Friday, July 23, 2010

Creature comforts

Hopi Sen finds comfort in the thought that, in some alternate universe, Alastair Darling is preparing his spending review.  I also find comfort in this thought, though probably not the same comfort.  In fact, the sheer relief that Gordon Brown is no longer Prime Minister is slightly disorientating.

Cyanea Capillata

I have commented before on the commendably no-nonsense approach of Australians in general.  It’s nice to see that this forthright attitude also applies to the beach.
A large, dead, jellyfish caused mayhem at Wallis Sands beach yesterday when it stung about 150 people in the water…Seacoast Science Center Aquarist Robert Royer said the creature was likely a Lion's Mane jellyfish, which can have a bell as large as six feet wide with tentacles that can stretch to 100 feet. The tentacles can sting even when detached from the bell.
Pausing only to note that there’s a Sherlock Holmes story all about the Lion’s Mane jellyfish, what sort of lesson can be drawn from this?
"The lesson to be learned here is, 'Don't piss off a big jellyfish,'" [the Park Manager] said. "He'll really make you pay."
Damn right.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


We interrupt our nascent series on the Labour leadership hopefuls to comment on this piece by Steve Richards.  One bit, in particular, doesn’t quite ring true:
I make one prediction on the basis of discussions with quite a lot of Labour MPs. Such is their loathing for the coalition that they are deadly serious about returning to power as soon as possible. If their next leader flops in the first year or so there will be no sentimentality. He will be removed.
Now, I know it’s harder under Labour rules for a sitting Prime Minister to be shifted than a leader of the opposition, but the historical precedents for Labour ruthlessness are not strong.  The general air of pusillanimity surrounding the numerous failed attempts to ditch Gordon Brown was at least partly down to the fact that Labour simply don’t have a history of replacing failed leaders who won’t co-operate.  In fact, can anyone tell me a single instance of this happening? 

Yes but...

I agree with pretty much everything Mr E says here.  Banning the burqa altogether would be  a profoundly illiberal and unBritish thing to do.  That said, he does illustrate quite neatly one particular viewpoint that frequently gets aired when this particular debate surfaces.
How often do you see a woman in a full burqa wandering around the fruit and veg section in Tesco? I'll warrant that on any given day there are more people in the UK walking around with vegetables up their arses than wearing a tent on their heads.
Living as I do near Edgware Road, I see scores of women in hijabs/niqabs every day.  There even a fair few of those truly bizarre brass nose-guard things that make the wearer look like a Star Wars extra.  And it is faintly creepy – an awful lot of human interaction is done by eye contact and body language, and it’s a bit unsettling to see people so utterly cut off from human contact.  I’d certainly be unhappy if my daughter was looked after or taught by someone wearing one.  But ultimately, so long as it’s none of my business, it’s none of my business.  In any event, I doubt there are quite so many niqabs on the mean streets of Kettering.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dull and duller Part 1...

I’ve avoided writing about the Labour leadership for two reasons.  The first is that the arcane rules and regulations of internal Labour party machinery is so far outside my purlieu that I would need a telescope even to catch sight of it, and the second is that the whole process is by turns depressing, baffling and gut-wrenchingly, eye-wateringly tedious.  I mean, it’s already lasted, at a conservative estimate, forty-seven years, and there’s still another decade or so to go.
And then there are the candidates.  I have commented before that Gordon Brown acted as a political Upas tree, killing all that sheltered beneath him.  And so it has proved – look at them, Milibands, Balls, Burnham and, God help us, Abbott.  Four ginks and a loon.  Still, since one of them has to win I might as well show some sort of interest.  Lets start with the favourite.
Historically, of course, Labour has tended to pick the front-runner in its leadership elections (unlike the Tories, who tend to pick the one best placed to defeat the front-runner).  Which in this case is probably David Miliband.  And I suppose they could do worse.  He is at least bright enough and has mostly resisted the temptation to play to the left-wing gallery.  It’s a truism, but no less true for that, that elections are won from the centre.  Pledges made in leadership campaigns may be playing to the choir, but the congregation is listening too.  On the other hand, of course, Miliband D is unutterably geeky.  This manifests itself not only in the obvious gurning and fidgeting, but in a dreadful habit of speaking like a junior manager at a seminar. 
Now it may be that Labour feels that the best possible choice of leader after a shattering defeat is a bright young man with an unfortunate appearance and an uninspiring television manner.  History would seem to be against them.  Whatever, Miliband D seems to have based his campaign on the David Davis/Hillary Clinton model of inevitability.  It’s actually a good technique, so long as there are no unexpected hiccups along the way, but he hasn’t been desperately visible so far.  Quite apart from banana-related disadvantages, Miliband D must labour under the burden of having been a central figure in cabinet for the last five years.  It’s harder to campaign as a change candidate (and what other candidate is there these days?) when you’ve been Foreign Secretary – even harder when contentious decisions you made on matters ranging from torture to terrorism are still making headlines.
Whether he’d be the best person to take on David Cameron at the despatch box is another matter of course – he has to get there first.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Getting off the fence

He might lack the slightly whimsical wryness that Matthew Parris brought to sketch-writing, and nor does he have quite the same relish for language that Quentin Letts exhibits in the Mail.  But when it comes to straight down-the-line rudeness, Simon Carr is right up with the best.
Tristram Hunt wanted more poetry in the constitutional debate. There's more than enough poetry in his name; if rhyming slang counts as poetry.
That’s the spirit…

Thursday, July 15, 2010

End times

Something must be wrong.  I agree entirely with Johann Hari and Simon Heffer.  Keep an eye out for two-headed calves and showers of blood.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Putting the boot in to Prescott

It’s always dangerous to pick fights with people who buy their ink by the barrel.  The relationship between John Prescott and the Parliamentary sketchwriters was even more strained than that between John Prescott and the English language – and even now the silly old bastard’s been booted upstairs to the House of Lords there are no signs that it is abating.
For a sketch to be truly nasty to someone, it should really combine a dose of out-and-out rudeness, a generous helping of kicking-your-man-when-he’s-down, and a topping of thinly veiled threat of further exposure.  This by Simon Carr is pretty much perfect.  He has a big, fat target (more than one in fact) to aim at, but it’s hard to deny that he gets the bulls-eye.  You have the rudeness:
Thus yesterday, to the House of Lords to see the butt-crack, the builder's bum of the Labour Party, being dignified, elevated, made noble. We all sucked our teeth and said, "Ooh! Big job, that."
…It was a shock, actually, to be reminded of him: proud, scowling, resentful, vengeful, partisan, with a big pork belly, and a mind like a bucket of bait.  It's a very odd business politics – how could a man like that have been Deputy Prime Minister of Britain for so many years?
The booting of a prone opponent:
One happy memory: he'd been having sex with one of his staff members – once at tea-time behind the open door of his office. Our dashing Don Juan couldn't keep it together and the woman later went to the papers with the news that the Deputy PM had "a penis the size of a cocktail sausage".
And a little sting in the tail to remind his target that not quite everything came out about his behaviour in office (or indeed in offices):
He may have, hold, possess all the rights, privileges, advantages that are due to a Baron's natural right. And, as these things go in threes, heaven knows what Maisie, Tracy and Casey, what Posy, Rosy and Josy, that dignity, title and honour entails.
One in the public sphere, the other one not.  The links are mine, but the satisfaction is all Carr’s.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Building Schools...

I have a degree of sympathy with Hopi Sen here – it is inevitable that when a Government is seeking to make significant cuts in public expenditure many things that are cut are valuable and worthwhile in themselves.  You can’t eliminate a £150bn deficit solely by reducing Government advertising and Home Office ‘peace pods’.  But I also have a lot of time for Toby Young’s view here, that the BSF was a colossal boondoggle.  It’s hard to argue that this was an efficient use of money:
The process of applying for BSF investment was so fiendishly complex that, collectively, England’s local authorities spent an estimated £250 million on preparing their bids, with £60 million being spent on consultancy or advisory costs. That’s £250 million just to fill in the forms, so plentiful was the red tape.
Be that as it may, school would obviously have preferred to have had money available for rebuilding works.  But there is one further point that I would make here.  The prep school I went to taught its top-years in a post-war prefab that had been slated for demolition in the 1960s.  When I went back to play an old-boys’ match a couple of years ago it was still there.  The public school I went to, one of the three public schools Lord Peter Wimsey deemed worthy of the name, educates its boys in Victorian class-rooms, sitting at desks complete with ink-wells.  The House I boarded at even retained its archaic study-cubicles, although they had been updated to include one light-fitting.  Scholars, lucky dogs, lived in an apparently unrenovated 14th Century building.
Sometimes the age of the buildings is an uncertain guide to the quality of the education.

Friday, July 02, 2010

We're here because...?

By some margin the most impressive newcomer to Parliament is Rory Stewart – a fact only slightly diminished by the clear evidence that Mr Stewart strongly agrees with it.  I was struck, watching him on Question Time some time before the election, that the other panellists (I remember Roy Hattersley and Shirley Williams) were very deliberately deferring to him when talking about Afghanistan – he is clear and authoritative on subjects he knows well.
His controlled pessimism on the prospects of NATO in Afghanistan are, therefore, worthy of respect – and not because they tally so strongly with my opinion.  His proposal for a long-term limited Western presence, acting to prevent things getting completely out of control, but not attempting to act as a Government seems to me to be the closest thing to success anyone is likely to get out of Afghanistan.  It is, after all, a mirror of British Imperial policy towards Afghanistan and the North West Frontier in the period following the disastrous First Afghan War.
The lesson learned from that was that it was not possible, with the available resources, for Britain to maintain any sort of armed presence in Afghanistan – the people were relentlessly and enduringly hostile to any sort of foreign occupation.  But equally, British aims in Afghanistan (essentially, preventing it from becoming a base for Russian activities in India) did not require any such formal expansion.  Better to maintain sufficiently strong forces that if the Afghans did pose a threat, either by raids into British India or by welcoming Russian diplomats, the British were able to launch preventive or punitive raids.  The same tactics were used on the Frontier itself – live and let live as much as possible, but be ready to hit quickly when things got out of hand.
In the excellent Bugles and a Tiger by John Masters, a perfect example of this near-permanent low-level frontier war is given in the opening chapter – a description of the British policy of barampta (a sort of military rampage through hostile territory) in Waziristan.  NATO ought to consider the probability that a military occupation of Afghanistan is unlikely to succeed, given the resources that we are prepared to invest in it.  Augustus called it ‘fishing with a golden hook’ – the prize is greatly outweighed by the cost.  Wouldn’t it be better to be able to reach out a long arm and prevent the Taliban from winning power, without maintaining a substantial military presence in the graveyard of Empires?
Otherwise, as Stewart says, the reason for our presence there becomes strangely circular:
Europe is simply in Afghanistan because America is there. America is there just because it is. And all our policy debates are scholastic dialectics to justify this singular but not entirely comprehensible fact.
We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.  Have a banana.