Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Layer 411 . . . Glorious Winter Weather, Heathrow Chaos, British Business Ownership, PLCs, Gradgrind Gove, Betraying Our Children, Booktrust, Dylan's Favourites, Spotify, Trenet, and Boum!

Day Three in Melbourne, Trott undefeated on 168, the lead more than 400, Bresnan playing a blinder, the Aussie batsmen all out for little more than 100, and with only their bowlers left to bat it'll all be over before lunch tomorrow. How long have we waited for England to play this well, and for Australia to play this badly, in Australia?





The 'Definitive Collection' of Charles Trenet is now available on Spotify. Includes 'La Mer' and 'Boum!'. C'est magnifique!

Apparently the basic (free) version of Spotify is again available to anyone who wants to download it in Britain. No 'invitations' required.

Also on Spotify I stumbled across 'The Best of Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour'. Bob's choices are, as you'd expect, immaculate.

Matzo Balls                   by Slim Gaillard
Alimony Blues               by Eddie 'Clearhead' Vinson
Tulip or Turnip              by Duke Ellington
Midnight Hour               by Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown
Let Me Play With Your Poodle        by Tampa Red
Deep Purple                  by The Ravens
Tennessee                     by Carl Perkins
John The Revelator       by Blind Willie Johnson
Pistol Packin' Mama     by Al Dexter
Telephone Is Ringing     by Pee Wee Crayton
Mystery Train               by Little Junior Parker
This Train                     by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Take The 'A' Train      by Duke Ellington
Good Morning Heartache        by Billie Holiday
etc . . .


This glorious winter weather

Snowy slopes, blue skies. Ignore what you read in the papers – most people are having a lovely break


by Simon Jenkins

The world is mad. Most Britons have, like me, just enjoyed the most glorious weather of the year. The western shores of the British Isles have seen a week of almost continuous sun, open horizons and star-filled nights. Freezing air has kept the early snow from melting. With brief exceptions, main roads have been open and supplies plentiful. An exquisite Christmas beckons, with snowy slopes and blues skies, a photographic negative from the usual greens and greys.

So what is the Britain we have read about in the papers and watched on the news, one of relentless, total misery? It must be one that is enmeshed in London and can't stay still. It is a metropolis of the damned, hyper-mobile, frantically trying to get into or away from itself, stranded in motorways and on railway platforms, entombed in detention centres that claim to be airports. The inhabitants all incant, "I was only trying to get away for Christmas", to a chorus of "When is the government going to do something?" An aviation company was even quoted as claiming it was Whitehall's job to keep it supplied with de-icing equipment.

The Heathrow airport boss, Colin Matthews, even said he would "give up [his] bonus" because of the snow. Most travellers could not care less about his bonus: they want a plane. As for the bonus, the truth is out. It is apparently no longer a reward for exceptional achievement. It is standard remuneration on top of salary, at risk only if it snows and is considered a risk to public relations.

Philip Hammond has been browbeaten by sufferers from acute seasonal mobility disorder, and by their media cheerleaders. It would be gratifying if, just once, a transport secretary had the nerve to stand up and tell everyone that when the weather is bad it is a good idea to leave their cars in the garage, tear up their rail passes, forget Marbella and tuck up at home with a good book. They should see their loved ones some other time. Normality cannot be guaranteed.

Simon's taken a heavy panning for this article on CiF, and of course for most people the snow and ice have been a massive inconvenience and often dangerous. However, it's good to get a half-full view of the effects of the winter weather. For many of us the snowy landscapes and cityscapes ARE beautiful - if we only have time to walk, and stand, and stare.

Maybe more people ought to re-think the wisdom of travelling during the winter, and reconsider the benefits of just staying at home. Maybe people ought to invest in better clothing, better boots, and some bags of grit. Maybe people ought to plan for snow and ice, instead of just hoping there won't be any. Maybe the people who run airports and railways and buses and ambulance services ought to re-think their priorities and do some proper contingency planning. Maybe we all should re-think our attitude to the elderly and the disabled and the housebound. Maybe we should all re-think what we do in our homes and our families, and re-think how we spend our time together. Or our time apart.


Heathrow's chaos is indicative of a wider national malaise

We have the oddest and most regressive constitution for private ownership anywhere in western capitalism

by Will Hutton


It was not Heathrow's finest hour. The pain was there to see in the pictures of thousands of passengers delayed without information, left to camp for hours on inhospitable floors. Less visible were many thousands of others, like some friends of mine, who, courtesy of the internet and the closure of Heathrow's slip roads, thankfully never made it to the airport at all. The freakishly heavy snowfall would have disrupted any world airport, but not for as long as Heathrow, which was still suffering acute delays three or four days later.

The country has never seriously debated what good ownership of assets might constitute – whether by a football club or a public company. Instead, the response to the social and economic irresponsibility of some private ownership has been to call for nationalisation and public ownership, while the response to the waste and lack of innovation of some public ownership has been to call for private ownership. There has been too little attempt to think through what the constitution and process of ownership might be that would create great owners, whether in the public or private sector, or among the many other forms of ownership, ranging from partnership to co-operatives.

Instead, with the rise of the neoconservative right, there has just been the unquestioning assumption that the best form of ownership is private; in Britain, that necessarily means our idiosyncratic variant of the public limited company. This represents the oddest and most regressive constitution for private ownership anywhere in western capitalism. British company law makes no requirement on shareholders and directors to have any obligation to be good stewards of their assets, their employees or their customers. Shareholders' rights to do what they want with their shares to maximise their immediate value is more stark than anywhere else and directors' responsibilities are only to serve the interests of these madly unconstrained shareholders.

The debacle at Heathrow is one consequence of this insouciance, but the wreckage stretches across the economic landscape. British companies think, strategise, innovate and invest their way to success far less than their competitors in different ownership regimes. They know the penalty for one wrong move is to be taken over as responsibility-free shareholders sell out to some opportunistic predator advised by London's network of lawyers, accountants and investment bankers who grow fat on the lush fees.

No other capitalist economy organises its affairs in this way. When British Airports Authority was privatised in 1986 – with the not unreasonable aim of making it more innovative and freeing it from the stultifying anti-investment rules of the Treasury – there was no creative thought about what constitution of ownership would be the best for an airport. The Americans require their airports to be owned by, not for, companies whose constitution obliges the owners and managers to put the public interest of efficient and comfortable travel first. In Britain, the issue was not even aired. BAA was simply to become a British public limited company, whose sole objective would be profit maximisation.

This self-serving ideology is betraying Britain. The public limited company is a remarkable institution. Incorporation allows the sharing of risk by many providers of private savings. In return for incorporation, the company receives the licence to trade and to make profits as long as it observes the law of the land. The public company is the great engine of capitalist growth. But the constitution of the company matters. Shareholders and directors can be required to take interests into account other than their own immediate profits. Other countries do this and prosper. Not the British.

The lesson is that ownership counts, a view that as disaster piles on disaster is at last gaining some transaction. I chair the recently established Ownership Commission to investigate how better ownership might be achieved, from both introducing mutuality and co-operatives into the public sector to potential revisions in company law for public companies. It reports next autumn. The subject matter is not just technical stuff. This Christmas, there will be people who are not with those they love thanks to BAA's priorities. Good ownership matters very much indeed and Britain has too little of it.


Michael Gove is betraying our children yet again

The decision to stop funding Bookstart, with its free books for the young, is unnecessarily cruel

    * Editorial
    * The Observer, Sunday 26 December 2010


For most book lovers, the affair starts early and the earlier the introduction is made, the deeper the affection. The benefits of parents reading to their children, as a bonding experience and as a step on the road to literacy, are well documented. Promoting that activity was the founding purpose of Bookstart, the government-sponsored programme which gives starter packs of literature to every child in the country.

The scheme is run by an independent charity, Booktrust, but it depends on a £13m government grant. The trust says that, with the support of the publishing industry, it gets £4 pounds in value for every £1 it receives in public money. It was announced last week that, as of next year, Booktrust will get nothing.

The arguments for austerity are well rehearsed. The money to reduce the deficit has to come from somewhere. A soft target for cuts is presented by this relatively new service, which has yet to embed itself in the nation's consciousness as a cherished institution. It surely would, if allowed to continue. The coalition is, in theory, committed to investment in early years development. Ministers lose no opportunity to express their determination to give children from all backgrounds the best start in life. But they have clearly decided that giving out books is an inefficient way to achieve that goal.

It is impossible to know what return the state might be getting on its investment in Booktrust. The system hasn't been running long enough to tell whether the beneficiaries are more literate than they otherwise might have been, or whether they have more vivid imaginations, or whether they love books more. Only a minister inspired by Thomas Gradgrind, the crudely utilitarian headmaster in Dickens's Hard Times, would attempt such a calculation.

In fact, the decision to axe Bookstart over Christmas suggests education secretary Michael Gove gets his inspiration from a different Dickens character… Free books for children? Humbug!


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