Saturday, February 25, 2017

Britain Elect foresees Lib Dem gains in May's local elections

Britain Elects has published the third in its briefings for May's elections, this one covering English authorities.

It points out that Labour's potential for making gains is limited. May's elections will largely concern county councils, which are more rural and more Conservative leaning than England in general.

And last time these seats were fought (2013) Labour had a national opinion poll lead of 7-10 points under Ed Miliband's leadership.

But what does it say about the Liberal Democrats? I hear you ask:
Cornwall, electing a hefty 123 councillors, is another one to keep an eye out for. Of the eleven council by-elections to the authority since 2013, nine changed hands, six of which to the Lib Dems. 
While very unlikely the Lib Dems will secure a majority on the council given the diverse and localised nature of Cornish politics where independents and smaller parties have robust bases of support, it’s almost certain they will retain and build upon their position as the largest party. 
Other authorities may prove fruitful for the Lib Dems. The yellows have had a history of representation in much of shire England, notably coming second to the Tories (beating Labour) back in 2009. 
It can’t be said for certain how well the Lib Dems will perform in these elections, but we should expect them to make a comeback in authorities they once were strong in: Devon, Somerset, Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Hertfordshire and the two Sussex authorities. 
Their performance in Cambridge proper, the southern half of Norwich, Eastleigh in Hampshire, Harrogate in North Yorkshire and some portions of the West Country are worth watching as they may indicate where the Lib Dems could, if they do, make a parliamentary comeback.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Captain Mainwaring and Sergeant Wilson on Blue Peter

Richard was correct: it is right up my street.

And he was correct about it being simply lovely too.

Six of the Best 669

Mark Pack finds that Jeremy Corbyn does not want to raise human rights abuses backed by Russia with the Russian ambassador.

Will Brexit mean cheaper food? Harry Wallop has his doubts.

Amanda Froelich takes us to Asia's first vertical forest.

"Normally when you’ve got a British county whose name ends in -shire, it’s named after its county town (or, in a few cases, its ex county-town). But there’s no Shrop in Shropshire. So, why’s it called that?" John Elledge discovers the derivation of English county names.

"Love offers the dream of an escape from performance (‘We won’t have time for such, / Such fancy pantomimes’) – but first, it leads inexorably into it." Richard O'Brien offers a close reading of Jake Thackray's song Lah-Di-Dah.

Clint Eastwood was cast in A Fistful of Dollars only because Charles Bronson asked for too much money. Mark Harris relates some spaghetti Western history.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

New study of the benefits of chess in schools published



Ever since I wrote an article for Comment is Free on the movement to encourage chess in schools, I have taken an interest in the idea that doing so benefits children's performance in the conventional curriculum.

Last time I blogged about this, it was to report a study funded by the Education Endowment Foundation. It found that there were no such benefits.

As I wrote then, "I have written too many press releases about scientific papers in my day job to expect any study conclusive."

Sure enough new research has appeared, suggesting there were problems with methodology of that study and suggesting there may be benefits after all. That research is published by Frontiers in Psychology.

So the debate continues.

My own experience is that being good at chess as a teenager (though not half as good as I was in my twenties) did a lot (maybe too much) for my intellectual confidence, particularly when I found I could beat my teachers.

I also realised when I played a friend at draughts that I was winning because I could see further than he could, no doubt because I had developed that faculty playing chess.

And when we played a business game against other schools, I was the one saying we should get over our mistakes in the early rounds and think about the current one. Again, that was something chess had taught me.

But I was not aware of any benefits from chess in studying conventional subjects. But I was strictly on the arts side in the sixth form, so maybe it is different in maths and science.

Gallery devoted to Ladybird Books illustrations opens in Reading

Good news from Maev Kennedy in the Guardian. A permanent gallery devoted the illustration from the Ladybird chiildren's books has opened at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading:
The Reading gallery has scores of titles shelved chronologically from 1961’s Learning to Read Numbers, to current titles such as Climate Change by HRH The Prince of Wales, whose 50 pages are credited with two more co-authors and eight peer reviewers. 
Prince Charles’s book is one of three new “expert” titles, for which the first new artwork in 40 years was commissioned. Before that illustrations were endlessly recycled and updated where necessary: an early space exploration image was overpainted to show that the Eagle had landed in 1969, and the curators found a new head had been glued on top of one image of Jane. 
Baxter wonders if modern viewers will be charmed or chagrined by the Ladybird worldview. “Will they just feel nostalgia,” he said, “or perhaps worry about this very simplistic, sanitised view of the world we were presented with, and passed on to our own children?”
Both Guy Baxter, the archivist at Reading, and Kennedy seems occupied by the idea that the Ladybird books were a little twee.

I disagree.

Call Malcolm Clark from the New Statesman:
Those wide expanses of seashore and countryside on Planet Ladybird are seen as totally safe. There are no overprotective parents, no teachers dreading accidents or subsequent inquests, no lawyers waiting to sue when Peter stumbles during a jump over a stile. Nor are there any dirty white vans prowling along B-roads on the off chance. 
Public space was not thought to be dangerous then, and this is not just nostalgic idealisation. I grew up in a small town in the early 1970s. The vast public park really did have attendants. It also happened to have well-tended flowerbeds and a boating pond. These days, you have to train your dog to tiptoe over the syringes. The war memorial is covered in graffiti and there isn't a police station for ten miles. If you sent Peter and Jane there to fly a kite, you'd kit them out in bulletproof vests first. 
In fact, the entire old Ladybird project had an indefinable public-spiritedness about it. This partly reflected a strain in British culture that went all the way back to Samuel Smiles's Self-Help and the Victorian reference libraries. The quest for knowledge was seen as an uncomplicated and enjoyable pursuit, one in which young citizens should be encouraged to share. 
So once you had learnt to read, you could move on to a panoply of different subjects, each featured in its own dedicated little tome, from the lives of biographical figures, such as Captain Scott or Robert the Bruce, to significant moments in history, such as the civil war. You could learn about "wind and flight", or even Australasian mammals.
Ladybird would even teach you to read. The illustration above comes from Our Friends, books 6A in the imprint's Key Words Reading Scheme.

That was the series of book I learnt to read with before I went to school. And it was strictly look and say - none of your synthetic phonics nonsense.

Leicester City sack Claudio Ranieri and lose public sympathy



I am not a Leicester City fan. Chelsea won my heart when I was a small boy, largely because my Mum comes from Battersea just across the river.*

But I was delighted when they won the Premiership last season. In part because it was so unlikely and in part because their triumph melded with the discovery of Richard III to win this historic city some of the recognition it deserves.

Things have gone badly for City in their defence of the title this season: they are currently only one point and one place above the relegation zone.

Tonight came the news that they have sacked Claudio Ranieri, the manager who won them the title.

You can say football is a business and has no room for statement.

But it was because of sentiment that so many supporters of other clubs were pleased for Leicester last season.

Now many of them will be rather pleased if Leicester City are relegated.

*People in the streets around Stamford Bridge support Fulham. Support for Chelsea follows the railways lines south out of London.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Park Street: The least used station in Hertfordshire



Another in this series of videos from Londonist.

If nothing else, it gives readers a break from the Oswestry to Welshpool line.

Help fund Market Harborough's Arts Fresco street theatre festival


The next Arts Fresco, Market Harborough's international street theatre festival, will take place on 10 September 2017.

The organisers write on their blog:
To ensure the long term future of Arts Fresco, we need to look at alternative methods of fundraising. Enter Crowdfunder, an online fundraising website. 
If everyone who came to the festival last year donated a tenner on our page, we'd raise enough funds to keep the event going for the next three years. That could make Arts Fresco a sustainable event for Harborough, able to draw the best street theatre acts from the UK and abroad. ... 
Please help us keep Harborough on the street theatre map, donate whatever you can afford, and share the link with all your friends, ask them to share with their friends, and let's see how much fun we can bring to this wonderful town of ours.
Now visit the Arts Fresco Crowdfunder page (and enjoy a video of Musical Ruth while you are there).

New Zealand garden gnome thefts 'fund meth trade'

Thanks to BBC News, we have our Headline of the Day.

Thanks to my county councillor for tweeting this story.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Oswestry to Welshpool part 4



We have been to OswestryLlanclys and Llanymynech.

This last part offers an unsatisfactory walk to Welshpool.

Whoever agreed that the station there should be moved so a new road could be built deserves a particularly imaginative punishment.

Readers comment: Thank goodness we have seen the last of this line.

Liberal England replies: Don't be so sure.

Willie Rennie says backing for Brexit could evaporate like support for the war in Iraq



Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, is giving a speech to the David Hume Institute in Edinburgh this evening.

The Scotsman had advance sight of what he will say:
"We accept the referendum result. But political leaders have got a responsibility to lead. 
"Political leadership is sometimes about persuading people, not just repeating what the last focus group told you. That is followership. 
"In April 2003 people wholeheartedly supported Tony Blair’s government. People and the media would howl at Charles Kennedy. But opinions changed."
Willie is right: the public did change its mind on Iraq.

But it's more worrying than that for the government. As I blogged last October, the public has not just changed its mind: many voters now believe they never supported war in Iraq in the first place.

It's good to be reminded of the courage Charles Kennedy showed in making the case against war, but we should remember that he was rather bounced into taking that position by Liberal Democrat activists.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Market Harborough station with semaphore signals


Not just semaphore signals, but a very fine splitting distant. That means I took this photo while there was still an Up Goods line from Little Bowden Junction to Desborough North.

It was lifted as part of the Leicester to Bedford resignalling project, which dates this one to before 1983.

But I have photos of this signal with a single distant, so it must date from a little before then. I would guess 1979 or 1980.

The locomotive approaching from south is a Class 25 hauling what looks to be a departmental train or a very mixed freight.

Note too the grass of the Dainite sports ground, which has long since had houses built on it.

Abuse of Trust: Frank Beck and the Leicestershire Children’s Homes Scandal by Mark D'Arcy and Paul Gosling

Abuse of Trust: Frank Beck and the Leicestershire Children’s Homes Scandal
Mark D'Arcy and Paul Gosling
Canbury Press, 2016

In 1991 Frank Beck was sentenced to five life-terms for sexual and physical assaults against more than one hundred children in his care while he worked for Leicestershire County Council. He was sentenced to a further 24 years on 17 charges of abuse, including rape.

Mark D’Arcy (now the BBC’s political correspondent) and Paul Gosling published the first edition of this book in 1998. Now it has been reissued with a significant extra chapter.

It begins:
Throughout the Frank Beck trail there was a shadow in the court – a man named by the defence and who much private speculation centred around. That was Greville Janner MP. Just as Janner was an elusive figure in the Beck trial, so, for legal reasons, he was only mentioned, almost in passing, in the original version of Abuse of Trust. Now more can be reported – and very much more is known.
They go on to detail the growing allegations against Janner. The first emerged during Beck’s trial: by the time his failing health put paid to a prosecution in 2015, 30 witnesses had accused him, of whom 12, regarded as the strongest potential witnesses, would have given evidence in court.

It also emerged that Janner was not telling the truth when told the Kirkwood inquiry into Beck’s crimes that he had never met him.

The allegations against Janner have been widely reported over the past couple of years, but in many ways this book’s reappearance is most welcome because it reminds us of Frank Beck’s crimes.

As I once blogged, the secrecy with which officialdom sought to surround first his trial and then the Kirkwood inquiry was extraordinary. The Beck trial was the first of several involving widespread abuse in children’s homes, so any historian of that episode will want to read it.

I have also read that Kirkwood’s report is now hard to obtain, though there was a copy in the library at the University of Leicester in the days when I haunted it. My strongest memory from reading it is the squalor in which the children lived and the low quality of the people, Beck included, who controlled there lives.

I can add today that my distinct impression when Beck was arrested was that no one was terribly surprised.

Later I worked with a woman who had hung out with a group of friends when she was a teenager. She said that the boys had all heard stories about the children’s homes Beck ran.

Unless we learn the lessons of cases like this, we shall go on being surprised by child abuse.

You can buy Abuse of Trust from Amazon UK or direct from Canbury Press.

Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot: Bonnie and Clyde



Petula Clark has said of Serge Gainsbourg:
"I loved his voice and that sort of ugly handsome look. ... He was very clever, very charming, I understand why he had all those lovely ladies."
And none came lovelier than Brigitte Bardot.

Bonnie And Clyde and its video come over as a musical version of the Jean-Luc Godard film A Bout de Souffle.

It was actually inspired by "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde," a poem written by Bonnie Parker herself.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Six of the Best 668

Examining the economic flaws and false assumptions of the Higher Education and Research Bill, Martin Wolf explains that universities are not supermarkets.

If you love wildlife and enjoy country walks, you've got the makings of a badger patroller, says Lesley Docksey.

Anoosh Chakelian reveals the secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s.

Amy Davies interviews Chuck Rapoport, the American photojournalist who recorded the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster.

On Saturday, it will be four years to the day since the town walls behind St Laurence’s church fell collapsed. Almost nothing has happened to get repairs underway." Andy Boddington reports worrying news from Ludlow.

"The outpouring of emotion when this news came out was like I had died ... but I was lucky enough to read the messages that people have sent to me." James Taylor talks about life since his hear condition forced him to retire from cricket.

The redevelopment of the New Walk Centre site in Leicester


Leicester's New Walk Centre, formerly the home to the offices of the city council, was spectacularly demolished two years ago.
For a while the ground lay pleasingly fallow, but redevelopment is now well underway. I took some photographs of the site today.

The Leicester Mercury has details of what the new development will look like when it is finished.




Friday, February 17, 2017

Oswestry to Welshpool part 3



We have seen Oswestry station and Llanclys.

Part 3, after more train-driving action, takes us on to Llanymynech.

Look for some nice shots of a derelict stretch of the Mongomery Canal too.

Reader's voice: You spoil us.

It's the fight of the century: Mary Berry vs Prue Leith

Media reports suggest Prue Leith will take Mary Berry's place when The Great British Bake Off transfers to Channel 4.

I therefore decided to create a Twitter poll...

Conservatives discover "the North is massive"


     The massive North           


Mark Wallace has written an enlightening article for Conservative Home about the strengths and weaknesses of the party's campaign in the Copeland by-election.

But I was most struck by this passage:
Most recent, viable Tory by-election efforts have been in the South and Midlands, within easy striking distance of most Conservative MPs’ constituencies. Cumbria is rather further away – and, as one MP puts it, some have been surprised to learn that “the North is massive” – which has deterred some from attending.
It reminds us that, while Britain is divided by social class, there is a related geographical division too.

As I once wrote of David Howell and his views on fracking:
One of the problems we face as a country is the way the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge dominates our national life ... 
Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThe result of this is that many otherwise educated people have little knowledge of large tracts of their own country and indeed think themselves rather clever because of it.

Welcome back Tony Blair and his leadership on Europe

I want to be explicit. Yes, the British people voted to leave Europe. And I agree the will of the people should prevail. I accept right now there is no widespread appetite to re-think. 
But the people voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. 
Our mission is to persuade them to do so. 
What was unfortunately only dim in our sight before the referendum is now in plain sight. The road we're going down is not simply Hard Brexit. 
It is Brexit At Any Cost. 
Our challenge is to expose relentlessly what this cost is, to show how the decision was based on imperfect knowledge which will now become informed knowledge, to calculate in ‘easy to understand’ ways how proceeding will cause real damage to our country; and to build support for finding a way out from the present rush over the cliff’s edge. 
I don't know if we can succeed. But I do know we will suffer a rancorous verdict from future generations if we do not try.
You can read the full text of the former prime minister's speech this morning on the rather grandly named Office of Tony Blair website.

This part is good too:
If we were in a rational world, we would all the time, as we approach those decisions, be asking: why are we doing this and as we know more of the costs, is the pain worth the gain? 
Let us examine the pain. 
We will withdraw from the Single Market which is around half of our trade in goods and services. We will also leave the Customs Union, covering trade with countries like Turkey. Then we need to replace over 50 Preferential Trade Agreements we have via our membership of the EU; for instance with Switzerland. So, EU-related trade is actually two thirds of the UK total. This impacts everything from airline travel, to financial services to manufacturing industry, sector by sector. 
We will pay for previous EU obligations but not benefit from future opportunities, with figures as high as £60bn as the cost. 
We will lose influence in the world’s most significant political union; and have to negotiate on our own on issues like the environment where we presently benefit from Europe’s collective strength. 
There is alarm across sectors as diverse as scientific research and culture as European funding is withdrawn. 
And all this then to do an intricate re-negotiation of the trading arrangements we have just abandoned. 
That negotiation is without precedent in complexity. It is even possible that it fails and we end up trading on WTO rules. 
This is in itself another mine field: we would need to negotiate the removal not just of tariff barriers; but the prevention of non-tariff barriers which today are often the biggest impediments to trade and pile costs on business. 
This could take years. 
Our currency is down around 12% against the Euro and 20% against the dollar, which is the international financial market’s assessment of our future prosperity i.e. we are going to be poorer. The price of imported goods in the supermarkets is up and thus the cost of living. 
Of course Britain can and would survive out of the EU. This is a great country, with resilient and creative people. And yes, no one is going to write us off, nor should they. But making the best of a bad job doesn't alter the fact that it isn't smart to put yourself in that position unless you have to. 
Most extraordinary of all, the two great achievements of British diplomacy of the last decades in Europe, supported by Governments both Labour and Conservative, – namely the Single Market and European Enlargement – are now apparently the two things we most regret and want to rid ourselves of! 
The Single Market has been of enormous benefit to the UK bringing billions of pounds of wealth, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and major investment opportunities; our trade with an enlarged European Union has meant for example that trade with Poland has gone from £3bn in 2004 to £13.5bn in 2016. 
Nations that came out of the Soviet bloc have seen themselves safely within the EU and NATO, so enhancing our own security. 
In addition to all this, the possibility of the break-up of the UK – narrowly avoided by the result of the Scottish referendum – is now back on the table, but this time with a context much more credible for the independence case. 
We are already seeing the destabilising impact of negotiation over border arrangements on the Northern Ireland peace process.
I have quoted at such length because the speech is good - very good indeed - and no one else has made the case against Brexit with such authority.

Because of it, I welcome Tony Blair's welcome to British politics.

And that is from someone who spent 13 years poking fun at the more absurd elements of Blairism. But things are more serious now.

When I tweeted praise for the speech earlier today I immediately received a reply mentioning Iraq.

Those who shout "Iraq" whenever Blair is mentioned may act from a concern for the sufferings of the Iraqi people,

But they may also be using it as a tactic - as a way of labelling Blair that means we need not listen to anything he says.

We Liberal Democrats suffered the cry of "tuition fees" for long enough to understand this.

And many white and well-heeled members of the left are keen to label other white and well-heeled members of the left as racist or insufficiently respectful of the working class as a way of shutting them up.

Things are too serious for Britain now for us to silence a voice we need to hear.

The Shrewsbury to Bishop's Castle bus is under threat


Let's move to Bishop's Castle, says the Guardian today:
Hang out at… What a choice. The Castle Hotel, with log fires, beams, leather chairs and a lovely garden? The Three Tuns? The cheery Six Bells? Or coffee, cake and classical music at Yarborough House?
I'm slavering already, though I don't suppose I will move there. Deep Shropshire does not seem a sensible place to retire to, though the genteel Church Stretton gets more than its share.

These days my family situation makes it hard for me even to visit there, though I have hopes of getting away this summer.

Trouble is, it may soon be much harder to get there without a car.

The other day South Shropshire Greens tweeted a cutting of a letter to the Shropshire Star by Steve Hale.

It began:
Shropshire Council has issued its latest findings on the viability of a number of bus routes within the county. 
Out of 29 routes, the 553 Bishop's Castle to Shrewsbury is rated as 27 (one being the most viable) thus strongly suggesting that, whatever consultation people engage in, it will be axed by Shropshire Council to save subsidy money.
You can find those ratings in Appendix 2 to Appendix A of the council's Shropshire Bus Strategy 2016-2021.

Will there be a rising? Or will Treasury cuts to local government mean the end of rural bus services across England?

Paul Nuttall's website is still down but you can read it here


Two days on and Paul Nuttall's website is still "undergoing scheduled maintenance".

Yeah. Right.

If you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms, do not despair.

Thanks to the wonders of the Wayback Machine you can still enjoy every word.

If it ever comes back on line, you can be sure textual scholars will be comparing the two versions to see exactly what has been deleted.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Closure notice for the Settle & Carlisle


If you enjoyed this week's footage of Tornado hauling scheduled passenger trains, remember that the authorities tried to close the Settle & Carlisle line in the early 1980s.

This is the closure notice that was posted at the time.

The local transport users' consultative committee held a hearing in Appleby, and a former fellow member of the University of York Railway Society was one of the people to give evidence.

As I recall, he spoke about the line's importance as a way of giving cyclists and walkers access to the Dales.

The transport minister Paul Channon originally announced that he was minded to agree to the line's closure, but so effective was the campaign to save it that he was obliged to change his mind.

More on Kate Hoey's Trotskyist past



When I wrote about this in June of last year, someone left a comment directing me to The Cedar Lounge Revolution, an Irish political blog.

There a commenter, NollaigO, left the following in 2008:
Living in London in the early 1970s she became a vice-president of the NUS.[Jack Straw was NUS president at the time]. Returning from an overseas conference, she found herself sitting next to Tariq Ali on the plane. Tariq persuaded her to join the IMG, which she did in summer 1971. 
In subsequent years she used to muddy this connection by claiming that she was in the Spartacus League, a short lived youth wing of the IMG. She was never at ease with the Irish Republican Trotskyism of the IMG and was also very inimical to Gery Lawless an IMG member at the time. 
She felt that having Lawless as a member discredited the IMG. Under the influence of Brian Trench [political influence of course!] she joined the IS in 1972 but her stay there was also limited. 
She joined Hackney Labour party and supported the Troops Out Movement for a period before becoming a supporter of the BICO front organisation, Campaign for Labour Representation in Northern Ireland. 
Nowadays the IPR group are quiet hostile to her,dubbing her TallyHoey in a recent article!
You need a degree in far-left factions to understand all that, but NollaigO does drop in a fascinating point that should interest us all.

He says that Kate Hoey is the niece of the late BBC political correspondent John Cole. If true, this would certainly qualify as a Trivial Fact of the Day.

I can't find a definitive source that confirms it, but the same story is told by Malcolm Redfellow and he generally know what he is talking about.

Rutland Bitter is a food name protected by the European Union

Thanks to Sarah Ludford, the Liberal Democrat shadow minister for exiting the European Union, for pointing out to me that Rutland Bitter is a protected food name under the EU.

The British government page on the protected food name scheme lays out the protections it provides:
The EU protected food name scheme highlights regional and traditional foods whose authenticity and origin can be guaranteed.
Under this system, a named food or drink registered at a European level, will be given legal protection against imitation throughout the EU.
And you can read the full product specification for Rutland Bitter there too:
Alcoholic Beverage brown/amber in colour around 3.4% alcohol by volume. Predominantly bitter in taste with some sweetness, fruity and hoppy aroma.
That specification was written to protect Ruddles, Once a rare brew even around these parts, it enjoyed a vogue in the 1980s and was to be found in many London pubs when I worked down there.

The purists felt they had sold out and that process is now complete. The Ruddles brewery at Langham in Rutland was closed back in 1997, razed and the land sold for housing. The Ruddles you buy today is brewed by Greene King in Suffolk.

But you can still enjoy a Rutland Bitter. It is brewed next to Oakham station by the excellent Grainstore Brewery. Take a close look at the image here and you will see the logo for the EU scheme.

Local intelligence, incidentally, has it that if you want to enjoy Ruddles County like it used to be, ask for Grainstore's Ten Fifty.

The question, of course, is what will happen to this protection if we leave the European Union. I suspect that is one of a thousand and one things the Brexiteers have never thought about.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Oswestry to Welshpool part 2



Last time we were at Oswestry station. Tonight we are at Llanclys, where a mile of track is open for heritage trains.

Paul Nuttall's website has been taken offline

Go to Paul Nuttall's website this evening and this is what greets you.

An odd time for a by-election candidate to schedule maintenance.