Issue 101: 2017 04 20: Contents

20 April 2017: Issue 101


The week’s news

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Pigeon perched on the head of the statue of St Peter in the Iglesia de San Pedro, Arcos de la Frontera, Andalusia

A pigeon contemplates St Peter, Inglesia de San Pedro, Arcos de la Frontera, Andalusia

Le Dilemme Des Citoyens Et Citoyennes by Richard Pooley

Game theory and the French elections.

Draining The Swamp by John Watson

Mrs May’s appeal to the people.

Mental Health by Lynda Goetz

An important issue but over-reacting will not be helpful.

Erdogan’s Uneasy Triumph by Neil Tidmarsh

Yet another crisis for Turkey.

Cracking Eggs With Donald by J.R.Thomas

What'll get students reading? - a cartoonPresident Trump’s Easter message.

Libor-ed Into Lowballing by Frank O’Nomics

Time for the Bank of England to celebrate its role in saving our financial system?


England Expects by J R Thomas

A visit to Cape Trafalgar.

Images From The Past by Chin Chin

And feet.


Love In Idleness (Terence Rattigan)

Menier Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Puzzles and Cartoons

Crossword by Boffles: “Down To The Pub.”

Solution to the last crossword “Tarts”

Cartoons by AGGro.

Earlier EditionsLarge 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 96: 16 March 2017

Issue 97: 23 March 2017

Issue 98: 30 March 2017

Issue 99: 06 April 2017

Issue 100: 13 April 2017

Issue 102: 2017 04 27: Earth Nearly Flattened (Chin Chin)

27 April 2017

Earth Nearly Flattened

Military response needed.

By Chin Chin

So they have had another go.  Just over a week ago, Asteroid 2014 JO25, over a kilometre across and travelling at 75,000 mph, missed the Earth by just over 1,000,000 miles, a near miss for a projectile of that size.  This lump of rock, known to the little green men as the Mother of All Asteroids or “MOAA”, will not be back for at least 500 years; so presumably the idiots who fired it wide have some explaining to do to their supreme leader.  They have probably already been executed.

It isn’t the first time, of course (and by that I mean it isn’t the first time we have had a lump of rock fired at us – I’m not suggesting the same little green men have been executed twice) because they had a go at the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2013.  Then it was a meteor which exploded over the city injuring 1400 people.  Look it up on the Internet if you want full details, but even at a glance they are pretty dramatic.  The light from the explosion was brighter than the sun.  The airburst penetrated to more than 16 miles.  The energy released was about 30 times that resulting from the Hiroshima bomb.  All that may be impressive, but it is also a little worrying.  The Chelyabinsk meteor was only 20 metres across and flying at just under 43,000 mph.  That is much smaller and slower than last week’s effort, so you can’t help feeling that we have had a narrow squeak and that MOAA will be reprogrammed and sent back for another go in 500 years’ time.

Now five hundred years seems a long time away.  Go back 500 years in history and Henry VIII was still with his first wife.  Still, when a deadline is coming up, time can move surprisingly fast.  Those last few weeks before tax returns fall due, for example.  One minute, there are three months to go.  The next, it is 30 January and you are grabbing desperately for pieces of paper.  500 years may seem a long time now but I think we had best get going.

That is all very well, but what should we do?  A pre-emptive strike seems the right thing.  Let’s “take care of it” by whacking them before they have learnt how to deliver an asteroid on target.  Obviously we cannot send a carrier group to another galaxy, so it has to be some sort of spaceship.  Maybe that one called “Tardis” which looks like a telephone box from the outside…  Oh, I think I hear the telephone ringing.  Excuse me.  I must just answer it.

“Who are you please?  You have interrupted my writing.”


“You must know who I am.  You rang me.  Tell me who you are.”

“I am Who”

“Look, I really haven’t time to play some silly guessing game.  Just tell me who you are.”

“I am Doctor Who and I have rung to tell you that the word “Tardis” is copyright protected as is the telephone box idea.  If they are going to launch a spaceship to save the world they’ll just have to disguise it as something else.”

Ok.  Well, in that case we’ll disguise the spaceship as a portaloo and call it “the Turdis”.  That should foil the copyright lawyers.  Hopefully it will foil the little green men as well since they will be expecting a telephone box.  We might even manage to catch them with their trousers down.

However, it is not just a question of dispatching a spaceship and supporting flotilla.  You have to decide where to send it all to.  That might not matter too much initially; precedent favours sending a strikeforce off in the wrong direction to begin with.  Still, in the end it has to arrive at the right planet and one of the difficulties is that we don’t yet know which one that is.  Or to be more accurate, we didn’t.  But this week, bang on cue, scientists have discovered a new planet, euphoniously named LHS 1140b, which has enough liquid to support life.  Of course that doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the home of the little green men but I suspect that the scientists are telling us much less than they know.  In fact Jason Dittmann of the Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics in Massachusetts rather gave the game away by saying “we could hardly hope for a better target to perform one of the biggest quests in science, searching for evidence of life beyond Earth.”

That’s exactly it, a “target”.  They have found the nest of the little green men and in his heart Mr Dittmann knows it.  Now we know where to send the spaceship, although I don’t suppose that it will be entirely straightforward.  That little “b” at the end of the planet name suggests a problem.  Anyone who lives in North London will tell you that a suffix like that means a flat so we can expect the home of our trigger-happy asteroid launching friends to be sandwiched between LHS 1140a and LHS1140c, each a law-abiding planet of the greatest rectitude.  How like modern terrorists to embed themselves between innocent civilians.

Still, technology is advancing and, as LHS1140b is 40 light years away, we have 460 years in which to develop it.  By then we should be able to produce portaloos which can strike with surgical accuracy, destroying the guilty and sparing the innocent.

Although 460 years is probably enough, the risk is that the green men send agents provocateurs to disrupt the development of our response.  Probably they are already among us.  America and Russia are now each accusing the other of interfering in elections.  More likely that work is being done by beings from another galaxy, disguised to look like us so that no one notices them.  When you think about it, there are quite a few politicians who would look more natural with aerials coming out of their heads, and that suggests a test which could become a feature of election campaigns.  Show the candidates on television with the addition of aerials and then speaking in a Dalek voice.  The public would soon be able to sort the sheep from the goats; in any case it would be a great deal more amusing than televised debates.


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Issue 102:2017 04 27: Chinglish (Adam McCormack)

27 April 2017


The Park Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Star rating: ****

The strap line of: “The first rule of doing business in China…always bring your own translator,” fits well with a play that derives great humour from the discomfort and consequences of mistranslation.  But what makes this play especially compelling is not inadvertent mistakes, but the underlying motives and hidden agendas of each of the protagonists.  To what extent can they use the language barrier, and cultural differences, to further their own aims?

Daniel (Gyuri Sarossy) is an American businessman under pressure to generate a significant order for his struggling family business which produces signage.  He is new to this, having been part of the fall-out from the Enron scandal.  China is seen as the big opportunity, but business negotiations present great challenges in terms of culture and communication.  Daniel employs an English teacher, Peter, as his translator, but Peter also has underlying motives, aspiring to business consultancy rather than just teaching and translation.  On the other side of negotiations is a local party official, Cai (Lobo Chan) who is charged with developing a new cultural centre, which will need signage.  While appearing to be receptive (he is indebted to “Teacher Peter”) he has already promised the deal to a relative.  He is also being advised by Xi Yan (Candy Ma), who appears to bring steely resilience to the sales process, but is really monitoring the behavior of Cai, who the party sees as ineffective in his role.  Negotiations are further complicated by Xi Yan’s seduction of Daniel – is this because she is in an unhappy marriage, keen to help Daniel, or are there other motives?

This is the European premiere of a Broadway hit comedy by David Henry Hwang and the pace and craftingof the wordplay make for a highly entertaining production.  Duncan Harte as Teacher Peter gives a stand out performance that few, given the need for fluency in Chinese, could deliver, and Candy Ma is perfect in enrapturing both Daniel and the audience.  The play does hint at the darker side of government control in China, but never seeks to be anything more than a comedy; those seeking the former kind of production are better off watching Chimerica.  This play is much more about seeing the humour to be found in a clash of cultures and in reading between the lines of human behaviour.  It surely merits a West End transfer.

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Issue 102:2017 04 27:Slaves of the machine (Part II) (Neil Tidmarsh)

27 April 2017

Slaves Of The Machine (Part II)

An epic and extraordinary journey through a hostile sci-fi universe.

By Neil Tidmarsh

I’ve seen the future, and it’s a right cock-up.  Machine-driven, yes, but get this – the machines have turned into humans, and the humans have turned into machines.

Strictly speaking, I haven’t seen the future – I’ve heard it, I’ve spoken to it. Anyone can – just ‘phone 0343 2222222.  Some of you might recognise that number (yes, I can hear your moans of anguish and screams of terror), but for those of you who don’t know it, who even now are reaching for your phones to experience the future in all its weird science-fiction madness, I should warn you.  This is the number of none other than (I hesitate, trembling with horror as I brace myself to spell it out) – Congestion Charging London.

I drove in central London last Friday, so I owed Congestion Charging £5.75. (I live inside the zone, so I get a resident’s 90% discount; that should actually translate to £1.15 for one day, but understandably they don’t want to mess around with such paltry sums, so the resident has to pay for at least a week – that’s £5.75 – even if he drives for only one day.  I have no complaint about that – I’m well past caring about such trifling injustices – £5.75 is still less than the £11.50 non-residents have to pay for a day, and much less than the £57.50 they have to pay for a week).

So I phone that number and follow the familiar route through the many-layered and many-optioned menus of its automated system.  Yes, I want to pay the charge.  Yes, I am registered.  I input my account number.  I input the pin number.  No, I don’t want to pay for today only (spot the logic-gap there; I do want to pay for today only, but if I choose that option here, the system will calculate the sum owing as £1.15 and then collapse into a hissing, sparking, smoking heap of over-heated silicon chips when it tries to process the payment).  No, I don’t want to pay for tomorrow.  No, I don’t want to pay for yesterday.  Yes, I do want to pay for some other period.  Yes, I do want to pay for a week.  Starting today, Friday 21 April.

A moment’s pause while the machine calculates the amount owing.  Nearly there now.  In just a moment, I’ll be free.  I’ll be £5.75 poorer, but I’ll have paid my debt and I can move on.

The machine speaks.  “£57.50” it says.

What?  No, that’s wrong.  That’s the weekly rate for a non-resident.  This hasn’t happened before. What’s going on?  I must have made a mistake.  I must have pressed the wrong button, chosen the wrong option…

I hang up and try again.  Account number, pin number, yes, no, no, no, yes, etc, etc.  And the amount owing is…


So I haven’t made a mistake.  The mistake must be elsewhere.  It must be the machine’s mistake…

It’s then that I have that revelatory glimpse of the machine.  I see him cleary, in my mind’s eye.  He’s no longer a machine, oh no, he’s a human being at its most human – lazy, stupid, inefficient.  He’s slouching in his chair, his are feet up on his desk.  He can’t be bothered to get this right.  It’s Friday evening, he’s pissed off that everyone else is down the pub and he’s still stuck here, on the last shift of the week.  There’s a fag in his hand, the top buttons of his shirt are undone, his tie is hanging loose, his eyes are on the clock.  No, he’ll be buggered if he’s going to make an effort at this end of the day.

I hang up and try again, this time choosing an option to speak to a real human operative.

“No-there-is-no-fault-on-your-account,” I am told.  “You-are-still-registered-as-a-resident.  Yes-there-is-a-fault-in-the-system. No-I-cannot-change-the-system.  No-I-cannot-help-you.  You-owe-£5.75-but-you-must-pay-£57.50.”

What? Can’t you just take payment for £5.75?”


Ok. I wait to be connected.  It’s getting late, I’m tired, I’ve been on the road all day, there’s washing to do, ironing to do, food to buy, a meal to cook, the last episode of Decline and Fall to be watched (already two weeks old and about to disappear from catch-up for ever).  But I wait, patiently, because we’re nearly there…

Connected at last. But my heart sinks when I realise that I’m back in the automated system.  Never mind, it’ll be different this time.  I go through the menus again, and at last the automated voice tells me that I owe


The machine takes a drag on his fag.  His feet are still up on his desk.  He looks me straight in the eye, and a ‘give-a-shit’ smirk spreads across his stupid face.  He blows out a cloud of noxious smoke and slowly raises his fag-free hand to give me the middle finger.

My whole being begins to throb with fury.  I hang up and try again, once more choosing to speak to a ‘human’ operative.

“Yes-there-is-a-fault-in-the-system.  No-I-cannot-help-you.  No-I-cannot-change-the-system.  The-payment-lines-are-no-longer-open.  Call-back-tomorrow-and-we-will-take-payment-then.”

Hang on a second, I say.  I have to pay today or I’ll be penalised for late payment.  If I leave it until tomorrow, I’ll be charged an extra ten quid, nearly, for being overdue.  I’ll have to pay £14.  And that will cover just the one day itself, not even the full week.

“No. I-assure-you-that-will-not-happen.  I-have-put-a-note-in-your-records.  You-will-have-to-pay-only-£5.75.”

I phone back the next morning.  I explain the situation.

“You-are-one-day-overdue,” the ‘human’ says.  “You-must-now-pay-£14.  For-the-day-only.  The-resident’s-weekly-charge-is-no-longer-available-because-you-are-a-day-late.”

I want to scream, shout, kill something.  But I bite my tongue and sit still.  Don’t lose your temper with them, I tell myself.  They can’t help it.  It isn’t their fault.  You are a victim of the machine, but they are its slaves.  They’ve been its captives for so long that they’ve turned into machines themselves.  Poor bastards.  I explain everything again to this particular poor bastard, as clearly as I can.

“There-is-a-fault-in-the-system.  I-cannot-change-the-system.  I-cannot-help-you.  You-must-now-pay-£14.  You-can-write-to-us-and-appeal-for-a-refund-if-you-wish.”

An appeal?  I see the machine – the system – the master of the poor human-turned-robot I’m talking to – standing bleary-eyed and naked in a bathroom.  This is Saturday morning, after all.  He’s pale-skinned, pot-bellied, skinny-shouldered.  In one hand he holds the first fag of the day – he takes a drag on it and convulses in a bout of gut-wrenching coughs – and in the other he holds a sheet of paper.  It’s my appeal, which I’ve submitted in an alternate reality where I’m even more naïve than I am in this one.  He reads it slowly.  He scratches his head, ignorance and stupidity furrowing his primitive brows.  Then he wipes his backside with the appeal and flushes it down the toilet.

Is there someone else I can talk to, I ask?  Your supervisor, perhaps?  Your manager?

A pause, then a team leader comes on the line.  “I-cannot-help-you,” he says.  “There-is-a-fault-in-the-system.  I-cannot-change-the-system.  You-must-pay-£14.”

Something explodes in my head.  I’m blinded by a red mist of rage, deafened by a blast of anger.  I don’t know what I say (I fear the worse, but my wife – who couldn’t help overhearing – assured me later that I was spookily calm and polite, perfectly coherent and articulate) but there’s a pause as the team leader goes off to confer with yet another poor bastard.

“Someone-will-call-you-on-Monday” he says when he returns.  “We-have-your-land-line-number-and-your-mobile-number.”

I breathe out slowly.  “Thank you.”  I’m about to hang up when one other thing occurs to me.  “By the way, when the automated system asks for my pin number, it won’t accept my pin number.  It will only accept my wife’s pin number, presumably because she is the actual account holder?”

“Yes. That-is-correct.”

“Ok.  Then perhaps that option should be changed so that it does accept any valid pin number on that account?  Or, if that’s too complicated, then surely it would be simple enough to change the message from ‘Now enter your pin number’ to ‘Now enter the account holder’s pin number’ ?”

“No. I-cannot-help-you.  It-is-another-fault-in-the-system-but-I-cannot-change-the-system.”

I hang up quickly before another explosion can tear my head open.

Monday morning.  No call.  Monday afternoon: silence.  What’s going on?  Amazingly, they are trying to call me – but, predictably, they’ve got the wrong number.  I learn later that they input one digit wrong in our land-line number when setting up our account.  But late afternoon an urgent message does reach me in a round-about way too complicated to go into here.  Someone called Richard (name changed to protect the whatever) – didn’t give a surname – from Congestion Charging is trying to contact me.  He’s left a number for me to call back.  Oh good, a direct line number?  No. An extension number?  No.  Oh God, no, it’s that 0343 2222222.  Nevertheless I grit my teeth and make the call.  I fight my way through the automated menu.  And then:

“We’re sorry to keep you waiting.  Please continue to hold.  We expect to answer your call in – more than ten minutes.”

I wait. The minutes grind by.  The message repeats itself a dozen times, two dozen times.  And then a real human voice:

“Our-system-is-down. I-am-unable-to-open your-file-while-system-updates-take-place.  I-can-only-answer-general-queries.”

But I have a specific query, I say.  An urgent one.

“Then-I-cannot-help-you.  You-must-ring-back-in-an-hour-when-the-system-updates-have-completed.  Good-bye.”

The machine – the system – has passed out after a three-hour lunch-break down at the pub.  There he is, under his desk, snoring and farting away, flat out in a puddle of vomit.

I hang up.  An hour passes.  My blood-pressure rises.  I phone again.  I fight my way through the automated menu.  Again.  Then “We’re sorry to keep you waiting.  Please continue to hold.  We expect to answer your call in – more than six minutes.”  Oh God. And then, finally, I’m through to a human being.  “Richard” I gasp.  “I must speak to Richard.  He asked me to call back.  It’s urgent – ”

“Who-is-Richard?  I-do-not-know-Richard.  There-are-many-people-working-here.  Which-one-is-Richard?  I-cannot-tell-who-is-Richard.”

I ask – none too politely, none too quietly – to speak to a manager, a supervisor, someone who might know the names of the people who work for him.

“I-cannot-transfer-you-to-a-higher-level-without-authorisation. The-system – “

I hang up before I can say anything I regret, though I suspect I’ve already said it.  I wait, calm down a bit, then phone again.  I am at least calm enough to give my account number and pin number to the woman who answers.  She examines the notes on my file and puts me on hold while she makes enquiries.  I wait.  And wait.  She returns.  Richard, she has discovered, works in another department, in the payment department.  She transfers my call. I wait.  And then;

“ – – – – – – – – -“

Someone – Richard? – is trying to talk to me, but I can barely hear him.  The line is too faint.  He raises his voice until he must be shouting, and I can just about hear him apologising for the bad line, telling me to hang up and he’ll call me back.  And indeed he does, straight away.

“Good-afternoon.  My-name-is-Richard-“

No. Stop.  That isn’t right.  I don’t want to take the piss any more.  Richard isn’t a robot.  He’s a human being.  In fact, he turns out to be a representative of humanity at its very best.  Caught between an enraged and deranged customer shouting at him on one side, and an inefficient, inflexible and yet unchallengeable Stalinist system on the other, he remains miraculously calm, polite, efficient and helpful.  He’s ready to take my payment. But:

“That’ll be £6.90” he says.

What? But I only owe £5.75!

“I’m afraid the only way to get it through the system now is to pay £1.15 for last Friday, and then £5.75 for a week starting today.”

For a moment I’m tempted.  What’s an extra £1.15?  Isn’t it worth paying, just to get this over and done with?  To escape from this nightmare?  To stop losing time?  God, I must have wasted whole days on this farce…  But then the red mist rises.  No!  Don’t let them get away with it!  It’s a matter of principle!  I owe no more than £5.75! I will not pay more than £5.75!  I will not give way to extortion!

I’m aware that I’m shouting again, and I suspect that I’m barely coherent.

“All right” Richard says uncertainly.  “Let me discuss this with someone else.  I’ll just put you on hold for a moment.”

He puts me on hold – and the line goes dead.  I stare at the phone in disbelief.

The system grins drunkenly, and gives me the middle finger again.

That’s the last I hear from Richard, I think.

But the phone rings almost immediately.  It is indeed Richard.  He apologises, and says “Right, ok, I’ll take your payment of £5.75, if you’re ready.”

At last!  At last!  A miracle!  But he doesn’t sound too sure of himself.  Am I about to fall into a trap?  The machine – the system – has turned his back on me.  I can’t see what he’s doing but I can hear his imbecile giggling.  I suspect that he’s preparing a nice juicy penalty notice for me, which he’ll hit me with in a week or two’s time, fining me hundreds of quid for late payment, or incorrect payment, or…

Are you sure?  I say.

He’s not sure.  Wait, he says, I’m just going to put you on hold while I double check.

I wait, on hold, and then he returns.

“All right” he says.  “This is what we’re going to do.  We’ll take a payment of £1.15 off you – that’ll pay for last Friday.  But last Friday only.  You’ll have to pay separately for this week if that’s what you want.”

I think about it as it slowly sinks in.  That’s fair.  That’s reasonable.  And I’m not really bothered about this week, only last Friday.  I’m willing to pay £5.75, but if there’s no other way…

So I pay £1.15.  He takes my card details and we’re done.

I thank him and say goodbye, but he has one last suggestion.  He recommends that I sign up for Autopayment.  For £10 a year, the system would automatically take payment whenever it saw my car out on the street in the zone.  I wouldn’t have to bother with paying by phone or on-line; I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting to pay and incurring a penalty; and best of all it would charge by the day, not by the week.

I’m tempted.  It would save me a lot of money and bother.  And then I catch one last glimpse of the machine, the system.  He’s nodding eagerly, grinning and leering at me, his eyes gleaming with a stupid peasant’s greed and cunning.  With one hand he’s giving me the thumbs up, with the other he’s gesturing to me to give him my credit card.

I laugh.  How can I trust a system which has been fighting me tooth and nail for the last three days, trying to take money off me which I don’t owe it?  No thanks.  Goodbye.

And that was that.  At last.  Unless of course a penalty notice hits me in a week or two’s time, fining me for not paying the full £5.75, or being late, or…

The irony is that I approve of congestion charging.  I’m one of its few champions.  I live in central London so I support anything which might improve the air quality here.  I hardly ever drive; I travel by bus (which congestion charging subsidises) or by that other miracle of Transport For London, Santander bikes.  By the way, it always amazes me that those two bodies – congestion charging and bike hire – are complete opposites as organisations while both being under the same Transport For London umbrella.  If you phone up bike hire with a problem, they’ll solve it straight away.  They’re efficient, enabled, flexible, customer-leaning, service-oriented.  Whereas Congestion Charging is… well, don’t get me going again.

I caught that last episode of Decline and Fall on the BBC iPlayer in the end (there – not all machines are bad, are they?).  I was pleased that the TV adaptation had more heart and warmth than the original  – I’ve always found Waugh’s humour just a bit too cold and cruel.  But then I wondered what that savage bad-tempered old satirist would have made of congestion charging for London.

He’d have torn it to bits and buried it six feet under.  And it would have served it right.

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Issue 102:2017 04 27:Graduates of the UK unite! (Frank O’Nomics)

27 April 2017

Graduates of the UK unite!

Repay student loans by whatever means possible.

By Frank O’Nomics

Are student loans the latest financial product to be mis-sold?  Those who thought they were borrowing cheap money to finance their university education are in for a big shock this September when, for some, the interest rate they pay on the debt will rise to 6.1%.  This is hardly cheap money when it is possible to get a fixed rate mortgage for 2yrs at just over 1% (APRC 3.4%), and even the average standard variable rate is currently only 4.59%.  Given that it is highly unlikely that bringing a case of mis-selling against the Department for Education will provide any joy, the question is: what should graduates do about this expensive millstone?

First some further harsh facts.  Student loans carry an interest rate of RPI until a graduate earns £21,000 and thereafter there is a sliding scale until earnings exceed £41,000, when the interest rate is RPI +3%.  The RPI used to set this level is that for March, which was 3.1% this year, hence the higher rate band of 6.1% (up from 4.6%) from September.  The indexing of debt starts from the point at which the loan is taken out, so students suffer from a debt increasing (arguably at a rate greater than the cost of living) for at least 3 years before they start their careers.  Quite why RPI, rather than CPI, was chosen is interesting, given that, typically, CPI is 0.7% lower than RPI (it is currently 0.8% lower).  On a compound basis this makes a big difference, and is at odds with the fact that CPI is used to index benefits such as pensions under the “triple-lock”.  It would seem that the choice of index is carefully selected to the advantage of the government.  Further, it was expected that the trigger salary for starting repayments would rise with inflation, but the £21,000 was frozen for 5 years in 2015, so there will be no respite until 2020.  The Department for Education points out that repayments are fixed at 9% of the excess in pay over £21,000, so there is no cost of living impact on graduates, but the point is that it will take them longer to pay off their debts as RPI (plus up to 3%) continues to increase them.

The average student debt incurred by students in England and Wales is £44,000.  Repayments on debts of this size will reduce scope for building savings for contingencies or a deposit for a home purchase, let alone putting anything into a pensions plan.  In looking at what can be done to address this issue we can probably rule out that of not taking out the loans in the first place – few will be able to afford to self-fund through university; and moving to Scotland (where university fees are paid for by the Scottish government for Scottish residents) might be an extreme measure for many.  One alternative is to pay off as much of the debt as you can afford sooner, rather than just at the 9% level set by the government.  Graduates should ask themselves whether they are confident of finding a better return for their money than 6.1%.  Many saving products have consistently beaten this rate of return, but there are clearly timing, and fund selection risks associated with investing to build a sum to repay the debt in the future.

One alternative solution is to borrow the money to repay the debt. The danger here is that you are just swapping one loan for another and, while you may be able to negotiate a rate better than 6.1% the benefits could be fleeting if inflation falls or interest rates rise. The big difference comes if you can borrow the money from a relative – more commonly known as the bank of mum and dad.  Current interest rates on deposits are very low and even if one achieves 0.5%, that still leaves the cost of student debt some 24 times higher.  If parents have sums in low interest bearing savings accounts, lending them to their children would seem to have little opportunity cost.  Graduates can use the money to repay student loans and then either repay their parents gradually over time, or start a savings plan to build up a sum to repay the whole amount at a point in the future.  With this route the investment plan looks more interesting.  The average annual return on some investment trusts over the last 25 years have been as much as 9%.  The prospect of this kind of return leads to the possibility of repaying the loan from your parents far more quickly than you would the student loan, or having an excess amount that can be used for a house purchase or a pension plan.  There are clearly two issues with this approach; first, you need someone who has the funds to lend, and secondly, both parties need to be aware that there will be risks that the investments do not deliver the returns as quickly as they have previously.

These are not the only possibilities of course.  The problem goes away if young people decide not to go to university – and there is justifiable concern that, once graduates are hit with the new interest rates in September, many prospective students will look for work instead.  Secondly, student debts are written off after 30 years.  Those earning less than £21,000 will pay nothing, but even those who currently earn around £29,000 will still not have paid off all of their debt by the time 30 years are up.  That itself is a sobering statistic, given that £29,000 is above current average earnings.

What are the prospects for change? Ultimately the £21,000 should be indexed, and there is a strong argument for shifting the index for repayments to CPI, but the millstone that Mike Wilson of Henderson described as “the silent killer of savings, spending and hope” looks set to dog the millennial generation for a lifetime – unless they find a way of repaying it early.

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Issue 102:2017 04 27;Keeping the Sky the Limit (J.R.Thomas)

27 April 2017

Keeping the Sky the Limit

Ely and Seville.

by J.R.Thomas

Sometimes it is worth going to a lot of trouble just for a moment’s pleasure.  Any reader who wants to see one of the best views in England might, if they find themselves at a loose end and have spare money for a train fare, arrange to travel from East Anglia on that strange rural railway byway which winds through Thetford Forest and eventually gets the traveller to Cambridge.  But the object of the exercise is not Cambridge, but Ely; and not to even leave the train in Ely, but simply to look out of the right-hand side windows as the train passes through the long abandoned marshalling yard.

Not to look at rusting rails, but to raise your eyes to the heavens – for you will see what must be the best view (from public transport certainly) of any English cathedral.  Ely is one of our least known but most original and striking cathedrals, a monstrous galleon of stone carved into soaring fantasies.  If it is known at all, it is for a legendary tale that, if it happened, certainly did not happen in the present cathedral – the tale of Ely as the last redoubt of the Saxon, Hereward the Wake, in his defence against William the Conqueror.  Charles Kingsley, that great Victorian writer of stirring children’s literature, guaranteed to inflame the weakest patriotic instinct, retold this already exciting story with magnificent colour illustrations.  In his version Hereward retreats finally to the Isle of Ely, in the eleventh century still an island amongst ponds and reed beds linked by winding and obscure paths. When the Norman knights find their way through, Hereward makes for the top of the cathedral tower, which the knights burn – a tale which appeals to an early version of the Dunkirk spirit; a story for a nation which finds much glory in honourable defeat.  Some of it is true, so far as we can determine a thousand years later, but the cathedral bit certainly isn’t. The present building was begun shortly after Hereward’s time on the site of an older much smaller church.

Ely is one of the great medieval architectural glories of England, with two towers, the central octagon and the west tower, each reaching well over two hundred feet high and in their height and shape creating  a most distinctive skyline.  The building is enormous – to reflect its status in the eleventh and twelfth centuries as one of the most power bishoprics in England.  That was Ely’s highest point politically  and economically; then gradually the town declined into a forgotten backwater, and even the draining of the fens to form very productive agricultural land could not reverse its slow decline.  But that economic failure has left us with an aesthetic delight.  There is not a building in the little part-medieval, part-Georgian, town that is higher than four stories, and the cathedral soars above it all.  Soars, you might think, in status as well as physically.  Ely is not a prosperous town, its preservation reflecting poverty rather than, as at, for instance, Seville, a conscious urge to preserve a glorious past.  Ely’s ancient buildings are overlaid with alien modern tat, standard shop fascias and infillings of cheap modern machine brick.  But the cathedral is serene in its ancient work, just honest antiquity, no cheap scrubby intervention or improvement.  So powerful is it, so strongly does it dominate, that none of the modern inflorescence at its feet detracts at all.  Even more wonderful, the flat landscape means that not only does the cathedral ignore the slightly grubby town but dominates the landscape for miles around.

It is indeed the Isle of Ely, let us not forget.  The whole bundle is sitting a little higher than the former wetlands around it.  So it is visible for many miles; the cathedral towers appear early from every distant approach to the town.  Driving on the dead straight roads (except for their unexpected 90 degree bends trying to head you into a ditch) through black fields of vegetables, that stone silhouette slides along the horizon, always watching your approach.  If Kingsley gave us some false history you can entirely understand why.  The idea of the Normans creeping ever closer to the Wake’s last defence, with Hereward watching from the great tower, is much too good an image not to use.

And best of all; for those of a solitary and romantic bent, the population of Ely is small and, it seems, not especially god-fearing, but the Church of England continues to provide a full service religious experience in its Fenland flagship.  So, if you are inclined, go to Ely in winter, when the dawn mists rise off those fields that are in their hearts still fens, and the streets are slippery and empty.  Slip into the cathedral through the south door, and follow the few lights that are left on (for sake of greenness or economy, it does not matter, though candlelight would be better still) and sit at the back of an 8 o’clock mass in a side chapel.  There was one celebrant and two worshippers on Christmas Eve morning last year, and the sense of faith and mystery beat very strongly.

So to compare and contrast, something the same and utterly different: Seville, hence our strange swerve earlier.  Seville Cathedral also dominates a great and flat landscape, visible for many miles around, and is the centre of a city whose best years are centuries behind it.  But the modern revival of Andalusia has created a threat – a rapid expansion of the urban zone of which Seville in the regional capital – but also an opportunity – the wealth to restore and maintain the city centre in all its tightknit baroque mystery.  Like Ely, the cathedral is one of the great medieval glories of the western world, and like Ely, it arose on the footings of something much older – a mosque, one of the greatest of Moorish Spain.  More survives of this than the new visitor might suspect, including the entire cathedral tower, now housing a great peal of bells but formerly the perch of the muezzin whose job it was to call the Moorish city to prayer five times a day.  Not a job for the weak legged you might think, but there is a reason for the wide and shallow staircase of that great tower – so the muezzin could ride a horse to the top.

The Catholic church, now the cathedral’s occupant, continues to thrive in the faithful Catholic south; Seville is as packed for services as Ely is empty; though somehow even with an enormous congregation and an equally enormous crowd of tourists wandering about in a little corralled area by the west door like cattle newly come to market, there is a surprisingly devout atmosphere here too. Something about the singing and the organ and the incense and even the drover stewards shouting “shush” make it very firmly a place of God still. (Though mammon and lavatories are available if required in the gift shop in the south transept.)

Seville has also preserved its cityscape remarkable well, the buildings are higher and the streets narrower but City ordinances say no more than six floors, enabling the cathedral to sail confidently above them, a flat sea of roofscapes deferring to the sublime cathedral tower.

Except for one thing.  To the west of the city there has recently arisen a tall circular blue office tower, not unhandsome but totally alien to this brick and stone and stucco low-rise city.  The blue pole sits apparently empty, the Spanish recession having done nothing for its lettability – though one would like to hope it might also be Seville businessmen declining to endorse such a banal blot in their cityscape.  The fact that it is the only building that challenges the cathedral makes its presumption worse still, but as it is the only intrusion, offers a possibility of redemption. Some caballero, please blow it up, fell it, like the alien it is.  Make an example to any others with similar intent.  Keep yourselves Ely-like, an example of ancient glory overpowering all.

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Issue 102: 2017 04 27: Week in Brief: UK

27 April 2017

Week In Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right


NEAR STRIKE: Asteroid 2014 JO 25, more than 1.3 km wide and travelling at 75,000 mph, passed 1.1 million miles from earth last week.  It is at least 30 times the mass of the meteor which exploded over Chelyabinsk in 2013 causing injuries to more than 1400 people.  The Asteroid will not come as close again for another 500 years. (For scientific analysis see Chin Chin)


PRE-ELECTION BUSINESS: The sudden general election has meant that Parliamentary business has either to be completed before Parliament is dissolved (probably this week) or postponed.  This involves compromises between the government and those who wish to amend bills.  One possible area of negotiation is whether or not foreign students should be included in the immigration figures.  A number of Cabinet ministers, including Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond, are said to be in favour of excluding them on the basis that education is really a UK export.  To date Mrs May has refused to do so.  It is understood that that the proposed increase in probate fees will now wait until after the election.

CANDIDATES: As candidates are sorted out prior to the 11 May nomination date, Ken Clarke, the 76-year-old former Conservative Chancellor, has put himself forward to defend Rushcliffe; George Osborne, Eric Pickles and George Howarth have each decided to stand down.  On the other hand Vince Cable, Simon Hughes and possibly Zac Goldsmith will be seeking to re-enter Parliament.  Tony Blair has called on voters to support candidates opposed to Brexit regardless of their political party.

TRADE UNION AND SOCIALIST COALITION: The TUSC and the Communist Party of Britain have each said that they will not oppose Labour candidates on June 8.  That could be out of respect for Mr Corbyn and his views or it could be a matter of finance.  The TUSC lost its deposit in 135 seats in 2015, costing it over £65,000, presumably no small matter to an organisation which polled a total of 36,327 votes.  Then there must have been the cost of leaflets etc.  This election will come a lot cheaper.

DIESEL DELAY: The government has used the pre-election purdah period to avoid a deadline of 24th of April imposed by the High Court for the publication of its proposals to cut emissions.  The plan is now to publish on 30 June.  The proposals are highly sensitive because of the threat posed by diesels to public health and the fact that many car owners bought diesel vehicles with the encouragement of government.

See comments The Distortion Of The Political Process and Statistics And Other Fibs.


EU COMMISSION: It appears from leaked guidelines that the EU may demand that European employment law should apply to EU citizens working in the UK.  Presumably that would be matched by the 900,000 British citizens living in Europe being governed by British law.  This improbable suggestion, together with a possible proposal that security cooperation be overseen by the European Court of Justice, is likely to give rise to conflict if Mrs May is returned to Downing Street.

National debt

GOVERNMENT BORROWING: According to the Office of National Statistics, the deficit is now down to £52 billion or 2.6% of gross domestic profit, the lowest level for nine years.  It is important to remember, however, that the deficit is the rate of increase in national debt which stands at a record £1.73 trillion and that the annual figures are helped by low interest rates.  Currently interest on the debt costs the UK around £36 billion a year but that could easily increase with borrowing costs.  A £58 billion deficit is forecast for next year.

Health and wellbeing

PISA SURVEY: An OECD Pisa survey into the lives of 15-year-old children across 72 countries has revealed high anxiety levels among UK teenagers, especially girls.  Also revealed is that British 15-year-olds spend an average of 188 minutes each weekday on the Internet outside school hours, the highest figure in Europe and well above the OECD average of 146.  British teenagers are more concerned about tests than teenagers in other countries and also very ambitious.  Girls are more stressed than boys and more prone to psychological disorders.

ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE: According to research published in Brain there is a possibility that the drug trazodone or the experimental anti-cancer compound dibenzoylmethane will prove effective in curing Alzheimer’s disease.  Because trazodone is known to be safe (it is used in another context), it should be possible to move straight to clinical trials.  Its success in rejuvenating the brains of mice may of course not be replicated with human guinea pigs (as it were).

Crime and the law

SHOOT TO KILL: Use by terrorists worldwide of vehicles as weapons has led to changes in police tactics. Whereas previously the rule was that officers did not fire at a driver for fear of collateral damage, it is now accepted that this is often the only way to halt an attack.  The number of armed police in the UK is being increased and is expected to reach 10,000 next year.

CHINESE FRAUDS: Ms Hillier, successor to Margaret Hodge as chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, has asked the National Audit Office to investigate allegations that Chinese gangs are using Britain as a way to import goods into Europe without VAT.

LEIGH DAY: The Solicitors Regulation Authority is currently hearing allegations against Leigh Day, two of its partners and one of its associates, that evidence which undermined claims against British armed forces personnel in Iraq was suppressed, and that the firm continued to act despite having evidence that its clients were being manipulated.  The Tribunal was told that the firm paid more than £1.6 million to bring in the business, which generated almost £10 million in fees.  Allegations made by the firm on behalf of its clients resulted in a public enquiry which collapsed at a cost of £29 million.

STRIPED HOUSE: Kensington and Chelsea Council were held to have made a technical error in ordering a resident to repaint her house.  The High Court held that, although the house, which had been painted with red and white stripes, is in a conservation area, the notice to return it to its original colour had been given under the wrong part of the planning code.

CAR KILLING: A man had been arrested on suspicion of the murder of Michael Sandwell, an ex-Royal Naval officer who was run down with his own car as he tried to prevent its theft at the weekend.


CHEAP FLIGHTS: Budget flights from London to Singapore are to be introduced in September by Norwegian air.  They are expected to cost less than half of the current lowest tariff.

UNITE: Gerard Coyne, who unsuccessfully challenged Len McCluskey for the leadership of Unite, has been suspended from the post of regional secretary without any reason being given.

DOCUMENT FOUND: A nearly contemporaneous parchment copy of the US Declaration of Independence has been found in the West Sussex County Archives.  It is believed to have been created some 10 years after the 1776 copy which hangs in the National Archives in Washington.

THE SOUND OF MONEY: 913 gold sovereigns have been found in a piano by a piano tuner at a school in Shropshire.  One half of the value of the find goes to the tuner himself as treasure trove.  The other half goes to the school which recently received the piano as a gift.  The donors said that they were happy that the money was going to be used by the community.

BBC FUNDING: A report by the National Audit Office has found that although the overall number of BBC staff has dropped by 4% over the last five years with a decrease in 6% in the money spent on salaries, the number of senior managers has actually risen from 89 to 98, an increase from 1% of the payroll to 1.6%. The BBC defends this by saying that managers have added responsibilities.

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Issue 102: 2017 04 27:May Calendar (AGGro)

27 April 2017


 by AGGro

1st MON:Early Easter Bank Holiday (aka May Day) – International Workers Day.

2nd TUES: 35 years ago: Falklands War – Argentine ship, General Belgrano torpedoed by British submarine HMS Conqueror.   320 Argentine crew perished & 700 rescued.

Football:- Champions League semi-finals, first legs until 3/5.

3rd WED: General Election:  Parliament to be dissolved 25 working days before polling day.

Polish National Day:there are an estimated one million Poles in the UK.

Equestrian: Badminton Horse Trials until 07/05.

4th THURS: Local Elections: 4,851 council seats being contested in England, Scotland and Wales.  6 new Metro Mayors.

Football: Europa League semi-finals, first legs.

5th FRI: Cricket: 1st One Day International – England v Ireland, Bristol County Ground.

Cycling: Giro d’Italia until 28 May.

6th SAT:  UK compliance with European Directive (SI 2017/554):  DVLA to provide vehicle owner details at time of certain traffic          offences when requested by another EU country within 12 months of alleged offence.

Horse racing: 2,000 Guineas, Newmarket.

Tony Blair: is 64 today.

7th SUN:  Cricket: 2nd One Day International – England v Ireland,  Lord’s.

French Presidential Election:Second round takes place after first round of 23rd April.

2 years ago: UK General Election 2015: Con 331, Lab 232, SNP 56, Lib Dem 8, DUP 8, Others 14.

8th MON: VE Day: WW2- marks Allied victory in Europe 72 years ago (Eastern Europe celebrates on 9th May).

75 years ago: WW2 – Battle of the Coral Sea – US aircraft carrier victory over Japan navy.

Eddie Butler: TV Rugby commentator is 60 today.

9th TUES: Football: Champions League semi-finals, second leg until 10 May.

Vince Cable: is 74 today.

11th THURS: General election:  Deadline for parliamentary candidates to file their nomination papers.

Football: Europa League semi-finals, second leg.

12th FRI: Horses: Chatsworth International Trials, Derbyshire until 14 May.

13th SAT:100 years ago: Catholic Church: Our Lady of Fátima, Virgin Mary appears to 3 Portuguese children.

Eurovision Song Contest: 2017 Final (62nd) Kiev, Ukraine. 43 entries – not including Russia.

Rugby Union:  European Rugby Champions Cup final, Edinburgh.

Football: – Women’s FA Cup final, Wembley.

14th SUN: Formula 1:  Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona.

Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook founder is 33 today.

15th MON:Birthdays: Zara Tindall is 36 and Andy Murray is 30.

17th WED: Film: Cannes Film Festival until 28 May.

20th SAT: Football: League One Play-off Final, Wembley.

Rugby League: Magic Weekend, Newcastle until 21 May.

Rugby Union: World Sevens Series, Twickenham until 21 May.

21st SUN:  Smoking: Changes to legislation effective following law change on  20/05/ 2016.  Cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging, withdrawal of smaller packs of 10 cigarettes and packs of less than 30g of rolling tobacco.

Football: Premier League and Scottish Premiership seasons end.

22nd MON: General Election:  Last date to register to vote.

Tennis: French Open, Roland Garros until 05 May.

23rd TUES: Flowers: RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Hospital SW3 until 27 May.

George Osborne is 46 today.

24th WED: Football:Europa League final, Stockholm.

Birthday:Dominic Grieve is 61 today.

Cricket: 1st One Day Internationals – England v South Africa, Headingly, Leeds.

25th THURS: Schools: Half term  (London maj) until 05 June.

Ascension Day: 40th day after Easter – commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven.

Hay-on-Wye: Book Festival until 04 June.

Birthday: Alastair Campbell is 60 today.

26th FRI: Sailing: America’s Cup qualifiers, Bermuda until 03 June.

27th SAT: Ramadan: Islamic time of fasting & spiritual renewal until 25 June.

Football: FA Cup Final 2016, Wembley Stadium (and Scottish FA Cup in Hampden Park).

Rugby Union: Premiership final, Twickenham and  Pro12 Grand Final, Dublin.

Cricket – 2nd One Day Internationals – England v South Africa, Southampton.

35 years ago: Falklands War – Battle of Goose Green.

Birthday:Paul Gascoigne (footballer) is 50 today.

28th SUN: Tennis: French Open.

Formula 1: Monaco Grand Prix.

Rugby Union: England XV v Barbarians, Twickenham (Old Mutual Wealth Cup).

Football: – League Two Play-Off Final, Wembley .

Birthday: Mary Portas is 55 today.

29th MON: Late Spring Bank Holiday.

Table tennis: World Championships, Dusseldorf, Germany until 05/06.

Football: Championship Play-Off Final, Wembley.

Cricket: 3rd One Day International.  England v South Africa, Lords.

75 years ago: WW2 – Reinhard Heydrich assassinated in Prague by British trained resistance fighters.

100 years ago: John F. Kennedy  (1917-1963) born.

Birthday: Noel Gallagher (Oasis) is 50 today.

30th TUES: 75 years ago: WW2 – 1000 British bomber raid on Cologne.

31st WED: General Election: Deadline to apply for a proxy vote.

World No Tobacco Day (WNTD): to encourage abstinence from all forms of tobacco around the world.

Birthday: John Prescott is 79 today


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Issue 102: 2017 04 27: Country Walks, Exercise and Wild Flowers (Lynda Goetz)

27 April 2017

Country Walks, Exercise and Wild Flowers

Good for us but the flowers are not doing so well.

by Lynda Goetz

We may be suffering a rather cold snap at the moment, but in many parts of the country the sun is still shining and, rather sadly for gardens, there are still few signs of the showers normally associated with the month of April.  It has, however, been good weather for walking, and like many others I have had the opportunity to do several longish walks over the Easter break and last weekend.  The English countryside is beautiful at this time of year.  The nascent leaves on the deciduous trees display a stunning palette of greens, visible only for a few weeks before they move on to becoming the blanket of darker, mature colour that characterises the summer.  On the ground the wild flowers are easily visible, not yet submerged under the swathes of grass, nettles or brambles which choke them in later months.

This idyllic picture is however not all it seems, and many of our wildflower species are under threat.  According to a study by the conservation charity, Plantlife, many of our native wildflowers are being killed off by excessive nitrogen, which is causing the soil to become too rich for many of these plants and encouraging a takeover by ‘thugs’ such as nettles and hogweed which thrive on the nutrient-rich soils. The blame for this does not lie in any one particular direction, but is attributable to transport, industry, farming and power stations.  The emissions from all of these activities are causing ‘atmospheric nitrogen deposition’ which results in changes in soil chemistry and habitat degradation.

A single stem of the Early Purple Orchid in a flowery border with bluebells and grasses

Early Purple orchid in wildflower meadow

This, of course, is not a new concern, but it has hit headlines yet again in the early months of 2017, first as a result of the Plantlife workshops and report in January, and then in the last few days when Plantlife’s latest study on roadside verges has been featured by the BBC and the print media.  With our flower-rich grassland much reduced (although government countryside stewardship schemes do exist to encourage farmers and landowners in the creation of species-rich grassland), verges are apparently now the home for many of our rarest and most endangered plants.  There are some 238,000 hectares of roadside verges, but under 100,000 hectares of species-rich grassland, meaning that the former are vital areas for conservation.

The management of verges is the province of local councils, and not all of these display knowledge or understanding.  Many are prone to mow too early, which has a detrimental effect on later-flowering species as they do not have time to set seed before being cut down.  Although in recent years cash-strapped councils have not kept verges as neat and tidy as was their wont at one stage, this tendency to neatness and order (in some instances, of course, for reasons of safety) does not only have a negative effect on the plant life, but also on other wildlife such as bees and butterflies.  In an article in The Ecologist back in 2013, Lorna Howarth pointed out that the area of lowland meadow in England and Wales declined by 97% between 1930 and 1984, ‘devastating the habitat of some of our rarest species of flowers and insects’.  This leaves roadside verges with an important role to play in maintaining such habitats.

It is becoming increasingly clear to many of us that our stewardship of our planet has been severely lacking in a great number of areas.  The publicity in the last few years over the toxicity of diesel fumes has been yet another wake-up call.  The emissions from diesel cars are causing sickness and death; not only to human beings living in cities, it would seem, but also (in conjunction with other sources of particulates) to our ecosystem.  Ironically, those very roadsides which exist because of our polluting vehicles are also a last bastion for some of our rare plants.

Finally, various news sources reported on a ‘study of studies’, done by the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise in Canberra, which showed that moderate exercise several times a week not only helped keep the body in good shape, but was good for the mind as well.  These studies referred to the over 50s (when body and brain are sadly in natural decline) but would presumably also apply to those younger as well.  In any event, it is quite clear that those Easter walks were a ‘good thing’, not only for the dogs (who in any event covered about five times as much ground as we did) but for all of us as well.  In addition to a resolution to keep up the exercise, I have also determined to be able to identify more of the flowers I spot whilst I’m out, so that not only can I distinguish between the English and the Spanish bluebells (the former have flowers on one side of the stem only) and notice the delicate wild violets, but can also differentiate the Stitchworts and maybe remember what Lady’s Smock actually looks like.  That way I might even know if I spot something rare in the verge.

The conservation charity Plantlife is running a campaign to keep verges safe for wildlife.

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