Monthly Archives: August 2012

Do No Evil (domestic version)

If one thing is ever certain and crystal-clear, it is when government “reforms”, it comes back to bite them.

Any moment now Michael Gove’s Great Educational Crusade will be seen to be an unmitigated disaster. Certainly the treatment of thirty Bradford parents, left to find new schools a week before the start of term, should start minds working, opinions forming. Particularly so, since Gove’s Department (which would never gamble with the future of our children) made promises to those parents as late as June. If, as claimed by Labour, Gove’s expenditure on aborted “Free Schools” already amounts to £2.3 million, he has serious questions which must be answered.

Parliament understands government waste. It rarely manages to comprehend the human pain involved in last-minute shifts of policy, such as this Bradford “One In A Million Free School” (only wrong by a factor of 2.3, then).

There is worse …

And, on the BBC website, here it comes —

Atos appeal woman Cecilia Burns from Strabane has died

A cancer sufferer, who had her benefits cut by government officials who said she was fit to work, has died.

Cecilia Burns, 51, from Strabane, County Tyrone, had started a campaign in February to have the decision overturned.

Ms Burns had her benefits cut after she was assessed by government contractor Atos Healthcare.

She had her benefits reinstated just a few weeks ago but died on Monday.

This is not an isolated case. Here’s another one:

Karen Sherlock died on 8 June [this year], just a fortnight after she was told that she would be eligible once again to receive out-of-work disability benefits.

ATOS seems hardly to have a caring attitude to its assessments:

One of the two Atos staff members now being investigated says on his Facebook page that he is an administrator at one of the company’s medical examination centres.

Describing his job, he says he does “everything office-wise and having to put up with parasitic wankers at the same time”.

The other staff member caught out is a nurse, who says on her Facebook page that she carries out WCAs for Atos.

She has repeatedly posted messages that refer to disabled people who attend her assessment centre as “down and outs”.

ATOS have already received, last financial year — 2011-12, £112 million for these “fitness to work” assessments. Each face-to-face assessment therefore costs over £150. Four in every ten appeals against assessment succeed. The National Audit Office is severely unimpressed by ATOS, and by the way the Department of Work and Pensions continues to shovel public money at a sordid and failing operation.

Meanwhile the Department of Work and Pensions deals with criticism on “a good day to bury bad news” basis:

The government appears to have delayed publishing crucial evidence that undermines a key part of its controversial welfare reform bill until weeks after the legislation completed its passage through the House of Commons.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) report, which details the growth in the number of claimants of disability living allowance (DLA), appears to have been signed off by its author in May, weeks before MPs began the bill’s critical report stage.

But the statistics were only published last week, while MPs were on holiday and weeks after the bill had passed through the Commons.

Now, were the pious God-fearing Right Honourable Iain Duncan Smith MP, the DWP’s own Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros of our time, to traverse the lanes and by-ways around God-fearing Strabane, he is likely to find those roadside hand-painted boards, which are a delightful addition to the countryside of God-fearing Northern Ireland.

He is certain there to find the Book of Numbers, chapter 32, verse 23:

Behold, ye have sinned against the LORD: and be sure your sin will find you out.

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University challenge?

Currently the Great London Met disaster is trending.

Malcolm admits to being torn over this one. The students, and potential students, have been sold a pup. They have been treated quite disgracefully by the whole government and institutional bureaucracy.

Yes, we need wider access to higher education.

Yes, we should encourage overseas students  — and lecturers, and distinguished academics — to find a place, however transitory, in London. Everyone benefits.

But…

… there is something badly, madly, sadly wrong with some of our weaker “universities”.

Once upon a time this was the reputable Northern Polytechnic, one of those fine institutions that George Bernard Shaw recommended to the nation in Man and Superman:

Tanner: A little moderation, Tavy, you observe. You would tell me to draw it mild. But 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 school-fellow.

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 Non-conformist 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.

Shaw, remember, had been on the London Schools Board. He knew of what he wrote. In a way, he could see where English technical education was failing. And Straker, the mechanic, is the Superman round these parts.

A disaster in the making

Let’s admit, the way London Met recruits has played straight into the hands of Damian Green.

So, let’s get that one out of the way immediately.

Green is an ambitious Mr Toad. He smoked his tyres in the run-up to Election 2010 over the immigration scare. He certainly left marks on the road.

Hence, he may have some reason to feel that the ConDem pact excluded him from a promised place at the Cabinet table.

It is re-shuffle time. Everyone in the second and third Tory ranks is feeling uncomfortable. Green needs to leave some more rubber on the carriageway.

London Met is in trouble

It consistently ranks at the bum-end of any league table. Only the University of East London keeps it off bottom spot. It has financial problems, which go back far beyond the present crisis.

Malcolm admits he has seen the joint from the inside. And is definitely not impressed.

Where to go?

Clearly something has gone awry with the way the UK has expanded higher education.

Once upon  a time there was a clear hierarchy: Oxbridge, Redbrick, concrete, lavatory tile. Unfair and silly. But we knew where we were when we (and our accepting institutions) made the choice. Nobody questioned that — say for engineering — a red-brick out-boasted any Oxbridge. Or if nukes were your thing, you went to Manchester. Or that concrete East Anglia’s creative writing beat anything else hands down. Even for accountancy, Wolverhampton was your thing.

Then it all went mad

Anywhere could have a “university”. One of the great arguments for Hull School of Art being translated (via the Humberside College of Higher Education and Humberside Polytechnic) into the University of Lincoln was that Lincolnshire was the last county of England to be denied its proper “university”. Lest we forget: it’s not one of the worst. Many of these “newest” universities are nothing of the sort: they teach undergraduates in a limited range of disciplines. Some might as well be specialist institutions — the Luton School of Computing, and the like.

Worse still, with the ConDem coalition, any joint — public, private (who cares?) can offer degrees. The market will decide — even though it might take ten years for the market value of a degree from Little Piddlebury International University of Chiropody to be valued in the public forum. So what? Several thousand students will have coughed up to £9,000 a year to test the market. Yes, the market will decide. Sigh.

Meanwhile degree mills will continue to churn out would-be lawyers, managers, social workers, health managers, information technologists and , of course, ready-coined apprentices in umpteen branches of the  media.

What’s to be done?

In the case of those unfortunate overseas students at London Met (and — one can but guess — in this xenophobic period, they are but the first of an annual swathe), not much. Some enterprising civil-rights lawyers will doubtless pursue their reasonable claims through the courts; and a settlement will be arrived at. Probably, and conveniently, after the next General Election.

However, Malcolm has a Modest Proposal.

In effect the universities have already created their own league table:

The Russell Group represents 24 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.

The universities of Durham, Exeter, York and Queen Mary, University of London, have joined the Russell Group, it has been announced.

The four universities have left the 1994 Group, which represents smaller, mainly campus-based, research-intensive universities, to join the Russell Group of elite universities.

It increases the membership of the Russell Group to 24 and reduces the 1994 Group’s membership to 15.

We use rigorous research and evidence based policy to solve complex problems in higher education. We publish research reports and policy papers and we submit evidence to parliamentarians, government and other agencies. 

And little fleas have lesser fleas upon their backs to bite ’em. And so ad infinitum.

In effect we have a Premier League, a Championship , and a couple of lower divisions.

Promotion and demotion

This we sadly lack, as yet.

So, here’s a wonderful opportunity for “open government” and the “big society”.

Micky Gove at the Department of Education would have to nominate these league tables — though with around a hundred institutions, it might work best if we had five divisions of twenty teams a league. OK: that might mean half a dozen have to go to the wall, or down into the Totesport Combination, where London Met is already. It might be more humane to arrange a few shotgun “mergers” to save Vice-Chancellor faces (and pensions).

Job done, we formalise an annual competition with promotion and emotion. We might award points, exactly as now, on a basis similar to that of the Times Higher Education Supplement:

Our rankings of the top universities across the globe employ 13 separate performance indicators designed to capture the full range of university activities, from teaching to research to knowledge transfer. These 13 elements are brought together into five headline categories, which are:

  • Teaching — the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)
  • Research — volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)
  • Citations — research influence (worth 30 per cent)
  • Industry income — innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)
  • International outlook — staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).

Indeed, the proposal gets better and better. Introducing a commercial element — each university could rebrand itself with sponsorship on the shirts: Adidas Liverpool, Honda Reading, Barkers Leisure Parks Aberystwyth — should appeal to those weirdo free-marketeers like ex-Times man, Micky Gove.

The THES comes from the belly of the News Corp beast. That’s the Murdoch octopus. Which has its own television arm in Sky. Were Murdoch in one form or another to sponsor the league, all we need to add is a swimsuit round — and the annual ceremonial promotion and demotion is ripe for primetime viewing:

Hello, Sky Center!

Here are the votes of the International Outlook panel:

FeetBiche Boat Cam’ Brig-tonne, douze points. FitBitch Boot Camp Brighton, twelve points 

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Morin 1, Morons 0

Here’s one Malcolm thinks is a keeper:

Jim Morin does one every day for the Miami Herald.

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Do no evil

It remains one of the mysteries of our time. Why have the Tories, who don’t seem over-endowed with clear-thinking, clear-speaking parliamentary ability, not already given Rory Stewart a desk in the Foreign Office or the MoD? Why waste talent? Is there something magical about the wind and water of the Menschs and worse of this world?

Something more than populist clap-trap

Stewart did a decent job for BBC2 with his two-parter on the history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan.  Now Malcolm finds him in the New York Review of Books reviewing Diana Preston on  Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842. As it happens, Malcolm doubts la belle dame Preston will earn any lasting space on Malcolm’s shelf-space, and he suspects Stewart — in these three pages — knows more and writes a lot better. He skewers her catchpenny pot-boiling through her:

remark that “the political and moral aspects [are] both more subjective and difficult to analyse

noting:

This reluctance to investigate the contradictory detail of policy decisions, and to assess the moral and intellectual foundations of the occupation, is also characteristic of almost every book on the Afghan invasion beginning in 2001. It may also be symptomatic of our culture… Our inability to acknowledge the inherent paradoxes of occupation, to recognise an impossible mission, to expose the flimsiest of national security arguments, or to accept the limitations of government institutions abroad (the prerequisites for any withdrawal), seems a weakness not just of our historians but also of our policymakers.

Stewart concludes with:

British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s favourite line: “Rule number one in politics is: never invade Afghanistan.”

The difference between then and now is not, as Stewart shrewdly notes, there is any valid comparison between Afghanistan in 1838 and 2008, but that attitudes in the West remain unchanged and unchanging.

Another difference is that, unlike Western leaders today, Captain Macmillan of the Grenadiers had been at the Somme. Macmillan never forgot that, of the Balliol intake of 1912, he and one other were the only survivors out of twenty-eight.

Doing as little evil as possible

Similarly, Malcolm reflects on the political chasm, which came oh-so-close to splitting the British Labour Movement in the maelstrom that was the later 1960s.

One of the worthier achievement of Harold Wilson’s premiership may be that he kept Britain out of the Vietnam embroilment. Peter Davies did a fine essay on just this in 2008 — which Malcolm has sadly discarded. To preserve and protect the relationship with the Johnson Administration (particularly when the position of sterling was a paramount consideration), Wilson was prepared to expend diplomatic credit; but that was it.

Malcolm recalls, and shudders, recalling the pressures that the Atlanticists, on Labour’s right wing, were attempting to apply. In due course it became clear just how many of those shrill voices had been bought, albeit indirectly, by CIA money.

It was all, to coin (ahem!) a phrase, a Strange Encounter.

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Life with the “lion”

In the absence of royals getting their kit off, the London national papers would be lacking “news”. Happily along came the St Osyth lion:

Police in Essex are investigating reports that a lion was spotted in a field at St Osyth near Clacton-on-Sea.

The animal was seen near Earls Hall Drive by holidaymaker Bob Martin at about 19:00 BST on Sunday.

Mr Martin said he and his wife Denise saw a large cat and a lion “was the first thing that came to mind”.

Cause and effect

Essex. Bank holiday weekend. Last time he looked, Malcolm reckoned St Osyth had a couple of useful pubs. A lion wouldn’t be the first thing to come to Malcolm’s mind.

Still, it filled the columns:

  • The Times: pages 1, 2, 4, 9 …
  • The Guardian: pages 1, 3, 19 …
  • As for the tabloids … let’s not go there.

With her head tucked underneath her arm …

Malcolm guesses that most outside Tendring would have problems locating St Osyth — particularly so when the locals insist on calling the village “Toosey”. It is named — or rather renamed, because it used to be Chich — in honour of a nebulous seventh-century abbess, whose name may have been Osgyth or Sythe or Othith or Ositha or even Osyth. Various legends have her miraculously restored from drowning or being beheaded by Danes (and then walking off carrying her own head).

All of which is as probable as the lion.

Malcolm mentions all this because he feels the Times third leader should not lurk unrecognised and unacknowledged behind the pay-wall. So, let’s hear it for:

Lion on the loose

If you see a big beast, don’t let Twitter followers be catty about it

The British love their pets. We love them even, as we reported yesterday, wet summer weather leaves them prey to a flea epidemic. We also seem to adore big beasts that could swallow our pets in one gulp, with fleas as an aperitif. Underlying the reports of a lion on the loose in Essex this weekend was wild excitement.

There is a long history of sightings of large, elusive creatures. Once upon a time they were canine. Almost every county in England has tales of its own particular “black dog”: the Welsh have the Gwyllgi or Dog of Darkness; the Scottish the Cú Sith, a dog the size of a calf. These terrifying beasts inspired one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most unforgettable creations: “An enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen.”

Not to be outdone, a range of oversized feline counterparts of the Hound of the Baskervilles has emerged. Devon and Cornwall fear the Beasts of Bodmin and Exmoor, Scotland has been stalked by the Galloway Puma and the Kellas Cat, the South East has been terrorised by the Surrey Puma, the Sheppey Panther and the Cheetah of Shooters Hill. Generally camera-shy and cunning enough to avoid being photographed in close proximity to anything that might give any clue to their actual scale, these mysterious creatures are sighted more often in August, and on Bank Holidays.

The Clacton-on-Sea lion seems to have been confirmed as part of this honourable tradition when the police called off the search yesterday. Uniquely for a feline, however, he had acquired 38,000 Twitter followers by Monday lunchtime. This is a new sting in the tail for those who sight a big beast in future. Take care: Twitter followers may bite your head off.

Malcolm is not so cynical as that leader-writer. He remembers a late, darkening Dublin winter afternoon, leaving O’Neill’s in Suffolk Street, and picking his way through the damp, homeward-bound hordes in Nassau Street. A gap appeared in the crowd. Malcolm pressed forward. He buttock-clenchingly met, eyeball-to-eyeball, the tallest, largest Irish wolf-hound on the planet, a dog the size of a calf — definitely.

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The greatest mind shift?

This crossed Malcolm’s mind as he jousted on politics.ie over the fall of Rome.

He began to wonder whether the most profound historical re-appraisal of his life-time was not the vexed question of the “Dark Ages”.

See! We don’t really use the term anymore. It’s not PC in academic circles.

A broken mirror to the past

As Malcolm recalls, in his time at school, the lights went out in the early fifth century and (a few generalisations about “barbarian” invasions later, and a brief interval for Charlemagne) the lights switched on again, about the start of the first millennium.

Groping through the fastness of the night, students were allowed the merest candle glimmers. Typically this might be no more than:

¶ the fiction of Gregory the Great’s Non Angli, see angeli!

¶ the further fiction of Alfred’s Great Saxon Bake-off

¶ the more authentic forensic drama of the Synod of Whitby (that one, less because it settled Easter, but because it was a poke in the eye for the dreaded Irish, and a walk-on part for the occasional woman, as left) …

All of which is thoroughly Anglocentric, as indeed is the name given the “Dark Ages” themselves. Apparently the German scholars have always preferred die Völkerwanderungen — the time of the wandering peoples. Since many of those peripatetics were germanic in origin, that arguably is equally Germanocentric.

Catch ’em young. treat ’em rough

A first day at secondary school inevitably starts with getting a timetable.

Somewhere in those disorienting hours, and new subjects’ names  (which, for Malcolm, also involved Fakenham Grammar’s holly-bush) one heard: Geography is about maps; history is about chaps. The “chaps” who defined early modern history were late classical or Christian authors. The “barbarians” (another loaded term) didn’t leave their written record; and so were always seen through the writings of the good guys.

Some of the gaps between geographical maps and historical chaps amount to archaeology. That is where much of the reconsideration of the “Dark Ages” has stemmed from.

But were there other factors?

As part of that politics.ie exchange, Malcolm found himself musing on whether one element in the fall of Rome was technological — and social changes that implied. On the whole, history teachers aren’t too good on things technological.

One example came to mind.

Thanks to quadruple-dealing, the Venetians conveyed the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople, committed widespread mayhem, rape and pillage, and brought this bit of porphyry home as a souvenir. They were so proud, they cemented it to the Treasury of St Mark’s. A missing bit is still in Istanbul. It’s not exactly a thing of beauty and a joy for ever. It represents the four Tetrarchs.

Diocletian in AD286 appointed three others to share, under his sway, the management and defence of the Empire:

  • Diocletian himself was based at Nicomedia, modern Izmir, on the Asian frontier;
  • Maximian operated from Mediolanum [Milan] with authority forItalia et Africa;
  • Up on the Danube, at Sirmium, near modern Belgrade, Galerius had oversight of the Danube frontier;
  • While Constantius Chlorus was officer commanding the Rhine frontier at Augustus Treverorum [Trier].

Plum, sputum and glades (not)

Here the tetrarchs are depicted in a spirit of brotherhood (which didn’t last long — so we can accurately date this bit of statuary)  and in full military fig. These guys are wearing state-of-the-art heavy metal, and the swords are spathae.

One of the things Malcolm dimly recalls recall from classical archaeology lectures (Professor Pyle at TCD, alas not doing this with actions) was why Caesar did so well against the Gauls. Vercingetorix and co. came at the Romans with their long slashing swords. Their metallurgy wasn’t up to their ambition. Hence a Gaulish warrior might periodically retreat, leap up and down on his sword to straighten it, and then return to the fray. Meanwhile the Roman legionnaires, with plumscutum and gladii (which the spelling-corrector would wish as “plum, sputum and glades”) just kept doggedly poking their way forward.

If the spatha became the weapon of choice and fashion in the late fourth century, and was the the nearest substitute for a Glock 19 the quartermasters could offer, metal-bashing must have significantly improved. Lest we forget: if the iron sword was improved, so too were other applications for iron — the plough, for an obvious example. Sure enough, the heavy mouldboard plough makes its appearance just around the same time as Tetrarchs are happily presenting their side-arms. That’s technology in social action.

With the spathae there would be improved infantry handbooks, new soldiering — the day of the heavy infantryman has arrived. In due course, equine-management would deliver beasts capable of putting this heavy mob on horseback, and — lo! — we have arrived at the age of the armed knight.

That’s not the complete story of the fall of the Empire by a long shot: as Rory Carr, another sparring partner of Malcolm’s, reminded us:

In 1984, German professor Alexander Demandt collected 210 different theories on why Rome fell, and new theories have emerged since then.

TV lightens the darkness

None of that in any way explains why we have gone through a major academic reconsideration of five centuries. Nor that this has, to some extent, penetrated the public consciousness.

Obviously knowledge has improved. We now enjoy data and analysis from technical equipment that previous generations of archaeologists lacked. And there are many, many more archaeologists in productive employment.

Similarly, on the monkeys/typewriter/Shakespeare analogy, an excess of PhD students will eventually have to consider previously-neglected topics, and may even produce results.

Added to which there are infinite hours of numerous TV channels needing material. A fluffy, scruffy, muddy and bloody archaeologist, preferably with a strong regional accent and eccentricities, in a trench is cheap filming and audience-friendly. Throw in a bit of eye-candy (there’s another relationship which failed the test of time) and you’re making a mark in the ratings.

All the better for it

If the early modern period can be “sexed-up”, so much the better.

It might even have an impact on schools. David Starkey may not be everyone’s (and certainly not Malcolm’s) cup-of-tea but he hits the button:

History, fundamentally, is a branch of storytelling. It is, of course, a very sophisticated branch of storytelling: issues of evidence, issues of critical analysis, issues of debate are very important, but they seem to me to be the scaffolding and the foundations.

There is nothing dry, desiccated, dreary about history. In schools it has to become something more than castles, eight wives, the slave trade, Hitler, Stalin — which, in many cases it has been in recent years. The other problem is that each of those topics, important as each is, comes with value-added. There’s a clear ideological overtone. And all together they do not give any “sweep” to history. Starkey again:

We need big courses, we need ancient history, we need medieval history, we need the history of the dark ages, we need that sense of change and development across time.

Malcolm will take a little milk, no sugar, with that.

And finally, Starkey gets to how, why and what Malcolm reads (that ever-tottering guilt-pile). It is the first of his two powerful justifications for the teaching of history and its place in the National Curriculum (the second is the “celebratory” element — who and what we are and have achieved):

… how can we justify the idea of history at the centre of a national curriculum? There are two ways of doing it. The first is psychological. Memory is central to being human. The most terrible sign of Alzheimer’s is the loss of memory, something uniquely destructive to the personality. We are memory, we are our awareness of ourselves. I would suggest that societies are really very similar. They are collective memory, and a society that loses its collective memory has nothing. Without an awareness of the need for collective memory any notion of community, value or stability vanishes and we become merely individualised flotsam and jetsam. So there is a really powerful argument of this sort to be made for the centrality of history.

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Wand’rin early, wand’rin late

New York City to the Golden Gate.

Sadly not. But it’s enough excuse:

And that, most certainly, is not a James Taylor original. Walt Robertson recorded it for Folkways in the mid-1950s.

Eddie Arnold promptly appropriated it.

Somewhere in there, it entered the Folk Revival and Skiffle song-books.

Malcolm’s Saturday peregrination

The Lady in his Life and Malcolm betook themselves on a circular tour. The weather was — to be frank — somewhat mixed. So pubs were going to play a large part in the day.

Bruno

For starters, once through Waterloo and onto the Jubilee Line, heading east, Malcolm was pleased to note an Olympics “volunteer” deep into S.J.Parris’s Prophecy, the middle of her three Giordano Bruno frolics (and, in Malcolm’s recollection, arguably, the best). Those three have now completed their voyage from Malcolm’s guilt pile to being shelved in smug satisfaction. In the end, he delighted in a head-long rush to complete the sequence, as far as it goes. There is a glint in Malcolm’s eye whence Stephanie Merritt is heading.

Giordano Bruno was in England for only a short space: April 1583 to October 1585. Merritt/Parris has already mined that for three novels, so time is a-wasting. With Sacrilege we have reached the summer of 1584, which approaches the mid-term of Bruno’s span in England. Either the locale has to be widened, or the sequence self-terminates. At the end of Sacrilege, the femme fatale (and she so nearly was) has debunked to France, taking with her the book of hermetic magic that Bruno craves — and which is now established as the MacGuffin of the sequence. Another thought: to what extent is Merritt/Parris referencing Frances A Yates on this?

By DLR to the Royal Arsenal

Changing from the Jubilee to the Docklands Light Railway was a bit confusing: you have to go down and under to reach Platform 1, and so to the DLR spur past London City Airport, and then under the river to Woolwich.

That brings you to the entrance to Woolwich market. As of now, this is somewhat decayed and downtrodden: we are promised — and there are already signs of — a major regeneration. Whether the pledged £6.6 million is enough seed-money remains to be seen. What would make the difference is the arrival of Crossrail towards the end of the decade. Yet all we have for certain is ambiguous:

Agreement has been reached to build a new ‘station box’ on the Crossrail line through Woolwich, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has announced …

The station box, which could be converted into a complete station in the future, will be privately funded by developer Berkeley Homes under an agreement with the Department for Transport, Transport for London, Crossrail Ltd and Greenwich Council.

Philip Hammond said: “A Crossrail station in Woolwich would make travel to the centre of London quicker and easier and would help bring new investment to the area. I am pleased that we have secured this site for a future station and have reached an agreement to build the ‘box’ for the station at no extra cost to the taxpayer, bringing the benefits of a station in Woolwich a step closer.

We are already one Transport Secretary on from Hammond. A further successor is at least a possibility in the autumn re-shuffle — Justine Greening’s staunch adherence to the ConDem position on the Heathrow third runway could be her coup de grace. There is no honour among Tories in their ambitions and repositionings. We have  no firm proposals for Woolwich Crossrail going beyond could be developed and  would make travel and would help bring new investment. And Greenwich and Woolwich (Labour majority: 10,153)  is not a Tory marginal.

Not to mention that London City Airport (two stops back up the DLR) is coming on nicely for feeder services, that Southend (half an hour in the other direction) has potential for medium-hop and charter services, both — with Crosslink — on direct routes to Heathrow. But who expects an integrated transport policy from this shower?

This may be a mistake

Through Woolwich Market and across the A206 Plumstead Road, into the Royal Arsenal development, and you have crossed a social and cultural divide.

Suddenly there is open space. You have entered mortgaged, aspirant middle-class England. There are enough old structures — some dating back three centuries — to prove antiquity. Vanburgh  left his mark here:

So did Hawksmoor:

The development of the Royal Arsenal site has been going since the early last decade. Its completion will be another ten years ahead. At the end it will comprise some 5,000 new homes. The likelihood has to be that this will move the political complexion of the locality — as it is already changing the cultural tilt.

Dial Arch

And so to the first of Saturday’s pubs: a Young’s house in the Royal Arsenal compound. For once the brewery blurb does’t entirely deceive:

From neglect and ruin (though full of history), an old disused warehouse has been transformed into the wonder and glory that is now the reputed Dial Arch.

Situated in the natural heart of Royal Arsenal Riverside in Woolwich, the original Dial Square building dates from 1720, although an excavation of the site uncovered relics from the time of the Roman occupation! The building itself acted as the gate house for the historic home of British defence and munitions production. Inside, we have a plush and unique style, with exposed brickwork, chandeliers, wooden and stone flooring with fantastically original artwork on the walls.

Oozing charm and rustic character, our picturesque surroundings provide the perfect setting for savouring the hearty, seasonal gastro-pub food on our Menu and the carefully nurtured cask ales and fine hand picked wines gracing our bar.

 OK: you’re not convinced, and shouldn’t be.

The Dial Arch is something of a Warren (that, in fact, is its address). There are several “rooms’, all different in style and furnishing. The bar is, for Malcolm’s antediluvian taste, somewhat too glitzy. Service seems (on two experiences) to be excellent. There is a good choice of liquids, including half-a-dozen working beer-engines. Those with exotic tastes seem to be well provided with the fizzy yellow stuff. There is a useful food menu (though whether it is truly “gastro-pub”, Malcolm has no opinion).

Put it like this: the Dial Arch ticks most of Malcolm’s boxes. The Lady in his Life wasn’t displeased, either.

The day that the rains came

Around this time the sky turned inky. There was thunder. There was lightning. There were downpours. Just what a man and his Lady need to extend a stop in a pub.

Eventually, though, it was the stopping train back to London Bridge. Since the storm had taken out the signalling at Cannon Street station, more stopping than usual was involved.

The Old Thameside Inn

We have been here before, and hope to be again.

Ignore the carping critics. You can, and will get decent real ale here. The food is at least adequate — though, if you’ve worked through one Nicholson’s menu, you’ve seen them all. The wines list doesn’t flatter, but provides for all except the loftiest palate (to which Malcolm — quantity over quality — has no pretension). It’s the dressed-up basement of an office block.  The loos and facilities have been overworked, especially now, towards the end of the tourist season. The service and prices are reasonable, especially so for one of the finest views of the river.

The winter of our discontent

The Lady in his Life and Malcolm were here to meet the Pert Young Piece, who had been to the afternoon matinee of  Richard III at the Globe, just along the river-front.

PYP had revelled in the torrential rain: the Globe hasn’t got its drainage right (that’s something of a period feature). Flip-flops are what is needed in a summer cascade, so Pert Young Piece among the groundlings felt she was definitely scoring ankle-deep points against  tourists in Manolos.

For the record, Pert Young Piece is becoming an insufferable Bardista, as she happily contrasts Rylance and Kevin Spacey as Dick the Turd. What got her was the Kingdom for a horse! As always, the problem here, as elsewhere in the canon, is getting out from under Olivier: Rylance makes it the regretful lament of a rueful defeated man. In effect: Strewth! I lost life, kingdom … and all because of a horse. Different, but a fair reading.

Home again, home again, jiggedy-jig

Foddered and drenched (internally as externally) we return to base in bourgeois Muswell Hill (No Hawksmoor. No Vanburgh) by the number 43 bus. Humming gently:

My daddy was an engineer,
My brother drives a hack,
My sister takes in laundry ,
While the baby balls the jack ;
And it don’t look like 
I’ll ever stop my wandering.

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