As we reflect on the apparent death of Yevgeny Prigozhin in the ‘unexplained’ crash of his private jet, we hear news that during a televised debate of Republican presidential hopefuls in America, six out of the eight candidates declared that they would support Trump as president even if he were to be convicted of criminal charges.
I recall some years ago visiting Sigmund Freud’s apartment in Vienna; among the fascinating artefacts, there were sickening details of how NAZI bully-boys barged in during the 1930s, breaking furniture and stealing what they fancied. The common law concepts of the right of property and the sanctity of home did not apply to Jews in Hitler’s Reich.
Perhaps I am naïve, but I have always regarded democracy and the rule of law as what separates us from the animals and the jungle, ‘red in tooth and claw’. But now I find that on the one hand we have a regime that seems to operate like something out of The Godfather. Countries are invaded on the flimsiest of pretexts; non-combatants, women and children, are killed in arbitrary strikes on tenement blocks, difficult personalities are eliminated by 25 years in gaol, Novichock, ‘falling out of windows’, or the unexplained crash of aircraft with previously very good safety records. On the other hand, in America candidates for the highest executive position in the land, declare their willingness to support a person for that office who has apparently conspired to subvert the outcome of an election for his own personal gain, and has, by the way, at least three other criminal charges pending.
Between them these two states control in excess of 10,000 nuclear warheads, each one capable of destroying a city; criminals and potential criminals are holding the world to ransom, and all we can do is watch and hope.
I used to think that the early 1980s were the most dangerous of times, with Reagan on one side and a succession of aged Russian leaders trying to control a disintegrating Soviet Union on the other. But that was nothing compared to now, with China, North Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan in the mix as well as the lunatics previously mentioned.
It is a time for bucket lists to be ticked off. As they say, ‘be afraid; be very afraid...’
A renewed interest in 19th century railways led me to request L T C Rolt’s biography of George and Robert Stephenson from the British Library. His wonderful writing resulted in a decision to order a copy of the book on line, only to discover not half an hour later that I already had a copy on my shelves... I was unable to cancel the order but the book when it came was a much better copy that my original, so I was not unhappy.
Reading about the early days of the Stockton and Darlington railway, 1825, I was overcome with the romance of the period, rose-tinted of course by Rolt’s erudite style. It was just ten years since Waterloo, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and in the national census a few years later in 1831, for the first time ever more people were being employed in industry than on the land. For the record, the S & D R was the very first public railway in the world to be operated by locomotives.
I grew up in the age of steam, and the smoke and steam from the trains was as familiar then as the smell of aviation fuel in airports is today. Some years ago I found myself driving behind a traction engine slowly negotiating a roundabout in Chelmsford. It was emitting evil looking yellow-black smoke from burning coal, but the smell of the sulphurous coal-smoke, mixed with wet steam and hot oil was easily as evocative as the fragrance of warm madeleines was to Marcel Proust. Of course it was the burning of all that coal that has led us into the climate crisis we are now facing, but that was then, and that was the way we lived.
Anyway, it was a chapter from Rolt’s book, entitled The First Railwaymen, that engaged my amused interest. The Stockton and Darlington Railway was designed to transport coal from the County Durham collieries to the River Tees at Stockton. It was a public railway, and operated pretty much like a public road functions today, in that any traffic could use it. That meant that as well as steam locomotives hauling coal, it could accommodate horse-drawn coal trains, and up to six different firms offering passenger travel in coaches—also horse-drawn—on regular timetables. The railway was only single track with no signals or any control of trains, although there were some rules and it was provided with passing loops, four to the mile. Passenger coaches had right of way, and horse-drawn coal trains had to give way to locomotives. Robert Stephenson commented that the drivers of the locomotives hauling coal were ‘not the most manageable class of beings’; Rolt adds: ‘the horse leaders were a tough and truculent gang, not infrequently tipsy...’ Some parts of the line were on an incline, and the horse-drawn trains had a ‘Dandy Cart’, a special truck where the horse could ride when the train was coasting downhill.
The ensuing chaos can only be imagined. A few incidents from the book:
“Two horse-drivers refused to allow a steam train to pass them by ... [and] forced it to follow them for four miles.”
“[a] driver shunted some wagons so violently that the horse was pitched out of the dandy cart and fell down the Myers Flat embankment.”
“Three horse-drivers left their trains blocking the line ... [and] went to a neighbouring pub for a two-hour drinking session.”
“One foggy morning, Thomas Sanderson ... suffering from a hangover, left his horse while it was hauling a train of empties and retired to the dandy cart behind to sleep it off. He was rudely awakened when a locomotive ran into the rear of the dandy cart and was derailed. The line was blocked for two hours.”
“William Ogle and George Hodgson left Shildon is such a roaring state of [drunkenness] that Ogle continued to drive his horse at a gallop regardless of the fact that the dandy cart had jumped the rails and was tearing up the track. They forced another horse-driver whom they met to go back into a loop and overturned his empty wagons. Finally this precious pair met a steam train and, refusing to give way, tore up a rail, threatening to throw the engine off the line.”
It is interesting to reflect how Mick lynch would have dealt with the issues arising... While perhaps being not entirely reliable, rail travel then certainly sounds interesting—provided that you were not in a hurry.
Nigel Farage is a thoroughly unpleasant little squit. He bears not a little responsibility for the increasingly awful mess we find ourselves in following our departure from the EU. His xenophobic and opportunistic attitude to the small boats, for example, is appalling. Unfortunately, like Johnson, he is a very good and engaging speaker. I am sure that there are many people out there who think he is a thoroughly good chap.
I’m not one of them, and when I heard that he had been ‘cancelled’ by his bank I could not suppress a chuckle, while contemplating the fact that to have had an account with Coutts meant that the bastard had more than £1M... Where did that lot come from I wonder?
But then my ‘liberal’ values kicked in, and I remembered a quotation I used in one of my books. Hesiod, a Greek from around 700 BC, observed:
Ill were it to be just, if to the more unjust falls stricter justice.
And that’s it. The Fascists will always win out over liberal minded people, because the latter will treat them with scrupulous fairness. The former, witness the notorious £350M per week to be spent on the NHS, will use every trick in the book, fair or foul, to win their point.
So, with much regret, I hope the banks will come clean over this episode. Still, if I meet Farage in a pub, I give him notice that I will buy him a beer, and empty it over his head.
A wonderful trip down memory lane this week, care of my old mate Ewan Livingstone at e2v/EEV. EEV—English Electric Valve Company—started life in 1947 making magnetrons and other tubes—we called them ‘valves’ in those days—mostly for military applications. I joined the company in 1980, and managed to avoid getting fired, leaving with many regrets but of my own choosing, in 2008.
The products were world-beating in 1980, and still are. Star performers are CCDs for use in space imaging—I project-managed several. CCDs are light-sensitive computer chips. One of my favourite projects is on board The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter satellite, still sending back spectacular colour images of the Martian surface.
If you are fortunate/unfortunate (which one you choose depends on your perspective) enough to need radiotherapy, there is a very high probability that the machine that provides it will contain a magnetron and thyratron manufactured by EEV in Waterhouse Lane, Chelmsford. (Actually, the company was purchased by Teledyne a few years ago, and a previous MD—operating on the basis that if it ain’t broke, fix it, because it wasn’t his idea—changed the name to e2v; the ‘proper’ name is now “Teledyne e2v”. But it’s still EEV really...)
Two things always struck me about the company, and nothing has really changed; firstly, many of the products are at the same time, state-of-the-art while looking like 1940s technology. The thyratron used in the radiotherapy machine (linear accelerator, or linac), is a large bottle with a hot bit inside; it looks exactly like the myriads of valves/tubes that used to inhabit the insides of radio and television sets, albeit much larger. Tubes in radios and televisions are a thing of the past, but the thyratron in a medical linear accelerator continues to do the job efficiently, effectively, and economically.
The second thing is/are the people. There was, and continues to be, a wonderful feeling of comradeship, togetherness, generosity, being part of a team, pulling together (generally in the same direction) at the company. I came across very few exceptions to that rule at EEV, and the exceptions were nearly always senior people, parachuted in from outside of the company following the departure of the traditional directors who had, as it were, come up through the ranks. When I joined the company, with two notable exceptions, all of the directors were engineers who had joined the company from university. The exceptions were the finance director, and the managing director. The MD had been appointed by Arnold Weinstock, the boss of the parent company, GEC, because the ‘numbers’ were, in his opinion, in need of improving. Actually the new MD, Martin Jay, was one of the good guys and very quickly went native.
My main regret on retirement, was that I would miss—and did miss—my work colleagues. Fortunately, many of them are generous enough to invite me to come and drink with them on a regular basis.
EEV is that rare animal, a world-leading British manufacturer in a UK economy where, I am truly horrified to learn, manufacturing industry currently contributes less than 9% of GDP. I feel genuinely privileged to have worked there.
Dear Vicky Ford,
As one of your constituents, I am writing to urge you in the strongest possible terms to participate in Monday’s debate on the latest report of the Privileges Committee regarding former Prime Minister Johnson's deliberate lying to the House of Commons. I urge you to vote to endorse the committee's findings.
Since a great deal has been said and written about Mr Johnson and his activities, it is worthwhile summarising some points as I understand them:
Item: The Privileges Committee of the House of Commons is always chaired by someone drawn from the Opposition, so the criticism of Harriet Harman is irrelevant.
Item: The chair only takes part in voting when ballots are tied.
Item: The majority of members of this committee are Tories.
Item: Any actions, sanctions etc. arising from findings made by the committee have to be sanctioned by a vote in the House of Commons. [Item added at 23:40, 15 June]
Item: The former Prime Minister’s Trumpian tantrum on seeing the Privileges Committee report, makes it clear that he is quite delusional, and not only has a casual disregard for the objective truth, but also a perceived immunity from the rules that govern the rest of us.
Item: When he was a journalist writing for The Times, Johnson was fired by the editor for fabricating, in a piece he wrote for the newspaper, a quotation from an Oxford don regarding Edward II.
Item: He was sacked from the Opposition Front Bench by Michael Howard for lying about an extra-marital affair.
Item: During the runup to the European referendum he famously wrote two, one-page pieces for the Daily Telegraph, one in favour of Remain, one for Leave, taking the weekend to consider which one to publish. If he believed so passionately in the case for leaving the EU—as was clear from his campaigning—why was it necessary to take two days to make up his mind? Many consider that his decision to support Leave was a cynical ploy, thought by him to be the quickest and safest route to his ambition of becoming Prime Minister.
Item: His decision to suspend Parliament in order to supress debate on the European exit agreement was deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court—it has been said that he lied to The Queen
Item: His attempt to change the rules and save Owen Patterson was simply scandalous and rightly quashed by his peers.
Item: His lie that he was unaware of the allegations regarding Chris Pincher led ultimately to mass resignations from his government, and Johnson’s own resignation.
Former Prime Minister Johnson was ejected from office by his own government, and has now been sanctioned for lying to The House of Commons by a committee of his peers. I believe that by the use of his personal charm and ability, Johnson did more than anyone else to swing many undecided voters to opt for leaving the EU, the disastrous consequences of which are now starting to become clear. Furthermore, he did this not out of any sense of public duty or deep political belief, but solely for his own personal benefit. He was not chary of using questionable methods in achieving this end. He smirked and waffled on air when challenged by a journalist on the infamous £350M message on the side of the bus, which he and everyone else knew was a lie, the actual amount being £250M.
In my view this person is entirely unfit for public office, and all steps should be taken to ensure that he can never again be allowed to stand for Parliament.
There is quite definitely a fifth-columnist in the editorial team of the Sunday Telegraph puzzles section. Today’s hidden quotation is from Margaret Thatcher: “No one would remember the good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well”
It will not have escaped the attention of anyone who takes more than the briefest notice of the contents of this website, that I spent my formative years playing guitar in a couple of rock ‘n’ roll bands in west London. Living in South Ealing, my local music shop—where I could buy anything from a plectrum or some spare strings to a Gibson guitar and Vox Twin amplifier—was Jim Marshall’s establishment in Hanwell. He started his business selling drums, and graduated to guitars and all the paraphernalia associated with them. I well recall one evening in 1961 walking to Hanwell just to look and marvel at the blue Fender Stratocaster he had on display in his window. For the uninitiated, the Stratocaster is the Ferrari or Aston Martin of guitars, as played by Hank Marvin and Jimmy Hendrix among many others.
In 1962 or thereabouts, Jim and his team developed his series of Marshall amplifiers, the loudspeaker stacks of which are frequent sights in TV, film, and rock concerts. They are familiar, not the least reason for which being that they have the name ‘Marshall’ emblazoned across their front. It all came about because local guitarists could not get the sound they wanted. Jim’s son Terry described what happened. The Fender Bassman amplifier—made by Fender in the USA for use with bass guitars, and fiendishly expensive—appeared to have the required characteristics. Terry discovered that it had not been patented, so they simply reverse engineered the circuit with some modifications, adding a separate box with four, twelve-inch loudspeakers. The amplifier itself was based on vacuum tubes and the sound was prodigious; I permanently damaged my hearing standing for hours twelve feet from Pete Townshend’s Marshall stack in the Ealing Club. It was said that Screaming Lord Sutch, the last person of any integrity ever to attempt to get himself elected to the UK Parliament, tested the power of Marshall amplifiers by using the particular position of the shop. He got his guitarist to play a riff through one of Jim’s amplifiers, went across the street, and determined whether he could still hear the sound when a double-decker bus went past.
The amplifiers were brilliant but insanely expensive. I remember Jim Marshall explaining to me that they produced three different systems; there was an amplifier for a lead guitar at 120 guineas, one for a bass guitar at 106 guineas, and one for a rhythm guitar for I forget how much. For anyone under the age of sixty, a guinea was twenty-one shillings, or in modern parlance £1.05. At the time, the average weekly take-home pay was £12 - £14. You could buy a decent car for less than the cost of a Marshall amplifier.
Jim Marshall has passed into legend, and is up there with Fender and Gibson as one of the all-time greats of the music equipment business. His shop was a meeting place for musicians, and was the centre of gravity of the West London music scene. It was there that I became acquainted with Mitch Mitchell, who played for my band for a brief period and then joined Jimmy Hendrix. Later on I met Speedy Keen, who was also with the band for a while before he joined Thunderclap Newman and wrote and sang Something in the Air.
Jim Marshall’s shop loomed large in my personal legend, and I spent many hours just hanging about there, hoping that some of the glitz would wear off on me. And it was during those times that I became infected with the Marshall Parp. It is difficult to explain exactly what it was but I shall try. One of the assistants, a musician, would put his lips together and make a ‘parp’ sound. Not for any particular reason; it was like a verbal tic. It caught on and the cognoscenti coming into the shop on hearing a ‘parp’ would reply with the same. Musicians at large, on exchanging a parp, would know that each belonged to the Marshall 'guild'. I started parping and still do. Very few people have remarked the habit, although one friend, Paul—he knows who he is—embraced it with enthusiasm, being as taken by it as I was.
I often wonder whether anyone else remembers the Marshall Parp. It’s ironic that Jim Marshall made millions with his amplifiers and received an OBE for his trouble. But that rather childish, ubiquitous, and amusing—well it amuses me— idiocy is entirely unrecorded. Well, I have recorded it now, and it remains for me the most enduring memory of Jim Marshall’s music shop in Hanwell.
Mary Rayner, writer and illustrator of books has died. She was sufficiently notable, that she warranted an obituary in both The Guardian and Daily Telegraph. But we knew her because of her cottage.
It was the summer of 1982. The children were aged one and three, and we were just about keeping our heads above water. The mortgage accounted for more than 50% of the outgoings, and our 'new' house needed about a full year of my salary being spent upon it in order to bring it up to an acceptable level of repair. We decided that we needed a holiday. In those days we read The Guardian, and found there an advertisement for a cottage in Wiltshire available for a two week let. The owner was a Mrs M Rayner.
The cottage was perfect. It was in the tiny village of West Overton, a few miles west of Marlborough. Stone built, fairly basic but entirely adequate, with a very attractive walled garden. And we were fortunate that that year we had a glorious English summer; we could sit in the garden and look at the grasses waving in the wind on the down opposite.
Everything about that holiday was delightful even though at one point I had to make an emergency dash to a laundrette to wash the entirety of the children’s bed-linen after an ‘incident’. West Overton is very close to Avebury, a name that was familiar to me but a place that I had never seen. Then there was Stonehenge twenty miles down the road; several books in the cottage reignited my interest in it. But perhaps the most intriguing discovery was Silbury Hill, a mile or so from Avebury. Silbury Hill is a sort of English Pyramid, dating from the time of Stonehenge. It is conical and made of turf and timber. It was thought at one time to be the great burial chamber of the genius who built Stonehenge, but excavations have found absolutely nothing. It remains a real enigma.
It was all a perfect salve for the stress of our lives at the time. I did a very minor running-repair to the plumbing in the cottage; I think it was a tap washer or something equally trivial. Mary Rayner sent us one of her books in appreciation; an illustrated story in which pigs were the main characters. It was intelligent, amusing, educational, and thoroughly charming. There was also in the cottage a novelette she had written called The Witchfinder; quite a dark story about a young girl’s obsession that her mother was a witch. It too was clever and thoughtful. Mary Rayner was a very talented writer, and ‘Mary Rayner’s Cottage’ became a family trope. Two years later, we went back, and I heard later on, when we again enquired about renting, that she had sold the cottage. But it remained, and remains, a wonderful memory; an idyllic summer of the type we think we remember from our childhood, and a very timely re-engaging of my interest in the prehistoric monuments of Wiltshire, land of my ancestors. RIP Mary Rayner!
Well, just a bit of exaggeration there... Some weeks ago there was a question on University Challenge about the building of Pentonville Prison in 1842; it went something like “To what design was the prison built—an idea suggested by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham?” The answer given, ‘The Panopticon’, was declared to be correct by Jeremy Paxman. In fact the design of Pentonville owes absolutely nothing to the Panopticon.
I spent some months researching the Victorian prison system for an article that was published last December--read it here—and wrote to the Beeb, citing the article and other reference material, and pointing out the error. After a few weeks they contacted me, thanking me etc., apologising that ‘I didn’t think’ that Pentonville was modelled on the Panopticon, and assuring me that the point had been included in their daily report. I replied that it was not a case of ‘thinking’ or conjecture. The proposition was just plain wrong, as the briefest reference to the contemporary documentation will show.
Finally, today, they wrote back; the programme makers now ‘agree’ that the Panopticon was not the model for Pentonville, and a note to that effect has been placed on the appropriate iPlayer page—image attached.
I’m surprised that a programme like UC, which I have always regarded as an absolute gold-standard for academic excellence and probity, should need a double-prodding to set the record straight. Anyway, it is another very small step in my crusade for truth in the public record.
As an afterthought, the Panopticon was a fascinating idea, and there is a brief account of it in my article, accessible via the above link.
For the first time this week, I travelled on the Elizabeth Line; a completely magnificent experience. The London Underground celebrates its 160th year this year, and there is still plenty of evidence on some lines of the original mid-Victorian infrastructure. In my youth I used to explore the network at weekends, the iconic Underground map making navigation very easy. Parts of the system in Central London are very deep, and some of the linking pedestrian tunnels were and are still quite claustrophobic—narrow, with low ceilings. Not infrequently, I used to find myself quite alone for minutes at a time. I would sometimes wonder if I had taken a wrong turning and ended up in the dungeons of some magic castle inhabited by the Nibelungs or some other race from the underworld.
The Elizabeth Line is the absolute antithesis of the early system, positively cathedral like in the scale of the stations and pedestrian access tunnels; in fact the tunnels are so wide and high that the word ‘tunnel’ hardly seems appropriate. For all that the Crossrail price tag was nearly £20 billion, the design drips premium quality and attention to detail. Of course it will irritate other parts of the country struggling to get any sort of train service. But despite the concerted efforts of successive recent governments to make visitors to this country quite unwelcome, London remains an enormous pull for tourists. The Underground network was operating at saturation point; the Elizabeth Line has increased the capacity of the London railway system by 10%. Even so, it was standing room only yesterday.
But they still can’t get the escalators right! I remember the early escalators with their wooden steps, each one having multiple strips of wood, all individually screwed on. The parallel strips provided the grooves in which ran the prongs of metal forks at the top of the stairway designed to prevents shoes etc. becoming caught up in the mechanism. The new escalators are all metal; the grooves are smaller and greater in number and the forks are also quite small. The handrail moves at the same rate as the stairs, or is supposed to do so. In fact, even on the brand new and very long escalators at Liverpool Street and Tottenham Court Road, the handrails move slightly faster than the stairs—as they do on every escalator on the network that I have encountered. It is possible that the issue is one of gear ratios; gears do not yield to the decimal system. They are digital, or perhaps one ought to say dental, in that they must have an integral number of teeth... This means that only specific ratios can be achieved, thus making it impossible to match rotational speeds exactly; I presume this is the root of the problem. I have contacted an escalator manufacturer for an answer to this conundrum, but I am not holding my breath.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs