6 April 2014

We had a lovely couple of days this week – on Thursday a leisurely outing in the Cotswolds on what would have been a lovely spring day were it not for adverse meteorological conditions and, on Friday, a walk with our favourite granddaughter up the lane at the top of the hill to the secret grotto hideout of various neighbourhood gnomes.

SmogI guess it probably didn’t make it on to the main US media outlets but in the middle of the week we had a couple of days of an unusual meteorological condition – SMOG! On Wednesday most of the UK media outlets recommended that those with respiratory conditions would be well-advised to spend their days indoors and I had noticed that our cars were covered with dust. This dust was driven our way from the Sahara and, when mixed with the “normal” pollution we enjoy most days, it created a smog-like condition which had many folks reaching for their asthma inhalers. The first alert came on Wednesday morning warning of dire conditions through the afternoon, including a map helpfully showing where it would be best not to breath that afternoon.

Now, I grew up in Southern California and let me tell you – I know smog! I remember the burning lungs and the beet-red eyes of growing up in Southern California, especially on those hot, hot summer days when we were running about, playing baseball and/or swimming continually.

And while there was no doubt that conditions on Wednesday and Thursday were certainly less than ideal, this wasn’t of a similar magnitude. Still, not very pleasant, especially for those with respiratory conditions – even Ms Playchute had to dig her inhaler out of her handbag more frequently than usual.

On Thursday Penelope suggested an outing – she wanted to find a small gift for a friend and proposed visiting some galleries in various towns in the Cotswolds so off we went. The day was lovely but it struggled bravely in its efforts to develop into one of those gorgeous spring days ideally suited to a drive through the Cotswolds. The smog seemed to envelope everything, obscuring the vistas over the fields like a veil of gauze or fine muslin. We visited galleries in Witney, Burford, Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-the-Marsh and had a grand time just pottering about in spite of the conditions. And, you will be pleased to know that the mission was a success!

On Friday we had a delightful visit with our favourite granddaughter who brought her Daddy to play for the afternoon. We ran up and down the length of the workshop (several hundred times), danced frantically to a couple of tunes, read stories in Annabelle’s favourite book-reading spot behind the curtains, played “follow the leader” and had a pleasant walk up the lane at the top of the hill.

The walk up the lane at the top of the hill is one which we do occasionally, generally when the weather is sheeting it down – it’s a relatively short walk and it all takes place on a paved surface so that Molly does not come back excessively caked with mud.

About half way along the walk there is a small thicket of trees underneath which is a collection of garden gnomes. Some years ago, when we first moved to Byfield and discovered this particular walk there was a single gnome nestled amongst the trees by the side of the lane. Some weeks later on the same walk we came across a small sign asking for the return of said gnome – some heartless and wicked individual had walked off with it! I believe it was eventually returned but since that time the gnome population has sky-rocketed and there now must be thirty or forty. Whoever put the original gnome there has probably added a few since then but I think also that others have contributed to the community, as we did on Friday.

Pen decided that Annabelle might like to have a gnome-friend which she could leave in the gnome community and which we could visit from time to time. So we marched up the hill and, with great care and consideration, Annabelle decided where “Joan” would be happiest amongst the rest of her new-found friends.

I hope you all survived April Fool’s Day with little inconvenience. I’m sure you all saw a multitude of “jokes”, some funny, some less so. The Huffington Post had a round-up of allegedly the best April Fool’s pranks this week. I particularly liked the “taste” tricks – a video from Promote Scotland announcing the development of whiskey-flavoured milk and what, after reflection is an obvious product waiting for development, Tetley tea announcing biscuit-flavoured teabags.


I also liked the 42” “shablet” but by far my favourite was the Wino-Tap – I’ve ordered two – one red, one white (obviously).

Wino Tap

I thought I had ranted previously about the way in which the government sold off the Royal Mail at a fraction of its value but looking back through the archives, I can’t find it. Perhaps I just thought about ranting and, after a good venting, went about my business and forgot all about it.

Now, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have criticised the government – Royal Mail was massively under-valued when it was sold and the taxpayer got ripped off by the usual suspects – the City and the large banking institutions.

Any competent government minister ought to have seen this coming. I guess that’s the problem – we don’t have any competent government ministers. You ask for advice on establishing the initial share price from the very institutions which you hope will buy most of the shares. Hardly surprisingly, those city institutions came up with a price which was about half what it should have been. And, the government gave them more than £12 million for that advice! Simon Jenkins had an excellent article in the Guardian:

Privatisation fees alone totalled £12.7m, according to the National Audit Office report.

Within weeks of the sale [at the price of 330p per share], Goldman Sachs’s own analysts were predicting a price of 610p, almost twice what the “advisers” [from Goldman Sachs, amongst other financial institutions] had been advising. The government had been shockingly ill-advised. As the price went up past 600p, Cable [Vince Cable, the minister responsible for pushing the sale through] kept dismissing it as “irrational exuberance, froth, speculation”. He indicated everyone should wait until the price came down. It is now 562p. Worse, he had allocated bundles of shares to 16 City institutions on a “gentleman’s agreement” that they would hold them as “a core of high-quality investors who would be there in good times and bad”. Within weeks, over half this stake had been sold, and to precisely “the hedge funds and other speculators” that Cable had pledged to keep out. Just four of the 16 are still big shareholders.

And, another article in the Guardian made use of a handy, easy-to-understand metaphor:

If you sold your home for £330,000 on the advice of an estate agent, then found the buyer offloading it just weeks later for £600,000, you’d feel pretty sore. So who were the government’s estate agents? Step forward Lazard and Co, paid £1.5m to act as chief adviser, while the syndicate of investment banks involved in the “book building” (Goldman Sachs, UBS, Merrill Lynch and Barclays, among others) pocketed another £11.2m.

Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.

Finally, thought for the day (posted by a friend on Facebook):


And finally, finally, I was saddened in the week to hear the  news of the death of Ralph Mann who passed away on Friday morning. Ralph was head of the History department when I joined Chipping Norton School in 1975 and it was he who taught me just about everything I know about teaching history, especially to the less-willing students. Ralph was big on using documentary evidence and local sources to make history engaging for students, wrapping national and international social and political developments in a local context which would make such developments understandable to less-able and less-willing students. So, for example, how do you teach the impact of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 to Bobby Cross and the bottom set in what was then Year 3 (Year 9 in today’s money)? You pull out the census returns for the workhouse and ask students to collate the numbers of children in the workhouse who were the same age or younger than they were, leading to a greater understanding of the Act as well as an appreciation that these were real people in real poverty who lived in the same town or village as they did. Real History, in other words.

Not only was Ralph a true friend and mentor, he was genuinely a really nice person – kind and generous with his time and expertise. A true gentleman who will be much missed.

Much love to you all,