Thursday, December 30, 2010

How the Iron Lady saved Britain: Mrs Thatcher drove through economic revolution single-handed

Margaret Thatcher stood almost alone in driving through the tough policies now credited with saving the economy, secret papers reveal. The Tory Premier had to take on her predecessor Harold Macmillan, Bank of England governor Gordon Richardson and even her own Chancellor Geoffrey Howe to push through the policies which pulled Britain back from the brink of economic chaos.

Documents released by the National Archives under the 30-year rule show the pressure Mrs Thatcher faced from the Establishment behind the scenes – and the extent to which she was isolated.

In 1980, the year after becoming Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher embarked on a controversial programme to revive the moribund economy through deep public spending cuts and strict control of the money supply, intended to stamp out inflation.

But by the middle of the year – with inflation peaking at 22 per cent, unemployment heading towards 2.8million and industry complaining it was being brought to its knees by the financial squeeze – there was little sign it was working.

In an extraordinary 11-page letter to Mrs Thatcher, Macmillan, known as Supermac, warned that global conditions coupled with her tough monetarist stance left Britain at risk of ‘constant recession’. He warned that while her programme of cuts might give a ‘sense of exhilaration’ to her supporters, the country was heading for industrial collapse and ‘dangerous’ levels of unemployment.

Macmillan, then 86, sent the letter following a meeting with the Prime Minister at Chequers in August 1980. He criticised her for abandoning ‘consensus politics’ to pursue radical reforms and ‘divisive politics’, which he said went against the ‘essence of Tory democracy’.

It was Macmillan who coined the phrase ‘you’ve never had it so good’ in 1957 during the long post-war economic boom. His brand of consensus politics is now credited with contributing to the economic malaise that brought Britain to its knees in the late 1970s.

Years later, in her memoirs, Mrs Thatcher poured scorn on consensus politics, writing: ‘What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?.’

But in 1980 Macmillan remained an influential figure with the potential to destabilise the beleaguered new Tory government. Writing condescendingly about her focus on ‘money supply’, he said it ‘may be useful as a guide to what is happening just as a speedometer is in a car; but like the speedometer it cannot make the machine go faster or slower’.

In 1981, 365 economists wrote to The Times urging Mrs Thatcher to change course and limit the damage caused by the recession. But she was unmoved, and her tough stance succeeded in reducing inflation from 27 per cent to four per cent in four years, putting Britain on the road to recovery.

Mrs Thatcher’s economic views were heavily influenced by the right-wing Cabinet minister Sir Keith Joseph, with whom she set up the free market think tank the Centre for Policy Studies in 1974. Both drew on the work of the influential American economist Milton Friedman whose monetary theories challenged the post-war consensus on economic thinking.

In 1981 Mrs Thatcher recruited Sir Alan Walters as her chief economic adviser to help her push through monetarist policies.

In 1985 Macmillan finally went public with his criticism of Mrs Thatcher’s approach. Angered at her policy of privatisation, he likened her actions to ‘selling the family silver’.

The documents also reveal an account of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘stormy’ showdown with Bank governor Gordon Richardson in 1980 in which she said he was undermining her whole economic strategy. She accused the Governor and the Chancellor of failing to get a grip on the money supply. According to the official note of the meeting, she laid into them, saying the whole of the international banking community realised Britain’s money supply was ‘out of control’.

The following month, a reinvigorated Mrs Thatcher delivered her celebrated ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech to the Tory conference in Blackpool.

The way an exasperated Mrs Thatcher repeatedly refused to bow to Europe is spelled out in the 1980 documents. She had been in office for only a few months but was already earning her Iron Lady nickname.

In what was then the nine-member European Economic Community, Britain was paying in £1billion more than it received through the agricultural, social and industrial programmes, and Mrs Thatcher had vowed to secure a rebate.

A secret briefing in December 1979 told her the UK was under pressure from France and Germany to make concessions following the discovery of North Sea oil. On it she scrawled in felt-tip pen: ‘I am not prepared to bargain away our few resources. ‘To suggest that we might be able to keep some of our own money in return for giving up some of our oil is ridiculous.’

In 1980 a memo from the Chancellor of the Exchequer urged her to compromise to resolve the ‘deadlock’ over the rebate. At the top of his memo, she scrawled in blue felt-tip: ‘No. The procedure is ridiculous. ‘Its whole purpose is to demean Britain… we must fight this one – if necessary openly.’

A three-year rebate was agreed in 1981. It awarded Britain two-thirds of the £1billion Mrs Thatcher had demanded, and became a permanent arrangement in 1984. The
Prime Minister showed the same doggedness on the Common Fisheries Policy.

A letter headed ‘confidential’ from Agriculture Minister Peter Walker warned her that a policy of ‘attrition’ would be unlikely to work and that failing to resolve it would lead to ‘deepening uncertainty’ within the fishing industry.

On it, she scrawled: ‘It is our water, and but for the unique common resources policy, our fish. Where he recommended they make an ‘early settlement’ by negotiating, she wrote in large letters: ‘NO’.

The Common Fisheries Policy was designed to set quotas for catches to manage stocks for the EU.


Monday, December 27, 2010

King James's Bible: perhaps the greatest work of translation ever

Comment by Daniel Hannan -- who is is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free

I can’t be the only English-speaker who suspects, deep down, that the Almighty expressed Himself in the language of the Authorised Version. Even now, I do a double-take when I listen to a biblical passage in another tongue. I struggled to repress a chuckle the other day when I heard Matthew 5:5 rendered as “Bienheureux sont les débonnaires; car ils hériteront la terre.”

Yesterday, the Queen reminded us that her ninth-great-grandfather, James VI & I, had commissioned the translation in the hope of impressing a measure of unity on the various theological currents then swirling about Britain. And, in a sense, he succeeded. The Church of England is unusual among Christian denominations in that it combines an extraordinary heterogeneity of doctrine with political and – until very recently – liturgical conformity.

More than this, though, the Authorised Version, along with the Prayer Book, has shaped our everyday idiom. As Bruce Anderson writes in the current Spectator, few Anglophone atheists can remain indifferent to the cadences of those two works: “‘Dearly beloved’ is one of the loveliest phrases in the language, as is ‘with my body I thee worship’ and many others from the Anglican liturgy.”

Bruce’s article reminded me of the good-natured struggle I had to persuade the vicar to use the unexpurgated 1662 Prayer Book at my own wedding. [I did the same at my last wedding -- JR] Looking back, I think the poor fellow was shy about declaring that marriage is not intended “to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding”. Of course, his embarrassment was itself testimony to the power of the writing.

The Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer have defined our language more than any texts except (obviously) Shakespeare’s corpus. A Muslim friend once told me that his religion left little space for miracles. The only supernatural event that he personally accepted, he said, was the dictation of the Koran; and even this miracle required no great leap of faith, since, as an Arabic speaker, he could infer the divine nature of the message from the quality of the language in which it was expressed.

The English and their kindred peoples are, in my experience, rather less spiritual than Arabs, and it would not occur to them to make an equivalent claim. None the less, the Authorised Version stands as perhaps the greatest translation of all time. The day will eventually come when our power dwindles, and all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre. But as long as English is spoken, and our canon preserved, ours will never be just another country.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Andrew Higgins: Boat Builder of WWII

Who was Andrew Higgins? Almost forgotten now, he was, according to Dwight Eisenhower, “the man who won [World War II] for us.”

As General William T. Sherman observed, “War is hell.” That hell includes oppressive taxes, loss of freedom, and crushing debt, as well as deaths in combat. But once in war, as the United States was after Pearl Harbor, losing is an even greater hell. Thus we had a need for war entrepreneurs, and some—like Higgins—were given enough freedom to innovate and help U.S. troops finish the war sooner than expected.

Andrew Higgins became indispensable because he was one of the very few men who could create and manufacture reliable landing craft to transport troops from ship to shore. Using landing craft in warfare was a key World War II innovation. Troop ships would bring thousands of soldiers within a mile or so of the coast. Then the soldiers would climb down the sides of the ships on cargo nets into Higgins boats (as his assortment of landing craft came to be called), each holding 36 men. The landing craft would then bring the soldiers into shore—a ramp would open at the end of the boat, and the men would disembark. Then the boats would return to the troop ship to load more men.

Higgins’s boats were so reliable, so flexible, and so fast that Americans could reach many different parts of a coastline, not just the major ports. Thus the Higgins boats gave Eisenhower many options for landing spots into North Africa, then into Italy, and finally into France. The Germans couldn’t cover the entire European coast, and the Allied forces used thousands of landing craft to hit Normandy beach at D-Day.

What’s especially remarkable about the Higgins story is that he almost didn’t get a chance to show the world what he could do. The biggest obstacle Higgins faced was overcoming the bureaucrats in the U.S. Navy. In particular the Bureau of Ships, which had authority to buy landing craft for the Navy, regularly refused to consider Higgins’s offers to supply various landing craft and PT boats. Why?

First, the Bureau of Ships wanted to use its own internally designed landing craft. What’s more, the naval leaders couldn’t imagine Higgins, a small boat builder from Nebraska, having the answers to the Navy’s needs. Therefore, they usually rejected his offers and nitpicked his designs, then purchased their own inferior vessels.

With the success of the war, and his company, at stake, Higgins fought back. “I don’t wait for opportunity to knock,” he said. “I send out a welcoming committee to drag the old harlot in.” He openly condemned the Bureau of Ships for “prejudice” against his boats. American lives were being lost, he contended, because Higgins boats were on the sidelines. Jerry Strahan describes Higgins’s battle with the Navy bureaucracy in Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won World War II.

Higgins called the tank lighter—the mechanized landing craft that carried tanks—built by the Bureau of Ships “godawful.” He added, “I want to say that there are no officers, whether present in this room or otherwise in the Navy who know a goddamn thing about small boat design, construction, or operation—but by God, I do.”

Of the Bureau of Ships, Higgins said, “If the ‘red tape’ and the outmoded and outlandish Civil War methods of doing business were eliminated, the work could be done in the Bureau of Ships very efficiently with about one-sixth the present personnel.” The bureaucrats at the Bureau of Ships loathed Higgins and rejected his superior boats, even when their own vessels malfunctioned and killed American soldiers in transport.

Fortunately for Higgins, the U.S. war effort was just decentralized enough to give him a chance to go outside the naval bureaucracy to prove himself. First, the Marines desperately needed amphibious boats, and after doing tests they discovered that the Navy’s landing craft often didn’t work but Higgins boats did. The Marines bought Higgins boats when possible and helped get a hearing for Higgins in higher tribunals. Second, Congress authorized the Truman Committee to investigate waste and corruption in the war effort. Higgins at last won a hearing from Senator Harry Truman and dramatic results followed: Truman demanded a “head-to-head operational test” of a Higgins boat and a Navy boat.

That was all Higgins ever asked for. In the dramatic contest that followed at Norfolk, Virginia, on May 25, 1942, both Higgins and the Navy had to have their landing craft carry a 30-ton tank through choppy waters. During the race, the highly touted boat built by the Bureau of Ships failed—and almost sank—while the Higgins boat dazzled the spectators. With the scrutiny of the Truman Committee, the Bureau of Ships had to convert to Higgins’s design and immediately he began receiving important contracts.

Shocked that the Navy had repeatedly rejected the best boat available, Truman launched a full investigation into naval purchasing and concluded, “[T]he Bureau of Ships has, for reasons known only to itself, stubbornly persisted for over five years in clinging to an unseaworthy tank lighter design of its own. . . . Higgins Industries did actually design and build a superior lighter,” but was ignored because of a “flagrant disregard for the facts, if not the safety and success of American troops.”

With a green light from the Truman Committee and the Bureau of Ships, Higgins expanded his New Orleans plant and frantically churned out landing craft. He attracted good workers from across the country for his assembly lines by paying high wages, offering free medical care, and providing great training and some community services. He hired black and white workers and, although he had to segregate them, he paid them similar wages. Getting good workers and training them was only part of his challenge. He also had to find loopholes in the new federal laws that limited wages and controlled prices and purchases. Higgins often had to buy steel on the black market, and once, when no bronze shafting was available for making tank lighters, he stole the needed material from an oil company in nearby Texas. (He later paid for it.)

During March 1943, as Eisenhower began to prepare to invade Sicily and Italy, he had nightmares of shortages of landing craft. “When I die,” Eisenhower said, my “coffin should be in the shape of a landing craft, as they are practically killing [me] with worry.” The next year, when Ike planned the D-Day invasion, he said, “[L]et us thank God for Higgins Industries, management, and labor which has given us the landing boats with which to conduct our campaign.” A frustrated Adolf Hitler, who could not stop thousands of Higgins boats from landing soldiers at Normandy beach, called Higgins the “new Noah.” The old Noah helped save the animals; the new Noah helped save his country.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Stonehenge 'was built by rolling stones using giant wicker baskets'

It is one of the abiding mysteries of Britain’s Neolithic past. For all the awe-inspiring wonder of the standing stones at Stonehenge no one has ever worked out how our ancient ancestors were able to heave boulders weighing many tonnes over such huge distances.

But now an engineer and former BBC presenter believes he has come up with a theory which explains how the giant stones were moved. Garry Lavin believes that the engineers who built Stonehenge used wicker basket-work to ‘roll’ the huge boulders all the way from Wales to their present location.

‘I always thought that dragging these huge stones was physically impossible because of the friction on the surface. The key thing is the technology was always there around them,’ he said.

It is the movement of the 60 famous Bluestones which causes historians such problems. Each stone weighs up to 4 tons and they originally came from the Preseli Mountains in Wales – some 200 miles away.

Mr Lavin has come up with a cylinder ‘basket’ to roll the massive and irregularly-shaped stones. The basket is created by weaving willow and alder saplings to form a lightweight structure that can be easily moved by 4 or 5 men. To complete the rig and to ensure the best rolling and flotation conditions, the gaps between the basketwork cylinder and the irregular stone are packed with thin branches. This spreads the load as the basket flexes in transit, much like a modern tyre, and creates buoyancy when transported down rivers and across the sea.

One of Mr Lavin’s key discoveries during his earlier experiments was that the wicker cages that contained the stones were able to float. This would have enabled Neolithic man were able to get the huge stones across rivers on their journey, as well as making it easier to transport them over long distances without having to carry them the entire way.

One of Mr Lavin's sketches showing how groups of men could have enlisted the help of oxen to roll the huge boulders. The men would have been able to place the stones in a river, such as the River Wye, and then guide them on their way.

Mr Lavin said: ‘Woven structures were everywhere at the time, there are even wells which they have discovered were full with woven basketwork. It’s just taking that technology and using it in a new way. ‘It is not without some foundation. It was staring us in the face the whole time.’

In the summer Mr Lavin tested out his theory near Stonehenge and succeeded in moving a large one-ton stone in a wicker cage that he had made himself. Mr Lavin now wants to set out on his final mission to rewrite history by creating a supersize cradle capable of moving a huge five-ton stone. To do so he has enrolled the help of an engineer, an ancient wood archaeologist and a professional willow weaver to help him with the final test and construction. He hopes to run the test around the time of the summer solstice next year.

‘The physics is there it’s just so obvious. It’s one of the things that when you think about it you say “oh yes, of course”, ‘ he said.

He believes the original stones could have been moved by two teams of ten men each with one team resting while the others pushed the ‘axles’ containing each bluestone all the way from Wales their final destination.

George Oates, who works for the engineering company Expedition UK that recently designed the Olympic Velodrome as well as the Millennium Bridge, has looked at the new theory from a physics perspective. He looked at the height and weight of Neolithic men as well as the stone’s weight, the strength of the wicker basket and the inclines that would have to be negotiated.

Mr Oates said: ‘We feel that it is possible that Garry’s theory of a woven basket around the stone, moving these four-ton stones all the way from the Welsh mountains to Stonehenge is at least viable.’

Last week a competing theory from the University of Exeter was published which suggested that the stones may have used wooden ball bearings balls placed in grooved wooden tracks would have allowed the easy movement of stones weighing many tons.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Kate Middleton is a typical St Andrews girl

Kate Middleton is in many ways a typical product of the University of St Andrew's

The announcement that after his gap year Prince William was to study art history at St Andrews caused a surge in applications from girls to the ancient university, all presumably desperate to meet the Prince. But, long before William’s time, St Andrews was the university of choice for well-off, privately educated young women of conservative tinge.

Kate Middleton belongs to this group. In fact you could almost say she’s a classic St Andrews girl. They are fresh-faced and wholesome and they typically wear Barbours, pashminas, tailored tweed jackets, padded bodywarmers, pearls and Tiffany hearts. They’re prosperous, obviously – they drink spirits in the bars, not beer – and they’ve probably picked up the habit of flicking back their expensively highlighted hair when it falls into their eyes. Not that they’re a bunch of squares. Underneath the demure exterior there may lie a streak of raciness: witness that university fashion show when Kate sauntered down the aisle in a see-through dress.

Above all, these girls are English through and through, because although St Andrews is in Scotland, you could happily spend four years at the place and hardly hear a Scottish accent. (You will certainly hear some American accents, though.) Only about one in ten of the students, roughly, is Scottish. (It depends who you ask, but that figure may be as high as one in three or one in four. Either way it is a minority.) What’s more, the university has one of the lowest percentages of students from lower income backgrounds of anywhere in the whole of Great Britain.

It’s not hard to see why Sloaney types love St Andrews. It is a very pretty, ancient town. And its setting, in Fife, near a coastline dotted with picturesque fishing villages, offers the beauty of the rugged outdoors, which has always so appealed to the English upper middle and upper classes – and to the Royal Family. William and Kate may, as Royal expert Ingrid Seward suggests, decide to spend part of their honeymoon at Balmoral as six royal couples have before them. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they also find time for lounging around on a yacht in the Caribbean. St Andrews girls like a spot of luxury.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

High-Speed Train from Germany Rolls into London

A high-speed ICE train from Deutsche Bahn rolled into St. Pancras station in London on Tuesday.

For the first time, an ICE high-speed train operated by German rail rolled into London on Tuesday. Deutsche Bahn hopes the test run is a sign of things to come, but France is unhappy.

The goal is still a ways in the distance. By the end of 2013, Germany's rail company Deutsche Bahn wants to include the Cologne-London route in its regular offerings. From that point onwards, high-speed ICE trains will rocket through the French countryside at 300 kilometers an hour before travelling -- slightly slower -- under the English Channel to London.

Preparations for that date, however, are well underway -- and on Tuesday, the first ICE pulled into St. Pancras Station in London following a test run. The train was received by the head of Deutsche Bahn Rüdiger Grube and German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer. The successful test run comes after a series of safety checks over the weekend which "went well," according to Eurotunnel spokesman John Keefe on Tuesday.

Beyond merely extending the reach of Germany's flashy ICE trains, Deutsche Bahn's effort to open up the route has implications for both Eurostar, the rail operator that has thus far had a monopoly on trains through the Channel Tunnel, and for the state-owned train manufacturer Alstom.

In anticipation of the ICE trains passing ongoing safety inspections, Eurostar announced earlier this month that it plans to switch from trains built by Alstom to those built by German firm Siemens. The new trains will be very similar to the newest ICE models, known as ICE-3, which Deutsche Bahn plans to use for the Channel Tunnel routes. In addition to having 20 percent more seats than the older Eurostar models, the Siemens trains also have a top speed of 320 kilometers per hour instead of 300.

In Time for the Olympics?

Last week, French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau threatened to block the Eurostar contract with Siemens -- 55 percent of Eurostar is owned by the French government. It is likely an empty threat, however. Any French veto would contravene European Union law and most observers say that an official French complaint about the contract tender would have little chance with the European Commission.

During the weekend, a Deutsche Bahn ICE-3 underwent numerous evaluations inside the tunnel, including an evacuation test. Last week, the train passed other safety checks. The Channel Tunnel Safety Authority, an Anglo-French body, has the final say as to whether the ICE will be permitted in the tunnel. The CEO of Eurotunnel, Jacques Gounon, for his part, seems confident that the German trains will get the go ahead -- and says they may even start running before the 2012 Olympic Games in London.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Gripe Gives Bad Service Some Bad Publicity

Have you ever been stumped by bad service at a hotel, a restaurant, a car rental agency, or your local dry cleaner? A new website called Gripe, at the trick url, lets you instantly badmouth businesses for free to everyone who follows you on Facebook and Twitter, in hopes the company will make amends to you.

Gripe’s method is simple. To post a gripe about a business, you either use Gripe’s Web interface, or one of its apps for iPhone and Android phones. (A BlackBerry app is in the works.) You log into it with your Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Gripe lets you create an entry on its Web site that identifies the business by name and location, details your complaint, and lets you upload photos to back up your claim. It then posts the URL for the gripe in a status update to your Facebook and Twitter followers, using your own accounts there. Gripe encourages them to retweet the gripe and repost it on their own Facebook pages. It’s a safe bet that if you post a gripe, a lot of people you know will see it.

The idea is to embarrass businesses into appeasing an unhappy customer by showing them that hundreds or thousands of people have read the customer’s gripe. Unlike a blog post or message board entry, a gripe is a high-profile complaint because it goes out on Facebook and Twitter, rather than waiting to be found. To turn up the heat, Gripe employees actually call and e-mail businesses to let them know they’ve been griped about. Gripe plans to make money by charging these companies for an account with which to track and manage customer feedback.

But Gripe offers businesses a carrot as well as a stick. When a disgruntled customer fills out a gripe, they’re asked to state what the business could do to make them happy. If the business makes good on the customer’s demand, Gripe asks that the customer change the status of their complaint from a red gripe to a green “cheer” for the company, which will be seen by anyone who follows the old link. A high number of cheers send the message to Gripe visitors that the cheered-about company takes care of its customers.

You might think opportunistic customers would use Gripe to make steep demands on hotel chains and restaurants. But as it turns out, the most common customer request on the site is more modest — most users just want an apology.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

A gastronomic guide to traditional Britain

From pork pies to jellied eels, Simon Majumdar documents the endangered flavours of his homeland

At the end of last year I finished a journey that took me to nearly every corner of Britain. My aim was to meet as many as possible of the people who grow, prepare and sell the food we eat, to construct the perfect ''Best of British'' menu.

Along the way I met farmers, chefs, butchers, brewers, cheesemakers, distillers, restaurateurs, hunters and anglers who all took time to share their lives and food with me. It was a journey that was filled with privileged experiences: I imbibed whisky costing £10,000 ($16,250) a bottle and sipped exquisite tea from delicate china cups at Brown's Hotel in London's Mayfair.

It was also a journey blighted with occasional sadness as I witnessed the seemingly terminal decline of some of Britain's most traditional foods. Whether you love them or loathe them, London's pie-and-mash shops and jellied-eel stalls will probably be little more than a memory in less than a generation's time.

There were some experiences that gave cause for concern (hang your head in shame, those who think that chicken tikka lasagne is a good idea). Despite this, I returned from my adventure convinced that British food is on the up.

The Midlands

Staffordshire oatcakes

A regional British treasure, the oatcake, or ''oat flannel'' as it is sometimes known as, fuelled generations of workers in the Potteries. Quite different from its crisp Scottish cousin, the Staffordshire oatcake is more like a dense pancake made from batter containing three types of flour and oats. As the ceramics factories have disappeared, so, too, have the bakeries that provided their workers with this sustaining breakfast. However, there remain a dozen or so producers and between them they still make 350,000 oatcakes a year, nearly all eaten within the boundaries of Stoke-on-Trent. At the Oatcake Kitchen, former ceramics worker Chris Bates expertly griddles up to 1000 oatcakes a day. Try one the local way, stuffed with cheese. Eat in, or take away as the workers would have done as they rushed to the factory. Delicious.


Melton Mowbray pork pies

If I were stranded on a deserted island, I would dream of Melton Mowbray pork pies. The hand-raised, hot-water pastry; the fresh, seasoned pork; and the jelly from trotters make the most perfect combination. Last year the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (see finally attained European PGI (protected geographical indication) status after more than a decade of trying. The name and recipe are now protected. If you want to see the fine art of hand-raising a pork pie for yourself, head to Dickinson & Morris in the town of Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. It is one of the oldest pie shops and gives demonstrations.


Fish and chips

Like so much of the best of British food, fish and chips is a product of immigration. Portuguese-Jewish refugees brought their skills in the fish-frying department and collided with their Belgian and French counterparts who knew about frying potatoes. The dish was one of the few not to be rationed during World War II, so detrimental would it have been to the nation's morale. I tried examples in dozens of places but my favourite was in the unlikely surroundings of a Birmingham shopping centre. Great British Eatery was created in 2007 by two Brummies, Conrad Brunton and Andrew Insley. They fry their fish and chips in beef dripping and the smell as you walk through the door of their takeaway goes a long way to explaining why the place is a huge hit. See

Northern England

Lancashire hotpot

Few sights are more appealing than that of a hotpot being taken from the oven, its meaty lamb juices bubbling through the golden potato crust. Yet so few people have actually tried a real one. It is a slow-cooked reminder of hard-working times and deserves to be treasured, particularly when made as well as it is by a terrific young chef, Warrick Dodds, of Hastings in Lytham St Annes. Order it with a side dish of pickled red cabbage and a pint of local ale and follow it with an Eccles cake. See


Jellied eels

People either love them or loathe them. Unfortunately for the few remaining jellied-eel stalls in London, the latter seems more common. This is a shame because eels, cooked with water, salt and parsley, then set in the gelatine they release, are delicious. Tubby Isaacs's family has been selling eels on Goulston Street, near Petticoat Lane in London's East End, since 1919. This is the perfect place to learn the art of eating jellied eel. You might not like them as much as I do but you'll be sampling a piece of history. See

Potted shrimps

Brown shrimps with clarified butter and a hit of mace have been a staple of British cuisine since the late-Victorian era. Nowhere is this made with more care than at London's oldest restaurant, Rules, in Covent Garden. The shrimp is sauteed, set in butter and lobster oil and served with lemon and a slice of brown toast. See


Arbroath smokies

Arbroath smokies are cleaned and brined haddock that have been hot-smoked over oak chips until their skin is golden and the flesh beautifully white. Iain R. Spink and his mobile smoking set-up are a regular sight at the farmers' markets of Fife and he is well worth seeking out for one of the finest tastes of my whole trip. The markets are on Saturdays, rotating between Kirkcaldy, St Andrews, Dunfermline and Cupar. It is worth getting here early to see Spink and his enthusiastic crew at work and to buy a hot smokie straight from the fire, with its juices still bubbling under the skin. See;


The haggis by veteran Edinburgh butcher George Bower in Stockbridge are made with the whole ''pluck'' - lamb's heart, lung and liver - simmered in game stock and then minced twice with fresh onions, pinhead oatmeal and spices. The offally end result might not be to everyone's taste but there is no doubting that it is the real deal. See

Chicken tikka masala

The owner of the Shish Mahal curry house in Glasgow, Ali Ahmed Aslam, has a strong claim to be the inventor of chicken tikka masala. He created the dish in the mid-1970s using a tin of tomato soup to make a spicy gravy when a customer complained that his meal was dry. The rest is history. So much so that last year a Glasgow member of parliament tabled a motion to apply for protected status and to have the dish renamed the Glasgow Tikka Masala. That might be a rather silly notion but a sizzling bowl of tender spiced chicken, cooked in the tandoor then coated with a fiery, tomato-based sauce, is a British treasure. Ali Aslam and his two sons can still be found at the Shish Mahal, carrying plates of their most famous dish to hungry Glaswegians. See

Northern Ireland

The Ulster fry

The great British breakfast can be a thing of beauty but is all too often a plate of stodge floating in grease. Not so at Georgian House in Comber, south of Belfast. Unassuming chef Peter McKonkey has three decades of experience in Ireland's best kitchens and has one of the best ''frys'' in the country. The whopping plateful includes organic eggs, dense meaty sausages, thick smoked bacon, local black pudding, tomatoes, mushrooms and - just to make sure you wobble out the door - the best soda bread and potato farls I have tasted. Georgian House, phone +44 28 9187 1818.

Yellowman sweets

A treat for sweet-toothed Belfast boys and girls for generations, yellowman was originally created by Peggy Devlin and sold at the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle. As the name suggests, it is a lurid yellow candy made from caramelised sugar frothed with bicarbonate of soda and allowed to set before being broken into jagged shards. The best-known source for yellowman is now Aunt Sandra's candy shop in Belfast. David, the nephew of the original owner, still makes most of the sweets the shop sells and gives regular demonstrations. See


Faggots and peas

They might not have the most appealing name (it comes from the Welsh for ''little bundle'') or be made from the most tempting ingredients but these cricket ball-sized parcels of minced pork lung, liver and belly wrapped in bacon or caul (the lining of the stomach) are delicious. N.S. James family butchers has made award-winning versions since the shop opened in 1959. Local restaurants such as the Beaufort Arms ( have them on their specials menu but I think there is no better way of eating them than straight from the butcher's oven as a takeaway, doused with vinegar and a hit of white pepper. See

Welsh cakes

The chance to join Pat Maddocks as she prepared a batch of 1000 Welsh cakes in the small kitchen of her Gower home allowed me to relive a slice of my childhood. The smell and taste of her flat, fruit-laden griddled cakes (like small scones to look at but more delicious), taken hot from the stove and spread with butter, transported me back to the days when my own grandmother prepared them. Pat and her husband, Anthony, have recently opened a tearoom where you can sample Wales's finest baked goods, including cakes made with a shot of Penderyn Welsh whisky. See


Thursday, October 7, 2010


With a marvellous tale at the end that reveals the quality of the man

Yesterday in my St James’s Street club (a gentleman never says which), a suspiciously new-looking bowler hat was hanging from one of the solid, Victorian brass coat-hooks polished daily by our devoted family of servants.

To test the hat, I gave the crown a good thump. It caved in, leaving an embarrassing dent, which I hastily bashed out from the inside while no one was looking.

I wondered whether this was one of the bowlers that Austin Reed, out­fitters to all and sundry, have just announced they are introducing as part of their range of Cool Britannia fashion accessories for the man about town. I hoped not. For this was not a proper bowler.

It was in the Seventies that I started wearing a bowler, when I was a ­­newspaper reporter in Leeds. They were a common sight among ­businessmen in the wool trade.

And as the last man in London to wear one regularly, I know the crown should be hardened so that the wearer will come to no harm if he falls off his thoroughbred hunter in the field.

I wear my bowler more often when bicycling than when hunting. It has saved my life more than once.

The wife of the Greater London Council’s leader once opened her car door in front of me as I was cycling along Whitehall to Downing Street, where I worked in the policy unit, to write a speech for ­Margaret Thatcher.

The front wheel of the bike was stove in, but when my head struck the kerb-stones, the hat hit them first and neither it nor I was dented. The Prime Minister got her speech.

One day I was mugged by a thief in Covent Garden, but his cosh, aimed at my head and wielded with enough strength to knock out the wearer of a lesser hat, bounced harmlessly off my hardened bowler. The tea-leaf ran off looking puzzled and I walked away dazed but unhurt.

It is intriguing, but not surprising, that what some had sneeringly but wrongly regarded as a symbol of upper-class twittery is back, and that I am once again at the cutting edge of ­fashion. Jude Law, Tito Jackson, ­Madness — all are following where Monckton has long led.

And, it is the bowler’s new-found ­popularity that has encouraged Austin Reed to stock it for the first time in 12 years.

These days, the ladies are ­wearing the bowler, too. Britney Spears, Peaches Geldof, Mischa Barton, Miley Cyrus — I am in ­glittering company.

Perhaps Lady Gaga will soon be seen in a bowler ­surmounting a dress made entirely of butchers’ tax returns sewn together with red tape. You heard it here first.

Why does the bowler work? It’s all in the design. In the 1840s, Edward Coke, the brother of the second Earl of Leicester, had a problem. His gamekeeper’s head had to be protected from low-hanging branches when he rode around the estate catching poachers.

Coke gave Lock’s, the hatters of St James’s Street in London, a clear design brief. The hat must be rounded, so that it would stay on even in a gale. It must fit the wearer’s head exactly, so that it would not be dislodged in a fall. It must be black, so that it would not make the wearer too ­visible on horseback. It must be stylish. And it must be affordable.

Lock’s passed on the brief to the hatmakers William and Thomas Bowler. And the rest is history. From the Earl of Leicester’s estate in ­Norfolk, the bowler spread throughout Britain, and then the world.

It was worn by everyone from Prime Ministers via Cambridge College servants to Billingsgate fish-porters. Within decades of its invention, the bowler was the most popular men’s hat in America in the 19th century, worn by sheriffs, station masters and outlaws like Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy.

Overseas, the bowler has always been popular. I recently saw ­bowlers being worn with pride in southern India. The native women of the Andes also wear the bowler.

A distant relative of mine was described by her biographer as being ‘famous from the Indies to the Andes for her undies’. The bowler now enjoys the same fame.

When everyone wore bowlers, they cost just 25p each. Today, though, Lock’s charge £295. But, whatever the cost, they’re worth every penny — and not just because my bowler saved my life.

A lot of trouble goes into making a good bowler. The first step is to visit Lock’s to have one’s bonce measured up. One sits in a ­creaking, Victorian chair and an instrument of torture — the conformateur — is lowered on to the head.

Needles at temple height point inward in an alarming, tightly-packed circle. The hatter then murmurs the most terrifying words in the English language: ‘This won’t hurt a bit.’ Then the needles are pressed inward from all directions, taking a precise profile of the head at the point where the hat-band will be.

Actually, it doesn’t hurt. Next, ­off-stage, there is much banging and hammering and hissing, and a slightly steaming bowler hat is brought in and tried on for size.

After any necessary adjustments, the hatter — in my case, Janet ­Taylor, who has been with Lock’s for 19 years, says: ‘All done now, sir: but we must wait for the shellac to harden.’ (Shellac, a resin secreted by Asian insects, is the key ­ingredient — it dries as hard as nails and a good bowler should withstand your weight if you stand on it.)

One of the many advantages of the bowler is that it ­conveys an instant air of superiority — but only if you have the right face for it. Jude Law, for instance, will never look convincing in a bowler. It really doesn’t work for him.

I often wear my bowler on overseas trips. Once, on a journey to what was then East Germany with a parliamentary group, I was ­wearing my bowler and was flanked by two other members of the ­group as we strode along Potsdam High Street.

A Soviet general coming the other way with his two minders immediately mistook me for a high-ranking Kommissar and gave me a ­spectacular, medal-clanking salute.

Just across the road from Lock’s the Hatters is St James’s Palace. Walk past it wearing a bowler and carrying a furled umbrella and the sentries on duty will crisply stand to attention and salute, just in case you are an officer.

The bowler shares one priceless advantage with every other titfer. Doffing one’s hat is the only way to make a polite gesture at a distance. Rude gestures are easy, hat or no hat. But nothing indicates a polite and friendly greeting more clearly or more stylishly than raising one’s hat. The ladies love it.

I once forestalled a riot in Whitehall by doffing my hat at just the right moment. During the miners’ strike of 1982-3, Arthur Scargill decreed that the miners should descend on Parliament Square in force to lobby members of the House of Commons. At the time I was working at my desk in No 10.

Oliver Letwin, now a Tory MP and Cabinet Office minister but who was then in the Downing Street policy unit and would go on to invent the poll tax, came dashing into my room with a look of terror on his face.

‘The miners are rioting in Parliament Square,’ he cried. ‘They’re pressing against the barriers at the end of Downing Street and the police are looking nervous. What do we do if they invade the ­building? It’s so unEnglish!’

‘Nonsense,’ I said (for I have always had a soft spot for the ­miners, the heroes of labour). ‘This is what they do every Friday night when the pubs tip out in Leeds or Barnsley. I’ll go and talk to them.’ And I reached for my hat. ‘B-b-but you’re not going to wear that silly Charlie Chaplin/­Laurel-and-Hardy hat, are you? You’ll be lynched!’

‘Fear not,’ I said. ‘These people have bad leaders, but they are good men.’ And I went out through the big black door into Downing Street.

At the sight of a chinless, pinstripe-suited fop emerging from the Prime Minister’s house, the miners jeered. I had expected that. As I walked towards them, I raised my hat to them and smiled. The ­jeering instantly turned to cheering — loud, long and happy.

Remembering my St John Ambulance training about how to calm crowds, I stopped 10ft from the miners, looked one of them in the eye and said (very quietly, so that they all had to listen): ‘You have something to say to the Prime ­Minister. I’ll pass on whatever you say to me. You’ve come a long way, so would you like a drink in the pub across the road?’

They would. Like schoolchildren with their teacher, they filed ­amiably across Whitehall to the pub, where I bought them pints of ale and made a careful note of what they said. The riot was over — and all thanks to Edward Coke and his gamekeeper.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Britain in contact with Europe in the Bronze Age

New research indicates that Stonehenge may have been an ancient tourist destination, attracting visitors from across Europe.

Studies of the skeleton of an adolescent boy from some 3,500 years ago found near the site suggest that he traveled all the way from the Mediterranean -- potentially Italy, Spain or southern France -- to the southwest of England.

Another body found near the famous stone complex has been identified as coming from the German Alpine foothills some 800 years earlier.

"The find adds considerable weight to the idea that people traveled long distances to visit Stonehenge, which must therefore have had a big reputation as a cult center," Timothy Darvill, professor of archeology at Bournemouth University, told The Associated Press. "Long-distance travel was certainly more common at this time than we generally think."

Researchers from the British Geological Survey analyzed isotopes in the travelers' teeth to pinpoint where they were raised.

Drinking water in different climates contains different ratios of heavy oxygen and light oxygen. Stones in different parts of Europe also contain different ratios of isotopes of the element strontium.

These two substances build up in children's teeth and remain there throughout adulthood, providing clues as to where the person grew up.

One thing they share is that both seem to have borne some kind of illness. The boy was buried at the age of 14 or 15, suggesting he may have died prematurely, The Independent reported. The German seems to have suffered from a painful leg condition. It may be that Stonehenge was a center of healing, drawing people from across Europe in search of cures, The Independent said.

Stonehenge has long mystified scientists. The site was first worked upon about 5,000 years ago. A thousand years later, massive stones were added to the site, according to

The stones, which weigh as much as 4 tons each, were taken more than 200 miles from Wales to the remote location in southwest England.

Nobody is quite sure what the site was used for. It could have been a religious site built by sun worshipers, since the axis that runs through the center of the stone circle aligns with the midsummer sunrise.

Today, the site is a favorite with both tourists and pagans, who celebrate religious festivals there.

Whatever drew these ancient travelers to the location, they certainly weren't budget travelers. The boy was found with a 90-piece amber necklace, while the German had copper daggers and gold hair clasps.

"People who can get these rare and exotic materials are people of some importance," Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archeology told BBC News.


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.