29 May 2013

Mr Cameron's Holiday

The Prime Minister has taken his family somewhere sunny for the week (UK schools’ half-term). Press comment in the wake of the Woolwich Islamist atrocity has mostly been supportive of his having a holiday, although the Daily Mirror carped:
Surrounded by sun, sea and sand in Ibiza, David Cameron looks like he hasn’t a care in the world – as the country he is meant to be running lies in the grip of terrorist turmoil following the horrific murder. While the PM was sipping coffee and chatting to his smiling wife Samantha on the Spanish island, police in London arrested four more suspects in ¬connection with the 25-year-old drummer’s death last week.
That there are other people whose job it is to knock on doors and that there are bound to be appropriate communications hardly needs saying. This comment in a post here last year about the film, The Iron Lady, may be more relevant:
My pet theory is that Prime Ministers, because of the stress of the job (PMQs, the oversized and hyperventilated UK media, sub-standard accommodation in Downing Street, too much travel induced by the UK’s view of its world role) age in office at about 18 months a calendar year …
So I was interested to see the following on a new website from the Mile End Group (the forum for government and politics of Queen Mary, University of London) featuring interviews with former Cabinet Secretaries. Lord Peter Hennessy (LH) interviewed Lord Robert Armstrong (LA) who was sent for by Margaret Thatcher in her first year as PM:
… I remember coming upstairs to the study around the corner, being shown into the Prime Minister at ten o’clock and wondering whether this was going to be the interview in which I was invited to take on the biggest job in the public service and I went into the door and she looked up and she said ‘Robert, you’re looking very tired’, so I thought this wasn’t a very good introduction, to what I hoped to happen. … I went downstairs then afterwards and I told Nigel Wicks, who was the Principal Private Secretary, that I’d been offered the job and accepted it, and so I said ‘It was rather, it was rather curious, the first thing she said to me was “Robert, you’re looking very tired”’, and he said ‘Oh, don’t worry about that’, he said, ‘She’s saying that to everybody this morning.’  
LH: Because of course she wouldn’t have looked tired, she’d look as bright as a button wouldn’t she?  
LA: Of course she, she turned out like a, like a bandbox, not a hair out of place.
Armstrong’s successor, Lord Robin Butler, has been interviewed by Dr Anthony Seldon:
… Margaret Thatcher, by the time I became Cabinet Secretary was very well established, was predominant in the Cabinet, had a huge national and international reputation, and I think was more tired than when I served her as Principal Private Secretary, understandably. And the form which her tiredness took was not that she was any less acute, but she wasn’t as keen to argue long into the night as she had been previously. And so she was a bit shorter with… a bit more abrupt in taking decisions and a bit more dependent on other people in her private office. And you know, one could say that in the end that was her undoing, over both Europe and the council tax - the community charge.
Butler became Cabinet Secretary in 1988, the year when when Margaret Thatcher was 63 (or nearly 68 using the '18 months per PM year' theory). Cameron, by contrast, is 47 in October (or nearing 49) but still shouldn’t be begrudged a holiday.

27 May 2013

Olivier Assayas’ ‘Something In The Air’

When it came out in France last year, this film was titled Après Mai, May being that of 1968 when France descended into near-anarchy. It was a cathartic moment, subsequently referred to in France as les événements. Various directors have made films set during the period, (eg Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, (Innocents, 2003), but the subject inevitably has limited appeal outside France. Nonetheless there are probably quite a few people who were around at the time and agree with the late Christopher Hitchens:
As someone born in 1949, I prefer to consider myself not a mere sixties person but a soixante-huitard.
Assayas was born in 1955 and was probably kept indoors during the real thing. But since the tensions of 1968 continued for some years afterwards, his film, being to some extent autobiographical, concerns a group of lycée (ie high school/sixth form) students in the summer of 1971, three Mays later. It seems to be a convention in French cinema that the only subject seen to be taught in a lycée is French literature (cf Ozon’s In the House, earlier this year). To advance the cause of the proletariat these 17-year old children of the bourgeoisie engage in Maoist (or maybe Trotskyite, the sort of issue they would debate at length) acts of political violence, coming up against reality in the form of the CRS. For relief they dabble with the drugs of the period. You can take your pick as to whether the UK/US title, Something in the Air, is actually referring to tear gas or pot smoke, the revolution not so much being here as over. When it all gets too much they take themselves off to Italy for R&R and a bit of underground film-making.   Once back in Paris the Assayas-like character, Gilles, decides to abandon his talent for Eminesque drawing to follow in his father’s footsteps in the film business, just like Assayas did. So as the film ends he is starting work at Pinewood (chosen to boost the UK market perhaps, and looking like it did in My Week with Marilyn) on the set of a rubbishy Nazis and dinosaurs flick – well what would you expect from les Anglo-saxons? And where does Gilles finds solace but in a season of French experimental shorts at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill.

To give credit where it’s due, the 1970s seem to be authentically set and the riot scenes are convincing enough. In that pre-digital age agitprop was a print-based activity, so the girls got to operate the machines when they weren’t keeping house for the collective or partying in long white dresses, as though auditioning for Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.  As may be apparent by now, I was a little disappointed in this film, particularly because I liked Assayas' Summer Hours (L'heure d'été, 2008). I suspect Après Mai might have benefited from editing down from its 122 minutes to 100 or so. Assayas is married to the talented young director Mia Hansen-Løve, whose film The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants, 2009), I mentioned at the end of a post here two years ago.

23 May 2013

Opinion polls – a Thatcher effect?

While I don’t spend much time here on political opinion polling, I do follow the excellent UK Polling Report which, among other things, draws together all the intention to vote data. While no one poll can be taken too seriously, and also recognising the fact that different pollsters make different adjustments to their raw data, in aggregate it might be possible to make out some signal in the noise. (I will return to Nate Silver’s book in due course).

Looking at the chart on the right, the percentage levels of support for the two main parties and for the two lesser ones didn’t seem to change much up to the end of March from early February and actually from well back into 2012. Then on 8 April Margaret Thatcher died, and in the period up to her funeral on 17 April (black bar), her life and political philosophy received extensive media coverage, not all uncritical. Not surprisingly this period seems to indicate a slight increase in the Conservatives’ support and a decline in Labour’s.

Since the funeral, there seems to have been a decline in support for both of the main parties. This has been to the benefit of UKIP, but has left the Lib Dems’ position unchanged. UKIP did well in the local elections on 2 May 2013 (green dot) and has reached new highs in support since. Perhaps the intense Thatcher coverage in April stimulated nostalgia in some older voters, particularly Tory ones, for the “old time religion” of her period in office. UKIP’s Nigel Farage offers something closer to it than either David Cameron or Ed Miliband.  If so, will enthusiasm for UKIP wear off in time, or will it last?

22 May 2013


Two members of the commentariat fixated on the same idea last week. The London Evening Standard on 14 May ran a piece by Simon Jenkins, London should quit the EU and ditch the UK too, and, the next day in The Times (£), David Aaronovitch explained why it was necessary to Unshackle London from the backward shires.

According to Jenkins:
There is an easy solution to Britain in Europe. Let the rest of Britain stay but let London leave.  
… Its future is global. Its two great industries, finance and leisure, are peculiar to itself. They depend on self-government, on regulatory discipline and on the value of the pound. Financial services are worldwide in application. They are clearly threatened by what Lord Lawson called “jealous European banking officials”, by regulations designed to underpin German bankers and clip London’s wings.  
The new city state would have a physical boundary, roughly that of the M25. Digital mapping would police the circumference, though open borders are no great problem. They exist like those between Gulf states, between Ireland and Ulster, Monaco and France. London already has its own government under its elected “monarch”, Boris Johnson.  
The rest of Britain may have reasons for wanting to “stay in Europe”. It is time for London to “get out”, of both the EU and the UK.
Goodness knows what Jenkins thinks digital mapping is. Aaronovitch saw the problem as being one of culture, typified in PMQs the day before:
… of the six Conservative MPs who stood to ask questions, no less than five were talking about when to have a referendum on Europe. They might as well have been in Caracas.  
… Where they sit for in Essex, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire or Wiltshire, the EU may indeed be more important than it is to me in London. On questions such as immigration, perhaps my metropolitan attitude seems as peculiar to them as their parochialism does to me.  
… Londoners differ from some of their compatriots in attitudes towards the outside world. The pollsters Ipsos/Mori sent me figures for the regional variations on immigration and the EU. Aggregated for January-December 2012, polling showed an average of 21 per cent of Britons naming race relations/ immigration/immigrants as “one of the most important issues facing the country”. The highest figures were the South East with 28 per cent, then the East Midlands, East of England and Yorkshire/Humberside all on 25 per cent. In London it was 13 per cent. This was less dramatically true for Europe/EU. In the South East 10 per cent had it as a vital issue, compared with 5 per cent in London and 6 per cent nationally.  
It is clear that London and the South East are in some ways two different countries and that is why Boris has to be Janus-faced. To become Tory leader he must somehow finesse the fact that he knows a lot of rural/ suburban Tory-Ukippery just doesn’t make sense in the big, competitive, changing world. Like Boris, I do not want to inhabit this parish of 1950s retro enthusiasts.  
… So we may need to secede from the hinterland. And the same is true of our other great cities and university towns which, together, could make an outward-looking, open-minded polity.
So not so much an island state as an archipelago one. Well pundits have to write about something – in 2011 Aaronovitch thought the UK should become part of the USA. And it might have been inhibiting if the position Mrs Thatcher found herself in in 1982 had been remembered:
On the morning of Wednesday 22 September I and my party took off from Tokyo, where I had been visiting, for Peking. Fifteen years remained of the lease to Britain of the New Territories which constitute over 90 per cent of the land of the Colony of Hong Kong. The island of Hong Kong itself is British sovereign territory, but, like the rest of the Colony, dependent on the mainland for water and other supplies. The People's Republic of China refused to recognize the Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842, by which the island of Hong Kong had been acquired by Britain. Consequently, although my negotiating stance was founded on Britain's sovereign claim to at least part of the territory of Hong Kong, I knew that I could not ultimately rely on this as a means of ensuring the future prosperity and security of the Colony. (The Downing Street Years, page 259)

London, with its “boundary, roughly that of the M25” (see above and the surrounding regions), would be far worse-placed than British Hong Kong. Being on the coast (see below, right), the former colony could trade with the rest of the world without having to enter PRC airspace or territorial waters and at least produced its own electricity and gas.

Somehow I don’t see “monarch Boris” converting Tate Modern back into a power station. A secessionist London would have to import electricity and gas from the English grids, would be dependent for its water on the English Thames into which it would also have to discharge its sewage. No doubt the supply of all these things, and a few others (like the westward extension of Heathrow or its replacement) could be arranged amicably – at a price and in return for financial services from London. Until BNP Paribas arrives in Bristol and Crédit Agricole in Birmingham. Of course, London has virtually no armed forces apart from the ceremonial, so all defence capabilities including the nuclear deterrent would be in the hands of the Welsh-English-Scottish rump, as would GCHQ. London would be run out of the Mayor’s office because Jenkins thinks that:
The bulk of British government would have to relocate out of the present capital. Because no one would agree on where, departments would be fragmented around the provinces, to the benefit of all. Parliament could relocate, perhaps to Salford or to an Orwellian “Elizabethville” in south Yorkshire. Essex and Sussex would concentrate development around Stansted and Gatwick, relieving pressure on Heathrow.
All quite barking because London, unlike Singapore (above, left), is land-locked and geography dictates that it cannot become an island city-state. But perhaps there is an even deeper flaw in Jenkins’ concept that London’s
… two great industries, finance and leisure, are peculiar to itself. … Financial services are worldwide in application.
He should have read an article in the Financial Times (£) on 7 May, Cornwall beach buoys London’s financial status. It explained that a beach near Bude in north Cornwall in SW England:
… is one of the main landing points for thousands of miles of submarine cables that carry trading data from New York. Britain’s westerly location means data can reach traders in London several milliseconds quicker than competitors in Frankfurt and Paris – a key advantage in the era of high-frequency trading.  
… “The UK is an underwater cable hub for all the financial institutions in Europe,” says Jack Steven, asset manager at the Crown Estate. “The alternative is to go through somewhere like Portugal, which is closer to the US but which historically hasn’t developed capacity in the same way.”  
According to the Crown Estate, about 95 per cent of the UK’s communication, such as email, internet and telephone calls, is transmitted through submarine cables. They are cheaper and more reliable than satellites, which are expensive to get into orbit and vulnerable to collisions with space debris. The shorter the cables, the quicker data can be transferred. It takes about 65 milliseconds to trade between London and New York. From east London it takes a further five milliseconds to Frankfurt.

Anyone interested can learn more about the global undersea cable network (above) on the Guardian Data Blog.

Boris Johnson, to be fair, has not expressed any opinions, as far as I know, in favour of London’s independence, even though Aaronovitch seems to think he is a closet isolationist. A shame when London could so easily be renamed Bojoburg in his honour as its first head of state. I don’t think either Aaronovitch or Jenkins think for one minute that their proposals will ever happen but, as part of London’s media elite, they are expressing their exasperation with the rest of us.  But most people don't live on six-figure salaries, probably getting away with a day’s work a week writing a thousand words or so about whatever they chose, and having expenses-paid lunches in top restaurants with interesting people talking off the record.

17 May 2013

Driving in France 2013

Two previous posts which seem to have attracted interest were about the price of petrol and diesel fuel in France and about speed limits there. So here is an update on both subjects.

Firstly, at the time of posting the hypermarket price of diesel fuel (gazole) is about €1.29 per litre, lower than in 2011: at the current exchange rate of around £1 = €1.17, this is equivalent to about £1.11 when the best price in southern England is around £1.38 – so about 20% cheaper in France. Hypermarket petrol (essence) on the other hand is €1.45 to €1.50, so about £1.26 and cheaper than at home. (E10 indicates 10% ethanol – check whether your car will take this cheaper mix). The French government maintains an online database of all retail fuel prices, by location and with a journey planner. This shows that prices away from hypermarkets can be substantially higher.

As far as speed limits are concerned, enforcement is getting stricter with more mobile traps, so read the post from 2011. The AA advice about various items of documentation and equipment needed in France, which should be read, has been updated and confirms that the requirement to carry a breathalyser has been postponed, but that the yellow reflective jacket (gilet jaune) is still obligatoire.

Bon voyage!

14 May 2013

Welcome Back, Cmdr Hadfield

Chris Hadfield of the RCAF and, until a few days ago, commander of the International Space Station has been safely returned to the planet via Soyuz. As well as a skit on David Bowie’s Space Oddity, instantly famous on YouTube, he has been encouraging school science – see this video for a fascinating demonstration of the significance of surface tension in the absence of gravity. But best of all, he has been sending back amazing images of earth via Twitter (@Cmdr_Hadfield) so, bearing in mind the geographical interests of this blog, here are two of SW England showing the distinct Cornwall and Devon end of the peninsula and the city of Plymouth and its Sound in more detail. The Dartmoor uplands are top right.

And another of the area around Bordeaux in SW France clearly showing the new Jacques-Chaban-Delmas bridge (built in three years and opened on 18 March 2013):

Cmdr Hadfield, a francophone, commented “Bordeaux, France, si célèbre pour ses grands vins”, so here is part of a relevant map (for more details, see here):


UPDATE 23 MAY 2013

Cmdr Hadfield is continuing to tweet, although he seems to be busy with post-flight medical check-ups etc. He recently sent another image from his collection showing the coast of SW England (Dorset to the east of the region):

and he commented “The Isle of Portland looks like an interesting place - the type I'd like to visit now that I'm back on Earth”, which it is (and Chesil Beach to the west), and I hope he gets there sometime.

9 May 2013

Lord Lawson of Blaby (and Gers)

Thirty years ago Margaret Thatcher appointed Nigel Lawson as Chancellor of the Exchequer, not such a tricky job when more and more revenue from North Sea oil was rolling in. After six years they fell out because of his enthusiasm for the UK joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a precursor to the euro. Now Lord Lawson of Blaby, he is probably best-known among the general public as the father of the TV cook, Nigella Lawson. In recent years Lord Lawson has gained a reputation as a climate change sceptic.

On 7 May The Times published an article by Lawson, I’ll be voting to quit the EU, which has led to a debate in the UK media sharpened by the rise in UKIP’s popularity over recent months. He anticipates an in-out referendum in 2017:
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has already embarked on a series of preliminary talks with our EU partners, hoping in due course to be able to renegotiate improved terms for the UK within the Union … He is following faithfully in the footsteps of Harold Wilson almost 40 years ago. The changes that Wilson was able to negotiate were so trivial that I doubt if anyone today can remember what they were. … I have no doubt that any changes that Mr Cameron — or, for that matter, Ed Miliband — is able to secure will be equally inconsequential.
It’s the euro, stupid:
The heart of the matter is that the very nature of the European Union, and of this country’s relationship with it, has fundamentally changed after the coming into being of the European monetary union and the creation of the eurozone, of which — quite rightly — we are not a part. That is why, while I voted “in” in 1975, I shall be voting “out” in 2017. This has nothing to do with being “anti-European”, a particularly bizarre suggestion in my own case, given that my home nowadays is, by choice, in France — indeed, in la France profonde — from where I commute weekly to work in England.  
… the coming into being of monetary union — and there can be no doubt of the determination of the leaders of Europe to persist with it at all costs — has fundamentally changed the nature of the European Union and of non- eurozone Britain’s relationship with it.  
… So the case for exit is clear. But would there be a heavy economic cost, making this unwise? There would indeed be some economic cost, partly transitional and partly as a result of the loss of the modest advantages of being within the single market. But in my judgment the economic gains would substantially outweigh the costs. The only gain that can be clearly quantified is that we would no longer pay our annual membership fee of some £8 billion.
And there is the City:
Moreover, there is one area of regulation of particular importance to the UK, where the EU regulatory cost threatens to be even greater than it is already, and that is the area of banking and financial services more generally. Despite the banking disasters of 2007-08, London remains a far more important financial centre than the rest of Europe put together. It is one of the few major industries, with substantial growth prospects, where this country is indisputably a world-class player.  
However, after the recent banking meltdown, the EU is currently engaged in a frenzy of regulatory activism, of which the foolish and damaging financial transactions tax, imposed against strong UK opposition, is only one example. In part this is motivated by a jealous desire to cut London down to size, in part by well-intentioned ignorance.  
… Those who claim that to leave the EU would damage the City are the very same as those who in the past confidently predicted, with a classic failure of understanding, that the City would be gravely damaged if the UK failed to adopt the Euro as its currency.
You do not need to be within the single market to be able to export to the European Union, as we see from the wide range of goods on our shelves every day. The statistics are eloquent. Over the past decade, UK exports to the EU have risen in cash terms by some 40 per cent. Over the same period, exports to the EU from those outside it have risen by 75 per cent.  
… Today too much of British business and industry feels similarly secure in the warm embrace of the European single market and is failing to recognise that today’s great export opportunities lie in the developing world, particularly in Asia. Just as entry into the Common Market half a century ago provided a much needed change of focus, so might leaving the EU, an institution that has achieved its historic purpose and is now past its sell-by date, provide a much-needed change of focus today.
Two days later (9 May) The Times ran an opinion piece, We don’t share Europe’s vision. So I want out, by another former Cabinet Minister, Micheal Portillo, Defence Secretary 20 years ago but now best-known as a presenter of television documentaries, many about train journeys. He had a different view of the outcome of the 2015 election:
Nigel Lawson says that he would vote in a referendum for Britain to leave the European Union. So would I. But I am much less confident than he is that we will get the opportunity to express our will.  
… I don’t agree with Lord Lawson that Labour will feel obliged to pledge a referendum in its [2015] manifesto. ... Mr Miliband would be foolish to promise a referendum, which might turn out badly, costing him his authority mid-term in his first period of office and saddling him with having to withdraw from the EU, a policy that he would neither propose nor support.
Again, it’s the euro:
The euro is a disaster. It has created hardship, unemployment and division on a dangerous scale.  
… The eurozone will be intellectually absorbed by its currency for 20 years. Either the euro will gradually collapse or member states will enter economic and political union. Either way, Britain should be nowhere near, and as the eurozone expends its energy on integration, it will slip further behind the competition from outside Europe.
He concludes:
It’s disingenuous to suggest that this fundamental mismatch [between the UK and Europe] can be resolved by a little renegotiation. It can be settled only when Britain departs the Union or is absorbed. I have no doubt where my vote would go.
Portillo’s article added little to Lawson’s and was even shorter on analysis of the consequences of the UK leaving the EU. As yet I have not seen any of the following being addressed in any depth:

How can the UK “be nowhere near” (a geographic impossibility) if the euro, despite “the determination of the leaders of Europe to persist with it at all costs” is abandoned?

Lawson, according to an article in the London Evening Standard, has a house in the Gers département in SW France. It isn’t clear from his article whether he is a resident of France for tax purposes or, less profoundly, just owns a house there and pays state taxes in the UK where he says he works. If the UK leaves the EU, how would the position of Britons resident in the EU change? What would be the effect on non-resident house-owners with regard to the equivalents of council tax (a question of interest to perhaps 800,000 people)? Would EHIC cards still ensure access to health treatment for visitors to EU countries?

What would be the position of EU nationals currently working (or alternatively, and according to UKIP quite possibly, drawing benefits) in the UK?

One explanation for this flurry of anti-Europeanism from former household names is obvious – the rise of UKIP. That party’s particular appeal seems to be to the over-65s who otherwise might be voting Conservative as they did in the days when Lawson, Portillo and others were prominent Tory politicians.

4 May 2013

Julian Barnes’ ‘Levels of Life’

Levels of Life is the second book by Julian Barnes to appear in six months, Through the Window having been the subject of a post here as recently as January. His new book, only 118 pages long, is in three parts.

The first, The Sin of Height, is a series of vignettes about the history of ballooning in the years before the rise of heavier-than–air machines. By coincidence, a book devoted to the same subject, Richard Holmes’ Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, appeared within a few weeks of Levels of Life. As well as introducing the reader to Nadar’s The Giant (above), Fred Burnaby, an English military man and amateur balloonist, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, Barnes establishes the perils as well as the pleasures of unnatural ascent. Anyone who has read Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (or particularly if they saw the film) will need little reminder of the consequences of a fall from a great height. Any Francophile will enjoy the description of Burnaby’s supper when a rare northerly leads to an unplanned descent in Normandy:
omelette aux oignons, sautéed pigeon with chestnuts, vegetables, Neufchâtel cheese, cider, a bottle of Bordeaux and coffee. Afterwards, the village doctor arrived, and the butcher with a bottle of champagne. Burnaby lit a fireside cigar and reflected that ‘a balloon descent in Normandy was certainly preferable to one in Essex.’
The second part, On the Level, describes the 17-stone Burnaby’s pursuit of the five-foot Bernhardt in Paris in the 1870s.
You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes something new is made, and then the world is changed.
But, despite their both being larger than life characters and his whetting her appetite for aeronautics, the Divine Sarah has no wish to settle down with Capitaine Fred.
Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes for both.
In the final and longest part, The Loss of Depth, Barnes describes the unleveling of his life after his wife of 30 years, Pat Kavanagh, succumbed in a matter of weeks in 2008 to an aggressive brain cancer. Its title derives from our modern lack of belief in an underworld where it might be possible to be reunited with the departed. Although Barnes writes unsparingly, it seems intrusive to quote from such a personal account. And the metaphors which run through Levels of Life don’t need labouring here either.

Barnes revisits certain themes throughout the book, one of them being Essex – not exotic, Burnaby tells Madame Sarah. Another is the symbolist painter Odilon Redon (1840-1916), who was born near Bordeaux in SW France, (Eye Balloon 1878 and Portrait of Mme Redon c 1911, below).

In the natural order of things, children expect to outlive their parents and perhaps evolution has left widows better equipped to cope with their state, just as it has given females greater life expectancy than males. But life expectancy is a statistic, not a guarantee to individuals. After I finished Levels of Life, Robert Peston’s account of his recently becoming a widower, also due to cancer, appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Any man or woman in a long-term relationship with a man or a woman should read both men’s stories. One can only hope that Peston and Barnes will, in time, both have the luck of a northerly wind.