Very little has made me feel my age more than Monday night’s TV. First off there was University Challenge. Neither the team from Balliol College, Oxford, average age 26, nor King’s College, London, average age 23, were able to identify the Everly Brothers singing Bye Bye Love. Admittedly it was the Everlys' first hit and dated from 1957, but they had such a characteristic and unique sound, it seems incredible that not one of the eight in the teams was able to recognize them.
It got worse. The team from King’s who won the bonus then failed to identify Roy Orbison—admittedly a trick question, because he was singing an Everly Brothers' song—but then no-one could identify Buddy Holly singing Raining in my Heart. Of all the iconic sounds of pop music from the late ‘Fifties and early ‘Sixties, surely the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly must be at the top. Still, probably even the teams’ parents had not been born by the time Buddy Holly died.
Then, Mark Kermode’s Secrets of the Cinema—Pop Music Movies, compounded my misery when I found that not even half way through the timeline, I had little or no knowledge of the bands he was showcasing.
Finally, following Mark Kermode the BBC repeated A Hard Day’s Night. I remember being up in the West End and coming out of a music shop where I had been ogling a Gretsch guitar of the type George Harrison used. There was a primeval scream of fans who had caught sight of one or other of the Beatles who were in town for a London Palladium performance. It thrilled me to the core, and the film brought it all back; it was 1964, fifty-seven years ago …
There cannot be much left to say about Trump. He lacks any sense of the dignity of his office, and his overweening hubris is just breathtaking. He is an unashamed populist who aims for the lowest common denominator, and yet the majority of his enthusiastic supporters—interviewed on TV at and around the Capitol—were not loonies with KKK tattoos, or barely coherent rednecks, but looked and sounded like regular and decent-looking articulate citizens. This, to me, is the real worry of Trump. How is it that this ignorant, narcissistic, bullying clown is able to garner so much support from apparently ‘normal’ people?
For five years I have been toiling on this new book, Reverend Duke and the Amesbury Oliver. The last six months have been spent just editing the final version for print. It has been the most difficult thing I have done, but now it is published.
I recount the quite extraordinary behaviour of the Reverend Edward Duke, 1779-1852, antiquary, magistrate, and guardian of the Amesbury Union Workhouse. The introduction to the book can be read here.
The new book is available directly from me via this website, or from all reputable online booksellers, including the one named after a South American river, and high-street shops—if any of them are still trading. A short account extracted from the book will be published in Genealogists’ Magazine in due course. A summary of Mr Duke’s bizarre theory concerning the origin of Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill can be found here.
Keen observers may note that my appearance has undergone a subtle change over the last few months. I blame general indolence and shortages of razor blades due to panic-buying.
I suspect that the phrase ‘UK Energy Policy’ might well be an oxymoron. With the exception of subsidies given to wind farms, there is little to suggest any sort of comprehensive plan.
Here are some statistics that I find uncomfortable. Yesterday at various times, natural gas provided more than 50% of UK electricity power generation. Since the demise of coal, combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) generators provide the lion’s share of UK power needs. They are efficient—up to 60% is claimed; the gas turbine exhaust heat is used to generate steam, which drives steam turbine generators—and notwithstanding the CO2 emissions, CCGT is relatively clean. They can also be started up in half an hour or so in order to meet rapid variations in demand.
So far, so good. But natural gas is a fossil fuel, and there are proven world-wide reserves of gas that will last for only slightly more than 50 years at current consumption rates. Undoubtedly more will be discovered, but the bad news is that more than 40% of known reserves lie in Russia and Iran, with Russia holding more than 24%.
Even the most liberal of observers could hardly claim that either country is a friend of the UK, so there must be a major question of security of supply; more than 50% of our gas is imported and our own natural reserves are now substantially depleted. As I remember well during the oil crisis of 1973, the OPEC countries increased the price of oil by 400% and the price of petrol at the pumps more than doubled within a few months.
It seems to me that natural gas may well be a strategic weapon of the future. Economies are based on the availability of electricity, and without gas to heat our homes and offices … True, there is a plan to phase out domestic heating with natural gas, and 30-40% of consumption is used for that purpose. I do wonder though at the reality and cost of replacing 22 million gas boilers over the next ten years. I suspect that, with a few exceptions, only new homes will be fitted with alternatives.
Nuclear power will not come to the rescue either. Hinkley Point C is enormously expensive although it is planned to provide 7 - 10% of our ‘current’ power needs, and there has been a shambles over financing and planning. Frustrations with financing have caused Hitachi to pull out of two new UK nuclear projects in the last few months. It is tragic that the UK, which produced the world’s very first commercial nuclear-powered electricity generation, is now not only dependent on imported technology, but seems unwilling to pay for it. And there is always the problem of security against hostile action. In these days of state-sponsored terrorism, anything is possible. A single, well-placed, air to ground missile could easily take a nuclear power plant off line for months, years, or for ever. Not even a missile would be needed. Remembering Chernobyl, what manager would risk operating a nuclear plant that had been damaged, no matter how slightly.
There is one more problem for future electricity generation that I suspect might be the elephant in the room. Within ten years no new petrol or diesel cars will be sold in the UK. All those new electric cars and other vehicles will need electricity. Apparently there are now in excess of 40 million cars, vans, busses, and lorries on UK roads. That is potentially a lot of extra electrical power needed in coming years.
The answer seems so burningly-obvious to me, that I wonder why we are not doing it already. One of the real successes of green energy policy, has been the proliferation of wind turbines. People moan that they are unsightly, although most are situated offshore. Others moan that the operators are sometimes paid not to generate electricity, but if that is the case, it is because they are flexible, and no-one yet has come up with an effective way of storing large amounts of electrical energy when generation exceeds demand. The main drawback of wind turbines is uncertainty in the wind. The website gridwatch.co.uk indicates how different technologies—nuclear, wind, solar, hydroelectric, CCGT etc.—contribute to UK power demand. Over the last few months, I have seen wind power provide from 40% of the country’s entire electricity needs, to just a few percent, entirely depending on the weather.
The one resource, untapped, eminently renewable, entirely predictable, distributed all around the country, and needing technology that has been mature for decades, is tidal power. The tides rise and fall twice every day. There is a monthly variation according to the disposition of the sun and moon, but that amounts to only 30% or so, and can be predicted with a high degree of precision. Furthermore, the time of high tide varies around the country.
The process is simplicity itself—and has been used for hundreds of years to power the milling of corn. Build a lagoon, and install turbine generators in the wall of the lagoon. As the tide rises, the water flows into the lagoon through the turbines and generates electricity. As it falls, the water flows out of the lagoon and generates electricity. In practice, sluices are closed at the beginning of the rise and fall to allow a head of water to build up; this reduces the availability of power generation to around 14 hours in every 24. But since there is always high or low water somewhere around the coast, careful positioning of generator sites could provide full, uninterrupted coverage.
There could be a further benefit. Much of the east of England, particularly Essex and Suffolk, is sinking into the sea. Since I lived at Wivenhoe on the Colne estuary in Essex in the 1970s, the sea-level has risen there by 40 mm. The cost of coastal protection is high and some say ultimately a waste of effort, since eventually the sea will overtop any man-made defences. But a tidal lagoon doubling as coastal defence would change the economics completely. Might this be an answer to the east-coast problem?
No-doubt there are some defects in these arguments, but I am certain that the basic principle is sound: renewable, relatively low tech, and distributed power generation, with added benefits, as part of future energy policy. Isn’t this exactly what the country wants right now? A massive infrastructure project providing employment for tens of thousands, and a real strategic asset for the whole country.
In 2015, having completed the research, writing, and publication of my last book on the Red Barn murder, I decided to resurrect a narrative my father wrote in the 1960s but which was never published. His genealogical researches had uncovered a previously unknown judicial enquiry into the death of a crippled and consumptive orphan boy at the Amesbury workhouse. The master had been accused of flinging the boy against a flint wall where he cut his head. Five weeks later, the boy was dead. The enquiry had taken place in 1844, and Father decided to write it up as a historical novel.
Casting around for something to do, I read Father’s manuscript, and decided to have a look at the files on which he based his account. These now resided in the National Archives at Kew.
The files contained the correspondence that had taken place between the Poor Law Commissioners, the guardians of the Amesbury Union, and the Reverend Edward Duke. Duke was a local landowner, antiquarian, JP, and ex officio guardian at the workhouse. It was Edward Duke who had made the original charges against the workhouse master in a letter to the Home Secretary. And for the previous nine years he had inundated the Poor Law Commissioners with letters complaining about the conduct of the Amesbury Union.
When I started the process, I realized that I would have to read every piece of relevant correspondence in order that no clue as to the background of this extraordinary affair should be lost. Even now, I’m not sure that had I known the labour that would be involved, I would have started it. Edward Duke wrote to the commissioners around seventy times between 1837 and 1844; his letters were always of four pages or more, and his handwriting was very challenging to read. Other correspondence was of greater or lesser length. The original evidence from the enquiry was on 100 pages of foolscap in handwriting that was truly appalling. Of the latter, my mother had transcribed around 30% of the text; she was a shorthand typist, and well versed in reading difficult script. She was also able to decipher a number of shorthand symbols that were used, and thus she provided me with a sort of ‘Rosetta Stone’. This made the transcribing of the remaining 70% of the evidence much easier that it would otherwise have been.
In all, around 270 individual pieces of relevant correspondence, each one containing an average of four pages or thereabouts, had to be read. Fortunately, the National Archives allows cameras to be used, and I was able to photograph the documents, and enlarge them on a computer screen to aid decipherment.
The next job was to make transcripts of the important documents. This done, the writing could commence, and early in June of this year I finally submitted a manuscript for laying out. I have been updating, editing, checking, and fettling ever since. Finally yesterday, I gave the go-ahead to print the thing.
The last six months have been a nightmare. I had a punctuation melt-down from which I have yet to fully recover, and despite numerous read-throughs by several other persons, typos kept appearing with monotonous regularity. I continued to find instances where I had made an error of interpretation. Almost the final straw, barely two weeks ago, was to discover by a chance remark from a correspondent that I had been calling the master of the workhouse ‘The Governor’, when that was his informal title bestowed upon him by the paupers.
Anyway, it is done, and from January the book will be available from the usual online retailers and all good bookshops. Also, it can be obtained directly from me via this website. Residents of Chelmsford and the surrounding area can have the book delivered COD.
I doubt that this new work will make the smallest ripple in the book world, but I have at least succeeded in bringing before the public what I think is an extraordinary story, one that my father discovered so many years ago.
A few days ago I saw most of a David Attenborough film on Quetzalcoatlus, a pterosaur which, when on the ground, stood the height of a giraffe; in flight, it was the size of a small aeroplane.
These creatures were around from approximately 90 million years ago until the end of the age of dinosaurs. There has been much speculation as to how pterosaurs ‘worked’, appearing to be so clumsy on the ground and awkward taking off, that they would have easily fallen prey to predators. The Attenborough film showed how scans of the fossilised bones showed them to be hollow, and thus light and very strong. Based on this, an animation demonstrated how the creatures could leap into the air—much like a frog—enabling their large wings to carry them into flight.
The ability to fly, to evade predation and search very effectively for food, must have been a great evolutionary benefit. It explains how the species was able to survive for millions of years in what must have been a very inhospitable environment.
These days, with CGI representation in films limited in scope only by the imagination of the computer programmers, we are apt to get blasé about the representation of fabulous creatures on the screen. This programme on Quetzalcoatlus demonstrated yet again the validity of that tortured old cliché, that truth really is stranger than fiction.
I imagined coming across one of those creatures in the fields where I walk. A flying demon with a thirty-foot wingspan and wicked six foot beak swooping low over the fields in my direction. And if it decided I might make a decent lunch, how I would react to it towering over me on the ground? Thank goodness I’m never likely to find out.
I read somewhere that every day one should have an experience drawn from each of the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical realms. For physical, my abilities are now somewhat compromised, but I do still manage to walk two or three miles every day.
For mental, when I have given up trying to figure out what is going on in the world just now, I pursue my more than fifty-year quest to understand the basics of philosophy. The latest iteration of this mission is to work through A C Grayling’s new book on the subject, assisted by various BBC In our Time episodes. For day to day brain lubrication, I do the puzzles in the newspaper. I find that a combination of numerical and word exercises keeps me moderately alert.
Spiritual is problematic. As a committed non-believer in any sort of supernatural existence, experiencing ‘spiritual’ is tantamount to impossible. The nearest I ever came to what I imagine spiritual to be like, was when as a good Catholic boy I used to trudge to mass every Sunday. On the occasions when I was to receive Holy Communion—for which in those days it was required to fast from the previous night—I really did feel a strange ‘otherness’. This I identified as a spiritual closeness to God. It was only many years later that I recognized, during a long and meal-less hitchhike though Europe, that the feeling was hunger …
But emotional is no problem: I turn to music. Wagner’s Ring cycle does it for me, as do Elgar’s choral works, particularly Dream of Gerontius; but for real knock-down, drag out raw emotion, give me Mahler.
Eighteen years ago at the Proms, Simon Rattle conducted the National Youth Orchestra, plus five choirs and eight soloists, performing Mahler’s eighth symphony; total headcount, around 750. It was recently repeated, and is on iPlayer for the next nine months or so. The finale of this work always makes me cry; the combination of the glorious music, the massed voices, and the transcendent words is quite overwhelming.
The latter are taken from the end of part II of Goethe’s Faust. This is not the Faust who gets dragged down to Hell by Mephistopheles—that was part I. Part II is a mystical and epic journey around classical Greece with Mephistopheles in tow. Faust meets various legendary figures including Helen of Troy, with whom he has an ‘intellectual’ relationship; he also encounters fauns, dryads, satyrs, griffins, sphinxes, a chorus of ants, some lemurs, a few early Greek philosophers, and even some plants reciting poetry.
It turns out that Faust didn’t suffer eternal damnation after all, and in the finale of part II he is finally redeemed by ‘The one penitent’—Gretchen. She is/was the virgin he seduced and left to her fate; the angels had rescued her from a condemned cell and conducted her up to Heaven.
The very last lines, sung by the ‘Chorus Mysticus’, are difficult to translate from the German—judging by the five different versions I have read. The English used in the subtitles of the Prom seemed to me to be the least obscure:
All that is past is merely a dream
Eternal womanhood shows us the way
Not PC of course, but it is undeniable that Faust was saved by a woman. If Mahler used the text as a paeon to his beloved wife Alma, he was to be sadly disappointed. Just before the world premiere of the symphony in Munich in 1910, he discovered that she was having an affair with the appropriately named Walter Gropius.
All that aside, and notwithstanding some of the mystical mumbo-jumbo, this was a stupendous performance of a great work; it was made all the more poignant for me by the youth of the orchestra. Simon Rattle told us that their ages ranged between thirteen and nineteen years, and only around 50% of them would become professional musicians. He said something like, ‘I think we can safely leave our future in their hands…’ Amen to that.
This was a reminder that there is real culture and civilization in a world gone mad.
The truth is now out. Mr Johnson, mayor of London, did have an affair with Jennifer Arcuri when the latter’s company was enjoying government grants of thousands of pounds. Furthermore, ‘his office’ smoothed the way for her to accompany him on (government funded?) trade missions for which she was improperly qualified.
I would have thought that for someone in public office with his eye on the top job, even to associate with a person whose previous business partner had been sentenced to fourteen years for fraud was an unwise action.
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, was prime minister for nine years in the mid-nineteenth century. He was a notorious womaniser, nicknamed ‘Lord Cupid’, and fathered a number of children with various women. Palmerston was a ‘lively, amusing talker’; ‘men and women found it difficult to resist [his] charm’.
Alexander (etc.) Johnson, apparently known to his friends as ‘Al’—but to the world at large as ‘Boris’—has a number of traits in common with Palmerston. He too is charming and amusing, he too is a womaniser and has fathered children with several women—whether or no the popular legend is true that he is not sure how many (women or children ...) And he too is prime minister. But notwithstanding his indiscretions, shouldn’t his private life be his own?
Here’s the problem. Mr Johnson already has a very full record of being ‘economical with the truth’—see earlier posts on this blog: ‘The Johnson Papers’. When very difficult decisions have to be made, how are we to trust the blatantly untrustworthy to make those decisions?
In this country we govern and police by consent. Manchester’s mayor is refusing to obey the law; different Tory MPs are at each other’s throats, and millions of people are desperately worried about their ability to pay the bills with the various levels of lockdown being imposed. What are the chances of many of them obeying the law decreed by Johnson's government when their very livelihoods are at stake? And then there is the awfulness of no deal ‘B*****’ which we are told to expect. Ten weeks to go before Biblical chaos is quite likely to break out at the channel ports.
I can see no way out of this. A government of national unity might help, but who would lead? And the chances of the Tories relinquishing power are zero. Possibly Johnson could resign on health grounds and call a General Election. Somehow I can’t see that leading to a smooth transition.
Palmerston was leading a country on its way to becoming the most powerful in the world. Johnson is presiding over the same country in terminal decline—due in no small measure to his own selfish actions.
Note: this post was written before I had seen the review in Saturday's Times of the latest Johnson biography by Tom Bower—which makes interesting reading ...
In these times when so many items of news stretch credibility to breaking-point, it is quite difficult to believe that the Prime Minister is considering Charles Moore for the chairmanship of the BBC, and Paul Dacre as the new chairman of Offcom.
Putting the fox in charge of the hen-coop just doesn’t seem a strong enough metaphor to describe this astonishing turn of events.
Dacre is the man who put the ‘hate’ into the Daily ‘Hate’ Mail, feeding his readers with anti-EU, anti-immigrant, and anti-BBC stories day after day. Offcom deals with complaints against the BBC among other things. One can imagine the sort of team he would assemble for such a purpose.
Moore has also been drip-feeding xenophobic, anti-European, and anti-BBC propaganda into the readership of the Daily Telegraph. Anyone who doubts that, only has to read the letters’ page. I’ll not criticise him for his biography of Thatcher; by all accounts he did a good job. But not that long ago on Any Questions, he told us that the NHS was the worst health service in the world … I question his political—even mental—balance.
It is clear to many people that the BBC needs a shake-up. They have built up a huge bureaucracy, and their wage structure is an embarrassing disaster. The recent decision to reverse licence-exemption for the over 75s was an own-goal of Biblical proportions, albeit it was essentially forced upon them by Cameron’s government.
The BBC can’t win, of course. Currently, they’re being accused of left-wing bias; I suspect that what they are guilty of, if indeed that is the word to use, is anti-establishment bias. People have such short memories. It wasn’t Thatcher who attacked the BBC and forced the resignation of the chairman and director-general for attacking the government. It was Blair, a Labour prime minister, assisted by his attack-dog Alistair Campbell. That was over BBC reporting on the ‘Dodgy dossier’ on the Iraq 'weapons of mass destruction'. I still recall Campbell ram-raiding Channel 4 news, demanding to ‘set the record straight’ on an alternative national broadcast channel.
The licence fee is the issue. Certainly, defaulting on a licence should be de-criminalised. Critics say the BBC should go for subscription; use the Netflix model. This ignores the fate of many BBC national and local radio channels, which are paid for by the licence fee, but for which a licence is not needed to access. How are these to be funded in future?
Then there is the broader question of culture. Much of the BBC output is current affairs, news, entertainment and sport, as well as general culture. The latter includes drama, music, art, literature etc. Much of this would be lost, as a subscription service would inevitably result in an substantial drop in revenue. Sport in particular, would just go to the highest bidder.
‘Culture’, is a broad church. It includes education and research. Following the subscription model to its logical conclusion, Britain’s contribution to CERN in Geneva, or to space missions, or large telescopes, or the British Antarctic Survey could be made subject to subscription. How many people, in a cash-strapped society, would be willing to contribute to those projects if they had the choice to withdraw?
Thatcher detested the BBC, but had the good sense and judgement to leave it alone, recognising the dangers of meddling. Even Churchill during WWII, did not get his way when Reith, the original director-general, refused to broadcast propaganda he deemed ‘unbalanced’.
I suspect that our main public-service broadcaster needs to be funded from general taxation. Of course, it will then be a hostage to the current government, but then it is already.
What the BBC needs is a tough leader with a clear vision for the future; someone who recognises that younger people are turning away from the licence fee, but understands the dangers of dumping the model. What it does not need is a narrow-minded right-wing zealot, whom, I suspect, seeks to wreak revenge on the organization for speaking uncomfortable truths—of which he heartily disapproves—to power.
Note added 4 October; Excellent news that the appalling Charles Moore has declined the chairmanship of the BBC. Surprising that a person so critical of the Beeb should turn down the opportunity to put his bigoted opinions into practice.
Yes folks, it’s official! The Spitting Image trailer depicts our prime minister, naked, being spanked on the knob by Putin’s knob, the latter gentleman sporting a longer, significantly more impressive love-truncheon than our Boris. The Donald is in there too, and his meat-puppet is nothing to write home about either …
The whole thing is outrageous of course, and I wouldn’t dream of putting a link to it on this post ...
Martin Luther wrote: ‘The best way to drive out the devil … is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bare scorn.’ I’m not suggesting that either Boris or Donald are the Devil—they are far too lightweight for that—but I’m guessing that neither of them likes to be mocked.
Watching this is a real tonic for our times; how can we take these people seriously? And yet there is a deadly serious side to this. Putin appears to regard assassination as legitimate politics; Trump seemed to cast doubt this week on his commitment to an orderly transfer of power, should he lose the election. And as for Boris …
Well, it was the best laugh I have had for a very long time. Well done Britbox!
Note added 25 September: I should have mentioned that the quotation from Luther was lifted from the front of C S Lewis's book The Screwtape Letters, in case anyone should think that Martin Luther's works form part of my regular bedtime reading.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs