Monthly Archives: June 2012

It gets my goat!

A recent essay, Japanese Knotweed on the Causeway Coast, County Antrim, by Linda Stewart on the ever-excellent NALIL site drew attention to a real problem with the local environment. An earlier piece, also by Stewart in the BelTel, had somehow slipped past Malcolm’s notice.

Anyone who has encountered Japanese knotweed knows it is a right bastard, and can be a very expensive enemy. Take the Royal Horticultural Society’s word on that:

Although rather attractive, Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) is a real thug as it spreads rapidly. In winter the plant dies back beneath ground but by early summer the bamboo-like stems shoot to over 2.1m (7ft), suppressing all other growth. Eradication requires steely determination as it is very hard to remove by hand or with chemicals.

The Great White Hope, announced just before the last General Election, was going to be Aphalara itadoria plant louse which — literally — saps the strength of the plant. The “itadori” (Japanese, apparently, for “pain-remover”) is the native name of the plant, so this louse might seem to be species specific — though, knowing the luck of the average agronomist, once imported and having seen off the knotweed, our creepy-crawly former friends are as likely to turn to proper crops.

Whether the ConDem government has a knotweed policy is not clear from the ever-elastic Coalition Agreement.

Anyway, good luck to the folk of North Antrim. As we go into the ever-exciting “marching season”, it must be nice to have something really important for them to be worried about.

Meanwhile …

In the shrubbery of Staten Island (that’s the fifth borough of New York City that gets largely forgotten, and known to tourists only from the free sight-seeing trip on the ferry) something is stirring.

There the problem is phragmites. Malcolm reckons that means the common reed, and wonders what is the difficulty. It seems that an alien variant (Phragmites australis) has displaced the native species across much of North America.

However, the brave souls of the New York parks department are introducing a secret weapon: a score of Nubian goats.

The Staten Island site, the developing Freshkills Park (actually a series of interconnecting open spaces),  is interesting for a couple of reasons. It is the biggest reclamation and land-improvement undertaken by the City for decades. Much of the site historically was New York City’s trash-heap, and — almost immediately after it was formally closed — part became the dumping ground for a couple of million tons of debris and waste from the World Trade Centre.

A Malcolmian aside

Fresh Kills is nothing murderous in itself. There are quite a few “kills” in and around what used to be Nieuw-Amsterdam, and the word derives from the Middle Dutch “kille”, meaning water-course or creek.

Fresh Kills, though, provided huge reserves of New Yorker wit, mainly because of the quantity of garbage that was carried there. Towards the end of its life, the tip was many metres taller than the Statue of Liberty, and was cited as the only rubbish heap visible from space.

For several years Kim and Scott Myles up in Astoria, Queens, ran a cottage industry, making “5 Boroughs Ice-Cream”. The gimmick was the naming: “rich white vanilla” was Upper East Side, chocolate was South Bronx Cha-Cha, and so on. The crunch came with Staten Island Landfill (brownie, fudge and cherry dumped together). This offended so much that a sticker had to be added to the packaging. Irony doesn’t work in the States.

The brand died, and the Myles menage debunked to the West Coast.

If all that’s  anyway”interesting”, what is amazing is one sentence from that New York Times piece:

The cost of renting the goats from Larry Cihanek of Rhinebeck, N.Y., is $20,625 for the six weeks.

That $172, a bit over £100, per goat, per week.

Put that costing to the Northern Irish Department of the Environment and they’d be all fouled up like Hogan’s goat.

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O would some power the giftie tie us …

…  to see ourselves as others see us.

— Thank you, Rabbie. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.

Compare and contrast:

  1. Equalities minister Lynne Featherstone says the relentless pressure on children to have the perfect body image is making them unhappy and gving them low self-esteem [Headline at Politicshome’s The Green Box Blog, 22nd June 2012]
  2. Weighed myself again this morning. Lost another 4lb. Lucky I put on a stone since the last election – clearly knowing that I would need blubber to see me through. [Opening paragraph of Lynne’s Parliament and Haringey Diary, 20th April 2005]


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Bad for the business of government?

An article [This Is What a Businessman in the White House Looks Like] by Ben Adler, in The Nation, caught Malcolm’s attention.

It is, essentially, an attack on Mitt Romney and his pretensions:

Romney likes to contrast his own résumé with President Obama’s by saying, “To create jobs, it helps to have had one.” He means that a job is not really a job unless it is in the for-profit sector. Likewise, Romney asserts, “I’m a guy who has lived in the world of business. [If] you don’t balance your budget in business you go out of business. So I’ve lived balancing budgets.”

Even some of his erstwhile rivals say Romney’s experience in consulting and private equity qualifies him to be president. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who harshly criticized Romney’s record when running against him in 2008, recently offered this endorsement of Romney on CNN: “Governor Romney has almost a perfect record for a person to be running right now, experience in government, experience in business, understands the economy.”

Adler then considers the remarkable lack of success by US political leaders from a business background:

The economy has not performed better under presidents who had business experience. All four of the modern presidents who had significant business experience—Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and both George Bushes—presided over significant economic downturns. The first three were blamed for failing to take effective corrective action and consequently lost their bids for re-election. That may not always have been fair. The OPEC oil embargo may simply have been beyond Carter’s power to affect. But it is far from obvious how business experience gives a president the ability to lower oil prices, as Romney promises to do, when they are really set by global supply and global demand.

Hoover ( a mining engineer) and Carter were massively more successful, and acclaimed after office than during it. As for Dubya:

The election of 2000 was the first time a Romney-esque figure, George W. Bush, a minor oilman and partial baseball team owner before serving as governor of Texas, became president. Bush, the first “MBA president” and his powerful Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been CEO of Halliburton, disproved the notion that businessmen are efficient managers or fiscally responsible in public office. The Bush-Cheney record—bungled occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the non-response to Hurricane Katrina, exploding national debt—and recent economic history should make Romney’s pitch a bad one for this election cycle.

If anyone still hold illusions and delusions about Bush II, there’s always the late Molly Ivins and her Shrub (which deals with Governor Bush of Texas) and Bushwacked (moving on to the presidential “legacy”). You don’t have to political to relish the  laugh-out-loud wit and (in)discreet venom of either or both. Even so, and a word of caution here, Molly (in You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You) noted how Bush took the Texas Governor’s Mansion from Ann Richards:

Ann Richards’s electoral loss to George Dubya Bush will keep political scientists studying for years. By all the conventional measures, she should have walked back into office. Her approval rating was and is over 60 percent—practically golden. The state’s economy is gin-nin’, crime rates are down, school scores are up, she never raised taxes, never had a scandal.

The short, easy version is that Richards lost because of President Clinton. In Florida, where Clinton was at 42 percent in the approval ratings, Governor Lawton Chiles pulled it out. In Texas, where Clinton hovers around 36 percent, there just wasn’t a shot. Another short, easy version is that she won by 100,000 votes last time against a gloriously inept opponent, and in the meantime, 120,000 people have moved into the state and registered Republican.

    The more complex and more accurate version is that George Dubya ran a helluva campaign and Annie ran a dud. Their race became a peculiar black-and-white negative of the 1992 presidential race between George Dubya’s daddy and Clinton, with Richards as the stay-the-course, no-vision candidate and Bush as the proponent of change, change, change. George Dubya’s campaign was full of ideas and plans (of dubious merit, but what the hey), while Richards neither successfully sold what should have been limned as a brilliant record nor projected any enthusiasm for a wonderful future. The New Texas disappeared. The television ads were lousy.

Malcolm wondered whether something similar might be said about the local UK experience. Only two examples of Prime Ministers with direct business experience came to mind:

  • Harold Macmillan, who was for twenty years between the Wars an active junior partner in Macmillan Publishers;


  • Stanley Baldwin — his family firm of Stourport iron-makers and tin-platers transmogrified, via Richard Thomas and Baldwins into a component of British Steel and now Corus.

Both must be accorded a degree of political success.

And then there’s David Cameron and his brief excursion into the PR-demimonde of Carlton Television.

Fortunately Ian King, the Business Editor of The Sun (before that rag was dragooned into Murdoch’s Tory love-in) went on record:

Along with other financial journalists, I was unfortunate enough to have dealings with Cameron during the 1990s when he was PR man for Carlton, the world’s worst television company.

And a poisonous, slippery individual he was, too.

Back then, Cameron was far from the smoothie he pretends to be now. He was a smarmy bully who regularly threatened journalists who dared to write anything negative about Carlton — which was nearly all of us. He loved humiliating people, including a colleague at ITV, who he would abuse publicly as “Bunter” just because the poor bloke was a few pounds overweight.
A recent Sun interview with Cameron generously called him a former Carlton “executive”. No, he wasn’t. He was a mouthpiece for that company’s charmless chairman, Michael Green, who operated him the way Keith Harris works Orville.
For those lacking total recall Orville was ventriloquist Harris’s acerbic duck-doll.

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Pigs’ teeth

In the attic of Redfellow Hovel is a copy of Gerald Hawkins and J.B.White’s Stonehenge Decoded.

Hawkins, back in 1963, had cranked up the brand-spanking-new Harvard-Smithsonian IBM 7090 computer and analysed near fourteen dozen celestial alignments for Stonehenge. Much of Hawkins’ work was, and remains, mired in academic controversy — though the book is still in print, and his literary heirs are collecting the royalties for another six decades.

What is indisputable is that any summer solstice alignment — the one that packs ’em in each year — is a fiction derived from William Stukeley in the early eighteenth century. The time to be there would be the mid-winter solstice — as at Maes HoweBrú na Bóinne and umpteen other locations.

After all, even a primitive agriculturalist could see when her crops were ripe. Calculating mid-winter, and then counting forward to the planting season involved something like a calendar. And building one got the men-folk out of the house and from under her feet.

And now for the pigs’ teeth

A couple of miles north of Stonehenge, in the parish of Durrington, teams, directed by Sheffield University’s Mike Parker Pearson, have excavated a huge woodhenge complex, which may well be one of northern Europe’s largest Neolithic communities. This has turned up a remarkable quantity of pigs teeth.

Step forward the prolific swine-expert, Dr Umberto Albarella, and take a bow.

What Albarella did was look at the patterns of wear on those pigs’ teeth. The conclusion was that the main slaughter had been done in winter.

Which goes to show that the Christmas or Yule debauch goes back far, far further than we may have thought. And that Stonehenge was a mid-winter resort.

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Downhill, all the way

Because this is a leap year, yesterday (20th June) was the longest day — unless, of course, you are one of Malcolm’s readers south of the Equator.

That comes to mind because Malcolm’s desk is on the north-facing side of Redfellow Hovel. So, for a few weeks in the middle of the year, he has late-evening sun shining over his left shoulder. Despite the repeated rain showers, this evening had a few brief glimmers.

Today was technically the first day of this English “summer”. This evening would, therefore, have marked the annual ritual performed by Malcolm’s Dear Old Dad.

A puffing of the pipe. A shrewd look out of the window. A significant nod. A further puff. Finally:

“The nights are pulling in, you see.”

[The image above is John Constable’s Hampstead Heath, looking towards Harrow at sunset.]

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Redfellow on ConHome

Back to the Future, starring Micky Gove, is the retro-movie of the week, as we are whipped back to the golden age of selective education and “tough” exams. Except it all looks like just another round in the Great ConDem coalition break-up.

Malcolm, who “passed” GCE General Science back around 1956, and was teaching English as early as the mid-’60s, doesn’t remember GCE with quite Govian enthusiasm. Then, as now, 16+ examinations were little more than barking at text: many routine questions were taught, and answered by rote. Intelligence and insight were not required.

So Malcolm is wholly cynical about the whole business.

The boy farm

Hence this ConHome exchange (which long-term readers of Malcolm Redfellow’s Home Service will find horribly familiar — but what else can be done in those comment boxes?):

Academic schooling does us proud (even more so when government leaves teachers to get on with it). The chronic failure is with technical education: when will government do something about that?
Technical education is hard work, very expensive and the changes and improvements are only seen in tiny, tiny steps. 

All sorts of SoSs have ‘looked into’ technical education and most of the time it comes down to the difficulty (and it is a real difficulty) of getting decent instructors, full facilities and a mechanism to judge the ability of the students.

I’ve long argued that for TE to be truly effective the various Chartered Institutes must set the the standards as they know what employers and industry in general needs e.g. the IEEE, IoM3, IMechE and so on. 

Such a move would mean handing real control to a non-political body. The institutes under the UK-SPEC / Eng. Council umbrella would be difficult for a politician to browbeat when it came to awarding grades and such like. Naturally, this adds to the politicians distaste for proper thus expensive technical education. 

Perhaps as well, the terms Engineer and Technican should be legally protected just like the title Doctor and Solicitor is so that if you want to be an Engineer or Technician you have to be a member of an approved Chartered Institute.

All true and worthy. 

Now let us refer to “Man and Superman”: 

TANNER. … this chap has been educated. What’s more, he knows that we haven’t. What was that board school of yours, Straker? 

STRAKER. Sherbrooke Road. 

TANNER. Sherbrooke Road! Would any of us say Rugby! Harrow! Eton! in that tone of intellectual snobbery? Sherbrooke Road is a place where boys learn something; Eton is a boy farm where we are sent because we are nuisances at home, and because in after life, whenever a Duke is mentioned, we can claim him as an old schoolfellow. 

STRAKER. You don’t know nothing about it, Mr. Tanner. It’s not the Board School that does it: it’s the Polytechnic. 

TANNER. His university, Octavius. Not Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Dublin or Glasgow. Not even those Nonconformist holes in Wales. No, Tavy. Regent Street, Chelsea, the Borough—I don’t know half their confounded names: these are his universities, not mere shops for selling class limitations like ours. You despise Oxford, Enry, don’t you? 

STRAKER. No, I don’t. Very nice sort of place, Oxford, I should think, for people that like that sort of place. They teach you to be a gentleman there. In the Polytechnic they teach you to be an engineer or such like. See? 

TANNER. Sarcasm, Tavy, sarcasm! Oh, if you could only see into Enry’s soul, the depth of his contempt for a gentleman, the arrogance of his pride in being an engineer, would appal you. He positively likes the car to break down because it brings out my gentlemanly helplessness and his workmanlike skill and resource. 

We are no further forward than 1903.

That, folks, is the root cause of why Britain is now a technological disaster area.

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Above all rivers thy river hath renowne

Here comes the first glimmer of that “notion” Malcolm had in ending the previous post.

For the time being, Redfellow Hovel and its inhabitants are located north Thameside. Well, about five or six miles north, to be explicit.

Whenever Malcolm has to venture sarf uf da riva, it is something of an adventure into Indian territory. Even so, that was the first home he recalls, his first school, where his little bother, the Professor, was born.

The eternal divisor

The river has been there, a drain from the last great Ice Age, with a good Brythonic name: Tamēsa. This is cognate with the Thame, the Tame, the Tamar and the Teme — those early British Celts were none too imaginative in their namings. That last one is, in Welsh, Afon Tefediad. And therein lies the clue: all derive from the Brythonic for “dark”.

The river is one of the great cultural barriers of Britain.

On with the motley, and into the verse

In 2005  J.C.Eade posted an anthology of seventy poems on or about the Thames. The first in his list is firmly attributed to William Dunbar:

Above all rivers thy river hath renowne,
Whose beryl streames, pleasant and preclare,
Under thy lusty walles runneth down;
Where many a swanne doth swimme with winges fair,
Where many a barge doth sail, and row with oar,
Where many a ship doth rest with top-royal.
O town of townes, patron and not compare,
London, thou art the flower of Cities all.

Upon thy lusty Brigge of pillars white
Been merchauntis full royall to behold;
Upon thy stretis goeth many a semely knight
All clad in velvet gownes and cheynes of gold.
By Juliu Caesar the Tour founded of old
May be the hous of Mars victoriall,
Whos artillery with tonge may not be told.
London, thou art the flower of Cities all.

Strong be thy wallis that about thee stanis;
Wise be the people that within thee dwells;
Fresh is thy river with his lusty strandis;
Blith be thy churches, wele sowning be thy bellis;
Riche be thy merchauntis in substaunce that excellis;
Fair be thy wives, right lovesom, white and small;
Clere be thy virgins, lusty under kellis;
London, thou art the flower of Cities all.

Those are octaves four to six, out of the original seven (Bartleby has the full text, from Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse. It’s a straightforward ballade pattern: were one to be reaching for a pompous term (perish the Malcolmian thought), huitain might spring from the lips.

His makar’s voice?

There is, to be honest, just the faintest doubt about Dunbar’s authorship. The “facts” in favour are that Dunbar was in England in 1501: the second instalment of his £10 per annum official pension was due at Martinmas 1501, but the accounts note it had been held back until efter he com furth of Ingland. He would have been in the train of the plenipotentiaries for the signing of the marriage contract between James IV of Scotland (aged twenty-seven) and Margaret, Henry VII of England’s daughter (rising twelve years of age). The original (as above) was inscribed into The Chronicle of London for 1501:

This yere, in the Cristmas week, the Mair had to dyner the Ambassadors of Scotland, whom accompanied my Lord Chaunceler, and other Lords of this realm; where sitting at dynes, one of the Scottis giving attendaunce upon a Bisshop Ambassadour, the which was reported to be a Prothonotary of Scotland, and servaunty of the said Bisshop, made this Balade following.

Dunbar, the Rhymer of Scotland received £6 13s 4d, twice, as “tips” from Henry VII, and a further fiver on top of his regular pension when he got back to Edinburgh.

Even so, despite the look and feel of the piece, we haven’t got Dunbar’s smoking quill; and verse-making was something of a noble sport among the Scots lords.

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