Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Hoodwinked by experts? My belated twopenceworth on the Post Office scandal

WHEN you write an obscure blog as an occasional self-indulgent hobby, the world is not waiting for your take on the big issues. That much I have learned. So in reactivating this site I resolved to remember that and stick to rambling on about my own inconsequential nonsense.

So on the Post Office miscarriages of justice scandal, I was simply going to nod along with Jonathan Calder's judgement that 'Ed Davey should go easy on calling for people to resign' and ponder quietly why it is that after reading intermittently about this case over several years, muttering that it did seem like a miscarriage of justice, being pleased to learn of the TV series and watching it in a single evening, I felt uncomfortable about its aftermath.

A degree of enlightenment comes from reading David Aaronovitch's Substack post The fatal flaw in Mr Bates vs The Post Office', which has flown into my inbox as I am a non-paying subscriber to his newsletter. I haven't always been an Aaronovitch fan, and still often disagree with him, but I came to a grudging admiration through reading his (sadly now discontinued) Times column, in particular because he is willing to make difficult arguments rather than simply write to please his readers. This is a case in point.

The fatal flaw he identifies with Mr Bates vs The Post Office is not simply that it is full of familiar good-guy underdog and heartless-bureaucrat-villain tropes, but that while it is clear why the former do what they do it displays no interest in and doesn't attempt to understand the latter: the Post Office CEO Paula Vennells or her sidekick or their Fujitsu contractors. 'But what about the baddies?' he asks, arguing that their motivation is what we really need to know.

Weirdly I could have a stab at that one, paradoxically because my experience of holding public office, even if only at the lowly level of district councillor, gave me enough understanding of the perils and pitfalls of power that I resolved not to attempt to climb any higher up the ladder. Even dealing with such matters as controversial planning applications, rows about allotments, taxi regulation, market relocations and hospital redevelopments was daunting enough to make me think this may have parallels on a grander stage. At the very least when I read or watch abuse-of-power stories, I pause and wonder whether I would have done any better before getting on my high horse. So, based on my maybe slightly relevant experience, here are my best guesses as to how they may have gone wrong without having malign motives. 

When I was a relatively new councillor a more experienced opponent advised me: 'The secret in this game is knowing when you're being bullshitted by so-called experts'. But that's not as easy as it sounds. Experts can be quite good at bullshitting. At the very least they have more specialist knowledge than we generalists/lay people/elected representatives do. You end up having to take some things on trust, unless you happen to have knowledge that contradicts what you are being told or have access to other experts with other opinions. 

There can be moments when it feels you have troubles and stresses enough and privately hope to be reassured not burdened with yet another woe. And then there's the risk of appearing too stupid to understand. On the latter point, I'm sure that among the reasons for my dear wife's longevity as Elected Mayor of Watford was a willingness to keep asking questions until she got an answer she understood and a sixth sense for when someone's story wasn't stacking up, the latter skill perhaps deriving from her previous career as a schoolteacher.

Another, perhaps opposite, challenge was that over my 30 years in the foothills of public office, a regular flow of strange stories came to my ears, of varying levels of plausibility. Some of them I knew to be untrue because they were about me (land I supposedly owned, but in fact didn't, where planning permission had just been granted.) Indeed to read comments on newspaper websites one might imagine that every controversial planning application was only granted permission due to 'brown envelopes'. We could have paralysed the entire council if we had investigated every such spurious allegation or rumour.

Sometimes serious, specific and public accusations were made that went beyond hearsay yet fell apart almost as soon as an investigation got underway. Yet just occasionally an issue was raised that initially sounded improbable, but on closer inspection proved absolutely accurate – there was something wrong that needed putting right. Knowing which was which was never straightforward - more art than science. And while one may be aware of cases that proved either spurious or true, one never knows if there were other things one should have followed up but didn't because they seemed too implausible.

All of which is to say I can at least imagine how the Post Office ended up in denial and why ministers believed their assurances. I can even read Mr Bates and the Post Office against the grain to see why they might have done so. Before the emergence of a whistleblower what specific evidence did they have to show Fujitsu could change individual postmasters' records? Even if they knew it was possible why would they think Fujitsu staff were deliberately falsifying records to postmasters' detriment? There seemed no evidence of any gain to the company or of fraud by individual employees. While the line that no one else was having problems was clearly false, might fraud by postmasters not have appeared at first sight the most plausible explanation - fraud does happen? If Horizon had gone haywire why was it still only a small proportion that was affected (at least that was my impression from the series) and why was what was being thrown up was all in one direction - unexplained losses not unexplained surpluses? Maybe these points have been answered, but such initial reactions might not have been unreasonable.

None of which is to let Paula Vennells, other Post Office officials or government ministers, even Lib Dem ones, off the hook. The job of public officials to judge when we are being hoodwinked or bullshitted by experts and which of the many unlikely stories one may hear has the ring of truth and needs further investigation. Praise is due to those who have exposed miscarriages of justice, whether James Arbuthnott, or back in the day Chris Mullin, and serially Private Eye. Likewise, brickbats, and even withdrawn honours, are the price of misjudgement. But amid the justified condemnation perhaps there is room for a little understanding of why those with responsibility can get such things badly wrong.

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Two Bentleys

Strongly partisan though I am for Watford, and keen to proclaim the town's merits, I can't really argue it is full of architectural gems. Indeed on that point it is probably most famous for a building it lost, James Wyatt's Cassiobury House, described by Pevsner as 'one of [Hertfordshire's] major architectural losses of the C20'. Its famous staircase, which is often attributed to Grinling Gibbons, but which I've just read isn't, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where, unlike last time I looked this up, it does at least appear to be on display.

So it is always a pleasure to visit one of the town's undoubted architectural masterpieces, Holy Rood Roman Catholic Church, although my attendances at Mass are rare these days and even the current Pope would probably regard my religious views as more heretical than merely heterodox.

Holy Rood, Watford

Holy Rood was part of the great programme of Catholic church building in England during the nineteenth century as anti-Catholic laws were repealed and worship no longer needed to be quite so furtive. It was designed by John Francis Bentley, regarded as one of the great architects of the gothic revival and this is his only complete church. Hence it is sometimes referred to as 'Bentley's Gem'.

With its wide nave, crossing and series of side chapels, and highly decorated chancel, it feels like a kind of mini-cathedral rather than a mere parish church. Its Rood loft, unusually without a screen below, is a highly distinctive feature. One can feel the sense of exuberance at the Catholic Church putting itself back on the map, both literally and metaphorically.

Westminster Cathedral

Bentley's most famous work, by contrast, is anything but complete. Distinctive outside for its striking red brick and Portland stone stripes, inside Westminster Cathedral is a riot of colour and decoration in its bottom third, but above that it's all bare brickwork turned black from candle smoke. It creates a rather eerie sensation, one commentator likening the upper parts of the cathedral to railway tunnels. I had always assumed that at some point the money had run out and plans to decorate the rest of the building had been abandoned. But the late Gavin Stamp in a 2016 article refers to it always having been known that it would take a century to complete the interior. It even seems that plans to complete the work remain in progress.

Unusually, I had occasion just before Christmas to attend services in both Holy Rood and Westminster Cathedral giving me a chance to compare and contrast. As well as their relative levels of completrness, the striking difference between the two is their contrasting styles, the one Gothic Revival the other Byzantine. The one thing that does unite them visually is that each has a dramatic Rood cross dominating the nave.

I am curious as to whether that is a common theme in Bentley's churches. And I wonder too why Bentley, who seems to be considered an important gothic revival architect designed so few complete churches, and why his most famous one is in a completely different style.

Answers to such questions can be hard to find, but I see that since I last pondered them at all, Historic England and Liverpool University Press have published a biography of Bentley by Peter Howell, which might enlighten me. Yet it's just after Christmas, when more books that remain unread came into my possession. And its price of over £30 is that little bit more than I like to pay for a book I don't actually need. So it will have to wait while I monitor its price on various websites and hope I can swoop in for a bargain. In the meantime I will have to remain curious and wait for my answers.

Friday, December 29, 2023

My December listening: 'Albion' by Harp

I became a supporter of the Texan retro-folk-prog-rock band Midlake about the time of their 2006 breakthrough album The trials of Van Occupanther when one of its tracks was included in one of the sampler CDs that came with the much-missed Word magazine.

It was described as drawing on 1970s soft-rock, but it to me it felt more a Fairport Convention/Strawbs/Stackridge kind of thing. So I was a little surprised when reviewers commented that their follow-up The courage of others was a move in the direction of British folk-rock. While there had been a certain evolution, it seemed to me they had always been there or thereabouts.

Then a strange thing happened - as they were recording their next album the lead singer Tim Smith announced he was leaving. Strange because one sort-of assumed that Smith essentially was Midlake, or at least the band was a vehicle for his songs and would consist of the musicians he chose to play with. After all he wrote and sang all the material with no other member getting so much as a co-writer credit. While other groups have continued after the departure of a leading creative force, it's almost unheard of when the force is quite this dominant. It would be rather as though Mark rather than David Knopfler had left Dire Straits after Making Movies and the band had carried on without him. Or perhaps, more appositely given the nature of Midlake's oeuvre like Jethro Tull minus Ian Anderson.

So it was a surprise to learn back in 2013 that the residual members were carrying on and intending to release a new album. How could this be the same band. Couldn't they be done under trades descriptions legislation. Three seemed to be three possibilities, none of them good: that they would be little more than a tribute band rehashing or reworking old material; that they would be a pastiche act, with new material that was an uninspired imitation of their former leader; or that they would sound nothing like the old Midlake but a different band altogether.

So when the fourth Midlake album Antiphon appeared in 2013 I approached it with no great hopes. And yet it was a mini-triumph. Guitarist Eric Pulido, who stepped up to the lead singer's microphone, sounded enough like Tim Smith that his voice was not jarring, but also he didn't sound like he was going an impersonation. The sound had clearly evolved to a heavier prog-rock style, but this wasn't the band's first sonic evolution and they still sounded like Midlake. And there were a clutch of decent songs that were sufficiently in the Tim Smith mould (tender, wistful lyrics with bucolic imagery), and it followed the first three Midlake albums in having a very strong first half, but a few longeurs towards the end.

In the intervening decade the members of Midlake embarked on various creditable side projects before the band last year with an excellent fifth offering For the sake of Bethel Woods - a reference to the site of the original Woodstock festival. So well done chaps!

Meanwhile we waited to see what Tim Smith had to offer. Soon after leaving Midlake he announced a new project Harp, whose website was updated occasionally over the next decade usually with apologies for the continuing delay in producing new music. I had almost given up but when checking the site earlier this year saw the debut Harp album Albion was due for released at the start of December.

As the title suggests it has a very British (specifically English) feel, with song titles such as Daughters of Albion, Herstmonceux (a village and castle near Eastbourne) and Shining spires. Paradoxically it manages to go further in the folky direction than the last Tim Smith led Midlake album but the listener can't help but notice the presence of electronic drums, presumably a contribution of Smith's wife and collaborator Kathi Zung, who is credited as co-writer of the album.

Given the long wait I hoped it would be the epic statement that Smith could only make by having full creative control. Instead it is lovely but slight, the songs averaging around three-and-a-half minutes, the vocals a little too low down in the mix for the lyrics to make an impact. While the Guardian reviewer says it 'plants the hopeful seeds of something yet to bloom', I thought this might be the great blossoming, but like previous Midlake and related albums it falls a little short. Still, with its wintery atmosphere, it has been a pleasing accompaniment to December.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Wonder Boys: a little-known gem

Who is the only person to have won both an Oscar and the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Many years ago I remember preening myself on having answered this question correctly in a quiz. I didn't know the answer, but worked out that George Bernard Shaw was a likely choice. He had definitely won the Nobel Prize and it seemed at least plausible that one of his plays had become a film script or even that he had written a screenplay. (And indeed it was for adopting Pygmalion for the silver screen so a bit of both.)

Pride comes before a fall though, and on a visit to Shaw's Corner a few years ago I came a cropper trying to impress one of the National Trust volunteers by offering up this piece of arcane knowledge. 'No longer true' he said and I racked my brains trying to work out who else had managed this feat. The embarrassment was complete when I was told the answer 'Bob Dylan' as I am a diehard fan of His Bobness. I knew he had won an Oscar for Things have changed and could hardly have missed the controversy over his 2026 Nobel Literature Prize Award, indeed even going so far as to respond to a blog post on the subject. But I hadn't quite put the two things together.

Ever curious about the minutiae of Dylan's career, I recently found myself wondering why, despite regarding Things have changed as one of Dylan's best ever songs (and his Oscar as well deserved as his Nobel Prize), I knew nothing about the film he had won it for, maybe not even the title. So I looked it up and discovered why. Wonder Boys, which starred Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr and Tobey Maguire, was praised by critics but was a box office failure. It is referred to by various bloggers and the like as a hidden gem.

Douglas is cast in an untypical (unlikely even) role of a professor of creative writing who is struggling to follow up his successful first novel, while attempting to mentor a troubled student and (inevitably) having a complicated private life. It was described as an amusing and realistic portrayal of campus life. In our household's not always straightforward search for films we might both enjoy watching, this comedy drama of campus life seemed to fit the bill. There's also always something enjoyable about discovering and championing a film (or indeed any artistic creation) that didn't quite get its due.

It proved a good choice, although one can see exactly why it pleased the critics but did not attract the punters. It is maybe a little too low key. The plot, with its redemptive theme, trots along nicely, the characters well-drawn and convincing, the jokes and humorous scenes consistently funny. Yet it is touching rather than seriously emotionally affecting and gently amusing rather than outright hilarious.

As I've mentioned before, one of my current hobbies is tracking down cultural experiences of one kind or another that I've missed and Wonder Boys was certainly worth seeking out.

Friday, December 01, 2023

Hello Yellow Brick Road

Continuing the Watford FC theme, I see that following a campaign by Hornets supporter Roy Moore, Mayor Peter Taylor has arranged for Watford Council to agree the renaming of Occupation Road, which runs alongside the Elton John stand at Vicarage Road stadiums, as the Yellow Brick Road

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Watford forever: 'Rock’n’roll flamboyance meets suburban sobriety'

Despite the Warner Studios and Harry Potter World being a leading local attraction, Watford itself has not often featured as a setting for major motion pictures and the like.

But maybe that is about to change! I see that in a recent book review in The Times, Robert Crampton commented:

If John Preston hasn’t already sold the film rights to this book, he surely will soon. Watford Forever is the heartwarming story of the collaboration and friendship between English football’s oddest couple, Elton John and Graham Taylor: rock’n’roll flamboyance meets suburban sobriety in the bad old days of the 1970s. (£)

Given the public appetite for dramas based on unlikely friendships, it's a wonder no one thought of this before. 

Certainly, those of us who lived in Watford during the Graham Taylor-Elton John era could hardly help but feel that the club was achieving something special that reflected positively on the town and helped change the image of football for the better.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Is that a Benskins pub or am I seeing things?

Stopping in the village of Markyate just south of Dunstable at the weekend I spotted something I never thought I would see again – a Benskins pub sign.

Back in the 1980s when I first started frequenting hostelries, nearly all the pubs in Watford and indeed a wider area of Hertfordshire, where the company had bought out smaller brewers, bore the red and gold insignia of the Benskins brand. Although Benskins had been a Watford brewery, it had been taken over by Ind Coope in the 1950s, the brewery closed in 1972 and demolished in the late 1970s.

Indeed the name had already been phased out and brought back, presumably as a sop to the growth of the Campaign for Real Alea and the demand for greater choice. What passed for Benskins Best Bitter, though, was brewed in Romford not Watford and was what would now be called a session ale. It was a pretty indifferent pint, outshone by Ind Coope's stronger cask beer, Burton Ale. Unless one deliberately sought out one of the town's few Greene King or Courage pubs, or the area's only Free House up in Bushey, going out for a pint in this neck of the woods meant a limited choice of beer (Burton Ale, if you were lucky, Benskins Best, John Bull, Skol lager).

Then in the 1990s everything changed. CAMRA and beer enthusiasts generally had long lamented the way the pub trade was dominated by six big brewers who controlled what beer they could sell and at what price, freezing smaller breweries out of the marked and restricting choice for consumers. Breaking up the tied house system by restricting the number of pubs a brewery could own and permitting landlords to stock guest beers looked to be a rare positive reform from the Thatcher government.

Yet as beer writer Roger Protz explains, it didn't work out like that. In the end, new 'pubcos' took over breweries' pub portfolios, acted in just as restrictive a way and, lacking the paternalism of the breweries who at least wanted to sell beer, sold off many perfectly good pubs.

Anyway, the Benskins brand disappeared, beer and pubs alike, so it was a bit like seeing a ghost to spot the Benskins name under the sign of the Sun Inn, Markyate. I even thought for nostalgia's sake I might pop in for a pint. But it was not to be. The pub, a 16th-century listed building is now a private house, although apparently open until 2013. Even then the sign would have been the only link to Benskins, but seeing it at all was strangely pleasing.