Saturday, August 09, 2008

A time to race

Time to hide from the TV or finish that thousand page book you started a year ago, for the Olympics are upon us. Yes, I shall watch a few events - the 1500 metres final is the cream of them, long enough for tactics to be potentially decisive but short enough to maintain the tension. But the dancing and prancing ones, the swimming, in which who is who is distinguishable only before and after the action, and most of the team games (baseball and softball rightly for the last time) I will skip. Of course one has to keep an eye out for a genuine new star and the occasional woman competitor of both skill and beauty, like the Canadian high jumper Debbie Brill of long ago. If there is a new one I hope she has enough skill to make the final so I can get another look.

The Times will be represented by a mixed bag of writers led by its chief sportswriter Simon Barnes. Barnes is a versatile journalist and unusually erudite for a sports specialist, up there with Bernard Darwin and Henry Longhurst. He does a column on wildlife on Saturdays, has written novels and rides horses enthusiastically - he understands the mechanics of the reverse (or is it inverse) canter that is apparently a crucial part of the dressage stage of the three day event. But his main, recurring, theme is what one might call the soul of sport, appreciation of its ultimate meaning, why we do it, why the best practitioners do it to the limits, what it means to win and lose in terms of basic, raw human endeavour and emotion rather than titles and prizes. He does it better than anyone else.

On Tuesday Barnes reported on a ‘gig’ he had attended that was sponsored by Omega (BBC and advertisers of over-hyped cure-all foods and medicines please note that is Omega, not Omega), responsible for timing at the games. Jaques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, was there and obliged to make a speech. Barnes feared a traditional brotherhood of sport spiel and was surprised to hear a philosophical essay about time and its relationship to sport. Neat, appropriate and tactful on Rogge’s part certainly but I felt Barnes, unusually for him, missed the mark in his endorsement and appreciation of the theme.

Time matters in sport, Barnes said, adding quite rightly that bullshit, the staple of nearly all post-event commentary, doesn’t. But I think that much sport is at least independent of time and sometimes distorted by too much emphasis on it. The most exciting races are the ones where two or more great competitors come together to find the winner. The winner’s time is secondary. Coe raced Ovett, not the clock. Roger Bannister may be mainly remembered as the first man to beat the four minute mile but his greatest race was when he beat John Landy, who had stolen his world record in the meantime, passing Landy on the outside of the last bend as Landy looked over the other shoulder to see where he was. Gordon Pirie, by contrast, held all sorts of world records but was consistently beaten in head to head races by athletes with slower personal best times. If we miss seeing a race we ask first who won, not what the time was. Time is a measure of progress in training but decisive only when the nature of the event does not allow head to head competition and this surely is why the winter Olympics are so dull, for almost every event has to be decided by either timing or subjective judging. The drama is gone. In which connection what a good device the Cambridge bump races are. With a river too narrow for side by side racing the crews are not timed but set off at equal distances from each other and succeed or fail according to whether they catch up the boat in front before the end of the course. Good primeval competition with the winner clearly apparent as it happens. That is how it should be.

Outside racing sports time can be crucial in defining the end of hostilities. Basketball matches always seem to be determined in the last few seconds and even in chess players run into time trouble and have to rush their moves. Is there a sport unaffected by time? Bowls perhaps, or snooker and some might say golf, but on this last I disagree. There is now a standard for the time a round should take but I have not had much success to date in bringing it to the notice of my club. Just give me time.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Basic certificate in UK citizenship

Elementary Level

Paper 1: Numeracy, objectivity and healthy scepticism

Q1. (80% of marks) An article in the Times reported that a government survey of drinking had found that alcohol had become 69% more affordable between 1980 and 2008. Discuss.

A. Without further information not given in the question one cannot say whether this loose phraseology is the product of the government’s standard of analysis or the current standard of reporting at the Times.

The obvious first question is: 69% of what? It is a reasonable assumption from the data that an arbitrary definition of alcohol affordability has been postulated and given an initial value, based on data for 1980, of say 100. It would then appear that the corresponding value of the index, recalculated for 2008, is 169, which would indeed be a 69% increase - in the index.

Next, to make a proper objective assessment of the significance, if any, of such a finding we need to know how the affordability is defined. Again, one can only postulate and a reasonable assumption would be that researchers have investigated typical patterns of income and spending in 1980, taking into account the then prevalent wages and salaries for typical occupations, the level of taxes on those wages and salaries and the prices at the time for say a pint of bitter, a bottle of chardonnay or a litre of gin. A measure such as the price of a pint as a proportion of disposable income might then be devised. Or it might be the number of pints that could be bought with a week’s disposable income. And here we immediately hit a common confusion when results of such research are quoted in percentage increases. If alcohol has become cheaper relative to other ‘discretionary’ spending, which is presumably, in qualitative terms, what ‘more affordable’ means, then the first measure will show a reduction in the proportion of disposable income needed to buy a pint. However the second measure will show an increase in the number of pints that the disposable income will buy. Only one of the two will show a change of 69% and the second will be the larger. It is therefore likely, in its efforts to make a case for the restrictive actions that will follow, that the government has chosen the second measure.

To further test the official analysis we also need to know the definition of disposable income – assuming that this is indeed the basis of the ‘affordability’ conclusion. One hopes, though one hardly dares assume, that it starts from a basis of taxed income and that essential spending is then subtracted. What is considered essential? Has this changed between 1980 and 2008? Where does council tax figure in the calculation? What alcohol prices were used in the comparisons – a cheap six-pack of Belgian lager sold as a loss leader in a supermarket or a pint of real bitter in a pub struggling to make a living in the face of the smoking ban without degenerating into a pool hall and food outlet? What sort of typical income was used as the basis – a City banker, a man working as the only breadwinner with two children and a mortgage, a professional man trying to keep up with the increases in school fees and golf club subscriptions, or a pensioner whose council tax takes up an ever larger proportion of his meagre income?

The only conclusion consistent with rigorous analysis is that the government has commissioned a fudge, designed to make us feel guilty and to act as a basis for further taxes on alcohol and restrictions to individual freedom.

Q2. (20% of marks) On the basis of the content and conclusion of the report do you consider legislation to control alcohol affordability and consumption would be justified or workable in a democracy?

A. The history of similar efforts in other democracies and in other areas is not encouraging. The extreme measure of prohibition was enacted in the US and later abandoned after it had spawned a significant extension of criminal activities (as is happening with banned drugs in many countries now) and in the UK the attempt to restrict the flow of discretionary spending on foreign holidays in the 1960s merely accelerated it by giving encouragement to the package holiday industry as a means of reducing the impact of the regulations.

However, since it is a fundamental principle of New Labour that the innocent must be punished along with the guilty, legislation is to be expected. It has already happened with smoking, with the same effect. It is most likely to take the form of hefty tax increases (they need the money anyway), compulsory label information on units of alcohol and endless messages about the health risks as if, as with smoking, any drinker can still be unaware of them. It may also involve moves to control sales to minors or act against irresponsible retailers and publicans. These will merely have the effect of making life more difficult as well as expensive for the responsible drinker or the person who simply appreciates a good pint.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

A good week for democracy

And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

He chortled in his joy.

Chortling was not enough. I yelled with joy and bounced up and down in my chair, probably wrecking the springs. It took me several minutes to calm down. I am still glowing with delight, as if I had just broken 80 (again, I might add).

The Jabberwock is an apt allegory for the EU, conveying the right degree of doom combined with something weird, unreal, incomprehensible and frightening. I was in Ireland all last week as the final stages of the referendum campaign unfolded, complete with the by then merciful moratorium on any comment about it for the final 24 hours before voting. There were various arguments from the No camp, supported only by Sinn Fein of the main political parties, some valid, some rather spurious but a recurring theme was that voters should not vote for something they don’t understand. The government, which spent far more taxpayers’ money on campaigning for a Yes vote than the privately funded No campaign needed to make its successful case, happily contributed to this by issuing every household a copy, or presumably a prĂ©cis, of the treaty text. Gunshots and bleeding feet come to mind. The treaty is as impenetrable as a Salman Rushdie novel. It takes over 67,000 words to make its dubious points. The US Constitution, including amendments, needs only 8,000 and can be understood by just about anyone. The Irish on the whole use our priceless language better than we do and have rightly objected to this insult to their common sense and values, in effect saying that if there is a good case to be made why can it not be more clearly explained? In other words, what is the government trying to hide? They even promised under pressure to use the Irish veto at the World Trade Organisation to prevent any agricultural deal that would be ‘bad for the farmers’. The farmers’ leaders seemed happy with this fudge but I heard nobody ask whether they would ask the farmers each time whether they wanted the veto used or not. This ‘trust us, we know best’ attitude is typical of most governments and in spades of the EU itself but it seems not to have fooled the Irish farmers.

On the evening news the BBC treated it a bit like a surprise result in the Euro 2008 football: not in keeping with the form book, now what happens next? Channel 4 gave us an interview with a remarkable politician I have not come across before. Gisela Stuart is the German-born Labour MP for Edgbaston, a drafter of the EU constitution, wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph criticising Gordon Brown for denying us a referendum and understands democracy - a lot of contradictions there. She is also articulate and is willing to give a straight answer to a simple question. Asked whether the treaty is now dead she said yes. Asked whether the EU has a problem with the ballot box she said yes. She berated the EU president for saying everything will still go ahead even before the official result was announced and said he is in denial. Right every time Gisela. The way in which other countries like France and Germany have jumped in to belittle the problem they now have and by implication blame Ireland is disgraceful.

All this will perhaps give Gordon Brown something else to think about as he tries to stop us noticing that he only got his 42 day detention bill through the Commons with the help of nine DUP votes and Ann Widdecome and to kid us that no deals were done in exchange. The resignation of David Davis may have confused David Cameron a bit but he’ll work it out in the end. Brown’s efforts to belittle it are hypocrisy. He firstly knows that Davis will campaign not just on the 42 day issue but on all the areas in which this government has eroded our rights and freedoms and does not relish the embarrassment this will cause and secondly he simply does not understand anyone who could do out of principle something that could harm his career prospects and will have no idea how to conduct the debate. More fun to come there with any luck. I don’t think Labour in general or Brown in particular will be crowing about this for long. The only Labour politician to come out of the 42 day business with any credit is Jacqui Smith and this despite, not because of, being in charge of the department sponsoring it. Matthew d’Ancona, after interviewing her for the Spectator, wrote ‘English, female, articulate, a human being: suddenly Labour MPs are taking a very close look indeed at their Home Secretary’. I thought the order of his adjectives interesting and significant.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Boris to the rescue

The most cheerful week in politics since David Cameron, at his first prime minister’s questions, wrongfooted Tony Blair by offering Tory help to get his education bill passed. It started with the miserable Gordon having to admit he had gone badly wrong in removing the 10p tax band, something he did out of over confidence and vanity and that was exposed within minutes as a fraud that his successor as chancellor would be unlikely to thank him for. It continued with the local elections offering up such delights as a Tory council in Kingston upon Hull. It was so bad for Labour that even their spin doctors could find no way of putting a gloss on it.

Then very late on Friday came the best bit. A properly contested mayoral election in London was overdue and a novelty. This was real American-style politics: two candidates, neither really a mainstream politician, outside the control of their parties though strongly backed by them, slugging it out for a high profile job that is very much what the holder makes of it. It was certainly Ken Livingstone’s true metier and I feel sure it will prove Johnson’s too. Long seen as a loose cannon in national politics and as something of a buffoon in public life in general he, like his predecessor, leaves few people neutral in their opinion of him. As a result we were treated to a campaign in which the characters of the candidates had as much influence on voters as their policies and certainly more than the party labels attached to them and this is as it should be. In such a contest Livingston was a loser from the start against a man quite unembarrassed, and largely unhurt, by various public gaffes and a very competent and entertaining TV performer. The turnout was a third higher than four years ago and it was probably this, if the extra voters consisted, as I expect, of Tories who had had no faith in previous candidates their party had endorsed, that swung it. Was it another case of the power of hope in politics, the appeal to the disillusioned and apathetic to help reverse a spiral of cronyism and mediocrity? Was that why the FTSE index suddenly went up 128 points after barely moving all week?

There is a sense that the cavalry has arrived and now Boris has to deliver. One good sign is that he has made a priority of cutting ‘so-called minor’ crime, particularly on public transport and has made his wishes clear to Sir Ian Blair, the chief of the Metropolitan Police. This is welcome both as an aim and because while he has no direct authority over Blair he is apparently prepared to make life difficult for the Home Secretary, who does, if Blair does not respond. Since Blair sometimes gives the impression of seeing himself more as a politician than a policeman this could be fun.

All in all a good week. London will be a more cheerful place from today and I think England will be too.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Must write to the Times about it

Don’t bother. It won’t get published unless a) you are an MP, bishop or one of the remaining peers with access to the House of Lords, b) you are exercising what amounts to a right of reply on behalf of an organisation that has been offended, whether justifiably or not, by an article or another letter or c) you have a singularly unoriginal contribution to make to some ‘educated classes’ discussion on unwelcome Americanisms or alternatives to the cuckoo as the first sign of spring and the bottom right hand corner is short of even these makeweights.

I suppose a hundred years ago writers of letters to the Times were mostly known to each other and were using its pages almost like groups of a like mind use blogs today. They would write from the Athenaeum or even the Albermarle in the knowledge that by the time the next day’s pre-luncheon whisky came round (the post was quick enough in those days not to need email) their views would be known to everyone that mattered. The letters editor needed only a copy of Debrett or Burke to decide who to leave out and could probably rely on the subject matter being confined to hunting, military strategy and the iniquity of any kind of social reform.

If I ran the paper I would instruct the letters editor that first of all he would see no letter until a minion had separated its text from its writer’s name and address, leaving only a reference number to enable the two halves to be reunited in the event of publication. He would then judge the texts on merit, topicality and originality alone. The trouble is the present incumbent (is that a tautology? – answer no when incumbent is used as a noun, I’ve just looked it up) either has little good material to work with or is in thrall to categories a, b and c above. I do my best to supply him (sorry, him/her) with appropriate topical, pithy missives but with no recognition to date. Meanwhile the most awful drivel continues to get published, particularly under heading c. I sometimes wonder if the letters go via the BBC first.

My most recent efforts were first to suggest that we should adopt a national oath of allegiance before one is foisted on us by the EU (too subversive I suppose) and then to point out that Roy Hattersley had misinterpreted Chesterton’s poem The Secret People by suggesting that the reason the English have not yet roused themselves and made themselves heard was because of their innate English reserve and modesty. I said that the real reason is that we are slow to come to the boil but the time might be coming near. Hattersley’s craven effort was in an article for which he was presumably paid, adding to my ire.

However one man hit the jackpot recently, a reverend whose letter about how certain Muslim countries prohibit the import of Christian material was printed on successive days. He deserved it. I expect him to make bishop any day.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The ten commandments of New Labour

And the Lord spake unto the children of Britain and said:

  1. We are the God that is New Labour, which brought you out of the house of the Tories, out of the land of sleaze. You shall have no other God before New Labour.
  2. You shall have no idols but the National Health Service and shall not worship at the altars of any other form of healing, for New Labour is a jealous God and will visit the sins of the unfaithful onto their children even unto the third and fourth generation of those who express self reliance, independence or initiative.
  3. You shall not take the names of New Labour nor the National Health Service in vain, nor mock them nor criticise them nor hold them to be in any way less than perfect, for New Labour will not hold them guiltless that take the name of New Labour and its munificence in vain.
  4. You shall keep holy the appointed day of May in honour and celebration of the heroes of the class struggle and comprehensive mixed ability education. You shall not propose nor observe any other festive days unless in like manner of honour and celebration and shall be damned with cardinal sin if you espouse any holiday or celebration that is or might be construed to be a triumphalist anniversary of any military excess such as the battles of Agincourt or Trafalgar or the commanders of the imperialist forces involved.
  5. You shall honour the father and mother of New Labour, the blessed Tony and Gordon of sacred memory, that your days may long continue in receipt of the blessings of the National Health Service and the ten pound winter festive season bonus.
  6. You shall not kill any fox nor other mammal unless by humane methods and without pursuit by dogs.
  7. You shall not adulterate New Labour beliefs with visions of individual choice or liberty or freedom to mock or criticise those of unusual habits or behaviour. You must nevertheless accept with a pure heart and closed mind whatever indignities or injustice might be wrought against you by such bodies and tribes as have been given licence by equality, human rights or health and safety legislation.
  8. You shall where beneficial to New Labour steal from dissenting parties such policies and initiatives as may be likely to win votes. You shall not take political donations from the faithful but shall disguise them as a loan.
  9. You shall not bear witness against New Labour nor succour nor encourage those who seek to expose or criticise New Labour, lest you find yourself banished to the regions of outer darkness and the damnation of your employment prospects.
  10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s disability allowance, nor his place in the queue for a hip replacement, nor his public service pension, nor his carbon footprint, nor his seat on the board of a quango, nor his grace and favour residence, nor his free holidays, nor his lecture tours, nor his second Jaguar nor anything that is his.

These are the commandments of New Labour said the Lord: observe ye them and avoid the sins of the Devil, being smoking, drinking, eating and the burning of fossil fuels, and New Labour will provide all your third-worldly needs through the miracles of wind power and colour coded food labelling.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

It may be art but . . .

I am not a great reader. It stems from a very low boredom threshold. If my attention is not captured after a few pages, a chapter at most, the book is unlikely to be finished. This trait (the second t is pronounced in English) first came to light at school where I was required to take on Great Expectations, which some claim is the best of Dickens’s novels. Since I was under orders and it was a set text I struggled on for all of 125 pages before I dug in my heels and asked for a different task. To his eternal credit the head of English, who later appeared in advertisements for the teaching profession under the slogan ‘the last man to answer all Jeremy Paxman’s questions’, allowed me to work on a biography of Sir Isaac Newton instead. Newton is far more interesting than Dickens.

Despite this the walls of our house, those not lined with M’s pictures of boats, are lined with books. Many I have had for forty years or more and have read more than once. They are a varied collection because I read for fun, entertainment and information. The literary editor of the Times, which last week published a list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, and his team seem to read for erudition, social awareness, ethnic solidarity and as participation in an art form. Many readers will have measured their own erudition by going through the list to see how many were familiar to them. I did too and failed, scoring as follows: heard of (meaning I could as a minimum identify the person as a writer), 25; read some of (at least a few chapters and not counting S Rushdie, who comfortably failed the first page test), about 7 or 8; finished a book by, 6. As some consolation these, Roald Dahl (16), Ian Fleming (14), Kingsley Amis (9), George Orwell (2), C S Lewis (11) and Anthony Powell (20) were all in the top end of the list and I bet the last one surprised you. The only one I felt I should have read and have not was John le Carre.

My own list would be based on different criteria from those of the Times, which chose style, influence, longevity and sales, though I felt some had a fair way to go yet to qualify under longevity, several quoted novels having been published only in this century. I would choose a combination of quality of writing (different, I suspect, from what the Times meant by style) and entertainment value. Clearly Orwell got his second place for influence and longevity for his style is hardly racy. He earns his place in my view for his essays on ‘Politics and the English language’ and ‘The prevention of literature’ more than 1984 or Animal Farm. In the first essay he lays out his six rules for clear, unpretentious writing, ignored by or unknown to some of the fifty, who get praised for being genre-crossing or infused with transforming power, displaying consistent integrity and so on. Spare us. If you see the novel as an art form you suffer the same delusion as the French cinema industry.

Published authors displaying both quality of writing and entertainment value are fewer than the number of published, accepted and often praised authors. My list would contain several writers who would receive no consideration from the literary editor’s team because they trade in some lowly, despised genre. We can start, because he is fresh in my mind, with George Macdonald Fraser who died a few days ago with the chronicles of the entertainingly despicable Flashman sadly unfinished. Fraser’s narrative touch was sometimes reminiscent of P G Wodehouse, than which there is no higher praise. To combine this with serious military history was brilliant. To Fraser, without implying an order of merit, I would add: Leslie Thomas, for being able to bring true life pathos to a good bawdy tale; Tom Sharpe, for fiendishly wicked angles on the targets of his satire; Roger Woddis, for showing that poetry can still rhyme and scan; Frederick Forsyth (first three books only), Len Deighton, and Bernard Levin, if only for The Pendulum Years (well they said writers, not novelists). My shelves also house William Cooper, Nigel Balchin, E F Benson ( I’ve never read any but M loves them, keeping me awake at night with her cackling), John Wyndham, David Lodge, Nicholas Monsarrat (no, not The Cruel Sea, The Nylon Pirates) and Adrian Mole. Even Nevil Shute, whom the Thunderer would despise utterly but who could tell a good tale better than most and was one of few who even mentioned real flying, let alone understood it. Not an airport novel or bonkbuster in the list - is the Times saying I am not well read?

Browsing, I came across the appropriate summing up quite by accident in the words of the Master – of the entire twentieth century and since, never mind the puny post-1945 lot: ‘. . . she wrote this novel and it was well received by the intelligentsia, who notoriously enjoy the most frightful bilge’. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The lights are going out, except in France

I remember a newspaper cartoon from the fifties or sixties. It showed a group of emaciated people huddled around a fire at the mouth of a cave, while in the background could be seen the crumbling remains of a city, its idle factories with smokeless chimneys and broken windows. The group is dressed in animal skins, primitive tools lie around and the oldest of them explains: ‘well, first they shut down all the nuclear power stations’.

The eternal and increasingly tedious energy debate comes down in the end to electricity. We need enough electricity, always available, at a reasonable price, to fuel our industry, commerce, health, hobbies and leisure. The debate should be about how to supply this now and in the short, medium and long term without unacceptable harm to the planet. In fact it is less a debate than a lecture from the pious, self-righteous evangelistic green lobby.

For the eco-fanatics look only at the second part of the problem: any harm to the planet is unacceptable. Yet their solutions will not keep the lights on in the short term, never mind in twenty years time. I submit that one of the fundamental duties of a government, after national security and a sound currency, is to keep the turbines running – enough turbines. Demand for electricity can only rise as the population and aspirations for a better standard of living increase. If generating capacity does not increase to match it we will have the same problems as have been seen recently in California and South Africa. China seems determined not to suffer, but at the cost of building a new coal fired power station every month or so – provide the power, forget the planet and lock up the yoghurt knitters. In Britain, we have a rapidly growing population, are running down the nuclear sector, which provides 19% of the power, and any new conventional power station, let alone a nuclear one, is vigorously resisted by the environment lobby. ‘Renewables’ – a silly name, we’re looking for inexhaustibles – are simply not being installed fast enough to cope and suffer from some existing problems, such as transmission losses between remote offshore wind or wave farms and population centres, and some new ones such as not knowing when the wind will blow. On top of that we already import electricity from France, nuclear generated of course. No doubt the French would be glad to cut off the supply next time we breach their diplomatic sensitivities or their farmers are offended by the import of some decent lamb. Or maybe just when they need it all themselves.

I resume, following a coincidental but timely boost to my argument in the shape of a power failure. On a mild, calm, dry day the voltage was abruptly reduced and anything sensitive to it stopped for an hour or so. This is common where we live, being as much as ten miles from a cathedral city and barely within spitting distance of a trunk road. We know exactly where to find a torch and my wife has an ample supply of candles and matches always on hand. A small generator, just enough for the central heating, sits in the garage (a false sense of security this one, being powered by the only Honda engine I know that absolutely will not start).

Yet the government, despite its announcement yesterday, has no clear plan. It is almost too late, even if the objectors were summarily overridden, to get enough new nuclear capacity going in time; wind and wave power comes in small increments and will not keep up; trying to blame the consumer with the tale that 8% of power goes on appliances on standby (a figure I simply do not believe) and urging him to change his habits is pointless. The price alone is enough to make us take all reasonable economies. The gas that fuels many of the power stations will one day have to come from Russia and if I joke about the French cutting us off I do not joke about the Russians – it has already happened. To fail to provide for self sufficiency in electricity is traitorously irresponsible. It cannot be left to committees, focus groups and blinkered special interests. It needs executive action, untainted by electoral considerations. Without it we shall before long find ourselves with an electricity supply that is as reliable and predictable as rainfall in the Australian bush.