Recent comments



Earlier this month (October 2012) J and I enjoyed a Viking river cruise on the Elbe from Berlin to Prague.  In response to several requests,  J has written an account of the trip, including some of the personal and historical events of which we were reminded on our visits to some of the towns and cities along the way — not only Berlin and Prague, but also Wittenberg, Torgau, Meissen, and Dresden in the former East Germany, and Litomerice in the Czech Republic.

J’s article is at  Do spare a few minutes to read it if you have any interest in this part of our old war-torn continent.  (If you haven’t, don’t bother!)  The article ends with a link to the web album of photographs taken during the cruise — we used to call them ‘snaps’, less grandly and more appropriately in my case — which, having read the article first, you’re also welcome to browse through.

Please append any comments, corrections or other reactions as Comments to this blog post, not to J’s article.


In your heart you know he’s wrong….


….but at least he’s better-looking than Gordon


Last autumn our most debased and shameless tabloid newspaper, Murdoch’s Sun, denounced with its usual fake indignation a ‘comedy workshop’ at an English prison, attended by a convicted Muslim terrorist and other assorted evil-doers.  Did the minister responsible, the so-called ‘Justice Secretary’ patiently explain to The Sun the reasons for restoring prisoners’ self-respect by teaching them valued skills that would reduce the chances of their re-offending after their release?  Here’s a clue:  the Justice Secretary is one Jack Straw, former Home Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Secretary, and half a dozen other exes.  Now read on:

By JOHN KAY, Chief Reporter
Published: 21 Nov 2008

AN al-Qaeda terrorist involved in a plot to bomb London was taught how to be a stand-up COMIC at his top-security prison, The Sun can reveal. Evil Zia Ul Haq was enrolled on an eight-day “comedy workshop” at Whitemoor jail, along with murderers and rapists.
An inquiry was launched today by the director of high security prisons to consider whether further action was needed, the Ministry of Justice said. A spokeswoman added: “The director general of the National Offender Management Service is personally briefing governors from all prisons on the need to take account of the public acceptability test in relation to prison classes.” Once they “graduated” they were due to get a certificate and display their new talents with a comedy show for fellow lags and guards.

Last night Justice Secretary Jack Straw canned the “totally unacceptable” course after The Sun alerted him. He also vetoed a plan by the Category A Cambridgeshire prison to set up its own comedy club.
[The Sun, 21 November 2008 (emphasis added)]

The Daily Telegraph helpfully expanded on the Justice Secretary’s prompt remedial action:

…[J]ustice secretary Jack Straw stepped in and closed the course after three days, The Sun reported. “As soon as I heard about it, I instructed it must be immediately cancelled,” he said. “It is totally unacceptable.”  Senior managers in the Prison Service, who were also unaware of it, take the same view. “Prisons should be places of punishment and reform. Providing educational and constructive pursuits is essential but the types of courses and the manner in which they are delivered must be appropriate.” … A spokeswoman added: “The director general of the National Offender Management Service is personally briefing governors from all prisons on the need to take account of the public acceptability test [in relation to prison classes].”
[Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2008 (emphasis added)]

This was too much even for Mr Murdoch’s down-market Times, whose columnist Libby Purves wrote:

A month ago … I recorded the dismay spreading through the UK Prison Service as a result of Jack Straw’s banning of a well-established comedy course at Whitemoor Prison. Some nasty little toe-rag outed it to indignant tabloids looking for something to get cross about.

The result, you may recall, was the Justice Secretary’s ruling that comedy in prison is “totally unacceptable”, “not a constructive pursuit”, and that all inmate activities – even if not funded by taxpayers – “must be justified to the community”. Comedy sounded too much like fun…

A PSI – Prison Service instruction – followed this, laying down formally that all activities must now be judged not only by whether they do any good but by how they “might be perceived by the public”. Sir David Ramsbotham, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons and patron of several prison arts projects, robustly described the PSI as “lunacy”. Organisations that take arts into prison … were scared, disheartened and in some cases had projects abruptly cancelled by understandably nervous governors. Nobody, after all, has defined the parameters of a “public acceptability test”… Even obviously humane projects bringing together prisoners and families found themselves threatened. It has been a difficult time. It still is. And it shouldn’t be. Prisons should be free to do whatever contributes to rehabilitation, purpose and human connection. The “public acceptability test” still needs harpooning.  [The Times, March 2, 2009 (emphasis added)]

Ms Purves’s column went on to praise, in moving terms, a production of the great musical West Side Story by a mixture of prisoners, prison officers and a few professional actors from Pimlico Opera, in Wandsworth prison, the biggest in the country.  The production, said Ms Purves, sent two vital messages.  The first and most obvious one was about the futility and cruelty of street gang violence:

That second message is about work: co-operation, learning, taking direction and how it takes the sweated patience of theatre to create, in a live moment, a magical emotional unity between audience and performers.

Similar praise for what was evidently an outstanding and deeply moving production came from Fiona Maddocks in The Observer on 15 March:

Rejoice in these jailhouse blues

Jack Straw is clamping down on arts inside prisons. If he’d been at HMP Wandsworth last week, he might just change his mind …

Between his Wagner performances at the Royal Opera House last week Bryn Terfel slipped into Wandsworth prison in south-west London. He had a free afternoon and responded to an impromptu invitation. After visiting a few cells, the world’s most famous bass-baritone volunteered to join a group of inmates in a song…

Together they sang “Somewhere”, the yearning ballad from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. For anyone incarcerated in one of the largest prisons in western Europe together with 1,643 other male offenders, the lyrics have unbearable poignancy: “Peace and quiet and open air/ Wait for us/ Somewhere…/We’ll find a new way of living/ We’ll find a way of forgiving/ Somewhere.

Even the austere Financial Times was moved, Peter Aspden writing:

We were, of course, all expecting the barnstorming “Officer Krupke” to be rich in dramatic irony (“Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset; We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get. We ain’t no delinquents, We’re misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!”) and so it proved, especially when the last verse was sung extra-lustily to the prison project’s patron, former cabinet minister Michael Portillo, smiling sheepishly in the stalls.

There was still more poignancy in store when the entire male chorus, inmates every one, sang the lyrics of West Side Story’s loveliest melody: “Some day, somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living…”  It can’t be often that the mise-en-scène of this particular musical is as moving as its substance, but that was certainly the case here, where its theme of redemption passed for much more than mere romantic conceit. [FT, 6 March 2009]

A friend who works as a volunteer at Wandsworth prison was also there:

[L]ike Libby Purves, I was at the opening night of this amazing show last Friday … Those of us who work as volunteers (monitoring day-to-day conditions and events in prisoners’ lives in HMP Wandsworth), know … about the inestimable value of drama and the other arts in prisons … And [Libby Purves is] absolutely right too about the quality of the production — the audience wouldn’t stop applauding at times — and what it must be doing for the prisoners taking part. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry much of the time — so, like many other people, I did both. Just imagine prisoners singing: Gee Officer Krupke….We never had the love every child oughta get…We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood.. Deep down inside us there is good…! And: He don’t need a judge he needs an analyst’s care…It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed… He’s psychologic’ly disturbed…! And so on. Hilarious stuff. But I wondered about the men singing it. Did they sense the irony? What did they feel? Learn?

I’ll try to find out from some of them in the near future when reality re-imposes itself.

Jack Straw’s ignorant, cowardly fiat, surrendering instantly to The Sun’s bullying, very nearly caused the abandonment of this hugely worth-while project.  He didn’t, you’ll notice, attempt to defend the ban on ‘inappropriate’ courses such as training in comedian’s skills in prisons, nor to deny their potential value as rehabilitation tools, boosters of morale and self-respect, bonding and community spirit.  His sole concern is whether any activity is publicly “acceptable” — acceptability, it seems, defined not by what is acceptable to Lord Ramsbotham or to others who understand that the punishment of being sent to prison is the withdrawal of liberty, not ill-treatment and mindless deprivations while behind bars: acceptability defined purely, or impurely, by what is acceptable to The Sun newspaper.  How low can a minister entrusted with ‘justice’ sink?

The Justice Secretary

The Justice Secretary

But what should we expect of Mr Straw, Justice Secretary — indeed also Lord Chancellor in his spare time?  He was the Foreign Secretary at the time of the Blair government’s illegal attack on Iraq, the senior minister whose own department’s legal advisers had warned him in writing that an attack on Iraq would constitute the crime of aggression, but who apparently had not had the courage to relay that warning to his Cabinet colleagues (we would have heard about it by now if he had) nor to resign when it was brushed impatiently aside by Mr Blair.  He was the home secretary who, as recorded by Wikipedia, “brought forward the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, increased police powers against terrorism and proposed a reduction in the right to trial by jury. These policies won praise from Margaret Thatcher who once declared ‘I trust Jack Straw. He is a very fair man.’ They were deemed excessively authoritarian by his former students’ union, which in 2000 banned him from the building…”   He was was responsible for allowing General Augusto Pinochet to return to Chile. In 2000 he turned down an asylum request from a man fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime, saying “we have faith in the integrity of the Iraqi judicial process and that you should have no concerns if you haven’t done anything wrong.”  Only Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling and Jack Straw have served continuously in every Labour cabinet since Labour’s triumph in 1997.  We have accumulated ample evidence by now of what kind of politician the Justice Secretary is.  Nothing that he does should surprise us.


Sailaway party leaving Barcelona

We returned, J and I, on Sunday from another cruise, this time aboard the biggest and newest ship in the UK cruise fleet, P&O's Ventura.   Our private ship's log, or diary, of the two weeks afloat, is here.  You can see a selection of the photographs I took, as we wended our way round the Mediterranean, here (guidance on how to view them is given at the end of the diary). They may give at least as much of the flavour as the diary.  It will be obvious that this was no adventure cruise to brave the pirates of the Indian Ocean, to see giant penguins or the stone statues of the Galapagos Islands, or to experiment with our breathing in minus 30 temperatures at the South Pole.  It was devoted almost entirely to kitsch.

It was a very good holiday, but somehow we don't think we'll want to cruise on quite such an enormous ship again, even if we can afford it once the slump now about to engulf us has done its work on our modest savings.  And if Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah —  but that's for the next post.  Watch this space. Big ship 


Back from a 16-day cruise round the Mediterranean and the San Marco, VeniceAdriatic aboard P&O’s big ship Arcadia, Ephems has posted on his website a diary of the cruise, with links to some of the better pictures that he took in the various ports visited — such as here (Malaga), here (Dubrovnik and, especially, Venice), here (Split), here (Corfu and Palma) and here (Malta).  Ephems readers who scorn the vulgarities of the modern luxury cruise might care to glance through the diary, have a look at a few of the pix, and perhaps even think again.

There’s much to be said for visiting a selection of fascinating places, some familiar, some that you might not have been to before, and instead of constantly packing and unpacking, taking your luxury hotel with you.  It’s more affordable than you might think, too.  Naff aspects of the experience exist, certainly, but they’re all strictly optional.

Anyway,  it doesn’t cost anything to have a look at the diary and see how we nearly got squashed to death in Dubrovnik, rode in a gondola in Venice, and ate not wisely but well, in excellent company, each evening aboard.

Fellow-cruisers are more than welcome to post comments about their own experiences of triumph and disaster afloat and ashore in the space provided below — anonymously if preferred!

Update (25 September):  Footnote on Malta in WWII, courtesy of Tim Weakley, and more hyperlinks, now added to the cruise diary.


Jack Straw's proposals for 'reforming' the House of Lords, contained in a long document leaked at the weekend to the Sunday Times and available on its website, are a tepid, boneless, pathetic bit of fudge (to mix several metaphors).  I am grateful to the Guardian for publishing today (25 Oct 06) selected extracts from the rather longer letter that I sent on the 22nd, but of course I regret some of the omissions, so I reproduce here the original text as submitted to the Guardian (the edited text as printed is at the end of this post).  

The original letter said:

Jack Straw's reported proposals for House of Lords 'reform' are wrong in almost every detail and should be briskly rejected.  The government and the party machines already exercise virtually total control over the House of Commons, and these proposals would give them effective control over the Upper House too, whereas the objective should be to restore parliament's power to hold the executive to account, not to demolish it altogether.  Straw wants only half of the new chamber to be elected, when it was clear from the last debates and from the Select Committee's unanimous report that most MPs favour at least 80 or preferably 100 per cent elected.  Why should half of one of our legislative bodies remain undemocratically appointed?  Almost all other comparable western democracies have wholly elected legislatures:  what is so uniquely untrustworthy about the British electorate? 

What's worse, it seems to be envisaged that the elected half would be chosen on the discredited party list system, putting the membership of the elected part of the Upper House under the control of the party bosses.  Since under the Straw proposals the same party bosses would also have a major say in appointments to the unelected section of the chamber, this would give them effective control over the whole House, just as they have over the House of Commons.  There's no possible justification for retaining seats for bishops or creating seats reserved for women, Muslims, atheists or any other racial or other randomly chosen groups.  Any such attempt to make the House "representative" by manipulating appointments to it is doomed to result in corrupt patronage.  Even the suggestion that the chamber should continue to be called the House of Lords, and its members so designated, is absurd: what's wrong with 'Senate'? 

Parliament should insist on a genuinely open PR system for electing at least 80% of the members, with party leaders having no say at all in any appointments commission for any remaining unelected element.  The Senate should be elected every 8 or 10 years on a different timetable from the Commons, its members disqualified completely from later membership of the Commons and from serving more than two terms in the Senate. 

Lastly, there's no possible justification for the disgraceful suggestion that the powers of a largely elected Upper House should be reduced from those now exercised by the Lords, another brazen attempt to tighten the executive's grip on parliament:  the continued primacy of the Commons is assured by its theoretically unlimited powers compared with the limited functions of the Other Place, and by the central function of the Commons as the creator and sustainer of governments, not by making the Upper House even more undemocratic and even less able to monitor and check executive power.  Time for members of both Houses of Parliament to stand up and be counted!

Perhaps the most squalid of Straw's proposals is that the electoral system for the elected element of the new reformed house should be party lists, with the parties drawing up their national lists of candidates in order of preference (i.e. in order of spineless obedience to the Whips and party bosses) and the voters reduced to voting for this or that party, or at best to choosing our own order of preference from the pre-cooked list of names on offer.  Although the results can be plausibly described as PR (because party strengths will be in proportion to the votes cast for them), it's an absolutely indefensible form of it, especially for election to a legislative and deliberative chamber with the duty (among others) of holding the government to account.  Some form of PR is obviously essential for the second chamber, in order to ensure that no one party will normally command an overall majority and thus to maximise the chamber's independence from the executive (just as First Past the Post is essential for elections to the House iof Commons in order to offer the best chance that one party will have an overall majority and thus be able to form a government capable of honouring its manifesto promises): but for the second chamber almost any kind of PR will be better than party lists.  Even to suggest party lists is an insult to the intelligence of the electorate and to the capacity for independent thinking of our present parliamentarians.

The Straw proposals for preventing the abuse of the second chamber as a career springboard for the House of Commons (by banning its members from standing for the Commons for five years after serving in it) are much too feeble.  Members of the second chamber should be banned from serving more than two eight- or ten-year terms in it, and banned for life from standing for election to the House of Commons once elected or appointed to the second chamber.  These bans are absolutely essential if members of the second chamber — let's call them Senators, right? — are not to be vulnerable to the kind of bullying, blackmail and threats by the Whips and other party leaders to which career politicans in the House of Commons are constantly exposed, and which are at the root of the executive's success in seizing almost total control of the legislature. 

For similar reasons, it's outrageous that the prime minister of the day and the other party leaders should be involved in any way in the selecting the members of the commission responsible for appointing the non-elected members of the second chamber (if any).  Like the proposed party lists, this is a brazen attempt to ensure that the party apparatchiks will have effective control of the membership of the second chamber, especially if only half of its membership is to be elected, as Straw proposes.  (Half elected!  More like half-baked.)

The Straw proposal to perpetuate the reservation of even a reduced number of seats in the second chamber for Church of England bishops is surely among the most obviously offensive, discriminatory, indeed asinine, of all his ideas.  On what possible principle can it be asserted that  bishops have a superior right to membership of a democratic legislature compared with any other group of people chosen at random:  engineers, say, or Lieutenant-Colonels, or members of the Football Association?  To try to head off the charge of discrimination by proposing, as Mr Straw actually does, that the appointed element should also be fiddled to include other 'faith groups' besides the C of E bishops makes the whole idea even more fatuous.  Who is to say which faith groups should be so privileged?  Christian Scientists?  Scientologists?  Flat-earthers? Faith healing evangelists and devil exorcists?  Satanists?  Every last Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist splinter group, however barmy or malign?  How is the vast army of British atheists and those with absolutely no interest in religion to be assured of representation alongside the supernaturalists?  The Church of England can remain the legally Established Church if that's still important to it — a matter of supreme indifference or incomprehension to about 99 per cent of the population, I imagine;  but there's no perceptible reason why establishment should entitle it to this undeserved legislative privilege.

Then again, why should seats be reserved for women?  Why not for the physically and mentally handicapped, the unemployed, the blind, the illiterate, and every other group sometimes subjected to discrimination?  Indeed, why not for men?  All these people, from the grandest bishop to the humblest devil-worshipper, every woman and every other member of every single victim group except children, is or should be free to stand for election to the second chamber:  and we should not be ashamed or too arrogant to emulate other more sensible democracies by letting the electorate choose between them, not some self-important group of men and women in suits vetted beforehand by the same old time-expired and power-hungry politicians.

And lastly (phew!), why this excessive tendresse towards the existing life peers? Most of the old hereditary peers were booted out, rightly, with precious little ceremony:  the appointed life peers have known for the past nine years that Lords reform would eventually threaten their sinecures:  why should we be made to tolerate their continued privilege of legislating for us without our ever having had any say in the matter, until every last one of them has either died or been bribed by an unnecessary 'redundancy package' to stand down?  This would, by Straw's own admission, take years.  All together, now: "Why are we waiting?"

As promised, here's the abbreviated text of my letter as published in today's Guardian:

Jack Straw's reported proposals for House of Lords "reform" are
wrong and should be briskly rejected. The government and the party
machines already exercise virtually total control over the House of
Commons, and these proposals would give them effective control over
the upper house too.

There's no possible justification for retaining seats for bishops or
creating seats reserved for women, Muslims, atheists or any other
racial or other randomly chosen groups. Any such attempt to make the
House "representative" by manipulating appointments to it is doomed
to result in corrupt patronage. Parliament should insist on a
genuinely open PR system for electing at least 80% of the members,
with party leaders having no say in the appointments of the remaining
unelected element.

Brian Barder

Well, much better than not publishing it at all. 

Update (6 pm 25 Oct 06):  The lethally damaging commentary on the Straw paper posted earlier today on the Ministry of Truth blog is well worth reading (also see trackback below).  It comprehensively demolishes several of the more outlandish passages in this dreadful document.  Re-reading the Straw paper for the umpteenth time, I found myself repeatedly laughing aloud at the perverse absurdity of many of its arguments.  It's also extraordinarily sloppily written — surely not by the parliamentary staff of the Leader of the House?  And if not by them, by whom?  The heart sinks at the prospect, in the coming weeks and months, of all these barmy arguments being solemnly aired in the media and the blogosphere as if they deserved respectful consideration (it's already happening in the letters pages of The Times).  The spectacle of the Leader of the House of Commons acting as the handmaiden of the executive in its battle to increase its control over the second chamber as well as over the Commons is also deeply disheartening:  the Leader of the House should be putting the interests of parliament before those of the government, not vice versa.  Bad show, Straw.


Minerva's sun-deckAs promised, or threatened, in a recent Ephems post about the impending demise of the Swan Hellenic cruise line, I have now put a not-too-serious diary of our first and last Swan Hellenic experience on this website (here), along with putting on the Web some photographs taken during the cruise (here).  This Baltic cruise included time ashore in St Petersburg, Gdansk, Tallinn, and several Nordic capitals and other ports, prompting reminiscences about visits to some of these cities in earlier years, as well as reflections on the relative attractions and drawbacks of Swan Hellenic (resolutely serious and scholarly) compared with more down-market cruises (sometimes beginning to resemble Butlins-on-Sea).  De gustibus non est disputandum, or anyway not much.

If you're brave enough to view the pictures, here once again is a Dummy's Guide to navigating around them.  When you have loaded the Flickr page of thumbnails (miniatures of the pictures), click on the first thumbnail to see a larger version, then click the left-hand thumbnail of the two (or three) over on the right of the screen to see the next one, and so on. To see any picture full size, click "All Sizes" at the top of the main picture; then use your browser's 'Back' button to get back to the previous screen for the next picture.  To see all the pictures as a slideshow, click “View as slideshow” to the right of the three thumbnail pictures on the right of the main picture, underneath the heading “BrianB’s Photostream”.   Otherwise just click whichever individual thumbnails on the first page that opens look worth viewing full size, remembering that there are three pages of thumbnails of cruise pictures (click 'Next' at the bottom of each).  

Any questions?


Royal execution botched

Don't panic, Ma'am:  (a) it's your 80th birthday celebration, (b) they aren't loaded, and (c) anyway they're only rolled umbrellas (all the real guns are with our lads in Iraq and Afghanistan). 


View from the Boulevard de la Tour MaubourgYou can read a (not unduly detailed) diary of our week in Paris in the spring here. There are some pictures of the holiday here. When you have loaded the Flickr page of thumbnails, click on the first picture to see a larger version, then click the left-hand thumbnail of the two over on the right of the screen to see the next one, and so on. To see any picture full size, click "All Sizes" at the top of the picture; then use your browser's 'Back' button to get back to the previous screen for the next picture. The croissants are as splendid as ever….


Outside a shop in Woolhampton, Berkshire, just along the road from a highly recommended brasserie, well placed for travellers along the A4. 

But why no apostrophe for cake’s?

[Photograph by kind permission of my mobile phone.]