Flowers among the weeds

Malcolm has reflected previously on the gems that are to be plucked from the most uninspiring journalism: the descriptive stuff among the dross of the property porn, the  single-paragraph bottom-of-column-fillers that say more about the human condition than the heavy-hitters above — even (heaven help us!) a flash of wit in a Jeremy Clarkson analogy.

Yesterday’s page 10 of the Times, the second Opinion page, had a faint whiff of desperation. It comprised:

  • Will Hutton assuring us We are on the verge of a new age of invention;
  • Magnus Linklater telling us not to be spiteful over al-Megrahi;


  • Matthew Parris earning a crust from His Week.

All had their moments.


The Thunderer column is a curious beastie. It is a kind of supplementary leader, signed, with Crème Chantilly and a cherry on top.

Here Linklater was arguing the simple decency of allowing a dying man to depart in peace; and that the review of al-Megrahi’s guilt belongs in another time and place. The punchline stops barely short of Romans, 12:19.


This could have been on the desk for days, weeks or months, awaiting a slow news day. It had an air of swimming at Southend — that is, going through the motions.It states the obvious:

… this century will give rise to as wide a range of general purpose technologies — from the digital and low-carbon economy to life sciences and health economics — as the previous 500 years. It will be these that drive growth, annd the good news is they are coming thick and fast. This is where new jobs will come from, even if some will find them fanciful: farming high-tech foods on brownfield land, exploiting space, advising people on their new body parts, along with the more prosaic business of reinventing how the elderly deal with ageing.

Malcolm is so very, very grateful he doesn’t have to concoct such blue-sky futurology. Consider Hutton’s equivalent, a century back, trying to predict the development of aerospace and the entertainment industries. Let us recall, as awful warnings:

  • The eminent doctor who warned of steam locomotion, that the human body could not endure speeds in excess of twenty miles and hour!
  • The President of IBM in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
  • Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox in 1946: “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

Even so, towards the end there is this paragraph:

The railway boom could not have happened without Parliament’s willingness to override landowners’ rights, any more than the internet could have got off the ground without support from the Pentagon. The printing press would never have spread so fast without German Protestant princes ordering bibles printed in the vernacular. Yes, capitalism generated the drive to innovate; but there was also an ecosystem that stimulated productive and dynamic relations between companies, workers, consumers, centres of learning, banks and the law.

True, all true, if superficially so. Consider this, from Google Commons (it’s the English Short Title Catalogue count 1600-1799):

What that shows are three moments of increased production by publishers:

  • The first spikes when the Star Chamber was abolished, and the religious propagandists were churning out pamphlets, which were being consumed by the rising tradesman class (as some writer had it) “like hot pornography”.
  • Then there is the rising tide of political awareness, and a desire for information, as political tensions between proto-Tories and proto-Whigs rose from the later Caroline period to death of Queen Anne and the settlement achieved by importing the Georges.
  • Finally there is the “rise of the novel” as the dominant form of leisure entertainment for a literate middle-class.

At least two of those are based on “sensationalism” of one form or another.

Similarly, if the Pentagon financed DARPA and gave birth to the technology of e-communication, it was sensationalist entertainment, and even pornography, which expedited the burgeoning of the net over these last two decades or so.


He is a terrible old gossip; but he does it astoundingly well.

He had three items yesterday, all worth vthe saying and worth the trip.

First up, as light and frothy as it comes, a complaint about shower gel:

If only solid soap hadn’t been invented yet, someone could sweep the market with it. What the blazes are you supposed to do with a bottle of shower gel? Don’t tell me that you can hang it upside down like bats from the curtain rail because I’ve tried them and they leak. With the one that stand upright, you end up standing there in the shower, bottle in one hand, once you’ve worked out how to flip the top.

Using your right hand you squeeze a dollop from the inverted bottle into your left palm. Squeezing and upsidedown bottle is hit and miss and it usually spews out more than you need  — or it would be more than you need, if it didn’t slither off and splat on the shower floor as you transfer it your right armpit.

You have to change arms/bottle for the left armpit …

etc. etc.

Trivial. Inconsequential. “Too much information”, perhaps. A neat confection all the same, with an element of truth.

Then Parris moves on to a decent point (headed “Neutral ground”), and one that — in his case — has an edge to it:

I have no view on Nadine Dorries’ unsuccessful bid yesterday in the House of Commons to stop women seeking abortions from relying on counselling from abortion agencies. She and the moral conservatives argued that abortion advice should be strictly neutral.


The moral conservatives’ argument in the debate about what became known as Section 28 was that — as between gay and straight relationships — local authorities should be law be prohibited from giving neutral advice.

Ho hum.

Nice one, Matthew.

Finally he has a smacker about MI6 and Libya.

He says, quite reasonably, that it’ll cause a short-term stink:

We’ll do what we always do in Britain — have a lovely argument about all the sexy bits that are a matter of opinion — and ignore the failure that so stares us in the face that it seems boring to mention it.

So, what would that be, Parris, old thing?

That it was plainly wrong for the senior MI6 officer who sucked up to the Libyans to take a position, shortly after retiring, as a consultant to BP. BP! Crikey! An oil company seeking contacts in Libya!

And there is a solution:

Nobody who has worked for the government, or in government, in any senior position should ever — ever — take up paid employment where any doubt might arise about the use of their judgement, influence, contacts or inside knowledge, before or after they took up the new position.

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. For a rank Tory-symp, Parris talks good sense.

See what Malcolm means about flowers blooming among the weeds?


Filed under Britain, health, History, politics, prejudice, reading, Times, Tories.

2 responses to “Flowers among the weeds

  1. Doubting Thomas

    Oh dear, does Matthew Parris really intend that the top brass, the high heid yins in the Civil service and their ilk must spend their declining years subsisting only on the beggarly pensions accrued from their service to the government? Looking at the salaries and the length of time spent in office, they would have to get by on around £60,000 to £70,000 a year. How monstrous and oppressive.

  2. Pingback: The short arm of the law | Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service

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