Wednesday, 31 December 2008

The 39 steps

On Sunday the BBC broadcast a new adaptation of Joch Buchan's famous novel, The 39 Steps. It is the fourth film or TV adaptation (the first, by Hitchcock, screened in 1935).

The story was published at the height of the First World War, and proved instantly popular. This is a description of the basic plot: It features Richard Hannay as an Englishman whi has just returned from Africa in 1914. He is befriended by a freelance spy, Scudder, who tells him that he has uncovered a ring of German spies who are trying to steal Britain's plans for war. Hannay allows Scudder to hide at his flat. Later, he returns to find Scudder dead.
Later on he reads Scudder's notes, which mention 'the 39 steps'. The meaning of this phrase is a theme that runs throughout he books.
Realising that he is the prime suspect in the murder, he travels to Scotland to try and stop the plot ...

Before I discuss the adaptation, I should admit that I have not read the book since I was a child. However, I believe that my memories (bolstered by Wikipedia) are correct.

Firstly, the positives. The imagery in the adaptation were superb - I cannot speak for the accuracy of the period cars or clothes, but they certainly felt authentic to a non-expert. The scenery was also breathtaking - the moors in Scotland were suitably bleak but beautiful. These are all things that the BBC do well in their historical adaptations. The scenes that showed Rupert Penry-Jones (as Hannay) running across the moors were superb.

However, now to the problems. The biggest of these was that the writers introduced a love interest. This was a suffragette Hannay meets in Scotland, who later (quelle surprise) turns out to be a spy herself. At their first meeting, Hannay treats her and her beliefs poorly, saying some now-disreputable comments about suffragettes. Naturally enough, they become attracted to one another. However, all of this was invented for the adaptation; in the book (indeed, in the first couple of books starring Hannay) there is no love interest. I can see why they chose to add this extra plot thread, but why did they have to make Hannay appear quite so chauvinist towards her? It did not sit well within the film, and actually made the protagonist unlovable.

Another big problem is that the 39 steps, the title of the programme, is only mentioned late on in the adaptation, making the title rather superfluous. As mentioned above, one thread in the book is an attempt to find out what the '39 steps' mentioned by Scudder are. In the adaptation, this is extremely poorly handled, and appears to have bene thrown in for the sake of completeness. Therefore, the title is not central to the plot.

Additionally, there was very little suspense within the adaptation. The twist at the end was ineptly handled and rather pointless, and by about halfway through I cared little whether the heroine succeeded or failed.

If they are doing the '39 steps', then they should really stick more faithfully to the book. This was a film based on the 39 Steps, not the 39 steps. What next? The 'Mayor of Casterbridge' where Henchard does not die and is reunited with Elizabeth-Jane?

All in all this was a very disappointing adaptation.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

My Writing

I am a would-be author; that is, I am a writer who has yet to be published. It is a situation that will be familiar to many.

Over the last four years I have written six novels in various genres, each one better than the last as I learn the trade. I am well aware that publishing is an incredibly competitive industry, and that in order to get published your writing needs to be as of high a quality as possible. For this reason, I have chosen not to send out anything to agents and publishers until I am sure that the writing is of good enough quality. I shall write about this another time.

There are two main projects I am working on:

Currently I am editing a historical drama, set in 1820s Cornwall. This is the first novel that I truly believe is of publishable quality without a heavy edit, and consequently is taking up most of my time.

Additionally, I am planning another novel, this time a modern-day detective story set in Southampton. The current work on this project is developing the characters, plot and describing the locations that will be used.

I shall write about both of these stories over the next couple of months.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Book review: "Following the Drum", by Annabel Venning

Walk into any moderately-sized bookshop and you will find piles of books on the British military, all designed to lure middle-aged men such as myself to buy them. When I saw this book, I was intrigued as the focus appeared to be so utterly different from that of most military-themed books.

Unlike the other books, this one focusses on the history of the British Army from the perspective of the wives and daughters of the soldiers. It starts off with the creation of a 'Standing Army' in the 1660s and continues telling the story through to the current day. The book has to rush over some topics without mentioning them in detail because of the wide time scale covered. However, the events and facts that she chooses to cover in details are rich and varied.

The author introduces many unforgettable characters; from the poor women of the'Fishing Fleet' who travelled to India in the 1800s and 1900s in the hope of finding a husband, to women such as Christian Welsh, who in the early 1700's spent 12 years in the army disguised as a male soldier, fighting and getting wounded in numerous battles, including Bleinhem. She was so successful at conning her fellow soldiers that she was even accused of having fathered a child!

The book details the love / hate relationship that the army has had with the wives of soldiers over the years; sometimes at the same time. Conditions at the front were undeniably hard, and the army would limit the numbers to a few women per company of men. Such was the desire to follow their men to battle, that ballots would be held in order to ascertain who would go. Women who were forced to stay at home were often disconsolate, knowing that they may not hear from, yet alone see, their husbands for many years, if at all.The women who were lucky enough to go were seen, at best, as a sufferance by the army, who knew that the wives and children would command scarce food and resources.

Whilst there are some funny anecdotes in this book, there are also some sections that are almost physically hard to read because of the tragedy that they relate. One such is the section on the Siege of Cawnpore, during the Indian Mutiny in 1857, where 500 people (including 200 women and children) were massacred - the women and children in a particularly horrifying way. Annabel Venning writes in such a way that, whilst the information she is partaking is horrific, you want to read on through the horror.

The living standards of the women and children rightly comes into focus. A wife would be forced to live in barracks with their husband's comrades with only thin sheets for privacy. What is surprising is that this practice continued until relatively recently (the mid-1800s). However, the author also mentions that such lack of privacy was hardly unusual in civilian circles at the time. This book is certainly well-balanced.

A slight criticism of this work would be that it does not quite seem to know where it stands - it is not organised or written as a scholarly work, yet it jumps around through times and battles on loose themes, such as 'mothers and children' or 'social functions'. This means that you might be reading about the Crimean War in one paragraph, and the earlier American War of Independence the next. Although this constant jumping disrupts the narrative somewhat, the book remains eminently readable.

Another minor (and probably unfair) criticism is that the other major services - the Royal Navy and RAF - are not mentioned. There are several reasons for this; the RAF is a modern service, and the majority of this book is spent discussing times before the Second World War; and, unlike the army, the Navy did not have wives accompanying their husbands to battle; and the experiences of stay-at-home wives and daughters would have been the same as those of the army. However, a section that compared and mentioned them would have provided an interesting comparison. However, the very title of the book mentions 'army' only.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5, mainly because of the unusual and unheralded topic that the author has chosen to shine a light upon.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Post office versus the unions.

There was a section on Thursday night's BBC News at Ten that stated that Communication Workers Union officials are complaining that their workers in the post office are being forced to walk their rounds at four miles an hour.

Now, believe me, four miles an hour is quite fast. I have walked 14,000 miles over the last ten years, and I would guess that only a hundred of those have been at that sort of pace. It is very hard speed to maintain, and would be harder still with a bag full of post slung over one shoulder.

Cue the BBC having a reporter going around a market with a hand-held GPS, asking various people (a stall holder, a Santa) to walk at that pace. After they tried, each one said that they had more sympathy with the postal workers. Only right at the end of the piece did the presenter said that the post office claimed that the pace was a little over 2 MPH.

Here are some links to aspects of the story:
So, reading deeper, it looks like the post office are using a new software system to develop routes for the delivery staff "without agreement" of the union, and there have been a few problems with some of the rounds that it has produced.

A question would be how widespread these problems are. According to one of the links above:
"More and more managers are going out and delivering mail, which is not in their job description and they should not be doing. Mail backlogs or consistent returned mail, because of an over-estimated workload, have been reported this year in Watford, Enfield, Oxford, Coventry, Belfast, Cambridge and Evesham, amongst others."
So it appears that there are problems, but that it is hardly widespread - one part of London has problems, and nowhere in Scotland. And how many is 'amongst others?'. Yet the headlines of the articles (and especially the first paragraph) make it sound like all delivery workers are being asked to do this. Apparently the system has been rolled out throughout the country, after trials in selected areas.

So, what is the truth? The chances are, they both are. I guess (and it is just a guess) that the post office figure is an average over all their delivery workers, and that some will have faster rounds, and some slower. The 4MPH speed in the software may be a maximum permissible speed that is used when calculating the routing. It may also be that the union figure is a maximum on some rounds - certainly the postal workers I see around my area are certainly not going at 4 MPH. I also doubt that such a time would include the time it would take to get post out of a bag, sort it and put it through the right letterbox. If it did, it might explain the number of letters that I get for my neighbours.

The devil is in the details, and the piece from the BBC did absolutely no digging to try and get at that truth. Instead, they took the union line (4MPH) and made a show of how ridiculous it is. This was not investigative reporting; it was hardly reporting at all. The other links above show similar bias - the AOL link has only one line giving an opposing view, saying, "The Royal Mail has denied that anyone was being bullied or harassed."

There is a press release on the CWU website that goes into a little more detail about the claims; the press release from the union actually seems a little more reasonable than the Press Association copy.

Now, if postal delivery workers are being forced to walk at 4MPH for sustained periods, then that is wrong and needs correcting. It is just that I wonder how many rounds are affected? Surely, if the problem is not widespread, the best thing would be for the unions to discuss these issues directly with the management, and not make it sound like every postal worker is affected.

The media saying, "Some postal workers complained they were being pressured into walking faster to complete their rounds under cost-saving measures." instead of "Postal workers complained..." would be a good (and more truthful) start.

As an aside, when I was on my year-long, 6,000 miles walk around the coast of Britain a few years ago, I had a series of emails from a man who said that I was not a proper walker because I did not walk at 5 MPH. I find I can push myself to walk at 4.5 MPH, but beyond that I have to jog at 6.5 to 7 MPH because of my stride length. It's nice to know that you can walk such a distance and still not be a 'proper' walker...

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Aircraft carrier delays.

In a feared announcement, the two new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy will be delayed, for either one or two years. Construction work is going to start, safeguarding jobs, but the tasks will be spread out over a longer period. In the meantime, the two existing Invincible-class aircraft carriers (down from three), will be kept in service to cover the gap.

Firstly, it should become clear what a big deal these ships are. Each one, at a projected 60-65,000 tons, will be larger than any ship the Royal Navy has ever sailed before. They would still be dwarfed by the gigantic 100,000 ton American Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, but are far bigger than the current 22,000-ton Invincible class aircraft carriers that the Royal Navy operates. This shows what a big investment the ships are. Or, as some people claim, what a big target they will make.

As usual for matters on the Royal Navy, the best place to get in-depth information is Richard Beedall 's excellent 'Navy Matters' website.

It would have been very hard for the Government to cancel these ships, although I get the distinct impression that they may have been tempted to. The £3.9 billion contract was only signed on the 1st of July after a wait of many years, and the initial work appeared to have consisted of the ordering of long-lead items (these are items that take a long time to be procured, such as generators, engines, and 80,000 tons of steel). Despite this, it does not look as though any steel has actually yet been cut. The Government has not exactly been in a hurry to see the project go ahead.

Part of the problem is that the Royal Navy, which styles itself as being the 'Senior Service', does not have much of a role in the ongoing and very expensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two operations are mostly land-based, and the Royal Navy does not have a natural fit. However, that would be a very short-sighted viewpoint. A strong navy is very important for the UK's security, and should not be run down just because there is no immediate need.

Having said this, there might be some positives to come out of this delay. The carriers will be designed to fly the American F35 plane - a successor to the British Harrier jump jet. The F35 is being built in three variants, only one of which (the F-35B Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing) could fly from the carrier. Unfortunately the F35 program is being delayed, the costs are not yet set, and there is a good chance that the first of the ships would have been ready before the plane was delivered to the Royal Navy. The Government's reaction to this capability gap was unclear, but the delay could allow the planes to arrive in time for the ships (assuming that the ships themselves are not further delayed).

However, there are other ways of filling this gap, aside from delaying the ships. When they were first planned, the ships were going to be part of a fleet of three, with one being built and operated by the French. It was hoped that this would reduce costs, but recently the French delayed any decision to build the carrier until much later - 2011 or 2012. However, the French had no interest in the advanced STOVL capabilities, and wanted to fly CATOBAR planes such as the Rafale-M that they currently operate from the troubled Charles DeGaulle nuclear carrier. For this reason the ships were designed to be fitted with catapults (to launch the planes) and arrestor wires (to stop them), something the British ships would not need. It has always been said that the two British ships are being designed to be fitted with catapults and arrestors at a later date if required.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both CATOBAR and STOVL operation, in terms of capabilities, cost, performance and flexibility.

A recent BAe study is claimed to have shown that the Typhoon could be built to land on carriers without major difficulty, and would be more cost-effective. If that is indeed the case, then the Tranche-3 planes could be modified to be carrier planes, and we would not need to purchase the F-35B. It would also probably have a great deal of commonality with the RAF Eurofighters, and increase export potential to those countries that have (or wish to have ) carriers. India, in particular, is spending billions on new Russian fighter planes.

For the last couple of years there has been talk that the British Government wanted to scrap the planned procurement of the final 88 tranche-3 Eurofighter Typhoons for the RAF. However, this would have caused them to pay a hefty penalty (some say £1 billion) to the partner countries. For this reason, it is claimed that the Government are desperately looking around for someone to sell them to.

I, in my capacity as a distinct non-expert, personally favour navalising the Typhoon. The Typhoon is a very capable plane, and has been in service for a few years now, although it is constantly being improved. The F35-B, on the other hand, is late, and only prototypes have flown. The biggest reason that I favour the Typhoon however, is a bit of 'Not Invented Here' syndrome. Some parts of the F-35 are being produced in the UK as what are called 'industrial offsets'. This means that some parts of the planes - aft fuselage and empennage (vertical and horizontal tails), and some subsystems, are going to be built by BAe in the UK. However, we will not be performing the final assembly - that will be done in the US. As the cost of each F-35 increases, the value of those industrial offsets will decrease. For our own national security, we need to be able to assemble and modify the planes - we can do much more of that with the Typhoon than the F-35. There have also been some heated discussions about whether we will be able to modify the systems software to fit our weapons, or whether we would be forced to buy US-made weapons for the plane.

Already the US is trying to cancel the General Electric / Rolls-Royce F136 engine for the F-35, which would leave only the American Pratt and Witney F136 engine available. If we get the F35 with F136 engines, we will just be giving more money to the US.

If the BAe study is corect, and the Typhoon can be relatively easily navalised - then it is the way to go. The major things that will need doing are; addition of an arrestor hook; anti-corrosion measures; strengthening of the undercarriage; and addtion of flight systems to allow carrier-deck landings and take-offs. I would like to see the Government doing an open investigation of this option.

Which plane is the best-fit for the new carriers would depend on exactly what the perceived purpose of the carriers is, and the sort of conflicts that they will be asked to fight in. Eurofighters would have much more range and, perhaps, greater capability, but would lack stealth. At the end of the day, it will be a political decision. Stealth, which the Americans claim is the bee's knees, is not necesarilly as important or perfect as people make out. For one thing, it is exceptionally expensive, both in monetary and performance terms. To simplify the argument, if the role that the carriers will be fulfilling needs stealth, then go for the F-35. If it does not, go for the Typhoon.

However, I am starting to worry that there will not be any ships to fly them off. The carriers are just too easy a target for a cash-strapped Government. Already our two carriers routinely do not carry Harriers, and the crews are havng to be trained using US and Spanish Harriers.

As is the manner of this Government, the announcement was made at the same time as a visit to Yeovil in Somerset to announce the go-ahead for the 62-string fleet of the Augusta-Westland 'future Lynx Helicopter' project. Good news that they hoped would offset the bad?

Book review: "Sharpe's Gold", by Bernard Cornwell.

By now I would guess that most people are well aware of Bernard Cornwell's most famous hero, Richard Sharpe, a soldier in the British Army during the turbulent times around the Napoleonic wars. Sharpe's Gold, set in 1810, sees Captain Richard Sharpe, already a war hero, sent behind enemy lines by Wellington to capture a hoard of Spanish gold. On the way, he makes the enemy of a Spanish partisan, El Catolico, who desires the gold for himself.

Sharpe's Gold is quite an old book now - it was first written in 1981 - but has stood the time well. It is the second book in the series written, although prequels written later mean that it is the ninth in the series. A two-hour film of the book was made by ITV, called Sharpe's Gold, but the plot had little to do with the book.

The love interest in the book is El Catolico's betrothed, a Spanish guerilla called Teresa, who hates the French with a passion. She is feisty, strong and determined, and undeniably a beauty, as are all the women that Sharpe seems to meet. However, despite her strength, she falls at his feet and they become hot, sweaty lovers.

This is a problem that I find in many such adventure books - there must be a love interest, even if it is in the middle of a battle, dammit! I understand the need for this, and the appeal of it, but it does seem somewhat unrealistic. However, it is relatively well-handled in this book, with Teresa being a device that takes the plot forwards. It would be nice if a woman could be used in such a book without being a love interest, though. As a writer myself, I know how difficult this is to pull off.

It is a fairly breathless book, and, like all the Sharpe series, is fast-paced and action-filled, forcing you to turn the pages as if at bayonet-point. The moment you feel like you may want to put it down to get some sleep, Cornwell throws another fight or battle into the mix. It is an effective way of turning a book into a page-turner, and is handled well; it is in no way obtrusive.

The plot is fairly simple, with few if any significant twists. The bad guys are fairly obvious early on, and there are few surprises. Having said that, the pacing means that it hardly needs any twists.

As usual Bernard Cornwell has gone into some historic depth with the book, and recent editions have a 'Historical Note' at the end - a nice touch. The British Army may not have been like this in 1810, but if not, then the differences would only be details.

His style is to keep descriptions down to a minimum, and embed them firmly within the action. This works quite well, and the page-long descriptions beloved by some authors are absent. They may work well in certain genres of books, but would intrude unnecessarily on this.

Below is an example. As can be seen, even when Cornwell is describing something, it sounds hurried and urgent:
He felt the excitement inside, the imminence of danger, but still there was no sound, no movement, and he peered up at the church roof's edge, innocent in the moonlight. There was a small door in the wall, barred and locked, and beside it the masonry was rough and crudely repaired.
On the downside, I found the central character of Sharpe hard to like in this book. To a certain extent he seems one-dimensional, determined to get the gold as ordered whatever the consequences. I think that Bernard Cornwell's characterisation of Sharpe is better in the later books. It may also be that I am too used to the Sean Bean character in the TV adaptations.

I would score this book 3.5 out of 5 (by my rather harsh scoring system).

The econonic crisis and savers

There was a very good column by Natalie Haynes in Friday's Times about how people like my partner and myself are being shafted by the Government's current policies to get us out of the recession. As the strap line says,
"I earn virtually no interest, but inflation is 4.5%".
There are far more savers than people with mortgages in this country, and the Government is purposefully doing all that it can to stop people from saving; by getting them spending, they hope that the economy can be kept going. However, the banks need the money from savers to be able to give out loans. Therefore, if people spend rather than save then the banks will have less money to give out as loans.

More than that, it is exceptionally unfair. People who have been carefully saving have low rates, whilst people who may have over-extended themselves are being bailed out. House prices have far been outstripping wage increases for more than ten years, something the Government has seen fit to do nothing about. And that, unfortunately, has directly led to the current financial crisis.

"But", I hear the Government cry, "This is a worldwide recession, and the problems in this country have been caused abroad, particularly in the US." Unfortunately, that excuse does not cut any mustard with me. The same bad practices that caused the problems in the US - mortgages for more than four times salary, 100% mortgages with no deposit, falsified salary claims, and, perhaps most importantly, the parcelling up and selling on of debt - were all present in the UK system. The Government did nothing, despite many people (especially Vince Cable) having warned of the problems for some time.

As Natalie Haynes says, it is terrible that people are being faced with loosing their homes. It is also terrible being thrown out of a rented home without notice (see my earlier posting). A year or so ago, BBC Breakfast had an interview with a woman who said that she could not afford her mortgage payments if interest rates went up even a quarter of a percent. If that was the case, why, oh why, did she get a mortgage? If it was that unaffordable, if she that little leeway, then it made absolutely no sense. Yet the people who carefully saved are paying to help her out. Gordon Brown seems to care little for us.

I can see some justification for helping people like her. However, there is one group who do not deserve any help. These are the speculators, the people with more than one mortgage should not be helped. Yet, by lowering interest rates, we are helping them.

Back in the crash of the late eighties, a friend's father had seven properties scattered around, all in negative equity. He despaired of his situation, but at the end of the day he had taken the risk. No-one forced him to overextend himself, and it was greed that caused him to do so. There can be an argument for helping out families and home owners, but people who have treated it as a business should not be helped. Indeed, they have been a major factor in creating this bubble.

The low interest rates for savers badly effects one group whom the Government has previously professed great interest in - the pensioners. Many rely on the interest on what little savings they have to live, and those values have been decreased massively. The Government has claimed that the reduction in VAT will help them, but the things many pensioners spend money on - like most foodstuffs - do not carry VAT, and VAT on heating fuel was already at 5%, and is therefore unaffected by the change from 17.5% to 15%. Of course, as crisps and confectionery are not at the 0% rate, perhaps the Government thinks that pensioners live on crisps?

So, Mister Brown, please help savers as well as home-owners.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Book review: "Toppling Miss April", by Adrienne Dines.

Earlier in the year I had the joy of being taught for a day by Adrienne Dines, as part of a creative writing course at the Winchester Writers' Conference. As a result of this, I bought two of her books - 'The Jigsaw Maker' and 'Toppling Miss April'. I read the former months ago, but have only recently got around to reading 'Toppling Miss April' this weekend.

Firstly, let me say that this book is a very good read. It is unusual for a book to get me laughing out loud, but, in places, this book was uproariously funny. it is also fairly addictive; I completed it easily within a couple of days of starting it, and with other work interrupting. It is a light, easy read.

The plot revolves around two late-middle aged women; Bernadette, a cleaner for an Irish priest, very prim and proper, with an 18-year old nephew to look after, and Monica, a large, indeed, very large, jovial woman. When Monica comes back to the sleepy Irish village of Tullabeg, a rivalry starts between her and Bernadette that reveals secrets about all their pasts.

Both Monica and Bernadette are superbly-written characters. Bernadette in particular is a grotesque, awful creature, petty, vindictive and, frankly, not a little mad. Monica is large, both in physical size, character and appetites. The supporting cast of characters - Michael, the shy ijeet obsessed with a girl at the local Supasave, the hapless priest, Sean, and his gay brother, Cormac - all add delicious aspects to the story.

The place that Mrs Dines really scores is with her characterisations. All of the characters are flawed, some in more ways than others, but the flaws are, like Monica, marvellously enlarged. Take Bernadatte - it would be easy to say that her character is over-exaggerated, but I can too easily believe that such women (and men) exist.

The plot is probably best characterised as a farce, with misunderstandings and misdirections being used to move the story along. Some of the major plot points and twists were fairly obvious, but I think that they may have been intentionally so; they inform the reader something about the past of the characters that makes their confusion even more dramatic and funny.

This is not a book that was written for male readers - it is published by Transita, 'Good books for grown women', but despite this I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

I give it four out of five stars.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Spooks and 'briefcase' nuclear weapons

Just watched the latest edition of Spooks - (a BBC TV program about MI5 officers, now in its seventh series). Initially this was a very good TV programme, showing signs of being relatively well researched, and with gripping plots. After about the third series, however, it showed an increasing lack of both originality and, more importantly, plausibility.

Take last night's episode. In it, a Russian sleeper agent from the Cold War was awakened to detonate a briefcase-sized nuclear bomb that he had been given during the fall of Communism (not mentioned on the program - this was twenty years before!). The Russians have awakened him after publicly claiming that the Americans had 'lost' two small nuclear weapons in the south of England. Their rather ridiculous aim: to get America to withdraw troops and bases from Europe. To aid this, they have sent an FSB (successor to KGB) team in to prevent MI5 from uncovering the plot.

The MI5 team have recently uncovered a mole, and she tells them of the plot. It also happens that she has the names and details of all the sleeper agents in a drop-box near London Bridge. The MI5 operatives then have to get her across London, whilst under fire by an incredulously large FSB team, who appear to be everywhere at once. In the meantime, the sleeper agent sits on a park bench outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, a briefcase securely under the bench.

-cue dramatic music-

Well, no actually. For myself and Sencan, the dramatic music might as well have been a music-hall tune, or, perhaps, Keystone Cops. Because well before this, the plot had lost any sense of realism.

So what was wrong with it?

1) As can be seen on the (far from definitive) Wikipedia entry, the American Mk-54 'Davy Crockett' nuclear is described thus:
"The bare warhead package took the form of an 11"x16" cylinder that weighed only 51 lbs (23 kg). It was, however, easily small enough to fit in a footlocker-sized container."
So? I hear the writers say, the Russians made smaller ones before the fall of Communism!
Yes, well, except, according to another Wikipedia page on enriched uranium:
"the critical mass for 85% highly enriched uranium is about 50 kilograms, which at normal density would be a sphere about 17 centimetres (6.7 in) in diameter."
So, ignoring the size (the briefcase was most certainly not 17cm wide), it would have weighed 50 Kg (and that is just for the critical material, and none of the support equipment and electronics). Then, when the bomb is being defused, it is actually mentioned as being an implosion type (where two subcritical hemispheres of nuclear material are exploded inwards, creating a critical and explosive mass). This was in a small tube within the briefcase, which she could easily pick up with one hand.

2) They even had one of the main MI5 characters watching an old fifties or sixties Public Information film about the effects of nuclear blasts - whilst the drama was unfolding. Surely he could have found something more productive to have been doing? Oh, he thought, I'm totally unaware of the effects of a nuclear blast. I'd better look at forty-year old films for information. Due to budget cuts MI5 have access to no new information!

They then circled a blast radius on a map of Central London showing the blast radius and damage. Except for the fact that a bomb the size above would have only a maximum of a 1 Kiloton yeild. That is a great deal, but to put it into perspective, the blast at Hiroshima was between 13 and 18 Kilotons and Nagasaki was 21 Kilotons. So we are taking about a small, tactical nuclear warhead, not a strategic weapon.

if you wish to see the effects of a 1-kiloton blast, enter '0.001' into the top field of the nuclear weapons effect calculator. The 'Ground Zero' page at Carlos Labs allows you to superimpose blast range over cities in Google Maps - unfortunately the smallest bomb it has is the 15kt Little Boy - far too powerful for a briefcase nuke, but even that blast rnage is far smaller than the one they circled on the map. According to the former link, a 0.001 mt (1 kt) bomb would have an air blast radius (near-total fatalities) of 280 metres, and a air blast radius (widespread destruction) of 739 metres. In a built-up city line London you would be bound to get strange effects from such a small bomb, with blast waves following city streets. Bad, but nowhere near as bad as they were making out on the programme.

3) The mere existence of 'briefcase nukes' is widely disputed. Note that this backs up the fact that the alleged RA-115s (or RA-115-01s for submersible weapons) weight between fifty and sixty pounds. Not enough to easily be carried in a briefcase.

4) Would the weapons remain viable after nearly twenty years in the possession of a sleeper agent? All nuclear weapons have a distinct shelf life, and need re-engineering. The longer they are left, the more dangerous they become - not from nuclear blast, but from detonation of the conventional explosives within. The idea that a small briefcase bomb would still be viable after such a period is, in my opinion, nonsensical. According to the link above,
"They can last for many years if wired to an electric source."
That is many, not twenty. For instance, from http://www.foi.se:
"For some non-strategic NW, such as the alleged 'suitcase weapons' mentioned by Lebedev and others, the service time interval seemed to be as short as six months according to a recent study."
5) The MI5 mole is the only person in the area who can disarm the weapon. In doing so, she detonates the conventional explosives that kills her, and in the process irradiates some tunnels under London. Would an MI5 agent really have expertise in disarming an arcane and rare foreign nuclear device?

6) The whole concept that the Russians would detonate small, tactical nuclear weapons in London for such a broad (and uncertain) strategic aim as moving all Americans out of Europe is farcical, for many reasons. Firstly, the risks are too great. If the plot were to be uncovered it would be an undeniable act of war, and Russia would face severe consequences from the international community. Secondly, it could well become obvious that it was a Russian nuclear device rather than an American one that exploded. Thirdly, such an event might actually cement US influence in Europe, as 'protection' against the Russians.
It just does not make any sense. Things never got that bad, even in the shivering depths of the Cold War.

What is really galling is that it would have been fairly easy to incorporate more accuracy without spoiling the plot. It really reeks of lack of effort and poor writing. You could easily have had a similarly dramatic story and had it accurate - had the bomb being a rucksack nuclear weapon (pushing it, but still feasible), and by having it been imported from Russia recently. instead, they mucked it up, big time. Or they could have made it a 'dirty' nuclear bomb - a weapon that would spread radioactive material over a wide area. This would certainly be feasible within the size depicted.

As an aside, ex-Congressman Curt Weldon has claimed that such weapons do exist, and he used to walk around with a mock-up of the device. There is a slight rebuttal at the Washington Post
From this:
"Weldon was known for carrying around a mock-up of a suitcase nuke made with a briefcase, foil and a pipe. But it was nowhere near the weight of an actual atomic device. "
and
"First, he (Majidi) defines what a Hollywood-esque suitcase nuke would look like: a case about 24 inches by 10 inches by 12 inches, weighing less than 50 pounds, that one person could carry. It would contain a device that could cause a devastating blast. "
This was not a TV show, it was a farce.

And this does matter. The BBC likes to make out that Spooks had some realism, and all they are doing by foisting such a stupid plot on the public is spreading fear. In my opinion there is nothing - absolutely nothing - to fear from Cold War vintage briefcase nukes after such a long time, if they ever existed at all.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

House rental and repossessions

Today's Moneybox program on Radio 4 had a very interesting discussion today about the situation with house repossessions and rental in the UK. If you wish to listen to the broadcast, you can hear it about 15 minutes on BBC Listen Again - The link to the program will only survive for seven days, so there is an additional textual report on the BBC website.

My partner and I are renting a house on a 18-month contract, and had assumed that, as long as we continued to pay our rent and kept the house in order, we were safe for the period of that tenancy. However, apparently, if our landlord were to default on her mortgage payments, we could (and probably would) be thrown out of the house, regardless of the contract. The problem is that the letting contract is with our landlord, not with the lender, and so the contract is void once the lender repossesses.

Neither of us were aware of this, and it came as a shock. Our assumption (perhaps naively) was that we would be protected in this situation. That is not the case. Fortunately, I do not think that this is likely to happen with the house that we are currently in. However, the little nagging and annoying kernel of doubt is now firmly planted within my mind.

As house prices are decreasing, most lenders want to sell the houses after repossession, to get as much money as they can, whilst they can, and to prevent them from having to manage a vast portfolio of property. Selling the property means that the tenants are evicted. The current economic problems means that this is becoming more common, especially with buy-to-let mortgages.

In some cases the tenants are not receiving any notice, and the first thing they know about the situation is when the bailiffs turn up at their door. In others, they have only a precious few days in which to find somewhere else to live and move.

There are alternatives, however. A receiver of rent can be appointed by the bank, allowing the tenant to stay on for the length of their tenancy. Some banks appear to be doing this in some cases, although it does not sound like it is common. Additionally, the lenders cannot tell the tenants anything about the proceedings, as their relationship is with the landlord, not the tenants.

The lenders are supposed to send a letter out to the tenants, saying that the house is going to be repossessed. But this relies on the lender knowing that the house is being let out (the landlord may not have told them). Also, as the banks may not know who the tenants are, the letter may be addressed to 'the householder'. This is a phrase often used by junk mail, letters that are not universally opened.

This Government is spending an awful amount of money to help out homeowners. However, it appears that they are not willing to do much to help people who rent. It is interesting that the headline for the story above 'Change due for buy-to-let tenants' describes a move to make mortgage lenders give tenants notice seven weeks before repossession - an increase from two weeks at the moment. But, as mentioned above, the current system of two weeks' notice does not work. This needs bold action, not tinkering at the edges.

There are several things that could happen. The Government could force banks to use receivers of rent in any case where the tenant has an appreciable time left on their contract. This would likely be unpopular with banks, and that might also have a positive side - in future they may be more reticent in giving out buy-to-let mortgages if they knew that they may have to deal with tenants if the property is repossessed. It would be slightly harder to get buy-to-let mortgages, but, given recent experience, that would hardly be a bad thing.

A similar approach would be an alteration that meant when a lender repossesses, the contract is taken over by the lender, and they need to see it through to the end. This would be more direct than appointing receivers of rents, and would place a burden on the banks. Again, this may have the (beneficial?) effect of making banks more careful in giving out buy-to-let mortgages.

Unfortunately, I do not think that this Government will do anything about this. Although their moves to help out mortgage holders may reduce this problem slightly - by potentially reducing the number of repossessions - it does seem to be rewarding the people who have helped to cause this problem by overextending themselves. People like us, who have been saving in the seemingly vain hope of getting on the housing ladder, are finding our savings getting virtually no interest.

People who rent are just as valuable to society as homeowners, yet we are being treated as second-class citizens. It is important that nobody should be unnecessarily thrown out of their homes, whether tenants or homeowners. Our rights are just as important as theirs.

The stories from the public on the BBC 'Have Your Say' section on this topic are interesting and, in some cases, tragic. These are people that the Government should be directly helping - people who are, on the whole, blameless, and who have few, if any, rights in this matter. Unfortunately, I hold out little hope that the Government will do anything.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Asymetrical air warfare

When you mention military planes to people, they will most often think of the high-tech fighters or supersonic bombers that seem to dominate the news. However, not all nations need such high-tech kit. In the same way that insurgents with cheap and even improvised weapons have bene killing trops in Iraq and Afghanistan , so cheap and/or outdated planes can (and have) been used effectively in some areas. Some recent developments have shown this.

In the mid-fifties the RAF introduced a new jet fighter type, the Hawker Hunter. After initial problems it became a very successful plane, with nearly 2,000 built for a wide variety of air forces around the world. Unfortunately it was also designed at a time when there was rapid development of the capabilities of jet aircraft, and it soon became outdated. In 1963 it was withdrawn from an air-to-air (the classic fighter) role in the RAF, but continued on until the early 80's in the trainer role. It was a cheap yet effective plane that had been rapidly outclassed by other planes (e.g. the English Electric Lightning).

Other countries that operated the type, such as Lebanon, Switzerland and Singapore, kept the type in service for far longer, Switzerland retired it in the mid-nineties, having upgraded them instead of using more modern plane types. This is a testament to quite how cheap and flexible the plane was. However, by the late seventies the type had really had its day.

Now, as shown at http://forum.keypublishing.co.uk/showthread.php?t=73400&page=1, the Lebanese Air Force is reintroducing a number (possibly more than five) Hawker Hunters back into combat service. These were withdrawn over ten years ago, and apparently will be used in a ground-attack role. In the middle of last year there was a conflict in Lebanon, and much of the fighting occured within the Nahr el-Bared camp in the north of the country. Lacking any fixed-wing resources, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) updated old Vietnam-era Huey helicopters to drop MK82 dumb bombs against militant positions. These were not ideal platforms for bombing, but it appears that the ability to bomb from the air was so useful that the more capable Hunters are being brought back into service.

Another case to point was the controversial sale by BAe of Hawk trainer jets to the Indonesian government. This highly successful trainer aircraft (a variant is even built in the US as the Goshawk) is best known for its role in the Red Arrows aerobatic display team. However, the sale to Indonesia caused widespread protests within the UK, as detailed below:
"In 1996, one Indonesia-bound Hawk was wrecked by three hammer-wielding women who infiltrated a BAE Systems plant. The raiders were acquitted for causing £1.5m of damage when a jury deemed they had used "reasonable force to prevent a crime". (source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/)
The problem was that whilst the Hawk is a very effective training aircraft, those same capabilities make it useful in the ground-attack role. This is especially the case when the opposing forces have no significant air assets to attack the fighters. The Indonesians were using the Hawks to bomb the region of East Timor.

A third case: the Tamil Tiger terrorist group in Sri Lanka formed their own air force in 2007 - the Tamil Eelam Air Force (TAF) . The prop-driven ZLIN-143 aircraft was modified to be able to drop bombs. Several attacks of varying success followed, including one attack that temporarily cut off power supplies to the capital. Many of their attacks have been against the Sri Lankan Air Force, which has capable Mig-27 and Chengdu-F7 aircraft. It is quite amazing that such a cheap, irregular air wing has been quite so effective against a much better equipped rival. Apparently the Z-143 planes are quite hard to spot when they are flying, and the Sri Lankans do not have suitable early warning systems. However, allegedly, the Sri Lankans shot down a TAF Z-143 in September this year - the first air-to-air kill by the Sri Lanka air force.

The Hawk apparently costs around £18 million per unit, compared to an alleged £69 million for the latest Eurofighter Typhoon, and £94 million for the F22 (although such costs have to be taken with a pinch of salt, particularly for the Typhoon and F22). This means you can have three or four Hawks for the price of one Typhoon (and I reckon the support costs for the Typhoon are also much higher that they are for the much simpler Hawk).

I have not been able to discover the cost of a Z-143; I would reckon you could get a handful of something equivalent for a million. An indication was that one was recently for sale for €165,000 (approximately £143,000), although I have no idea what condition that airframe was in.

If you only need air-to-ground capability (i.e. the enemy do not have any fighter aircraft), then the use of such aircraft is obviously cost-effective. Unfortunately, this asymetrical air warfare has been shown all too well by the the Lebanese, the Tamil Tigers and the Indonesians in East Timor.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The pre-budget report.

Today Alistair Darling stood up in the House of Commons and gave what is widely seen as being the most important budget announcement for a generation. Except, of course, it was not a budget; it was a pre-budget report. In reality this distinction was moot, and in all but name it was a budget.

Others have written about the effects of the various measures; the reduction in VAT from 17.5% tp 15%, or the new 45% tax rate on earnings over £150,000 (to be imposed from 2011). Instead, I will concentrate on some other things that piqued my interest about the announcements.

The BBC has some interesting graphs at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7734971.stm. The top one is particularly interesting; from figures released today, the projected recession and subsequent recovery appears to mirror that of the 1990-1993 recession, with only one year spent in negative growth, and a recovery in 2010. Is this a coincidence? Unfortunately, Alistair Darling appears to be the only one who believes that the recession will only last for a short period.

Let's take a look at the other recessions shown in that graph. The one of the early '80s has been blamed on Thatcher. Whilst it did happen on her watch, it started right at the beginning of her premiership, and was rooted well within the policies of the previous Labour Government. It often takes two or three years for the effects of economic policies to become clear. In the same way, the current woes are based on decisions taken (or not taken) several years ago.

As another example, in his autobiography (p.106) John Major blames the recession of the early 1990s on inaccurate growth forecasts made by the treasury (when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury) in the 1987-1988 period. The treasury underestimated growth, which meant that for a couple of years growth accelerated, and interest rates (*) had to be increased to cope with it. Now we are in the opposite situation, with the treasury appearing to massively overestimate growth.

The second graph is also telling; the increase in the budget deficit over the estimates made just eight months ago. This was a real 'wtf!' graph for me. (I also wonder how much PFI is included within this - some people claim that the Government has been nudging the magic 40% barrier for some time if you include all the off-books debt). Has the situation really deteriorated fast enough to cause the projections to be that far off?

I really cannot see anything other than some serious tax rises in future years, whichever Government may be in power. I can only hope that the situation does not deteriorate further.

(*) There were other things that they could have done, but this was seen as being the quickest and most politically acceptable thing to do; putting up taxes would also have worked, but may have taken longer to trickle though and been political dynamite.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Pro-Labour bias in the BBC?

There was an interesting slot on BBC Breakfast News this morning, discussing the economy. They had two guests; a Liberal Democrat politician, and a man called Simon Woodroffe, the founder of the Yo Sushi! and Yotel brands.

I would link to the program, but the BBC iPlayer does not appear to have it in its list.

The latter was presented as an impartial observer (no political links were mentioned), and basically claimed that the outlook for the Economy was good. His line was suspiciously near to that of the Labour Party.

The name rung a bell, so after the interview was over I went upstairs to check. It turns out that Mr Woodroffe is far from impartial.

From the Independent, dated 16th July 2006:
Meanwhile one of Labour's leading business supporters claimed it was only "human" that donors should give in expectation of honours and that Mr Blair should reward his friends. In an extraordinary intervention, Simon Woodroffe, the businessman behind Yo Sushi! told the IoS that he was sure Lord Levy had not sold honours.

"That said," he added, "would it have crossed the minds of a donor that a possible outcome could be an award at some point? We are but human beings with all our pride and ambition and dreams. Would the Prime Minister as he looked through the shortlist of candidates not have warmed to one who had helped him? Of course he would."

So this man, who says that Labour is managing the economy well, is a leading Labour business supporter, and also spoke in favour of them in the cash-for-honours scandalette.

From Wikipedia :
Woodroffe received an OBE on 17 June 2006
He therefore made the comments above a month *after* having been awarded an OBE.

Why did the BBC not make it clear that this man was far from impartial!





Actually, further investigation shows this to be more complex. Was Simon Woodroffe actually a Labour donor? I find links on the Internet saying that he was and was not a Labour donor:

A blog entry on the Guardian's website states:

Even more amusing than Woodroffe's pronouncements over the weekend was his admission, on Five Live Drive last week, that despite his name appearing on the "proud to fund Labour" poster, he hasn't actually given them any money.

From the Daily Telegraph:
On Tuesday night, I hear, Labour Party chairman Hazel Blears held a discreet meeting of 15 high-level supporters to discuss rebuilding the party's finances. In typical New Labour style, there were plenty of stuffed wallets and fawning luvvies. Chinese gambling tycoon Johnny Hon and sushi king Simon Woodroffe rubbed shoulders with media Lords Alli and Bragg while the most vocal, apparently, was John Reid, Sir Elton John's former manager and boyfriend.

but from the Times : August 13, 2006
More recently, after receiving an OBE, he has appeared in political ads, saying he was “proud to fund the Labour party” (he gave £1,000). He is not a shrinking violet.
Another quote from the same article:
He has also been involved with the Labour party recently. “Not particularly because I am a Labourite but because I think the long term of politics is about management, and UK plc needs to be managed by people with business sense.” He is booked as an after-dinner speaker at the Labour party conference this autumn.
From: The Guardian , Sunday August 19 2007
He is often spoken of as a Labour party donor, but only ever gave £1,000 - though he says he is considering giving more. As a former public school drop-out, he concedes that he does not come from the Labour heartlands but is enamoured of this government. 'Labour are a pretty good management team and I'm scared to change to another management team.'
From The Post.ie., 7th Actober 2007
He has also appeared in political ads telling people he was ‘‘proud to fund the Labour Party’’.

So, from the above there is indicative evidence that he was a donor, albeit for a small amount of money, and also that he is Labour-leaning, (he appeared in an advert for them).

If the above is true, then why did the BBC not mention this when he appeared? Someone cannot have the history detailed above and be presented as a neutral observer.

This is not the first time similar things have happened. The BBC should make it clear if any of their guests discussing political or economic issues have links with political parties, especially when they make party-political statements. Failure to do so will lead to accusations of political bias, something that the BBC cannot afford.

The BBC is in a position of trust. It is rapidly losing that trust.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Boeing 787 troubles

A week ago Boeing announced the fourth delay to the first flight of their new Boeing 787 'Dreamliner' plane. This promises to be a revolutionary plane, and has gained over 900 firm orders before its first flight. It could well be one of the most successful plane types ever launched.

There are perhaps two major differences between this and any other plane Boeing has made. Firstly, the fuselage barrel is made out of carbon-fibre, the first time this has been done for a plane of this size. Secondly, Boeing has distributed construction between many different firms in many different countries (something that Airbus has done for years).

Unfortunately, the combination of these two factors has been, at best, an embarrassment for Boeing and, at worst, a disaster. Construction of the plane has been hampered by a number of issues; a lack of fasteners, software delays, and strikes. It now looks as though the first deliveries to customers will be two years late.

On the 8th July 2007 (7/8/7 on the American date system) Boeing rolled out the first airframe to a massive publicity fan fair. The airframe looked stunningly beautiful in its blue and white livery, and everything seemed a-okay with the project. Unfortunately, and rather mendaciously, it was all an illusion. As soon as the press had gone, the plane was rolled back into a hanger and disassembled. Many of the fasteners that held the fuselage barrels together were temporary. and the whole plane was taken to pieces to enable new ones to be fitted. The cause was a shortage of aerospace-grade fasteners, and this shortage caused the first of the delays.

Boeing had desperately wanted to reach the 7/8/7 roll-out date, but were going to miss it due to the shortage. They therefore cobbled the airframe together temporarily. There are several things that seem wrong to me about this decision. Firstly it is untruthful (the media get an illusion that the plane is at a more advanced stage of construction that it really is). Secondly, the delays in having to take the plane apart and refit proper fasteners was considerable, especially if parts get damaged in the process. Thirdly, when it was discovered what they had done (which was inevitable), it makes it appear that they put publicity over engineering.

More delays occurred, which were blamed on various factors; delays with the software, incomplete documentation from third parties, and further shortage of fasteners. Finally, a strike by workers of the IAM union stopped most work for a month.

The problem is, I do not get the impression that Boeing are being in the last bit truthful about the delays. The latest delay was announced at the end of the IAM strike, and appeared to put most of the emphasis for the new delay on the strike. However, it also mentioned that 3% of all the fasteners in all of the airframes completed so far are incorrect sizes. These are not in one place in any one airframe, but scattered all over multiple planes. These will have to all be replaced before there can be any flights. After the problems with the fasteners last year, this seems to be an almost incredible lapse. The news was also released on the same day as the US election, which makes it appear that they are burying bad news.

Of course, all this is reminiscent of the delays that the Airbus super-jumbo A380 suffered (about 18 months late into service, and a much-reduced ramp-up of production). However, there are some important differences.

Firstly, unlike the A380 delays, which mostly occurred after the first flight had occurred, the 787 delays are occurring before it flies. This is important for several reasons; as the A380 problems did not affect the aircraft's flying, they could do many flight tests whilst they sorted out the chaos.

Secondly, the A380 delays were caused by one problem; an incompatibility in design software between German, French and British plants. The Boeing 787 issues, however, have multiple and varied causes, from delayed software to parts supply, from strikes to incorrect assembly. All of these could - and should - have been avoided. For more details on the latest problems, see the excellent FlightBlogger.

Whilst Boeing did not publicly make too much out of Airbus' delays with the A380, many of their supporters on Internet forums appeared to take a perverse glee out of the delays. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and they are being remarkable quieter.

The Boeing 787 delays are good news for Airbus in another way. Their competitor to the 787, the A350, was due in service many years after the Boeing plane. This was due for a number of reasons, but mostly was down to Airbus totally misjudging the market with their original design. They were forced to go back to the drawing board, and the A350 is the result. The delays with the 787 will mean that the in-service dates will be much closer, and should allow Airbus to gain more orders.

However, the A350 is still in the design stage, and therefore Being still have a substantial lead. Also, it is not unlikely that Airbus will suffer similar problems with the A350 to those Boeing has suffered with the 787. This latest generation of aeroplanes are far more complex than previous generations, and there are bound to be problems during the development and initial construction phases. Airbus and Boeing are learning this to their cost.

On a related matter, Airbus is working on a new military transport plane, the A400M. This is also suffering major delays, although this is mainly due to the new Europrop TP400-D6 turboprop engine design.

All of which shows that engineering is difficult, expensive and fraught with difficulties. As the complexities of the aircraft increase, so will the risk. For instance, the Airbus A380 problems were caused by the 330-miles of cabling that had to be put into the cabin. Much of this was required for the In-Flight Entertainment system.

Fortunately this does not mean that such planes will automatically be a failure - Boeing had big problems with the development of the 747 Jumbo in the late 1960s, and that aircraft was hardly a failure. I wish both Airbus and Boeing the best of luck.

Monday, 10 November 2008

The Glenrothes by-election

So, Labour won the Glenrothes by-election. This has been a strange affair; compared to the Crewe and Nantwich by-election in May, which the Tories won from Labour with a 17.6% swing, and Glasgow East in July, where the SNP snatched the seat from Labour with a 26.1% swing, the run-up to the election was virtually unreported in the media.

There have been good reasons for this. Firstly, a slightly more important election race has been ongoing in the US. And secondly, Labour was widely expected to lose. I find it strange that the BBC website relegated news of the by-election off the main front page to the 'UK Politics' section for much of Thursday, then, on Friday morning after Labour had won, the story gets headline status for most of the day. Is this another assumed example of BBC bias, or proper reporting of a story?

Labour won, and it was a victory that appeared to surprise everyone, including the Labour Party itself. Their majority in the by-election, a seemingly healthy 6,700, is actually a decrease of a smidgen under 4,000 from the 2005 election. The SNP have increased their share of the vote, but not nearly by enough to win the seat.

As usual after a by-election all the candidates have been claiming some form of victory; the SNP have been saying that they reduced the Labour majority (which is true), and Labour are claiming that a win in Glenrothes is a vote of confidence in the government's handling of the economic crisis (and particularly on Brown's leadership - his constituency neighbours Glenrothes).

The latter claim is particularly hard to fathom. How can a vote in one constituency, where you had a reduced majority, be seen as a positive judgement from the whole country? Particularly when that constituency is in Scotland, where the Tories have, for the last couple of decades, fared extremely badly.

What is not surprising, to me at least, is that the SNP did so poorly. firstly, let my lay my cards on the table. I love Scotland. The scenery and the people are all amazing. But I am also firmly convinced that the future of Scotland lies within the United Kingdom. Earlier this year Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP, stated in speeches that Scotland should become a small state with high-wealth industries, such as... Iceland.

Yes, the economy of the country that he wanted to emulate has just gone totally down the tubes. The other examples in his "arc of prosperity", Ireland and Norway - both small countries - are also not faring too well at the moment. For that reason, if I were a fiercely independent-minded Scotsman, I would have found it hard to vote for the SNP yesterday. It's the economy, stupid. Whilst Labour may have helped to muck up the economy, the the SNP's recipe would be even more disastrous for Scotland. I bet Alex Salmond is ruing the whole 'arc of prosperity' claims.

What does this all mean? Does this mark a new beginning for Labour under Gordon Brown? Or is the reduction of the majority a sign that Labour will be out at the next election? The truth is, it is too early to say. Brown and Labour have, for the moment, a breathing space that thy can use to try and turn around their fortunes. They must use it well. Whereas before Thursday the next general election was Cameron's to lose, he must now work hard to try, not just to win, but also to get a workable majority. He should not be measuring up the carpets for Number Ten just yet.

Interestingly (and rather surprisingly, to me at least) the by-election win has apparently led a number of Labour MPs to call for an early general election. This sounds strange; they are still at least thirteen percentage points behind in the polls, and would probably lose the next election unless the situation changed radically. So why do they want one? Perhaps they believe that this recent bounce and improvement in the polls will not last, and want to get the election out of the way before things get worse for them. Certainly they should remember that Brown's misfortunes started last year, when it looked likely he was going to call a general election, then did not.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Initial ramblings from Southampton

I found it hard to find a title for this blog: After hearing about Labour's win in the Glenrothes by-election, I came up with 'reduced expectations'. But no, it had gone. 'lessened expectations' was available, as was 'few expectations', but neither were really right. For one thing, 'lessened' is a harder word to type and spell than 'reduced'.

I wanted something that would sum up my attitude to life, and as I am in a rather negative viewpoint this morning, 'reduced expectations' seemed to fit the bill.

However my partner, the ever-lovely ┼×encan, said that I need to be more positive. The only problem being that, this morning at least, I feel far from positive. So, after much thought, I decided on 'A Walker's Ramblings'. Why? Well first of all, I am a long-distance walker (14,000 miles walked in ten years). Secondly, this blog will contain my assorted ramblings, whether they be on walking, politics, writing, technology, space, or anything else that catches my fancy.

This will not be a themed blog, although a theme may appear over time. I fear that not having a theme may lead to a lack of readers; someone may like a posting on (say) walking, then get turned off by one on politics. If so, then I apologise. I will, however, attempt to use labels to help readers find relevant posts.

Most of all, I hope that you enjoy reading my general musings.