salary as it falls below the £150,000 threshold.

But she tweeted: "Whilst we're in the transparency game, and for those asking, I fall in the middle of the 100-150k category.

"This is a huge amount of money for a job I love doing five days a week, and I know what a privilege it is to be able to say that.

"Also worth saying we have a brilliant team of journalists on far, far less than that who we totally rely on and I'm so grateful to them."

Political correspondent Chris Mason added: "Good on Rachel for volunteering this. I'll do same: I earn £60,000 as a Political Correspondent. Best job in world."

BBC Radio 4 Money Box host Paul Lewis also disclosed his earnings, saying: "Many of us are now doing this. Excellent. As I said some hours ago in 2016/17 I got £67,413 total BBC fees."

"Best job in the world," says Political Correspondent Chris Mason. It probably is for those on the inside.

Tuesday 18 July 2017

Turbine tech

The Engineer has an interesting article on the remarkable technology behind Rolls Royce turbine blades.

The components the ABCF is producing are not ones that most people ever see: they are the turbine blades that are hidden away in the hottest part of jet engines. For from the decorative brilliance of Greek bronzes, they combine a utilitarian appearance with complexity of form and function and a jewel-like internal perfection: weighing only about 300g and small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, they are in fact perfect single crystals of a metal alloy whose composition has been fine-tuned over many years to operate in the hellish conditions of the fastest-moving part of a jet engine.

During a summer job in the late sixties I worked in a Rolls Royce lab where we tested this type of blade. In those days they were simpler but not so very different in appearance. The lab I worked in was trying to coat them with tungsten using a kind of plasma spray gun. Tungsten wire was fed into the plasma and sprayed by hand onto test blades. One problem was sunburn from all the uv generated by the plasma.

Surprisingly enough it all seemed rather casual to me, with little sense of urgency. We drank tea from laboratory beakers and some people brought in foreigners, which were DIY projects smuggled in to take advantage of Rolls Royce technical and engineering facilities in various parts of the site. 

One chap repaired his rusty torch this way. First he had the metal case sandblasted to remove the old paint and the rust, then he repaired rust holes with resin. Next he had the thing spray painted in a Rolls Royce painting booth and finally a metal ring which held the glass was nickel-plated in a Rolls Royce plating bath. A few years later Rolls-Royce was declared bankrupt. That torch was a symptom of malaise, even I could tell that.

Things are obviously very different now and it's a pity that this kind of story in the Engineer rarely makes it into the mainstream media. No doubt it is basically a press release, but it is an interesting one, isn't all that technical and deserves a wider circulation. Instead we have reams of drivel about the latest incarnation of Dr Who, a kids' TV programme.

Monday 17 July 2017

Leftist Buzzword Salad

An interesting clip, especially the assertion that accusations of racism are losing their potency. Perhaps people are tired of political correctness, tired of hearing the same old mantras over and over again. Perhaps people are well aware that far too much of it is wildly exaggerated or simply untrue.

I'm not so sure though. We should not mistake the extremes for symptoms of a potentially fatal malaise. Finger-pointing is infinitely flexible, infinitely resourceful, hugely appealing to human vanity. That's one which isn't losing its potency - vanity. Just the opposite as far as I can see.

Saturday 15 July 2017

Thomas Sowell on slavery

None of this will be news to anyone with even a passing interest is such matters, but is the wider story of slavery worth knowing, at least in outline?

Of course it is, the question is rhetorical, but with black slavery coupled to white guilt as virtually the only aspect we see in the mainstream arena, what do we gain personally if we try to set the issue in a wider historical context?

I’m not sure. When a particular narrative dominates the public arena, then even accuracy seems somewhat futile and that cannot be good.

Thursday 13 July 2017

Four sparrows and a thrush

He softly let himself out, and was gone some time. When he reappeared, he produced, not a rabbit, but four sparrows and a thrush. ‘I could do nothing in the way of a rabbit without setting a wire,’ he said. ‘But I have managed to get these by knowing where they roost.’ He showed her how to prepare the birds, and, having set her to roast them by the fire, departed with the pitcher, to replenish it at the brook which flowed near the homestead in the neighbouring Bottom.

Thomas Hardy - Two on a Tower (1882)

Times change. I would have no idea how to find a meal like that, nor how to cook it. Yet as a youngster I remember a great-uncle telling us about his childhood and how his family used to catch and eat sparrows. The times he was speaking of would only be a few years after Hardy published his novel.

We have lots of sparrows in the garden this year but I’m not tempted.

Tuesday 11 July 2017

The Tainted Source

Politics should be based on the recognition that the state is a public entity based on law, not an enterprise run by managerial decisions made in private.
John Laughland - The Tainted Source: The Undemocratic Origins of the European Idea

John Laughland’s book was first published twenty years ago but is still relevant today, especially amid the turmoil of competing Brexit narratives. Among other aspects, it provides an interesting examination of the roots of the EU, particularly Europe as envisaged by fascist and Nazi strategists, academics and business leaders before and during WWII. Of particular interest is how extremely close the EU is now to the structures worked out by totalitarian thinkers over seventy years ago. The EU is not a modern construct and fascist political thinking did not simply disappear from Europe in 1945.

Apart from this totalitarian and even antiquated aspect of the EU, one of Laughland’s most interesting ideas is his concept of an unpolitical EU. By that he means that the EU has a managerial rather than a political ethos and this runs throughout its structure. It is not political but unpolitical. All issues must have a single official response and supporting that response must be an overall plan, strategy or process with no room for deviation. This is not politics but administration - the EU is not political.

The EU is all about planning and implementing the plan, not about discussing plans in the political arena, tearing them to pieces, patching them back together again. None of that. The knockabout and messy war of ideas has no place in an EU which values its totalitarian roots without ever admitting that this is where it all came from. This is not to accuse the EU of being fascist as Laughland is careful to point out, because that would be ridiculous - times have changed. As his book’s title suggests, it is more a case of pointing out the EU’s tainted roots and continuing failure to repudiate those roots by facing up to the ingrained deficiencies they have caused.

The point being made here is that political life should be messy and uncertain because that is the very nature of politics and human interaction generally. This fractured, suck it and see form of social and economic progress is how mistakes are corrected, how resilience is welded into the political fabric, how dissident voices can be heard in case they harbour valuable insights.

In which case, first past the post voting is likely to be more political than any form of proportional representation because it maximises the political over the unpolitical. Proportional representation leads away from the clamour of political freedom towards the unpolitical path of restricted freedoms, of closed doors and insider dealing where the corridors of power matter far more than the debating chamber.

As ever a key problem comes down to people. As the EU tries and tries again to apply linear thinking to non-linear realities, the issue of competence at the highest level becomes ever more acute. The EU does not have the ability nor the flexibility to build what it claims to be building. It is all very well to poke fun at figures such as Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, but there is a more serious side to this problem.

It is increasingly obvious that the EU does not have the political competence to push itself towards successful completion where it is able to compete with the rest of the world. The EU is gargantuan project lurching through the post-war decades, becoming more and more unwieldy. Like a huge drunken uncle sprawled across the kitchen floor, nobody cares to pick it up and in any event nobody can.

Who with an ounce of humility and self-knowledge would ever take it on? Not even a political genius and we don’t have many of those. A dynamic political culture supplies its own distributed genius, not merely from the brains of talented individuals but from millions upon millions of daily decisions taken by politically free people building their lives within a respected framework of law, justice and democratic government. That is what politics is supposed to do for us.

Politics is therefore part of what it is to be human, if ‘politics’ means the public association of individuals who understand themselves to be ‘a people’. Without ‘a people’, there can be no rule by the people (democracy).
John Laughland

Monday 10 July 2017

The memory hole

This is the view from our lunch stop during a walk along the river Wye this afternoon. As you can see I’ve included my boots to add a hint of authenticity. Would Patrick Lichfield have imagineered such an artistic touch? I think not.

A little earlier Mrs H and I had been discussing the question of elusive memories and how annoying it is to find you can’t recall the name of a particular celebrity, politician or almost any other name. It can be mildly worrying too, but also cheering if after some intense brain racking you finally manage to make a connection and come up with the right name. Surprising how often it wasn't worth all that effort though.

Yet we could have looked at the problem from another angle. Perhaps we should be pleased when unused names slip away from immediate recall simply because they are no longer encountered regularly. Trying to bring them back is like fishing something out of the bin even though it was discarded for a reason. It might come in useful... No it won’t, it never does. I blame the recycling mania.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be mildly concerned at how easy it is to pack our memories with all this useless information such as the names of celebrities who merely infest the public arena, adding nothing of value to social memories. So forgetting may be good for us as well as... what was it? I’m sure there was something else...

Sunday 9 July 2017

Clicks among the outrage

From the Telegraph  we are told - 

Two British men have become the first in the country to give birth after putting their gender transitions on hold.

Hayden Cross, 21, and Scott Parker, 23, were both born women, but chose to have children before full surgery made it impossible.

Yes, the two "men" are of course women but no doubt the Telegraph knows it can use such stories to harvest some clicks along with the outrage. It's all very modern in a race to the bottom kind of way.

In April Mr Parker gave birth to his daughter Sara who was conceived following a drunken one-night stand with a friend in August last year.

Last month Mr Cross delivered his daughter Trinity-Leigh via Caesarean section, after he found a sperm donor on Facebook and inseminated himself.

Saturday 8 July 2017

The bus stops here

From the BBC we hear about a conflict between a bus stop and the front door of a newly built house in Langley Mill.

A newly-built house with a bus shelter "smack-bang" in front of its door has been put up for sale.

The two-bedroom home in Langley Mill is "attracting a lot of interest" despite being blocked by the bus stop, estate agent Burchell Edwards said.

Mrs H and I pass this site several times a week on the grandchild school run so the problem has been obvious to us for some time. The houses have been built on a site once occupied by a large second hand car dealer but why anyone would buy one we're not sure. Apart from the bus stop issue which only affects one property, the houses seem to have no garden, merely a yard for storing wheelie-bins.

As far as we can see, these brand-new terraced houses have far less land than nearby miners' terraces built in the nineteenth century. The new houses may be clean, modern and well-insulated, but given the choice I'd probably prefer the nineteenth century version with a garden. 

Friday 7 July 2017


Because we have grandkids I watch a fair bit of kids’ TV although these days all of it is streamed off the internet. Terrestrial TV seems to be dead as far as the grandkids are concerned. I doubt if they know which channel is which so the BBC's planned spending splurge could be a waste of money.

Commonly heard on kids’ TV is the word ‘awesome’. Along with ‘amazing’ it denotes a kind of gushing approval which can be directed at any mediocre achievement because the great aim seems to consist of avoiding the worst possible thing a child can ever experience – sadness.

Oh well – we are all too familiar with hype, exaggeration, unmerited praise and the pathological avoidance of criticism because we are modern and caring. We must be soft in the head too - but I add that in the nicest possible way.

It is natural to encourage kids in their halting endeavours to learn and progress because we want them to do well. Of course we do so we have to offer up at least some admiration for that weird orange blob which is supposed to be Mummy or that lump of Play-Doh which is supposed to be a dragon. The trouble is these things are neither awesome nor amazing so perhaps we shouldn't say they are. It doesn't prepare them for bureaucratic realities later on.

Suppose a child grows up, takes to politics, climbs the greasy pole all the way to the top and finally makes the UN work as it should. That would be both awesome and amazing. Well not really. That would be impossible, but ‘impossible' is a word you don’t seem to hear much on kids’ TV and that could explain a good deal.

Thursday 6 July 2017

Clutching at straws

From eurekalert we hear about new research into the healthy side-effects of Pokémon GO.

Today marks the one year anniversary of Pokémon GO's worldwide release that sent crowds hiking through parks, meandering into streets and walking for miles in search of Pokémon, those cute little digital characters that appear in real locations on your smartphone...

...Kent State University researchers found that playing a popular physically-interactive, smartphone based game, like Pokémon GO, may actually promote exercise.

Grandson was keen on Pokémon and was quite prepared to trek off outside with his mobile phone to find the strange little creatures. However, as with every other fad, this one faded and now he hardly ever mentions them. Not a health regime to rely on I'd say. 

Tuesday 4 July 2017

Dumb as a rock

Donald Trump recently managed to seem even less presidential than usual by describing MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski as "dumb as a rock Mika".

“Crazy Joe Scarborough and dumb as a rock Mika are not bad people, but their low rated show is dominated by their NBC bosses,” Trump wrote. “Too bad!”

Whatever the story behind this, we are not accustomed to a relentless stream of crude jibes from a US president. Even those still inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt must wonder why they stick with it. 

And yet...

And yet great swathes of modern media output are as dumb as a rock even if the media folk behind them are not. If influential people keep quiet about it or if they try to be even-handed – what then? That’s the problem with Trump’s approach. We may dislike seeing it from a president but it is common enough in blogging and social media. If Trump is waging a war against what he sees as fake news, then how is he supposed to wage it? In such a way that nothing is done and voters barely notice?

For example, BBC coverage of green issues is as dumb as a rock and has been for years. So why not say so? Imagine an impossible situation.

Theresa May – “As for last night’s BBC programme on sustainable energy, they are not bad people but their low rated show was dominated by a green agenda. Too bad!”

Jeremy Corbyn – "I agree with the Prime Minister. The show was dumb as a rock activism – not what we want from the BBC at all."

A ludicrous scenario of course, but Trump’s crudeness has raised an interesting question. It may be that our expectation of public politeness from senior political figures has steered us into a situation we never would have entered if we had the choice - a situation where the miserable standard of mainstream reporting is never tackled. 

Our political class would rather manipulate it than tackle it but is that what we want? We do not need even more laws and regulations about what can be said either, but that is what we're getting. What we need is more robustness in public discourse, more freedom to say what is becoming ever more difficult to say.

I still don’t like how Donald Trump operates, but behind the dislike is a certain wistful sense that we have drifted too far the other way and Trump is merely pointing it out.

Monday 3 July 2017

The Tyranny of Pop Music

Last year we were in Debenhams whiling away a few hours while the car was being serviced. Round about lunch time I phoned the garage on my mobile to see how things were going but had not realised how loud the store's ambient music was. 

After vainly looking around for a quiet spot I ended up couching by a rack of coats with a finger in one ear. That way I could just make out what the garage had to say. No doubt the receptionist at the other end wondered why I was shouting, yet so many appear not to notice the incessant assault on our ears. Until that phone call I hadn't noticed just how loud it was. In the end, familiarity tends to breed not contempt, but acceptance.