Monthly Archives: August 2009

A curiosity of a book

Somewhere in Redfellow Hovel is a copy of Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne. That elegantly tells the story of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray (the dictionary’s driving force and editor-of-genius) and Dr W.C.Minor (The US Army doctor immured in Broadmoor for a lunatic murder).

Over the weekend Malcolm came into possession of another title by Simon Winchester, a self-vaunted “first edition”, entitled The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

In content, of course, they are one and the same: the UK and the US editions. Just as, infamously, the former colonials could not cope with Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George III, because they must have missed the earlier two parts, they could not be expected to fathom “Crowthorne”. To which any realist, like Malcolm, will wonder: which is the more succinct, more memorable title?

So a spurious professorship had to be wished on autodidact Murray. How else could the draper’s son from the Borders, who left school at 14, was headmaster of the local school by the age of twenty, rise to his knighted eminence on the back of such a limited formal education? Well, folks, it’s that frontier tradition …

That gripe apart, what Malcolm likes here is the faintest touch of the exotic: here’s an alien in our midst. It is most assuredly a well-produced little tome, and will doubtless outlive the paperback (if that elusive volume should reappear in this time/space continuum).

Confuse-a-cat week

In return, Malcolm resolves to deposit on the “put-and-take” carousel at Maplewood NJ Transit Station a couple of UK paperbacks of American literature. In the suburban bastions of aggressive capitalism (though, laudably, they vote Democratic), this is a small gesture of practical communism.

Malcolm’s usual wont is to contribute to the ethic while subverting the wider culture. He likes to speculate on the consequences of such small actions. Example: one trip he donated the UK edition of David Brin’s The Postman: near eight hours on VS001, in cattle class, requires the lightest of literature. A decent novel, discredited by a film derived therefrom: but what did the New Jersey commuter reckon he (or she) had? Particularly when the book-mark (the receipt from Heathrow’s bookstall) fluttered out.

That old saw (you knew it was coming!)

George Bernard Shaw commonly gets the credit for the aphorism. Oscar Wilde, though, hit that particular button earlier in The Canterville Ghost:

Mrs. Otis … was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.

Perhaps, though, that modern cliché derives from the line given Robert Mitchum in Stanley Doren’s The Grass is Greener:

Sometimes I’m convinced that the greatest barrier between our countries is the bond of a common language.

So it’s all in the binding.

And, of the OED and Webster, only one is “morocco-bound“.

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Filed under leisure travel, Literature, London, New Jersey, Quotations, reading

The worm in the bud

The subtitle here might be:

Why British political bloggers are throttling themselves.

And one of the worst asphyxiophiliacs seems to be Iain Dale.

The problem is:

  • on the one hand, the best blog-sites seek out-reach (while the less-good aim merely to reinforce the prejudices of their chosen few);
  • on the other, they seek to monetarise their output.

In their own ways, both are honest intentions. Except, as every attempt at extracting spondulicks from the punters has shown, they are incompatible, at least in the present state of the art.

This is particularly the obstruction for sites which have sold out to those advertisers who employ extended YouTube clips. Yes, that infernal, interminable Forest campaign against the smoking ban is the worst culprit by a country mile.

Dale’s otherwise-exemplary site (except for its political bent, of course) is the case-in-point here. An experiment should be:

  • purge your cache, and thereby affect to be a first-time visitor;
  • log on to;
  • watch the number of items your browser has to upload before you can access the meat;
  • wait and wonder while you regain control of your cursor.

Even if you’re on high-speed broadband (as Malcolm is at Redfellow Hovel) but the contention-ratio is working against you, go and make a cup of tea/open the second bottle: you’ll be here some time. If you’re on dial-up, Norfolk enchants.

As a consequence, a fair number of potential clients force-quit (if they know how) long before the site is loaded. Presumably, though, once there is a connection, there is a “hit”; and this does not damage the stat-porn [© Iain Dale]. If that’s how it works, the potential advertisers are being scammed. Malcolm’s guess is a site with heavy-advertising loading has either a lot of “hits” with short dwell-time (those are the “force-quitters”), or some very frustrated visitors (those are less-savvy) who then resolve this is the way less-traveled or the road not taken in future.

If so, that is a self-defeating pity. Malcolm is not intent on making a partisan point here, purely directed at the Tory boys: the lefties have not been able to monetarise to the same extent, despite wishful thinking, because of the state of the political market. Yet, to a large extent, all factions have a common interest here (and, this time next year, it could be lefties making the show). If this political blogging lark is to prosper, the likes of Dale and Slugger O’Toole and LibDemVoice and many, many more need to accessible, not a cause of irritation.

Are we going to have a true democratic agora, or asphyxia?

Whenever Malcolm has commented on all this, he has been told by the site-operator, “Oh, it works OK on mine. It must be your connexion/your set-up/you.”

Not so.

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It has been hard to avoid Dr Mark Miodownik of King’s College, London, these last few days:

Is the instruction manual heading for extinction?
As products become easier to use we are in danger of losing our understanding of how they work – and how to fix them.

Inevitably, Miodownik covers all the bases:

  • much modern technology is beyond the abilities of even above-average technicians. A mere incompetent (Malcolm, for one example) can just about mange to replace the battery of a watch or — at a pinch — an iPod (provided he can get the case to open).
  • then there is the question of whether or not it is worth it. Malcolm has done the odd belt in a washing-machine or a clothes-dryer; but he knows his limits. He also knows that professional repairers of domestic equipment are a rapacious breed; and replacement items often work out cheaper at the second repair.
  • the car fan-belt isn’t a difficult task, nor is the silencer on a motor-cycle. Either or both can be a mucky task, and neither will do much for one’s manicure. Beyond that, an amateur under the bonnet is not a good idea.

As for those excellent Haynes manuals, Malcolm has used them from time to time. That said, he never did get the thruster, washers and spacers on that Honda crankshaft back in the proper order: to the immense mockery and amusement of the professionals to whom he eventually resorted.4182

One area in which Haynes is distinctly missing is in unconscious humour, though the tone is lightening with some of the recent “lifestyle” publications (as right). This missing ingredient is amply supplied by those translations from the original Far Eastern. For Malcolm, the outright leader is the handbook which came with a German motorcycle. It instructed on the gentle art of clutch-control:

A good motor-cyclist always has two fingers at the ready.

Volvo and BMW drivers, take note.

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Called to book

Earlier this month there was a small hoo-hah that OxBirkegaardfam was somehow stealing trade from “proper” and “professional” booksellers:

… the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association … are complaining that the charity sells donated stock, receives 80% business rate reductions – as do other charities – and largely employs volunteers. The smaller running costs, they argue, allow it to undercut rivals. They say it is no surprise that Oxfam, which now has 130 specialist bookshops across the country, has become the biggest retailer of secondhand books in Europe.

On the other hand, Oxfam occupy what could otherwise be empty retail properties. Nor, in Malcolm’s view, is the expertise shown by its bookshop managers greatly adrift from that of the commercial operators.

The trade might complain even louder about Amazon and eBay, both of which seem to have thriving secondhand book markets. Meanwhile, a troll on the web will quickly throw up examples of “professional” booksellers who differ on the value of a particular text by factors of ten and more. Is that ignorance or expertise?

All of that reminds Malcolm of two things:

  • the imminence of a flourishing Oxfam bookshop in his home patch; and
  • the curious way the secondhand bookshop has spawned a sub-genre of mystery fiction.Sundew

Malcolm is to bookshops, new or secondhand, as small insects are to sundew. On occasion, he may have felt he shared the insects’ fate. He does not discriminate between Oxfam and “professionals” in his visiting habits, except for a wry reflection on how one will have a display of the collected works of Alfred Wainwright, another long runs of Wisdens — the common factor being grasping over-pricing.

As for those recent bookshop-based mysteries, did they start with Carlos Ruiz Zafon and The Shadow Of The Wind? Malcolm recalls he was not immediately enamoured of that one: the Lady in Malcolm’s Life reckons that the follow-up, The Angel’s Game, is a slicker read.

Malcolm himself is just finishing Mikkel Birkegaard’s The Library of Shadows, acquired in a three-for-two sundew moment. There is always this lurking suspicion that such a book is written to a formula:

Dan Brown + Illuminati Conspiracy + Ruiz Zafon = $$$$$$

However, it’s the summer season for light-reading; so no excess griping allowed.

Anyway, they’ll soon all be discards on the way to Oxfam.

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Two fanes and just one pub of distinction

So far, a decent week.

Let Malcolm take us through it.

henry viii doran coverMonday involved a jaunt down to the British Library and the excellent exhibition on Henry VIII: Man and Monarch. It took Malcolm and the Lady in his Life nearly three hours to troll through the exhibits. These embrace the spectacular —

The Act of Supremacy of 1534, a single paragraph of which was as significant to the development of England as that minor squabble of 1215 between King Jean and his barons;

and the amusing —

Henry VIII proof-reading the Bible, and being waspishly reminded by his Archbishop that not even the King of England could re-define the Ten Commandments.

The catalogue, by Susan Doran, must be one of the best values, particularly at the Times Culture+ discount of a few pence under £16. Yes: for that’s the hard-back, too.

So to lunch at the Irish Club. After which — since the Club is singularly delinquent in offering any cask ales, and we have time and space — go exploring?

And, a discovery.

St George’s, Southwark

There has been a Roman Catholic chapel in Southwark since 1793. After the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, the local priest, Fr Thomas Doyle, set about the construction of a church suitable for his burgeoning flock. August Pugin came up with a grandiose project, of which a dumbed-down, scrubbed-up version was completed in time to become the Cathedral Church of the Southwark Archdiocese, when Pius XI restored the English hierarchy in 1850.

In 1941 the Luftwaffe included St George’s in its town-planning programme for London. So the present structure dates form the 1950s.20051221230625_southwark cathederal

A bit of a barn outside, but within, the architect, Romilly Bernard Craze, deserves considerable credit. What makes it remarkable, to Malcolm, is that it is such an English interior. It may not be the most spectacular RC building in London (that’s the 100-octane, sixteen-cylinder Byzantine frolic in Victoria), but it is well worth the visit. Put it this way: of the two, one is for work, the other for ornament — Malcolm knows which he prefers.The_George_Inn_2

After which, a passing visit to the other George of Southwark, the famed galleried pub off Borough High Street. A good pint of Adnams Broadside (but there’s even better to be had at the Bridge House downstream): beyond which, Malcolm’s advice is take your holiday snaps, and don’t bother.

Wednesday, to Old Harlow

A day off, and today a trip out to Essex.

Harlow itself is a pretty-depressing post-war development. OK, OK: it’s the birthplace of Mrs Beckham, “Posh Spice”. Enough, already?

Go a bit out-of-town (numerous roundabouts) and find Old Harlow. Which is what Malcolm and the Lady in his Life did today, to share conversation with a few old friends and colleagues.

The party assembled at the Queen’s Head in Churchgate Street (over six-footers should duck). If the George in Southwark is guaranteed to disappoint, this one is equally as up-lifting and worthwhile. All kudos to Greshon, on the beerintheevening site, who has it spot on:Queens head

Perfect, perfect olde worlde pub: ancient outside and in, old beams, fireplaces, etc, etc. Beautiful churchside location too in a gorgeous street. Who would have thought Harlow could be so idyllic?

All that’s missing in that comment is the good choice of beers (yes, Adnam’s Broadside!), wines and a daunting list of food-choices.

And next door …

St Marys… is the parish church. From the outside, St Mary’s and St Hugh’s is an interesting building. The exterior is flint-stone masonry, with a broached, rather heavy, Essex spire at the crossing. So far, so good.

Inside it is a dreary Victorian “restoration”. In fact, the church has been pretty effectively mucked about over the centuries. There was a catastrophic fire in 1708; and then it suffered a thorough going-over in 1872-3. However …

The odd spectacular detail winks through.

  • There is a surfeit of Jacobean memorials on the walls.

Most of the glazing is Victorian “every picture tells a story” stuff, but there are two quite-remarkable exceptions.

  • Hidden away in the north aisle (where one might expect to find the Lady Chapel, but which now amounts to a robing room) is a small pQuAnneiece of medieval glass, a Virgin-and-Child. It is delightful (and vaguely dated to the 14th-century), set in cut-down fragments of some glazing which must also pre-date that fire.
  • One further curiosity: in the north transept, behind the modern pitch-pine screen-panels, are two painted glass roundels, depicting the executed Charles I and Queen Anne (see right)

Tomorrow is only Thursday.

So, the Lady in his Life goes off to belt golf-balls, while Malcolm ventures forth in search of light-emitting diodes.

But that’s a different story.

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Filed under Adnams, Doyle, leisure travel, London, pubs

An “A” in hyprocrisy, Mr Woodhead?

Chris Woodhead made a career out of the National Curriculum. For a while he had education Ministers dancing at his whim, like angels on that mythical Thomist pin. In recent years he has been reduced to a minor supporting rôle, himself dancing to the Murdoch tune.

Here he comes, today, with an annual gripe:

Next week A-level hopefuls are going to experience the agony or the ecstasy. The week after it is the turn of this year’s GCSE candidates. Two things are certain. One, that results in both GCSE and A-level exams will continue to improve with even more candidates achieving top grades; two, that girls will continue, because exams now depend so much on coursework, to outperform boys.

Spot the errors in that, not least that for some time there has been a return to formal exams, and less emphasis on coursework — for precisely the gender-bending reason Woodhead cites.

He takes another gratuitous swipe:

I talk to bright GCSE and A-level students and I am horrified by the treadmill of their classroom existence. They are taught the “right” answer as prescribed by the examiner and warned against any independent thought. One tedious coursework assignment is completed and another immediately looms. Above all, these students realise that it is a farce. They know that the intellectual challenge is pathetic, and, because everybody will win it, the prize (10 A*s at GCSE, three or four A grades at A-level), meaningless.

You either believe that every generation of students is brighter and more diligent than the last and that teachers today are more competent than the nincompoops who struggled to teach me in the early Sixties, or you don’t. I don’t.

Now, Malcolm is not wholly at odds with the intention. Just that Woodhead has obviously failed the comprehension question. Note, also, that Woodhead claims the ability, subjectively and instinctively, to recognise “bright” students — precisely the nous that ordinary teachers, not touched by the Woodhead genius, lacked and so had to be regimented by imposed “objective” criteria.

Here goes with the explication — again.

Once upon a time we had a system which, in more enlighted times, would be dignified as “norm-related criteria”. This assumed that the collective intellect of exam candidates didn’t vary greatly from one cohort to the next. So, make a decision on how many are to “pass” (say 60%), look for where that percentile “norm” matches the ranking of candidates’ marks, and — Bingo! — there’s the “pass” level.

That wasn’t good enough for the architects of the National Curriculum. We had to have “attainment levels”: if you can recognise that letters make words, wa hey!, you’ve scored Level One — and so on. Every bit of the whole spectrum of knowledge and skills had to be squeezed into a scale, from one to ten.

That opened the door to “criteria-related norms”. We now had a super-scientific explanation (provided one understood the bureaucratic word-juggling) for every stage in the process of learning-development.

And the attainment levels begat programmes of study.
And the programmes of study begat attainment targets.
And the attainment targets begat lots and lots of box-ticking.
And the minister looked, and saw that it was good.

Mr Woodhead was a fan of all that tick-the-box stuff. He evaluated the classroom performance of every teacher on just such a basis.

Now he bewails the obvious defect of “criteria-referencing”, which had previously occurred to all those old-fashioned dominies. Fail to jump fast enough to Our Chris’s latest wheeze and one became classified among those 15,000 “incompetent teachers” of whom Woodhead, in his pomp, was so dismissive.

Once the target for each next level is so identified, the whole weight of the system demands that teaching is exclusively directed to achieving that short-term end.  Classroom “quality assurance” [sic] monitoring quickly became focused upon just that. At a single stroke, the act of teaching was rendered down to mere instruction. Here’s the hoop. Jump through it. Well done! Now we can tick your box.

It was the end of the English tradition, centuries established, of anything approaching a “liberal education”.

Since this is Woodhead, taking Murdoch’s shilling, we need not guess whom to blame, and who is the coming messiah:

This debacle is typical of what Labour has done to public exams. Michael Gove, the Conservative spokesman on education, has said that a future Conservative government would restore credibility to the exam system. He has not yet spelt out what this means. He should, and quickly. No issue in education is more important. What he says could decide how a good many people cast their vote.

If that’s what you really, really want, Mr Woodhead, there’s one simple way to do it.

Trust the teacher.

Restore norm-referencing.

It goes against everything that was imposed on us by all those Tory ministers you assiduously served, guided, directed and advised. To say that Labour should have ditched the bureucracy of the National Curriculum, instanter, has long been a truism in Redfellow Hovel: which is also why, when you were defending the box-ticking system and expanding your empire (circa 1990-2000), you were so vilified in the Hovel and elsewhere.

However, be warned: there are costs.

You will no longer be able to trot along to your tame ministers and proffer them another annual improvement in their beloved statistics.

You will have the wrath of middle-class mothers, crying “Unfair!”, all singeing your short-and-curleys because their little ones didn’t know quite how high the hoop was held. Since one of the successes of criteria-referencing has been to expand considerably the eligible cohort (many of whom must now be immolated in your bonfire of Lord Baker‘s vanities), there are political dangers there.

But, Woodhead, this Norfolkman reckons you dun ‘arf tork a lode o’ squit.

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No soft options?

  • When one’s daughter has far more top-grade GCSEs than fingers and thumbs,
  • when her A-levels are all grade A and in English, History and Geography, with an AO in Pure Maths.


  • Oxford interviewed her, and turned her down — twice,

for Malcolm to wave Michael Gove in today’s Observer at her is an invitation to audition a rant.

All animals are not equal

Gove’s point is silly-season stuff:

“Every A-level is assumed to be of equal value when it comes to measuring school performance, but universities are explicit that they don’t consider every A-level to be equally rigorous,” he writes.

“Cambridge, the LSE and others have warned prospective students that taking ‘softer’ A-levels such as media studies and dance will count against applicants at admission time.”

Well, Queen Anne is dead these few years; and there’s nothing new there. It was thus half-a-century gone. The grammar schools (where Malcolm started his pedagogy) knew the score: three straight sciences or, for Arts entry, a combination of  languages, including the two Classics, English, History and Economics.

Even Gove can distinguish apples and oranges. In time he may even recognise that the academic kraals of post-codes CM2 and WC2A 2AE are hardly exclusive in regarding Dance as a dubious pointer for straight academic deskwork.

And that anything with “Studies” as the substantive term is less than a clincher.

Motes and beams

Counting A-levels for useless league tables and what the Russell Group of universities consider scholastic merit are not the same, Mike. If you’ve just spotted that, you’re a very slow learner. So why are you taking £1250 an hour from the Times for your great thoughts?

Or, of course, it could be that Tory HQ has ordered all hands to the pumps, any bailer will do, to keep the sinking dinghy afloat, having been broached last week by the backwash from the US healthcare “debate”. Desperate measures are needed, even in the dog days of the silly season. Crank up the Gove; and hope for calmer water.

Der Treppenwitz der Weltgeschichte

So, the last, snide snorter from aforementioned daughter (celebrated in earlier postings as the “pert young piece“), came in the form of a question:

“D’you know Cameron’s A-levels?”
“Get this, then: History of Art, History, and Economics with Politics.”
History and History of Art count as two subjects, right? Is History of Art a ‘Hard’ subject, in Gove’s book? My school wouldn’t look at it for a serious A-level choice: it’s for poncy Etonians and deficient princes. And he couldn’t even do proper Economics. Huh!”

Amazing, isn’t it, how many such moments have to be punctuated by a slammed door.


By the way, the pert young piece’s contempt extends to Geography. This she characterises as:

  • GCSE: colouring in;
  • A-level: shading in;
  • Degree-level: cross-hatching.

Don’t call her, Mr Gove: she’s already e-mailed you.

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