More Podcasts

For the whole of January I wondered when the third episode of the House of Lords podcast was going to arrive. On 10th February it finally did so. The Lord Patel, Chair of the Science & Technology Committee, was interviewed about healthy ageing. The Lord Cashman, former MEP and actor, recalled his role in founding Stonewall. I hope that new episodes will be produced more frequently in future so that momentum is not lost among potential listeners.

The Heraldry Society recently started a podcast of its own, the first episode being an interview of Quentin Peacock about Digital Heraldry. Peacock spoke about the time and difficulty of creating high-quality vector graphics. Notice was also taken of the growth of online heraldist communities in recent years.

Back on Wikipedia, I have spent the last week constructing another armorial page – that for Anglican Bishops of the Diocese of Chester. The bulk of the necessary information was found on the website of the now-defunct Cheshire Heraldry Society. The vast majority of the escutcheons (no crests or mottoes listed) were simple enough to recreate in a short time, so that it only took a few days to illustrate and upload the whole lot. Creating the list page itself was also quite easy, given that I am well used to the template by now. It is too early to say if the page will survive. At present no other editor appears to have noticed it at all. If it is accepted then I may go on to produce armorials for the more senior bishoprics of Canterbury and York, though so far I have not found the relevant information so conveniently assembled.

UPDATE (15th February)

Searching around I uncovered this presentation by Dr Adrian Ailes for the National Archives, recorded a decade ago.

Pauline on Pooches

Pauline (88) grooms Monty (8), 26th April 2015

Great sadness can be experienced from quite an early age when small things are so important to us. The loss of a toy, the death of an animal in our lives. Most of us have buried our pets in the garden, I certainly remember burying a canary in a cocoa tin and putting flowers on its grave, soon to be not forgotten, but put to the back of our minds as a new pet takes its place.

Heartbreak (circa 2002)

Little old ladies are often stereotyped as surrounded by cats, and indeed my grandmother had many. She loved dogs too, however, and made many references to them in her writings. I present a compilation of them now, to commemorate those who could not write for themselves.

The passages are ordered by date of writing rather than by date of events described. Contextual notes are inserted where appropriate to avoid reproducing excessive prose unrelated to the topic. Occasionally I have corrected typos.

The dog was sitting all of a quiver, tail swishing slowly and tongue hanging from one side of his mouth. His eyes never left the two cats he had chased up the tree as he willed them to come down for another chase. But the cats stayed on their wide branches with eyes half closed and a smirk on their faces. They were content to stay up there all day if necessary, and would enjoy doing it.

The dog came dashing back having had great sport chasing the cat under the caravan and he took up his place under the tree. He was to have a long wait, the other cat was older and wiser and loved sitting up in the tree. He wasn’t coming down to be chased by a silly old dog – not for a long time anyway.

A Summer’s Day in the Jungle (Fiction) (17/04/2002)

I tried making the area smaller by laying the odd paving slab between the bushes but eventually had to admit defeat, and but for a small circle with a weeping willow where our first dog is buried, I gave the rest over to the couch grass.

The Garden (??/??/2003)

There’s the man who brings his very large fluffy white dog and grooms it in one of the lay-byes. There is white wool everywhere and once it blows into the trees it stays there for days. Couldn’t he bring a plastic bag with him?

The Dumpers (03/05/2003)

On Saturday once everyone had eaten, off they went well booted, scarved, hooded and gloved. Looking out of the window at the comings and goings you could well imagine you were in Eskimo land. Wherever they went they were followed by a sad looking dog with a football in its mouth longing for someone to kick it for him.

I went [shopping] via Clough Road and saw a flag flying saying Courts closing down sale. Well I couldn’t resist that and duly crossed the road and drove ‘round the back to Courts parking lot. Oh! Thinks Pauline, they must be going to have a caravan sale as there were about 20 lovely caravans set out around the car park. To my dismay there were 2 shaggy little dogs/pups with short logs shagging away in the middle of the park. Poor little strays I thought, must call into the dogs’ home as I am in Clough Road. Driving towards the main doors I parked my car, got out with a lot of difficulty only to find myself surrounded by a pack of yapping Jack Russells which should have been white but were actually a dark grey. They followed me to the main door still barking and there was a notice saying Store closed, nearest store Grimsby. To say the least I was miffed, Courts could have taken their flags down. I turned and made my way back to my car accompanied by the yapping dogs and noticed that each caravan had a kennel at the side of it and children and men were appearing on their doorsteps. That was when it dawned that I was in the middle of a gypsy camp.

Home – I was so pleased to see it as I always am. I was greeted by the dog with his football and pleading eyes, but my buckling legs hadn’t a kick left in them. Sank into my armchair, coat and all and as usual it wasn’t long before Simon arrived with a cup of tea. “Had a good day?” says he and when I told him of my day, his eyes rolled up and he remakred “Mother, only you could end up in the middle of the diddy camp surrounded by a pack of dogs. I bet you patted them all.”.

Half Term (16/02/2005)

From the docks we would drive home and dad would open his kit bag and spread the contents on the floor. Huge blocks of Cadbury’s chocolate, boxes of chocolates, boxes of lovely perfumes, and always from his cook a sweet bottle full of King prawns, and who got the first choice, why Twister of course – our dog. On his second night home, Dad was allowed to go ‘round the corner to the Fountain Villa Club, where lots of elderly ex-seamen gathered. He would take Twister with him, buy a box of chocolates and give it to the dog to bring home for us, and one again he got the first chocolate.

I am six years younger than my next sister and therefore was almost like an only child until I was 5 and started school at St. Mary’s, and spent my time with Twister our wire-haired terrier, and Billy our large black Persian cat. I must have been a pain in the neck to them as they were my only companions most of the time and I spent my time dressing them in baby clothes, sitting them on chairs to play schools and taking them for walks in my large dolls pram. That bit they quite enjoyed.

Early Childhood (29/09/2005)

I had Patch in my car who thought it was great but the heat was unbearable. There was plenty of shade for him under the trees and everyone took him for walks.

A young boy on the next stall decided to play with his football and Patch was there in a flash. Then the lad realised that if he threw the ball at Patch instead of past him, he would throw it back, they played for ages and gathered quite an audience. All I could think of was either patch would end up without his front teeth or with a flat nose like a peke.

Vintage Weekend (??/06/2006)

[Seals] still appear quite regularly and at the moment are regular visitors. There’s usually just the one who loves to tease the dog*. Patch swims out to him and when they are face to face the seal dives under him and comes up again behind his back. Patch gets tired long before the seal and has to give up and I really don’t think he has any ill intentions, he just wants to play with it as he does with all the dogs who come for their walkies. Most of the dogs’ owners soon get to know Patch and quite happily take him for a walk with them. Young Paull came in at the weekend and said “Grandma, you should have been up the end. There are two seals in the Creek and they are sitting playing on a piece of wood which looks like a tree trunk. They keep pushing each other off and as the log floats towards the mouth of the creek they push it back in again and start all over again.” Patch has been sitting on the edge all of a quiver but didn’t go in further than his knees. Probably thought two were too much for him.

Simon and Paull can’t resist buying ancient machinery… [the truck] was navy blue with a large RN and Royal Navy on its side, only does about 10 miles (or they are just telling ME that) an hour and the dog is delighted as he now has a vehicle he can ride on instead of being scrunched between Paull’s legs on the grass cutter.

Wildlife at Stone Creek (24/10/2006)

The fire brigade were here for 5 days slowly pumping water from the drains into the Creek. Simon, Paull and Monty joined them, taking cups of tea etc. and Monty left home completely, after all he lived on Battenburg cake with the firemen and not dog-biscuits.

Summer 2007 (27/09/2007)

I remember last year’s winter… there are bags of compost all over the place unused, one sack and loads of packets of seeds and bulbs lying around that never did get planted. Monty had a wonderful time as the plants in pots got dryer and he could just pull and the whole plant and bag of soil came out of its pot, and if they didn’t it didn’t matter, he just ate the pot as well.

Looking back at 2007 (17/01/2008)

A few days before Betty and Stan’s wedding, I was cuddled up in a big bed with Betty and another sister Dolly. Stan crept up the stairs and threw a little bundle on our bed and shot off before Mum caught him. That little bundle was Twister, a tiny wire haired terrier pup for Betty. He never did leave us as by the time the wedding and honeymoon had taken place when they tried to take him to their flat he cried so much that they had to bring him back.

I decided it was time to let [a beaver lamb] go as it was getting a bit rough down the front edges. My new neighbour begged it and was seen later that day parading down the street with her fur coat in hot sun and her pet Peke on a lead. It was obvious she felt the bees’ knees.

Last but not least is the beauty of the lot. My sister Ethel’s brown mink which was given to me when she died… The family came home for our first Christmas together in the UK and whilst we were busy getting the house we rented in Hornsea dried out, Peter, my eldest arrived with Sandra, his girlfriend, to give us a hand. Out of the blue Ethel arrived wearing the said mink coat and sitting on her knee was her beloved little brow spaniel. Sandra in all her innocence asked me who is that lady with the dog that matches her coat, you can’t see where the dog ends and the coat starts. Forever more to Sandra Aunty Ethel was the lady with the dog that matches her coat.

Coats in the Attic (24/01/2008)

*This particular seal is presumably the inspiration for Sammy.

Lament for Monty

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His temperament was steady, manner mild,
A marvel to all strangers who came by,
He warmly welcomed each approaching child,
Befriended anyone who caught his eye.

A dozen and two years he saw go past,
Entrenched he was in the roll of our kin.
So many of the clan did he outlast,
And many new offspring he welcomed in.

Towards the end of his long life we saw
His limbs were withered, his black fur turned grey.
It pains to grasp that one you so adore
Will in mere months decline and fade away.

Now snow falls thick above his once-warm head.
Here not forgotten, though forever dead.

UPDATE (21st February)

I have updated Homework Direct for the first time in well over four years to include the process by which Monty on the Green came about.

It’s Just Not Cricket

Armorial achievements of the Lord Cowdrey of Tonbridge (left) and Sir John Major (right)

Having exhausted what I could glean from the available editions of Burke’s and Debrett’s, I am ever on the lookout for new material on heraldry. Last week the College of Arms published its latest newsletter (which now regrettably appears only to print in October and January), but as usual the actual exemplifications of new armorial bearings were few.

I was delighted yesterday to discover this lecture on the development of English heraldry, given by the Somerset Herald David White in 2014. It is far from the only heraldry-related lecture video I have encountered online. Unfortunately I commonly find that the piece rarely goes beyond the basics of armorial composition and a brief overview of medieval chivalry, thus not telling me much beyond what I knew already – indeed it’s probable that the people making them are reliant on the same online and/or public domain resources that I am. This was not one of those, for it went beyond the Middle Ages to cover modern heraldry and much in between.

White’s lecture studied the artistic phases of heraldry, from the very simple designs of the medieval period to the more crowded ones of the early Tudors – when the nouveau riche were acquiring arms to display where they could be studied up close instead of glimpsed in motion – followed by a deliberate return to simplicity in the later Tudor and Stuart eras. There was a section on the infamous “landscape” and “seascape” heraldry of the Georgian years, with particular emphasis on Horatio Nelson, whose absurdly augmented escutcheon is often considered the nadir of the art. The Victorian era is not discussed in as much detail, save for a vague assertion that they went back to earlier styles as a result of the blossoming Gothic revival. Along the way he gave examples of families assuming arms and then later trying to get similar ones granted, or appropriating those of namesakes who were not actually related. The relative popularity of certain charges was also shown, with an ordinary or arms from the mid-1500s showing that already by then there were dozens of pages of lions (indeed a double-page spread shows thirty-two separate shields just with white lions on a red backdrop). White said that in modern times “one’s heart sinks” if a new applicant for arms requests a lion be included due to the difficulty of inventing an original design. He also speculated that the utility of heraldry as a system of identification might have been undermined by the preponderance of so many near-identical blazons.

Near the end of the lecture he showed some examples of reasonably recent grants of arms. Of particular interest was that of the cricket-player Colin Cowdrey, who was ennobled by John Major in 1997. His shield has a paly of four defaced by a bend dexter, representing the tallying of points. His crest had a set of wickets nosed by the white horse of Kent. Just to quash any remaining uncertainty, he also had crickets as supporters. Major himself became entitled to supporters upon his appointment as a Knight of the Garter in 2005. He too wished to have crickets, but was required to distinguish them from Cowdrey’s and so had them stand upon despatch boxes. Heraldry, of course, has no sense of scale. White called it a “slightly depressing thing” that the portcullis symbol was increasingly used on the shields of retired politicians to represent their profession.

The lecture I found was part of a collection of public lectures archived online by Newcastle University. The range of topics is as wide as you would find at Gresham, so well worth checking out.

The Chris Whitty Collection

Since about 2015 I have been an avid consumer of the public lectures put out by Gresham College. Initially the main draw for me was Vernon Bogdanor’s lectures on politics, followed by Simon Thurley’s series on the history of British architecture. The college has a sizeable online back-catalogue in addition to a high rate of new updates, so I was rarely stuck for something to watch.

By 2019 (or maybe it was 2018) I was branching out into lectures about medicine. I do not recall exactly which such video it was that I chose first and nor, until last year, did I remember much about the speaker. When the coronavirus crisis began and the government began doing daily press conferences, I did not think of Professor Whitty as a familiar name or face. Occasionally I think this of a public figure only to discover that I have edited their Wikipedia page years prior, but even that was not the case here. It was only upon searching for him on YouTube and finding familiar thumbnails that I realised I had seen him before.

Sure enough, Whitty spent some years as Visiting Professor of Public Health, and is currently Professor of Physic. He has produced seven series of lectures for the college since 2013, and continues to do so even during the pandemic.

In addition to these he has been the star – or at least a participant – of quite a few other videos over the years.

As far back as July 2012 he gave the Walker Institute Annual Lecture for the University of Reading, talking about Climate Change & Development in Africa.

In February 2013 he gave a speech at the STEPS Centre Symposium about the importance of evidence in health policy. In contrast to his eventual catchphrase, he makes a point here of deliberately including no slides at all. There was also a Q&A session.

In September 2014 he told the Science & Development Network why synthesis is key to science influence.

In late January 2015 he lectured the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene on forty years of fighting Malaria. That October he returned to talk about the pitfalls of eradication attempts.

In March he was a team of speakers lecturing the Royal Society of London about the inside story of the ongoing Ebola epidemic.

In June 2015 he chaired a panel discussion on the control of Malaria, presented by the Faculty of 1000.

In this one from five years ago he is interviewed alongside Professor Dame Sally Davies (his predecessor as Chief Medical Officer for England) about the experience of giving medical advice to the government.

In 2016 he gave a speech to launch the Centre for Global Health Research for Brighton & Sussex Medical School, in which he talks about global demography and its implications for the prevalence of various diseases.

The next week he appeared alongside Nicola Blackwood MP (then Chair of the Science & Technology Select Committee) and others in a panel discussion on Ebola vaccination.

Two months later he recorded a short message for International Nurses day, played by the National Institute for Health Research. Another month after that he gave a presentation commemorating the last ten years of the institute’s work.

In July 2017 he was asked how UKCDS contributes to development.

In April 2018 he launched the King’s Global Health Institute. In May he gave the George Griffin Lecture for the Association of Physicians of Great Britain & Ireland, talking about the direction of health research. That December he gave a short speech at the IDEAL International Conference about the importance of scientific evaluation of innovation.

In September 2019 he was filmed by the Medical Research Council advising on how to influence policy and practice in health prevention.

The most interesting videos are those from the first two months of 2020, just before the pandemic made him famous nationwide. On 23rd January he was interviewed for Public Health England about the importance of physical activity – a theme which has remained prominent in government policy since. On 27th February he appeared at the summit session for the Nuffield Trust to talk about health trends and projections over the next twenty years. At this stage the virus is a looming threat but has not yet taken over. Whitty is asked how he plans to deal with the coming epidemic. His answers are still abstract but already there are references to school closures, banning of mass gatherings and “flattening the peak”.

Leaving YouTube aside for the moment I also found two brief clips of him on DailyMotion: on 31st January he told ODN it was too early to tell if the virus would spread, and outlined the plans the government had in place to stop it. On 6th February he gave advice for those showing symptoms to self-isolate.

On 3rd March the Prime Minister held the first of what would turn out to be a very long series of press conferences on the coronavirus outbreak. Chris Whitty stood to his right and Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Adviser) to his left. You might expect me to close here by saying “the rest is history” but, unfortunately, this particular piece of history is far from over yet.

The Next State Opening

There has been a lot of uncertainty over the last few years with respect to the beginnings and endings of parliamentary sessions. It might have been hoped that in 2021 the process would go back to normal, with a speech from the throne each May (typically the third Wednesday, with prorogation the week before). Now, alas, the pandemic could have thrown that out as well. A Cheapo’s Guide to London currently hints that it will take place in October, while Parliament’s own website gives no information at all. It is likely that any planned date could be changed many times depending on how events unfold in the coronavirus saga.

The key difference between this year and last is that now we have a smorgasbord of vaccines to thwart the disease and – in contrast to our poor performance in controlling the outbreak – are distributing them much faster than most other countries. Priority for vaccination is given largely in descending order of age, which could mean that for a few months of this year we have the paradoxical situation in which the elderly are safe to mingle outside while the young have to remain shielded. Overall this bodes well for the House of Lords, the majority of whose members are aged 70 and over. The Lord Speaker went for his first vaccine back in December. The Queen received hers in January. If the government’s target of 2 million vaccinations per week is maintained then the majority of Britain’s population, including nearly all peers, should have received at least one vaccine dose by the start of May.

Still, that doesn’t mean the ceremony will be plain sailing: likely there will still be some social distancing required and face coverings will remain prominent, which could dampen the splendour a little. In particular the crowding of MPs in the cramped space behind the bar of the upper chamber could prove dangerous, and it may be required that only a small delegation from the lower house is allowed to come. Of the frontal foursome it is probable that Mr Speaker (63), Black Rod (55) and the Commons Clerk (62-ish) will have immunity but the Serjeant-at-Arms (44) might not. As with the introduction ceremonies there could be some subtle changes in choreography to allow the key players to stand further apart.

The preceding prorogation would need to have such tweaks as well – although attendance for that is usually quite a lot lower anyway. Lady Evans of Bowes Park is by far the youngest of the five commissioners and thus probably the last to be immunised, unfortunate given that as the Leader of the House she is the one least able to be substituted, as well as the one who sits in the middle and the one doing all the talking. It could be that this year’s prorogation is again done with just three commissioners in attendance rather than five. It is hard to find the dimensions of the chamber online but I think there might just be room to space them out properly, though perhaps it may have to be contrived so that they sit in a triangular instead of linear formation.

To make matters worse, the devolved legislatures in Cardiff and Holyrood are expected to go up for election in the same month. They traditionally welcome the monarch for an opening ceremony in the summer months – though unlike in Wesminster the speech is not a prerequisite for the commencement of parliamentary business. As with so much in this phenomenon, all we can do is wait and see.

UPDATE (22nd March)

The government has put out a press release announcing that the state opening will be on Tuesday 11th May, “adapted, with reduced ceremonial elements and attendees to ensure it is COVID-secure”.

A Clean Slate

Four years ago, when watching Donald Trump’s inauguration on the television, my eyes kept flicking to the White House website. It proclaimed “Yes we did. Yes, we can.”, the triumphal culmination of eight years of Obama’s presidency. There were pages upon pages of policies, speeches, appointments and events. No sooner had the 12 noon mark passed (or 5pm for us in Britain) than it all was gone. In its place was a “transitionsplash” page showing Trump & Pence together and a link to sign up for updates. Continuing to the main site one saw that, while the template was still the same (though a more substantial redesign was done some months later), all of the old content had been removed and the biographies about the first and second couples had been changed to reflect the new incumbents. As the news was quick to point out, this was planned long in advance as part of the post-electoral transition process. The same had occurred, albeit less smoothly, when Obama first entered office in 2009. Sure enough it happened again in 2021, despite all the shenanigans over the previous ten weeks. Biden’s new site has been the subject of much excitement and a little intrigue. The old sites haven’t gone of course, rather they have been moved to the archives – preserved forever in digital aspic.

Really, changing over the website itself is the easy part – a relatively simple matter of swapping the domains around. More difficult is the treatment of the many associated official accounts on various other platforms. These are similarly archived and wiped, which I assume requires the intervention of the platform owners (as it would in many cases be beyond the capabilities of the ordinary user) to move all of the existing material to a different account name and then opening a new account under the old name. This means that the incumbent president always possesses the undifferentiated “whitehouse” address while his predecessors are specifically named or numbered, important for both practical and symbolic reasons. This only appears to apply to the presidency, however, and not to the other cabinet departments, whose websites and other outlets all carry on regardless.

The World Wide Web became available to the public in 1991, during the tenure of George Bush Sr. Since then there have been five presidential transitions, all of them occurring on 20th January of a leap year and all seeing a change of party – from Republican Bush Sr to Democratic Clinton in 1993, to Republican Bush Jr in 2001, to Democratic Obama in 2009, to Republican Trump in 2017, to Democratic Biden in 2021. Interestingly, Biden is the first challenger with a website to win. Each entailed a change of most if not all senior executive offices, making a clean break from what existed before. Not all transitions, though, are quite so discrete. Imagine that the web had launched four years earlier and that the White House had its main website up by the end of Reagan’s term. He was succeeded by his own Vice President of the last eight years and quite a few cabinet officials (such as Nicholas Brady, Dick Thornburgh and Lauro Cavazos) remained the same. Would it have made sense to wipe the slate at that point, given that much of the work being erased would have been the new president’s own? Alternatively, one could have asked the same question in 2001 had the Florida recount gone differently and Al Gore succeeded Clinton. Indeed sometimes the transition cannot even be planned – such as with Nixon’s resignation in 1974 or Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Would Johnson and Ford have been given new accounts immediately, or would they have continued with the old? Given Biden’s advanced years and hints that he will only serve one term, this question could shortly become pertinent again.

In Britain, at least for the last decade, there has been little in the way of neatness. In 2010, following an inconclusive general election and days of tense negotiation, the New Labour government of Gordon Brown was replaced by the coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg (beginning what many term “ConDemNation”). That government had no continuity with its predecessor – every single minister being replaced and no party continuing in power. The coalition survived with reasonably little churn until the long-awaited 2015 election, in which the Conservatives won a majority in the House of Commons while the Liberal Democrats were all but obliterated. Clegg and his ministers resigned from the government, to be replaced by an all-blue team. There was surprisingly little change in the cabinet lineup at this point – out of 30 members (22 full and 8 extras), 17 continued in the same post they held prior to the election, including all four great offices of state. Of those new appointments that were made, four were to replace the excised Liberal Democrats and three more to replace Conservatives who had ceased (voluntarily or not) to be MPs. Cameron’s second government lasted only 14 months, brought down by the EU referendum and replaced by Theresa May. Her reshuffle in July 2016 was a great deal more substantial than that of the previous year – 20 cabinet posts changing hands (including all four great offices of state) as well as one office dissolved and two created. May’s first government was to be even shorter-lived, for the next year there was a snap general election. Contrary to her intentions, this resulted in a small net loss of seats for the Conservatives, forcing her to form a minority government with confidence & supply from the Democratic Unionists. This prompted a fairly small reshuffle of just seven changes, though the next two years saw a high rate of turnover due to fallouts, scandals and protests. In July 2019 the leader herself finally resigned, replaced by Boris Johnson. That reshuffle saw 27 cabinet ministers replaced (again, including all four greats). Johnson’s first government technically still enjoyed supply from the DUP, but in practice had no majority as a large number of Conservatives defected (indeed, party discipline on important votes had broken down long before). It was only fifteen weeks before the chaotic 57th Parliament was dissolved. The Conservatives won a large majority at the ensuing election, allowing Johnson to form a second government without the need for DUP support. Fearful of too much disruption so close to the Brexit deadline, he purposely kept his existing ministers in place until February before carrying out a reshuffle, even ennobling Nicky Morgan so that she could continue her role in the other place for a few weeks.

The purpose of the preceding paragraph’s whistle-stop tour through the politics of the New Tens is to demonstrate that in the past eleven years this country has technically had six changes of government, only the first of which represented a clean break of the kind shown by recent US Presidential transitions. What’s more, looking further back we see little improvement: Brown took over in the middle of the 54th Parliament from Tony Blair, who had been in charge for over ten years of Labour rule. Before that we find an even longer period of Conservative rule, featuring during the 50th Parliament the substitution of John Major for Margaret Thatcher due to a backbench revolt. Only Blair’s succession from Major in 1997 represents a total renewal, which means that in the average Briton’s lifetime* what we imagine as the normal way of regime change – an opposition wins a majority in the House of Commons, then its leader is swiftly appointed Prime Minister – has really only happened once.

How, then, do our government’s websites adapt to events? The online presence of the Her Majesty’s Government has had several incarnations, beginning in 1994 with the Government Information Service, then moving in 2001 to UKonline, a portal allowing the public to search various smaller departments. In 2004 this was in turn replaced by Directgov, and the next month a website was established for Business Link, a service which gave advice for the commercial sector. In 2012, under the coalition, both of these websites were scrapped in favour of the unified GOV.UK, a process which I have discussed here before. Old documentation going back decades is incorporated into the site, with notices such as “This was published under the 1983 to 1987 Conservative government.”  slapped on the tops of the pages. Prior to the move, the Prime Minister’s office could be found at number10.gov.uk (or sometimes number-10, just to confuse you). After Brown left office it appears that posts relating to his tenure were hidden to make space for Cameron. It can be seen that many other accounts were changed at this point, in the aim of “reducing potential confusion to users”. I am disinclined to go through every social media account for every ministerial department, but a little checking shows that HM Treasury has been on Flickr and YouTube since 2008 (albeit the only pictures from pre-2010 are apolitical shots of the building). The Home Office likewise established a YouTube channel in 2008 but its earliest videos are from 2012. The Department for Transport’s channel, established in 2009, averts this a little.

Of course, the US President is head of state as well as head of government, so perhaps a comparison with the royal family would be more appropriate. On the other hand, the most recent demise of the crown occurred when computer science had barely emerged as an academic discipline, and long before the creation of the internet. The earliest government crawls make reference to royal.gov.uk, but the first time I can find it is 1998. The site was redesigned a few times over the following years and then, in 2016, was replaced entirely by royal.uk. A YouTube channel debuted in 2007. Of course, the firm is rather large and contains many subsidiary households, such as for the Prince of Wales, or the Duke of Cambridge. There was a minor headline some years ago when it emerged that the family had been buying up domain names to prevent them being used for cyber-squatting. Most now simply redirect to the main homepage. A massive archiving and wiping operation upon the current monarch’s decease is unlikely, put perhaps the Prince of Wales site will be handed over to Prince William at the time of his investiture. Let us be thankful that the Duke of Windsor never had a Twitter account.

If Britain has any office that functionally resembles a presidency, it would be the directly elected mayors – be they for cities, counties or regions. The most obvious case, naturally, is the Mayor of Greater London, and not just because its most recent holder is now Prime Minister. Its official Twitter account just says “Tweets before 9 May 2016 are from the previous Mayor.” and hopes you won’t be too confused by the appearance of Sadiq Khan’s face next to Boris Johnson’s words. It could be worse, I suppose.

*Worldometers has the median age of the UK population at 40.5 years, which puts Thatcher’s accession in 1979 a little out of reach.

UPDATE (2nd February)

Shortly after departing, Trump established the “Office of the Former President”. While the establishment is routine, the name is not – the many other former presidents have generally named the office after themselves. There has been some controversy around Trump’s use of the bald eagle, though I note that other presidents have continued to use similar devices on their stationery long after leaving office. The discussion is a little reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher in the nineties. So far I have not found a website for Trump’s new office, and indeed he may struggle to find the right domain, as officeoftheformerpresident.org currently redirects to an Atlantic article calling him the worst president in history.

The Little Boat

The little boat was bobbing in the Creek. It was a very sad little boat, its paintwork was dirty, covered in mud from the winter. Its red sail had not been unfurled since its last trip out in the Autumn and no-one had set foot on its deck since that day. It felt dirty, forgotten and unloved. It longed for a sunny day to warm its decks again, it had been such a proud little boat once.

Then one day as it sat on the mud waiting for the tide to be deep enough to re-float it, the incoming tide brought with it a young seal. “Hello little boat” he said, “can I sit on your deck for a while, I have been swimming for a long time and need a rest”. The little boat felt a quiver of excitement as the first of the tide reached her hull and lifted her gently, and not waiting for an answer the seal jumped aboard. “Why are you so sad little boat?”, and the little boat told him how no-one loved her and how lonely she was without any friends. “I’ll be your friend little boat, what is your name”? “I haven’t got one really, they just call me the boat”. “My name is Sammy and I shall call you Fair Lady, though you don’t look very fair at the moment. You’ll soon look beautiful again, the spring is here and everything gets spring-cleaned. Cheer up little boat, I will come and see every day until your family comes back”, and the little boat felt so much better. A weak ray of sun hit her porthole and started to warm her cabin and Fair Lady began to feel alive again for the first time in ages. The seal lay on her deck and told of his travels up and down the river chasing the fish and how he liked to visit the quiet creek.

The next day was Saturday and Fair Lady was hoping Sammy would visit her when the tide came in. The sun was shining much brighter that morning and she started to shiver as in the distance she recognised a voice calling – “I can see the boat – oh doesn’t she look dirty and miserable, not like our boat at all. Can we take her home and wash her daddy?” asked one of the children and her little heart started to thump as she felt feet on her deck again. How lovely the thought, perhaps she would get a wash and her sails set and maybe even a sail down river. After looking her over, she suddenly felt herself moving as she was pulled out of the water and onto her trailer. The children were as excited as she was as finally she was attached to the Land Rover and started to slowly move from the boatyard. The ride was very bumpy over rough land, but that didn’t matter, she was being taken home and her family hadn’t forgotten her. She felt a thrill run from her keel to the top of her mast as her trailer turned onto the bridge and there was the house which called out, “Hello little boat, nice to see you again”, and the little rowing boats wagged their oars at her. She was towed into the field and parked by the tap. She was stripped down, her mast removed and then came that lovely feeling of clean water on her deck and a soft brush making her tingle, soap suds were everywhere and made her sneeze, but oh how she loved it. She had her keel painted with anti-fouling and was polished from head to mast top. Her brasses shone in the spring sun and her mast and sails which had been washed, were put back. That night she was taken back to the creek and launched on the incoming tide. With her family all aboard she sailed out of the creek into the Humber. She felt fantastic and only one thing was missing – her friend Sammy, But suddenly from her port side a voice called “Ahoy there Fair Lady, don’t you look great, I think I gave you the right name”. And side by side the two of them sped up the Humber and her heart swelled with pride and happiness.

Written 25th March 2007
by Pauline Taylor (1927-2018)

Public Domain Day 2021

Tarzan & the Golden Lion, illustrated in 1922 by James Allen St. John

Another year has turned, and another batch of old material has emerged from copyright.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Born in Chicago in 1875, Burroughs is principally famous for two stories about people removed from their environment of birth: Tarzan, the British noble firstborn adopted by an ape, and John Carter, a Confederate veteran who finds himself on Mars.

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw was forthright in many controversial campaigns, a presence among the highest echelons of society and an active political force well into his tenth decade, but I can’t help but think that nowadays a lot of his works – especially Pygmalion and Arms and the Man – are now remembered more as the basis for puns and parodies than for their actual contents.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald actually died eighty years ago, but the intricacies of US copyright law mean that The Great Gatsby only now enters the public domain. Long used as an educational staple, a landmark of social commentary and the ill-judged inspiration for lavish house parties, this novel is now available for anybody’s interpretation, though maybe Flash is best avoided.

Eric Arthur Blair, AKA George Orwell

The giant of twentieth century political literature, Orwell first became known to me through the school English curriculum circa 2011. In that spring we were tasked to write – and then perform to the class – a speech on what we would consign to Room 101. I was ranked first in class for my condemnation of the caravan. While that was obviously derived more from the television series than from Orwell’s own writing, it still taught us about him if indirectly. In the early summer we analysed his essay Shooting the Elephant and I recall in the end of year examination (not sure if it was the real one or the mock) one of the passages included was an extract from chapter 3 of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Winston coughs a lot while performing the physical jerks. At that autumn’s prize-giving event I was named best in year for both sciences and humanities and my reward included two book tokens. I distinctly remember that Nineteen Eighty-Four was one the works I most wanted to buy with them, the other being The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins*. It is unclear exactly when I got around to buying and reading them (probably Whitsun 2012 is the late limit), but digging through old email correspondence with a classmate shows that in November I discovered and watched Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation. This was a source of unintentional mirth at the time as we noticed two of our history teachers interacting in what we read to be a mildly amorous manner while bearing a vague physical resemblance to John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton. I also recall a different classmate ardently recommending that I read Animal Farm, which I did at the same time, though I do not recall how I came about my copy of that book nor where it currently resides.

At some point during these years I also found in my school’s library a copy of Homage to Catalonia, the tale of Orwell’s experience fighting for the POUM in the Spanish Civil War. The book was about forty years old** and I could barely turn a page without it breaking off in my hand. The librarian intervened several times with spine tape but eventually decided that the book was beyond rescue and decided to withdraw it from display. She placed it on a special shelf near her desk with a red ticket inside reserving it for me, on the understanding that it would stay there until I had finished it, after which she would throw it out (or give it to me permanently, it seems) and buy a new one.***

Orwell has particular relevance to this entry because period in which I read most of his works was the time of SOPA, PIPA, CISPA and ACTA in the United States, alongside the superinjunction controversies at home. It was also the time when I became engaged in various online “reviewtainment” makers (SF Debris, Red Letter Media, Trilbee et al), as well as various fandom communities, whose existence such bills would have threatened. One consequence I started looking up author death dates to commence mental countdowns to when various bits of media would enter the public domain, and Orwell’s works were especially prominent in this – his writing being so much centred around ideas of the control of information and knowledge.

The question now arises of what can be done to take advantage of his works’ new status, and one possible answer has occurred to me: Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a very sizeable book-within-a-book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, ascribed Brotherhood-leader Emmanuel Goldstein. Winston Smith reads the first chapter “Ignorance is Strength” and the third chapter “War is Peace”, but the Thought Police arrest him before he – and therefore we – can get a good look at the second.

I don’t really do competitions on this blog, since I have neither a large enough circulation nor any good prizes to give away, but if there are any teachers reading this I recommend an essay challenge for your students, which technically is also a fanfiction opportunity – tell me why freedom is slavery.

Further Reading:

2021 in Public Domain

*Somewhat ironically, that year’s prize also included a quatercentenary edition of the King James Bible.

**The latest reprint listed on its now-defunct copyright page was 1971, and the only checkout date stamped on the card affixed to the first page was 10th October 2011. Presumably I was the one taking it home on that date, for clearly nobody else had touched the book in a long time, but I may have been reading it within the library before then.

***The next year I took home a 1969 print of J. P. Nettl’s The Soviet Achievement, which I held together with some of my father’s aluminium duct tape. In May and June 2014 she held a clearing sale for a lot more books. I spent 25p on Communist Political Systems: An Introduction (Printed in 1988) by Stephen White and 10p on Structure and Change in Modern Britain (Printed in 1981) by Trevor Noble. The latter two showed no damage except their spines fading in the sunlight, but perhaps no love either as their checkout cards were blank. White’s book I found engaging enough to finish but Noble’s was so dull that I stopped with my bookmark still lodged at page 53 of 416, having found that just reading the blurb aloud would see my classmates drifting off to sleep.

Aren’t You Sitting A Bit Close?

This ought to date well.

Once again I find myself in one of the bits between, specifically the annual Christmas post-script that occurs in the final week of each calendar. It is an awkward limbo, in which the climax of the year has been reached and passes but normality has not yet resumed.

Christmas has always felt like something of a world unto itself, somehow separated from the rest of reality. For almost a whole month (much longer if you work in retail) websites are redesigned, new dress codes are imposed, all manner of buildings are redecorated and new song rotations are adopted for radio stations. We don’t normally treat Easter this way, nor indeed Halloween. In particular, an awful lot of radio and television series are insistent upon doing the annual Christmas special, which is broadcast (and possibly filmed) separately from the regular run, with the holiday often dominating the story, and sometimes even an altered title sequence – with snow effects superimposed over the visuals and bells added to the music.

There are quite a few franchises that carry on getting Christmas specials even when they are stood down as regular series. Mrs Brown’s Boys, for instance, ended its last full series in February 2013 but continues to get double bills at Christmas and New Year with the result that “special” installments now outnumber regular ones. Miranda likewise had three series of six episodes each. Oddly the second series ended on 20th December 2010 and the third series premiered 366 days later. This meant there were two Christmas episodes consecutively but they were not specials as such. The third series ended with a cliffhanger on 28th January 2013, which was not resolved until a similar special double in 2014-15. Not Going Out had its finale in 2014 (aired on Christmas Eve, but the episode was not seasonal), yet came back for a Christmas special in 2015 which then essentially became the pilot for a revival and retool in 2017.

Paradoxically, the saviour’s birthday is also a way of nailing down the timeline within a fictional story – most episodes of a fictional series could be set at any time of year – especially if it’s a studio show with no opportunity to check the leaves on the trees – and it isn’t always clear how much time is supposed to elapse between them. If there are at least two episodes set at Christmas with at least one non-Christmas episode in between, then this establishes that at least one diagetic year has gone by. This occasionally leads to problems with the series’ setting. Dad’s Army is a story about the Second World War, but more specifically the Home Guard. That institution was established on 14th May 1940 and deactivated on 3rd December 1944 (although not formally dissolved until New Year’s Eve 1945), which means that only three Christmases occurred during its period of operation. I was not able to binge the entire series again to check, but from the brief summaries I read online it appears that there were at least four episodes released at this time of year (one as part of a normal series, three as specials), although only two were necessarily set at Christmas so perhaps the chronology is preserved. The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad all famously operate on a floating timeline – where the external year changes but the main characters never physically age or progress to different life stages. All have annual Christmas episodes year on year without acknowledging the implications. The latter is especially bizarre as the Christmas stories form an ongoing series in themselves which often involves traveling through time and warping reality.

Thomas & Friends** is a franchise in which time never progresses either externally or internally. Sir Topham Hatt’s grandchildren Bridget & Stephen never grow up, nor does the technology level (or indeed the clothing) move beyond the early 1960s. This is despite the inclusion of at least one Christmas (or at any rate wintertime) episode in each series, and indeed quite a few series in which the year apparently cycles around several times. For a long time the only real human (as opposed to real locomotives, such as City of Turo, Flying Scotsman or Rocket) to be written in the franchise was, quite aptly, our immortal sovereign. From Paint Pots & Queens until the start of this year, I think I counted forty-two separate winters on the island, which means that new episodes cannot logically be taking place any earlier than 1994. Her Majesty returned to the franchise in the 75th anniversary special Thomas & the Royal Engine, this time accompanied by her eldest son. Charles is dressed in what vaguely resembles his Gordonstoun uniform, which would place the episode in the period of 1962-1967, but his height and voice would suggest an earlier date.

This year’s coronavirus pandemic has made it painfully apparent which “new” television content is actually new and which was filmed months or even years in advance. The example most prominent for me is Channel 4’s long running panel show 8 Out of 10 Cats, whose Christmas special this year was apparently recorded back in January (i.e. just after the previous such holiday had finished). The studio had a full live audience and plenty of physical interaction between the panelists. The spin-off series, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, was even worse.

Already the programme had been subject to some creative scheduling in 2019 due to Rachel Riley’s pregnancy. Riley announced her condition on 24th May, and gave birth on 15th December. In scripted series this might have been hidden by careful framing or an oversized labcoat, but this was probably not feasible with a studio audience. The bump is not seen during the eighteenth season (26th July-6th September), but appears prominently in that year’s Christmas special (broadcast 23rd December), during which Carr decides to stake his reputation on the joke “Rachel is heavily pregnant, so let’s get a move on before someone unexpectedly slides down her chimney.”, as well as throughout the nineteenth season (9th January-14th February 2020).

The twentieth season ran from 31st July to 28th August, by which point the pandemic was well underway, and consists entirely of leftover material from earlier years. Episodes 1 and 2 were filmed in “late 2019” and show Riley still pregnant. Episode 3 was filmed in “early 2019” and includes references to Richard Ayoade’s role in the “recent” LEGO Movie 2, which premiered over eighteen months prior. Episodes 4 and 5 were not new material, but “Best Bits” compilations assembled in 2018 (for confirmation, look at the title slides at the end of the closing credits to see the little “MMXVIII” and “MMXIX” notices). Quite why these episodes were released in so obviously the wrong order is anyone’s guess. There was something of a Funny Aneurysm Moment in episode 2 when Jon Richardson got “Corona” as his word and the other panelists didn’t really react.

From what has been said on Twitter by people claiming to have been in the audience, the 2020 Christmas special was actually filmed in February 2019. That may initially seem crazy, but on closer inspection it is reasonable, as Riley is clearly not pregnant, yet it cannot have been filmed after the birth as the title card still says “MMXIX” not “MMXX”*, so it must have been filmed before the foetus grew to noticeable size, which realistically means no later than July. Why the 2020 Christmas special was filmed before the 2019 one is, again, a question for the ages.

An example of this effect in fiction is the BBC sitcom Ghosts, whose second season was released on 21st September, having been filmed in January and February. Episode 2 has an eerily subplot about how one of the medieval peasant ghosts returned from a holiday outside his village and accidentally gave all of his neighbours the plague, which was originally planned to be much more graphic. This season also includes a Christmas special (released on 23rd December) in which, once again, there is no acknowledgement of the pandemic.

It would be pertinent to ask whether this really matters: current-affairs programming such as Have I Got News For You? or Mock the Week need to be filmed at short-notice, but non-topical material can be stored for any time without the quality being affected. I would say that it does matter at least a little, for all works are a product of their times even if that is not their intention – each new entry being on some level a reaction to what existed before. The longer in advance a program is made, the more those in it must hedge their bets with respect to topical references, social commentary or even acknowledgement of personal circumstances, with the result that a product which should feel fresh and contemporary is instead rendered oddly generic and distant. Furthermore a game show of any kind relies on the audience being invested in the competition while a fictional piece often strives for hype regarding story arcs and major plot developments, but the tension is inevitably dulled if it is obvious that the events on-screen are all in the past.

This year, of course, adds another dimension to this problem. When the general public have spent nine months largely stuck at home, deprived of social interaction and encased in protective clothing, it can be quite jarring – perhaps even a little cruel – to see people on television apparently carrying on as if nothing has happened. Charlie Brooker in his Antiviral Wipe said “many shows which would normally seem cozy and harmless suddenly look freakishly irresponsible” and many online discussions of recent media have comments to the effect that it was like staring into a parallel universe.

*UK Maternity leave is mandatory for two weeks and then optional for up to fifty more. Riley giving birth on 15th December means, that there would only be three remaining days in the year 2019 in which she could have returned to film the special, one of them a Sunday and another New Year’s Eve. It doesn’t seem very likely.

**This paragraph solely concerns Thomas & Friends on television. The Railway Series in print does not have these problems.

UPDATE (January 2021)

Another season of Cats Countdown has been launched. The end card still says MMXIX and Riley is still not pregnant so presumably this was filmed around the same time as the recent special. One wonders just how many advance episodes they could have banked in 2019 – especially given that the previous season already appeared heavily padded.