Ernest Babb

It seems that the second most common use of the internet – behind pornography, of course – is family research.  I find it hard to believe that internet commerce isn’t the biggest user, or even pictures of cute cats, but that’s what we’re told.  And I have recently had a glimpse of why that should be.

To start at the beginning. I was in London at a family birthday party, and stayed at my brother’s house.  He gave me a photograph which he had found in our mother’s effects, of a nervous but determined young man in military uniform.  On the back, in my mother’s unmistakable primary school-teacher handwriting, was a message:

“Ernest Babb, son of William Tregeare Babb of Exeter and nephew of Clara Bishop, wearing uniform of Australian Expeditionary Force as he emigrated to Brisbane, Queensland before the First World War”

Clara Bishop was my grandmother, that I knew, but apart from that, nothing.  Then I spent a few minutes on the internet, and it all comes out. I recognise that it is helpful to have an odd surname – Babb rather than Smith or Brown – and that the military are better at keeping records than most, but the ease with which you can find out stuff is astonishing.

The first page of a Google search told me that Ernest enlisted at Capella, Queensland in the 5th Light Horse (service number 1232), and embarked at Brisbane for the front on 17 September 1915 on the HMAT Hymettus, a ship which this web page tells us was able to transport 500 horses.  Another government record revealed he was a 22 year old station hand, born in Exeter, and worked as a station hand. He was unmarried, so did not sign the declaration about giving his wife a portion of his 5 shillings a day (£25.76 in today’s money) wages.

Whether he got to Gallipoli, I can’t say. The 5th Light Horse were certainly there, but maybe not their later reinforcements.   Seems unlikely, as the Australians were withdrawing by the time he would have arrived in Egypt (5thLH left 17 December 1915).  The Discovering Anzac website, however, has all his records.  He was engaged in the Palestine campaigns (remember Lawrence of Arabia).  He started with the Light Horse, and was then transferred to the 2nd Machine Gun Squadron.  Ernest was wounded on 16th November 1917, it seems, at Dueidar, which is a small oasis in the Sinai Desert, though the record simply says “EEF” which stands for Egyptian Expeditionary Force. The casualty record speaks of GSW Foot (gunshot wound).  He was invalided back to an army hospital at Abbassia, then on to Australia on the transport ship ‘Ulysses’ (nothing to do with Alistair Maclean’s novel) on 15 February 1918, arriving 20th March 1918.  He was awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal – standard fare, I guess.

That’s it, the product of maybe 90 minutes of bashing a keyboard. There are bits I found but haven’t investigated – such as the Light Horse website, and the history of the 5th Light Horse Regiment.  The enthusiasm for militaria, the passion of Australians for their Anzac history and the excellence of military records is not matched by civilian life.  The trail goes dead when Ernest gets back to Australia – I hope his right foot healed enough for him to have a good life.

There’s another relative story from the Great War, less happy.  One of my great uncles – Frederick William Daly, from my father’s side of the family – emigrated to Canada, and also enlisted in the forces to come to the Empire’s aid, signing up for the 28th Canadian Battalion which was authorized on 7 November 1914, embarked for Britain on 29 May 1915 and arrived in France on 18 September 1915.  Recruited in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the 28th Battalion fought as part of the 6th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division in France and Flanders until the end of the war.

Fred was killed on 18th July 1918.  Family stories said that he was a horseman who died when he went out to calm the horses during an artillery bombardment.  However, when we visited his grave with my Grandma, there were 18 others killed at the same time, which makes the story unlikely.  With the wonders of the internet, which has each day’s battalion records, you can find out the truth, which is that he was killed by a bomb whilst sleeping in the night of 18th/19th July.  If you’re going to be killed in WW1, not a bad choice.  He is buried in Wanquetin Communal Cemetery extension, an addition to a village cemetery near Arras.


One of the reasons for having a blog is to work out for yourself what you think about the issues.  One good place to start is to look at the arguments that people make for their own, pre-determined, views.  The problem there is that you can be swayed, not by the strong logic and impeccable evidence of the partisans, but by the idiocy of their views.  Take the euro.  There is a strong economic case against the UK joining the euro, based on the need for a country to be able to control its own interest and exchange rates. But in fact the argument seemed to be about whether the Queen’s head would appear in the currency (doh – the euro has the head of reigning monarchs on its coinage).  The danger was that you could have jumped into the pro-euro camp, just because the arguments of the anti-euro camp were so stupid.

So, migration.  I am aware that you can lose a lot of friends by discussing this issue.  It is too easy to say that any discussion of controlling the admission of workers or, any proposal to prevent foreigners entering the country and working here, is racist.   This is odd, when the world is organised on the idea that nation states look after their own patch of the globe (OK, OK, I know that this is not true for the rich, who seem able to live and pay tax anywhere they like – and it is only the poor who are herded back to their home country).  The argument about migration is full of similarly invalid or weak arguments, it seems to me:

The first one is that the anti argument that migrants ‘take our jobs’.  This is part of what is known as the ‘lump of labour’ fallacy – the idea that there is a limited number of jobs, and if one person fills a vacancy, there are fewer left for other people.  In fact, we can increase the number of jobs by expanding the economy – by ending the absurdity of ‘austerity’, for example.  The fact that researchers argue that migrants do not replace UK nationals when the economy is at full employment supports this view.  The same is true about the gripes that migrants are taking housing, when we can build houses (and indeed, many building workers are from Irish or West Indian stock, or recent European migrants).  The fact that the government has a weak record in job creation and a worse one in construction doesn’t alter the case.

Then there is the pro argument that ‘migrants contribute to the economy’ by increasing the GNP.  Well, of course they bloody do.  Adding workers to any enterprise or region or economy increases output.  The issue is whether they raise the standard of living, the GNP per head.  This depends on an idea called ‘optimum population’, which asks whether we have the right number of workers in relation to our stock raw materials and capital investment.  I think it would be a bold economist who said that the UK at the moment has too few workers in relation to our capital or natural resources.  Any increase would be more likely, it seems to me, to take us beyond the optimum population level: but again, we could use the extra labour to produce more investment goods – more machine tools, better roads – and it is government policy that is influential in depressing the current investment level (particularly in the public sector).

An associated argument is that migrants contribute more to the national budget than they take out.  I welcome any argument that pooh-poohs the idea of benefit tourism, which I suspect to be a minor problem.  Most migrants I meet seem keen to get established with a decent job, or indeed any job.  But the calculus of tax and benefits will depend on the age of the people you’re looking at.  It would be very odd if an immigrant cohort made up of able bodied people between the ages of 25 and 40 did not have a positive effect on the national books: the costly part of your life as far as public spending is concerned is before 18 and after 65.  But do we think that Polish people do not grow old, or Romanians will have no children ?  An example.  We now have in Britain a mature Afro-Caribbean community, with spruce old guys off to the barber and well-dressed lady pensioners off to church.  I suspect the balance of government spending v receipts has levelled up from the days when all our West Indian migrants were young and in jobs.  That will happen to the East European and West African communities, won’t it ?  This seems to me to be relevant to the claim that we need immigration to compensate for our ageing demographic – we have so many pensioners, we need bright and busy foreigners to pay our taxes and care for us.  How long does that benefit last ?

Then there is the debate as to whether immigrants depress wages for native workers.  There has been some denial here, but it would (again) be truly strange if they did not.  The laws of economics see the labour market as just another market, and an increase in supply drives down price.  Some papers have suggested that the effect is sectoral, but the consensus is that wages at the lower end of the market have fallen.  Maybe not a lot, but a bit.  For me, this links in with argument 1 above.  It is dishonest to say that without Bulgarians and Lithuanians we would not get our crops harvested, until we have tried to find workers locally by offering higher wages.

Now, all these arguments seem to be economic.  That’s not the only thing to think of.  There is a respectable cultural case to be made – that English society, literature and science has contributed enormously to the world’s culture, and needs to maintain a distinct identity.  Not sure I agree with this – the list of authors, athletes, politicians, surgeons etc from migrant backgrounds would be too long to print here.  And, to be blunt, there wouldn’t be much of British identity to preserve without the contribution of Polish and Czech fighter pilots in 1940.  But there must be a sense of ‘how much is enough’.  I went recently to my old stamping ground at Woolwich, and was taken aback to find an area that was totally changed from the white working class suburb where I grew up and went to college.  Am I wrong to think that ?  I don’t know, to be frank.  But there must be a case for discussing the effects of a twenty year year doubling of the number of foreign born people in the country – from 2.9m in 1993 to 6 million in 2013.

Does this link with the increasing attacks on social security – now known, American style, as ‘welfare’ ?  Some argue that you cannot have open borders and a welfare state – not because of ‘benefit tourism’, but because a welfare state requires fellow-feeling – that someone like me has got into difficulty and it’s only decent to help them out.  It’s what the French call “fraternity”, and I’ve written elsewhere that we don’t have enough of it.  If the people in difficulty are not felt to be ‘like me’, then the idea of contributing to their income becomes less easy to maintain.  Yes, I know that the biggest element of welfare state benefits are to the old, but that is not how it is sold to the public (or what they believe).

An additional confusion comes from the way that ‘migration’ is a term that covers many different issues.  The refugees in the Mediterranean, fleeing the awfulness of African tyrannies and conflicts, are not the same group as Filipino nurses, and neither of them are the same as Latvian fruit pickers or Polish carpenters.  And then there are the high skill people in finance and technology: here’s a survey of most in-demand skills.  On top of it all are the students coming to universities and colleges in the UK, most of who will want to leave when they are qualified.  Separate policies are needed to respond to the issues raised by each of these groups.  And this is difficult when the motives of migrants are mixed: the distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘asylum seekers’ is not always clear.  A BBC discussion with Mediterranean migrants (and what a delight to find someone talking to those concerned) found both those fleeing oppression, and those seeking a decently paid job to enable them to remit money home.

Take the Mediterranean problem for a moment, which shows the complexity of the issue.  One side says we must not let people drown.  Another says if we mount a rescue operation we will just encourage the people smuggling trade.  Both sides are, of course, right.  The philosophical issue is therefore not easy.  What is needed is fundamental change and reform in the countries of origin of the fleeing masses, but that’s not going to happen (in the cliché) any time soon.  In the meantime, we need to find civilized and humane arrangements for looking after those we rescue, making it clear that the Royal Navy is not a ferry service to the UK.

Ok. Enough for tonight.  I think it is important to look at the issue with calmness:  just one in six Britons think immigration has benefited the country, and the response to this is surely not to give the rest of them lectures about bigotry.  There is a democratic point: who thinks that the proposition “half the new jobs in the country should be filled by foreigners” – which has happened in recent memory – would have gained support if put to a referendum ?  For all that, people’s ideas about migration are mixed and complex: on that, I agree with Lord Ashcroft (cut that phrase out and keep it for posterity).  Will get back to this when my mind is clearer, which may be a while.


Ok. First off, the famous exit poll did not come as a shock. Least of all did I promise to eat my hat if it was right. I think I can make a claim to being the least surprised person in the country at the result of the recent General Election.  Not the least of my many regrets is not popping down to William Hill to make the easiest money ever available with a substantial bet on a Tory majority.  As I told you on March 28th and February 14th, the Tories would win because they had persuaded people that their opponents were unfit to be entrusted with the national budget, and austerity was the way forward.  This was tosh when they said it, and was tosh each time they repeated it, and hearing the latest Nobel Laureate say it is tosh is little consolation.

Which is not to say that Labour’s incompetence didn’t help.  Not the economic performance 2008-10, which you can argue was actually quite good: the UK was growing faster in the quarter before the 2010 election than it was before the 2015 election.  No, it was the electoral performance.  It was clear years before the election that the party’s leader was not up to it.  In personal terms, Ed Miliband seems a pleasant man, and he coped as well as most with the hail of personal abuse from the billionaire owned media.   But he was never comfortable in the role, never able to front up to the Conservative PR machine.  The fact that much of the attack was unfair should not blind one to the way that much of it was accurate: he was never felt by the public to be the match of the oily faced spiv in Downing Street.  The Labour Party is a sentimental old group, and they are never as quick as the Tories in giving the bullet to losers.  Think Foot.  Think Brown, if you will, for he was plainly a liability from 2008 onwards.  You may say that it would only have made a few percentage points of difference, but that is all it needs.

The economy was the battle ground, and that is why it mattered that his economic side-kick, Ed Balls, was even more appalling.  I think I knew all was lost when I attended a Labour Party function at which he was the lead attraction; deeply unimpressive.  His economic ‘plans’ consisted of raiding this small pot here to pay for this small project there.  The Tories may have had the economics of the handbag, Balls went for the economics of the piggy bank.  No wonder he lost his seat.  There was never a counter-attack on the “Labour ruined the economy” lie.  Andrew Marr puts it better than I can in the New Statesman:

The ever more glazed and convoluted attempts by the two Eds to avoid saying that they had overspent while in office is a good example.

There was a perfectly rational way of dealing with this. They could have said: “Look, the overspending was relatively minor in historic terms and was supported by almost everybody at the time. And be very careful of describing the building of new hospitals, schools and nurseries as ‘profligate’ or ‘waste’: our alleged overspending has given Britain places where children are currently learning and their grandparents are having heart operations. It’s not like blowing too much money on your credit card in B&Q.

“At the time, none of us knew – not you, not the government, not David Cameron or George Osborne – that an obscure housing crisis in Middle America was going to bring down the entire banking system.”

They could have said that. They didn’t.

Another example.  My last post is about the man who challenged Miliband by saying the Treasury was like his household budget.  This is not a rare belief, and it should not have come as unexpected.  Miliband could have riposted with any of the points that I made.  But he didn’t.

If we put it in football terms – why was our team relegated – things can be compartmentalized.  At the back, the defence against the accusations of spendthrift policies was poor.  Up front, we got no goals from the guy we selected to be our main striker (Miliband).  But the main problem was the lack of a creative midfield.  Where were the penetrating ideas that could have unlocked the election ?  I don’t buy the idea that Labour was anti-business: name one policy that would have worked to the disadvantage of business (as opposed to rich people).  The allegation that Labour deterred ‘aspirational’ people seems curious.  Nurses aspiring to a new fridge, or office workers aspiring to an affordable rail fare might have seen much to like in the Labour offer.  For what it’s worth, such information as we have (who trusts polls any more ?) suggests that more working people voted Labour than Tory:

What is more, some polls said that voters – even those who switched to Tory – felt Labour was if anything too weak on business.  Nevertheless, the idea that Labour, if not hostile to wealth creation, had nothing to say about it, was widely held.  It’s reported in the Andrew Marr article above.  There was no sense of generating economic growth through an imaginative national effort.  People could have been turned away from the idiocy of austerity with a cogent argument that we can’t rebuild and re-energise the country as long as we are worrying about penny pieces.  They may well have agreed when told that more skills and competitiveness demands easier entry to college and university, not less.  Someone could have reminded them that this was the government that slashed adult training to pay for cuts in beer and whisky tax.  They would have nodded if reminded that Osborne had missed almost all of his economic targets: this was, after all, the man who claims to have a long-term economic plan and promised to have a balanced budget by 2015.  Yet it was Osborne who was the one to mention the importance of northern regeneration in the election.  Bloody Osborne !

An example of this presentational amateurism can this week when it was announced that inflation has dropped to zero.  Labour’s response was “that’s all very well, but many are still struggling to make ends meet”, a slightly whining tone that makes economic events sound like weather – predictable but unavoidable.  A response along the lines of “this government has missed its target for six months running – and their incompetence is making it more difficult than ever to small business to find profitable opportunities to expand” would have put down two markers – we care about growth, and the current lot are not delivering it.

I’ll come back to all this when I have the time and when the software deigns to let me access my space.  There are bits I understand well – why ‘shy Tory’ people might feel ashamed to admit to pollsters why they are voting for Cameron – and much that I do not understand at all – where does Scottish Nationalism come from, for heaven’s sake ?  But my main moral, that the election was lost on the economy, and the currency of mistaken ideas that our problems were caused by (and would be made worse by) Labour’s economic policies, remains, and that was due to the two Ed’s inability to contest this nonsense consistently, and strongly.


Handbag economics

After the 2010 election, journalists sought out the woman who Gordon Brown called a bigot for her remarks about immigration, and treated her like some sort of guru.  I wonder if they will now seek out the guy who lectured Ed Miliband about public spending, saying (Thatcher style) that he knew about sticking to a budget because if he overspent he could not go to the pub at the weekend.

If they manage to find him, it may be worthwhile asking this Adam Smith de nos jours some questions about the similarity between his household budget and the national exchequer, viz:

  • Do you, like the Bank of England, have an unblemished credit record that stretches back to 1694 ?
  • Can you print your own money ?
  • Have you recently undertaken quantitative easing for the financial sector by buying in billions of commercial and government bills ?
  • Are you the only agency able to support the financial sector when it gets itself into a pickle ?
  • Is your income large enough to influence the volume of gross national demand ? Specifically, when you choose to cut your spending, does it raise the national rate of unemployment and reduce economically growth ?

and if the answer is “Er, I don’t know” or (better) “Of course not.  I shot off my mouth without thinking”, will credit rating agencies reduce the value of his opinions to junk status ?



VE Day

The TV was covered by programmes about VE Day.  Can’t see what is special about 70 years from the war (surely 50 years or 75 should be the markers) but anyway, there we were.  I flicked between two programmes, one about the factory that made bombers and the men that flew them, and another about the effects of the bombing of Germany on the civilian population.  The contrast was telling.  Anarchists used to say that a bayonet was a weapon with a worker at both ends, and so, just war or not, was a Wellington bomber.

Making your mind up

I have managed to steer clear of most of the election coverage in the media, for very much the same reason that I never watch BBC Question Time or Prime Minister’s Questions on TV.  The tone of debate is generally appalling – adversarial and completely free of any evidence except that plucked and teased into shape by party hacks.  An example can be found in the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ analysis of the Labour and Tory manifesto plans for the economy.  They find that, after five years, the National Debt will be 77% of GNP if Labour win, and 72% if the Conservatives win.  There is a debate to be had about which is the best approach, and you know where I stand.  But can anyone but an ideologue truly believe that the Tories will lead us back to the 1930s, or that Labour will unleash an economic disaster, on the basis of that ?

Another example.  The day after the election leadership debate, neutrals tended to feel that the leader of the Scottish National Party was most impressive, Cameron effective but not overwhelming, whilst noting that Miliband’s poll ratings had improved.  However, the Sun featured a front page which said this was the day that Miliband lost the election.  The Mirror, to no-one’s surprise, said that Miliband had come out on top.

Some of these reactions are simply cynical.  Private Eye, for example, reports that the Sun headline was published before the actual event took place – whatever actually happened, Cameron was going to win.  But, sad to say, I suspect that most of people’s views about winners and losers at the debate were sincere.  Socialists really did think that Cameron was slimy and evasive, Tories similarly felt that Miliband was unimpressive and irresponsible.  Lenny Bruce reported the same effect at the famous Nixon v Kennedy debates in 1960: Republicans thought Nixon trounced Kennedy, and vice versa.  These are examples of what is known as confirmation bias, people’s habit of interpreting information in a way that supports their pre-existing beliefs in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.  One experiment gave two groups of people the same articles and statistics about murder in different states of the USA, covering those which had the death penalty and others which did not.  Those who were opposed to the death penalty thought the evidence showed that capital punishment did not reduce murder rates; those which did thought that the facts showed that it did.  In another famous experiment in the 1990s, Lee Ross, a psychologist from Stanford University, took peace proposals authored by Israeli negotiators, labelled them as Palestinian proposals, then asked Israeli citizens to assess them. “The Israelis liked the Palestinian proposal attributed to Israel more than they liked the Israeli proposal attributed to the Palestinians,” he said.  Mark Twain is alleged to have said that he never saw anyone’s mind changed by an argument, and it is hard to say he was wrong.

Of course, arguments based upon moral beliefs need not depend on logic.  You may believe people should keep any money they earn, or that they should be taxed to provide support for others.  That’s a value judgement, and you can’t argue one way or the other.  What might be germane to this debate is evidence that high taxes reduce a nation’s wealth, or (by contrast) current levels of taxation have no effect on effort: but that wouldn’t be decisive to the underlying judgement you make about how we should behave, or how we should regard personal property.

But most arguments are not like this.  Parties don’t differ about whether it’s good to have an efficient economy, or high quality education, a strong army, decent support for the old and disabled, or a fine health care system.  The argument is about how best to achieve those agreed goals, and this is where evidence and logic need to come into play.  That’s why confirmation bias – people’s inability to look at the facts in a disinterested manner – matters.  It is worrying for those of us who would wish to believe that one of humanity’s greatest glories is our ability to use science and logic.  What is the way forward if we believe that, generally speaking, truth is preferable to falsehood, and that evidence can be adduced to show what is correct and what is wrong ?

Here’s my suggestion.  Before a debate starts, people should be asked – and you should ask yourself – “what piece of evidence would change your mind on this ?”.  This would not work for many, I know: there are still those around who blame the credit crunch on Gordon Brown, and many US Republicans think that allied forces did find WMD in Iraq.   And some simply deny truth – see the anti-vaccination morons.  But for others, it would be good fun to keep the answers on record for a few years.  Did introducing a minimum wage, or restricting fox-hunts, or ending duty-free concessions at airports and ferries, cause mass unemployment, as we were told they would ?  Did Viagra bankrupt the NHS ?  We have certainly been around long enough to show that (e.g.) those who said that quantitative easing would cause runaway inflation are wrong.  Mind you, those that said it so forcefully mutter and walk in the opposite direction when challenged – or say “it will happen yet”.

I suppose the best safeguard is to have a personal sense that you’re not right all the time – in the words of Cromwell (not a great self-doubter, I know) – to think it possible that you may be wrong.  Maybe jot down the things you’ve changed your mind about over the years, from the idiocy of gay marriage to the integrity of Robert Mugabe.  Ask yourself what would make you change your mind on a much loved prejudice.  A personal understanding of the dangers of bias is one of the best weapons against it.  Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson wrote a wonderful book “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”, which I thoroughly recommend.  They conclude that “drivers cannot avoid having blind spots … but good drivers are aware of them”.  Or, to quote Carlyle, “the greatest of faults is to be conscious of none”.

Advertising and the real economy

Stick with me.  This is going to start with what appears a meaningless piece of nostalgia, but it will then expand to cover a profound analysis of modern capitalism.  Well, that’s the hope.  It will help if you were watching commercial TV in the 1950s.

OK, off we go.  I’m a blood donor.  My dad started me going whenever the qualifying age was, because I was the same blood group as him (consoling, I guess) and that is O negative.  It’s not madly rare – about 7% of the population have it – but its great advantage is that it is the universal donor.  My blood is so featureless that anyone can be transfused with it without bad things happening.  Or so aristocratic: I’m talking here about the stuff they bunged into Princess Di when she arrived at hospital.  It’s truly good stuff, and I’ve given 81 pints of it.

So, there I was sitting drinking tea after my donation and eating free NHS biscuits.  I was actually eating a Penguin, which was very nostalgic, and I mentally told myself to “P-p-p-pick up a Penguin”, remembering the old advertising slogan.  Then the NHS volunteer emptied some Club biscuits in the basket – and something hummed in my head along the lines of a kids’ choir singing  “if you want a lot of chocolate on your biscuit, join our club”.  And there I was, thinking that they don’t do adverts like that on TV any more.  We have become a service economy, and the adverts we get are for gambling, or compensation, or comparison sites.  The occasional car company sponsors a detective thriller, true, and local double-glazing companies can bellow at you in the afternoon, but generally, there are many fewer adverts for things any more.  Now, I’m not against a service economy.  Recent GNP figures may have shown that the government’s desire to rebalance things in favour of manufacturing and the regions was the predictable flop.  But generally, I know that it is a sign of economic advancement that we move from agriculture to manufacturing to service industry.  But the adverts we increasingly see are simply transfer payments – not creating wealth at all, but transferring it between gamblers and bookmakers, between successful litigants and unsuccessful, taking a rake-off as you switch people from one energy supplier, holiday hotel or car insurance company to another.

The first TV adverts I saw was when I was in hospital as a ten year old.  We had a BBC TV at home – that’s how televisions started, with one fixed channel – and hadn’t upgraded to ITV.  At the time, the idea of subscribing to a commercial service – commercial, my dear, appalling – would have been distasteful for teachers like my parents.  So I needed a mastoid infection (see below) to be able to lie in bed and see – not just Robin Hood, William Tell and The Buccaneer – but advertisements.  Proud galleons breasting the roaring forties to bring you Senior Service cigarettes, encrusted blocks of ice with SR toothpaste in them, marching guardsmen singing “Murray-mints, Murray-mints, too good to hurry Mints. Why make haste, when you can taste, the hint of mint in Murray-mints” – an unanswerable question.  I can even remember the famous 30 second drama that promised “you’re never alone with a Strand”, trying to sell a cigarette because it will give lonely men companionship but instead conveying ostracism.  Real things, even if they gave you cancer.

I watch cricket from India sometimes, and their stadia are bedecked with advertisements for real stuff – concrete, motor cycles, flour, hair cream.  UK sports stadia are sponsored by corporations doing no one quite knows what, or full of brazen nonsense pretending that Adidas or Barclays Bank loves the community.  It’s a symptom of an economy that is serious, not about creating wealth, but in just raking in cash, and there is a difference.  The TV adverts are there to remind us that people who make stuff are very second division behind those who make money.

Access to education

This may mean nothing to you, but it made me happy:

I was at my routine out-patient appointment (mastoid ear, if you’re interested), and the nurse asked whether I had taken the day off work, and I said I was retired, and she said what from, and I said college Principal, and she said where was that, and I said Parson Cross College in Sheffield.  And she said “I got into nursing from an Access Course at Parson Cross. It was a wonderful place”.  She explained how her dad was made redundant by the steelworks closures, and so she couldn’t complete her secondary schooling but came to college as an adult later.  She told me about – and named – the teachers who had supported her, and made a difference.  And she said she keeps in contact with friends from her college days and – again – “it was a wonderful place.  It changed my life”.

And that’s why I’m glad I worked in further and adult education. Don’t believe a politician who says “you only have one chance of a good education”; you have plenty.  Ask Clive James, or Jamie Oliver, Or Colin Firth, or Jimmy Chu, or Willy Russell (and so on for pages) who qualified through further education.  The only reason people might not have a second chance is if politicians cut adult and further education, which they are doing remorselessly at the moment.  I’m saddened that adult education is one of the unseen casualties of austerity.

Prelude to higher standards ?

It is a pity that the debate about raising educational standards – an effort that no sensible person can be against – becomes fogged with dreamy thoughts about making things the way they were (or how journalists and politicians imagine they were).  The latest example of this is to be found in the latest Sunday Times, which advocates making children learn poetry by rote, and included a list of poems that should be learnt.  The list included Wordsworth’s autobiographical work “The Prelude”, a book I know something of having been put to it for ‘A’ level.  I am not an expert on this, having got a very moderate English grade after spending a couple of terms in hospital: I do know, however, that it is very, very long.  The good old internet (invented after the standards had slipped so woefully) confirms that the “The Prelude” is 7882 lines long.  The problem could be that the Sunday Times’ experts had never read the book, or never met a child, but it has to be one or the other. The only institutions that value such heroic feats of memory are Islamic madrassas – it’s how you become a hafiz – and we know of their contribution to the modern world.

To repeat.  I am in favour of rising standards in education, and (another debate, I know) I do think that general knowledge is a part of high standards.  I am often shocked by the brainless replies of radio & TV quiz contestants.  Have we really got to a stage where (after conferring) a team agrees that the Mona Lisa was painted by Picasso ?  Indeed we have.  But I recall a recent edition of University Challenge where teams of four could not name the Prime Minister at the time of the 1929 Great Crash, thought Delft was in Northern Ireland and believed Herschel worked in the twentieth century.  Oh, perhaps I need to add that this was a celebrity edition, with teams of (yep) middle aged journalists and politicos representing their former institutions.  There are many ways to approach raising educational levels, but nostalgia isn’t one of them.

On The Border

Twitter is a wonderful thing, but it can lead you to some very odd places.  A few months ago I made a remark to the effect that recent events seem to have suggested that Hayek was wrong to suggest social democracy was the enemy of freedom – for it is in social democratic countries that the greatest freedom of thought, speech and lifestyle is to be found. Well, now !  It turns out that the redoubtable Dr Hayek, though dead for years, still has faithful acolytes to carry his torch.  I found myself, at the age of 69, acquiring trolls – not only demanding proof that Hayek was unsympathetic to progressive taxation and the welfare state, but replying with aggressive rudeness when I did so.  A lesson learned.

Recently I found myself in another weird universe.  The start was pretty normal – someone providing a link to a speech by the former head of Israel’s intelligence service Mossad, who apparently suggested Israel needed new leadership with a more conciliatory tone .  In itself, not an exceptional view, you may feel, though perhaps a surprising proponent of them.  However, the comments made beneath the tweet led you into an extraordinary world, populated by people who either think Israel should not exist, or that it should be greatly expanded.  Both sides leant on the idea of looking back at history to a time – often a very, very long time ago -when the borders of nations in the area were different from now.  It did not prove much of an effort to find a time when Jews had much more than the present, or much less; or when it was all Arab lands.

Break for thought. I’ve recently been shown a marvellous dynamic map of Europe’s borders since about 1000. In 1066, France owned England.  In 1200, England owned France (and kept a claim on it for another 600 years).  You’ll notice, as you run the timeline, Poland is either a European super-power, or doesn’t exist at all; and at the end of the Second World War, it shifted leftwards by 200 miles or so.  Hungary booms and busts, and maintains its resentment at losing Transylvania to Romania.  German was once made up of scores of minor princedoms.  Alsace and Lorraine switch between France and Germany.  Yugoslavia lives and dies.  And, let’s be fair to Shakespeare, there appears to be a time when Bohemia had a coast.   This isn’t just a European experience, of course.  Paraguay kept picking wars with its neighbours which would end in losing vast swathes of territory (and horrific numbers of lives).  Indian partition, and he creation of  Bangladesh provide another example.

What’s my point ?  It is that an argument based on historic borders is usually unhelpful and often idiotic.  We start from where we are, in a world where most boundaries have changed, and we try to find a way forward where conflict is avoided, exaggerated claims are discounted, gainers outnumber losers, and those who lose most are compensated.