Friday, December 22, 2006

RUTH BERNHARD - 1905-2006

Ruth Bernhard, one of the more important photographers of the Twentieth Century died a couple of days ago, at the monumental age of 101. She was born in Germany, and moved to the USA where she spent the rest of her life. She spent some seven decades taking pictures, and being involved with people like Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston – great names indeed. She was best known for her studies of the female form, and her still lifes. Her nudes were very classically and theatrically lit, and veered to the sculptural in style. If you want to see her pictures, just type her name into Google, and they will pour out at you.

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but you sometimes wonder what it is that keeps people positive at these great ages. This seems to be a simple and powerful example, and is something Ruth Bernhard produced and gave out at her 90th and her 100th Birthday parties.

Just read this and imagine if you’d feel the same at that age. I found this on a website run by someone who knew the Good Lady well, but it’s so strong, I think it needs a wider audience.

Monday, December 18, 2006


I have spent the last week recovering from our Cricketers’ amazing performance in throwing the 2nd Test away, and finally managed to write my thoughts down, which I finally published last Wednesday, just after the first day of the 3rd Test had finished. True to my form as a pundit, I got it completely wrong, haranguing most of our team for playing, for the first two matches at least, like a team of Big Girls Blouses.

In that blog, I threatened to eat my hat if they ever managed to get their act together, and start to make a game of it all. As is the way of things, the first day of the Perth test showed England in a totally different light, winning the day all ends up. Australia was bowled out for 244, and we ended the day on 51 for 2. Panesar took 5 wickets, so that at least is a resounding “Yaa Boo Sucks” to the England team selectors.

My faith was therefore recovered, all was well in the house, Duncan Fletcher wasn’t an idiot after all, and I felt pretty good. So, in a fit of Sauvignon Blanc driven magnanimity, in spite of England’s terrific performance, I Published.

And was Damned.

Or so I thought. The next two Cricketing days were, to say the least, not England’s finest. Watching Adam Gilchrist put together the second fastest 100 EVER was astounding. Anyone who thinks cricket is a gentle game should watch a replay of his knock. It was utterly brutal – a man on a total mission to destroy the other side. He will probably never have another day like it, and although it put a huge dent in England’s chances, it was quite riveting to watch. And, to make it even worse, it built on centuries from Hussey and Clarke, as well as a nearly one from Ponting, to put Australia into an position where an England win, or a draw seems a tad unlikely.

So, by rights, I should stand on ceremony, and keep my hat firmly on the hat-stand. But being ever the optimist, after the first day, I thought England might just do it.

And in an attempt to help them along, I thought if I did indeed eat my hat there and then, that keeping my side of the bargain would put them under some form of moral obligation to keep theirs.


Oh well, you win some, you lose some!

Saturday, December 16, 2006



What is Prescott about?
We seem to have lost him off the radar recently, what with the Croquet, and the Affair. But, here he is again, this time anointing the Portuguese with spatterings of his “Green” credentials at Meeting of the Party of European Socialists.

Firstly, at short notice, he had to condense a prepared ten minute speech into five minutes. Apparently his novel technique to solve this problem was to speak twice as quickly as he had previously planned to do – actually for him, that’s a terrifyingly logical solution to the problem. Mind you, the thought of listening to the Good Man précising a speech on Socialist Greenery, on the fly, would have us all hiding behind the sofa. His approach to the concept of the Precis would probably be to read out each alternate word, and coming from him, that might just make as much sense as the original would have done.

But no, instead of that, the audience were treated to a uniquely Prescottian “scattergun” approach to oration. Actually, as a bye-the-bye, what is the adjective pertaining to Prescott – Prescotty (as in the dog), Prescotts (as in the Guards), Prescotch (as in the Whisky), Prescottish (as in the Highlands), or Prescottian (as nearly in Nova)?

Anyway back to the story, in the middle of his speech he seemed to get really wound up, and lost his way a bit, and in response to the inevitable “Spit it out!”, he did precisely that ,and fired one of his incisors at a member of the audience. He had presumably just got to the rousing “We shall fight tooth and nail …….” bit at the end, and got a bit carried away with the metaphor.

In his defence, it would seem the man has been undergoing dental work (A Bridge Too Far?) and what came out of his mouth was a part of the Work in Progress.

He managed to finish the speech, though I simply can’t get my head around John Prescott lisping his way through an extemporised Green speech in Portuguese. There seems way too many pitfalls there for the DPM even to contemplate. But there you go.

In normal Blairite fashion, the Labour apparatchiks at home had to put their spin on the issue, to try and recover some sort of normality out of this little gem. But even they seem to have failed here. All that seemed to come out of the Machine, when asked for the inevitable comment by the Media, was that his Private Office was “tight-lipped”.

Ho, Ho, Ho! Bit late for that, I'd have thought.
Christmas Humour, Westminster style.

Friday, December 15, 2006


This piece was written a couple of days ago, and due to, as Harold Macmillan once said, “Events, Dear Boy, Events”, I’ve only just got round to publishing it. I’ve also just heard the score after Day One of Test Three, and hope that I may yet have to eat a good part of the hat I’m currently wearing.

Nothing would give me greater pleasure. And anyway, none of us know whether the team’s underwear is different for this match – See Below!

You see it written today that, for many people, Sport has now taken the place of War and Tribalism. It does seem to sit toweringly in many (usually Men’s) people’s list of the Most Important Things in Life. That’s not the case with me, so I’m probably a bit weird.

Except for last week, and THE CRICKET.

I simply didn’t understand why at the time, but the personal impact of our team losing the 2nd Test Match was far more dramatic than I could have imagined. I’d been daft enough to sit up until what a friend eloquently described as “Burglar’s Hours” watching the first two matches in Australia. Last week, for the first four days of the game, I had four 3 o’clock in the mornings on the trot, and interestingly not a great deal of sympathy from The Steering Committee as a consequence.

Come the last day, I chickened out at 1 o’clock in the morning, with our batsmen, at 61 for 1, getting some batting practice in, as the Draw obviously and inevitably approached.

To hear the ghastly details of what actually happened, painfully spelled out later in the day, brought me up with an involuntary shudder – something very few sporting occasions have ever done.

There have been acres of punditry since Black Tuesday, explaining the whys and the wherefores, and I’m not sure anyone has stood back and got the whole picture yet. One of the reasons Cricket is such a good game, is the huge psychological element which plays itself through the whole of the period covering the lead-up, the actual game itself, and the aftermath of the action. It’s literally part of the game’s fabric.

One writer was looking back to find a sporting parallel where such a crushing defeat was carved out of such a strong winning position, and the best he could come up with was Devon Loch blowing it all 50 yards from the line in the 1953 Derby. I think he should have looked at the 1981 Ashes where the Australians must have felt much the same after Botham with the bat, and Willis, with the ball, pulled a cricketing rabbit out of the hat.

But the event which comes to my mind was in the 1996 Masters Golf tournament, where Greg Norman led by 6 strokes from Nick Faldo going into the last round, and managed to lose by 6 strokes to Faldo, eighteen holes later, having played a life-changingly disastrous round of golf. Norman, gracious in defeat, claimed basically that it was only a golf game, and that no-one had died that day, so no big deal. Except that, magnificent golfer that he was, he never won, or got anywhere close to winning, another Major. Whenever he got anywhere near contention, you can just hear those whispers of doubt coming into his mind – “Remember Augusta 1996”, and that was it gone. Let’s hope that’s not the mind state of the England team out in Perth.

But here we are, at the start of the next test, and what have we learned? Apart from the fact that the Australians have some really top class Premier league batsmen, and in people like Shane Warne, a decidedly useful bowler. The other thing they seem to have is an utterly burning desire, not just to win, but to crush us. They never let up, and you’ve got to admire that immensely. I think they have a desire not just to win back the Ashes, but to take this series 5-0. Just to show the world that 2004 was an aberration, and that they are simply resuming their rightful place on top of the world.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. We’ve shown, in fits and starts, the capability to bat well – just remember Collinwood and Pieterson in the last match. If that wasn’t a class act, I don’t know what is. But look at the bowling. Our fastest strike bowler Harmison is playing like a .... You fill in the detail here. His attitude and demeanour says it all – he seems as if he’d rather be almost anywhere else other than on a cricket pitch, and don’t you think the Australians haven’t picked that up. His combined bowling figures in both Tests are 1 for 288. And when you add Anderson at 2 for 303, and Giles, the man at the other end, stopping the flow of runs and spinning them into a state of bamboozlement with figures of 3 for 262, you don’t have to look far for one main reason for the current state of play – between them that’s 6 for 853 in 4 innings! Bring on Monty!

But what about our self-belief, our confidence and our inner desire to thrash the living daylights out of them - that’s where we simply don’t come up to scratch. We need some form of psychological brainwashing to erase the memory of the first two matches, and instil a new self-belief in the players. You can just imagine the whisperings of Warne and Co, as soon as we get anywhere near a winning position – “Remember Adelaide, Remember Adelaide”!

I’m reminded of the film “Bull Durham”, starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. It’s a real, feel-good Baseball film which focuses on the mind games which go on aimed at making people play well. Tim Robbins, as the rookie Pitcher was throwing the ball all over the park and couldn’t get his pitching act together at all (an interesting resonance with Harmison). To make him focus and play his natural game, she got him to wear one of her suspender belts under his kit – to free up one half of his brain, and to stop him thinking too much about the next pitch. And it worked!

Now I bet Duncan Fletcher, who to my mind bears a lot of blame for where we are in this series, hasn’t thought about that one. I mean, Harmison’s playing like a big girl, so wearing their underwear probably isn’t that bad an idea. I think I’ll send them a copy.

I have a feeling they’ll need something a bit different.

Friday, December 01, 2006



There I was yesterday, sitting in the doctor’s, waiting for the practice nurse to give me my annual bollocking for not eating enough nuts and berries in my quest to avoid another heart attack, when I picked up one of their magazines to read. The small article I read, I simply thought someone was pulling my leg – big time. Especially when I looked at the date on the cover, and saw it was April 2006.

It talked about a piece of music by John Cage, an avant garde experimental American composer who died in 1992. The piece rejoiced under the catchy title of Organ2/ASLSP. Now the only piece of music I’ve heard (if that’s the right word) by John Cage is his 4’33”, which is a work performed in three movements, and lasting (yes, you’ve guessed) for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, without a single note being played. It was broadcast a while back from the Barbican, and a very strange feeling it gave off, watching a packed house sitting quite still during the performance.

This other piece, where the ASLSP means “As slow as possible” is actually being taken very, very, very literally. Originally written as a 20 minute piece by Cage, the work is currently being performed in a beautifully restored church in Germany.

This particular performance is planned to last for 639 years. It started in 2001, and its completion is expected in 2640. In this piece, Cage was fascinated by “the discovery of slowness”, and the symbolism of the “planting of a musical apple tree”. Apparently his aim was to “rediscover calm and slowness in today’s fast changing world.” Well, even after his death, he’s done that in spades. The location for the performance is St Burchardi’s Church, in Halberstadt, Germany, an old ruined building which has been painstakingly restored to act as the home of this strange project. The 639 years comes from the length of time which had passed between the building of the church in the mid 14th Century, and its recent restoration. The team putting on the concert, wanted to match the life of the building with the length of the music’s performance, so 639 years it is.


Apparently the first 1½years of the performance were total silence, and then a couple of notes started to play in July 2004. The piece is playing continuously (click on to hear it), and you can visit the church during the week to hear the action. The notes are held lovingly down on the keyboard by weights, and the next new note is due to be played on July 5th 2008.

Rather bizarrely, to fund the project, you can “Book a Year”, and the performance during that year will be “yours” for €1,000. You may think this would have no takers, but the first year currently available is 2014, and the range already sold is quite mystifying. You can understand someone buying the last year, so they could be there, at least in spirit, at the music’s climax, but 2553? Someone must know something I don’t.

I have to say, I thought this was an April Fool’s prank when I read the short article, but a swift trawl of the Internet proved my suspicions totally wrong. Some wag has seemingly already tried to get the 72 terabyte download from KaZaA, and apparently there are people already waiting for the 5,597,640 CD Box Set, even though the timing of its release is still unconfirmed.

I really don’t know what to say about this – I find the thought of it all quite unnerving. But listening to it for a few minutes does set your mind going, and if that was Cage’s intention, well he’s succeeded. I even suspect that an afternoon in the exquisite surroundings of St Burchardi's in Halberstadt would be a strangely moving experience.

I’ll bet you the seats for July 5th 2008 are already sold out. Extraordinary!



Tuesday, November 28, 2006


WHAT'S THE POINT - An exercise in Colour - REC

You know the way you read something, and think “Someone’s pulling my leg here” - Well, that happened today.

My reader will by now be aware of my fascination for Things Photographic, so I very recently trawled one of the many excellent websites which support and explain for us mortals the technical background to digital imaging. I came across a rather erudite (that means I didn’t fully understand it) article on some of the issues involved in keeping consistency in colour matching through the chain of Digital Camera, Viewing screen and the final Printer output ie making sure that what you think you photographed actually comes out as you expected in the final print. Yes, I know it’s sad, but if it wasn’t for people like me, the anorak industry would implode and disappear.

Anyway, the author was explaining how uncontrolled the printing industry is in this area – you’d think they would be totally clued up here, with process controls and standards coming out of their ears. But no – they seem to operate on the basis of “Make the colours look nice, and the customer will be happy”. Let’s hope none of the managers in this bit of the printing industry fancy a change of career direction and try their hands at building aeroplanes.

This loophole is apparently now being closed, and a range of new standards has been developed to allow the Industry to move forward on a common, standardised basis, and put a tgeeny bit of control into their processes. For reasons I haven’t the slightest interest in trying to understand, three new complementary standards have now been developed, and they are all in the process of introduction.

Their names are – Specifications for Newsprint Advertising Production (for Newspapers), General Requirements for Applications in Commercial Off-set Lithography (for Commercial Printers), and Specification for Web Off-set Publications (for more specialised Printing) – or in acronymic terms, SNAP, GRACOL and SWOP.

I kid you not – look it up on Google.

Who said the Americans didn’t have a sense of (sic) humor?

Sunday, November 26, 2006


You trip over the answers to the problems of the Universe in odd places – last week, it was a food programme on the Radio. The presenter was in France, where a few really keen Englishmen were holding a Cheese Festival – Coals to Newcastle, or what?

But of course, it’s not like that at all. The French Cheese industry is apparrently undergoing a bit of a recession at present (I was going to write that “It’s going off”, but that’s not very funny, is it?), with an increasing number of the artisan producers over there ceasing production. The reason the guy came up with was the strength of the local French Cheese Cooperatives. Their products, he claimed, were now so good that the gap between them and the real specialists was not that large, and the French public, who are in the middle of a burgeoning love affair with les supermarchés at present, are turning away from the small producers. I can’t believe that myself, but it was on Radio 4, so it must be right.

Anyway, as reliably as night follows day in spoken Cheeseland, General De Gaulle appeared, and the slightly over quoted comment he made duly arrived – “How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?” When you look into the quote, you find of course that over the years, de Gaulle milked it a bit, and used it on many occasions, with the result that the number of cheeses France produced varied as time went on. One year, it was “over 200”, another year it was 256, or 265, or even “one for each day of the year”.

Whatever the number, it’s a lot, and the point of the comment is that was his way of saying governing France was a bit like herding cats – Impossible.

So, having said so memorably how difficult it all was, he didn’t need to bother anymore, so he didn’t. Job done.

But now of course, you come to this country, and a bit of lateral thinking makes you realise why Our Glorious Leader in Number 10 is having such a problem in his job, and why so much isn’t working the way he said it would in 1997. It’s all caused by the explosion in the number of English Cheesemakers, which has very accurately coincided with the dissipation of the UK’s governmental competence.

In an industry which came perilously close to extinction in the UK a couple of decades ago, there are apparently now well over 400 different cheesemakers in this country, producing a massive range and diversity of traditional and new cheeses. Good though that may be for our taste sensations, the political ramifications are clearly huge, with the future survival of UK plc at stake. If de Gaulle couldn’t hack it in France with their 246 fromages, then what chance does our Tone have when we have heading towards twice as many.
And “Stop Press” – a trawl around WWWland throws up, if that is le mot juste, that the USA has more than 500 - now that explains everything!

So, to get this country rolling again, we simply need a concentrated cheese-focussed pre-emptive strike to zap all the producers and go back to a position where there is only good old “Mousetrap” in this country. We can keep all that foreign smelly, runny stuff for the gannets among us, and Britain will be great again. It’s all very simple really isn’t it?

GEORGE BEST - 1946-2005

George Best and Mike England - White Hart Lane - 1973
Yesterday was the first anniversary of George Best's death. It's rather strange, because his final departure really set me off writing this collection of Bits and Pieces. As it says in the piece below, I am very much NOT a footy man, but for reasons I simply don't understand George Best had found a place in my heart. His death moved me to write down my thoughts, and the piece I wrote set me off on the Blog trail. I only showed it last year to a couple of friends at work, and then left it. But, given the date yesterday, I thought I'd put it down here, as a bit of a memorial to a genius.
The photograph was taken by a great Sports photographer - Chris Smith, late of The Times, and gives a really graphic view of Yer Man in action - terrific image!
George Best died yesterday.

I must be one of the most unlikely people you could find today, anywhere in Britain, to write about him. Yet strangely, I feel a real need to put my thoughts about him down on paper. I have had a life long non-interest in football – indeed I was probably the only man in the country who chose not to watch the 1966 World Cup Final, because there was something more important on that day which I had to do.

This rather abnormal view has prevailed for most of my life, apart, that is, from the few years when I was at University. The sole reason my flame of interest flickered for that brief time was George Best. I can remember, as if it was yesterday, sitting in the Imperial College Hall of Residence lounge, along with what seemed like thousands of others, watching on a very grainy, black and white television as George Best single-handedly destroyed Benfica playing away from home. Benfica were then regarded, I now realise, as the best team in Europe, and for all I know, the world. Even to my untutored eye, his skills were bordering on unbelievable, and he made the game seem to be more an art form than a sport.

Some years later, after being thrown out of Manchester United, watching his personal change from player to playboy was in some ways very sad, but almost inevitable. People go on about a "flawed genius". I think that is missing the point almost completely. He was a genius, but only when he was playing football – when that had finished he descended to being a mere mortal, like the rest of us. Most sportsmen, even the really greats (and there are far less of those than the media would have you think) must surely realise that the pinnacle of their sporting careers are going to occur when they are relatively young, and unless they have other major skills which can supplant them, the rest of their lives will inevitably be played out to a long drawn out tune of anticlimax. Those that find a meaningful alternative survive and prosper, those that do not, face the daunting prospects which Best clearly faced.

To football fans today, his memory will be distorted and restricted. The amount of TV footage of him is relatively limited, and very poorly shot. In video terms, he came from a previous era, but in reality he blazed an amazing trail. He hit the scene in the middle of the Sixties, with long hair, good looks, his shirt flowing loose outside his shorts, and an outrageous and amazing talent. It was the time when footballers finally broke free from the restrictions of the £20/week Maximum wage. In contrast however, he remained in an era where the Red and Yellow Card was still to be introduced, and the level of physical violence allowed on the field, particularly to someone as key as him in a team was quite unbelievable compared to today's standards. Footballing life then was very different from today, but in many ways he was the one individual who formed the link from old to new.

His skills were, to use a very much overused word, awesome. Although quite diminutive, he rose above and passed defenders, beating them in ways they did not believe possible. He scored impossible goals, and in spite of football supposedly being a game played by a team of eleven players, he won matches, and important matches at that, simply by the force of his own footballing brilliance.

For the last thirty years, we have seen his decline into chronic alcoholism cruelly documented in the press, and it would not be surprising for younger football fans today to think that all he was was a bit of a joke, a drunken bore who used to play football a bit. The stories of his Miss World Collection (he bedded four of them, and apparently the only reason the other three he met were not in this club was because he did not turn up to meet them on their date) are undoubtedly true, but are irrelevant compared to his glittering footballing legacy.

He was the butt of a lot of black humour jokes, some made by himself. To me, the blackest of them all is that he said towards the end that he actually carried an Organ Donor Card. You could be forgiven for wondering if this was a huge joke on his part, which none of us have yet twigged. We also laugh at Caroline Aherne's fluffy little grenade of a comment as Mrs Merton - "If you hadn't run around so much, maybe you wouldn't have been so thirsty." And a very recent comment from one pundit that "having destroyed his own liver, he has recently set about destroying someone else's" (a brutal reference to his life saving liver transplant 3 years ago) – all these serve to reinforce this emphasis on the last thirty years of his life. These quips, whilst very funny at the time, now sit very uncomfortably on the page, as I type them with the hint of a tear in my eye.

But this latter phase of his life masks his real genius. I am not skilled in the ways of football, so to get as objective a view as possible, I have just read several of the Country's leading Sports Writer's articles about him. For once, to a man, they all agree. Simon Barnes (Senior Sports Writer in The Times, and a brilliant journalist) – "George Best was the greatest footballer that ever lived. Let us be perfectly clear about that, no matter what other judgements we make about his life …………… Best was the best I have seen, and the best anybody has seen." The rest say broadly the same, but do not use the simple, eloquent words Simon Barnes has chosen. One of the newspapers today also reprinted their verbatim report of the actual Benfica match I saw in University, and it chronicles a systematic and deadly 90 minute destruction of a brilliant team, by one man – "Had I not seen it, I would not have believed it." is Geoffrey Green's (the journalist who wrote the article in 1967) simple summing up.

And now he's gone – one less genius in the world, and there are few enough of those. There will be the standard, well meant One Minute Silences around the football grounds this weekend. One Scottish club however has, I think, got it absolutely spot on – they are having not a One Minute Silence, but a One Minute Applause – how absolutely brilliant is that?

We do however need to ask ourselves - Why do we not cherish these people whilst they are still with us, and why do we have this uncontrollable urge to discredit them? Yes, they all have feet of clay – they are human, for God's sake. But admire them for what they can do, and what no one else can match. People like Pete Sampras, Lance Armstrong, Jim Clark, Tiger Woods, Shane Warne, Jack Nicklaus and Carl Lewis (by definition, the list will be short) are jewels in human sporting terms. Their like comes along all too infrequently, and rather than complain about how boring it is to see the same person winning or dominating everything, we should recognise just how good these few guys are. Let's luxuriate in their genius – it's there for all too short a time, and no-one knows when or if it will return. Look again at Simon Barnes's words summarising his judgement about him – no "one of the best ……" - Barnes's words are absolute – "the best" – no caveats, no ifs, no buts, no maybes.

Perhaps George Best's name should be on the list as well.


26 November 2005

Saturday, November 18, 2006


I have been just looking for something to give my mind an intellectual workout this evening, and settled on reading about the goings on in the Mother of Parliaments. The members of this august band of people are the 646 privileged colossi to whom we all entrust the future direction of this country. And as we all know, it is in Westminster that we see the focus, the pinnacle of debate, the cut and thrust of razor sharp minds, honed on the debating stump, resolving for all our benefits the huge problems we all face today.

So, pootling around with my intellectual pin, where did it hit and what did I find? The first worrying thing was it related to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Leslie Prescott.

In spite of the TV based perception of the Chamber, the real machinery of Parliament is actually the backroom activities, the Select Committees, and the Parliamentary Questions and written Questions and Replies which give Back Benchers the opportunity to probe the actions of the High and Mighty – the Prime Minister and the members of his Cabinet.

For reasons which I can’t understand, JP has always come in for some stick over the way he operates his department. So one innocuous little question I came across was clearly aimed at probing how the Good Man controls and manages the administration and cost base of his rather sprawling Ministry. Rather than even comment on the point being addressed, just read this – it’s straight from the Horse’s Mouth – the Commons’ Written Answers on 25th October.

Caroline Spelman (Meriden, Conservative) Hansard source

Question - To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government pursuant to the answer of 4 September 2006, Official Report, column 1646W, on ballpoint pens, what use is being made of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister-branded pens; how much was spent between 2002 and the abolition of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on ODPM branded products and promotional gifts; and what types of goods were purchased.

Angela Smith (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government) Hansard source

Answer - The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) branded pens are being used to write with, and will continue to be used as standard stationery items until stocks are exhausted.

Between May 2002 and May 2006 a total of £5,095 was spent on ODPM branded pens, carrier bags, and note pads.

These items were used at exhibitions and events to help promote the office's schemes and policies.

Just to be clear, the Bold, Italics and large type is mine.

Why have the Media missed this revelation? Talk about “The Public has a Right to know” – I’m not sure they can stand the tension.

If these two were your own kids, you’d send them to their bedroom with no tea. You just hope they were doing it for a bet, but I have a horrible suspicion, they were deadly serious.


Friday, November 17, 2006


Richard Griffiths - An Acting Masterclass

I’ve just seen the film “The History Boys”, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in years.

The point of the film is to contrast the effect on potential university students of two very different types of education in their school. The first is where the teaching is aimed simply at “improving and expanding the minds of the pupil”, but taking little cognisance of the future university, educational or indeed any specific needs of the boys – a pure “Pass the Parcel” style of learning where the simple expansion of the mind is seen as all important. The second, introduced into the school by a rather intense and zealous Headmaster is aimed at “tuning” the pupils for “Oxbridge” entrance. This style of teaching is aimed at maximising the University entrance rate, with pass rate being the be-all and end-all of the process. Written by Alan Bennett, and clearly extremely autobiographical, it started life in the theatre as a play, and most of the action, if that’s what you call it because there's not much of it, takes place in a school classroom.

It’s rather like a Yorkshire version of “Dead Poet’s Society”, set in a theatrical environment, with its exquisite dialogue reflecting Alan Bennett’s very personal attitudes to his upbringing. It's simply the best evocation of growing up, and the pains, pressures and joys of scholastic adolescent flowering I have seen.

The film uses the same cast which has been performing the play in the theatre for the last couple of years, and this shows brilliantly in the interplay between all the boys and the schoolteachers involved. They all seem to be so comfortable with each other, a state you get when the actors have been performing it together for a long time. You have to look beyond their real ages, which all seem older (because actually they are) than the “Upper Sixth” age setting of the film. But when you get past that, all the individual boys and teachers seem simply so “right” in themselves and with each other.

The star of the film is Richard Griffiths, as the “Pass The Parcel” ageing teacher - it's a real, subtle, jewel of a performance. His performance brings my own schooling back to mind vividly and immediately – the teachers at Bedford were often just like him. There is one exquisite sequence where he sits in a classroom explaining the meaning of a World War One poem to one of the boys - I suspect it was the boy in the group who Bennett wrote to represent himself. Richard Griffith’s acting here is subtlety brilliant – you see him in extreme close-up, and if ever you wanted to show someone a Masterclass in acting for film, showing how the slightest facial or vocal inflection can build the tension in a “take”, just watch that sequence. It’s simply perfect.

Whilst I had a real science “bent” at school, finding Physics, Chemistry and Maths a relatively comfortable combination, my efforts at the more “arty” subjects were, to say the least, much more of a struggle.

And yet, a couple of teachers, as a result of their force of personality, zest for learning and skill in teaching, wrought miracles on me, in the areas of Art and Music – Ted Amos and Ron Dalzell. I entered their classes being a perfect definition of a Musical and Artistic “philistine”, and as a result of their amazing ability in both subjects to “Pass the Parcel” onto an originally very unwilling me, they changed my life immeasurably. I have loved pictures and all sorts of music since their genius and magic was sprinkled over me, and I am eternally grateful for their efforts and the change they made in me. The sad thing is that neither of them would have even realised just what they had done.

Such is the profession of the teacher, and probably explains why “The History Boys” made such an impression on me. It’s not an “exciting” film, and there are no real action sequences, but as a film to savour, written by a master and vividly bringing back a large chunk of one’s personal history and putting it in context, it’s a real joy to watch.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Assistant Commissioner John Yates

Watch this face - you'll see it again!

There is an increasing sense of schadenfreude in watching the twists and turns of Our Glorious Leaders trying to pretend that the “Cash for Honours” issue simply doesn’t exist. The antics of Scotland Yard’s Assistant Commissioner John Yates (above) seem destined to ensure that he will finish his illustrious career with no “gong” after his name, given the way he seems to be moving inexorably across the political chessboard towards King Tony.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but his favourite film must be “All the President’s Men”, and, given his compact size, he must be fantasising playing the Dustin Hoffman character in that terrific film. Here we have a newspaper, this time the "Sunday Times", and not the "Washington Post", seeming to be hell-bent on pushing the issue of where the decision to change Party “donations” to Party “loans” was actually centred. The Sunday Times seems to have made its mind up that this is an issue where they can “get” Blair, and they seem to be doing all they can to aid and abet the Police in bringing the culprits, however high and mighty, to justice.

The net seems to be moving remorselessly closer to Number 10, as, one by one, the disaffected Donors/Lenders* (*Delete as applicable) seem to be saying that pressure was brought from on (very) high to make what they originally offered as gifts, appear in the Labour Party Finance books as loans. Blair is another one here who needs to reread LBJ’s dictum about "The Tent". You’re either inside, or you’re outside. These are influential men, and they do not like to be made to look foolish.

I suspect that everyone thought this investigation would stall from the massive weight of political pressure being brought by Number 10 against it, but it would seem that Assistant Commissioner Yates is continuing to pick the Cabinet off one by one. He has already conducted around 90 interviews and he is reputed to have now formally written to all of the Cabinet, asking them all a range of questions. All that is, apart from one person who, apparently, has not yet received a letter - Mr Blair. This omission, according to those versed in the way of the Fuzz, means that He (did I really put a capital letter there?) is most likely their Prime Suspect.

One interesting person in all this is Gordon Brown. Everyone thinks that Tony Blair’s political career is drawing to a close, but Brown is still looking to make one more play in the current UK political poker game. And yet, one of the New Labour donors/lenders, Nigel Morris, came into the loans/gift arena apparently via high level sources at the Treasury. Given Gordon Brown’s propensity to not just micro-management but pico-management, you could be forgiven for thinking that either he must have known, which leads off in interesting directions, or alternatively he didn’t know, in which case he doesn't know what's going on about major, strategic issues in his Ministry. The hairs on the back of my neck are telling me this particular bit of the story has not yet finished. Watch this space.

At the moment, we do not know if Mr Blair will be interviewed or not, and if he is, we do not know if the report which the Assistant Commissioner is writing will result in the Crown Prosecution Service taking any further action, and if they do, we do not know if that will result in any action being taken against Mr Blair.

But, the really sad thing for politics in this country is that, in spite of all these Ifs, I suspect most people believe that, whatever happens, Tony Blair did play a major part in this issue, and therefore deserves to have his collar felt – and felt quite hard. If you want a preview of one possible outcome, head to Blockbusters and rent a copy of "All the President's Men". If you don't agree with the possible outcome, it's still a bloody good film.

It’s all about Trust, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Cartoon by "Matt"

There’s a real sense of enjoying the power of the electorate when you see the changes brought about by the American voters last week. Even though only 2 in 5 voted, there has been a significant rebellion against the antics of Dubya and his cronies, and the seeming “single issue” polarising effect that the Iraq war has had on electoral politics over there shows what can be done by disaffected voters. It remains to be seen whether this is a “One Off” protest vote, with next time showing a return to the “It’s the Economy, Stupid” Issue winning the next election for the Republicans.

Those of you who are aficionados of “The West Wing” will see all kinds of resonances in the goings on last week. Sometimes I think the best idea is to sit through the 156 episodes, and then watch reality copy the plots you saw first in Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece. I swear the politicians are just following the scripts to make it easy for themselves.

The message is clear though, and the departure of that nice Mr Rumsfeld, seems to signal at least a belated start on the road to digging themselves out of the awful mess they have all created. One has to say that seeing the back of Rumsfeld gives one a bit of a rosy glow. Is there anyone out there who regrets his departure?

Even Richard Nixon, 35 years ago, thought him to be a bit of a hard man. Nixon’s comment in 1971 was - “…at least Rummy is tough enough, … He's a ruthless little bastard. You can be sure of that." For reasons none of us over here can begin to comprehend, he is both the Youngest (1975-1977 – age 43) and the Oldest (2001-2006 – age 74) occupant of the position of US Secretary of Defense (Sorry about the spelling, but America’s a very young country). You would have thought they’d have learnt, wouldn’t you?

I think we all agree that the man has a fair amount to answer for, but, in the end, it’s his poetry which we will concentrate on here. There’s a lovely web-site dedicated to the outpourings of Rumsfeld’s Inner Wit, set in some form of demonic Iambic Pentametric blank Verse, known only to a select band of US highflyers.

I am indebted to Hart Seely ( for these heartfelt jewels, culled, if that’s the right word, verbatim from the great man’s lips. Winston Churchill, eat you heart out and turn in your grave – You choose the order.

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

I think what you'll find,
I think what you'll find is,
Whatever it is we do substantively,
There will be near-perfect clarity
As to what it is.
And it will be known,
And it will be known to the Congress,
And it will be known to you,
Probably before we decide it,
But it will be known.

A Confession
Once in a while,
I'm standing here, doing something.
And I think,
"What in the world am I doing here?"
It's a big surprise.

I was going to say, “Don’t give up the Day Job”, but he just has!

Well, that’s one down. Who’s next?
And to finish, a litlt snippet from last Thursday's newspaper. The voting machines in Illinois were playing up apparently, and one frustrated voter was moved to smash the screen with what was described as a cat shaped paperweight (Now why would anyone going to vote carry a .... - Oh forget it!). The officiating officer's typically PC response was "It's a Touch screen, but he overdid it!".
We should sell them some little brown pencils attached by string to the side of the booth. That would sort them out.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Today, Saturday 11th November is Armistice Day.

Six years ago, to this day, my wife and I were walking out of our front door to drive into town for a leisurely cup of coffee, listening to the village Church clock chime at 11 o’clock in the morning, when I (or more accurately my wife) realised that the indigestion from which I thought I was then suffering was not indigestion at all, but something a little more serious.

Instead of a gentle drive into Shrewsbury, she piled me into the car and rocketed me into the local Hospital, driving at slightly illegal speeds around the town’s Ring road, thereby undoubtedly saving my life.

It’s very strange how occasionally, you wake up in the morning and have absolutely no idea just how different you will feel at the end of that day. That was a morning which literally changed my life for ever. When I woke up, I was Finance Director of a thriving company, and as a result of what happened, I never went back to that job. I ended up having major heart surgery, and finally returned to work in the same company, but in a very different capacity, some 10 months later. The rather spooky juxtaposition of that attack with the Armistice Church Bells tolling, is always now a very personal reminder of something which one hopes continues to fade into the background of one’s life, but always seems to resurface on this one day of the year.

But, on a wider stage, each year we see a gradual change in the way this particular day is perceived by an increasing number of people in the country. There are literally only a very small handful of people left alive now who actually fought in the First World War, and you sense the hugely evocative “Fade to Sepia” ending in the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” starting to permeate areas of our national attitude to the day.

It is simply impossible today to imagine what it must have been like to have been in the trenches fighting then, and I can only be eternally grateful that I will never be in a position to have to find out. The sale last week of a letter from a Private David Martin, poorly typed in 1916, which was found recently in an attic in Hastings, brings the whole atmosphere frighteningly back to life. It evokes the last episode of Blackadder IV, but without the slightest shred of humour. Ben MacIntyre has written about it over the last couple of days in the Times and a very moving and sobering story it is.

Read it and ponder – Lest we forget.




This is the first entry of several devoted to photographers whose style I admire. Some are household names, and some you may well not be so familiar with. I expected to write first about the man who I think is the best photographer who has ever lived – Henri Cartier-Bresson. But he would have been a bit obvious, so I've chosen another great picture taker. I’ve just stumbled across an image which immediately brought this man, much less well known, back to the forefront of my attention, and he gets Slot Number 1 - Franco Fontana.

He’s an Italian who has been taking pictures for something over 40 years, and he has published around 40 books of images, covering most genres of the Art. But it’s his landscapes which have a special place in my heart. My own personal favourite form of photograph is the landscape, so there is an immediate resonance with other people who do it so much better than me. My own view on this type of picture is that generally “Less is More”. A good simple image pretty nearly always beats a good complicated one.

And this guy goes for “simple” in a big way. He reduces the world to minimalist shapes, structures, lines and colours - real colours! The world is reduced to blocks of colour and gradual gradation of chromatic tones, which seem to have a soothing and calming effect on the viewer. They are almost not landscapes at all, but abstract patterns of colour which happen to have their origins in the world we live in. They are not subtle pictures in terms of colour - the vibrancy of the image jumps out at you, but, believe me, their beautiful simplicity and originality allows them to stand the test of time. As an extreme example, just look at “Lagoon at Comachio” below – an utterly simple construction of, well, almost nothing.
But it makes you think, and if that isn’t what taking pictures is about, I’m missing the point of it all.

He is an utterly individual photographer, and ploughs a very lone furrow in his work. From the first minute you come across one of his landscapes, you are in no doubt as to who took the picture – the man has a totally individual style.

I’ve had three prints of his on my office wall for many years, and I have to say they stood the test of time – whenever I looked at them, they give me a jolt of pleasure, and on a wet, Monday morning in Birmingham, anything which can do that gets my vote.
I've gathered together a few of his images, shown below, to get his style and approach across. Do you know anyone else who takes images remotely like these? Feast your eyes on these!
If you want to read "World's Best Photographers - No. 2 - Elliott Erwitt", please navigate to the entry in this Blog for March 25th 2007.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006



It’s amazing how a simple thing like a letter in a newspaper suddenly floods your memory with thoughts of the past that have lain dormant for decades. I am indebted (as they say on “The News Quiz”) to Malcolm, my brother-in-law, bon viveur, great chef, and generally Good Egg, for a snippet from the “Daily Telegraph” of a couple of weeks ago.

Although we had never met until I set about marrying his sister, he and I both unknowingly went to the same school – Bedford. As it happened, his other Brother-in-Law, and his wife’s other brother also went there, so there must be something in the water of the River Ouse which flows through the centre of the town.

Anyway, the newspaper story refers to Jack Beresford, an oarsman from Bedford School, whose name has faded into most people’s distant memory. However, in his day (the 1920s and 30s), he won 5 Gold and Silver medal in consecutive Olympic Games from 1920 to 1936, a feat only surpassed recently by Steve Redgrave. Leni Riefenstahl filmed him as part of her stunning “Olympia” project in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That's quite a record.

The story in the letter recalls how Beresford not only carried the British flag at that utterly unforgettable event, but as one story goes, he so impressed Hitler by his prowess, that Hitler presented him with an Oak Sapling. This was brought back and planted in the grounds of the school (see Picture above), to be known thereafter as the Hitler Oak.

As the march of time, and more physically the march of New School Buildings, progressed, the the Oak was removed and the Biology Department took cuttings from it and these were planted throughout the school estate. Also, wood from the oak was kept back and used as bowshields for the successive generations of Bedford School Boat Club Oarsmen, with a formal signed authentication being added to each one by the Master of the Day to confirm their origin.
History is made of little vignettees like this. Probably meaningless to most people, but quite touching to an Old Bedfordian.

It does make you ponder about the Alumni of the School. I’m not a great “looker-back”, and school holds mixed emotions for me – it was a very sports biased place, and my abilities in that direction were, in the words of a famous Cricket person, “never going to trouble the Scorers”.

But a swift trawl over the Internet makes you realise how many individuals from the School went through the same training course as myself, and went on to achieve true greatness in multifarious spheres. The list I came up with, in about 10 minutes, is as follows. I’ve excluded a whole raft of hugely worthy individuals who, if you put them all together, seemed to run the Armed forces of this country for many decades. It must have been the CCF Army Training!
This lot makes me feel quite in adequate, but in a strange way, it all gives you a rosy glow to think that the teaching skills and training we received at school could have produced such a range of talent – and all because of a letter in the “Telegraph”!
Who wants mediocrity - Not me!
Bob Clay (in my class!) – Ex-Trotskyite Labour MP. He also masterminded the Parliamentary campaign of Reg Keys, who stood so memorably against Tony Blair in the 2005 General Election - do you recall Blair's face when Reg Keys gave his election address at Sedgefield after getting 10% of the votes there - the image of the campaign, in my view.

Harold Abrahams – immortalised in David Puttnam’s film “Chariots of Fire” as the winner of the sprint in the 1924 Olympics

Jack Beresford – Oarsman who won 3 Gold and 2 Silver Olympic Medals - 1920-1936

John Fowles – Author of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” and many other literary marvels

Paddy Ashdown – Ex Leader of the Lib Dems, writer of terrific Diaries, and Saviour of the Balkans

Al Murray – Comedian

Dan Wheldon – Britain’s most successful Racing Driver over the last few years, but you haven’t heard of him because all his success is in the USA. Won the Indianapolis 500, and the last Brits with their name on that trophy were Jim Clark and Graham Hill – you wouldn’t mind following on from those two geniuses!

Alistair Cook – Cricketer - Left handed Batsman who played so brilliantly against Pakistan in 2006, before someone “tampered with the ball"


It has seemed like an accident waiting to happen watching for Clare Short to resign the Labour Party Whip. She has held the party whip for nearly 30 years, and has been a Labour MP for 23 years, after working for some time, believe it or not, as Private Secretary to Conservative Minister, Mark Carlisle.
Her robust, outspoken approach was clearly never going to sit comfortably with the “control freak” Apparatchiks in Number 10. Her inability to come to terms with the “New Labour” approach has been manifestly obvious, from the day Blair came to power.

The Labour powers that be tried to reign her in by keeping her “inside the tent” (see Lyndon B Johnson for the origin of that phrase!), sacked her from the Cabinet when that didn’t work, and I suspect then decided that she was simply a loose cannon in New Labour, and, on the outside, tried to ignore her and hope that she would go away, whilst, inside attempting continuously to neutralise her from any effect she might have on the outside world. Last week, though, she had clearly come to the end of her tether, and wrote a delightfully bitchy letter of resignation to Jacqui Smith, the Labour Chief Whip.

Dear Jacqui,

I am sorry it has come to this, but after a lifetime of service to the Labour Party and 23 years in the House of Commons I think I am entitled to discuss what has gone wrong with the government and our political system in my remaining years as an MP.

It is my view that our political system is in trouble and that the exaggerated majorities in the House of Commons have led to an abject parliament and a concentration of power in Number 10 that has produced arrogant, error prone government. …………………..

………….As you know I am critical of many other aspects of government policy.

The previous chief whip tried to use her authority to stop me discussing the fact that the prime minister engaged in a series of half-truths and deceits to get us to war in Iraq. You focus on my views on electoral reform.
The consequence is a string of rebukes, usually through the media. .............

Now come on Clare, tell us what you really mean. It’s nice for once, isn't it, to see a modicum of bile and “Sod You then” in such a letter? For goodness sake, if you don’t feel like that about it, why are you resigning?

She is one of the few Cabinet level politicians I have actually met, and I have to say, after a couple of hours having lunch with her, I came to the conclusion that she was a robustly opinionated and rather arrogant individual who seemed was not prepared even to listen to what I and several other local West Midlands industrialists had to say. Needless to say therefore, I do not wholeheartedly agree with her overall political slant. I am however very, very firmly of the opinion that the UK political scene needs more people like her. People who are not afraid to go against their own party line if their personal views do not match those of their leaders. There are so few of those around that we need to slap a Preservation Order on the ones that remain.

I mean, what sort of Parliamentary system are we operating when anyone who dares to voice a personal opi
nion which differs from the Party line, as defined by the Whips Office, is vilified, accused of being a traitor, and generally disowned by her Party colleagues. It does call into question the whole ethos of the way we are governed today. Maybe I’m missing something, but the fundamental responsibility of a politician is to the people within the constituency which elected them. We seem to have slid into an era of total “presidentialism” where the sole aim of most politicians is to support “willy nilly” the dictates of the Party Leaders, and to subjugate their, and the electorate’s views, totally to those of the men at the top of their party. It is,very sadly, the only way today to climb “the greasy pole”. Sometimes you do wonder what it’s actually lubricated with.

In spite of what I thought was my own personal opinion of the good lady, if you stand back and look at the issues which she has personally raised in disagreement with her Party whilst they have been in Government, it makes very interesting reading. Look at the list which was put together in the “Times” the other day.

- Proposed discussion on decriminalisation of Cannabis
- Spoke out in 1997 about her views on the Millennium Dome – “a silly, temporary building”
- Denounced University Top-Up fees as “a really bad idea”
- Criticised Government “control freakery” about target setting.
- Threatening to resign before the Iraq war if the Government took us into the conflict without a clear UN Mandate

The really scary thing about that list is that if you asked the man and woman on top of the Clapham Omnibus (actually you can’t now, because they took them all out of service, but you know what I mean!) I’ll bet that out of the first 100 you asked, 95 would generally say that she was right, and the Government was wrong

And we are left with an administration that was more than happy to get rid of someone who thought much as most of us do. There is no doubt that by not resigning at the time war was declared, she did her personal standing considerable harm, and her “colleagues” have wasted no time at all in attempting to belittle her, her opinions and to some degree her integrity. But one thing you cannot take away from her is that she is prepared to voice her opinions, knowing that they may well not be universally agreed with. There are very few MPs today who have the guts to do that, and if she leaves parliament after this session, it will be another nail in the coffin of MPs being individuals who have their own opinions which they are prepared to voice.

There are now 4 Independent MPs in Parliament, following her decision to sit out the remainder of the Term as an Independent. The others are George Galloway, Dai Davies and Dr Richard Taylor. The three of them apparently are starting what they call a “Naughty Club” and are thinking of inviting Ms Short to join them – they are, as they say, the only party in parliament which is on the up.

The more I see of the mainstream crews in Westminster, the more I think if mavericks like these branded themselves as a “None of the Above” Party, they would get an influx of like minded individuals setting up camp with them.

Now, where does that one lead?

Monday, October 23, 2006


I can’t let yesterday go by without doffing my hat to Michael Schumacher. He raced (and didn’t he race!) into what the record books will meaninglessly note as 4th place in his last Formula 1 race ever. Just looking at the numbers of his career however – Wins, points, pole positions, fastest laps etc – you’ve got to be uniquely impressed.

Everyone who rabbits on about him, including me, seems to sum him up as a “Flawed Genius”. And that’s what he is. One columnist got it dead right recently when he called him a “Villain”. That he was, and his incomparable drive to win, seemingly at any cost, can be seen as either an example of total focus for anyone looking to excel in anything, or a demonstration that if you don’t keep a real sense of proportion in your life, you can be seen as missing something vital in your personal make-up.

You choose.

But concentrate on the Genius bit for a minute. Without probably realising it, whenever an F1 race took place in the world, over the last 10 years, you always looked at what Schumacher was doing, and then compared everyone else against him. If you got anywhere near the man, you were doing alright. If not, well he was Schumacher, so you weren’t supposed to anyway. It’s quite amusing to see all the pundits who went head to head with him – Brundle, Blundell, Irving, Barrichello, rationalising the simple fact that he was capable of driving a racing car faster than them all, in every way other than the truth. Egos must be maintained!

He simply bestrode the World’s richest sport in a unique way for almost a generation.

And, for once in a sportsman, he was bright enough to hang up his boots when everyone was still clambering for more. You don’t need many fingers to tick off a comprehensive list of other sportsmen who have got that one right. Goodness knows what he’s going to do now – I don’t think even he knows yet. He just knows that now is the time. My own suspicions are that his name will not disappear completely from the Motor Racing scene, but I don’t think he will drive competitively again.

The real test of what he did for the sport is to look at what’s left now.

The fastest drivers on the grid today are Raikkonen and Alonso, but neither of them have Schumacher’s wily, political, devious and intellectual mind – the mind that can get a team like Ferrari to build their whole racing approach around one man. Alonso still displays a Spanish, mercurial, easy to dislodge temperament, and Raikkonen comes across as a brattish, monosyllabic (on his more loquacious days!) adolescent. Both of them excellent racers, not just drivers, but no match for Schumacher in the murkier and darker side of the Sport. The rest of the grid, perhaps with the exception of Button (jury still out) and possibly Kubica (too new) and Massa (let’s see him next year), come across simply as journeymen, scrabbling around for the lesser prizes.

It will be a great shame not to see the Red Baron pointing out in his slightly supercilious way how the others are not quite up to the task, ever again. But if you want an example of putting your Marks (or is it Euros now?) where your mouth is, just look at his final fling yesterday.

He clearly set out to finish with a race you were going to remember, win or lose. A puncture early on which dropped him a lap back, and then you saw a display of real driving when he pulled back all the lost time on everyone in the field other than his teammate. Yes, he probably had the fastest car, and yes, a couple of them let him through without much of a fight. But Raikkonen didn’t, and the move Schumacher pulled on him, 4 laps from the end of his racing career told the story completely – brilliant driving, real guts, great skill and and determination, and Never Give Up – what more do you want from someone who races cars for a living?

I will miss him tremendously.
Thanks Michael.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


When you see something classed as “Five Stars”, what do you think it means? I bet it’s something like “The best you can buy”. That seems to work for Hotels, Sandwiches, Restaurants and the like. But not, it seems, for something as important as Car Safety, where the difference between the various levels of crash resistance can, literally, mean the difference between Life and Death – and Your Life and Death at that.

The Department for Transport has issued a couple of intriguing reports recently, which have set my mind wandering on this subject. Having spent most of my working life in the vehicle industry, I have watched the way politics and car design interact, with more than just a passing interest. One area which has fascinated me for some time has been the way Governments have approached vehicle safety, and in particular the NCAP tests, which now get such prominence in car advertising. Anything less than 5 stars today is seen as a failure whenever a new vehicle is introduced.

The niggle that has always been there in my mind is simple. How can a big car get five stars and a little car, with much less metal in it, and everything in it being much closer to the squashy bits of the occupants inside, also get five stars. The simple answer is that ***** is not an absolute measure of safety – it’s a relative one, dependant upon the size of the car. A rating of ***** in a small car does not give the same level of protection to the occupants as ***** in a larger car – it’s relative to other cars in its class.

Now I’m a simple person, but I’m not sure that this situation is made at all clear to anyone buying a new vehicle, and something inside me says that there could easily here be a policy of confusion produced by someone to keep this issue unclear. Safety in a car is what I would call “binary” – to me, if you have a crash, you are entitled to think that if you buy a car with a ***** ratings, then you are buying the safest car you can possibly buy – unfortunately Not True. The reality is that a larger vehicle, quite possibly with a 4 Star rating, could easily turn out to be much safer in a crash than a smaller vehicle with a 5 Star rating.

If you equate difficulty to find information with the aim of keeping a degree of confusion and uncertainty going, then the government agencies are also a little coy about this. If you read the small print in their documents, you will find a note that is presumably meant to address this issue, but it is writ very small, and is not at all helpful in the explanation it offers. It’s the sort of thing their lawyers would insist on being included, but only after the Marketing Spin Merchants have woven their spells on the language, so it doesn’t actually tell you anything. So when you look to find out how safe in the real world a big car is compared to a little one, you do not find our Lords and Masters being over zealous and overforthcoming with the answers. In fact until now, you had a bit of a task on your hands to get any solid information at all.

But now, the Department for Transport has issued a report which lifts the carpet a bit on this – and it makes for interesting reading. In a report called “Cars: Make and Model: The Risk of Driver Injury in Great Britain: 2000 – 2004”, they have analysed all reported car accidents involving 2 cars between 2000 and 2004, and the report presents their findings.

Rather than go into the 30 pages of information, let’s look at the really important questions. I suspect that everyone who drives on the road would expect to receive some form of injury, slight though it may be, if they were in an accident. Common sense says it goes with the territory. What I suspect is really important to people is the likelihood of receiving a serious injury, or even being killed in a car accident. So let’s concentrate on this area.

If you look beyond the statistical “standardisations” and caveats in the report, the risk of having a Fatal or Serious Injury in a 2 car accident is as follows –

Small/Low Sports cars - 6%
Small cars - 7%
Small/medium cars - 6%
Medium cars - 5%
Large cars - 4%
MPVs - 4%
Four wheel Drives - 3%
All cars - 5%

Now, I guess Common Sense (that particularly rare commodity) would see those figures as reasonable and sensible. Those of us who have studied Physics, and can remember such things as the Law of Conservation of Angular Entropy or whatever it's called (see, it’s all coming back to me now, even after 40 years) will agree that when a big thing hits a small thing travelling in the opposite direction, it’s usually the small thing which comes off worst, and that’s what the data seems to be supporting. But if we look a little closer, there are a few things which seem also to be clear, but which you seem to have to work out for yourself.

In the small car category, the Rover Mini (emphatically not the new one) is the most dangerous car they measured, at 14%, twice the class average, and the Citroen C3, is at 3%, more than 50% better than the class average. That’s less than 25% as potentially dangerous, one car versus the other. Interestingly, in its class, the C3 only gets 4 Stars in the NCAP tests. The Nissan Micra (1993-2003) is rated at 4 stars, and suffers an 8% Killed or Serious Accident rate, whereas the C3, the Mercedes A Class, and the latest Polo’s figures (all also rated at 4 Stars) are all 4% or less – 50% better for the same rating.

As you get up to the larger ranges of cars, the variation between models become much less marked. For instance, in the Medium car category, the Killed or Seriously Injured range is between 3% and 7% (excluding the Subaru Impreza at 8%, and that, I suspect would have something to do with the type of drivers it attracts).

In the Large car class, for vehicle which are available today, the range narrows again to 2% - 4%. Once again, Common Sense coming good.

The one which must get up many people’s nose is the 4 wheel drive category. Here, the average risk is the lowest of all those measured, at 3%, which once again makes logical sense. You only have to imagine a Mercedes ML Class hitting something like a 2004 Clio, and the fact that the Clio comes off 5 times as badly comes as no surprise. Except that they both got 4 Star ratings in the NCAP tests.

The 4WD category includes a range of large and small 4WDs, and if you do a broad split of the list into large 4WDs and small 4WDs, the difference between them becomes even more intriguing. Within the 3% overall average, the smaller 4WDs have a 3.8% risk, whereas the larger ones are less than 1.6% - twice as good as any other section of the vehicle population. Hmmm!

Now, I know only too well that these Government statistics are measuring a lot of things which the NCAP tests are not measuring – the type of driver, the weight of the other vehicle the cars hit, the Primary vehicle safety characteristics (ie the ability of the car NOT to get into an accident in the first place), the inherent randomness of vehicle accidents and so on. But, these figures seem to show the much maligned 4WD vehicle in a different light. Now there are American statistics which show just how important the weight of a vehicle is in a crash, and, once again, it is not surprising that driving around in a large 4WD vehicle, and hitting a smaller car is likely to mean the 4WD occupants are safer – much safer. But no-one in this country seems to make this point as a balance to the “Destruction of the Planet” argument.

It’s a bit like the MMR argument – you may not want to risk your own child by giving them the injections, but you want to be covered by the immunity created by everyone else having theirs inoculated. Your car accident risk will be low as long as most of the other cars on the road are smaller and lighter – so buy the big one and hope that any accident you have is with a smaller vehicle. You can argue it’s not morally right, but how do you convince people not to buy into an unfair advantage, when the benefit their money buys may well be - Staying alive.

To further this point, there is an interesting little statistical Table tucked away at the back of the report, which seems to have escaped comment in the body of the report. Rather than measure risk of Fatal or Serious Injury combined, as all the figures above attempt to do, they pull out the chance of being Killed in each type of vehicle.

The average chance of being Killed in ALL accidents they measured was 0.3%. The figure, if you were in a Small car or Sports car, was 0.5% (70% higher) and for MPVs and 4WDs, the figure was Less than 0.01%.

That’s 30 times less than the average, and 50 times less than a small car.

So now what sort of car do you buy next time?