14 May 2015
Crossword by Boffles
Celebration of the Bard
28 May 2015: Issue 4
The Queen’s Speech by John Watson
There are really only two big issues
Fading Icons: Tory Tanks on the BBC Lawn by J.R.Thomas
What does the appointment of John Whittingdale mean for the BBC?
Arabs Call For the Seventh Cavalry by Neil Tidmarsh
Understanding US frustration in the Middle East
Cultivated Islands by J.R. Thomas
A tribute to the gardens of Cornwall.
Breakfast Through the Ages by Lynda Goetz
An Odyssey through le petit déjeuner.
A Surfeit of Lampreys? by Chin Chin
Risking a kingly death.
Due to software difficulties, the crossword cannot be provided. It will be reinstated as soon as the problem is solved
4 June 2015
by Lynda Goetz
Shocking, yes, but consider the other viewpoint.
On Friday May 22nd the 16.36 from Paddington to Plymouth was apparently delayed by a suicide. This is not as uncommon as many people would like to believe. Mostly, we, the rail-using public, do not get to know about these events. The language generally used by rail staff is ‘coded’ or simply non-informative. However, on Friday a member of First Great Western’s staff chose to impart this information to the travelling public in a peculiarly callous way, causing a number of passengers to ‘Tweet’ their complaints. This was clearly a tactless, offensive announcement which naturally caused passengers to react with shock at the apparently uncaring, insouciant attitude of the member of staff concerned. However, perhaps we should pause here for just a second and look at this ‘incident’ from the other side.
I remember a few years ago being given a lift home with my ‘dead’ car by a fairly chatty AA man. He told me how he used to be a train driver. A good job, a well-paid job, he explained. A job which, however, he had given up in favour of becoming an AA pick-up truck driver after one ‘jumper’ too many. “Jumper?” I remember enquiring naively, before realising what he was talking about. Amazingly, to those of us not yet bored with life, throwing yourself in front of a train is actually not an uncommon way to commit suicide. Leaving aside the question of how selfish the act of suicide is anyway, just consider how selfish it is to involve a complete stranger in that act. If you take an overdose, jump off a cliff or slash your wrists in a warm bath, you are at least only leaving other people to find your (hopefully) dead body. If you throw yourself in front of a train you are implicating a completely innocent stranger. Those innocent strangers can suffer terribly from the totally unthinking selfishness of others at the end of their tether. My friendly AA man elaborated, “Had a friend who lost everything: job; wife; kids; house. He couldn’t even bring himself to drive a car anymore. He just cracked up. Crumbled. His life was totally ruined by it. He had nightmares. Just couldn’t deal with it.”
That is the perspective of the train driver. Perhaps, to be fair to the lady who made the ‘callous’ announcement which shocked so many of those travelling on the First Great Western service to Plymouth last Friday evening, she had seen too many of her colleagues’ lives ruined by others who ‘couldn’t be bothered to live anymore’ and her comments were made from anger. Anger at the mental anguish she had seen, mental anguish caused by ‘fatalities’ that were not that simple.
Spare a thought not only for those driven to end their own lives, nor for those who have to deal with the immediate aftermath of that decision, but for those unwittingly involved in the actual event, which can cause long term mental trauma of its own.
28 May 2015
by Lynda Goetz
Adelle Davis (1904-1974), an American health guru (about whom I know very little), has been attributed with the quote “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper”. I have also heard it as ‘Breakfast like a king; lunch like a queen and dine like a pauper’. Whichever quote you know or prefer, it has become generally accepted that it is far healthier to eat your bigger meals at the beginning or in the middle of the day rather than at the end. However, for so many of us, this is not actually how our life works and breakfast tends to be the meal which has least attention paid to it or gets skipped entirely. Breakfast, in fact, is the meal which seems to depend more than any other on where you live, what you do for a living, or what stage of life you are at; not to mention of course which century or which country you are living in.
As a child going to school in the Home Counties in the 60s, breakfast was a sit-down meal, which consisted, if I remember rightly, of a small bowl of cereal, followed by something cooked, followed by a piece of toast with honey, jam or marmalade. My mother used to do something different every morning; scrambled eggs on toast; eggs and bacon; tomatoes on toast; poached eggs on toast; sausages and beans; boiled eggs with ‘soldiers’. This was the accepted ‘norm’ in our household; so much so, that I remember the three of us children being quite shocked when my mother went into hospital to have my youngest sister and it transpired that my father was only able to manage boiled eggs – for an entire week!
As I entered my teens and became aware of the ‘weight issue’ I decided that a three course breakfast was not to be recommended (I had not heard of Adelle Davis at the time) and determined that if I were to lose the ‘puppy fat’ people seemed so keen on telling me I would grow out of, then I would need to change my dietary habits. Breakfast became two Ryvita, buttered on the flat side and with a scraping of honey. My ‘friend’ Alison, who was way ahead of me in all the imaginable stakes there were at the age of 14, informed me with an air of total superiority that I should reduce this to one Ryvita, replace the butter with low-fat spread and probably cut-out the honey as well. I went back to brown toast (with butter and honey).
By the time I was at University, breakfast had become even more ‘pauperish’ and consisted of nothing more than a small pot of unsweetened natural yoghurt poured over an apple or a few grapes. Well, it was for a few weeks, but then, as I was living in Hall for the First Year and breakfast was included, it seemed silly to continue with this regime, as it meant that by lunchtime I was starving and had to spend more on lunch in the Refectory. I went back to three-course breakfasts for the rest of that year.
After University I went to live in Spain. I was teaching English and as none of the classes started before 10am, breakfast was a leisurely affair. We squeezed fresh oranges; ground fresh coffee and ate rolls just purchased from the ‘Panaderia’ just across the road. On some days we had breakfast in one of the many cafes on the way to work, although we could never quite bring ourselves to copy many of the locals and have our ’tostada’ with oil and garlic. Great at dinner, but somehow not quite right first thing in the morning – although it did sometimes mean that we were very aware of our travelling companions on the bus!
At work in the City, life took on an altogether more hectic pace and breakfast in that era was a rushed affair; a fruit yoghurt grabbed out of the fridge and eaten in the bedroom whilst trying to find clean tights and a shirt; a banana eaten walking down the street on the way to the bus or the Tube; a bowl of muesli dry and dusty as the books on the shelf in the basement library at work or perhaps on a good day, when I wasn’t late, a piece of toast and a cup of freshly brewed coffee in the small but deliciously private garden of my ground floor flat near Holborn.
Marriage and the unbelievable luxury of a husband who wanted to cook breakfast for me. Bacon, tomatoes and brown toast with a cup of tea set me up for the entire morning. I loved the ritual, for a while. Then I began to think of all the different things I could have had for breakfast. I even recalled cheese and cold meats in Germany and Portugal, although at the time these had seemed odd and alien as a start to the day. The breakfasts petered out, only the tea remaining as the essential at the start of the day. Before long there were children to consider. Breakfasts became my responsibility to deliver to small hungry mouths and unlike my own mother I was not good at this aspect of my role. Once they were beyond the pureed apple and other ‘gloop’ stage, I’m ashamed to say my children were limited to cereals (although there were an increasing range of these available), toast and jam or fruit. They seemed not to mind and their lack of cooked breakfasts in childhood has not so far been a cause of complaint. I have to say that they did always seem mildly amused when, during the summer holidays we had visiting foreign students staying and they could rely on coming downstairs to find breakfast laid out like a ‘proper meal’. Well, I couldn’t let the country down, could I? I even managed to provide ‘the Full English’ at weekends, although this was a real struggle. ( I always felt that running a B&B would not be something I could manage – B&D yes, but not something that required me to pander to people’s desires to be fed like royalty at the beginning of the day rather than the end).
I suppose that laudable and healthy as Adelle’s adage may be, it really does come down in the end to a question of lifestyles. For those who are working on the land or who are getting up to go to the gym at 6am, the ‘kingly’ breakfast may not just be appropriate, but desirable. For so many others, who switch off the 6am alarm in favour of another five or ten minutes under the duvet, the ensuing panic/chaos as they get themselves and possibly partners and children out of the house in time for work, school or college may not permit of ‘royal’ collations, hot or cold, at this time of day. This does not of course mean that breakfast shouldn’t be healthy or indeed packed full of the nutrients needed to power you through the day, just that, in spite of the occasional business breakfast or power breakfast, I don’t think this is a meal destined in the 21st century for the grandeur which somehow seems implied in Ms Davis’s advice. Breakfast like a king, but bear in mind that being a king is not what it once was.
28 May 2015
By Chin Chin
It is the English summer again with its associations with strawberries and cream and with the crack of willow on leather. These days, however, there is something else too. There is the beginning of a search for the remains of another English king, buried, as tradition now requires, under another municipal car park.
The discovery of the bones of Richard III gave deep satisfaction in all quarters. For the history buff there were endless television programs, feeding a nationwide discussion of the fate of the Princes in the Tower. For Leicester, the new royal tomb in the cathedral is a much-needed tourist attraction. Merchants made fortunes from pageantry, car park attendants received large tips (“I’m afraid the King has gone, Sir, but for a tenner I could find you a bay over one of his earls, a very superior gentleman. Oh, a man of the church I see. I could upgrade you to a very nice sub-prior’s bay over here.”) and as for Richard, now dead for more than 500 years, well , I expect that he would have preferred to be interred in Leicester Cathedral than forgotten beneath the wheels of the modern motorist .
Still, you can’t have too much of a good thing, as the promotors of reality TV shows say at the end of each series, so here we go again. This time it is Henry I who was buried in Reading Abbey, dissolved by Henry VIII and now largely disappeared. Is the tomb under the car park or under the adjacent school? Nobody knows but the team which unearthed Richard is going to do its best to find out. If it does, the whole carnival will begin again and Henry’s career will be dissected. Was he right to push aside his elder brother Robert? The need for a firm ruler says “yes” but others (including presumably Robert) would say no. Is it true that he never smiled again after his son was drowned? Since Henry lived more than 300 years before Richard, we will probably never be sure. The one fact about him, however, on which the historians agree is that he died “from a surfeit of lampreys”.
I was opening a tin of lampreys when I read about this and it gave me a bad turn. The lamprey is an unpleasant fish. Built like an eel it clamps its enormous circular jaws onto its victim and sucks out the flesh. It really is better not to disturb one when paddling. Still a dead lamprey is probably fairly passive and one tinned in a sauce of St Emilion almost certainly so; so when the stallholder in Bordeaux market pointed out that the recipe had been devised by Taillevent, head cook to the French kings Philip VI (who lost at Crécy), Charles V (who pushed back the Black Prince) and Charles VI (who lost at Agincourt), greed overcame fear and I handed over the Euros.
I hadn’t bargained though for the description of Henry’s death. Here I was serving a dish, too much of which had slain an English king. Not some pampered 18th century king either but a proper mediaeval one whose continual campaigning must have accustomed his intestines to all sorts of foreign foods. Just how many was a surfeit? Would the National Health Service know how to deal with it? Had Henry’s lampreys come out of a tin or had they perhaps gone past their sell by date? With a time gap of almost 900 years it is very difficult to tell.
Then of course it came to me. There are things which have probably changed little over the centuries and one of those is that when a man tells his wife that he has been poisoned by food, it’s odds on that the poisoning is really down to the drink which went with it. Henry was keen on the hunt. No doubt that involved a few glasses at the end of the day, he was hunting in France after all, and perhaps after a good day those glasses turned into bottles. A few too many and he would have encountered a problem we all know too well. How do you explain it to the wife?
“It must have been the lampreys, Adela,” Henry would have said, employing the self pitying whine most of us use when blaming a pizza or a big Mac. “They tasted a bit off” – a failed attempt to sound judicious. In the event Henry died and the fish never had the opportunity to shake off the reputational damage. Well anyway, I hope it was like that, Henry died a week after the fatal feast. We ate our lampreys three days ago. Time will tell.
28 May 2105
by John Watson
The speech which the Queen makes at the opening of Parliament is always something of a mixture and that is never more so than immediately after a general election. The Queen doesn’t write it herself, of course. Although she reads it out, it is written by the government as a statement of what they propose to do. Some of their proposals are new. Some are really rehashes of what they have promised in the past. Some are merely statements of political intention.
Because the speech is a statement of intent, it includes little detail. Bills containing the detailed proposals will be published in due course and it would be folly for the government to tie itself down on the detail before it has to. Still, if you look at yesterday’s Queen’s speech you will find one proposal which is intended to do exactly that – to limit the government’s freedom of action in the future. That is the proposal to introduce a law guaranteeing that there will be no rises in income tax rates, VAT or national insurance before 2020.
That is odd when you think about it. After all, the government will be in charge for five years so it could simply state that it is not going to increase any of those taxes. Wouldn’t that be wiser? It would also mean that if a sudden emergency arose so that tax rates did have to increase, the government would not have to start by repealing its own law. Why is Mr Cameron taking this odd course?
The key lies in the general election campaign. Political leaders of all persuasions believe that the electorate think them liars and Mr Cameron must have thought that the electorate would view a promise not to put up these rates with suspicion unless he promised to embed it in legislation. Actually he is probably wrong and it is doubtful whether anybody took more notice of the pledge not to increase rates because of the prospect of this superfluous new law. Still, that is why it is there and also why there will be a law to state that no one working thirty hours on the minimum wage should pay any income tax. In a sense these laws are a way of setting electoral promises in stone.
If you look at the speech as a whole and ask yourself which bits will be remembered in 100years time you will probably come up with the two big constitutional proposals. The first relates to Scotland, where the devolution promised in the Scottish referendum debate has to be enacted. In fact it is a little more complicated than that because, although the Smith Commission set out a blueprint for devolution, the Scottish National Party are anxious to push it a little further. Also the issue overlaps with another pledge – that matters affecting only England and Wales should have to be approved by English and Welsh MPs. Put all this together and there is quite a constitutional debate to be had. In 100years time our great-grandchildren will look back to see how well the settlement reached actually lasted.
The second big constitutional issue is our relationship with the European Union. On the basis set out in the Queen’s speech, the referendum must be held before the end of 2017. That means that before then Mr Cameron must have negotiated changes to EU rules which he can recommend to the British public. At the least these must allow benefits to be withheld until a claimant has lived for a certain period in the UK. A formal recognition that some states will never join the Euro will also be on his shopping list and he will be asking for this to be recognised in the workings of EU institutions. These negotiations have already started and it will be no surprise if Mr Cameron spends as much time in the capitals of Europe as he does back in London.
The fact that these two issues are pre-eminent does not take away from the importance of the others, some of which, like the way in which Mr Osborne seeks to reduce the deficit, are very important indeed. Still if you look back to 2010 when the Coalition replaced the Labour Government you will remember that then public concern was almost entirely about economics. The deficit is still a worry, as is the effect of austerity on the public, but in the long run this government will be judged by how it handles Scotland and the EU. Whether or not things are getting better, we have at least moved on.
28 May 2015
by R J Thomas
The pavilions are coming down in front of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, and the display gardens on which so much time (and money) was spent and which looked so tastefully permanent have been loaded back on trucks to return to all corners of the Kingdom. The 2015 Chelsea Flower Show is over and has been, as it always is, a major success. What Royal Ascot is to horseracing and the Cup Final at Wembley to football, the Chelsea Flower Show is to gardening, the nation’s favourite pastime.
If aliens should land in search of ideas for beautifying a distant planet, they would be very well advised to arrive in the week of the Chelsea Flower Show. Not only does the weather almost invariably turn out magnificently that week, but once they have staggered away from the gates of the Royal Hospital satiated with blooms and perfumes and with agonisingly sore feet, they will be able to make a tour of the gardens of the British Isles certain in the knowledge that most gardens are then at their best. A little early for the roses perhaps, and certainly so for the municipal style of planting (though somehow it seems unlikely that aliens would really go for quite so much regimentation), but ideal for the wild spring gardens which are perhaps the finest example of horticulture to be found in the British Isles.
For this we have to thank several generations of great Victorian gardeners – not just those who dug and pruned and manured but also those who dreamed and planned and financed. Many of our greatest gardens were begun in the second half of the C19th, when the great fortunes then been made and the early plant hunting expeditions on the edge of empire came together. The greatest centre of all the gardening activity was in Cornwall, with a micro climate which was perfect for Himalayan plants, and newly accessible through the Great Western Railway. And the best place to be in Cornwall was on the Helford River or in one of the deep river valleys nearby, where that warm wet summer climate created enormous plant fecundity but the deep valleys offered frost free shelter from the winter gales.
One hundred and fifty years later many of these gardens are at their peak. The plants which the plant hunters brought back and propagated have grown to great sizes, and the shelter belts of exotic and native trees are now enormous. In fact, the gardens are beginning to face the fact that plants, like all things, have a life span, and that many of the plants and especially the trees in these extraordinary gardens are nearing the end of their lives.
Some gardens are in private ownership, some still in the possession of the descendants of their original owners such as the Williams at Caerhays (five generations of camellia breeders extraordinaire), others rescued by new owners such as that of Trebah by Tony Hibbert, a former wine merchant; and a very large group belong to the National Trust which runs them in its inimitable style.
If it is all that time permits, go and see three. Three with a remarkable common heritage but with very different approaches to maintaining a great garden in the C21st. In the mid C19th the Fox family of Falmouth – Quakers, bankers, merchants, ship owners – produced three brothers who had an enormous passion for gardening. They bought three small estates, Glendurgan, Trebah, and Penjerrick, on the Helford River, two adjoining and the third nearby, each with its deep valley, the first two reaching down to the sea, Penjerrick higher up but with views across the Channel. They became, over a hundred years, amongst the most famous gardens in Britain, noted for their fine plants and breeding of new cultivars. Then the Second World War and high taxation seemed to spell the end, and each of them suffered the inevitable results of tight budgets and reduced maintenance. Trebah was sold; Glendurgan given to the National Trust; Penjerrick remaining owned and managed by Fox descendants but almost forgotten.
Then in the 1980’s, with a new spirit around in Britain and with easier money for the first time for forty years, a revival began. Tony Hibbert bought Trebah for his retirement and found to his surprise that he was in possession of one of the most important gardens in England. A new passion for gardening took him, and over thirty years he carried out one of the most impressive restorations of any great garden, although and inevitably with a commercialisation that the Fox’s would perhaps have frowned on but hopefully guarantees the long term future of the garden.
At Glendurgan next door the National Trust is also undertaking a long-term renewal of the garden, and have built a new shop, a tea room, and a much larger car park. Glendurgan now is a major show piece for the Trust and benefits enormously in visitor numbers from the huge marketing budget which the Trust deploys in Cornwall.
And Penjerrick? If you seek the spirit of the Fox’s and of all those great planter-gardeners of the C19th right across Britain, go to Penjerrick. It has no tea room, no shop, no plant nursery, not even a car park or attendant. There is just an honesty box for the grateful visitor to slip his appreciation into. But it is a magnificent wild garden, overgrown, half lost, huge rare plants hanging over and indeed into ponds and lakes, the paths part gravel and mostly mud, with its shrubs and trees all left to grow as they would have done naturally had they been in some wild Himalayan valley. Indeed, it is a wild Himalayan valley, just happening to be in Cornwall. Put on your boots, take a flask of coffee, enter through the concealed gate, and for a glorious afternoon be lost in paradise.
28 May 2015
QUEEN’S SPEECH: Yesterday saw the opening of Parliament and the Queens’s speech which outlines the government’s legislative programme. Included were proposals to ensure that : people who work thirty hours a week at the National Minimum Wage do not pay income tax; there will be no rise in income tax, VAT or national insurance for five years; free childcare will be increased; housing association tenants will have the right to buy their homes; essential public services will be given protection against strikes; benefits will be restricted with the young being required to learn or earn; failing or coasting schools can be taken over and academies created; the NHS will work on a seven-day basis; the real value of the basic state pension will be protected; powers are devolved to cities with elected mayors; powers are devolved to Scotland and Wales; decisions which only affect England and Wales will need the approval of a majority of English and Welsh MPs; and the EU referendum will be held before the end of 2017. The government will bring forward a proposed British Bill of Rights
EU REFORM: Mr Cameron is visiting a number of European countries as he tries to build support for EU Treaty reform – and in particular changes which would enable benefits to immigrants to be restricted. The referendum Bill, likely to be presented later this year, is expected to restrict votes for migrants in the EU Referendum.
IMMIGRATION FIGURES; Net immigration for 2014 was 318,000, up on the previous figure as a result of an increase in the number of immigrants, with emigration little changed. Net immigration from the EU rose from 123,001 to 178,000 whilst net immigration from outside the EU rose from 143,000 to 197,000. The government plans to cut net immigration to less than 100,000. The number of criminals living in the community awaiting deportation now exceeds 5,000.
RETIREMENT: Lord Howe, who served as Chancellor and Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, has announced his retirement from the House of Lords.
POLICY CHIEF: Camilla Cavendish, the former Times and Sunday Times journalist, has been appointed to lead the Downing Street policy unit.
APOLOGY: Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, has apologised for leaking a Scottish Office memo which alleged that Ms Sturgeon had suggested that it was in the interest of the SNP for Mr Cameron to remain prime minister. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is considering whether to launch an investigation.
POLICE: Speaking at the annual conference of the Police Federation, Teresa May, the Home Secretary, said that police spending would have to come down again. She announced a review of the use of crime performance targets, expressing concern that they distorted operational reality.
CHILD ABUSE: Detectives investigating child abuse have received allegations against 1433 suspects, of whom 261 are of public prominence.
INEQUALITY: According to the OECD, the income gap between the richest 10% of the population of its member states and the poorest 10% has increased to its higher level.
NORTHERN IRELAND: Peter Robinson, the first Minister, is in hospital following a suspected heart attack.
PETROL PRICES: According to the AA the price of petrol has risen from 106.4p a litre to 113.3p a litre since February. It is still well below the level of 140.2p reached in March 2012, before the collapse in the oil price.
PAY OFF: The severance payment of £134,000 made to Ms Berelowitz, deputy children’s Commissioner for England, and her subsequent re-hiring as a consultant has been described as “totally unacceptable” by Keith Vaz, the former chairman of the home affairs select committee.
THE STRAND; Historic England now believes that the demolition of four buildings in the Strand to make way for a development by Kings College, London would cause “substantial harm” rather than merely “harm”. The Communities and Local Government Secretary has halted the development while he considers whether a public enquiry is necessary.
CANCER: NHS cancer referrals have increased by 71% in the last five years. In 17.7% of cases the sixty-two day target for starting treatment has been missed.
MATRIMONIAL COURTS: A High Court judge has held Martin Thomas responsible for attacks on his daughter Evie, although Mr Thomas had been acquitted of criminal charges The standard of proof in the family division is lower than the criminal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt”.
PHONE HACKING: Substantial awards against the Daily Mirror were made in favour of a number of celebrities including Paul Gascoigne , Alan Yentob, Shobna Gulati, Lucy Taggart, Shane Ritchie, Robert Ashworth and Lauren Alcorn.
JEWEL HEIST: Eight men have been charged with conspiracy to burgle in relation to the raid on the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Company. The oldest is 74.
LIBOR FIXING: The trial of Tom Hayes, formerly of UBS and Citigroup, has begun at Southwark Crown Court. Mr Hayes is charged with conspiracy to defraud in connection with the manipulation of LIBOR. He denies the charges.
MATHS: A report by the OECD says that Britain has a significant share of young people lacking basic skills and suggests that Britain should provide opportunities for adult education. British graduates have very poor maths skills in comparison with their peers in other countries.
CHLORINE THREAT: Colonel de Bretton-Gordon:, former commanding officer of the Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Regiment has urged the government to restrict the sale of chlorine to prevent its use in a chemical attack by terrorists.
CYCLING: According to a study by the RAC Foundation and the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, major injuries among cyclists have increased by 38% since 2009. Other major road injuries have declined.
GLOBAL WARMING: Temperatures this year are expected to reach a record high and Arctic winter ice was at its lowest recorded level.
ASSISTED DEATH: Jeffrey Spector, 54,, has travelled to Switzerland with his family to end his life because of the prospect of being paralysed from the neck downwards by a tumour. Mr Spector said that if the UK law had been different, so that those assisting his suicide would not be liable to prosecution, he could have postponed his decision.
OXFORD MURDERS: The body of Jed Allen, wanted in connection with the deaths of his mother, her partner and their daughter, has been found in Oxford.
CRICKET: In the first game of a two test match series England beat New Zealand at Lord’s by 124 runs.
OXFORD UNIVERSITY: Students at Oxford University have voted by a large majority to continue to wear academic dress for examinations.
HENRY I: Archaeologist are proposing to survey a part of the ruins of Reading Abbey, which is now buried beneath a school and a car park, in the hope of finding the tomb of Henry I
28 May 2015
by R J Thomas
It’s not been a good decade for the BBC. Leaving aside the embarrassment and trauma of the Jimmy Savile debacle, the searing competition from the satellite broadcasters who have got their acts together to produce very fine critically acclaimed drama and high quality news operations, and the flourishing of the Murdoch cheque book which has steadily sucked the nations’ major sporting events to Sky, the Beeb is suffering a major erosion of talent from both in front of and behind the camera. The many attacks on the Corporation for paying salaries that are too high has meant that for the jobs that matter the BBC does not pay enough, and that is inevitably starting to show in the quality of programming. The BBC Trust, which was intended to give a high level tone and guidance to the whole enterprise, to be an effective self-regulator, has not worked and continues to flap and flounder. And all that is sapping Auntie’s audience numbers and her traditional high standing as the nation’s broadcaster of choice .
Now the Beeb faces what may be its worst nightmare – a Conservative government with a working majority. And furthermore, a Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport , John Whittingdale, who has long taken a particular interest in the affairs of the BBC. Mr Whittingdale’s particular interest is of course not in spending evenings watching BBC1 and listening to Radio 2 in the bath. His concern is more over how the BBC is run, its commercial activities, the role of the BBC Trust, and, closest to home, its alleged bias against the Tory party and the right hand side of politics in general. In this latter, Mr Whittingdale has the enthusiastic (possibly dangerously over–enthusiastic) support of many Conservative back benchers and, more judiciously, many front benchers as well.
There can be little question that in the broadest terms there is a underlying, let us not call it bias, but perhaps orientation to the left around the august halls of Broadcasting House. It is the same as found in the hip Kings Cross offices of the Guardian, and also in those of the Times, the Independent, and probably even Sky and the Telegraph. Those who work in the media tend to a vaguely left liberal view of the world, in much the same way as the Metropolitan policeman on the beat has not been noted for his inclusive and ethnic minority-friendly views, and City bankers tend not to be socialists.
Of course, the BBC does not consciously promote a particular view of the world, indeed it takes great care not to, knowing how dangerous that could turn out to be. But it’s mindset shows through. It is not given to sympathise with the Conservative Party, let alone UKIP. Indeed, it was more than a little obvious during the election campaign that the BBC struggles to believe that any reasonable person would take UKIP seriously.
Mr Whittingdale is an intelligent man, who thinks before he speaks and is not out to wreck the present generally cross-party cultural regime. He knows that allegations of media bias will always be a touchstone of political life, and that attempts to de-liberalise the BBC could rebound on the press under a future leftist Labour government.
His concerns are much more the future of a state owned and controlled broadcaster in a time of intense and easy-access media. The BBC model and in particular the way in which it is financed is something which governments have failed to tackle for many years, seeing it as a problem to which the solution may well become more controversial than the problem. But the concept of having a compulsory levy on all persons who could watch the BBC, even if they chose never to do so, looks very odd when there are a hundred channels of TV which will show the eager viewer almost anything he should desire. That surely means the licence fee cannot last much longer. Easy to say, but not so easy to devise the alternative.The public retain a great affection for the BBC, to which we nearly all turn on occasions of great moment and national celebration or adversity. The thought of the state opening of Parliament interrupted by 15 minute advertising breaks is not likely to meet with approval, and the introduction of pay-as-you-view or subscription only BBC would create a firestorm equivalent to charging for the NHS, and lead inevitably to further dumbing down of the broadcast quality. Which leads to another issue.
The BBC has become enormous; it has not only the four main TV channels and their spin offs, but four main national radio stations, a number of specialist radio channels, and then a massive array of regional TV sub-networks and radio stations. Free to listen and view, these have decimated local competition not just in viewing and listening but also in local newspapers. The days of the well written daily or weekly regional newspaper – the Yorkshire Evening Press or Western Free Press – is drawing rapidly to a close, and those local newsgroups who own them bitterly blame the BBC’s free news broadcasting for their demise. That might have happened anyway, but it is certainly odd to have a corporation funded by compulsory public levy which has such a vigorous range of commercial activities. The Beeb has major businesses in retailing programme cd’s, in programme making, in music and book publishing, mostly very profitable (and, the BBC argues, significantly contributing to the core broadcasting mission). It is as if the National Trust had expanded its retail activities to compete head on with John Lewis and Debenhams by increasing its membership subscriptions to do it.
If any person should appear today, in 2015, and suggest that the government should establish a state owned media group, such a concept would be howled down in derision and dissent. But the UK already has one and, for all the muttering and grumbling, the BBC has worked and is still widely admired at home and around the world. The problem is the flab that it now carries around its core mission of being a public service broadcaster. And maybe that is how the whole problem might be best addressed. The commercial audience-number-driven popular channels can be hived off into a commercial for profit business with shareholders or stakeholders, and all the attendant localist and publishing empire also spun off and broken up. That would leave the BBC as it used to be, making the sort of programmes that are not commercially viable but which a civilised society ought to produce as a record of its higher aspirations and evidence of the continuing proof of striving for excellence. That would enable the licence fee to be cut to a modest amount which no doubt would produce grumblings about elitism, but hopefully only minor grumblings. And even the most wild eyed of Tory MPs would not worry about political bias on something which consisted mainly of BBC 2 and Radios 3 and 4.
28 May 2015
THE PROPERTY MARKET: The De Montfort Report, the comprehensive annual survey of debt trends in the UK commercial property market has been published. This long running report, compiled by De Montfort University by analysis of detailed returns from what is believed to be around 90% of property debt providers (by value) in the market, measures not just the amount of debt deployed but also looks at trends in leverage, pricing, sectors, and intentions for the next year. The newly issued report for 2014 shows a sharp uplift in the amount of new debt coming into the market, up 50% to £45bn. This figure has to be treated with a little caution; it includes renewals by lenders of loans that have reached maturity. Bank’s holdings of defaulted loans have more than halved to £21bn. All this shows the recovery from the 2008 property crash is strongly underway.
What may be worrying bankers is the growth in the amount of debt now provided by non-bank lenders, now over 20% of all new money. This is coming from various sources, led by the insurers who are keen to find new instruments with better yields now that conventional investments pay such meagre returns. Also prominent in the pack of new boys are the debt funds, typically USA owned, unregulated, and very swift on their feet. They have realised that buying debt can offer the opportunity to layer funds – so that risk reflects the return aspirations of sophisticated institutional and private investors – and all without having to own the properties which underlie the debt instruments.
The Bank of England may also be reflecting on the De Montfort report. Practically all the participants reported that they wished and intended to increase their activity in the market in 2015. Whilst that aids recovery, it may also be the sign of a bubble starting to grow in the turbulent cyclical oceans of the property business – one of the main drivers of value growth tends to be the supply of money invested in the market and the Bank will be closely watching what is happening to yields on property. Further falls not justified by an expectation of rental growth could spell forthcoming trouble.
EDF TACKLES PRODUCTIVITY: EDF, the 85% French government owned giant power utility, which is a major operator of nuclear power stations and has a leading presence in UK energy supply, has opened negotiations with its 30,000 office and administration employees to increase the number of working hours they spend in the office. Currently the white collar work force is contractually bound to work 35 hours per week (though many work slightly more in return for longer holidays – not untypically, ten weeks). What EDF would like is to increase the current 196 average days worked to 212, in return for a salary increase of around 5%, or one off payments of about €10,000. It seems unlikely that this is a battle that will be easily won, but it is assumed that this stance has not been taken without committed backing from the government of Francois Hollande. The unions have strongly resisted a similar move in the French health service, with several major strikes already and more planned. The utility unions are promising the same for the utility sector, a move which could, if prolonged, start to impact the UK’s power supplies.
HOUSEBUILDING: Since the election most of Britain’s major housebuilders have announced intentions to step up the number of houses they build. The share prices of the major quoted builders have been one of the major winners on the LSE in the last couple of weeks, reflecting a good outlook and a strong economy. However, housebuilding is not something where the supply tap can just be turned on. One of the major constraints is the basic one of supply of land. The housebuilders used to own large land banks, but that brought most of them to their knees in the recession of 1999, and now they try to buy options to produce future supply, whilst they get planning consent and wait for a favourable market. But planning is a contentious issue. Most local residents almost anywhere seem to feel they want more housing – but not near them. Even for land which is already zoned for housing, getting outline and then detailed consent can take two to three years – and for unzoned land it can easily be seven years and up.
And, even for those housebuilders which have got all their pieces of paper lined up and signed, there is currently another set of problems. Building materials are in short supply; bricks and concrete are on waiting lists, windows, especially if non-standard, can take up to six months. And it is difficult to get the specialised labour force to work to the required standards. As many of the most skilled are from eastern Europe, immigration controls are yet another worry on the residential developer’s worry list.
RYANAIR: For the last thirty years the cheap service airline we all love to hate has been at least delighting investors with excellent returns. Now Ryanair is taking a new customer friendly approach to bring back those customers who were tired of spartan service and hidden charges – and it is paying off. Net profit for 2014 is up to €867m, from €523m the previous year. This is from both enhanced revenue per passenger, but also from an 11% rise in passenger numbers. And the outlook is more of the same – projections are of rising numbers, and of falling costs – as long as the oil price stays in its present trading band.
HARD WORK: “Hard work never hurt anybody,” said President Reagan “But I figured, why take the chance?” Now the President’s theory as to the benefits of plenty of rest has been proven by a study by Cambridge University for the health insurance company Vitality Health; the most productive employees are those who get at least seven hours of sleep each night. Even better: smoking, over-eating, and boozing has no discernible effect on output if the workforce is getting that vital seven hours. Preferably at night at home though – not in company time.
KEY MARKET INDICES: (at 26 May 2015; comments refer to change on week; $ is US$)
Bank rate: £ 0.5%, unchanged: 3 month 0.55% (slight decline); 5 year 1.44% (slight decline).
From this week we include €: 1 month -0.1%; 3 month -0.45%; 5 year 0.27%.
And US$: 1 month 0.22%; 3 month 0.38%; 5 year 1.66%
Short term US$ rates have wide spreads e.g, 25bps at 3 months; but for the hard pressed depositor better than the negative yields on short term € – you pay the bank for its trouble!
£/Euro: 1.41, £ slightly stronger
£/$: 1.54, $ improving against most currencies
Gold oz: $1204, falling back
Oil, Brent Crude: $65.52, continues trading within recent patterns
London Stock Exchange: FTSE 100: 6996. FTSE 350: 3867
Key indicators continue stable, no doubt due to the confidence given by the election outcome, recent trading results, and even half term!