Tuesday, 30 April 2013

US poll

Never aspire

"Admiration for craft and skill is, I now understand, at the root of the generous but stubborn nature of King Charles II. He took my father into his service because he recognised in him the dedicated, skilled and single-minded craftsman. Such people delight him because they inhabit an orderely, meticulously defined world and never aspire to cross over into any other. The haberdasher, my father, never for one moment becoming, say, a gardener, a gun-smith or a money-lender. He laid out a precise territory with his skill and kept within it. And King Charles, while trying one pair of my father's exquisitely moulded kid gloves, revealed to him that this was how he hoped the English people would behave during his reign, 'each,' he said, 'in his appointed station, profession, calling or trade. And contented in them, so there is no jostling and bobbing about and no one getting above himself. In this way we shall have peace, and I will be able to rule.'

"I don't know how my father answered him, but I do know that it was on this occasion that the King promised, 'at some future time, when you are bringing me gloves', to show my father the collection of clocks and watches he kept in his private Study."


"... like Justice Hogg, I did not wish to be lost in the white wastes and so decided instead to note down all that I knew about the Poor, which, alas, did not seem a great deal. I took up a quill and wrote as follows:

"1. They are numerous.

"2. They appear more numerous in the capital, where they throng the wharves and lie down to sleep on the steps of alehouses.

"3. They are much prone to sickness, as witnessed by me during my brief time at St Thomas's hospital.

"4. Madness appears present in the eyes of many of them and I suspect that Pearce's Bedlam is choking with them.

"5. They are regarded by the likes of Winchelsea as a race apart, a quite other species of man. It is, however, from the bodies of Paupers that anatomists draw their knowledge and it is nowhere suggested that the liver, say, of a Peer will be any different in shape, function, composition or texture than that of any Hovel-dweller (unless the organ of the Peer be enlarged by the quantity of claret that has passed through it).

"6. Jesus was most fond of them.

"7. There is an interesting dichotomy between His belief in their nobility and the Nobility's belief in their inherent wickedness. (And this is a supposedly pious country.)

"8. I have not, in all my thirty-seven years, given a great deal of thought to them - until this day, the thirteenth of January 1665.

"9. How does the King regard them? In his credo that all should be content with their lot and not get above themselves, what does he say of the Pauper?

"10. I have heard that in Bidnold there is a tongueless man, sound of limb but speechless, who begs alms from all who pass him. Is this man Impotent or Idle? Has he a Licence? If he has no Licence, what am I to do with him?

"I paused. I could see now from my albeit puny notes that the whole question of the Poor was a mighty complex one - one to which I had never expected to address myself. I put down my pen with a sigh."

Rose Tremain, Restoration, chapters 1 and 9

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Architects on or off the hook?

The Architectural Journal, rather distortingly, headlines "Critic blames 60s Brutalism for Boston marathon bombings".

If ones looks at the actual article on James Russell's blog one finds the refelctions are more tentative, reasonable and sensitive than the AJ headline leads one to think.

The journal, however, springs to the defence of its constituency with an editorial that turns Russell's tentative musing, why did the Tsarnaevs become alienated in Boston, explicitly back on him: "Why did James Russell suggest Brutalist architecture caused the Boston Marathon bombings?" The deputy editor provides no answer to his own question, but accuses Russell of being "crass" and "going over the edge", even though the picture the AJ chooses to illustrate its own article looks far more alienating then those Russell uses and the editorial fails to engage with Russell's particular criticism, but simply suggests "he can start by letting Rudolph off the hook".

There is an interesting question, is bad photography to blame for modern architecture preservation battles?, which could be usefully expanded into a consideration of the role that photographs (good and bad), drawings, models, computer visualisations play in the perception of buildings both built and unbuilt (and even of furniture for that matter) - perception in the minds of architects or designers, critics, public, clients, planners. However, the question I am suggesting here is what are the consequences of bad debate, or a failure to engage properly in debate.

The journal concedes that "there are questions architecture critics can ask". It might be better if they were asked by architects themselves, but they turn out to be of a distinctly "get on with the job", unquestioning sort:

"Will lockdowns influence new urban design? What is the value of a public realm that can be so speedily militarised?"

The editorial goes on to ask, but not even begin to answer (though it is posed in a strangely particular context), a larger question: "When freedom of movement is so heavily restricted, what does it mean to be a citizen today?"

What does it mean to be a citizen today very much depends upon whom one is asking. Nation states attach much significance to citizenship and its forms when they are granting it, but if the new citizen gets into the wrong circumstances and is not of the general socio-cultural type as the majority population of the state, their formal protections may count for little, on either side of the Atlantic.

Paul Rudolph in a bad photograph

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

No steamroller in Washington

That show of weakness doomed the effort to close Guantánamo, the same administration official said. “Lyndon Johnson would have steamrolled the guy,” he said. “That’s not what happened. It’s like a boxing match where a cut opens over a guy’s eye.”
Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial?
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.
Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011, along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was not on the target list but was traveling with him.
Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

St George's Day

St George of England slays the evil dragon Google, referred to in some texts as Schmidt, whilst the dwarves Brin and Page look on in amazement and the maiden, unidentified, trembles in fear and trepidation

Monday, 22 April 2013


John Pawson and "When Objects Work [They Cost a Lot of Money]" may think a steak knife is a gadget (or, more likely, an edifice) but, if so, they have some serious competition on their hands.

The great British public knows a gadget when it sees one and sales of Teasmaids, Hostess Trollies, Breville toasted sandwich makers and Sodastreams (another great British invention, in this case by Guy Gilbey of the gin) are reported to be booming, in most cases doubling in the past year.

John Lewis sees it as fuelled by nostalgia; the House of Fraser (a cut above) identifies it as retro chic and describes the Kenwood stand mixer as "iconic". That's British too, or was, designed by Ken Wood a little before 1950 and made by his company, but it is now Italian owned and the products are made in China.

An icon of our times
I doubt whether John Pawson is worried.


It would appear that it takes three years for a basic spread sheet error to be discovered that undermines the fundamental conclusion of an economics paper that has been highly influential in shaping the austerity policies of western governments.

The interval is necessary to enable belief in the argument to solidify to the point where it is independent of evidence so that, in the words of our Chancellor, it "remains robust".

Family friendly

In a move that must be an absolute gift to Private Eye, Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, a man with a lot on his plate, has  caused much debate by his attack on the "tattie holiday" in schools. He wants schools to extend their working day and reduce their holidays to enable them to respond to the challenges of the twenty-first century, especially those thought to be emanating from China: according to our Prime Minister we have got to start working as hard as the Chinese or we will find ourselves working for the Chinese.

Some "free" schools already have an 8.30 to 4.30 working day and summer holidays of just four weeks, which seem to be what Mr Gove recommends.

Mr Gove's suggestion is not thought to be needed to be applied to our private (aka "public", not to be confused with "free") schools because they have longer holidays than state schools and send more of their pupils to Oxbridge and on to the government (present company excepted) - so why bother them with tiresome directive from the state?

But, back to the plot: Mr Gove was brought up in Aberdeen, where his adoptive father (not thought to be Henry Root) ran a wet fish business, although he now represents the constituency of Surrey Heath, which is rather more conservatively inclined in its politics than Aberdeen - though he has no house there. In Aberdeen he went to school at Robert Gordon's College (a cut above the comprehensive) where with all local school children he enjoyed the "tattie holiday", a ten-day half-term holiday in October especially timed to enable children to participate in the potato harvest. (In earlier times I believe Scottish school children would arrive with a lump of solidified porridge in their bags to sustain them through the day but we are not told this was part of young Gove's experience. Yet the tattie holiday is apparently indisputable evidence that the school regime was devised for a nineteenth-century agricultural society and economy that no longer exists.

Mr Gove's clinching argument is that his suggested longer hours and days would be "family friendly": since both parents are likely to be working (or would be if there were jobs for them and they were not "benefit dependent"), it would be more convenient for their working day if their children were at school for the whole time.

Simultaneously, Margaret Hodge, the Labour chairperson of the House of Commons public accounts committee has suggested that the House needs to work longer hours or more days also. The problem is that, although Mr Gove apparently has plenty of bright ideas, the government as a whole cannot think up enough whizz-bang new laws, on which it can all agree, to keep the Commons busy, but, partly because the government likes to restrict full-chamber discussion of the legislation it does introduce and partly because it so often goes wrong once enacted, select committees such as Mrs Hodge's need more and more time to scrutinise it. But the members are not present long enough, having been sent back to their constituencies by the headmaster for the grouse/West Indies/city directorship holidays.

This year the House of Commons is expected to sit for 140 days, and all children who have had the benefit of Mr Gove's new national curriculum will know that there are 365 days in the year. (Since a high proportion of MPs went to public schools and as the national curriculum does not apply to them that may explain why so many MPs are unaware that they have such long holidays and will shortly be working for the Chinese.)

In recent years, especially when New Labour had so many whizz-bang ideas to bring to the statute book, the house did sit for more days in the year, but still less than school children sit at their desks (or whatever they do in school nowadays). However, even Labour - now I finally get to the point - reduced hours and extended parliamentary holidays, introducing half-terms, in large part, it is said, to make the house more "family friendly".

So, there we have it: being friendly to ordinary ("hard working") families means ensuring that their children are kept in school for the full working day and working year: being friendly to MPs' families means ensuring that the MPs can be at home whenever their children are.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

It's all architecture

The Guardian has an article on the Milan Furniture Fair in which its correspondent identifies the "best gadget".

The "gadget" in question turns out to be a steak knife. "Gadget": origin obscure, originally in nautical use: a small tool or piece of mechanism; an accessory or adjunct especially of a trivial nature. This is as much as the Guardian is willing to show us of the small tool.

Perhaps it thought that as the complete item costs £170 that is as much as we needed.

The designer is John Pawson, the highley regarded architect:

"People are surprised by how long it takes to make something as apparently simple as a knife," says celebrated architect John Pawson of his new steak knife. The blade, created for When Objects Work, a Belgian company that produces exclusive objects by leading designers, took three years to develop. "When it comes to a house, people understand a life cycle measured in years, but for me it's all architecture – there's essentially no difference in the way I set about designing a building or a table." Made by Kai, the Japanese master craftsmen and makers of Samurai swords, the Damascus-steel blade features 16 ripple-like marks. The ebony handle is elegant, slender and beautifully balanced. £170

Architecture: the art or science of constructing edifices for human use.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Burn, baby, burn

Lord Stern estimated that it would require 1 per cent of GDP to move to clean and sustainable energy sources.

In 2012 the top 200 corporation spent a sum equivalent to 1 per cent of global GDP to find new sources of carbon energy. Carbon assets are currently valued at trillions of dollars but about two thirds of them will have to remain permanently unburnt to comply with current (though unformalised) international agreements on climate change.

'They only believe environmental regulation when they see it," said James Leaton, from Carbon Tracker and a former PwC consultant. He said short-termism in financial markets was the other major reason for the carbon bubble. "Analysts say you should ride the train until just before it goes off the cliff. Each thinks they are smart enough to get off in time, but not everyone can get out of the door at the same time. That is why you get bubbles and crashes."

'Paul Spedding, an oil and gas analyst at HSBC, said: "The scale of 'listed' unburnable carbon revealed in this report is astonishing. This report makes it clear that 'business as usual' is not a viable option for the fossil fuel industry in the long term. [The market] is assuming it will get early warning, but my worry is that things often happen suddenly in the oil and gas sector."'

'Stern and Leaton both point to China as evidence that carbon cuts are likely to be delivered. China's leaders have said its coal use will peak in the next five years, said Leaton, but this has not been priced in. "I don't know why the market does not believe China," he said. "When it says it is going to do something, it usually does." He said the US and Australia were banking on selling coal to China but that this "doesn't add up"'

'Jeremy Grantham, a billionaire fund manager who oversees $106bn of assets, said his company was on the verge of pulling out of all coal and unconventional fossil fuels, such as oil from tar sands. "The probability of them running into trouble is too high for me to take that risk as an investor." He said: "If we mean to burn all the coal and any appreciable percentage of the tar sands, or other unconventional oil and gas then we're cooked. [There are] terrible consequences that we will lay at the door of our grandchildren."'


'"Now, with strong interconnections, and uneven recovery, that three-speed recovery is not enough and what we need is a full-speed global economy." Lagarde said growth needed to be "solid, sustainable, balanced but also inclusive and very much rooted in green developments."

'The IMF managing director said central banks were travelling in "uncharted territories" and would be more comfortable if they could return monetary policy to more normal settings.'

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Visitor centre

One of us

It is perhaps fortunate that lords spiritual are lords already. In all the dishonesty and pretence to which we have been subjected in recent days, from politicians and clergy alike, Mr Cameron's slightly diffident claim that "we are all now, in a sense, Thatcherites" may not seem one of the most outrageous. (Perhaps the prize goes to Cecil Parkinson's suggestion that Margaret Thatcher would have been surprised by the grandeur of a funeral which she largely planned herself.)

No-one, Mr Cameron said, first of all, would want to go back to the days of "undemocratic trades unions". Democracy, as ever in our society, serves as a human shield for more debatable notions. The pro-Thatcher populace is less finicky and commonly asserts that their heroine saved the country from "being run by the unions".

The idea that commercial or industrial activity should be organised primarily for  the gratification of the workers may not be as totally heinous as is assumed. It is, after all, the organising principle for those at the top of the corporate tree in many instances, where the property of those who own the corporation, as shareholders, is looted by the senior management. How else does one characterise the situation at our major commercial banks? "Destruction of shareholder value" it is called but it could have plainer and more disapprobious names.

Property is a cultural concept that has no inevitable meaning and in some societies it is incomprehensible, certainly in the form in which it has come to be the bedrock of western societies. The "property-owning democracies" have only very recently struck down the formal link between suffrage and property and the spirit lives on in the belief that "people only value what they pay for". Remember the poll tax.

Yet property for us is both shibboleth and enigma. Whilst it supposedly underlies our social and political, as well as economic structure, we are less than certain exactly what it means, just like anarchists and bolsheviks, who more gleefully tweak its tail with slogans such as "property is theft" and "we will continue to steal what has already been stolen".

We are not entirely sure where property begins and ends, what we can and cannot "own". We seem to be agreed that we cannot own other people, at least not formally, but it was only historically recently that formalised slavery was accepted as lawful, moral and necessary - including famously by the American Founding Fathers.

In the beginnings of our own society all property was the sovereign's and everything "held" by others was by grant or in return for services. Our modern "freeholds" are a relic of that system and feudal monarchy might be regarded as more akin to state socialism than to free-enterprise, free-market capitalism. In fact the latter was to be the death of monarchy and there has been a long and gradually successful struggle to wrest property (and power) from the sovereign monarch into private hands. Not too many of them of course. Dilution is the enemy (as shareholders know) and the successful private hands have inevitably been the few not the many. Strength has lain in concentration rather than numbers and the few occasions when numbers have triumphed in wider political history, in popular revolution, have always relatively quickly been subverted by individual and oligarchic interests. British "revolutions" hold the record in this respect. Despite a famously fractious and unruly populace its staying power has never been impressive - right down to Sid cashing in his windfall shares promptly on the market.

The masses lose out in another way. Once the rising classes have stripped the sovereign of as much of its direct holdings of property and wealth as possible (often through indebting the monarch by financing territorial warfare), attention turns to the commons - those parts of the sovereign's holdings given over to customary use by the people. In our country's case, through reformation, agricultural enclosure, exploitation of natural resources and colonial expansion, the process has been extremely effective and fuelled our economy in the days when it was flourishing.

Land was the major instance and, as the poor "mad" poet John Clare attested, was lost long ago: the earth gone,water and air linger on, and fire always at hand for vengeful retribution. Yet the most recent phase in this process in our own society has been the capture of the issuance of money and its reckless exploitation by private interests which has led to our present catastrophic plight (a stage started on Mrs Thatcher's watch along with the brief diverting windfall of North Sea oil). This last is a battle which the state, as residual inheritor of the sovereign, might still win if it were not already thoroughly infiltrated and captured by oligarchic interests. How vain and unlasting was Mrs Thatcher's championing of small-town methodist virtue.

Where next? The momentum has to continue if the bicycle is to remain upright. The latest sub-plot in the process in our country (triumphantly exported to much of the rest of the world) has focused on undoing the post-war welfare-state settlement (no ceremonial funeral for Mr Atlee) with its then nationalisation of some of the major "means of production, distribution and exchange". All that has now been significantly and largely progressively undone by all governments since the 1970s - although "exchange" of course was the part that the socialising programme did not even start on. That is the important sense in which David Cameron claims "we are all Thatcherites now".

Of the young Margaret Hilda Thatcher (from pulpit to newspaper column it is customary to use her full name to invoke her assumed instincts before they were eroded by the exercise of power: it must be some special connotation of Hilda as a name and the fact that it was never part of the name she was publically known by) it must be doubtful whether she sympathised with the more far-reaching effects of the processes her government encouraged, but she might be seen a a kulak's daughter, who died in a suite of rooms at the Ritz, more convenient that her several million pound London house vested in the name of a shadowey corporation registered in a tax haven (a status modest by comparison with the retirement financial arrangements of her New Labour successor, whom she described as her "greatest achievement").

The association with wealth leaves few politicians - of whichever hue - these days untouched and they need to appeal overtly to the people, or a goodlly chunk of it, precisely because they are, whatever their origins, no longer of the people or "one of us".

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Another first for Shenzhen

The new stock exchange by Rem Koolhaas's OMA, 'after' Mies van der Rohe
We've been here before and even before that.

A Mark of Respect

On the sudden, but long anticipated death of our Eternal Chancellor of the Exchequer, following a lengthy period of incapacity and a brave struggle against systemic collapse, it is announced that the funeral will be a quiet family affair with semi-public accoutrements. The interment will take place in Hyde Park with a two hundred foot high memorial mound erected above the tomb. Entrance to the site will be available to all members of the public on payment of an entrance fee that will be announced after the ceremony is completed. Tickets may be booked in advance through the Qatari Investment Office.

The Palace of Westminster will, as a mark of respect, be entirely swaddled in Osborne and Large wallpaper with the pinnacles surmounted by one thousand and one body casts of of the late chancellor, produced by Anthony Gormley, with details picked out in Sparrow and Ball Downpipe, Dead Trout and Elephant's Breath.

The National Statistics Office will fall silent for a period of twelve years as a mark of respect.

The late Chancellor's sarcophagus will be hauled to Hyde Park on a ceremonial tumbrel drawn by the chairman elect of the Bank of England progressing on his hands and knees. The eulogy will be given from on high by the London Mare, otherwise known as the Gulf of Tears.

Police have stated that they respect the right of people peaceably to ignore the ceremonies but that they expect all those who intend to stay at home to notify them so that they can be escorted to a place of safety.

Lord Tebbitt has described anyone who has any other ideas as a semi-domesticated bigot. Ian Duncan Smith remarked that it was "a political stunt" that had anyway already achieved its desired effect before taking place. The prime minister, on his flight back from a trade mission to Azerbaijan, issued a statement: "Never has there been a chancellor who wrapped up so much for so few."

Christine Lagarde will not be attending due to a prior commitment to attend a funeral in Slovenia.

Any man's death diminishes me.

1965: Day of sorrow

A nation united.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

China rising

View from Hong Kong to the new town of Ma On Shen

Jarndyce and Jarndyce: the great Grasp

'NatWest has been accused of "robbing" the victims of Jimmy Savile after the bank spent more than £1m earmarked as compensation for individuals sexually abused by the disgraced television presenter.

'The bank, trustee of Savile's estate, put on hold the distribution of its assets last October in the face of impending compensation claims from individuals sexually abused by the late DJ. The move was initially welcomed by lawyers representing victims on the assumption that it would ensure that the estate could provide compensation.

'The estate was worth £4.3m, but during the subsequent six months its value has fallen to £3m, a significant reduction that has infuriated lawyers acting for the victims of one of Britain's most prolific sex offenders.

'A legal source with knowledge of the Savile estate claimed that the reason for the huge drop is because of the costs NatWest is incurring in administrating Savile's estate, including its lawyers' fees. The expenditure has triggered accusations that money destined for the victims is being depleted at an alarming rate.

'A NatWest spokesman said: "All expenses to date have been approved through the court. We are working with the legal representatives of claimants and beneficiaries to agree future costs."'


'You are to reflect, Mr. Woodcourt,' observed Mr. Kenge, using his silver trowel, persuasively and smoothingly, 'that this has been a great cause, that this has been a protracted cause, that this has been a complex cause. Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been termed, not inaptly, a Monument of Chancery practice.'

'And Patience has sat upon it a long time,' said Allan.

'Very well indeed, sir,' returned Mr. Kenge, with a certain condescending laugh he had. 'Very well! You are further to reflect, Mr. Woodcourt,' becoming dignified almost to severity, 'that on the numerous difficuties, contingencies, masterly fictions, and forms of procedure in this great cause, there has been expended study, ability, eloquence, knowledge, intellect, Mr. Woodcourt, high intellect. For many years, the--a--I would say the flower of the Bar, and the--a--I would presume to add, the matured autumnal fruits of the Woolsack--have been lavished upon Jarndyce and Jarndyce. If the public have the benefit, and if the country have the adornment of this great Grasp, it must be paid for in money or money's worth, sir.'

'Mr. Kenge,' said Allan, appearing enlightened all in a moment. 'Excuse me, our time presses. Do I understand that the whole estate is found to have been absorbed in costs?'

'Hem! I believe so,' returned Mr. Kenge. 'Mr. Vholes, what do you say?'

'I believe so,' said Mr. Vholes.

'And that the suit lapses and melts away?'

'Probably,' returned Mr. Kenge. 'Mr. Vholes?'

'Probably,' said Mr. Vholes.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House, chapter lxv


We do things more speedily now.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Under the Greenwood Tree - or Hardygate

That's what we have all been waiting for so long, "fans" of Thomas Hardy especially, the "transformation" of this dreary old cottage. Just look at that picture - how old fashioned it looks. One just can't imagine how the great man managed to live there, let alone write a book or two. Jeffrey Archer would never have put up with it. Apparently Mrs H. wanted to do something about it but the old stick-in-the-mud wouldn't budge. Just because he'd been born there for heavens' sake! The things that poor woman must have had to put up with! You can tell how hopelessly behind the times he was if you ever dip into one of his books: you really can see he wasn't at all part of the aspiration nation. People in his books just didn't seem to get on - for some quite peculiar reasons. I hope they know what sort of toilets to install - last time I went the loo was in a shed at the bottom of the garden. The kitchen was beyond belief. And the beds were a disgrace. Why don't they get a decent interior designer in? The place does have potential even though it's not well presented at the moment. "Some retail space" - I hope there's going to be enough so that those dreary books don't crowd out the mugs and tea towels. Well done, National Trust and Dorset County Council, I say. Not before time. There's plenty of space in that garden. How about a conservatory? How were we ever expected to understand anything about the local landscape without some information? They could even make it interactive, with virtual walks through the woods - with commentary of course.

Think foul scorn

The enemy without.

"The queen the next morning rode through all the squadrons of her army, as armed Pallas, attended by noble footmen, Leicester, Essex, and Norris, then lord marshall, and divers other great lords. Where she made an excellent oration to her army, which the next day after her departure, I was commanded to re-deliver to all the army together, to keep a public fast.

"Her words were these.

"My loving people, we have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety to take heed how we commit ourself to armed multitudes for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safe guard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects, and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all, to lay down my life for my God and for my kingdom and for my people, my honour, and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm; the which, rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know, already for your forwardness, you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you, in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the meantime my lieutenant-general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject, not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people."

From a letter by Dr. Leonel Sharp to the Duke of Buckingham after 1623 (spelling moderised)

Versions of history

Some who oppose every aspect of Mrs Thatcher's political legacy have said that, nonetheless, her passing causes them to lament that she was the last British political leader who said what she meant and had any sense of history.

However there are alternative historical narratives into which she might be seen to fit. Such ideas may seem improbably far-fetched and much too close to the delusions of conspiracy theory - except when one looks around at the sheer scale of the egregiousness of the economic and politcal status quo today one has to wonder.

One has to ask why, if the titans of the US banking world were surreptitiously implementing a political programme of not just American dominance at the expense of other nations but of permanently enriching the financial elite of their own country at the expense of the population at large, any one of them would publish even a short and little known book outlining his intentions; or how, in a wider context, apparently conflicting motives can be united in a single, cunning plan. Yet one then reflects how much of those intentions has actually come about, that even if the wheels are not oiled as efficiently as some observers suppose the charriot may nevertheless be headed in that direction, and that the few countries that have stood outside the dollar-dominated system of the issuance of money as debt number Libya, Iran and North Korea. 

It's probably best to get back in the garden - or the workshop - or talk to the cat.

Friday, 12 April 2013

One nation: high and low profiles

"Commander Jones said because so many high profile people would be attending, including the Queen and the prime minister, areas of central London would be kept "sterile", with the public and any protesters banned from entering."

Uninvited guests

The President of Argentina (but the London ambassador is)
Nelson Mandela (but his representative is)
Arthur Scargill
Glenda Jackson
Augusto Pinochet (but his ghost is)
Jacques Delors
Meryl Streep
Bobby Sands
Philip Morris
Clive Ponting
Diana Gould
Peter Fluck
Ken Livingstone
Derek Hatton
Nigel Farage
Roger Law
Ian Hislop
Convocation of the University of Oxford
Durham Miners' Association
The enemy within
The evil empire
The state (not officially)
The Good Samaritan
St Francis of Asisi

"The hatred that burns in their hearts against Margaret Thatcher is actually an enormous tribute to Margaret Thatcher, because she won." Conor Burns Conservative MP

"Everyone likes to win arguments. She likes to win them more than most." William Whitelaw, her Deputy Prime Minister 1985

"This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated." Anonymous 1948 in a report on Margaret Roberts (her maiden name) by the personnel department of a large chemicals firm, rejecting her job application.

"She carried the cult of the individual much too far and has done us terrible damage in Europe with her fishwife yelling and screaming." Nicholas Soames Conservative MP

"No-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he'd only had good intentions: he had money as well." the late Margaret Thatcher

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Death and glory

It is repeatedly said at present that, although the only British prime minister in this or the last century to be accorded a state funeral has been Winston Churchill, in recognition as his role as leader during the second world war (the simple description 'war leader' is no longer particularly distinguishing amongst modern British prime ministers), nineteenth-century prime ministers such as Disraeli and Gladstone were given state funerals.

It appears to be a mistaken belief and that they also were given not state but public funerals:

"A public funeral was one paid for by Parliament through a resolution to the monarch. It was, and remains, a very rare event. In the nineteenth century only Nelson, Pitt the Younger, Charles James Fox, R. B. Sheridan, George Canning, the Duke of Wellington, Palmerston, and Napier of Magdala had been so buried (several had been offered and declined, for example Beaconsfield and Russell). Palmerston was the best precedent (and he had made the same requirement about his wife), but he had died in the Parliamentary recess and the procedures had had to be short-circuited. The Wellington funeral had been a lavish but rather chaotic affair; the catafalque being too heavy for the road which gave way under it in St James’ and too large to get through the gates of St Paul’s (where both Nelson and Wellington were buried) and the congregation was thus kept waiting for over an hour. Gladstone’s funeral was to be the first public funeral with a recognisedly modern aspect – worldwide press coverage via telegraph and the procession filmed."  

Moreover, the records of Glastone's funeral show it as, by current standards, a rather subdued affair without pomp and bombast. It was also the custom that the monarch, or members of the royal family, did not attend and Victoria had no intention of doing so (having ensured that news of Gladstone's death was entirely omitted from the court circular by means of an 'oversight', in contrast with the effusive mention of Disraeli's death, which she had herself written - Victoria, for all her popular reputation, was not the model of propriety that is our present queen). However, the prince of Wales defied her and acted as one of the pall bearers.

Gladstone left the rather ambivalent instruction in his will that his burial was "‘to be very simple unless they [his Executors] shall consider that there are conclusive reasons to the contrary’. Of course there are other ways of arranging one's own funeral.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Paper economy

This is apparently a current picture of the Cyprus company registry office.

A bitter inheritance

I wrote my George Osborne post before hearing of the death of Mrs Thatcher.

She was, it appears to me, the first modern British prime minister for whom it was not an unexamined belief that she acted on behalf of the whole nation. Previous post-war prime ministers may not actually have represented or understood the interests of all sections of the nation, but they believed they did and took it as a given that they should. She did not. She saw the sheep and the goats.

She was an embattled leader (and those who approve of her legacy tend to refer to her as a leader rather than a prime minister): embattled in her party, embattled in her nation, embattled in the economy, embattled in Europe, embattled on the world stage - and it delivered for her unprecedented electoral success.

After her, the political scene had changed, especially as labour embraced the new environment and Tony Blair finally succeeded in getting most of his party to love Peter Mandelson. Votes are always a great persuader. By an amalgam of circumstance, they did not either see the nation as whole (after all it had to be 'reformed'), but they needed, for post-Thatcher electoral success, and to emulate her three successive victories at the ballot box, to appeal to "the middle ground". The middle ground became, fatally and divisively, the political surrogate for the whole nation - fatally for the well-being of the nation and fatally for the honesty of politics, at a time when the world economic order was enmeshed in dishonesty and corruption.

If previous tory leaders had believed in their own ways that they had an obligation to represent the whole nation it was because they believed in an social order. Fictitious or doomed as it may have been, it informed and restrained their political choices. Mrs Thatcher did not believe in a social order. Though she could display great loyalty and generosity towards individuals, she did not appear have a concept of a cohesive society. She famously said, "There is no such thing as society." Or perhaps she famously almost said it. Typically she tended not to understand fully her own best lines (like "The lady's not for turning") and her clustering acolytes shrank from having to explain them to her. She was, in some sense, an innocent, unaware of the full forces that her ardent personality was unleashing.

She believed in a morally driven aspiration to petty bourgeois, property owning, individual self-sufficiency. Every individual should be encouraged down that route - there lay the national salvation - and she was prepared to offer bribing largesse in the form of houses or privatised company shares dispensed at cut rates from the public purse. The tactic appalled Harold Macmillan. When he protested at the selling of "the family silver" he did have some sense of the value of the family as well as of the silver. Many would say that Mrs Thatcher was equally profligate and irresponsible i her management of the national economy, subordinating national interest to socio-political manipulation.

Mrs Thatcher, and later her new-socialist followers, pressed on. Her "Sid" was the progenitor of George Osborne's deracinated "striver", with the pantomime clothes of the "big society" left strewn on the ground around him. At the higher level of society and the economy Mrs Thatcher, in eager alliance with her trans-Atlantic soul-mate, demolished the restraints on enterprise and finance that lead, a few short decades later and within her own lifetime, to the moral and economic bankruptcy that has captured our society now - something we even shamefully foisted on the vulnerable and long-suffering peoples of the Soviet Union and the "evil empires" we deluded ourselves we were liberating. For them also there was to be "no alternative". (That of course is only one part of the foreign policy charge sheet.)

Perhaps she was no more than the force of our own destiny, but she has left us a bitter inheritance.

Monday, 8 April 2013

First towels off the beach


Unite and Rule - or Division Time?

I did not hear the radio interview with our Chancellor of the Exchequer where he defended his claim that the recent conviction of Mick Philpott, who was drawing over £50,00 in state benefits for his seventeen children, for the manslaughter of six of them in a house fire of itself demonstrated the necessity of restructuring the welfare benefits regime.

Mr Osborne, however, is quoted as having said "I don't set out to be divisive – actually far from it,  ... I think a lot of the things that I've been saying … are in tune with what the great majority of the country think and experience in their everyday lives."

I have to wonder how in touch Mr Osborne - or any member of the government - actually is "with what the great majority of the country think and experience in their everyday lives", although no doubt he is surrounded by advisers whose professional task is to tell him their version of it.

One doesn't have to wonder about (rather than wonder at) how in touch the majority of the country is with the facts of the welfare system. Surveys have shown that public opinion majorly overestimates the cost of welfare, its generosity to claimants, the extent of abuse, the proportion of the total cost that goes to the unemployed (as opposed to, for example, pensions), and the amount that this country spends compared with other European states.

Yet it is that confident phrase "I don't set out to be divisive" that strikes me most. I can imagine it being proclaimed equally sincerely by any aspiring populist dictator - including, I cannot help but reflect, Hitler, one of whose most often repeated phrases was "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer". Here and now in Britian we have a Coalition, though not one nation.

The people united come first. Then may come the horrors. Not, of course, that Mr Osborne is indulging in anything like Hitler's strident rhetoric, but, when appeals to the popular will gain political precedence over reasoned appeals to the public benefit, we are entering dangerous territory.

It is noticeable how often, at other times, Mr Osborne and his conservative goverment colleagues couch their appeal to a public described in a particular way, as "strivers" or "those who want to get on" or "hard-working families" (vintage New Labour), implying clearly that those whose views or opinions matter are those who already agree with the government's vision of society and the direction changes to its structure should take - fellow travellers on the road to political reform and the big, if not comprehensive, society. It echoes the late Mrs Thatcher's underlying question, "Is he one of us?" Yet she was a populist of a different stamp. For all her genuine belief that she was battling in the interests of her country and countrymen and women, Mrs Thatcher never shrank from identifying an 'enemy within'. Her politcal heir and successor, Tony Blair, with his fixation on the middleground was also aware that his social vision was not entirely comprehensive, and it is a rarity indeed to find a politician who is genuinely concerned to unite the country across real existing divisions, or, who, when the going gets tough, is not prepared to take political advantage from majority disdain for other elements in society.

One people. The phrase with great historic currency in the United States is rather different: "One nation under god" although it was only in 1954 that Congress, with President Eisenhower's encouragement, put god in there. The daughter of the original author, in 1892, of the pledge of allegience, socialist minister Francis Bellamy, actually objected to the change. In another small irony, illustrating the difficulty of keeping these national tokens unsullied by any fortuitous association with rival, abhorrent regimes, the salute to the flag devised by Bellamy at the same time had to be changed during the second world war because it appeared too similar to the arm extended Nazi salute. 

"One nation" also has British political currency, as "one nation conservatism" and the tradition introduced to our social debate by Benjamin Disraeli, but the idea now has more campaigning appeal to the Labour than to the Conservative party, the latter famously mocked now for another once seemingly appealing slogan that "We are all in this together."

As yet the "condition of England question" has still to be explicitly revived by any politician.

Monday, 1 April 2013


The world is bankrupt: not just our world but the world that we inhabit. Man, as an expansive species, was always going to bring the roof down on his own head unless there was some element of absolute restriction in his culture. He knew it in his myths of the tree of knowledge and of Pandora's box. The only thing left in our box now is geo-technology.

Our society, the most expansive culture of the most expansive species, has replaced taboo with the risk asessment and the precautionary principle. We have internalised and digested our sense of restriction, substituting calculation for prohibition.

Bach created the B minor mass and never heard it performed. For us performance is everything. We create without prayer and our highest spiritual faculty, to some, is the sense of wonder. Truly we consume; profligately or reverently, we consume.

A hope less certain

One of the major and less expected developments of the mid-twenty-first century in the United Kingdon was the introduction of the government sponsored Individual Life Suspension and Resumption Programme (ILSARP). Scientific and medical advances had made it possible to enable individuals to place themselves in a medically induced coma and for the costs and technical complexity of maintaining them in such a reversible state to be reduced to something thought manageable on an amost do-it-yourself basis.

People who found their lives emotionally or otherwise unsustainable, albeit, as they thought, temporarily, could 'switch off' or 'Suspend' their lives - until things got better. 'Take a break from life's problems!' was Government UK's slogan, or, when it was in sterner social policy mode, 'Breaking the cycle of life dependency.' The suspended could leave instructions for friends or relatives as to when, or in what specified circumstances (should they eventuate), they were to be revived so that their lives could be 'Resumed'.

This was initially seen by government partly as a response to growing discontent and social maladjustment ('broken families', 'lost generations' and 'failed models' were much in mind), and partly as a diversion of the growing demand for legalising assisted suicide that was becoming both unmanageable and insoluble in the face of medical ethical and legal complications, despite the removal of objections by Church England. However, it was probably mainly hoped it would somehow cap the burgeoning costs of the welfare budget (especially state pensions - otherwise sacrosanct) and it was introduce as a rather obscure part of Government UK's 'Universal Benefit'.

The 'mini-break from life' seemed the answer to so many problems, social as well as individual, but it did not develop entirely as anticipated. There was initial customer suspicion and most of the early adopters of Suspension were young people and 'Non-Aspirers' thought to be using the facility irresponsibly. Taking a 'Monday break' became part of the recreational drugs scene, and was sometimes sponsored by clubs and festival organisers. However, especially as the economy dropped into recession for the seventh time, as 89.9 per cent of individual bank deposits were 'taken into protective custody' by Bank England and as the 'free at the point of delivery' principle was abandoned in Health England (formerly the National Health Service), more serious and long-term use of the Life Suspension facility grew.

It was not, however, without problems. Initially the government had regarded it as a private arrangement with little state involvement beyond light-touch oversight - and little cost to the state - but the 'home based suspension management facilities' proved insufficiently robust or economic and, after the press seized on some embarrassing individual cases, the Suspended soon had to be housed in more technically sophisticated, purpose-built facilities, whose building was of course out-sourced.

In the early years, when the scheme could still be presented as a bright and optimistic social development, the Suspension Homes were things to which physical attention was to be drawn as part of the Great Infrastructure Renewal project (GIRP - delivered by the 'Girp Trinity' of VirginGirp, SercoGirp and CapitaGirp). But it was superstructure rather than infrastructure, and the natural architectural form was of course the pyramid, and the desirable material self-cleaning, ligt-shimmering glass. These 'light-ascending pyramids', based on a design from the country's most eminent architect, were conspicuously erected along the many new high-speed rail routes that were criss-crossing the country as part of GIRP. Life Suspension was somehow seen to have a material affinity with high-speed rail travel and both were claimed to be 'carbon friendly'.

Pyramids of light

But as both the numbers of the suspended and the problems with the scheme grew, new facilities came to be located instead in undistinguished converted disused industrial and retail buildings in the former 'business parks', providing one of the few bright spots in the property market. Rumours that some of the Suspension maintenance was being out-located to what used to be known as the developing countries were strongly denied but never dispelled, even when the routine telephone calls from the Suspension Homes to the nominated next of kin came to be less often in sub-continental accents and more in Scots. (Scotland itself was of course by this time not just one but two foreign countries following the breakaway of the United Clans of the Highlands and Islands - UCHI, famously and disdainfully pronounced "oochee" by Elected King Alex the First - after the bitter post-independence civil war fuelled by disputed claims to the potential riches of North Atlantic mineral nodules - DAMN - that quite put the dwindling North Sea oil in the economic shade and lead to the endless disputes over the Right of Return of the Scottish diaspora - return to which Scotland?)

Despite the problems the government was unable to retreat from what had been originally presented as 'a new human right' and written into the much disputed Constitution England. It had eventually been taken up by a significant portion of the population and somehow, for all the individual complaints, come in rapid order to the love-hate status that used to be enjoyed by the old National Health Service.

Initially Resumption had been expected to be a simple matter. The Suspended would instruct their friends or family who would Resume them when the time or circumstances specified were met. However, very soon there came to be disputes about Resumption being made prematurely or else being improperly delayed. Suspension was not without cost and there were financial as well as social pressures in both directions.

The government was forced to step in as regulator (Offbod) and inaugurate a system of Resumption Permits. Initially these were granted automatically if the Suspended's wishes were deemed to be met, and certain economic, social and health conditions would be available for the Resumed to enjoy. Those conditions, stipulated by government order, became steadily more demanding and there were initial protests when the government ruled that the Suspended could not be Resumed unless there were full-time employment and suitable housing available for them. However, the discontent fairly quickly died down to a manageable level and the government was able to increase steadily the qualifying wage level of such employment.

Management of the scheme became increasingly complicated, with Offbod responding to difficulties in an ad hoc fashion as, for example, with the introduction, in certain individual cases of a Presumption Against Resumption for the Protection of the Vulnerable. Some of the Suspended were 'Prearsed' so that, even if both Elected and Universal Qualifying Conditions for Resumption could be shown to be met, these Suspended individuals could not be Resumed without specific licence from Offbod. Although no figures were ever issued, such Permits Against Presumption (PAPs) were thought to be very rarely issued. The government nevertheless maintained that the system was a necessary precaution aginst abuse. Yet because the safeguards were, it maintained, expensive to implement it was consequently necessary to charge application fees for PAPs. These were indexed to the national average wage and were eventually capped at a 7.5 multiple.

Complications, cost and embarrassments multiplied out of control (including a large computer management programme that eventually had to be scrapped as non-performing after many millions had been spent), but the ILSARP scheme came to be woven into the social fabric of the nation as once had been the NHS, both politically indispensible and unmanageable - and, many claimed, unaffordabe. The bright Pyramids of Light became shabby and dilapidated until they were sold off and converted into luxury appartments by the property developer Urban Resurrection. But every attempt at a radical political solution seemed doomed and many a government was brought down by the issue, until finally, in an unexpected and rapid commercial coup, the world's largest computer devices company mobilised its 15 trillion dollar reserves and bought out the whole programme which it promptly renamed Windfall. Thereafter things took a very different course.

April Fools' Day

The English 'bedroom tax' and various cuts in welfare payments come into effect; the 'reformed' National Health Service starts up with its new 'commissioning' process; the Royal Marines have joined in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race (they came a poor third); Conservative members of parliament start a 'whispering campaign' saying George Osbourne is the problem.

And William Shakespeare stands newly revealed as a tax dodger and grain speculator. However, it is pointed out in his defence that the incriminating documents that have been uncovered were actually written by Sir Francis Bacon.

The separate Scottish police forces have been amalgamated and renamed 'Police Scotland'.