Stonehouse

Let’s put aside the history for a moment. The 3-part TV drama based on the story of John Stonehouse MP has been dam good entertainment[1]. No need to recount every step in the story. It’s the sort of sequence of events that, had it been written as fiction would have been rejected as too bizarre and not printable. Here life really is stranger than fiction.

He was a rising star of the Parliamentary Labour Party in the early 1970s. He took a very unexpected turn in life’s series of multiple choices. Any explanation he gave seemed comic and a little bit sad. It’s clear why he had to be brought to justice. That said, Stonehouse is far from the first, or last parliamentarian to tell whopping great big lies and somehow expect to be believed.

Watching this story unfold in an era before instant communications, a camera on every mobile phone and streets covered with CCTVs makes me think this must be almost impossible for younger people to get. I may be wrong, but now the scenario would be even more hopeless than it was in 1974. Although, the twist now might be that various media can be convincingly faked.

The actor Matthew Macfadyen does a wonderful portrayal of foolhardiness and haplessness. He’s captured a blank expression that accompanied Stonehouse telling tales riddled with preposterous nonsense. True or not, this is dam good entertainment.

The spouses of parliamentarians have a lot to put-up with in normal times, let alone crazy excursions into fantasies and a partner’s moral bankruptcy. It leaves me wondering why they do it.

I know there’s a strong compulsion to keep-up appearances, or at least there was in the 1970s. There’re many popular British comedies based on the abhorrence of embarrassment and inclination to do almost anything to keep-up appearances[2]. It’s a 20th Century cultural theme.

The fantasy of starting a new life is a strong one too. That’s probably been sustained down the decades much more than aspirations based on social class. The mirror we put up to ourselves called Television regularly screens such programmes as: a place in the sun[3].

The true story of John Stonehouse MP is a complex one. Reading about the times it’s difficult to have much sympathy for him or the choices he makes. Those choices do appear extremely self-centred. Even with a generous interpretation.


[1] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt13005652/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keeping_Up_Appearances

[3] https://www.channel4.com/programmes/a-place-in-the-sun

More Maths?

More maths? Like so many headlines. It depends what’s intended. This call is not new by any means. It has been repeatedly recognised by Governments, that STEM subjects are of vital importance to the future. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and maths.

Between the ages of 16 and 18, a lot of young people drop maths or anything that looks like maths. Understanding that fact is far more important than any dictate from a Prime Minister.

Let’s list some reasons why forcing this is not so easy as a headline might suggest.

Teaching: Mandating more maths without backing it up with the teachers able, enthusiastic, and trained in the subject will likely generate a negative impact.

Bandwidth: for the average student there’s a finite amount of work they will eagerly take on during a pivotal time of their lives. Developing their talents, whatever they are, is surely a priority.

Relevance: a key part of providing more practical maths teaching is convincing students of its immense usefulness in later life. Understanding how maths is used is as important as learning it.

Technology: Digitisation advances rapidly. Maths teaching must take on-board. For example, it’s important to be aware of what’s happening more than knowing every nut and bolt of an algorithm.

All the above are challenges that can be met given adequate resources and a plan. What we get from the PM’s speech is muddle. Numeracy and maths are not the same. I’ve known people who can do remarkable mental calculations on the spot but who would run for the hills if faced with a quadratic equation or a bell curve.

Yes, statistics do underpin a number of activities in everyday life. However, even when you understand their workings the capacity to make bad choices is more in the judgment than in the calculation.

STEM education is a package. It’s part of everything we do in a complex society. There aren’t many occupations that are not touched by the need to know something about the underlying working of our devices, means and methods.

In the past those supporting the humanities may have spoken-up objecting to an overemphasis on STEM subjects. Now, what artist, writer, musician, historian, or geographer does not use technology in their everyday lives? I’d say more maths but done right. Make it practical.

POST: Prime Minister sets ambition of maths to 18 in speech – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Crisis in Health

It’s difficult to think of a more inappropriate person to be Secretary of State for Health and Social Care[1]. He has all the bedside manner of Dracula. Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak re-installed him in that vital Government post. So far, he’s achieved nothing but distress and mismanagement[2].

I shouldn’t joke. The seriousness of the situation in the National Health Service (NHS) isn’t a joking matter. Winter is testing the service to breaking point. Both the statistics and the experience of patients are not acceptable by any reasonable measure.

What’s intolerable is the general Ministerial response. Hard-line rhetoric about not budging on negotiations is callous. Dismissing every call for support by rattling-off lists of figures about Government spending is no help at all. Trying to redirect attention away from the things that need fixing. The shabby politics of avoidance is not what’s needed.

As a personal note, I find the situation indicative of broader failures too. My one term as a Surrey Country Councillor, between 1993 and 1997 is more history than anything else. The problem is that it’s not. I remember papers coming to full council meetings with a title that is pertinent and recognisable today. The subject being “bed blocking[3]”.

That’s 30-years ago, our institutions struggled with making the transition between hospital care and social care. It was clear that there was going to be a growing problem. The demographics pointed to a rising aging population. There was no ambiguity about the facts.

Ministers have come and gone. Quite rapidly over the last year. Each with the responsibility for NHS service delivery, performance, and social care policy. Some like incoherent gad flies, some who span like windmills in a storm, some like patrician overseers but none with the managerial skills needed to address the challenge that stares them in the face.

Most local authorities are dealing with cuts to their budgets, financial constraints and the cost of living demands we all confront. In some cases, they are tittering on the brink of bankruptcy[4]. Many local authorities have been forced to reduce their funding of social care at a time of rising demand. 

It’s mad that, after all this time, we have still not come up with an integrated health service. Pitching the NHS and local authorities against each other for funding is absolutely ludicrous. It’s costing lives.

Today, we must recover from a crisis. Tomorrow, real change must be implemented to prevent a future crisis. It isn’t as if we don’t know what to do!  


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/people/stephen-barclay

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nhs-strikes-barclay-cooper-libdems-b2244466.html

[3] https://fullfact.org/health/bed-blocking-what-it-and-it-paralysing-nhs/

[4] https://www.kentonline.co.uk/kent/news/what-it-means-for-kent-residents-if-kcc-goes-bust-277075/

Where’s the common sense?

It’s two whole years since the end of the UK’s Brexit transitional period. That’s since the day when the UK fully withdrew from the European Union (EU). Have we seen any, I mean any, Brexit benefits from the day of the Brexit referendum? The sad truth is – No. We are worse-off. Investments haven’t happened, political turmoil persists and bureaucratic barriers have grown.

Certainly, it’s right to say that British politicians have been busy. They have found lots of targets to blame for this continuing underperformance. You name it; Remainers, young people, environmentalists, protesters, strikers, human rights, overseas aid, COVID, flu, global economic downturn, energy prices, war in Europe, Biden’s administration, China, France, Germany, hot weather, cold weather, the list goes on and on and on. The Brexiter’s blame list is an exceptionally long one. Add to this the fact that Boris Johnson comes in for caustic blame. Often strongest from the people who trumpeted his ascendancy to power in 2019.

Although we should not dwell too much on the past, it’s as well to not let what has happened in this last year be swept under the carpet. Remember 2022, after 44 days, Conservative Liz Truss resigned as British Prime Minister (PM). She was the first choice of the members of the political party most entrenched in Brexit thinking. This extraordinary farce made the country look it was run by like a bunch of incompetent fools, of ill-disciplined fanatics, of preposterous comics.

The blatant dishonesty behind Brexit can not be denied. A recent example was the Government statement on having not attained a promised boost from new trade agreements. A ridiculous political line about not signing deals until they are right for the country is a brazen smoke screen to cover-up a significant lack of achievement[1].

We need some serious common sense injected into our politics. The UK is not going away. The EU is not going away. Both share an immense common interest. Both are faced with similar challenges and threats. Both share the same values.

Brexit has added to costs, adding to inflation, labour shortage and under performance. Most people[2] now accept this analysis and want to see serious change[3]. The more both Conservatives and the Labour Party cling on to the mythology of Brexit, the more damage will be done. Keir Starmer has confirmed that the Labour Party will not seek for Britain to re‑join the EU. What a reckless folly from a would be PM.

POST: referendum – latest news, breaking stories and comment – The Independent


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-63808657

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/987347/brexit-opinion-poll/

[3] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/explore/issue/European_Union

Talent

We all met talented people throughout our lives. This can evoke a wide range of feeling. From the wide-eyed awe to the upset of the green-eyed monster of jealousy. Those blessed with a facility to achieve more, and the dedication to make the most of that talent, can have an immensely positive impact on their communities. It’s doesn’t always turn out that way but when it does our focus is attracted. We look on with admiration, joy, and hopefulness. Hopefulness that the joy will rub off onto others and inspire.

The passing of the Brazilian footballer Pelé is the passing of an era. If it’s an image of a screen or picture in a newspaper he had the capability to shine. It’s a heavy weight to be classed as the “greatest players of all time.” Such accolades can be the ruination of a normal mortal. Afterall we are not built to be super-human.

To anyone under 30 years old, it’s not easy to convey the transition of television from a Black and White screen to a Colour screen. It seems so primitive. The kick-off of Pelé’s fame took place in the monochrome world. That didn’t dim our amazement at his talent. The dynamics of his movement. His ability to outwit those around him on the football field. The delight of elegant goals striking the back of the net. This summed up to be special.

Who would have thought that a Brazilian professional footballer would make the world a better place. For generations of young people kicking footballs around hard-hit neighbourhoods there’s a star. It doesn’t matter that few will have such great skill to show-off. What matters is the inspiration.

World Cup glory came his way three times. That’s unmatched. The bar has been set for those to come. Good luck to those who try.

R.I.P. Pelé.

Digital Hazards

I agree[1]. The INTERNET information super highway isn’t so different from the highways we use to get around. Both have traffic. One presents hazards that are not always obvious and the other is riddled with hazards, many of which we can see. They are similar hazards, in that someone raiding your personal data can have just as devastating an impact as your car running off the road.

Giving people mandatory training before they venture out into the world of INTERNET banking, and the mad whirl of social media has merit. This will not reduce serious problems to zero, but it can mean fewer people suffer financial misfortunes and reputational nightmares.

I know this thinking is hard for anyone with an inbuilt downer on the notion that Governments should intervene to protect citizens from every threat. This is fine. There should be a reasonable threshold set before rules and regulations are grasped as a weapon against potential harms. Everyone has a responsibility to look after their own health and safety to the greatest extent that they can. That’s where there’s marked limitations in the case of the digital landscape.

Even for those aware of live digital threats the means to address them are not well known or easily accessible. The human factor plays a part too. Many people are reluctant to admit that they may have been dupped or take for a ride in the wild west of the INTERNET.

On another subject, but not unrelated, is that we live in a world of gurus and commentators. This predates social media but that has heightened the trend. It’s as if well-informed person A says, “don’t stick your finger in the fire” and nobody listens. However, when well-known person B says the same everybody listens. All the time the facts remain the same.

Sadly, this works with disinformation as well as the truth. There’s a propensity to wish to agree with people that we imagine others agree with at the same time. It’s a cosy security blanked. There was once a saying that; nobody ever got the sack for hiring IBM. This phrase captures the belief that those others can’t all be wrong and even if a choice is wrong for me, I’m not alone.

Such blame avoidance is pessimistic thinking. It elevates the fear of failure and places it at the heart of decision making. A balance is better. Awareness of hazards is the first step in managing risk.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qj9z

Time & Tech

It was a Financial Times newspaper poster that warned of UK job losses on a mass scale. It captured the pervasive idea that, as in the industrial revolution, huge changes in working conditions and types of jobs were come down the line. Technology would radically reshape employment. Those in comfortable jobs would not be imune from change.

One whole broadsheet page carried a message. Center of a picture was a large, polished metal dustbin. Contrasting and overspilling it were white shirt collars. The background was blank. The stark message was – the silicon revolution will mean an end to white collar jobs. I think the advertisement was placed by the trade union: Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS)[1].

This was the 1970s. A time when speculation about the impact of computers in the workplace was rife. It was before the Personal Computer burst onto the scene. Names like IBM and the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) were dominant. I wonder what it would be like if I could step into a time machine and return to that era. To let them know what really happened as technology advanced unrelenting for the next four decades.

In many ways white collar jobs, or office jobs, have not disappeared. If anything, the numbers employed, where a computer is an essential part of the everyday work has increased dramatically. Yes, there’s not so many white collars as digital communications allow people to work at any location. The workplace dress code, if there is one, has left the standard suite and tie behind.

Taking a broad view, the “silicon revolution” has improved life for many. Gone are huge typing pools, mechanical calculators, and Orwellian workplaces. Card file indexes, drawing boards, and toxic chemical copying machines look prehistoric in black and white pictures from the 1970s.

In that conversation with an office worker of that time, what they may be shocked to hear is that the diversity of companies shaping their workplace will narrow down to a small number of vast American names. The expected liberalising impact of technology, that makes information available to everyone, anywhere and at speed will have the perverse effect of narrowing minds.

What do I take from this journey to the past? It’s that the impact of technology is shaped by the choices we make. However, we choose with little idea of the longer-term influence technology has on our lives.

POST: Timeline | The Silicon Engine | Computer History Museum


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_of_Scientific,_Technical_and_Managerial_Staffs

Wilko

It took me a while. Looking though a box of horded records. They’re the sort of thing that seemed important at the time and some how got preserved. Really daft stuff like timesheets, the names of people and places that have long since gone. The Plessey Company no longer exists. The former Plessey Marine site at Uppark Drive, Ilford, now that’s the site of a B&Q store. GEC/Siemens launched a hostile takeover of The Plessey Company[1]. By 1990, the company name had all but disappeared and over time its parts had been sold off. It’s sad to read the fate of some great British companies.

Rifling through stashed personal papers is a Christmas break sort of thing to do. It has a reassuring feeling to it. Memories are fragments and some bits and pieces of paper help tie together roughly connected moments.

From January to May in 1981, I undertook an undergraduate training programme in Ilford, Essex. This was quite an excursion, or at least an opportunity to explore somewhere quite different from my student life in Coventry and nothing like my home life in Somerset.

My digging up a record of the past was for a reason. The BBC have done a review of 2022[2]. As you might expect part of that was a review of some of the people, we have lost in 2022. Quite a number of these personalities had their heyday in the 1980s. Ten minutes into this annual review is a clip of Wilko Johnson. He’s playing as part of the British R&B band Dr Feelgood. If there’s one album, I’d advise anyone to play, anyone who loves raw live music, then it’s “Stupidity[3]”.

Now, my recall may be fuzzy, but I remember seeing Wilko play live on stage in early 1981. Initially, I thought that was as part of Dr Feelgood, but a small amount of research shows that he’d left the band by that time. His stage act is seared on my memory. That electric stare he had and the robotic side to side run across the stage was just mad. Genius all the same.

I’m sure that I saw him at London’s Marquee club. However, it may be an oversight, but he’s not listed in the records of early 1981. I strongly agree with this site that the Marquee Club[4] is a real reminder of the days when club / pub music was alive in its richest shape.

When I write this, I’m thinking how dam lucky I was just to be there on one night. More than 40 years ago. It doesn’t matter it’s still live to me.

POST: BBC Radio 4 – Mastertapes, Series 2, Wilko Johnson (the A-side)


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plessey

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m001gfn6/review-2022-3-we-remember

[3] https://www.discogs.com/master/105937-Dr-Feelgood-Stupidity

[4] http://themarqueeclub.net/

Spirit

Tis the season of goodwill. Here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas. May there be peace in the world. It’s time to capture the spirit of Christmas and spread it far and wide. We do it every year but it’s no less important every time we do it. It’s a great big manifestation of hope. A way to end the year in a mood of good humour, joy, and optimism. 

In this case talking about double entendre is way short of the mark. The word “sprit” has a whole host of contemporary meanings. It’s an extensive list. Here, I’m trying to capture some essence of what has been passed down for generations. It’s how we cheer ourselves up knowing that the hardships of winter are a passing phase. Christmas may have its origins in seasonal habits that run through the whole of human history.

Like it or not, the Christmas we know has come down from Roman times. Although, it might be better to say that a recognisable celebration is traceable back to the ninth century in England. That reason for festivities unites all Europeans. It’s part of our common heritage and social fabric.

However, as I drive west, down the A303 and pass Stonehenge it’s not Christian Christmas I might think of as much as the Winter Solstice[1]. That is as we move from seeing less of the Sun day-by-day to a gradual lengthening of the days. Ironically, this is known as the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere.

The coming 31 days of January maybe the least loved of the months of the year, but the prospect is that winter will be finite. We can honour its passing before it has passed. Lengthening hours of sunlight will change our mood and slowly raise our spirits.

Isn’t hope wonderful? What shame human affairs don’t have such a seasonal clockwork mechanism at their core. Or maybe they do, in the way that Christmas and the calendar synchronises us with the rhythm and routine of the heavens.

For me the next celestial marker is the Vernal Equinox as it ushers in Spring. I don’t know if having a birthday just before the onset of Spring symbolises any mystical significance, but I like it. So, celebrate and enjoy the seasonal spirit. Christmas comes but once a year. Let’s hope this one brings some good cheer.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/winter-solstice-2022-celebration-shortest-day-facts-b2249667.html

Snobbery

It hadn’t occurred to me at all. We’ll not as far as this person’s abilities to communicate a topic that clearly fascinates her. Yes, I know that part of that work is to promote a book just before Christmas.

I enjoyed Dr Lucy Worsley exploration of the life of the author Agatha Christie[1][2]. She looked, not just at the chronological facts but tried to piece together Christie’s motivations and the forces that were acting on her at different stages of her life. A well-crafted story was presented that was far more interesting than may have been commonly understood.

Now, I’m told that the reaction of some people is as “marmite”, that is you either love it or hate it, with little room in-between. It seems Worsley’s dramatisation of the incidents of Christie’s life are considered frivolous and superficial by some pedantry types.

As a presenter, Worsley loves to dress up and is not shy of debunking long-standing historical myths. It’s a style that leads viewers and listeners into the feeling that things were not as simple as our school textbooks had us think. That there’s a twist and tail in every story of the past.

The snobbery that can be directed towards those who step outside the box and challenge, even with great care, embedded assumptions, and folklore is not nice to see. It’s not limited to academic historians who have a fondness for telling stories. There is a little too much of this trend in the aviation world too. Ten minutes on Twitter and you’ll be convinced.

I remember one of Quino’s cartoons[3] showing a university professor sitting in the middle of a room. In true cartoon abstract his head was a big arrow that pointed towards the roof. Sitting around him was a group of smiling acolytes. Their heads were extended too. They each wrapped around the professor’s head like a vine. The message being that it’s all too easy to give up independent thinking and follow a classical or standard line. An illustration of “group-think”. That tendency for people to cling to an ideology regardless of its sensibility.

Here’s a Christmas message. If tempted to be a pedant or a snob, even with the best intentions in mind, count to ten before launching reactions to the creative and more demanding thoughts of others. Especially, when thoughts and ideas step on your own cherished field of expertise.

It’s worth a try.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001g91r

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0d9cd6n

[3] https://www.quino.com.ar/homequino