Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Scottish Independence: a suggestion to Craig Murray

Craig Murray can't wait to get away from the farce south of the Scottish border:

I say:

"You compare Scotland's position with that of "Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Sweden" but I still find it difficult to reconcile your passion for Scottish independence with your enthusiasm for membership of the EU. Indeed of the countries listed in quotation marks only Ireland has joined the Eurozone and now, I think, bitterly regrets having done so.

"I've suggested to you before now that there could be most interesting prospects for Scotland as a member of a sort of Northern League with Norway and Iceland, with almost exclusive collective control of a vast fishing area plus much to learn from Norway about hydroelectric power and energy storage - something which would fit well into the great tradition of Scottish engineering expertise.

"Add Sweden and Denmark...

"You must be well aware of the growing financial and politico-social strains in the EU (doune the plughole, you might say). Why not have a bolder vision for your country's future?"
See also:

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Soapy Tales and Others, by Wiggia

All washed up

White goods, domestic appliances, from AEG to Zanussi we are buried beneath a mountain of technical marvels for easing the household day, or are we?

Recent events (the wife's knee problems) have meant that I have had to get down and dirty and up close to these modern necessities. Much of what I discovered I could have found out by simply asking the wife in the first place but we don’t work like that so the hands on method has revealed shortcomings that are accepted but not acceptable, or shouldn’t be in the 21st century.

Not all is bad in this white goods world but little has changed with machines like the modern day washing machine in its 120 year history.

The worst offender in the "could do a lot better" stakes is the dishwasher, supposedly saving your good selves of the drudgery of time in elbow length Marigolds at the sink. Yes, time is saved, your time, but that machine takes forever to clean your plates, plates that you have to remove the worst excesses of food from before you put them in the machine. Some items it can’t manage without marking them, such as decent glass, so they are hand washed and dried; no saving of time there.

And reliability is a big factor with these as well: we may have been unlucky but two we have owned, both built-in, have been the car equivalent of a Friday night version. One had a ten year guarantee and every single item on it was replaced, some more than once. When the door fell off ten minutes after the repair man had left having replaced three items in one go, we got a call saying we could get an allowance and trade in on a new one - as if we would want another the same ! So as we had two years of guarantee left we beat them down to a token payment  and moved house soon after. I have no idea if the new one behaved and I didn’t go back to ask.

And why (for it is the reason I am sharing this) do you have to get on the floor to fill the bloody thing with salt and ditto the ‘special’ detergent? After all these years you would think that there would be a way of filling both from the top, not have to crawl into a tunnel to put the salt in. The truth is no one likes washing up despite it being quicker by hand and saving a lot of money for the machine, the water and energy used and the cost of ‘special detergents, salt and the anti-limescale treatments.

Washing machines do not have the same problems but again unless you have a space for a top loader you have the chore of filling and distributing the clothes to avoid the drum going through the side of the casing. It is a job carried out at just above floor level, which is all right when you are 25 but not so much when you are older and the creaking back makes such manoeuvres difficult.

Stacking solves that problem - if you have somewhere to stack; and why are there so many programmes. They are like motor cars in that all the extra bells and whistles help sell the product despite the fact that few are ever used. To me all these items are something extra to go wrong and the noise like a lorry reversing whilst it sorts out the clothes distribution prior to spinning for five minutes could drive you mad.

And very few people realise that the bigger load carriers demand a bigger drum in the same size casing. This has two problems: the lack of wobble room when the thing vibrates, resulting in banging on the sides; and extra loading on the drum bearings, both with the extra load weight and the increasing spin speeds. Factored into that (as I have been told by the washing machine repair man) is that nearly all manufacturers use the same bearings and motors regardless of the machine's make or price; Miele were the exception to that but no more, only their very top end machines still have the heavy duty bearings and their ten year guarantee.

Fridges and freezers can be ignored. The fact they can alter their settings when a power cut has shut them down is not their fault, though why some suffer this fault and some don’t is a mystery. Apart from that the only down marker is if the potential purchase doesn't have automatic de-frost.

The humble tumble drier, usually relegated to the garage or shed, seems to be the one machine to come out with merit stars. Long forgotten in their damp abode they usually go on seemingly forever. Unless, that is, you are the unfortunate owner of one those Whirlpool and associated makes that catch fire if you don’t unplug them after use: apparently there are over 2.5 million in use in this country and we had an example of that about four years ago when a house three doors away lost the whole garage to a fire when the tumble drier burst into flames in the night. So the humble tumble drier may be cheap and reliable but it makes up for that by being a potential killer.

The smaller appliances are mainly reliable and do their job reasonably well. There is a certain amount of total BS spoken about the performances of vacuum cleaners: turbo motors and space age cyclone fizzy things don’t seem to make any difference to the actual performance of these other than in the adverts and your bank balance.

But there is one really annoying appliance: the kettle. We have never had a kettle last more than an average of two years, whether it is an own brand supermarket version at £20  or an Italian designer one at over £100: they all fail and fall to limescale one way or another. Usually they fail to turn off and steam the kitchen, or they turn off early and fail to boil. or they simply will not boil at all. None is repairable and all end up in the bin. The answer is of course to return to boiling a kettle on the stove yet few are willing to go this route; retrograde it may be but you can keep on doing this without fear of failure or the alternative of another trip to the electrical superstore where you can browse rows of models with variable boil settings, flashing lights and designer styling with silly lids in the knowledge they will be in the bin about two years hence. For such a simple appliance I have yet to see one with a guarantee longer than 12 months - I wonder why ! 

Toasters almost get away with criticism. Well, the better ones do but the cheaper models as in the days of yore are incapable of toasting unless the slice of bread is a certain width, otherwise it will be underdone or burnt; even with sensor controlling they manage to behave that way, I don’t actually believe they have any mechanism to “read” the toast as none of them work. Only the expensive catering quality ones do the job so you have to justify that expense against the cost of a slice of toast, or use the oven grill and risk flames when you forget it is in there.

I haven’t mentioned ovens: most do their job relatively well it would appear. My only grumble would be one of choice: floor standing ones bring back the "I can’t see what is going on without bending double" problem, and with big roasting joints there is the difficulty of lifting that weight up to table top level - all problems the more elderly of us suffer from.

The built-in eye-height models make more sense but I am not entrusted with that area in the kitchen yet - my perfect boiled eggs (without timer - smug!), are the limit of my culinary genius.

There is another set of kitchen gadgets that fall into the GAS category: Gadget Acquisition Syndrome. If all those items that fill the likes of Lakeland catalogues were purchased you would need another house to put them in. Years ago, a Kenwood mixer was a luxury item that was multi tasking; now the relegated humble food mixer is joined by a myriad of "specialist" mixers of all shapes, sizes and price tickets.

No home is complete without an ice cream maker, bread making machine, foamer (if you follow that chef with the strange name that rhymes with a cycle mudguard producer), pasta machines, various fruit de-pippers, de-corers  and on and on, all topped by the must-have genuine and very expensive coffee machines which in most cases you could send out for coffee for life for the cost of them. After their brief time in the sunlight being discussed over the garden wall they are dismissed to some dark corner of an unused cupboard never to be see the light of day again, but there will always be another new and exciting item coming along to quench your thirst for GAS.

My new take on white goods and appliances as someone who is now a user rather than an observer is not a flattering one: paying more is no guarantee of any improvement as so much of the same inner working is the same in all of them. And in terms of functional design not much has moved on over the years, especially in the areas highlighted above.

Still, I can escape the chores inside for a while: I have to sweep the patio clear of fallen leaves. At least not much can go wrong with a broom. Or can it?

Monday, October 29, 2018

Pornographic violence

Michael Caine, who came from the London slums and later served in Korea:

"There's a danger, when making films, of romanticising violence. I know only too well what the other side of violence looks like and I wanted to show that other side in Get Carter...

"Violence has consequences and you don't often see that in movies. It's a sort of pornography: people are struck time and time again and the next time they appear they just sport a bit of Elastoplast, not even a black eye or missing teeth. If you were a real victim of the violence you see in some films, you would be in hospital or dead. In Get Carter you see the effect of one whack, although we never cut to the gore. I'm worried by the sorts of computer games kids play these days when their characters smash someone over the head and there's no blood - what sort of generation are we bringing up? And I'm amazed at what you can see on television even before the watershed. People seem to glory in it and that scares me."

- From his autobiography "The Elephant To Hollywood" (pp. 153/155)

That was published in 2010, so written probably a year before; things have moved on. 

Some may make a libertarian issue of it, and argue that research shows no connection between commercially-produced fantasies and actual violence. I doubt that and think that a general review of such research is overdue. For British obscenity law is about the effect, not on people generally, but on people who are susceptible. The Internet allows echo-chambers to develop, drawing together the like-minded into isolated groups with propaganda and exciting visuals, grooming the select audience into an ideological drift towards committing atrocities (why else beheading videos?) Then there are the many cases where people "gee themselves up" by consuming pornography, spurring themselves into action; it's a feedback-loop process and we can only hope to control one end of it.

I'll admit that policing the Internet is a can of worms, especially since we are seeing censorship on a political basis in e.g. Facebook and Twitter. The Dark Net, though - are there not many rats'-nests in it to be cleared?

But at least we can start looking at TV programming. The "nine o' clock watershed" is a joke - many children stay up far longer than their teachers. The BBC's principal channel can scarcely wait to cross that time-border before screening the obscenities of "Killing Eve", which combines appalling murders with shots of the villainess not merely unmoved but instead joyfully observing her victims' suffering, a pleasure we are invited to share as voyeurs.

Similarly, computer games are age-rated like movies, and it's nonsense. A child can easily get hold of them for private enjoyment, but fathers and older brothers will often play alongside and think there is no harm because they don't see anything happening in their home as a result.

What if pre-watershed TV soaps like "Eastenders" showed a fist fight and followed through with a hospital visit where the doctor explains to a white-faced roughboy that no, the brain damage isn't going to get better. Shots of remorse, helpless apology, the long-term damage caused to the victim's family (people giving up work to take on the role of carers; separations and divorces as the weight gets too great...)

Propaganda? We have that already, in the other direction: desensitisation, glorification of the power of violence. The State and the movie industry has long done this to make war acceptable; now we are fermenting micro-wars among the people. Look at the developing gang culture in Britain, and the soaring rate of knife crime.

JS Mill argued for liberty, but acknowledged that liberal values can only exist in a society that has learned restraint. If we allow the culture of self-restraint to rot, we will see harsh behaviour restrained by harsh oppression.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Private vs. Public: A Closer Look, by Paddington

American conservatives like to say that private enterprise is always better than government action. They tell stories of government inefficiency, and promote the idea that competition drives all innovation.

But is it really true?

Before our society fell into the pit of “I've got mine” in the mid-1980's and started to pretend that we could have everything we wanted without paying for it, here are some of the things that the government used our tax funds to do:

- start Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, saving a generation from dire poverty and possible civil war in the Great Depression.
- built a fantastic National Park System
- helped to save freedom in World War II, and to rebuild Germany and Japan afterwards to prevent global war from happening again
- built the Interstate highway system
- cleaned the air and water in places like Los Angeles
- started the nuclear power industry
- started the electronics industry
- started the computer age
- started the modern drug age, developing the first antibiotics, and things like the Epipen
- landed humans on the Moon

Most of these things were of no interest to the business community before they were developed, because the pay-offs were too far in the future at the time. Once the concept was proven, they swooped in and sucked up all of the profits from the taxpayer-funded research and infrastructure.

Now let's look at some of the negative parts of competitive private enterprise:

- we tried to privatize much of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to avoid a draft, and ended up with gasoline delivered there by Halliburton for $15+ a gallon, and dozens of Afghanis beaten to death at Khandahar airfield by Blackwater operatives, in our name.

- even though the average private school underperforms public schools in standard measures, certain parties pushed the charter and voucher movements. The charters in Ohio are so underperforming that they are the laughing-stock of the charter movement itself.

- the state universities in the country are a bargain, producing top-quality teaching and research at 40-50% of the cost per student of private universities, yet get little but criticism and more funding cuts
- we used the overflow of convictions from the War on Drugs to fund a system of private prisons, which turned out to be at least as expensive as public ones, and totally corrupt, with many judges bribed to give longer sentences.*

- we have the most expensive per capita healthcare system in the world, with some of the worst outcomes in the developed world. Until the ACA, the majority of that spending went directly to the insurance companies, which might be a win for capitalism, but makes mockery of the 'competition' idea.

In short, except for the shuddering fear that Americans experience at the word 'socialism', we actually seem to like the concept, when we look at individual cases.


Saturday, October 27, 2018

Scr*w the savers - even harder!

By email yesterday, from National Savings and Investments to financial advisers:

NS&I confirm Index-linked Savings Certificates to move from RPI to CPI

From 1 May 2019, existing holders of Index-linked Savings Certificates who renew into a new term will receive index-linking based on the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) measure of inflation, rather than the Retail Prices Index (RPI). This change recognises the reduced use of RPI by successive governments and is in line with NS&I’s need to balance the interests of its savers, the cost to the taxpayer, and the stability of the broader financial services sector.

By indexing new investments to the Consumer Prices Index, savers who hold this product will still have protection from inflation, while at the same time the cost to the taxpayer is forecast to reduce by £610 million over the next five years. 

I have a better idea: why not give us some of those insider investment tips that MPs are sometimes anecdotally reported to get from their colleagues and contacts?

Weekend Wonders: Dust

Friday, October 26, 2018

Sir Philip Green: Wrong Fuss

So Sir Philip is alleged to have been a naughty boy in the hanky-panky department, outed by the ever-lovely Peter Hain who used Parliamentary privilege in the only way it really should be used, delving into the squalid sex lives of alpha males - whose behaviour is no different from the rest of their ilk throughout history.

It's not as though MPs themselves sometimes misbehave, like for example Tom Driberg, who as I recall reading, once importuned a fellow MP in a House of Commons lift, at a time when homosexuality was still a crime in English law. And in Driberg's case, that is the least of his peccadilloes, if rumours of his having been a KGB agent are true.

Yes, perspective is needed. If our news media had any sense of perspective they wouldn't waste time bigging-up this outing as a blow for Press freedom.

No, they would be revisiting the recent news about Debenhams store closures, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs (with ample knock-on economic effects); they would discuss the fortunes and business strategy of its parent, the Arcadia Group, and the beneficial owners (largely, Tina Green, Sir Philip's wife); and musing on how things might have gone for the retail conglomerate if Sir Philip hadn't loaded a billion-pound-plus debt round its neck in order to pay out (offshore) a monster bonus not justified by the profit made that year (2005, when a billion was a lot of money).*

Consequences can take time to mature. Maybe things might have turned out differently; maybe, in the clickbuy environment of today, not; who knows? But maybe that cash could have been reinvested to help Arcadia adapt to changing business conditions.

Ah well, underpants are so much more interesting!


FRIDAY MUSIC: Carla Bley, by JD

You may not know Carla Bley but she is well known to jazz aficionados and at the age of 82 she is still playing and touring and will be appearing at London's Jazz Cafe at the end of this month.

As you can see from the Wiki entry she has had a rather interesting life and has always been a keen 'musical explorer' having collaborated and recorded with musicians from other musical genres. She has recorded with Jack Bruce (on her jazz opera called "Escalator over the hill" - too long to include here) as well as Pink Floyd's drummer Nick Mason on "Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports" which is a Carla Bley album in all but name.

The first video here would have been better if Steve Swallow had used his acoustic bass instead of the bass guitar but that is just my own personal preference.

I have also included a live version of "Boo to you too", an oddity from the aforementioned Nick Mason album.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Setting a quote among the pigeons

"Both Capitalism and Communism rest on the same idea: a centralisation of wealth which destroys private property."

G.K. Chesterton, in "The Judaism of Hitler" (1933)

Reference: Collected Works, Vol. 5

When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth


TYRANNOSAURUS REX (for it is he): Bring me a freshly-killed velociraptor, bien bleu et avec beaucoup de frites!

KITCHEN STAFF: Dilly dilly!

T. REX: And we'll have that animalskin-brassiere-clad woman for afters. (ASIDE TO T. REGINA) How she got here I don't know, they're not due for 100 million years yet. Where's our little princess?

T. REGINA: Still in the meteor shower, darling.

...Und so weiter, und so weiter.

I do wonder whether the welter of fiction these days is making it almost impossible for us to appreciate how things really are and really were. Even film and TV drama about the 1960s and 1970s often has little to do with anything I recall from those times. The demand for narrative to wrap itself around the expectations of the modern audience is too strong.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Sweet, Sad Music Of Brexit, by JD

On Friday I was listening to Roxy Music's "A song for Europe" and I have been thinking about it since then.

When I did the music post on Bryan Ferry I deliberately left out "A song for Europe" because I thought it would be misunderstood; those who voted to remain in the EU would have seized on it saying "look what we are losing."

But the song is not about that. It is a work of 'romance' probably inspired by Marcel Proust's "À la recherche du temps perdu"À_la_recherche_du_temps_perdu

The song dates from 1973 and now, 45 years later, that youthful romantic nostalgia sounds more like regret. We have a Proustian lyric delivered with the world weary cynicism of Jacques Brel. That is what it sounds like to me now. The French lyric in the song is a more or less direct translation of Ferry's English lyrics at the beginning. For some reason that French lyric has a greater emotional impact on me than the English. I don't know why, perhaps it is because the politicians have done what they always do, turned a dream into a nightmare - "El sueño de la razón produce monstruos"

"Pas d'aujourd'hui pour nous
Pour nous il n'y a rien
A partager
Sauf le passé"

I don't know what Ferry's position is on the EU but he probably thinks it wiser to remain silent but on his web site he has this to say about his greatest artistic influence -

“I was fortunate to be taught by Richard Hamilton in 1964, my first year at the Fine Art Department of Newcastle University, and from then on Richard was a great inspiration, both as an artist, and as a personality. Frighteningly intellectual, he seemed to validate my romantic leanings towards American culture, and he revealed how poetic and mysterious the modern world could be.

"As a teacher he taught by example, and his restless enquiring spirit I have tried to emulate in my own work as a musician."

.....the pop art legend Richard Hamilton... calls Bryan Ferry ‘his greatest creation’.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Friday, October 19, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Mediaeval Medley, by JD

I was looking for some medieval music I had heard on Radio3 but couldn't find it on the R3 pages; but I collected some other pieces for your delight.

The oldest one here is from the 12th century and a few of them sound surprisingly modern. They are also evidence of the truth of the Latin phrase 'vita brevis, ars longa' which is translated from an aphorism by the Greek physician Hippocrates: - life is short but art is eternal!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

1066: still free, or still conquered?

As the Battle of Hastings is re-enacted on-site today, I wonder, not for the first time, whether we have had a thousand years of national independence after the slaughter of Senlac, or instead have remained a conquered people ever since.

Like the joke about the prehistoric axe museum exhibit that had several changes of handle and head to counter rust and rot, but was said still to be the same axe, the people who run this country seem to me to have a sort of enduring colonial attitude to the rest of us. I think of a titled landowner, selling off his inherited land to developers for money - for what? Business owners that sell out their famous names to foreign and multinational concerns; a number of Prime Ministers from Macmillan on, surreptitiously giving up our sovereignty and the democratic habits that took four centuries and more to establish.

Is Britain more plagued by aristocratic and plutocratic traitors than other European nations? If so, is it because they see themselves as not quite British, more transnational, cheerfully looting the locals? How else can we explain the behaviour of our politicians, civil servants, industrialists, journalists and professional handlers of law and money in the great European controversy of the last decades?

In the meantime, let's go back to 1066...

On Stamford Bridge (republished from 22 May 2012)

We stood on a little jetty at the end of a private garden. The caged fowl beside the public footpath were silent. Shaded by branches, midges circled above the eddying stream. Static caravans lay haphazardly on the other bank, like cast runes.

Near here, said the leaflet, stood the original Saxon bridge, where a Viking warrior held off Harold’s army, buying time for his countrymen to scramble into position on the rise behind us. Some say he slew up to 40 Englishmen, a Biblical number.

Was he a swordsman, like the name and sign on the local inn? Or was he a giant berserker, whirling a great two-handed war-axe, both weapon and shield?

And how was he killed? Legend has it that someone got into a half barrel and floated underneath the bridge, thrusting a spear up between the planks. One can imagine the Norseman jerking onto tiptoe and dropping his blade, others jumping forward to hack him down.

Battle-memory is sharp. Back home, survivors would relate his story, acting out the planted feet, each mighty movement, the raging face. His fame would live.

As would his family. A young son might become a king’s ward, then an honoured house-carl; a daughter would have suitors for the hero’s blood in her veins, and as was iron custom, his widow’s neighbour would plough her field before his own.

Almost a thousand years have passed, and all has changed. In 1066, there was no village here; now, there are buildings of brick and stone, metalled roads, other vegetation and a different climate. Even the river will have altered, in its shape and the composition and depth of its silt.

And so has the cosmos. The glittering bridge over which his soul would pass to the Hall of the Slain (Norway was then only part-Christianized), is now an arm of the Milky Way, around which the Earth, part of a solar system unimagined in his day, has since moved trillions of miles in its quarter-billion-year orbit. More of the outer reaches of the ever-expanding Universe are now receding faster than light, so that the glint of long-extinct stars, quasars and galaxies can never reach us. All that is, is moving away from what is observed to what is recorded, then to speculation, myth and oblivion. Yet his brave deed is still remembered.

So, why is he anonymous? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes him simply as a Norwegian, and the early 13th century Norse account omits him entirely. No bard inscribed him on eternity’s roll. Yet we still know the name of Horatius Cocles, who held back the Etruscans while the bridge into Rome was demolished, 1,500 years ago. Perhaps this Viking is an invention by one who understood narrative, and how stories of vast conflict need intensifying moments of delay, and an interlude at the personal scale before returning to the broader historical vista. Besides, the heart always soars at the contemplation of those who scorn certain death.

He may have been real, nevertheless. The Chronicle’s reference is matter-of-fact, and makes his action merely a rearguard defence after the death of Hardraada. But was he really here, by this shallow, narrow, island-divided branch of the Derwent?

Or, as some say, did the battle occur a mile further downstream, at what is now Scoreby, a Roman settlement straddling a wider stretch of river spanned by a bridge? That would seem a more likely place for Hardraada and Harold Godwinson’s rebellious brother Tostig to wait complacently in the warm September sunshine for further hostages and supplies from York, following their victory at Fulford five days earlier. Their forces were resting on both sides of the water, and their body armour, presumed no longer necessary, lay 15 miles away with their ships, at Riccall.

It was in this condition that the English King surprised them, having marched 185 miles from London in only four days. The occupiers on the west bank were quickly slaughtered, the remainder of the army assembling their overlapping “board-wall” and, perhaps retreating to the 100-foot rise at High Catton, resisting the attack for hours, before fragmenting and being routed. King Harald’s throat was pierced by an arrow, as (according to tradition) King Harold’s eye would be, nineteen days later; Tostig also perished, along with the overwhelming majority of the invaders.

Stamford is overshadowed by Hastings, but it was one of those hinges on which history turns. What might have happened, had the Norwegians won? Would Hardraada have gambled for the whole country, fighting William of Normandy? Had Tostig planned to be the King’s vassal, or to divide the land diagonally into Danelaw for Hardraada and some sort of Anglund for himself? Would that have lasted? Or would England have faced a series of episodes of civil strife and invasion worse even than the merciless elite-decapitation and folk-oppression of the Normans?

Had the Scandinavians succeeded, what would our language, law, custom and culture be today? Impossible to imagine.

So, reflecting on a man who might never have been, a place where something may not have happened, and a landscape which scarcely resembles that of a millennium ago, we took our souvenir earthenware mug with its horned-helmeted axeman and our misleading printed guide, and joined the queue at the lights to cross a bridge that probably had nothing to do with events that made us what we are today.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Weekend Wonders: Viruses

A popular introduction to viruses:

Computer animation of a bacteriophage T4 virus attacking an E. Coli cell:

How the bacteriophage T4 virus puts itself together inside its host:

30 minutes from T4's initial attack to exploding the host and spreading multiple new copies of itself:

How? Every second, there are more chemical reactions inside one cell in your body than you could count aloud in your entire lifetime.

Friday, October 12, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Annie Haslam, by JD

According to Wiki, Annie Haslam answered an advert in 'Melody Maker' and auditioned for the band Renaissance and in 1971 she became the lead singer of the second incarnation (or rebirth if you like) of this 'folk rock' band. (folk rock? crossover? progressive rock? - hard to tell, all sorts of names have been attached to them and other bands but the music  is the only thing that matters, labels are for the cloth-eared.)

Forty-seven years on they are still touring and her fabulous five octave voice sounds as good as it ever did!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A Foreign Field, by Wiggia

We've just returned from a road trip to the south of France. As in Britain, things are changing.

In the last few years my holidays abroad have been restricted in scope mainly for medical reasons, meaning the same or similar regions have been visited more often. In the past I rarely re-visited destinations as I always wanted to see “what else was out there” but that is now behind me. What that restriction has done though is to let me see an alteration in attitudes from the general population you would not get from a one-off visit. I can assure you I do not go looking for any of this as a holiday is just that, but simply meeting people gives an insight into their thinking and as here in the UK, there has undoubtedly been a shift away from the status quo, and not just from the low paid but across the board. No, I didn’t conduct a survey; the numbers were small but rather like those who work in the NHS who a few years ago would neither speak ill of it or malign it in any way, all has changed. My French is limited so the nuances of what was said may have been misinterpreted but I don’t think I was far out in my assumptions.

What little television I saw was restricted to the news and the inevitable and endless discussion programs on French TV , as the latest Brexit cock-up (or deliberate move, who knows any more) from our own PM was headline news. The ramifications were discussed by numerous talking heads from the press and institutions; as here, almost all are pro-EU and the sneering condescending tone was very to the fore in all these affairs. Only one I saw understood the nonsense going on in our country and he was the London-based correspondent of one of the TV companies who could understand the dilemma our political elite had created. As I say, the subtleties eluded me but the gist was obvious and as here, the commentators displayed an "us and them attitude", with them always right.

Several people I met asked about Brexit and some admitted they wished France would leave. They are fed up with self-serving politicians as well as the rest of Europe. The hotel owner where we stayed summed it up: “The last President we had that cared for the people and the country was De Gaulle!” Not much different from here, then.

But that was all a small part of a successful trip. Doing another at my age as the sole driver is maybe  too much now: what was a walk in the park thirty years ago is no longer easy, even with vastly superior road networks - Rotterdam for instance must have more multi-lane highways, bridges, tunnels and junctions than the whole of the UK  in one town; how far we have fallen behind with infrastructure.

On the other hand some things don’t change. I have never got my head round why so many French hotels have bathrooms from the 19th century. If they worked one could forgive, but they don’t and are clapped out and often broken or leak or have poor lighting and /or have toilets that don’t fit in the space provided so you have to sit on them sideways. Sometimes you yearn for a Premier Inn.

Other things are changing in France with the near-demise of Les Routiers: the good cheap fare available almost everywhere on all the old A roads is disappearing with them. You can still eat well in France - and certainly better than anywhere outside London - yet little by little establishments are closing. It is all relative of course, as some cities in the UK struggle to provide almost any worthwhile eateries, but the change is happening.

Along with the food the wine has become more expensive. The days of the merely 50-100% mark-up on restaurant wine lists has all but vanished: the lists look much like those at home now, at the three-times-and-more area. The falling exchange value of the pound distorts to a degree but the fact remains.

This will be almost certainly my last road trip. Having to do all the driving, advancing years have all taken their toll, I just find it too tiring and stressful for something that would have been a breeze a few years back. If I make a mistake on the roads over there now I dwell on it; before, I would have just got on with it. We all make mistakes when driving on the right (despite the constant reminders from the other front seat !),  not many but one can be enough. There also are a lot more strange road layouts being used, none more striking than those on our way back to the ferry in Holland, many of which exceed anything we have at home. Rotterdam's road network matches its port: enormous, dwarfing anything in the UK.

We had a satnav roadworks moment on the way to the port. We couldn't take the standard route, owing to multiple road closures for road works, but the satnav would keep directing us back to the same spot. In moments like that it is best to turn the thing off, head in the general direction that you believe is correct and turn it on again well past the closures. Then, of course, it starts afresh.

It was on one of these detours that we entered a glasshouse and shipping area for the growers. I used to buy from several Dutch firms when I was working, though I had never visited before.  As with the rest of Rotterdam, the giant scale of the enterprise is a sight for the eyes. There are some big glasshouses in Lincolnshire and the new one off in Thanet is huge, but they would not even form an annex to the ones here: on Google Earth they can be seen covering endless acres of ground, with distribution centres next door like the ones that the big supermarkets have.

Back in the South the trip went well for us. We got the second summer with temperatures up to 33℃ and outdoor dining was the norm. The grape harvest was starting or finishing, depending on the grape, and the roads were clogged with small tractors lugging their loads of grapes back to the winery - always a comforting sight as a prelude to the delights to come.

Some vineyards are picking weeks earlier this year because of the weather and this has been a trend for some time. The rise in temperatures could be good news for more northern vineyards including those in Britain - as long as there is some land left after TM has concreted over everything to accommodate the never-ending flood of new arrivals to this country.

"Revenons à nos moutons.": it was very noticeable just how much Mt Ventoux dominates the landscape in this part of France. Wherever you go the summit peeks through gaps with its weather station, often with a trail of cloud created by the constant high winds; a horrible, desolate place and after seeing and paying respects at Tom Simpson's memorial a couple of years back I had no desire to repeat the exercise.

I had to restrict my vineyard visits because it would not have been a holiday. As the wife says, standing in damp caves lost its appeal a long time ago: they are all the same and the story they tell doesn’t change either. Much as I like visiting the wineries she has a point, so a planned  and selective choice was made that was acceptable to the other half and all was well.

On the subject of buying direct from the wineries: you have to know your stuff. Unless it is a wine that is unobtainable in the UK you will be paying more for it than you would at home - though this was confounded by the wineries we visited in the Alsace, where it was cheaper; all very odd.

If I had my way, visiting supermarkets would be off the agenda of any holiday, but needs must, and we had to service the the front seat passenger's continual need for hydration, so our only large scale visit was for water, small bottles and lots of them ! We went to the retail parc outside of Avignon to an Auchan that needed one of those tourist trains to get around it. I have never seen such an enormous retail outlet and in fact didn’t see a large proportion of it as it was simply too far to walk to find out what was at the other end (probably Nirvana.) Exiting the place was an adventure as a sudden appearance of the Mistral made getting back to the car a 45-degree-lean experience with hair to match.


Of all the villages we visited - and there are plenty - one or two stood out. Gordes is spectacular, climbing up a steep hill overlooking a plain, but is chock full of tourists. Nearby Rousillon is better but not much. For me, others took the prize: Gigondas, a wine village, is gorgeous, has good eateries, lots of excellent wine outlets from all the major producers  and fabulous views from the church at the top; the medieval village of Seguret, down the road from Gigondas, is a bit of a hike in but worth it. The list is endless. We also greatly enjoyed Entrechaux; and a peaceful gem near Sault, Monieux, that also has a very good indoor and outdoor restaurant: Les Lavandes, one of the discoveries of the trip.

Les Lavandes Restaurant, Monieux

For all oenophiles Chateau Neuf de Pape is a must. It is full of outlets from all the famous producers, has some decent eateries and a castle, worth a visit but crowded and lacking the charm of the numerous other villages. For scenery the Dentilles de Montmirail are breathtakingly beautiful; the road out of Beaumes- de-Venise will lead to several options, all good, and the gorges of the river Nesque are impressive, no Tarn or Ardeche but still worth the journey through them.

A village in the Dentilles
The charm and pull of this area is that so much is within easy reach: no need for half day drives, there is something worthwhile visiting in all directions. If there is a downside it is (as everywhere these days) the big tourist attractions that just keep getting more crowded. Avignon itself seems to have turned the main thoroughfare into one giant outside restaurant and groups led by board-carrying guides are bumping into one another everywhere. We gave the place a miss last time we were in the vicinity because of not being able to park and hordes swarming over everything, but felt we should make the effort this trip so went early; not early enough, as the car park under the top end of the thoroughfare has low ceilings and the heat build up was tremendous even at that time. Emerging into daylight I needed a respirator or something, God knows what it must be like at midday. So Avignon got a cursory surveillance and after a coffee we left the hordes to it.

The other place that was a miss to me despite everyone giving the place glowing reports was L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue, I have never heard a bad word said about the place and indeed some parts are very pretty: it is known as the Venice of Provence - a bit over the top but the river runs straight through the middle of the place and is attractive where they have taken advantage of the waterside. But the main east-west road runs right through the town as well and is very busy, the place is full of mainly crappy brocante /flea markets and antique shops and heaves with people most of whom seem to be wanting to cross the awful road. This may well have been a desirable destination some years back but now ?

So the time came to move on. To break the journey for the old fella we booked three nights in Kientzheim to the west of Colmar in the Alsace, another place we have previously visited and enjoyed. This is Rhineland and has been German, French and back again several times over the centuries and going by the names and script used you could be forgiven for thinking it was German again but it isn’t.

A canal in Colmar

A delicatessen in Colmar
Our chosen village and hotel were almost a suburb of the better known Kayserberg, which was good because most tourists went there and left our destination alone. Our hotel was chosen because it had a renowned restaurant and it didn’t disappoint: no decorated plates here, real food and probably the best foie gras I have ever tasted. The hotel owned its own vineyard so the wine list was interesting in that only their wines appeared on it, a new first for me; it hardly mattered as despite reservations they were good. And the room was huge, immaculate, comfortable and had a matching bathroom - so the French can provide decent ablutions.

There were only a couple of days to spend in the Alsace. Having been there more than once before, we didn't waste time as we knew where we going for a change. A day in Colmar was justified: a lovely city, great restaurants, bars, shops and a superb indoor market with a cafe that always seems to have interesting people in there - why this should be I have no idea but the oddballs, travellers etc all seem to congregate there. We ended up speaking to a young bright American girl travelling alone in Europe, not for the first time she told us, but more cautious as to where she goes now. The late News of the World motto “all human life is here” would have applied exactly to this cafe, with customers ranging from hookers to street cleaners and suited business men and more, all in this rather cramped corner; the coffee is good too!

Outside, the street market is, like so many in France, food-orientated, with stalls selling produce from small farms - small producers of charcuterie, cheeses, great blocks of nougat, jams and honeys from artisans and more. I have always felt that if these places disappear from the likes of France, Italy and Spain the West will go with them.

On the second day I did manage to squeeze in two wineries as I wanted some bottles of Pinot Gris (known elsewhere as Pinot Grigio.) It is one of the delights in white wine and reaches great heights here It should never be confused with your supermarket Pinot Grigio, yet despite its quality it is not easy to come by in the UK so my excuse for a couple of detours was approved, just ! The two wineries visited were Domaines Schlumberger and Trimbach; nothing very French in those names. I got what I wanted and that was the end of my wine-buying and after a look round the defence walls of Kientzheim and a while watching the grape harvest come in it was time for a quick nap and our last dinner in the Alsace.

On a technical note, the big increase in the use of mechanical grape-picking machines was very noticeable. There was push-back against their use in the beginning but given the flat lands and the vast vineyards that cover those areas there must be a huge time saving and of course cost saving as well. For the better vineyards and the steeper slopes they are not practical and hand-picking will always (?) be the norm in those vineyards. Fascinating machines though, and straddling the vines with their stilts they look as though they have come from the film set of War of the Worlds.

I was not looking forward to the final big drive up the Hague as the traffic gets denser the nearer you get to the port, and it did indeed get very busy a long way out. Also with about 60-70 miles to go it started to rain, the first real clouds we had seen on this trip and a chance to clear a by now dirty piece of glass with the aid of the screen wash. As at the beginning of this story the sat nav worked overtime when we finally got to the Hague, as you never go direct to anywhere and the constant "turn left, take the next exit" went on for what seemed like hours before we were reached our final stopover: a sort of Premier Inn but it was central, not far, in a straight line from the port and our final diversion the following morning.

One final ablutions story of note: the Dutch hotel had a total loss (plugless) basin in the bathroom. Simply what is the point? They are useless as a basin and the water goes straight down the plughole (or a long slot at the back of the basin in this case.) But they do have a sense of humour: on the mirror above the basin was a sticker claiming their eco credentials about saving water…

Our ferry home was at 14.00 giving me time to fulfil a promise I made some considerable time ago to visit the grave of my uncle, my father's brother, who was killed in the Hague in September ‘44 and is buried there.To my knowledge none of us has visited this foreign field since the late forties and having researched his war record I felt that  that if possible a visit would be appropriate. (I had planned it for two years ago but the trip was abandoned when I was taken into hospital a week or so before.)

Westduin Cemetery, The Hague, Netherlands

He was one of a rare breed, a fighter pilot who survived at least until ‘44, serving in 3 Squadron flying Hurricane Mk IICs at the beginning of the war, being posted to the Middle East and becoming a specialist in ground attack, then returning to lead 3 Squadron, flying Hawker Tempests out of a grass field in Kent near Lydd.

The reports that I garnered for that fateful day vary. It is not unusual to have slightly conflicting versions under war conditions but in essence they were on a seek and destroy mission looking for the mobile V1 and V2 sites that were hidden along that part of the Dutch coast after the D day landings. They spotted what is believed to be a ramp going up for a V2 and he led the attack. Sadly the resultant explosion took him and his aircraft with it and very nearly his wingman, and that was that.

It has to be mentioned that aircrew losses during that invasion period were horrendous: the Squadron lost three Leaders including my uncle in four months. It was not a good time.

We found the cemetery after another round-the-houses trip that lasted 35 minutes rather than the ten depicted on the map. The cemetery is a civil one with just a small section divided off and cared for by the CWGC: immaculate as usual and just the seventy souls buried there, mostly RAF aircrew. As usual when reading the inscriptions, the age of these boys hits you: pilots of 20 years old - it does not seem possible but it is and this is what war takes from us, the cream of a generation.

Like many others who have visited war graves, thinking about what they fought for and current times I wondered what the hell the current crop of politicians of all colours in most Western nations is playing at. Was it all in vain? At moments like this you cannot help but feel it is going that way and nothing will stop it. What of course is never admitted or discussed is that without us and the Allies and the appalling loss of life there would be no Europe to squabble over. Still we paid our respects and left. It was a fitting end to a successful holiday.

Of course the trip to the ferry had a twist in the tail as the direct route was closed and so were several adjoining roads, meaning that after the satnav sent us round and back to the original no through road I had to shut it off and go in the general direction of the port and then start it again, where it found a new route, that was that then; well, no, as it directed us to the truck entrance which is over a mile away from the car entrance. We were not alone: other cars arrived and circled, not knowing where to go next as there was no signposting to the other entrance. We did make it after stopping in a garage and asking (thank God the majority of Dutch speak good English), and we found the correct entrance.

It appears that a large number of drivers had the same problem: one said he believed he had toured the Hague in full as his satnav insisted he went completely in the wrong direction. Really the ferry company must be aware of the problem and a few well-placed signs at the lorry end where everyone is seemingly directed would solve the problem; and perhaps the reliance on satellite navigation should be tempered, and decent maps carried as well - the big road map was no use in this situation.

There followed an uneventful ferry crossing to Harwich and then onto country lanes (which would be motorways in any other country) from the port and home in the dark to a nice cup of tea. The emptying of the car laden with cases of wine and bags of clothes needing washing would wait till morning; too tired for all that, late at night.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

EU: Conservative cattle farmers and Labour's blind band of brothers
  • Macmillan (1960/61) decides to join the EEC, sets Heath on to explore the constitutional issues. 
  • Heath goes in (wef 1.1.73), lying about the implications for national sovereignty.
  • Cameron calls the second referendum to shut up what he mistakenly believes to be a small sect of "fruitcakes and loons", then runs away when it all goes wrong. 
  • May spends more than two years apparently quite deliberately time-wasting, then goes behind her Brexit secretary's back to make a plan which if anything is worse than the status quo. 
All Conservative Prime Ministers!

I can't understand why some Remainers paint Brexit as a "far-right" project, especially since some of the most vocal critics of the EU have been on the Left.

Both Brexit and Remain are cross-party stances, each having two legs:
  • Some on the Right want the EU because for them it means money and power, position and pension, and it  pleases the directors of large businesses who can arbitrage workforce pay and conditions.
  • Some on the Left see the EU as a socialist brotherhood, blindly ignoring what the EU has meant for the PIIGS; and for us, with our UK/EU £67 billion trade deficit. (There was only one year of our membership when we didn't have a deficit; funnily enough, the year of the first Referendum - 1975.) Over forty years of this bleeding has left much of British industry and the British workforce prostrate, and Labour's Peter Shore drew attention to it very early on, in his contribution to the Oxford Union's 1975 debate.
  • Conversely, some on the Right campaign for Brexit, presenting the alternative to the EU as global free trade, which if it means even cheaper imports of food stands fair to kill what's left of our farming and fishing etc while pleasing the Institute of Directors. My guess is that under this plan the national accounts would improve for a while, then crash as the numbers of the unemployed and underpaid grew and their claims on the Welfare State took on crisis proportions; that, and/or major civil unrest.
  • Then there are those on the Left who see (in my view correctly) the key narrative of British history as the people versus the Power, so that we now have in effect a republic disguised as a monarchy. It is a very imperfect republic and does not work for the interests of all, but there are many restraints on the executive, not least trial by jury (which is under attack by the Power even in this country) and the presumption of innocence. In legislation too, the Power has often attempted to free itself from Parliamentary supervision by the introduction of "Henry the Eighth" clauses that grant Ministers and organisations the right to make additional rules extempore.
In my view, the general public is insufficiently aware of what it is about to lose, possibly forever, if we do not both leave the EU and also fight TiSA, TPP, GATT and all the other supranational webs that will end in managing most of the world's population like cattle - but without the farmer's love.

There are some signs of a clearer-eyed opposition to EU-cum-globalism.

Seeing the neoliberal approach to Brexit as represented by Messrs Farage and Rees-Mogg, plus the semi-chaos of UKIP post-Farage, the original founder of UKIP has set up a Left alternative: Professor Alan Sked's Clean Brexit:

Similarly, Professor Philip Whyman has set out ideas for reclaiming national control and rebuilding the sort of industrial economy that can offer better than "Just About Managing" (bravely struggling) for the people: (free download).

Good luck to them; that is to say, to us.

Friday, October 05, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Masters of War, by JD

Following on from last week's music post -
- America changed after those 'Salad Days'

The wave after wave of immigrants from 'the old world' brought with them their own culture and way of life to 'the new world'.

The immigrants and settlers were almost exclusively Christian; the Italians and the Irish brought their Catholicism, the Germans and Nordic peoples brought with them their own versions of Protestantism. They wished to make a fresh start, to build their own 'American Dream' and they did, based on their own traditions in the old world; of family, community and Christianity.

The 'Founding Fathers' of the new nation, on the other hand, were not Christians, they were Deists. They believed in a God but did not believe there was any sort of divine intervention in the world, and they did not accept the divinity of Jesus, rather like Islam which includes Isa ibn Maryam in the Koran as just another prophet in a long line of prophets.

Their core values were those of the French Revolution, of the 'Enlightenment' Their dream was the dream of reason and we know how that turned out.

And as a consequence the American Revolution followed the same path as the French Revolution but much more slowly. As Goya noted, "No one is innocent once he has seen what I have seen. I witnessed how the noblest ideals of freedom and progress were transformed into lances, sabres, and bayonets. Arson, looting and rape, all supposed to bring a New Order, in reality only exchanged the garrotte for the gallows." - Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

The Founding Fathers of the USA believed in violence as a way of life. They believed in Naqoyqatsi which is a Hopi word (more correctly written naqö̀yqatsi) meaning "life as war". Naqoyqatsi is also translated as "civilized violence" and "a life of killing each other."

“I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.” - President Theodore Roosevelt, quoted in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, p.297

The USA has been at war with somebody or other for almost its entire existence and there is no sign yet of any end to it.

And here is an example of the aforementioned Naqoyqatsi:

"They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it." - Red Cloud

"What treaty have the Sioux made with the white man that we have broken? Not one. What treaty have the white man ever made with us that they have kept? Not one." - Sitting Bull

There are no sacred buildings or monuments in the USA, the Founding Fathers did not believe in such things. There are no sacred places in the USA because the Founding Fathers and their successors were unable to discover such locations; they did not believe in divine inspiration. There are sacred lands for sure in the USA but known only to the indigenous peoples.

"America is pregnant with promises and anticipation, but is murdered by the hand of the inevitable."
- Emerlist Davjack

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Quote of the Day and a Quiz

"It is common, especially in big companies, to have an organisation staffed by ostensibly experienced and qualified people who are well paid, but simply decline to do their jobs. Instead, they busy themselves with other activities, often under the direction of a manager who never properly understood what they should be doing in the first place. It’s what happens when an organisation’s processes become divorced from the goals they are supposed to achieve, and managers are rewarded solely for following the process regardless of outcomes."

- Tim Newman, 03.10.2018

Before clicking on the link below, say:

What field of work /organisation is under consideration here
- Where else the above comment might justifiably be applied