… so you don’t have to buy it.

When the York Waterstones moved the length of Coney Street nearer to Redfellow Cottage, further attrition on my current account was inevitable.

9780571315789Yesterday’s raid was: two paperback histories, a hardback ‘techie and — I know I should have resisted — Sean O’Brien and Don Paterson’s anthology of Train Songs.

As always, the problem with such collections is you already have many of the selected verses in other books. That is inevitable with the obvious:

for starters.

In there, already, I’ve had a happy moment over Michael Flanders and Donald Swann putting the boot in on Beeching’s axing of The Slow Train:

My own ear worm has the remembered names on 43 miles of the defunct Wells-on-Sea to Norwich line: Kimberley Park, Thuxton, Yaxham, Nor’ Elm’n, Cowntee Schoo .., Fakenham! Fakenham! (always called twice), WalSINGham, Walsingham (ditto), Wighton Halt … All to the rhythm of a 4-4-0 Claud on jointed track.

A more taxing remembrance involves the names, and the eccentric East Norfolk pronunciations thereof, between Wells and Heacham, on the line closed after the 1953 floods: Holkham, Burnham Market, Stanhoe, Docking, Sedgeford, Heacham. Then on through Snettisham, Dersingham, Wolferton (and, pre-Myxy, its multitudinous rabbits), North Wootton, to Lynn.

The other stuff

I had forgotten that:

O fat white woman whom nobody loves
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves …

was Frances Cornford (page 19) and Seen from a Train. Note that, apart from the title, ano train is involved. Her Parting in Wartime is here, too (page 53), short, sharp and effective, even on a poster on the Central Line:

How long ago Hector took off his plume,
Not wanting that his little son should cry,
Then kissed his sad Andromache goodbye -
And now we three in Euston waiting-room.

There’s a surprising Irish (and Scots) element in this anthology: Heaney and MacNeice get three apiece, along with Michael Longley in an Italian Couchette (page 127), Paul Durcan, and Dennis O’Driscoll. A new one, to me, and wholly grabbing is Thomas McCarthy’s The Emigration Trains. Since McCarthy was born 1954, one wonders over:

We were heading for England and the world
At war. Neutrality we couldn’t afford.
I thought I would spend two years away,
But in the end the two became twenty.
Within hours we’d reach the junction at Crewe
And sample powdered eggs from the menu,
As well as doodlebugs falling nearby;
And that fatal traffic of an alien sky.

It doesn’t do to brood too much over that: would the best route from Waterford to work on the underground be through Holyhead and the Irish Mail? Surely no V1 flying bomb came anywhere near Crewe? Even so, McCarthy invites us to Pity the Poor Immigrant. No: there’s no Bobster represented here, not even his Slow Train. Copyright issues, perhaps? On the other hand, we do have Tom Waits’s Train Song (page 163) and a couple of obvious page-fillers (The Midnight Special, page 127, and Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain Blues (page 91, but worthy for other reasons):

If those, why not Steve Goodman’s City of New Orleans? Or Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound from Wigan, via Widnes, to Brentwood? Both of those are indisputably “train songs”.

Of course, once we’re that far down the line, we might also be looking for Percy French railing From Ennis/ as far as Kilkee on which, years since, I have already adequately touched.

But may well be about to do so again …


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Filed under Literature, Quotations, railways, reading, York

It was on a Wednesday morning that the gas-man came to call

Apart from the day of the week, Flanders and Swann nailed it:

Here at Redfellow Cottage, the boiler ceased working. All seemed to be well, lights winking appropriately, except the damn thing wouldn’t ignite.

Send for the expert.

Nine a.m. sharp, he and his mate are on the job.

The problem stemmed from the roofers. They had dislodged débris from above, which had somehow penetrated the vent, and a fragment was preventing the boiler fan from rotating. Use of a fine bristle (actually, one of those jobs that clear out sinks) and all seems well, if not considerably improved.

What can go wrong next?

[Yes, the painter-decorator is hard at work downstairs. Doesn't bode well.]

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Filed under economy, working class, York

The Lambeth (and City) walk

The IPPR’s Ed Cox reckoned expenditure on transport infrastructure, per capita, was:

  • south-west £215 [Index=100],
  • north-east £246 [Index=114],
  • Yorkshire and Humberside £303 [Index=141],
  • north-west £839 [Index= 309],
  • London £4,895 [Index=2,277].

Meanwhile, every few weeks the Thomas Heatherwick/Joanna Lumley “Garden Bridge” gets another puff or two in the metropolitan press, always appended to the Arup “visualisation” (homage to Canaletto never offered):


Thomas Heatherwick’s proposed Thames bridge.

Today in The Guardian (which ought to know better) obliges:

“We didn’t want any old bridge,” says Richard De Cani, Transport for London’s director of strategy and policy, who was instrumental in the Emirates Air Line cable car, east London’s mostly empty aerial sponsorship opportunity. “We’ve got our lean, mean, efficient footbridges, like the Millennium and Hungerford, so we were interested in a bridge that did something else.”

He describes the £175m project as “supporting economic growth and development”, bringing some of the South Bank’s bustle to the “dead world” of the north bank. Lifting off from just east of the National Theatre, the Garden bridge will cross the river, and the roaring dual carriageway of Victoria Embankment, to land on top of Temple tube station, one of the least-used stops in central London. The area has been newly christenedNorthbank, and there are plans to pedestrianise the stretch of the Strand between the Aldwych crescent, a scheme into which the bridge neatly dovetails as a benevolent bringer of crowds.

You noticed the gybe about the “mostly empty” Dangleway. Did you miss the magic number: £175 million — which is up a further £25 million from the number bandied by Boris Johnson just two months ago. However, the project:

…  has garnered not only the support of London‘s mayor-cum-novelty-infrastructure-tsar, Boris Johnson, who has pledged £30m from his transport budget, but also the backing of central government, in the form of a further £30m from the Treasury. A detailed planning application has now been submitted, with the aim of having it built by 2018.

Now I can think of several provincial cities who would know precisely what to do with £30 million of unqualified Treasury support for a new bridge (the city of York comes instantly to mind). In these cases, the new provision comes nearer to necessity than an “icon” or a “folly”.

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Filed under Boris Johnson, Britain, equality, Guardian, London, York

Getting the boot

To celebrate the England football team’s performance at the World Cup, the BBC web-site has a feature by slang lexicographer Jonathon Green:

Mullered and 61 other words for beaten at sport

BoasWish I’d thought of it first.

The cliché has it that the Inuit have 52 words for “snow”. That originates from a 1911 book by Franz Boas. However, thecanadianencyclopedia.ca disputes this, and suggests a proper count is nearer just ten. Just as the Inuit may know the right (and wrong) types of snow, so the English should know precise terms for levels of defeat suffered in any sport which they claim to have invented.

I believe that the first international sporting fixture may well have been played at Leith in 1682. The Duke of York (later James II) and  John Paterstone represented Scotland against two English milords, and trounced them (trounce being the 63rd word Green should have found). SO the English sportsman should be inured to set-backs.

How to segue from that to the next thought?

Ummm …

Well, we might ponder on the English addiction to irony and self-mockery. It is, for sure, expiating our inner prejudices and guilts. Through the likes of George Macdonald Fraser’s magnificent gargoyle, Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE. he was fun, and only as the joke soured did the political-correctors get in on the act (Fraser did a piece on just how this developed). By the same token, we have just had a small susurration about the sexism of the Samantha redouble-entendres in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue (check some choice examples here).

51x7GmbKYFL._So, for the antidote to political correctness, in a sporting context, allow me to reintroduce you to Peter Tinniswood’s Brigadier, and the very first chapter in his first outing:

Root’s Boot

During the course of a long and arduous career in the service of King and country I have had the honour in the name of freedom and natural justice to slaughter and maim men (and women) of countless creeds and races.

Fuzzy wuzzies, Boers, Chinamen, Zulus, Pathans, Huns, Berbers, Turks, Japs, Gypos, Dagos, Wops and the odd Frog or two — all of them, no doubt, decent chaps ‘in their own way’.

Who is to say, for example, that the Fuzzy Wuzzies don’t have their equivalent don’t have their equivalent of our own dear John Inman and the delicious Delia Smith, mother of the two Essex cricketing cousins, Ray and Peter?

I have no doubt that the Dagos have their counterpart of our Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, and I am perfectly certain that the Wops, just like us, have lady wives with hairy legs, loud voices and too many relations.

Indeed it is my firm opinion that all the victims of this carnage and slaughter were just like you and I — apart from their disgusting table manners and their revolting appearance.Poor chaps, they had only two failings – they were foreigners and they were on the wrong side.

Now as I approach the twilight of my life I look back with pleasure and with pride on those campaigns which have brought me so much comfort and fulfilment — crushing the Boers at Aboukir Bay, biffing the living daylights out of the Turk at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, massacring the Aussies at The Oval in 1938.

But of all these battles one remains vividly in my mind to this very day — the Battle of Root’s Boot.

The incidents pertaining to this conflict occurred in 1914 during the MCC’s first and only tour to the Belgian Congo.

Who on earth had the crass stupidity to give the Congo to the Belgians in the first place is quite beyond me.

I am bound to say that I consider the Belgians to be the most revolting shower of people ever to tread God’s earth.

Eaters of horse flesh, they let us down in two world wars. They’re hopeless at golf. They drive on the wrong side of the road, and they’re forever yodelling about their blasted fiords and their loathsome fretwork egg-timers.

Is it any wonder they made such a confounded mess of running the Congo?

When we went there in 1914, there was not one decent wicket the length and breadth of the country, and the facilities for nets were totally inadequate.

And, if that weren’t enough, during our matches there were at least two outbreaks of cannibalism among spectators, which I found totally unacceptable, and which I am convinced were responsible for the loss of our most promising young leg spinner, M.M. Rudman-

He was sent out to field at deep third man in the match against an Arab Slavers’ Country Eleven, and all we found of him after the tea interval was the peak of his Harlequins cap and half an indelible pencil.

But of these setbacks we were blissfully unaware as in high good spirits we set off from Liverpool in April 1914 aboard the steamship, SS Duleepsinjhi.

The party was skippered by the Rev. Thurston Salthouse-Bryden, a former chaplain to Madame Tussauds and a forceful if erratic opening bat who distinguished himself in 1927 playing for the Convocation of Canterbury by scoring a century before matins in the match against a Coptic Martyrs Eleven.

TyldesleyI had the honour to be vice captain and OC ablutions, and among the notable players in our midst were the Staffordshire opening bowler, Thunderton-Cartwright, who was later to become rugby league correspondent for The Lancet, and the number three bat and occasional seamer, Ashton, F., who was later responsible for the choreography of the Royal Ballet’s highly acclaimed production of Wisden’s Almanack, 1929, featuring Alicia Markova as Ernest Tyldesley.

Of all the players in the party, though, the one who made the profoundest impression on all who met him (and some who didn’t) was the all-rounder, Arthur Root, a distant cousin of the Derbyshire, Worcestershire and England player, Fred Root, of the same name.

Root was what we in the ‘summer game’ call ‘a natural’.

During the voyage he kept us constantly entertained with his reading in Derbyshire dialect of the works of Colette, and his rendition on spoons and stirrup pumps of the later tone poems of Frederick Delius.

Root had charm, wit, erudition and the largest pair of feet it has ever been my privilege to encounter.

Indeed on the outward voyage they were directly responsible for saving the life of a Goanese steward who fell overboard seven nautical miles sou’ sou’ east of Ushant.

The poor wretch was applying linseed oil to the Rev. Salthouse-Bryden’s self-righting lectern when a freak giant wave washed him overboard.

With the lifebelts being in use for a rumbustious game of deck quoits, Root with great presence of mind threw the only object available to him into the sea — to wit, his right boot.

The dusky Indian steward clambered into the pedicular container and was instantly hauled aboard by the boot laces.

Little did we realize then how vital that boot was to be to our safety and well-being many many months later.

We disembarked without incident at Matadi and set off forthwith for the interior.

What a noble sight our native bearers made as they trudged along the primitive jungle trails carrying on their woolly heads the essential paraphernalia of our expedition — sight screens, portable scorebox and heavy roller.

The capital city, Leopoldvilie, was reached in three weeks.

How strange it was to our English eyes — no tram conductors, no Bedlington terriers, no Ordnance Survey bench marks.

Our only consolation came when Root discovered the local branch of Gunn and Moore’s where we bought leopard-skin cricket bags, scorebooks bound in genuine okapi hide, and the Rev. Salthouse-Bryden purchased an object warranted as a Bantu baptismal love token, but which to my untutored eyes looked more like H. M. Stanley’s left testicle.

We won each of our four matches in Leopoldville by an innings and ‘a substantial margin’, the Belgians ground fielding, as we had anticipated, being of a typically abysmal level.

A nation of congenital butterfingers, the Belgians.

We then set out for what was to be the most difficult and dangerous opposition of our entire tour — three unofficial Test matches against the Pygmies.

We left Leopoldville on a sultry August morning and did not reach our destination until late November 1914.
During the long and onerous trek we had the misfortune to lose three members of our party:

Evans-Pritchard, E. E.: stung by scorpion.

Leakey, L. S. B.: trampled by buffalo.

Attenborough, D.: retired hurt.

It was a nuisance to lose two wicket-keepers and a ‘more than adequate’ middle order batsman in that fashion, but nonetheless our party was in good spirits, when we arrived at Potto Potto to be greeted by officials of the Pygmy Board of Cricket Control.

The chairman, a gnarled, wizened little creature, who, incidentally, bore a marked resemblance to the distinguished light comedy actor and chanteuse, Mr John Inman, made us most welcome, offering us victuals and a choice of his most beautiful wives.

‘Just like playing for Derby against Notts at Worksop,’ said Root, and one and all joined in his hearty and innocent laughter.

On the advice of the Rev. Salthouse-Bryden we declined the feminine offerings but accepted the victuals which were served in the great adobe, thatched pavilion by elderly matrons of the tribe.

It was during the subsequent revelries that the first hitch in the proceedings occurred.
By prior arrangement we were to provide the balls to be used in the match, and, as a matter of courtesy, our baggage master, Swanton, presented a box of same to be examined by the Pygmy officials.

Imagine our horror when the minute, dark-skinned fraternity passed the balls from hand to hand, sniffed them, shook them and, with expressions of sublime delight, ate them.

Worse was to follow when the severely truncated tinted gents offered us the balls they wished to use — row upon row of small spherical objects, gnarled, matted, wrinkled and pitted.

For a moment we gazed at them in stunned silence.

Then the Rev. Salthouse-Bryden exclaimed:

‘Saints preserve us — they are shrunken heads.’

What could have been the very severest of fraught situations was saved by our ever-genial giant, Root.

Picking up one of the heads in his massive fist, he examined it briefly and then said:
‘Don’t worry, skipper. We’ll use this ‘un. It should be just right for seaming after lunch.’

The day of the first unofficial test dawned bright and clear.

The Pygmies won the toss and elected to bat.

PillingThe two Pygmy openers made their way to the wicket to the accompaniment of the howling of monkeys and the screeching of gaudily feathered parakeets, and as I watched them take the crease from my vantage point at deep extra cover, it was for all the world like looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars at a dusky wee George Wood and an extremely sunburned Mr Harry Pilling.

Our opening bowler, Thunderton-Cartwright, came bounding to the wicket to deliver the first ball of this historic match.

It whistled from his hand at ferocious pace.

But all to no avail.

On the puddingy and unresponsive pitch the ball thudded mutely into the turf and rose no more than six inches from the ground.

‘Bouncer,’ yelled the Pygmy opener.

It was a cry taken up in unison by the masses of minuscule spectators packed in dense masses in what was, I believe, their equivalent of the Warner Stand.

An ugly incident seemed certain to ensue.

But at that moment, totally unexpected, came the crackle of small arms fire, and across the distant river burst a column of native Askaris.

As the Askaris waded across the river, firing indiscriminately from the hip, the Pygmies fled as if by magic.

As bullets whistled past our ears we flung ourselves to the ground, only to hear the following words which plunged an icy dagger to the depths of our hearts.

‘On your feet, Englische Schweinhunds!’

We looked up to see three white men, dressed in khaki drill, with shaven heads and leering duelling scars upon their cheeks.

‘Huns,’ we cried in unison.

Indeed they were.

Why hadn’t MCC informed us that war had been declared?

Why hadn’t the Test and County Cricket Board notified us that marauding parties of German colonial troops were rampaging through the territory?

Why was there no news in The Cricketer of the conflagration that was to rewrite the map of Europe and suspend for four years all Test matches between England and Australia?

Such thoughts flashed through my mind as we were bound by the straps of our cricket pads to the portable scoreboard, and the Askaris lined themselves in front of us in firing squad formation.

It was then, as death stared us in the face, that we were addressed by our skipper, the Rev. Salthouse-Brvden.

‘Oh, Lord,’ he said. Thou hast in Thy wisdom decreed that our innings shall be closed.

‘It is pleasing to Thine eye that in that great score-book in the sky it shall be written of our party, “Death stopped play”.

‘So, Lord, give us the strength to face the long walk back the celestial pavilion like men and members of the MCC, or whichever is more appropriate.’

It was at that moment that I noticed that Root was improperly dressed for the occasion.

His right boot was missing.

Before I could speak he motioned with his eyes towards the distant river.

An amazing sight met my eyes.

Floating silently in the current was a large right cricket boot.

And in it, paddling silently, was a war party of our erstwhile Pygmy opponents.

The Huns and Askaris, totally unaware of the approaching sporting footwear, paused to gloat over their triumph.

It waas to be their undoing, for in an instant the boot touched the river bank, the Pygmies sprang out through the lace holes and, screaming like dervishes, unloosed their poisoned arrows against them.

It was all over in seconds.

The Askaris and their vile Teutonic masters lay dead at our feet.

The match was resumed the following morning.

We had the good fortune to win, when Root took the last three Pygmy wickets with the last three balls of the match.

Years later he was to maintain that this was only possible owing to the slight inconsistency in the second new ball, which caused him to produce prodigious variations in swing and bounce.

And with a smile and a gentle nod of his genial head he would say:

‘I reckon it were the duelling scar in the seam what done it.’

 That may require foot-notes for the younger fellows.


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Filed under BBC, Britain, cricket, George MacDonald Fraser, Guardian, prejudice, Racists, reading

What do you expect but a grunt?

Political Scrapbook has picked up a gem from the Thurrock local news-sheet:

Thurrock UKIP leader on drink drive charge

THE leader of the UKIP group on Thurrock Council has been charged with drink driving after a late night incident at a fundraising function attended by national party leader Nigel Farage and MEP Tim Aker. 

Cllr Robert Ray was arrested in the early hours of last Friday morning after a dinner at the Orsett Hall Hotel.

A statement by Essex police said: “A man has been charged with drink driving after being arrested at Orsett. Robert Ray, 65, of Purfleet Road, Aveley, was stopped by officers at Orsett Hall at 2.15am on Friday, 13 June. He has been bailed and will appear at Basildon Magistrates’ Court on 1 July.

A little Ray of Sonnenschein

The “added-value” Political Scrapbook appends is the dubious history of said Councillor Robert Ray:


So, all together now!

Or, to spell it out:

One evening last October, when I was far from sober,
And dragging home a load with manly pride,
My feet began to stutter, and I fell down in the gutter,
And a pig came up and parked right by my side.

Then I mumbled, “It’s fair weather when good comrades get together”,
Till a lady passing by was heard to say,
“You can tell a man that boozes by the playmates that he chooses”.
Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.

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Filed under Britain, broken society, East Anglia, folk music, Political Scrapbook, UKIP

Gus Christensen and co.

That previous post on housing was essentially a lament that the omniscient Economist had no answer to London’s affordable homes problem (short of building across the inner Home Counties — which might, just might, finally collapse the transport networks).

Today’s New York Times has a somewhat similar account of a similar problem:

Affordable Island in the Sun
Roosevelt Island Maintains Its Mix

Roosevelt Island, which is considered part of Manhattan and not Queens, was famously conceived as a utopia for working- and middle-class New Yorkers in 1969, and the architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed its master plan. Most of the apartments on the island were subsidized through state and federal programs, and various buildings were developed to house tenants of different income levels, so that someone receiving a Section 8 grant, for instance, might live next to a teacher in a rent-regulated unit.

The story is topped-and-tailed for “human interest” by Gus Christensen:

Gus Christensen was, until six months ago, a managing director at Evercore Partners, the boutique investment bank, a position preceded by stints at JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs and an education at Wharton. Some years ago, befitting that profile, he was a Republican; but eventually the religion of the free market lost its hold on him, so much so that his politics migrated aggressively to the left. Last week he posted on Twitter a link to a tabloid piece about a billionaire who was buying a $70 million pied-à-terre for his children at 740 Park Avenue, with the hashtag #Signoftheapocalypse.

Mr. Christensen is running for the State Assembly in the 76th District, which runs east of Third Avenue on the Upper East Side and includes Roosevelt Island, a community that might be seen as a template for the kind of equitable and more economically integrated city that he and other progressives, fearing the eclipse of all but the wealthiest faction of the plutocratic class, want to see achieved.

Christensen was profiled at some length in Esquire —

It is tax day, April 15th, and a rainy one on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where Gustavus “Gus” Christensen, a Democrat running to fill a rare open city seat in the New York State Assembly, works from his compact, ground level home office. Christensen sits in front of a closed HP laptop.  His campaign manager, on the payroll for about a month, sits in front of a 27-inch Apple Thunderbolt Display. Outside, commuters are soaked in the downpour.

The Assembly district that Christensen hopes to represent is the (relatively) poorer half of the wealthiest Congressional district in the United States.  The 42-year-old candidate left a post as managing director of Evercore Partners, a boutique investment bank, to run for the seat. He previously worked at J.P. Morgan (pre-merger with Chase) and Goldman Sachs.

Typical Wall Street, floor to ceiling on the diploma wall, too. Graduate school for Christensen was the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and he was a Yale undergraduate where he served as campus coordinator for moderate Democrat Paul Tsongas, then contesting the Democratic Party presidential primary.

For his first race, Christensen believes he’ll need to raise half a million dollars. He’s already gathered $145,000 from donors and has lent his campaign another $250,000.  It will be an expensive election. Three cycles ago, candidates in the neighboring district spent $3 million to fill an open seat. Inflation, it seems, is everywhere in New York. That’s one of the reasons Christensen is running.

There’s also a Bloomberg “In the Loop” interview, which covers much of the same ground.

250px-NYCS_map_F.svgI have to say, with his emphasis on housing and decent provision for schooling, Mr Christensen sounds like my sort of man. I don’t overlook, either, that he has seen the weakness of outcasting affordable accommodation to remoter spots (as for The Economist,  remember, that was the Green Belt):

The population of the island has grown by 20 percent over the past 10 years, and the demands on infrastructure are intense. One real problem for Roosevelt Island, as Mr. Christensen put it, is that

“there are just too many people on the F train in the morning”.

Rather like boarding the Northern Line south of East Finchley or Golders Green any morning, and expecting a seat.

Meanwhile, if you read Adam Boulton in today’s [London] Sunday Times, you got an eyeful of all that is wrong with Ed Miliband:

Today two of Miliband’s closest allies in the shadow cabinet are Rachel Reeves, who gave her first preference to Ed in 2010, and Tristram Hunt, who hotly backed his brother David. Brainy, academic, metropolitan middle-class professionals, they are also very much in Ed Miliband’s mould, which tells you a lot about his approach to politics.

Miliband believes he can answer doubts about his personality with two other P-words, policy and principle. In Miliband’s view, last week’s promised clampdown on the jobseeker’s allowance wasn’t a knee-jerk attempt to stem the flow of working-class voters to Ukip. It was a carefully calculated plank in his plan to combat youth unemployment.

The announcement was just a taster of the policy platform — on growth, on infrastructure, on education — that Miliband’s Labour will roll out through the summer, culminating in the party conference, an event that has so far proved a successful marshalling point for this Labour leader. The problem with this policy process comes when it intersects with reality. Not everyone sees things his way.

I wasn’t clear,. there, whether Brainy, academic, metropolitan middle-class professionals was Boulton channelling Pope:

Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.

I, on the other hand, feel that Christensen, Reeves, Hunt, and Miliband are models of precisely the kind of caring, thoughtful progressives of which we need many more.

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Filed under Democratic Party, Elections, equality, House-prices, Labour Party, New York City, New York Times, social class, Sunday Times

The Economist on housing

For reasons too complicated to explain, I was reading the international (i.e. US -orientated) edition of this week’s Economist.

That means I have to leaf through quite a lot of stuff that, however worthy, doesn’t have much impact for me. Except, I have to marvel that, in 2014, anyone can still get away with the phallic imagery and explicit sexism of this:


Finally, on page 57, I find this:

The screws on Britain’s housing market are being gently tightened. New figures published on June 17th showed that in the past year house prices in Britain increased by 10%. In London they rose by almost 19%. Such increases look unsustainable; so Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has said he will “not hesitate” to quell the market if necessary. He had already hinted that interest rates might go up sooner than expected — perhaps suggesting a rise this year.

Having started so well, the piece becomes less focused, less conclusive:

What monetary policy cannot do is fix the deeper problem-which is that houses will remain least affordable in the places where most jobs are being created. Price increases in the capital are making lots of money for construction firms who own land: Berkeley Homes, a London-focused builder, increased its profits by 40% in the year to April. But they are not stimulating much supply, largely because planning restrictions are so tight. In St Albans, a southern commuter town, the price of greenfield land with planning permission has already eclipsed its heady pre-recession levels. Yet where there is actually plenty of land with permission to build, for example in the Thames estuary, house prices remain too low to entice builders.

George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, at least understands the problem. “British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable,” he said in a recent speech. Yet he has offered no new solution to London’s unaffordable housing. The green belt surrounding the capital, on which building is banned, will remain intact. House-building will therefore be limited to former industrial sites which are expensive to build on.

Tick the boxes:

  • a free market — ✔︎;
  • screw the Green Belt — ✔︎;
  • ignore social gain and don’t recycle Brown Lands — ✔︎;
  • keep it all in the private sector — ✔︎;

and … err …

  • beyond that, we haven’t a clue — ✘✘.

Hence the painful non-conclusion:

As a senior civil servant notes, Britain’s housing market is getting back to its pre-recession normal state: broken.

Well, Economist chappies, since you cannot voice the truth that dares not speak its name, allow me to assist.

The answer is there: do it as a public enterprise. Let local authorities, on sixty-year mortgage funding — the way they used to do it, acquire the Brown Land, clean it up (now there’s scope for employment), build on it (now there’s further scope to develop proper skills training) and house people.

What you don’t then do is flog off public assets at knock-down prices, in the expectation of buying votes.

Similarly, another what-you-don’t-do (and what-you-shouldn’t-have-done) is shovel out to your City friends, via various privatisations, those public lands acquired through the NHS, through nationalised utilities, through past generations’ investment in public education.

Having got bogged down, and thoroughly dis-chuffed by all that, only later did I catch up with the excellent demolition job (credited to “D.K.” in the Blighty blog) done on Iain Duncan Smith and his Department of Work and Pensions. This one has quite a spectacular ritardando [rallentando to coasting to a stop in your car and a ritardando to braking to a stop]:

Such has been the ineffectiveness of more systematic reform that Gordon Brown’s tax credits system, so widely mocked by Conservatives when they came to power in 2010, now looks like a relatively successful intervention. For all that the policy has numerous intellectual flaws, at least it actually works.

Whichever party comes to power in 2015, the next parliament is going to require real welfare reform. Mostly, ministers will have to fix the problems that have been introduced into the system in the past few years, but they will also to find ways of saving money when they finally admit that Mr Duncan Smith’s promises will in all likelihood come to naught. As to the welfare secretary himself: whoever wins in 2015, he will have quite a fight to protect his reputation.

Not so much braking to a stop as a full-on, self-inflicted car-crash.

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