Can they really be serious?
The events in British politics of the last few months have been so extraordinary, that even with the evidence of my own eyes and ears I find myself wondering whether I have really dreamed it all. But now, following the resignation of the latest Prime Minister after just forty-four days in office, the same people who elected her are seriously suggesting the return of Boris Johnson to the top job.
Truss resigned following the most astonishingly inept actions—the disastrous effects of which were entirely predicted by her election opponent. Johnson resigned following the loss of support of his ministers and MPs just a few months ago, and faces an investigation into misleading the House of Commons. If found guilty, it would be effectively impossible for him to continue as an MP.
But now it has been suggested that up to 140 Tory MPs would nominate Johnson as new party leader, claiming that he still has a mandate from the 2019 election, and ‘the public’ want him. Seriously? His lies, his partying, and his casual disregard for truth and parliamentary probity all, apparently, forgotten after just a few months. I can’t believe that the majority of the British People will put up with this.
Update 4 November
Sir Graham Brady, he of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, assures the BBC that Johnson really did have over 100 Tory MP backers, but decided not to put his name forward. I do not know what astonishes me more, the fact that Johnson appears to have demonstrated some humility, denying himself further glory that would undoubtedly have placed the country in extreme turmoil, or that more than 100 Tory MPs really thought that it would be a good idea to have back after just a couple of months the leader that they effectively turfed out in disgrace.
Margolyes makes it better...
It was with a sinking heart in the summer that I realized that Truss, the MPs' third choice for leader, was the darling of the Tory membership and almost certain to be elected. I will admit prejudice. I defy anyone watching her toe-curling performance at that Tory party conference on the imports of apples, pears, and cheese, not to shut their eyes, put their hands over their ears, and wish for early oblivion. But the total lack of any sort of personal presence does not mean that someone with an Oxford PPE degree under their belt who has risen to the rank of cabinet minister, is not without talent and ability. However, the first ‘P’ in PPE stands for ‘Philosophy’, and philosophy is the love of wisdom. That attribute has been totally and entirely absent from any of the actions of this new government. Many commentators have already observed that it is difficult to remember any government ever, that has made such a catastrophic start.
It is so bad that Jeremy Hunt, the new chancellor, he who disgracefully stone-walled the junior doctors on their campaign for a living wage, actually sounded like a welcome and calming ‘grown-up’ on the Today programme this morning. He admitted the government’s mistakes, and conceded that tax rises and cuts in public expenditure—which anyone with an IQ in double figures realizes is inevitable—would be unavoidable in the current climate. Listening to him I had to pinch myself; I felt like Winston Smith in the two minute hate when everyone has worked themselves up into a histrionic frenzy, and Big Brother’s picture and voice come on and calms everyone down...
And then God smiled, and the universe made sense again. Miriam Margolyes was the next item, and gave a very touching tribute to Robbie Coltrane who has just died. Apparently she bumped into Hunt in the studio, and was chatting on air to Justin Webb about it. “I said to him you’ve got a hell of a job... the best of luck! What I really wanted to say: fuck you...”
There are occasionally times when one person does or says something that speaks for the nation. This was such a time.
Einstein in the Telegraph
Today’s headline... Truss: ‘Only my plan for growth will reverse the UK’s slow decline...’ But hidden away in the puzzle section, edited I’m guessing by an anarchist fifth columnist, a quotation from Albert Einstein:
‘Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.’
King and Country
A mate of mine, an ex-patriot Scot living in Paris, complains that the French seem to be incapable of distinguishing between the concepts of ‘English’ and ‘British’. Of all aspects of the French that we ‘Brits’ find most infuriating (and there is, no doubt, an equally if not longer reciprocal list), their apparent confusion between England, Britain, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is entirely forgivable, not the least reason for which is that many people in this country would be equally confused if called upon to explain.
The present loose and shouty association between England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland is, surprisingly, only just over 100 years old—just three years older than the late lamented Queen—having been established in 1921 on the partition of Ireland. The ‘Union’ first dates from the time of Henry VIII, when Wales was made part of the Kingdom of England; the Act of Union of 1707 united the Scottish and English parliaments to become Great Britain—even though the first Scottish King on the English throne was as early as 1603 (a measure of the difficulty of getting the Scots and the English to agree about anything, which situation continues to the present day). The Act of Union of 1801 united the parliaments of Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland) and (the whole of) Ireland. So ‘English’ implies England and Wales—good luck with that definition in Wales... ‘British’ is England, Wales, and Scotland, and ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom’ is the best I can think of for the four nations; many people in Northern Ireland call themselves ‘Irish’, which of course, they are.
‘Britain’ as opposed to ‘Great Britain’, seems to be a geographical term that refers to the main island.
It is interesting to reflect that the late Queen presided as monarch over this current version of the United Kingdom for seventy years—more than two-thirds of the time it has existed. Will the new King be able to hold it together against moves for Scottish Separation, republicanism in Northern Ireland, and bitter, divisive, and rancorous anger everywhere over the European question? I really do hope so, although I fear that the concept of ‘inclusiveness’ does not appear to exist in the new Prime Minister’s dictionary, or if it does, she does not understand it. It was said that Johnson was the best recruiting sergeant the Scottish Nationalists had; the new PM, with her arrogant dismissal of the Scottish First Minister as an irrelevance, just added fuel to a fire that was already well alight.
Charles I is famous for losing his head, Charles II was forced to hide in a tree to avoid arrest by the soldiers of Parliament. He also fathered—and acknowledged—at least twelve illegitimate children; he was not known as the Merry Monarch for nothing... King Charles III is well known for his climate-change advocacy and being a fan of the Goon Shows, in both of which I share his enthusiasm. I wish him well, although I do not envy him the task ahead.
The Queen is dead, and to quote my daughter who is far more republican than I am, I shall miss her.
The Queen has always been there. Early memories are of the Coronation—being taken on the back of my mother’s bicycle to see the celebratory decorations on the factories along the Great West Road in west London, a special colour souvenir we were given at school with pictures of the royals and the crown jewels, and my model of the Golden Coronation Coach.
In 1952 when Queen Elizabeth acceded to the throne, the country was bankrupt and facing a very uncertain future. King Charles finds himself in a similar position, and monarch not of a fading empire, but a decidedly Disunited Kingdom. Whatever else it will be, the new Carolingian Age is unlikely to be boring.
In the various tributes published following the sad death of Olivia Newton-John, mention was frequently made that she was the granddaughter of a famous Nobel laureate in physics, but not who the person was. In fact it was Max Born. When I graduated in Physics in 1971, I received two congratulatory presents, both books. One was Atomic Physics written by Max Born, the other was the Born Einstein Letters, co-written and edited by Born.
Max Born was a giant in his field at Göttingen University in the 1920s and early 1930s. Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb studied under him there. Following Hitler’s rise to power Born came to England, initially to Cambridge. Einstein, probably the most famous physicist of all time, went to America. Their fascinating correspondence concerned among other things, relativity, quantum theory, and the fate of Jewish scientists threatened by the Third Reich. It spanned the years between 1916 and 1955, the year of Einstein’s death. Most of the original letters were in German, and the translator into English, Max Born’s daughter, was Mrs Irene Newton-John.
The book is a historical document in itself, with a foreword by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and an introduction by another giant of physics Werner Heisenberg, the man who famously could never make up his mind...
A short extract from Earl Russell’s foreword resonates with today. Of Born and Einstein he says: I have deeply valued their friendship over many years. Both men were brilliant, humble and completely without fear in their public utterances. In an age of mediocrity and moral pygmies, their lives shine with intense beauty.
Well, I told you so. Back in the summer of 2019, I posted several blogs pointing out that Boris Johnson, then vying to become leader of the Conservative party and therefore prime minister, was a serial liar and an opportunistic narcissist, entirely unfit to govern the country.
Now we have seen the unedifying spectacle of the Tories turning on a wounded colleague and eviscerating him alive, everyone seemingly having forgotten the landslide victory that—make no mistake--he, with his undoubted brilliant campaigning style and winning personality, won for them. And, irony of ironies, many of his erstwhile colleagues now accuse him of failing to deliver the sort of B****t that was promised, and that he, virtually singlehanded from his campaigning brought about!
Undeniably Johnson has had some major issues to deal with in his premiership, but that comes with the job title and these problems have affected every other country on the planet. In the world at large—and with the possible exception of Ukraine—he is seen as a clown and a joke leader. But his government’s plan to break the international treaty on the Northern Ireland Protocol, signed by him not many months ago, really is no joke. Britain’s reputation for probity and the rule of law has been trampled into the dust.
But with all of that, it was the prime minister's casual disregard for the truth and his personal integrity, or rather the entire absence of it, that has brought him down. We now face a real crisis in this country with an economy in free fall, inflation pushing double figures, and much of the population wondering how on earth they will keep themselves warm this winter. Instead of some really difficult decisions being taken now, the government is paralysed—short of more than fifty ministers—and we face several months of a bad-tempered leadership contest with God knows who running the country in the meantime.
Note added after Johnson's resignation speech outside No 10:
He was forced out by the herd mentality of Tory MPs ... He tried to persuade them not to, but to no avail. No mention of any fault on his side; no contrition, remorse, or humility. Delusional narcissist to the end.
It lifted my spirits today to see the revellers at Stonehenge first thing this morning, celebrating the summer solstice when the sun rises in a direct line with the main axis of the monument. Of course the belief that somehow the Druids were responsible for Stonehenge is generally regarded these days as moonshine. Virtually all that is known of the Druids at or before the time of the Romans in Britain, comes from the writings of that period – mainly Julius Caesar, Tacitus, and Pliny the Elder. The Druids were:
philosophers, teachers, judges, the repository of communal wisdoms about the natural world and the traditions of the people, and the mediators between humans and the gods.
They left no written records and almost no archaeological evidence, and since none of the ancient writers mentioned Stonehenge, there was nothing whatsoever to connect it to the Druids. It was the antiquarian John Aubrey writing in the 17th century who first suggested that Stonehenge and Avebury predated the Romans, and since the Druids were known to have been in Britain before the Romans, the stone circles might have been their temples. William Stukeley, writing in the 18th century, embraced this idea, and created a positive Druidic industry; after Stukeley, no one could doubt that the Druids had built Stonehenge and the stone circles at Avebury and elsewhere, and used them for their rituals.
Nevertheless Druids or no, Stonehenge was the brainchild of some great architect, a British Imhotep with whom he was more or less contemporary. Dating from 4,500 years ago, Stonehenge provides us with a real and tangible connection with our remote ancestors. It is right and proper that it should be celebrated on its significant day.
The establishment we know today as Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851 as the New Surrey House of Correction. Men, women, and children—some as young as seven years old—served sentences there of between seven days and two years, with or without hard labour. The Surrey magistrates responsible for the institution decided that it should operate a new system of discipline known as the Separate System. The basic premise was that all communication between prisoners was forbidden, and this would act as a considerable deterrent. However inmates would have contact with the prison chaplain as well as various teachers and instructors of trades, and this was supposed to ensure that the punishment of imprisonment would be tempered by some real rehabilitation of the offenders.
Prisoners were let out of their cells for around one hour per day for exercise; some of them had to perform hard labour turning cranks to pump water, or grind corn. Others were required to work in the laundry or kitchen, or clean the prison. While out of their cells, strict silence was observed and the prisoners wore masks over their faces to prevent other prisoners recognizing them. For religious worship on a Sunday, masks were considered inappropriate, so in order to effect separation the chapel was fitted with 400 vertical coffin-like structures with one prisoner inside each. Only their heads and shoulders were visible, and the sides and back of the ‘coffin’ prevented them from seeing or communicating with their neighbour...
Most prisoners would spend twenty-three hours of each day in their cell. There they slept, washed, ate, and worked, and a few of them studied. Work could be picking oakum—shredding old rope for use in caulking—shoe making or mat making. Prisoners on hard labour were provided with a labour machine. This consisted of a crank turning a wheel, which was fitted with weight-operated brakes to make it hard to turn. Around 12,000 revolutions per day were usually required to ensure three meals per day...
An obvious consequence of near twenty-four hour occupation of the cells, was that heating and lighting were needed during the winter months, and sanitary arrangements had to be provided all year round. Wandsworth prison had around 750 cells when it opened in 1851. With the exception of a few punishment cells, each one was air-conditioned and heated, lit by gas, and had en suite facilities and room-service. The prison was plumbed throughout for water—pumped by the prisoners from a deep well into tanks on the prison roof. There was also a small gasworks providing coal gas for lighting in the cells and elsewhere. In the corner of each cell was a lavatory pan complete with ‘soil trap’ with the output connected to a down-pipe which emptied into storage tanks. Water from a tap filled a washbasin, which drained into the lavatory; water for ‘flushing’ was provided by a separate pipe plumbed into the pan. The contemporary illustration shows the layout of a typical cell with the prisoner working the ‘Crank’ labour machine. The room service was a bell pull which operated a bell and little flag outside the cell to indicate which bell had been sounded. The warders were required to operate the water taps in order not to waste water, and very probably provide a light for the gas lighting.
There was much debate in the press and elsewhere regarding both the merits of the Separate System and the efficiency of its practical implementation. The use of masks outside the cells was abandoned after a few years as being both impractical and ineffective. A report to Hampshire magistrates in 1861 regarding the stalls in their chapel at Winchester, stated that each one was covered in obscene graffiti, and the prisoners ‘whispered’ to each other during services; sometimes they made a ‘great noise’. Shortly afterwards, the stalls were removed. Perhaps there was better control at Wandsworth; their individual chapel-stalls were not removed until 1880.
However, urban myth number 492, which I have seen repeated on numerous web pages and in print, is that the lavatories were removed from the cells at Wandsworth ‘in the 1870s’ and replaced with ‘slopping out’ pails in order to free up space for multiple occupancy. It is quite clear from the picture that the lavatory occupied just a corner of the cell; no more room, in fact, than a slopping out pail. Furthermore, when beds were finally added to the cells—previously the prisoners had slept in hammocks strung between hooks in the walls—they were bunk beds. These took up no more room on the floor than a single bed, and present day pictures of cells at Wandsworth show that they were placed along the wall where the labour machine stood. Reference to the reports of the inspectors of prisons shows that the individual lavatories in cells were removed from Wandsworth between 1885 and 1886. But two years later, the record shows that separation was in most cases still adhered to, with the average number of prisoners very close to the number of cells. Exceptions were ‘the mentally affected’, and those suffering from depression or physical infirmity; they were deliberately accompanied by an able-bodied prisoner for companionship and assistance. Furthermore, overall prisoner numbers were falling, and since 1877 the prisons had been under national government, rather than county, control. Excessive numbers could be shipped around the country to wherever there was room.
So if the lavatories were not removed to make room for more prisoners, why were they taken away? The answer is simple and prosaic: they didn’t work...
(Those of a sensitive disposition might wish to skip the next few paragraphs...) Virtually everyone in the so-called ‘developed’ world uses a flushing lavatory with a cistern. In times of drought, we used to be exhorted to put a house brick in our lavatory cistern to reduce the amount of water used in each flush. Most lavatories these days have a double-flush facility, allowing the use of less water when ‘solids’ are not present. But anyone who has used a flushing lavatory knows that there are occasionally times when two or even three flushes are insufficient to remove the offending material. Then, and in the absence of Billy Connolly’s famous ‘Jobbie Weecha’ (Google it if you have no idea what this means; his speculation is hilarious), it is necessary to resort to desperate measures, frequently to the extreme embarrassment of the person concerned.
The pioneers of modern flushing lavatories—take a bow Thomas Crapper—realized early on that proper, consistent, and hygienic operation required a large volume of water to be delivered in a short time. The main reason for this is that ‘solids’ have to negotiate the famous ‘U’ bend. The U bend is necessary since it provides a water seal against unpleasant smells emanating from the sewer. The early sanitary engineers recognized this issue, but for them far more important than ‘unpleasant smells’ was the ‘miasma’ theory of disease transmission. This was the belief that foul air could carry infectious diseases like cholera.
The design adopted for the units in the prison is shown in the picture. A variation of this arrangement, known as a ‘bottle’ trap, tends to be used for sinks and wash-hand basins today; it takes up less space than a U bend and operates quite satisfactorily with liquids. A smooth U bend without joins, as used in all modern lavatory pans, offers a minimum of mechanical resistance to solids. It is clear from the picture that that is not the case with the ‘soil pans’ used in the prison. In fact the whole story becomes clear from the illustration—which is from a book published in 1844 by Colonel Joshua Jebb, the designer of Pentonville prison and consultant for Wandsworth.
The units were manufactured in two parts—the joins and fixing points are clearly visible—probably because they were easier to fabricate that way (and also to enable them to be disassembled in order to deal with ‘blockages’). The first thing to notice is the inefficiency of the trap itself, and the strong likelihood of blockages. The bottom of the vertical part barely touches the water, and while this reduces to some extent the chicane effect of the trap, it means that the seal is barely made. Any variation in the manufacturing process, or a poorly assembled (or reassembled) unit could easily break the water seal rendering it ineffective. The two dots near the top of the unit are not faults in the printing process, but the inputs for two water pipes—one is the drain from the wash-hand basin, the other is water for flushing. From one of the other drawings in the book, it is clear that the larger hole is the connection for water for flushing, which comes directly from the pipes with no cistern to provide an adequately large and rapidly-flowing volume of water. A contemporary report from Pentonville, which used the identical system as Wandsworth, states that the ‘water closets’ were replaced by ‘communal, evil-smelling “recesses” because they were constantly getting blocked...’
On the question of the effectiveness of the Separate System of prison discipline itself, it was observed even before 1850—after Pentonville had been operating the Separate System for some years—that the process of isolating the prisoners from their fellows resulted in a rate of insanity ten times higher than in the population at large. Even at the height of the Separate System at Wandsworth, vulnerable prisoners were provided with cell-mates. One by one all of the specific aspects of ‘Separation’ were dropped, including the sole occupancy of prison cells. Although even now, as a recent Freedom of Information Request demonstrates, of 1,562 prisoners at Wandsworth Prison, only 835—just over half—are sharing cells, and in no case are there more than two persons to a cell.
This analysis also demonstrates the importance to us of the invention of the efficient flushing lavatory, a considerable ‘convenience’ to all. It was realized in the late nineteenth century, and the experience at Pentonville, Wandsworth, and elsewhere probably contributed to the conclusion, that for proper operation, a really substantial flush was needed. Thomas Crapper’s main claim to fame was the invention of the syphon flush which delivered the volume of water required, while the cistern would then seal, allowing a slow refill without water leakage. When he died in 1910, he left nearly fifteen thousand pounds, worth close on to £2M today.
As Thomas himself might have said: ‘It may be shit to you, but it’s my bread and butter...’
Exodus, Chapter 12, verses 29 and 30:
And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.
The Israelites were spared the tenth plague that God visited on the Egyptians, because they had smeared lambs’ blood on their doorposts; the Angel of Death ‘Passed Over’ their houses. As a consequence Pharaoh relented and let the Children of Israel leave—only to change his mind soon after, and have his army drowned in the Red Sea... The celebration of 'Pass-over' takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and is a major event in the Jewish calendar, commemorating the first step on the journey to found the Promised Land of Israel. Jesus was celebrating Passover during the Last Supper.
I was privileged this year to be invited to a Seder, which is the ritual meal celebrating Passover. My wife and I have been to Seders before, and our hosts on this occasion were very old and dear friends, so there was no awkwardness or discomfort during an event that was conducted with almost as much ritual as the Tridentine Mass—of which I have chilling childhood memories. The table was set as I remembered from previous occasions. Pride of place in the centre was Elijah’s Cup, a goblet filled with wine, in case the prophet should arrive; the front door was opened later on should he have been minded to come... Also there were the various ritual foods, including Matzo—unleavened bread—a bitter herb, a shinbone, a roasted egg, another herb dipped in salt water—usually parsley—and a mixture called charoset, used to symbolize the mortar used by the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt.
Our host and a friend shared the reading, most of which was in Hebrew, and much of which was sung. There was the eating of the ritual foods, drinking of four glasses of wine at appropriate places, a recitation of the ten plagues, and the singing of the traditional song Chad Gaya about a kid that gets eaten by a cat, which gets bitten by a dog and so on. There were seven of us at the meal plus a number of others taking part via a Zoom link. Everyone except my wife and I was reading the Hebrew from the texts, and joined in the singing most heartily. The rhythms, melodies, and cadences were decidedly Eastern European, and we were all surprised and delighted to discover that the special large Passover Matzo we were using had been manufactured in Ukraine.
There was a real feeling of joyous community about the occasion. I have encountered this before at previous Seders, a Bar Mitzvah, and a Jewish wedding that I attended decades ago as a member of the band providing music. On that occasion, the jovial host came up to me saying, ‘You’re a Catholic boy? Never mind! Snip! Snip! We’ll soon turn you into a good Jew!’ I particularly remember doing Hava Nagila for them—to great applause when I played the chorus with the guitar over the back of my head...
I envy my friends the joy of their religion. I was brought up in Catholicism, where any sort of pleasure was regarded as a sin. There were no community events like the Seder or Bar Mitzvah. We named ourselves after martyrs, people who had been tortured to death for their religious beliefs, and believed in eternal damnation in Hell for relatively trivial misdemeanours.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs