Wednesday, September 27, 2006

You young people

100 years ago:
To be blunt, the problem is a large majority of Labour MPs in the Commons; it's only going to be addressed by reducing that majority.

But what would that get us, apart from making the Whips work for a living and preventing another disaster like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which isn't nothing)? The obvious answer is, of course, "Blair out". I wonder about this; I wonder if anything short of a hung parliament would loosen the man's grip on power. But let's go with it: on May 6th Labour is returned with a majority of 35 (say), and on May 7th the knives are out for Blair. And then what?

When I first started thinking about this scenario I came up with all sorts of possibilities involving four- or five-way internecine warfare within the Labour Party: Blairites vs Brownites vs Old Labour (right) vs OL (Campaign Group) vs OL (left but anti-CG)... It could get extremely messy, and extremely interesting in terms of who would come out owing favours to whom. It won't, though, for the simple reason that Blairites are serious about power (as, indeed, are Brownites). As soon as Brown emerged as the front runner (i.e. almost immediately) the Sensational Tony Blair Machine Without Tony would swing behind him, and it would all be over bar the shouting.

Blairites vs Brownites vs Old Labour (right) vs OL (Campaign Group) vs OL (left but anti-CG)... I don't know what possessed me to nominate 'Old Labour (right)' as a runner - most of them jumped ship to either Blair or Brown long ago - but apart from that I think I called it pretty well. 'Old Labour, left but not Campaign Group' won't have their own candidate, but the way they break between the other non-McDonnell candidates will be interesting and may be significant. Watch for the apologias: Alan Johnson is still a trade unionist at heart; Why Brown/Cruddas is the dream ticket...

The last couple of sentences, though... how wrong you can be. There's a song by Peter Hamill which sums up a certain kind of anti-political cynical populism, the kind of sentiment which seems at once radical and common-sense (a combination I always distrust):
Politicians fight it out on the conning-tower
But they all agree not to rock the boat

That's just the trouble with populism: no imagination. I don't see much sign of that gentleman's agreement in the Labour Party at the moment. I see factions fighting like rats in a sack, and be damned to what happens to the country (or other countries) as a result. It's one of those moments when political spectacle starts to present itself as such - compelling but distant, autonomous and utterly unaccountable - so brazen is its participants' disdain for their audience, the voters. It's disgusting, but it's still fascinating. Equally: it's fascinating, but it's still disgusting.

Top tip for any would-be late entrant in the contest: change your name by deed poll to None Of The Above. You'd walk it.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


The British land speed record currently stands at 300.3 mph. It doesn't look as if Richard Hammond will be the driver to break it.

If 'driver' is the word. News coverage of the Hammond story has stressed how unlike a car, in any familiar sense of the word, was the thing that Hammond tried and failed to guide down a track. Apparently there's some form of steering, but apart from that you've got a jet engine and some parachutes and, er, that's it.

No disrespect to the neurally-injured Hammond, but I can't help feeling that's not driving. Parry Thomas, now, there was a driver. He was also the chief engineer of Leyland Ltd, but it's as a driver that he'll be remembered, or deserves to be. He was the last driver to set the (world) land speed record on a racetrack (Brooklands, where else?); in one extraordinary contemporary film-clip, Thomas's long-nosed 1920s racer scoots casually past everything else on the track, looking for all the world as if everyone else was standing still.

But there were limits to what you could do on a circuit, and Thomas (along with rivals like Malcolm Campbell) needed space. Hence his choice of the seven-mile beach at Pendine in South Wales, where in 1926 he pushed the record up to 169.30 mph and then to 171.02 (or, in some accounts, 172.33). His car Babs was a heavily-modified Higham Special, bought from the estate of the racing driver Louis Zborowski (killed at Monza in 1924); Thomas even fitted pistons of his own design.

Enter Campbell, who in January 1927 took the record back with a speed of 174.22 mph (or possibly 174.88). In response Thomas took Babs back to Pendine. On the 3rd of March 1927, at a speed of anything up to 180 mph, he lost control of Babs; the car skidded off course, turned over and crashed, killing him instantly.

Babs was buried in the sand, and since then the beach has never again been used for speed trials. There was some talk of mounting a British land speed record attempt there in 2007, supposedly to tie in with the eightieth anniversary of Campbell's 174 mph; it may not come to anything, particularly after Hammond's crash. Personally, I'd have thought another eightieth was a bit more pressing.

Babs was buried in the sand, anyway, but it didn't stay there. In 1969 the car was dug up by a local enthusiast who wanted to rebuild it; my family lived in Pendine at the time, and I vividly remember the exhumation. I remember that my father, who was the Senior Administrative Officer on the local military base, was involved in some capacity - although, thinking about it now, it was probably a "here comes the SAO, look busy" kind of capacity. Eventually Babs was rebuilt, and it now takes pride of place in the Museum of Speed a mile or so down Pendine Sands. It's well worth a look if you're passing - and Pendine is well worth passing. (No, I mean it's well worth passing that way in order to visit... never mind.)

I'd like to say that Parry Thomas was the last British holder of the land speed record, or the last to break the record in Britain, or the last to do so in something even vaguely resembling a car, or something - but history's not that neat. Nevertheless, you don't break land speed records these days in a car with a piston engine, and you certainly don't do it in Britain. Parry Thomas's death may not have ended an era, but it was very much of an era, and one which doesn't seem much less distant now than Stephenson's Rocket.

Footnote: the speed in the title comes from the Tea Set's 1979 tribute to Thomas. I haven't seen it anywhere else; all the sources I've seen set Thomas's record-breaking speed either lower or higher. He was going pretty bloody fast, anyway.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Just to keep you from danger

An open-and shut case?
The charge alleges the force "failed to conduct its undertaking, namely the investigation, surveillance, pursuit and detention of a suspected suicide bomber, in such a way as to ensure that the person not in its employment (namely Jean Charles de Menezes) was not thereby exposed to risks to his health or safety".

Apparently not.
In a statement released after the hearing, the Met said the prosecution was based on actions taken by officers facing "extraordinarily difficult circumstances" on that day. It said they were "not criminal acts" and that the officers had the support of the force.

It went on: "The decision to defend the case has been reached after the most careful consideration. It is not about diminishing the tragedy of Jean Charles de Menezes' death.

"We see it as a test case not only for policing in London but for the police service nationally. It also has implications for the general public in that it concerns the ability of the police service to protect the public at large when carrying out armed operations.

"We also profoundly question whether health and safety at work legislation, originally designed over 30 years ago to protect employees in the workplace or those affected by commercial enterprises, is the right 'vehicle' for evaluating the actions of an emergency service in relation to decisions made during fast-time, life-at-risk anti-terrorist policing operations."

There are a couple of interesting aspects to this. One is the apparent absence of wiggle room in the charge brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. Whether 'criminal acts' were committed, whether officers faced difficult circumstances or whether the individuals responsible enjoy the support of the force: these are not issues. The CPS isn't even asking whether the risk to the public posed by police action was avoidable, let alone whether it was in some sense acceptable. The question is whether the Metropolitan Police, collectively, conducted anti-terrorist operations in such a way as to avoid endangering the life of Jean Charles de Menezes. Defending the Met against that charge isn't a brief I'd like to take.

That said, it seems unlikely that the Met's defence case will rest on the claim that they didn't put de Menezes at risk. One line of defence is hinted at by the (otherwise baffling) comment that the case concerns the ability of the police service to protect the public at large. As a member of the public at large, that's very much my own view of the prosecution, and one reason why I'd like it to succeed. The police statement presumably intends a different inference: to convict the people responsible for de Menezes' death, by implication, would make it harder for the police to protect the public at large. We shouldn't hold one death against them - after all, another time that guy running for the train with a Metro under his arm might actually be a suicide bomber, and if they couldn't shoot him down like a dog we'd all be sorry. Well, maybe.

The Met's other line of defence concerns the appropriateness of Health and Safety legislation. I'm in two minds about this. On one hand, you can see their point - this isn't legislation that was drafted with police work in mind, and to have it apply to anti-terrorist policing seems particularly incongruous. On the other, the argument against having it apply seems shaky. Should the police be exempted from a duty of care towards the public - or at least, a duty not to put the public's lives at risk? Should armed police? It's not an appealing thought. As for this specific case, criminal charges against the officers responsible a prosecution for corporate manslaughter would be more conventional - but, since that isn't likely to happen offence doesn't exist in English law, a Health and Safety prosecution is hard to argue with. [Thanks to Chris for pointing out the obvious problem with my initial thoughts. It was late.]

So it's an odd case, but I think the charge is fundamentally sound - and, as it stands, unchallengeable. My only real misgivings concern what happens when it gets to court (not until next January); I hope for the best and fear the worst. In particular, I fear that the Met and its allies in the press will play up the novelty of a Health and Safety prosecution - conveniently ignoring the absence of any other prosecution - and harp on the vital importance of anti-terrorist work. At worst, the Met could end up laughing the case out of court - and securing themselves a Get Out Of Jail Free card in the process, against the day they screw up again and kill another innocent passer-by.

Mind how you go.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I am nine

Here are some of the things that happened when I was nine (give or take a couple of months either way), and which I remember. (I'm using the BBC site rather than Wikipedia, which doesn't seem to have much British news from that far back.)

Apollo 11 (I remember watching the landing)
The introduction of the 50p coin (I remember ten-bob notes, anyway)
Apollo 12 (I watched that too; I thought this was what life was going to be like)
The first jumbo jets
Apollo 13 (whoa, bad news)
The World Cup
Ted Heath winning an election (vaguely)

And, er, that's it. I have no memory of (among other things) Chappaquiddick, the murder of Sharon Tate, the Chicago Eight, the Piazza Fontana bomb, Ian Smith declaring UDI or the PFLP hijacking four airliners and blowing them up. (Quite a year, really.)

The first political event I remember? Probably the Aberfan disaster, when I was six. World events didn't really impinge, although I do remember answering a question at school about plagues by suggesting that you could have a plague of gorillas; there seemed to have been a lot on the news about gorillas recently. My first poem, written at the age of eight on a prescribed theme of 'sunset', was about refugees from a 'bloody war' 'far away' (who didn't get much joy out of the aforementioned sunset). I was taken to see the headmistress on the strength of it; these days they'd probably call Social Services.

It's probably not surprising that my musical memories of 1969-70 are a lot clearer. But I mean, a lot clearer. I remember

Thunderclap Newman, "Something In The Air"
(I thought this was wonderful)
Zager & Evans, "In The Year 2525"
Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Bad Moon Rising"
Bobby Gentry, "I'll Never Fall In Love Again"
the Archies, "Sugar Sugar"
Rolf Harris, "Two Little Boys"
(I hated this with a passion)
Edison Lighthouse , "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)"
(as with the Thunderclap Newman, I thought this was v. meaningful and moving)
Lee Marvin, "Wanderin' Star"
(I hated this too)
Simon & Garfunkel, "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
Dana, "All Kinds Of Everything"
(and I wasn't too keen on this one)
Norman Greenbaum, "Spirit In The Sky"
England World Cup Squad, "Back Home"
Christie, "Yellow River"
(a friend at school was born in Hong Kong; this song was the bane of his life)
Mungo Jerry, "In The Summertime"
(this was absolutely the best thing ever)

In other words, I've got distinct and in some cases vivid memories of just about every number one single in the period. I could even say I remember

Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg, "Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus"

inasmuch as I clearly remember watching Top of the Pops the week it was Number One. (At least, I remember the studio audience dancing for three minutes in silence in a darkened studio, but I think memory must be exaggerating slightly.)

Pop music goes back earlier than politics, too. The earliest pop music I remember would have to be the Honeycombs' "Have I the right"; it was number one the week I turned four (two years before Aberfan). And it still sounds wonderful.

Then there was

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, "Tears Of A Clown"

It's just outside the period - after Elvis singing the ghastly "The wonder of you", which followed "In the summertime" - but the memory's too vivid to pass by. Not so much the song (fabulous though it is) as the accompanying performance by Pan's People. I can't remember the details, but I know I fell in love with one of the People there and then. (The pretty one, you know.)

But by then I was ten, which is quite another story.

No more toys for grown-up boys
When I am ten I'll remember when
I was nine and had a wonderful time
I'll look back nostalgically...