Thursday, May 29, 2008

Failing to offend Norm

Norman Geras does a nice personal blog: civilised, intelligent, clean in its presentation, full of delicious eccentricity, and well the right side of literacy. That makes it better than most on at least five counts.

Doubtless to celebrate the country's imminent return, after eight years of usurpation, to a fit and decent condition of democracy, he has currently set himself the task of locating songs that belong to each of the Fifty States:
The rules of the series, as decided on by me, specify that a song is eligible for the list for any given state when the name of that state figures in either the song's title or in its lyric or both. The state may be used adjectivally, as in 'South Texas Girl'. But reference to rivers, where their names coincide with the names of states (Colorado, Mississippi, Ohio), doesn't count. Rivers run on and cannot be tied down so. And reference to some place in the state, like a city or a geographical feature, also doesn't count, unless the name of the place includes the name of the state adjectivally.
The fifty States, of course, each have their State song, along with their State bird, State flower, State flag, State tree, even State dinosaurs and fossils (including States where the rocks do not belong to the Mesozoic era). Most of those "official" State songs are pretty dire stuff:
I love your redwood forests - love your fields of yellow grain,
I love your summer breezes, and I love your winter rain,
I love you, land of flowers; land of honey, fruit and wine,
I love you, California; you have won this heart of mine.
Far better are some of the "unofficial" State songs. In the case of California, they have the Dead Kennedys' California Über Alles:
I am Governor Jerry Brown
My aura smiles
And never frowns
Soon I will be president...

Carter Power will soon go away
I will be Führer one day
I will command all of you
Your kids will meditate in school
Your kids will meditate in school!

California Über Alles
California Über Alles
Über Alles California
Uber Alles California
Now, wikipedia (despite its new-found and thoroughly-boring policy of eschewing trivia) has already done a lot of Norm's work for him. So Malcolm, pettishly, pointed this out in an e-mail:
Sorry to disappoint you, but wikipedia got there before you:

Now, for a real treat, do the States wikipedia hasn't got to.
Professor Norm, however, is a scholar and a gentleman; and didn't return Malcolm the rollicking he deserved.

Second thoughts are better thoughts

Later, fed and lubricated with his five units from an M&S green bottle, Malcolm reflected. He realised that one element behind any pique he might have felt was that he once had a similar notion; but failed to execute it, because he singularly lacked the patience and enterprise Norm is applying.

Malcolm's moment of inspiration came from two sources:
  • One is a scrambled shelf of various travel books and guides. Among them is Jamie Jensen's Road Trip USA. The accompanying website is almost as good, but you can't easily read it on the bog or in the bath.
  • iTunes throwing up in coincidental succession two appropriate songs.
One of Jensen's routes is the "Great Northern", coast-to-coast along US Highway 2:
Though many come close, no other cross-country route takes in the variety and extremity of landscape that US-2 does. Dubbed the Great Northern in memory of the pioneer railroad that parallels the western half of the route, US-2 is truly the most stunning and unforgettable, not to mention longest, of all the great transcontinental road trips.
That's a traipse across ten States as well as a fair stint through Ontario and Québec

The iTunes coincidence was the juxtaposing of:
Third box-car, midnight train,
Destination: Bangor, Maine --
immediately followed by Loretta Lynn (from the Van Lear Rose album):
Well, Portland Oregon and sloe-gin fizz:
If that ain't love, then tell me what is.
Well, I lost my heart, it didn't take no time,
But that ain't all: I lost my mind in Oregon.
A sentimental journey

The notion, then, was to build a chain of association, in lyrics and verse, from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon. Since Loretta had done the honours for the finishing post (where Malcolm sourced his stylish titfer, from John Helmer's natty hattery) he now needed an anchorage for the other end.

An immediately-obvious candidate would be Schooner Fair doing Portland Town. Malcolm assumed that since it was the group came from Maine, they had to be singing about the right Portland:
I see the light across the bay,
I see the light not far away;
And I hear the music all around,
I'm gettin' closer to Portland Town.
So, Mother, won't you make my bed,
I see the light off Portland Head;
I see the light, I'm comin' 'round,
I'm comin' home to Portland Town
Now that Malcolm had his the start and finish points, all I had to do was fill in the 3220 miles in between, helped only by a 2004 Rand McNally road atlas.

He set himself a by-law not to use the North American version of Hank Snow's/Geoff Mack's I've Been Everywhere:
I've been everywhere, man
I've been everywhere, man
'Cross the deserts bare, man
I've breathed the mountain air, man
Of travel, I've had my share, man
I've been everywhere.
Not, in fact that it would have helped a great deal on this trek. Indeed, Malcolm's original imaginary expedition petered out, somewhere in the Mid-West, with huge gaps still to fill.

So, perhaps this is the time to resume the effort.

Meanwhile, all hail to Norm's attempt to hymn, chant, moan and psalm the States of the Union. He may need a bit of help with Li'l Rhody, though. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Special blanch

The BBC website has a quite extraordinary take on London's Vietnam demonstrations of 1968, which it now attaches to its preview of the programme on bluenose (though now, more positively, redesignated as "filthbuster") Mary Whitehouse.

He'll get to that in a while, but, for a start, Malcolm was somewhat surprised by this:
The anti-Vietnam war demonstration of March 1968 was a turning point in post-war politics: it turned violent right in front of the world's media; the police were shown throwing punches into the faces of already arrested students, and in general losing control. The police files from that event are considered too sensitive to release.
There's a lot about that period that will remain hidden as long as blue-pencils, with-holding orders and document-shredders exist.

We might start with Peter Wright's formidable testimony:
And we did have fun. For five years we bugged and burgled our way across London at the State's behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way.
Clearly, as Wright implies, a main thrust of MI5 at this time was against student militancy:
student militancy in the 1960s gave way to industrial militancy in the 1970s ... intelligence on domestic subversion became the overriding priority.
David Shayler, not necessarily a wholly discredited witness:
was charged with passing documents and information to the Mail on Sunday. On August 24 1997, a year after he left MI5, it published his allegations that MI5 held files on Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw, John Lennon and others it once considered to be subversive.
The other "subversives" included -- gulp, swallow, choke of incredulity -- Harriet Harman.

Piles of files

With supreme irony, it was Jack Straw as Home Secretary who gave a written reply on 29th July, 1998. Spookhunters, if they do not already have it by heart, should refer to its entirety. For now:
The Security Service currently holds in total about 440,000 files which have been opened at some time since its establishment in 1909. Of these, approximately 35,000 files relate to Service administration, policy and staff. A further 40,000 concern subjects and organisations studied by the Service. About 75,000 files relate to people or groups of people who have never been investigated by the Service, such as those who have received protective security advice. This leaves about 290,000 files relating to individuals who, at some time during the last 90 years, may have been the subject of Security Service inquiry or investigation. Of this 290,000, some 40,000 have been reduced to microfilm and placed in a restricted category to which Security Service staff have access only for specific research purposes...

To place it in context, this compares with about 5.7 million records on individuals on the Police National Computer...

It has long been the policy of the Security Service to review its file holdings and to destroy those files which it no longer requires for operational purposes and which do not merit retention on grounds of historical interest. In the period between its formation in 1909 and the early 1970s, the Service destroyed well over 175,000 files. The destruction programme was then halted in response to concern that it had impeded investigations into espionage cases. In the early 1990s, following the collapse of Soviet communism and the associated decline in the threat from subversion, the review and destruction programme was reinstated. Since then, more than 110,000 files have been destroyed or have been earmarked for destruction.
That's worth recapitulation:
  • 290,000 files which, in 1998, were sufficiently valid to be "active" or retained.
  • A further quarter-million-plus which had been shredded (either for their irrelevance or embarrasment factor) during purges.
  • A passing, and deliberately confusing reference to the Police having separate files on a tenth of the population. Anybody who has written multiple-choice exam papers will know the "distractor".
Going on the "offensive"

Malcolm, like others on the Left, was only too conscious of the tendrils of the state apparatus. It was quite remarkable how, for any employment in the public sector (and indeed, by reputation, with the major industrial concerns), interviews took strange turns.

So, back to the original point at issue, and for something new, different and very, very shocking:
Newsnight has obtained, under Freedom of Information, a stack of police files relating to the much bigger anti-war demonstration of October that year... they tell a story of rising panic in the establishment: the creation of Britain's first bomb squad; an intelligence feedback loop between Special Branch and the press that ramped up the tension; and, farcically, the rock group The Doors being mistaken for a group of foreign revolutionaries...

... we now know, from the Secret files, that the London Division of the British Army offered to assist the Met during the so called "Autumn Offensive". An offer that was declined, though it was discussed also at Cabinet level.

In the run up to the demo panic was sparked by press reports that demonstrators were planning to seize key buildings in London, defend them with Molotov cocktails, paralyse London, bringing about the total downfall of law and order and the subsequent collapse of Britain as a financial centre...

Enter the gentlemen of the fourth estate: newspaper articles appeared which gave credence to the prospect of a violent seizure of key installations; the list of "targets" grew - from the BBC, to MI5, the Telecoms tower and even the Playboy Club. When the Times reported the prospect of a violent seizure, Home Secretary Jim Callaghan was grilled in the Commons. The police, reviewing the press reports, concluded privately that they were over the top, a "carefully constructed pastiche of information" based on inspired guesswork and with no proof whatsoever.

Whole sections of the documents were redacted when the Met released them to us this year - so we don't know what they thought were the source of the information. But we now know exactly where it came from. Brian Cashinella, crime reporter on the Times, told [Paul Mason] the whole story had been briefed to him by Special Branch; "not any old plod but a senior fellow; he met us two or three times a week for three weeks". Cashinella says that, after a meeting with Jim Callaghan, his then editor William Rees Mogg assured him that the stories were genuine.

We now have all the little ducks in a neat line: the Met Police and Special Branch, MI5, The Times, and, inevitably, "Mystic" Smug.

Which leaves only two questions:

  • Why is the BBC soft-pedalling this hard-core story under a "plain cover" of The Doors and the ineffable Mrs Mary Whitehouse?
  • Both then and now, cui bono?
Sphere: Related Content
Verb. sap.

Malcolm (whose mind has been on matters other than serious bloggery this last week) did not believe the picture in today's Times.

Unfortunately, the on-line version omits the critical photograph:

Crook & Blight are, indeed, estate agents, auctioneers, valuers and property managers of Newport and Caerleon. But Malcolm had to check it out to be convinced.

He hereby proposes this for the title of most appropriate trading name, since the world-famous Argue & Phibbs, Solicitors, of Sligo Town, ceased practice nearly two decades gone. Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"Trust no-one, my little marmoset. Trust no-one."
[Herod Agrippa to Clau-clau-claudius.]

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Came the dawn:

The New York Times, a day on from the result in the Mississippi special election, is still measuring the aftershocks:
The Republican defeat in a special Congressional contest in Mississippi sent waves of apprehension across an already troubled party Wednesday, with some senior Republicans urging Congressional candidates to distance themselves from President Bush to head off what could be heavy losses in the fall ...

Representative Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia and former leader of his party’s Congressional campaign committee, issued a dire warning that the Republican Party had been severely damaged, in no small part because of its identification with President Bush. Mr. Davis said that, unless Republican candidates changed course, they could lose 20 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate.

“They are canaries in the coal mine, warning of far greater losses in the fall, if steps are not taken to remedy the current climate,” Mr. Davis said in a memorandum. “The political atmosphere facing House Republicans this November is the worst since Watergate and is far more toxic than it was in 2006.”

The result in Mississippi, and what Republicans said was a surge in African-American turnout, suggested that Mr. Obama might have the effect of putting into play Southern seats that were once solidly Republican, rather than dragging down Democratic candidates.

Now those canaries are music to Malcolm's ears.

Though, from his ancestry dahn t'pit, Malcolm knows Tom Davis has muddled his metaphor. It's when the canaries are silent and drop off their perch that the miner should worry.

If the analysis is correct, something remarkable is afoot:
  • The traditional, "yellow-dog" Democrats (so-called because they'd rather vote for a yaller dog than a Republican) and
  • Obama's crusade of students and Black Americans
are combining into one of the most potent political forces seen in a generation or more.

More below the fold (who's folding?) ...

And now we have the Washington Post piling in. And this is really scarey: it looks suspiciously close to a melt-down:

House Republicans turned on themselves yesterday after a third straight loss of a GOP-held House seat in special elections this year left both parties contemplating widespread Democratic gains in November.

In huddles, closed-door meetings and hastily arranged conference calls, some Republicans demanded the head of their political chief, while others decried their leadership as out of touch with the political catastrophe they face.

The usual suspects are arraigned:

"What we've got is a deficiency in our message and a loss of confidence in the American people that we will do what we say we're going to do," conceded Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The losses of conservative House seats in Louisiana and Illinois this spring were explained away by many Republicans as setbacks in which they were hampered by bad candidates.
Notice that: it's the "message", "the American people" and "bad candidates". The Post makes it clear that the republicans made every effort to avert the Mississippi disaster:
To reverse its losing streak, the NRCC pumped $1.3 million from its depleted coffers into the race. Freedom's Watch, a conservative independent group, pitched in. Vice President Cheney appeared at a last-minute rally. Bush andSen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, lent their voices to automated phone calls imploring Republicans to vote ...
The result was what we Brits would call a 16½% two-party swing (from 62-37 to 54-46). Anyone on the wrong end of one of those has been well-and-truly rogered.

The Post goes even further, tentatively considering (and thanks to ever-reliable Charlie Cook rejecting) the notion of a Democratic:
filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate.
Cook estimates:
gains of as many as seven Senate seats and 15 to 25 in the House.
All this gives the Post the justification of a side-bar (see right) identifying where the dead GOP walking can be found.

And if the forces of truth, light and liberty need any further encouragement, the conclusion to the Post's piece gives it in abundance:
"We haven't hit bottom yet. I've never seen members so frustrated or demoralized," former House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) said in an interview ...

"There is no simple, easy way out of this," said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster who works closely with congressional Republicans. "This is extraordinarily problematic."
Malcolm's own bottom-line comes from Charlie Cook's bottomless rag-bag of political commonsense:
when a political party is experiencing bad times, it doesn't catch many breaks. When a party is riding high in the polls and has a popular president, its flawed or inferior candidates can win in favorable or even neutral districts. But when times are bad, a party can field superior, unblemished candidates and still lose in neutral or unfavorable districts. And in hard times, a party may need stellar candidates to win even in favorable districts.

To be sure, in both Louisiana's 6th District and Illinois's 14th, Republicans nominated weak candidates. What's more, they were unadorned Reagan revolutionaries at a time when the Reagan revolution has been relegated to the history books.

For GOP candidates to run anywhere--even in the Deep South--as if we were still in the mid-1980s makes no more sense than if a Democrat tried to run today as a clone of Franklin Roosevelt.

Based on conversations in the 23 states that I have visited since the beginning of this year, many Republicans are horribly embarrassed by their party's positions and actions on fiscal policy, foreign policy, and social policy. Furthermore, many Republicans feel that their party has lost its ethical compass.

Pick the bones out of that.

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

How bad can it get for the GOP?

In 2004 George W. Bush took Mississippi's First congressional district by a full 25% and a handsome plurality:

The district, which voted 62%-37% for President Bush in 2004, was vacated when incumbent Republican Roger Wicker was appointed to the U.S. Senate. Then a curious thing happened three weeks ago, when Democratic nominee Travis Childers led Republican Greg Davis 49%-46% in the first round of voting, but just short of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff.

Both parties have given this race a lot of attention. FEC filings show that the DCCC has spent over $1.8 million on the race, while the NRCC -- which only had about $7 million on hand at the end of March -- has spent nearly $1.3 million.

Well, last night:
Travis Childers, a conservative Democrat who serves as Prentiss County chancery clerk, defeated Southaven Mayor Greg Davis by 54 percent to 46 percent in the race to represent Mississippi's 1st Congressional District, which both parties considered a potential bellwether for the fall elections.
In case anyone misses the point, that's the third "safe" Republican seat to go in recent special elections:
  • Bill Foster took the Illinois 14th (the seat Dennis Hastert baled from in something of a rush) back on 8th March. It was the first time a Democrat had taken a seat in the District since the Republicans were in the pits of the Watergate morass.
  • On 3rd May, Don Cazayoux broke a thirty-year Republican stranglehold on the Louisiana 6th. That one could be read as a referendum on the Hurricane Katrina debâcle.
Wheel on Lady Bracknell:
To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.
To lose three safe seats in such rapid succession looks like an impending disaster.

Follow the money!

The other message is that the Democrats felt free to throw money at the problem. Because they have it:
Democrats begin the march into the fall elections with an enormous cash advantage: $44 million for the DCCC to $7 million for its GOP counterpart as of March 31. And 25 other Republican incumbents have decided against running for reelection, providing Democrats with more opportunities to make gains. Seven Democratic incumbents are not seeking reelection.
One other conclusion: the Republicans (especially in the South) feel they can use Obama as a stick with which to beat Democrats. Now, what could possibly lie behind that?
In Louisiana and Mississippi, the NRCC spent $1.8 million on ads focused largely on pinning Cazayoux and Childers to Obama ...

Independent analysts said that the anti-Obama campaign put Childers on the defensive but that it is too early to tell whether such a strategy will work in the fall.
Be careful with your ordure!
It will be intriguing to see which way, and on whom the dung gets deposited.

___________________________________________________ Sphere: Related Content
Once upon a time in West Virginia

Theodore H. White:
West Virginia voted on May 10th, a wet, drizzly day. By eight o'clock the polls were closed. With 100 names on some of the local ballots, all of them more important as jobs to West Virginians than the Presidency, the count was very slow. Shortly before nine o'clock, however, came the first flash: Old Field Precinct, Hardy County, Eastern Panhandle, a precinct acknowledging only twenty-five Catholic registered voters, had counted: For Kennedy, 96; for Humphrey, 36.

The count dragged on. By 9:20, with ten precincts out of 2,750 in the state having reported, the first faint trend became visible: Kennedy, 638; Humphrey, 473 --a 60-to-40 break. Yet these were from northern West Virginia, the sensitized civilized north. How would the candidate do in the fundamentalist, coal-mining south? By 9:40 the count read Kennedy, 1,566 and Humphrey, 834; and someone in the Humphrey headquarters muttered, "We're dead."

By ten o'clock the sweep was no longer spotty but statewide. Down in Logan County, Kennedy was outrunning the local boss; in McDowell County he was doing better than 60 to 40. Hill pocket, hill slope, industrial town, Charleston, Parkersburg, Wheeling, suburb, white, Negro -- the Kennedy tide was moving, powerfully, irresistibly, all across the Protestant state, writing its message for every politician in the nation to see.

There remained then only the ceremonies of burial for the Humphrey candidacy and of triumph in the nation to see.
It is no easy thing to dismantle a Presidential candidacy ...

The Making of the President, 1960.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A fart tax?

Malcolm welcomes this,
wafting from Alice Fordham
in today's Times:

... in Estonia, the cows at least must get used to the idea that there is an environmental consequence to every pleasure. Even belching. Even flatulence. Farmers there have received tax notices for cows' emissions. While it is true that cows produce 350 litres of methane and 1,500 litres of carbon dioxide daily, farmers have pointed out that no such levy exists elsewhere in the EU. One can see their point. Even the most eloquent environmentalist will struggle to persuade a cow to stop doing what comes naturally.
All we need now is to fit a meter.

Would it work also with the adolescent male?

In which case, we could have educational off-setting. As opposed to pedagogical upsetting.


On the other hand, this is a serious topic.

Some "experts" reckon cow-farts are 23 times more damaging to the environment than cars. Their farts and their manure generate a third of the world's methane emissions, along with some hundred other effluents, icluding ammonia which causes acid rain. And that's not Malcolm: it's the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Eat beef: save the planet.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Toting the barge, lifting the bale

Is it really two years since Francesca Zambello's production of Show Boat was at the Royal Albert Hall?

It was a spectacular by any standards: a brilliant and dynamic set by Peter J. Davidson, thrills and frills of costumes by Sue Wilmington, the RPO beyond the bow of the riverboat Cotton Blossom. Even the Mississippi River itself made a token appearance (courtesy of Thames Water, in that summer of drought). Not all the critics were impressed: this was the first staged musical at the RAH; and they felt it went over the top (which, perhaps, is the whole point of a musical):
Francesca Zambello's in-the-round staging of the story of the life and loves of a group of travelling actors on a Mississippi boat at the end of the 19th century is not so much Show Boat as a very slow boat. I'm astonished that opera works in this space, because a musical doesn't stand a chance. Zambello makes the mistake of simply trying to fill up the space: there are 70 in the cast and some big unwieldy bits of scenery. This Mississippi is actually wet. But the more she piles on the spectacle the more sketchy the production becomes, and I found myself uncharacteristically longing for a traditional proscenium arch.
One does not necessarily expect musical theatre to be also great drama (though Malcolm persists in annoying the purists and academics with his claims that Kiss Me Kate is a better play than Taming of the Shrew). Show Boat, however, deserves respect as the first and still one of the greatest musicals.

This memory was prompted when Malcolm was being driven up Branch Lane, Hampstead.

Being driven allows opportunity to rubber-neck. What caught Malcolm's eye was the Blue Plaque on 1-2 Branch Lane. Like the books Ted Heath didn't autograph, the houses in Hampstead without plates are the rare ones ...

This plaque is a factual statement:
Singer and Actor lived here 1929-1930
That means it was where Robeson lived while performing in the 1928 London premier of Show Boat.

One thinks of Robeson as the prototype Joe, the stevedore. Ol' Man River was written for him, and is eternally his song. Yet he did not do the rôle in the original Broadway run (Florenz Ziegfeld had dithered over such a controversial production: Robeson had other catfish to fry). So London was Robeson's first production: of course he then did the 1932 Broadway revival, and the 1936 movie (where Robeson is listed fourth in the cast list, after such household names as Irene Dunne, Allan Jones and Charles Winninger). That film still features, quite properly, in the American Film Institute's list of the top musicals of all time.

So, as happens on such occasions, Malcolm went rootling.

And discovered that he does not have Robeson as "Joe" -- but was able to find it on Youtube (that's the better audio) or even as a film clip (which is the real tear-jerker):
Dere's an ol' man called de Mississippi
Dat's de ol' man dat I'd like to be!
What does he care if de world's got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain't free.
In that search, something far better showed up, however.

Look what's here: Smithsonian Folkways SF 40026 -- Don't Mourn: Organize! Track 5: Joe Hill:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you or me.
Said I, "But, Joe, you're ten years dead."
"I never died," said he.

Fine, fine, but it's too clinical. Robeson is too much of a gentleman to give it the full anger.
  • Later, Joannie took the song to Woodstock, and fed a spoonful of sugar to the children: that, too, misses the point.
  • Far better is Luke Kelly doing his near-best: Kelly has gut-felt, rock-hard principle, but his version trips over the narrow line into becoming a trifle too twangy and pub-Oirish.
  • Even more effective is Phil Ochs, who does the whole thing, all stanzas, which makes it a museum's display-piece rather than a rabble-rouser (which is what we came for): so polite applause.
  • Higher still up the scale is Billy Bragg, opening that same Folkways disc, again doing the full Monty. Here, the use of the banjo allows the vocal to dominate -- at least in the opening part. The whole shares some of the draw-backs of the Phil Ochs version. Strangely, Bragg never quite works up the bitter froth of his full anger here.
The song should never be reduced to a historical document: it needs to remain an active force in the cause of long-downtrodden man. The Youtube video derived from Bragg is a bit tricksy, but does the business.

The fountainhead here has to be Utah Phillips, track 13 on the We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years album. What makes this one different stems from Phillips's spoken introduction, remembering living and working in Salt Lake City, and giving the song, when it comes, a personal and moral perspective:
... workin' in State service, as a rat in the basement. Oh, yeah: I used to come to work at eight o'clock every morning, and take the basement stairs down, and the Governor'd take the stairs up, and we'd shake hands as we passed each other in the hall. My! My! Kind of thing that drives you crazy.
He recalls walking "up 21st South and 13th East", on the site where Sugarhouse Prison had been. He had seen the plan in the archives at the Capitol building, and:
I could walk at midnight through that Park and I could stand right on the spot where that white kitchen chair was that Joe Hill was tied to when he was shot. And I would look at the stars and look at the moon and wonder what the hell it was that I was doing with my life.

This posting has travelled a long, and unnecessary way from where it started. That is the self-indulgence that so many of his critics quite rightly lay against Malcolm's maunderings.

Others of us try to forgive the poor old thing: the mind may be going; but the heart's still in the right place.

He finally drags himself back to Robeson, and cranks up one last song: No More Auction Block for Me, the final track of the On My Journey collection:
No more auction block for me
No more peck of corn for me.
No more pint of salt for me.
No more driver’s lash for me.
No more hundred lash for me


And so, Malcolm has come full circle. All the way from where de lan' ain't free to a hyphenated-something American (descended from slave-owners, not from slaves) being the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and the next President of the United States.

Whether Robeson would be supporting a "mainstream" candidate (Obama or Clinton) is very much a different question.

Sphere: Related Content
Dress code

The New York Times on the Bush wedding:
The bride wore a beaded organza dress, with a small train, designed by Oscar de la Renta, the White House said. Her attendants wore cocktail dresses the colors of wildflowers, designed by Lela Rose. The first lady, Laura Bush, wore deep turquoise. The men wore suits and ties.

That's a relief. It would be bad form to have a semi-nudist wedding. Especially in Texas. Especially when the bride has a track-record of wardrobe malfunctions.

However, Malcolm wonders if this isn't another bit of political correctness.

In days of yore, nobody bothered to comment on the attire of the males. Even when it was by de la Rental. Now we have to make the gesture.

On the other hand, if Grayson "Claire" Perry had been invited ... Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, May 8, 2008

There's not much the BBC website has to learn about building traffic.

Take for example the headline up today:
Great tits cope well with warming *
Inevitably, when one clicks through to the page, the story does not qualify for as much as a parental advisory sticker:
At least one of Britain's birds appears to be coping well as climate change alters the availability of a key food.

Researchers found that great tits are laying eggs earlier in the spring than they used to, keeping step with the earlier emergence of caterpillars.
Writing in the journal Science, they point out that the same birds in the Netherlands have not managed to adjust. Understanding why some species in some places are affected more than others by climatic shifts is vital, they say.
At this juncture, Malcolm wisely decides to avoid any comment about Dutch Birds, except to recall it is a fairly unremarkable pub, with a music room, up the Oldham Road in Failsworth, Manchester.

One can never be too careful with certain words in such a context, as for example:
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has banned the use of the word "cock" when applied to the male of the species, in case it causes offence.

An RSPB spokesman confirmed that it did not use the word 'cock' on its website
In a move condemned for "taking political correctness too far", a correspondent on an RSPB online forum was surprised to find that his use of the word "cock", when referring to a male blackbird, was replaced with four asterisks.
To which Malcolm can only add: "****!"

Long years ago, Malcolm worked alongside a lovely, if slightly too-innocent-for-her-own-good teacher. She insisted on using Ian Serraillier's 1956 great story, The Silver Sword, as a class reader. (It may subsequently have been edited or re-written: it certainly seems to have gained a new title, Escape from Warsaw). The problem was that one of the characters has a pet chicken, and this (as Malcolm painfully remembers) provokes the immortal line:
Jan placed his cock on the table.
As soon as the set of books was removed from the stock-cupboard,Malcolm, would take great care monitoring the class's progress in reading the story. He fully appreciated that he would be summoned to suppress the minor riot when the psychological moment arrived.

As for Malcolm stooping so far
as to employ a provocative head-line
with a cheap word-play on "tits",
in the hope of attracting cheap trade,
perish the thought.


* Curiously, after a while, the headline changed to:
Great tits in Britain seem to be adapting to global warming
Now, what happened there?

Sphere: Related Content
Malcolm's hatchet-jobs (at Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service and here) are puny compared to the axe-work of a master-craftsman.

So, today, he looked with envy at the Economist's obituary of Alfonzo López Trujillo, the "Vatican enforcer":
IN 1995, as head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo published a “Lexicon of Ambiguous and Debatable Terms”. They included “safe sex” (no such thing, unless confined to the nuptial bed); “gender” (a construct of strident feminists) and “family planning” (code for abortion). He could also throw back a few phrases of his own: “contraceptive colonialism”, “pan-sexualism”, “new paganism” and, with a special lowering of those beetling black brows, “the culture of death”.
And that's only the taster. Want more? --
The enemy was all around him. Legislators and governments across the first world who passed laws to ease divorce or ensure “gay rights” (though of course, to quote Aquinas, lex injusta non obligat). Fervently Catholic countries, like the Philippines, which adopted two-child policies to curb their surging populations. Scientists in white coats who committed murder in test tubes in the name of medical research.
But the big foe was Latex Johnnie:

Condoms were the first enemy. In their sly, shiny packets, they invaded the poor world as insidiously as the disease they were meant to prevent. To the cardinal, there was nothing safe about them. They merely encouraged promiscuity. To hope to stop AIDS by wearing one was like “playing Russian roulette”. They were as full of tiny holes as a sieve, through which the HIV virus, “roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon”, as he told the BBC, would slither with no difficulty. The World Health Organisation might claim condoms were 90% effective; he had read it in the Guardian; but “they are wrong about that”. And he was right.

He was always right, staunchly on the side of order, stability, hierarchy and God's law.
There's no mealy-mouthed nil nisi bonum here. The Economist knows how to pile on the ordure:
Latin America's crop of military dictators received no condemnation at the archbishop's hands. Where there was chaos, he reminded his bishops, people needed firm government.
This trick reminds Malcolm of Governor Teddy Roosevelt's axiom:
I have often been fond of the West African proverb: "speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.
Before moving on, let's note that on the facing page the Economist reviews a couple of books under the headline Sex and sensibilty, which concludes:
In Uganda people were warned of the risks of HIV and encouraged to use condoms and be sexually faithful. That helped reduce the impact of AIDS ... Political, religious and local leaders have done little elsewhere in Africa. Some, such as South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, preferred disseminating untruths about the disease and how it should be treated. Where strong leadership could have had the greatest impact its absence is most keenly felt.
Yes, the Economist also does irony with great effect.

The Economist
is uncompromisingly and honourably liberal (in the economic, political, and social definition of that much-overused word). One does not have to take it in entirety as a modern Code of Hammurabi. It argues its case; and Malcolm invariably finds it stimulating both in its content, and its challenges to his own prejudices.

The Vatican, by comparison, needs to justify or publicly regret its long-time deplorable record, especially in South America.

It stood up for the dictator August Pinochet in his struggle to avoid deportation from Britain to Spain, when Spain wanted to investigate his role in the disappearance of Spanish nationals during his reign of terror from 1973 to 1990. The Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo criticised the Vatican's intervention on Pinochet's behalf, only for President Carlos Menem to apologise cravenly on their behalf for their presumptuous lèse majesté.

It was curious, witnesses noticed, how the Catholic authorities throughout the Chilean and Argentinian pogroms never openly criticised, yet were too frequently able to report to the bereaved family what had befallen one of the "disappeared".

Malcolm reverts to Roosevelt's letter. It was an honourable stand, by a strong leader, against pressure from within his own Republican Party to re-appoint a corrupt official. He says of his opponents, what could be said of the Vatican, and the likes of Trujillo:
They have often shown themselves the enemies of good government, but in this case I do not think they are even to be credited with good intentions. They were no more anxious to see dishonesty rebuked than a professional prohibitionist is to see the liquor law decently administered.

In a murky world,
for the likes of the Economist
we should be grateful.

Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The eternal truths

Day after day, the financial pages of the heavier end of the the British press drum out the message:
Reduce corporation tax!

Another firm moves its HQ to Ireland to benefit from the lower corporation tax!
A typical story is that of Shire:
The FTSE-100 company said it was applying to a court to create a new holding company incorporated in tax-haven Jersey and would become tax resident in Ireland, where corporate tax rates are less than half those in the UK.

The 22-year-old biopharmaceutical firm whose key products include a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), said its headquarters would remain in Basingstoke and it did not plan to cut or relocate any UK jobs.

But its board of directors will hold meetings in its Dublin office once the tax residence move gets court approval.

Most importantly, the move means it will be subject to an official corporate tax rate of 12.5%, compared with 28% in the UK.
This weekend the Sunday Times was at it again, with a new twist (taxes and not paying them are a Big Thing for the Murdoch Media):
Bosses' tax threat at No 10 summit
SOME of the biggest names in British business have told Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling that Britain risks a corporate exodus if Treasury tax proposals on foreign earnings go ahead.

The warning was delivered at Downing Street 10 days ago by a delegation from the Multinational Chairmen’s Group, a secretive body that brings together leaders of some of the most powerful companies in the world ...

Those involved in the discussion say the foreign-dividend proposals have given a hard edge to general discontent over UK corporate taxation.

In recent weeks two leading companies, Shire Pharmaceuticals, a FTSE 100 drugs group, and United Business Media, a media and conventions group, have decided to shift their tax domiciles from the UK to Ireland. There were rumours last week that another FTSE 100 group was on the verge of leaving.
The not-so-subtle hint about "another FTSE 100 group" was merely a taster for a Times story on Tuesday:
One of the most prominent players in the Lloyd’s insurance market is considering shifting its corporate headquarters outside the UK, the latest in a string of City businesses angered by unpopular tax proposals from the Treasury. Brit Insurance, the reinsurance broker valued at £800 million in London, is investigating whether jurisdictions such as Dublin or Geneva are more tax-efficient than the UK, which is increasingly seen as operating a business-unfriendly regime.

Several other companies, including Sir Martin Sorrell’s WPP Group, have said they are considering such a move ...
Naughty Malcolm.
Naughty, naughty Malcolm:
you forget that the great and the good
have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders,
to avoid paying tax.

As in the Shire case:
"Shire has concluded that its business and its shareholders would be better served by having an international holding company with a group structure that is designed to help protect the group's taxation position, and better facilitate the group's financial management."

A Shire spokeswoman stressed it was not stopping UK tax payments outright.

"We will not pay corporation tax in the UK but will continue to pay tax in the UK on our UK business," she said.
Don't we "little people" yearn for that choice "not to pay"?

In any case, too many "British" companies have already decided that they should enjoy the benefits, but shirk any commitment to Britain:
a National Audit Office study has revealed that almost one third of the UK's 700 biggest businesses pay no corporation tax whatsoever - not one penny. A further third of these businesses pay less than £10m a year in corporation tax, the main levy on UK company profits.

Intriguingly, almost 70 per cent of all UK corporation tax in the 2005/6 financial year was paid by just 50 companies, the report showed. While Britain's banks stumped up £7.5bn in corporation taxes, the alcohol and tobacco industries coughed up next to nothing. While oil and gas companies shelled out close to £7bn, the mega-bucks property sector paid just a few hundred million.

There are armies of accountants in the City of London trained in the dark arts of tax minimisation. But it's not all about offshore accounts in the British Virgin Islands or Bermuda. For the modern multinational, it is remarkably easy to make a large tax bill simply disappear - through entirely legitimate means.
Malcolm would insert a small aide-memoire here, from last August, for that reference others may be trying to recall:
Leona Helmsley, the cutthroat hotel magnate whose title as the “queen of mean” was sealed during a tax evasion case in which she was quoted as snarling “only little people pay taxes,” died Monday at age 87.
Helmsley (right) embezzled $1.2M of tax money by claiming personal expenses on the firm: everything from renovating her Connecticut estate to paying for her knickers. She, eventually, went to jail for 21 months of a four-year term. Even then she cheated: much of her "community service" was done by her employees.

When she died, she charmingly left her little dog, "Trouble", $12M.

There was nothing for two grand-children, though.

She died lonely; she died alone: but she died rich.
And that's what really matters, yes?

Compared to machinations like these,
decent whoring looks a respectable business.

In all the Gaderene rush to set up shop in Dublin, never, not once, does the accompanying article comment on the other side of the equation:

VAT in Ireland is 21%.

But only the "little people" pay VAT. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, May 5, 2008

A little local difficulty

As the previous postings imply, Malcolm's Sunday mood was irritated and irritating. Blame it on a torn ligament and some genuine pain.

Even scrutinising X-rays (nowadays called up on a computer screen) of the foot and ankle did not lighten the tone. It left Malcolm entranced by the intricacy of countless bones, if chastened by the shadowy revelation of only old injuries, either rugby and motorcycle, but surely self-inflicted.

Later, the memory came to Malcolm of visiting Dinosaur Valley, dragged across the endless, arid monotony of the State of Utah by an enthusiastic daughter, to spend an hour or so with fossils from prehistory. The grey-scale of the screen images seemed curiously of a kind with those skeletal vestiges. Darwin vindicated, again.

It didn't make the foot more comfortable, though.

By late evening Malcolm lost it.

Now Iain Dale has many faults -- many, many faults -- but Malcolm did go a trifle over the top, and on libdemvoice, too. The combination of what and where and how makes him a trifle shame-faced today; but the final uh-oh was to realise he was in harmony with the suphurous Tim Ireland.

The issue in question was the posturing over the candidates for the Crewe and Nantwich by-election: specifically how "local" was the Tory, and whether Tamsin Dunwoody was an in-comer. In short, all the usual gesture-politics. Malcolm suggests that, with two parents in the House (together some four decades), grand-daughter of the formidable Morgan Phillips and the hardly-less-determined Baroness Norah, as well as her own time in the Welsh Assembly, Tamsin might know the score.

The irony is that Iain Dale (born in Essex, resident in Kent) continues to claim he "lived" in North Norfolk when he was the highly-unsuccessful Tory candidate there in 2005 (he increased Norman Lamb's 483 margin in 2001 to a thumping 10,606).

This all prompted Malcolm to make a further claim: that at least he had birth-ties to the North Norfolk constituency.

Norfolk-born, Norfolk-bred ..

Malcolm's alter ego originated in Wells-next-the-Sea, which in those distant days enjoyed the privilege of a Labour MP.
In 1945 Eddie Gooch, of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, displaced the squirarchical Tommy Cook, though the radical tradition had been there even before Noel Buxton took the seat for Labour back in 1929.

The North Norfolk seat later, in 1964, was inherited by Bert Hazell, then President of the NUAW. To Malcolm's delighted surprise, Bertie survives into his 102nd year, and is now the oldest surviving Parliamentarian.

It was always, sneeringly, implied that Eddie Gooch's and Bert Hazell's tenures of the constituency were helped by the local farmers who voted to keep them at Westminster, rather than causing them problems through the NUAW. That canard ignores the local tradition of radicalism, which will now become Malcolm's main theme for Labour Day.

The years the locust ate

Après Bertie, le déluge.

The complexion of the constituency changed. Employment on the land fell rapidly. That also drained much of the bitterness that had persisted since the agricultural depression of inter-war years, and the farm-workers' strikes of 1923 and 1926. Moreover, the second-homers started to arrive.

All conspired so that for the next two decades the North Norfolk constituency was the fiefdom of Ralph Howell.

Howell, like Mandelson, was one to whom taking an instant dislike saved a deal of time.

He was xenophobic, rabid, a Thatcherite before the Lady, an apologist for white racist régimes in Africa, and a supporter of the Turks in Cyprus.

He was instigator of the "Right to Work", which sounds well but (in his terms) amounted to a curious, even Stalinist notion that the unemployed should be conscripted, either into national service or be otherwise deployed by the state. Howell had come close to defining "Workfare".

Yet, he had saving graces: a good war-record, served his constituents conscientiously, was afraid of nobody (even his own Whips): a self-made (and proudly so) agri-businessman.

Then, latterly, North Norfolk got Norman Lamb. And, so far, seems quite taken with him.

George Edwards

Malcolm would like to revert to the peculiar radicalism of the area, if only because it gives him the chance to acknowledge the greatness of the Norfolk working man.

George Edwards was born in Marsham in 1850, into the grinding poverty of farm workers. At the age of six, a child of the Workhouse, he was already in employment, as a human scarecrow. Later, he fell out with his employer, and went to work in the brickfields.

He married, and became a strict Primitive Methodist: two events that together liberated him. His wife, Charlotte Corke, gave him literacy. His faith gave him political and social belief: he was yet another proof of Harold Wilson's maxim that British socialism owes more to Methodism than Marxism.

He was one of a remarkable group of men: "Comrade Joe" Sage of Kenninghall, Will Codling of Briston, George Hewitt at St Faiths, Jimmy Coe at Castle Acre, Bert Harvey at Trunch: each and every one of them black-listed and unemployable among the Norfolk farmers.

Individually and collectively these were the strong shoulders on which the farm-workers' union would be rebuilt, after the 1896 collapse of Joseph Arch's National Agricultural Workers' Union. But Edwards was the main man, on his bicycle across North Norfolk, in fair weather and foul. At first hope was vested in the Liberal Party: the Liberals took every seat in Norfolk in 1906, and Edwards was a County Councillor. Other members of the Union began to be elected to local councils, first as Liberals, then as Labour men.

During the War, the Union won the Wages Board.

In 1920, at the age of 70, George Edwards was in Parliament, as MP for South Norfolk. Conservative pressure had the Wages Board abolished; but George was back in Westminster with the 1923 minority Labour Government to have it restored.

Sam Peel

Wells had its own local champion: Sam Peel, an Methodist evangelist turned Quaker.

The Quakers have been in Wells for over three hundred years: they have a neat little brick-and-flint meeting house on Church Street (see left), doubtless regarded as eminently-convertible among all the nouveau-richery and 4x4s down for the weekend.

Peel, for most Wells folk of Malcolm's childhood, was the personification of Quakery.

What is about printers that they turn radical?

Peel started with a Men's Adult School for the Workers' Educational Association, teaching grown men to read and write. Then Sam was:
  • onto the town Council, attacking slum housing, which meant taking on a whole range of vested interests, including the Holkham Estate of Lord Leicester;
  • on the Executive of the NUAW, and then onto the Wages Council;
  • onto the Board of Guardians, arguing for improved support for widows;
  • onto the local Bench of Magistrates;
  • running the local War Pensions committee.
In 1920 he was elected to the County Council, effectively on a platform of housing and health, but soon switched to education: he was Chairman of Education for the County for 23 years.

Sam was universally and properly admired and honoured, a rumpled and cherubic rustic Clem Attlee. He was not necessarily equally liked.

He remained a staunch supporter of temperance, but presided at the Magistrates' bench at Walsingham for the brewster sessions. He regularly set up his soapbox on the Quay at Wells, to denounce the demon drink. Wells, which still boasted over a dozen pubs in the post-WW2 period, was -- as the old street maps of lanes and ginnels show -- a Viking town. Local tendencies ran more to rapine and pillage, washed down with quantities of Bullards, Steward and Patteson, or (in cases of desperation, Morgans from Ted Stenning at the Vine in High Street): and that was only the distaff side.

Still, he was one of an Olympian kind that long since went out of production: decently, they named the local secondary school for him.

All in all, Bank Holiday Monday has been
a less painful, more reflective day
for our resident philospher ...

... though any posting that involves
both dinosaurs and Tories
severely tempts fate.

Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, May 4, 2008

In a spirit of general biliousness and dyspepsia, Malcolm offers ...

Ten suggestions for a decade or so of dutiful neglect:

10. Sharma doing another series, with coffee-table book as optional extra.
  • Actually, this could usefully be extended to include most "popular" history, especially if it is a "co-production" with the History Channel. Just think how many electrons will be released for useful service, even for real education.
9. Lady violinists with cleavages more obvious than their musical talents.
  • This, fortunately, should also keep Classic FM magazine permanently off the shelves at W.H.Smith.
  • A similar restriction might be placed on sopranos, especially with Welsh ancestry.
8. Any permutation on Michael Palin and pointless journeys to forgettable places, with funny food and bearded bods en route.
  • Air travel is an unfortunate necessity. Railways are civilised and decent means of transport. Dhows and cargo ships, camels and donkeys are mocking the afflicted, those obliged to employ them, and anyone fool enough to watch them.
7. Anything that involves a list of "The Hundred Best ..."
  • Particularly if it originates on Channel 4.
  • Replay The Old Grey Whistle Test instead.
6. Attenborough.

5. Any television series of "classic" English movies.
  • There are only three: Brief Encounter; The Third Man and A Matter of Life and Death. We've seen then repeatedly. We know every frame.
  • They don't work on the small screen anyway.
  • For the purposes of public hygiene, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo might be similarly excised from the schedules...
  • Works involving Michael Caine may occasionally be excused, but only to prove they are far better than subsequent American re-makes.
4. Any belief that football ("soccer" to the ex-colonials) involves art, grace or subtlety.
  • References to "the beautiful game" deserve extended penal servitude.
  • The mantra is and should be: soccer is a game for gentlemen played by guttersnipes; Rugby is a game for guttersnipes played by gentlemen; Gaelic football is a game for guttersnipes played by guttersnipes.
3. The collected works of Jane Austen.
  • Under no circumstances should there be any further television or film adapatations, modernisations.
  • Speculations about the author's psychology and sexuality should be forbidden, or treated as clairvoyance, and perpetrators punished under the fraud laws.
2. Anything which involves the Mona Lisa.
  • Particularly if it also involves Templars.
1. Romeo and Juliet. It is not a particularly well-constructed play (only Macbeth -- which has been severely mucked about -- and Taming of the Shrew are as crude):
  • The only interesting male character is written out half way through.
  • The chronology goes awry with Capulet shifting the date of the wedding, as well as the Friar John thing.
  • Balthasar in the falling action and Count Paris in the final scene are weak constructs, when neither has been adequately established.
  • The Friar Lawrence wrap-up is nearly as deadly dull as the Archbishop in the second scene of Henry V.
  • Its main educational merit (apart from a quick flash by Olivia Hussey, forty years ago) is that the powers-that-be who ordained the National Curriculum didn't get the knob jokes.
Sphere: Related Content
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