Monday, December 31, 2007

Awesome stuff

Until the last hour, Malcolm had no clue what "paramotoring" could be.

Then, via the BBC Northern Ireland website, he found a selection of aerial photographs by and a link to Gordon Dunn.
Those two, by the way are looking east from above the coast of the County Londonderry (top: the rail journey along there is worth the effort and cost) and (below) the magical, mystical Grianán of Aileach in the County Donegal (for an all-round view of which go here). Sphere: Related Content
Unhealthy comparisons

Others try it: none do it better. As usual the New York Times has produced an essential overview of the candidates and their positions on half-a-dozen key issues.

The choice of those issues tells the rest of us how far the battle ground has shifted (or not) over the Bush interregnum: health insurance, abortion, climate change, immigration, Iraq and Iran.

It also shows how the Republicans are still what Malcolm's Democrat-voting son-in-law would pointedly describe as "retards".

The summary of six of the seven GOP contenders' health position starts with the same mantra:
For free-market, consumer-based system...
-- precisely that which has failed so many Americans, and (in a dodgy employment market) terrifies far more. The evidence is in Table C-1, on page 58, of Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006, published by the Economics and Statistics Board of the US Census Bureau, last August. There is no need to plough through the whole document; just one line tells all:
  • Covered by private health insurance: 67.9%
  • of which, covered by employment-based private health insurance: 59.7%
  • covered by direct-purchase private health insurance: 9.1%;
  • Covered by Government health insurance: 27.0%
  • of which, covered by Medicaid: 12.9%
  • covered by Medicare: 13.6%
  • covered by military health care: 3.6%;
  • Leaving 15.8%, some 47M people, with no health-cover at all.
Nor do we need to look very for for whom to blame.

At the end of the first Bush Presidency, in 1992, about 15% of the population had no health cover. By the end of the first Clinton Presidency, 2000, with sooo much cooperation from those sooo moral Republicans in Congress, that was down to 13.7%. Now the second Bush has ramped it up to the highest-ever figure, that 15.8%.

And, inevitably, there are racial discrepancies: 10.8% of white Americans are not covered, but it is 20.5% for black Americans.

Meanwhile, also in today's New York Times, William Safire does his annual Office Pool,
a New Year’s tradition that has become the most excruciating multiple-choice prediction test in world media. Nostradamus himself couldn’t score over 50 percent.
This includes:

13. The issue most affecting the vote on Election Day will be:
(a) immigration: absorb ’em or deport ’em
(b) taxation: soak the rich or lift all boats
(c) health plans: incentivize or socialize
(d) diplomacy: accommodating realism or extending freedom

Safire's own choice there is for (b). That's predictable in a self-described "libertarian conservative", who served his stint as a speech-writer for Nixon and Agnew.

To which Malcolm says: Hmm, wait and (c). Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Spirited flotsam

Yesterday, Malcolm was browsing his mother-in-law's bookshelves. He settled down, post-prandial and seasonal glass of Black Bush at hand, to renew his acquaintance with Compton Mackenzie's delicious Whisky Galore (note: 1947 and still deservedly in print. The exclamation mark arrived only with the 1949 film adaptation).

Today, by coincidence, he picked up the mystery of the empty sixty-foot long cylinder, washed up at Benbecula, that turns out to be a Coors beer fermentation vessel.

Whisky Galore, of course, describes the effect of a ship-wreck, involving 28,000 cases of export whisky, between the two fictional islands of Great and Little Todday, and in the great drought of wartime.

Quite what the islanders would have thought, today, of the dubious benison of several thousand gallons of American fizzy beer defies even Malcolm's imagination.

Mackenzie's original conceit was derived from the sinking of the SS Politician at Eriskay, and he based the topography on Eriskay and Barra. From Barra (where, by choice, Mackenzie is buried) it can only be a couple of dozen miles to where the Coors cylinder arrived.

There is a further twist to the story, about which Mackenzie was apparently ignorant. Also on board the SS Politician was a large consignment of ten-shilling notes, nearly £150,000 in worth, apparently bound for the West Indies. As wikipedia has it:
By 1958 the Crown Agents reported that 211,267 notes had been recovered by the salvage company and the police and had been destroyed. A further 2,329 had been presented in banks in England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Malta, Canada, the US and Jamaica. Only 1,509 were thought to have been presented in good faith. That still leaves 76,404 banknotes which have never been accounted for. Like the whisky, their fate remains a mystery.
There may also be a few heirloom bottles of "Polly" still out there, too. In 1987, eight were sold at auction for a total of £4,000.

For once, Malcolm can claim no direct link to these events. It does faintly remind him, though, of the prevalence of Spanish brandy in the County Cork in the late 1950s. This was the result of a profitable barter scheme involving Cork fishermen swapping pilchards for the hard stuff. Sphere: Related Content

Just bloody-minded?

What is it about the Ulster Protestant that leaves Malcolm lost for a word?

Well, one might well start with the seasonal spat between the two Presbyterian churches in Portadown.

The Presbyterians ordained their first woman Minister, the first woman ordained by any Irish faith, over thirty years ago. Well-educated (Edinburgh BA and BD, with further qualifications in social work, and an OBE to boot), literate and civilised, Ruth Patterson still represents too much of a novelty for many in the sect.

Witness the curious goings-on (or, rather, not going-on) between the two presbyterian fanes at opposite ends (in so many ways) of Portadown.

Since the end of another war, the Second World War, the two churches in Portadown (Armagh Road and Edenderry) have alternated Christmas services. The First Presbyterian (a nice piece of élitism, there, and pictured above) in Portadown extended its biennial invitation, as usual. There was, however, a caveat: the Edenderry Minister, one Stafford Carson, would not share his pulpit with the Minister from Armagh Road, Christina Bradley. The reason: the Rev. Bradley is not a pukka gent, and so fails to reach St Paul's exacting standards.

Mrs Bradley put her case with reasoned dignity:
... although the Edenderry session sent an invitation to Armagh Road, Mrs Bradley sought clarification and it was confirmed she would not be permitted to play any part. Thus, the invitation was "sadly declined".

"It has been the tradition for the 'away' minister to preach the sermon, while the 'home' minister conducts the service," said Mrs Bradley. "Stafford Carson and I had a long talk about it. He was the essence of courtesy, but the bottom line is that I am not welcome in his pulpit.

"It is sad to see such a long-standing tradition terminated. It has been an excellent tradition. I would have been proud to continue it, but I am precluded from doing that.

"In Faith, I studied for the ministry to which God called me. I am a woman and cannot change that. This discrimination against women is created by society, not by God."
Or, as said Stafford Carson is also quoted:
I ... am saddened at the end of such a long and fruitful tradition of united services and am sorry to see it end, but I believe that the Bible - especially in the Letters of Saint Paul - is specific on this issue and therefore I must follow my conscience.
There are twelve months for the two sides to made some kind of Christian peace. On past experience of the stubborn Ulster constitution, that is not exactly a sure-fire prospect. Meanwhile, Malcolm refers to Ruth Patterson for an appropriate comment:
When I look back over the years I see many areas where we, the church, did not provide leadership and didn't speak out when we should have. We should have been the prophetic voice speaking out in front. Certainly, there were some who did that but by and large we weren't courageous heralds of a new age.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Another day, another graph

Has Malcolm suddenly learned "graphicity"? He invites us to consider this:
That's the share price of ITV over the last twelve months.

Today, the Competition Committee's wheels ground out exceeding small on the BSkyB holding in ITV:
The regulator said that BSkyB should either sell all of its shares or cut its stake to below 7.5% and promise not to take a seat on ITV's board.
The BBC, naturally, has to be strictly neutral in its commentary. Others were not so restrained, as on Bloomberg:
"This recommendation to reduce the stake by more than 10 percent will come as a strategic blow to BSkyB,'' Martin Slaney, head of spread betting at GFT Global markets in London, wrote in a note today.
And in the FT:
BSkyB reacted angrily to the news. In a robust defence of its position, it said: “We find it difficult to understand how a minority shareholder can exert material influence over a company’s policy if it has neither board representation nor enough shares to block a special resolution. This becomes even more difficult to understand when that shareholder has offered to give up all voting rights.”

It said that a “properly functioning” board would be able to withstand any attempts by a large shareholder to exert influence, adding: “It is implausible that Sky’s ‘industry knowledge and standing’ should give it special influence over a supposedly independent board or the big, sophisticated institutions which own most ITV shares.”
Malcolm particularly relishes that "properly functioning" thing. He cannot conceive why the presence of a blocking share-holding, and the ability to insert News Corp minions (studiously avoided so far, so as not to seem threatening) onto the board would greatly improve its functioning.

Let us recall that BSkyB paid 135p a share (20p over the odds), for a total of £940M for that shareholding. That share snatch:
came as NTL, its cable television rival, was finalising a £5bn-plus bid for ITV. It also interrupted talks between RTL, the pan-European broadcaster, and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts about providing private equity financing for a rival approach.
On today's price (which is down by about 37% from that level), there would be a loss to BSkyB of £200M. Now, at the time of the grab, Murdoch
said BSkyB saw “an exciting opportunity for long-term value creation”.
So is it a total loss?

Well, first of all, there is going to be some discreet but frantic lobbying of John Hutton, the Secretary of State for business, enterprise and regulatory reform, who must respond to the Competition Commission by the last week in January. He cannot change the ruling that the holding is against the public interest, but he can shade the penalty. This could affect the holding allowed to BSkyB, or allow extended time for the disbursement.

Arm-wrestling enthusiasts should know that this is a sport at which the Murdoch Evil Empire excels. We can expect a whole volley of warning sounds, and bone-wrenching tweaks from the likes of the Sun and the Times, in the hope of persuading the Government to soft-pedal this one: though, quite frankly, anyone watching the Murdoch media over the last while must wonder what is left in the shot-locker.

And, yes, James Murdoch will not regard the last year as a total loss. He has substantially weakened his main opponent, Beardy Branson. Virgin Media (the merged identity of NTL and Blueyonder) has its position assessed in the International Herald Tribune:
Even so, BSkyB's share grab achieved its apparent objective of blocking a takeover of ITV and leaves BSkyB in a stronger position, said Sam Hart, analyst at Charles Stanley in London.

"Virgin Media's financial position is now weak and a revival of its previous interest in ITV is now almost inconceivable," Hart said.

BSkyB's possible loss on a share disposal "must be seen in the context of the much larger hit to profit that would have resulted from a successful takeover of ITV by NTL and the subsequent creation of a formidable competitor," Hart added.
Malcolm regards the whole sordid business with a very jaundiced eye. In all of the commentary he has scanned, only the Competition Commission has commented at any length on the real loser: the general public. Throughout the Report, a curious acronym appears: "SLC". This translates into "substantial loss of competition". That competition is both commercial and informative: it is the continuing depletion of sources of information that should concern the consumer of news and information. Curiously, when there are now only three providers of TV news (The BBC, ITV and Sky), paragraph 27 of the Report finds:
We concluded that the acquisition was unlikely to result in an SLC arising from a loss of rivalry in the wholesale provision of national television news.
That is only credible in the context where competition is already severely degraded: for example, the existing links between ITN, Channel 4 and BSkyB. The clincher for the Commission seems to be only that:
no relevant contracts will come up for renewal before 2010.
So that's all right, then. Two years' breathing space.

Any reader of the Report will find this symbol liberally scattered throughout: ✂. It indicates huge swathes of information withheld
having regard to the three considerations set out in section 244 of the Enterprise Act 2002 (specified information: considerations relevant to disclosure).
Not surprisingly, a large number of those excisions relate to the commercial practices of News Corp and BSkyB. Which is worrying, for the rationale of the share snatch was:
Mr Murdoch described the purchase as a long-term financial investment but said there were opportunities for “fruitful relationships” between the UK’s largest pay TV operator and its largest commercial broadcaster.
"Fruitful"? For whom? Or not for whom?The answer is implied by "Figure 1" on page 18 of the Commission's Report. This involves a whole series of arrows, all pointing downward to the bottom of "The Television Supply Chain", reminding us who is at the top, calling the shots. Those arrows all threaten the least significant and least powerful of the participants, the poor bloody infantry at the wrong end of the heap: "Viewers/subscribers". Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Supply-and-demand ... or rip-off?

Consider this:

That shows the air-fares between New York JFK and Miami over the next month. Malcolm would suggest it could be parallelled almost anywhere in the Western world (but, since he does not dare annoy those lines which will be conveying him and his over the next few days, he looked further afield).

The chart illustrates quite nicely the grasping quality of our "service" industries.

Air fares are a commodity, like bread or whatever. Like bread or whatever, one must expect some variation according to circumstances. But a differential of 300%? How can that be justified?

Air travel is unlike bread or whatever in one important respect: it is oligopolistic, and quite obviously a grand cartel. To that extent, it is more like the market for oil, or, to come down to basics, "take-it-or-leave-it".

So much for "open skies".

The derisory term for passengers in the industry is, apparently "SLF" (self-loading freight). As we all prepare to be herded into cattle class, we may meditate on an extra beatitude:
Blessed are they who expect noting, for they will not be disappointed.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Can Nick Clegg be done for corrupt practice?

The Universities of Sheffield (Sheffield and Hallam) have an enlightened policy. They automatically register their students on the electoral roll.

This means that each individual student should vote either by post from a home address or in the constituency in Sheffield.

Guess what?

Many choose to be ignorant and vote twice.

And who is the main recipient of this concentration of adulation? A former lecturer at the University, since 2005 MP for Sheffield, Hallam: Nick Clegg.

There are 45,000 students in Sheffield. Sphere: Related Content
Be prosperous! Be safe! Vote Democrat!

Malcolm has been lethargic of late: no posts in several days.

Then, a small snuffle of amused delight:

Conservative States Have A Lower Median Family Income Than Liberal States

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006 the Median Family Income across the United States in 2003 was $52,273. 26 out of 31 Conservative States had lower than average Median Family Income (84% of Conservative States) versus 4 out of 20 Liberal States that had lower than average Median Family Income (20% of Liberal States). The lowest Median Family Income in the country is found in West Virginia with $38,568. The highest Median Family Income in the country is found in New Jersey with $70,263.
And that, folks, is from

The same site provides the facts:
and so on.

Read it all, and more at Sphere: Related Content

Monday, December 10, 2007

Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?*

A moment's reflection sent Malcolm in search of a poem. He was somewhat disconcerted not immediately to find it.

Let us start with his hunt.

The poem was Seamus Heaney's Whatever You Say Say Nothing. Now, Malcolm immediately reached for Opened Ground and New Selected Poems, only to find that both included only the shortened versions, which omit the second section.

That of course, raises the issue: why did Heaney's second thoughts cause him to excise those 28 lines, those seven quatrains?

In this day and age, it is no longer necessary to retain hard-copy texts. Wendy Cope was lamenting this in last Saturday's Guardian:
My poems are all over the internet. I've managed to get them removed from one or two sites that were major offenders, but there are dozens, if not hundreds of sites displaying poems without permission. If I Google the title of one of my poems, it is almost always there somewhere, and I can download it and print it out. I'm sure that this must affect sales of my books. I've tried Googling some of Seamus Heaney's poems, and those of one or two other well-known poets, and it's the same.
That's, appropriately and with some feeling, under the headline:
You like my poems? So pay for them.
Malcolm did, Wendy: he promises you.

However, right at that moment he was faced with an immediate need. He ought, by your definition of all that is right and proper, to have spent a fair bit of the day on the no. 134 bus, to and from the Charing Cross Road. Or, of course, he could have waited a few days before Amazon delivered a copy (if Malcolm had known in which book the complete poem would be found).

Instead, he weakened and googled.

Ong passong, so to speak

Has everyone now noted two linguistic discrepancies?

Whatever happened to famous Seamus's fada? That, strictly, should be his síneadh fada (or what might more widely be recognised as an acute accent, though in Irish it works to lengthen the syllable, not raise the pitch). Malcolm does not believe that the Great Man passed through St Columb's College without "Séamus" being pressed on him, even in the 1950s, nor that he played under GAA rules for St Malachy's without some attempt to Hibernicise him. After all, there's that broadside he dispatched when included in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry:
Be advised, my passport's green
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast the Queen.
It concluded:
British, no, the name's not right.
Yours truly, Seamus.
Seamus, let the world note. Not Séamus. That's presumably not merely to save all those critics and student essayists a small fidget with the keyboard (on a Mac, OPT+e; on a benighted PC, ALT+0233.)

And, used as a verb, should it be "Google" or "google"?

Malcolm! Back to the issue!


Malcolm recalls a 1995 piece by Blake Morrison in The Guardian, including the canard that the Nobel Laureateship :
... like the awards to Sholokov and Pasternak, Milosz and Seifert -- here is another "political" Laureateship, given to Heaney in the year which has seen the peace process on Northern Ireland begin in earnest. Within an hour of yesterday's announcement, the wires were buzzing with stories of Heaney's alleged keep-everyone-happy chameleon-ism: how, for example, when travelling on the train from Dublin to Belfast he'll switch brands of whiskies at the border.
That brings Malcolm back to Whatever You Say Say Nothing, because it is an outstanding statement of Heaney's political standing. Indeed, Blake Morrison, in that same article, recognised:
Under duress to "respond" to contemporary violence, terrorism and military repression, Heaney proved he could do reportage with the best of them :
Men die at hand. In blasted street and home
The gelignite's a common sound effect.
But he wasn't altogether comfortable with the results, which violated his deeper, instinctual, feminine muse, and at the end he withdrew, "a wood-kerne escaped from the massacre".
That brings us to the missing section II. It reads in full:


Men die at hand. In blasted street and home
The gelignite's a common sound effect:
As the man said when Celtic won, 'The Pope of Rome's
A happy man this night.' His flock suspect

In their deepest heart of hearts the heretic
Has come at last to heel and to the stake.
We tremble near the flames but want no truck
With the actual firing. We're on the make

As ever. Long sucking the hind tit
Cold as a witch's and as hard to swallow
Still leaves us fork-tongued on the border bit:
The liberal papist note sounds hollow

When amplified and mixed in with the bangs
That shake all hearts and windows day and night.
(It's tempting here to rhyme on 'labour pangs'
And diagnose a rebirth in our plight

But that would be to ignore other symptoms.
Last night you didn't need a stethoscope
To hear the eructation of Orange drums
Allergic equally to Pearse and Pope.)

On all sides 'little platoons' are mustering --
The phrase is Cruise O'Brien's via that great
Backlash, Burke -- while I sit here with a pestering
Drouth for words at once both gaff and bait

To lure the tribal shoals to epigram
And order. I believe any of us
Could draw the line through bigotry and sham
Given the right line, aere perennius.
Having got there, Malcolm feels a frisson of self-satisfaction. Then he tries an exegesis of a particularly convolved text.

He finds the key in those last two lines. The poem starts with the journalists coming to town
... in search of "views
On the Irish thing".
They obviously need their (political and editorial) masters to determine the "line". Equally, those students, wrestling with this poem now it is set for "English" public examinations, will need the "line". Once that is established, reputations can be (and were) and will be made. Grades will be scored. How many, though, appreciate the irony of aere perennius?

It is borrowed from Ode XXX in Book Three of Horace's Odes:
Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
Or, approximately, in English:
I have completed a monument more lasting than brass,
Higher than a royal pile of Pyramids,
That rain's tooth and North Wind
Cannot destroy, nor numberless
Years and fleeing time.
Whose boast here? The cocky journalists? Or, by inference, Heaney himself (by the 1970s, one of the few who might decode the Horatian tag)? And Heaney, at least, would be aware of Horace's occasional self-mockery.

This, however, has only started the excavation of literary reference. The "little platoons" (originally in the singular) is ultimately from Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France:
Turbulent, discontented men of quality, in proportion as they are puffed up with personal pride and arrogance, generally despise their own order. One of the first symptoms they discover of a selfish and mischievous ambition is a profligate disregard of a dignity which they partake with others. To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.
In short, we learn first to love our family, our community, and only then a wider society. Malcolm pauses to muse on the ambiguities of Heaney's use and implications here.

There is more, though, in Heaney's comment. He specifically points to Conor Cruise O'Brien, who edited the 1968 Penguin edition of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and later returned to write the extraordinary "thematic biography of Edmund Burke", The Great Melody. It is relevant to this poem that Burke's beginning was in a "mixed" marriage (his mother, Mary Nagle, was Catholic: in 1729, at the worst impact of the Penal Laws, this was not a good start in life). Moreover, RB McDowell , the Great "JD" to all Trinity people, described Burke's father as "a Catholic who had conformed to the Established Church". O'Brien, at some length in the Introduction to Great Melody, sees the parallels with is own background.

Inevitably, too, we might hear in Heaney's hind tit more than an echo of Joyce:
Do you know what Ireland is? asked Stephen with cold violence. Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.
Malcolm, though, notes the epigraph to the first chapter of The Great Melody, quoting a letter from sixteen-year-old Burke:
... we live in a world where every one is on the Catch, and the only way to be Safe is to be Silent. Silent in any affair of consequence, and I think it would not be a bad rule for every man to keep within himself what he thinks of others, of himself and of his own Affairs.
Therein, for certain, is the genesis of this poem.

Poets are notorious for meddling with their own work. Yeats did it, but he was as nothing compared to (say) Auden. Heaney was not happy, obviously, with that second section: so it went missing in later collections. Only the numbering of the sections tells us to look for it.

In cutting it he was avoiding a nexus of references, many of which would be lost on the casual reader. He was also being "safe" (in Burke's terms); and abiding by the spirit of his own title. Blake Morrison's reference is apt: it is from Exposure, with Heaney migrated to southern security in Wicklow, in December, in the dark and rain:
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired

And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,

Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows...

Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?

In Connacht Gaelic, "How are you?"; but a strict translation might be: "Which way are you?"
Sphere: Related Content
A Saturday of two halves

Kick off

To St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe for the annual TCD London Association carol service, followed by mulled-wine and mince-pies. It, by comparison with many city churches, is a bare shell, twice ruined: once by the Great Fire of 1666, then by the blitz of 1940. The Caroline dark oak box pews (seen in pre-war photographs) have given way to light oak and whit-wash. It retains a simple, arching dignity, even when (as on Saturday) the organ fails.

Once the due diligence done, to protracted chat.

Malcolm spent some time in conversation with a great lady, sadly the widow of a great man. She (and we'll leave aside her precise identity for a moment, but significant clue, above right) was a reservoir of recollection of Trinity in the great days, before it coarsened into merely the IT and biotech engine-room of the the Celtic Tiger economy.

A breathless hush ...

One memory struck home: she recalled dining with the newly-appointed British Ambassador in Dublin on the 20th July, 1976.

The following day, this lady and her husband were driving from Dublin to Galway, when the car radio reported the murder (by IRA land-mine) of Christopher Ewart-Biggs and (let us also recall) his private secretary, Judith Cooke. The ambassador's wife, Jane Ewart-Biggs, (later a Labour peer) had left Dublin that morning to "collect curtain material from Peter Jones": she also learned of the killing by the car-radio.

It was a brutal, senseless and unforgivable action, which still deserves that recognition these thirty years on.

The Provos claimed that Ewart-Biggs was a legitimate target because he was co-ordinating intelligence. The main targets were more likely to have been Brian Cubbon, the Permanent Under-Secretary for Northern Ireland, who was also in the car, and Liam Cosgrave's and Brendan Corish's Coalition Government. Nobody has ever been charged or stood trial for a peculiarly nasty act. They were, of course, just two unnecessary corpses among three thousand, in a bloody, bloody year.

The day before his assassination, Ewart-Biggs had spoken to the Dublin press. He was a commanding figure in every way. He wore a monocle, not as an affectation, but to disguise the eye he had lost at El Alamein. In that press interview Ewart-Biggs, a conviction socialist, had said:
‘‘I have one prejudice, acquired during the war -- a very distinct and strong prejudice against violence for political ends.’’
It was the detail about the drapery, though, that caught Malcolm by the throat.

Three of the people mentioned there are dead: Jane Ewart-Biggs died of cancer at the obscenely early age of 63.

Play up! and play the game!

Now for the first great man.

F.S.L. Lyons was one of the great lecturers of Trinity, when Malcolm went up. His book on the fall of Parnell already was essential reading, not just for students, but for anyone wondering where modern Ireland came from. The complete biography of Parnell was a masterwork. He then defected to become Professor of History at the new University of Kent at Canterbury, and later Master of Eliot College of UKC. Then back to TCD as an iconic Provost (between 1974 and 1981). The conventional account is that he resigned the post to write: one cannot help wondering whether the juggernaut that Trinity had become, being dragged along by the forces of technology, and away from its quieter, more intellectual and humane roots, was also instrumental.

And, just two years later, he too was dead, only sixty years of age. His writing project was unfinished: the biography of WB Yeats. That project, and Lyons's nearly thirty boxes of research, passed to a former pupil, Roy Foster. Foster, rightly, took the credit for delivering the two-volume biography. Malcolm, however, learned a secret: that FSL Lyons's original first hundred pages still exists, if in a rudimentary form, and is lodged safely in a lady's "undies drawer".

The great delight of this conversation was the voice: the precise, beautifully-enunciated and softly-accented educated Dublin voice. And when Malcolm remarked on that, his description was challenged by the lady herself: she added one word, "Protestant".

Indeed, a great survivor.

Scrum down for the second half

Then, to Covent Garden for food and drink. The feeding bit was unremarkable. It was the subsequent adjournment to the Marquess of Anglesey that was worth the reporting.

Saturday evening, and most Covent Garden bars are crowded, but not always by a posse of Santas, a regiment of Rudophs, at least three long-legged fairies fallen (indeed, and delightfully so) from the tree, and assorted others (including a donkey and a camel). Malcolm had entered the surreal parallel universe of an organised Facebook pub-crawl.

Whether it was a more outlandish event than walking up Bow Street, mixing with those leaving the Parsifal at the Royal Opera House, and hounded by pedal-taxis, is a moot point. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, December 7, 2007

A few hours of unmitigated delight

There's a lot of it about.

The Beeb gave us the farting pensioner, banned from his social club. That rings a bell. By name, just that. Who?

Ah, that's a long story.

There was once a comprehensive school. Among its would-be alumni was one particularly unpleasant youth. He had disrupted English classes relentlessly, and the system seemed unable to redress matters. Today's diversion was repetitive farting. Eventually the teacher (let's call him "Smith"), called the head of department (let's call him Multi-syllable-name). Mr Multi-syllable-name remonstrated with youth, who responded (as was to be expected) with obscenities. This gave Multi-syllable-name the opportunity to pass the parcel, and call in the Headteacher, whom we shall call "Mr Jones". Jones had been this way before, and proceeded to berate said youth, until (equally predictably) youth took a swing at Jones. Desired result: grounds for excluding youth. Almost everyone happy. Teaching resumed.

Mother of youth runs to local paper, complaining of excessive punishment, victimisation, and preaching the philosophy of natural gas and "where'er you be, let your wind go free". She edited from the account any mention of the swing at Sir. Local reporter, as is the wont of that trade, then sold the story to one of the Red-tops. Small inside-page sensation.

What made one particular character in this story very chuffed was his absence from the cast list. "Smith" and "Jones" being basic names, they had their places in the published saga. Not so Mr Multi-syllable-name, whose moniker neither mother nor journos could accurately render.

Adding to the warmth and bliss, it was then decided that the publicity meant the youth had to be transferred to another school. Trebles all round.

One guesses there's enough evidence in that lot to work out Malcolm's true identity.

But that wasn't Malcolm's first thought here.

There can be few reading pleasures so devoid of guilt and effort as a few hours spent in the company of George MacDonald Fraser. His character of Sir Harry Flashman has gone worldwide, and (when he first appeared in 1969):
so plausible did this first Flashman volume seem that one third of the reviews that it initially received in the United States accepted it as being a genuine Victorian autobiography.
GMF has only himself to blame for that, being equally a historian of some merit, an autobiographer, a scriptwriter as well as a novelist.

Now Malcolm is well into his latest: The Reavers.

GMF has brought together here a number of his interests. He is a borderer himself (from Carlisle). He wrote a fine account of the Border reivers, under the title of The Steel Bonnets, first published back in 1971 and still in print. Note that date, 1971, read the opening paragraph of the Introduction, and marvel at the prescience:
At one moment when President Richard Nixon was taking part in his inauguration ceremony, he appeared flanked by Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham. To any one familiar with Border history it was one of those historical coincidences which send a little shudder through the mind: in that moment, thousands of miles and centuries in time away from the Debateable Land, the threads come together again; the descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes -- families who lived and fought within a few miles of each other on the West Marches in Queen Elizabeth's time -- were standing side by side, and it took very little imagination to replace the custom-made suits with leather jacks or back-and-breasts. Only a political commentator would be tactless enough to pursue the resemblance to Border reivers beyond the physical, but there the similarity is strong.
GMF is as dissimulating here as he is with Flashman, for he drives the point home with Nixon:
The blunt, heavy features, the dark complexion, the burly body, and the whole air of dour hardness are as typical of the Anglo-Scottish frontier as the Roman Wall. Take thirty years off his age and you could put him in the front row of the Hawick scrum and hope to keep out of his way. It is difficult to think of any face that would fit better under a steel bonnet.
Later, in 1993, he did a short "history" of Lady Margaret Dacre, neatly described by one critic on the web:
You could say that The Steel Bonnets is the sort of history a novelist would write, conversely you could say that The Candlemass Road is the sort of novel a historian would write.
Beyond Lady Dacre, returned to her ancestral estates from the Court, to find her inheritance in hock and hard times, the rest is a pretty fiction. GMF now says of that book:
... an Elizabethan swashbuckler set on the Anglo-Scottish border. That in turn had its origin in a play writen much earlier; it was never produced, so I used its plot for Candlemass, which was kindly received by readers and critics, being full of bloodshed, brutality, treachery, and betrayal. By one of those ironies of the writing business, I was then able to turn it back into a play, for BBC Radio.
Now he revisits what is largely the same plot:
... writing The Reavers as a fantasy in the style of another book of mine, The Pyrates. Both are eccentric, as advertised by the fanciful archaic spelling of their titles; both are completely over the top, written for the fun of it.
And read by Malcolm in the same joyful spirit.

TGIF. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The tiger catches cold?

All sorts of goings-on at Redfellow Hovel have got in the way of serious blogging. Normal service may be about to be resumed. However, the family hooley would have been as nothing in comparison to the weekend hyperactivity chez Brian Cowan, Tánaiste and Minister for Finance. It would indeed be instructive to know what his briefings were on the potential collapse of the property market, the associated down-turn of consumer expenditure, and the health reports on panthera tigris economica hiberna.

Nevertheless, Malcolm starts with an important piece,
Soft options will cost us dear, in yesterday's Irish Times, by Michael Casey, formerly the chief economist for the Irish Central Bank, and now a board member of the IMF.

Casey gives a stinging critique of successive RoI governments’ tendency :
to adopt soft-option policies whenever possible ... the line of least resistance ... to maintain the status quo.

He is looking at the Republic, but Malcolm feels a qualm that it might equally be a warning about the parallel developing culture in Northern Ireland:

Most important decisions on Irish life are now taken not by Irish governments but by the EU and the US. At one bound Ireland has gone from one colonial master to two others. We now have no control over a large swathe of social legislation, domestic interest rates, the exchange rate. We have less control over the fiscal policy and, because of the US multinationals, little effect on the supply-side of the economy. And deep down this is exactly how we want it because it protects us from the burden of decision-making…

It is ironic that we have more Ministers than ever at a time when the need for political decision-making has virtually disappeared. The notion that the government ‘runs the country’ is absurd.”

Casey argues that populism leads to:

Clientism and stroke play [which] run counter to the notion of excellence, hard work and real decision-making. Short-term political strokes also give rise to a culture of petty corruption which is bad for business especially in a global environment. The emergence of real entrepreneurship has been impeded by strokes and wheezes. Entrepreneurs are supposed to take risks, not operate on the risk-free basis of inside information.

His punch-line is devastating:

Social partnership can be viewed as a soft-option policy. We cannot afford strikes because they would discourage US investment here. So, under the guise of social partnership income taxes are reduced to keep the unions happy. Governments make up the revenue through stealth taxes. The irony is that as a result of all these convolutions wage growth bears no relationship to productivity, is excessive by international norms so that the national competitiveness is being eroded all the time and inflation is much higher than it is abroad. We are too clever for our own good.

Now that the economy is weakening and tough decisions may be called for will any government be able for the task? Not a chance. Already the Government is preparing to go down the soft-option road of borrowing yet again. In any case, because of low skills levels, there is no analytical apparatus to facilitate real problem-solving. Spin has replaced that. Irish governments never matured into fully-fledged decision-making executive bodies and now it is too late.
There is obviously more than an element of partisan special-pleading here. Casey has been saying much the same for some years. All technocrats believe they could direct the economy better than innumerate politicians (and, Malcolm says, heaven help us when that happens). Casey may well have a point about the competence-deficit in the higher echelons of the Irish Civil Service (though, when the stars show up -- T.K.Whitaker, the Cruiser, Martin Mansergh -- they are truly of celestial quality).

Equally, this is Casey's "ranging-shot", in anticipation of what Frank MacNally anticipates as today's "tough budget". McNally, in passing, does a nice piece of verbal pyrotechnics in An Irishman's Diary, linking the budget with the death of Evel Knievel, whom McNally concludes:
achieved the most that gravity-defying stunt men and tiger economies can hope for, which is a soft landing.
The 'tiger economy' is based on two feet of clay: a young, high-skilled, flexible and (as Casey noted) quiescent work-force, and a constant source of foreign investment. The former needs regular refreshment (and a willingness to discard skills no longer relevant, which bodes ill for the older worker), so watch for education and training being ring-fenced in any spending constraints. The later is the great unknown.

The Republic's economy is in hock to a small number of powerful multi-nationals. Dell, all on its own, is 4% of Ireland's GDP. Gulp.

Malcolm does not have the latest facts at his finger-tips, but he recalls an article by Martin Sullivan which considered the period 1999 to 2002 (the tiger's loudest roar). In that short time-frame Sullivan found that profits made by US companies in Ireland doubled from $13.4 billion to $26.8 billion, while profits in most of the rest of Europe fell. In his analysis Sullivan termed Ireland a 'semi-tax haven' for US firms. Dell was having its patent royalties rendered through Ireland, to a total of $91.7m in retained profits, none of which was subject to tax under Irish legislation. Microsoft was up to the same trick, to the tune of half a billion dollars.

The result? Well, try this:
That's today's CSO report on earnings, hours and employment costs. It tells us that over the last financial year:
  • Average hourly earnings were up in the financial sector rose by 11.7%, but up 5.9% (which is still pretty inflationary) in the industrial sector.
  • There were 5,000 more jobs in finance, but nearly as many lost in industry and manufacturing.
  • The financial sector (labour costs totalling €4,862 million) is now worth nearly half the whole industrial sector (€10,829 million).
Meanwhile, last month 2,387 Irish workers were laid off - a rise of 15% on the same month in 2006. Another graph which is not just decorative:

Remember: that's historical. At least two of those lines have since headed precipitously south. As if to prove that, here's just this morning's news:

Nearly 500 people face losing their jobs when one of the State's biggest multinational investors closes a manufacturing plant in Galway next year.

Pharmaceutical and medical devices group Abbott told workers at its Galway facility yesterday it intends closing the plant as part of a plan that will see it cut about 1,200 jobs worldwide.

There was a third item in yesterday's Irish Times which is also relevant here: a letter by Alan Dukes (a former Finance Minister, remember) on health policy. Not surprising, from a Fine Gael man, he deplores that there is no consensus on health issues in Ireland. He continues:
In a wide range of contacts with professionals involved in the delivery of health services ... , with suppliers of services to the system and with people who rely on it to provide them with health services, I have found widespread doubt about the system's ability to deliver and innumerable examples of failure.
Healthcare is the other cost of a "tiger economy". let's memorialise it yet again: 49% of the Irish population are covered by private health insurance; the GMS health card provides free (but limited) care for something like 20% (including children). So perhaps a third of the population has no health cover at all. Throw in the cancer-care scandals, and now the shortage of TB-inoculations, and it is amazing that Mary Harney is not burned in effigy (hopefully, only in effigy) on a daily basis.

So, over to Brian Cowan presenting his budget this afternoon ....

And Malcolm got through that without using the word 'kleptocracy' or mentioning the Tribunals at all. Well done, Malcolm!
Sphere: Related Content
Subscribe with Bloglines International Affairs Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
Add to Technorati Favorites