If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday, 31 March 2010


This was the best April Fool joke I ever did.

I was Customer Service Manager in a large call-centre, working for a company that was contracted to ITV to provide call centre operations. In each wing of the centre there was a large photocopier and scanner. These were used a lot for scanning documents in, and general clerical stuff to do with customer accounts. They were concealed from the main area by a moveable screen. One day, we got some new ones in. They just happened to come into service on April 1st.

That morning, I sent out a memo to all my team leaders. "We have installed new photocopiers in Green Wing, which are state-of-the-art and voice-controlled. They are very simple to use and should save the teams a lot of wasted time dealing with all the buttons on the old ones. Please brief this to all teams during the pre-shift briefing: ..." I can't remember how it went after that, but it was mainly telling them to put the original on the glass bed, close the lid and then say "Print" in a clear voice. If the machine didn't respond, you weren't speaking loudly or clearly enough. I think I refined it with commands like "Add Paper" and "No, not that paper, I said A3" and things like that.

Then I retired to my desk and waited.

It was a complete riot and an unmitigated success. All morning people were disappearing behind the screens and then you could hear, louder and louder, "Print. Print. Purrrrrint. PRINT! Look, just fucking print, OK?" One girl eventually started to say 'please', which spoke well of her upbringing, but nothing for her common sense. After a while, most people had got the joke and were just waiting for yet another innocent to go behind the screen and try their luck. People had tears in their eyes, and calls to ITV that morning were not answered with our customary professionalism.

I was really proud of that one. Have a good day, and don't be fooled. Not by anyone.

Even me.

I give up

I was going to do a spoof post about ACPO wanting to restrict motorcycles to certain 'allowed areas' only, and supporting a ban on anything over 12 bhp as 'unncessary in today's challenging road conditions'. It was going to end with this link.

But I couldn't. The more I wrote, the more depressed I got, as I realised that what I was writing wasn't a parody at all, but was merely what a lot of people in our Superior Class would like to see happen anyway. It's just that they would be more subtle. I did rather like the name I had for the ACPO spokesman: Roger D Kabinensteward.)

When you can't parody your own Government, it's time to give up, so I did. No-one would have laughed, anyway. It's too close to the truth.

Words I Hate

It's not news, and others have covered the story already, but there was one thing about this one that made my blood boil.

Ofsted have been failing some of the country's top independent schools - not because of poor results, because the results are generally outstanding, but because the schools haven't been keeping up with the box-ticking exercises that they have been charged with. Things like:
  • keeping CRB check documents in a separate location, rather than a central file
  • not having a specific statement on 'behaviour management' in their school policies (perhaps because at the schools concerned, good behaviour is assumed to be the norm)
  • not making parents aware that they can have sight of a copy of the school's plan to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 2002
and so on. You could summarise it by saying that the schools were doing the right things, but in a non-approved way.

The one that make me choke on my cornflakes was:
  • Children have "not been taught how to play appropriately" because at break and lunchtimes they "often run around the small area shouting and letting off steam".
The suggestion that children running about at break time is a bad thing is ludicrous. When I was at school, running about and shouting at break time was what breaks were for. I don't think I could have sat through a day of lessons without at least three opportunities to run about, climb, shout, form a gang, disband a gang, torment a few girls and do a deal on some marbles I just happened to have about my person.

But it's that word 'appropriately' that makes me want to chew the carpet and hit someone.

It's such a common usage these days that no-one probably thinks about what it means any more. If you try to unpick the meaning of the word in this sentence, it is saying that there are approved ways of playing, ones which fit all our preconceptions, and that doing anything different is somehow disobeying an agreed and sensible principle. It's a pompous and self-righteous word, one which says that I know better than you do what is good for you.

I don't mind the word itself. If I am ill, I want my doctor to prescribe me an appropriate medicine, that is one that is designed to do the job. If I am in the market for a new car, I would listen to advice on what model is appropriate for my needs. But when people start talking about laughter at a joke being 'inappropriate', what they are saying is not that the joke isn't funny (when laughter would be inappropriate), but that you shouldn't find it funny. A whole different concept. By using 'appropriate' in this way, you are saying that your opinions or views or prejudices are normal, mainstream and educated, with the implication that if you disagree, you are odd, badly brought-up, or too thick to tell the difference between good and bad.

It's the same trick an advertiser uses when they say "clever people buy Snibbo." You buy the product (or adapt your behaviour) to fall in line with what someone else thinks is good and proper. It plays on the desire to conform.

So children playing like - well, children - is 'inappropriate'. What would they have them do? Sit in the same classroom and do homework? Get the chairs in a circle and conduct a session of enlightened self-criticism? Read a nice book? (Appropriate author and content, of course.)

When it was Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools, they were checking that teaching and learning were up to standard, and a good thing too. It seems that, when they find a school where the teaching and learning are exemplary, they have to find trivia to criticise.

Because they must find something to criticise, mustn't they? We can't have private schools being successful, after all.

Down the Pan

Well, the Pan is sold. It has been on an eBay auction which ended last night. There seemed to be a lot of interest, with over 60 people watching it and lots of enquiries, and the bids came close to the reserve price quite early on, but there was no last-minute rush and at the end there were only two bidders, both of whom had been in touch before. One guy bid in the last 20 seconds, reached reserve and it was sold.

I now have full payment in my Paypal account, which is good in one way, but a hassle in another. For one thing, Paypal have creamed off about 4% of the payment in fees, so that although the price it sold for meant I was better off than if I had part-exed the bike, after the fees I am slightly worse off. For another, the large payment means that Paypal have put a restriction on my account (quoting anti-money-laundering regulations) and I have to go through a few hoops with numbers on bank statements and the like before I can withdraw the money. (There is also the haunting spectre of Paypal Chargebacks, which I had never heard of until Paypal told me they were still possible, even though the guy had paid in full, and which will no doubt cause a bit of anxiety until 120 days have passed and a chargeback is no longer possible.)

The White Rhino is now waiting to be picked up by a courier and whisked off back to the frozen North, whence it came. The name comes from its appearance, which is stylishly brutal, a bit like one of those white plastic soldiers in that space film, and partly from a phrase in Bike magazine which stuck in the mind: a bike they had on test was so fast "it was like a charging rhinoceros with a spear up its bum."

I'll be sorry to see it go, in a way, but I have really developed no affection for it, merely a lot of respect for its capabilities. I've had bosses like that: great respect for what they do, but no feelings of friendship. In this it is, I think, unique for me: with all the other bikes I have owned, I have formed some kind of emotional attachment. Some have been genuine affection, as with a faithful dog; others have been frustration. But there was always a feeling of a kind of bond. The Honda always sat there, as efficient as a washing-machine, but about as thrilling.

So, a last shot of the Pan:

And a Star Wars Trooper, for comparison:

Too good not to share

From Dizzy:

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Old joke

Albert was having a bit of trouble with his digestive system, and went to see the doctor. That night, Alice woke up to hear him crashing about downstairs. She wanted to ask him what he was doing, but went back to sleep instead. The following night, the same thing happened - Albert would wait until Alice was asleep and then go downstairs, where she could hear him moving around outside the back door.

After this happened for a third night, she stayed awake and, when he returned to bed, asked him what he had been doing.

"Well, Ah went to t'doctors, and he gave me yon suppositories to take for me bowills, like."

"And what has tha bin doing with them?"

"Well, t'doctor told me to put them in my back passage every night, but I might as well have been shoving them up my arse for all the good they are doing."

Ay theng yow.

Barry Sheerman - plonker

I was delighted to see a Labour MP getting interested in motorcycling this week. After all, bikes are cheaper to buy than cars, use less of the planet's resources to make, don't use as much of that nasty oil stuff, make less of that horrible CO2, and are the solution to any congestion problem you care to name. Step forward, Mr Barry Sheerman, MP ...

Oh, hang on ...

A Labour MP has urged people to tell their male loved-ones not to ride motorcycles.

Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman called motorcyclists “widow makers and orphan makers” who were “disgraceful in a civilised society”.

He said: “If you have a husband, boyfriend or son who wants to get a motorbike, please try and persuade them to get something with four wheels instead.”

I don't know where to begin - the rampant sexism of assuming that all bike riders are male (or, perhaps that all riders who are killed are male), which is patently untrue? The Kiplingesque term 'widow-maker'? Pur-lease. Get something with four wheels instead - and kill three mates and a bus queue as well as yourself? And note that it is the motorcyclists themselves who are "disgraceful in a civilised society", not the bikes. It seems that 'love the sinner, hate the sin' hasn't reached Huddersfield yet.

He gets his facts wrong, of course (nothing unusual there when there is a 'valid point' to be made - think of the climate change con). He says that:

“Around 650 people on motorbikes die each year, which is an astonishing figure. "

It is astonishing, because it is wrong. The figure for 2007 was 596, and for 2008, 493. Too high, but not as high as Sheerman is claiming, and note the downward trend. And how many of those deaths were caused by 'safer' car drivers failing to look? Or poorly-maintained road surfaces? Or spilt diesel?

Two thoughts come to mind: one is that Mr Sheerman, to be consistent, would also need to be opposed to other activities by young men which leave widows and orphans ...

Solicitor James Ryan, 37, died after being swept away by an avalanche while skiing in the Italian Alps. He leaves two young children. (Times today, paper edn)

... or is it just those that aren't nice, aspirational middle-class recreations?

And as for "disgraceful in a civilised society", how about looking closer to home?

The senior backbencher, who claimed £8,613 expenses from the taxpayer for car use in a year ...

Lying hypocrite, then.

Two disgraces to civilised society, yesterday.

Can I play? Please?

On the Toady programme this morning:

Stephen Parry was talking about young British swimming hopes at the 2012 Olympics, and focused on ...

"a 16-year-old girl ... Achieng Ajulu-Bushell ... She's a hundred breast-stroker and she looks absolutely fantastic"

That's a new discipline. I could get interested.

Daily Mash, Eco-version

This is a classic:

NASA Satellite Discovers Massive Vegetation Die Off

(Greenbelt, Maryland) A new sensor on a NASA Earth-orbiting satellite has for the first time observed a global-scale die off of vegetation, a new article in Science magazine reports this week.

"We were amazed at the continental scale that this die off occupied", said Dr. John Jorgenson of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The relatively rapid change in vegetation characteristics was observed from late summer through the fall, when the multi-million dollar NASA instrument recorded a distinct change in vegetation color from green to various shades of yellow, brown, orange, and red.

While the exact mechanism for the phenomenon is unclear, the researchers believe that it is related to increasing fossil fuel use, especially home heating oil, during the fall when temperatures turn cooler. "We know that particulate pollution from the burning of fuel oil can have a negative effect on healthy vegetation, and so the correlation between heating fuel use and vegetation die-off constitutes 'smoking gun' evidence for this association", Jorgenson said.
The new findings will likely help fuel increasing calls for restrictions on the widespread and indiscriminant use of fossil fuels, due to their proven connection to uncontrollable climate changes, such as tsunamis and killer hurricanes.

When contacted for comment on the new results, discredited global warming skeptic Dr. John Michaels told this reporter, "I think the NASA scientists should investigate the possibility that this die-off is directly related to decreasing levels of sunlight and the resulting cold temperatures as winter approachers". When told of Dr. Michaels' theory, Jorgeson replied, "Well of course he would say that…everyone knows he is in the pocket of 'big oil'. Besides, how else would you explain the fact that the die-off does not occur in tropical locations, where heating oil use is virtually unheard of?"


Monday, 29 March 2010

I Know Naarthing!

I posted something recently about Gordon Brown's retreat into 'it wasnae me' mode whenever things got awkward:
  • Mr Brown said that he had been unaware of key questions surrounding the legality of the invasion, the intelligence used to justify the war publicly and Mr Blair’s secret “pledge” to join the United States in military action.
  • ... the Prime Minister admitted he had been unaware of a number of controversial issues.
  • Mr Brown acknowledged that he had not been present at a number of key meetings held by Mr Blair in the build-up to the invasion in March 2003.
  • He said he did not see a Cabinet Office “options paper” in March 2002 which included the possibility of invading Iraq. The paper was prepared ahead of Mr Blair’s meeting at President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.
  • Mr Brown said he was also unaware of a series of highly confidential letters from Mr Blair to President Bush in which the Prime Minister is said to have “pledged” that Britain would join in the military action.
  • Mr Brown also did not know that of Lord Goldsmith’s late change of view on the legality of the war. The Attorney-General had said in early 2003 that the invasion would be unlawful but told the Cabinet just days before the war that it would be legal.
  • He was also unaware of doubts about evidence obtained by MI6 that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including concerns from his Cabinet colleague Robin Cook, who was the only minister to resign over the war.
  • “I do not recall a conversation with Robin about the intelligence. He may have mentioned that at the Cabinet, I cannot recall.”
Now, in a complete U-turn, he explains about his reactions as first Hoon, Hewitt and Byers, and then Caborn and Ingram get caught offering to trade their extensive contacts book for hard cash. Thank goodness our Prime Minister has got a grip on his Party and is showing a firm and authoritative lead for once:

The Prime Minister told the BBC: “I was appalled by what I saw - I was appalled by some of things I saw happening that I knew nothing about.”


Has been resumed ...

... for the time being.

I kept checking, and the pictures came back in ones and twos, and finally the heading banner, which needed to be re-uploaded from my hard drive. When I tried to do this before, all I got was 'URL is not available', which is rubbish as the bloody thing was staring me in the face.

It's a mystery, innit.

Thanks to Derf for monitoring the situation.

Normal Service ...

May, just possibly, be resumed in due course.

For some reason, all my images, including the blog header of me on an earlier XT, have vanished from this blog. The only reason I can find, having done a Google search, is that the unknown server which hosts the images has exceeded its bandwidth for the month (it is the 29th, after all). I will wait until the beginning of next month before I start worrying.

If anyone has any alternative reasons why this might be happening, please let me know in the comments. Also, if you can see the images and header bar OK, let me know too.


It's late

And I am dog-tired, and I can't sleep.


Saturday, 27 March 2010


n, medical condition, characterised by having an item for auction on a famous auction site, accompanied by the obsessive desire to check one's visitor numbers, bids and watchers every twenty seconds during waking hours.

There was over a week between agreeing to purchase the Bonneville and being able to collect it. It needs one or two things doing to it in the workshop before sale, and as it is presently untaxed, the dealer is taxing it for me, and it makes sense to wait until 1 April so that I get the benefit of a full month for my £66.

This waiting period of about ten days gave me a chance to put the Pan on eBay and see if I could get a better price for it there than the part-exchange price the dealer was offering. I know what price I have to get in order to make it worthwhile selling privately, so that is my reserve price, and I have put an optimistic Buy It Now price on as well. It attracted several bids within 24 hours of the auction start, which is a good sign, and there are currently 43 people watching it and one guy who seems to be serious, asking pertinent questions and requesting more photos.

But it's ruining my ability to do anything else with my life. Every time I pass the room where the laptop is, I have to just check one more time. The auction has reached the point where, after a few lowish early bids, it has gone quiet. With the number of people watching, I expect it to get lively in the last hour or so, but right now absolutely nothing is happening. But I keep checking, just to be sure.

Ebay, swallower of people's lives.

Dry roads

For the first time in ages, the roads round here have been dry, and the temperature has been in the mid-teens. I have therefore taken every opportunity to get out on the XT and do a few errands: post a letter, buy a paper, post another letter, and so on.

On its newish Avon tyres, the XT is handling as well as it should, and carving through the town traffic was a real pleasure. Let's hope Summer this year isn't a barbecue summer (© Met Office) but is the Met Office's idea of a thoroughly miserable, damp and chilly one, and then we can really get some riding done.

I have already linked up with some Triumph riders from a web forum and we are organising some rideouts in mid-Wales when the weather becomes a bit more reliable. I did a rideout around Llyn Brianne reservoir a few years ago with a local IAM group, and there are some great roads up there.

Please, please, can we have some decent weather this year?

Bear all this in mind

There's an excellent clip of Jeff Randall skewering Alistair Darling on Sky News recently. I have taken the trouble to transcribe it, as I want a copy laminated and pinned to the wall next to the front door in case any Labour Party activists come a-calling between now and the election.

As I see it, this is your 13-year economic record: unemployment is higher than when you came in; the pound is worth much less than when you came in; our gold reserves were sold off at rock-bottom prices; our cash savings yield almost nothing; the Stock Market is lower today than it was ten years ago; our private pension system has been taxed into ruin; we are running record budget deficits, worse than anywhere else; and our stock of debt is heading for more than one trillion pounds. Why on earth would anybody want to vote for more of that?

Darling looked most uncomfortable. I feel a bit sorry for the chap, because he wasn't Chancellor when most of the critical decisions were taken.

We know who was.

Labour activists: if you come round here canvassing, make sure your campaign leaflets are biodegradable and not marked "For External Use Only".

H/t: Guthrum

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


Leg-Iron has a long rant over here. A couple of lines seem to sum it up:

You, MPs, can stop this. At a stroke. And reduce the deficit into the bargain.
Stop paying people to bully us. Then we can vote for you.

Ay-meyen, brutha.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Wind Farms - I'm Not A Big Fan*

*Not original, sadly.

There's a good post over at Not A Sheep on the latest misinformation on wind farms as a source of the nation's energy.

It seems that the majority of wind farms have a turbine efficiency of between 25 and 30%. Turbine efficiency is the amount of power that a wind turbine actually produces, compared to its theoretical maximum. Some are far worse than this - one at Chelker reservoir in Yorkshire runs at 8.7% efficiency, and one at Blyth Harbour in Northumberland boasts a magnificent 7.9%.

So when the Telegraph reports that "The Whitelee windfarm... turbines can generate 322MW of electricity, enough to power 180,000 homes", Not A Sheep correctly identifies the key word in the sentence as 'can'.

On these figures, they can power 180,000 homes, but probably do power about 45,000. Or possibly 14,000.

Why do the mainstream media give this inefficient, uneconomic, unreliable and unsightly technology such an easy ride?


I went for a test-ride on a Triumph Bonneville today. It was fine in the morning, so of course like an idiot I opted to do some stuff around the house. By the time I was ready to go to the bike shop, it was drizzling. Nevertheless, I am an optimist, and put on my leather jacket over my jeans and trainers, and set off. By the time I was at the bike shop it was pouring down and I was soaked. But the owner had kindly got the bike ready for me, so I had to go ahead. Not the ideal conditions for a thorough and wide-ranging test of a bike's capabilities.

The bike on test was a newish Bonneville SE. This is the version with a lower seat and more shiny bits, specificaly aimed at middle-aged returnees and lady riders, who found the original Bonnie a bit big. Sure enough, it was very low to the ground, but quite pretty and well-proportioned. I was putting on my helmet ready to set off when I realised that the bike had been left running. It was so quiet I could not hear the exhaust, even ten feet away. Bad start - I like a proper exhaust.

There are two points of view on modern Triumphs.

The first is that a philanthropic businessman, John Bloor, stepped in to save a British icon which was about to go bust, and developed the product range from the leaky, unreliable rubbish that British bikes used to be into a modern range of leak-free, reliable, world-beating classics. Ride the flag, keep the faith, British iron is best, and by buying a Bonneville or Thruxton (ah, the power of those names) you were buying a slice of British Heritage.

The second is that Triumph were already bust, and an entrepreneur simply bought the name, and used it to paint a historic gloss over a range of good, if not world-beating, bikes. The Bonneville, Thruxton and Scrambler are cynical attempts to create a pastiche of the originals, and do not deserve the hallowed name of Triumph. Worse still, the names of iconic performance bikes were being used to sell bland, low-spec entry-level machines which crudely mimicked the originals to people who cared more about the image than the actual bike.

I have to admit that I was of the latter persuasion. I was never a big fan of Triumphs, even back in the day, so I approached this test-ride with a bit of a negative expectation. It needed to be good to convince me.

It was. To be sure, it lacked power compared with a sports 900, although I was clear in my mind that the power I needed was 'enough' rather than 'more than yours'. There was certainly enough power to make the ride interesting, although I didn't need to reposition my eyeballs afterwards. The bike was light, for one thing, which is a major advantage after the 300kg Pan, and in the old journalist's cliché, 'all the controls fell easily to hand'. It really was very comfortable, and I felt I could go for miles on it. Even on narrow roads, with heavy goods lorries and mud and puddles and a rain-bespattered visor, it felt completely planted and secure, and the handling was sharp and stable. I was completely at home on it within two miles.

I can see why these bikes are popular with new riders and long-time returners. They are unthreatening, for sure, but what's so bad about that? I suppose the worst criticism is that they are bland, but I didn't find it bland. I found it predictable and user-friendly, and I can live with that. I could see myself climbing aboard, with a tent and a couple of saddlebags full of spare clothes, and setting off for the far side of Europe. There we have the difference between the Bonnie and the Sportster - all down to riding position, I suppose.

When I got back to the dealership, there was a slightly older Bonnie sitting there, a standard model in silver, with a normal seat height, some useful modifications (better exhausts, rear-set footrests) and at a price that seemed affordable. By the time they had done a few things to it for me, serviced, tested and taxed it, the difference between that and the part-ex price of the Pan was fairly modest.

I pick it up at the beginning of next month.

Desert Island Discs 8

I've been a fan of Eric Clapton since his Bluesbreaker days. I listened to some John Mayall the other day (Blues from Laurel Canyon and the self-titled Blues Breakers) and it was very disappointing - Mayall was a truly awful singer. But some of Clapton's intstrumental work, including things like Hideaway and Steppin' Out were guitar classics. He left, taking Jack Bruce with him, to form Cream with Ginger Baker.

Cream were my favourite band of the era, bar none. They started as a bluesy outfit with the album Fresh Cream, and then went into a psychedelic mood with the next, Disraeli Gears (which the observant will have noted I have used for the email account for this blog). The next album, Wheels Of Fire, was a double LP, with a set of studio pieces which seem to be moving towards the prog rock that was emerging at the time, and on the other disc four live numbers from their American tours. The band disbanded (heh) in late 1968, but before they did, they made some amazing music.

The one I have chosen for No. 8 is Crossroads, a live 1968 recording from Winterland in California of the well-known Robert Johnson blues song. It is chiefly known for Clapton's guitar solos, and the second solo has made it to the top of many lists of 'greatest guitar solos', although I prefer to think of the solos in Crossroads as one solo divided by a bit of singing in the middle.

Why is it so great? Well, for one thing it is improvised. It was a common repertoire item at the time, so no doubt Clapton had a pretty good idea of what he was going to play, but the delight of improvisation is that you never know what is going to come out until you play it. And what you play often depends on what everyone else is playing. If you listen carefully, there's a lot of call-and-response between bass and guitar. Bruce and Clapton worked very well together.

The playing is beyond any praise I could give it. It's inventive, it's showy, and it is, by turns, both melodic and savagely slick. It starts in the lower range of the instrument, but quickly builds in energy and tempo until a break for Jack Bruce to belt out the middle verse. When the guitar returns, it picks up where it left off and soars away into some blues stratosphere where mortals cannot live. Taken as a whole, the song and the solo has an amazing shape, and a Gibson ES-335 never sounded better. I've listened to this piece a million times, and there isn't a bad note in it. And all from three basic chords and a sequence of 12 bars.

We can still barrelhouse, baby, on the riverside ...

Monday, 22 March 2010

Born Again, or Novice?

As anyone who knows me will be completely unsurprised to hear, I have been doing a fair bit of reading-up on the subject of a new bike. And I have come across something that shouldn't concern me, but does concern me. A few posts ago, I gave a list of my probable requirements for a new bike to replace the Pan:
  • Able to cruise at 70-80 mph
  • Comfortable for at least 300 miles in a day
  • Single or twin cylinder
  • No enclosing plastic bodywork
  • No complicated electronics or gimmicks
  • Looks like a real motorbike
  • Sounds like a real motorbike
  • Useable pillion accommodation
  • Room for luggage
  • Character, soul, whatever you like to call it.
Now, a lot of the bikes that fulfil that particular set of demands (the Harley Sportster and the Triumph Bonneville are the most obvious) are regarded in the bike press as one of two things: either a 'first big bike' for someone who has recently passed their Direct Access, or a suitable steed for a 'Born Again' biker, i.e. someone who last rode twenty years ago, and has now decided to get on two wheels again, now that the kids are bigger. They are described as 'easy to manage' and 'unthreatening'. They may well be, but I don't want to hear it.

(The 'Born Agains', by the way, are the participants in the vast majority of fatal bike accidents, especially the ones that baffle the Police, where no other vehicles were involved. These guys last rode when quick bikes had 60 bhp, and 90 bhp could win a Grand Prix. Today, for under ten grand, they can buy a bike with 170 bhp and ride it straight from the dealer's showroom to mid-Wales and into a stone wall.)

Now, I passed my test in 1972, and apart from a couple of bikeless periods where other things took precedence, I have been riding ever since. In no way am I a recent convert, or someone who needed to be Born Again because he folded at the first slice of wedding cake. But if I ride one of these bikes, people will think I am a noob!


The Dance-off begins

Today, I had a test ride on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This is the first time I have ever sat astride a Harley, and I didn't know what to expect. But the Sportster (in either 883cc or 1200cc guises) is a definite contender for the GFGN List Of Bikes Meeting Random And Arbitrary Requirements (listed here).

It was the XL883C Custom model, regarded by many as an 'entry-level' Harley, and by Harley riders as a bit girlie. But it's relatively light, relatively cheap, and could fit the bill for a modest Pan replacement. It fulfils all the criteria, except for the pillion accommodation, which is rudimentary, to say the least.

First thoughts - not as bad as I had feared, nor as good as I had hoped. The riding position, with feet forward, was decidedly weird, but improved after a couple of miles. All bikes I have had before have had you either leaning forward or sitting upright, but with this it was like sitting back in an armchair. The seat cradles your bum very well, but all your weight is on your butt, which means there would be no standing on the pegs to relieve biker's arse every few miles, and you feel every pothole straight up your spine. (On a bumpy road, on a normal bike, you find yourself lifting your bum off the seat a bit like a jockey to take the bumps through your legs.) Stopping was OK, as you just put your feet down, but setting off again was a bit comic, as I was milling my legs round looking for footrests that weren't where they should be. I'm sure I gave a few motorists a laugh. After about 20 minutes, I was remembering perhaps 50% of the time.

I had been expecting a rough and gutless engine, but in fact it was good. There was plenty of torque and the bike was quick enough up to 60 or so - traffic and a sense of self-preservation prevented anything more dramatic. It was possible to run down to low speeds, even in high gears, and still pull away without losing your fillings, which is certainly not possible on a single. The soundtrack was fantastic. The bike has been fitted with 'Screaming Eagle' exhausts and a Stage 1 tune, and the sound while riding was excellent. Whether the neighbours would agree is another matter - standing next to the bike, it's ear-shattering. Brakes were as expected, i.e. pathetic. Handling was unusual - even on the XT, I am used to feeling what the front wheel is doing all the time, but on this, it was remote and mysterious. Leaning over round a roundabout, it felt as if I and the engine and rear wheel were working together, while the front end was somewhere in the next county, communicating by pigeon post. Today was fairly dry - in the wet, I could see this being most disconcerting.

I like the look, I like the sound, and it's just about affordable (it's on an 06 plate with 5k miles). On the downside, I'm not sure about comfort long-distance, and I'm also not sure if I am baaaaaaad enough for the image. Is it possible to ride a Harley like a normal person, giving way to old ladies and smiling when required? I'm not sure. I'm already a big of a big lad, and have a goatee. With a piss-pot helmet, shades and a snarling Harley, I think I would be required to live up to something I am definitely not.

I'm not put off it, but neither have I lost my heart to a Yankee after one date. We shall see.

Tomorrow, I have a date with a Triumph Bonneville.

Desert Island Discs 7

A bit of cheating here, so you're getting two for the price of one.

I was a big fan of Family in the late 60s and 70s. They had a very individual take on what was rock music. When everyone else was using the guitar/bass/drums line-up, Family featured violins, saxophones, harmonicas, organ, Mellotron and vibes, amongst others. The music ranged from hard rock to psychedelia, and was always interesting, if sometimes a little rough at the edges.

The unique thing about Family in those days was the leadership of vocalist Roger Chapman. In the normal register, his voice was a good, smoky R&B voice, full of humour, passion and aggression by turns. But when Chappo let fly, his voice became something unworldly: a heavy vibrato that sounded a bit like a bleating sheep on acid, and totally dominated the band's sound. People either loved or hated it. I loved it. His presence on stage was dominant, too - shouting, stamping about, with shaggy hair, balding on top, and throwing the mike stand about like he held a personal grudge against it.

These songs are from what I consider their best album Fearless. The first, Spanish Tide, was on the original release, and is a good, loud bit of early 70s rock, with some excellent vocals and instrumental passages (including a massively-overdriven vibes solo). The second song is their highest-charting single In My Own Time, which reached No. 4 in 1971 and is included on the latest edition of the CD. This has a fine example of Chapman bleating his way into the stratosphere. Perhaps not the best rock band ever, but interesting, innovative and pretty wild. I saw them at Leeds Uni in '71, and they were the best live band of that year.

Here we go:

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Early candidates

I have been mulling this decision over for a while, and it will be no surprise to any who knows me that I have already given it some thought and have a few 'possibles' lined up. I mentioned my requirements in a previous post, and these are some that would fit the bill in one way or another.

A summary of my requirements:
  • Able to cruise at 70-80 mph
  • Comfortable for at least 300 miles in a day
  • Single or twin cylinder
  • No enclosing plastic bodywork
  • No complicated electronics or gimmicks
  • Looks like a real motorbike
  • Sounds like a real motorbike
  • Useable pillion accommodation
  • Room for luggage
  • Character, soul, whatever you like to call it.
Top speed, as long as it is adequate, is of no concern. Let's say the ability to do the ton would be nice. Relaxed cruising at a decent pace is more important. My days of willy-waving over three-figure numbers on the dials are over, if they ever existed.

In no particular order:

Moto Guzzi V7 Classic

I've always liked Guzzis since I had a V50 back in the 80s. It was the 'nicest' bike I have ever had, and I regret selling it to this day. Its only disadvantage was a lack of power. This V7 is a 750 V-twin, which would be reasonably powerful without having a Warp Factor 10 licence-threatening top end. It is, to me, beautifully-proportioned and even elegant, and I'm a big fan of V-twins in any case [1]. It's similar in many ways to the Ducati I sold to fund the Honda, but even better-looking. Downside: expensive, and they haven't been out long enough for many to be on the second-hand market yet.

Triumph Bonneville

I had never considered a Truimph before. I liked the old Bonnie back in the 60s, when it was an icon, but I have never yearned to own a Triumph like some misty-eyed old codgers do. The new ones always looked too chunky and overweight compared to the 'genuine' ones, and the performance was, reportedly, pretty modest. But it would fit my requirements well, and everyone I have spoken to who has owned or ridden one says that they are excellent bikes. Since my local bike shop is a Triumph dealership, there may be a good deal against the Honda on a new, or newish, Bonnie, and that may be worth looking at.

Royal Enfield Electra

Yeah, I know. Slow, vibratory, and a bit of a plodder. And yet there is a kind of individualism and anti-mainstream vibe about these. Could I be happy with a cruising speed of between 50 and 60, and a bike that can't really hack it on motorways? Possibly not. But the rebel in me says that this could be a viable choice - 80 mpg and owner servicing with a nail file and a screwdriver. And there's that lovely doff-doff-doff of a British single, without the hassle of owning and running a 40-year-old bike. This one may be the first to be voted off by audience text-vote, but I'd like to consider it first. Quite inexpensive new, and plenty of second-hand ones about, mostly with very low mileages.

Harley Sportster

Until recently, I would never, ever have considered a Harley. Too American, too good ol' boy, too much chrome, too corporate, with their Hog accessories and their Hog rallies and the sheer damn superiority and bad manners of some of their acolytes. And yet I met many Harley riders on the road and in Denmark, and they all said the same thing - "yeah, I don't go in for all that either, but they are a very good bike to own and ride." Slow and easy, a whole different approach to two wheels. And the Harley has soul in spades. I may be willing to be a convert.

Ural Dalesman combination

This is the joker, the wild card, the off-the-wall option. I have never considered a sidecar combination before; never wanted one in nearly 40 years of riding. I rode a combo for the first time in Denmark (admittedly a left-hooker) and I was anxious and uncomfortable with it. But that was only for a few miles - people tell me that it takes a while to acclimatise, and then the fun starts. But ... all the discomfort of a bike (you get just as cold and wet) but you still get stuck in traffic jams. And yet, this might be a way of hauling Anna around. We could still go biking as a couple, rather than going alone. New, this would be unaffordable, but a nice used example? Possibly. After all, I'd still have the XT for proper biking.

And there will be more, no doubt. Any suggestions?

[1] V-twin character: what multis don't have, and singles have too much of. Heh. It's true.

Decision Time

Well, Anna and I have had a pleasant lunch and done a bit of gardening together, and we have had a chat. I didn't know how I was going to approach this, so I did my usual thing of blurting it out.

She's fine about it. She doesn't like the idea of never riding on the back of the bike again, but she is realistic enough to know that it isn't likely to happen. Certainly not the long-distance South-of-France-and-back trips that we were planning. She's aware that the bike is hardly being used and is slowly deteriorating, and that Spring is a good time to be selling.

So we have agreed: the Pan will be sold, and will be replaced with something more appropriate for my (and our) needs. I will make sure that any replacement has a decent pillion seat, so that if she does fancy a whizz round the County it will be possible, even if not in the armchair-like comfort of the Pan's generous rear seat.

I'm very relieved, to be honest. I've been aware of the Pan sitting reproachfully at the back of the house, with no reason for me to take it out that the XT couldn't fulfil more economically and easily, for a few months now, and wondered how to resolve it.

So, onwards and upwards. What's next, I wonder?

Here's a rare one of them both together, just for the record (click for big):

And thinking ...

It may be time for a reconfiguration of the bike fleet. This post is a kind of thinking-aloud exercise, so bear with me.

Currently, I have:
  • Yamaha XT trailbike
  • Honda ST1300 Pan European.
The XT has had a lot of work put into it (by me) and is now in a good state of repair, apparently reliable (touch wood) and a whole heap of fun to ride. It has a topcase and its utility ranges from simple rides out for fun to minor shopping expeditions, and longer journeys up to 100 miles or so. If I get another job (touch wood again) it will be my daily hack, and it's economical to run. I don't think I will ever sell it - it's friendly and easy to own, a real jump-on-it-and-ride machine, and if I ever find I have something better for the role of daily driver, I will take it off the road and treat it to a full restoration.

The Pan is seemingly 100% reliable and awesomely capable of long, fast journeys, where it is comfortable and protects well from wind and weather. As well as being at home on motorways, I have to admit it is a total hoot on A-roads too, where 125bhp makes other traffic a minor inconvenience. It's also the best bike I have ever had for pillion comfort. The problem is that what it is good at are the things I don't really need. Anna's back problem means that it is unlikely we will ever fulfil the dream of a continental tour, or even enjoy a day trip round Pembrokeshire. And my experience of riding to Denmark and back last year has taught me that if I ever do that kind of thing again, it will be slower and more thoughtful, taking time to enjoy the scenery.

Riding through Germany at 120 was a blast (in both senses), but I later realised that I had only spoken to two Germans in the entire trip, and both of them were MacDonalds' employees. I have a burning desire to do a lot more travelling before I get too old, and doing it at warp speed on the Euromotorway network is not the way I want to do it.

I think the Pan has got to go. I wouldn't have any problem with selling it on. As I have written here before, I admire and respect its capabilities, but I haven't formed any kind of emotional attachment to it. It's a machine which is very good at what it does, but then so is my dishwasher. It's also mechanically 100%, which is ironically a bonus, as I wouldn't sell anything that I had doubts about to a private seller. But there is one huge downside to moving it on: Anna. I sold the Ducati to get the Pan (and boy, was that Ducati a nice bike!), with the sole purpose of a two-up trip to France in 2009. That didn't happen, but while I have the Pan the theoretical possibility remains. Selling it would be tantamount to saying the holiday plans are off, and from here on I will be riding on my own. I'm not sure she is ready for that.

Replacements for the Pan? Well, it would have to be different enough from the XT to avoid duplicating capabilities. Good for longish distances, comfy, reliable, able to maintain a cruising speed of 70-80 mph or so. Not too heavy or unwieldy. Room for some luggage and a place to strap on a tent and sleeping bag. Owner-maintainable, without massive body plastics or over-complex technology. Must have character and a bit of 'soul'.

I'm working on a shortlist. And, after a trip to the local bike shop yesterday, there may be some surprising candidates on it.

More when I've had more time to think. Any observations welcome in the comments.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Just thinking ...



I like this:

Lots of Rugby on today, so blogging will be lighter than a very light thing with added lightness, gently beaten to a soufflé and baked in the bottom of a cool oven for 24 hours.


Friday, 19 March 2010


Ah, isn't it wonderful to visit the past now and again? British Airways strike going ahead, rail strike on the cards. It's Tony Woodley and Bob Crow instead of Jack Jones and Arthur Scargill, but the script is the same.

Network Rail's "reckless gamble with rail safety", according to Bob Crow. (It's always about safety, even when the strike is about pay.)

Tony Woodley accused BA of "wanting a 'war' with the union". (It's always 'wanting a war' when the other side don't back down like they are supposed to.)

Yeah, yeah. Those of us who lived through the 1970s have heard it all before. It was depressing then, and it's depressing now. My greatest concern is that there are people who will vote at the forthcoming election - anyone under 40, basically - who have not lived through this kind of thing before, and think it's just how things are, or that somehow this is a one-off.

It isn't. It's what happens when trades unions get a sniff of weak government and think they can get away with it. We have been mercifully free of it for around 20 years now, but anyone who can remember the constant strikes and work-to-rule 'action', with the airwaves full of this or that chippy Scouser talking about 'management intransigence' or 'subordination of workers' rights to the greed of over-fed capitalist shareholders' will remember how utterly miserable it was to switch on the news every night and find that the first three items were on the latest industrial action - i.e. what goods or services we would be doing without next.

Whatever you think about Mrs Thatcher, a least she put a stop to that. Are working people less well-paid or have fewer rights as a result? I don't think so.

It's great to be back in the 70s again. I think I will put on my brown cords and tank top, tie back my ponytail, and put a disc of Gilbert O'Sullivan on the gramophone.

Desert Island Discs 6

Six already? Crikey, I have hardly started!

Today's offering is the first piece of classical music that I liked, independently of what anyone told me to like, or presented to me as 'good' music that I should like. In the context of the pantheon of 'Greats', Max Bruch will always be a minor composer. But that doesn't take away from the fact that he wrote some very good pieces. This is probably the most-played movement from his best-known work, the first Violin Concerto in G minor.

I first heard the piece as a record I borrowed from a girlfriend. She recommended it (well, it's very romantic) and I thought I would do it the honour of a quick listen before I handed it back. At the time I was playing in a band. There were only three of us - Neil on bass guitar, Ricky on drums and me on lead guitar. This limited us somewhat in what we could play (to say nothing of our very moderate talents as musicians), so we tended to play stuff that sounded OK with two parts and a rhythm section - Wishbone Ash covers, basic blues, Cream (and how I loved being the band's version of Slowhand), Free and Fleetwood Mac. Mainly chunky three-chord or 12-bar stuff that we could get away with in the clubs and dances that liked us enough to ask us back.

I had picked up the guitar after giving up on the piano at the age of 11. I could read music, if rather slowly, but I was never comfy with the piano. The guitar I got on with straight away. I learned about music through the guitar, so I got a good understanding of chord harmony from the outset, and I had good relative pitch as well. I found improvising quite easy, and while I never was what I would call 'good' on the instrument, I was more-or-less competent. The music I liked best was a strong melody set against a contrapuntal bass line, so bands like Free and Cream, with their very spare instrumentation, were what I listened to most.

And then came Bruch's Violin Concerto, with its soaring violin melody against a rich and sometimes contrasting background. I understood what the music was about straight away, in a way that I had never felt about symphonies or choral works. I listened to the record over and over again, taped it, gave it back, and then listened again. I think I still have that tape somewhere. I felt I knew what the composer was trying to say, and that was a first for me.

Familiarity breeds confidence, and having listened to more Bruch stuff (nothing like as good), I branched out into Bach (the Brandenberg Concertos were an early favourite), and then Mozart, Handel, Schubert and the rest. I think in those composers I found my metier; I have never liked modern Classical music very much, with the sole exception of Britten, as described in an earlier post.

The piece is in three movements. I have chosen the second, the adagio, as it is achingly beautiful. The way the violin and orchestra work together towards the piercingly sweet conclusion tugs at my heart every time I hear it.

Max Bruch, Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, second movement, adagio, played by Chloë Hanslip with the LSO, conducted by Martin Brabbins.

Thursday, 18 March 2010


General Lord Guthrie, on Gordon Brown's admission that his evidence to Chilcot was "inaccurate":

“What I said was absolutely right and what he said was wrong. I am delighted that the Prime Minister has made this statement and admitted what I said was right and those who attacked me were wrong, intemperate and cheap. It does highlight the great difficulties defence had when other departments of state were being showered with money. Undoubtedly the underfunding caused huge problems in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Translation: "huge problems" = "avoidable deaths".

Mr Brown wrote to Sir John yesterday, saying that he wished to provide the inquiry with “further detail” about defence spending. The letter did not include any apology or regret for the evidence he gave this month.

Of course.


Who Owns My DNA?

It's not often I agree wholeheartedly with a left-wing blog, but Next Left has it right on the button here.

It looks as thought the tentative consensus between Labour and the Conservatives over police retention of DNA samples is going to be broken up by Labour, purely to give them something to attack the Tories with on the doorsteps. The Tories don't want police to have your DNA, so they are the burglars' friend, kind of thing. Quite who would be taken in by this, given the present Government's leniency with all criminals except the middle classes, I'm not sure. But it does illustrate the depths of cynicism this lot will go to, just to have something to beat the opposition with in the forthcoming campaign.

I could have written this bit myself:

Let's take disproportionality first. If all we cared about was increasing how many crimes the police solve, then installing police surveillance equipment in every home would be an absolute humdinger of a policy idea.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was a warning, not an instruction manual, and all that. Don't give them ideas.

But obviously there would be the question of whether the gain in terms of crime detection is justified given the cost to privacy and the way the policy would change the relationship between the citizen and the state.

That relationship has already changed out of all recognition over the last 10-20 years, but it would be a catastrophe if it got any worse.

Precisely because of the message the policy sends to people, moreover, it could well be counter-productive. If people feel they are being labelled as suspects by the police, even when they are not criminals, then this might make them less willing to cooperate with the police. The police are no longer an extension of 'us', the law-abiding majority, but become an alien power whom many of us fear and resent. But if the police get less cooperation with the public, won't they solve fewer crimes?

Absolutely right. As long as we have a law-abiding majority who support the police, then the law-breaking minority can be contained. When the majority feel that the police are no longer on their side, and that the line between law-abiding and law-breaking is blurred, then this will lead to either anarchy or vigilantism.

So will you feel able to say, on the doorstep, that the Tories are the burglar's friend?

The claim is risible, but some people might be thick enough to be taken in by it. But no-one could surely say it with a straight face?

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A Brownie exposed

Finally, Gordon Brown has admitted he made an error. Caught bang to rights by Channel 4 and the estimable Cathy Newman, he grudgingly accepted that evidence he gave to the Chilcot Inquiry was incorrect.

Defence spending has not risen every year in real terms under Labour. He said it had, in public, to Chilcot. The truth was that in three or four years, it actually fell in real terms (and remember, in these years we were involved in two major conflicts). Various Army chiefs criticised his testimony. Gen Sir Richard Dannatt said he was "narrowly and precisely correct", and ex-Chief of Defence Staff Lord Boyce said he was "dissembling" and "disingenuous". Lord Guthrie flatly contradicted Brown's claim that all operational requests had been met, saying that helicopters were requested but were turned down. Brown's response:

"I think they are wrong. To be honest, I don't think it is appropriate for people to criticise us for not providing what we did provide."

Challenged on this in PMQs, Labour MPs shouted that it was all because the Army chiefs were "Tories". The Opposition were, rightly, outraged by this.

And then Channel 4's FactCheck did a bit of FactChecking and, surprise surprise, Gordon was wrong.

Does he take back all those comments about Dannatt and Guthrie and Boyce? Does he apologise to the House for misleading it? Does he offer an explanation of why, when our armed forces are at full stretch in two massive conflicts, with soldiers dying because of poor equipment, he actually reduced the resources available, especially in 2003-4, at the height of the Iraq War?

He does not. Asked by Tony Baldry if he would now set the record straight, his reply was characteristically brusque:

Yes, Mr Speaker, and I am already writing to Lord Sir John Chilcot about this issue ...

However ...

Defence spending rose from £21bn to this year around £40bn from 1997 to this day ...

No, it doesn't make sense to me either. But it's typical of Brown to cover any issue he doesn't want to pursue with a barrage of indigestible tractor stats. I'm not saying Brown was lying; I don't think he'd be stupid enough to lie directly to a public inquiry. I suspect he was given the headline points by a researcher and didn't check that they were correct in the way he wanted to use them. But the manner in which this has come out - first, attack your critics, then smear them and their motives, and finally admit you were wrong with as little grace as possible - tells you volumes about the man behind the curious chin twitch.

Graceless, curmudgeonly, tribal - all the faculties you need in a national leader.

The thing is, if he had come to the Commons and said:

OK, everyone, here's an announcement. I made some statements to Chilcot regarding defence, and it has now been pointed out to me that they were wrong. It wasn't deliberate, but I do admit that my research was a bit sloppy, and I apologise to the people I wronged when I denied it, to the House for giving incorrect testimony to a major public inquiry, and to the British people for inadvertently misleading them. Sorry, everyone, and I'll try to make sure it doesn't happen again.

I think that would be worth about 5 percentage points in the polls. But he is constitutionally incapable of that kind of humanity.

I'm going to be giving FactCheck a bit of a closer look in future, too.

Quote of the PMQs

Gordon Brown at PMQs today:

"There are more small businesses in the country now than there were a year ago."

The trouble is, they all used to be large businesses.


St Patrick's Day

My stepdaughter and her family went to live in Ireland a couple of years ago. They love it there. We went to visit them, and we loved it too. I have never felt so welcomed by complete strangers, and we had a craicing time. I have a big soft spot for the Irish.

But you have to admit this is funny:

H/t Mr Eugenides

Note of Sanity

Courtesy of Dick Puddlecote, a politician who seems to have caught a dose of common sense somewhere along the way. It's a long quote, but justified, as the whole thing is so rare as to be worth celebrating. It's Philip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley. My emphasis:

The report is certainly a useful contribution to the debate on addiction-not, unfortunately, on addiction to alcohol, but on this Government's and the Health Committee's addiction to the nanny state. They have already helped to dismantle the pub and club industry with their smoking ban. Pubs are closing at the rate of 50 a week-many because of the ban on smoking in public places-and the same fate is being felt by many clubs, such as working men's clubs. It seems that the Health Committee, not satisfied with dismantling the pub and club industry, now wishes to direct its fire in other areas, such as at cinemas and commercial broadcasters, to try to close down those industries. Many sports will also be adversely affected if its recommendations are introduced.

All that would not be so bad if I thought that, in the end, if after all the Committee's recommendations were introduced, its members would say that they were satisfied. The problem, however, as with all these matters, is that the report panders to the zealots in society who are never satisfied. I guarantee that if all the recommendations were introduced, Committee members would, within a few months at most, come back with further recommendations because the previous ones had not gone far enough. This lobby is impossible to satisfy.

A great many people in the House seem to want to do nothing else but ban everyone from doing all the things that they themselves do not happen to like. I do not think that I was brought into politics for that. In fact, I am speaking today as a teetotaller: I do not even drink alcohol, but I very much defend the rights of those who do. People who want to enjoy drinking their alcohol responsibly should not have to pay extra on their supermarket shopping just because a few yobs cannot take their drink of an evening.

I know that we have other business to discuss today so I shall not detain the House any longer. I despair at the endless consensus that there seems to be in the House, which is forever seeking to restrict people's freedoms in this country, to try to stop them doing things that they do legitimately and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, without any problem. For hon. Members to lecture people constantly about what they may and may not do, and what they should and should not say, is depressing beyond belief. The report is more of the same-more of the nanny state.

I know for a fact that the moment the proposed measures are introduced, the zealots represented on the Select Committee will be back for more, and back for more again. They are never satisfied. Dr. Taylor said that he wanted the Government to go a little further and do a little more. Unfortunately, he and the people whom he represents always want the Government to go a little further and do a little more.

I fear that despite the hon. Gentleman's moderate approach to alcohol, the arguments made by others that 40,000 people a year die from drinking alcohol mean that people want to ban that, too. They do not have the courage of their convictions, however, because they do not think that people in their local working men's clubs will tolerate being told that they cannot smoke or drink any more. It is not what they believe that affects what they say; what counts is whether they think that it will be acceptable to people in their local working men's clubs.

The hon. Gentleman has indicated that whatever measures are taken on any of those issues, the zealots will always want to come back for more; they will never, ever be satisfied. I therefore urge the Government to ignore those siren voices and base their decisions on evidence and the real world-and evidence and the real world alone.

He says what I feel exactly. How good would it be if you always (or even frequently) felt that the MPs representing us and making laws on our behalf thought like we do?

Dream on.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Desert Island Discs 5

It took me a while to discover Beethoven after I got switched on to classical music. Coming from a background in rock, the first music that really appealed to me was chamber music, as I found it easy to translate the interplay of single instruments into something I was familiar with. In the days of cassette tapes, I used to visit the library every week and borrow a couple of LPs, tape them, and then listen for while - and then either discard or keep. I listened to a lot this way, and gained some life-long favourites.

I was tempted into borrowing a record of late Beethoven quartets (I think because they had a reputation of being 'difficult', and I liked the idea of being into 'difficult' music). I loved them beyond imagining, and played them over and over. From that, I gained the confidence to listen to more of Beethoven's music, and from that all his near-contemporaries like Schubert, Haydn and Mozart.

Of all the composers I have ever listened to, Beethoven is the master. He understands the human condition better than anyone, whether the exultation of the Ode to Joy, or the jangling torment of the Grosse Fuge. But for me, he is at his most expressive when he writes of simple melancholy. I think, to Beethoven, life was a melancholy affair, full of pain and disappointment, and he understood the dark places of the soul extremely well. When I want to visit my own dark places, there is no better companion.

This piece, the second movement of the sonata usually known as the 'Pathetique', is so well-known as to be almost a cliché. But I never tire of hearing it. It reminds me of many of the sad things I have been through and often moves me to tears if I am in a certain frame of mind. Its genius is in its utter simplicity. The Welsh have a wonderful word: hiraeth. Hiraeth has no exact translation into English, although words like 'longing', 'nostalgia' and 'homesickness' describe the general territory. It is said to be a Welsh person's longing for things that are Welsh, perhaps from a great distance away. I'm sure we all have our own equivalent; I do.

Here, then, is musical hiraeth:

Beethoven, Sonata in C minor op. 13, 'Pathetique', second movement, adagio cantabile, played by Wilhelm Kempff.

Too much bad news

I'm sick of all this corruption and intrigue, and I realise that all my recent posts have been about politics and social issues. Not good. When I started this blog, I fully intended it to be balanced between bike stuff and current affairs, abot 50/50. Looking back, I can see that it's about 90% current affairs and opinion-mongering at the moment. OK, the weather has been cold, and there has been a lot going on in the political world, but I need to rebalance.

The news lately, whether it's about the latest piece of incompetent legislative hyperactivity or just a greedy rich person using the taxpayer's money to make him or herself even richer, has been profoundly depressing. Motorcycling is never depressing.

Watch out for some more bike-centred blogging in the near future.

Peers' Expenses - More Disgrace

The Times is reporting on the collapse of criminal inquiries into the expenses claims of Baroness Uddin and Lord Paul:

THE HOUSE of Lords has used parliamentary privilege to hide the details of a ruling that caused the collapse of criminal inquiries into the expenses claims of two Labour peers.

Officials blocked the release of a secret memo outlining the reasons for the changes in expenses rules that made it impossible to prosecute Baroness Uddin and Lord Paul.

The memo, written by Michael Pownall, clerk of the parliaments, proposed a peer’s main home could be somewhere they visited as little as once a month. His proposal was passed in January by the leaders of the Lords on the house committee.

However, when The Sunday Times used freedom of information rules to discover the reasons for the new definition, Pownall signed a privacy certificate blocking disclosure of his memo. On Friday Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, said Pownall’s new definition was the reason for the collapse of the Uddin case.

So they are happy to take expenses from the taxpayer by claiming that a property they do not and never have lived in (in one case an empty housing association property, in the other a flat in a hotel that was already occupied by the manager) was their 'main residence', thereby making themselves eligible for an attendance allowance, worth £100,000 to Uddin and £38,000 to Paul. Bear in mind that these are already rich people.

Then they change the rules to ensure that they can't be prosecuted for this extortion.

Then, when we ask why, they claim Parliamentary privilege and refuse to tell us. Us, the people who pay for it all.

Reminder: Lord Paul is a billionaire who gave £400,000 to Labour, and £45,000 to Gordon Brown's leadership campaign. Totally unconnected to this, he was made a peer in 2006 and a Privy Councillor in 2009, despite the allegation that he was spectacularly unqualified for either role.

It's like a banana republic. Wrinkled Weasel takes it all apart better than I can, so I will leave it to him. I am speechless.

This weekend the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Sir Paul Judge, who runs a campaign for independent MPs, said they may fund private prosecutions.

I wish them every success. Surely someone, somewhere has the guts to release this memo in the public interest?

Monday, 15 March 2010

Public Service Cuts?

Recently, the public sector union UNISON published a video which highlighted all the essential jobs which might be put at risk if there were serious cuts in public spending. It was pretty good, and quite persuasive.

The Taxpayers' Alliance have been messing about with it, and now it's even better.

Jailed for a shandy

According to reports, the Government is now considering bringing the blood-alcohol limit for drivers down from 80mg to 50mg per 100ml of blood.

Well, if it saves just one life ...

It's utterly pointless. And it will bring the current law (which, incidentally, I approve of wholeheartedly) into disrepute. Tim Worstall takes it apart quite effectively here. I won't repeat what he says, except to reiterate that Britain has the highest blood-alcohol limit in Europe, and the lowest number of accidents per mile travelled, so we must be doing something right.

But the proposal gains a gold star for Completely Missing The Point.

There was a case recently (sorry, lost the link) where a fatal accident occurred on a road with a 60mph limit, where the car involved was said to be travelling at about 80mph. There was the predictable outcry and the call for "something to be done", and one of the recommendations was to reduce the speed limit of the road from 60mph to 30mph.

Does anyone seriously think that the driver would obey a lower limit if he was clearly willing to ignore a higher one? Did he say to himself, "I think I will keep to about 20 mph over the posted limit, and whoops! this is now a 30 area so I will slow down to 50"? Of course not. Speed limits only work if people obey them; if people don't obey them, the actual limit is irrelevant.

And so it is with the drink-drive laws. Ever notice how many people are caught at two and three times over the limit? Far more than would be expected from a normal distribution of blood-alcohol levels in the driving population. When people go over, they tend to go way over. It seems to me that the 80mg limit (which allows for a drink or perhaps two) is very good at keeping the majority of the driving population down to a reasonable level. For those who do drink and drive to excess, it doesn't matter whether the limit is 80, or 50, or zero - they are going to drink and drive no matter what. All that reducing the limit from 80mg to 50mg will do is to penalise responsible drivers. These drivers may well modify their behaviour to stay within the lower limit, but these weren't the people causing the problem in the first place. The change would make no difference to the accident rate, but would make criminals out of ordinary folk, and lead to further erosion of the idea that laws are obeyed by consent, not authoritarian compulsion.

Criminalising ordinary people, while leaving the real criminals unaffected and making no difference to the crime rate? Now where have I heard that before?

There is a good argument to be made that a realistic limit like 80mg is far more effective in reducing the number of accidents (which is surely the aim) than a more stringent lower limit. If people are going to drink and drive anyway (and they will - our whole society is structured around it, especially out of the towns and cities), then better a higher limit that people will respect and comply with, than a lower limit that everyone will ignore. Only if your purpose is to catch people and punish them, rather than reduce accidents, does the 50mg limit make sense.

Legislation, Legislation, Legislation

If you are a government, and something is happening that you want to stop, it seems to me you have three options: incentivisation, education, and legislation. Let's say you want people to separate recyclable stuff from general waste in their rubbish. You can:

1. Make it worth their while, by giving a rebate for recycled materials
2. Explain to them why recycling is good, and rely on their good nature to comply
3. Pass a law threatening penalties if they do not comply.

1. is almost certainly the best option in terms of compliance, and has the added bonus of making people feel good about what they do. If I managed to separate out fifty bags of recyclables over a year, and earned £100 off my next year's Council Tax bill, I would call that a good bit of work. I would work even harder next year to recycle more, and I would feel in tune with the Council who were organising the scheme, as I could see immediate personal benefits to me for doing so. It's a win-win. The only downside is that these rebates will cost the Council money, but it wouldn't take a Nobel mathematician to work out a way of making it cost-neutral by increasing the charges for non-separated waste.

2. is warm and woolly, and does not cause resentment, but has great variability in its effectiveness. Done well, with humour and pizzazz, it could be very effective indeed, but somehow you don't associate local authorities with humour or pizzazz in any form, and so the likely outcome is poor.

3. is probably quite effective overall, and there is a significant financial advantage in that those who do not comply will provide significant revenue in the form of fines. However, there are two big disadvantages: a lot of energy and ingenuity will go into circumventing the scheme (such as putting your rubbish in other people's bins after dark) which will need investigation and enforcement action, both of which cost money, and the general public are mightily pissed off by yet another threat of fines or worse if they don't do as their masters tell them, leading to a further deterioration in the relationship between rulers and ruled.

Any common-sense approach would surely combine 1 and 2, with 3 as a last resort if the others fail (and a better way cannot be found). But what has gone wrong in the last 13 years is that 3 is the only way anyone can think of getting anything done.

People harming themselves by smoking? Ban it.
People following an activity you don't approve of? Ban it.
People not recycling enough? Fine them.

And so we come to the greatest achievement of 13 years of Labour government. Since Tony Blair took office in the heady days of 1997, the government has created 4,300 new offences.

FOUR THOUSAND, THREE HUNDRED NEW CRIMES. That's 28 per month, or almost one a day.

Four thousand, three hundred ways of getting on the wrong side of the law and being fined or, in the worst case, imprisoned. And for what?

* Carrying grain on a ship without a copy of the International Grain Code on board
* Unauthorised fishing in the Lower Esk River
* Obstructing an authorised person from inspecting apple, pear, peach or nectarine orchards for the purposes of ascertaining whether grubbing up has been carried out
* Failure to attend a hearing by a bus lane contravention adjudicator
* As a merchant shipping officer, falsely claiming a door is closed and locked
* Selling non-native species such as a grey squirrel, ruddy duck or Japanese knotweed
* Obstructing workers carrying out repairs to the Docklands light railway
* Keeping a dog on a lead longer than a maximum length in a designated area
* Using an automatic rail-weighbridge which has a disqualification sticker on it
* Not having a licence for a church concert.

Just ask yourself: whan was the last time you did something you wouldn't normally do because the Government made it worth your while to do so, rather than because you couldn't afford the fines if you didn't obey?

I despair.

Sunday, 14 March 2010


Too late, didn't know, and missed it:

Thousands of bikers have been riding through Wootton Bassett to honour the people of the Wiltshire town - and the soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

I should pay more attention to Facebook. This massive ride-out started with a young girl rider and a local bike club planning to ride through the town. She put it on Facebook, and it exploded. An estimated 15,000 people took part, each paying £5. I make that around £75,000 to the charity Afghan Heroes. In fact, organisers are claiming over £100,000.

The town's mayor Steve Bucknell said the "vast majority" of the people in the town "fully support" what the bikers are doing. "Too many times the town has had to stand still in silence but today is all about noise and movement."

Local MP James Gray added that people in the town appreciated the gesture and were "very supportive of it indeed".

Denise Harris, the founder of Afghan Heroes, said troops on the front line had sent her e-mails backing the event.

She told the BBC: "It boosts morale for them. I mean they just are so grateful to the general public for their support and their kindness."

The Bike Run was the idea of 18-year-old biker Elizabeth Stevens.

If I had known about this yesterday, I would have made the trip and showed my support. It is good that people are not only showing their support for the troops, but also their appreciation for the people of Wootton Bassett, who have turned out to see the boys home on countless occasions, with great dignity. These people show the real face of Britain - proud of our troops, and grieving their loss, whatever their opinion of the war itself - in contrast to our penny-pinching, mendacious, manipulative, dishonest and shameful Government. I hope today's events made Gordon Brown feel just a tiny bit uncomfortable, but I doubt it.

I'm sorry I wasn't there, but a nod and a wave of the left hand to all those who made the run. If anyone reads this who was there, perhaps you could leave a comment?

Donation duly made.

Make Poverty History Pt 2


H/t Old Holborn.

Sunday morning titter

It really did happen. In Worthing.

A bag-snatcher on a bicycle pinched a bag of poo from an elderly dog-walker in Worthing.

The thief rode past the pensioner near the Post Office in High Street, Tarring, and grabbed a bag she had been using to clean up after her dog.

A spokeswoman for Sussex Police said: "A male on his pushbike came past her and snatched the bag, perhaps thinking that there was something of value inside.

"The lady was not harmed and clearly the thief stole nothing of value."

Well, I'm not sure about that. What if he managed to sell it in the bars and clubs of Worthing, with the sales line: "Hey, I've got some really good shit, man"?

The suspect was described as a black teenager.

I thought they weren't allowed to say that these days?

Some of the comments to the story are priceless, by the way.

Helmet Law

The Filthy Smoker, guesting on Devil's Kitchen, has a good rant about liberty and proposals for minimum pricing of alcohol. He brings into the argument a speech in Parliament by Ivan Lawrence MP in 1979, when the House was debating the introduction of compulsory seat-belt wearing. The law on the compulsory wearing of crash-helmets by motorcyclists was passed in 1973, and the seat belt law raised similar personal liberty concerns.

I would always wear a helmet on a bike, for reasons of comfort and efficiency, as well as safety. And I learned to drive wearing a seat belt (even though it was not compulsory then), and I don't feel comfortable in a car unless I am wearing one. But I don't believe they should be compulsory. I agreed with both measures at the time, on the basis of 'regrettable necessity', I think, but now I have changed my mind. The speech from Ivan Lawrence, which I quote here in full (source) sums up why, and it's worth reading. Emphasis is mine.

I am wholly in favour of seat belts, of encouraging people to wear them, and of insurance companies and courts applying sanctions to encourage their use, but I am against the Bill because it abuses the criminal law and the criminal process. Why should any citizen be forced by criminal sanction to wear something which could in some circumstances kill him? That has never been a legitimate principle of our criminal law. Why should anyone be forced by criminal sanction not to hurt himself? That was never, at least until the crash helmet legislation, a principle of our criminal law. Where will it end? Why make driving without a seat belt a crime because it could save a thousand lives, when we could stop cigarette smoking by the criminal law and save 20,000 lives a year? Why not stop by making it criminal the drinking of alcohol, which would save hundreds of thousands of lives?

When will we realise that laws not only cannot cure every evil but are frequently counter-productive? Here the harm done to our criminal process may well exceed any good that the law can do. We can see that in advance, so why do we persist with it? If there was a law which made it a criminal offence to smoke or to drink alcohol, neither of which, of course, do I advocate, just think of the amount of bereavement that would be saved, the number of hospital beds that could be put to better use, and the time and energy of our doctors and nurses which could be more usefully employed. Yet we do not consider doing that. What is it about the motorist that requires him to be singled out and subjected to this sort of legislation?

The Bill would also be an abuse of our criminal law because it would be an abuse of our criminal process. We can foretell that there will be widespread evasion of a law such as this. If there was 20 per cent. evasion among the 26 million people with cars, that would involve millions of British subjects evading the law. That could only drag the law further into disrepute. The Bill would irritate the police—and they are the defenders of the liberties of the subject. How many times would they be forced to stop motorists who would subsequently be found to be exempt from the seat belt law because they were too big, too small, too pregnant or too disabled, or because they fell within one of the other exemption categories? How irritating would this be to motorists who are stopped in these circumstances, and how much harm would this do to the relationship between the police and the public?

How much harm would it do to the legal system to have our courts even more overcrowded than they are now? Would not people feel that the legal system was once again failing and that the system of justice was yet again slowing down?

The harm to justice caused by this legislation will be far more substantial than we think. When will we realise that every little infringement of liberty, for whatever good cause, diminishes the whole concept of liberty? If life is the only criterion, why did we sacrifice so many millions of lives in two world wars? Why did we not in the Second World War lie down and say"Because millions of people may die, we should let our liberty be taken away before the onset of the Nazis "? The answer is that more important than lives is the concept of liberty.

Since I have been in the House I have seen the cogent arguments and the telling pleas of hon. Members on both sides of the House persuading and succeeding in persuading the House that it is only a very little piece more of liberty that we are withdrawing and for such great benefits and advantages. As a result we have far fewer of our freedoms now than was ever dreamed possible a few years ago. In the end we shall find that our liberties have all but disappeared. It might be possible to save more lives in Britain by this measure—and by countless other measures. But I do not see the virtue in saving more lives by legislation which will produce in the end a Britain where nobody wants to live.

In retrospect, that was a very far-sighted speech. At one time, the criminal law was used to prevent people from harming each other, and in that it is completely justified. Today, the criminal law is used to 'protect people from themselves' and even to prevent people offending other people's feelings. It's interesting to put your mind back to 1979 and see how differently we regarded the law in those far-off days. The remarks about tobacco-smoking (and now alcohol use) were prescient, too.
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