White flight and the whingeing poms

Parsloes Park, Dagenham, photographed by Nico Hogg and used with his permission under creative commons. His Flickr photostream as Nicobobinus is well worth a look http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicohogg/

Parsloes Park, Dagenham, photographed by Nico Hogg and used with his permission under creative commons. His Flickr photostream as Nicobobinus is well worth a look http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicohogg/

The flight of white Britons from London has been generating considerable heat for moderators of online chat to hose down on the nation’s media websites.

There’s been a lot of statistical analysis of this population movement, as ever in matters of immigration and race adding up to the right or wrong answer according to the views of the writer or reader. There’s a lot of anger out in chatroomland, much of it directed at Muslims accused of failing to integrate into mainstream British society.

It’s also brought a new comparison to replace the notional number of football pitches, countries the size of Wales or planets the size of Earth. We now have to imagine the equivalent population of a city the size of Glasgow marching out of the capital between 2001 and 2011.

In my own London borough, Redbridge, there has been a 29.8% decrease in the white British population, according to census data. That figure masks sizeable variations within the borough, measured by council ward. In my local area, South Woodford, the figure is considerably smaller, according to the ONS map reproduced in a report by the BBC’s Mark Easton. I’d have said the biggest demographic change locally is in the number of east European voices heard in the street and at the tube station, and the biggest visible change in the diversity of the cafes,  restaurants and shops.

Easton has considered in some detail the population history of Barking and Dagenham, and the rise and fall of of car manufacturing by Ford in the borough, to conclude that the story is much more positive than bald headlines about the white British having become a 45% minority of the city’s population might suggest.

Easton picks up on the growth of the white British population along the Essex coast in places like Leigh on Sea. The suggestion is that the cockney sparrows who were rehoused in the postwar homes for heroes of the Becontree estate in Barking and Dagenham, and who invested in the Thatcherite “rght to buy” dream,  have now cashed in their equity and their Ford redundancy cheques to move further out.

 “The movement of the white British is often characterised as white flight – the indigenous population forced out of their neighbourhoods by foreign migrants. That may be part of the story, but I think the evidence suggests it is also about working class aspiration and economic success.”

He misses one salient fact. The white British population has seen its biggest percentage increase of 13.7% in South Derbyshire, where Toyota has its Burnaston plant. The first car rolled off the line there in 1992 and even in today’s economic climate there are vacancies for production workers. Quite a draw for ex-Ford workers, I suspect.

By comparison with inner London boroughs, where the “white other” category of rich white Europeans and Russians is growing, the story in Barking And Dagenham is different.

“The people moving into the borough tend to be of black African heritage. I was introduced to Victor and Victoria, whose parents came to Britain from Ghana in the 50s. He works for London Transport and she is a nurse in the NHS – typical of the professional black families who’ve arrived from inner London to take advantage of available housing as the borough’s white residents leave.

“With a time-lapse camera, it would appear that London is pulsing as generations and ethnic groups move up and move out.”

Easton’s piece triggered 2,062 comments, many of those most highly rated vehemently hostile to his argument and to immigration and minority ethnic communities, while pleas for tolerance and stories of the geographic mobility of previous immigrants to London, including the Irish, are lowest rated.

Then there are the writers who should know better. Step forward Graeme Archer at the Daily Telegraph and a piece entitled Let’s talk about the exodus of 600,000 whites from London. As if we were not.

 Dystopian vision

He takes the Glasgow comparison and paints a dystopian vision.

Argyle Street, in the city centre – empty. Byres Road, next to the university – derelict. The Crow Road – abandoned (except, perhaps – if this were an exciting new BBC drama – for an old Iain Banks novel, rain-damaged pages flapping in a gutter, symbol of the great evacuation). All those tenements, riverside apartments, suburban villas, all lying vacant.”

His vision of a collapsing society is not one I recognise from South Woodford. Not for nothing does his Telegraph biog state that “Graeme Archer is a professional statistician, who won the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging in 2011”. So we have the bow to impartiality before he draws the opposite conclusion to Easton.

Fundamentally, none of this is strictly about “race”, but rather the cultural constructs we layer on to genetics. There are good and bad neighbours of every hue, of course. But the scale of white flight demands more than issuing congratulations to the second and third generation children of immigrants, who’ve done well in life and moved from Zone 2 to Zone 5 of the Central or Northern Underground lines. It’s also absurd to assume that the grandchildren of cockneys are moving still further out, just because their houses have increased in value.”

 And then there are the BBC’s alleged sins of omission in reporting on Bethnal Green.

“Hate crimes disfigure its streets: in an ironic reversal of one reason for the East End’s fame – that it was where indigenous, working-class Londoners faced down home-grown fascists – the streets of Bethnal Green and Whitechapel are now scenes of increasingly violent attacks on gay people. The BBC doesn’t talk about this, oddly, or wonder why the Eastenders’ movement is always away from their original homes: there are plenty of expensive properties in E2.”

 Except that a cursory Google search finds the BBC has been covering the attacks on gays since at least 2011.

Archer’s piece is sufficient to generate another 1297 comments and counting for the all-important click count, most written by people angry at the fact of immigration and attaching the blame to Labour politicians for the alleged adverse impact.

There are in the comment threads on both stories a smattering of expats and people planning to leave the country, oblivious to the irony that they will rely on the welcome other countries extend to immigrants.

In the Guardian, Rupa Huq points out a delicious irony.

“The current displacement of the white British is essentially a new version of an old story, one that has made London the city it is. Twentieth-century Jewish suburbanisation away from the East End provides earlier precedent, as do similar journeys made by French Hugenots and the Irish. One of the reasons Thatcher was selected by Conservatives in Finchley in the 50s was her pledge to end the ban on Jews joining Finchley golf club.”

 Soul in the suburbs

London’s soul, she says in an echo of an old punk song, is in the suburbs.

“Polski skleps (Polish convenience stores) and boldly designed Hindu temples (such as at Neasden) and mosques appearing alongside pre-existing churches not only contradict both notions of suburbs as private worlds and the decline of religion in the UK but have also been welcome additions to the suburban landscape. Ethnic retail has saved many high streets from adding to the sense that we are living in boarded-up Britain.”

 And at the New Statesman, Sunder Katwala picks up a key problem with making the 45% figure the headline – that it suggests the majority of London’s residents are migrants and sees the “salient contrast as between ‘white Britons’ and ‘ethnic minorities, immigrants and foreigners’.”

The truth, he says, is that “our increasingly diverse capital is 60% white and 63% of Londoners are British-born. Overall, threequarters of Londoners are British citizens, and under a quarter are foreign nationals.”

Not only that, but most immigration is now temporary. Instead of the “Ellis island model” of settling for good, 72% will now leave within five years, according Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.

The fact is, then, that many of the Telegraph-reading whingeing Poms who’ve taken off for foreign climes will be back to “dear old Blighty”. Just when you thought you’d seen the back of them.

Margate: a faded seaside town in February – gallery

  • Lido shuffle

    Margate Lido awaits redevelopment. I hope they save the sign. Tracey Emin could have done little better

  • Going down

    The lift to Walpole Bay beach was closed but there were concrete steps straight out of East Germany nearby

  • Sign language

    Margate is littered with signs prohibiting this, that and the other. Some make sense given the speed with which the tide changes

  • Art housed

    Turner Contemporary art gallery and the visitor information centre in Margate

  • Retail revival?

    Margate old town shops. Just add people

  • Margate harbour and, left, the Arlington Tower. Tesco want to build a megastore on the site of the shopping centre with flats. The decision rests with Eric Pickles, the communities secretary

A February Thursday provided the opportunity for a first ever visit to Margate. A walk along the beach, a stroll round the old town’s growing number of retro shops, and fish’n’chips al fresco across the road from the harbour when the sun came out. The attempts to revive this Kent seaside town merit closer study, especially as the Mary Portas designed  scheme is proving controversial. There were French school parties gathering on the steps of the Turner Contemporary gallery,  business people bustling away and a handful of anglers and birdwatchers on the prom. We saved the Dreamland and penny arcade side of town for another visit, and walked past the Winter Gardens – coming soon Simple Minds – and the crumbling Lido built into the cliffs above sandy Walpole Bay beach in Cliftonville. The water quality failed some pollution tests in 2012, which is a shame. Click on the photograph for the gallery. More at http://margatearchitecture.blogspot.co.uk/   Photographs: Paul Nettleton

Mobile first: news re-imagined for smartphones – or just borrowed?


News for mobiles from the Guardian and Circa.

News for mobiles from the Guardian and Circa. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

I’ll start with a declaration of interest. I am a journalist who recently took a severance package and decided to strike out in new directions because my employer, the Guardian, was pleading poverty in the changing media marketplace. The editor wanted to cut the editorial staff and hire more developers. I still have to make a living to pay the bills and hope to continue to do so from my journalistic efforts.

So you will, I hope, understand why I’m not entirely happy when people appear to appropriate the work of professional journalists. That is, I believe, what the creators of a free mobile app called Circa risk doing while presenting their software as a new way of telling stories on portable devices. Circa denies that characterisation and their rebuttal appears later.

Circa, a Canadian start-up, claims on its website that the iPhone-only app best way to keep up with what’s going on in the world, wherever you are. “News without the fluff, filler, or commentary: Circa’s editors gather top stories and break them down to their essential points – facts, quotes, photos, and more, formatted specifically for the phone.”

And: “Rather than shoehorning existing content into a new environment, Circa is creating the first born-on-mobile news experience, delivering it in a format native to mobile devices, with an experience intuitive to mobile users.

“Through comprehensive yet concise news updates paired with a clean, simple mobile experience, Circa redefines how news is produced, delivered, and consumed.

“Circa is news, re-imagined.”

I’m wary when people reinvent the wheel [as an aside I’d include in that the carmakers who have decreed that the spare wheel must go to save weight]. I also suspect that rivals, including the Guardian which has apps for Apple, Android and Blackberry devices, might have something to say about the “shoehorning existing content” claim.

Circa says you can find its sources with one tap to reveal footnotes and click through to the originals. “Circa employs a team of editors to collect facts from a variety of sources: newswires, articles from news sites, and other sources we believe to be trustworthy. Individual pieces of information are converted into concise, easy-to-read “points” within Circa. Collections of points about one event form a “story.”

“Photos are licensed from Reuters, the Library of Congress, Flickr photos with the appropriate Creative Commons permissions, or other sources where fair use is employed.”

And: “We also have a copyright policy, including instructions for notifying us if you believe that there is copyright-infringing material or activity on, or available through, our service. You can find it at http://cir.ca/copyright.”

The latter link was to a page that did not exist when I tried it.

Circa licenses some photographs, which will cost money. It is not stated if it subscribes to the newswires or pays royalties to news sites whose copy it re-imagines for “points”. But it is wire services and news outlets who hire reporters to find stories, point by point, quote by quote. Sometimes it’s at considerable risk to their health in the world’s troublespots. And that doesn’t come cheap.

Atomic elements

David Cohn, the director of news at Circa, told journalism.co.uk: “We don’t summarise but we do try and hit just the highlights of a news story. The way we do that is we break down news articles into what we call atomic elements, facts, quotes, stats, events, images, and we strip out everything that we would consider fluff or opinion.”

And in an earlier piece when the app launched, journalism.co.uk reported: “Cohn explains that the app features original content, in that it is all written by the Circa team, but ‘it is not original reporting.

‘We don’t have people on the campaign trail, we don’t have people in Libya, so we are doing original content and there is a lot of original research.’”

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Copyright law and cases of plagiarism are difficult both to establish and enforce in the internet free-for-all. The music industry has similar issues with sampling. But re-imagining is not necessarily creating original content.

The UK government’s Intellectual Property Office puts it this way (their emphasis): “A work can only be original if it is the result of independent creative effort. It will not be original if it has been copied from something that already exists. If it is similar to something that already exists but there has been no copying from the existing work either directly or indirectly, then it may be original.

“The term ‘original’ also involves a test of substantiality – literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works will not be original if there has not been sufficient skill and labour expended in their creation. But, sometimes significant investment of resources without significant intellectual input can still count as sufficient skill and labour.”

I put three questions to Circa: I note that you are licensing photos from Reuters, Library of Congress etc. Do you similarly subscribe to the newswires or pay a royalty to news sites for re-use of their words? Do you intend to hire reporters to generate exclusive stories? How do you respond to the suggestion that you appear to be appropriating other people’s original work?

Core facts

Matt Galligan, the chief executive officer and a co-founder of Circa, replied to deny that it re-uses words. Circa did not currently subscribe to any newswires but had considered this to get their stories out faster. He continued:

The question of “re-use” is an interesting one. I would argue that what we’re doing is not “re-using” any particular content. Our editorial staff gathers information from many different places and works to identify the core facts and details, then distills them using our own language and research. The writing is accomplished much in the same way as traditional organizations, when they don’t have staff report[er]s on-site. While on a daily basis I see many publications writing stories about various topics, without citation of any of their sources, we make sure that all of the source material that helps us write our stories, gets cited. That’s not to say that we took content straight from the source, and republished it. In some instances where only a single source is available we write “SOURCE is reporting that…” much in the same way any other publication would. However, in the event that we’ve found many sources, which is far more common occurrence, we identify the facts common among them and report those.

One example where we’ve gone above and beyond just “re-use” is a story that surfaced last week about California school districts. The AP reported there to be “nearly 3,000” districts, and that information was later re-used in an LA Times article, as well as others. But through our research we discovered that number to be closer to 1,000 and reported that as such. We use many sources as the BASIS of what we write, but don’t use them as the final word – that is ours.

To answer your question: “Appropriating work” insinuates that we’re using someone else’s original reporting and publishing content that uses that same original reporting as the basis of our work. We’re no more guilty in that regard than many, many other publications that do the exact same thing. I don’t have any hard statistics on this, but I would believe that the vast majority of stories written in the world were not produced by the original source.

This is all a result of our limited staff right now. We have 13 writers, 11 of which are part-time, doing our best to identify the biggest news of the world, and cover all 24 hours of the day. As we grow, we may have the ability to have feet on the ground and do what’s commonly referred to as “original reporting” though.

But beyond all of this, the crux of the issue is really whether or not we’re giving something back into the ecosystem. We recognize that we are currently and only ever intend on being the “brief” for someone. It’s likely that people that are interested in various stories may be inclined to want to read further on a topic. As such, in a future update to our app, we intend on curating the best articles that help further develop the stories we write about, and surface them for further reading. That traffic would be sent directly back to the publisher’s website, or an arrangement would be made to include it directly within the app.

Galligan’s point that most stories are not produced by the original source is a valid one and similar to arguments by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News. It touches on Alan Rusbridger’s argument that the Guardian should do less “commodity news”.

With apps delivering push notifications, 24/7 rolling TV news and newspaper websites with breaking news, what feels like an avalanche of content often consists of very few facts padded out with the “fluff, filler, or commentary” that Circa has identified as ripe for editing. In part, it’s because there are fewer and fewer reporters trying to provide copy for more and more platforms. And web subs are not encourage to spend time cutting and honing stories as their newspaper counterparts must do. Without reporters on the ground there is no news to distill, whether for the Guardian or Circa.

My redundancy cheque was not the first in a news industry which needs new entrants such as Circa, whose business and editorial model is a work in progress. Readers have told them they want more UK material. My hope is that they will hire some reporters, as well as editors, to provide it. By their own sweat.

The planners, HS2 and the bonfire of red tape

High speed Javelin train on the HS1 track above Rainham Marshes bird sanctuary in Essex

High speed Javelin train on the HS1 track above Rainham Marshes bird sanctuary in Essex. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

There must have been disappointment at the BBC2 when the first programme in its documentary series The Planners drew only 1.3 million viewers, some 5.5m fewer than would be expected for the peak time slot.


Days after the controversial announcement of the northern extension route for the HS2 railway, this portrayal of how developers, local authorities and the public are reacting to the government’s stripping away of planning controls  to encourage construction with the aim of kickstarting the economy is both timely and engaging.


Who cannot have felt sympathy with householders faced with losing their views of farmland on the edge of Winsford in Cheshire. They even pursued a fruitless hunt for great crested newts, a protected species, in their attempt to bock the building of 540 houses, with all that entails in disruption during construction work, additional traffic and the loss of an open aspect for which they’d doubtless paid a premium in house prices?


You might have wondered why a human resources company boss could not have a dropped kerb to facilitate parking in the front garden of her Regency house in Pittville, Cheltenham, “just like her neighbours”, instead of having to manoeuvre round the back as if her car was a horse being led to stables?


Solar panels


At least Basil and Rachel Thompson, retired GPs nurturing a beautiful garden in a grade two listed house in the shade of Chester’s historic city walls, were allowed to put 17 solar panels on the slate roof of their garage.


Conservation officer John Healey objected to concealing wall walking tourists’ views of the slates with large modular reflective panels. Basil pointed out that the office block looming above the far side of the wall looked “just like a panel”.


Indeed, redbrick Centurion House, boasted slate grey window frames and acres of glass arranged as if to resemble a fortress – lacking only Roman soldiers peering over the top.


Healey said he could not “answer for the sins of those who were here in the 70s”. This failed to answer the Thompsons’ point that solar panels are a response to 21st century needs for sustainable energy.


After the elected councillors voted through the installation, Healey was interviewed while looking down from the walls, oblivious to the blooms most tourists would have admired and with his back to the office block monstrosity rising behind him. It even had me jumping from my seat and prodding at the screen in astonishment.


Appeal costs


Still, even as the nimbys brief their lawyers in attempts to derail HS2 that are likely to delay its construction for years – not in my leafy acreage, please – you have to wonder if the balance has swung too far in favour of private developers.


Planning officers and councillors alike must now calculate the likely costs of losing an appeal to the planning inspectors if they reject any application. That’s not treating an application on its merits.


Developers who secure outline permission can return time and again, asking for more blocks and more flats. They can build closer to the neighbours than agreed drawings showed, yet not be forced to tear down the timber frames and start again. Both are examples close to my home in South Woodford, north-east London.


And while the predicted benefits of HS2 for the North and Midlands are now being questioned by academics and rail experts, such as Christian Wolmar, it is becoming all but impossible to stop a railway or a Thames bridge or a housing estate on a flood plain, all in the name of economic recovery.


Dither over HS2


The Chinese, we are told to wonder as we were once told to work more like the Japanese, will have built thousands of miles of high speed railway while we dither over HS2. But in the bonfire of red tape, so beloved of Tory politicians at their annual conference, are we ignoring the growing clamour in China for controls to avoid preventable deaths in the breakneck race for growth?


Would we accept the pollution-laden air of Beijing, where CNN last month reported an air quality index reading of 700? The World Health Organization regards 25 micrograms as healthy.


There’s a telling quote in a People’s Daily Online article after fire killed 53 people in a 28-storey building in Shanghai in 2010. It raised concerns at the lack of fire safety measures and facilities in China’s biggest metropolises. “The drive for modernisation should also include the quest for a greater peace of mind,” the article said.


It’s a lesson lost on British politicians engaged in dismantling protections for the public won at Westminster over many years, or seeking in Brussels to negotiate away workers’ rights in some à la carte European Union.


The Planners is on BBC2 at 8pm on Tuesday


My man cupboard. What’s in yours?

Behold: Paul Nettleton's man cupboard. What's in yours?

Behold: Paul Nettleton’s man cupboard. What’s in yours? Photograph: Louise Nettleton

I might have chosen the garden shed, but it was my youngest daughter who took the photograph and suggested: “Why don’t you blog about your man cupboard?”

Then, she said, I should empty the three shelves and keep only the essentials – creating room for, oh, some of her sprawling adult collection of Lego.

In return, her ironing might make its way from the dining table to her wardrobe.

So, from top left, here’s what sits in one of the two cupboards above the ageing Alienware PC on which I’m tapping out this piece. It betrays my inner geek.


Top shelf


  1. A Playstation with a couple of dual shock controllers nestles behind the stylus from a Wacom graphics tablet (hers) that may be in here somewhere. Favourite games from my two daughters’ childhoods, Wacky Races and Crash Bandicoot 3 Warped. They’re stored in the other cupboard (not pictured, or we’d be here all day). There’s a Brian Lara cricket game too, that I never quite found time to learn. I saved the abandoned console so I could play at being Dick Dastardly.
  2. Rear panel of my first standalone CD deck, a Philips. It still works but was retired when I upgraded to hi-fi separates. Value on eBay? Not worth the postage. It’s sat under metres of phone extension cable removed during decorating and never missed.
  3. What’s in those brown envelopes under the deck? Ah, my degree certificate from LeicesterUniversity. BA (Hons) Combined Studies third class and I took Ripple weekly, thank you. It’s in with a note accepting me for matriculation at the University of Wales so I could attend the Cardiff postgraduate course in journalism. And there’s a black & white photo of the class of 79 pictured in Cathedral Road. I could be sued by some very senior journalists if I published the hairdos.
  4. Another envelope, I’m a  few years older and working at the News & Star in Carlisle, holds my proficiency certificate from the National Council for the Training of Journalists. Brings back memories of bombing around the Cumbrian fells in the office car (with fish’n’chip papers in the back) covering Ireby Fair and such high jinks.
  5.  Ah, there’s the graphics tablet, at the bottom. You’d never do that to an iPad …
  6. One of a pair of amplified loudspeakers, the sort you could plug a Discman into. The Discman, being second-hand, never really worked properly.
  7. Netgear wireless router. Utterly reliable but we now have BT Infinity 2.


On to the middle shelf

  1. In its box, and hardly ever used, a Regulated Multi Voltage AC Adaptor. Still, you never know.
  2. At a slant, a Sony Walkman WM-EX382 Mega-Bass with auto reverse. Didn’t you find that auto reverse stretched the tape after a while? This belonged to a daughter. I needed a record button for use in the House of Lords, where I was a gallery reporter for a year or so. The Commons expected you to rely on shorthand. Hence the huddle of hacks comparing quotes after prime minister’s questions.
  3.  A hidden gem… my wife’s Olympus OM1. Needs a service and a clean. She took some smashing photos. Developed and printed them too, but the darkroom gear is long gone.
  4. Green pot with cable and dock for the OM1’s digital replacement, a Fuji Finepix F601 Zoom. And they were fine pix, but it was so much fiddlier than a camera-shaped camera.
  5. Behind that a stack of ADSL filters to stop the net interfering with phone calls, or vice versa. Behind those, two carry bag containing a Game Boy Color each plus games – Tetris, Pokemon, Rugrats, more Pokemon, Robot Wars, and more Pokemon. Classics.
  6.  Next, on it its side, a BT answerphone. The tiny tape cassette must be somewhere. Overtaken by 1571.
  7. PC cleaning kit and compressed air canister. The tube no longer taped to the side was the wrong one for the nozzle. Who performed that swap? Sat on sheet music from my failed days as a guitar player …
  8. … including The Cream Album, More Cream Album No 2, the Sutherland Brothers (& Quiver era) Songbook. And two guitar and one blues harp tutor books. And Golden Earring’s Radar Love. Plus You’re Moving Out Today which singer Carole Bayer Sager co-wrote with Bette Midler and the prolific Bruce Roberts.
  9. Plus one defunct nVidia graphics card. Replaced that myself I did with a pre-owned upgrade. Told that if I Google the cooking instructions, and bake it in the oven, it might work again. Yes, but if it blows up how much does a Rangemaster cost?


Wow, 774 words and a shelf still to go, Never knew there was so much in it.


Bottom shelf


  1. Other daughter’s Polaroid digital camera (defunct with Vista), sits on top of the charger for my Nikon D80 (satisfying clunk when you take a shot), which sits on top of the charger for a Creative Zen MP3 player with a slightly dodgy on-off switch in use by my wife.
  2. Tamron binoculars bought for walking and sailing and watching the Greek airforce flying to and from Kalamata (from a beach 35km south). Focus is wonky since sand got in the works.
  3. Above are sat on two boxes of assorted cables and mini-discs (does anyone still make a recorder?).
  4. Foreground: various batteries, some not discharged, audio cassettes and a Scart cable (overtaken by HDMI connectors).
  5. Shoebox lid  of CD-Roms including Dorling Kindersley’s: History of the World 2.0, Children’s Dictionary, plus Dinosaurs 3D, My Secret Diary (not), and various imaging and web software never used in anger. Plus leaflets about a NatWest bank account I no longer have.
  6. Anyone want to make a Crawlybot?
  7. If I put the batteries in, the Early Learning Centre Walkie Talkies still work. Press the button to speak.
  8. A brace of Grecian Holidays brochures from the late 80s. We travelled with SunMed but it was Grecian’s snapper who happened by on Koumbaros beach, Ios. You had to walk there in our day. Or hitch a ride in a three-wheel delivery van. I see there’s a bus now.


Memo to self: you don’t need all of this stuff. Do you?

What’s in your man (or woman) cupboard? Replies welcome.

Michael Gove’s solution to political meddling in A-levels? More political meddling

The Conservative party is continuing in its crusade to make Britain a place safe for Daily Express readers in the hope that turning the clock back will win David Cameron an overall majority at the next general election.

Into the EU wilderness

The prime minister’s promise on Wednesday of on in-or-out referendum threatened to make the recession permanent by leading the country out of the EU and into the economic wilderness.

The poor are fat

Then Anna Soubry, allegedly a health minister, claimed to be able to spot poor people because they tend to be overweight. But she still blamed the parents for filling up their children with bad food, while relying on voluntarism to achieve reductions in the fat, salt and sugar content of products made by members of the Food and Drink Federation.

Education policy based on prejudice

And Michael Gove announced that the solution to political meddling with A-level exams was more political meddling with A-level exams.

The education secretary never makes policy based on evidence when he can make it based on prejudice against the state system. He must believe in six impossible things before breakfast each day, and instruct his civil servants to implement them in our schools before the consequences have been considered. Of which just the latest is that headteachers and their staffs will be managing the introduction of the Ebacc for 16-year-olds at the same time as ripping up modular A-levels for a return to the memory test of exams at the end of two years and stand-alone AS-levels.

Full square behind him are the Russell Group of elite universities, fighting the corner for the traditional subjects they champion: mathematics and further mathematics, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history and modern and classical languages.

His critics for this latest initiative to stifle creativity in our young people included the University of Cambridge, industrialists, the Association of School and College Leaders (who must clearly be worried about how schools and colleges will be able to find leaders in the future given their workload and burnout rates) and Labour – accused by Gove of the meddling that he cannot resist every hour he remains in office.

By the end of the day, Gove’s latest wheeze for a winning policy (to get him into No 10 in Cameron’s stead?) had slipped off the Daily Mail online front page, and was receiving a far from universal welcome from readers. Sadly, it was still carrying the mistyped headline: University chiefs will vet tougher new A-level that aims to end ‘resist culture’ that has led to dumbing down of qualification.

I couldn’t resist a smile at the error, but it’s a tragedy for sixth formers that their efforts are still being belittled by this government’s every pronouncement.




David Cameron and the Costas question

Is Britain sleepwalking towards the exit door from the European Union under David Cameron, as Ed Miliband fears, or will the prime minister wake up and smell the coffee before making his on-again speech about Europe?

As a country we’ve never really got Europe since belatedly arriving at the party. We demand always to be treated as a special case, like the spoiled brat at a sleepover. Westminster politicians bewail their loss of influence while blocking efforts to improve direct EU democracy.

Press coverage driven by owners who prefer to turn nation against nation – usually England v Germany, but any Johnny Foreigner will do for the likes of Simon Heffer – has been another obstacle to understanding that the EU was always about greater economic and political integration for the benefit of its people, not just a free-for-all for big business and the hated Eurocrats.

People are entitled to ask what Brussels has done for us. One answer is that it would have been a lot more without opt-outs from the employment directives intended to give workers some protections in a single market of 500 million, or the Schengen agreement on open borders that enshrines freedom of movement within Europe – giving true meaning to the exhortation to get on your bike to look for work while giving labour the power to seek the highest wages.

There is loose talk of Europeans from poorer countries swamping the nation from Boston to Bognor, as if nary a Brit ever decamped for the Costas or Corfu. No mention of the businesses young Poles and Portugese are setting up in otherwise empty shops on our high streets? They’re hardly a drain on the benefits system – more a reminder to the supermarkets to boost the choice of continental foods on their shelves.

The growing number of UK students taking degrees on the European mainland, to escape ever increasing tuition fees, find their horizons expand beyond the passport control queues at our borders.

Business doesn’t entirely get it, with some in the City backing an in or out referendum, apparently oblivious that quitting the EU will hasten takeover deals that relocate the financial capital of Europe to anywhere but this island Square Mile. But they’re the bankers, the forex and futures dealers with only tougher regulation to anticipate as the Eurozone tries to head off another mauling by speculators and ratings agencies accountable to no-one.

In the real economy should the UK step outside the single market, with no special deals likely, watch the Chinese, Japanese and Indian owners of manufacturing businesses in the Midlands or the North start to shut their factories here and shift across the channel.

The EU is far from perfect but you can’t change the rules of a club from outside. When Tories and Ukip talk about diluting Britain’s membership and repatriating powers, or quitting the EU altogether, they’re proposing to surrender influence over the people with whom we do at least half of our business. That’s not a recipe for the job creation and living wages the UK’s young people need, but for a perpetual cycle of decline in a low-wage economy with a shrinking role on the world stage.

Is that the legacy David Cameron wants? This week we will have part of the answer.

Shear Shazar – review: greetings from Woodstock

Jules Shear and Pal Shazar have broken their silence to make an album – their first together – for grown-ups who have been there, done that, picked up some baggage along the way, but moved on. Love has found a way.

The producer, Julie Last, has a track record including John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. It could all be too sugary for words, but their mastery of the song-writing craft means the traps are avoided with deft lyrical turns, harmonies that take unexpected directions and deceptively simple backing with a touch of country – all present in the opening track Beauty to my bones.

See that star has a piano and guitar-driven lilt well illustrated by the stills of a walk in the park in the YouTube video. You can hear the emphasis in the line: “I don’t need anyone to agree with my view of life BUT YOU.”

On Passion flowers, feet are on the ground but the stars “sparkle like rare confections / They fill my eyes like candy bars / They sweeten my recollections.”

Mr softee celebrates “the promise that no-one can revoke, the promise between man and wife” with two cherry cokes. If this all begins to sounds a bit too autobiographical, then Pal’s watercolour illustrations for the lyrics, available as pdfs on their website, illustrate two young lovers to keep you guessing.

The mermaid of Lake Hollywood is a story of seduction: “This lovely fish grants your wish as the warm winds blow across LA from Pasadena.” There’s a small psychedelic moment, a Beatle-ish interlude in the strings and la-la-las , for “this experience is magical, this experience is mythological”.

Like One more heatbreak with its discarded phone book, What you’ve heard about me brings up past lovers and files them under history. It kicks off with a confession straight out of Nashville via the Troubadour: “Come to think of it there ain’t much about love I understand” but confirms “there’s no need to analyse each circumstance”.

Hesitation town is “a state of mind not where you were born” and a gem of a song. A guy has messed up over the wrong girl “now any kindness and your heart might break”. But there’s a waitress who’s caught the eye. “A customer jokes, you hear the waitress a laugh and a crack begins to break your shell / You leave the counter – but this time you’ll look back – just in case she’s looking back as well.”

Shear and Shazar are, like Last, based in Woodstock and working outside the traditional record industry system. They’ve made a timeless album, 10 songs and a rich 32 minutes of reflection and insight.

HMV and the lost chords

I can remember when Richard Branson swept away the cushions and headphones and put security guards on the doors at the Virgin store in Manchester in the early 80s to stop the shrinkage.

It was the end of of any illusions that a national chain of record shops could be a flagship for youth culture, a place where you could discover Phaedra by Tangerine Dream or Gong’s Camembert Electrique among the chart mainstream.

HMV was always more corporate – a retail outpost of EMI, the first label that couldn’t handle the Sex Pistols – and marched across the land in tandem with the other store chains that turned our high streets into clone streets.

It long ago afforded DVDs and console games equal shelf space with CDs and token specialist vinyl. Only on Oxford Street in London has there been space for the widest range of music and staff with thorough knowledge of jazz or blues or folk or opera or heavy metal to support the genres and share their enthusiasm with potential buyers.

On the high street and even in the bigger malls – Bluewater or Westfield – the choice has been little better than in a Boots or WH Smith of the mid-70s. That is, execrable.

The latest attempt to turn round HMV’s fortunes – by shoehorning in tablets and other “technology” at higher prices than Currys PC World ­– reduced even further the choice of music. It was hardly a strategy to lure people away from the download sites.

So the news that HMV is about to go into administration – the morning after they sent out emails announcing a Blue Cross sale with 25% reductions – will be mourned by me more for the likely loss of jobs than for the threat to the last record store chain. See the Guardian’s story here.

Does this mean there’ll be an opening for a latterday Rob Gordon to turn in a decent profit from his enthusiasm for the music, ­­without having to satisfy shareholders or get the branding just so, let alone discounting to compete with the fake top 40 that the supermarket down the road never quite keeps fully stocked and where the staff can never introduce you to the next big thing.

It may even be that a sensible landlord or two will take the long view and offer up some floorspace at an affordable rents for a small business to do more than limp along before closing. High Fidelity? High hopes.