Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Brexit Vote One Year On

Everyone else seems to have had their turn at saying something about the Brexit vote one year on, so this is my offering.
Looking back, and we need to look back to when we joined what was then called The Common Market in 1972 at least, if not earlier, it appears to me that there has been misunderstanding and misleading messages all along.
Probably enough has already been said and written to the effect of Is this really happening?  How can a country do such a destructive thing to itself?  I have been over it in my head many times in the hope that some answer will emerge.  I have tried to do this without making it a blaming exercise, great though the temptation be, because I regard the peaceful integration of Europe to be the most difficult excercise (so far, anyway) in human history.  Never mind sending a rocket to the moon and back with human passengers; that's pure engineering.  Get the maths right and follow up the calculations with an accurate mechanical job, and it will work.  The machine will perform to spec; job done.  Attempts to unite Europe by force have been shown not to work when tried (Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler…) and yet, just as we were starting to actually get somewhere by mutual consent, some {person/group} [insert blame-object here] — goes and clobbers the precious project towards destruction.  Why?
I'm not old enough to remember the post-World-War-II clean-up that gave us Churchill's We must build a United States of Europe…and people will proudly say “I am a European” speech and the European Coal and Steel Treaty between France and Germany, but that's my starting point.  Opinions are divided as to whether Churchill implied that the UK was part of his vision or not. Methinks probably not; otherwise he would have added …and it is Britain's destiny to be a leading light in it.
I am, however, old enough to remember the tail end of the 1960's, when six countries: France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg were the only EEC members, UK was knocking at the door and Charles de Gaulle was saying Non!
I remember the Non!-s continuing for what seemed like forever at the time, but was actually only just into the nineteen-seventies. Britain was then called “The sick man of Europe”, and for good reason. We had the three-day week as then Prime Minister Edward Heath called the time when the economy was in such bad shape that – yes, really – we couldn't afford to run factories full time.  Do we need to go through with Brexit until our country is in that bad a state again before we see sense?  Because there was not enough electricity being generated, we had a rota by local area of scheduled three hour power cuts.  I remember, in the weeks before my first son was born and my wife wanting a home birth, soldering up a circuit with a car battery and a headlamp bulb lest she were to go into labour during one of the dark hours. Do we, I say again, need to go through with Brexit until our country is in that bad a state again before we see sense?
Between then and now, we've seen the EU be so successful at promoting peace, prosperity and mutual help through just about every aspect of life that others have said “I want to be part of that” and joined.  That's not only We've been Western all along countries; not only former Iron Curtain countries; but also states that were once part of the Soviet Union itself.  I still have my old school atlas labelling, for example the Latvian SSR.  Within my lifetime, we were spending £shed-loads on maintaining spy networks and missile targeting on them.  Thanks to the EU we don't need to any more.  I don't recall any accounting figures about that written on a bus anywhere, partly because the exact figures are a military secret, but mainly, it seems, because all that doesn't suit the mindset of the Brexiteers.  There are evidently fellow-countrymen of mine, going about their lives, breathing the same air as me, who actually think that having some of them living around us as neighbours (they come over here, harvesting our fruit & veg, staffing our hospitals, conducting our orchestras…) — somehow that's such a bad thing, it's worth ruining the nation's economy to stop it. I can't say I'm lost for words because, well you can see, but it takes some head-scratching to get to why 52% of those who voted a year ago voted Leave.  So why are we here?
My personal feeling [number 1] is that we have not shouted our praises loudly enough.  I really think that all the people involved in the actual business of the EU have failed to sell the whole idea to the UK public.  They have failed to do so because they have been so close to it themselves, so obvious are the benefits of EU membership, that they didn't think there was any point in bothering.

There's been big stuff such as incorporating all those former communist lands (no wonder Russia helped the Leave campaign).  There's been medium-sized things such as regenerating Liverpool City Centre and cleaning up beaches; and of course the small things that you need to look for the little EU flags on the tourist information boards for.  All those useful benefits must have seemed so obvious that not enough people shouted them from the proverbial rooftops. We honestly never imagined that the steady drip-nonsense that started with Bananas have to be straight back in the 1970's was worth bothering about because it was all … well, nonsense.  I don't know whose responsibility it was/should-have-been to make a self-praising public relations exercise, and I don't want to, because we're not into blame-culture politics in this blog. Anyway, what could have been done?  Films of happy children dancing round the flag to rousing music are not our style; we know we are joyful Europeans and leave such images with the soviets and Jehovah's Witnesses where they belong.

My personal feeling [number 2] is that we have failed in our use of language. By that I don't mean we haven't been talking in French often enough. What I mean is that we, led and prompted by the anti-EU brigade no doubt, have been talking as if Europe is somewhere else rather than something that's part of what we are: “We're going to Europe for holidays this year…”; that sort of thing.  It's very slight and very subtle, but that's the point.  It works by soft gentle pressure applied for a long time; like a child's dental brace that works when the spring presses gently on the tooth to move it.  If it presses too hard the tooth resists movement.  If a number of us had gone around saying “We're going to The Mainland for holidays this year” the reaction would depend on whether or not the hearer was familiar with the Shetland Island of that name.  A company which I worked for in the 80's sent a form round asking “Would you like to work in Europe?” [various questions and tick-boxes].  I answered mine by adding a box saying I am already working in Europe.

That, then, is why we have fallen off the edge of Churchill's United States of Europe vision.  Even with the ever closer union idea, it didn't look as close as the American states are to each other, (as if that was meant to be off-putting).  An interesting point to ponder is that, when the USA was a new idea still on its drawing board, a lot of discussion and argument took place on the subject of which aspects of life should best be administered at Federal level, and which by each individual State. The relics of this discussion can still be seen on a map, where a Stateline follows an unexpected path because it was worth insisting that you had a port on the sea or a major river, just in case this new-fangled United States idea fails and we need to be an independent country.  The corresponding questions for Europe have not had such public airing.  That's a pity, it could have saved an awful lot of grief.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Boris Rumbled

Boris Johnson is not stupid. The lovable rogue image is there for a purpose: to distract you from the Machiavellian pursuit of power. So when he makes a flawed statement, you know something is up.

To call President Obama hypocritical for advising the UK to share our sovereignty in Europe “in a way that the USA would never do” is worse than flawed: it's deliberately meant to mislead. Let's have a look at what he has done and how exactly.  He wants to cry “Unfair! My debating opponent here is recommending a course of action for me that he would not accept for himself.”  On the surface it looks as if he has a valid point, so what has he done? The clue is in the carefully crafted balanced sentence, made easy to use by the fact that he's speaking of two countries called “The United [something]”. Strip away the detail of meaning and listen to the skeleton: “The United Kingdom [blah] <pivot> [blah] The United States”.

That's the trick, the magician's sleight of hand; and it is meant to distract you from the flaw. It implies that the two countries, UK and USA, are equivalent and comparable in terms of the topic.  Of course he knows all that (his parents paid his fees for Eton after all). The point he's hiding is that the United States of America already is a union of States, each making its own laws, with agreed borders between them, all with their individuality of resources (agriculture, mineral wealth, diversity of ethnicity and skills of the human population) and pooling their sovereignty together so that the power and influence of the whole is maximised.  Many have an economy the size of entire countries quite high in the GDP league table. It's probably fair to say that any could flourish alone if it ever had to. (No I can't think why any ever might either.) The USA is more like the EU as a whole, but it would be unwise to stretch the analogy too far.

A long time ago, when the USA was a new idea being built into reality (the last quarter of the eighteenth century to put a handle on it), there was considerable debate and discussion about which powers and authorities of public life should be administered by each State, and which should be done at a federal level. So intense were some of these discussions that some states had to plan for the possibility of this new fangled federation or confederation idea falling apart. They might have to be independent separate countries, in which case they would need a port on the coast or a major river. It explains why some state line boundaries steer around natural geographical features the way they do.

Of course the Europe of today is very unlike the North America of around three hundred years ago. However, on the human nature doesn't change principle, the questions we should be asking are on the lines of “How best can we make our EU structures functionally democratically accountable?”, “Which aspects of public administration are better carried out by the National Member State and which by Brussels?”; not “This is undemocratic so shall we break it up in the hope we can try to start again?”. I have more time for the learned academics who believe in that viewpoint than the shallow self-interest of opportunist politicians.

Because Boris Johnson is not stupid. He could put his mind to the above questions if he so wished.  That he chooses not to means he's putting the country's safety and prosperity behind his own power lust programme.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

They shall beat their missiles into squeegees

A couple of days before Christmas…

We arrived at the big Sainsbury's in Norwich, at the Longwater shopping centre, to find the car park busy with a car washing team. The car certainly needed a wash and there was a half hour or so for cleaning while we shopped, so we asked the price: five pounds for a basic hose-down, or ten for a full wash and polish.

“OK– we'll have the £10 wash and polish please.”  (These were clearly people whose first language was not English.)  I reasoned that all was sure to be well because Sainsbury's would soon order them off site if they did anything amiss. 

We returned to an immaculately cleaned and waxed car.  Giving him his ten pounds I asked the guy where he was from.  “Bulgaria” he replied (only of course he pronounced it България).  “Welcome to England!” I said, “and a happy Christmas”, adding a two pound tip with a smile and a handshake.

So what's the big deal here?  It's this: a small fraction of a human lifetime ago, Bulgaria was an Iron Curtain country.  We were spending– I don't know exactly how much, I'm not privy to military secrets, – shed-loads of money keeping missiles aimed at the Warsaw Pact bloc; plus maintaining all the espionage that went with it.

Thanks to the existence of the EU and Britain's part in it, they and other former Warsaw Pact countries are our friends and trading partners.

Thanks to the EU, when the collapse of communism occurred, those countries had a ready-made grouping of democratic nations to come and join, ours, rather than form some other alliance of goodness-knows-what political direction.

That's a great achievement, and all for the price of a few squeegees (minus the price of a few missiles).

Saturday, 29 August 2015

A loaf on the ocean wave…?

Well, not really, but it was time I blogged about bread…

Pretty isn't it?  The waterways of Norfolk with the famous broads and their interconnecting rivers where I was on a family holiday last week.  It allows the mind to concentrate, being on a cruiser with limited space to move around until you step ashore.  We were well stocked with supplies of fine ale of course, and home-baked bread for the four days we could expect it to keep, but we were well aware that shopping opportunities for bread would be limited to the industrially produced Chorleywood version.  I decided to set myself a challenge: on-board Realbread.
This is not to say “This is so easy that anyone could do it.”, nor “This is really difficult so aren't I clever?”; just the hope that somebody will try sourdough in September as a result of reading this because I enjoyed doing it.  It's not the best way to go about what I did if you're planning it, but it worked.  You can study all the details elsewhere about how 17° is the ideal temperature for a thriving sourdough and how bakers strive to keep their kitchens free from draughts. This is what can be done in the wild.
There was a gas cooker on board with an oven, but no prospect of buying breadflour or yeast for a few days. All we had on board was some self raising white flour. The challenge then was to make a loaf, starting by culturing the natural wild yeasts on blackberries into a sourdough. Here goes!

Day zero

This is the start, it's a couple of dessertspoonsful of white flour (let's gloss over the fact that self raising was all that I had available [shock-horror!]) made into a paste with water plus a handful of the ripest blackberries I could find, preferring those with just a slight bloom of the wild yeast visible on them.

For the record, I used bottled mineral water because the chlorine in tap water is best avoided.  Boiled tap water left to get cold would have done just as well.  I kept a damp piece of kitchen paper precariously held on top by a loosely fitting lid because you need to let fresh air get to it, but not to let it dry out. So there it sat in its little coffee cup evidently quite happy with the wildly fluctuating temperature until…

Day three

Signs of life are definitely there because the mixture is bubbling with evidence of fermentation.  It's time to strain off the blackberries — oh, that would have been easier with a tea-strainer, but never mind, I'll just use a fork, a spoon and care not to let any non-child-friendly language slip out as bits of blackberry try to sneak back in.

40g. of starter reporting for duty –Sir!

Meanwhile some on-shore shopping had been done, so I now had actual bread flour: a kilo and a half of white plus a kilo of spelt. Also I could test the limits of the oven because I had some 7g. sachets of dried yeast. A test bake went well so my team of micro-organisms and I carry on.

Evening of day 3: 40g is doubled to 80.

We're now at the stage where, given an on average reasonable temperature, the culture is thriving. It doubles its quantity in 24 hours. Once a day it is fed with an equal quantity of flour and water, so this time I add 20g of water + 20g of flour to the 40 existing.  I prefer the word leaven for what it is now.  Sourdough is the type of bread made with it; leaven is the natural yeast itself, the word carrying with it all the nuances of centuries of antiquity. The interested reader can look up its significance in Biblical times: Moses prescribed in detail the occasions when unleavened as opposed to leavened bread was appropriate to eat.  Equally interesting at the home end of history, scientists now know much of the detail of what happens at the molecular level. I just needed to let my six shipmates enjoy the holiday too while the beauty of it all continued.

80 → 160 grams

At home, my regular practice is to double again on the next day (160 → 320), use 300g to make a couple of standard size loaves leaving 20 to start the doubling again.  Here, I'm using 150g and letting the ten gram residuum live on after anther doubling, to come home with me in a tiny Kilner jar. (And to be named Herbert in honour of the company that owns the boat.)

Flour, water, salt, leaven

Hang on a minute [intruder alarm!!!!] What is that object in the top centre of the picture?  It's a cup of sugar photobombing the process of bread making. It must have snuck into shot because some of us have sugar in our tea/coffee and the workspace is crowded.  That can be the only explanation because sugar is most definitely NOT a bread ingredient.
What is sugar?  [All together now]

N O T … a … b r e a d … i n g r e d i e n t .

Thank you.  [Smiley-face]

Mixed (the dessert spoon is sitting there as a size guide)

This looks like a good spot to list the quantities: basically it's half my regular sourdough makeup.
375 g. breadflour (185g white + 190g spelt)
225 ml.water
160 g. leaven
10 g. salt
Mix & knead for 10 minutes.
All the books by all the Master Bakers will tell you precise times and temperatures to aim for.  Afloat, I left it overnight at a damp 12°-ish.


In the early morning of day five, the fermented dough is ready to shape into loaves.

Shaped ready for final rise

There's nothing fancy here. I decided to use silicone coated baking papers for the sheer ease of doing it and cleaning up afterwards.  By early afternoon it was time to light the oven.  Its control is marked in gas numbers, not something I'm not familiar with but the highest setting (9) should be about 240°. Oven up, and in it goes for thirty minutes.


… and cut

A good sourdough justifies a robust crisp crust that comes from baking on a pre-heated stone. Obviously I couldn't get that, but the taste and feeling of satisfaction were great.


This was written in support of the Campaign for Real Bread (see @RealBread  #Realbread) to whom I hereby grant the right to use any part of this article to promote their cause.
Details of Sourdough September can be found on their website 
Thanks, as usual, to @DoughAnarchist for teaching me much of the fundamentals.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

More Thoughts on 'Free' schools

Guidelines and regulations are all rather new at the moment, so I don't yet have a definite answer to one question in particular that bothers me, and that's pupil inclusiveness versus selection*. Government rules and guidelines for free schools explicitly forbid them to exclude applicant pupils on certain grounds, physical disability, for example. A Local Authority school will be obliged to accept a wheelchair-using pupil, and in doing so, accept having to pay the cost of any adjustments to the buildings, which may be a relatively large hit to their budget, especially for a small school with old buildings. And of course they do it: not because it's trendy to be politically correct; but because it's the right thing to do: it benefits the wheelchair-using pupil to be in a mainstream school and it benefits the other pupils to live everyday life with less able friends. My question is this: Will a free school have the same obligation, or will it be able to passive-deselect? (“Yes you're welcome to come here, but good luck trying to fit your wheelchair in.”) I find it hard to imagine anyone who would actually answer “no” to this, but I can imagine the situation emerging by default, where a free school doesn't get applications from non-mainstream pupils, simply because everyone knows that they haven't got the facility for….
Who knows what the ultimate goal is? (Conservative Central Office does, obviously, but I mean apart from that.) It starts off looking so innocent as the much vaunted increased customer choice. Then it moves on. Now we have the promise/threat of free schools all over the place. They won't pull Local Authorities out suddenly, like whipping a tablecloth away so fast it leaves all the crockery on the table. It's all being done one tiny step at a time. So far, we've had free schools introduced. Like any new special introductory offer, by and large they are good. Next we had an ever increasing workload put on School Governors and Friends of the School. (Funny, isn't it: how many Tory policy-makers does it take to go from “There is no such thing as Society” to “What we need is The Big Society”?) All the while the budget is whittled away, both by inflation and well-paid accountancy graduates at their desks.
We don't (yet, anyway) have commercially sponsored schooling, but please try to imagine it for a moment. I'm not sure which format I prefer, “Welcome to the Nestlé-McDonald's Wymondham Academy” or “Hi from Happyskool Wymondham, proudly sponsored by…!”. OK, you can scoff now, but when the er– customer choice – available is one or more faith-based schools, a free commercially sponsored school or an expensive fee-based school, don't say you were never warned!

* Local Lib-Dems have tried asking the County Council, at time of writing they are going to get back to us. Helpful research welcome.


The Pencil Speaks

It is the night before polling day. Somewhere, in a bed, in a house, in a street, in a constituency, a voter unsoundly sleeps; the brain stirred by thinking of tomorrow. Suddenly there is a shout of “Thank you Mr Pencil, I get it now”, a dig in the ribs and “What on earth are you dreaming about”?
I was in the polling booth, ready to vote, but all the names on the ballot paper were different from the ones who'd been campaigning: I didn't recognise any of them. I must have said something , like“now what do I do?” when I heard a tiny voice…

Please don't squeeze me with your fingernails!

Sorry! Who are you?

I'm the voting pencil. It's my job to help everyone put their cross on the paper. I've seen it all many times: know the result hours before any of you humans do.

Er– ok. I read all that stuff about how a strong mixed economy is good. But if it's that simple, everyone would agree on it so there'd be no need to vote at all.

Exactly. That's the problem. People don't even agree on what we're voting for. I mean is it

Who do you think is best for the country as a whole? Or

Who, purely in your own selfish interest, do you think is best for you?

I see; I might as well vote for the Selfish-Me-First party because we ask everybody to vote, so nobody has to work it out for the whole country.

You've got it: you catch on fast for a human. But like a lot of things, the first explanation you get is just the general idea. Actually it's a bit more complicated. You've read all the parties' promises, right? So suppose you're very rich, you can afford to send your children to private school, your holidays are spent in your own villa in …

Ok I get the drift…

You'd vote Conservative: never mind that the economy is not best tuned business-wise to a private/public balance. Never mind the local State school. I want lower tax for me to pay, more of my money for my stuff. Of course you'd want most other people to vote the same way too, otherwise the Conservative candidate doesn't get in. Labour's ideas would skew the economy too much the other way.

So, what you're saying is it's not in my interest to vote for a party whose number one priority is convincing me to skew the economy their way. It's ideologies that generate party policies. So it really is best in your own self-interest as well as the country's interest to vote for a strong well-tuned economy.

I can get back to sleep now. Voting is tomorrow.

Look right, look left, then cross. Vote Liberal Democrat.