The first excursion of the New Year was a rather special one; we headed for That London to see two exhibitions, just a few yards apart. One, at the Science Museum, was entitled Cosmonauts and commemorates the Soviet and Russian space programme. The other, across the road at the Victoria & Albert Museum, was of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron; of which, more later.
In a strange echo of the Cold War era, cultural relationships between Russia and the UK are an ongoing source of wonder and interest even when the political climate is rather frostier than might be hoped for. This year is actually UK-Russian Year of Culture, which is not an event that has particularly set the world alight. But the Science Museum took the opportunity to approach contacts in Russia to see about mounting an exhibition to mark Russia’s contribution to space research. Hence Cosmonauts.
We travelled down on Saturday lunch-time and checked into a hotel in Kensington with some pretensions to be up-market. It was certainly far from the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and indeed the staff did a number of things that made me think quite highly of the place. The thing was, though, that due to the strangeness of London’s ground plan, although the hotel was only half a mile from the museums as the crow flies, the distance on foot was nearer a mile and a quarter due to the street layout; using the Tube would have not been much better, as it would either have meant waiting for a Circle Line train or using the District and having to change and double back on yourself – plus South Kensington Tube station is a bit of a stretch away from the museums. So we opted for Shanks’ Pony. At least this gave me an opportunity to do something I’ve rarely done, and that was to see chunks of the West End of London on the ground. Most of my travelling to the capital has involved either Central London or East London and further out. I have little experience with the West End; indeed, other than a trip into town from Slough when my sister lived there in the early 1970s and a visit to the Science Museum in the early 1990s, I’ve not been around that part of London at all since I was a child. My previous visit to the V&A was when I was a student, back in the late 1970s.
The area around Exhibition Road was absolutely heaving by the time we got to the Science Museum for our booked entry to Cosmonauts at 3:30. London is now a year-round destination for tourists, and it showed; either independent travellers or coach parties were filling up the pavement outside the Natural History Museum, and the queue to get into that snaked all across the forecourt. The crowds thinned a little as we got further up Exhibition Road towards the Science Museum, but the museum itself was very busy; but there was no queue for Cosmonauts and we were able to go straight in.
The exhibition starts with a general background section, setting the scene of the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who formulated many of the ideas for spaceflight in the late 1890s; then looking at the work of Russian space enthusiasts who were doing spare-time development of rocketry as hobbyists, rather like Robert Goddard in the USA was doing at about the same time. At the same time, others were looking at rocketry and space as a means of political activism and spreading Marxism to other, less enlightened societies who (it might be presumed) were out there in the cosmos. This was reflected in early Soviet films of the era, such as Aelita, Queen of Mars and others, which reflected similar thinking in Germany with Fritz Lang’s Die Frau im Mond and the enthusiasms of Hermann Oberth (but without the overtly political subtext); but in the Soviet Union, this became embodied in a movement known as ‘Cosmism’ which looked forward to the new Soviet destiny in the stars, until Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War mostly put a stop to this.
One of the victims of the purges was Sergei Korolev, a rocketry enthusiast and engineer with the Tupolev aeronautical design bureau. He was arrested in 1938 for alleged misdirection of official funds (which he was actually diverting into unofficial rocketry research!) and sentenced to six years imprisonment, including time spent in the Gulags. He was eventually transferred to CKB-29, one of the specialist Gulags which employed professional aircraft designers as forced intellectual labourers. CKB-29 was responsible for producing some of the more successful bomber designs of the Soviet air forces, including the Tupolev Tu-2 and the Petlyakov Pe-2. Eventually, in 1944, Korolev was one of a number of designers who were released from CKB-29 under special decree and were released back to civilian life as aeronautical engineers. Korolev resumed work in rocketry, this time officially, and so was in the right place to be drafted in to evaluate materials recovered from the German rocket base at Peenemünde. From there, Korolev went on to become the “Chief Designer of Rockets” at the specialist design bureau OKB-1; he was never named publicly in his lifetime as a security measure, and his name only became known in the era of glasnost.
The display then changed to tell the story of the early Sputniks, including the series that started with Sputnik-2, which launched the dog Laika into orbit. Unfortunately, Laika perished through heat exhaustion; later launches with animals on board were able to successfully recover them, paving the way for human spaceflight. This ultimately resulted in Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 flight, though as ever compromises had to be made; for example, as the capsule shell used for the Vostok missions was based on an existing spy satellite which was never intended to be retrieved, the Soviets arranged that the returning cosmonaut had to eject from the capsule at about 7 kilometers’ altitude as there was no provision for any sort of arrested landing. Only when the Voshkod series of missions were launched, which shoe-horned three cosmonauts into the same size capsule (meaning that there was no longer any room for the ejection seats) did it become necessary to develop an add-on module for braking rockets.
The Voshkod-1 capsule (left), and Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 (right), which she piloted in 1963 to become the first woman in space, are on display in the exhibition. The one-seat Vostok is very clearly roomier than the equivalent Mercury capsules that put the first Americans into space. Both these and the Soyuz return capsule shown later in the exhibition show the scars of re-entry. It is also possible to get quite close up to them and see the engineering involved, which owes as much to industrial and submarine design as they do to aeronautical engineering. There are other, smaller exhibits relating to Gagarin, Tereshkova and to Alexei Leonov, who as well as being a cosmonaut and the first person to carry out a spacewalk, was (and still is) an accomplished artist and who was encouraged to take his sketching and watercolor materials into space.
The stars (as it were) of the show are the full-size engineering models of the Soviet Moon lander and the Lunakhod-2 Moon rover. The Moon lander would have accommodated one cosmonaut only; it was intended that Gagarin should be the first man on the Moon, but after his death in an aircraft training accident, Leonov was moved up to number one slot for that honour. However, the failure of the N-1 heavy launcher, followed by the success of the American Apollo programme, put a stop to Soviet lunar ambitions. Instead, they concentrated on establishing a permanent presence in space with the Salyut and Mir space stations, which are direct predecessors of today’s International Space Station. The exhibition has many artifacts from that period illustrating life aboard these space stations.
The Soviet Bloc was the only alternate reality that we have ever had access to; and the space programme was its highest and possibly noblest achievement.
The following day, we went back to the other side of the road and the Victoria & Albert Museum to see a display of photographs by the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Taking up photography in the 1860s, she made a series of portraits capturing both her own and her neighbours’ servants (posing to reconstruct classical or Biblical scenes), her neighbours themselves, and – through the contacts those fairly high-placed neighbours provided – many of the leading figures of the day such as the poet Tennyson, the astronomer John Herschel and Charles Darwin amongst many others. She developed many of the techniques of portrait photography, working with the difficult wet collodion process (which involved coating glass plates with a photographic emulsion, exposing them in the camera whilst they were still wet, and developing them immediately). Naturally, these images are of great interest for their age and rarity, as well as the famous individuals she photographed. She was also a fairly accomplished self-publicist, and worked very hard to get her pictures into the then-new South Kensington museum, enlisting artist friends to promote her work and exploiting contacts to try to get more famous sitters for her pictures. The V&A was able to mount this exhibition without the need to borrow many pictures from other sources,such was her assiduousness in getting her work bought for the nation, even though some contemporary critics dismissed some of her staged pictures as trite and artificial.
As the V&A could mount this exhibition using their own resources, that meant that they didn’t have to make any sort of charge to see it. Yet the numbers of people viewing it were as nothing compared to the crowds queuing for what must have seemed like hours (after paying £14) to see an exhibition of Indian fabrics. And the rest of the museum was equally packed; we were able to get to see some of the Japanese collection (the V&A has a good collection of netsuke, the exquisite little Japanese carvings that helped gentlemen keep their purses – imro – safely tucked into their belts) as well as some of the Renaissance European collection. There was an especially fine inlaid cabinet on show which was built by two craftsmen in the German city of Würzburg in the 1550s; they left a note concealed inside the cabinet, which basically said “This cabinet was made during a hard winter, and there is no meat in Würzburg, just cabbage and turnips and we want to be somewhere else.”. The V&A is in itself a spectacular building and is worth seeing for that alone.
As is our wont, we naturally gravitated to the bookshop for a good browse (on our way to a cream tea). The V&A bookshop is a trove of highly attractive books on art and design, and other things as well. This includes remnants of the books and catalogues from previous special exhibitions, and I was struck by some of the material still on sale from the 2012 V&A exhibition of the life and work of David Bowie – including the limited edition, hand-made and cased book made by and for Bowie himself, a mere snip at £650. Thus it was that David Bowie came back onto my radar – not that he’d ever occupied a prominent place on it – just a day before the surprise announcement of his death on 11th January 2016.
I say that Bowie wasn’t on my radar; well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. What I really mean to say is that, unlike perhaps the vast majority of my generation, I have hardly ever followed rock and pop music. There’s a number of reasons for this. My sister is eight years older than me, and so she was bringing pop music into the house when I was still a child, during the ‘Summer of Love’. I have a distinct recollection of putting Let’s go to San Francisco by the Flowerpot Men and Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys on my Christmas list in the year they came out; and, rather unusually, my parents flatly refused this request. What I didn’t appreciate then was that they were probably concerned over my getting into something that they didn’t understand and – being of the essentially pre-war generation – may even have been afraid of, and that was the whole hippie youth culture thing that my sister, with her own job and own income was just getting into herself. My parents’ only sources of information about this would have been the popular newspapers of the day, with their distinctly establishment view of the new and radical.
I’ve never been one for outright confrontation; I prefer the more subtle approach, and I think I always have. So my act of teenage rebellion wasn’t to kick against my parents’ views on popular music; instead, I seem to have taken what they liked – which included orchestral music – and crank the volume on that up to eleven. In this, I was aided and abetted by my music teacher at the grammar school I went to in 1969. That was a young teacher by the name of Mr Large. His approach was not just to teach us the basics of music theory (which I only vaguely understood), but also to introduce the children to the world of classical music, going way beyond Saturday-afternoon or Sunday-morning local bandstand renditions of popular overtures like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 or Rossini’s William Tell, into the more rarefied areas of Richard Strauss or more complex pieces of Sibeilius or Wagner. After two years, Mr Large left us. It was said that he was going to work for the BBC, producing television films of classical music and opera; though it may have been that he was being confused with the established classical music producer and director Brian Large – though from what I have seen, “my” Mr Large and Brian Large would be about the same age. Perhaps they were related?
For whatever reason, I embraced classical music with the fervour of the real fan, and it has never left me. I gravitated to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the music of Wagner, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich. (Not too much of this is easy listening, you understand.) Over the following forty years, I have continued to explore classical music, discovering first the rest of the Romantic repertoire, then chamber and instrumental music, and finally realising that the masters of the ‘classical’ period – Haydn and Mozart in particular – were not just purveyors of pretty tunes, but did express real feelings and artistic insight within the more formal musical language of their times. Two things evaded me – Italian opera and the serialism of the Second Viennese School (Berg, Schoenberg, Webern) – this latter I’m still trying to understand how to listen to after all this time.
And so there was no room in my musical life for rock and pop. It wasn’t that I disliked it; but it was way down on my list of priorities.
But then in the 1980s, I became aware of the new American minimalist composers, such as Richard Adams, Steve Reich and in particular the work of Phillip Glass, which I took to very strongly. And when Glass started writing symphonies in the middle 1990s, his first symphony was based on themes from David Bowie’s album Low. He returned to Bowie with the Third Symphony, similarly based on Heroes. And so I began to listen out for David Bowie’s music, as well as seeing his acting performances in The man who fell to Earth and more recently in his cameo as Nikola Tesla in Anthony Nolan’s film of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige.
So Bowie’s death, though not something that upset me in the way that Iain Banks’ or Graham Joyce’s did, does have some significance for me. And it shows me that we should celebrate and mark creatives wherever we find them, whether they are visionary engineers aiming to do the impossible, or people who take up new technologies to create works perhaps only recognised as art years after their passing, to musicians working in a range of different fields. It is perhaps our creativity that marks out what is good and unique about us as a species; and we should embrace and rejoice in that creativity whilever we can and wherever we find it. And that is what last weekend was all about.
That’s the question put so often nowadays when some item or other of modern art comes before the public gaze. This most often happens about this time of year, when the winners of the Turner Prize, a British award for contemporary art, is announced. Past winners include people like Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry; and there has been Controversy.
But this year’s winner is of especial interest. I’ve been following the wonderful Liverpool blog of Ronnie Hughes for some time now (another WordPresser), A Sense of Place. Ronnie has been involved with the issue of social housing in Liverpool for most of his working life; these days, he’s a sort of roving consultant activist. And over the past couple of years, he’s become involved with the Granby 4 Streets Project, which started out as random acts of guerrilla gardening by some local residents trying to brighten up a decaying corner of Liverpool and blossomed into a 100%, bottom-up housing regeneration project, succeeding where seemingly well-meaning but highly paternalistic and bureaucratic, top-down regeneration Big Projects have failed.
The Granby 4 Streets project engaged an architectural agency, Assemble, to carry through the design work on the property renovations. And along the way, they began to gain attention (without particularly trying to). Until Assemble got nominated for the Turner Prize.
And last night, they won it.
Some wag – Goethe, I believer it was – once called music ‘frozen architecture’. Which makes architecture defrosted music, I suppose. But however you want to describe it, architecture is an artistic discipline, albeit one that has to be underpinned by basic mechanics. So I would suggest that Assemble’s award is as appropriate as any other winner of the Turner Prize. And as Hazel Tilley, one of the community activists behind the Granby 4 Streets project says,
“It’s recognising the politics in art, it’s recognising the humanity in art. It’s not this piece of work of art that goes into some rich person’s warehouse, this is something that you live with. And it’s art for the people. And if art isn’t about people and humanity, then what is it about?”
In applying a clear, artistic sensibility to everyday living for anyone and everyone, Assemble seem to me to be going right back to the roots of the Arts & Crafts movement, saying that the things we use, the spaces we live in, should be artistically uplifting and at the same time honest. And in doing this, they have blown away much of the pretentiousness that the Turner Prize entrants themselves have epitomised in recent years. And that can only be good for all of us.
Read Ronnie’s account of the night of the awards here.
The BBC News announcement of the award is behind this link.
The Bank of England and FCA reports on the collapse of the Halifax/Bank of Scotland businesses at the heart of the 2008 financial collapse, issued today, point fingers at both the bank management and the regulator, then the Financial Services Authority (FSA) (often referred to by Private Eye as ‘the Financially Supine Authority’). I haven’t has the opportunity to read the full reports, but the FCA do comment on their predecessor’s activities and find them lacking, What isn’t fully exposed is the reason behind that lack.
I can comment on this, because I heard about this even in advance of the collapse, albeit only anecdotally. But it exposes something that I’ve been concerned about for quite some time – my earlier post on my former employer, Ofwat, should give you a flavour of my concerns.
Ofwat was one of the group of sectoral regulators set up during the privatisation of utilities in the UK. As the government of the day got a feel for regulation, and in line with the general setting of operational arms of government at arm’s length from the legislators and the Government itself, more regulatory bodies were set up – the Office of the Rail Regulator, Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and so on. And in an increasingly de-regulated financial sector, independent regulators were equally seen as being the Next Big Thing. Hence the FSA.
As regulation as a discipline in its own right was still fairly new, the regulators decided that they should meet from time to time to talk around burning issues of the day. And so arose an informal body called “the Regulators Group”. I suspect this came about in part through the leadership of my former boss, Ian (now Sir Ian) Byatt, whom I have mentioned in these blogs before. Ian Byatt and Stephen Littlechild, then electricity regulator, were two of the originators of the theory and practice of regulation – indeed, Ian Byatt had literally written the book on the subject – and they were both concerned very much to see that regulation demonstrated itself to be a practical and robust mechanism for delivering benefits to both the political leadership and the consumers in whose name they were acting.
The Regulators Group would meet three or four times a year, and it would consist of a good dinner followed by a round table discussion of issues. This was very much Ian Byatt’s way of working; quite early on in the life of the department, he ordered a supply of notepads with Ofwat branding, thin enough to fit discreetly into a suit inside pocket, sized so that they would sit unobtrusively on a dining table, and on good enough paper so that they would not look out of place amidst fine china, silver cutlery and a damask tablecloth. (We’re well beyond the rubber chicken circuit here.)
The practice was that once the dinner had reached the coffee stage (I never had the feeling that Ian was a brandy and cigars man – at least, not every time!), the conversation would be halted with the tapping of a pen on a wine glass, and Ian would announce “Gentlemen,” (and it was pretty much usually gentlemen) “the topic for discussion tonight is…”.
Now, I never got to go to these very select gatherings of the Great and the Good. But I did work directly to people who did. And one story came back that stuck with me. (And if Sir Ian ever gets to read this, I am only reporting what was passed around the office; and if he has a different recollection, I invite him to contribute.)
The topic of the anecdote was the FSA, and its effectiveness. And the explanation for its ineffectiveness was that they had recruited their senior specialists from the second echelon of bank management. The line taken by governments of both political colours during the 1990s and later was that the Civil Service was too inward-looking, too eager to promote its own, and too reliant on people who were deemed ‘generalists’, who did not have a professional specialism. So from the late 1980s onwards, there was an increasing habit of bringing in people from industry to hold fairly high managerial positions in the Service. But being the public sector, the money on offer could only be so much, and it ultimately had to come out of one budget or another. So the Service, on the whole, could only go so far up the industry management tree to get their managers. This had a whole range of knock-on effects in matters of competency, public probity or the impact on pay for everyone else to name but three.
And there was also the question of political direction. Margaret Thatcher had started the direct politicisation of the Civil Service with her question of one senior manager “Is he One Of Us?” This was replicated across almost all of Whitehall in the following years; and by the time Labour came to power in 1997, “One of Us” was more likely to mean someone from the Establishment. And if that meant that some academics came in with a leftist slant, they were more than balanced out by managers from industry – especially those industries courted by New Labour – whose political orientation was either ambivalent, or more corporatist than political.
So the FSA recruited second-tier managers to act as their regulatory leads. But they still retained a degree of awe at those who they would be regulating, the senior managers and board members of the banks who had previously been above them. And at the same time, those managers and Board members looked at those the regulators were sending out to keep them in check, and their reaction was “But he was only ever a Deputy Director…” There were even tales of quite senior FSA people being left to cool their heels in corporate waiting rooms for a couple of hours, a very clear indicator of the level of respect the regulated had for the regulator.
I cannot imagine anyone in a water company ever doing that to Ian Byatt.
Ian Byatt was from the old school of Civil Service values. He had all the academic skills to be master of his subject; but his motivators were not mere money. As a Grade 2 civil servant – one grade below the Permanent Secretaries who run the big Departments of state – he would have been paid (in the middle 1990s) about £50-75k less than the CEOs and Chairmen of the companies he was regulating. But that meant little to Ian. What was more important was the status he wielded as Regulator, appointed by government and answerable only to Parliament. Give him a good dinner and a reasonable expectation of a knighthood on retirement, and he was happy; and those issues of relative status and financial worth meant very little in comparison to those more intangible, traditional Civil Service values.
It was really only by setting up a parallel set of values that the British Civil Service was able to develop its tradition of relative freedom from corruption, and also gave its senior people the ability to lock horns with captains of industry and hold their own against them. Ofwat, in the Ian Byatt years, was a highly effective regulator because it dealt with the personalities in the industry in that very way. Even I, fairly lowly as I was, once had to write to someone in a water company who challenged Ofwat’s senior engineer’s authority to issue some (comparatively minor) instructions, to tell them that “Under Schedule 2(a) of the Water Act 1989, the Director General can devolve any of his powers to any person he may from time to time designate. Dr. E’s letter of (date) should therefore be read as having come from the Director General himself, and it carries his full authority. We therefore look forward to receiving the information we asked for at your earliest convenience…”
If the anecdote that I heard is correct, it seems very much as though the senior officers of the FSA either did not understand the extent of their powers and authority, or did not have the confidence to exercise those powers to the utmost in the pursuit of their objectives. If I, as an Acting Higher Executive Officer, felt able to exercise those powers on behalf of the DG, as set out in statute, then surely (you would think), people higher than me in the FSA should also have felt able to do that. But apparently not.
And this is why we had an independent Civil Service. And the diminution of those powers and influence for merely political ends in the 1980s and 1990s, and the resultant regulatory capture of the regulators by the regulated that we have especially seen in the last fifteen years, can be laid directly at the feet of politicians who sought that very same reduction of influence. Those very same politicians who will inevitably seek to shift the blame for the financial collapse of 2008 to regulators and the banks, and anywhere but the Westminster bubble, are as much responsible as anyone else for setting the ground rules and tilting the playing field against the regulators they now seek to blame.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent five days in Vienna, my first proper visit for more than seven years. Although my other half insisted that I was having a holiday, the objective was rather more prosaic. For those who don’t know, I am the Secretary of a society called the Austrian Railway Group (ARG), a collection of (mainly) English-speaking enthusiasts for the railways and country of Austria. We nonetheless have a small number of Austrian members, and a number of those are in the business of railways in some form or another. One of those members, Rudi Neumann, is the proprietor of a medium-scale model railway manufacturer, Ferro-Train, and he acts as a focal point for a lot of the more artisan end of the hobby in Vienna. Rudi has organised a show for small suppliers (Kleinserienmesse) for a number of years, but this year, he was invited to run a specialist hall for clubs and small suppliers in the main Vienna modelling show at the end of October. And he, in turn, invited the ARG to have a stand there.
We had the invitation early in the year, and four of us signed up to staff it. Sadly, shortly after putting the process in train, one of our number was taken ill and unexpectedly passed away in the summer. This left us one body short, although we inherited a legacy from our absent friend in the form of a recommendation for a good hotel that we all ended up staying in for organisational convenience.
The question arose as to what goods we should take with us. Our main stock in trade is books in English about Austrian railways. One of our members has transferred his video output to DVD, and some of that is now getting close to archival status. We sell his DVDs on his behalf, for a percentage. And we also produce merchandising – keyrings, fridge magnets, drinks coasters and especially greetings cards – bearing pictures of Austrian railways.
It might be thought that the books in particular would be something of a “coals to Newcastle” exercise; but some of our publications would be considered specialist even if they were about English railways. A couple of years ago, for example, I compiled a bibliography of Austrian railway literature, the first in any language for a century. Although this was never going to be a best-seller, the ARG was the logical place to look to publish this, as if we didn’t, who would? (We have a Vienna bookshop outlet, and he has apparently sold quite a few of these.) Equally, a number of our books contain information that hasn’t been seen in Austria before, especially the photographs. So we decided to take a small selection of books in case of some occasional sales.
The show was a full-scale commercial operation in Vienna’s main trade exhibition centre. This meant dealing with the show organisers, Reed (the same people who run the employment agency in the UK with those irritating tv adverts that suggest that you can be whatever you want to be, regardless of qualifications, experience or attractiveness of your CV to employers. Suffice it to say, in the past couple of years when I’ve been looking for work, I’ve had job notifications from Reed and applied for jobs through them, but never had even a response from any employers who placed jobs with them. So my opinion of the organisation is not that high. But I digress.)
The ARG regularly attends a number of exhibitions within the UK, including the big annual December* exhibition at Birmingham’s NEC, which is perhaps the closest show in terms of size and organisation to the Vienna one. The experience of doing the NEC show is different, because most of the organisation for clubs and traders is handled by the club that puts the show on. They have set up their own company to manage the show, and it is that body that positions itself between individual attendees and the NEC management, and handles all the issues such as booking pitches, issuing attendees’ hall passes, parking, publicity and so on. This wasn’t the case in Vienna; we had to deal with Reed Exhibitions direct, and although they were very helpful, especially in communicating in English when we needed to, it became very clear that they were unused to the idea of small suppliers and voluntary societies attending the show. Clubs and societies get special rates at the NEC show; this was certainly not the case here. On the other hand, attending the NEC, especially for set-up and pull-down of the stand, means having to deal with NEC site security, and they are quite regimented in the way they manage the show venue, running the whole thing like a military operation. In contrast, site and hall management at Vienna was almost invisible, and although public entry on the day was via automated turnstile, set-up on the Thursday was a far more casual affair, with access restricted by nothing more than a portable barrier of the type used to mark out bank or post office queues here in the UK; easily circumvented, and with little in the way of security. We were only challenged after going through this barrier by the staff of another exhibition whose front hall we had to pass through, and then only because the staff member involved was concerned that we were attendees at her exhibition who were getting themselves lost; and when we then reported to the model show enquiry desk to present our credentials, we were met with amused puzzlement, as if to say “You have your passes for entry? So why are you telling me about it? You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t supposed to be.”
And that is Austria all over. It is a very relaxed country. The up-front payments for the stand were sent out by post, and took nearly a fortnight to reach the UK from Austria – hardly a first-class service! But Reed seemed very unconcerned about ensuring that they had cleared funds before we were allowed to set up. Generally in Austria, it is still not uncommon to find business – sometimes even retail business! – transacted by invoice, and card payments are still not universal.
Of the experience of getting to Vienna, setting up and opening the stand, and actually attending the show, little needs to be said. I used up some of my Air Miles (now Avios) in flying with British Airways direct from Heathrow to Vienna, as flying from Birmingham involves using Lufthansa and inevitably involves a stopover at Frankfurt and often quite a long stopover at that – on one occasion, as much as four hours! And flying from East Midlands, little more than half an hour away from me, was even less sensible, as its European connections are pretty poor. No, what was interesting were the differences between shows and show contents between the UK and Austria; and the reactions of visitors who came to our stand.
In fact, I’m sure that more than a few of the visitors didn’t twig that we were not Austrian until they actually spoke to us or looked closely at the books on display. Unlike, say, France, the German-speaking world uses English quite considerably in business and advertising; indeed, one of the recent crop of new publishers in the field in Austria calls itself “ the Railway Media Group” and uses that title in English. Those that did make that conceptual leap were really quite surprised; why, they asked, is there an English society for Austrian railways? (There is, after all, no reciprocal body in Austria or Germany for enthusiasts for British railways.) We explained it by saying that there are societies for many of the European nations’ railways in the UK; that interest in Continental railways is something different in the UK, and some of us seek out that which is different; and in any case, why do people support football clubs that they have no particular geographical or family connection with? Even given that explanation, people still wondered why we had nothing to show or sell about British railways. And most of our products were in English; only the DVDs had any publicity material in German.
Of the show itself, it was interesting to contrast it with similar shows in the UK. Model hobby shows here tend to concern only one strand, and there is a massive dichotomy between model railway shows on the one hand and scale model shows on the other. Meanwhile, collectors of die-cast model cars, wargamers and radio-control model fans all have their own shows. On the Continent, these hobbies all combine into one big show; that’s not to say that there aren’t single-strand shows for each of these interests, but there is at least one big national show combining the lot. And that’s not necessarily a result of differing population sizes, either. Austria has a population of about 8.5 million, but France and Germany have populations far higher – in fact, Germany is more populous than the UK at somewhere around 80 million – and the combined show is far more common. France and Germany both have a number of regional shows of this nature. Perhaps one reason is that modelling hobbies and a collective, club culture are more mainstream than they are in the UK. Indeed, there is a joke that when two Germans meet, they shake hands; when three Germans meet, they form a club. And there is not the same cultural cringe over being a fan of a modelling hobby in Germany or Austria, for example; indeed, being a railway enthusiast in Germany or Austria has a social status akin to being in a golf club in Britain, and the demographic that the advertising aims for is similar. Continental model railways may be aimed towards engineers, doctors and architects as much as the skilled manual worker.
Also, in terms of modelling itself, there is more crossover in skills and techniques between railway modellers and scale static modellers, whereas in the UK certain materials, skills and techniques remain within one particular ‘ghetto’ until some degree of conceptual breakthrough happens and a technique that one branch of modelling has known about for years is suddenly adopted wholeheartedly by another branch.
Meanwhile, what of Vienna?
Before I went, I was warned by a recent traveller that there had been an increase in street crime, aggressive begging and associated unpleasantness. I saw very little of this. The area around the Westbahnhof, which had been the focus of much of the movement of refugees through Austria a few weeks earlier (and mis-identified in the media as ‘Vienna’s main railway station’) has always been something of a magnet for slightly dubious characters – but that’s quite normal for railway stations across Europe, and most of the time these people aren’t a particular bother. What was noticeable was that the emergency services were camping out on the Westbahnhof forecourt, but that was only to be expected. Otherwise, Vienna is still the relaxed, comfortable, person-friendly city that I’ve always found it to be. (Compared to London, for instance, Vienna is positively human.)
One thing that I did notice was that, compared to seven years ago, there was some more high-rise development on the fringes of the city. And some of that new development was centred on the area around the Hauptbahnhof, the new Vienna central station that opened earlier this year but is not yet up to full capacity and won’t be until the remaining state railways’ long-distance services are diverted into it from December this year. I spent my one free morning visiting the three main-line stations that have been most recently redeveloped – Prater, the Hauptbahnhof and Meidling – to see what sort of changes there’d been. And again, I’m pleased to say that newness is balanced with the Austrian reputation for the human scale. On Meidling, for instance, we came across employees in the middle of the morning using a quiet time to clean up station fixtures and fittings. And the new Hauptbahnhof, whilst being built on the site of the old Südbahnhof, certainly combines modern design with human scale and efficiency.
Meidling is the sort of outer suburban station with many local transport connections that a lot of cities have that enable local people to access main-line services without a trip into the centre of the city. Many cities have such a station; sometimes, there is more than one. Vienna Meidling was upgraded as a part of the revision of the Viennese rail network that building the new Hauptbahnhof required; indeed, for a time during the rebuilding work, main-line services terminated here. More oddly, the airport coach service, which goes from the airport to the main railway stations in Vienna, still calls at Meidling rather than the new Hauptbahnhof.
The rest of my spare time in Vienna was in the evenings, when the show team went out in search of sustenance. I introduced my colleagues to the Siebensternhof, a pub with a micro-brewery attached which is highly popular with the Viennese themselves. My colleagues in turn introduced us to a proper Viennese wine cellar, complete with faux “gypsy fiddlers” who were not as familiar with the works of Johann Strauss as they might have liked to suggest they were. (I was able to ask for a popular Strauss polka, Freie Fahrt! [‘The Express Train polka’] that flummoxed them) (and what else would a railway enthusiast ask for?) One night, Rudi and his colleague Robert took us out to one of their favourite places, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Favoriten district. We also found a pancake house, also frequented by locals; and even when one of us developed a deep craving for dead cow and we found a steakhouse, opposite the Goulash Museum (no, that really isn’t a typo!), it was both quiet and not stupidly expensive.
Indeed, I was surprised at how quiet Vienna was of an evening once you got away from the Stephansplatz, the central tourist attraction of the city. I’d always assumed that anywhere within the Ring, the boulevard that circles the city centre, would be prime tourist territory; but no, even eating places almost next door to quite posh hotels were quiet, inexpensive and frequented by locals. Perhaps this is down to the way that central Vienna is still home to a lot of ordinary Viennese. Not all the apartments in the Innere Stadt have been taken over as offices or sold on to rich, non-domiciled property investors as in London; and as a result, the centre of Vienna is both lively yet at the same time as quiet as any other residential area at night. Though I also suspect that international chain restaurants have taken up a lot of prime sites immediately around the Stephansplatz and the Graben, the main shopping street; and I suspect that these are the places that attract the less imaginative international tourist, and charge accordingly.
We also spent some time exploring the streets of Vienna and taking advantage of the lack of traffic – and pedestrians – to admire the architecture, both grand and prosaic. There are still quiet corners of Vienna to be found if you go and look for them. And I even found myself warming to Vienna’s underground railway, something I’ve never been all that fond of because of their 1970s trains with lurid orange plastic interiors and the station designs which take no account of passenger flows when having to change lines. But being both modern and not comprised of deep tubes, I realised through using it on a daily basis the way the Viennese do, as a commuter, that it was far more modern than London’s Underground, and less threatening and restrictive. And they have recently supplemented their 1970s trains with new stock whose interior décor is far more restful. About the only irritation was caused by a drunken American woman spouting racist insults (in English) that I suspect most of the rest of the train’s occupants were unlikely to understand. I suspect that she would have ended her evening with a ride in a police car…
All in all, the trip was a resounding success for the ARG, both in terms of the trade we did and some of the contacts made. We have already spoken about repeating the exercise next year, and how to better focus our products to be more appealing to a Continental market; for example, print on demand means that it might be possible to maintain some of our titles translated into German and only print them off when required. I even suggested that a short history and tourist guide for Austrian visitors to Britain might be useful; and there are opportunities for reselling of a small selection of British railway books and DVDs, if we can find a supplier who’d like to participate. Financially, it was a success in terms of turnover, though until we do all the counting up the actual financial bottom line remain s a little unsure (and of course, we who attended paid for travel, accommodation and food out of our own pockets, which is the only way the Group as a whole could afford the exercise). The experience of doing the show has meant that we shall find ways of doing the whole exercise more economically next time.
In terms of networking, the ARG has made contact with the Südbahn Museum at Mürzzuschlag, and has already had an invitation to attend an event they are putting on next June. And I have made contact with an Austrian publisher, and had interesting discussions about photographs and possible projects. Without a doubt, the world is full of surprises.
*Well, I always think of it as being in December, though a colleague points out that it’s actually in late November this year – and probably most other years as well.
Last weekend, I joined a quite remarkable number of people in going out into the countryside to watch a fifty-five-year-old aeroplane fly past. In my case, this was a day’s outing for possibly twenty seconds of comparatively straight and level flying. You might reasonably ask: why?
Well, this was one of the final flights of the Avro Vulcan bomber XH558 before its Certificate of Airworthiness runs out. XH558 has been on the display circuit for fifteen years as a ‘classic’ aircraft. It has always been a distinctive shape in the sky; and I have memories of being buzzed by a Vulcan doing a low-flying exercise in my native Derbyshire back in the 1970s, in the days when the RAF were allowed to do real low-flying training. XH558 was going to be withdrawn from flying because the expertise no longer exists to service its engines, and the cost of training new engineers to do that servicing would be even more prohibitive than the cost in time, materials and consumables in physically keeping the aircraft flying. Regulatory concerns now mean that you really can’t learn how to service a Bristol Olympus engine in your spare time; there are now a raft of regulations over just who can and can’t service aircraft engines, and in what role they do that work. Learning to service a jet engine really needs a supply of engines to practice on, and good working examples of the Olympus are few and far between; and the number of engineers who are familiar with them and who are qualified to pass that knowledge on is rapidly contracting with the passage of time. Even if this expertise were available, XH558 is well beyond its designed flying hours, and as one of the most complex heritage aircraft currently on the circuit, the safety requirements placed on its operators are many and stringent. And after the tragedy of the accident at Shoreham, regulatory corner cutting can no longer be considered as being smart, or clever.
(The earlier Rolls Royce Merlin engines as used in the Spitfire, Mosquito and Lancaster are a different proposition; piston engines are simpler, and there are such a large number of Merlins in use on heritage aircraft around the world that a large knowledge base exists to access the details of their care and repair.)
So the team that has kept XH558 flying organised a pair of circular flights, one going north from the aircraft’s base at Doncaster, the other south, so that the maximum number of people could turn out to see it. And turn out to see it they did, in their thousands.
The route had been reasonably well publicised in advance, with details of the route and waypoints and likely flying times. I looked at the plan and reasoned that the museum at RAF Cosford, in Shropshire, would offer the best chance of not getting caught up in chaos on the day. Cosford would be reasonably well organised and capable of dealing with crowds; as a major venue, it would be less likely to be dropped from the itinerary in the event of last-minute changes; there would be something to look at whilst waiting for the Vulcan to arrive, and after it had departed and people were trying to get off-site; and there would be facilities there for feeding and watering. This last one was about the only failure of the day; both of Cosford’s catering outlets had pretty much run out of food by about 1:30 in the afternoon, and the Vulcan wasn’t due to fly past until about 3:30!
Contrary to the weather expected elsewhere along the route, on the Saturday the weather was dull but dry. I located myself reasonably close to the runway, and although my view was blocked left and right by buildings, I considered that getting as close as possible to the track was the best option for getting reasonable pictures. And so it proved. The characteristic muffled roar of the Vulcan gave adequate warning of its approach; and although by the time it flew over, it was behind schedule and so was unable to do any of the circuits that had been suggested as a possibility (XH558’s base at Doncaster is a commercial airport, and so it was necessary for the flight to keep pretty much to time in order to make take-off and landing slots). So the aircraft was visible for perhaps twenty seconds or less, though in that time I managed to expose thirteen frames.
Still, this doesn’t address the question of Why? As with all these things, there is a simple answer and a more complex one.
The simple answer is about the history of the Vulcan. Designed as a delivery system for the British independent nuclear deterrent and one of the trio of designs known as “V-bombers” (the Vickers Valiant, Handley Page Victor and Avro Vulcan), the aircraft was an expression of the pinnacle of the British aviation industry in the 1950s. The escalating development and construction costs of new aircraft designs meant that from the 1960s onwards, Britain could not develop new advanced aircraft designs without collaboration from other countries. Although this gave rise to a highly successful range of aircraft, including the iconic Anglo-French Concorde, the Avro Vulcan remained a wholly British enterprise and the end of a line of bomber aircraft in RAF service that went all the way back to World War I’s Handley Page O/400 and Vickers Vimy.
Despite having a key role in national defence throughout the Cold War, the Vulcan was only ever used in anger once, when a series of attacks were mounted during the Falklands campaign to deny invading Argentine forces the use of the airport runway at Port Stanley. These attacks were mounted from Ascension Island, in the mid-Atlantic close to the equator. The Vulcans involved in the five separate raids each performed 6,800 mile round trips lasting 16 hours to attack their targets. At the time, they were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history and that alone is a feat of aviation skill that is worthy of commemoration.
XH558 itself was the first Vulcan B.Mk.2 to be delivered in 1960. It was also the last Vulcan to leave RAF service, being retained from 1986 to 1993 as the air force’s single display Vulcan after the rest of the Vulcan fleet was retired. It then went on display at Bruntingthorpe airfield in Leicestershire before restoration to flying condition began in 1998. XH558 returned to flight in 2007.
But, some of you might say, why are you enthusing over what is, after all, a delivery system for weapons of mass destruction?
Well, it is a sad truth that of all the weapons that the human race has ever invented (and we seem to have an unfortunate ability to invent new ways of killing one another), military aircraft are probably – and paradoxically – the most beautiful of machines. The constraints put on designers to achieve performance without accepting economic compromise, plus the need to comply with the laws of physics, has resulted in some remarkable machines. And, unlike a gun, or a sword, these machines can be used for good as well as evil. It is not necessary to put an offensive load into a warplane to see it fly, but it is necessary to load a gun to fire it. (An argument against the American gun lobby’s mantra of ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’) And at the same time, this fits in with my view of the military in general. My father fought in the Second World War; it was the formative experience in his life and made him the person he was. He was mentioned in dispatches for doing something unpleasant to a German machine-gun nest in Italy; but he also told the story of a time when he was told by a senior officer to execute two prisoners. He hesitated, because he knew that this was wrong, yet he had been given a direct order which he was under a duty to obey. Fortunately, that hesitation meant that suddenly, transport arrived unexpectedly to transport these prisoners away from the front line. In short, my father was neither a cruel nor bloodthirsty man.
Listening over the years to his stories of his Army experiences gave me a respect for those who take up the profession of arms; my contempt is reserved for those politicians who cause soldiers to be sent to war.
RAF Cosford has a large museum devoted to the Cold War, which displays the military technology of both sides as well as interpretive displays setting the geopolitics of the second half of the Twentieth century in context. Looking around this whilst I had idle time at Cosford made me reflect that the right place for all this kit was in a museum, not being used in conflict. And as a taxpayer, my money has been spent on these things, when it could have been either spent on other things – some of which I would approve of, some of which I wouldn’t – or left in my pocket, depending on your political viewpoint. So I do feel that I have a certain right, as one of the millions who have helped pay that bill, to see what my money was being spent on in my name.
At the same time, I have very little time for modern drone warfare. Unmanned aerial vehicles do not interest me, and I don’t particularly consider push-button warfare to be any sort of honourable activity. It makes it all too easy for politicians to order attacks against places or people in distant lands with no consequences for them, no difficult questions for them to have to answer. Our democratic ability to hold our politicians to account is based around facing them with the consequences of their actions; and with drone warfare, the consequences are conveniently kept at arms’ length and away from the critical gaze of the public as much as possible. Undertaking an 8,000 mile round trip to drop bombs to put an airport runway out of action, with the skills that requires, the discomfort and the danger is a far different proposition to sitting in an office, far distant from the machine you are controlling, and effectively playing a deadly video game with about as many consequences for the pilot.
With those thoughts in mind, I am able to watch a military aircraft make a fly-past, and celebrate – without going completely over the top about it – the good in what that represents whilst not forgetting the bad, and to do that with a clear conscience. There is a Biblical saying: “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” And when a sinner is such a striking and beautiful sight as a Vulcan bomber, it’s very easy to appreciate it.
I’d like to think that others in the thousands who turned out to see the Vulcan’s national tours, and those who will follow its final flights in the next few weeks, will equally reflect on the wider story and the bigger issues that XH558 represents.
I don’t normally do politics in this blog; but its function has changed since I went back into full-time employment. It no longer really has any function in promoting my photography work (though having decided last year that I would wind down my photography and writing work for money, I have since had indications that I might start being offered more along those lines in future), so I decided that I would restrict future posts to the online equivalents of What I Did On My Holidays. And then I read something that so upset me, in its way, that I felt I had to write about it here.
A friend of mine passes his old copies of Private Eye on to me. (Note for overseas readers: Private Eye is a satirical magazine which takers delight in exposing the follies of the rich and powerful. This has ended them up in court on a number of occasions; quite often, they win. It holds no remit for any political party, though the party of Government always makes for the juicier target.) It was with no pleasure that I read in Eye 1397 an account of some of the various manoeuvrings over the Thames Tideway, a highly-expensive capital project of Thames Water’s, to build a major interceptor sewer in the London area to prevent raw or partially-treated sewage from being discharged into the Thames Estuary.
In amongst the exposing of various business interests of various people who should otherwise be assumed to be independent, the Eye turned its attention onto my former employer, the UK water economic regulator Ofwat.
It reported on the current Ofwat Chairman, Jonson Cox, and his bonus whilst he was CEO at Anglian Water; the former project director of Thames Water now acting as a consultant for Ofwat; and the accountants Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) acting as both auditor and “delivery partner” to both Ofwat and nine out of 19 water companies, as well as directly advising Macquarie Group, overall owner of Thames Water, on corporate tax matters, especially those involving Luxembourg. Now, I’m fairly well aware that accountancy firms will say that they have in place “Chinese Walls” to prevent one part of the business having any contact with other parts of the business where a conflict of interest might occur; but surely as staff move around from one contract to another, that arrangement can only deliver isolation of business decisions for so long. And the public perception of all this can be doing no-one any favours.
I was very saddened to read this, because when I worked for Ofwat I was proud of what I did and what the organisation did. I joined Ofwat in 1989 when the organisation was only 60 days old; and I joined on level transfer from the (then) Department of Health & Social Security as a Clerical Officer. After 18 months at Ofwat, I was promoted to Executive Officer (EO), and there I stayed until I left in 2010. For those unfamiliar with British Civil Service grades, I was pretty much at the bottom of the food chain; my promotion put me on the first rung of the management ladder, and there I stayed pretty much. Moreover, whilst in executive arms of Government, EOs are called upon to exercise direct managerial authority over 5-10 staff and authorise expenditure within fairly strictly defined limits, in policy branches EOs are still in a very lowly position and basically do number crunching, responding to correspondence, research and general gophering.
This was the case in Ofwat, but there were things that alleviated that condition to an extent. Firstly, Ofwat was a small organisation – at its height, with a range of ten regional offices to handle customer service enquiries, the total staff only came to 250 – so everyone knew everyone else pretty much and you would rub shoulders with the Great and the Good on a daily basis. Secondly, as one of the first tranche of staff to join the organisation, I was called upon from time to time to do things that were above my pay grade. This was also because I was placed early on in a senior executive support role; I was effectively personal assistant to the Director General’s Personal Assistant (or as I said, quoting Flanders & Swann, ‘chief assistant to the assistant chief’). So early on, I prepared briefing for a visit by the DG to France to meet the boards of various French water companies (who in the years immediately before and after privatisation invested fairly heavily in the UK water industry); and later, I went to Parliament fairly regularly to report back on the progress of the EU Waste Water Treatment Directive in its transition into UK law. (My French briefing did cause me to get an apology from someone who later became Rail Regulator and Chairman of Centrica, as he had queried the validity of that briefing and insisted that they get someone in who Knew Their Stuff; and after a day’s briefing by this expensive consultant, had to admit that he’d told them nothing that I hadn’t.)
I later went on to work in the Press Office, and indeed for a while any Ofwat story that was run in a national newspaper and attributed to “an Ofwat spokesman” actually came from me, as I wasn’t formally a press officer but the years of explaining benefits to people on the front line in the DHSS meant that my immediate bosses were reasonably happy with my talking to the press as long as they generated a line to take on whatever was the burning issue of the day.
I suppose that my years in science fiction fandom had exposed me to being relaxed at talking to people – authors and editors – who had a lot of status, at least within their own particular community, so I was not afraid to speak out, albeit in that respectful yet critical way that the British seem to excel in, of the non-commissioned officer to the senior, where a statement prefaced with the words “with respect” actually means the exact opposite.
The final thing that made my position a bit different was my position as a trade union representative. I’d done some low-level representation at the DHSS regional office where I worked, and done the training to become a union health and safety representative, a role which actually still carries – at least on paper – some legal powers. But as a representative for an entire Government department – albeit a small one –I was not just a local official but actually had a role within the union at national level, where my peers were representing major Departments of State such as the Inland Revenue, the MoD or the Land Registry, with membership numbers in the tens of thousands. This gave me access to senior people in the union, up to and including the President and General Secretary; and although our first DG, Ian (now Sir Ian) Byatt, was not particularly keen on trade unions, his was also a bit of a snob and if he was going to have active trade unionists in “his” Department, at least he could say that “his” trade unionists were operating at the highest level open to them, and he at least had respect for any organisation with a clear hierarchy and for the people at the top of that hierarchy.
In looking at the article in Private Eye, I was struck by the contrast between then and now in terms of the personalities appointed to run what is supposed to be an independent regulator. The first Director General, Ian Byatt, was a Senior Treasury economist who had (literally) written the book on the theory of the economic regulation of utilities. He had lectured on this subject at the London School of Economics, and was a respected authority on these matters. He was also the ex-husband of the novelist A.S. Byatt, and generally embodied many of the best features of the traditional British civil servant – advancement by merit, a particular level of civility in dealings (most of the time), and above all a particular emphasis on status being expressed in achievement and position rather than direct financial reward. A good dinner with the right people and an honour – preferably a knighthood, a ‘K’ – on retirement was more important than just getting a big fat salary cheque. That’s not to say that the Service ran its top-level people on a shoestring, at least not compared with the comparatively low pay of people at my level; but in Sir Ian’s day the Service still operated pay grade scales for everyone up to and including the Head of the Home Civil Service, which were published and which only touched on the rarefied levels of six-figure salaries at a time when that was considered starting pay for senior corporates and board members.
Sir Ian Byatt was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met or worked with, which considering some of the people I’ve met in the science fiction field puts him in the same league as nuclear physicists and astronomers, which is saying quite a bit.
Sir Ian’s successor as DG was Philip Fletcher, who was an equally senior civil servant but not one with the same academic pedigree. He came up through the policy field in a number of departments, most notably the Department of the Environment, but came to Ofwat on Sir Ian’s retirement from the post of Receiver of the Metropolitan Police. The term ‘receiver’ did not mean that the Met was insolvent; rather it was an extremely old job title, going back to the formation of the force, and it basically referred to the civilian head of the Met’s establishment, with responsibility for back office and civilian clerical and support staff. In the UK, whilst most police forces are responsible for their own clerical and back office functions, the Metropolitan Police, which is responsible for policing the capital (apart from the City of Westminster, which has its own force) has all its support functions provided by the Civil Service in recognition of the unique situation of policing the capital. Philip Fletcher was more of an administrator than an expert on utility regulation and economics; whereas Ian Byatt had been rather hands-on with the decisions to be taken in terms of policy formulation and direction, Philip Fletcher took the more traditional Civil Service view that he had a troupe of senior advisors to do that for him.
Up to 2006, he continued the job as Director General with sole responsibility for the work of the office. However, the Blair Government had decided that Ofwat needed a makeover in terms of its corporate structures, as one of the criticisms levelled at Ofwat over the years was that it was too personality-driven, and that decisions were far too much based on what one figurehead regulator thought. This had certainly been the way with the other two major sectorial regulators created during the Conservative government of 1979-97, Offer (for electricity) lead by Stephen Littechild and Ofgas (for gas, surprisingly), headed by Claire Spottiswoode. These two individuals were far more in the vein of corporate governance (although Littlechild was originally another academic like Ian Byatt), and indeed when the Blair Labour administration came to power in 1997 they only lasted a few weeks before tendering their resignations because they identified far more with the political agenda of the previous administration. This was not the way of either Sir Ian or of Philip Fletcher, who were traditional Civil Servants with the ethos of loyally serving the government of the day, irrespective of their own political views. Ian Byatt, in particular, whilst considered by many of his peers to be something of a Labour supporter (though in terms of politics, these things are often based on relative assessments!) had no problem in dealing with the first Labour Secretary of State for the Environment, John Prescott, even though he was a person whom Sir Ian personally disliked. (Something that was common to many of Prescott’s colleagues, one gathers.)
So, from 2006 legislative changes took place that changed the corporate structure of Ofwat. The post of Director General was abolished, and instead a Board structure was put in place, with a Chairman and Chief Executive. Philip Fletcher became the first Chairman, and he was supported by a new appointment from outside the Westminster bubble as CEO, Regina Finn. She came to Ofwat from having been economic regulator of the water industry on Guernsey, following a career in utility economics in her native Ireland. And we began to see a change in Ofwat management style to a more corporatist model.
The political independence of the Civil Service was something that was a key strength that many politicians saw as a weakness. There was a perception that the Service followed its own agenda and acted against change in British society; and that it was a key part of the Establishment, dedicated to preserving power at the top irrespective of the political colour of government that had been elected to Parliament. Harold Wilson’s Labour government that came to power in 1964 had attempted to change that, but the rate of change was too slow for many politicians. It was only when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 that this began to change; Thatcher was a radical Prime Minister in many ways, not afraid to overthrow old ideas if they got in her way. She famously asked of one senior Civil Servant “Is he One of Us?”, and she started the process of politicising the senior – and not-so-senior – Civil Service to try to ensure that her new policy initiatives weren’t subject to blockage through inertia and administrative manoeuvring by senior officials. This was achieved through a process of splitting the Civil Service into smaller organisations, either Executive Agencies for carrying out everyday functions such as delivering pensions and benefits, or “quangos” (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Government Organisations) to carry out a number of similar roles. Ofwat was neither of these, but a rather rarer bird, a “non-Ministerial government department”, whose roles and duties were defined by statute but whose senior officer was responsible directly to Parliament rather than to a Minister.
And then there was privatisation, which was ostensibly about reducing the size of the state and taking expensive operations out of the public finances, but which was as much about removing democratic accountability and corporatizing decision-making and policy.
By 1997, a large majority of the population as a whole was fed up with the Conservative government, mainly because it had made a laughing stock of itself by becoming severely split over the question of Europe and by various moral shortcomings amongst its members, made worse by the way in which it tried to claim the moral high ground on a number of issues, many of which were almost immediately undermined by major public embarrassments and scandals. At the same time, the Labour party had come under the sway of a reformist sector of the party which looked at its 18 years out of power and concluded that it had to move to the political right to stand a chance of re-election. This was a misjudgement. By 1997, the Labour Party would have been electable if it had put up V.I. Lenin himself because of the level of disillusionment with the Conservatives. But the “New Labour” project, as it was called, concluded that the move to the Right had to be accompanied by the continuance of many Conservative economic policies, including reining in public sector expenditure, opening up the public sector to more competition, private provision of public services, and something called PFI – the “Public Finance Initiative” – which basically allowed the private sector to build, own and operate public infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and even the odd toll road, in exchange for long-term financial interest and large, on-going running costs payments. New Labour, under Tony Blair, cosied up to the City and industry, and the traditional supporters of the party on the Left, the trade unions and party activists, were increasingly marginalised. This was the period that saw the growth of what I have dubbed “the CEOcracy”; government by senior managers with generous contracts, supported by a new class of young apparatchiks with MBAs and little experience of real work in real industries. (Many of these senior managers were parachuted into senior positions in the Civil Service, only to start cutting corners to save costs that had major impacts on matters of public probity such as security of personal data, democratic control and oversight, political neutrality and accountability generally.)
Thus it was at Ofwat. In the six months prior to a General Election, Government departments are allowed to start discussions with the leaders of each of the political parties’ front bench teams to find out the plans for each policy area so that on Day One, new Ministers can be presented with plans to implement their manifesto commitments. Many of us were shocked when Regina Finn came back from her meeting with the opposition Conservative policy teams at the end of 2009 and basically said “We’ll be fine when that nice Mr Cameron gets into power.” That was a level of partisanship which many of us old-timers found unacceptable, irrespective of our own political beliefs. When the Coalition government came to power in 2010 and imposed the austerity programme, which many saw as a fairly naked attempt by a Conservative-led coalition to impose sweeping changes to British society without a solid mandate from the electorate under the cover of “balancing the books” (something it has actually failed to do then or since), Regina Finn signed Ofwat up to austerity measures and cuts despite that fact that Ofwat was not funded from the public purse. There was also the growth of something that Ofwat had never seen before, crony management. Whilst there had always been golden boys and girls in Ofwat who got all the advancement, kudos and plum jobs, this had never been driven by personal allegiance. That changed under the new regime from 2006 onwards. I had to deal with a personal case which was basically down a member of staff being sacked for being a piece of grit in the machinery, asking difficult questions; and that was in an area under the control of one particular senior manager that was generating most of my caseload for complaints from members.
I decided that Ofwat had nothing more to offer me in about 2008, when I was passed over for a particular promotion that I had dedicated myself to get as soon as I knew the job was on the cards. In the end, I was passed over for a Bright Young Thing brought in from outside Ofwat. Twenty years’ loyalty to the organisation was rewarded with my being told that I should confine myself to the job I was doing. The prospect of working under the austerity programme, with the imposition of a five-year pay freeze on top of the one that had covertly been in place for the last three years of the Labour administration (overall paybill increases were restricted to less than the rate of inflation in the years leading up to the election, with a 0% paybill increase expectation in 2009-10, something the Brown administration flatly denied was a pay freeze policy or even existed – but as a union negotiator, I saw the Treasury pay guidance and I knew differently), meant that I could see no prospect of my doing any better under the new regime, and so I engineered my exit in December 2010.
The replacement of Regina Finn by Catherine Ross in 2013 was precipitated, as far as I have established, by some internal corporate scandal. Catherine Ross had been a senior executive in Ofwat in my time, but had departed the organisation before I left. From what I heard, there were elements of cronyism in her appointment as CEO, and the replacement of Philip Fletcher as Chairman by Jonson Cox, CEO of British Coal and player with a finger in a number of corporate pies according to Private Eye only serves to reinforce that view. Ofwat staff numbers were winnowed in 2011 and 2012, with many people who were liable to be labelled as part of the “awkward squad” or who just were from the old regime and therefore not expected to be onside with the new thinking being conveniently made redundant. Corporate structures were changed so that people in Ofwat became “associates” (whatever that means), and Ofwat’s position as part of the Civil Service, with all that implied, was brushed under the carpet. In at least one instance, that meant that Ofwat ignored a national level agreement with the trade unions that it either didn’t understand or couldn’t be bothered try to comply with. At the same time, one of the major UK accountancy firms, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) took a major role in policy development when previously they had been kept at arms’ length as retained accountants to a number of water companies and only really had any role in Ofwat policy development in quite constrained and controlled project work. “Conflict of interest” was by now just three meaningless words.
The Private Eye story paints a picture of Ofwat, an organisation I used to be proud to work for – as I believed in its role as acting as a substitute for competition and being an source of collected expertise in the industry – now being a full player in Corporate Britain, with all the insider self-interest that the CEOocracy seems to think of as normal and acceptable and a just reward for the Great and the Good, and the little people can go to the wall because it must be their own fault after all for not fighting their way to the top of the greasy pole.
But this world-view is increasingly being challenged, not least by the rise of maverick politicians in both the USA and the UK. Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders in the States, and Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, are all expressions of dissatisfaction with the status quo. The problem is that Trump and Farage, whilst suggesting that they are “men of the people” and expressing what “a majority” of people are saying, are merely allowing their views to be reflected back to them through their status and power (for all his attempts to come over as “an ordinary bloke” Nigel Farage is, after all, a former stockbroker and so hardly familiar with the coal face of modern Britain; and his anti-EU rhetoric finds favour with a number of newspaper proprietors who see wrapping themselves in the flag as being an asset to sales).
The Private Eye article merely shows one manifestation of modern corporate Britain in an area which I have knowledge of. I cannot think that similar wrongdoings – for wrongdoings I consider them to be – are not happening in other areas of government and public life. I personally consider much of this to be nothing more or less than corruption. Any politician who makes policy that benefits them directly, that places their family, their friends and their business partners in advantageous positions, I consider to be corrupt – in whatever way you care to define that word – and deserving of a place, not in Parliament, but in prison.
I have seen for myself what I consider to be moral decay in the exercise of corporate power ostensibly in the service of the public, and it appals me. I hope that the coming years will see a move back to probity, accountability and above all honesty in public life; and I will support any politician who puts those things at the core of their programmes.
These things presage the death or fall of Kings…
Well, I confess – that’s actually a line from Shakespeare’s Richard II, but it seemed appropriate to the day. I spent last Sunday joining a surprising number of people to see the funeral cortege of Richard III, who died on the battlefield of Bosworth, about ten miles from where I now live, in 1485, and whose mortal remains were rediscovered buried under what is now a council car park in the middle of Leicester some three years ago.
I’m not a great monarchist; in fact, it’s an issue I’m quite neutral on. If this country chose to become a Republic, I wouldn’t be weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth. But we have the system we have, and I’ll go along with that for the time being. I certainly wasn’t one of those people who went into deep mourning over Diana, Princess of Wales, and I would never been seen with a copy of Royalty magazine. But the British monarchy does have a back-stop role in the (unwritten) British constitution. I’ll give you a f’rinstance…
Come with me down Memory Lane, to the 1982 Tory Party conference. In that conference, the then Secretary of State for Defence, “here today, gone tomorrow” John Nott (as my namesake Sir Robin Day once famously addressed him in a tv interview that was very shortly afterwards terminated in a fit of pique) spoke about the British recapture of the Falkland Islands, and exhorted the conference to “congratulate our wonderful fighting forces and their leader, Margaret Thatcher”. At their following Tuesday meeting, the Prime Minister was informed very firmly by the Queen that Mrs. Thatcher was not the leader of Britain’s fighting forces; she was.
And whilst it would be entirely possible to devise a method to ensure that a President worthy of the position of Head of State could be elected, just looking at all the options we’ve had over the past thirty or forty years of those who might have aspired to the job gets pretty depressing: President Blair, President Major, President Kinnock, President-for-Life Thatcher! And our own version of President Kennedy would have been something of a disaster…
So when I heard that the funeral cortege of Richard III would be passing the end of my road, at first I was fairly unimpressed. I’d seen the stories about the rediscovery of his mortal remains and followed them with a degree of historical and archaeological interest; but the reburial wasn’t something that I thought I’d want to participate in, even as an observer.
But when I posted this question online, an old friend of mine who is a staunch Ricardian begged me to take pictures for her. (Mind you, that might have been because it saved her the conflict of interest in trying to decide whether to come to Leicester or watch the Manchester United vs. Liverpool football match, in which she also has a great partisan interest.) At first, I thought I’d just go to the end of the road, take the pictures and then come home again. But as details emerged, it turned out that the coffin would be being transported in a modern hearse along this main road; hardly a fantastic photo opportunity. The procession, with the coffin on a horse-drawn carriage, would only be through the centre of Leicester. I toyed with the idea of going into Leicester itself; but that would involve getting into town, parking up and then contending with potentially large crowds to get the best position to get useable pictures. Finally, I hit on a far more interesting plan; I’d go to one of the villages on the route of the cortege. The coffin was to be taken to the Bosworth battlefield, where Richard fell, and then be taken on a progress through Leicestershire, calling at various villages with a connection to the battle en route before arriving in Leicester for the cathedral service.
I finally settled on visiting Dadlington, partly because there was going to be an open-air service on the village green, partly because some of those who fell in the battle are buried (in a common, unmarked grave) in the churchyard, but mainly because I have a friend who lives in the neighbouring village, and where I might be able to park my car and possibly have a drink with afterwards. Except that he’s an airline pilot, and it turned out that he was away on the day. So it goes. But the day dawned bright anyway, one of the few properly spring-like days we’ve had so far, so this still seemed like a good plan.
As I approached the village, it became clear that a large number of people were converging on it. Cars were parked on the side of the road and there were a large number of cyclists and pedestrians heading for Dadlington from possibly two miles away. I was able to park on a school playing field especially set aside for the purpose, and then started to walk into the village along with many others. Eventually, we congregated at one corner of the village green, where it became quite clear that many others had had the same idea. I happened to be standing next to a mixture of locals and a group of Ricardians – identifiable by their white rose buttonholes – who seemed to have come from across the country and met up to come to Dadlington. One of their number had come up from Twickenham, and the others had come from equally far afield.
Although Richard III died more than five hundred years ago, there are still people in Britain who consider that he has had a poor deal from history. Most people’s knowledge of Richard comes from the Shakespeare play, which paints him as a villain. But Shakespeare was a) writing about a hundred years later, and b) was looking for patronage from the monarch of his day, Elizabeth I, who was the grand-daughter of the man who deposed Richard, Henry Tudor (later Henry VII). And the accusation that he murdered, or ordered the murder, of his nephews who were next in line to the throne – the “Princes in the Tower” – is an accusation, nothing more. So the image that has come down to us of Richard III is coloured by later politics; and even if we take Shakespeare as a broadly accurate relater of events, that would do little more than show us that medieval monarchs were not exactly paragons of virtue at the best of times. There is an active Richard III Society, which works to examine the contemporary historical record, and was responsible for the search for his remains, as it was known where he was buried, but the location of that building had since been lost. There are also people who hold the traditional British value of “support for the underdog”, who support Richard the way other people support football teams. And as Richard died in the deciding battle of the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic civil war that contended which of two powerful and regionally-located families, the House of Lancaster or the House of York, would hold the Crown, you can see how the conditions for some good old tribal rivalry could be created.
Anyway, we stood in the sun on the corner of Dadlington village green for about half an hour. We couldn’t see where the planned religious service was to be held, and the buzz of conversation drowned out whatever PA system the organisers had set up. The first thing we knew that something was happening was when a police motorcyclist drew up in front of us; within a couple of minutes, the heads of two mounted knights in armour became visible over the crowd. They were leading the cortege, and so stood for the five minutes or so that the outdoor service took. Then they slowly moved off, and almost immediately behind them came the hearse, with the plain coffin inside. It moved slowly past, turning the final corner of the village green before dropping down the hill and out of the village on its way to the next location.
And that was it.
The people standing around me, even the Ricardians, weren’t cheering, or applauding. They were like me; curious about this event, and perhaps motivated by a sense of history. After all, it’s not every day that the remains of a medieval monarch get paraded through your streets; and I suppose that a sense of history is one of the indicators of Britishness. Now, just as I’m fairly neutral on the monarchy, I’m equally neutral over patriotism. Whilst I take pleasure in my Britishness when it’s expressed through an appreciation of our history, or our technical and scientific achievements, I’m not proprietorial over it. I don’t feel the need to wrap myself in the flag, or to loudly shout about “my country” – I don’t own any of it, I just identify with it. And equally, I recognise a shared European heritage and culture – much to the disgust of some people, I am happy to assert that we are also Europeans, with a shared culture and a language with clear and identifiable European – in fact, Indo-European – roots.
But there was certainly no histrionics, no weeping, and only a very few people threw white rose petals – anyway, if people want to throw rose petals, why shouldn’t they?
The crowds were so big that I knew that if I went straight back to the car, I wouldn’t be able to get out of the car park very quickly, so I instead chose to have a look around the village. I bought a locally-sourced sausage in a not-so-locally-sourced bun; I took some photographs of the village green, and I then went to look at the church. Visitors were queueing out of the door, so I restricted myself to a look around the outside. The church is on a bit of a prominence, and from the edge of the churchyard it was possible to look out over the rolling countryside towards Market Bosworth across the land that was contested in the battle. (Recent archaeology has suggested that the area currently identified as the Bosworth Battlefield, with its Visitor Centre, may not be the actual battlefield. But it was almost certainly somewhere in the land visible from Dadlington.) And then I spent some time watching some Morris dancers. Morris has had a bit of a bad press in recent years, because to our modern eyes it looks a little ridiculous. But why should this worry us? The British are noted for a slightly off-the-wall sense of humour, so why should it bother us that a group of men (and sometimes women) choose to dress in traditional costume and dance? There are those who are fond of saying to recent immigrants “Respect Our Culture!” Well, it might help if they practised what they preached. Morris dancing is our culture, it has ancient roots in the pagan religion practised in these islands before Christianity came, and it should be respected by anyone who chooses to call themselves ‘British’ or ‘English’.
The funeral cortege, meanwhile, made its roundabout way into Leicester for a service in the Cathedral preparatory to re-interment of Richard III on Thursday. A number of people have looked at the coverage of this and concluded that it was a meaningless, touristy, bread-and-circuses diversion; and certainly some of the television coverage, especially with some of the talking heads, seemed a bit over the top. But out in the villages where ordinary Englishmen engaged in civil strife and died on the land they worked, it seemed very real. In our modern technological age, when our lives seem very detached from physical matters of soil, and kin, and growing or making things, we need reminders of the basics of life. Richard III’s funeral cortege was one such reminder.
(This link takes you to the Ralph McTell song Red and Gold – performed here by Fairport Convention in 1990 – which although it concerns itself with the later Civil War between King and Parliament, expresses many of the same sentiments, and indeed was in my mind whilst I was walking around Dadlington. Cropredy in Oxfordshire, where Fairport hold their annual festival, is similar to Dadlington and indeed was the site of a Civil War battle. I find it a very moving song, in part because it speaks of these fundamental matters.)