Monday, August 21, 2017

Like I said: Alternative Vote / Single Transferable Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relevant previous Broad Oak posts:

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sarah Bernhardt's Triumph

Image source:

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


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

Friday, August 18, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC Elvis: Forty Years On, by JD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

MOTORCYCLES: Ton Up, by Wiggia

The BSA Goldstar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Voiceless In Catalonia, by Brett Hetherington

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog, "Standing In A Spanish Doorway":

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Beer: The Black Country Tie Night

Ma Pardoe's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting away from La Vida Loca

Click through to see how a very small minority of Japanese make a meaningful life away from the big city:

  Yadorigi: A Village in Portraits, The Short Film (2012/Eng subs/Dur:28'57") from Fu Films on Vimeo.

Saturday, August 12, 2017


In December 1891, Maurice Baring left Eton early, having shown a talent for languages that had won him the Prince Consort's French prize, and was sent the following January to a German family in Hildesheim, near Hanover. At that time he couldn't speak  the language at all, but soon picked it up.

He would go drinking with boys from the two local schools, the Gymnasium (grammar school) and Real Gymnasium (the British equivalent in recent times was the "grammar tech" or "secondary tech", which never really took off as it did on the Continent).

The German tripartite school system was abolished only a few years ago but it's worth noting that the historian Correlli Barnett says Britain's economic decline is partly attributable to the failure to modify its education system to train people who could turn scientific and technological discoveries into profitable commercial enterprises. Too many classical scholars, not enough engineers. Even now, in Britain engineering is a white-collar job, whereas in Germany it's a profession and you put letters before (not after) your name, e.g. "Dr.-Ing".

Drinking culture and customs are a vast area and perhaps readers will offer some thoughts. In the meantime here is how youngsters socialised and learned habits of social adjustment, mutuality and conformity in North Germany in the late nineteenth century. (I have broken the prose into more paragraphs for ease of reading.)
From Maurice Baring’s “The Puppet Show of Memory” (1932)

The boys from both schools used to meet in the evening before supper at a restaurant called Hasse, where a special room was kept for them. Braun was an earnest and extremely well-educated youth, a student of geology. Before I was taken to Hasse, he said I must be instructed in the rules of the Bierkomment [I don't know the correct spelling of this word and it is not in the dictionary], that is to say, the rules for drinking beer in company, which were, as I found out afterwards, the basis of the social system. These rules were intricate, and when Braun explained them to me, which he did with the utmost thoroughness, the explanation taking nearly two hours, I did not know what it was all about. I did not know it had anything to do with drinking beer. I afterwards learned, by the evidence of my senses and by experience, the numerous and various points of this complicated ritual, but the first evening I was introduced to Hasse I was bewildered by finding a crowd of grown-up boys seated at a table ; each one introduced himself to me by standing to attention and saying his name (" Mein Name ist So-and-so "). After which they sat down and seemed to be engaged in a game of cross-purposes.

The main principles which underlay this form of social intercourse were these. You first of all ordered a half-litre of beer, stating whether you wanted light or dark beer (dunkles or helles). It was given to you in a glass mug with a metal top. This mug had to remain closed whatever happened, otherwise the others put this mug on yours, and you had to pay for every mug which was piled on your own.

Having received your beer, you must not drink it quietly by yourself, when you were thirsty ; but every single draught had to be taken with a purpose, and directed towards someone else, and accompanied by a formula. The formula was an opening, and called for the correct answer, which was either final and ended the matter, or which was of a kind to provoke a counter-move, in the form of a further formula, which, in its turn, necessitated a final answer. You were, in fact, engaged in toasting each other according to system.

When you had a fresh mug, with foam on the top of it, that was called die Blume, and you had to choose someone who was in the same situation ; someone who had a Blume. You then said his name, not his real name but his beer name, which was generally a monosyllable like Pfiff (my beer name was Hash, pronounced Hush), and you said to him: "Prosit Blume." His answer to this was: "Prosit," and you both drank. To pretend to drink and not drink was an infringement of the rules. If he had no beer at the time he would say so (" Ich habe keinen Stoff"), but would be careful to return you your Blume as soon as he received it, saying : " Ich komme die Blume nach " ("I drink back to you your Blume ").

Then, perhaps, having disposed of the Blume, you singled out someone else, or someone perhaps singled you out, and said: "Ich komme Ihnen Etwas" ("I drink something to you ").

When you got to know someone well, he suggested that you should drink Bruderschaft with him. This you did by entwining your arm under his arm, draining a whole glass, and then saying : " Prosit Bruder." After that you called each other " Du." Very well.

After having said " Ich komme Ihnen " or " Ich komme Dir etwas," he, in the space of three beer minutes, which were equivalent to four ordinary minutes, was obliged to answer. He might either say : " Ich komme Dir nach " or " Ich komme nach " ("I drink back "). That settled that proceeding. Or he might prolong the interchange of toasts by saying : " Uebers Kreuz," in which case you had to wait a little and say : " Unters Kreuz," and every time the one said this, the other in drinking had to say : "Prosit." Then the person who had said " Uebers Kreuz " had the last word, and had to say: "Ich komme definitiv nach" ("I drink back to you finally "), and that ended the matter.

If you had very little beer left in your mug you chose someone else who was in the same predicament, and said : "Prosit Rest." It was uncivil if you had a rest to choose someone who had plenty of beer left.

If you wanted to honour someone or to pay him a compliment, you said " Speziell" after your toast, which meant the other person was not obliged to drink back. You could also say : " Ich komme Dir einen halben " ("I drink you a half glass "), or even " einen Ganzen " (" a whole glass ") . The other person could then double you by saying : " Prosit doppelt." In which case he drank back a whole glass to you and you then drank back a whole glass to him.

Any infringement of these rules, or any levity in the manner the ritual was performed, was punished by your being told to " Einsteigen " [or " Spinnen"]  (or by the words, " In die Kanne "), which meant you had to go on drinking till the offended party said " Geschenkt." If you disobeyed this rule or did anything else equally grave, you were declared by whoever was in authority to be in B.V., which meant in a state of Beer ostracism. Nobody might then drink to you or talk to you. To emerge from this state of exile, you had to stand up, and someone else stood up and declared that " Der in einfacher B.V. sich befindender" ("The in-simple-beer-banishment-finding-himself so-and-so ") will now drink himself back into Bierehrlichkeit (beer-honourability) once again. He does it. At the words, " Er thut es" you set a glass to your lips and drank it all. The other man then said : " So-and-so ist wieder bierehrlich " (" So-and-so is once more beer honourable ").

Any dispute on a point of ritual was settled by what was called a Bierjunge. An umpire was appointed, and three glasses of beer were brought. The umpire saw that the quantity in each of the glasses was exactly equal, pouring a little beer perhaps from one or the other into his own glass. A word was then chosen, for choice a long and difficult word. The umpire then said : " Stosst an," and on these words the rivals clinked glasses; he then said : "Setzt an," and they set the glasses to their lips. He then said : "Loss," and the rivals drained the glasses as fast as they could, and the man who finished first said : " Bierjunge," or whatever word had been chosen. The umpire then declared the winner.

All these proceedings, as can be imagined, would be a little difficult to understand if one didn't know that they involved drinking beer. Such had been my plight when the ritual was explained to me by Mr. Braun. I found the first evening extremely bewildering, but I soon became an expert in the ritual, and took much pleasure in raising difficult points.

 These gatherings used to happen every evening. If you wished to celebrate a special occasion you ordered what was called a Tunnemann, which was a huge glass as big as a small barrel which was circulated round the table, everyone drinking in turn as out of a loving-cup. A record was kept of these ceremonies in a book. The boys who attended these gatherings were mostly eighteen or nineteen years old, and belonged to the first two classes of the school, the Prima and the Secunda. They belonged to a Turnverein, a gymnastic association, and were divided into two classes the juniors who were called Füchse and the seniors who were not. The Füchse had to obey the others.

Friday, August 11, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Kathak Flamenco, by JD

A musical treat!

The art of Flamenco is rooted in Andalucia, specifically in the south west in and around Sevilla and Cadiz. It is thought that it came to Spain via the Moors or possibly the Sephardic Jews or maybe because the Emperor Charles the Fifth used Flemish body guards who were famous for their exuberant Burgundian behaviour. In those days the gypsy music was much heavier than the Castillian songs, they called it ‘flamenco’, the name also means Flemish. It is probably a combination of all of these factors and many more.

When I first went to live in Madrid many years ago I discovered that the flamenco dance form has its roots in Rajasthan in India where one of the traditional dance forms is called Kathak.

In recent years many artists in Spain have been rediscovering the origins of their music and dance and have been collaborating with Indian artists and musicians to create a new fusion of the two traditions.

(I had hoped to include video from Prashant Shah and his Kathak/Flamenco fusion but the sound quality was very poor so it can stay hidden in YouTube.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

TV: from the sublime to the ridiculous, by JD

Over the weekend I watched two very contrasting TV programmes on BBC.

The first, on Saturday, was the City of Glasgow honouring Billy Connolly with three portraits for his 75th birthday. Paintings by John Byrne and Jack Vettriano plus a photograph taken by Rachel MacLean.

And here are the three portraits-

Byrne's painting is very good, as one would expect from him. The Vettriano is painted from a photograph (a still from a video in fact) as are all Vettriano's paintings which is why they are all superficial in appearance. MacLean's photograph was a wonderful tribute to the man. Connolly loved all three of them, the generous gentleman that he is.

It was a genuinely 'magical' hour especially when he was with his old friend the painter John Byrne. 

And then there was this programme about Silicon Valley last night:

These millionaire 'bright sparks' are seriously insane even the one who has run away to hide from the world in the Canadian wilderness. Biggest worry is they all think they are saving the world and building a better future, a phrase they trotted out quite regularly. 

The most seriously deranged, to me, was the one who allocated his time very precisely and allowed 35 minutes and no more for his interview with the man from the Beeb. I think I would have asked him rather more difficult questions. He said that work was what people did to earn enough to live and 'have fun'. Such shallow thinking is the opposite of what I tried to outline in my post "What is the purpose of work?" Or perhaps I am the one who is deranged?

The 'runaway' in the Canadian wilderness would have been funny if it were not so tragic. He is there only because our entire civilization created the means to allow him to escape: he didn't build his 4x4 vehicle, he didn't dig the ore nor smelt it nor build the machine tools which created the ammunition he was so proud of - "This will be the currency of the future" he declared. What happens when his 4x4 breaks down? Can he get it going again? What happens when he runs out of ammunition? You could think up countless examples of how other people's creativity and endeavours had given him the means by which he is able to run away from the world he has helped to create and of which he is so frightened.

The most significant thing, in my view, was they are all dodging their tax obligations there at home just as they do in the rest of the world. So it is really just good old-fashioned self-enrichment by lots of snake oil salesmen and some of their business models look suspiciously like 'Ponzi' schemes even better than the derivative trading scams or of Enron!!

Strange world we live in: the benign and the loonies all mixed in together.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Cowley Dump, by Wiggia

I had the pleasure of visiting the Paul Nash exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich on the UEA campus. I have visited before for other exhibitions but this was a bit hurried as the exhibition closes on the 20th of August and a couple of “promises” to go did not materialise.

Nash of course is renowned for his work in the First World War after he fought on the Western Front and the impact it had on him which he translated into his paintings.

Between the wars his work changed direction into the fantastical world and surrealism in many cases using the landscape as a backdrop to his visions.

At the start of the Second World War he was employed as the official artist attached to the RAF and produced a series of paintings of aircraft depicted as aerial creatures in animated positions ready for action, and then a series of crashed enemy aircraft.

But the interesting painting was his most famous Second World War work "Totes Meer" (German for “Dead Sea”), painted in 1941.

The work was a version by Nash of the Cowley dump, not one of the most obvious by products of war but a necessary place for the disposal of crashed enemy aircraft. It also contained as much British material but Nash focused on the German. It's a place I had not heard of before and not the only one of its kind in the UK, but it is the one immortalised in the painting.

It was of course on the site of the motor works, much of which had been turned over for the manufacturing of aircraft, and the salvage yard was a valuable resource of materials for refurbishment cannibalisation and reuse of valuable metals at this time of shortage.

The painting was done shortly after the Battle of Britain and this is what Nash said of his work.

'The thing (the salvage dump) looked to me, suddenly, like a great inundating sea. You might feel – under certain circumstances – a moonlight night, for instance, this is a vast tide moving across the fields, the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no, nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead. It is metal piled up, wreckage. It is hundreds and hundreds of flying creatures which invaded these shores (how many Nazi planes have been shot down or otherwise wrecked in this country since they first invaded?). Well, here they are, or some of them. By moonlight, the waning moon, one could swear they began to move and twist and turn as they did in the air. A sort of rigor mortis? No, they are quite dead and still. The only moving creature is the white owl flying low over the bodies of the other predatory creatures, raking the shadows for rats and voles. She isn’t there, of course, as a symbol quite so much as the form and colour essential just there to link up with the cloud fringe overhead.'

And here is Nash himself sketching at the dump: 

What also comes out of this story is that it could be multiplied many times world wide during the war, showing the incredible production during the war effort, most of which ended up in places like this or the bottom of the sea.

So a fascinating snippet emerged from my morning of culture, that I would not otherwise have learnt about, time well spent.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Google fires Dilbert

Being right isn't enough, you have to be Left.

James Damore, an engineer working at Google, has been fired for circulating a memorandum questioning his company's biases in monitoring and effectively legislating the opinions of its employees:

The workforce analyses are calibrated using something I've never heard of: "Googlegeist scores":

Interestingly (if you're nerdish), a Google search for this term this morning yielded 690 results, whereas Bing (which usually is far less helpful to me) showed 74,400:

Damore's sin was to suggest that generally, men are different from women and that this affects their work and lifestyle choices.

The memo is reproduced in full here:

- and here, updated with a statement from Google's VP in charge of "Diversity, Integrity & Governance":

I liked Google when it was an Internet directory, not a spy-cum-censor.

Someone - Chadwick Gibson - has used the Googlegeist term as his site title, in a project to look at Google looking at us:

"Gibson’s series Mirrors Behind the Curtain reveals the self-censored workings of this all-seeing, all-knowing medium. The screenshots in this series are rare glimpses of Google’s elusive Street View camera, busy at work, virtualizing the interiors of different museums, castles, and institutions of power around the world. Unlike normal street view though, in which Google’s car and camera have been easily masked out, the museums’ and castles’ plethora of mirrors present a situation where Google cannot cover its tracks. These images are ambivalent portraits of the often invisible, panoptic power of Google’s observation."

Monday, August 07, 2017

Language, evolution and social class

It’s interesting how social stratification encourages people lower down in the scale not only to mock the accents of their superiors but to adopt them, with the result that in some cases the ‘refined’ version has become the standard for all:

From W G Elliot’s “In My Anecdotage” (1925)

Page 233:

Let me confess, there is one sort of person who is about still - though there were more before 1914 - whom I cannot bear. We all know the Cockney accent is hideous, and the Glasgow accent still worse, but the accent of some of the swagger and fashionable people takes the cake. They speak thus - men and women alike : “Shall we lunch heah or theah, were they have some first-class beah ? Heah ? - good - heah, heah !” This horrible accent is supposed to be a sign of one who “goes the pace” and consists, as I have shown, in turning word such as “here” into much the same pronunciation as “dear” or “Leah.”

Page 242:

I wonder if any of my readers have ever noticed that when two common people meet and one of them recounts a conversation of his with a “toff” he always reproduces the “toff’s” tones thus: “Ai saye, old cheap,  can you tell me how Ai can get to Ba-aker Street?” I suppose that, to them, the voices of the upper classes all sound the same, full of false refinement and artificiality, like that of the “refined” lady at the Telephone Exchange who, if you ask for “549 Gerrard” almost invariably answers” “Gerard faive four naine.” I thought this disgusting pronunciation was quite modern, but on turning up an old book of Thackeray’s stories written in the ‘fifties, I found that that he makes a middle class lady say to one of her husband's old brother officers when he calls there: “I’ll ask my husband to put the ‘waine’ upon ‘aice.’” My idea is that in some remoter period Society people used to talk with these mannerisms of speech and that they are now the property of some of the middle and lower classes.

From Maurice Baring’s “The Puppet Show Of Memory” (1932)

Pages 58-59:

A picturesque figure, as of another age, was my great-aunt, Lady Georgiana Grey, who came to Membland once in my childhood. She was old enough to have played the harp to Byron. She lived at Hampton Court and played whist every night of her life, and sometimes went up to London to the play when she was between eighty and ninety. She was not deaf, her sight was undimmed, and she had a great contempt for people who were afraid of draughts. She had a fine aptitude for flat contradiction, and she was a verbal conservative, that is to say, she had a horror of modern locutions and abbreviations, piano for pianoforte, balcŏny for balcōni, cucumber for cowcumber, Montagu for Mountagu, soot for sut, yellow for yallow.

My wife’s father (born in the early 1930s) would sometimes say “cowcumber” as a humorously self-conscious archaism. And her mother, as a child, would play “Chainies” with her friends, that is, dig up bits of old crockery and use them as imaginary Chinese tea-sets.

Samuel Pepys’s diary (25 September 1660) []:

“...afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away.”

I suspect ‘tee’ was then pronounced to rhyme with ‘say’, as in modern German, and among the Irish until recently in English as well as Gaelic [].

I wonder if some professor of old languages such as Anglo-Saxon, if sent back undercover in a time machine to the period of his study, would be instantly spotted as an interloper as soon as he opened his mouth.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

"He's Got 'Em On": a literary ramble

In Jerome K Jerome's “Three Men In A Boat” (1889)[1] there is a passage where the men get lost and are relieved when they hear someone playing a popular melody:

"I do not admire the tones of a concertina, as a rule; but, oh! how beautiful the music seemed to us both then — far, far more beautiful than the voice of Orpheus or the lute of Apollo, or anything of that sort could have sounded. Heavenly melody, in our then state of mind, would only have still further harrowed us. A soul-moving harmony, correctly performed, we should have taken as a spirit-warning, and have given up all hope. But about the strains of “He’s got ’em on,” jerked spasmodically, and with involuntary variations, out of a wheezy accordion, there was something singularly human and reassuring."

Intrigued by this, I attempted to find out more about the song. This proved more difficult than I had expected. Via Google and Google Images, I now know it's from the Beefsteak Club's 1878 "Forty Thieves" burlesque, originally performed at the Gaiety Theatre (see W G Elliot, "Amateur Clubs and Actors" [1898] Chap. 6)[2] and (I think) re-staged there from 1880 onwards. An image of the front page of the song sheet is on the V&A website at 

- but I couldn't find the words or music.

However there is a reproduction of the same thing in "The Hidden Consumer: Masculinities, Fashion and City Life 1860-1914" by Christopher Breward[3], and there it says it's in the Bodleian's John Johnson collection under Entertainers and Music Hall Singers.

I emailed the Bodleian to ask for a copy/transcript of the lyrics and notation - and they replied the same day ! - but they only have the cover. I then use the V&A’s contact form and asked the same thing - silence, so far.

The  libretto of the Forty Thieves is still available[4]. Written by Robert Reece,  W.S. Gilbert  (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) and a couple of others, it was a highly successful production which raised a lot of money for charity.

Having some experience of amateur drama myself I looked up Elliot’s book and then came across another that he wrote later in life called “In My Anecdotage” (1925)[5] I bought the latter and have just finished reading it. It's a fascinating insight into the mind of an upper class man from less than a century ago.  Educated at Eton and Cambridge, Elliot was writing in 1924, two years after the foundation of the British Broadcasting Company (radio) and five years before the first UK television broadcast and the first British talking feature film.[6] Cinema was only just beginning to replace live theatre as a profitable form of mass entertainment and Elliot could still recall a time when a theatre could make money even when only half the seats were taken.

In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras upper-class gentlemen and ladies were expected to have amateur personal accomplishments such as acting and singing and many a grand house would entertain its guests with skits and parlour games such as “dumb crambo” (a kind of Charades with costumes and props). The head of the household would lead the family in prayers and the country was run by a relatively small and tightly-knit group educated at a handful of public schools and Oxbridge.

But the UK had just (1924) elected its first Labour Government. Of women, so far only householders had been granted the right to vote (1918); Liberal and feminist sympathisers like Elliott welcomed their new freedoms while at the same time being somewhat taken aback by how some of them exercised it. Not far ahead were the General Strike, the Wall Street Crash, the Depression and another world war.

A rapidly vanishing world.

[2] Online text:
[3] Page 224:

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Tom Marcus' "Soldier Spy": truth and narrative

At the airport I bought Tom Marcus’ “Soldier Spy” (Penguin edition, 2017)[1]. This purports to be, and may be, an entirely true account of the life and work of an undercover MI5 officer. 

However, as a reader I have the lingering suspicion that I am being played. As with accounts by soldiers of the SAS, a work like this requires official permission to be published and the question arises, what reason would MI5 have to allow this into the public domain? 

I think it has to do with public reservations about MI5’s past and present behaviour. For example, there is the alleged role of MI5 in the case of Binyam Mohamed,[2] who claims that they were complicit in his illegal “extraordinary rendition” to Morocco at the behest of the United States in 2001 and that they supplied information and lines of questioning for his torturers.

Then there is the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician who was shot dead by undercover agents on the London Tube in 2005. The press release from the BBC's Panorama programme the following year[3] says that the decision to pursue and kill him was a consequence of the implementation of operation Kratos, a policy approved at MI5 headquarters in 2003. The shooting of Menezes came 15 days after the 7th of July attacks on the London public transport and it has since been alleged that Menezes was armed with a pistol and far from being an innocent electrician was involved in preparing the explosive mechanisms used in those attacks.  However, these allegations by Michael Shrimpton in his 2014 book “Spyhunter” may have to be taken with a pinch of salt, firstly because they come so late after the event and secondly because the author himself appears to have crossed the line somehow or other - perhaps not relating to this case - and ended up in jail.[4]

Generally there is growing public concern about the intrusion of the intelligence services into the daily activities of (so it seems) almost everybody in the country. Many will still recall former agent Peter Wright’s claim in his 1987 book “Spycatcher” that MI5 agents “bugged and burgled their way across London at the State’s behest while pompous, bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall looked the other way."[5] Perhaps readers will also recall how hard the British State fought in court against the publication of Wright’s book. Since that time 30 years ago, we have seen massive growth of spying on personal electronic communication and social media via GCHQ and its foreign intelligence partners.

So true or not, Marcus' book comes to us in a social and political context and therefore has to be seen as playing a part in a “narrative”, to use a term favoured by such media spinners as Alastair Campbell. The postmodern approach to truth is that it does not exist and to me the implications open the road to madness, for what are we to make of the beliefs held by the spinners themselves? Further, at the same time as taking account of the public’s perceptions and attempting to mould them into a story favouring the powerful, other elements are carefully excluded and if an attempt is made to introduce them into the public discourse there are sustained attempt to discredit the objector. For example the admittedly colourful George Galloway’s opposition to the developing momentum for the second war on Iraq  was turned into insinuations of his having sympathy with terrorism, as indeed more recently have Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's remarks  past and present on similar subjects. The “military industrial complex” must be somewhat discomfited by the fact that Corbyn's views on Gulf War Two, which he consistently opposed, now appear to be held by the majority of people in Britain.

Either Marcus is a gifted writer or he has been expertly edited. He has certainly been professionally presented for a target audience. The cover of the paperback edition shows the lower half of a face with no visually distinguishing marks as per SAS requirements and half obscured by a hoodie which he also wears for TV interviews.[6]  Perhaps the hoodie is a subliminal appeal to directionless youngsters, similar to the way in which Andy McNab appears to nod to boys and gang lads by featuring them in some of his stories. The lower cover also shows a lone figure standing in mid-road in a cityscape, rather as in a typical Jack Reacher tale.

Like McNab’s Nick Stone, the character of the protagonist in “Soldier Spy” starts out as a loser from a broken home, but is saved by his determination, intelligence and physical ability together with his courage, all qualities to be refined and used by the Army and subsequently the Intelligence Services. He almost forces his way into the Royal Engineers and soon makes his commanding officer retake the physical fitness test, as a result of which the CO pushes him in the direction of the SAS.  He is later handpicked by MI5, a rare honour. The descriptions of his undercover work with all its danger and privations are highly thrilling but also underscore the importance of what he does to protect the public.

At least as edited, Marcus is at pains to repeat that MI5 is the best in the world at what it does, which might be disputed by the Israeli intelligence services and perhaps former members of the RUC, to name a couple of alternative contenders for the crown. This is where a little bell rings:  I recently read “Soldier Five” by Mike Coburn,  one of the members  of the now famous 1991 Bravo Two Zero SAS patrol in the Iraqi desert. This account acts as a corrective, sometimes with embarrassing implications, to some of the earlier accounts by other members. At the end of his book Coburn recounts the difficulties he had in getting his book published against the wishes of the British Establishment.  It appears that an important motive of the latter was to preserve the reputation of the SAS for the purposes of saleability of their services. Part of the court transcript[7] runs:

WT: In your view, this case is all about enforcing the [secrecy] contract to safeguard the employability of the Regiment, keeping ahead of its competition within the UK and to protect your customer base…

ST: Yes the reason I hesitate to answer it kind of is putting a market spin on this...

WT:  They are words in your cross brief document…

 ST:  Which words?

WT:  Employability, customer base, protecting the market, competition...

ST: Yes.

In line with what I take to be MI5’s preferred narrative, Marcus omits mention of the cockups and issues that might detract from the overall message of the State as guardian angel. Is there an element of brand protection and promotion here, also?

Even his motivation is slightly incoherent, for more than once he tells his superiors that he is not doing the job for Queen and Country but simply because he is good at it, yet he concludes his story with a theatrically jingoistic flourish, a message to the country’s enemies that “we are strong and united; that strength has been built on thousands of years of hardship and if you even think about trying to hurt us my friends will find you and f****** destroy you. Semper Vigilat.

Just as with the latest interpretations of Batman and James Bond,  our hero is flawed and vulnerable, having his career cut short by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a suffering to which Andy McNab also refers in his books,  noting that the support given to its Service victims in the UK compares unfavorably with that provided to American Special Forces. Again, Marcus's misfortune may be perfectly true but it fits into the way that modern hero narratives are told, appealing to our sense of shared personal weakness and confusion while at the same time increasing our admiration for the hero.

In all these tales of derring-do there is an element of deliberate presbyopia: we are encouraged to focus on the challenges immediately before us and allowed a certain blindness as to the conditions that gave rise to them. Our attention is diverted by fear and hatred from a consideration of how not to get into such situations in the first place. Undoubtedly there are enemies who now have to be dealt with, but there might not have been so many had we conducted ourselves in a fairer and juster manner. If I had to choose between the life of a secret agent fighting an endless succession of foes, and that of a public protester like Brian Haw[8] trying to obviate the need for conflict (and see how the GLA and Parliament unsuccessfully tried various sledgehammers to crack his little egg[9]), I hope I would follow the latter. We in the UK, who are the most CCTV-watched in the world, might then have greater privacy and personal freedom.

“Soldier Spy” is a skilfully packaged and well-sweetened coating for a pill that treats symptoms rather than causes, and has undesirable side-effects.

[6] E.g. on 5 News, October 2016:
[7] Page 302 in the hardback edition:

Friday, August 04, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Bryan Ferry, by JD

Not the finest of crooners but he does it with great style and having spent forty years in the business he must be doing something right. Behind all the glamour and glitz is, in fact, a very serious and professional exploration of musical genres from 'glam-rock' to jazz to avant-garde, all of which are reflected in the following videos. Like most artists at the top he can and does pick the best for his backing musicians (we can excuse a bit of nepotism with his son Tara Ferry on drums, although he is rather good) and some of those musicians are new to me; Jorja Chalmers on saxophone and a very, very good guitarist in Oliver Thompson.

A note on the avant-garde aspect of Roxy Music: In my view Roxy's work in this genre, as in the last video here, is far superior to the more famous names such as John Cage or Dane Rudhyar or Stockhausen to name a few. "For Your Pleasure" is a complex and mesmerising piece of work and ends, appropriately enough, with the voice of Judi Dench whispering "You don't ask. You don't ask why."

Friday, July 28, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Nordic Night, by JD

And now, a selection of music for listeners-in to the northern light programme, from JD...

Monday, July 24, 2017

NSU: The End Of The Road, by Wiggia

Sometime ago I mentioned in a small piece that was an adjunct to a quiz on what make my first motorbike was, that the company had an illustrious history in motorcycle racing and motorcycle production.

NSU, an abbreviation of the town of Neckarsulm near Stuttgart, originally started its life in 1873 as a producer of knitting machines. After rapid growth they started making bicycles and by 1892 bicycles took over all the production. The first NSU motorcycle appeared in 1901 and the first car in 1905.

They never managed to break through with their car production so that by 1932 under pressure from the banks the car factory at Heilbronn was sold to Fiat for assembly of Fiat cars in Germany. The company continued to make an increasing range of motorcycles, some innovative including supercharged race models up to the Second World War. During the war they made a half track motorcycle that saw service mainly on the Russian front; this was continued in civilian form after the war:

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-725-0184-22, Russland, Soldaten auf Kettenkrad.jpg

It was after the war that the company regrouped and the totally bombed out factory started production of the pre war models, but in ‘49 the new designs starting with the Fox appeared These were revolutionary, using a pressed steel monocoque frame. In ‘53 the Max appeared with a 250cc four stroke engine that had the overhead cams driven by con rods and by ‘55 NSU was the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Many will remember the original moped, the Quickly, that sold Europe-wide in huge numbers.

At the time of the Max coming on stream NSU were breaking world speed records for motorcycles at the Bonneville salt flats and in ‘56 an NSU became the first motorcycle to top 200mph. In the same period they entered Grand Prix racing with a very advanced 125 and 250cc twin cylinder Rennmax machines that were at the time in a class of their own. This is the ‘53 250cc Rennmax  - the later racers had full “dustbin” fairings:

In ‘54 NSU stopped factory racing but had developed a race version of the single cylinder Max known as the Sportmax that in a private rider's hands became the only production racer to win a world championship. Only 32 were ever made and went to selected riders with a spare engine. They became the mainstay of the 250 class for many years, and alongside many road going Max’s were converted to racers with Sportmax parts; these too had many successes in club and international racing.

Sadly by ‘63 motorcycle production finished for NSU as the drive towards car production was seen as the way forward for the company, plus by then the ominous presence of the Japanese companies was beginning to be felt.

To complete this short section on NSU's racing pedigree, one of the selected riders to become a Sportmax owner was John Surtees. He won numerous races on his and set many class lap records. His lap record for the old Crystal Palace circuit stood for over twenty years, something unbelievable in today's racing: he also won the 1955 Ulster Grand Prix on his version.

In 1957 Surtees' father, a friend of Mike Haiwood's father, was pressured to sell the bike for Mike to ride.He took it to SA for a winter's racing and won every race he entered, setting many lap records. In ‘58 aged 18 he won 25 races with the Sportmax and his first world championship points and his first TT podium.

Surtees was known to always want to retrieve the bike for his collection but it sadly never happened: in 2014 the motorcycle was sold at auction for £69,000, a record for the marque. It must have a unique pedigree with the two owners being two of the greatest of all time on two wheels.

Here it is in all its glory with the Hailwood team colours:

So in ‘68 NSU ended its association with making motorcycles. In ‘57 NSU had re entered the car market with the Prinz, a small car with a doubled up version of the Max engine. This as a small runaround was fairly successful and was produced until ‘68 but in the meantime NSU was preparing for something totally different, a car with a rotary engine designed by Felix Wankel.

In ‘64 NSU offered the public the world's first rotary engined car, the Spyder:


A version of the Prinz followed, one having a twin rotor engine. At the time many believed this was the dawning of a new age in automobile propulsion but under the surface problems were already beginning to emerge: unreliability in the rotary engines was mainly caused by unsuitable materials to seal the rotor tips and rapid wear was causing failures and the warranty bill was rising.

It was in ‘67 with the unveiling of the company's first hopefully mass production car with a rotary engine that the clouds of failure started to gather. The NSU Ro80 was a very modern design with independent suspension and disc brakes and the twin rotor engine giving 115bhp and for then a very modern design one that has stood the test of time.

Virtually every car manufacturer in the world had taken out licenses for the rotary engine, though only Citroen who had share of the hopeful engine plant built a rotary car. The model was aborted. NSU had had great hope that royalties would pay for their investment in ever increasingly costly development, but it was not to be: there were several prototypes built by other companies including a Corvette by General Motors with quad rotors, but nothing went into production.

Despite winning the car of the year award in ‘67 and several design awards, the car had slow sales:

- and the increasing heavy costs of engine replacements even at low mileages was sinking the company. In ‘69 the company was taken over by VW who used the factory for Audi production though the Ro80 staggered on until the last NSU was produced in ‘77. The name was never used by Audi after that time.

The only other company to produce a rotary engined car was Mazda, in fact under license they pre-dated the Ro 80 as a mass production car with the Cosmo, a sports car that stayed in production for twenty years:

Mazda have persevered and improved the rotary unit over many years, even largely overcoming the main problem rotor tip sealing using ceramics. In 1991 Mazda won Le Mans, the only Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans; they had overcome reliability problems with earlier race efforts:

Le Mans promptly banned the rotary engine from competing again, though the ban has since been lifted, to late to save a unique exhaust note.

Mazda have of course until recently persevered with the rotary and the last model the RX – 8 had overcome most of the reliability issues and this lovely car deserves a successor, but the fuel economy was still poor compared to peer cars and the emissions , that are now such an issue were also sub standard,  Mazda stated that they would come back with a rotary engined car in 2019, but that is with the charge towards electric and hybrid vehicles now in doubt.

So now all that effort to produce a better fuel driven power unit for automobiles has come to naught, save a very prestigious Le Man win which Felix Wankel would have been ecstatic to see as proof his design worked; for NSU it was a very costly venture.


Some years back I saw a Rs80 on the road when I lived in Essex,:very modern and distinctive in style, many of the cars having used up their engines were converted to Ford V4s the engine being short enough to fit in the smaller rotary engined bay, it was probably one of those.