Monday, 31 May 2021


It’s been an odd week. At last it’s a bit like summer. The temperature about normal for this time of the year feels like a heatwave. 18C. Get out the shorts. No perhaps not. Not the shorts.

Sunshine…. in many ways its made me think of the 1960s and, of course, the Beatles: 

“Here comes the sun do, do, do
Here comes the sun
And I say it's all right.
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here”

“It’s all right”.  Not if you’re Boris for whom it’s been a beastly week. 

Like that Harold MacMillan (another Eton and Balliol classicist) endured in the 1960s’ with the “Profumo Scandal”. This involved a sexual triste between voluptuous Christine Keeler and John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, with John lying when the story came out and standing up in the House of Commons and saying “I didn’t” but he had done it so off he went in disgrace. Imagine by the way having a Secretary of State for War  - the sort of thing Donald Trump would have liked. “Cry havoc and unleash the dogs of war.” 

It was around this time that the phrase “13 years of Tory misrule” became commonly used mostly and to good effect by Harold Wilson. So far it’s only  been “10 ½ years of Tory misrule”. Well you can see the parallels.

I’ve found the Dominic Cummings show a bit tiresome.  He may be very clever but he’s not very bright. He’s got little credibility and he’s failing to land a telling blow. Most of the country quite like bounder Boris in the same way they’d like a dog (a Labrador Retriever not a ghastly Dilyn dog) that steals the sausages and grins. It’s not being very British going public about his boss  like this and Dominic does look a bit of a pratt. You can loathe Boris (nearly everyone I know does) but he wins elections (including the referendum it’s three so far). 

Then I realised it wasn’t the 1960s that had really been on my mind at all. It was the 16th century.

I’m reading – yes I’m still reading –this time the third in the Hilary Mantel trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, “The Mirror and the Light”. She writes deftly and intelligently about what goes through men’s minds in politics. In Ann Boleyn, we have a precursor to Carrie Simmons.

Henry, overweight, sickly, self-obsessed, much married, also wanting to be “king of the world” has others around him to do his dirty work. He was as the French described him “Le vert gallant” - a bit of a louche spark – a lady’s man. But in Lord Thomas Cromwell who could “break a man’s jaw with one blow” we have a thug with the charm and wit to be always be on the right side of an argument. Dominic is about as important as a Christophe – a servant of Cromwell’s. He is an intellectual terrorist who would have been described in my youth (as many were) as “something of a disappointment” who didn’t like sport and was a nasty sneak. Dom, as he’s known, is about only one thing …revenge. Here’s how Shakespeare put that in Titus Andronicus:

“Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head”.

My week ended with a wonderful performance of Tchaikovsky’s  Serenade for Strings in C major by the Strings of the Royal Philharmonic.

After that revenge and political shenanigans seem a bit silly.

Monday, 24 May 2021


Plenty of economists are concerned about the possibilities of inflation. Generation Y and Z won’t remember what it was like when we had 27% inflation back in 1978. I also remember 1992’s Black Wednesday when interest rates went from 10% to 15% on a single day as we crashed out of the ERM. That meant someone with a mortgage of a ‘can-we-afford-it-hmmm-only-by-skin-of-our-teeth £300,000’ was overnight facing annual increases in payments of around £15,000 or more. 

Inflation favours those brave in pricing their goods or have goods or services that are price insensitive like fuel, pharmaceuticals (or ironically taxes.) Inflation favours the wealthier elderly with savings growing in value as interest compounds. It also favours certain entrepreneurs who in crises like the pandemic or war always thrive. No surprise then that a record number of billionaires have been created in the past twelve months.

Another price to be paid for in the past year of restrictions and lockdowns is that our senses have become dulled. Like our sense of touch. No hugging or kissing – I hadn’t realised how sad that was going to be. And now we’ve forgotten how to or are too embarrassed to do it. 

Our sense of hearing. It’s Brighton Festival and we’ve been to a couple of performances – Paul Lewis, the fantastic classical pianist and the Chineke Ensemble, all brilliant,  instinctive musicians.  But wearing an ever-dampening, fogging-up mask dulls your appreciation of music.

A solution: drink two large brandies before the show and enjoy inhaling your own breath. It doesn’t help the music but it helps keep you jolly.

Being jolly? Our sense of fun has withered. Yes. I confess. I used to be flippant and even occasionally amusing. The price of the past year has been to make me feel dull and cautious. And as I look around I see people desperately trying to revive lost lives thinking “let’s party.”  How? The party I’m afraid is over for most of us now. But maybe that’s OK – after all who really needs a party?

Who needs to work? The whole furlough business, Zoom and working from home has created a new, odd attitude to work. People have been paid to do nothing or work from home performing only to a TV screen. The price we’ll pay for that isn’t clear but corralling people back into offices as many companies want will be resisted strongly by a lot of people.

Yet there is a brighter side. In the Sunday Times Alyson Rudd describes the 2020-21 football season as “weird but strangely wonderful”. That captures the story of the whole Covid event. Somehow people have managed to be astonishingly tolerant, patient and obedient whilst in Holland and Italy there have been examples of civil unrest and violence.

The upside of the pandemic is that it has thoroughly shaken things up and forced us to appraise what we really want from our lives. We’re seldom forced like this to reflect on priorities. How important is a holiday in the sun? Do we get real fulfilment from our work ? Are we stuck in a loveless relationship? How many friends do we have? Are we still  learning?

The price of this shake-up’s good news. Because most of us will end up happier in our work, relationships and lives. If a job or marriage can survive and thrive in  2020 and 2021 it must be OK. 

Weird? No. Strangely wonderful and strong.

Footnote: read Solzhenitsyn’s  “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. If you think the lockdown’s bad see how to stay cheerful in much worse. 

Monday, 17 May 2021


At the 1997 Labour Party Conference Tony Blair announced his ambition to have over 50% of young people going to university.

Tony Blair! You once looked like this

In 2019 his ambition was fulfilled but the current Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has reversed this as a laudable aim saying there was an inbuilt  snobbishness about higher as opposed to further education.

Although in general  it goes against my nature to agree with Gavin, on this occasion I think he may have a point.

A model of the Lewes Road development – wall to wall student accommodation

In Brighton there are two universities with just over 38,000 students representing nearly 15% of the population.  New student housing blocks are beginning to dominate the city. Over 4000 apartments in such blocks have been built already with many more planned. But rentals of £1000 a month seems quite pricey for such tiny spaces.

A local resident – a Disgusted-of-Brighton is quoted in the Brighton Argus:

“The area has too many students already who, at such a number, do not add to the community and increase the amount of anti-social behaviour such as drinking and creating late-night noise (already a problem).”


He too has a point.

But something has changed owing to Covid. A sixth form college which has a brilliant record especially in obtaining Oxbridge entrants currently has several young people saying they won’t bother with University possibly ever but at least until after a gap year or two. 

Learning by road as opposed to by rote

It’s time to reflect seriously on what education is for. What’s the point of doing a three year course in Psychology and Politics and then working in a Call Centre? Is the 72 weeks at university and the £27,000 tuition fees plus living expenses (say a further £50,000) worth it? If your answer is “I learnt loads about myself and life; I met inspiring people who’ll be lifelong friends; I learnt how to do research; I learnt how to meet deadlines; I also learnt how to busk my way concealing what I didn’t know” then university will have been good for you and for society as a whole. Even better still if you learnt enough to know you can become an advancer of knowledge. 

But I worry that the academic ambition of universities is diluted because too many of that magic 50% shouldn’t have gone there in the first place.

Whilst for some, university opens doors in their minds and builds their resilience and confidence, for others it should enable them to learn how to be useful.  As teachers, nurses, care workers, architects, and engineers. Whatever.

But universities have become big businesses focused on scale. It’s never been easier to get into a university – good for their income - which leads to many providing a less than fulfilling experience.

University should be either the most thrilling and inspiring experience imaginable. The process of intellectual osmosis whereby the smartest kid in their school finds they are suddenly only average but then discovers talents they didn’t know they had is only found in good universities where the community of minds creates this joyful chemistry.

Or it should be useful.

"I hope we get jobs"

I believe in the virtues of academic education but not for everyone. The problem we’ve created is to presume “higher” is all that matters when “wider” for many is what they want and need.

Universities can do both.  Create geniuses and people with brilliant craft skills. They must do both to justify their existence and growth.

Monday, 10 May 2021


Since Lockdown One I’ve been struggling to read properly.  

Properly  meaning reading a book from beginning to end. I’ve flipped through magazines and papers, I’ve dipped into books usually stopping out of frustration. Nothing seemed to grip me or suspend my thinking about the mechanics of reading. I was like the child in the car asking “are we nearly there yet?” 

A very clever and good friend confessed to suffering from the same affliction saying he read a book at the same pace now as he used to read Latin prose (mind you he got the top classics scholarship to the top college in Oxford over  half a century ago so he probably read Latin quite fast.) Now he flipped through the first few pages of a book and said he knew pretty well what the author was going to say and he couldn’t be bothered with fiction.

I got paranoid and went to the optician for a test expecting to be told I was going blind. Instead he prescribed reading glasses. I’ve taken a while to get used to them as when I have them on I can see the printed page clearly but the rest of the room is a blur and a glass of wine even before I’ve started drinking it seems out of focus. 

Harper Lee cured me when I read what she’d said:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

The clincher was to realise three books by three of my favourite writers were out at the beginning of May. Robert Harris, Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis. 

I’ve finished two in three days and the third will be read and done with by tomorrow.

I can read. I can read again.

“The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell is a study of the psychology of war. When in the late 1930’s a Dutchman invented the bomb-aimer so sophisticated it could (theoretically) enable you to drop a bomb from six miles up into a barrel of pickles, a group of young men, self-styled the Bomber Mafia, realise this could mean being able to end war which involved large armies killing each other and focusing instead on taking out key factories. The story (a true one of course) is the debate between this vision led by an intellectual  young General Hayward Haskell and the more pragmatic ‘obliterate-them’ view of an even younger get-it-done General Curtis LeMay.

In the event Haskell gets fired in the war against the Japanese and is replaced by the dour LeMay who leads napalm raids on 67 Japanese cities. The war was over before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions had been burnt to death before that final hammer blow.

Unbelievably May gets a medal from the Japanese for helping stop the war quickly and letting the US in rather than a prolonged break-up of Japan by the Soviets and Chinese.

Gladwell says:

“Curtis won the battle. But Haskell won the war.”

It’s a great story but I’m not sure I agree with that after recent events in Syria.

“V2” is by Robert Harris. They’re both war books. Obviously I feel aggressive. The book describes the story of Werner Von Braun’s V2 rockets and the attempt of the British to anticipate through trigonometry how to take out their launch sites.

It’s near the end of the war, Hitler’s last gamble. And as it ends with both sides thinking they’d inflicted vast damage on the other but ends with the line “we were both misled”.

Gripping, informative, readable and …. read.

And yet to come…

Monday, 3 May 2021


Three things really irritated me last week.

First, the sudden, unwanted e-mails lauding various brands of Bitcoin which apart from being a contributor to global warming is, as far as I can see,  the South Sea Bubble of the 21st century. Then, HSBC which is not my bank, constantly texting me to say there’s a problem on my account. When I complained to them they told me “just ignore it”. Finally both my wife and I have both been called to say “this is the HMRC; you have been named in a tax fraud; unless you return this call you will be instantly arrested.” We just ignore that too. The plan to stay off social media for a few days that celebs have advocated to protest about online racial abuse seems entirely sensible. But I have a better plan.

Change your phone as I’ve done. Everyone who has a Motorola thinks it’s wonderful. I’m an exception. I haven’t come to terms with it at all. It doesn’t seem to like me either. So it sulks in my pocket whilst I sulk outside. Now the consequence is I’m using it less and less and avoiding the stress of emails and texts I don’t want or need.

But four things pleased me last week. 

1. The continuation of Spring albeit with a nasty sneaky chill but there’s the joy of seeing brave, confident plants plumping up and thriving and this makes every morning joyful. As do the birds. I saw a goldfinch and that was magic as are the magnolia and the sound of woodpeckers.

2. A Spring dish that was a triumph. Risotto Primavera. We use orzo pasta which has something of a risotto appearance cooked in white wine and chicken stock with peas, asparagus, baby leaks and chopped broccoli heads. With a glass or two of ice cold Picpoul. Wonderful.

3. The discovery that I can actually meditate and let my mind empty of energy-sapping thoughts. I’ve spent too many years speculating about things that might happen. Now I calmly and pleasantly look at the grass, trees and horizon and lose myself like a fluffy cloud gently moving across a blue sky. 

4. Finally, we’ve been told our future lies in cyber-technology and AI. I’m rather sceptical about this. Because the art of the specialist, practical engineer is far from dead.  We have a veranda with three metal poles allegedly supporting the canopy and they were rusting at the bottom. Various people inspected them, sucked their teeth, muttered “oh dear – job for a specialist” and left. This had gone on and on with me increasingly anticipating a veranda collapse. 

Enter Dale. He arrives two days after I’d called, takes a look, suggests a pragmatic solution, sends a quote for half what I’d feared it might be and then arrives with a young man who cuts off the rusty pieces at the bottom of the poles, welds on galvanised pipe with base- plates to replace where the rusty pipe was. He then screws the base plate into the concrete veranda floor. Whoosh. All done and swept clean in less than two hours. The company has staff and a boss with refreshing can-do attitudes. If they’re an important part of our future rather than just apps and nice-to-have cyber-labour-savers, we’ll be fine.

And it’s not just climate change that’s a problem. Human beings are overheating too. We huff-puff, get querulous, quarrelsome and peevish. No need. Just watch a specialist at work or a blackbird building a nest. They really know what they’re doing and that’s so comforting.