Thursday, August 31, 2017

Killer Arguments Against LVT, Not (421)

From the comments to my post here of a couple of days ago...

Like most of our age, I can remember the introduction of poll tax. At the time council tax (rates) was going through the roof and had no bearing on demands or ability to pay.

Sadly the poll tax was equally badly implemented, yet if it had been implemented fairly it would have been a much fairer alternative and much better understood. The poor implementation and the "poll tax riots" by all those who never paid bugger all for the services they received scuppered the tax.

We are now faced with council tax that now that the brakes have been taken off go the same way as rates. What is basically wrong with council tax/rates is that only roughly 38% - and that was from the chief accountant in Suffolk twenty years ago - actually pay the tax; the reasons are all there to see but too long-winded to go into now, but in essence there was nothing wrong with the poll tax if it had been properly administered. After all this current tax is to pay for services enjoyed by all but less than half contribute!

The second half is incorrect. I don't know what the collection rates for Council Tax were twenty years ago, but unsurprisingly, collection rates are actually close to 100% and jsut about every home is liable for Council Tax.

He defeats his own argument in favour of a Poll Tax by saying that Domestic Rates had "no bearing on demands or ability to pay". A Poll Tax would have even less correlation with ability to pay. Most low income people own or rent lower value homes and smaller households own or rent smaller homes (or at least could choose to do so), so under Domestic Rates/LVT, the tax payable is nearly always affordable.

As we well know, riots aside, Poll Taxes are very difficult to enforce and collect, there's no way you can "implement it properly", let alone fairly. And they are antithetical to having a welfare system, before we try and collect a separate tax from low income people, it's much easier just to reduce their benefits/old age pension.

But the fundamental misconception is the idea that the government should charge for services provided to 'people' generally, especially if people are compelled to use those services or compelled to pay for something which they might not use. So charging individuals who choose to apply for a passport = OK. But if we had compulsory ID cards, then charging for them = not OK or charging people a fraction of the cost of upkeep of a local park (which they might or might not use) = not OK.


The government (or 'the state' or 'society') is the ultimate arbiter on who owns which bits of land and provides the framework within which rents can arise in the first place. So it should charge for benefits accruing to land (or landowners). Who generates the rental value? Everybody and nobody, so to whom does it belong? Everybody and nobody, but short of throwing the proceeds into the North Sea, the government might as well spend it on things which benefit everybody (welfare payments, health, education, whatever), or which benefit the economy in general (education, roads, legal system etc).

It's impossible to spend money in a way which benefits everybody equally because a lot of the benefits of 'good' government spending or action lead to higher rental values (roads benefit or burden some bits of land and leave most others unaffected). But that doesn't matter because that extra value can be recycled back into the system (and the owners of the burdened land get a tax cut to compensate them).

Use Of Gender Neutral Pronouns Discriminates Against First Nation Canadians

The Nuxalk people of British Columbia have no letter "Z" in their language and are therefore unable to confuse each other with gender neutral pronouns such as "zie" and "zir".

Their version of Scrabble has 212 tiles, but not the letters B, D, E, F, G, J, O, R, V and Z:

  • 1 pointA ×25, S ×20, T ×12, I ×10, K ×10, LH ×9, M ×9, TS ×8, U ×8
  • 2 pointsL ×7, N ×7, Q ×6,  ×6, Y ×6, TLʼ ×5, X ×5
  • 3 pointsAA ×4, C ×4, CW ×4,  ×4, KW ×4, P ×4,  ×4, TSʼ ×4, XW ×4
  • 4 pointsKWʼ ×4, W ×4, QW ×3, UU ×2
  • 5 pointsQWʼ ×3, II ×2
  • 7 points ×2
  • 9 pointsH ×2
  • 11 points7 ×2

It is difficult to describe the agony this has caused them. They must content themselves with the far less zingy alternatives: "sie, hir, hir, hirs, hirself" - omitting the letter "e", of course. Oh, and "r" and "f".

Uck, as doubtless they would say if they were aware of the issue.

Poor things.

And they have the nerve to call their language Bella Coola!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Gender Neutral Frenchm*n

ZIE (Charles Aznavour)

May be the face I can't forget
A trace of pleasure or regret
May be my treasure or the price I have to pay
Zie may be the song that summer sings
May be the chill that autumn brings
May be a hundred tearful things
Within the measure of the day.

May be the beauty or the beast
May be the famine or the feast
May turn each day into heaven or a hell
Zie may be the mirror of my dreams
A smile reflected in a stream
Zie may not be what Zie may seem
Inside a shell

Who always seems so happy in a crowd
Whose eyes can be so private and so proud
No one's allowed to see them when they cry
Zie may be the love that can and hope to last
May come to me from shadows of the past
That I remember till the day I die

May be the reason I survive
The why and where for I'm alive
The one I'll care for through the rough and rainy years
Me I'll take zir laughter and zir tears
And make them all my souvenirs
For where zie goes I got to be
The meaning of my life is

Zie, zie, zie

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Gender Neutral Love Story

Now that we are in an age when the past must be reshaped to our temporary modern prejudices, it is time to hurl ourselves* sword a-whirling into the ranks of English** poets.

See how the application of gender-neutral pronouns improves William Barnes, for instance:

WOAK HILL, by William Barnes

When sycamore leaves wer a-spreadèn
Green-ruddy in hedges,
Bezide the red doust o' the ridges,
A-dried at Woak Hill;

I packed up my goods all a sheenèn
Wi' long years o' handlèn,
On dousty red wheel ov a waggon,
To ride at Woak Hill.

The brown thatchen ruf o' the dwellèn,
I then wer a-le{'a}vèn,
Had shelter'd the sleek head o' Me{'a}ry,
My bride at Woak Hill.

But now vor zome years, zir light voot-vall
'S a-lost vrom the vloorèn.
Too soon vor my ja{'y} an' my childern,
Zie died at Woak Hill.

But still I do think that, in soul,
Zie do hover about us;
To ho vor zir motherless childern,
Zir pride at Woak Hill.

Zoo--lest zie should tell me hereafter
I stole off 'ithout zir,
An' left zir, uncall'd at house-riddèn,
To bide at Woak Hill--

I call'd zir so fondly, wi' lippèns
All soundless to others,
An' took zir wi' a{'i}r-reachèn hand,
To my zide at Woak Hill.

On the road I did look round, a-talkèn
To light at my shoulder,
An' then led zir in at the doorway,
Miles wide vrom Woak Hill.

An' that's why vo'k thought, vor a season,
My mind wer a-wandrèn
Wi' sorrow, when I wer so sorely
A-tried at Woak Hill.

But no; that my Me{'a}ry mid never
Behold zirzelf slighted,
I wanted to think that I guided
My guide vrom Woak Hill. 

- adapted from the text found at


* But why do we distinguish between self and other? Another fruitful field for the university Bowdlerisers, perhaps.

** And then there's nationality! 

Surely we are in the prigs' Promised Land. 

Or California. maybe:

"California's New Transgender Regulations: What Employers Need to Know" -

I think it's all San Andrea's fault.

Sandra is calm and seems fine

According to trustedreviews  the latest rumour is that Apple’s iPhone 8 launch event will take place on September 12. Two weeks to go to the big day.

A few months ago Jordan Kahn of 9TO5Mac speculated about the new phone's potential for fun and games with augmented reality. Among various possibilities the above image surely sets a few hares running. 

Perhaps Sandra is calm because she views the future with equanimity. One day she may benefit from augmented equanimity. Or is that what these gadgets are all about anyway - a spurious sense of control?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Where’s The Food? by Wiggia

If only you could click your portion
 to enlarge it...

It would be easy to join the teeth-gnashers and write something about the inability of any government at this moment in time to do anything constructive about the important and very pressing matters that are threatening this nation and others at this time, so this time I won't.

This also is not the first time I have commented on this matter and so have others, but still it persists and apparently is spreading: my original item was called The Decorated Plate and the jibe still stands as more and more restaurants present what is in many cases laughingly called food in a manner that confounds many of us who expect something to actually eat.

I like food, but the advent of "nouvelle cuisine" some 35 years ago has meant that the intervening years have seen a push back against it, yet in fact it never went away: it was too good a wheeze to discard. It has managed with almost total success to convince the patrons of said restaurants and the majority of food critics, who should be an endangered species, that elaborate confections for the eyes not the stomach are the way forward. The recent additions of foamed sauces and the use of liquid nitrogen for the effects they give rather than any actual enhancement to the food does nothing to dissuade me that nouvelle cuisine is alive and doing rather well.

The cynic in me thought many years ago that what a very grounded chef said at the time was not far from the truth: the bottom line is all that matters. Much of that thinking stemmed from the rightful cutting back of lengthy menus to shorter ones to include a lot more fresh produce, as it is impossible to cater that way with a huge menu; fine, but cutting the portions down to minimalist levels is not a justifiable extension of that route.

You could call it great British Take On, but sadly it is almost universal in most of Europe these days. I am going away in a few weeks to the Basque country and the Rioja region, where else? you cry, and as usual I like to have a few good meals in the area I am staying in. The Basque country has a reputation for good restaurants similar to the Lyon area in France, many of the restaurants have Michelin stars and chefs to match. My digging did not go well: restaurant web sites showed that ever more suffered from the big plate, small portion syndrome; this in an area renowned for its culinary skills. The city centre restaurants seemingly all fall into line. I have found some good bets but the overall feeling from the initial digging was one of sadness if that is what has happened.

In the provinces as in France it is better. Luckily, unlike here in UK, those unassuming local restaurants are still serving delicious three course meals cooked with pride from local produce. The good local trattoria in Italy will also do the same thing. In England, especially outside the centre of London, it is extremely difficult, nay almost impossible to find English food offered this way; often the local pub is a better bet.

But why is all this happening? Not forgetting what I have said above, are we to be condemned to a land of fast food and everything contaminated with chilli? We do wonderful cheese in this country but the majority of supermarkets show strange coloured “cheeses” impregnated with lumps of foreign objects and looking like nougat.

Sauces, garlic, salt, pepper and chilli were all originally put in or on food to preserve or disguise the meat, fish and whatever that had a very limited shelf life in pre-refrigerated days, not as a food source on their own merit. Yet in this country even the humble crisp is pre-salted to such a degree the crisp might as well not exist.

I think it is in those upper echelons of fine dining that Michelin has a lot to answer to. I used Michelin a lot in the past for eating out in Europe and found it to be reliable, but the goalposts have moved. The prestige and consequently the clientele that a Michelin star brings makes more restaurants follow what is after all just fashion, so the decorated concoctions and the slavish following of trends is applied across the board, which while the word is fresh brings me to another pet hate: food served on a board slate or anything else without the means to stop your food ending on the floor; eating with that fear in mind is not pleasant dining.

The Michelin requisites for awarding stars are supposedly a secret known only to them. Apart from those gastronomic extravaganzas such as the George Cinq, it was for the most part quite rightly based on the food offered. With increasing demand for stars it has changed: the “dining experience” is now as important as the food and all struggle to attain the required ambience, room service decor and of course the latest culinary trend; the latter of course does not involve much actual food - food has become, as for people who buy fast cars and never drive them, something to look at, not eat. It’s nonsense and I no longer play.

I will finish with something that irks me even more because I do still “play”; again it’s an item I have mentioned before. A recent meeting with someone like myself who takes more than a small interest in wine asked me to taste a wine he had purchased that had recently been given a “gold” award at one of our major wine events. I did not know this wine so had no preconceived standard to go to in the memory banks to find, but it was fine, nothing special and not something I would go out of my way for to buy.

He then told me of its award and said the same as me, so how did it get such a high award? Granted that our opinion is no more valid than anyone else's, nevertheless this is apparently happening on a regular basis,  - what is going on? The two big wine tasting events in this country are the Wine Challenge and the Decanter wine awards, now I believe the biggest of their type in the world; the awards, like Michelin stars, bring kudos and sales to the makers.

The wine tasting is done blind by experts in their field who judge in groups so no one person's taste will dominate. So how come, I ask, does the same wine entered in both competitions come out with a gold award from one and as I have actually seen - with both stickers on the bottle - a recommended from the other. Even allowing for some discretion that is bonkers. With individual wine experts' ratings on wine (the figures can be seen in magazines etc) some judges always give higher marks than others and vice versa; in the same way that some experts can be seen to favour certain styles and even individual Chateau, that is individual taste and can be factored out as applicable, but not the big events.

Within this there is still the suspicion that in some cases - and I use the word "some" for discretion - what is in the consumer's bottle may not be the same as that put forward for competition. I can hear the howls of protest at that suggestion, yet the often-quoted case of the Sainsbury's own label gold-winning Champagne years ago comes back to haunt them, or should: it turned out after complaints to have been a substituted wine, as the supplier simply could not cope with the demand and sourced an inferior wine . The case went to trading standards and the product was for reasons unknown to man or beast allowed to stay, as were the award-winning labels on the bottle.

Having got away with that once there is no reason to doubt that others may well have followed that route knowing there is little consequence for their actions. An obvious rebuff would be to claim that these award winning wines are then tasted randomly after they go on sale in retailers; I have yet to see that proven - the logistics with so many wines winning awards today is probably not on - but of course, again that makes it much easier to commit what is fraud.

Wine still likes to try and have a mystique about it. The way it is presented to the public suits the whole wine-making ethos: the hugely expensive “grand crus” are like Ferraris to the general public - out of reach but much talked about. It gives wine an edge. With so many grape varieties, so many countries vying for your purchase money, so many different aspects of wine can never be fully understood even by the experts as it is constantly shifting in style, taste and the variance of climate both regional and seasonal, so that it is impossible to know if what is in the bottle is that which you assumed you were buying.

After all even the experts have been fooled - as in the art world experts have said this was that when it was a fake, so it is in wine, as fraudsters get ever more resourceful. The auction houses are now employing experts who can determine which labels are the real thing and not facsimiles.

Naturally what I have said applies to a relatively small section of wines but an important one. Many people use the awards as a buying tool: if you know little of wine, a gold award should be a safe bet for a good wine. Sadly again, those with little knowledge will purchase on the strength of the award and still be pleased even if they have been duped.

In all perhaps the slavish adherence to Michelin Guides and wine awards should be watered down. Perhaps the best days for both are behind them; maybe we should go back to the old word of mouth, the trial and error method when sampling food and wine, and forget fashion. Fashion is there for one reason: to make whoever can change fashion very rich.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Lenin and Trump

Here's a centenary we missed:

"In order for capitalism to generate greater profits than the home market can yield, the merging of banks and industrial cartels produces finance capitalism—the exportation and investment of capital to countries with underdeveloped economies. In turn, such financial behaviour leads to the division of the world among monopolist business companies and the great powers. Moreover, in the course of colonizing undeveloped countries, business and government eventually will engage in geopolitical conflict over the economic exploitation of large portions of the geographic world and its populaces. Therefore, imperialism is the highest (advanced) stage of capitalism, requiring monopolies (of labour and natural-resource exploitation) and the exportation of finance capital (rather than goods) to sustain colonialism, which is an integral function of said economic model. Furthermore, in the capitalist homeland, the super-profits yielded by the colonial exploitation of a people and their economy permit businessmen to bribe native politicians, labour leaders and the labour aristocracy (upper stratum of the working class) to politically thwart worker revolt (labour strike)."

- Summary in Wikipedia of Lenin's 1917 book, "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism."

It is easy to draw parallels between this description and the current state of "crony capitalist" globalism, political "bubble", media manipulation etc.

After Franklin Roosevelt became President in 1933, he made himself so hated by the American Establishment that they changed the Constitution to prevent anyone else serving more than two terms. Yet many argue that he saved capitalism, in a country that was - under severe economic stress - beginning to look at the imagined advantages of socialism.

I wouldn't say that President Trump has anything like the sophistication of FDR and modern American politicians - especially not the suave patter and extensive political connections - but his objective of repatriating work and capital to the USA is a similar attempt to shore up the system.

While the world - as represented by the mainstream news media - was fussing about statues of dead white men and "who shot John" among the warring hooligans in Charlottesville and elsewhere, NAFTA renegotiations are under way - did that feature on the TV news?

Interestingly, the longest-serving woman in Congress - and a Democrat to boot - agrees with Trump:

"The US economy and global corporations can surely benefit from international trade agreements, but that is not enough. Our trade negotiators’ top priority must be the US worker and promoting fair rather than just free trade."

- Marcy Kaptur, in the UK's Guardian newspaper on Thursday (24.08.2017)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Perfect Tax (1)

There are plenty of articles explaining why taxes on the rental value of urban land/location* are the best kind of taxes (see e.g. 2013 article in the FT), some of them start with the underlying moral arguments – that land is a free gift of nature or that 95% of location values are created by the whole of society (“Location, location, location”) – and some skip straight to the positive outcomes (more efficient use and allocation of land, no deadweight costs).

(* Please note that agriculture measured by farm gate prices is only one per cent of the UK economy and the rental value of all farmland, three quarters of the UK by area is only one per cent of the total rental value of urban/developed land. It is barely worthwhile collecting taxes on the value of farmland, this is a non-issue).

Just for a change let’s start in the middle and look at this from a purely pragmatic point of view and compare and contrast three basic kinds of tax (poll tax, income tax and land value tax) in terms of these five headings:

i) assessability
ii) collectability
iii) dead weight costs
iv) ability to pay
v) willingness to pay

I’ll put numbers on all this in a later post – it is most illuminating if we assume that the government rolled all existing “taxes” (i.e. ignoring duties and rents in the narrower sense) into one single tax which would have to raise about £700 billion a year – this post is just to illustrate the principles.

Poll taxes

i) These are easy to assess, it is simply the total tax revenue required divided by the number of adults obliged to pay it.

ii) Collectability is appalling, as we well know.

iii) Ignoring the enormous costs of chasing all the people who can’t afford to pay, poll taxes score well in terms of dead weight costs as they are not a tax on income, so they are an incentive to earn as much as you can rather than being a disincentive.

iv) They score appallingly on ability to pay, by definition, as there is no correlation between the tax and your assets or income.

vi) Everybody hates paying tax. If the entire government were funded by a Poll Tax then the top third or quarter of people by assets or income would do well out of the system if everybody pays up, but they would have the same incentive to cheat as anybody else by e.g. claiming to be non-resident.

Further, there is no correlation between the amount you pay and the benefits you receive from society as a whole. A stockbroker who takes the subsidised train out to his four-bed detached house in the catchment area of a good state school in Surrey clearly receives far more (non-cash) benefits than an unemployed ex-steel worker in a council flat on Tyneside.

Taxes in turnover, employment, profits and income

These include Value Added Tax, National Insurance, corporation tax and income tax. Please note that VAT is not a harmless tax on “consumption”, it is a tax on gross profits of unfavoured productive businesses and is simply not applied to most profits derived from land ownership or banking.

i) Assessability is not impossible, as we know, but most businesses have to cope with four layers of tax on income and split up their turnover, expenses and residual payments out into VAT-able and exempt turnover (or expenses); into payments to employees and the self-employed and into taxable and non-taxable profits (reinvested profits are by definition matched by capital spending or capital allowances). Individuals have to go through the same rigmarole.

ii) Collectability. There is every incentive to avoid taxes. If it is simple evasion then economic activity still takes place, but the residual rates of tax have to be increased on those who are not in a position to hide their income (or who are just too honest for their own good). We know that even in the UK – which has quite a good record of compliance) there are huge amounts of evaded and unpaid taxes.

iii) Dead weight costs. These are enormous of course. These costs refer to the huge but invisible costs of all that economic activity which simply does not take place because of taxes. It is estimated that every 1% on VAT costs 100,000 jobs, for example, the impact of the other taxes in isolation is not quite as dramatic, but it all adds up. So businesses go out of business (or never get off the ground) and we end up with mass unemployment. The total deadweight costs are ten or fifteen per cent of GDP, i.e. between £100 and £200 billion a year (more than enough to eradicate our trade deficit and to turn it into a comfortable surplus).

iv) Ability to pay. These taxes score relatively well on that front, by definition. But remember that if you look at all these taxes in the round, the marginal rate for our median taxpayer (basic rate employee not entitled to tax credits working for a VATable business) is fifty per cent, with much higher rates for higher and additional rate taxpayers and the highest rates of all for those receiving means tested benefits. Again, the people who lose out most are those who pay little or nothing in cash terms – in other words all the failed businesses and the unemployed.

v) Willingness to pay. Although most people comply, this is only grudgingly –they are too honest to cheat and there is a vague understanding that somebody has to pay for all the things the government does. But there is no ultimate correlation between the amount of tax you pay and the cash or non-cash benefits you receive from the government. If anything there is a negative correlation at the bottom end (welfare and pensions claimants) and at the top end because the highest earners receive nothing in cash benefits and are more likely to pay extra for private security, private health insurance or private education.

Taxes on the rental value of urban/developed land

Land Value Tax in all its guises scores well on all fronts and seem to combine the best aspects of the other two types:

i) Assessability. Is easy. As a layman, you cannot begin to guess how many adults live in a particular home, how much they earn or what the turnover and profits or a particular business are – it requires the force of law to make people disclose all these things.

But working out the rental value of each site is very easy; all you need to do is to know selling prices and rental values of a reasonably large sample of residential and commercial premises in each smaller defined area. You then subtract the rental value of similar premises in the cheapest area and the balance is the “site premium”, i.e. the “location, location, location” value which is generated by society as a whole.

ii) Collectability is also a doddle. Whoever is registered as the owner at HM Land Registry has to pay the tax each year. If that owner does not pay, then the arrears can easily be registered as a charge and once two or three years’ arrears have been built up, the title is auctioned off and the arrears withheld from the sales proceeds. For sure, some land owners are not yet registered at HM Land Registry, but that is far from saying that the land itself is not registered and this has never been a hindrance to collecting Council Tax or Business Rates, which have the highest collection rates of all taxes at 98%.

iii) Taxes on the rental value have zero dead weight costs – like a Poll Tax - as they are not related to private income or output. There is plenty of evidence to show that they tend to stimulate the economy because land and buildings will always be put to their most efficient use, in other words it would be too expensive to keep valuable urban sites out of use or to allow buildings to fall derelict. If taxes on land replace taxes on output and employment etc, then this would shed the economy of the existing dead weight costs.

iv) The traditional main argument against taxes on the rental value of land is “ability to pay”, the Poor Widow Bogey. They say that the tax would hit the “asset rich, cash poor”. This is a non-argument in practical terms because it would be easy to give such people discounts, exemptions or even better, the opportunity to defer and roll up the tax to be repaid on death.

It is also only a transitional issue and does not apply to the working population (the “wealth creators”) anyway. By and large, low-income people move into cheap houses and high-income people move into expensive houses. Each purchaser will take the tax into account when deciding which house he wants to buy and will reduce the amount he is prepared to take out as a mortgage accordingly, so in real terms, the tax costs him nothing. It is the same with business tenants – they work out how much premises are worth to them, subtract the Business Rates and pay the smaller balance as rent to the landlord.

v) Willingness to pay. Today’s land owners spit feathers about Business Rates and Council Tax, and we know that the banks and land owners (and their stooges in the press, Parliament and academia) have been are running a highly successful anti-LVT campaign for a century.

But look at in terms of tenants and the next generation of purchasers. Unlike taxes on income, there is a perfect correlation between what you pay and what you get. If you are willing and able to pay more, you get somewhere nicer, if you are unwilling or unable to pay, you get somewhere not so nice – but this is exactly the same allocation as under current rules whereby land/location values are collected privately by the current land owner when he rents or sells.

This is absolutely no different to owners of big cars paying much more in VAT on the new car, in fuel duty or road fund licence. If we go with the fiction that VAT is borne by the purchaser, does anybody complain that VAT on new cars is unfair, as it does not relate to “ability or willingness to pay”? Of course not – if you can afford a new BMW, you pay £10,000 in VAT and if you buy a run of the mill family saloon, you only pay £4,000 VAT. If you can only afford a second hand car, you pay little or nothing in VAT.


Land Value Tax has all the merits of a Poll Tax – it is easy to assess and has no dead weight costs, but beats it hands down in terms of collectability, ability and willingness to pay (there is a match between amount paid and benefits received).

Land Value Tax has all the merits of taxes on income as in the medium term as it relates to ability to pay (once everybody has “right sized”) but none of the disadvantages – it is easier to assess and collect and has no dead weight costs. It also beats it hands down in terms of “willingness to pay”.

So besides the moral or philosophical arguments and the fact that LVT leads to better outcomes (an LVT-only world works better than a world without government or taxes), it is quite simply the case that LVT beats all other forms of tax in a simple everyday pragmatic sense.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Friday, August 25, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Tom Waits, by JD

A one-off, totally unique. Excellent songwriter and a singer so bad he is mesmerisingly wonderful!

"Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, it’s just god when he’s drunk."

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A terrifying - true - Russian story

Autumn 1907: Maurice Baring, journalist and writer, is travelling in southern Russia and heading back to the centre of the country. He has previously covered the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the ensuing 1905 Russian Revolution. Since then, despite promises of democratic reform, the government has reneged and the country is in semi-chaos, the strikes and mutinies replaced by terrorism and criminality. Peasants who have not previously discussed politics are beginning to do so and the population is full of uncertainty and dread.

In the course of his travels Baring goes to the railway station in Tzaritzyn (now called Volgograd) at midnight, for the two a.m. train to Tambov. The place is full of sleeping travellers:

"... It was like the scene in The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, when sleep overtook the inhabitants of the castle. There was a bookstall and a newspaper kiosk. The bookstall contained as usual -the works of Jerome K. Jerome and Conan Doyle, some translations of French novels, some political pamphlets, a translation of John Morley's Compromise, and an essay on Ruskin a strange medley of literary food. At the newspaper kiosk, the newsvendor was so busily engrossed in reading out a story, which had just appeared in the newspapers, about a saintly peasant who killed a baby because he thought it was the Antichrist, that it was impossible to attract his attention. His audience were the policeman, one of the porters, and a kind of sub-guard. The story was indeed a curious one, and caused a considerable stir. I wrote about it later on in the Morning Post."

- Page 381

Here, narrated in the embellished style of his time, is how Baring reported it for his newspaper:


In the village of X., which is in the Government of O. in Central Russia, there were two men : one was called Michael and the other was called Andrew. They were both deeply religious and concerned with the things of a world which is not this world. They spent days and nights in reading the Scriptures and pondering over the meaning of difficult texts. They had both resolved in their early youth never to marry, for they considered that the human race had something so radically bad about it that the sooner came to an end the better. They decided, therefore, that it was their duty not to prolong its existence. But when they attained to early manhood the parents of Andrew contracted an alliance for him, and he was wedded to a girl named Masha. Their union was not blessed by offspring, and Michael, who continued to lead a solitary life, with rigorous fasting and uninterrupted meditation, said such was the will of Providence. The young wife of Andrew did not share the views of the mystic, and she yearned to be the mother of a child. Unbeknown to her husband she sought one night the Wise Woman of the village, who was skilled in finding lost objects, and who was versed in the properties of herbs and knew the words of power which cured the sick of dreadful disease.

Masha sought the Wise Woman in the night and told her her trouble. The Wise Woman lit a candle, muttered a brief saying in which the name of King David was mentioned, and that of a darker Prince. She gave her a small green herb, telling her to eat it on the first moonless night in June, and that her wish would be fulfilled.

Masha obeyed the Wise Woman’s behest. A year passed by and the wish of her heart was granted. A son was born to her. And Masha and Andrew greatly rejoiced over this. But when Michael heard of it his spirit was troubled. He consulted the Scriptures, and the meaning of the event became clear to him. He sought Andrew and said to him:

“This is the work of Satan. You have dabbled in black magic, and you are in danger of eternal perdition. Moreover, the truth has been revealed to me — the child which has been born to you is none other than the Anti-Christ, of which the Book of Revelation tells. And that is why our poor country is distressful, seething with trouble, sedition, and revolt, and why our Sovereign is vexed, and why evil days have fallen upon Russia, our Mother. We must slay the Anti-Christ, and immediately the dark cloud will be lifted from our land and peace and prosperity shall come to us once more.”

That night Michael convoked Andrew and Masha to his house. It was a small, one-storeyed wooden cottage, thatched with straw. It was swept and clean, and in one corner of the room were many glittering images of the Queen of Heaven and the Saints, before which burned small red lights; and besides this Michael had erected a shrine on which more than a dozen thin waxen tapers were burning. Michael convoked Andrew and his wife to his house, and the elders of the village also, and they spent an hour in chanting and in prayer, each bolding a candle in his hand, but to the priest he said no word of this matter, for he did not trust him nor believe him to be possessed of celestial grace. After they had prayed for an hour Michael said to Masha: “Go home and fetch your child.”

Masha obeyed, and returned presently bearing the infant, for whose advent she had so sorely longed, and which in coming had been the cause of such joy to her. Michael took the infant and said:

“In the body of this child is the power of Satan; in the body of this child is the Anti-Christ of whom the Scriptures tell — this is the cause of the misfortunes which have visited our dear country and vexed the spirit of our Lord and Sovereign.”

He then extinguished all the lights and the tapers in the room; it was pitch dark, and no sound was heard save the muttering of Michael’s continuous prayer. Masha trembled, for she was afraid. Michael took the infant. It lay quite still, for it was asleep.

And as Michael took the infant he said: “We must exorcise the spirit and slay the Anti-Christ, who has been born in this child to the bane of Russia and to vex the heart of our Sovereign!”

And Michael bade the people who were gathered together the dark room — there were five men, the eldest in the village, and seven women — be prepared for the great event, and he lifted his voice, and in a wailing whisper he addressed the Evil Spirit.

“Evil Spirit,” he said, “Anti-Christ, of whom the Holy Scriptures tell, through the dark dealings of our brother Andrew and his wife, who have trafficked with Satan, thou hast found a way into the body of this child, but it is written that the troubles of Russia and of our Sovereign shall be at their thickest at thy advent, but shall diminish and pass away with thy disappearance. Evil Spirit, I conjure thee, leave the body of this child.”

Then the infant cried plaintively, twice.

“Hark,” said Michael, in a solemn voice, “the spirit of the Anti-Christ is speaking. Hark to the cry of Satan, who is leaving the body of the child. Pray, pray with all your might, and help me to slay the Anti-Christ.”

And fear came upon everybody, nor durst they utter in the stillness, but their spirits were spellbound and seemed to be drawn and taut as stretched wires, in that effort of prayer for the passing of the spirit of Satan and for the slaying of the Anti-Christ.

The infant cried once again — and then it cried no more.

“The Anti-Christ has been slain,” said Michael, and a great stillness came on the assembly. “The Anti-Christ,” said Michael, “must be buried.” And he walked out of his cottage into the yard where in a shed his horse and cart were kept. He unloosed his horse and said, “Whither the horse shall lead, thither must we follow.”

The horse trotted slowly down the deserted street. That night there was neither moon nor stars in the sky. Beyond the village was a marshy plain. It was just before dawn, and in the thick velvet darkness of the sky there was a glow as of a living sapphire. They reached the marsh and there the horse stopped, and began to browse.

“It is here that the Anti-Christ must be buried,” said Michael. And they buried the infant by the reedy marsh. And all this time neither Andrew nor Masha, nor the elders, nor the women who were there, spoke a single word; and when they had finished burying the infant a breeze came from the East, and the dawn, grey and chilly, trembled over the horizon, and the wild ducks awoke, and rising from the marsh uttered their cry, and rose into the air.

The spell that had kept this assembly mute and speechless vanished with the vanishing darkness. The noises of life began; the creaking of carts was heard from the village, and the cocks were crowing.

Andrew and Masha looked at each other, and a great fear came upon them, and indeed on all the assembly, for what they had done. They did not speak, but returned severally to their homes, and Masha, when she reached her home, too frightened to cry or even to speak, sat motionless before the swinging cradle which hung from the roof of her cottage, and which was now empty. And Andrew durst not look at her. Presently he left the house and sought the dwelling of the priest. The priest let him in and there be found Michael who likewise, overcome with terror and misgivings as to what had been done, had come to tell the story.

The priest reported the whole matter to the local policeman, who his turn reported it to the police captain of the district, and three days afterwards Michael, Andrew, Masha, and the others were locked up in the prison of a neighbouring town, and a day after their arrest an old woman of the village sought out the police captain and asked to see him.

“I was present,” she said to him, ”at the slaying of the Anti-Christ. I held the candle in my bands myself when the evil spirit was exorcised. and the cause of all Russia’s trouble was destroyed. They say the Czar has given money to the others for having destroyed his enemy, and I, who am poor and old, and who was there also, have received nothing. Let me receive my due. Give me the money that the Czar owes me, for I also helped slay the Anti-Christ."

This story is true. It happened last September and was recorded in the newspapers, with many more details than I have told. And at the station of Kozlov, in the Government of Tambov, between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m., a railway guard told it to myself and a newsvendor, and when he had finished telling it sighed and bewailed the blindness of his fellow creatures, the peasants of Russian villages, who, as he wisely said, had much kindness in their hearts, but were often led through their ignorance to do dreadful deeds.

- Taken from the Morning Post, Friday 05 June 1908, via the British Newspaper Archive

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Josephine Baker, by Wiggia

Strange how lately small readings, items and simply noticing something jog the old grey matter into action. Two items prompted this: Sackerson's Sarah Bernhardt piece because the story was in Paris, and recently the Tour de France coverage - one of those helicopter shots hovered over what was the home of the subject of this piece, the Chateau des Milandes.

Her story is well known and a film was made, The Josephine Baker Story (1991) starring Lynn Whitfield as the artist. I will not here attempt to do the life story; that was remarkable, in that it was a classic case of child-to-star and lifting herself out of poverty - poverty in those days was sleeping on the street as a child and dancing on street corners for money to survive, a far cry from what is considered poverty today - but I digress. Below is her coming into the world, which gives a flavour of what was to follow. I have lifted this direct from Wiki as there was not a better version out there:

"The records of the city of St. Louis tell an almost unbelievable story. They show that (Josephine Baker's mother) Carrie McDonald ... was admitted to the (exclusively white) Female Hospital on May 3, 1906, diagnosed as pregnant. She was discharged on June 17, her baby, Freda J. McDonald having been born two weeks earlier. Why six weeks in the hospital? Especially for a black woman (of that time) who would customarily have had her baby at home with the help of a midwife? Obviously, there had been complications with the pregnancy, but Carrie's chart reveals no details. The father was identified (on the birth certificate) simply as "Edw" ... I think Josephine's father was white—so did Josephine, so did her family ... people in St. Louis say that (Baker's mother) had worked for a German family (around the time she became pregnant). He's the one who must have got her into that hospital and paid to keep her there all those weeks. Also, her baby's birth was registered by the head of the hospital at a time when most black births were not. I have unraveled many mysteries associated with Josephine Baker, but the most painful mystery of her life, the mystery of her father's identity, I could not solve. The secret died with Carrie, who refused to the end to talk about it. She let people think Eddie Carson was the father, and Carson played along, (but) Josephine knew better."

Primarily a dancer, she became the first black American to be become an international star, though it has to be said it was her moving to live in France where she became a huge star that sealed that title, rather than what she achieved in the States.

Although she achieved recognition as a dancer in the States, problems with her mother and rejection as a black woman both personally and as an artist drove her (with her mother's encouragement) to go to France, a place she had toured and liked simply because the barriers for black people at home did not exist there in France.

It was as an erotic dancer appearing at the Folies Bergère, appearing in the outfit that consisted purely of bananas, that she become an overnight sensation. Her fame meant she was recalled to the States to appear in the Ziegfeld FolLies, but the critics were not kind and again rejected a black woman being given the lead role and she was replaced, returning to France heartbroken and then made the decision to become a French citizen. There is of course a lot more - her many husbands, her adopted children - but it was the war story that fascinated, a story that has more to it than the rather cut-and-paste items that seem identical when researching this; in fact, it took a lot of digging to find even simple variations on the theme.

In 1939 after war had been declared, Josephine found herself entertaining a very different audience: French and British soldiers, looking for entertainment in what was (so far) the false lull in activities .

Josephine had many male fans, a thousand marriage proposals after her Folies debut, but an unlikely admirer was the 33-year-old head of French military intelligence, Jacques Abtey. He was in the process of acquiring agents to work undercover without pay for the French war effort.

Abtey had a friend who had a brother who worked for Baker, and it was he who suggested she might be suitable. Abtey was at first reluctant to approach her, fearing that if exposed she would end up like Mata Hari who was shot as a spy in WWI.* The similarities of the two women worried him and he did not want to take the risk.

But his friend persisted, saying she was perfect for the job: with travel normal for her friends in high places, she would have little trouble passing back and forth whilst performing in European countries. She also had a loathing of Nazis, who reminded her of the people back home in the States who put up barriers to non-whites.

Abtey was convinced and arranged a meeting with Baker at her Chateau. He was taken aback when she was not quite the woman he had envisaged, being dressed in old clothes and carrying a can of snails, which she had collected in the garden to feed her ducks. It improved after that as once inside Abtey laid out his mission to her over glasses of champagne served by her butler.

Her response took him by surprise. She explained that France had taken her in and her gratitude knew no bounds, she was prepared to lay down her life for the cause and told him to use her any way he wished for the war effort. Abtey had no qualms and hired her on the spot. She began training immediately with enthusiasm, learning karate and becoming a crack shot with a pistol in a few weeks.

Back in Paris she worked at the Red Cross shelter with Belgian refugees. In between playing the music halls, she started to keep an ear out for relevant information at all the parties and functions she attended all over Europe. Her international fame had spread and she was adored by Mussolini who entertained her. Within a week she had codes from the Italian embassy that were passed back to Abtey.

When the Germans invaded France Abtey was worried for her and suggested she leave Paris. She returned to Milandes where she took in refugees including military personnel and hid them in various parts of her huge chateau. Although worried about being shopped by sympathisers she carried on and even when five German officers showed up to search the chateau she charmed them to such an extent that they went on their way without entering the place.

But she was not safe there. Being black and still technically married to a French Jewish man she was in extreme danger - should she have been outed she would have suffered dire consequences. She left for Portugal after De Gaulle asked her and Abtey to to go to Lisbon- a neutral country - and send reports back to London.

The trip was accomplished by disguising it as a through trip to South America they had to transport classified information and it was Baker who came up with the idea of using invisible ink to write it on her sheet music.

Once there she was invited to all the parties held at the various embassies. Everyone wanted to be seen with her and talk to her and the information flowed. On her return to her hotel she would make notes on slips of paper and hide them in her bra and panties - the chances of her being searched were very unlikely.

On her assignments for De Gaulle she traveled with the extravagance she was renowned for: a huge amount of luggage and a menagerie of pets including a Great Dane and three monkeys. All this made her seem more “normal.” With France now occupied she could not return home and she and Abtey (who all along played the part of her assistant) went to North Africa, setting up a liaison and transmission center with British Intelligence. Visas for travel were slow to come and difficult to obtain, but they finally made it to Casablanca, meeting up with the Free French. From there she toured Spain, Portugal and Morocco to enthusiastic audiences, still gathering information and with a career still on a high. Abtey had become devoted to her; they became lovers and had an intense five-year relationship. All her relationships were intense; she openly admitted she loved sex but as with all things the relationship side would be relatively short.

In 1941 it all stopped. She suffered a miscarriage and had to have an emergency hysterectomy, complications set in and she was hospitalised for eighteen months. During that time Resistance members would meet in her private hospital room and discuss strategy and German troop movements. Not able to perform, she became invisible to the extent that many outside of France believed she had passed away; she had to issue a press bulletin saying “she was too busy to die” to rectify the sad news.

Once recovered she was back on the road entertaining the troops and it saw the beginnings of her involvement in the equal rights movement as she insisted on integrated audiences.

After a benefit performance in Algiers for the Free French she finally met De Gaulle who presented her with the Cross of Lorraine, his chosen symbol for the Free French. It became her most prized possession. She was made a sub–lieutenant in the Women's Auxiliary of the French Air Force and later received the Croix de Guerre and the Medal of Resistance with rosette; all were treasured by her.

The Allied victory in 1945 had been sealed by the American war effort, so Josephine felt encouraged to return to the States for various activities in the civil rights movement, and in ‘63 she spoke in Washington alongside Martin Luther King, wearing her Free French uniform; she was the only woman to speak, and that in front of 250,000 people.

Her remarkable story did not end there, it carried on with assorted husbands and lovers, her rainbow tribe of 12 adopted children, her having to leave her wonderful home at Milandes, and her close friendship with Grace Kelly who found a villa for her and the children in Monaco after leaving Milandes. During all this time she was an activist in the civil rights movement, something she had striven for all her life, the right to be equal; it made her a person who was watched by the FBI - they considered her a security threat and had a file of over 450 pages on her, calling her a Communist Party apologist; but she never relented.

Her final comeback in the States was in 1973 at Carnegie Hall; after decades of rejection, she received a standing ovation. Back in Paris she started a run at the Bobino Theatre in Paris with her good friends Grace Kelly and Sophia Loren in the audience - this was in April 1975; a few days later, on the 12th, she died in her sleep of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 68.

Her funeral drew a large crowd and she became the first American woman in history to be buried with full military honours, including a 21-gun salute.


* Some now think Mata Hari was framed - (Ed.)

Monday, August 21, 2017

Like I said: Alternative Vote / Single Transferable Vote

From the Electoral Reform Society's recent report (p. 33):

The Single Transferable Vote has long been the ERS’ preferred electoral system...  [It] has many advantages. Firstly, it tends to produce broadly proportional election results. But it combines this with powerful constituency representation and ties. Voters’ ability to influence who represents them, both in terms of parties and candidates, is incredibly strong.

Due to this strong link, representatives are incentivised towards a high level of constituency service*. A 1997 study found that Irish TDs were far more active in their constituencies than British MPs, while a recent ERS report showed how election campaigns in Ireland are highly localised partly as a result of the voting system.

- htp: Danny Lawson on "The Conversation" website:

*It is for this reason that I "voted Labour" in the last General Election. I was not voting Labour: I was voting for Jess Phillips, who is the only MP I've had in over 30 years who has shown any active interest in the constituents; and against the previous LibDem MP, who gave me the runaround when I wanted a simple question asking in Parliament.

Some argue these days for "direct democracy", but its proponents appear to assume that the people are (a) broadly agreed on many issues and (b) willing to go along with a narrowly-carried motion with which they disagree. I haven't seen much evidence to support either assumption, recently.

So I would like to see a representative democracy, but one that is made more responsive to the constituents. We've seen far too much political absentee-landlordism and over-focusing on "the swing voter in the swing seat" - the ERS points out that 533 extra votes in key marginals would have given the Conservatives a majority in the current UK Parliament!

Relevant previous Broad Oak posts:

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sarah Bernhardt's Triumph

Image source:

Sarah Bernhardt's fame was such that when, at the age of 75, she starred in Jean Racine's "Athalie", all the theatres in Paris closed for one day so that their actors could see her perform.*


*According to Maurice Baring's "The Puppet Show Of Memory" (1922), pp. 235-6

Friday, August 18, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC Elvis: Forty Years On, by JD

It hardly seems possible that 40 years have passed since the death of Elvis Presley. They say that time speeds up as you get older; it certainly feels like it.

The tabloid press would have us believe that, in his later years, he was grossly overweight and feasting on cheeseburgers; drug addled and incoherent but that is the tabloid press. Footage of the last concerts tell a very different story.

His life story is well known despite the worst efforts of the gutter press (which seems to be all of them these days) So there is no point trying to summarize it here, but a few thoughts: Elvis was one of twins, his brother Jesse was stillborn. It is understandable that his mother would be even more protective of him and more loving than if his sibling had survived. The effect on Elvis of having a stillborn brother cannot be known; after he became famous, he asked people on several occasions to try and find the whereabouts of Jesse's unmarked grave but to no avail since no papers marked the spot.

The family attended a Pentecostal Church which is where a young Elvis found musical inspiration and, undoubtedly, his love of God which was a constant throughout his life. There are many stories of Elvis in concert being confronted by placards proclaiming him to be the King and he would always politely say "Thank you ma'am but there is only one king" and he would point a finger skywards. I have seen film footage of that but can't seem to find anything other than audio on YouTube.

There is also an apocryphal tale about Elvis wearing a Star of David alongside a crucifix. When asked about it he answered "I would hate to miss out on a technicality!" That is in line with his sense of humour but it might be true, who knows. It also illustrates a side of Elvis which is more or less unknown. Both his wife and his daughter have said that he had a very large collection of books on religion and spirituality and he would make endless notes in the margins of those books.

As a further illustration of that side of Elvis, read this about his continual spiritual search. There are two excellent videos embedded.

(The third embedded video is "How great thou art" and I have included below what I think is a better version)

"To say that Elvis Presley loved Gospel music would be an understatement. It was by far his favourite musical genre and the three personal Grammy awards he received during his lifetime were for recordings in this field.

"From the summer of 1956 until the summer of 1977, whenever he stepped on stage, he did so accompanied by at least one Gospel harmony group; that's how highly he valued the Gospel sound."

"An American Trilogy" (embedding disabled) - link:
- alternative clip:

Thursday, August 17, 2017

MOTORCYCLES: Ton Up, by Wiggia

The BSA Goldstar

I saw a comment on another blog about how modern vehicles seem to have electrical everything and it is all a recipe for something to go wrong, as electrical faults are the biggest area of grief in modern vehicles. There is more that a scintilla of truth in that statement.

Of course this caused an avalanche of “when we were young” comments asking why it was so difficult to wind a window up that you had to have an electric motor fitted to take the strain out of all that winding and many more examples were forthcoming, some very funny.

One caught my eye though, talking about the ‘joy’ of kick starting a motor bike: he must have lived on another planet as there was never any joy in kick starting a motor bike, only a sore leg, tired muscles and a still-inactive bike. Some bikes of course were made to be difficult, nearly all large single-cylinder machines.

The story that came to mind was that of a friend who lived in the same council block as myself who purchased as a first bike (?) a BSA Gold Star 500cc single cylinder machine which was ostensibly sold as a club racer, a sort of poor man's Manx Norton - beautifully made but totally impractical, which was why you rarely saw one on the road.

Anyway my friend Irvine (it was a very Jewish neighbourhood) was standing with this bike when I appeared and asked the obvious question : where did that come from and why? He replied it was his cousin's and he was selling it cheap so he bought it; the why was never answered.

I left him there and went indoors but could hear this low gasping sound coming at regular intervals as he tried to start the bloody thing. Being of slight build he was standing on the kick start and having to use all the weight he had to even get the kick start to move; occasionally he did and the low "I am not going to start" sound would emerge from the exhaust.

He gave up after a while but returned later for another go, looking distinctly worn out and peeved, so I went down to give support. Still nothing happened and a couple of other boys who lived there and had bikes tried also to start the recalcitrant machine. I went away again and just as I reached the top of the stairs heard a short burst of life from the engine and then it stopped. I rushed back down to find my friend laying in the road in serious pain: the bike had kicked back and the kick starter had caught him mid shin; we/he later found it had fractured his leg.

On top of that he had started it and somehow got it into gear, so having let go everything in pain the bike shot off and went through some iron railings. He never did get to ride a motor bike and the Gold Star was sold on post-haste. He was next seen with a Vauxhall Wyvern; similar but no cigar.

I only briefly had bikes because of my association with my oldest and still best friend who raced them. My own two bikes were the much loved NSU SuperMax from the NSU article earlier and a Triumph T120 Bonneville but it was a brief and interesting period and most went through it as cars were then out of reach and not nearly as much fun.

One of the boons of the period and one of the downsides of the consequence were the empty roads. Apart from the police who actually patrolled in those days there was little to stop you being a lunatic on those same roads, not fast by today's standards but fast enough with rubbish tires and brakes, and the resultant accidents amongst the ton up brigade and mounting death tolls was something to wean you off bikes as it was all too tempting.

One used to get owner cliques who would gather at the various greasy spoons dotted around London. The most famous and still operating is the Ace Cafe on the North Circular, but in our part of the world it was Ted's Cafe on the Southend Road. As drab inside as outside, it always had the appearance of a place they had opened and forgot to put the lights on. Its popularity was it was adjacent to the Mad Mile where the ton-up brigade would race from the cafe to the next roundabout and back.

The car park was of course full of motor bikes, either in the groups that had come there or in groups of single makes. The most revered were the Vincents - it still had that cachet no other bike had; and then there were the Velocettes:  handsome machines; though dated by then, they always seemed immaculate, apart from the pool of oil under them or left by them, a sort of calling-card.

The other two main groups were the Norton owners and the Triumph lot. Nortons had the name for their handling and good looks of the Dominator but a poor reputation for engine failures. The Triumph was the reverse though the handling wasn’t bad. Other makes like the Royal Enfield had a big twin that like the Norton (but worse) seemed to blow up with consummate ease when strained; and the Matchless and AJS twins - nice bikes, but the Triumph was king.

There were of course many small bikes and my association with road bikes ended when my racing friend - he raced an Aer Macchi and briefly a Manx at the end before emigrating to Aus - decided we would go to a party in Southend. His road bike was an Ariel Arrow. In those days the Southend arterial had a roundabout known as the Halfway House for various reasons; on approaching said roundabout three Triumphs overtook and I knew what was going to happen. He got past two into the roundabout but the third was a step too far: the foot-stand dug in and deposited us just outside the police station (remember them?) that stood on the roundabout. No injuries, just hurt pride and as he asked me if I was all right he started laughing. "What?" I said. "Your trousers!" I looked behind and the whole arse of the expensive Carnaby Street trousers fell down in a torn flap. So the party was never made and my association with road bikes ended very shortly afterwards.

Like all things it was one of life's experiences and above all else I always thanked that period as a motor bike gives you a whole different slant on road conditions and how to manage them, something a car can never do. If used wisely that knowledge stays with you and is invaluable.

The non-starting motor bike saga continued awhile after my Gold Star front seat. My racing friend's Aer Macchi was a pig to start: it had the most critical timing and had to be absolutely spot on or nothing happened. Being sick pushing the bloody thing in the paddock is not something I would want to repeat, so some modern additions are welcome after all. I can remember when some cars and not just cars had a starting handle - can you imagine going back to that? You needed the arms of Bluto.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Voiceless In Catalonia, by Brett Hetherington

Walk into any pet shop in Barcelona this summer and you are likely to hear the resident parrot spouting one party line or another about possible independence for Catalonia.

With a referendum for only Catalans to vote on this October first, those who live here without Spanish citizenship cannot participate and are frozen out of having a say in the final result.

As I said the other day to a foreign-born local photo journalist, I am sad that I can't vote in the referendum. Just like plenty of others, my wife and I have lived here for over a decade on European passports and have a son who will soon be going into the workforce, so the near future is extremely important to us.

To exclude people who are not Spanish citizens but have lived here (continually, and regardless of how long) is clearly a mistake because it just makes you seem unimportant and disregarded. In a genuine, fully-developed democracy everyone is included and everyone has the impression that they count.

Naturally though, the referendum has value even though the Spanish state will not recognise it. The collective opinion of the people -- or at least a majority of the population -- is an important statement about where they want to live and who they believe they are.

The minority conservative Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy is doing all they can to prevent the ballot boxes from being delivered then used and they are employing legal methods as well as trying to intimidate civil servants into ignoring instructions related to the referendum from the Catalan administration.

In this way, they will be denying a basic, universal democratic principle in action.

In truth though it's actually quite difficult to know the exact pros and cons of an independent Catalonia because the debate has largely been so polarised, emotionally jingoistic and partisan. I do think that any referendum has greater legitimacy to it if there is an informed and balanced education campaign from both sides and that this should be publicly funded. Not the case in Catalonia.

Both campaigns should also be put under scrutiny from the media but without the rabid nationalism that we have continually seen up until now. Only then will the referendum accurately mirror the population's decision.

Of course if you are not a holder of Spanish nationality, you are as good as irrelevant in the outcome of what has simply been called "the process." You may as well be just another parrot in a pet shop.

Brett Hetherington is a journalist and writer living in Catalonia, northern Spain.

Blog, "Standing In A Spanish Doorway":

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beer: The Black Country Tie Night

Ma Pardoe's

At the school where I worked there was an annual expedition-cum-challenge known as the Black Country Tie Night. Those who had passed the ordeal were entitled to sport a tie around the school featuring a foaming mug of beer. Another select club was wearers of the You Lad Tie, conferred on a teacher seen to stop a child in his tracks from a distance with a bellow of “You, lad!”

The Black Country is a region in the English Midlands, so called because it was heavily industrialised and in the old days everything was stained with soot from coal fires and furnaces. Before the recession of the early 1980s the area was still thriving and a key element in working class culture was an appreciation of beer. I remember a crossroads - I think it was in Lower Gornal - that had a pub on each corner.

There were many little breweries and pubs that brewed their own on the premises. Brands included Batham’s, Hanson’s, Simpkiss’ and Holden’s, the middle two now long gone. Some of the hostelries were very simple, not exactly spit and sawdust but certainly bare floorboards. It was in one of these that I saw something I fervently wanted (which is rare for me): a short-haired blue cat, muscular and disdainful of the customers as he made his way between the legs of the chairs and people. The next time I saw such an animal was when a similar one appeared from nowhere to inveigle her way into my mother-in-law's house. Bobby, a British Blue (as I now know), came to live with us for the next twenty years. What a peculiar coincidence; I am afraid to wish for anything else.

It was usual for us to start at the Lamp in Dudley, a Batham’s pub serving a light-coloured bitter similar to a lager but much mellower. Candidates for the tie would be paired with a marker who would check off pints on a beer mat as they were drunk, generally only one pint in each pub. And so the minibus made its tour around the Black Country. The challenge was to drink ten pints without being sick, at least not until after the tenth, which by tradition was always drunk at Ma Pardoe’s in Netherton (she was still alive and brewing back then). That one was served in two halves downed one after the other and then, if necessary, it was off to the gents’ in haste.

One time part way through the evening we bumped into a colleague who was having a drink with friends and asked what we were doing. When we explained he joined in. He was a big Jamaican with a great love of life and famous for his so-called Rocket, a punch prepared with over-proof Jamaican white rum and served surreptitiously to staff in the know throughout the final day of term, which gave a second meaning to the “staggered dismissal” of the children at the end. He was not expected to have any difficulty, even though he had started several pints behind the line; but after a gallon or so he looked stricken and said with tears in his eyes that he couldn't continue. He was most relieved when we clarified the rules for him: he had thought that he wasn't allowed to visit the toilet for a call of nature before completing. Having passed easily, he stayed on for further drinks after the rest of us climbed back on the bus.

The kicker in this challenge was that tie runs were always held on a Thursday so that staff had to come in the following day to teach. One of our colleagues turned up with straw in his hair, having not made it home the night before. The children appeared to be very considerate on the Friday, as I remarked to one of my coworkers, who explained to me that they would remember seeing their dad white-faced in the morning and had learned when it was wise not to provoke.

I never made the tie: I simply haven’t the capacity. Nor did the headteacher, a whisky drinker who asked if he could have doubles instead of beer, but was turned down. Rules are rules.

All is changed. In the ‘80s, secondary schools were male-dominated; now, only one in four of the staff is a man. We have to watch patiently as the women drink Prosecco and dance.