Copeland: Labour’s worst ever by-election loss

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There is nothing a British political nerd likes more than a parliamentary by-election, which made last Thursday’s late night TV watching such compulsive viewing. There was some debate about when was the last time a Government party won a by-election from the principal opposition party. The simple answer is the Mitcham and Morden by-election in 1982, but this had the unusual circumstance of being the voluntary resignation of the sitting MP, Bruce Douglas-Mann, when he left Labour to join the SDP.
The other times when the Government party has won by-elections are listed below, where you can see that there is a case that can be made that this was in fact the worst defeat for a principal opposition party since Worcester in 1878.
So that is the state the Labour Party is in, 2017 style. As someone who worked on several Labour campaigns where we won with stunning majorities (think Mid-Staffordshire in 1990) I find this most depressing.

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Graphic: Number Cruncher Politics

How journalism works, 2017 style

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Late in the evening of Friday 20 January there came an announcement that the winning ticket in that night’s Euromillions lottery, worth €88.5 million, had been sold in Ireland. Cue the national hysteria which always follows such announcements. ‘Who has the winning ticket?’ ‘Where was it sold?’ ‘What would you do with the money if you won €88.5 million?’ Journalists were dispatched to all corners of the country briefed to find out the answers to these important questions, and virtually every radio programme and TV news bulletin contained an update.
These days, of course, there is another player in the market, ‘social media’, and this fed the rumour mill. Before long, word had spread that the ticket had been sold in Cork, in particular in the village of Glounthane, and even more specifically in Fitzgerald’s shop. ‘Everyone’ knew that this was the case, and even ‘the dogs on the street’ had found out that the winners were a syndicate based in Janssens Pharmaceuticals on a nearby industrial estate.
Cue more hysteria. RTE News had a live feed into the main evening news. The Wednesday morning tabloids ran the story on their front pages and by the afternoon the shop’s owner was telling a chat show that her mother was hoping the publicity might get her a husband.
By Thursday morning, the owner’s potential suitors might have been reconsidering. Nothing more had emerged from Cork and the satellite trucks pulled out of downtown Glounthane. Then came rumours that the ticket might have been sold elsewhere in the country, probably in Dublin.
And so it proved. First thing on Friday morning the National Lottery told RTE’s Morning Ireland that they would be making an announcement as to which province the ticket had been sold in. But when the spokesperson went live on air, he went further than this and announced the actual shop in which it had been sold – the Applegreen service station on the M1 motorway in Lusk, Co Dublin.
More pandemonium. The first ‘National’ edition of Dublin’s ‘evening’ paper, The Herald, had already gone to press.

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The front page splash had reported how a Clondalkin shopkeeper had posted on Facebook that he had sold the winning ticket in his branch of Tuthills. The next day, he overheard one woman saying to another: ‘Did you hear the winning ticket was sold in Tuthills? I just thought it was hilarious.’

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Within hours, The Herald had replaced its front page for the ‘City Final’ edition. Photographers and film crews had descended on the Applegreen service station where the happy staff posed with glasses of Bucks Fizz for pictures. And there was also plenty of publicity for the service station’s decision to drop the price for fuel to 88.5c per litre until stocks ran out.
But just who were the lucky winner (or winners)? The Lottery was staying quiet on that, other than confirming they had been in touch with them about collecting their prize. Will there be a concerted drive to find out who they are? Or will their obvious desire for privacy be respected? Time will tell. But if there are any rumours, or false posts on Facebook, then you can be sure that the Great Irish Press will be on the case.

Telling it like it is

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Pic: Diamond Geezer

I was in London for most of last week (see my other blog for the reason why). I arrived on Monday morning, halfway through a 24 hour Tube strike. To all intents and purposes it looked as though the whole system was closed down – but in fact this was not so. The incomparable Diamond Geezer spent some of his day travelling round the bits that were open, and wrote it up on Tuesday. Amongst the nuggets he uncovered was this very simple and effective piece of information design. Simple, direct, can be read by anyone in a few seconds. What more can you ask of a piece of information design?

Winston Churchill and the poop of France

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I have been rereading David Reynolds’s masterful account of how Winston Churchill wrote his five volume history, The Second World War. This was an enormous undertaking, for which the great man recruited a research and writing team which included an ex-Cabinet Secretary, the Army general who had been his chief wartime military adviser, another retired general who was on the Advisory Committee for the Official Military Histories, a retired naval commodore, the future Warden of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and a young barrister and historian who had won the MC in the Far East. This group, nicknamed the Syndicate, were responsible for researching and drafting most of the material which went into the five volumes, published between 1948 and 1953.
I will write more one day soon about Churchill’s writing and production methods, but what caught my eye on this occasion was Reynolds’s account of some of the proofreading howlers which bedevilled the first edition of the first volume, The Gathering Storm. To meet the demands of his American publisher, the book had been first published in New York by Houghton Mifflin in June 1948, but Churchill did not regard this as the definitive edition. He insisted that his London publishers, Cassell, incorporate all the textual errors from the US printing – and more besides – into the UK edition, before final publication in October. Even so, more errors were discovered after many of the sections had been printed and this resulted in two pages of Errata and Corrigenda being incorporated into the book before the Index (unnumbered, but following p.610). Further errors were then identified just before the final binding, so this list was added to by another tipped-in slip which is shown below. The most embarrassing error overall was probably the one which is corrected on this slip, which described the French Army as the ‘poop’ rather than the ‘prop’ of France.

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At this point, Churchill called in the proofreader who had worked on his pre-war biography of Marlborough, Charles Carlyle Wood, He was invited to lunch at Chartwell on 4 October 1948 and given the galley proofs of Volume II, Their Finest Hour.
Wood had in fact offered his services more than a year before, but had been politely rebuffed. He wasn’t really to Churchill’s taste – he had once described him as ‘indefatigable, interminable, intolerable’ – and he certainly didn’t endear himself to Desmond Flower of Cassell’s, who complained that he was altering the sense and wording of some passages and that he had removed 219 commas and added 217. But Wood persisted, and remained on the team for the remainder of the project. He also worked on Churchill’s later books, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
At the conclusion of this series, in 1957, Churchill told Wood that his own writing career had now finished. In a friendly personal letter, seen below, he sent him a ‘bonus’ payment of £200 and thanked him for his efforts over the years.
Wood died in 1959. He is remembered here by his granddaughter on her family history page.

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Pic: Christies

Source: David Reynolds, In Command of History, Penguin 2005.

Sunset and the Equation of Time

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Phoenix Park, Dublin. Photograph taken at 1604 on 29 November 2016.

Around this time of the year, I get quite obsessed with the time at which it finally gets too dark to walk my dog. Like many other Dublin dog-owners, I go to the Phoenix Park (a few minutes drive from my house) for her afternoon excursion. It has acres of space in which to walk and often several other dogs with whom mine can run around, so there is much to commend it.
But in order to complete our walk in twilight, we have to start walking about 30 minutes before sunset, which is why timing is crucial. For several years, I have used the wonderful Time and Date website to check when sunset occurs. Amongst the hundreds of useful (and free!) pages included on the site (world telephone dialling codes, for example) is a nifty sunrise/sunset calendar for any location on the planet. I have used this to compile the table below for sunrise and sunset times in Dublin from 15 November 2016 to 7 January 2017:

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The most noticeable things in this table are the times I have highlighted in red: the earliest sunset times actually occur between 10 and 15 December, more than a week before the Winter Solstice on 21 December. This may well be the shortest day of the year, but by then sunset has already advanced by two minutes, and the latest sunrise will actually occur eight or nine days later on 29/30 December.
So why does this occur? As you would expect, Timeanddate.com has the answer: it is apparently because of a phenomenon called The Equation of Time as well as a location’s latitude. At the time of both the Winter and Summer Solstices, the length of a solar day (as measured by a sundial) is longer than 24 hours (as measured by a clock).
This explains the discrepancy, and has a pleasant consequence for us dog walkers. By Twelfth Night on 6 January, the sunset time has already advanced by 18 minutes over the earliest time. As they say over here in Ireland, we will be beginning to notice the stretch in the evenings by then.

How book publishing works, the 2016 version

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Cosy socks and log fires: the BBC article which kicked off the Hygge trend

Do any book shopping (either online or in a bricks and mortar shop) in the run up to Christmas and you are bound to come across a host of books with the Danish word ‘hygge’ in the title. The reason for this sudden explosion was explained last week in a fascinating Guardian Long Read piece by its culture editor, Charlotte Higgins.

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As Higgins says, every first mention of the word requires helpful hints as to how to pronounce it (I found the most useful to be the Sun‘s suggestion that it rhymes with ‘cougar’). The phenomenon started little more than a year ago, and it was carefully planned:

Hygge has not arrived in our midst by accident. Its sudden presence in Britain is a matter of deliberate inducement and persuasion. In its most visible manifestation – the onslaught of books on the subject – it is a trend that has been carefully concocted in the laboratory of London publishing houses, and then disseminated through the ready collaboration of an enthusiastic neophile press.
It is book editors – largely young, female and bright – who created the formula of hygge for a mass British audience. The starting point for these young lifestyle alchemists was an article that appeared on the BBC website in the first autumnal days of October 2015.

Two of these editors actually worked for different imprints of the same global company, Penguin Random House:

In the sleek art deco headquarters of Penguin Random House, Emily Robertson and Fiona Crosby were working, separately, on potential titles for their respective imprints, Penguin Life and Michael Joseph. Each had also spotted the BBC article, they told me, when we met in a room off one of the building’s echoing marble hallways. “I spend an embarrassing amount of my time flicking around the internet,” said Robertson, “looking at what people are reading and sharing on Twitter. Pinterest is big for this. It’s a case of looking at what people are talking about.”

There have been many instances down the years of publishers picking up popular tastes and creating a market for books on the subject. (A similar plethora of books based on the success of the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady in 1977 springs to mind as an example from four decades ago.) But what makes this interesting is the commissioning process that Robertson reveals.
After the hours spent ‘flicking round’ websites, she and the other editors had to find writers: but this was ‘not a straightforward exercise’. Higgins writes: ‘the notion of hygge is so taken for granted in Danish language and culture that there was no readymade cohort of authors or experts to call on. The editors had to either track down a willing Dane, or identify someone with tangentially related knowledge.’ So authors ranging from professional writers, political scientists and (inevitably) actors who had appeared in BBC4 drama series were contracted.
The resulting books will now be piled up in your local bookshop ready for the Christmas rush. They will all have covers featuring either warm socks, log fires or home baked buns — or perhaps all three. Most will sell quite well, and one or two may be outright best sellers, because that is the way in which modern publishing works, especially in a post-Brexit, pre-Trump world which is increasingly un-hyggelig.
At the end of her piece, Higgins notes that, however, hygge can have a dark side:

But it is precisely this sense that it is beyond politics – as well as its ubiquitous, irreducible Danishness (and thus not-foreignness) – that allows it to be mobilised by politicians, particularly those of the xenophobic far right, who have become a rising force in Danish politics over the past decade.
A case in point is Pia Kjærsgaard, the founder of the anti-immigration, anti-Brussels Danish People’s Party, which is currently the second-largest party in parliament. Kjærsgaard has subtly projected herself as the protector of Danish hygge against the unknown forces of the globalised world. According to Nors: “Hygge is part of the whole set-up of the radical right wing in Denmark. Their commercials will have all the emblematic hygge symbols.”
Kjærsgaard, who is now the speaker in Denmark’s parliament, gave an interview last year in which she described, in detail, the importance of making her office hyggelig – with family photos, lamps, porcelain and knick-knacks. “I cannot thrive and work in offices that aren’t hyggelig,” she said.

We should reflect on that, perhaps, as with our credit cards in hand, we shuffle towards the harassed shop assistant. In the immortal words of the New Seekers: ‘Let them all fade away and leave us alone/we can live in a world of our own.’