Tag Archives: arguments


A ‘furriner’; this traction engine was made in Suffolk by Garretts of Leiston.

This traction engine was made in Suffolk by Garrett’s of Leiston.

The first hint of the coming revolution in road transport came with the Puffing Devil, a steam-propelled road engine built by Richard Trevithick early in the 19th century.  This was in Cornwall, where Trevithick was also engaged in the development of the high-pressure steam engine. Steam traction engines were being built all across the country (including East Anglia) by the middle of the 19th century.

There were several producers of this invention in Norfolk, and two firms in particular produced many machines.  Charles Burrell of Thetford was making self-propelled road engines by the 1850s. Burrells did not survive and went bust in the first half of the twentieth century, but at one time their Norfolk built traction engines were exported all over the world. Frederick Savage of Kings Lynn’s steam Juggernauts were in production by 1855; the firm moved on from making farm equipment to corner the market in fairground rides and showman’s engines, even before the 20th century dawned. They were still in business in 1973, when the firm closed.

Traction engine driving a threshing machine

Norfolk is a rural county, which may explain the early enthusiasm for steam engines, that were used in farms to power threshing machinery. Traction engines, which were self-propelled versions of the stationary engine, were later employed to move goods about the farm and drive ploughing machines. The steam-powered wagon made by Samuel Soames in Marsham was an early example of an automotive road engine for personal transport, but it was a one-off.

Soame  Wagonette

Norfolk is not particularly notable for its place in the history of  the motorcar, but that does not mean it was not involved at all. The firm of Mann Egerton in Norwich was involved deeply in the production of motor cars, building the bodywork for Rolls Royce chassis before the First World War. With the coming of war the firm moved into the production of airframes for the burgeoning aircraft industry. Two Norwich firms were involved; as well as Mann Egerton, who were commissioned by the Government to build aircraft to the deigns of others.This activity ceased with the coming of peace, but the other company who made aeroplanes during the First World War continued making aircraft throughout the Second World War. This was Boulton and Paul, whose Defiant was the most famous British night fighter of the Second World War, although by then production had been shifted to the midlands where the factory was deemed less exposed to enemy action. Earlier planes designed by Boulton and Paul had been the Overstrand and Sidestrand biplane bombers, and they had been made in Norwich.

William Marriott

Even railway locomotives were made in Norfolk. The Great Eastern made all its own locos, but their workshop was at Stratford in East London. When the M & G N was formed their works was in Melton Constable; although mot of their motive power was provided by other manufacturers, they did produce some of their own design of locomotives under their Chief Engineer William Marriott.

Before the coming of these mechanised forms of transport, the horse was the beast that moved men and goods on land. Before that it had been the ox, because horses were only used by the most exalted travellers; for the use of oxen as beasts of burden we must cast or eyes back to the middle ages. The great East Anglian horse was the Suffolk Punch, but this breed was apparently not popular in Norfolk.


With all the waterways in Broadland, water transport was the way we carried out trade before the coming of the railways. The high point of the development of boats for this trade was the Norfolk wherry. With just one sail to handle, this vessel could be sailed by one man, although the assistance of  boy was helpful. Wheat and malting barley were taken downstream for transhipment to larger craft, or upstream to Norwich, while coal was carried by wherry upstream from Yarmouth. Lime was another common cargo.


Although the use of the wherry for transport had ceased by the middle 20th century, the importance of water transport continued on the river Yare well into living memory. Sea-going coasters carried coal and timber up to Norwich, and fruit juice from South America to Carrow Works for Robinson’s Barley Water; scrap metal was exported from Wensum wharf. This trade petered out about thirty years ago, and now all the river transport beyond the sea ports is leisure craft.





In Victorian times, and even into the 1950s, the weather and the changing seasons seldom disrupted train services. Flooding may have been a problem, but there was no difficulty about leaves on the line; trees were kept well back from the track to avoid conflagrations arising from sparks from the chimneys of steam engines. If the wind blew a few leaves under the train the large wheels and heavy superstructure of these locomotives would make short work of them.

The 60 ft rails held together with fishplates could accommodate the most extreme temperatures without buckling. Now we have welded rails the passage of the trains is quieter it is true, but every year on hot days there are delays and cancellations caused by the expansion of the track.

Reliable semaphore signals.

Most recently we have had a catastrophic failure of all the colour-light signals on the Norwich to Cambridge line, caused by lightning strikes. The whole system was permanently stuck at red (which I suppose is slightly better than being stuck at green). To make things worse, the spare parts required had to be ordered from Germany. Semaphore signals never suffered in this way; these old signals were only removed from this stretch of line a few years ago, after more than a hundred and fifty years of faultless service. It hasn’t taken long for the modern signalling infrastructure to reveal its flaws.

The collision between a Cambridge bound train and a farm tractor, which happened about a year ago, was caused because (with the ending of semaphore signalling) the number of signal boxes on the line was drastically reduced. The signalman in the box at Cambridge made a mistake because, when called on the trackside phone, gave the tractor driver permission to cross. The train was already nearly upon him, and although luckily no one was killed, there was a terrible collision. Being so far from the scene must have had an effect; no signalman who had just let a train past his box would have allowed someone to cross. Also, having so much more work to do, with all the other signal boxes closed, it is perhaps not surprising that the mistake was made.

These problems are the result of recent updating on the railway. They haven’t made the trains run any faster, but they have certainly saved money on wages. Do not get me wrong; I fully accept the need to modernise a method of transport that was begun almost 200 years ago, but these improvements should be to enhance safety, not solely to protect the bottom line. They should result in a better service at all times. It should not be so easy for the vagaries of the weather, or the tiredness of the operatives, to disrupt things so badly. It ought to be possible to devise systems that would end the problem of leaves on the line for example; it might be a start to return to the old procedure of cutting back the undergrowth on embankments and cuttings along the line.

As to the problem of the rails expanding in hot weather, it might be that with the increasing warming of the climate, is it time to go back to a slightly shorter length of rail? I wonder how they manage things on the new high-speed line from Djibouti to Addis Ababa? The variations in temperature between night and day must be far greater than anything we experience in this country. There are certainly clever people working in the rail industry who could come up with much more innovative solutions to these problems than me, but at present they do not appear to be doing so. Rather we are told that it is just one of those acts of nature, and we must learn to accept it. A surprising number of badly served customers do accept this, but not me. In the 21st century we should be able to travel with comfort and reliability, nor should it cost a fortune to do so; in all three respects we are worse off than our great-grandparents.





Artificial intelligence is an unnatural version of the real thing.  There has been much talk  lately of artificial intelligence and the threat that this may present for us, but as far as I can see it presents no threat whatsoever. Artificial intelligence is a misnomer anyway; although it is undoubtedly artificial, there is nothing remotely intelligent about any computer software that I have ever come across. Whether it is attached to a robot, or to something like correcting this blog, it is highly unintelligent. Robots are good at doing simple repetitive jobs, like filling boxes, but no one would ever claim that this involves any intelligence at all. Even a simple job like polishing my shoes is a mind bogglingly complex task. It involves finding the polish in the first place, making sure it is the right colour, ensuring any spots are removed from the leather and polishing the shoes to a suitable sheen. A robot might one day manage it, but it would still not be intelligent in any meaningful sense of the word.

There is obviously much further to go along the road before we can apply even the term comprehension to any computer program, let alone intelligence. The auto-correct facility that tries to put right spelling mistakes is pretty good at spotting the sort of typos I might make by misplacing a single letter in a long word, but with short words it always gets it wrong.  Where a human being would immediately see the correct word from the context, it make ridiculous assumptions based merely on the nearest spelling.

What I am extremely dubious about is any originality of thought ever coming from a computer. Even in purely scientific terms, take for example the ‘Higgs boson’;  the existent of this sub-atomic particle was postulated in 1964 by the eponymous researcher, acting on what I can only call intuition. It was only proved in recent years by the use of the CERN particle accelerator. I do not claim have any knowledge of this abstruse branch of physics, but  I do not see artificial intelligence coming up with similar revelations any time soon. Perhaps artificial intuition might. But because science can eventually be demonstrated by number crunching, it may be theoretically possible to accomplish anything scientific without human input. With the arts the prospect of computers coming up with any truly innovative results is impossible. A computer may appear to be creative, but it will always be merely a mechanistic device. The original insights of a writer or an artist, or even of a musician (although music relies on mathematics to large extent) I do not see as being within the grasp of artificial intelligence.

In the arts I see no prospect of computers supplanting human beings. I can contemplate the imagination being imitated by a non-imaginative machine, but I think the results would be bizarre rather than valid. As I said earlier, we are so far from even basic tasks being accomplished by artificial intelligence. I do not foresee even my grandchildren’s grandchildren needing to be unduly concerned by the threat of artificial intelligence. On the other hand,  if advances will eventually take care of all spelling errors so much the better. If artificial intelligence can answer all the questions thrown up by molecular physics I would be amazed but not concerned. But if artificial intelligence could explain the value of a Shakespeare sonnet or a Keats ode I would be flabbergasted. For one thing, in such an ‘intelligent’ discussion there is no such thing as a ‘right’ answer, although there is an almost infinite number of ‘wrong’ ones. Or how about sarcasm or irony, where you say the opposite of what you intend; try getting a computer to understand that!





The signs of ageing are always taken to be the obvious ones like wrinkles, cataracts or greying hair. I know that for men the social attitudes to these things are different; a craggy brow and sinking jowls can produce a kind of grandeur in the male face that is much harder to replicate in women. In the not too distant future these physical signs of age may eventually be much reduced (or even eliminated) but this will not mean the end of ageing. In a less superficial sense ageing will always be with us.

“You’re as a young as you feel” is the common cry among those who feel that age is creeping up on them, and the unspoken (and rather pathetic) implied continuation of this phrase is “And I feel really young”.

The last thing I would want is to feel young again, even if this were possible. I remember only too well the lack of self confidence, tongue-tied indecision and general misery of being young. Youth has its positive side, but this is seldom apparent to the young themselves. Trying to find one’s place in the world is a fraught business at the best of times, and the problems of youth are many; young people adopt all sorts of absurd ideas; the adolescent whose legs are growing out of kilter with the rest of his body has an ungainly stride; and the embarrassing effects of a breaking voice on the pubescent male are a penance. Who would want to revisit these things? In contrast age brings a certain gravitas to even the most unlikely candidates.

Even if the passing years do not bring great wealth they bring a certain stability to one’s finances. The young always begin with nothing; wealth, influence, or the sense of acceptance at the lack of theses things – they all have to be acquired over the years. To most of us offspring come with the passage of time, and the trials of having a young family fade as one’s own children shake off the insecurities of youth and progress into adulthood.

The undoubted bodily vigour of youth is not something I would wish to retain or return to. This slowing down in physical activity is another sign of ageing that is likely to remain long after most other such indicators have been banished to the past. The middle-aged may retain a youthful appearance in the future, but I very much doubt they will ever run as fast. The sight of an 80 year old running the Marathon may become more common, but such a competitor will always come way down the field at the finishing line. The twenties are the most physically productive age, and I can see no likelihood of this ever changing.

A certain forgetfulness is a general feature of the ageing process, but that does mean we are all irredeemably stupid. Our brain mass may decrease as its age increases, but the number of wrinkles in the brain tissue grows exponentially. As the wrinkles signify knowledge, this produces the wisdom of age. We may forget more things as we age, but we have an awful lot more to forget. The young brain is a huge blank canvas; it has masses of potential but little content. Potential is a wonderful thing, but it would be sad if that was all an old brain had to offer. We have far less space to store new memories, but that is fair enough as we have little time left to acquire them.

Some people lose all their memories, and this seems sad; but if you don’t know that you have forgotten everything there is a certain seemliness about this. Senility has dropped out of the lexicon of ageing, to be replaced by dementia. This is a pity, because senility has a direct correlation with the concept of ageing, coming from the Latin word senex, an old man. Dementia merely means a loss of reason, which can occur at any age. Senility was used where now we would say an old person has Alzheimer’s. Not one in a hundred has any idea what are the precise symptoms of this disease, and the use of the term only obfuscates the condition. The non-specific term senile dementia was far preferable; we all recognise that it affects the old, but this malady is not an inevitable consequence of ageing.

Like it or not, ageing is something we are all going through. Fighting it is a pointless exercise. Rather than hanker after lost youth you should celebrate the signs of ageing; stop regarding yourself as a time-expired old has-been and return to the idea of the wise elder. You still have a lot to offer.





A Cambridge bound train near Cringleford in years gone by.

Since Sunday 21 May 2017 there has been a brand new railway station to serve Cambridge Science Park; Cambridge North in the Chesterton area of town. Now we need a similar station to serve Norwich Science Park, and a village just south of Norwich -Cringleford- is the perfect place for it. It is on the Cambridge line, and only a short bike ride from the Science Park. There is a level crossing on Low Road at Cringleford, and that means that if a station were built there it would have no need for an (expensive) footbridge; just a couple of platforms (not three as at Cambridge North). It would not need an expensive station building either.  There looks to be plenty of space nearby for a car park/cycle park, and a bus service could connect the station with the hospital/science park/university. It could continue to the city cente. The station would be roughly half way between Wymondham and Norwich stations.

A short distance up the track is another level crossing on Intwood Road. A station here would be slightly less convenient for Cringleford villagers, but the station would not really intended for them. It has even more space for a car park, and this could be closer to the railway too. Either site would be much cheaper to develop than Cambridge North, although knowing the way new projects like to splash the cash it probably would not done as inexpensively as I like to think. Perhaps now is little soon to start building such a station, but if the Science Park at Colney grows as we all hope it will, it is not too soon to start thinking about it. It has more in favour of it than the proposed station in Thorpe for the Broadland Business Park; at least it is on a line between two major business hubs (Norwich and  Cambridge), unlike the Bittern Line where the Broadland Business Park station would be, which only runs to the seaside at Sheringham.

A new station for Broadland Business Park would cost £6.5 million we are told, which is not a great sum of money as such things go. Cambridge North was projected to cost £44m has in fact cost £50m. My scheme at Cringleford could be done for far less. Nor, unlike the Broadland scheme, do I foresee a requirement to increase the number of trains on the line just to service the new station; with the increased demand for transport links with Stansted Airport and Cambridge I anticipate a more frequent service on the Breckland line anyway, once the Ely junction has been upgraded. However we must think of a better name for the new station. Nobody has a clue where Cringleford is; how about UEA International anyone?  They like impressive titles in Norwich (look at the ‘international’ airport). Perhaps Norwich Science Parkway would be more appropriate. I would of course support both Broadland Business Park and Norwich Science Park stations, whatever they are called.

I don’t expect such an improvement to be built in my lifetime; I would be happy merely to see the reopening of Soham station, which everybody is talking about but nobody is doing anything to advance. The reopening of the Wisbech branch, that still has the track in place – some of it even using modern concrete sleepers, though overgrown with weeds-  would cost no more than Cambridge North Station, £50m. I won’t even mention the promised link from Bedford to Cambridge which would cost hundreds of millions. Opening up the old Varsity line providing the possibility of through trains from Norwich to Oxford is a tantalising prospect. Such enhancements to the railway network are long overdue, but they are long-term projects, so I should be glad the new station in Cambridge is now open. I don’t suppose I will ever use it (not being much of a scientist), but I may see it from the train. It is a small step, but a welcome one.





South Devon

It is the sheer variety of the English landscape that fascinates me. France and Germany have varied landscapes too, but they are larger countries. We in England have such diversity crowded into our small land.

I contrast the picturesque beauty of Kent (the Garden of England) with the featureless expanses of the French scene just across the English Channel.  I regard this division as emblematic of the charm of the English landscape. There are beautiful parts of France, but these do not include the land around Calais.

I am sure you know what I mean, but to demonstrate this let me take you on a virtual tour of the country. We will start near the centre of England, where the Grand Union Canal makes its leisurely way through rural pastures. From there we pass across the verdant Cotswolds, the Malverns and the Mendip Hills to the bleak grandeur of Devon’s Exmoor and Dartmoor. The rocky cliffs of North Cornwall stand against the Atlantic rollers that frequently pound the coast. Returning through Dorset there are the marvellous sweeping green headlands and crumbling Jurassic cliffs that meet the English Channel. The North is a combination of moors and dales where livestock graze the landscape; further south the lower lying fields of Lincolnshire and Norfolk are the bread basket of the country, with acres of arable land punctuated by commons, streams and woodlands. Finally in the North West are the majestic mountains and still waters of the Lake District.

There is little countryside in England that could be described as boring.  In contest to the interest of England Canada has vast tracts of snowy wastes to the north; there you experience a brief summer, but the vanishing snow and ice only reveal scrubby grass, firs, myriads of flies and no people. The shifting sands of Arabia consist of dunes and hills but no greenery, apart from the occasional oasis. In England the wide expanses fertile but flat lands where the watery Fens have been reclaimed by ingenious Dutch drainage experts might appear a bit dull, were it not for the towns such as Wisbech and Ely that provide such beautiful relief.

The mountains in England do not provide the spectacular crags that those of Scotland and Wales do, let alone the majesty of the Alpine peaks. Grass rather than snow graces their summits for most of the year. Nature has smiled on us, and the great variety of our geology gave our island people a head start in the push to modernity. All around our shores ports flourished as first canals and then railways connected the inland regions of England with an avid export market.

Coal mines blighted many areas of the landscape, but most of the activity took place underground and out of sight. Lead and tin mines were places of early industrial hardship, but have left behind the picturesque ruins of pumping stations on the Cornish coast. At regular intervals the cathedral cities from Canterbury to York, Wells to Lincoln and Salisbury to Durham provide centres of elegant restraint. The people of England have grown to resemble their landscape; industrious, various but accommodating and friendly; so at least I like to imagine.

Surrounding it all is the sea, that greatest boon to the country. This scenic backdrop to the countryside provides us with a bulwark against foreign invaders, an ocean highway to the wider world, a food resource in the form of fish, a place for the production of green energy from the winds and (maybe) tides.

There is so much to be grateful for in the landscape of England. Let us try to preserve it.




‘This creature, when Our Lord had forgiven her her sin . . . had a desire to see those places where He was born . . . and where He died . . .’ This passage sums up the Book of Margery Kempe. She is forever seeking forgiveness for her sins, but rather annoyingly she never tells us what those sins were. From her earlier life we may take it that they concerned thoughts of a sexual nature. Once the sins were out of the way, her mind turned to thoughts of travel. It could be to Canterbury, or York,  or further to Rome and Jerusalem. No modern-day tourist could have a more packed itinerary, given the necessary restrictions of the time -the early fifteenth century. For some reason, among all these journeys she undertook, she frequently fell into fits of weeping, though what so seasoned a traveller could have had to weep about is not entirely clear.

As you might have guessed, it is easy to find Margery Kempe a little tiresome at times, but if you step back from her privileged prayerfulness and concentrate on what she reveals of the history of her period, the Book of Margery Kempe is fascinating. Coaches were unsprung affairs in the Middle Ages, and roads were miry and rutted, so travel by wheeled transport was uncomfortable. If you had a heavy load to carry you had to use an ox-cart, but otherwise the poor walked everywhere while the wealthy went on horseback. The distances involved could be staggering.  For the more far-off destinations going by ship was unavoidable, for at least part of the way. This had its advantages as well as its drawbacks; the passengers had no option but to sit back and enjoy the ride (if possible), either in the open air or below decks; on the other hand the waves could make the passage not only rough but perilous, for the small ships then in use. You could easily endure seas sickness, or even end up drowned.

With the choice of going by car or train it is quite a trip for me to go from Norwich to Ipswich, but without such modern means of transport Margery thought nothing of going there to see her daughter-in-law off en route to Germany. Upon bidding her son’s widow farewell and leaving the Suffolk port, Margery had almost reached her home when she was seized by an overwhelming desire to accompany her relative abroad. This volte face she naturally attributed not to herself but to the will of the Holy Ghost. The master of the vessel readily agreed to take her aboard, and only her daughter-in-law, who was looking forward to returning to Danzig, was unimpressed; I wonder why?

Margery Kempe was born around the year 1373 in Bishops Lynn – now called Kings Lynn. Edward III was coming to end of his long reign; his ambitions in France had led to the Hundred Years War, a problem for those wishing to travel in Europe. Margery’s family were rich merchants, and both her father and husband were prominent members of the local Corporation. Wool was providing great riches across East Anglia, and Wool Churches were springing up in villages around Norfolk. Her wealth enabled Margery to travel with an entourage of confessors and hermits, despite having fourteen children; she had plenty of servants to care for the youngsters back home. Her education was fairly basic, and she authored her autobiographical work through dictation.

Wherever she went she was able to call on the local vicar, friar or Prior to discuss religious commonplaces with him, which she recounted in her book. No doubt the prospect of a charitable donation made these pleasant chats mutually rewarding. Charity was expected but not demanded of the public. It is revealing to read what Erasmus has to say on the subject; although dating from a hundred years after Margery Kempe’s time, it could be just as true of today’s charitable giving.  He says that people were likely to be more generous if observed in the act, and there were nimble fingered pilgrims who could remove a coin from the altar while apparently depositing one.

Castle Acre, a stop on the way to Walsingham

In all her travels Margery Kempe did not neglect a pilgrimage to nearby Walsingham. Starting from Lynn she would have joined pilgrims from abroad who had landed at the port there, before journeying on to Fakenham; there other pilgrims from Norwich, the Midlands and London all met up before going on to Walsingham. Once there the devout would visit the chapel built as a replica of the House of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The building was draughty, having no doors or glass in the windows. More congenial were the dramas enacted in the Common Place, the market just outside the chapel. Margery went for spiritual solace, but many of the pilgrims were the sick, in search of a miraculous cure. Walsingham is again a place of pilgrimage, the medieval streets drawing tourists from around the rest of the country.  [I am myself due to visit Great Walsingham in the near future, but that is to visit a relative who farms there.]

On her travels in Italy Margery was abandoned by her fellow travellers, who only agreed to let her accompany them  if she stopped talking about God and instead devoted herself too eating, drinking and merry-making. It was in such unaccustomed riotous good company that she arrived in Venice. She stayed there for over three months, getting her spiritual refreshment by attending church every Sunday with a group of nuns. Eventually she could not resist reciting a verse from the Bible, whereupon her friends accused her of breaking her word. For the last six weeks of her stay she dined alone in her bedroom. In spite of Margery Kempe’s own religiosity, it is plain that not everyone was similarly inclined, even in the supposedly devout Middle Ages.

From Venice she took ship to the Holy Land. From the Mediterranean port of Jaffa she travelled inland on a donkey to Jerusalem. During the three weeks she spent  in the Holy Land she visited Bethlehem and the river Jordan, as countless others have done both before and since. She returned to Italy and visited Rome. Once back in Lynn her restless nature soon had her off on her travels once more, this time via Bristol to St James, Compostela, in Spain.




No 10 Downing Street

Downing Street was built at the end of Charles II’s reign by Sir George Downing, after whom it takes its name. It is suggested that Sir Christopher Wren was involved in the design, but the terrace was cheaply built as a speculative development; at this time (the early 1680s) Wren was occupied with designing the (never built) King’s House in Winchester, and it seems that Wren’s input to the architectural appearance of Downing Street was small.

George Downing was born in Dublin in 1623 and educated in the American Colonies. This was a bold move for the first part of the 17th century. He was among the first nine students to graduate from Harvard College in 1642. He then went to the West Indies as a preacher, but abandoned that career for government positions in England. He became established during Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, but moved easily into the new political realities of the Restoration period. He retained an interest in America and was responsible for the English assuming control of New Amsterdam from the Dutch. He was at the time Ambassador to The Hague. The city was renamed New York after Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York. Downing was opposed to the Dutch as the main commercial rival of England; this was the time of the Anglo-Dutch wars. By the end of his life he had amassed a great fortune, and was regarded as exceptionally mean. In 1663 he had become Sir George Downing, having been raised to the baronetage, and his grandson the 3rd baronet (who was not so close with his money) founded Downing College in Cambridge. Downing having spent his early adult life in America, there are Downing Streets there too, in Manhattan and Massachusetts, named after him.

The construction of Downing Street preceded the evolution of the post of Prime Minister. I have to mention East Anglia in this context, and Sir Robert Walpole was the son of a Norfolk country gentleman who was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge. After a successful business career he went into public life as a Whig politician. He was the first person to be regarded as Premier Ministre, a French phrase initially used as a term of contempt by political rivals. His official title was First Lord of the Treasury, and so it remains today. It was King George II who provided the house in Downing Street, now known as No. 10, as his official residence. This was in 1732, half way through his period of office. Since then it has remained the official home of the Prime Minister. There have been 75 Prime Ministers since Walpole, although the scope and nature of the position have changed over the 300 years since its inception, not least being the appearance of women among its holders. Only one Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, has been assassinated and that was over 200 years ago.

Downing Street used to be just another public street in Whitehall, and it was popular among tourists to have their picture taken outside the door of No. 10. I remember going into Downing Street to see the seat of Government with a group of school friends on a visit to the capital. This was during Harold Wilson’s time as PM, and there were already mutterings among the security community about public access to so important a cul de sac. Harold Wilson however would have no restrictions placed on the public who wished to visit the street. It is a sad refection on the changed nature of the country that it would be unthinkable today to allow anybody, without impeccable credentials, into Downing Street; let alone a bunch of giggling schoolboys.





Expertise is an essential ingredient of successful industry, and indeed of life itself. Who would want a house built by amateur bricklayers and clueless electricians? It wouldn’t just be uncomfortable, it would be positively dangerous. If everybody accepts these experts in manual employment, what is the problem with  experts in more intellectual positions?

There clearly is a problem, and to see where it lies one only has to look at the dire warnings from almost all experts of the immediate consequences of a vote to leave the European Union last year. Compare these predictions with the actual result, the pretty even tenor of the economy since June 23rd. Incidentally, it is no good saying that the economy was only saved by the prompt action of the Bank of England in taking emergency measures; the experts should surely have included factors like this before making their predictions.

They clearly got it wrong, but this does not mean that those like the Governor of the Bank of England are not experts. I say this not only because Mark Carney is a member of my old college (and therefore highly intelligent?). If I were by some impossible circumstances responsible for managing a minor branch of a provincial bank I would cause mayhem by my complete lack of expertise in financial affairs. Unlike me, Mark Carney (the Governor) is an expert at managing money, but he is certainly not an expert at predicting the future. Who is? We no longer believe in the prophetic ability of seers and soothsayers, so it is rather perverse to believe in economists’ ability to foresee events.

To take another example; which economists predicted the financial crisis of 2008? They may have produced interesting theories to explain it in retrospect, and that is where their expertise lies. The trouble is that they think they can project their theories into the future. However accurate these theories appear to be, the nature of the subject changes over time. Unlike an expert chemist, who can with absolute certainty make a prediction that a given reaction will produce a given result, this is not true of economists, however much they would like this to be so. In the social sciences like economics this kind of certainty is impossible. People are not chemicals, and will always change in all sorts of unexpected directions.

The problem is the experts’ hubris. They like to think they can do what they can never do, and when they fail they bring experts in general into disrepute. We, the public, are almost as much to blame as the experts; if they had been right about Vote Leave (and they could have been) we would look concerned and say that we should have listened to the experts; but what I have said about predicting the future would still have been true.

There is far too much futurology about today. The newspapers, instead of reporting things which happened yesterday, are full of speculation about what is going to happen tomorrow. When (or sometimes if) the event does happen, these predictions are often hugely wide of the mark. The journalists never learn from their mistakes; they have already moved on the next future event. It would be much more sensible to give due consideration to events that have already occurred.

It is important to recognise what experts can and cannot do. I will leave the expert painter and carpenter to one side for now, and concentrate on the academic expert. Experts are not always right, even when considering the past let alone the future. They may claim a superior understanding over that of  non-experts, but they should not assert omniscience. They should above all not claim to be able to predict the course of the future. Some events may be easier to foresee than others, but with anything that is not immutably fixed luck rather than judgement determines the outcome.




I am sorry for those who have to learn English as non-native speakers of the language; the pronunciation alone must be a puzzle to them, not to mention its many other illogical features. Spanish is spoken exactly as it is written, which certainly isn’t the case with English. You may try to guess the correct pronunciation of English words, and sometimes you may be right – but with many words you would be hilariously wrong. Though and thought are only one letter different, but in sound they are quite separate; even the initial ‘th’ is pronounced differently. The ‘gh’ is another conundrum; from the entirely reasonable ghost to the entirely unreasonable hiccough its tough! 

This brings us to the vexed question of homonyms, homophones and homographs. There is no unanimity about the precise difference between these words, but broadly homographs are words spelled the same but having different sounds and meanings; the metal ‘lead’ and a ‘lead’ as clipped to a dog’s collar are examples of homographs. Homophones are words which sound the same but you spell differently, like the metal ‘lead’ and to be ‘led’ astray. Homonym can refer to both homophones and homographs. I cannot say if there is another term for those words that both sound the same and are spelt the same (i.e. homonyms), but have different meanings; like ‘spelt’ (i.e spelled) and the grain ‘spelt’.  I don’t believe that most languages are quite so complicated and confusing.

Before Dr Johnson produced his lexicon there was no generally recognised source to go to for instruction on the correct spelling (and meaning) of English words; there were several alternative ways to spell the more complex ones. One need only read Chaucer to get an idea of how the language has developed. There have been frequent the attempt to reform the spelling of English in the last three centuries, and this became formalised in America with Noah Webster’s spelling books produced in  the early 19th century. Many of these reforms did not catch on in England, but the loss of the final ‘k’ in words like publick and logick certainly did; but quite why it has remained in such words as sick and quick is not entirely clear. The foreign origins of such words as academick may explain this, as Latin (from which they come) has no letter k. As far as the sound is concerned, there is no difference. Although the dropping of the ‘u’ from words like colour and neighbour took root in the US, soop (soup) and tung (tongue) never did, despite Webster’s attempts to popularise these spellings.

It’s not just the sounds and spellings that words have that confuse us; the meanings too differ greatly according to which side of the Atlantic you are. Take the concept of army vets; in Britain this could well refer to members of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. In America this could only be veterans of the armed forces. Cell phones versus mobiles, standing in line versus queueing, pavement or sidewalk; these are but a few of the diverging ways the language had developed across the pond.

English pronunciations, meanings and spelling are hard for foreigners to pick up, but English grammar on the other hand probably confuses native speakers more than foreigners. Most European languages require a certain awareness of grammatical constructs to formulate sentences, but few English words are inflected. That means they do not change according to their case, tense or mood. An exception is ‘I’ and ‘me’, and this causes endless trouble to us Brits (or we Brits!); if I mentioned that these words were the subject or object of a sentence respectively your eyes would start to glaze over, and if I said nominative and accusative you would probably need to have learnt some Latin to know what I was talking about. I have even heard the Prince of Wales saying that ‘It is a great honour for my wife and I’; it should of course be ‘It is a great honour for my wife and me’. Few people would say that ‘it is a great honour for I’ but for some reason the inclusion of another person in this sentence makes most Britons lose all sense of verbal rectitude.