Thursday, 27 September 2012

More book reviews

David Lloyd George - the Great Outsider - by Roy Hattersley.

ISBN  9781408 700976

One would hope that Roy Hattersley as a former deputy Labour Party Leader and Cabinet Minister would bring some useful insights into Lloyd George.

I think he does a reasonable job - it is not very sympathetically written but it serves as a good introduction into what was a long and complicated life.  I was struck how often Lloyd George and the Liberal Party  really were the great reforming party of the 20th Century.

The Hairy Dieters - Dave Myers and Si King

Some good recipes and sensible advice on healthy eating - but a bit too meat based for me.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The modern welfare state

In 1945 the majority of the UK wanted to implement the Beveridge report. So what did it do when given the opportunity to vote for the man himself ?

Berwick on Tweed
[E] Conservative gain
RAF ThorpeConservative12,31543.29%
W BeveridgeLiberal10,35336.39%
J DavisLabour5,78220.32%

Electorate: 41,978; {Civ: 38,570; Bus: 0; Serv: 3,408};
Turnout: 67.77%; Majority: 1,962 (6.90%

Oh well, you can always rely of the commonsense and collective wisdom of voters :-)

Beveridge was elected in 1944 as MP for Berwick on Tweed but at that time he faced no Labour or Conservative opponent as part of the war time 'truce' on campaigning made between the three main parties.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Welcome to AV elections - despite the referendum

Well who'd have thought it, in November everyone in England and Wales will get to vote in an Alternative Vote election.  Hang on, I hear you cry, that was rejected in the referendum.
Well, it is the election for Police and Crime Commissioners which will be held under a variation of the Alternative Vote called the "Supplementary Vote".

How does it work ?  In the election you will get the opportunity to cast two votes, the first for the candidate you support the most then you also get to cast a "supplementary vote"  (you could literally call it an Alternative Vote)  for another candidate which will be counted only if the candidate you voted for is eliminated.

After the first count takes place and if no candidate has scored 50% of the vote,  the top two candidates remain in the election and the other candidates are eliminated.  The ballot papers cast for the eliminated candidates are recounted with any "supplementary votes" going to the two remaining candidates are counted towards their total.

As an example, the first count result might be

Conservative 10000
Labour  9000
Independent 8000
Lib Dem 4000
Expolice officer 3000
Green 2000
UKIP 2000
Different Independent 1000

All the candidates apart from Conservative and Labour are eliminated and the "supplementary votes" a sort of second preference is counted.
You may have spotted the flaw in the system - if your favourite candidate is eliminated, you don't know when casting your supplementary vote who will be left in the contest.   If you cast your supplementary vote for a candidate who is eliminated, it doesn't count.

The think is, with proper alternative vote, the one rejected in the referendum, you list candidates in order of preference, 1,2,3,4 etc until you don't care who win. It's a better system.

So who supports supplementary vote - well Labour introduced it for elections to Mayors of local councils and the Conservatives introduced it for elections to Police and Crime Commissioners - yet they both largely opposed Alternative Vote - weird or what ?

The loan that isn't a loan

Monday, 17 September 2012

High on arrival

High on arrival is a memoir by Laura Mackenzie Phillips, aka Mackensie Philips - best known as an actress in various USA films and TV shows.

Mackensie was/is the daughter of the late John Philips of the hugely successful US Group The Mamas and The Papas.

Mackensies' tale is not quite relentlessly bleak, but it is close to being so. She says she first tried cocaine at 11 and she catalogues a huge list of drug abuse and illegal drug use - mostly centres on cocaine and heroin.
Despite spells in rehab and a long period (15 years) of being drug free - the relentless hold of drugs and the squalor and awfulness they bring is the overwhelming theme.  I am not even sure if this is intentional on MacKensie part - it just seems like as honest an account as she can provide.

The book contains allegations about her father, which others have disputed and which he is not alive to answer, but I suspect that very sadly they are true and inevitably linked to the huge amounts of drugs both of them were taking.

It is said no one wants to grow up to be a junkie - but Mackensie says in a weird way she did - and that is the real sadness at the heart of this book. The junkie existence - no matter how great the trapping of wealth and success is not a life - but an existence and an awful one at that.  Injecting yourself every 20 minutes for two years - that is a form of unbearable torture for anyone.

Lessons for Labour from the greatest Labour Prime Minister

Clement (Clem) Attlee was Prime Minister of the UK from 1945 to 1951. 

It is surprising Attlee isn't more studied as one of the most successful Prime Ministers of the UK and certainly the best Labour Prime Minister ever.
Attlee came from a affluent background and was converted to socialism by volunteer work he undertook in the East End of London.

Luck played a big part in Clement Attlee's success. Attlee became leader of the Labour Party in 1935 after the National Government swept almost all before it. Attlee almost lost his seat too. Had there been a General Election in 1939 or 1940, Labour would have certainly have lost and Attlee might have been a footnote in history. As it was the 2nd World War intervened.  Attlee served with distinction in the War Cabinet and even as Deputy Prime Minister but he was often in behind the scene roles and he remained a very private figure.

In 1945 Attlee became Prime Minister - much to the surprise of many who expected the usual 'Karki Election' win for the 'man who won the war' Churchill.

Oddly no one seems sure why Labour won a landslide victory in 1945 and why it lasted such a short time.
Part of the explanation must be that the extent of Labours win in 1945 was although a big majority in seats was not based on a huge lead in terms of share of the vote.  In my view 'socialism' in action in the war years probably played a huge part - rationing and Government direction could be seen as promoting a better life for the many, efficient and not the 'communism' that was a vote loser in the inter-war years.   An oft offered explanation is that people blamed the Conservatives for the economic troubles of the 1930's and appeasement before the war.  In reality, the economic policies of the National Government (Conservative in all but name) won huge election majorities.  Indeed it was Labour who rejected the far more radical policies to reduce unemployment being proposed by the Liberal Party.

Appeasement was a popular policy and probably was preferable to the pacifism of much of the Labour Party.  So as an explanation it relies of voters being very inconsistent - which of course they can be.

The Labour Victory in 1945 was followed by perhaps 3 years of major and lasting reforms.  The Beveridge Report was implemented and the NHS founded, reforms that last to this day. Several industries were nationalised - Coal, Railways, Airlines, Telephones, electricity.

Attlee's style of Leadership was very much the hands of chairman - he rarely expressed strong views himself and he saw it as his role to implement the agree policies of the Labour Party. Partly this was a reaction against the 'strong' leadership of people like Lloyd George, Churchill and Ramsey McDonald - leaders who each became 'bigger' than their own parties.

This chairmanship style at times proved very effective - but at others when leadership was required, it fell short.  Oddly, Attlee, the most collegiate of men took the decision to make a British Nuclear Bomb without informing the Cabinet, and it was kept secret from all but 3 of them.

Issues come and go - Attlee's political life was dominated by issues such as Independence for India and Pakistan.  Pacifism and appeasement vs rearmament.  The idea that India could part of the British Empire was outdated even in 1945, yet independence and partition was marred by violence.  Even with the experience of Ireland, UK politicians struggled to get a good outcome.

It is perhaps difficult to get enthused by the internal Labour party battles between Bevin and Bevan and Morrison.
A very cold winter in 1946-47, fuel shortages, particularly of coal combined to make the Government quite unpopular.  Perhaps the very things that had led to Labour winning the election - rationing, the Trade Unions, particularly the miners now contributed to the unpopularity of the Labour Party.
By 1948 - Labour had run out of steam and pressed on with Nationalising the Iron and Steel Industry without having any reason for doing so - apart from a belief that nationalisation as a concept was better than private ownership.

By 1950 Labour scrapped a majority at the general election, this brought problems as ill health meant Labour MPs had to be on call all the time and they were harried by the Conservative Party.

In 1951 Bevan, the Health Minister resigned from the Cabinet because he objected to being told by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Gaitskell to make £13 million of savings to the health budget out of total Government spending of £4000 million.  Bevan was right in saying the £13 million saving he was asked to make was tiny and Gaitskell had budgeted for a huge increase in defence spending, which was not delivered.

This split had a lasting impact on Labour politics, right through to the 1980's !
In 1951, Clem unwisely called another general election, which Labour lost.
1951 was a nadir for the Liberal Party and most of their former supporters voted Conservative and although Labour scored their highest tally of votes ever and more votes than the Conservatives - they lost the election and remained out of power for the next 13 years.

Attlee was a conservative with a small c politician. An essentiallly modest man
he achieved great things by quiet behind the scenes work.

Labour won in 1945 with a clear plan of what they wanted to do and from 1945-1948 they set about implementing it.   That was clearly their most successful period even though they suffered mid term unpopularity and

The contrast with say Tony Blair in 1997 is very noticeable. Blair was elected on a platform of things are really bad, but we won't change anything much.  The reforms that have lasted from the Blair years - devolution for Scotland, Wales and London, proportional representation for European Elections are all things that were of little interest to Blair and done to win round Liberal Democrats and driven forward by reformist in the Labour Party like Robin Cook.  Blair had a strategy to win power, but less idea about what to do with it once he had won it. Blair says he wishes he had been bolder - but the person responsible for the lack of boldness was Blair himself !  With a huge majority and a crushed opposition, Blair could have pursued a far more radical agenda, but he didn't really have one to follow.  Winning had after 18 years of opposition become more important than having a clear idea of what you wanted to achieve and how to achieve it.   As Attlee found by 1949, without such a plan Government becomes mere management.
Looking at the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Milliband and asking what difference it would make if he was Prime Minister - it is difficult to envisage him as a man with a plan.

(Ref. Attlee, A life in Politics Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, ISBN 978-1-84511-779-5)

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Only Fools and Horses

Only Fools and Horses - the story of Britain's Favourite Comedy by Graham McCann ISBN 978 0 85786 054 5

Graham McCann has written books on Dad's Army, Frankie Howerd, Terry Thomas, Morecombe and Wise, Gary Grant, Spike Milligan and co.

This book is a good mix of insights and trivia as one would expect from the experienced and knowledgeable McCann.

As well as a through analysis of how the programme came into being and how it developed.

The huge debt OFAH's owes to Hanocks Half Hour, Steptoe and Son and the writing partnership of Galton and Simpson is fulsomely acknowledged.   Interestingly so to is the debt writer John Sullivan owed to Charles Dickens who inspired him to write and the teacher who introduced him to the work of Dickens.  John Sullivan not only wrote OFAH's but also many other successful sitcoms, all but one as the sole author.

I think it was Denis Norden who said that Hancock Half Hour was a more like a Novel than a sitcom. In a similar way to describe OFAH's as a sitcom is to undersell it.

OFAH's was a sitcom which evolved into a cross between a sitcom and a soap opera.  It started in the 30 minute format and grew to 50 minutes episodes before extending to 90 minutes 'specials' a series of linked 3 x 50 minute specials.

Characters died (not something that happens in Terry and June) and real emotions and pathos and drama blend with the comedy.  It's influence on other comedy shows is so immense, it is almost easy to overlook.

McCann is good on both the strengths of the show and what are some of it weaknesses.  I think he probably believes that returning to the show after the Trotters had become millionaires was a mistake - and I tend to agree.  However, he also suggests a weak episode of OFAH's is better than most other sitcoms. 

Like many of our great TV programmes - chance and luck play a huge part - and who would guess that David Jason - who seems so perfect for Del Boy was not favoured for the part by John Sullivan and was only the third choice when considering who to cast?

Friday, 14 September 2012

On the buses

The making of On The Buses by Tex Fisher isbn 978-0-9565634-1-5.

For those who don't know, On The Buses was a very successful UK TV comedy which ran from 1969 -1973.  Centred on Bus Driver, Stan, his conductorr mate Jack, his enemy the Inspector aka Blakey, his mum, his sister Olive and brother in law Arthur.

The thing that appeals most about this book is that Tex Fisher must have been just 18 or 19 when he wrote it.  He first watched on the buses in 1997, when he was 6, 24 years after the show had ended.

The show can still be found on TV today.

Despite dating somewhat, the show is interesting and was hugely popular in it's day - being about the lives of ordinary working people trying to make their life abit easier and trying to get one over on the boss and each other.   Sometimes the show is accused of racism as the recurring Black character is referred to as Chalkie. Although this is these day inappropriate - there doesn't seem to be any other racism in the show - and  at least it had black and Asian people on screen, unlike most other shows made at the same time.  The actor who played the part (Glenn Whitter) is also quoted as saying he didn't have any problems with the show either then nor now.
The one part of the show that really grates are the jokes about Olives size. Not only are jokes about size rarely funny, while actress Anna Karen could hide her looks  to appear dowdy and unattractive, she could conceal the fact she wasn't in the slightest bit overweight !

My favourite character in the show is Arthur, played by Michael Robbins, his brilliant looks to camera and dry wit often steal a scene.

Best snippets - the spin off film On the buses made in 1971 was the biggest grossing film of the year - beating even James Bond.  The Film cost under £100,000 and was made in just 4 weeks. (even the notoriously quick carry on films were made in 6 weeks!) so the profits for Hammer Films were very good.

Co-star Anna Karen - who played Olive got just £75 a week for three weeks work! No wonder the cast refused the same terms when the 2nd feature film was made.

It was debated at the time whether a film would work because it was felt people might not pay to watch something that was free at home on TV, others felt that as most TV's were still Black and White - people would pay to see a bumper 90 minutes of their favourite stars in colour.  Oddly the film was almost given an adult rating ! but a temporary film censor gave it a more suitable rating.  To be honest, the film itself is rather dire.

Actor Reg Varney (playing Stan Butler) was 53 when the show started and as his charecter was meant to be about 40 had to be made to look younger.  Stephen Lewis was 33 and had to be made to look older as the Inspector.

Writers Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney admit that some of their other sitcoms - Romany Jones,Yus, my Dear and Don't drink the water were all weak.  "Yus, my dear was awful" say Ronald Wolfe's wife.

Anyway - all in all probably a book that tells you all you could ever want to know about on the Buses and a bit more.  It comprehensive with anecdotes, technical stuff, bloopers and funny scenes etc.

In a way it is sad it was such a long wait for a book as so many of the cast had already died, but on the other hand, they would be chuffed to bits to think that the programme they made was still going over 40 years later although they might regret that they get no royalties from the repeats or dvds.   

Country Joe McDonald's Tribute to Country Joe McDonald.

After much consideration it occurred to me that no one will ever do a tribute to me ... at least while I am alive. And so I am proud to introduce my own tribute to myself: Country Joe McDonald's Tribute to Country Joe McDonald. Using the same format I used with my tribute to Woody Guthrie and my tribute to Florence Nightingale, I will sing songs and tell stories. Among those stories will be how County Joe and The Fish started the smoking banana thing and how the Fish Cheer turned into the Fuck Cheer and lots of other fun stuff. Also singing those great audience favorites from over the decades.

Can it still shock?

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Inspirational old people

I suppose there is a view that dying young is a sort of immortality. 

I prefer the opposite approach.  I think the phrase your never too old is a tad optimistic but some people are lucky or otherwise manage to carry on living life to the full as long as possible.

Here is a list of people who show they way:

Tom Baker - The Doctor Who actor - now 78, but has returned to recording Dr Who audio (radio/CD) adventures for Big Finish Productions.  Still interesting in amusing in interviews - I love his quote - "I wish I was 70" "or even 75"

Dave Allen - The comedian - sadly died aged 68 - but retained a philosophical and humorous attitude to life until the end.  He became an enthusiastic painter in later life. He was always looking forward and rarely allowed his shows to be repeated.

Harry "Buster" Merryfield - aka Uncle Albert in the long running TV show Only Fools and Horses - despite a long amateur involvement he only became an professional actor at 57.  I liked his idea of a chat show where he proposed he would interview people over a few drinks in a bar - sadly this was never commissioned.

Humphrey Lyttelton - Chairman of the radio 4 programme I'm sorry I haven't a clue. Enough said for those who have listened to the programme.