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Back in April, Mervyn King announced that Winston Churchill would be replacing Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note.

There is, I imagine, little argument about the significance of Churchill’s contribution to British history, nor his suitability for a place on one of our bank notes. I am sure, too, that this was meant to be swansong gesture designed to fix King in our memories as the man who put Churchill in our pockets. However, he rather runs the risk of being remembered as the man who sought to remove women from the faces of our bank notes.

Thank goodness for the Canadians (more on that in a moment). Principally, though, thank goodness for Caroline Criado-Perez who, on spotting the implications of what the bank was planning, started an online petition through change.org to force the bank to rethink. Her campaign was featured in The Guardian, on the BBC and in The Telegraph.

Her reasoning was simple and right:

“An all-male line-up on our banknotes sends out the damaging message that no woman has done anything important enough to appear. This is patently untrue. Not only have numerous women emerged as leading figures in their fields, they have done so against the historic odds stacked against them which denied women a public voice and relegated them to the private sphere – making their emergence into public life all the more impressive and worthy of celebration.”

And she has pulled it off.

Today, Mark Carney, the Canadian governor of the Bank of England, announced that Jane Austen would be the face of the new ten pound note.

Why does any of this matter?

Because it does.

Because it is not right for an institution as central to the organisation of our economic and political life as the Bank of England to believe it can operate in its own entitled bubble, failing to recognise that this country has been built on the hard work of men and women, the latter often, as Criado-Perez says, with the historic odds against them. I would go further and say that their hard work has often been in the face of hostility from privileged men who have struggled to reconcile themselves to the reality that politics, the workplace and the economy are as much the domains of women as they are of men.

If you think that such attitudes are a thing of the past, take a moment to think how on earth the Bank of England reach a position where no women were to be recognised on its bank notes? In Mervyn King’s own words at the time of the Churchill announcement: “Our banknotes acknowledge the life and work of great Britons.” It is clear from that the pictures are intended as a statement of significance. In 2010 there were around £48 billion pounds’ worth of notes in circulation. That is a lot of pieces of paper.

So why at no point did anyone appear to say to King: “Er, why are they all men?”

How did the design teams, the PR department, senior management and the Governor’s own office, not to mention King himself, let it happen?

It could, of course, be accident. However, most institutions and companies have strict policies and procedures to avoid such obvious idiocies. Or it could, of course, be a sub-concious, corporate mindset that still downplays the contribution of women in our national life in comparison to the contributions of men.

The sad reality is that entitlement and casual discrimination is still a force to be reckoned with, whether it is on our bank notes or, more banally, on our station platforms. Take a look at Everyday Sexism and its twitter feed to see a depressing stream of witless and offensive behaviour that demonstrates how disrespectful we still are to each other as a society.

Society looks to its leading institutions to lead change. When they fail, it takes the active grass roots of society to put pressure on those institutions.

Thank you Caroline Criado-Perez for saving us from looking like idiots.

And thank you Mark Carney for listening. (Now there’s just the little matter of the Canadian banknotes from which he removed women. Perhaps he was attempting to make amends for that as well as King’s faux pas?)

You can read the Bank of England background note on Jane Austen here.

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Scientists and historians have done their best to debunk the Curse of the Pharaoh, the inspiration for plenty of hammy horror movies and said to be the cause of death of Lord Carnarvon, the sponsor of Howard Carter’s expedition into the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Arguments have been made in the pages of the Lancet for aspergillosis, basically a fungal spore infection. Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat believed that it originated with a very odd 19th Century London twist on the traditional striptease, where actual mummies were unwrapped on stage.

So whilst the world’s finer minds have done their best to banish the spooky imaginings of over-imaginative teenage adventurers, experts are at a loss to satisfactorily explain the strange phenomena of an ancient Egyptian statue that seems to turn all by itself.

The statue of Neb Sanu stands 10″ tall and has been with Manchester Museum for eighty years. Resident Egyptologist Campbell Price noticed one day it had turned round so put it back in its place. The next day it had moved again. Price decided to set up a time lapse camera to record it.

Renown physicist Brian Cox has said it is probably caused by differential friction, the footsteps of visitors causing vibrations that, together with imperfections in the glass and the statue’s inertia, cause it to rotate. Price is quick to remind us that this explanation would make sense if the statue hadn’t sat in the same place for years.

The romantic in me likes the idea of there being some sort of mystical explanation. The rationalist in me accepts it is probably some strange quirk of physics.

Whatever the explanation, it makes for one hell of a time-lapse video.

 

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Old Pictures Prompted By A Morning’s Frost

A sepia dawn reveals

a two-tone world,

surrendering colour to

frost’s brush,

reminding us of

long ago, of men in

hats with scythes

and Threshing Bees.


A cruel cold heralds

a quiet kill,

testifying intent with

frost’s knife,

reminding us of

long ago, of men in

helms with guns

and Yellow Legs.

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A few days ago I couldn’t help post up the Horrible Histories take on Vikings and their great soft rock ballad. This time it’s Dick Turpin who gets the rock history treatment – and did you know he was caught out by his handwriting? Nor did I!

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BBC History magazine had an article in its Christmas edition on the dangerous games played by children in Tudor England. With fond recollections of my own childhood games I was curious to see what mischief our ancestors got up.

True enough, some of the stories were very sad, recounting how children had met their unfortunate demise whilst playing, but the games themselves were nothing special or dangerous. Rather, youngsters then, as now, met tragedy in a pond or lake or with an item falling on top of them.

Somehow, on reflection, my own childhood games seem rather more hazardous. Weekends were an adventure playground.

There was “Stick Wars”, where four of us would split into two teams of two and roam the local woods, Coombe Wood, with its “Creepy Copse” or the “Sandy Hills” tucked away in a bushy enclave on Westley Heights and the product of centuries of toil by local badgers. (It was years before it was I realised it was “Creepy Copse” and not “Creepy Cops”, the tall pines giving me small-child nightmare images of evil tree-police ready to snatch us out of the evening gloom). There we would give ourselves a “time out” to gather suitably-sized and suitably-shaped sticks and twigs that could be flung at each other. These turned into mammoth reconnaissance efforts, donning second-hand army fatigues and wellies, buying walkie-talkies, and making clear to families and walkers up from the town and trying to enjoy a little countryside that these were our woods.

What little horrors we were.

My regular partners in games were my brother and two eldest cousins, Matt and Sarah, and we spent virtually every weekend together between the ages of six and sixteen. As the years went by, we added my sister Ellie and odd friends (odd as in random, not odd, though some were certainly quirky – eh, Bob?). It was either Matt and me or Sarah and me, never siblings together, and we could spend a goodly while deciding what mischief to get up to. Back then, 2pm to 5pm was a significant portion of a life-time and seemed to last forever.

We were lucky in that both families had extensive gardens with an adjacent field, very differently shaped, but both sporting a tremendous variety of sheds, trees, nooks, crannies, and hidey-holes.

Sticks were reserved for public spaces. For our own gardens, and depending on the season, we opted for acorns and apples, knowing that one of those catching you on the leg would sting like hell or leave a splendid, thumping bruise. We’d skulk about gathering windfalls and stashing caches of ammunition under bushes and in old coal scuttles. And then we would unleash the pain, always bemused when a glancing blow to the head reduced one of us to tears and drew down the wrath of one or other set of parents.

On one memorable occasion we were joined by Horst, a rather severe and strong German who was the brother of a friend’s friend, who rather missed the point of these games with their stealth and dexterously-flung missiles. Instead, he appeared on the brow of a hill carrying a tree trunk and yelling who-knows-what in German at the top of his voice as he charged us down. Thank goodness for Matthew and his Herculean strength, who managed to flatten him in spectacular style.

Elastic bands – the thicker variety that are rarely seen today – were strung together in threes, fours and even fives to make lethal catapults for firing gravel from the drive or grit from a felt roof. We perfected weapons with ranges of a solid two or three hundred feet, if the trajectory was suitably angled and the bands powerful enough. A careful watch was kept for parents who might not appreciate the stones peppering the lawn and dulling the blades of the Mountfield mower.

Field cricket was a potentially lethal affair. Many lazy days were spent playing cricket in “the field” under sweltering Summer suns, on a full length wicket with a makeshift backing net of fruit bush netting or chicken wire. We played with leather and willow, no fear – and no pads and gloves (except when Brian, my friend and neighbour, invested in them, tired of his bruises and in receipt of more pocket money than the rest of us). But the pitch was uneven and I liked to bowl. Having reached six foot early and being an adept strike bowler, I spent hours learning where the ball bounced best for maximum impact and avoiding the ditch on the run-up. When dusk became twilight and the light impossible for finding balls in bushes or under blackthorn we would retire scratched, exhausted and happy, ready to resume the next day.

Then, finally, there was “That Game”, so infamous we still recall it today with a wistful, evil glint in the eye, which is still spoken of in hushed terms, and which we wonder if even at our age we could perhaps play one last time. Were there any rules? Probably. I recall a violent combination of British Bulldog, the tag variants of off-ground touch and run-outs, and wrestling. It was best played in the dark, outside, torches both a boon and curse. How no-one ended up cracking open a skull on the stone wood bunker which served as a base at Matt and Sarah’s place I have no idea.

So. Sod the Tudors. Langdon Hills in twentieth century Essex is where the dangerous games were at.

We’re just lucky we survived.

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It is sometimes shocking to sit and think how quickly technology has come on in just a few short years. Photography is something I have always enjoyed, being brought up on Dad’s slides and even his own attempts to create a dark room in the attic.

I remember my first Kodak camera with its stacked, one-use-per-bulb flash, and how proud I was to finally be able to take my own pictures. It had no zoom, no focus and used what I regarded as proper film. (Funny how whatever it is you start with you regard as proper film, at least until you grow up and start using standard 35mm.) I remember, too, getting my first Olympus, sadly rarely used, and the pictures I took with it on my honeymoon less than ten years ago, when there was no imminent prospect of digital superseding plastics and silver salts.

Now, most of us have phones that can take better pictures than even the most expensive digital cameras of ten years ago, with top-end digital cameras such as the Canon EOS 7D or EOS 5D Mk II being so sophisticated that they can replace movie cameras, opening up the world of movie-making to amateurs the world over.

The Light Farm are an enthusiast co-operative “dedicated to the renaissance of handcrafted silver gelatin emulsions”.  They have got their hands on a historic film by Kodak, which details the process of making film.

Enjoy.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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I have an eclectic musical taste that roams the genres and I can find myself listening to anything from Finzi and Mozart, to Counting Crows, The Jayhawks, Guns N’Roses, Linkin Park and Sick Puppies, all via the Pet Shop Boys, “Ibiza dance” and Lady Ga Ga. Not forgetting of course Led Zeppelin, U2, Nightwish, The Village People etc etc…

Nothing gets to me though quite like John Denver and there is one album in particular that defines him for me: Poems, Prayers and Promises.

It was his fourth album and every song is an acoustic musical masterpiece (except “The Box”, Kendrew Lascelles’s stunning anti-war poem, read with genuine agony by Denver on the last track of side two). His beautiful tenor soars and swoops, occasionally tinged with a spine-tingling melancholy, and the lyrics are homely, humbling and thought-provoking without being trite.

Perhaps it is because it is the first non-classical record I heard Mum and Dad play that it means so much to me. Perhaps it is because it conjures safe memories of lying on the carpet in pools of dappled sunlight, thinking that days like that could never end. Perhaps it is because it has been the soundtrack to many a long car journey to Cornwall. Or perhaps it is because its calm simplicity lets me find my centre, even in the hardest times.

John Denver died in 1997. What a beautiful legacy to leave.

From “Poems, Prayers and Promises”

The days they pass so quickly now

Nights are seldom long

And time around me whispers when it’s cold

The changes somehow frighten me

Still I have to smile

It turns me on to think of growing old

For though my life’s been good to me

There’s still so much to do

So many things my mind has never known

I’d like to raise a family

I’d like to sail away

And dance across the mountains on the moon


I have to say it now

It’s been a good life all in all

It’s really fine

To have the chance to hang around

And lie there by the fire

And watch the evening tire

While all my friends and my old lady

Sit and watch the sun go down


And talk of poems and prayers and promises

And things that we believe in

How sweet it is to love someone

How right it is to care

How long it’s been since yesterday

What about tomorrow

What about our dreams

And all the memories we share

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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You could be forgiven for thinking that part of the appeal of “Never say ‘No’ to Panda” is the peculiar novelty of seeing pretend animals acting in unexpectedly violent ways.  However, I was shocked to discover possible antecedents in the early work of Jim Henson and an era of “muppet ultraviolence” that hitherto had passed me by.

In 1957, Henson was contacted by Washington DC-based Wilkins Coffee. They asked him to produce a series of 10 second adverts for local tv stations. Between 1957 and 1961 he made – according to the Muppet Wiki – 179 ads, in which Kermit-forerunner Wilkins, the Wilkins Coffee-lover, attacks Wontkins, the Wilkins Coffee-hater, in varyingly violent ways.

The question I have is… Whatever happened to Wilkins Coffee?

Surprisingly, there’s very little information out there, even in the vast cyber-wilderness of the Internet. According to a poster on Michael Procopio’s blog Food for the Thoughtless:

Wilkins sold the roasting plant to The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company in 1970 and continued to distribute Wilkins Coffee from Landover, Maryland. Halco, a public company, purchased Wilkins in 1974 and the division was called Halco/Wilkins Food Service. Wilkins was once again separated and sold in 1982.

There the trail seems to go cold and there are few if any references to what happened to Wilkins Coffee. A second poster on the same site reports that the name was bought by Royal Cup Coffee but notes that there are no products sold with that branding.

Frustratingly, there appears to be very little information available about Wilkins Coffee before its murderous muppet adventures. The only thing I could find is a tantalising early reference in this list of radio programmes which details a 15 minute transmission on WRC (National Broadcasting Co.) at 6.30pm EST on Friday 3rd October 1930 by the Wilkins Coffee Orchestra.

I wonder how big a phenomena that was? I wonder how proud the members of this now-forgotten ensemble must have felt to hear themselves broadcast over the airwaves?

There must have been countless numbers of similar artistic ventures sponsored by companies that are now barely footnotes in our global industrial history. Wilkins Coffee, boasting advertising budgets that could fund hundreds of television ads, now really only survives in the global consciousness as an interesting chapter in the early history of the lunatic puppets created by Jim Henson.

If you can cope with the undoing of happy childhood memories of Kermit’s nephew Robin singing “Halfway Down The Stairs”, take a look at the clips below.

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The election was little more than two weeks ago, though, in truth, the astonishing developments of recent days make it feel like half a lifetime has passed.

This weekend is the first since before the start of the campaign that I have had a moment to catch breath and reflect on the incredible and exhausting roller-coaster of emotions that has carried me through the last few weeks. I am still struggling to get my head around a moment in history that has taken the party to which I have devoted most of my adult life from being the second party of opposition, fighting against media expectations of annihilation, through the incredible highs of Nick Clegg’s performances in the television debates, to the shock and dismay as we lost seats, and, finally, after careful and determined negotiations, on an extraordinary journey into government. Not at any moment had I envisaged the highs and lows of the last seventeen days, nor the conflict of emotion, loyalty and reason that has tested me and many, many party members.

As regular readers of my blog will know, I have never been backward in offering up frank criticisms of the Conservative Party. At the risk of offending “socialist” colleagues (I use the term advisedly these days), I have long mischievously regarded the Labour Party as merely a hundred-year anachronism that, hugely significant in its impact on the politics of the twentieth century, is merely the upstart younger brother of a progressive Liberal tradition that has a far longer and richer history as a counter-weight to the political and societal inhibitions of Conservatism. With that as my starting point, the idea of a coalition with the Conservative Party was never something I had entertained, instead attaching my instincts in terms of coalition in a balanced parliament situation to the romantic notion of a realignment of the left and a partnership with a Labour Party looking to rediscover its sense of purpose.

I use the term ‘romantic’ quite deliberately. That sense that Labour were the natural partner of the Liberal Democrats paid scant regard to the illiberal and authoritarian reality of thirteen years of Labour government, but owed more to my admiration for the integrity of leaders such as Paddy Ashdown and Menzies Campbell who sought the prize of a realignment of the left in order to usher in a new era of liberal reforms. That emotional detachment from political reality governed many of my initial reactions to the General Election result and the truly baffling parliamentary arithmetic delivered by a cynical, angry public to the political class.

Despite an illegal war (yes, it was illegal), huge incursions by the state into our private lives, the threat to traditional British rights such as trial by jury, repeated failure to deliver on reform of the Lords and our electoral system (even though these were manifesto promises), the running down of our rural communities and the ruin of our agricultural industry, the bankrupting of the nation’s finances, and complicity in the ruin of confidence in our Parliament, Labour somehow still felt a more appropriate partner for government. However, listing these abject failures, just as I did in the pause for thought that was created by Nick Clegg’s commitment to allow the party with the greatest mandate to seek to form a government first, forced me to recognise that the political instincts of the Labour Party, still nominally progressive, are as far from my own and my understanding of my party’s as are those of the Conservative Party. More importantly, from the point of view of attempting to come to terms with the political and economic reality of 2010, the Labour Party is exhausted and broken, uncertain of what it believes or what sort of party it should become.

By contrast, the Conservative Party revealed a confident capacity to subordinate expectation, objectives and tradition to the practical necessity of negotiating with its erstwhile political opponent – qualities that had clearly escaped the observations of many commentators who saw minority government as its only route to power. If I am being completely honest, they are qualities that had escaped me, also, my ready preference to hide behind (well-founded!) tribal prejudices proving that I did not know the party I had been campaigning against as well as I liked to believe.

The outcome, a Coalition Agreement and a Coalition Government which sees Liberal Democrats at every ministerial level, is a genuinely radical attempt to confront the challenges facing the country and, in its composition, demonstrates a commitment from both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party to making this arrangement work.

Knowing how many of my fellow party members share my instinct, I am proud at the way the Liberal Democrats both locally and nationally have responded to the challenge set by the electorate. That there was such considered acclaim for the agreement at the special conference convened to provide an opportunity for members to discuss the Coalition Agreement does not detract from the hard questions the party asked itself. We fully recognise that a new and tough challenge will be to promote ourselves as a party of government, making clear the very real impact that having Liberal Democrats in government will have on people’s lives.

Of course the proof of the pudding will be in its eating at the end of this Parliament and the extent to which the Coalition has delivered on its clear commitments. However, the ambition is tremendous and a high benchmark that has the potential to reconnect the public with politicians and provide a real opportunity to break open the old ways of doing things. The list on which this Coalition is determined to deliver includes things I never seriously believed I would see in the programme of a single government: fixed term parliaments to end the game-playing of sitting prime ministers; an opportunity for the country to decide on voting reform, jemmying the crowbar of preferential voting into our creaking and unrepresentative electoral system; reform of the House of Lords; an ambitious plan to green our economy; a Freedom Bill to roll back the powers of the state; huge investment in the schooling of the country’s poorest pupils; and the raising of the income tax threshold to help those on the lowest incomes.

Most of all, this Parliament provides a uniquely important opportunity for all those supporters of electoral reform: to demonstrate that pluralist politics can work and that the national interest is served by a strong and distinctly Liberal voice in government.

Despite the colourful, passionate and necessary rhetoric of the election, my own emerging understanding of this unprecedented situation is that coalition cannot be founded on our deeply-held prejudices as politicians, but instead has to be grounded in an objective assessment of how best to serve the national interest in all its iterations, however personally troubling the accompanying journey might be. I believe Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and David Cameron’s Conservative Party have made just that assessment, setting aside instinctive and fundamental differences to establish a coincidence of interests to best serve a tired, cynical, yet hopeful public.

I wish them – us –  every success.

And I look forward to pressing the case for Liberal Democrat achievements in Government against robust challenges from both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in five years’ time.

You can read the Coalition Agreement, approved by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party 11th May 2010, here:

You can read the Coalition’s Programme for Government, published 20th May 2010, here:

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June 2010 will be the third year that Britain has celebrated Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month.

There is a shocking amount of ignorance about the historic and cultural identities of the travelling communities in Britain. Few who are concerned about the impact of travellers on the greenbelt will pause to think about traditions that extend back half a millennium, more rooted in the history of the British isles than many would ever imagine.

As Jake Bowers writes on the GRTHM website:

“Quite simply, ignorance about who we are and where we come from leads to ruined lives.  Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month celebrates our culture and history by tackling the negative stereotyping and prejudices that have led to this situation.”

Gypsy, Roma, Traveller, History Month has gained international significance, Gay McDougall, United Nations Independent Expert on Minority issues, issuing a statement welcoming the United Kingdom’s commitment to recognising the contribution of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to British society [see the PDF below].

This year promises to offer the widest range of activities to engage the settled community yet. I hope it crosses your path in places other than this blog. More than anything, I hope we are all big enough to rise to the challenge of considering Gypsy, Roma and Traveller issues with an open mind.

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