Sunday, June 9, 2013

Still going!

Posts later than the one below are to be found HERE

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

James Boswell revolutionised the way we see great men – and women

Ever since the 'Life of Samuel Johnson’, the biography has been a force in British culture, says the authorised biographer of Margaret Thatcher

Biography is on my mind. The single event from which modern biography sprang took place 250 years ago next month.

At about seven in the evening of Monday May 16 1763, a young Scotsman called James Boswell was drinking tea in the back-parlour of his friend, the bookseller Thomas Davies, in Covent Garden. Into the shop came the already legendary writer, Samuel Johnson.

Boswell was at the time keeping a private journal, which would come to light only in the mid-20th century. In it, he described the encounter. Because he knew of Johnson’s “mortal antipathy” to Scots, he cried out to Davies not to tell Johnson where he came from. Davies disobeyed him, so poor Boswell stammered out, “Indeed, I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” Johnson delivered his famous put-down: “Sir, that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”

The 22-year-old was horrified and impressed by the 53-year-old. “Mr Johnson is a man of a most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king’s evil [scrofula scars]. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice. Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect… He has great humour and is a worthy man. But his dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.”

He marked everything. He immediately started to see the sage frequently, and he wrote in his journal that “the friendship of Mr Johnson” had made him give up “promiscuous concubinage” (although he also wrote, in a separate memo to himself, “Swear to have no more rogering before you leave England except Mrs ----- in chambers”).

On the same day as he recorded these noble thoughts, Boswell also wrote up a recent conversation with Johnson in which the great man had advised him to keep a private journal, “fair and undisguised”. Boswell told him that he was already doing so, and half-apologised that he put down lots of little incidents in it. “Sir,” said Johnson, “there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great knowledge of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.”

It is also by studying little things, Boswell instinctively realised, that we come to build up a big picture of great people. Ever since Homer, Western civilisation had told stories of heroes. But in the past, people did not worry whether these tales were strictly, factually true. They were beautiful, cautionary, exemplary, exciting: whether or not, say, Aeneas had really carried his father on his shoulders out of burning Troy was neither here nor there. With the Renaissance, people gradually became more interested in what we recognise as historical actuality.

Boswell was the first biographer to set all this upon a system. Instead of writing a book of mere scattered anecdote, ill-sourced, he drew on his journal and many other materials and testimonies to construct one of the fullest and most fascinating accounts of a writer of genius. He also gave the best non-fictional encapsulation of an extraordinary human character that English literature had yet accomplished. “Dr Johnson”, as he is generally referred to, is as much in the mind of England as Falstaff, or anyone invented by Dickens. Yet Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is what it says it is – a real life.

It is interesting to compare Boswell’s journal account of the first meeting of writer and subject with what he wrote in his biography. In the Life, he removes his unflattering description of Johnson’s appearance (though he does give it, in summary, at the end of his book). Instead he says that Johnson looked just like his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, sitting in his easy chair “in deep meditation”. He also polishes up the great man’s remarks a little. In his journal he records Johnson as saying that “When a butcher says that he is in distress for his country, he has no uneasy feeling.” In the biography, Boswell replaces “in distress” with “bleeds”, which, since he is talking about a butcher, makes it wittier.

But for the most part, he works as hard as possible to reproduce the tone and manner, and the precise content, of this celebrated talker. He kept notes of what Johnson said. These “minutes”, via the book, have now lasted down two-and-a-half centuries. We can have almost as strong a sense of what Dr Johnson said and thought and was like to be with as did the men who gathered with him in Fleet Street in the 1760s and 1770s. Boswell wanted the reader to be “well acquainted” with Johnson. He even recorded how he said something – “(looking dismally)”, “(passionately and loudly)”. He loved precision.

Ever since Boswell, biography has been a dominant and popular form in the English language, particularly in Britain. This is in sharp contrast to some other cultures. In France, for example, the genre is not much respected. It tends to be considered trivial. French historians wish to make their names with wider sweeps of history and by imposing bold theoretical structures upon the jumble of human events.

There are certainly temptations in the Boswellian biographical method. One, which one sees a great deal in modern times, is the idea that tiny details are automatically interesting. It is a trick of writing about political meetings, for instance, that people often describe what the participants ate and drank at dinner (“over potted shrimps, steak Wellington and chateau-bottled wines…”). This is often stuck in merely to show that the author knows a lot or is trying to relieve the boredom of the official communique. What was eaten is worth knowing only if it tells you something about your subject. If one found Hitler eating steak Wellington, for instance, that would certainly be worth noting, since, like many people who dislike the human race, he was a vegetarian.

Another problem is the change in what bits of a person’s life are now considered permissible to write about. On the whole, I share the modern view that sexual matters should not be automatically off limits and may tell one a good deal. On the other hand, what this means in practice is that publishers tend not to commission books about people whose sex lives were not colourful. It also raises matters of taste that are hard to resolve. In general, the argument is moving more and more in the direction of full exposure. Yet I cannot think that it will be an advance if we feel that each biography must carry a photograph of how its subject looked naked, or his habits when going to the lavatory (unless, like Lyndon Johnson, he deliberately kept the door open and made people talk to him while he sat on it). It is a heresy that the most private aspects of a public person’s life are necessarily the most telling: quite often, notably with actors and politicians, the public aspect is more revealing, because the work has taken over the life.

On the whole, however, the revolution which James Boswell started has been greatly to the good. What can we know of “the crooked timber of humanity” if we do not study its most remarkable branches?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Who fathered Michael Jackson's children? Lawsuit may end years of guessing biological origins of King of Pop's kids

Given the blue eyes of his daughter and his own African identity, it is almost inconceivable that she is his genetic daughter

The suit against Michael Jackson's concert promoter by the late singer's family may soon reveal the biological father of his three young children after years of speculation.

Filed against AEG, the company behind Jackson's ill-fated `This Is It' tour, the suit includes all three of the icon's children as well as his mother Katherine and alleges the company contributed to Jackson's death by pushing him to work too hard ahead of the tour and by hiring the doctor responsible for giving Jackson the drugs that killed him.

As part of the trial's potential award phase, AEG is prepared to present to the court evidence that, despite Jackson's claims, only one of the children is the King of Pop's biological child.

According to a New York Post report, that child is the youngest of the bunch, 10-year-old Blanket.

A plea to the judge in the case from Jackson's family says it doesn't matter, however.

They have begged her not to allow AEG to include biological evidence of the children's parentage in the case, arguing it is irrelevant and only a means of damaging the family reputation.

But AEG maintains that Jackson's claim that he fathered all the children himself is part of a bigger pattern.

`There was a whole lot that Michael Jackson or his family wasn't and isn't being forthcoming about,' said the Post's source at AEG . `The drug use by Jackson, his use of alcohol, his relationship with his own family, and the identities of the children's parents.'

Michael Jackson died in June 2009 after his personal doctor Conrad Murray administered a dose of the anaesthetic propofol that proved deadly for the singer.

In the suit against AEG, the family claims the concert company failed to properly vet Murray, who they hired on behalf of Jackson.

Though the biological origins of the Jackson children remain a mystery on the father's side, many agree on who their mothers are.

Paris, 15, and Prince, 16, for instance, have a mother in former Jackson nurse Debbie Rowe.

And many take as fact the assertion that Blanket's mother is an unnamed San Diego-area Hispanic woman.

If AEG's claims are true, though, Paris and Prince could have fathers among an assemblage of men.

Jackson's former dermatologist Arnold Klein, has said he is the biological father of both Paris and Prince.

A former Jackson bodyguard named Matt Fiddes asked for a DNA test to prove that he's father to sapphire-eyed Paris shortly after Jackson's death and former child star Mark Lester has said he, too, may be Paris's father.

As people take bets on who fathered the older children, no one seems to be refuting AEG's supposed allegations about Blanket.

`Blanket looks just like him,' a Jackson family member told the New York Post. `There is no doubt that he is Michael's.'


Monday, April 15, 2013

A modern Mona Lisa

Her faraway look is because she was drunk at the time

A MUGSHOT of a woman has gone viral, prompting declarations of love from across the world and even marriage proposals.

Yet the mugshot of the "attractive convict", arrested for allegedly drink driving, is not a model or actress as people presumed. It's a mother-of-four, who is a medical assistant, from Florida, US.

Meagan Mccullough, 27, of Zephyrhills, as she was then known, was arrested for DUI in July 2010 leading to her mugshot being taken in an orange jumpsuit. Her natural good looks meant yesterday, three years on, it caught the attention of the sharing website Reddit and soon spread around the internet like wildfire, MailOnline reported.

Men fashioned memes adding captions to the mugshot such as 'GUILTY - of taking my breath away', 'Arrested for breaking and entering - YOUR HEART' and 'Tell me what she did so I can end up in the same jail'.

Social media sites were overtaken by comments from men wanting to marry her, looking for her phone number and asking if she is a model.

Even on the arrest site men have written of instant love for her mugshot. "The eyes of the sky. And hair like woven silk. I have taken photos of thousands of woman and never seen one with what you have in those eyes breath taking you are.

"I hope if you have a man he takes care of you and showers you with love and tenderness. If we were together you would need for nothing . I would go to the ends of the earth just to make you happy," a man posted.

Another asks her to move to Ireland.  "What's up with that surname, you must have Irish heritage? You got bar work experience?  "Come to Ireland, I'll put you up for a while and you can work in my friends pub while you find your feet, look up your family history and then move on to something better.

"Over here, we don't call you a criminal for driving drunk (unless repeatedly caught). I'm not joking by the way."

Meagan, now separated from her husband and going by her maiden name Simmons, is baffled by the sudden interest and bemused by the obsession with the mugshot picture she thinks "is terrible".

"I had just been crying when the photo was taken and I was drunk. I knew I'd caused a lot of trouble and my parents were really upset and I was really upset. I wasn't thinking about how I looked at all," she told Mail Online.  "I don't think it's that good a picture - there are other ones I would prefer."

Meagan said the interest was overwhelming and said had to block a lot of users.

She is single and dateless, although she says her two daughters and two sons, all of school age, are part of a package.

"Guys may find me attractive but they don't want a relationship and it's disappointing," she told Mail Online.

"I am single and I'm a hopeless romantic and I'm really picky. If it was just a nice normal guy who happened to come across the picture - but I'd have to do a background check because who would do that?'

"I think its weird, you can't be serious about someone if it's based off their mugshot and that mugshot is something I'm ashamed of - I'm not happy about it."

Meagan, who used to work at Hooters, is not unaware of her good looks.

"I never know what to wear to my kids school functions...dress like a mom or the sexy woman I am #hotmomproblems," she recently wrote on Twitter.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Innovation: backwards evolution?

Richard Glover

Why, in various eateries, do they now insist on serving food on a wooden board? They don't seem to understand: the plate was invented for a reason. It's ceramic, therefore easy to clean, and has a lip around the edge, which stops things rolling off.

The wooden serving platter, strangely enough, appears to be chosen whenever they are serving food that has a tendency to roll. Sausages, gherkins, anything involving whole pickled onions: these are the ingredients that will cause mine host to sing out for a wooden board. Either he wants to set his waiters a challenge, or he's a part-owner of the dry cleaners next door.

It's a classic example of backwards evolution, the signs of which are all around us.

I've mentioned before the TV set, which is now so complex it's pretty much impossible to watch. Many surveys have pointed to the decline in viewing for free-to-air TV. Can I be the first to point out the obvious? It's because none of us can turn the damn thing on.

During the late afternoon, various young people pull all the plugs out of the back of the set, insert memory sticks of uncertain provenance, Wii consoles and joysticks, leaving a Gordian knot of cables on the floor. Stumbling towards the set at 10pm intending to watch Lateline, you need a torch, a manual and 2½ hours of trial and error.

The old TV was fine. You turned it on, clicked the dial either to position 10 (Number 96) or position 2 (the news) and after three seconds of warming up, either Abigail or James Dibble would hove into view.

The top of the set was also flat, allowing for the display of home ornaments. This in turn led to the classic dad joke:

Child: What's on the TV dad?

Dad: A pot plant and the TV guide. Are you blind?

This joke is now impossible to make. And so a perfectly good dad joke dies just to allow a bit of high-pixel action, which, if truth be told, just brings out everyone's blemishes. Why am I surprised?

With every innovation things get worse. Toothbrushes, now equipped with fat, non-slip handles, no longer fit into the holders built into every bathroom. This is, presumably, to reduce the number of toothbrush-slippage injuries plaguing hospitals. Instead, we contract cholera from leaving fat-bottomed toothbrushes out on the benchtop, marinating in a chain of toothpasty puddles.

Bucket seats have long replaced the bench seat in the front of cars, banishing the romance previously an essential part of motoring. Almost simultaneously, the Western world entered a period of long-term population decline, yet no one thinks to note the causal link.

Meanwhile, cameras with film in them have been replaced by mobile phones. Instead of taking a handful of meaningful pictures to be placed in an album to treasure, people take 6.7 million photos, mostly of their lunch, all of which will be lost in the great computer meltdown of 2017.

Admittedly, mobile phones have an upside. They have allowed a generation of young people to contact each other and plan mischief to get up to that very evening. The same device, alas, has also allowed their parents to ring them at random through the evening, preventing the aforementioned mischief. So again: evolution, backwards.

Underwear used to be comfortable, with both genders slipping on something large, usually made of white cotton and slightly grey from the wash. This wasn't very alluring, yet once you were both down to your knickers, plans were rarely derailed by mere undergarment aesthetics. Missing was that tight nylon trussing that is such a contributor to the fractious mood of our time. Comfortably gusseted, one was free to contemplate with equanimity those periods in which one found oneself untroubled by romance.

Further evidence of backwards evolution comes courtesy of the supermarket. They have removed the fish from behind the fish counter, instead placing it in tubs of ice out on the floor where people can breathe all over it. This is meant to promote the sensation you are in some sort of Naples street market, rather than trudging around Coles Birkenhead Point in the 20 minutes between your son's soccer game and your daughter's netball.

Here's the new method: point to the fish you want and the assistant comes from behind the counter, squats down wearily beside the metal bucket, lifts the fish into a bag while dripping water over the floor, then returns behind the counter to weigh the thing. Ah, progress.

Meanwhile, they've taken the green beans and the broccoli and put them on large platters in a process that can be described only as mysterious. If only they could also take all the tomatoes and serve them on wooden platters so they would tumble free and cover the whole floor in a sea of red. By running our trolleys through the resulting melee, we could create our own alfresco pasta sauce.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A heartfelt letter to my grieving mother and Maggie's great unknown quality - her human kindness

By Tom Utley

At my father’s funeral in 1988, Margaret Thatcher arrived more than an hour before the rest of the mourners. She took her place in a pew at the front of our parish church of  St Mary on Paddington Green in West London, sitting alone in the silence, her eyes on the altar.

Our friend the vicar told us later that he’d been taken aback to see the then prime minister there so early, asking her in great trepidation if somebody had given her the wrong time. Her reply has gone down in Utley family history.

‘No,’ she said, ‘I just didn’t want my arrival to upstage the widow.’

After a week in which all the papers have carried page after page of Thatcher coverage, I can imagine that even some of her most fervent fans may be wanting to read about something else. To them, I apologise for what follows.

It’s just that, in all the millions of words of eulogy from the Right and ignorant rants from the Left, one aspect of this extraordinary woman’s character has often been overlooked.

And after the immense kindnesses she showed my family in our bereavement, I feel it would be simply wrong of me to let her own death pass without recording what I know of it.

The quality I mean was her profound thoughtfulness for others — and particularly for people who, in the great scheme of things, couldn’t be said to count for much. This went beyond perfect manners, which can be taught, to a deeper form of fellow-feeling, which cannot.

Norman Lamont, the former chancellor, touched on it in his affectionate tribute in the Lords on Wednesday, when he said that Lady Thatcher seemed ‘compassionate about drivers, secretaries and doorkeepers — but not about ministers’.

And nobody had any trouble believing him when he added that she had once called him ‘utterly hopeless’.

My favourite story about the Lady, which illustrates the point perfectly, is of the grand Chequers dinner at which a nervous waitress dropped a bowl full of scalding soup into the lap of one of the guests (my increasingly unreliable memory tells me the diner in question was Sir Geoffrey Howe; but it was somebody very important, whoever it was).

As the diner whimpered in agony, a horrified Mrs T leaped from her chair, rushed round the table and gave a huge, comforting hug to....  the waitress.

Immediately and instinctively, she understood who was suffering most in that room — and it wasn’t the dignitary with the scalded crotch, whose whimpers she ignored.

I must admit that I wasn’t there, and so can’t testify to the truth of the story.

But it squares so completely with dozens of similar accounts of her kindnesses to little people (whom she would never in a million years have regarded as such) that I believe it. It certainly tallies with my own family’s experience after my father’s death, for which I can vouch absolutely.

Now, I’m not claiming for one moment that anyone would describe the blind journalist and sage T.E. ‘Peter’ Utley, as one of the little people.

As I may just conceivably have mentioned before, Lady Thatcher herself was to call my father ‘the most distinguished Tory thinker of his generation’.

With her love of ideas, she relished his company, the clarity of his mind and his readiness to argue with her (which, as an old-school Tory, suspicious of ‘radicalism’, he often did — though they agreed over much more than they disagreed).

He also helped with some of her most famous speeches.

As I’ve certainly mentioned before, he may even have had a hand in her famous observation that ‘there’s no such thing as society’ — a remark whose meaning has been turned on its head by her thicker enemies (including Nick Clegg, in his fatuous Commons ‘tribute’ to her this week) ever since she uttered it in 1987.

What these twits never cite is the sentence that followed: ‘There are individual men and women and there are families; and no government can do anything except through people.’

But it wasn’t my father of whom Lady Thatcher first thought when he died, aged 67, on Midsummer’s Day, 1988. It was of my housewife mother, whom she had met only rarely.

That day, the prime minister was in Toronto for a G7 summit, discussing international economic policy with leaders including Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, Noboru Takeshita of Japan and European Commission President Jacques Delors.

Yet before she went to bed, she found time to write a long and moving letter to my mother — four or five pages, in her own hand, woman to woman — praising my father and offering her love and prayers.

A diplomatic messenger delivered it to our flat in London the next morning, producing it from a bag emblazoned with the royal arms.

It was quite the grandest thing that had ever happened to us. And it meant more to my mother than I can say.

I’ve often wondered what Presidents Reagan or Mitterrand would have thought if they’d poked their heads round Lady Thatcher’s door the previous night and asked her what she was working on.

At a time like that, would any other world leader have felt an immediate, compassionate duty to comfort the widow of an occasional speechwriter?

We were amazed, too, when she re-arranged her schedule to come to the funeral, on a day she had to fly to Paris for another summit. Indeed, she went straight from the church to the airport, leaving without any attempt to draw attention to herself, with just a few words to my mother, a handshake for the vicar and a sympathetic nod to me and the rest of the family.

One final, thoughtful touch: her car had got ahead of the funeral cortege as we left for the crematorium. So she told her driver to pull over and let us pass, while her police outriders waved us through the red lights to take the path they had cleared for her. The second grandest moment of our lives, in the space of a week.

But her kindness didn’t stop there. Not only did she come to my father’s memorial service, where she read a lesson, but she offered herself as patron of his memorial fund, appearing at several of its prizegivings over the years. Her thoughtfulness to my mother wasn’t a one-off, but a commitment for life.

She also planted a tree in my father’s memory, at a private ceremony at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.

But so petty and vile are her enemies that, when they saw her name on the plaque soon afterwards, vandals dug it up and destroyed it.

I know that, by now, many of those enemies will be spitting with rage at me.

It’s all very well being kind to waitresses and the bereaved families of friends, they’ll say, but, ‘What about the miners?’

To which I can only answer that they know, as well as anyone else, that no matter whose hand signed the death warrant, it was economics that killed the mines. It was simply unsustainable to go on asking taxpayers to pay men to destroy their lungs, a mile underground, digging out coal that was worth pounds less per ton than it cost to extract.

But quite enough ink has been wasted on the disgusting displays of rejoicing over Lady Thatcher’s death by the ignorant exhibitionists of the Left.

The fact is they don’t hate the real Margaret Thatcher, the great and good woman who did more than any peacetime prime minister for the ordinary people of Britain, whom she cared about and believed in so passionately.

Indeed, they know nothing of her, refusing even to think about what she did for her country, since myth and caricature suit their argument better than the truth.

What they are actually ranting at is her Spitting Image puppet — and that just makes them look profoundly stupid.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Tristan da Cunha

It is the world's most remote group of islands, 6,173 miles from Britain, and has more birds and penguins than human residents.

But there is one thing missing from the lives of the Tristan da Cunha islanders - it cannot find a vicar to give them spiritual guidance.

The volcanic British territory in the South Atlantic has been without a parish priest since Father Chris Brown left in 2010.

The post has been advertised several times, according to the Church Times, but so far no one has agreed to make their home 1,750 miles from the nearest landmass of Africa.

Now the residents, who number 262, could have a woman as their next priest as the Cape Town diocese steps up its attempts to fill the vacancy.

Lorna Lavarello-Smith,  who was born on the island, is training in Peterborough to be a priest and is helping the search.

She is and is due to be ordained this summer before serving a curacy in Northamptonshire.

Ms Lavarello-Smith, the descendant of Italian Gaetano Lavarello, who was shipwrecked on the island in 1892, hopes to return to live on Tristan da Cunha 'one day', the Independent on Sunday reported,

She described the island as a 'very special' place in which to serve, adding: 'If you are looking for a ministry where you want to be close to God and close to nature, then Tristan da Cunha is the place for you.

'There is something about being in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, reliant on a community of people with whom you live. You hear the sound of God's voice much more clearly.'

According to Tristan da Cunha's website, the new vicar of St Mary's will ideally play a musical instrument and teach at the school.

The advert said: 'Applicants should be active and energetic. A keen interest in church music and the ability to play an instrument would be an asset.'

Tristan da Cunha is a close-knit community with just seven surnames among its inhabitants, but some of its priests have found life depressing and lonely there.

The Reverend Edwin H Dodgson, younger brother of writer Lewis Carroll, grew so unhappy at the 'unnatural state of isolation' he told of his despair four years after arriving as a teacher and missionary in 1880.  He wrote: 'It has been my daily prayer that God would open up some way for us all to leave ...There is not the slightest reason for this island to be inhabited at all.'

There was a 13-year time lapse between a vicar's appointment when the Rev Graham Barrow quit the island in 1909.

The archipelago, first sighted in 1506, consists of the main island of Tristan da Cunha itself, which measures about seven miles across. Settlers arrived in 1810. It has an area of 37.8 sq miles, along with the uninhabited Nightingale Islands and the wildlife reserves of Inaccessible Island and Gough Island.

There is no airport and only nine ships are scheduled to visit from Cape Town, the nearest major port. Television arrived only in 2001, but there are only two terrestrial channels.

During World War Two, It  was used as a listening post to monitor German ships while the entire population was evacuated from 1961-63 over a threatened volcano eruption.

Protestants 'work harder' and their mental wellbeing is more affected when they are unemployed

People in Protestant countries work harder because they feel guiltier about taking time off, a study has found.

And while unemployment generally makes all people unhappy, it is twice as likely seriously to affect the mental wellbeing of Protestants as those of other denominations.

The findings suggest that the economic downturn may have had a far more serious effect on people in Britain than other countries, with joblessness more likely to have led to depression among Christian workers.

Scientists from Holland studied more than 150,000 people in 82 countries to find out whether there was any truth behind the notion of a Protestant work ethic.

The countries deemed historically Protestant by the researchers, from Groningen University, included the UK, the US Australia, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

They found those who were unemployed in all countries said they were less happy when out of work, regardless of religious denomination, but this was exacerbated among those in Protestant countries.

In fact, Protestants are generally 40 per cent less happy when unemployed than others, they reported.

Researchers took into account a number of factors which could have skewed results - such as marital status, age, gender, income, education and health.

Dutch economist Dr AndrĂ© van Hoorn, who led the study, said: ‘The negative effect of unemployment on self-reported happiness was twice as strong for Protestants compared with non-Protestants.

‘We found that the work ethic does exist and that individual Protestants and historically Protestant societies appear to value work much more than others.

‘At the individual level, unemployment hurts Protestants much more than it does non-Protestants. Protestantism causes a stronger work ethic.

‘Interestingly, it is not so much Protestant individuals who are hurt more by being unemployed as it is individuals - both Protestants and non-Protestants - living in Protestant societies.’

He added that the results supported sociologist Max Weber’s idea that a strong work ethic is something which has evolved from historical Protestantism, rather than contemporary interpretations of Protestantism.

Weber first came up with the notion of a Protestant work ethic in 1904, suggesting that the religious concept of achieving God-given grace through frugality and working hard was one of the crucibles of capitalism.

Despite the theory being widely accepted since, the Dutch researchers sought to test it.

Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, said the study ‘shows that the Protestant work ethic is alive and kicking’.

He added: ‘It was very evident during the Thatcher and Blair years and the current coalition emphasis on the negative aspects of benefits are also evidence of it.

‘It is very much a cultural thing. In the UK, for example, people work for achievement; in the US, with fewer safety nets - no redundancy [pay] for example - fear is likely a driver.

‘I think 2008 made some differences. People who had followed the work ethic for years found themselves without a job. All the sacrifices - working long hours, not seeing the kids - had not worked out.

'We may find that’s damaged the work ethic and people are putting less focus on work and more on a balance between work and the rest of their life.’

Journal article:

Friday, April 5, 2013

Mr Osborne looks like a French aristo in a powdered wig. But that's no reason to put on this prolier than thou routine

Tom Utley offers some thoughts on the British class system

Whenever I see George Osborne on the telly, I remember a friend’s brilliant observation that he always looks like an aristocrat in a powdered wig, peering nervously through his carriage window at the Parisian mob on the eve of the French Revolution.

Indeed, the poor man has about him a permanent air of haughty disdain for his fellow man, mixed with a touch of cruelty and a hint of fear.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Chancellor actually suffers from any of these character defects. In private life, for all I know, he may be as lovable, fearless and free from hauteur as the Andrex puppy.

All my friend was saying is that when the Good Lord was distributing facial features, He unkindly kitted out young George Gideon Oliver Osborne with those of a supercilious grandee of the ancien regime. He might have added that He gave him a voice to match the face — with a thin, reedy quality and a fastidious accent, suggestive of a childhood spent whining at liveried footmen.

Whatever the truth may be about the inner Gideon, as his family called him in his youth, it has long been apparent that for a politician of the 21st century, he has a bit of an image problem. Clearly, he thinks so himself, because this week, as anyone who heard his speech on welfare reform will confirm, he tried to do something about it.

Not the face, of course. There’s not much a bloke can do about that, short of plastic surgery or growing a beard. But he made a very noticeable effort to adjust the accent, attempting to bring it a notch or two down the social scale by elaborately dropping his tees and aitches and flicking in other touches of Estuary English.

‘Wod I wanna torkta you abah .....’ he began, before getting on to his message that ‘hard-working people who wanna ge’ on in life are gonna be bedderoff’.

If you missed it, and can be bothered, you can catch the whole thing on YouTube and make up your own mind about how far he succeeded in presenting himself as a man of the people. But if you want my opinion, the experiment was not a happy one.

To me, he came across like nothing so much as an 18th-century French aristocrat on the steps of the guillotine, mounting a desperately unconvincing last-minute attempt to persuade the mob that he was really on their side. Indeed, I thought his efforts to sound prolier-than-thou drew attention to his poshness, rather than playing it down.

Of course, Mr Osborne is far from the only British politician who has tried to endear himself to an audience by disguising an accent redolent of privilege.

Perhaps the supreme vocal chameleon is Tony Blair, who will slip from a light Scottish brogue for an audience in Edinburgh to a mid-Atlantic twang for the Yanks — and from Mitford to mockney, depending on whether he is addressing officer cadets at Sandhurst or young offenders in Shoreditch.

But in a strange sort of way, the former Prime Minister’s Rory Bremner act is less jarring than Mr Osborne’s — and not only because Mr Blair is better at it.

My own paradoxical theory is that he gets away with it more successfully because, in switching from one accent to another, he is being completely true to himself. For I’ve always thought the most remarkable feature of the real Anthony Charles Lynton Blair is that there isn’t one, and never was. The man is a fake, through and through, a chameleon to the shallow depths of his nature.

On the other hand, there is a real George Osborne, rooted firmly in a distinctive social class. The trouble is that the mockney-speaking persona he adopted on Tuesday, at Morrisons supermarket distribution centre in Kent, wasn’t him.

True, a survey this week found that more than a fifth of Britons admit to altering our natural accents — whether to sound more posh, like Hyacinth Bucket and the late Woy Jenkins, or less so, like most of the Queen’s grandchildren. But voters still tend to be suspicious of politicians who try to disown their class backgrounds.

If my theory is right, it may go a long way towards explaining why Boris Johnson’s poshness has never stood much in the way of his popularity. For say what you like about my old colleague, what you hear is what you get.

Like David Cameron, he has never made the slightest attempt to disguise the fact he comes from an upper-middle-class background and went to the poshest school in the world. Indeed, my only slight doubt about his accent is the mystery of how anyone below the rank of Duke could genuinely be as posh as Boris sounds.

What is certain is that the niceties and gradations of the Britain class system — with its animosities and snobberies, whether inverted or otherwise — have exerted an endless (and, let’s face it, unhealthy) fascination for the people of these islands through the ages.

Without them, most of our greatest novelists, from Austen and Trollope to P.G. Wodehouse, would have had trouble finding anything to write about, while many a wedding reception would have passed off with a great deal less ill-feeling between the families of the bride and the groom.

Of course, attitudes to class have long been changing. Indeed, one great irony about Mr Osborne is that if he’d actually been around in the 18th century to which his face belongs, snobs would have thought him a frightful oik. This is because his father, though the 17th Baronet, is in the interior decorating trade (Osborne & Little is the family firm), while young Gideon himself went to the least posh of the three great London public schools.

After all (and do agree, my dear) his alma mater St Paul’s has always ranked socially behind my own old school, Westminster —and a poor third to that production line of cads and bounders, Harrow. Yet today, even the most crashing snobs seem to regard Mr Osborne and his background as ineffably posh.

But then nothing was ever simple about our class system. And now the BBC has teamed with a group of academics to complicate it further, by inventing seven new gradations of social class — ranging from ‘elite’ at the top to ‘precariat’ at the bottom — and inviting us all to test which we belong to by answering a questionnaire online.

It seems to me a pretty pointless exercise, with more to do with income than class. And it will surprise nobody to discover that Mr Osborne falls squarely among the elite. But then so do some three million others (including, apparently, me — though our four sons, all fluent mockney speakers, with highly precarious futures, come out second from bottom as ‘emergent service workers’).

Now, I have to admit that I understand why Mr Osborne sought to disguise his class on Tuesday. After all, he was trying to spread the message that it’s wrong for people who are capable of working to live off the labour of others. And hasn’t he only to enunciate his natural vowels to indicate that he’s well used to benefiting from other’s efforts, through a trust fund or two?

But here’s the final irony: when he says that idleness should never pay better than work, he is striking a chord that resonates from top to bottom of the class system. Indeed, polls show that the public’s hostility to over-generous welfare benefits is at its loudest in the BBC’s three poorest categories — traditional working class, emergent service workers and precariat.

For once, he has a message that will appeal to the great mass of voters — in fact, it may yet prove an election winner — and there’s really no need to deliver it in an unnatural voice.

In my book, Mr Osborne deserves huge credit for sticking to his economic strategy. If he takes my advice, he’ll stick to his true accent, too.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Ivan Hewett

There are certain areas of feeling that classical music does especially well. One of them is the sense that everything will be all right, that there is order underneath the chaos, that peace will win out over rage and darkness. Let’s call it consolation.

It’s found most often in religious music, but not only there. And even when there are consoling words, there’s something in the music itself which redeems the mess of this world, even if we don’t believe in the words.

No composer expresses this mysterious feeling more powerfully than Bach, which may be why he appeals so much to unbelievers like me. Many things conspire to produce that feeling. It’s partly that so much later classical music springs out of Bach, so listening to him feels like going home. There’s also the sense that the music is obeying deep laws which spring out of the nature of music itself. Nobody invented them, they just exist. And finally there’s the sense that the crystalline order of Bach is rooted in simple everyday things – the rhythms of breathing and dancing, and sturdy common chords.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Nest feels a little emptier after family ties fortified by floodwaters

A tale from Brisbane's big flood by John Henningham

OF COURSE you must stay with us, I assured my suddenly homeless son. For as long as it takes to rebuild.

Which could be weeks, I thought, looking at the muddied wreck that had been home for the family of four.

We'd seized as many of their possessions as we could, splashing through the rapidly rising waters in our little convoy - cars and a truck bursting with mattresses, fridge, clothes and fluffy toys. A team of touch football mates helped load and disappeared just as rapidly to help other families.

Then the waiting, on that fine and sunny January day, eerily free of portents of the rising catastrophe. Within hours all access was cut off and the broadcast warnings were increasingly grim.

By the end of the day, the slab beneath our high-set Queenslander looked like a bazaar, with son's and a neighbour's chairs, rugs, fridges, beds, cupboards and linen jammed together.

But then the waters receded, and after another day we finally saw our son's house. And saw his heartbreak. Everything inside and out was coated in the drying black muck left behind by the river, its stench filling our nostrils.

The kitchen clock was frozen at 26 past six, witness to the moment the waters had reached halfway up the walls, before rising above the ceiling.

And suddenly the clean-up was on, like a pitched battle. Friends and family were joined by dozens of robust volunteers. The footpath looked like a long garbage tip. Water tankers hosed the slimy mud off the road while trucks picked up the rubbish.

The street took on a carnival atmosphere, with sausage sizzles, drinks and ice creams, everyone helping each other. It was Brisbane at its finest.

The house ended as a skeleton, a framework of studs, joists and trusses, but with the outer boards and tiled roof intact. We settled into a new life - empty nesters no longer. The fledglings sent off by the parent birds had returned with chicks of their own.

There were sympathetic looks from old friends. "It must be difficult," murmured one. They saw my cheerful denials as lacking credibility, perhaps because they knew how grouchy and difficult men of a certain age can become. We'd allocated the little family two rooms plus the second bathroom. Yet over the months there seemed to be a gradual encroachment. The carpets in living areas were colonised by toy cars and trucks, a doll's house, blocks and a train table.

Our bathroom had the house's only bath, so it became a home for rubber duckies, turtles and tiny boats. I'd often find the toilet had a little insert in the seat. The backyard soon had a sandpit and play castle, plus scooter, balls and Tonka truck. Soon it seemed we were confined to two rooms, while the young family had the rest. But story-time and goodnight kisses were a boost - something grandparents normally don't get to experience every day.

Our grandson Patrick turned three during their stay. He delighted in nicknames, had renamed Gran as Nan, and now the tongue-twister of Grandpa was simplified to Punka. I got to like that name.

But it wasn't easy for the young parents, suddenly thrown into a role of dependency while trying to manage their family as well as do their jobs and part-time study, on top of dealing with all the complications of rebuilding and applying for flood funds.

Buttressing the young family was the support from friends and strangers who didn't forget and kept pitching in. Gifts of toys, furniture and clothing poured through our doors. An acquaintance sent a huge hamper of goodies, while meals, cakes and drinks kept arriving from myriad friends.

Very generous cash gifts were quietly and often anonymously dropped in. A former student in Japan sent a donation, little knowing his own country was just weeks away from a far more terrible devastation. And ongoing labour was at hand to get the major reconstruction started, led by my son's parents-in-law.

Surplus gifts of furniture were distributed back and forth between other families in the street, until finally anything extra was packed off to the serious flood victims at Grantham.

A week or so after the flood, the muddied kitchen clock began ticking again. Surely a good sign.

After months when nothing much seemed to happen, a flurry of professional building activity after the flood funds came through meant the house was ready to be lived in again. And so the little family left us, 7 1/2 months after the January disaster.

It was disturbingly quiet and still the first morning after they'd gone. No happy babbling of baby chatter or toddlers' yells and laughter.

No toys being trundled up and down the hallway. No little boy waking us at dawn to ask if we'd play. No calling to order from the parents. No big pot of porridge on the stove.

A dreadful hush that made the place seem lonely. Carpets lay sadly bare, deprived of their toys and kiddie furniture. It was all too quiet and neat.

A couple of days later, as we visited the little family and I looked around at their beautifully restored house, my grandson begged us to stay longer. We realised he was missing us, too.

I told him we had to go back to our house, but we'd be seeing him and his sister often. He threw his arms around me and gave me a tight hug. "I love you Punka," he said. Not entirely a bad flood.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

So Jacob, did you really go canvassing in a Bentley with your nanny? No! It was mummy's Mercedes: JANE FRYER meets the poshest man in politics

The honourable member for Somerset North East, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is enjoying a bit of a purple patch.

He has recently been described as a ‘mini Boris’ and the ‘undisputed star of the backbenches’, constantly perking up dreary Commons sessions with his brilliant speeches and wonderfully dry humour (often in Latin) and sitting (very elegantly) back down to cries of ‘More! More!’ from both sides of the chamber.

Quite a feat considering 43-year-old Jacob — second youngest child of the late Sir William Rees-Mogg — must be the poshest man in politics, alternately known as The Mogg, a Bertie Wooster throwback, ‘David Cameron’s worst nightmare’ and ‘the honourable member for the early 20th century’.

He is so unashamedly upper-class he’s rumoured to wear wing-collared pyjamas in bed, has never knowingly been seen in casual clothes and, at Tory Party conferences, tethers his plastic security pass to an elegant gold watch chain.

He has also been surgically attached to his briefcase since his first day at Eton and, during the 1997 General Election, took his nanny canvassing during his failed bid to win the safe Labour stronghold of Central Fife.

Of late, he’s caused quite a stir by commuting from his home in Mayfair (he also has a rather lovely pile in Somerset) to Westminster in a grey 1968 Bentley that he bought at auction for £8,000 when he was just 22.

‘I usually drive my Lexus around town, but it’s been broken recently. In fact,’ he adds with a joyful cry, ‘I’ve got two Bentleys — the 1968 one and a 1936 model.’

And, er, which Bentley did he and Nanny take canvassing in Fife in 1997?

‘Oh, no. That was wrong. Well, the Nanny bit is right. Of course she came canvassing; she’s part of the family after all — she’s been with us 47 years. But we took my mother’s Mercedes Estate. I don’t think a Bentley’s a suitable campaigning car. As much as anything it was the petrol consumption: six miles to the gallon.’

In the flesh, as he dollops clotted cream and jam onto his scone in the House of Commons tea room, Jacob is just as posh as you’d expect, indescribably polite and old-fashioned, very young looking and extremely funny and self-deprecating (‘Oh no, my Latin is awful — I just know a few useful phrases’), despite clearly being terrifyingly clever.

This is, after all, the man who last year stunned the House when he casually dropped the word ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ into a debate on the remuneration of EU staff.

He’s always been bright — aged eight he was reading the FT and playing the stock market with the help of a £50 inheritance from a distant uncle. Nanny telephoned his broker on his behalf.

One Eton contemporary recalls him as ‘immaculately turned out, and with a brain so large you could almost see it throbbing’.

Aged 11, he had turned the £50 into £3,500 and was terrorising the City with regular appearances at company AGMs. At one GEC shareholders’ meeting, he castigated the chairman about the company’s ‘pathetic dividend’.

Soon, he was giving regular interviews to the media, telling the public about his plan to be ‘a millionaire at 20, a multi-millionaire at 40 and Prime Minister at 70, when I’ve made enough money to be able to afford to waste some on politics’.

In a moment of frivolity, he revealed that he loved Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, had made three wills and was obsessed with Dallas. And that the people he’d most like to meet were: ‘Margaret Thatcher, the Queen, Geoffrey Boycott and Larry Hagman, in that order.’

Thirty years on, he hasn’t made much progress.  ‘Of the four, I’ve only met one of them — Margaret Thatcher. And Larry Hagman’s dead.’

What, not even the Queen? ‘No! I was supposed to meet her the other day at Buckingham Palace.  I went in the Bentley because I thought you should go in a proper car if you’re meeting the Queen, but she was ill, so I missed her by a whisker.’

After his 1997 defeat in Fife — where he canvassed tirelessly and enthusiastically and won 9 per cent of the vote — he tried again in 2001, losing The Wrekin in Shropshire to Labour’s Peter Bradbury, and later failed to be selected in the fantastically posh London borough of Kensington and Chelsea for ‘lacking the common touch’.

But in 2010 it all finally came good in Somerset North East, where his family has lived for centuries.  ‘The party hierarchy didn’t want me to be the candidate,’ he says. ‘The timing was unfortunate — they’d just launched a  big thing to change the image  of candidates and then they immediately selected me.’

Which is why, he maintains, he’ll ‘never, ever, ever’ be offered a place in David Cameron’s Cabinet.  ‘I had more chance of becoming the new Pope. Though I don’t think my wife would be very happy if I became Pope.’

It must be a bit frustrating — to be stuck on the backbenches, with his enormous brain and all that energy courtesy of seven coffees a day and endless Creme Eggs (yes, still).

‘No, no, no! I love being on the backbenches. My office is the size of a broom cupboard, but I’m right in the thick of it. And I’m much freer. For example, I can say to you that I’d love the Tories to do a deal with UKIP, whereas ministers can’t really say things like that.’

So what does he think of Nigel Farage? ‘I think he’s one of the ablest politicians around and says things — a great deal of which, but not everything — I agree with.’

Would he be tempted to defect?  ‘No! Never, never, never! I was born a Conservative and I shall die a Conservative.’ He has certainly remained impressively committed. At Eton, where he was frequently teased (‘in a nice, jolly way — I still am, and I most likely deserve it’), he was once sent out of class for sporting a large Tory rosette during the 1983 General Election.

‘It’s pretty sad, isn’t it, that the most serious, worst, naughtiest thing that I’ve ever done is wearing a Tory rosette in class? In fact, no! I got sent out twice at Eton,’ he says, looking pleased. ‘The second time was for an argument with a beak [teacher] over the infallibility of the papacy. I seem to recall mine was a very hardline view.’ Jacob is a committed Roman Catholic.

After Eton came Trinity College, Oxford, and then a very successful career as an investment banker. He still works 30 days a year for Somerset Capital Management for a reputed £10,000 a month, presumably to service the Bentleys.

Not renowned as a ladies’ man, everyone was a bit surprised when he met and, in 2007, married Helena de Chair, daughter of the late, very rich Somerset de Chair and the former Juliet, Marchioness of Bristol.

‘We met at a campaign for a referendum on the EU constitution, as you do. And then we met a few times subsequently, and here we are — four children later.’

He proposed in front of one of her mother’s five Van Dykes. (Apparently the two Stubbses were on loan to a gallery. According to a friend, the engagement was lengthened at Juliet’s request until they were returned so the wedding guests could admire them.)

Of course, there’s no disputing Jacob is, well, different. Some people have questioned whether anyone could really be like that, or if he is playing up to the public perception of him.

‘I’m just me,’ he insists. ‘I just carry on doing what I’ve always been doing.’

There are so many (presumably) apocryphal stories doing the rounds that I ask if I can run through a few and see which, if any, are true.

‘Of course! What fun. Why not?’

OK, here goes . . . did he, or did he not ever pay a boy at Eton to shield him with an umbrella on a cross-country run?

‘No. I wish I had. What a good idea!’

Did Nanny and his maid really take turns to stand behind him shielding his neck from the sun at Glyndebourne with a book?

‘That’s true, though I’m afraid I can’t remember which book it was.’

Did he and the King of Spain have sole access to an exclusive hidden upstairs loo at Claridges?

‘Yes! You can’t have too many people using a special loo or it’s no longer special — but it’s now a disabled loo, so anyone can use it.’

Does he dress for dinner at home?

‘Not every night, no. And not on my own. And, yes, the ladies do leave when the port comes in.’

Does he possess a pair of jeans?

‘No I don’t! What on earth would I do with them?’

Is his favourite food still Cadbury’s Creme Eggs.

‘Oh, I love Creme Eggs. And ready salted crisps — my ideal supper.’

Did he try to change the last four digits of his phone number to 1649, the date of the execution of Charles I, to make it more memorable?

‘I didn’t try to, I did.’

And finally, did his wife, Helena, really sport a tongue stud when they met?

‘Yes she did! She got rid of it when our eldest, Peter, was born. She thought mothers ought not to have tongue studs.’

Gosh, was it a bit, well, startling when he first encountered it?

‘Oh, goodness! I think she told me before I, er, spotted it.’

We both go pink. Presumably he doesn’t have any piercings himself?

‘No, not so far. And not any tattoos either — yet. I’m still waiting for my rebellious stage.’

Yes, Jacob is 43 going on 60, but that’s half his charm. He’s also kind, courteous, hard-working and unfailingly patient when faced with a raft of silly questions.

Despite his penchant for nannies, Bentleys, ridiculous private loos and preposterous poshness, I’d love him to be my MP.

Unlike David Cameron, I’d love him and his throbbing brain to be in the Cabinet. In fact, forget that — Jacob Rees-Mogg for Prime Minister!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The flood dog that miraculously came back to life

A southeast Queensland council is putting out a call for anybody who recognises this plucky pooch to get in touch.
The series of images released today were sent to Somerset Regional Council, to the west of Brisbane, for inclusion in a commemorative book of photos documenting stories of recovery from the 2011 floods.
Two show what appears to be a bloated, muddy and lifeless staffy-cross lying in a field.
bnefloods 2011 dog comes back to life after a wash

When first found lying in a field, the dog was bloated, muddy and lifeless. A third shows a person hosing off the unfortunate animal, as it becomes more recognisable.
A final instalment in the series shows the newly-clean dog, smiling happily for the camera.
Council plans to use the photographs in its book The Somerset Story, documenting the region's flood recovery, if it can identify the dog's owner or the person in the picture.
bnefloods 2011 dog comes back to life after a wash

As this person hosed the dog down, it gradually became recognisable.
Somerset Regional Council flood recovery officer Jane Williamson said the dog had won over everybody involved in the production.
"The photographs tell an amazing story of a dog that truly looks like it's had its day," she said.
"It's quite amazing that the dog survived the floods when you look at the earlier photos of it bloated and lying in the grass.

Finally from bloated, muddy and lifeless, the pooch staged a miraculous return from the dead, cracking a smile for the camera. If you recognise this dog or the person hosing it down, contact Somerset Regional Council.

UPDATE:  Apparently the doggy was just enjoying a roll in the mud -- as doggies sometimes do.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A 1956 Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire

Complete with suicide doors

I always admired them in their day.