30 May 2012

The far side of Grayson Perry RA

RA is the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine and the Summer 2012 issue has just arrived:

I like Grayson Perry (as I explained in a post about his British Museum exhibition) and I thought his cover for RA was quite amusing. It was described inside:
Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry RA is famous for his wonderful pots which combine dazzling visual exuberance and dramatic physical presence with imagery that reveals a sharp social observation. For our summer cover he has drawn a special Summer Exhibition pot, bulging inside with the show's goodies, while offering on the outside a gently teasing vision of its supposedly Waitrose-shopping, Radio 4-listening, National Trust-supporting audience.
Although I’m not a great fan of the RA Summer Exhibition or BBC1’s Antiques Roadshow, I’m afraid that my household has to put ticks of varying thicknesses, rather than crosses, in all the other ‘boxes’ (including the NT) except for The Proms. This issue of RA is launching a new opinion column with a contribution from Perry, No accounting for taste, on the class basis of aesthetics. As he points out:
In Britain, the most pervasive influence on the things we buy and do is social class.
He goes on to observe that the bedrock notion of middle-class taste is restraint and that:
I think this buttoned-up refinement can be seen in some of my favourite paintings. Someone once described modern British art as 'tightrope walking six inches off the ground'. I interpret this as an observation that British artists such as Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious, Ben Nicholson, even Francis Bacon with his glazed gold frames, did a polite, drawing-room-friendly version of Modernism, unlike those garish shouty foreigners with their café philosophy and angry politics. The shrine to this tasteful notion of bohemia must surely be Charleston in Sussex, the exquisitely faded farmhouse plavground of the Bloomsbury group …
Oh dear, more ticks: Ravilious and Nicholson have appeared in posts here, as would have Nash and Bacon if the opportunity had arisen – and I have been a supporter of the Charleston Trust for over 20 years …

So, just as people used to speculate about the once unseen far side of the moon, what would there have been on the far side of Perry’s RA pot, if it had been made, not just drawn? Well here are some suggestions for additional middle-class, Summer Exhibition-goers preferences in 2012:

The Dordogne
Volvo for sure at one time, but perhaps BMW or Audi now
The Killing or, better, Forbrydelsen
The Duchess of Cambridge
Ikea (mentioned in the article but not on the pot)
A trio of ’national treasures’: Alan Bennett, David Attenborough and Tony Benn
Most but probably not all of GAMA - Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple
Emma Bridgewater
Paul Smith (added 1 June)

I will add more if I can think of them, but coontributions are, as always, welcome.

On 5 June Perry is starting a three-part Channel 4 series, In the Best Possible Taste, based on talking to people from some of the tribes that make up modern British society that he came across in Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells, and the Cotswolds. The last of these is mostly located in South West England, of course. If it seems appropriate I will comment here on the series and also on his related exhibition, The Vanity of Small Differences, at the Victoria Miro Gallery, if I get to it.

Addendum 8 June

I should have known better than to try to be clever where Perry is concerned.  His Victoria Miro show includes the original, RA Pot, for the RA cover, and also a companion piece, Tate Pot, (left) for the Tate incorporating another 14 favoured brands. Assuming that there isn’t much to differentiate the taste of Summer Exhibition goers and Tate supporters, it’s a fair conclusion that the Tate pot is in effect the far side of the RA one. Well, I got three right: Apple, Amazon and Ikea. And what is a MINI if not a BMW? But I’m kicking myself about Pret A Manger.

I will post soon about The Vanity of Small Differences and the TV series, but in the meantime I recommend anyone interested in Perry’s work to make the trip to Victoria Miro 14 in Wharf Road, N1 to see Perry's six large tapestries and some new pots.

If, like me, you don’t aspire to the use of taxis, a 43 bus works fine: get out at Windsor Terrace, aim for the back of McDonald’s (not to be found on either pot ...) and look out for the Victoria Miro banner.

29 May 2012

Broadband: A tale of three counties

- or, to be precise, two counties in South West England and a roughly comparable département in the Aquitaine région in South West France.

On a recent visit to France I was given a copy of May’s Dordogne Advertiser, a monthly English-language newspaper which might be regarded as being of minority interest. Indeed, the main story in February’s issue had been 1.2kg truffle sets Dordogne record. But the splash in May was more interesting: €700m plan to give every home super broadband:
The massive project, on a scale not seen for many years, would mean taking fibre optic cables to every house and, although each link will cost an average €3300, councillors say residents will not be asked to contribute. Internet speeds could reach 100Mb[ps]… The Syndicat Départmental d’Energies (SDE 24) project is aimed at encouraging firms to relocate and for incomers to resettle and be able to work more easily. Syndicat chairman Philippe Ducène said:
“We decided it is of the utmost importance to provide everyone with this service. Le très haut debit, as we call it in French has become a basic need for our citizens, just as an electricity supply was in the first half of the last century. In 1937, the powers that be undertook to take electricity to every household in the Dordogne in 10 years. They succeeded within the limited resources of the day and we hope to do the same with fibre optics.” …
The decision to extend the cabling to second homes - which make up 30% of the housing stock in some communes – is a bid to reassure possible new residents that they can work at home. However, the money has yet to be found and the €700m plan dwarfs the €9m that has been spent on upgrading and installing broadband links to get rid of the department’s “shadow zones” Councillors hope Europe, the state, the region and the departmental council will come up with the money. …  
It will take 24000km of cable for the plan but the bulk of the cost will be in digging trenches and erecting poles for the cable. However, SDE 24 general manager Gil Taillefer said they already had an existing network: “We own the electrical grid so the poles are in place … He emphasised that residents will not have to contribute: 
“We will take the cable to the house – but the operator will be responsible for taking it into the home. It won’t be like electricity where the owner pays the connection costs. The aim is for it to be available to everyone irrespective of means, and it is hoped they will get this hugely improved service for the same sorts of prices currently charged for internet access.”
(at the time of writing, €700m is equivalent to about £M565)

So what is the state of similar plans here? Looking for a relevant comparison I came up with the Devon and Somerset Superfast Broadband Plan. As you can see from the table below, the Dordogne has 20% of Devon and Somerset’s population in 83% of the latter’s area and is much less densely populated. The largest town in the Dordogne, Périgueux, has a population just under 30,000 whereas there are nine urban areas in the two counties which are larger. The biggest, Plymouth, has a population of over 250,000, nearly nine times Périgueux’s. The challenge being the extension of broadband to rural areas where the population density is lowest, it seemed to me that another way to make the comparison would be to exclude in both cases all the towns of Périgueux’s population or larger. Hence the figures in the table for the ‘Interiors’. On this basis the Dordogne has one-third of Devon and Somerset’s population in 83% of the latter’s area and about one-third of their population density.

The Devon and Somerset Superfast Broadband Plan (DSSBP) anticipates the same economic benefits (apparent from their speed chart reproduced below) coming from better broadband as the Dordogne but their goals seem to be less ambitious and fall far short of fibre to every household. (To be more technical, the latter is usually called Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) in the UK but DSSBP (and most other schemes outside major urban areas) are going no further than implementing Fibre-to-the-Cabinet (FTTC) and many rural users are at substantial distances from their cabinets).

If the Dordogne really has eliminated its “shadow zones” and these were equivalent to DSSBP’s ‘not spots’ and ‘slow spots’, they have already reached an objective Devon and Somerset have set for 2015. DSSBP’s “superfast broadband” seems to be defined as a minimum of 20Mbps and should be available to all by 2020. The Dordogne’s très haut debit being delivered through fibre should offer 100Mbps to some at least by 2022.

Unlike Dordogne’s SDE 24, DSSBP has secured some funding: just over £M50 from the UK government and the two county councils, but this is focussed on ‘the “final third” – rural areas that are unlikely to benefit from commercial investment in broadband’. Within this are the 10-15% of “hard to reach” areas (yet to be identified in Devon and Somerset) – they should get 2Mbps by 2015 and maybe the 20Mbps by 2020.

So what to conclude? The Dordogne’s scheme is a classic French grand projet (well, a small one) which, if implemented, would provide a mostly rural population with a FTTH broadband connectivity that would be first rate by current standards and should be future-proof, for a while anyway. Whether the funds for it will be forthcoming in the current economic circumstances in Europe must be uncertain, but works on infrastructure in France never seem to halt. For example at present in Aquitaine a new river bridge is under construction in Bordeaux, extensive preparations are in hand for the extension of the TGV rail service and numerous other projects are underway. There appear to be benefits to the consumers in the Dordogne from having the fibre installation in the hands of the monopoly supplier of electricity. In Devon and Somerset most people will get whatever the supplier sees as being a commercially viable investment which will possibly never be more than FTTC. DSSBP should be able to help the remaining hard cases. It’s not clear whether anyone outside the biggest conurbations in SW England will get the capability needed for applications like video-conferencing which would bring obvious benefits in a rural area.


The table below shows how the ‘Interior’ data was generated by removing the populations and areas of conurbations larger than Périgueux. The Dordogne data came from the département website, the UK data from Wikipedia, although the town populations there come from the 2001 census. Areas and population densities for some of the UK towns are not available. In these cases a population density of 2500 per km2 has been assumed and the area derived from the population.

24 May 2012

OK, techies have their limitations

The post before this was triggered by David Aaronovitch's article in The Times arguing that a Cabinet of scientists might be a good thing. However, there are contrary points of view on the contribution that the scientifically or technically trained can make outside their immediate field of knowledge. One appeared in the Washington Post at almost the same time as Aaronovitch's. This piece, by Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, was headed Silicon Valley needs humanities students and is worth reading in full, but these extracts give the gist of his argument:
Quit your technology job. Get a PhD in the humanities. That’s the way to get ahead in the technology sector. …. Wait, you say, that’s insane. At a time when record numbers of people, among them those with high-level degrees, are receiving public assistance, what kind of fool would get a degree in a subject with no clear job prospects beyond higher education or teaching?  
The theory goes as follows: STEM degree holders will get higher pay upon graduation and get a leg up in the career sprint. The trouble is that theory is wrong. … Yes, gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in was not a significant factor. Over the past two years, I have interviewed the founders of more than 300 Silicon Valley start-ups. The most common traits I have observed are a passion to change the world and the confidence to defy the odds and succeed. …  
I’d take that a step further. I believe humanity majors make the best project managers, the best product managers, and, ultimately, the most visionary technology leaders. The reason is simple. Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people. In contrast, humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology. A history major who has studied the Enlightment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire may be more likely to understand the human elements of technology and how ease of use and design can be the difference between an interesting historical footnote and a world-changing technology. A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people or to understand what users want. …  
Don’t get me wrong. The world needs engineers. And no, I am not actually advising people to quit their jobs and get PhDs in philosophy. For some people, it might make sense, but for others it wouldn’t. The point I’m trying to get across is more nuanced: We need musicians, artists, and psychologists, as much as we need biomedical engineers and computer programmers. For tech entrepreneurs and managers, there is no “right” major or field of study.…
Although Wadhwa is focussing on techies in the context of Silicon Valley, are his views general enough to extend to all STEM graduates and to the transferability of their skills to politics as Aaronovitch was proposing? I note that Wadwha's claims for the abilities of “A history major who has studied the Enlightment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire” are hedged with “may” and “can”.  But, on the other hand, I have to accept that “Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people”. In my last post I settled on the preparedness of engineers to deal in “hard data” when making decisions as their best quality. But does that equip you for a career in politics where, among other things, you have to argue the party line? Consider this part of a speech from a Labour MP (with higher education in politics, history and law) during the debate on Business and the Economy following the recent Queen’s Speech:
Let us put the Government’s proposals in context. There has been zero economic growth over the last year, and the economy is now smaller than it was in 2010. Living standards are being squeezed to breaking point. Families are being forced to choose between petrol and new school shoes, or between a pack of ham for their children’s sandwiches and making do, for another week, with cheese spread—and those are the fortunate ones. Mums—and, I appreciate, some dads, but let us be honest: it is mostly mums—who were just managing to juggle work and child care, with the help of much needed child tax credits, are now having to give up work, as they are unable to secure an additional eight hours a week, at a time when most employers simply are not recruiting. Consumer spending is inevitably held back, with families deciding to forgo their summer holiday or make their child do with last year’s raincoat—no one will notice the three-quarter-length sleeves. All this is compounding the downward economic spiral.
At this point some readers may be recalling Oscar Wilde’s comment on the death of Little Nell: it would take a heart of stone not to laugh. But that would be to miss the point, which is that the only hard numbers here were referring to sleeve lengths. The chart below, and I’m afraid it’s the sort of thing that techies lap up, immediately provides a rather different perspective:

The editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, put this data on twitpic on 23 May with the comment “Cameron has little to boast about on deficit, which he's now reducing MORE SLOWLY than Labour's pre-election plans”. Mindful of this, and the grim reality that if they had continued in office Labour would have been making much the same cuts, even the most articulate STEM type might find it a challenge to deliver the rollicking stuff required of a party politician in opposition.

20 May 2012

A Cabinet of Geeks?

Given the disgruntled tone of some of my past posts about attitudes towards “techies”, the way the terms engineer and technician are abused in the UK and the realities of STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) training – the “math-science death march”, I suppose I should have been pleased with an article by David Aaronovitch in The Times (£) last week, Enough placebo politics. Vote for the geeks. Inspired by a new book, The Geek Manifesto, written by a former Times colleague, Mark Henderson, Aaronovitch set about arguing that “There are too many lawyers in Parliament. For less rhetoric and more rigour we should take the scientific approach”. About the former he said:
I love lawyers. I love their intellect. I love their forensic skills. I love their persuasive capacities. I love the way they take the complicated and make it sound almost comprehensible. I adore their lack of self-doubt. … But lawyers are not, in the way that scientists are, truth seekers. When lawyers test the evidence, they do so not to get as close to the truth as they can, but to make an argument or to decide whether a law has been broken or upheld.
Scientists are not super-people who are beyond the tug of ego and the capacity for error. But the scientific method — the process of evaluation and re-evaluation, of test and experiment — is a vital discipline. It is no disgrace in science (as it is politics and occasionally even in journalism) to be proved wrong. The new results are studied, validated and incorporated and the circus moves on. Whether the issue is drugs policy or the introduction of phonics into schools, we don’t apply the methods that we could to help us to make better decisions. Rather, we rely on selective evidence, persuasion, rhetoric and crossing our fingers and hoping like hell.
Noting that:
Of 650 MPs there are 158 from business, 90 former political advisers, 86 lawyers and 38 journalists. Just one MP worked as a research scientist and two have science PhDs.
he ended by anticipating:
a Cabinet table presided over by Stella Creasy (Labour, PhD in social psychology), or Therese Coffey (Conservative, PhD in chemistry) or even Julian Huppert (Liberal Democrat, PhD in Biological Chemistry). And, if the evidence points in that direction, they might even let a lawyer or two in to join them.
So what can there be to dislike about this? Well firstly, I’m not too struck on his explanation of the scientific method (“evaluation and re-evaluation, of test and experiment … new results are studied, validated and incorporated and the circus moves on”). I’m certainly not an authority on the philosophy of science but Karl Popper’s concept of conjectures and refutations seems to get a bit closer to what goes on. Particularly if it is combined with Thomas Kuhn’s insight of that a conjecture, so well-established as to have become a paradigm, will take a revolution to shift – the circus doesn’t always readily move on.

Secondly, Aaronovitch is right to say that lawyers are not truth seekers –they are deliberately selective in their use of evidence in order to support one side of a case or proposition. That the other side might be right and yours wrong is not a professional consideration for a lawyer. When Galileo was put on trial in 1633 and found guilty of the heresy of heliocentrism one would like to think that he had legal representation, but the legal process was ultimately irrelevant in that his scientific conjecture endured and the papacy’s didn’t. In 1926 two lawyers, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, fought enthusiastically over evolution in the Scopes trial. No doubt lawyers could, and perhaps will, be found to argue the case for teaching creationism in schools, whatever the prevailing scientific opinion may be.

However, it has to be accepted there are certain areas of government policy which are not particularly amenable to resolution by a scientific approach. For example, according to the Financial Times (£), the Ministry of Defence is reconsidering the value of the “Moscow Criterion”:
Under the criterion, UK planners assume if a major world power, such as Russia, were to attack the UK, Britain should be able to retaliate by destroying the independent capability of that aggressor, by destroying targets deep inside that country. … Abandoning the Moscow Criterion, however, would open up a major debate on what capability the UK needs. As Malcolm Chalmers of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank puts it: “The UK could adopt a new doctrine which assumes that it would be sufficiently threatening to maintain a capability to destroy a significant number of important targets on enemy territory ... So you could have a smaller nuclear weapons capability.”
In this particular argument, it’s not clear how far the scientific role can extend beyond assessing the capability that meets a particular criterion. Nor is it obvious that science would be Aaronovitch’s “vital discipline” in any debate over the choice of criterion, what constitutes a sufficient threat, or even whether the UK should remain a nuclear power.

Thirdly, Aaronovitch uses the words “science”, “scientific” and “scientist” 18 times in his article but makes no reference to engineering or technology – in fact he seems unaware of STEM as an entity. This is a shame, because his geek Cabinet would be much improved if the MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah, who trained as an electrical engineer at Imperial College, were a member. Nor does medicine get a look in.  Perhaps he should reflect on Martin Vander Weyer’s observation in the Any Other Business column in the Spectator after the March budget:
In my own banking days, I once worked for a doctor, as it happens. He was the former chief surgeon of Malaysia, and he had been drafted in as chairman of the local merchant bank to which I was seconded. A lifetime in the operating theatre had equipped him with powers of concentration that outlasted us all in long credit committee meetings, allowing no sloppy thinking or verbiage: each borrower was a patient under his scalpel. Like engineers, doctors deal in hard data, and that makes them better decision-makers than financiers who deal in evanescent notions of money and value.
Perhaps it’s that quality, rather than having been trained in the scientific method per se, that explains the amazing development of China under its lawyer-free, but engineer-heavy, Politburo. But where they will take their country and the rest of us, who knows?

15 May 2012

President Hollande and us

I like Toby Young’s writing (he’s @toadmeister on Twitter), even though I sometimes disagree with him. Of course, his father’s books made an impression on my generation, The Rise of the Meritocracy being required reading for any university-bound sixth-former. Admittedly some of us might have interpreted it as encouragement rather than as satire. Also my having commented as ‘Western Independent’ on a couple of Toby Young’s Daily Telegraph blog posts last year still misleads some of his readers into hitting on here. For which I am grateful, even if it goes to show that he used to get many more readers than I ever will.

I say “used to” because @toadmeister’s Telegraph blog ceased when he started to write a column for the Sun on Sunday. On 14 May, it included the following, under the heading France feeding frenzy:
NEW French president Francois Hollande has a novel theory to explain the problems afflicting the eurozone. Forget about restrictive employment laws, unaffordable welfare systems and soaring levels of public debt. And, of course, it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the folie de grandeur that is the single currency. The real reason, apparently, is because Britain treats the Continent like a “self-service restaurant”. Come again, Inspector Clouseau? What he’s trying to say is that we just help ourselves to all the goodies without wanting to pay for them. Which is quite cheeky. Our annual contribution to the EU budget has just gone up by more than £1billion to £16.6billion. How much do we get in return? Much less than that. We’ve been members of the EU for 40 years and in 39 of them we’ve been net contributors to the EU budget. So no, Monsieur le President. It’s more like an all-you-can-eat buffet in which Britain is the only thing on the menu.
The original was laid out almost entirely as one sentence paragraphs. In fact, Young’s style in the Sun is clearly focussed on what he thinks its readership has a taste for. Fortunately the distinction between pastiche and parody is unlikely to worry many of them. More analytically, the Gunning Fog Index (an Indication of the number of years of formal education that a person requires in order to easily understand the text on the first reading) is 8.61 for the piece above. By contrast his Status Anxiety article in the Spectator on 5 May had an index of 12.05 and the first section of Chapter 3 of his How To Set Up a Free School is 14.12.

But what did Francois Hollande actually say? His remarks (commented on elsewhere in the British press) come from answers to questions put by French Slate:
Vous n’avez pas non plus été reçu par David Cameron, le Premier ministre, et la presse britannique et la City n’ont pas forcément été tendres à votre égard. Sur quelles bases comptez-vous renforcer la relation franco-britannique?  
Reconnaissons que les Britanniques ont été particulièrement timides sur les enjeux de la régulation financière, et attentifs aux seuls intérêts de la City. D’où leurs réticences à la mise en place de la taxe sur les transactions financières et à l’harmonisation fiscale en Europe. Et qui s’ajoutent à une relative indifférence à l’égard du sort de la zone euro, car la Grande-Bretagne est davantage protégée de la spéculation puisque la Banque centrale peut intervenir directement pour le financement de la dette. L’Europe n’est pas un tiroir caisse et encore moins un self service.  
Je rencontrerai rapidement David Cameron pour évoquer les avantages d’une coopération plus poussée de nos deux pays au plan industriel et pour poursuivre le rapprochement engagé en matière de défense.
which can possibly be translated as:
You have not been received by David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and the British press and the City inevitably have not shown you much consideration. On what basis do you intend to strengthen the Franco-British relationship?  
[We] recognize that the British have been particularly half-hearted in the financial regulation stakes, and focussed on the particular interests of the City. Hence their reluctance towards the introduction of the tax on financial transactions and towards fiscal harmonization in Europe. And additionally a relative indifference to the fate of the euro zone, because Britain is more protected from speculation since the central bank [ie Bank of England] can intervene directly in debt financing. Europe is not a cash register, and still less a self-service restaurant.  
I will meet David Cameron soon to discuss the benefits of a more thrusting cooperation between our two countries in industrial planning and to pursue the coming together on defence matters already agreed.
(Of course, he's already met Ed Miliband).  But if the above has the sense right, it’s not the relationship between the UK and the EU which is like a self-service restaurant, but that between the UK government and the Bank of England, ie our cash register. Hollande might even be envious of it. Slate went on to ask (in English):
Mister Hollande, do you speak English?  
Yes I speak English, more fluently than the former President. But a French president has to speak French!
which was probably an énarque’s dig at Sarkozy who seemingly failed to graduate from the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po, one of the grandes écoles) in 1981 because of a «note éliminatoire en anglais»!

13 May 2012

Black holes filled with balanced books

Having got the turnround on the type of F-35 aircraft to fly from the new carriers out of the way a few days earlier, the MoD must have thought it highly appropriate to facilitate Isabel Oakeshott’s story in 13 May’s Sunday Times (£), Hammond heralds end to defence cuts:
PHILIP HAMMOND, the defence secretary, has signalled an end to defence cuts and declared he has finally balanced his department’s books. The development means there should be no further job losses in the armed forces. He will announce this week that he has eliminated a £38 billion hole in the defence budget, making it possible to place equipment orders again with confidence and claim that for the first time in modern history his department will have an underspend as well as a substantial contingency fund. “In the next few days we will be in a position to make the grand announcement that I’ve balanced the books,” Hammond said.
Any resemblance to an article by James Blitz in the Financial Times (£) on 27 September 2011, Fox claims ‘black hole’ of defence costs eliminated:
A £38bn debt weighing on the Ministry of Defence has been almost eliminated with tough financial management, Liam Fox will claim next week, as he seeks to highlight a turnround in the fortunes of Whitehall’s most “traumatised” department. One year after David Cameron’s coalition initiated its Strategic Defence and Security Review that slashed MoD spending and personnel, Britain’s armed forces are still reeling. However, the defence secretary will tell the Tory conference in Manchester next week that MoD finances are now stable, thanks to removing the debt he inherited from Labour. At £38bn, this was bigger than the department’s annual budget.
is presumably coincidental!

12 May 2012

IF do do that voodoo

Do do that voodoo that you do so well.
For you do something to me that nobody else could do!
You do something to me, something that simply mystifies me.
Cole Porter

Last year I wrote one of the most hit-on posts on this blog, a critique of David Willetts’ book, The Pinch: How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back. The Pinch has an exalted status, for example in the Spectator on 5 May, Polly Toynbee described it as an “excellent analysis of inequality between generations … [it] should be compulsory reading for the cabinet.”

So it’s no surprise that The Pinch seems to be one of the seminal texts of the Intergenerational Foundation (IF), established to promote fairness between generations. The IF is a registered charity, with no party-political allegiances. From its website one can ascertain that it is based at 19 Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill (in SE London), over the Illusioneer magic shop – “Front entrance via magic shop door, just ring the white bell”, and that it has yet to submit formal accounts to the Charity Commissioners.

Perhaps it’s the influence of the people downstairs, but the IF seems to like to do a bit of conjuring with its statistics. After all, that’s what captures an audience like the Daily Mail’s, which on 10 May ran a story headed Nearly 80,000 public sector pensioners currently paid more than average private sector WORKER. Followed by:
Around 80,000 retired public sector workers get a gold-plated pension which is bigger than the annual salary paid to the average British worker, a shocking report warned yesterday.
The Daily Mail was drawing on a recent IF report and quoted “Angus Hanton, co-founder of The Intergenerational Foundation, [who] said the report demonstrates the true scale of the ‘pension apartheid’ in Britain.” Altogether a kinder treatment than the one he received from the Mail on Sunday on 22 October 2011 under the says-it-all heading, The man who says pensioners should leave their 'empty nest' homes... and the £1.5m five-bedroom des res where his parents live alone, and which went on:
Last week Angus Hanton and his Labour-backed think-tank launched a report saying that ‘empty nesters’ should be ‘encouraged’ through a new land tax to downsize. This, it was argued, would help make room for younger generations. Not surprisingly, the proposals caused anger and concern among older people – most of whom until last week probably hadn’t heard of Mr Hanton or his Left-leaning group, the Intergenerational Foundation, which is championed by Shadow Minister for London Tessa Jowell.  
After hearing him outlining his radical ideas on the radio, they might have spared a thought for Mr Hanton’s own elderly parents. What kind of shoebox dwelling did he have them holed up in? In fact, The Mail on Sunday can reveal that Alastair and Margaret Hanton live alone in a £1.5 million five-bedroom home in one of London’s most desirable suburbs. So has their son – himself a father of four who, incidentally, lives with his family in an £850,000 house nearby – tried to harangue them into vacating it?
But going back to the more recent Mail story, the article’s title and first sentence are contradictory. The ‘nearly 80,000’ number of public sector pensioners comes from the IF report’s Figure 6 (below) – 78,186 to be exact – which it isn’t, given the omission of local government and police retirees from the data.  (The IF seem to have ignored the pensions of former MPs, ministers, judges and colonial service employees as well).

More importantly, the comparison can be made with the pay of either the average private sector worker or the average British worker but not both at the same level. Because, of course, the latter includes British workers in both the private and public sectors. According to the IF report, £25,900 is the “average annual salary” from the 2010 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, published by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). The latter makes it clear that in April 2010 “Median gross annual earnings for full-time employees (including those whose pay was affected by absence) were £25,900”. The median (like the mean and the mode) is a form of “average” - the one whose value is set half-way, so 50% of full-time employees were earning less than £25,900 and 50% were earning more.

So how many full-time employees, private and public, were there in 2010? According to the ONS Labour Market Statistics for June 2010 “The number of people in full-time employment was 21.10 million in the three months to April 2010”. So half of them, that is 10.55 million, must have been earning more than the median, or, as IF and the Mail like to call it, the average.

Now here’s a “shocking” thing the Mail could have got its teeth into. According to IF over 97% of the 2.25 million* public service pensioners in Britain get less than the average British worker. And fewer than 80,000 get pensions as big as the pay of the 10.5 million people who earn more than the average. Nearly half of these were in the NHS and were, presumably, mostly retired medical staff. Consultants and surgeons get modest pensions shock?

That there is a problem in the long-term in financing pensions in general, including those in the public sector, is beyond dispute. The problems which IF identify are familiar from the Hutton Report and some of the measures recommended by IF, like the abolition of final salary schemes, are already in hand. Quite why the IF report devotes so much space to the changes to the BBC's pension scheme, when no relevant statistics are quoted from it, is unclear. One of IF’s proposals might have caused some alarm to certain Mail readers, if they’d been told about it:
[The government would] Impose a progressive tax on the highest public sector pensions … without having to re-draw existing contracts [by levying] a progressive tax on public sector pensions that are above a certain threshold (for example, £20,000 per year). Two consecutive governments have set a precedent for specific taxation of certain types of income with their tax on bankers' bonuses, which was designed partly to avoid having to re--‐draw existing contracts. To ensure it was progressive, the tax rate would have to rise with the level of pension (so people on higher pensions paid more).
£20000 per year is, of course, about 75% of the “average British worker’s salary” and an awful lot less than the remuneration of a typical bonus-receiving banker.

I’m afraid this is where the magic coming up through the floorboards in Half Moon Lane must have started to turn into voodoo. Do IF not realise that anyone lucky enough to have a pension much over £40,000 would be a 40% taxpayer anyway? IF must be very naïve to think that there would be any political mileage in bringing in penal taxation of the sort they are advocating. They run a real risk of losing what credibility they have. After all, another recent IF report proposed ‘all-young-person shortlists’ for parliamentary candidates (as if so many didn’t lack experience of the real world already) and additional votes for parents. Requiring a different electoral system and the abolition of one person, one vote, these 'Solutions' really were baying at the (full) moon.

One has to concede admiration, albeit grudgingly, for the entrepreneurial zeal of those who are creating jobs for themselves and others on the intergenerational bandwagon.  "Fairness” is ultimately no more achievable than perpetual motion and underlying all the messaging about it, from IF and others, one can detect a large dose of the politics of envy and of “we want what you’ve got after a lifetime’s work, and we want it now”. Perhaps a closer study of Figure 2 of the IF report will provide some consolation to the young?  Somehow I can't imagine IF's adherents wanting them to lobby for increased inheritance taxes .

* 2,248,371 total ‘Pensions in Payment’ across the ‘Individual Public Sector Pension Schemes’, pages 14-16 of the IF report.

8 May 2012

Charting the eurozone’s problems

Last year, believing, like we techies do, that a picture is worth a thousand words and attempting to work out what might happen if the eurozone splintered, I posted a couple of charts of the various combinations of GDP which might result. Now Derek Thompson, who edits The Atlantic’s business coverage, has drawn its readers attention to what he describes as The Funniest Graph I've Ever Seen About Why the Euro Is Totally Doomed:

In Thompson's words:
Here is what this chart shows. Compared across more than 100 factors measured by the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, from corruption to deficits, JP Morgan analyst Michael Cembalest calculates that the major countries on the euro are more different from each other than basically every random grab bag of nations there is, including: the make-believe reconstituted Ottoman Empire; all the English speaking Eastern and Southern African countries; and all countries on Earth at the 5th parallel north. And here is your tweetable fact: A monetary union might make more sense for every nation starting with the letter "M" than it does for the eurozone.
Thompson has now come up with another of Michael Cembalest’s charts. This one illustrates nicely the eurozone’s weakness of lacking any mechanism for fiscal transfers (ie money raised by the government) to the poorer from the richer areas. In the UK these take place from London and the South East to practically everywhere else; the South West, in particular Cornwall, and the North East being significant beneficiaries. Cembalest’s chart explains how in the US this happens between the rich California-Connecticut-Illinois-New Jersey-New York quintuple and poorer states like Tennessee:

Thompson goes on to explain that:
If similar, seamless transfers existed in the EU, the rich north would have to send to Portugal and Greece at least an additional 30 cents for every dollar they paid in taxes, year after year after year. When you hear commentators say, "the eurozone must begin to transition toward a fiscal union," what they are saying, in human-speak, is that the Europe needs to be more like the United States, with balanced budget laws for its individual members and seamless fiscal transfers from the rich countries to the poor, to protect the indigent, old, and sick, no matter where they reside. The Germans call this sort of thing "a permanent bailout." We just call it "Missouri."

7 May 2012

John Piper and the Church in Dorchester Abbey

The English artist John Piper (1903-1992) was very much a contemporary of Graham Sutherland (1903-1980), who has been the subject of previous posts here. During the 2nd World War both men became war artists.  In the early 1960s designs by both men were juxtaposed in the new Coventry Cathedral, in the form of Piper’s (and Patrick Reyntiens’) stained-glass Baptistery Window and Sutherland’s tapestry. Piper had been interested in churches from his schooldays, but in his thirties, and under the influence of Ben Nicholson, he had become a promoter and producer of abstract art.

However, in the late 1930s he became friendly with John Betjeman who revived his interest in architecture, particularly that of religious buildings. An exhibition, John Piper and the Church, drawing on his work from that period onwards has been mounted in Dorchester Abbey (below), Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire by the Friends of Dorchester Abbey. Ostensibly the exhibition is to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee but it also marks the 20th anniversary of Piper’s death. More than 70 works are on display, on paper and canvas, and in the form of church vestments and stained glass, all providing an excellent opportunity to admire Piper’s draughtsmanship and his imaginative use of colour.

The Friends’ ambitious undertaking is an undoubted success and worth travelling to Dorchester to see. John Piper and the Church continues until 10 June.

6 May 2012

Julie Delpy’s ‘2 Days in New York’

Julie Delpy’s career as a cinema actress began in 1973 at the age of 14. But major recognition first came in her thirties when she was given the main role in White, the second of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy. Soon after she was one of the two principals in the much-liked Before Sunrise (1995) directed by Richard Linklater and set in Vienna. Nearly a decade later, its less acclaimed sequel, set this time in Paris, brought the same two characters, older and perhaps wiser, together in Before Sunset. Delpy had by this time moved on to screenwriting and directing (she was a co-writer on Sunset) and went on to write, direct and act in 2 Days in Paris which appeared in 2007. Delpy holds both French and US nationality, so a comedy about a US-based couple, she being French and he (Adam Goldberg) American, encountering Paris, France and her ever-so-French family (Dupy’s actor father Albert plays her screen father) would seem to suit.

Now Delpy has written (screenplay and music), directed and acted in another sequel, 2 Days in New York. Her character has moved on to a new relationship (Chris Rock) back in New York and it’s the visit of her family with their funny French ways again that drives the plot, such as it is. If you think that the French are obsessed with sex, sausage, cheese and red wine, that 70-year old soixante-huitards commit acts of criminal damage in the street, that Frenchwomen expose their nipples in the gym and that claiming to have brain cancer is comic, this is a film for you. You probably won’t mind the thrown away plotlines, a New York apartment of Tardis-like dimensions, Rock's bizarre monologues with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Barack Obama and the unresolved cliff-hanger.

2 Days in New York is paradoxical in that the characters speak in French and English in roughly equal amounts, but to which market is it meant to appeal? The French audience doesn’t mind sous-titres but won’t like the way their compatriots are depicted. The mainstream anglophone audience in the US won’t accept subtitles, but the humour is too unsophisticated for the art house crowd – Woody Allen it ain’t.


A peace offering to any aggrieved Delpy fans who have read this far - you will enjoy this article about her in the Guardian.

4 May 2012

My Week with Joan

Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn, has recently been released on DVD in the UK. In 1956 Monroe was filming The Prince and the Showgirl in England under Laurence Olivier’s direction.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I spent a week, not with Marilyn, who died in 1962, but with Joan. Sadly not Baez, let alone Bakewell, but as one of the cast of Saint Joan, the play by George Bernard Shaw.

It seems appropriate to post about Saint Joan this year, the 500th anniversary of the birth of Jeanne d’Arc in eastern France. At the age of 18 she led an insurrection against the English occupation in the north:
… Did you ever see English soldiers fighting? 
JOAN. They are only men. God made them just like us; but He gave them their own country and their own language; and it is not His will that they should come into our country and try to speak our language.
A sentiment expressed frequently since Shaw penned it in 1924, four years after Jeanne d’Arc’s canonisation. When her rebellion failed, we, with the collusion of our Burgundian allies, put her on religious trial for heresy and then to the stake at Rouen in 1431. Shaw, when writing his play, drew on the transcripts of the trial and had Sybil Thorndike in mind as Joan. She was the first of many well-known actresses to tackle a dramatic role of strong character and intelligence, a saint who was being judged by the ecclesiastical bureaucrats of the day for wider political purposes. Others who have taken Joan on since include Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Imogen Stubbs.

For any school to put on this play, given the maturity of its theme (adult no longer being the right adjective to use), might sound ambitious. However a quick Google search turns up productions of Saint Joan in Lewes County Grammar School in 1966 and at the Liverpool Institute High School for Boys in 1960. The latter featured Paul McCartney and Peter Sissons (later a TV newscaster) in its cast. For an all-boys school, even ones with a strong tradition of drama and suitable staging, there was a particular and obvious problem. Most of the characters in Saint Joan are male and not particularly noteworthy, like the one I played. But the most important part isn’t. Some schools in these circumstances might have turned to a female teacher, if they had one, a local girls school or one of the staff’s partners to play Joan, but our schoolmaster producer decided to make use of the considerable acting talents of one of the younger boys. This also seems to have been the solution adopted at the Liverpool Institute.

As it turned out, things weren’t as difficult as one might expect at first sight. For a start Jeanne d’Arc is known to have worn men’s clothing, “rational dressing” according to Shaw. So our boy-Joan could wear simple mediaeval peasant costume of an androgynous nature and tuck the unavoidable anomalies out of the way with the help of Fred Hurtley Ltd. In our generation puberty came later than now so the risk of the biological clock causing the lead’s voice to break before the performance wasn’t great, although potentially catastrophic.

It was in fact our week with Joan, starting with full cast rehearsals and then (I think four) nightly performances ending on the Saturday. How successful a production it really was, I can’t now tell, though I fancy that the performance of the boy playing Joan was remarkably convincing. Although in some ways the 1960s are still with us, say in the form of the Rolling Stones (not to mention McCartney again), in reality five decades have passed – halfway back to the sinking of the SS Titanic - and even at the time putting on a play like this was a bit of a throwback. The school theatricals described in Griff Rhys Jones’ autobiography, Semi-Detached, were not dissimilar, but, of course, his perspective is that of someone who went on to make a career as a performer.

I can’t imagine many teenagers today being that keen to perform in Saint Joan. Although the institution I attended has long since become mixed and Joan’s casting probably wouldn’t present quite the same difficulties, it seems unlikely that any school or college would choose to put on this particular play or many of Shaw’s others, come to that, even if they had the resources. In January an article in The Times (£), Why does Eton pump out acting talent?, drew attention to the emphasis there on drama of all kinds and the acting talent (Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis and Dominic West, for example) which Eton College has recently produced. Their theatrical facilities are, of course, outstanding. I don’t think our more modest efforts did us any harm and probably helped to develop confidence in speaking in public – how to say it, if not what to say. The member of our cast who later became a prominent politician is certainly a competent speechmaker, but not in the class of that Macmillanesque Prime-Minister-actor-manager, Anthony Lynton Blair.

In his brief biography, Blair, Mick Temple makes an interesting point about his subject’s schooldays at Fettes College, “the Eton of the North”, in the late 1960s:
… there was one school tradition he enthusiastically embraced. The actor in Tony Blair was apparent from early on. Acting had a rich tradition at Fettes and for his house production of Julius Caesar, Tony was given the role of Mark Antony over the claims of more senior boys. He was to play key roles in future school productions, including Captain Stanhope in R C Sheriff’s Journey’s End and Drinkwater in George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversion. His dramatic acting and his performances in revues were widely praised and more than one of his compatriots or tutors is convinced he could have had a successful career as an actor. Not to be flippant, there are some who would argue that he did; an essential part of his early political appeal was to be able to convince whoever he was talking to that they shared deep political beliefs.