Archive for April, 2009

Pete Atkin @ Above the Title.

April 22, 2009

The news that Pete Atkin has been appointed head of Above the Title Productions‘  drama division is very welcome in this quarter.

Pete, who has already had an illustrious career in radio broadcasting, may be being given a chance to “spread his wings” at Above the Title, but from where I stand, his track record there – a track record that has included the documentary about Stephen Potter Pottermanship(2003) with Stephen Fry, The Woman Who Invented Sitcom(2004), the radio adaptation of Frederic Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes(2005), the fascinating Something in the Air(2005) and Jam Yesterday(2005) by Peter Nichols – already has enough “wingspread” in it to look distinguished by any standard.  
Needless to say, those of us who think audio broadcasting has got a future, even in this internet and digital age, wish Pete well and look forward with considerable interest to what he may do in his new role.

See also: Pete Atkin talks radio from LA


Can the US learn from Ireland?

April 21, 2009

It’s interesting to note that the Nobel Prizewinning economist, Paul Kugman, who, incidentally, has found the Obama administration wanting in its handling the economy crisis, has written a brief piece for the New York Times ( reprinted in today’s edition of The Guardian warning the US government that if it continues on its current course, it could well end up in a similar bind as the Irish government has.


How did Ireland get into its current bind? By being just like the US, only more so. Like Iceland, Ireland jumped with both feet into the brave new world of unsupervised global markets. Last year the Heritage Foundation declared Ireland the world’s third-freest economy, behind only Hong Kong and Singapore.

One part of the Irish economy that became especially free was the banking sector, which used its freedom to finance a monstrous housing bubble. Ireland became in effect a cool, snake-free version of coastal Florida

 Then the bubble burst. The collapse of construction sent the economy into a tailspin, while plunging home prices left many owing more than their houses were worth. The result has been a rising tide of defaults and heavy losses for the banks. And the troubles of the banks are largely responsible for putting the Irish government in a policy straitjacket.


Krugman gives an excellent summary of the hoops that the Irish government have gone through since the “bubble burst” He acknowledges that the Obama administration is still free to make decisions that are no longer open to the Irish


… For now, the US isn’t confined by an Irish-type fiscal straitjacket: The financial markets still consider government debt safer than anything else. But we can’t assume that this will always be true. Unfortunately, we didn’t save for a rainy day: thanks to tax cuts and the war in Iraq, America came out of the “Bush boom” with a higher ratio of government debt to GDP than it had going in. And if we push that ratio another 30 or 40 points higher – not out of the question if economic policy is mishandled over the next few years – we might start facing our own problems with the bond market.

That’s one reason I’m so concerned about the Obama administration’s bank plan. If, as some of us fear, taxpayer funds end up providing windfalls to financial operators instead of fixing what needs to be fixed, we might not have the money to go back and do it right.

And the lesson of Ireland is that you really, really don’t want to put yourself in a position where you have to punish your economy in order to save your banks.

Anybody wishing to know more about Krugman’s latest thinking can read his always readable The Conscience of a Liberal blog which a permanent feature in The New York Times.

Clive James as Poet Laureate?

April 20, 2009

In the course of reviewing  three recently-published collections of poetry poetry, Darwin: A Life in Poems by Ruth  Padel, The Cinder Path by Andrew Motion  and Angels Over Elsinore Collected Verse 2003-2008 by Clive James, the academic and frequent contributor to the literary pages of newspapers and literary magazines, Jeremy Noel-Tod suggests that, given the kind of poetry he writes, James possesses many the qualifications needed to replace Motion as Poet Laureate

Drying up seems to be something that Clive James only does between washing up and writing another poem. In fact, his facility for turning unfussy verses on just about any occasion, and his knack for neat lines and rhymes, would make him an ideal Poet Laureate. The first poem in Angels Over Elsinore, “Windows is Shutting Down”, is sure to become a popular hit for what its William-Empson-meets-Lynne-Truss take on the word-processed end says of English grammar. ‘‘Too bad for we, us what has had so long / The best seat from the only game in town. / But there it am, and whom can say its wrong? / Those are the break. Windows is shutting down.’’ Verse writing is another literate skill that is dying out, but James shows that it is still the place to start if you want to make words memorable in themselves.

There is something appealing about this suggestion,  and one can see whiy it was made,  but I imagine that the post would place too many unacceptable  restrictions on James and would not allow him to do what he does best, which is play with subject matter and form unhampered by the thought that he has to fulfil anybody’s expectations.

Angels Over Elsinore: Collected Poems 2003-2008

by Clive James

102pp, Picador, £14.99

Stuff no longer posted to the Pete Atkin Web Form

Business as usual afted budget?

April 19, 2009

In today’s edition of  The Observer Will Hutton  argues that if the government had vision enough to realise that the free market has failed , intellectually and financially, it would see this weeks budget as an opportunity to seize what he calls  “the high economic ground” by changing “the dynamics of Britain’s finance-driven capitalism”

He admits to knowing that this will not happen.


The desire to stick to orthodoxy, though, is very strong, even if it has ended in disaster. What is striking about the last 20 months is how unwilling bankers, regulators, officials and ministers have been to accept that the free market of the last 30 years is redundant, intellectually and financially. Markets, it turns out, do make mistakes. Public authority does have to shape and reshape the structure in which markets operate. Regulators have to look at system-wide stability rather than assume the market will take care of it.


The various opportunities for reshaping things that have offered themselves in the recent pase have not far been grasped, so there is no good reason to think that the one that offers itself now will be.


…the opportunity for a serious restructuring of the banks was not taken. Instead, we own them at arm’s length while Barclays and HSBC are not part of the settlement. The orthodoxy is that they must be returned to the private sector, the state having done its job. Business as usual. In any case, Barclays’ and HSBC’s independence limits the extent of any reform. Nor have the bankers really learnt any lessons. In the US, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase want to pay off the US government’s investment and get back to what they were doing, the state that created the crisis. So do their British counterparts.


La Sheridan remembered.

April 19, 2009

The only female operatic voice I was familiar with before I entered my teens was that of soprano Margaret Burke-Sheridan (1889-1958). She was probably brought to my attention because she was actually born in Castlebar, the  County Mayo town situated not all that far from my own home town of Ballina


Burke-Sheridan’s recording of I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls (from the opera The Bohemian Girl by Michael William Balfe was, I seem to recall, regularly played the national radio station, Radio Éireann (later to become RTÉ),  and whenever it was, one could be depend upon it that some fellow listener would point out that Burke Sheridan was a “Mayo woman”.


It was only much later that I learned that Burke Sheridan was much more than a local celebrity with a very appealing voice.  She had, in professional opera-singing career that began rather late and lasted a mere 12 years, performed on stages throughout the world, among them Covent Garden, in Milan and Naples, and at the prestigious Carnivale season at Rimini, with all the greats, including the tenors Aureliano Pertile and Beniamino Gigli  and the autocratic music director of La Scala Arturo Toscanini, and was coached by the great Giacomo Puccini 


Indeed Puccini openly admitted to being spellbound by her moving interpretation of Cio-Cio San in his Madame Butterfly and when Gigli was making his debut in Covent Garden, he chose her as his leading lady.


She was fully deserving of her celebrity.



Commemorative stamp of Margaret Burke-Sheridan birth anniversary. Image from Wikipedia.


 RTE One at the 2008 Margaret Burke-Sheridan Exhibition in Castlebar, County Mayo only  

Margaret Burke Sheridan  and mezzo Ida Mannarini sing the Flower duet (“Una nave da guerra”) from the 1929/1930 La Scala production recording of  Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” .


La Sheridan – a gala operatic tribute to Margaret Burke Sheridan

RTÉ Concert Orchestra
Orla Boylan soprano
Anne Marie Gibbons mezzo-soprano
Alfie Boe tenor
John Wilson conductor

Pre-concert talk by Margaret Burke Sheridan’s biographer, author Anne Chambers in the Carolan Room at 6.45pm

Wednesday 29 April, 8pm

Tickets: €15, €30, €45 (concessions available)
Booking: 01 417 0000


The Times They Are a-Changin’?

April 17, 2009

This little piece which accompanied Andy Beckett’s piece in today’s edition of The Guardian which examined the economic crisis of 1974 and the three-day-week caught my eye.


There are one or two figures there that surprised me. Was, for example, the student of 1974 that small and are there that few marriages few?

Obama’s Cassandras.

April 16, 2009

Andrew Leonard, the senior Technology & Business writer at, has compiled a useful list of people of all political persuasions who have on thing in common, and that is the firm belief that the Obama administration’s handling of the economic crisis is flawed.


phrophets-of-doomApril 16, 2009 | At a moment of economic stress greater than most living Americans have ever experienced, it is no wonder that every move made by the administration of President Barack Obama to address the multiple simultaneous crises afflicting the economy has been greeted with howls of criticism from the left, right and middle. Now is a fertile time for a harvest of Cassandras, all preaching apocalypse. But it can be confusing — is the stimulus too big, or too small? Should banks be allowed to fail, or should they be nationalized?

Hard answers are in short supply. But here’s a guide to the prophets of doom. We’ve identified them, attempted to ascertain the moment when they first turned against the White House, and summarized the basic points of their critique. We’ve included economists, members of the business community, bloggers and, just for fun, two of the most anti-Obama Republicans we could dig up…[read on]

This could very well turn out to be Obama’s “O con noi o contro di noi” dilemma. Are those people who are not for him really against him?

Department of Homeland Security picks on us. Why?

April 15, 2009

It appears that a report sent to local police forces by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warning them of “right-wing extremist activity”, and warning that the  domestic threat of violence and terrorism “may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single-issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration” and “groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority”, has got many conservatives seething with a righteous indignation the could not summon when the same department – of Bush’s devising, incidentally – did not have them in its sights.’s Glenn Greenwald, who has been, and still is, a vociferous critic of the Department of Homeland Security and its activity, argues in newsletter today that “When you cheer on a Surveillance State”, as many of these same people have done in the past, you have no grounds to complain when it turns its eyes on you” His argument is that if you create a massive and wildly empowered domestic surveillance apparatus, it’s going to monitor and investigate domestic political activity.  That’s its nature.” 

One suspects that Greenwald takes some pleasure in being able to in naming those conservatives who are who are shouting foul most loudly.

Conservatives have responded to this disclosure as though they’re on the train to FEMA camps.  The Right’s leading political philosopher and intellectual historian, Jonah Goldberg, invokes fellow right-wing giant Ronald Reagan and says:  “Here we go Again,” protesting that “this seems so nakedly ideological.”  Michelle Malkin, who spent the last eight years cheering on every domestic surveillance and police state program she could find, announces that it’s “Confirmed:  The Obama DHS hit job on conservatives is real!”  Lead-War-on-Terror-cheerleader Glenn Reynolds warns that DHS — as a result of this report (but not, apparently, anything that happened over the last eight years) — now considers the Constitution to be a “subversive manifesto.”  Super Tough Guy Civilization-Warrior Mark Steyn has already concocted an elaborate, detailed martyr fantasy in which his house is surrounded by Obama-dispatched, bomb-wielding federal agents.  Malkin’s Hot Air stomps its feet about all “the smears listed in the new DHS warning about ‘right-wing extremism.”

It is awfully difficult to get indignant on their behalf,


When measuring is more important than learning.

April 15, 2009

Leonora Klein, who gave up her career as a family law barrister to become an English teacher, has written an excellent piece for The Guardian’s Education section explaining why, after three a paltry three months in the classroom, she gave up on teaching,

I felt as if I had stepped into a parallel universe where an obsession with “levels”, “targets” and, perhaps worst of all, “outcomes”, has created a culture in which creativity and original thought have no place.

I watched a year 7 class having their first English lesson of the year. They were full of nervous anticipation. I was excited, too, and I remembered what this felt like, waiting for your favourite subject to live up to your expectations.

“Hands up who has heard of assessment focuses?” The handouts went round. Brightly coloured sheets of paper, child friendly, covered in a complicated grid. “So, if you get a level 6, what will you have achieved? Look at the column on the lefthand side and the assessment focus at the top.” The rest of the lesson was spent drawing pictures to illustrate each assessment focus. The teacher explained to the children exactly why they were illustrating the “AFs” – “It’s important to understand how we mark, so that you can improve and develop.”

Applying the logic of the parallel universe, this explanation was impeccable. It is one of the mantras of this system that you should never teach anything unless you can explain precisely what you are doing, why you are doing it and what the outcome will be. It is an educational assembly line. The product is a good exam result. The by-product is the death of the imagination.

Later on she gets to what is the nub of her problem. She believed that she was in the school to teach a love of English language and Emglish literature only to discover that the system had other goals in mind.

……Measuring progress was essential, according to the local authority expert in English, if children were to become “the right kind of learners”. The right kind of learner would have the right kind of skills. “Yes,” she said, without missing a beat, “there may be a tension between teaching a love of literature and skilling them up for life.”

We must realise of course that as a society we more often than not think that “skilling them up for life” is more valuable to learners than learning to love literature. There something of Thomas Gradgrind in all of us, if only we cared to look closely enough for it. Why would we allow the current methods of teaching to carry on, if it were not so?

Stephen & Sonja beside Rhine Falls

April 13, 2009
Rhine Falls - Switzerland (image from Wikipedia)

Rhine Falls - Switzerland (Image from Wikipedia)

This is how the falls are described in Wikipedia:

The Rhine Falls (Rheinfall in German) are the largest plain waterfalls in Europe.[1]

The falls are located on the High Rhine between the municipalities of Neuhausen am Rheinfall and Laufen-Uhwiesen, near the town of Schaffhausen in northern Switzerland, between the cantons of Schaffhausen and Zürich. They are 150 m (450 ft) wide and 23 m (75 ft) high. In the winter months, the average water flow is 250 m³/s, while in the summer, the average water flow is 700 m³/s. The highest flow ever measured was 1,250 m³/s in 1965; and the lowest, 95 m³/s in 1921.

The falls cannot be climbed by fish, except by eels that are able to worm their way up over the rocks.

I  mention the falls here because one the most recent photographs I have of my son, Stephen, was taken last week when he, his sister and his partner, Sonja, visited the falls.

Stephen & Sonja at Rhein Falls (image courtesy of Theresa Cryan)

Stephen & Sonja at Rhine Falls (image courtesy of Theresa Cryan)