Thursday, September 30, 2010

Perpetual twilight of red dwarf planet Gliese 581g may host 'band of life'

US astronomers have discovered an Earth-sized planet that they think might be habitable, orbiting a nearby star, and believe there could be many more planets like it in space.

The planet, found by astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is orbiting in the middle of the "habitable zone" of the red dwarf star Gliese 581, which means it could have water on its surface.

The scientists determined that the planet, named Gliese 581g, has a mass three to four times that of Earth and an orbital period of just under 37 days.

Its mass indicates that it is probably a rocky planet and has enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, according to Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the leaders of the team that discovered the planet.

"Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say, my own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 per cent," Mr Vogt said. "I have almost no doubt about it."

If Gliese 581g has a rocky composition similar to Earth's, its diameter would be about 1.2 to 1.4 times that of the Earth, the researchers said. The surface gravity would be about the same or slightly higher than Earth's, so that a person could easily walk upright on the planet, Mr Vogt said.

Gliese 581g was discovered by scientists working on the Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey, during 11 years of observing the red dwarf star Gliese 581, which is only 20 light years from Earth.

For astronomers, 11 years of observation is considered a short time and 20 light years, which is roughly 190 trillion kilometres, rather close. The sun is around eight and a half light minutes from Earth.

"The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common," Mr Vogt said.

The planet is tidally locked to its star, meaning that one side is always facing the star and basking in perpetual daylight, and the other is in perpetual darkness because it faces away from the star. This would make the line between darkness and light the most habitable part of the new planet, which is known as the "terminator".

The researchers estimate that the average surface temperature of the planet would be between -31 to -12 degrees Celsius. But actual temperatures would range from "blazing hot on the side facing the star, to freezing cold on the dark side", they said.

That means the probability of life existing in a band of perpetual twilight or "Goldilocks zone" (not too hot, not too cold) around the planet is high.

The findings, which will be published in the Astrophysical Journal and posted online at, "offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet", Mr Vogt said.

In their report, the scientists in fact announce the discovery of two new planets around Gliese 581, bringing the total number of known planets around this star to six. Two previously detected planets around Gliese lie at the edges of the habitable zone, one on the hot side and one on the cold side of the star, and are probably not habitable. The newly discovered planet g, however, lies right in the middle of the habitable zone.


Monday, September 27, 2010

A politician with a sense of humour

Switzerland's finance minister won applause in parliament after struggling to contain his giggles while answering a parliamentary question about imports of cured meats.

The video showing Hans-Rudolf Merz convulsing with laughter at the unintelligible bureaucratic language in his script has become an internet hit.

Merz was widely criticized in recent years for signing away much of Switzerland's banking secrecy and failing to secure the release of two Swiss citizens held by Libya.

However he seems to have regained some of his popularity as the nation sympathised with his efforts to negotiate the text laid before him by civil servants.

His speech has been viewed by more than 300,000 people on YouTube and other websites since Monday and prompted one maker of air-dried meats to advertise their wares with the slogan: "Never lose your sense of humor."


More Hitler watercolours come to light

I have deleted some ill-informed commentary below. No consideration seems to have been given to the possibility of forgeries. I am no arty-farty but some of the pictures below seem quite good to me -- JR

A recently discovered collection of Adolf Hitler paintings worth £150,000 will go under the hammer later this month. The selection of watercolours was all painted around 1908 when Hitler was simply known as a jobbing artist trying to earn a living. Scenes depict views across vast areas of farmland with a distant church spire on the road, village scenes and rows of factories.

Courtyard: Adolf Hitler was a struggling young artist when he painted this scene
Adolf Hitler was a struggling young artist when he painted this scene

Richard Westwood-Brookes of Mullocks Auctions revealed the Nazi leader used to offer to paint night landscapes for tourists to try and earn some money. He said: 'His daily activity was to go out and paint - he was penniless

Scenes depict views across vast areas of farmland with a distant church spire on the road, village scenes and rows of factories
Scenes depict views across vast areas of farmland with a distant church spire on the road, village scenes and rows of factories

The paintings, signed by Hitler, were found within a large estate in the north of Austria
The paintings, signed by Hitler, were found within a large estate in the north of Austria

Leisure: Adolf Hitler (right) eats a meal with his personal physician, Professor Theodor Morell (left), and the wife of Gauleiter Albert Forster, in rare photos also due to go under the hammer
Leisure: Adolf Hitler (right) eats a meal with his personal physician, Professor Theodor Morell (left), and the wife of Gauleiter Albert Forster, in rare photos also due to go under the hammer

Mr Westwood-Brookes revealed the paintings had come into his hands after they were found within a large estate in the north of Austria by the high-flying lawyer who bought the whole estate. He said: 'When he moved in they were all sat there in a cupboard.

'Many large well-known auction houses are Jewish owned so they refuse to touch anything to do with Hitler due to policy. 'Across many countries in Europe such as France and Austria you can't sell them by law as they believe it's glorifying Nazis. 'Ebay in those countries won't accept anything to do with him, so they have to be sold outside the countries.' The auction will take place at Ludlow Racecourse, Shrops, on September 30


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Has Ed Miliband forgotten the lessons we learnt together at primary school?

Labour's new leader looks like being under the thumb of the unions – harking back to the bad old days of the 1970s, says Boris Johnson

It is an unsettling fact that I went to the same school as the party leader. Indeed, there are some people who have taken to complaining about this coincidence. They say it is unacceptable in the 21st century that so much political power should be concentrated in the old boys of one educational establishment. It is a sign, they say, that the country has failed to move on.

Both of us went to the same institution of ancient rituals and gorgeous brickwork, ideally situated by one of the nation's most famous waterways and blessed with lush green spaces nearby. It is a forcing-house of talent, where the offspring of privilege acquire that patina of good manners, the ever so slightly infuriating habit of putting people at their ease, together with that sense of entitlement that propels them to the top and marks them out ever after as Old Primroseans.

Yes, amigos, it cannot be denied. I attended the same Camden primary school as the new Labour leader Ed Miliband (and his brother David) – and what a fantastic place I remember it to be. There may be some more recent alumni who will accuse me of sentimentality. They may point out that things have got even better for the pupils of Princess Road Primary School, Camden.

I am going to see for myself fairly soon, but a glance at the website certainly reveals a happy and successful school. You will read of outstanding commendations from Ofsted, 99 per cent attendance rates, abundant music lessons, exciting expeditions and a lunch menu of rich complexity by comparison with the stuff we were given in the 1970s.

You will be pleased to know that fish and chips have been replaced by breaded hoki and chipped potatoes with tartar sauce or ketchup, all of it approved by the Maritime Stewardship Council.

Today's Primrose Hill primary school seems to be of a piece with today's London – a place vastly more prosperous and more at ease with itself than in that grim decade. Which may seem paradoxical to some us who wore flares and grew up to the sound of Slade, because in so many ways you could argue that we had things better 37 years ago.

We didn't worry so much about kids carrying knives, because a knife was generally thought to be a sneaky and cowardly way to fight. In so far as we fought, we used our fists.

Indeed, one of my most mind-searing memories is of standing in the playground and challenging all-comers to a fight and then watching in horror as an enormously tall girl – she must have been at least two years older than me, I swear – detached herself from her friends and strolled in my direction. After that things are a bit of a blur, except for a dim impression of the speed and solidity of her knuckles and a ring of laughing faces against the sky. Made me what I am, I expect.

We didn't worry about obesity. We hadn't even heard of the word. I can't think of a single one of us who was remotely portly – even me. We guzzled Tizer and Spangles and Sherbet Fountains and didn't seem to lose our whippet-like proportions.

Why was that, then? Was it because we were mandatorily filled up, each and every one of us, by an identical school dinner of a kind that would make Jamie Oliver pass out?

Do you remember the liver that was positively green, and so knobbly and scarred that the only possible conclusion was that the cow in question had just lost a lifelong struggle with the bottle? You had to eat it, or else you went hungry – because no one had a packed lunch.

Or was it because the grown-ups let us walk to school or muck about on bikes, even into the gloaming, without believing that every bush concealed a paedophile?

On which subject, I seem to remember that we had no particular shortage of male teachers, and our own class was led by a genial young man, laconic but inspiring, who used to put his feet up on the desk and open his copy – I kid you not – of The Daily Telegraph.

We were generally less obsessed with elf and safety, and though our knees were scabbed and our milk teeth were rotted by the Spangles, we developed exhilarating games that taught us about risk. There were Evel Knievel experiments with ramps and bicycles, and in the school grounds there were two buildings so close together that you could wedge yourself between them and then lever yourself up, using only your feet and your back, until you were 20 feet off the ground.

First some daredevils did it; then we all followed the craze – though not many imitated the kid whose trick was to drink the water of the Grand Union Canal.

Yes, it was idyllic in the pre-paranoid 1970s, and you may by this stage be wondering what I mean when I say that things are so much better today. Well, there was one thing that we did worry about – and that was the economy.

This was the era of the three-day week, and the lights going out, and capricious and arbitrary union power being used to bring the country to its knees. It was a decade that culminated in our pathetic national capitulation to the IMF.

I note that Ed Miliband has emerged blatantly from the bowels of the trade unions, and that it was thanks to union chiefs that he edged a millimetre ahead of the elder Miliband. I note that he and other senior Labour figures are now pledging to support strike action – no matter how unreasonable, no matter how much damage it may do to the interests of the general public or the British economy – in the hope of scoring political points against the Coalition Government.

I note, in other words, that under Ed Miliband the trade unions seem set to dominate the Labour Party in exactly the way that Blair and Brown managed successfully to avoid.

There are many lessons from an inner London primary school in the 1970s – and it would be tragic if Ed were to take the wrong one.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

John Cleese admits secret love for Germany

In Monty Pyton and Fawlty Towers John Cleese was always ready to lampoon Teutonic culture. However the comedian has now revealed that he always had a secret love of all things German. Such is his affinity for the country's people, he has even claimed that he would even like to live in a German-speaking nation.

"I always felt attracted by Austrian and German culture in a certain way," he said in a newspaper interview. "I've always liked Vienna. I never saw so much theatre and music and so many museums anywhere else. I like the city's velocity and the food. It doesnt have the tackiness of other big cities.

"I considered renting a small flat in Switzerland. I love being in Lyon, Strasbourg, Munich and Milan in four hours from there," he said in an interview with Austrian newspaper Die Press.

Cleese, whose performance as Basil Fawlty goose-stepping in front of shocked German tourists is one of the most watched television clips in the world, lamented the declining ability of the English to mock other cultures.

"England changed much more than I did," he said. "We used to have some sort of middle class culture with an adequate amount of respect for education." "It was a bit racist not in a mean way though, but still racist.

"Some things have changed for the better. But it's not a middle class culture anymore, but a yob culture, a rowdy culture," he said.

Having lost more than millions of pounds in his last divorce, Cleese is cashing in on his fame and has signed up to become the face of bookmakers William Hill in Austria.

However he confessed he's not a big gambler himself. "I dont bet a lot. I don't have to do so on cricket or football because I don't need that extra kick. I'm engrossed in the match that much. But betting on a low level is fun and enjoyable," he said.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A story with an unusual ending

When Charlotte Morgan's husband was killed in a light aircraft crash, she was left to bring up their two toddlers alone. By the time Zoe was 11 and Will was nine, they were pleading with her to find them a new father - but date after date that the widow found through lonely hearts websites ended in disappointment.

So the 41-year-old model turned businesswoman joined another dating site, handed over her laptop and told her children: 'This is a daddy shop. Pick one.' They searched through pictures of potential suitors to see whether they had 'nice smiles' and 'kindness in their eyes', and eventually chose Guy Bolam, a 44-year-old divorced father of one from North London.

Mummy sent him an email and they went on their first date, hitting it off immediately. Within nine months, financial adviser Mr Bolam was asking the permission of Zoe, Will and his own daughter Rose, then 14, to propose to his girlfriend. Now all are living happily together in her £1.3million medieval timbered farmhouse near Ongar, Essex.

She told the Daily Mail: 'I'd been on about five dates without the assistance of the children theyear before, but there was just no spark so I gave up. 'Then Will said to me one day, "We need a new daddy. What are you going to do about it?" He was 15 months old when his father died, so he had never known what it was to have a dad. 'Guy was the kids' first and only choice and it turned out I was his first ever online date.'

Miss Morgan, a former cover girl who modelled for fashion houses Burberry and Jaeger, saw her life fall apart when her ex-RAF pilot husband Fred Bassett, 34, was killed in a mid-air collision during a pleasure flight over Essex in April 2000.

Mrs Morgan was left alone with her children at their secluded 13th-century home, which is believed to have been one of Oliver Cromwell's armouries, with mummified cats in the walls and its own 8ft moat.

The determined widow pulled herself back from her 'numb' grief and worked for Sotheby's auction house before co-founding a successful London photographic agency, Morgan-Lockyer, in 2002. She threw herself into extreme sports and rode powerful motorbikes, earning the nickname 'muddy' for trying to be both 'mummy' and 'daddy'. But a father figure was missing from her children's lives.

As for Mr Bolam, he and his first wife Nicola divorced when their daughter was small. Rose, now 16, said she was wary when she discovered he had joined a dating website. 'I thought, "Oh dear, my dad's stooped too low",' she said. 'I was concerned that he'd find some weirdo instead of a nice normal person. 'But I knew that I wanted him to meet someone. I couldn't picture him as 70 or 80 alone in his rocking chair. He wasn't happy being alone.'

The pair's first date at a gastropub went well, but a few days later Mr Bolam phoned up to break the news that he was in hospital, having broken his arm and pelvis in a crash.

Miss Morgan, who has retained her maiden name, said: 'After I hung up I turned to my friend and said, "He's perfect, he's a complete idiot". I like men who are obviously reckless.'


The potty prince

I am sure that the Prince means well and being slightly eccentric is not held against one in England. I will always praise him for the way he has protected Britain from the worst excesses of modern architecture -- JR

Prince Charles has hit out at critics who refer to him as a "potty" royal but has admitted he talks to trees and plants as if they were his children.

In a remarkably candid interview for a BBC documentary, Charles dismisses suggestions he is "loony" but confesses to lying on the floor at Highgrove House, his country home in Gloucestershire, to eavesdrop on visitors.

During the hour-long documentary, he is seen walking around the extensive grounds of the estate with the BBC gardening broadcaster Alan Titchmarsh.

According to the News of the World, he tells Titchmarsh: "I got a lot of flack for a lot of things. I mean, bewildered, frankly, as though you were doing something positively evil. 'I mean potty this, and potty that, loony this and loony that."

But he admits: "I have eavesdropped on what the visitors have said." He reportedly tells Titchmarsh: "When they're going round outside the windows sometimes you've got to lie on the floor".

He describes speaking to plants as something that keeps him "relatively sane". "I happily talk to the plants and the trees, and listen to them. I think it's absolutely crucial," he is reported to say.

Underlining the importance of his garden, he adds: "Everything I've done here, it's almost like your children. Every tree has a meaning for me".

Charles, who is widely known for his devotion to organic farming and environmental issues, says: "Terrible thing really, mustn't get too attached. I shall have to try and detach myself soon, psychologically."


Friday, September 17, 2010

Yes! Yes! YES Minister! The classic sitcom, which once gave Margaret Thatcher a VERY racy dream about Sir Humphrey, is back as a West End show


The television programme was Margaret Thatcher's favourite. It was the only thing that, during her long premiership, made her laugh real belly laughs. She used to get Denis to tape it if she was working late or there was a vote at the House of Commons. She even instructed her Cabinet ministers to watch it.

Douglas Hurd and others politicos, praising its verisimilitude, called it less of a TV series than a training manual. It won BAFTAS and set the whole nation giggling. Yes, reader, I refer to Yes, Minister.

It has been more than 20 years since Sir Humphrey Appleby, with his voice scary with sarcasm, last uttered the words 'Yes, Minister' and then 'Yes, Prime Minister', decades before we heard the phrases 'spin doctor' and 'touchy-feely politics'.

Mrs T even confessed to my father, Woodrow Wyatt, the late politician and Tote Chairman, with whom she had become friendly and who she spoke to on the phone every morning, that she had once had a 'romantic dream' about Sir Humphrey.

And now Whitehall's most adversarial couple, the Rt Honourable Jim Hacker MP and Sir Humphrey, his Permanent Secretary, immortalised by Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne, are back - this time on the stage, thanks to their original creators Jonathan Lynn and Sir Antony Jay. 'We thought we'd said it all,' says Lynn, 'but last summer we decided we were wrong.'

You might have supposed that 20 years was a very long time in politics and that Hacker was spending more time with his grandchildren, having written three volumes of memoirs, while Sir Humphrey was enjoying his pension and bemoaning a decline in standards in public life. Moreover, since 1988 we've had Alastair Campbell, the rise of the spin doctor and the foul-mouthed The Thick Of It.

Lynn, 67, who lives in LA directing comedies such as Nuns On The Run and My Cousin Vinny, protests that Yes, Prime Minister is more about the workings of government, and that the cogs haven't really changed at all. 'We invented the idea of politicians using spin, through press spokesmen, and the high-profile spin doctor has fallen out of favour.'

He also points out that the premise of both shows, which ran between 1980 and 1988, is the eternal inversion, beloved by writers from Beaumarchais to Wodehouse, that the servant is more intelligent than his master.

Jay, 69, who lives in Somerset, says 'a stage version had been suggested before, but Paul and Nigel couldn't commit for long enough'. Then Eddington died in 1995, followed by Hawthorne in 2001.

Jay, whose own politics are to the Right (he received his knighthood for writing the Queen's Christmas speeches and once worked in public relations), will not be drawn as to whether it was MPs' expenses that made him decide that a stage version would be 'such fun'. But he insists, like Lynn, that government has only changed on the surface. Indeed, the Sir Humphreys of Whitehall have increased their influence. 'Despite what other people might like you to think, civil servants hold the power. They actually dominate more now because fewer politicians today have experience of real work and the real world. The civil servants have to teach them.'

The comedy of Yes, Prime Minister is in Hacker's frantic attempts to enact change in the face of Sir Humphrey's opposition. But will the public accept new actors in the roles that Eddington and Hawthorne made so much their own?

In the new version, Hacker is played by David Haig (Four Weddings And A Funeral) and Sir Humphrey by Henry Goodman ( London's Burning). Haig, with his black moustache, bears a mildly comic resemblance to Hercule Poirot, while Henry Goodman is a suave silver fox; more like an older George Clooney than Hawthorne's bulbous-nosed mandarin.

'Hacker and Sir Humphrey are paradigms, so any actors can play the part,' insists Jay, who points to the success of the play's recent out-of-town run in Chichester. 'It broke all box office records. David and Henry are so good that after two minutes the audience were really into them. Younger people might not have watched the original series and we have updated the props and gadgets.'

There are BlackBerries and Twitter accounts and a female special adviser who calls the Prime Minister 'Jim'. The words 'bloody' and 'b***job' also make a surprise appearance.

I ask Lynn, whose early career after Cambridge University was stage acting and who is more to the Left than Jay, if they ever had arguments about politics. He guffaws: 'Not when it came to the show. It isn't about party politics. Hacker could be Labour, Conservative or even Lib Dem.'

Henry Goodman tells me: 'There is a quintessential truth about the characters, as there is with Sherlock Holmes. I didn't try to copy Nigel and I didn't feel I had to. 'The premise is all about the characters' position in political life - these Baroque figures who think they should be running the country. It sits on a very interesting border between taking the mick out of power and respecting the skills required in government.'

The show is remarkably topical. With uncanny prescience, Lynn and Jay, who finished the play last June, envisaged a situation where Hacker would be leading a minority government and a coalition and also having to deal with a financial crisis. 'I don't think we are soothsayers,' Lynn laughs. Jay adds that they wanted 'a precarious situation, but we did sort of have the feeling that no one would get an overall majority. So perhaps we are fortune tellers'.

The play is also uncannily topical in other ways, given the Coalition's plan to reduce the size of the Civil Service as part of its radical spending cuts. Jay is pessimistic about the outcome.
'I don't think they will be able to get real cuts to the civil service. The civil servants always win. They are so keen to maintain their power, job security, large pensions and automatic honours.'

There is an episode in Yes, Minister called The Economy Drive, which emphasised this point hilariously.
Hacker: 'How many people do we have in this department?'

Sir Humphrey: 'Ummm ... well, we're very small.'

Hacker: 'Two, maybe 3,000?'

Sir Humphrey: 'About 23,000 to be precise.'

Hacker: 'Twenty-three thousand!!! We need to do a time-and-motion study to see who we can get rid of.'

Sir Humphrey: 'We had one of those last year.'

Hacker: 'And what were the results?'

Sir Humphrey: 'It transpired that we needed another 500 people.'

Lynn says: 'Blair and Campbell made attempts to restyle government and so did Brown, but the civil servants are still running the country. 'Civil servants had to sort out the coalition between Cameron and Clegg. They had surged back when Brown was Prime Minister, as Brown was not a strong leader and power abhors a vacuum.'

Jay believes the present PM seems like a 'very decent, intelligent young man, but he has to avoid reliance on civil servants, by seeking advice from outside experts, academics and even journalists'. Jay explains: 'Blair tried to make government presidential, which took power away from the civil servants as it dealt a blow to ministerial autonomy. But under Brown the civil servants started regaining their power and they will go on trying to do so under the Coalition.'

Henry Goodman feels Sir Humphrey will always have the upper hand.
'His actions are motivated by his desire to maintain his prestige and power. Hacker sees his task as reforming departments, making economies and reducing the size of the civil service. But it never turns out his way.'

He insists there are lessons for the Coalition in Yes, Prime Minister. 'It's a dance of power. Civil servants use this florid language to baffle and intimidate new ministers. They are never on the same side.'

Jay concurs before making the point that politicians are only temporary, unlike civil servants. 'Occasionally you get a Nigel Lawson figure who is really on top of things, but most ministers are run by their departments. 'Of the new boys, Michael Gove (the Education Secretary) might succeed in mastering the Sir Humphreys. You have to have intelligence and strength. But, on average, a minister lasts 11 months and civil servants for 20 or 30 years.'

Both Jay and Lynn have been studying government and politics since the Wilson years. 'We read all the memoirs and diaries we could, like Richard Crossman's diaries, which were very good on the workings of Whitehall. We also got information from Wilson's close friend Marcia Falkender. Many of our comic situations are based on real events.'

Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister have been called as influential as George Orwell's 1984. They were indubitably more accurate. The television scripts are frequently used by schools and universities to enlighten students studying politics.

Jay says, sadly, that the play's the limit. 'This really will be the last outing for Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey.' 'Unless the play is made into a film,' counters Lynn, hopefully.


The REAL Sybil dies aged 95: Woman's Torquay hotel helped inspire Fawlty Towers

The hotelier who was the inspiration behind Basil Fawlty’s wife Sybil in the classic BBC comedy Fawlty Towers has died aged 95.
Beatrice Sinclair and her husband Donald were immortalised in fiction by John Cleese after he stayed at their Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, Devon, in 1971.

Mr Cleese was staying in the resort while filming Monty Python's Flying Circus and became impressed by Mr Sinclair’s ‘wonderful’ rudeness. He is said to have terrorised his guests and at one point threw Eric Idle's suitcase behind a wall in the garden in case it contained a bomb.

Mr Sinclair barked and threw maps at them and Mr Cleese found his behaviour so funny he was inspired to write Fawlty Towers and create Basil in his image.

It is unclear how much of the character Sybil was based on Mrs Sinclair but during the Python's stay she apparently tried to charge Graham Chapman and Michael Palin a two week fee for a night's stay.

She was also the ‘driving force’ and founder of the hotel and her husband would always address her with 'Yes Dear', just as Basil addressed Sybil, played by Prunella Scales, in the popular TV series.

Mrs Donald - who always denied her husband was anything like Basil - died on Monday at the Georgian House care home in Torquay aged 95.

The hotel's current owner Brian Shone said: ‘She was the person who drove the business and she was the strong one. Whenever she told Donald what to do he would say “yes dear”. ‘I am sad. It's the end of an era but the era goes on, really. The Fawlty Towers theme is still carrying on and is as strong as ever. ‘We still get Japanese, Australians and Germans here on a daily basis. They just want to take photographs. We have six coaches a day stop outside.’

Mrs Sinclair remained silent for 30 years over the television series before finally speaking out to insist the Fawlty Towers image was not true. She said the image portrayed was unfair to the memory of her retired naval officer husband, who was torpedoed by the Nazis three times. Donald Sinclair died in 1981.

Mr Shone bought the hotel for £1.5million in 2005 and says Mrs Sinclair visited a few times to see a refurbishment. He said: ‘She did come to the hotel a couple of times. She was a very, very nice lady. She really did not want to go in the Fawlty Towers direction at all. ‘It was a case of “you get on with it”. Sadly, she did not want to be part of it.’

Mrs Sinclair bought the house, then called Overnstey, for £7,000 in the 1960s while her sailor husband was at sea. She turned it into a hotel before renaming it Gleneagles and eventually persuaded her husband to leave the Royal Navy and join her.

In 1971 while Monty Python were filming in the area the cast and crew stayed in the hotel - a stay that would inspire Fawlty Towers.
During their stop one guest asked when the next bus would arrive to take them into town - and Mr Sinclair threw a timetable at him.
He then placed Eric Idle's suitcase behind a wall in the garden in case it contained a bomb - while it actually contained a ticking alarm clock.

Mr Sinclair also criticised the American-born Terry Gilliam's table manners for being too American because he had the fork in the ‘wrong’ hand. It is believed that incident inspired Basil's treatment of an American visitor in the episode 'Waldorf Salad'.

He also ‘flew into a fit of rage’ when he saw some builders having a tea break - thought to have inspired the episode where Basil thrashes his car with a branch.

Graham Chapman and Michael Palin decided to leave after just one night - but Mrs Sinclair gave them a bill for two weeks.

Mr Cleese’s co-star Palin supported his assessment of the couple, saying that Mr Sinclair saw the Pythons as a ‘colossal inconvenience’.

After leaving the hotel, Mrs Sinclair continued to live a short distance from the Gleneagles and later moved into a care home.


Monday, September 13, 2010

A miracle of the Stone Age

The Stone Age passages of Newgrange

I follow our guide through a long, dimly lit passage way which opens up into a cross-shaped chamber. Only 50km north of Dublin, I've stepped back 5000 years into the past. "Archaeologists believe the dead were left in these chambers to begin their journey to another world," says our guide in a lilting Irish accent. It's dark and eerie. And I can feel the goose bumps on my arms, created by a combination of the chilly underground air and the mystical ambience of the chamber.

The Stone Age passage tomb of Newgrange sits among lush green farmland along the Boyne River in County Meath, on Ireland's east coast. Built around 3200BC, it is the most famous of the Boyne Valley Mounds.

With Knowth and Dowth, which are also in the valley, Newgrange is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Carbon dating shows Newgrange as one of the oldest man-made constructions on earth, older than Egypt's ancient pyramids by about 700 years and Stonehenge by 1000.

Our guide points out an intricate corbelled ceiling, with overlapping stones forming a conical dome topped by a single capstone. The ceiling has remained intact for more than 5000 years and, amazingly, it still keeps the inner chambers dry.

Outside in the sun, we walk around the mounds for a closer look at the facade of quartz and granite. The large oblong stone in front of the entrance is etched with spiral and diamond shapes. Circles, snake-like wavy lines, concentric double circles, diamonds, triangles, zig-zags - about 30 different symbols - can be seen at these tombs.

The symbols are a mystery that remains unsolved. No one really knows what they might represent, although different sets of symbols were used in different parts of the tombs.

The idea I like best is that the symbols might be signs used to connect a portal to another dimension, along the lines of the TV series Stargate SG1. But whatever the significance of the symbols, the splendour and magnificence of Newgrange and Knowth indicate the mounds were ancient temples of astrological, spiritual, religious and ceremonial importance, perhaps not dissimilar to present-day cathedrals.

Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange, a window-like roof-box allows sunlight to penetrate the chamber during the shortest days of the year, around December 21 - the winter solstice. A narrow beam of light is guided by the roof-box's opening on to the floor of the chamber. As the sun rises higher, the beam crawls slowly along the passage until the entire chamber is bathed in light. This event lasts for 17 minutes, from 8.58am to 9.15am. The intent of its builders was undoubtedly to mark the beginning of the new year, a kind of early astrological clock.

The winter solstice event attracts a huge crowd. Anyone can come and stand outside the tomb. But a spot inside the chamber is highly sought after. In 2008 there were 34,107 applicants for 50 places that are decided by a lottery.

The lesser known Knowth is larger than Newgrange and contains about one quarter of Europe's megalithic art. Knowth consists of one large mound and 18 other satellite tombs. Archaeologists discovered unique artefacts such as a decorative flint mace head and two Iron Age men buried here together with a gaming set.

A series of inscriptions on stones that line the underground passages and chambers are a mixture of early medieval ogham scratchings and alphabetic script made around the 8th century, when Knowth was a royal site occupied by early Irish kings of the Brega kingdom.

You can't help but wonder if the Irish kings discovered the secrets of the symbols.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Philip Glass: I'm drawn to Kafka's darkness

Philip Glass talks to Ivan Hewett about his decision to compose an opera based on one of the author’s terrifying tales

This week an opera based on one of Kafka’s darkest stories comes to London, with music by Philip Glass. It’s an unlikely conjunction of talents. On the one hand, the perpetually haunted Jewish outsider, hiding his terrifying visions under a carapace of bureaucratic ordinariness. On the other, a gregarious, affable American entrepreneur, so successful his friends jokingly call him a “captain of industry”.

Moreover, the imaginative space we call “Kafka-esque’ seems a world away from Philip Glass’s. In Kafka’s world, human beings are pinned helplessly by terrifying arbitrary forces they cannot understand, or even see. In Glass’s world, there are no dark corners. The characters in his operas – Gandhi, Einstein, Akhnaten – are creatures of daylight, serenely convinced that there is an objective truth and that they can help reveal it.

Yet, when I meet Glass on one of his gruelling European tours, it becomes clear that authors who deal in the dark side of life attract him. “I’ve been reading Kafka seriously since I was 15,” he says. “For a young person, the sense of strangeness and the bizarre is very attractive. There’s a sort of authenticity about it. He’s a doorway into the world of the imagination.

“Another writer who has the same quality – and, like me, comes from Baltimore – is Edgar Allan Poe, and several years before In the Penal Colony, I did Fall of the House of Usher.”

Both operas arose out of a practical need to create something intimate. “I wanted to write more music-theatre, and for some reason the big opera companies weren’t calling me. So I thought, I’ll do pocket operas – pieces for just a few singers and players, with sets you could put in a couple of suitcases; something you could do in a room like this,” he says gesturing around the Edinburgh pub we happen to be in.

The story he chose to set is grim even by Kafka’s standards. A Visitor comes to the penal colony of the title to witness an execution, much against his will. The Officer describes to the Visitor the wonderful Machine that performs the execution by carving the words of the law the criminal has transgressed on to his body. But times are changing, the Machine is decaying, and what used to be an elevating spectacle for the whole colony is falling into disrepute. The Officer badly needs the reassurance of the Visitor before he executes the latest prisoner, and when the Visitor withholds it – out of distaste rather than real outrage – he feels obliged to sacrifice himself.

“What fascinates me in this story is the moral inversion that takes place,” says Glass. “The Officer, having started as all-powerful becomes the victim, and he takes on the role with a kind of joy. He’s done everything he can to convince the Visitor of the virtue of the Machine, and, when he fails, he realises it’s over, and the only thing he can do is be the final victim.”

And the Visitor? “Well, he makes the right judgment, but we can’t admire him, because he does this by refusing to be engaged at all. He suffers no inconvenience, whereas we end up warming to the Officer more because he sacrifices everything for his principles.”

But perhaps there are no true innocents here? “No, this is what makes the story so dark. Kafka, I think, is suggesting that the mere fact of our human incarnation is enough to make us guilty.”

I suggest that given the subject matter, people might be expecting an expressionist treatment with shrieking clarinets and real blood. “No, realism doesn’t interest me. I could imagine the machine represented as a giant shadow, because that encourages the imagination, and what one imagines is always worse than anything that could be shown.

“As for the music, I’ve restricted myself to a string quartet because that is the medium that in the West has always been associated with introspection and intimacy. I’ve added just one double bass to lend an extra gravity and darkness.”

And the point of setting the story to music at all? “That’s simple. I want to articulate the structure of the drama, and amplify the point of view of the author, as far as I can discern it.

“One of the attractive things about the story for me as a composer is its formality. The Visitor gets away, but by avoiding judgment actually fails. The Officer, in a strange way, redeems himself. It’s a perfectly calibrated outcome, like a trap for a hummingbird.”


Friday, September 3, 2010

Another "orchestrated litany of lies" in New Zealand?

The N.Z. judiciary is notoriously incestuous and corrupt. Even the Kiwis know that, which is why they brought in an Australian judge (Mason) to head an inquiry into the Mt. Erebus disaster. Mason was scathing so they will probably not do that again. They have also now protected themselves by cutting off appeals to London

The solemn edifice of justice depends on the public having some sort of respect for and confidence in judges. That sounds like one of William Blackstone's platitudinous pronouncements but it's something the judiciary trots out frequently to remind everyone that they are ''in touch'' yet remote.

When judges misjudge there is hell to pay. In a single bound the thin silk can easily be torn from the alabaster bosom of that blind statue holding aloft the wobbly (non-digital) scales. It's delicate and it's a lot to do with appearances - just how much can be observed from recent events in New Zealand.

This is a case study for the common-law world on the unresolved tensions between protecting the integrity of the system and personal loyalties and duties. It's known as the Saxmere scandal.

In 2007 Justice Bill Wilson, a senior judge, sat on an appeal involving a tax dispute between a group of wool growers, the Saxmere interests, and the now-defunct NZ Wool Board. Already there are sheep involved.

Wilson and the other appeal judges overturned a decision made lower down the judicial chain by the High Court in favour of the Saxmere Company, and held instead for the wool board. Its counsel was Alan Galbraith, QC, a chum of Wilson.

The judge informally told the counsel for Saxmere that he and Galbraith jointly owned a company called Rich Hill. But he did not openly and fully declare the details of his financial involvement, as he should have.

It later emerged that by various calculations Wilson was indebted to his other shareholder by between $240,000 and $600,000. Those figure are now in dispute in a lawsuit.

Wilson's lapse of openness, whether as a result of ''bad faith'' or not, has set off a chain of nasty firecrackers.

Last year Saxmere appealed against the High Court decision to the Supreme Court and was turned down. The judges, all of whom were colleagues of Wilson on the same court, found there was nothing in the financial relationship that would make the judge beholden to Galbraith.

Four months after dismissing the woolgrowers' appeal the Supreme Court revisited the case and decided it had not been in possession of all the facts when it made its decision.

They ''recalled'' their earlier judgment. The new details were that Wilson had an indebtedness to the company of $240,000. This represented partly an imbalance in the two shareholder accounts and partly a failure to repay interest and principle on $168,000 of bank debt.

Later there were reports that Galbraith had guaranteed the judge's personal bank borrowing of $360,000 for his share of the purchase of more land. That allegedly bumped up Wilson's indebtedness to his other shareholder to more than $600,000.

The Judicial Conduct Commissioner, David Gascoigne, recommended to the attorney-general that he appoint a conduct panel to look at Wilson's behaviour, whether it was unbecoming and whether the judge should resign.

The attorney-general had to delegate this matter as he and Wilson used to work at the same law firm.

The relationships get warmer. Last year, a well-known silk, Jim Farmer, was engaged by Alan Galbraith to advise him how to navigate the storm. Farmer privately went to his old friend Edmund Thomas, a retired appeal court judge, for comfort and advice.

Farmer and Thomas started a series of emails, which printed out run to 50 pages. The emails were the subject of a failed suppression attempt by Thomas and Wilson in the High Court.

''The first objective must be to ensure that Alan comes out of this squeaky clean,'' Thomas tells Farmer. His second objective is the protection of the integrity of the judiciary.

Thomas says: ''Bill [Wilson] is clearly desperate. He has lied about the fact that some monies, if not the half million, were not due at the time of the Saxmere hearing.''

Thomas starts getting edgy. He wants the whole story taken to the Chief Justice, Sian Elias. ''In my view the court is compromised every time Bill sits. The court is dysfunctional - contaminated might not be too strong a word.''

Farmer replies: ''I am not the keeper of the court's conscience. My primary obligation is to Alan . . . There is a limit to how far I will go to uphold the integrity of the judicial system . . .'' Farmer thinks that if Wilson ''goes down'' he will drag the chief justice with him.

Soon there were accusations that Thomas was leaking and that he would give Farmer up as his source. Thomas thought Farmer and other barristers involved in the affair could never again appear in front of Wilson.

Now Wilson has brought proceedings to prevent the Judicial Conduct Commissioner referring the matter to a panel. He's clinging on - but at what cost? The old idea that the court is more important than the client, the barristers and even an individual judge has taken a big hit.