Sunday, 31 October 2010

You'd be grumpy too....

There you are innocently resting your head - perhaps catching up with a little sleep and dreaming about the hoard (or is it horde) - and what do the health an safety buffoons do? Build a fence round your head. I mean, what's that about then? Do they think that pathetic little chain is going to stop obnoxious little kids climbing on me - or for that matter me making a nice little hors d'oeuvres of them?

They'll be putting up warning signs next - "keep off the dragon" or "don't poke the dragon or he'll breath fire on you and then eat you for tea - perhaps with scrambled eggs and a cup of tea." Or worse still plonking some uniformed numpty there to "guard" - as if a dragon needs bloody guarding.

You'd be would!



Bears? Woods? Now where were we?

Not sure whether this chap's abut to uproot the birch tree (thereby contributing to the destruction of the forests) or is using it as a prop - a little in the manner of research findings for politicians. Or possibly he's just shy.

What ever the truth of this - it's a bear, it's in the woods. And the rest is history!


Saturday, 30 October 2010

There must be government of the toddler, by the toddler, for the toddler - a comment on fairness

“It’s not fair!” The shrill voice of a young girl from across the cafĂ©. “They don’t do hot chocolate with marshmallows.”

After a little smile at this innocent comment from a seven year old, I thought about the big bad grown up world. And there I hear that same cry every day – “it’s not fair” they say. “I have a right”, they say as if the conjuring of rights and of fairness changes anything about the fact that someone else has something you don’t.

There are times when the conduct of democratic politics becomes a toddler-esque bidding war over supposed “rights” and alleged “unfairness”. We are getting the revolution of the five year old – lots of stamping of feet, waving or arms and appeals to fairness. And – if that doesn’t work screaming and shouting, yelling and throwing things about.

One of the things I learned when I was five – and that I was reminded of every day henceforth – is that nothing’s fair and nothing’s right. We get dealt a hand in life and we make the most of it – there are some people who started with nothing who end up with plenty and a few others blessed with plenty who end up down there in the gutter. And it’s not fair.

So why is it that politicians from every direction seem to think that invoking “fairness” or speaking of “rights” is good thing? How did we get to the place where we could set out the appeal to voters as toddlers rather than voters as grown ups who know that we can’t have what we want?

As I heard that little girl’s voice, my thought was that – however her mum responded (and she didn’t say “life’s not fair” like she should have done) – we grow up to believe that we can appeal to Government to make things “fair”. And the politicians promise to make it all OK – to give us our “rights”, to make things “fair”, all the while knowing – as anyone who thinks about it for a second knows – that you can’t make it fair, you have no rights granted by government.

But we still vote for marshmallows don’t we.


Friday, 29 October 2010

Hot stuff....

I don't know about you but I'm quite an enthusiast for curry. Not the "let's drink seventeen pints of lager and then eat a vindaloo (before throwing up)" kind of curry enthusiast but a more subtle maven. But until I arrived in the spiritual home of great curry (sorry Brummies but that's Bradford) I didn't appreciate just what it was really about.

Bunging into the dish a pile of chilli till it becomes so hot the sweat pours from you. That's not the point - yes, we like it hot. We like that sharp chilli hit. But we also like the dryness of black pepper, the strange sweet aftertaste of cloves, the wonderful smell of jeera and the bitterness of coriander. All wrapped around garlic, tomatoes and citrus flavours.

If you're lucky there'll be other little flavours sneaking in there - an acrid sniff of fenugreek, aromatic cardamon - green and brown - and the wonderful acidic hit of wild onion seeds. Plus that glorious saffron flavour - or for those preferring Kashmiri tang, replace that with turmeric.

So my dear friends, it isn't a game of who can eat the hottest curry. That chilli hit masks a complexity of flavour, a subtlety of taste that you're missing by chasing the machismo of spiciness. A little less chilli, a little less hot and you'll find a revelation - a cornucopia of hot, sharp, sweet, acrid and acidic flavours to set against the taste of the meat, the greens and the beans.


Friday Fungus: Kathryn's mushroom tart

For now you're not getting the recipe. There are two good reasons for this: the first is that I didn't cook the tart, Kathryn did - I just ate it and it was lovely. The second is that - shall we say - a certain amount of creative interpretation was applied to what it says in the book!

Just look at that topping. See those pine nuts. Nope, not in the recipe at all (although the garlic and breadcrumbs were and the nuts went in because of a shortage of crumbs). And the filling - which I know you can't see in the picture - was supposed to be mushrooms, tarragon and marscapone but ended up with thyme and creme fraiche because we'd the wrong herbs and too little marscapone.

Kathryn also didn't spend an hour making cheese shortcrust pastry - preferring to follow the advice of Gary Rhodes and buy it from the shop ready-made (and then sprinkle grated cheese over it). And didn't bake it blind like the recipe said - life's too short for all that faffing about.

The result - a delicious, creamy mushroom filling for a fine tart with a great garlic and pine nut topping. Hard to argue with that really - wonderful!


Thursday, 28 October 2010

Thoughts on driving through Harehills....

There I was driving through Harehills and I realised what it was that makes it such an interesting place.

But first a little background.

I’d been to a neighbourhood forum in the village at which – as is common at these events – the subject of traffic had arisen. A debate about parking enforcement, traffic calming, speed limits and the evilness of the lorry took place. A largely inconclusive debate.

A day or two later I was recounting this meeting to Kathryn (we do talk about the sexiest things) and she commented along these lines:

Why do we spend money on all these things? Can’t people just look out, take care and act like grown ups.

My words were lost – I could think of little to justify Bradford Council spending thousands (bearing in mind that ‘a thousand’ is roughly speaking the average council tax in the City) on further ‘interventions’ aimed at managing the traffic and, just maybe, improving road safety. In a place where there’s been no injury accident in 20 years.

Fast forward to today when I’m driving through Harehills.

I used to get annoyed by the road environment in these inner city places. But now I see it as just people getting on with their busy lives (and, despite the poverty, there’s a load of business going on). I watch smiling as the young man parks right on the lights, on a double yellow line, helps his elderly mum out of the car and then walks into the shop with her. There’s an Asian lady clutching two small children by the hand hovering in the centre of this busy road. And there’s a complete disregard for yellow lines, one way signs and all the controls of modern traffic management.

Here we see cars double parked. A couple of young Iraqis or Kurds are having an animated conversation while blocking the traffic from a side road. And there’s a load of great shops to cast the eye over – including the wonderfully named Noshi Food Store.

This is a properly busy place where people know there are risks – after all plenty of them ran a few risks to get to Leeds in the first place. And the two kids hanging onto that Asian lady’s hands will grow up to double park, drive too fast and hold animated conversations while holding up the traffic. But those kids – and some of the migrant and refugee folk arriving in Harehills – will also take other risks. They’ll start businesses, risk their own time and capital on the possibility of success. And a few will succeed – will make millions and will contribute more to our economy than the meagre pittance we shell out for them in support when they arrive.

And this is a contrast to the kids in the village. Carefully protected, coddled even. Protected from risks and surrounded by adults who tell them something or other isn’t safe, is not allowed, might be dangerous, will make them ill or will be frowned on by the neighbours. These kids – or most of them – will be fine. They’ll avoid risks like they’re told – not smoking, drinking only moderately, eating a healthy diet, getting an education. And then they’ll do what I did – get a job where they don’t need to take risks, where they can earn a living safely. For many they’ll wonder one day – perhaps like I do at 50 – why they didn’t take risks. Didn’t start that business. Put off trekking through the Andes. Bought a Toyota rather than a great big pick up.

The kids in Harehills don’t have that luxury. For them it’s take risks and have a chance of getting out of poverty. Or else a life of poverty. And they’ve been educated in risks at their mother’s knee (in the middle of Roundhay Road as well), at school and in the life of the streets where their life is played out.

And one day the kids from the village will wonder why those Kurds, Iraqis, Persians, Zimbabweans, Bangladeshis and Congolese have BMWs, big electric gates and flash watches.

It will be because they took the risks.


I guess blogs should have about this fella?

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A bit rich...or maybe just a conspiracy?

We're told that Alexey Sorotkin, the man heading up Russia's bid for the 2018 World Cup Finals, has made some choice criticisms of London (and by implication the England bid for the same event):

“We do not enter into squabbles, although we have much to say. It's no secret, for example, that in London they have the highest crime rate compared with other European cities, and the highest level of alcohol consumption among young people.”

Now coming from a Russian that's shall we say just a little bit rich!

Except - the conspiracy theorists tell us - it's all a cunning plan from London (a bit like finding out that FIFA Officials take backhanders) to see off its opponents!

In what appeared to be a planned attack on Russia, the England 2018 bid revealed shortly after Sorokin had made an address to the International Football Arena conference in Zurich that it had made the complaint about comments Sorokin made last week to a Russian newspaper.

Ah, that's it then, Alexey is just misunderstood - even when he's complaining about racism in football! Apparently:

First, people in the Sport Express had interpreted some of my comments in a vague way, not exactly what I was trying to express." Second, much of it was lost in translation from Russian into English and then, the rest was made up by the English journalists themselves.

See it's all a "strangely timed" plot by perfidious albion to do down Russia where of course there is no crime, they drink only mint tea and racism is unheard of.

Yep. That must be it.


Tuesday, 26 October 2010

I doubt, therefore I am - the limits of "skepticism"

Regular visitors to this blog will have heard me talk about how doubt is at the heart of conservativism – indeed, it is only my doubting that makes me a conservative. And I am grateful to find that the rationalist position fits well with Balfour’s philosophic doubt.

Chris Snowdon in his Velvet Gove, Iron Fist blog provides a link to an interview with John Ioannidis the author of “why most research findings are false”. In what seems to me a beautiful demolition of the “skeptic” obsession with scientific method as the only response to doubt, the article reports that:

He (Ioannidis) and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed.

Yet we are enjoined to believe the researchers, to accept the exclusive use of evidence rather than judgment in decision-making and to take whatever academics place before us as truth rather than as something to be questioned and challenged – to be doubted. Not merely through a self-serving and excluding process of peer review but through the prism of our understanding.

Nature, the grande dame of science journals, stated in a 2006 editorial, “Scientists understand that peer review per se provides only a minimal assurance of quality, and that the public conception of peer review as a stamp of authentication is far from the truth.” What’s more, the peer-review process often pressures researchers to shy away from striking out in genuinely new directions, and instead to build on the findings of their colleagues (that is, their potential reviewers) in ways that only seem like breakthroughs—as with the exciting-sounding gene linkages (autism genes identified!) and nutritional findings (olive oil lowers blood pressure!) that are really just dubious and conflicting variations on a theme.

Doubt must be universal. It should be the starting point for our decision-making, the guiding factor in how we monitor and the central principle in evaluation. And mail order marketers will tell you – it’s all about test and learn. The science is never settled, the truth is never known.

There is only doubt.


Monday, 25 October 2010

Art, animation, enterprise, people - the secret of regeneration

Julian Dobson from his eyrie as the guru of community regeneration has set out "ten things we didn't learn about regeneration". Now while I don't agree with it all (I get a little worried when people talk about value without seeing its source, for example), it is the best summation of why regeneration needs to be done at the scale of the ordinary. In doing this we can achieve the extraordinary - real change and even, after Julian's appointed 25 year wait, transformation.

And as Julian points out, we talked the talk but never got it right on the ground. We said we believed in participation but:

the money went, by and large, into building things: shopping centres and offices and hotels and roads.

We got shiny regeneration - the city of gold in the far distance - not what communities either wanted or needed. The focus was not on real change but on replacing the people we didn't want with the folk we did. We talked about culture in terms of institutions rather than art. We got animated - about the huge sums promised in investment not the events and activities in the places where people lived. And we talked endlessly of enterprise - by which we meant some new sheds at the motorway junction and a shiny new "business incubator".

The image above - Bradford Town Hall lit up by Patrice Warrener - does more for my City than all the inward investment strategies, trips to conferences in Cannes or talk of £250m in new investment. It is real, it is exciting, it animates and it gives a sense of pride. Just as with the international market, the new art and photography galleries and the work of Bradford Kickstart, this image speaks of a City that can do something. Not a wonderful, wealthy city. Nor a place that can forget the 7th July 2001 all that easily. But a place that thinks animation, activity, events and involvement are what matter.

Go and read Julian's piece - it tells the story of 40 plus years of failed regeneration. But in doing so it points to successes, to ideas of making change stick and to a way in we (not grand government agencies or multi-billion pound turnover international developers) can do something - not just for the place we live but more importantly, for ourselves.

And by the way this is what I did for Bradford.

A Monday Mushroom: They're trying to stop us picking mushrooms.

There has been an almighty outcry at the prospect of the Government "selling off all the forests". Some of this has been knee jerk left-wing, 'we hate privatisation' response but others have been rightly concerned about access - especially for leisure. As the Forestry Commission trade union bloke told us:

Once we've sold it, it never comes back. Once it is sold, restrictions are placed on the land which means the public don't get the same access to the land and facilities that are provided by the public forest estate

So there you go - save the forests! The People's Forests! Unless of those people are mushroom pickers in which case, oh no, you can't get your pleasure in the forest. You are bad people. You are "destroying ecosystems". You must desist!

this new generation of foodies and foragers are beginning to trample the forests and fields that feed them – as well as many animals and insects, warn those who look after the UK's woodlands and nature reserves

Like cyclists, walkers, runners and wildlife photographers don't?

What really annoys the "conservation" groups of course is that some people are making money from mushroom picking. There are teams of commercial pickers who gather wild mushrooms for sale to posh restaurants and fancy delis. So why not do what Antonio Carluccio says then?

The chef, who does not use wild mushrooms in his cafes and delis, believes there should be licences for commercial collectors to ensure they behave responsibly, as there are in many other European countries. "There should be more discipline in collecting: not trampling everything, not destroying everything and to be limited to what you can consume. But don't deprive people of the wonders of going to the woods for the mushrooms,"

Now that's a great idea - just selling a limited number of 'rights' to collect mushrooms! Get some income (like you do from fishing rights, from pannage or from grazing) and ensure that the mushroom stock is sustained. And for hobby pickers - have a licensing system (back to fishing again) or a membership system.

Don't just stop us.


Sunday, 24 October 2010

How to do it George!


From former NZ Minister, Maurice McTigue:

When we started this process with the Department of Transportation, it had 5,600 employees. When we finished, it had 53. When we started with the Forest Service, it had 17,000 employees. When we finished, it had 17. When we applied it to the Ministry of Works, it had 28,000 employees. I used to be Minister of Works, and ended up being the only employee. In the latter case, most of what the department did was construction and engineering, and there are plenty of people who can do that without government involvement. And if you say to me, “But you killed all those jobs!”—well, that’s just not true. The government stopped employing people in those jobs, but the need for the jobs didn’t disappear. I visited some of the forestry workers some months after they’d lost their government jobs, and they were quite happy. They told me that they were now earning about three times what they used to earn—on top of which, they were surprised to learn that they could do about 60 percent more than they used to! The same lesson applies to the other jobs I mentioned.

It's been done before. What's stopping you?

Spending Review - we might all be missing the real problems

There were a variety of possible titles for this post – “Cuts? What Cuts?” was the most obvious although such language perhaps is less than politic. I also considered a more subtle approach – “Spending review shock as Osborne protects public spending at the expense of economic growth”. But instead I’ve plumped for what you’ve got – something of a cop out, I know, but still making the key point. Which plenty of observers, reporters and pundits have made (other than those swept away in the “biggest cuts in the history of the planet” spin that’s coming from both sides in the debate) – that these are cuts to projected spending not cuts to actual spending. Here’s an example:

In essence, all that George Osborne did on Wednesday was to confirm the current expenditure totals he set out in his Emergency Budget in June. To appeal to Britain's middle-classes, the Chancellor claimed that by 2014-15, the UK's welfare bill will rise by £7bn less than expected. Note, we are talking about a slower rate of increase, not a cut. Combining that notional gain with "savings" of £3.5bn elsewhere allowed Osborne to say his squeeze will be less severe than announced in June, with departmental expenditure £10.3bn higher than previously forecast by 2014-15.

And the settlement – the retrenchment from Government spending 47% of everything we earn to it spending a mere 41% of everything we earn – is little different from the similar retrenchments in 1980-84 and 1993-96. In the latter case there was also a net reduction is public sector employment of over 200,000 – something we seemed to manage reasonably well (if my memory serves).

In truth the central message of this settlement is partly that retrenchment (which some, of course, think will derail the economy while others feel is too small) but also a significant shift of resources within the public sector itself. The CSR redirects funding away from welfare and regulatory control activities towards the dominant public services – schools, healthcare and care for the elderly. If this had been a Labour settlement – and it could well have been – then the message would have been about “investing” in vital services during difficult times. Instead we have a kind of faux hairshirtedness – a deficit machismo to describe what is, in reality, probably the smallest reductions the Government could get away with without threatening the capacity of the private sector to deliver growth.

In very few areas – local government administration might be one and the organisation of Whitehall another – do the scale of projected reductions signal the need to rethink the entire operation. And in areas crying out for major reform such as education and health there is a net increase in frontline spending that provides little incentive for real change.

None of this will soften the pill for all those – in the public sector and in their contracting agencies – who face redundancy as the largess of the Brown years is wound back. Indeed, it is this “funny money”, the short-term streams of funding targeted at specific “problems” (some very real like the persistence of welfare dependency in inner cities but others driven more by political considerations) where much of the pain will be felt when it comes to job losses. I fear that, in some areas, local councils will act to protect “vital services” – such as rooms full of policy officers, teams of diversity advisors and cabinet support teams – at the expense of those helping young people get jobs, helping the homeless find a flat and giving society’s flotsam and jetsam a bit of a chance.

We should – since the Spending Review will not massively affect most of us – look instead to a couple of other things that should be worrying us. Firstly, there’s the domestic concern of inflation – the biggest impact on how well off we feel comes from a combination of rising taxes and inflation shrinking our real income.

Yet, as the average voter focuses on the cuts in front of him and not without reason - a meteor is hurtling towards him from behind. Since the recession started, there has been an increasingly large gulf between what politicians are focusing on (public spending and taxes) and what real voters are most worried about (low wages and rising inflation).

The real financial burdens on everyday people might do more to undermine support for the government than any cuts programme - yet those burdens are going almost entirely ignored by ministers, who are unable to recognise pain which is not inflicted by the government.

And it’s not just the Government overlooking inflation – some of us think that behind the seemingly benign talk of “quantitative easing” and the less benign (and – evidence shows – dangerous) nonsense about the deflation we haven’t had, lies a view that a year of so of significantly above trend inflation will do wonders for the debt problems. At the expense of savers.

The second worry is that the world is lurching back towards managed trade – the dreadful protectionist model that helped create the “Great depression”. So far the urgings of the USA and others to enter a new protectionist chapter in trade has been kept at bay:

Meanwhile, a US plan to set firm trade caps, as a way of rebalancing the global economy, was also shot down by China, Japan, Russia, India and Germany. While the G20 agreed to reduce “excessive” trade imbalances, no firm targets were set. Instead, the final statement from the G20 simply said that “indicative guidelines” would be agreed at a later stage, “recognising the need to take into account national or regional circumstances”.

But expect it to return and to damage both international relations and the world economy. In many ways the retrenchment of last week’s Spending Review – welcome though it is – remains something of a sideshow beside the damage that high taxes, inflation and protectionism will do to the health, wealth and well-being of ordinary people.


Saturday, 23 October 2010


Thought I'd share with you some thoughts about scaffolding - or possibly about bamboo since in Shanghai where I took this picture that is what the scaffolding is made from. Which - to our health & safety obsessed eyes at least - seems a pretty dodgy material to use during the construction of skyscrapers in an exciting modern city! But this is how it works:
In Asia today people still practice the ancient yet evidently effective method of traditional bamboo scaffolding. Workers build frames of bamboo which are durable enough to support the weight of themselves, their equipment and materials while they work. Simple as these structures may seem they are by no means limited. It is still a common sight to see these bamboo structures spanning the entire height of buildings and office blocks.
It is simply a different technique. However, Chinese studies seem to indicate that bamboo scaffolds - despite other advantages in portability, sustainability and flexibility - are inherently more risky than metal scaffolds (between 60% and 80% higher risk). As a result Chinese authorities (as well as those in Hong Kong and Taiwan) are seeking to 'phase out' the use of bamboo scaffolds.
Which would be a shame for us tourists if not for the poor construction workers!

Multipliers, markets and why the New Economics Foundation make me cross

The frighteningly bright Jon Beech has challenged my frothing rant about the New Economics Foundation and indeed my contention that much of their economics work is “evidence-free”. In doing this Jon provides what I find a very helpful positioning of NEF:

NEF's primary agenda is to counter the consumerist agenda that's piped out through radio TV etc, and to help people to reflect on what their relative wealth actually buys them: neuroses and over-leveraged anxiety. They question the economies of scale which result in uninterested interest.

Now were NEF simply engaged on a moral crusade then that would be a fair position but they are clearly positioned as researchers engaged in a scientific (in so far as we can call economics science) process. Which – as I said in my rant - requires evidence. And science, being the troublemaker that it is, evidence means empirical study. It means the raising and subsequent testing of hypotheses. And this NEF does not appear to do. It isn’t sufficient (and this applies as much to those who prefer a libertarian analysis to a statist analysis) simply to select the statistics you like, find a few quotes and cite your own earlier work. Unless of course you're a simple blogger like me!

Let us take just one of NEF’s “products” – LM3:

LM3 was developed by NEF (the New Economics Foundation) as a simple and understandable way of measuring local economic impact. It is designed to help people to think about local money flows and how their organisation can practically improve its local economic impact, as well as influence the public sector to consider the impact of its procurement decisions. It was designed to be quick and relatively easy, and to highlight where an organisation can improve its impact.

This is presented as an econometric tool (indeed I used it in my MSc dissertation) for assessing local economic impact but it is very difficult to track back to the theory underlying the model or indeed to find whether NEF actually undertook robust, peer-reviewed tests of its validity before launching it (with the accompanying consultancy offer) onto a credulous public. And where it has been tested this is what we find:

Notwithstanding this conclusion, difficulties in data collection combined with inaccuracies inherent to the LM3 process created a large margin of error in the findings.

And this is before we have considered the theoretical critique of the Keynesian multiplier. So apologies for getting all academic for a minute:

The multiplier is a central concept in economics and especially regional studies where it is widely used to assess the long term impact on employment and output from different forms of investment. As such it represents a significant part of the Keynesian aggregate demand model of the economy and can be described as the impact of the marginal propensity to consume (mpc) on a given investment or expenditure where the higher the level of mpc the bigger the multiplier (Heertje & Robinson, 1979).

The problem is that measures of the multiplier do not take account of the input source (i.e. where the money is earned) and that it is very difficult to define what we mean by “local” or “local economy”. This is significant since by applying the LM3 model to public expenditure we do not take account of the opportunity costs associated with that public spending (i.e. what the taxpayer would have spent it on had it not gone in tax). With the result that:

It is quite misleading to leave public policymakers with the notion that their spending is not at the expense of the private sector because it may be autonomous or have multiplier effects

None of this intended to say that Keynes was wrong about the multiplier (although there is plenty of doubt about his arguments in this respect) but to point out that NEF appear not to have been rigorous in their appraisal of LM3. Or rather that I cannot find any peer-reviewed, critical appraisal of their model – there is nothing evident from their website and my (limited) searches find very little published work applying the LM3 model in an academic research setting. Even in NEF’s own published work in my area of specialist interest – street markets – there is only an assessment of inputs (how much consumers spend) and no evidence of how that money then flows (e.g. derived from sales figures, margins and staffing costs of market traders). I happen to agree with NEF’s conclusions about the negative job impact of supermarkets but then so does almost every piece of independent economic research which doesn’t excuse NEF from skimping on the evidence.

This is just one of NEF’s products – I cannot comment on other products or reports – but to me it suggests that Jon is right in suggesting that this think tank sees its role as challenging the moral basis for consumerism and perpetual growth rather than providing a substantial and robust evidence base for us to understand how an alternative might work.


Friday, 22 October 2010

Fantasy politics - a world without the Party

I have been reading one of those substantial, detailed fantasy epics. You know the sort – sweeping vistas, warring kingdoms, dark lords and magic everywhere. This one – Wolfblade – is slightly unusual in that it’s written by a woman, which seems not to change the nature of the narrative style or the complicated array of lords, barons and knights so typical of the genre.

However, the description of politics in a fantasy world got me to thinking about how a polity without political parties founded in ideology might look. And how the politics might play out in such a place. Even – and I’ve restrained my fantastical urges here – where there are no mages, sorcerers or wizards.

We have got used to a land where political parties are the entire – or almost the entire – basis for political competition. Even down to the level of little town councils in small market towns, we find elections contested between the parties of left and right, liberal and conservative, authoritarian and free. The presentation of politics by the media, the analysis by academics and even the cynical public bar conversation – all these are formed round the assumption that politics needs the political party.

But let’s fantasise for a moment. Let’s consider a world without political parties. Where everyone is “independent”, where there are no whips, no ‘lines to follow’, no tribal politics. Rest assured my friends, I’m not getting like that dreadful fraud, John Lennon, and imagining some nonsensical utopia – indeed the world without political parties may be dystopian rather than utopian!

Which takes us back to Wolfblade and the world of fantasy. The book details a politics founded on competition between Warlords moderated by the need to retain national unity against the possible – even probable – external threat. The contest is driven by two factors – self-interest and strategic difference. And we should note that these factors are not separate but weave together in determining the factions, interests and politics of the realm. This is the world without political parties – at least as we know them. Different factions – parties if you must – exist but their contest is not ideological but practical, strategic – even tactical.

In the world without political parties, we focus more strongly on leadership, on character and – trumping all this – on our own self-interest. Our support – whether it be votes in an election or troops in a battle - is governed not by ideology or the political tribe but by which person best represents our interests. It becomes a true politics, one determined by consideration rather than habit and where we choose as out representative one who represents our interest not that of some distant party headquarters.

Or at least that might be so. But just as likely is the triumph of the courtier – the man whose sole purpose is to secure power. For sure, these men – and women – abound in our politics already. For every honest politician – for each Philip Davies or John McDonnell – there’s a dozen or more interested mostly in preferment and in power. In a world without parties – in my fantasy – we might find ourselves in a darker world of corruption, power-broking and destructive government.

And this is the theme of so much fantasy literature – the contest between a fearful, corrupt world under some dark lord and a brighter, chivalrous world under some shining king or queen. But what we should remember – and Tolkien knew this – is that even the best can be corrupted by power:

In the place of a Dark Lord you would have a Queen! Not dark but beautiful and terrible as the Morn! Treacherous as the Seas! Stronger than the foundations of the Earth! All shall love me and despair!


Friday Fungus: Dark mushrooms....

I have this recipe requiring "dark mushrooms". At first I thought this was a reference to black mushrooms - lovely chaps that crop up in Chinese cooking (although even I'm not rushing to make Sea Cucumbers Braised with Steamed Black Mushrooms). But it appears not - these are those big old Agaricus bisporus, the ones we used to get at the greengrocer before the world was taken over by shiny white buttons.
It may be that in my personal fantasy world "dark mushrooms" are mysterious, magical things found only in the deepest glades of the more enchanted of woods. But in the world of the Dark Mushroom and Tarragon Tart, they're just plain old mushrooms.
For the record, I haven't the faintest idea what kind of mushroom is in the picture above - it was growing out of the tree at the end of the drive (although I reckon the badgers have eaten it now).

Thursday, 21 October 2010

NEF and George's medicine - more evidence-free economics from the masters...

George plans his spending cuts

Now as you know dear readers I am an especial fan of the New Economics Foundation. Their brand of greeny-greeny, evidence-free economics with a twist of Keynesian nonsense, is just what I need to reassure me that my ever so slightly grumpy view of economics is right.

Today – courtesy of New Start – I stumbled across the opinion of this august body of mythic thinkers on the “cuts”.

Andrew Simms, policy director at the New Economics Foundation, said: ‘George Osborne is set to apply the economic equivalent of medieval medicine to the UK economy. Unfortunately bloodletting an already ailing patient is unlikely to improve their progress. To strengthen the economy and make it more resilient and fit for current challenges, we need to invest comprehensively in new low carbon infrastructure. This modern medicine will improve security, create jobs and boost the economy.’

Now leaving aside the image of George Osborne as some form of hedge witch administering a tincture of wood sorrel and elderberry to the ailing British economy, I am struck by the transference implicit in NEF’s argument. For it is the green economists who prescribe medieval remedies for modern ailments – indeed, NEF’s economic ideas has about as much link to the science of economics as homeopathy does to the effective practice of medicine.

After all this is the organisation that thinks we can get by with only working three days a week (I vaguely remember those days – happy ones for an eleven year old but less happy for older folk), who think that jobs aren’t created by enterprise but by the magic of public sector intervention and who persist in misunderstanding the Keynesian multiplier. I could go on to talk about how NEF believe there’s another credit crunch on its way and how Britain should be more like poverty stricken Ecuador. All in all a fine bunch of pseudo-economists (remember this is “new” economics so it can ignore nearly 200 years of evidence, research and study).

When we get to the crunch, NEF are simply a bunch of socialists and peddle the same tired (and disproven) solutions as all the socialists of past times. Despite its low-carbon tinge NEF’s economics is more red than green and its application would represent a huge leap backwards to a protectionist, interfering, over-taxed, over-regulated and producer dominated economy. The sort of economy that nearly ruined Britain in the 1970s. That NEF want investment to be in a “low carbon infrastructure” is irrelevant – this is just repeated the disasters of socialist capital investment led, import substitution strategies.

But then, like Gordon and the Labour Party, NEF have a money tree

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Gardener....

For many years Kathryn and I have been visiting fine gardens up and down the land - a pastime we share with millions of others. And with those others we admire the lovingly created beds, the fine trees, the creativity of the landscaping and the manner in which old and new are blended into that wonderful English thing - a great garden.

But until we visited Hampton Court (the one in Herefordshire) this Summer, we had speculated on whether the gardening was done, not by human hand, but through the agency of fairies, elves and gnomes. In all our visits we struggled to recall ever seeing any gardener actually gardening. There were always employees around - selling teas, manning tills, marshalling car parking, providing information and flogging plants - but nobody digging, hoeing, planting or mowing. No obvious sign of the activities that those of us with more modest gardens know take time and effort.

It may be that Hampton Court is unique - perhaps not yet admitted to the secrets of supernatural gardening - but for the first time (as the picture above testifies) we witnessed a person actually doing some gardening.

Unless of course he's really one of The Gentry and the human form is but an illusion?


Calm before the storm...

I have good reason for today's announcements - the Comprehensive Spending Review 2010 - to be of personal concern. But I am strangely calm.

Not just because I voted for the Government we now have (although I would still prefer an exclusively Conservative one) but because I've been there before and know that today's announcement isn't a signal for the final collapse of civilization as we know it. George Osborne will not be unleashing some Atlantean tidal wave upon us thereby driving us into the sea but making reductions that will bring public spending back to the levels of 2006.

It will hurt. People will lose their jobs - you and I dear reader might be some of those people. But it will not see economic collapse, the dead unburied or starving children lining the streets.

So I am calm....


Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Spirit of Mystery - thoughts on reading Gerald of Wales

"In the south of Munster, near Cork there is a certain island which has within it a church of St Michael revered for its true holiness from ancient times. There is a certain stone there outside of, but almost touching, the door of the church on the right hand side. In a hollow of the upper part of this stone there is found every morning through the merits of the saints of the place as much wine as is necessary for the celebration of as many masses as there are priests to say Mass on that day there."

Or so Gerald of Wales tells us (among other tales of lions loving women, cows that were partly stags and oddly behaved Irish cocks). Sadly all these wonders have gone - we are incredulous these days and take against tales of wonder and magic. Yet in these tales there is a certain truth being told - in Gerald's case the truth of God's salvation as evidenced through the miracles of the saints. We should not dismiss such truth because it no longer accords with our knowledge. We know that Aurelius Ambrosianus didn't get Merlin to magic the "Giant's Dance" from Kildare to Salisbury Plain - there to form a memorial to:

"...a great crime committed when the flower of Britain's manhood was cut to pieces by the concealed daggers of the Saxons who, coming in the guise of peace with the weapons of treachery, killed the youth of the kingdom that had been so carelessly guarded."

Or do we. Is there not in our mind a place where it's possible that Merlin performed just such a deed, where stones outside churches miraculously produce wine each day and a land where the saints are "vindictive in nature". I'm sure there is - it's the part of the mind we're told to put away as grown ups. As Paul told us, we put away such childish fancies.

But I know you still love the spirit of mystery.

*For those who care about such matters, the church in the picture isn't the one in the tale but the church at Harty Ferry on the Isle of Sheppey - another place of mystery and wonder.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Severn Estuary - a quiet victory dance

The Severn Estuary is one of the most important estuarine environments in Europe. Home to a vast range of migratory and local birds as well as the insects and sea life that maintain those flocks geese, clusters of waders and assorted great wanderers of the seas and skies. It is also home to one of the most famous bores in the world - not a unique feature but still one of the wonders of Britains Rivers.

Slimbridge - at the heart of the estuary - is the birthplace of modern wildlife conservation as the brainchild of naturalist, Sir Peter Scott:

Slimbridge is home to an astounding array of wildlife including the world's largest collection of swans, geese, and ducks.

Yet, the emerging green industry lobby wished to destroy all this - to flood Slimbridge meaning it's purpose would be no more, to wash over the mudflats at Weston damaging important ecosystems and to make it so the great bore will never be seen again. This rape of natural England is being done in the name of 'climate change' and 'green energy' - an entire and unique natural environment destroyed so people can have cheap electricity.

Fortunately - at least for now - the Government has decided not to proceed with proposals for a 'Severn Barrier'. At present the reason is the lack of investment finance but I hope that, in time, we'll come to realise that it's no improvement if 'green' energy sources involve the destruction of unique habitats, the pillage of an entire ecosystem and unknown collateral damage to the wider environment.

We can perhaps start now to realise the need for an energy policy founded on commonsense, practicality and respect for the environment rather than one driven by 'green' fundamentalism. And that means nuclear power as well as wind, tide and water. Oh yes and some of that terrible oil and coal too!


In which I explain logic to lefties (plus a little bit on taxes and benefits)

There are a lot of welfare cheats. This isn’t me being some kind of rabid, right-wing nutjob but a matter of uncontestable fact. It may be only about 3% or so out of the total budget (although how on earth this is calculated , God alone knows) but that represents a lot of people fiddling the system.

Speak with anybody who works with poor communities and they will relate stories of families taking the benefits system to the cleaners. They’ll also tell you about people who the system seems to leave high and dry for no apparent reason. Quite simply the system doesn’t work and hasn’t been working since at least the mid-1980s when Carla Lane wrote ‘Bread’.

What fascinates me in all the debate around this issue is the tendency of some observers – let’s be frank, observers who learned their logic from the Ladybird Book of Marxim-Leninism – to instantly draw a parallel with tax ‘dodging’ (this term avoids the need to make any distinction between ‘avoidance’ and ‘evasion’). Now let me try and explain how this argument is crap (a technical term for ‘without any coherent logical basis’).

Let’s start with the premise that both fiddling benefits and dodging taxes are wrong. We’ll return to the tax point in a minute but right now we’re assuming that this is the case. Surely it is right and proper for Government to take action to catch wrongdoers – whether they are welfare cheats or tax-dodging businessmen? So criticising the decision to try and reduce welfare fraud on the basis that not enough is done to reduce tax fraud is plainly an utter nonsense. It may be the case that not enough is being done to catch tax dodgers – you might me entirely right to criticise the Government for this inaction. But this debate is entirely unrelated in any way to the debate about catching people who fiddle benefits.

It is possible to scope a series of possible ‘positions’ on the two subjects but they are not connected. The Government deciding to clamp down on benefit fraud does not result in a few hundred tax dodgers elsewhere breathing a sign of relief knowing they’re now off the hook! And it is perfectly possible for Government to clamp down on both tax dodgers and welfare cheats (they may or may not be doing this but it is perfectly possible).

And just for the record the taxman’s been getting pretty good at reducing routine tax evasion (which is very different from ‘closing loopholes’, the use of which, ipso facto, isn’t tax avoidance):

“The money gleaned from reluctant taxpayers, both personal and corporate, has risen from £1.13bn in 1991-92 to a staggering £9.17bn in 2006-07. The money has come from a wide range of sources: from individuals and companies who had simply failed to fill in their forms, to investigations of outright tax dodgers.”

If you’re going to criticise the targeting of benefit fraud, can you at least do it on the basis of logic rather than just shouty prejudice?


Scrumping, foraging and mushrooming - they'd rather you didn't you know!

The Food Standards Agency is a QUANGO that should have gone in the great cull – and their wild food advice tells us why:

…the traditional harvest-time pursuit of hedgerow-picking has been targeted by a government quango that says children should not gather wild food unsupervised. The Food Standards Agency (FSA), which escaped last week's money-saving cull of public bodies, has also warned against eating anything that hasn't been washed or fruit that is "unhealthy looking" or "bruised".

It isn’t that children shouldn’t have what is and isn’t edible pointed out to them – that’s a good idea (that sadly the FSA’s advice fails to provide at all) – but that scrumping is bad for those children. What kind of message does it send out if everything has to be sanitized and decontaminated before little Jenny or Miles can eat it? What ever happened to the old advice – “you’ve got to eat a peck* of dirt before you die”?

However, what I found most interesting was the little threat in the FSA’s advice on wild food foraging:

Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act it is illegal to uproot any wild plant without the permission of the owner or occupier of the land. It is also illegal to pick, uproot, collect the seed from, or sell, any of particularly rare or vulnerable species.

Which I guess brings us to Epping Forest, where the City of London (who for odd historical reasons own said woods) has been gleefully prosecuting people for mushrooming:

Epping Forest keepers have warned that people will be prosecuted if they continue to pick mushrooms at one of London’s most historic open spaces. Illegal fungi picking has reached record highs this year at the Forest which has been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest partly because of the diversity of fungi found there.

Apparently all this is for our own good:

It is dangerous for the public to pick mushrooms from the wild as poisonous mushrooms can be commonly confused with edible ones.

Not really – there have been about 200 or so reported cases of possible mushroom poisoning but nearly all of these relate to precautionary actions by parents whose small children have eaten a mushroom. In truth most mushrooms aren’t poisonous – they just don’t taste very nice!

The City of London goes on to say that mushrooming affects the ecology of the forest. Now I’m not going to get all mycological here but, if mushrooms are gathered properly, the impact on the ecology is minimal. I agree that there’s a case for making sure mushroomers know what they’re doing and perhaps a case – as we do with fishing – for selling licenses to gather mushrooms. And lo, that was the case:

The Fungi Licensing Scheme - introduced in Epping Forest in 2004 - has been terminated to help protect the genetic stock of fungi in the Forest. Licenses are currently granted for fungi research or organised educational fungi courses only and will not be issued for personal or private consumption

I’m sure that the genetic stock isn’t remotely bothered – collection for ‘research’ isn’t objectively any different from collecting for dinner. It would be much more honest for the City of London to have issued a limited number of licenses auctioned off to the highest bidder. This would have had the added benefit of providing a degree of self-policing as those who have paid for the rights will act to protect those rights. Not to mention some income to support forest management!

But then that would be too obvious wouldn’t it?

With foraging increasing as a pastime – and that’s what it is – we have reached the stage where authorities have noticed and, as ever, the default position of government everywhere is to stop something uncontrolled happening. By a combination of idiotic, counter-productive and threatening regulation and passive-aggressive warnings, authorities like the Epping Forest Keepers and the Food Standards Agency hope to keep us all safely consuming vacuum-packed, processed, tasteless and soul-less food purchased from shining, sanitized shelves in supermarkets.

Ignore them folks – get out there, enjoy your countryside, scrump if you want to, forage for the good things and hunt, shoot or trap the game. If more do these things we’ll get away from the stifling, scrubbed, unhealthy, bunny-hugging urban world and back to understanding how we’re part and parcel of nature. Back to appreciating the magic of nature’s bounty, to protecting it for that bounty and to using it for our personal purposes where right to do so.

As Kipling put if in ‘The Land’:

_Georgii Quinti Anno Sexto_, I, who own the River-field,
Am fortified with title-deeds, attested, signed and sealed,
Guaranteeing me, my assigns, my executors and heirs
All sorts of powers and profits which--are neither mine nor theirs.

I have rights of chase and warren, as my dignity requires.
I can fish--but Hobden tickles. I can shoot--but Hobden wires.
I repair, but he reopens, certain gaps which, men allege,
Have been used by every Hobden since a Hobden swapped a hedge.

Shall I dog his morning progress o'er the track-betraying dew?
Demand his dinner-basket into which my pheasant flew?
Confiscate his evening faggot into which the conies ran,
And summons him to judgment? I would sooner summons Pan.

His dead are in the churchyard--thirty generations laid.
Their names went down in Domesday Book when Domesday Book was made.
And the passion and the piety and prowess of his line
Have seeded, rooted, fruited in some land the Law calls mine.

Not for any beast that burrows, not for any bird that flies,
Would I lose his large sound council, miss his keen amending eyes.
He is bailiff, woodman, wheelwright, field-surveyor, engineer,
And if flagrantly a poacher--'tain't for me to interfere.

'Hob, what about that River-bit?' I turn to him again
With Fabricius and Ogier and William of Warenne.
'Hev it jest as you've a mind to, _but_'--and so he takes command.
For whoever pays the taxes old Mus' Hobden owns the land.

*For those not brought up on proper measures, a peck is two dry gallons or a quarter of a bushel

Saturday, 16 October 2010

How Trevor Philips' love of a headline does nothing for black students

There’s been an almighty outcry over the apparent fact (and we have only the EHRC’s word for this) that just one “British Afro-Caribbean” has been admitted to Oxford this year. Now, what we need to understand is that this figure is very specific – it excludes a range of categories that would normally be characterised as “black”:

Mixed: White & Black Caribbean
Mixed: White & Black African
Black or Black British: African
Black of Black British: Other

So the impression given – that just one black person is wandering round the dreaming spires as part of this year’s intake of students – is misleading. And, of course, these figures do not include overseas students.

The ‘Black or Black British: Caribbean’ category represents around 1% of the UK population so, on a straightforward distribution we would expect the number of students from this category to be around that proportion of the intake from the UK. Each year, Oxford takes in between 3,000 and 4,000 students but at least a third of these are overseas students. Let us be generous and say that 2,800 UK students are admitted. This would mean that an even distribution would have 28 students from the category ‘Black or Black British: Caribbean’. More than one, I’ll grant you but not quite as bad as you all thought when you didn’t have the context.

As the press reports say:

The elite university recruited more than 3,000 students last year and almost 90 per cent of them were white.

However this shouldn’t be a surprise since nearly 90% of the UK population is white (England & Wales: 88.7%). Oxford may be elitist, it may take in too many posh kids for some folks liking but it cannot really be faulted for its record on taking non-white pupils when the proportion almost exactly mirrors the proportion in the country.

This is just another example of the selective, misleading use of statistics by the “equalities” industry. Rather than this unjustified shouting at universities, people like Trevor Philips should turn their attention to why it is that afro-Caribbean children do so poorly at school:

“African Caribbean boys, in particular, start their schooling at broadly the same level as other pupils, but in the course of their education they fall further and further behind so that in 2003, for example, roughly 70% of African Caribbean pupils left school with less than five higher grade GCSEs or their equivalents. This represents the lowest level of achievement for any ethnic group of school children. In national examinations African-Caribbean boys have been the lowest achieving group at practically every key stage for the last four years.”

This is the real scandal – we reinforce for no good reason the view that black kids are thick condemning most of them to a life at the bottom of the pile. Berating Oxford doesn’t help these youngsters and rather than do this the EHRC should be supporting efforts to produce better outcomes for young blacks – even when they’re promoted by segregationists like Lee Jasper. At least they recognise the problem.


Friday, 15 October 2010

Friday Fungus: Mushroom Art

It may be about the interaction between nature, about the environment and emphasising cycles of destruction and regeneration in nature but Chris Drury's "Mushrooms: Clouds" exhibition did feature some interesitng art made using dried mushrooms! As the writer of the exhibition brochure commented:
As the primary regenerators of soil in nature, but also poisonous agents of death, mushrooms are a metaphor for the cycle of destruction and regeneration in the environment. From mushroom spore prints to a sculpture that takes the form of a nuclear mushroom cloud; a multiple video works that explore cloud-like properties of smoke and water, Drury makes visible the subtle connections between art and environment.’
Although the exhibition has long finished there's now a book you can enjoy and it's reviewed here:
"He draws striking visual parallels between mushrooms (decomposers, remediators, life renewers) and bomb clouds (beyond the obvious, ya smarty pants)."

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Why the top law schools can charge more despite greater competition

A chance encounter got me to thinking about the impact of competition on price - or more specifically at the conditions where increased competition might result in existing suppliers increasing rather than reducing price. The chance encounter was on twitter with legendary legal blogger, Charon QC and concerned the response of private law colleges to the arrival of other suppliers. The dear blawger argued – from knowledge and experience – that the response of said colleges would be to increase prices (of which more later). Hence the thinking since classical economic theory tells us that when supply increases, prices in the market fall.

Except that this appears not to be the case. These chaps (Chen & Riorden) suggest that specific conditions (duopoly and oligopoly) exist where the addition of new competition can result in prices increasing rather than reducing.

In a discrete choice model of product differentiation, the symmetric duopoly price may be lower than, equal to, or higher than the single-product monopoly price. Whereas the market share effect encourages a duopolist to charge less than the monopoly price because a duopolist serves fewer consumers, the price sensitivity effect motivates a higher price when more consumer choice steepens the firm's demand curve.

Got that?

If the addition of more law college places does not create an effective competitive market (i.e. the existing oligopoly is sustained albeit with more firms) then it is as likely that existing suppliers will increase their prices in response to new competitors. The question then becomes a matter of what it is that the consumer is buying.

For law schools, the answer has always been that the elite private schools offer a better chance of preferment post-qualification. In a more competitive market – one where more lawyers are trained but there are no more placements – then the premium for the elite schools is clear and justified. What students buy isn’t a better education but an increased chance of getting the placement that provides access to future success.

The problem here isn't the supply of legal training but the supply of places where that legal training is applicable. And the "who you know" principle gives an advantage to established, successful and elite institutions. And they will cash in on that advantage.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


Just a rather fine snap of some balloons - nothing profound to say about them. Except that the world needs more ballons, more party poppers and generally more fun.
Perhaps that's why I'm so grumpy?

Monday, 11 October 2010

Go on Andy! Get yourself a know you want to!


There’s been a slight frothing of the blogosphere in response to some comments made by Andrew Marr. Now, dear reader, since you are of a sensitive disposition I shall not share with you’re the full vituperation of the average pimply, basement-dwelling, social inadequate on the matter of Mr Marr’s parentage, ears, nose coloration, self-importance and general smugness – it’s all out there on many, many blogs.

Instead, my lovelies, I would rather consider quite why Mr Marr – and indeed other Initiates of the Media Elite – are quite so animated by bloggers. Not me of course since I write nothing of consquence and only write under the affluence of inkerhol. I’m also never up early enough to watch the stuff Mr Marr puts out – although I gather he has a corner in interviewing grand and important political figures on behalf of the BBC. So – since I’m good enough to hand over money for a TV Licence – I’m paying for Mr Marr to suck up to the great and good. And I’m a blogger (a rather poor excuse for one I know but a blogger nonetheless).

The truth is that pundits – and remember that this is what Andrew Marr is, he long ceased to be a journalist in any recognisable way – are threatened by bloggers. And not just by the Guido Fawkes of this world but by the great mass of questioning, doubting, opinion-forming and pomposity-pricking bloggers. It is these people who make Mr Marr’s programme so relevent not the tiny little audience he gets or the looping round of a selected clip on BBC News 24. Bloggers now shape how the world responds to what politicians say far more than does Mr Marr – and he doesn’t like it, just as Ian Hislop doesn’t like Guido, Bloggerheads and PSBook doing the job that, once upon a time, Private Eye used to do so well (before Ian became a celebrity rather than a journalist).

And, as we’ve seen with Iain Dale, Mark Pack and Will Straw, the blogger can produce fine interviews, insightful analysis and a level of detail seldom seem these days in the press or on TV. Moreover, describing the investigations of Wat Tyler, Anna Raccoon or Jack of Kent as anything other than fine ‘citizen journalism’ is to do them an insult and bloggers a further disservice. Most of us don’t do great stuff – we won’t be lining up for prizes, that’s for sure – but frankly there’s more interest, edge and excitement in what I read on-line than there is in the BBC’s entire current affairs production.

Rather than indulging in childish rants, the BBC’s grandees need to be thinking about how to work with bloggers to get more interesting, engaging and involving news reporting and current affairs discussion. Some of the leading newspaper journalists are now becoming successful bloggers – mostly because they’re good writers who know how to research a story. Perhaps Andrew Marr might like to sign up here and spend an hour of his day providing a little backgound, comments, thought and observation about his journalism – it would make him more interesting, would drive traffic to his TV show and would perhaps broaden his character beyond being ‘sycophant-in-chief’ for the Government’s media outlet.

Go on know you want to!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Bernard...a fishy tale!

Allow me to introduce Bernard's final hurrah! Pride of place - the very centrepiece - of Audrey's 80th birthday party. But to get there was a story. Not unlike John B's story, I guess.

Round here there first point of call for buying fish tends to be Ken's local food emporium. So Kathryn & I head of to Keighley Morrisons to talk to a fishmonger - firstly about buying a salmon and secondly regarding the borrowing of a fish kettle in which to cook said salmon.

"Oh yes," says a helpful, behatted fishmonger, "we can do that but you have to sort out the fish kettle with Customer Service." This we do - booking said kettle and ordering a 4kg salmon to pop in the pot. We knew the weight because we've been there before - anything bigger than 4kg won't fit in the kettle. Job done!

But no. The following Friday, as arranged, Kathryn toddles back to Ken's place to pick up the fish and the kettle. And yes, the kettle's fine but the fish! The fish is 5.5kg - not just too big for the kettle but too big even with the head and tail removed. Kathryn informs Ken's fishmonger that this won't do and leaves - sans fish and sans kettle - to go an buy the meat for Audrey's party at our butcher.

At the butcher, Kathryn regales Paul (the butcher) with the sorry story of the salmon. And Paul - sympathetic chap as ever - says; "let me call the bloke who I buy prawns from! He might get you a salmon." OK says Kathryn. Paul rings and, yes, the bloke can supply a 4kg salmon for the next day.

At lunchtime the next day, Kathryn goes to the butcher (I'm doing something useful at the time like having my hair cut) and collects the salmon. A splendid beast resting on a bed of ice - such a fine beast that the lads at the butchers gave him a name - Bernard.

Bernard then had his head removed (to accommodate the squeamish sensitivities of others), was placed in a boiling court-bouillon and cooked. Once cooled, Bernard had his skin scraped off and replaced by fine fake scales of cucumber. And very fine he was too!

Thanks Bernard!!


Saturday, 9 October 2010

A quiet weekend...

Not much this weekend from me as we're putting on a proper posh do for Kathryn's Mum's 80th Birthday. With balloons, fish kettles and lemon curd.

It will be good!

However, the swans have nothing to do with the event - it's just a great picture!


Friday, 8 October 2010

On the uselessness of CCTV


A young man is violently attacked in a well lit city centre which – the Council and local police boast – has one of the country’s most sophisticated and comprehensive CCTV systems. Indeed, while authorities are quick to release images in the interests of suppressing legitimate protest, but when it’s an ordinary, harmless young man clubbed over the head while going about his wholly innocent business the images aren’t good enough to identify the unpleasant little thugs who committed the crime.

And it would seem that this is the end of it. Having failed to identify the culprits with the cameras, the police have put the crime in the pile labelled ‘pending’ and gone onto more important things like hounding harmless motorists, attending “partners and communities together” meetings (don’t ask) and refusing to help passing strangers with simple questions. It isn’t just that the CCTV is useless as an effective system for identifying criminals (and it would seem that they know this), it has become an excuse for the police to stop doing their job effectively. No pictures means no arrests.

And the excuse?

“There are…some occasions when the pictures are grainy or unclear which can be down to the lighting or the fact that we are relying on some of the older cameras or even the UTC cameras.”

The presence of cameras does not make for better crime prevention, more effective policing or safer city centres. It just makes the police lazy.


'Shiny' regeneration and the 'Big Society'


The blog in Regeneration & Renewal Magazine is the champion of a shiny, state-led, property-biased appoach to regeneration. Over the past year it has proven an unremitting critic of what has become the ‘Coalition’ Government’s agenda. Perhaps we should not be surprised at this for the magazine is the cheerleader for the regeneration industry – more particularly for the development-led regeneration industry and their allies in the town planning profession.

However, this is no excuse for the writers not even trying to understand either localism or the ‘Big Society’. Or indeed for this kind of poor reportage – excusable either by the writer never having visited a party conference of else by them having trained on the Daily Mirror:

“Similarly, the part of Cameron's speech that focused on the coalition's localism agenda ("We're putting [the running of] public services in your hands ... saying to businesses, faith groups, charities, social enterprises - come in and provide a great service. That is the power shift this country needs today") failed to elicit even a half-hearted response from delegates who, presumably, don't feel quite as happy about taking on more responsibility for public service delivery as the Government does about giving it up.”

Now I’ve watched the speech and, for the benefit of Sarah Townsend who wrote this, when people make a noise by bashing their hands together, it’s called applause!

The problem is that shiny regeneration relies on huge traunches of taxpayers’ money being handed over to private developers (or to relatively unaccountable “private-public” partnerships) so they can “deliver” regeneration. And –in times past – this has done some good especially when the money has “levered-in” private investment. The problems with this approach – let’s call it the “Michael Heseltine” strategy – are twofold: firstly, it doesn’t work anymore; and secondly, it has acted to segment, ghettoise and exclude community from the process of regeneration.

Ms Townsend’s criticism – made in such a snide way – fails to understand the people who made up that audience. Those people – Tory activists – are already doing the ‘Big Society’. These activists (and the very fact of them being activists makes them part of the ‘Big Society’) are parish councillors, trustees of village halls, organisers of car clubs, deliverers of meals-on-wheels, runners of scout troops and owners of small businesses. And that is the ‘Big Society’ – it’s really that simple.

What we have to do – and this is the hard part – is to create the same spirit of involvement we have in Cullingworth, that you’ll see in East Keswick and that makes a place like Todmorden so interesting, in our inner cities and so-call "deprived" communities. Not some form of false engagement where a few people attend a forum organised by the council or the police but real involvement – the setting up of small organisations, voluntary groups and parish councils.

The ‘Big Society’ isn’t about money. It’s not about cuts. It’s not about big national funds for us to bid into. And it’s not about handing of huge chunks of money to developers who’ve sold us a sparkling, bejewelled dream of future wonderment.

The ‘Big Society’ is simple – it’s the state getting out of the way, saying “yes, you can do that. Off you go!”


Thursday, 7 October 2010

Friday Fungus: Now what was it they said about mushrooms?

Today has not been a red letter day. Indeed, in the annals it will be one of the darker 24 hours. So you won't be getting profound deliberation on fungal wonders (although a pizza and best part of a bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo have eased the darkness a little).

And they said it about mushrooms - kept in the dark and covered with shit. Except that's not true of course - and for mushrooms the lovely caps spring out from the smelly compost. Suffice it to say that I plan to be a fruiting head rather than a mycelium - I may get eaten but at least I'll see the daylight!


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Dave "..didn't mention climate change." So what!


According to the Friends of the Earth (and with friends like that who needs enemies) David Cameron’s speech today was a poor do. He failed to mention ‘climate change’:

"With not a mention of climate change, this was not the speech we would have expected from the Prime Minister of the self-declared 'greenest Government ever'."

So what?

Cameron didn’t mention a load of really important things – he didn’t mention housing, he didn’t mention transport, he didn’t mention devolution, he didn’t mention the deportation of Gamu and he didn’t mention the sale of Liverpool football club to an American baseball magnate. As far as I know he didn’t talk about the common agricultural policy, about free trade or about proposals for a landfill site in Denholme. All things that matter just as much to some as 'climate change'.

I could go on filling page after page with things that David Cameron didn’t mention in his speech today. And you know, it doesn’t matter – what matters is what is actually done by the Government not what its leader says on a stage in Birmingham. That’s just rah-rah – cheery stuff (and a bit of a thank you) for the folks who stomped the streets, knocked on the doors and pulled out the votes that gave Dave the job.

If the planet’s pals want to know what the Government is doing – read the Coalition Agreement and look to see whether it’s being implemented. We don’t need off the cuff, on the hoof policy announcements just to get a headline - Blair and Brown did that and look at the mess it got us into.

And we certainly don’t need – at a time when most ordinary people are bothered about their jobs, their mortgages, their kids education and conditions at the local hospital – a load of self appointed guardians of the Earth’s interests (as if they’ve clue) to talk about ‘climate change’.

I am really delighted Dave didn’t mention climate change. It shows he’s getting his priorities right.