Slow down, you’re moving too fast

Dublin City Council has recently imposed a speed limit of 30kph in late parts of central Dublin – basically any street which is not regarded as a main artery. This is supposed to protect pedestrians and children at play. In order to explain this to the general public, the Council has produced another one in its ongoing series of baffling signs, and spent a lot of money erecting them all over the city.

There are four separate symbols in the sign, which I suppose are meant to illustrate the reasons why the speed limit has been imposed. An adult male walking and a juvenile male playing football are just about self-explanatory. But why a small car? And an odd looking house with an open door? I presume the house is somehow trying to indicate that this is a residential area, but I’m completely baffled by the car. Perhaps it’s a Father Ted symbol: ‘This is not a small car. It’s far away.’

We’ll leave aside the awful typeface used for the Irish language text for the moment. That’s a post for another day.

Type on the street: Westminster/Data 70

Westminster was a typeface designed by Leo Maggs in the 1960s, based on the typeface created for the Westminster Bank for cheque scanning in the early days of optical character recognition. See this article for more about its design. That’s why every single letterform is so different from the rest.
In 1970, Letraset released its own typeface called Data 70 which was ‘closely related’ to Westminster. (That’s the way things worked back then.) Westminster was released by Microsoft in various versions of Windows, such as Windows 98.

Photographed in Anstruther, Fife, on 1 May 2017. The shop was closed.

See Fonts in Use for more examples of Westminster and/or Data 70.

Staring at disaster

The three Labour leaders who have won general elections since 1945

There is no better guide to the completely bonkers attitude of Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, who are on course to lead the British Labour Party to disaster in five weeks time, than this article written on Friday in the Independent.
It was written by a Momentum supporter called Rachel Godfrey-Wood, who obviously remains convinced by the Dear Leader.

As a Momentum member, I’m not disheartened by Labour’s losses in the local elections.The local election results are coming in, and the pundits are predicting doom for Labour in next month’s general election. I could have written that line before we even knew the results – in fact I did – because it relies on two hard facts that were never going to change. Firstly, that these local elections are not nationwide and exclude pretty much everywhere that Labour’s vote share has been improving (for instance, there were no elections in London). Secondly, that large sections of the media are committed to building a narrative against Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour’s army of campaigners were never drawn to the idea of giving up their evenings and weekends by good polling numbers, and they won’t be put off by the odd setback in county council elections.

They have been inspired by a vision for a radically different kind of society – an alternative to the rigged political and economic system in which nurses are using foodbanks and four million children are living in poverty.
It’s the people versus the establishment, and for the first time in my lifetime we have, in Jeremy Corbyn, a potential prime minister who is really on our side.

This guff is symptomatic of the failure to face up to the reality that in seizing control of the party these Momentumites have elected a leader who is so mistrusted by the ordinary Labour voter that they are pushing a once-great party with a proud history to certain doom.

Here is what the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley thinks:

There are only two people in the country still trying to sustain the fiction that the general election is competitive. One is Theresa May. “I don’t take anything for granted,” she says, with the most implausible humble-bragging. The other one playing pretendy politics is Jeremy Corbyn, who has to maintain the line that four weeks of further exposure to him, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell will miraculously change the country’s estimation of their suitability to form the next government.
After Labour had been hammered in areas of Britain that the party had controlled for decades past, he blustered that he was “closing the gap” with the Tories, before going on to claim that he was “loving every bit” of this hopelessly unbalanced fight. I dare him to say that to the faces of the hundreds of decent, loyal, hard-working Labour councillors who have just been fed into the jaws of the Tory munching machine.

Rawnsley concludes:

As Labour stares into the jaws of disaster, it is essential to grasp that there was nothing pre-ordained about this rout. The electoral evisceration of Labour wasn’t written in the stars. Defeat is not to be blamed on the whims of the gods or the tides of the moon. This calamity can’t be put down to the caprice of fate. The Tories were handed this opportunity to smash their way to a big majority because Labour made terrible choices and is under abysmal leadership.

Unfortunately it looks as though Labour will pay the price, and this cost will be expressed not just by the many good Labour MPs who, unfortunately, will lose their seats on 8 June. The greater burden will fall on the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For this could well be the last time when an election will be held when all its constituent parts will vote for the same Parliament. And it could condemn the Labour Party itself to electoral oblivion.

Looking on this from abroad, I can only despair.

Déjà vu all over again in Sunday Express as columnist writes same story three times

Reposted from my Dambusters Blog

A colleague sent me a link to this week’s Sunday Express, thinking I would like the fact that it had given me a namecheck and also quoted a commenter on this blog. Fine, I thought at first, but when I looked at it more carefully it did seem to be rather an old story. And so it was.

The article appeared in a column written by Adam Helliker (‘Whispers from the Top: The best informed, most entertaining diary you need to read’) published last Sunday, 30 April 2017. The piece started:

UNLIKE the brave men of Bomber Command who hit those dams so accurately in Germany in the Second World War, the producer who wants to remake the famous film about the raid keeps on missing his target.
It is now more than a decade since Sir Peter Jackson, producer and director of The Lord Of The Rings, declared he was going to remake The Dam Busters.

Sounds familiar? Yes indeed. Here is the ‘best informed’ Mr Helliker, with another of his ‘whispers’, written on 9 August 2015:

UNLIKE the brave men of Bomber Command who hit those dams so accurately in Germany in the Second World War, the producer who wants to remake the famous film about the raid keeps on missing his target.
And with the death of pilot Les Munro, who was to have been the film’s technical adviser, the likelihood of it being made is dropping faster than a bouncing bomb.
Sir Peter Jackson refuses to say when his new version of The Dam Busters will be made.

And if this is not enough for you, here’s where the sequence starts. In what was doubtless named as an exclusive on the day, the ‘most entertaining’ Mr Helliker wrote this on 7 December 2014:

UNLIKE the brave men of Bomber Command who hit those dams so accurately over 70 years ago in Germany, the producer who wants to remake the famous film about the raid keeps on missing his target.
Sir Peter Jackson refuses to say when his new version of The Dam Busters, with a script written by Stephen Fry, will be made. Indeed he professes to becoming increasingly “irritated” when people ask him about it now, even though he has held the rights for five years.

It’s not just the text which is interchangeable in all three versions. Mr Helliker has recycled the same 2014 quote from Sir Peter Jackson: ‘There’s only a limited span I can abide of people driving me nuts asking me when I’m going to do it.’ To add interest, Sir Peter is variously described as ‘being dismissive’, ‘declaring tetchily’, and becoming ‘increasingly irritated’. As indeed he might when he reads this comment for the third time.

The recycling doesn’t stop there. Each article has a quote from a Mr Jim Dooley of the Bomber Command Association. In both 2016 and 2017 he is quoted as saying: ‘It’s a film everyone wants; the original one is always being shown and they wouldn’t do that if there wasn’t an interest in it.’ In 2014, he said: ‘The time to make this film is right now; we are waiting with baited breath. These chaps might not be with us for much longer, and we were hoping for a big opening night to boost funds needed to maintain the new Bomber Command memorial in London.’ So Mr Helliker must have troubled himself to pick up the phone to Mr Dooley on two separate occasions.

Each of the three articles also mentions what Mr Helliker calls ‘chatter’, but seems largely to be generated by him, that the cast of the film will include Colin Firth as Barnes Wallis and Tom Hollander as Guy Gibson. The fact that Tom Hollander (a fine actor, of course) is now in fact 49 and therefore unlikely to be cast as a 24 year old war hero is not mentioned. But original research (such as checking out his Wikipedia entry) doesn’t seem to be Mr Helliker’s forté.

Instead, he just pulls up an old piece he wrote a few months ago, swaps around a few paragraphs and hopes that no one notices. Maybe the line at the top of the page should be changed to ‘Whispers from the Bottom. Recycling old tat every week.’ 

[Thanks to Dom Howard! Full disclosure: the quote in the headline ‘Déjà vu all over again’ is attributed to baseball coach Yogi Berra. Or so it says on his Wikipedia page. ]

May Day 1997 memories

Tony and Cherie Blair arrive in Downing Street, 2 May 1997. The woman in a blue jacket in the foreground with her back to the camera is long-time Labour staff member Jackie Stacey. [Pic: BT]

About ten days ago I started drafting the piece below, intending to publish it this week before the 20th anniversary of the 1997 General Election on 1 May. But then, ‘events, dear boy, events’, as Harold Macmillan is supposed to have said, intervened. Nevertheless, it still seems worth recording what an amazing day 1 May 1997 turned out to be – both for me personally and, I still believe, for the whole country. In these desperate times we need to hang on to those memories and believe that good times will roll around again once more. Things can only get better.

It was just after 7am on a bright May morning when I left my house to go to the polling station. We lived in one of the less trendy areas of Stoke Newington, a row of Edwardian terraced houses facing a five storey council block. The polling station was in a community hall just across the main road, maybe a minute’s walk from our house. My vote for Diane Abbott safely lodged, I got in the car and drove to another small terraced house about 30 minutes away, off the Harrow Road.

I had volunteered to spend the day running a Labour Party committee room in the Regents Park and Kensington North constituency. This was the new name for a previous constituency called Westminster North (a long-time Labour target seat) which had had a bit of the old Kensington constituency added. The Labour candidate, Karen Buck, was an old colleague of mine from my days working for the party at Walworth Road. Keen to spend election day doing something useful I had rung her agent, the redoubtable Margaret Lynch, a couple of weeks before and put myself forward. The constituency had a notional Tory majority of about 2000, so it was very high on Labour’s key seat list. Karen had every chance of winning, given that Labour had been miles ahead in the opinion polls for years but by polling day everyone was very nervous that something would go horribly wrong.

My wife Jacqui’s parents had come over from Ireland the previous week. They were between houses back home so were happy to stay with us in London for a while, and mind our two children (Patrick aged 4 and Aisling 17 months) while we gallivanted around town working and politicking. So I set about preparing for the day ahead while Jacqui gave the children breakfast and took Patrick to nursery.

I checked on the two polling stations which my committee room was covering. The Labour volunteer tellers were already in place taking the voters’ numbers, as instructed. At one station there didn’t seem to be a Tory teller. So had they had given up on the seat already? It seemed a bit early to presume that. There is an agreement between the parties that tellers co-operate in taking numbers (no point in pissing off the public by asking them twice), but if they weren’t there on time then we certainly wouldn’t give them any numbers they had missed out on.

Back at the committee room, everything seemed to be in place. I guess that now everything is completely computerised but in 1997 we still relied on manual processing of what we were learning to call the Get Out The Vote operation. This meant that the names of those who had promised to vote Labour were printed out on Reading Pads. Named after the town of Reading whose then MP Ian Mikardo is supposed to have devised the system, these were pads made up of five or six leaves of carbonised paper, so anything typed on the top page is copied through to the lower pages.

The lists of ‘promises’ were printed out onto the pads in numerical order, and divided up by streets. They were then taped down on a large table in the committee room. When the numbers arrived from the polling station they were checked against the pads. If the number appeared the name was recorded as being ‘For’ and crossed out. If it didn’t appear, it was recorded as ‘Against’. The organiser kept a running total of the numbers For and Against, which were then reported back to the constituency campaign HQ.

Once you were up to date with the numbers coming in from the polling stations, you tore off the top sheets and gave them to the teams of volunteers who went out knocking on doors encouraging those who haven’t yet voted to do so as soon as possible. The plan was to cover the whole of your patch three or four times during the course of the day, which is why you needed a steady stream of people who didn’t mind knocking on doors and issuing polite reminders to those who hadn’t yet voted. If you are reasonably organised and like to spend a day bossing people around (and who doesn’t) then being a ward organiser can be very satisfying and even great fun.

Margaret Lynch had certainly done her stuff, as everything seemed to be pretty much under control, and within an hour of me arriving in the house a woman from the Communication Workers Union also turned up saying that she had been seconded for the day. So the two of us stayed in the committee room and co-ordinated the work of the many other volunteers who would drop in for several hours at a time over the course of the day.

More and more people came by. A team arrived from Brent North constituency, a supposedly safe Tory seat whose Labour Party members had been twinned with Regents Park and Kensington North to give the key seat extra help. They worked away assiduously for several hours. Also, because we were the closest key seat to central London, people who had been working at head office also arrived to do their bit for a while. One of these was someone I knew slightly, a young researcher in Gordon Brown’s office called Ed Miliband.

More names were crossed off, more sheets torn off the Reading Pads, more teams were dispatched. The big rush of voters which always occurs between about 5 and 7 pm was well under way when the Brent North people had a phone call. Apparently things were going surprisingly well back there, and it looked as though the Labour vote was soaring. Would it be OK if they went back? This was when I got my first inkling of the scale of what would occur later on in the night.

About 8pm Ed Miliband said that he had to go, because he needed to help Gordon Brown write his speech for later on. That was also fine by me, since nearly all the names seemed to have been crossed off the pads by now, and we were sending out teams to find only one or two people at a time. There comes a moment on an election day when you have already called at all the addresses you have four or five times already. You simply can’t go knocking on the same doors again.

At 9pm Margaret Lynch was still encouraging us to send teams out but about half an hour later the CWU woman and I called it a day, sent the last of the volunteers home and opened some beer. We did some tidying up and turned on the TV to wait for the exit poll. Then as Big Ben sounded ten, David Dimbleby announced that the experts were predicting a Labour landslide. We shared a brief hug, and toasted the result. We also laughed as we noticed that the VCR belonging to the owner of the house had clicked into action. Another political junkie.

Jacqui had already taken our car home so after we locked up I went off to the Harrow Road to get a taxi. By the time I got back, the first results were coming in. It wasn’t long before safe Labour seats like Sunderland declared huge majorities, and soon after the first Labour gain came through. If I recall correctly, it was Birmingham Edgbaston which meant that the honour of making the first victory speech fell to Gisela Stuart.

After a while, with results coming in thick and fast and Labour regularly winning unlikely seats, Jacqui and I walked round to a nearby house where some local party members had gathered to watch the results. As we approached, we could tell from the cheers you could hear on the streets that more Labour wins had come through. At 3.10, up in Enfield Southgate, the Portillo moment occurred (an event so pivotal in political history it now has its own Wikipedia entry) and Stephen Twigg lifted his eyes to heaven as he became a new MP. At some point, Karen Buck’s result must have been declared – she had won by almost 15,ooo votes in what was supposed to be a marginal constituency.

At about four in the morning, I decided it was time to head to the official celebration party at the Festival Hall. I only had one ticket, so Jacqui had no option but to go home to bed, but by this stage she was quite happy to do so. So I got a taxi to the South Bank, and as it dropped me off at the entrance, I realised that there were several dozen people outside clapping and cheering as guests arrived. This was the most humbling moment in the day – the sheer joy, the sheer relief that the Tory years were finally over was so infectious.

Inside, newly elected MPs were comparing results with each other, and with those who had been re-elected. Some old hands had got results which looked more like those from the South Wales valleys. Diane Abbott had won by almost 15,000, Frank Dobson by just under 18,000. There were all sorts of unlikely guests, like the well-known socialist Richard Branson. Then at some point, with the skies lightening outside, we were all told to go outside onto the terrace as Tony Blair was expected very shortly.

These sort of things never happen quickly, as I should have known, but once you were penned outside it was well nigh impossible to move. So we listened again and again to Things Can Only Get Better, which was on continuous loop. Peter Mandelson, Robin Cook, John Prescott and a few others were all in the front row, everyone else was squashed in somewhere behind them.

Finally, Tony and Cherie Blair and their entourage arrived. Early commuter trains were rattling over the Hungerford railway bridge and the sun was streaking the sky. ‘A new dawn had broken, has it not?’ Blair asked as he began a short speech. We were elected as New Labour, we will govern as New Labour, he went on.

After he finished, it was fully light and people started drifting away. I said my goodbyes, and walked over to Waterloo. I bought the morning papers, but they had gone to press too early to catch the full extent of the political earthquake which had occurred in the previous few hours. I sat on the top deck of a 76 bus, papers falling off my lap, as it jerked its way through the City, on into Islington and past Dalston Junction to Stoke Newington Road.

I went to bed for an hour or two, but was still too excited to sleep properly. When I got up, Neil Kinnock and Jim Callaghan were being interviewed in the BBC studio and their genuine pleasure as they watched the Blairs arriving in Downing Street was great to see. I caught a glimpse of my old colleague Jackie Stacey in a smart blue jacket as she marshalled the arrival with her usual efficiency. She told me later that they had persuaded the police to let members of the public through the gates so that the enthusiasm which you could feel on the streets was properly transmitted.

What a day it had been. As Wordsworth almost said: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be there was very heaven.’

If you have your own memories of 1 May 1997 and would like to share them, then please do so in the comments below. Or you can contact me by email.

Indexer, hooray for the

Today is National Indexing Day: a day of celebration for all those who are concerned with maintaining good standards in book editing and production.
Sam Leith in the Guardian has a nice piece about the subject, hailing the ‘unsung heroes of the publishing world’.
He spell out why an index is so vital:

the index is, in any nonfiction book, more useful than almost anything else in the apparatus. It is a map of the text; a cunningly devised series of magical shortcuts that can in the good case save a scholar many hours of work, and in the bad one save a bookshop-browsing cabinet minister from having to buy a former colleague’s memoirs.

The bean counters who run so many big publishers these days don’t, of course, always see it this way. If there has to be an index at all, then surely it could be generated by a computer? Similar arguments are often applied to the necessity of employing specialist copy-editors and proofreaders. Proper publishing needs all three, I say.
Leith also mentions the clever way some comic writers have used the index as part of their work. This has been highlighted in blogposts by the indexer and editor, Paula Clarke Bain, who is one of the driving forcers behind National Indexing Day (she has tweeted a dozen or more times already). A great example can be seen in the recent Alan Partridge book, Alan Partridge: Nomad, which contains gems such as:


Corsodyl Mouthwash, brand ambassadorship of 24 (buy Corsodyl Mouthwash, the best mouthwash there is)
Countryfile, that woman who sued 10
Haddaway, a man that looked like 257
Jam bombs 149
Jambon 149
Netflix, Christ’s opinion on 265
Phalanx, nice use of the word 73
Quite superb physical condition (QSPC) 35, 36, 37, 41, 106, 276

More information about a June conference in Oxford on the state of the art of indexing can be found here. The Society of Indexers can be found here.

Lost for Words

A month or so ago Michael Quinion, the founder and writer of the wonderful World Wide Words website, sent out a message to the 50,000+ subscribers to his free newsletter that he was suspending publication his newsletter, citing ‘personal circumstances’. It would seem that I was not the only person who took this as meaning that he was facing serious illness.
Happily, this wasn’t actually the case, as Quinion has reported this week. Although he has had a foot operation it was, in his words, ‘hardly life-threatening’, and he has come through it with a leg in plaster and instructions not to put any weight on it for a fortnight. He continues:

This has almost nothing to do with my decision to cease writing World Wide Words. Truth be told, after 930 issues I was becoming written out. Every week that passed made writing more of a chore and less of a pleasure. About a year ago, closure of the freelance reading programme of the Oxford English Dictionary, to which I had contributed since 1992, meant that I had lost a key stimulus for investigating and writing about new words and — more recently — access to the online OED. Cuts to local authority library services have very recently severed access to a key British Library newspaper database.
I began to think that somebody was trying to tell me it was time to stop.

The good news is that the WorldWideWords website will stay online, and will certainly be a resource for many years to come. Where else would one go to find out whether or not someone’s definition of a well known phrase or saying is actually codswallop? (Nothing to do with Hiram Codd, the 19th century purveyor of soft drinks, apparently.)
Those of us who toil in the back reaches of the interwebnet should salute Michael Quinion and thank him for the twenty years of wisdom and wit he has regularly dispatched to so many people. Good luck in the future. The project he is now taking on – the conservation, documentation and move of a recently closed local railway history museum – is surely in the safest of hands.