Friday, March 30, 2007



News reached the far flung outpost of Shrewsbury today that Robert Parker, Principal Dancer at the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is retiring this year at the grand old age of 30.

The film “Billy Eliot” caught the still prevalent attitude that has your male listener, probably involuntarily, starting to talk in a slightly lower register when you profess a liking for Ballet. As a Director of a largish company in Birmingham in the late 90s, being invited out for the evening by professional advisors and other business people was an occasional perk. Most of the time, sitting with 500 other businessmen listening to an evening of speechmaking was not always something to set one’s mind racing with anticipation, but occasionally something turned up which literally added a whole new interest in your life.

One such invitation came near one Christmas, for my wife and I to make up a party at the Birmingham Hippodrome, to see the BRB’s performance of The Nutcracker. To say I was affected by it is an understatement. I went into the theatre probably a tad prejudiced against it, and came out a speechless convert. The sheer beauty, the power, the grace, the passion and the sheer aural and visual impact of it all made it one of the most memorable evenings of my life. That “freebie” actually cost me a fortune, because over the next eight years, we used to buy a pair of Season Tickets, and go to every programme they put on.

I’m sure Ballet Companies are like football teams, in that their skill levels ebb and flow as the years go by. And I’m equally sure that in the late 90s, the BRB had a range of dancers which could stand comparison with any other major company in the country. But the life of a top flight ballet dancer is fearfully arduous, and fearfully short.

People like Joe Cipolla, the O’Hare twins, Monica Zamora, Sabrina Lenzi, Leticia Muller, Wolfgang Stolwitzer were truly excellent dancers, both in the classics, and also the newer, more avant garde pieces that David Bintley, the BRB’s charismatic Director, put on over the years. But, by the turn of the century, many of these top flight performers were reaching the end of their careers, and all of a sudden, they’d gone. The only real new BRB entrant over this time who had immediately made you think –“Bloody hell, he’s got something” was Robert Parker.

He started in Birmingham around 1998, and rose swiftly through the ranks to reach the pinnacle of Principal Dancer, where he has remained for many years in my opinion, as the best dancer in the Company. He seemed to be able to turn his hand to everything. He was immensely athletic and seemed to have a real insight into the character he was portraying. Dancing on his own, you could not take your eyes off him, whilst when partnering one of the female Principals, he blended with her and presented her in a very elegant and supportive way. To me he was always utterly convincing and got to the heart of the role more than any other BRB dancer, and it was always an absolute pleasure each time you turned up at the Hippodrome to find that he was dancing that night.

He seems to be using a very sensible brain to “go out on a high”, and take his career on a very different course, at an age when time is still on his side. He intends to move to the USA and train as an Airline Pilot, would you believe.

All I can say, as a real fan of his, is to thank him for the hours of utter pleasure his dancing has given me. I should advise potential flyers in America to fly with him, as, if he lands his aircraft with the same precision and grace that he showed with his leading ladies, you will not even know you’ve touched the ground.



As a race, the average English person tends to be permanently deprecating about this country. We whinge on about the weather, the politicians, the cricket team, why nothing seems to work as well as it does in Germany or Japan, the traffic jams, the younger generation, and so on, and so on , and so on……… We don’t do excitement, or over-optimism, or self-aggrandisement. Ask an Englishman who has just won the lottery how he feels, and the likely answer will be something like “Not too bad.”

We forget, or don’t even realise, just how good we are at some things – like truly understated Marketing. A simple little website was mentioned in the Sunday newspapers, and it is so silly at first sight, but when you think a bit about it, you realise someone has just put together a gloriously effective bit of marketing for their product.

We’re back on cheese again. Just ping onto, and you will be rewarded with the website of the West Country Cheesemakers who have hit on the utterly simple marketing ploy of training a web cam (“Sit, Don’t move, Record”, I said “Don’t move” ….) on 20 kilos of unsuspecting Cheddar from the day it was born until the day it becomes mature enough to be sold. We can watch all the action here, with each microscopic spore of mould developing in real time in front of us.

Google it and there are 794 other stupid hits which refer to it – it could only happen in this country, and Thank Goodness for all of them. Some of them, understandably, compare it for excitement to “watching paint dry”, but that’s a bit of a stretch for an analogy. The paint I use dries in around 6 hours, which is why I touch it after 3, and get those lovely fingerprints in it for ever. This cheese when I first looked at it the other day, following 490,000 other idiots, had been developing in front of the trusty camera for 96 day, 23 hours, 51 minutes and 14.937 seconds.

Yes, the surreally beautiful English twist on the ad is that the time is quoted to the nearest millisecond. Lovely!

For those really interested, you will be mortified to have missed the frenzy yesterday, for that was what it was, when the cheesemaker took his first stab at the inside to check on the condition of the beast.

Calm down everyone, now. He’ll probably be doing it again in another 10,000,000,000 milliseconds.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


The Floppy Disc is dead, or at least, breathing its last - so PC World and Dell seem to be telling us.

Yet another storage medium, which was announced as the saviour of the Computer world when it came onto the scene in 1971, has been found wanting in the capacity department by the ever increasing Pac-Man like storage requirements of current computer software and files.

Like most things in life, it shrank in size as it got older, starting at a very healthy 8”, reducing firstly to 5¼”, and finally in its middle age and wizened dotage, it shrivelled to 3½”. And still it couldn’t keep its customers happy, even though it got less floppy as time went on! At 1.44 Megabytes, each one could hold the very top left hand corner of one of the photographs I take. Depending on whether you’ve seen any of my pictures will determine whether you think that is a good or a bad attribute!

A couple of computer magazines I’ve just read, have reacted to this demise, and launched into something approaching a eulogy about the things. “Life will not be the same after it’s gone.” “Our lives are changed for ever …..” and so on. They then go on about how with the lifetime of storage media systems reducing continuously, we are in grave danger of being the first generation where almost nothing is left for our successors to remember us by, not because we haven’t saved it, but because there will not be any machines around in the future which can read them.

The message they are trying to evangelise is – Back up everything continuously, Copy it all, Duplicate, Store a full copy on a remote island in the event of a nuclear strike or an Npower surge, keep copying all the old stuff onto the latest, new fangled storage system as soon as you can – otherwise you face memory oblivion, and presumably cease to exist.

Well, I can understand that for the business community, for a Government department, and especially for the maintenance department of the airline I’m planning to fly on next. But I wonder if the same zeal needs to be thrown at all us recreational users.

If I look back into my own personal past, my mother remarried when I was around 10, and when my Step Father and Grandmother, who were both major parts of my life, died, I ended up being custodian of their possessions. My father was a very keen photographer, even in the 1950s, and he left a massive heap of slides. I kept these for many years, and recently decided to have a good look through them.

The simple and rather sad reality was that about 95% of the pictures were of no interest to anyone other than himself. I had no idea where the views were, I had only an occasional recognition of the people he had taken, and in most cases, these people were no longer with us. I was probably the only person in the world today to whom any of these images had any real meaning. Apart from a few where close family were involved, the rest were almost entirely alien images. It was only because my father had taken them that I had kept them for so long.

So the pictures I have retained are a very small selection of the original collection, and as I move onto the Great Archive in the Sky, the number which will have any meaning to my children and my children’s children will reduce to almost nothing. It’s a bit like the cracked Sepia photo-fade of the vibrant, colourful gang of human beings at the end of “Butch Cassidy”. You suddenly realise that the images or the amounts of data that lives on after we’ve gone is far less than the glorious melange that we all surround ourselves with while we’re alive.

I have a Floppy disc with my 1975 tax return on it, and apart from personally marvelling about the almost trivial amount of tax I paid, it has no real value even now. I suppose in some ways it’s an understandable form of technical Security blanket, which gives us all a feeling of belonging, and being part of something. But when you actually get to the nub of it, we usually have a few, only a very few, pictures, and it usually is pictures, which are the real items which should be saved for posterity - the rest are irrelevant.


Look around your own house, and compare the number of personal images you actually have on show, to the number you’ve got saved somewhere. It will be in the ratio of Hundreds if not Thousands to One. That gives you a first pass at which ones really are important to you. So what I’m thinking is that we must, absolutely, save these special ones, and you usually find that they are saved in Hard Copy form, be it a photograph, or a painting. These are the ones which will, to a greater degree stand the test of time, and also not need the fancy “temporary” gadget in the future to read them.

I’ve not used a Floppy drive for years, I’ve got a pile of old videos, of which I REALLY only want to keep a few - So that’s what I’ll end up doing, when I can get Chris, my friendly IT Guru to teach me how to do it. I never even had an 8 Track cartridge system – they were SO “Get your trousers on, You’re nicked!” And I resisted buying a CD player for too long, because I thought I’d end up having to spend a fortune replacing my 200 LPs. Of course, when I got there, the number I actually duplicated was dramatically lower. All are indications of the same thread - we all keep too much Stuff around us.

So the real issue here is, look critically at the items of computer data where it really would be a heartbreaker if they disappeared, and make sure these are copied in many forms. And I suspect we will find that the best form is a hard Copy image, which will last for lifetimes, and, as a bonus, will also give you pleasure while you are still around to look at them.

Less is

Sunday, March 25, 2007



The name of the photographer Elliott Erwitt does not fall easily off the tongue, or come easily to mind. But, in my view, he is a strong claimant to the “World’s Best Living Photographer” award. Like so many other top class photographers he came from Eastern Europe, but has spent all his life in the USA. The product of a Russian dilettante Jewish father, and a rich Russian/Greek Orthodox mother, they moved firstly to Italy, and when forced out by Mussolini, caught the last boat out of Europe to start a life in America just after the Second World War began. You could say that this unusual start probably affected his view of the way life should be led, and I suspect that we should be eternally grateful from a photographic viewpoint that it did. Married four times (“None beheaded” he quotes), he took up taking pictures to stay alive.

Apparently, one day he saw one of Cartier-Bresson’s images, was bowled over by it, and that simply was it. For the last 60 years he has been plying his trade taking pictures of a very, very polarised range of subjects.

His serious side shows him recording the Great and the Good of the second half of the last century, as a fully paid up member of (membership only by invitation) Magnum – THE greatest photo agency in the World. He took an iconic image of Kruschev and Nixon arguing with each other in the mid 50’s, where he says (and Erwitt was in earshot, and he also spoke Russian) Kruschev told Nixon to “Go screw my Grandmother”. Pictures of Monroe, Che Guevara, Jack Kerouack, Alfred Hitchcock, Casals, Roald Dahl and Lyndon B Johnson are all there as well. As a day job, that type of photography very much kept the wolf from the door.

Alongside the camera he used for the formal side of things, he also kept a simple, very quiet and unobtrusive Leica, which he used, at the same time, to take pictures of life as he saw it around him, and it is probably this body of work which qualifies him for geniusdom. He usually takes one shot, often waits around for hours to get it, and there’s the picture – Bang, it’s as easy as that! "I observe, I try to entertain, but above all, I want pictures that are emotional" is the way he puts it.

He has a truly outstanding eye for the bizarre, the odd, the amusing, the juxtaposition, the tragic, the visual pun, and his body of work, all in Black and White is an unsurpassed record of humanity over the last 50 years. His pictures are sometimes criticised by people who want everything painted with a heavy trowel, as lightweight. But his utterly deceptive skills hide dedication, a total commitment to detail and preparation, a gimlet eye for the final picture, and the ability to search out images of people like no-one else. He makes it look so easy, until you try it!

Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase l’instant critique (the Decisive Moment) – Erwitt also had it, although sometimes for him it would be better titled The Indecisive Moment, given the subject he had just recorded. But if any photographer was a demonstration of the golfer Gary Player’s Law – The harder I try, The luckier I get – it was Erwitt.

Humour is a fearfully difficult thing to capture in a single shot. It takes many forms, and Erwitt’s pictures are simply the best range of images you will EVER find in this category. He has a continuing fascination with things canine, and has published a book called Dog Dogs, with pictures of 820 dogs (and a very few cats), which is simply a classic. He seems to see many parallels of the human condition in the picture of dogs which he takes.

His view is that he just takes pictures for a living - he is not an artist. "Photography is very simple," he says. "People make it so technical, so complicated, to disguise the fact. They overcompensate." But find a copy of his Greatest Hits book, rather disingenuously called “Snaps”, and in a 500 image tome, you will see the greatness of the man.

If you want to get an interviewer’s impression of him, search out an extremely good 2001 interview in the Independent. The writer, Rose George, sums him up excellently – “ … his name is probably unknown to most. If anything, he's a taker of funny pictures with easy charm, or a photographic dog-lover: His Dog Dogs book has sold 250,000 copies. A professional photographer will know him as a master of inimitably perfect composition and deceptive casualness. To the true fan, he has an eye for a shot like no other, and his work has the pathos and insight of Cartier-Bresson and the charm of Doisneau, though he has the name-droppability of neither. Hence Snaps. "Books aren't very remunerative," he (Erwitt) muses over bad German food. "But you get jobs out of it and that leads to work." His face – soulful and doleful, like Matthau without the jowls – creases into irony. "Besides, I have to do it – I've been around so long, most editors think I'm dead."

Go on then, now look at his pictures, and disagree with me.
If you want to read "World's Best Photographers - No. 1 - Franco Fontana", please navigate to the entry on this Blog for November 11th 2006.

All pictures copyright Magnum/Elliot Erwitt




Of all the arts, Music is the one which, for me, seems to have the most emotional impact. Perhaps because it takes place over a period of time, the piece of music has a progressive impact on you, particularly when that impact is under someone else’s control. Music is the only major art form which needs an interpreter between you and the original to appreciate it in its intended form. So it’s the combination of the inspiration which gets the original notes down on paper, combined with the art of the individual/group of people interpreting it which makes each performance so individual and unique.

Yes, you can stand in front of a painting, and see new things in it, either by using your own thoughts and feelings, or you can look at it anew having listened to someone else’s views about it. Bu the immediacy of the music performance is, to me quite unique.

We are overwhelmed today by a total immersion in music. You almost can’t get away from it, and this omniprescence can work against the music all too easily. Everything can be found on a CD these days, and while that allows us all to listen to literally anything we want, when we want, as frequently as we want, that unrestrained availability stunts the sense of occasion which only a live a performance can bring. It's all to easy to lose the sense of occasion. Beethoven, for instance, did not write his Eroica symphony to be listened to as background music. And just to make sure the balance is not tilted towards the Classical end of things, neither did Paul Simon write “Bridge over Troubled Water” to be played as the soundtrack to a trip to a shopping mall. They were written to be listened to with focus by an audience, because both composers were trying to say something remarkable, where they wanted to change the way people thought about the way life worked.

But for music, you always need an interpreter – someone who can bring the music out, and lay it before you. Sometimes, it’s the composer, sometimes not. To my mind, there are some pieces of music where only the composer will do. Can you think of anyone who can sing a Rolling Stones song better than Mick Jagger, or does anyone even try to cover anything by Pink Floyd, Genesis, Dire Straits. Here, the music and the performer go together absolutely.

Other composer’s work is not the same, and that’s not to criticise it, just to recognise that it’s different – there are reputedly over 3,000 versions of Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” – which is the best one? The simple answer is - You choose.

So in these cases, the performer can be just as important as the writer, which results in all of us having our favourite versions – be it Pop or Classical music.

Now, I have a reasonably eclectic range of musical likes and dislikes. My great love tends to the Classical side, except, of course, when I prefer Pop Music! Today, while doodling around on YouTube, I came across a raft of snippets of historic classical music performances, which took up a couple of hours and stirred me to write this.

Taken as a proportion of total time listened to, Piano music probably occupies the Number One spot for me. The piano has a unique range of sonic possibilities, and can be as close to an orchestra as any instrument can, all of which sets the question rolling in my mind – Who is the best pianist in the world?

To my very limited knowledge, there’s only one choice. There is a tremendous range of pianists today, all with prodigious technique, who all seem to be able to reduce the most difficult pieces ever written to simplicity. But, at the very top, you need more than that. You need a mercurial quality, the ability to astonish, to provide insight, to burn a hole in your heart as well as your head. And when you put the list of the Great and the Good Pianists against this measure, some of the Premier league players don’t make it for me. I keep feeling the words “cold” and “technical” jabbing at my thoughts when I listen to them.

For as long as I can remember, Martha Argerich has stood head and shoulders above the rest. I first heard her ages ago playing Chopin, and I was bowled over. Listening to the musical, and physical, power being radiated by the radio I was listening to, I could not believe that its source was actually a young slip of a girl who was still a teenager when she had recorded the piece that was transfixing me. Since then, the woman has been the musical love of my life, and watching her today playing on a very grainy, small Black and White film brought it all back to me.

Her first Album, for once correctly called “Martha Argerich plays Chopin - The Legendary 1965 recording” is simply stunning (see the Amazon link). Just click on the “Listen to this” tab, and be enthralled.

The recording engineer, usually the sort of person who has been round the block a few times, remembers hearing her play the Chopin Op.53 Polonaise in the Abbey Road studios when he first met her. He recalls how he
“sat up in my chair with a long drawn out “Jee-sus” – the balance engineer said “Wow!”.


She plays with a passion and a totally personal vision, and a technique to rival the very best, but it’s the mercurial nature of her playing, the way she brings a fresh view to everything she turns her hand to which is so captivating. Some people accuse her of occasionally playing too fast, and sometimes you see a real tempestuous streak, but she is capable of hugely tender moments. And if anyone thinks it’s only the romantic Chopin, Listz and Rachmaninov where she excels, try her playing Bach – it’s like a breath of fresh air. Then again, listen to her blinding version of Prokoviev’s Op. 11 Toccata – 4 minutes where you will sit totally unable to believe there is only one person playing the notes.

I know I’m biased, because for me she can do no wrong. I also know in my head, that fan worship has many pitfalls, but for her, even with me at the age where I should know better, I think I’d throw my knickers onto the stage!


Thursday, March 22, 2007


The first few words of a book are like a hook. If the author get's the right ones down, you’re captured. This works even with something as potentially uninspiring as a cookery tome. Try this for size –

“This book is written for men. Men who, through choice or circumstance, live on their own, so that they can give a small dinner party, and at the same time remain on speaking terms with their friends.”

Ten seconds to read it, and the writer had ensnared me, and I’ll bet you want to know what follows as well. Excellent.

My Brother in Law sent me “Countryman’s Cooking” by W.M.W. Fowler as a totally inspired birthday gift, and I found it a complete joy to read. You don’t need to get more than a couple of paragraphs in, to realise that it was written when the words “political” and correctness” had never been used in the same sentence, and you’ll go a long way to find a fresher and more riveting read. Having read the book, and rummaged around on the Internet to fill in a bit of the man’s background, a terrific story emerges.

IT was published in 1965, and immediately bombed, which neatly dovetails in with the fact that Fowler (Willie to his friends) was a Lancastrian who flew in, yes, RAF Lancasters during the Second World War. He was shot down, and spent some time in Stalag Luft 3, where at one point in the book, he records having slaked his hunger by “stewing the Kommandant’s cat with one black market onion!” Brilliant.

He mixes recipes based on cooking all manner of meats and fish, in a robust, forthright, Steak and Kidney Pudding sort of way, with sharp, and often hilarious anecdotes which tell you exactly the sort of man he was. Clearly no stranger at all to female company, he was not interested in what he saw as the frothy parts of cookery, and arranged for various female “sous chefs” (probably in both senses of the word!) to attend him and “do” the vegetables and the pastry for him. He would invite “Luscious Lettie” and “Flakey Flossie” over - “Lettie darling, do come over. I’ve got a cucumber and some tomatoes, and all sorts of things. You’re so much better at dealing with them than I am.” One does suspect that the evening meal that night would have been eaten cold. A similar fate awaited Flossie – I simply can’t imagine what Delia would have made of it.

A book like this only works if the quality of the recipes, which are its backbone, stand up to scrutiny. All I would say is read them, and you will immediately have no doubts on that score. Just read the ones for Steak and Kidney pie and the Beef Olives if you’re in two minds about it.

To catch the mood of the original, the book also reproduces the original plates one of which is shown at the top of this piece.

One recipe which has you well skewered when you’re reading it is in the Poultry and Wildfowl Chapter, and addresses the “classic recipe for the preparation and cooking of a Cormorant” – how PC is that? Just read this –

Having shot your cormorant, hold it well away from you as you carry it home . . . these birds are exceedingly verminous and the lice are said to be not entirely host-specific.

Hang up by the feet with a piece of wire, soak in petrol and set on fire. This treatment both removes most of the feathers and kills the lice.

When the smoke has cleared away, take the cormorant down and cut off the beak. Send this to the local Conservancy Board who, if you are in the right area, will give you 3/6d or sometimes 5/- for it.

Bury the carcass, preferably in a light sandy soil, and leave it there for a fortnight.

This is said to improve the flavour by removing, in part at least, the taste of rotting fish.

Dig up, skin and draw the bird. Place in a strong salt and water solution and soak for 48 hours.

Remove, dry, and stuff with whole, unpeeled onions . . . the onion skins are supposed to bleach the meat to a small extent so that it is very dark brown instead of being entirely black.

Simmer gently in seawater - to which two tbsp of chloride of lime have been added - for six hours.

This has a further tenderising effect. Take out of the water and allow to dry. Meanwhile, mix up a stiff paste of methylated spirit and curry powder. Spread this mixture liberally over the breast of the bird.

Finally, roast in a very hot oven for three hours. The result is unbelievable. Throw it away. Not even a starving vulture would eat it.

If that doesn’t get you looking for the ISBN number and the stockist of the book, you’ve got no soul!

Just to help, try “Countryman’s Cooking” by W.M.W. Fowler – it’s a hardback, £16.95, and is available from Mr Burnett at Excellent Press on (01584) 877803.

It’s Book of the Year stuff.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


After AIDS, Malaria is the most infectious disease on the planet. Up to 2,700,000 lives are lost to the disease, mainly in Africa, and because we don’t get it here (but wait for Global Warming?), we, in Western Society hardly seem to see it as a problem. It seems you can’t hear the screams if you are far enough away. The news that there are real breakthroughs in the fight against it being announced by researchers therefore is good news indeed.

In America, they’ve developed a new strain of Genetically Modified mosquitoes which are more resistant to the Malaria infection. The idea is that if these are released into the wild, they could become the more dominant strain, and therefore because fewer of them then carry the disease, it will become less prevalent. But the mozzies developed by the American scientists seem to have developed, either inadvertently or vertently, eyes which glow either red or green. This apparently allows them to be more easily identified from the wild non-GM varieties.

MALARIA RED EYE ("Times" today)

Coincidently, in Britain, so the story goes, a team from my old training establishment, Imperial College in London, has progressed along similar lines and developed a GM mosquito which has fluorescent testicles. This, equally apparently, allows them to be more easily identified and then sterilised. They then would get released into the wild, breed with the normal females, who then would produce fewer eggs, thereby reducing the number of insects to pass on the disease.

It would seem in pretty poor taste to see any form of humour in all this, but....
I have absolutely no idea how many mosquitoes there are in the world, but it must be up in the squillions, and the idea of selecting mozzies individually for treatment either by the colour of their eyes, or, even more bizarrely, by the glowingness of their naughty bits, seems to me to be a way of attacking the problem which I would never have considered. You’d have thought that some form of Mozzie genocide was what was required, rather than a form of insect sniper.

My simple mind thinks that – if it takes 1 minute to sterilise a mosquito, and I really have no idea how long it actually does take, then it will take 1,000,000 minutes to sterilise 1,000,000 of the little blighters – that’s around 2 weeks. Now if there is a Billion of them out in the wild, and you want to “do” 50% of them, that will take you 1000 weeks, or 20 years. But mosquitoes don’t live for 20 years, so…… I’m confused.

Ignoring the potential pitfalls in using genetically modified insects in such a dangerous area as malaria, you have to believe that anything which addresses this terrifying problem has to be a good thing. It would indeed, give the “No GM at any price” merchants a bit of a moral dilemma if, by using GM Mosquitoes, significant inroads could be made into the level of deaths from Malaria.

So Good luck to them both – anything which holds out the hope of reducing the effect of such an awful disease can only be a good thing. Let’s just hope that The Law of Unexpected Consequences never needs to be used in the future to explain something nasty away.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


The reason I’ve been off-air for a few days has been a sojourn in North Yorkshire with my Brother in Law. He lives in a beautiful Georgian house facing a typically British Village green. As well as being the best cook I know, we seem to spend the day putting the world to rights, drinking a little too much wine and watching the cricket on TV. There are few better ways to pass the time!

The towns and villages in the region are very distinctive, and extremely attractive. Places like Boroughbridge, Masham (Black Sheep Brewery, and excellent sausages!), Ripon, Thirsk and Northallerton (Bettys is an absolute gem, and an institution around the area) all have wide, generous and prosperous looking main streets, lined with attractive stone buildings.

A very, very pleasant part of the world to spend some time, especially when you can eat like a King into the bargain.









What a terrible shock to hear about Bob Woolmer’s death in the West Indies yesterday.

He really was a man who lived for the game, and pulled cricketing sides together in a way not given to many people. Although I’m not a cricket guru, I can’t think of any other better coach this country has produced, which is odd seeing how many good cricketers we’ve had. Just track South Africa’s progress under his watch, to see what he was capable of. Even with Pakistan, which must rank as one of the most difficult jobs in all of sport, he kept his cool, and plugged away, ever positive through Ball Tampering, Drug investigations, and the gentle ebb and flow of Pakistani politics.

And he was no mean player either. Look up the Ashes Test in 1975, when he batted for 499 minutes and scored 149 to save the match. That’s over 8 hours –against one of the very best pair of fast bowlers there has ever been – Lillee and Thompson. Can you, in your wildest dreams imagine anyone in today’s England squad being remotely capable of that.

The circumstances of his passing leave you feeling very uneasy. He said, just after the Pakistan v Ireland match, which I watched last week - “I’m going to sleep on this one as I’ve had a very bad day, which ranks along with my worst days as a coach. Coaching is what I like to do but whether I continue to do that at international level is under discussion.”

“I’m going to give it some thought.”

Who knows what happened, and in the end, does it really matter, because it won’t bring him back.

He embraced innovation, and his web-site gives you a very good clue to the man. His favourite quote from Stuart Leary, when you are up against it, puts it all into perspective – “Don't worry, you could be down a pit working on the coal face but there is one thing you can't stop and that is the clock”.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


First we have the Police picking up an e-mail from “someone” about “Cash-for-Honours”. Then the Attorney General takes out an injunction to prevent the contents of the e-mail from being printed. Then we have an attempt by Our Glorious Leaders to prevent us even knowing that the first injunction even exists.

Now, we are told, that the e-mail, which was written by Ruth Kelly to Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff, was believed to be so sensitive that it was never even sent!

We really are living in “Alice in Wonderland” here. If someone has some thoughts that are so dangerous either to the writer, or the recipient, then it seems to me very sensible not even to think of writing them down.

Here’s another example of the permanent, uneraseable imprint of the e-mail. There always seems to be a Hard Disc somewhere which has a copy of what you do on it. Just pressing the “Save as Draft” button isn’t like tearing up a piece of paper into a myriad of tiny pieces. It just stores them on a different part of the Hard Disc, or someone else’s Hard Disc.

It would be cruelly rather fitting if something which did NOT get sent proved to be the undoing of the people under investigation for this issue. The silly thing here is that, since times immemorial, politicians have been giving or selling honours to people who give them money. All parties are probably doing it, which is why none of the Tory or LibDems are up on their high horses about it. The real issue here which is the one that will get them, as usual, is not the act itself, but the attempt to cover it all up.

They never seem to look at history, let alone learn from it.


Wandering around Norfolk the other day, we came across the signpost in the picture below. I did wonder how I’d explain it to the couple of Americans who were looking at it.
They must have been a tad bemused wondering what the verb “to hickle” meant –

I hickle, You hickle, He/She hickles, hicleorum, hickleis, hickleis.

Now that takes me back 45 years to my Latin classes in school.

You do wonder if she’s in any way related to someone Terry Wogan used to suggest lived near Junction 29 of the M6 – the Preston Turn-off.

Just a thought.


I wrote a short piece the other day about the way that numbers are presented affects the way we perceive them. This was prompted by an almost throwaway article in the paper noting how the NHS Pension Scheme liabilities had increased by some £37 Billion over the last year to a new total of £165 Billion, presented in a way which made the difference look like “rounding”.

The more you ponder on this, the more you get worried by it. The presentation is one thing, but the staggering size of the amount of money involved is a much more serious issue. I know enough about the maths of how Pension Schemes work to know that I don’t know enough about it. When their clients so demand, the actuaries who do these calculations can call on almost David Blaine-like powers involving lots of smoke and quite a few mirrors to make numbers “sit up and beg” for them.

They use a discount rate which reduces future pension costs back to present day figures to calculate today’s liabilities. One of the changes the actuaries apparently used in increasing the NHS Pension scheme liabilities for 2005-6, was to reduce the Discount rate from 3.5% the previous year, to 2.8% for this year. Just changing that percentage by that seemingly little amount can have staggering effects on the amount of money they say is needed today. The only problem with bringing it down to 2.8%, is that for most sponsored schemes in the private sector, that percentage would typically be 2.0%. If you factor that number into the maths, the liabilities would grow, according to Watson Wyatt, a very respected firm of pensions experts, by a further £28 Billion to £193 Billion.

There are a myriad of other factors which must be fed into the maths, all of which can change the final number dramatically. Try Life Expectancy for instance, which is changing at a rate none of us, including actuaries, can predict. It seems to have increased over the last couple of decades at a faster rate than we ever imagined, partly due, you may note rather elegantly, to the efforts of some of the people in the NHS Pension Scheme.
Simple maths says to us that, if a scheme supports 1.26 million members, and it has a total liability of £165 Billion, then each member’s “pot” is around £140,000, which is supposed to last around 25 years – the predicted lifespan of someone who is 60 when they start to take their pension. That’s around £6,000 per year on average. If they get the average age of mortality wrong by just one year, and that’s actually very easily possible, then the calculation is wrong by nearly £1 Billion. It's actgually impossible to calculate what the true liabilities of such a scheme are, but you can guarantee that, whatever number you choose to think of, the final one will be higher!

All these figures seem horribly large, and almost beyond comprehension. The really worrying thing is that the NHS scheme is UNFUNDED – meaning that the Government has put nothing, absolutely nothing away anywhere to pay for it. Unlike all Private Pension scheme, there are no Assets anywhere which have been "ring-fenced" to pay these enormous sums. They have made this colossal commitment to 1,260,000 people, and the only way it gets paid is if you and I pay taxes to support it, for as long as we live.

And that is only one scheme, albeit the biggest, which is handled by the Government in this way. If you take all the state schemes where the taxpayer has been forced, through payment of taxes in the future, to underwrite these schemes, the total amount we will have to pay is around One Trillion Pounds. That’s only three little words, but numerically it looks like £1,000,000,000,000, or a tad more than the whole of this country’s Gross National Product for a year – just get your head around that if you can.

It does rather make the efforts by Gordon Brown to diminish the pension of anyone in the Private sector look very, very sordid and very, very unfair.

Monday, March 05, 2007


I’ve unabashedly borrowed the following quotes from “The Times” newspaper, but these are important issues. The words below, interestingly all spoken in the last century, are from the mouths of the men who, in governmental terms, run or ran this country.
Tony Blair, as I write this, is still the Prime Minister. Gordon Brown, is Chancellor of the Exchequer, the second most important person in the Government – shortly to become the first, unless Charles Clark and Alan Milburn get their way. Jack Straw has been Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and is now leader of the House and Lord Privy Seal. Lord Irvine managed to blow £59,000 on wallpaper (£300/roll) to redecorate his apartment in the style he felt suited his position as the Lord Chancellor, the highest Law officer in the country. Peter Mandelson was that open, honest and straightforward man who plotted New Labour’s path to victory in the mid 90s.

Just read them, and compare what they said to what is going on around us today.

"Information is power and any Government’s attitude about sharing information with the people says a great deal about how it views power itself and how it views the relationship between itself and the people who elected it” Tony Blair, speech at Campaign for Freedom of Information Act Awards, March 25, 1996

“We need a Freedom of Information Act that ensures not only a presumption in favour of disclosure, but also that the public interest defence must be available where there is a question mark over the illegitimate disclosure of information by civil servants . . .” Gordon Brown, Charter 88 Sovereignty Lecture, March 9, 1992

“We want to break down the barriers that may make the individual see the State in terms of Kafka’s Castle”, Jack Straw Annual Consitutution Unit Lecture, October 27, 1999

“We promised to make Britain a world beacon by creating a model freedom of information regime . . . Government should adequately and actively take the lead in promoting openness. We should be ready to open our doors, our files, our databases, so that the British people know what is being said and done in their name.” Lord Irvine of Lairg, Speech to the Campaign for Freedom of Information Awards, April 28, 1998

“We remain fully committed to freedom of information, to promoting a radical change across Government in the way Government conduct business, and to a new relationship between Government and the citizens they serve.” Lord Williams of Mostyn, Attorney General 1999-2001, Lords’ debate, February 10, 1999

“The rock on which [partnership between people and Government] is founded is trust and without openness and transparency in our dealings with the British people there will be no trust.” Peter Mandelson, quoted in The Times, November 20, 1997

The Freedom of Information Act allows people, organisations, media, newspapers and anyone else who’s interested to ask questions aimed at understanding what our elected leaders are doing, and are spending taxpayer’s (just remember, that’s you and me) money on. The elegant words you see below seem very shallow and naïve when compared to the deviousness being shown by those in power who are attempting to restrict and curtail the embarrassing flow of incompetence and deviousness being shown up by the results of these queries.

You only have to look at the Cash for Honours episode. The Attorney General, who I thought was a man the main part of whose job was advising the Prime Minister and the Government about the legal ramifications of anything they was involved in, currently seems to be acting as a Hit Man for Mr Blair to keep him squeaky clean. He is now trying to ban our newspapers from reporting on any of the new developments which are currently live on the cash for Honours issue, and we find out over the weekend that, at his behest, he is now trying to ban any reporting even on the existence of the ban. Stalin would have been proud of him. What does that tell you about what’s going on?

If you didn’t think there was something rather unpleasant being swept under the carpet, well, I suggest you do now.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


An innocuous little piece in the newspaper today caught my eye, cunningly hidden on Page 38 of “The Times”. On a day when the front page was the news that eating too much Low-fat Strawberry Yoghurt can act as a female contraceptive, and that too many vitamins may increase the risk of death, the NHS Pension Scheme report for 2006 was also published – boring or what, because it only got onto Page 38.

The way the article was presented raised the issue of how we perceive numbers. So many things today are defined by numbers that we sometimes lose perspective on them. A simple, bald statement in the paper explains that the total estimated liabilities, ie the amount of money needed to pay all the pension scheme members has gone up over the last year. These members, totalling 1,260,000, fall into three categories - people currently receiving a pension, people currently working in the NHS who are building up the right to a pension in the future, and people who have worked for the NHS in the past and have a right to an NHS pension in the future.

The total amount needed to cover these liabilities is £165bn. Doesn’t sound much, does it, written like that? Try writing it as £165,000,000,000, because that’s what it actually is, and it looks a great deal more daunting. Or as another alternative, if you use 50,000,000 as the number of people in this country, that’s £3,300 for each and every one of us, man, woman and child, whether we’ve worked in the NHS or not. Or to put it yet another way, if every single person in the country worked solely for the NHS Pension scheme, it would take us everyone 2 months to produce the money to pay it off. You don’t get the same sense of “Bloody hell” when you read £165bn – so it’s not particularly surprising that they write it down like that. It really is “The way you tell them.”

Thinking more widely, the units of measurement we use tell us a great deal about our style of life. I spent my early life sometime in the last century, being educated on distances very differently from today. We had 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5½ yards in a Rod, Pole or Perch (Why three different names for the same distance?), 22 Yards in a Chain (or Cricket Pitch), 220 yards in a furlong, 8 furlongs in a Mile, and so on. Even walking out into the sea from the beach meant that a Mile was suddenly 6,076 feet compared to 5,280 Feet on dry land. But it all made meaningful sense. You could “feel” the distances. If someone said something was a Chain long, you simply had to think of Freddie Trueman bowling a Yorker, add on to it a layed-out batsman, and you were there, within a cricket boot or two. Simple.

The really dumbed down idea of millimetres, centimetres, metres and kilometres, with its Namby-Pamby constant factor of 10, takes all the fun out of it, and makes it all far too boring and more difficult to understand. How does the average man get the feel of 1/299,792,458th of the distance travelled by light in an absolute vacuum in one second, when he’s measuring up his bedroom for new carpet to please his wife?

But, back to the newspaper. “The Times”, either wittingly or unwittingly, has reacted to this problem, and for some time now has used its own system of distance measurement, which is far more effective and simple than these ghastly immigrant units of measure we are forced to use. The basic unit of distance they use is the London Bus, which is defined rather beautifully and elegantly as "the length of a London Bus" – simple, you see! For the avoidance of any doubt, that’s a Routemaster, not one of those nasty, squirmy bendy things. Longer distances, usually vertical ones are always expressed in multiples of Nelson’s Column. Area starts in units of Football Pitches. We all know what one of those is, so it becomes a simple intuitive thing rather than a learned fact all too easily forgotten. Large areas, however, to avoid the need for phrases like “Oh it’s around 1,300 football pitches”, which, until the Olympics Building programme nears completion none of us can begin to visualise, are all multiples of the area occupied by Wales. We've all stared at a map, and know pretty well just how big that is. And that’s it. Simple, intuitive and easy to understand, and susceptible to graphic demonstration quite perfectly.

Some of you may think that the London Bus is far too large a base unit, but we haven’t finished yet. We have hands, fingers, and arms which are far more intuitive than the centimetre. Most of the time, we do not need absolute accuracy, we just need something close. Who, in reality, needs the digital accuracy of knowing, say, time to the nearest second? It’s quite irrelevant for most of us. But because we can have it, we have it.

No, the Arms Width is a perfectly good measure for something approximating to ¼ of a Bus – we could call it a “Cab”, to maintain the intuitive element. Anything smaller can be measured in Arms, or Hands, or Fingers or various multiples thereof. Actually, the word “Cubit” has for some unknown reason just flashed into my mind – can’t think why.

Areas could use subdivisions of the Football Field – the Goal, the Box, the Dug-Out, and so on all lend themselves consistently and rigorously to this structured approach. The idea of 10 Spit Blobs equalling One Red Card has a real degree of visual elegance about it that 0.0073 Hectares can never approach. I mean, is there anyone out there, apart from the underclasses of Estate Agents or Council Tax House Banding estimators who can truly say they have any idea how big a hectare is? But if you called it A Football Field, everyone would be on the money straight away, and isn’t that what it’s all about? We do complicate things so.

So, that’s agreed then. We could call it something like the Ton, Rod, Fortnight System to differentiate it from the SI system we currently use but despise so much. All we need now is a plan of action to get this slight change implemented.

Any ideas?