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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 18 December 2015

On Best Practices

I've been thinking  recently about the relentless drone in UK higher education of people who often by self-appointment  define and then attempt to coerce people into adopting so called "best practices". I'm primarily thinking about teaching, but I'm sure the same kind of thing is going on elsewhere.

Somebody sent me this link to a blog post by a guy called James Bach who appears to be a software tester. I know nothing about him or about software testing. I don't know whether he is crazy or a genius, a good guy or a bad guy. What I do know is that what he writes about "best practice" is pretty much what I'd like to say about it, but put much better than I would be able to manage. So for that I'm in his debt.

Pants on fire

It's a sad life when you can claim to have actually watched a HoC Treasury Select Committee in action on Parliamentlive.tv, as indeed I did on 1st December 2015. The interest was in seeing the admirable Andrew Tyrie  torture Gideon Osborne over the  EU migrants and benefits figures headlined by David Cameron and hastily justified by a DWP that looked very much as though it had been caught with its pants down. Tyrie went as far as to call the numbers "bogus" to which Osborne replies (13:36:38) "...it's the most accurate estimate we have available to us."

We now know, thanks to the dog with a bone like qualities of the indomitable Jonathan Portes that at best Gideon was equivocating and at worst perjuring himself. I guess the best that can be said is that views differ as to the desirability of Chancellors of the Exchequer being economical with the vérité.

 Portes' FOI request to DWP and HMRC forced them to admit that they have  numbers  for recent migrants on tax and national insurance payments as well as benefit payments.  But they refused to put them in the public domain and turned down the FOI request on the grounds that the numbers related "..to the formulation of Government policy" and were therefore exempt from FOI disclosure.

Play that by me again. A department of government in a so called democracy has information  about matters of fact that are highly relevant to a public debate that is taking place to a large extent in a factless vacuum and fueled by the worst sort of media hysteria. Moreover, at some point, as yet to be determined, that public will be asked in a referendum to vote on the UK's continued membership of the EU. Is there anyone who thinks that in this context accurate factual information about immigration should not inform this debate?

Clearly the answer is yes: the DWP, HMRC and the current Government. As somebody who has a professional interest in data I'm appalled. As a citizen I'm outraged. 

This insignificant little story, which has had a piffling media half-life tells us more about how we in the UK are governed and the attitudes of the governing class towards the rest of us than more or less anything that has happened in Westminster over the last few weeks. We are governed by people who do not want facts to inform public debate. What kind of a democracy is that? A confederacy of dunces?

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Where is Britain's Joschka Fischer?

So, as we rush headlong towards another disastrous foreign policy decision I'm asking myself how it is possible that we have filled our legislative chamber with people who  apparently possess such a limited capacity to reason, examine evidence and think clearly about cause and effect? Where is Britain's Joschka Fischer?  

Hilary Benn is a decent enough bloke, but he seems to have checked his brain out on this one. Interviewed on Today this morning he said: "...what happened in Paris could well have happened in London and that is why we have to take action against this group." So, dropping even more bombs on the heads of people in the middle-east is going to reduce the threat of domestic terrorism? And of course there is plenty of evidence to support that belief...What could possibly go wrong?

Monday, 30 November 2015

In Praise of Brian Glanville

In one way I owe Brian Glanville a great deal. Between the ages of 11 and 12 I more or less stopped reading. Up to then I had consumed the usual diet of Enid Blyton adventures and Anthony Buckeridge prep school stories. But then I quit, unless you consider that reading means the keen consumption, whenever I could get them,  of Commando and Battle Picture Library strip comic books. "This is where you get yours Fritz! Achtung! For you ze var is ofer Tommy". I've blogged before about the odd assumptions that secondary school teachers at that time made about our reading tastes. But Brian Glanville came to my rescue.

For reasons that are obscure to me, and are perhaps no more profound than my parent's recognition of my all consuming, and given my lack of talent, wildly unrealistic, fantasy that I was going to become a professional football player, I  was given a copy of Glanville's novel for teenage boys Goalkeepers are Different. I read it immediately. Twice. It is, though obviously I wouldn't have put it like that at the time,  a Bildungsroman and, crucially, it was about people living now, who weren't completely different from myself. Somehow it kick-started me back into a reading habit that led to John Wyndham and a love of science-fiction. OK , it wasn't Jane Austen, but it was better than nothing.

For 40 years I had more or less forgotten Brian Glanville. I knew he was considered one of the best journalists writing about football, but I had no idea he had written novels for adults. Then a few weeks ago I acquired a copy of his long out of print 1974 novel The Comic republished a decade or so ago in paperback  by Smaller Sky Books. It is actually a very fine piece of work, a first person narrative told from the point of view of an over the hill comic sitting in rehab after some kind of breakdown.

The ingredients are all pretty standard, pick and mix  the life story of Max Miller, Tony Hancock, Max Wall and tens of others, but it is done with style and sensitivity. And it pretty much gets to the heart of the love-hate relationship between the stand-up comedian, their audience, their family, the agents, and the promoters. In the end the protagonist finds some sort of redemption and insight into their own lonely predicament through taking on a straight role in regular theater. 

One man, in the spotlight, trying to make other people laugh by being something he is not; living and dying by the reaction to his last performance. There is something in it that in etiolated form is vaguely reminiscent of  being a university lecturer. 

Smaller Sky Books, by the way, seems to be owned by John Wain's son.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Where we went wrong

If you are concerned about the future of higher education in the UK and you only have time to read one thing today, this week, this year then you should read this interview with David Colquhoun. (And a bonus is that he has sensible and informed things to say about p. values.)

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Hollow Point

So Jezza is getting it in the neck again, not least from his own party, over his response to a question about "shoot to kill". It has to be said that he didn't play the ball very well and in hindsight he was naive not to ask for the question to be posed in a much clearer way so that he could give a more precise answer. 

It's now possible to portray him as believing that the security services should not try to kill Kalashnikov toting lunatics who are picking off passers by. If he meant that, then clearly he can't be Prime Minister and shouldn't be leader of the opposition. But I don't think that is what he meant at all. 

Actually he is right to say that we don't want a "shoot to kill" policy if in practice it is equivalent to the set of "procedures" that led to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes. In other words poorly controlled armed police, desperate for a result, running around our large cities targeting ordinary people going about their business because they think they look a little suspicious. And then lying about what they have done.

Jezza should be thinking twice before he speaks and we should be careful about what we wish for. Next time whose son or daughter will it be that gets the hollow point?

Friday, 13 November 2015

Death of the random sample greatly exaggerated

We are told over and over again that there is a coming crisis in empirical sociology and that one of the victims of this will be the face-to-face social survey with respondents selected by probability sampling methods. To be sure there are increasingly big challenges involved in collecting data in this way - responses rates more or less everywhere have plummeted over the last 20 years - but there is still life in the old dog. And today's Guardian has an encouraging report about the success of the British Election Survey's post-election data collection compared to the pre-election polls (including their own pre-election panel). I'll link to the BES's own blog post on this rather than the Guardian's story because it contains much more detail and because they deserve the traffic! 

Shout out too for one of our ex-students Jon Mellon who is behind a lot of the work reported there.

The lesson seems to be that if you actually care whether the results of your research bear some relationship to reality as opposed to only caring about creating a big media splash, then you have to spend the money  to select respondents at random and then make the effort to pursue them vigorously. Because, at least for some questions, relying on heavily self-selected respondents is like pissing in the wind: unless you are very agile you are going to get your feet wet.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Comedians

The important things to be done this week disposed of I sat down last night and started to read Social Class in the 21st Century. I wish I hadn't. I managed  the introduction but I now have doubts as to whether I'll be able to get to the end of the book without losing the will to live. Life really is too short for this sort of masochism.

Where to start? Problem number one is the word salad. I wonder what the Penguin editor was doing? Certainly not making sure that the prose always makes sense. They wouldn't need any specialist scientific knowledge to do that, so I  guess  they just didn't care as long as there were actual words on the page and units shifted off the shelf.

What should have happened is something like this:

Editor: Hi guys, great draft, just a few changes I'd like to run past you.

GBCS team: Er... OK, this won't take long will it? We're due at the BBC in half an hour.

Editor: Relax, I've booked you into Fawlty Towers for a week or two.

GBCS team: [Looks of uncomprehending astonishment]

Editor: Let's get going. You say on page 4 that: "Understanding class as based on these three capitals allows us to understand how growing economic inequality is also associated with growing class inequality between the top and the bottom." Nice sentence. Just one small problem. How can you say anything about, let alone understand,  "growing class inequality" when you only have information about one point in time? If you guys have solved that problem then you should patent it.

GBCS team: [Nervous smiles, rolling of eyes and black looks] Sure, whatever, only we are rather busy...

Editor: And another thing, on page 7 you write:  "Scientific experiments are normally expected to stand back from the research they are conducting in order to provide distanced and 'objective' results, for instance using randomized controlled tests when comparing which medical interventions are effective. However, in the case of the GBCS, we could not do this. Interests in class are themselves so highly loaded that if we stand back, then we miss the energies, intensities, but also the hostility and insecurity that are bound up with class."

Now then, let's look at that first sentence. It is usually the human being ie the experimenter, rather than the experiment itself which, as you so charmingly put it,  is "expected to stand back". But that is a mere bagatelle, a slip of the pen and easily corrected.

 But then you go on to put 'objective' inside those scare marks. What are you implying exactly? Shouldn't you spell it out? It looks like you are casting aspersions but don't have the courage to say explicitly what you mean. Do you think objectivity is a bad thing, or simply an impossible thing? Don't you owe it to your readers to be straight and tell them exactly what you mean? 

Let me put it this way, if someone wrote: "Professor X the renowned 'public intellectual'" you could, quite reasonably, interpret it as a disparaging remark suggesting doubt as to whether he really was an intellectual, or even scepticism about the pretensions of public intellectuals in general. What precise shade of meaning was intended would be difficult to pin down (which is why it was used). It would, in effect, be a lazy jibe which leaves the reader to fill in the gaps with a wink from the author. That's OK in boulevard journalism, but not in an academic book - even a trade book on an academic subject.

So  are you for objectivity? If you are not, why should anyone pay any more attention to you than to the bloke down the pub?

Oh, and one more thing, I believe you mean randomized controlled trials. A classical education at Balliol does instill  respect for precision in a chap you know [pursed lips, looking down nose].

GBCS team: [Impatient and unimpressed] How much longer is this going to take?

Editor: [Headmasterly] Well perhaps you should have taken a bit more time with your prep...Sit down, you're not going anywhere until I'm done.

I want to talk to you now about your figures and tables. I'm wondering why you felt it necessary to put a scale in units of 20 miles on your map (pp 8 Figure 1.1 or 0.1, note to copy editor: you're fired) of Great Britain?  I mean, nobody is going to be using it as a route map  to get them from say Basingstoke to Aberdeen and the distances involved are quite irrelevant to the point being made. And  why is the legend on page 9 so incomprehensible.  I'll give you that all becomes clear when you read the body of the text, but didn't they teach you in grad school that figures and tables should be understandable without having to refer to extraneous material?

And then there is the case of the mysterious column labels to Table 0.3 (pp 15). The first two I got, but the third had me baffled for a bit. What it says is: "% of the population who undertook the GBCS (2011 Census, England and Wales)". After a bit of thought I realized that what you meant was just  "% of the population of England and Wales". Your description is a) confusing and b) tells me you have the wrong reference population (though that is among  the least of your worries).

Now we come to column four and there you really got me. The label says "% of each group's graduates who undertook the GBCS". I was really struggling now to understand what the numbers meant until the penny dropped that what the column should have said was simply "% graduates" and that thus inter alia you were telling me that 71.9 percent of the Chinese respondents to the GBCS were graduates. At least that is what I think you meant to say, but who knows? Do you? Does it even matter except as an indicator of a rather, shall we say, casual, attitude towards data, evidence, facts and that sort of thing.

GBCS team: This is  just petty nit picking. Most of our audience is innumerate anyway so what do they care? Let's face it, you can fool most of the people most of the time and we should know.

Editor: Quite. But don't you as Britain's foremost quantitative experts on the sociology of class care about the possible damage to your reputation? [mulls over ancient AJP Taylor quip about Professor Hugh Very Ropey] Let's treat that as a rhetorical question. Anyway, I read with great interest what you write on page 5.

"The current explosion of interest in questions of class came home to us in 2013 when we published findings from the BBC's Great British Class Survey, which was publicized by the media and provoked astonishing interest across the globe."

I was so interested in fact that I asked the ever obliging Maureen to do a little internet research for me  using Google Trends. I feel sure you approve of the method. First of all let's look at the frequency of searches originating in the UK using the words "social class". 

To interpret this correctly (I'm sure you are really keen on that) you have to know how Google normalizes the data. It starts by expressing the number of searches mentioning the search term as a proportion of all searches in a particular time period. It then sets the highest proportion to 100 and expresses the rest of the series relative to that.  The important point is that this is a measure of the relative salience of interest in the search term. Absolute interest in the term could be increasing even though relative salience is decreasing.

Still, for what it is worth, the trend in (relative) interest between 2014 and today is, if anything, downwards and more of an exhausted fart than an explosion. The exception to this trend is the spike in 2013 corresponding to the  publicity puff given to the initial GBCS paper  by the BBC. So what we learn is that if a massive public service broadcaster makes a news article out of something it has itself manufactured then you can get people interested for a short while. But then their interest returns to roughly the same level as before. Big whoop. Should anyone be surprised by that?

But hold on, this is a little unfair I hear you say. OK, though we can't get numbers on the absolute number of searches from Google we can try and contextualize interest in "social class". Let's compare searches on "social class" with three other probes into the Great British Public's interests. Maureen thought it would be a good idea to also search on "Britain's got Talent", "Manchester United" and another abstract idea "religion".
"Britain's got Talent" peaks and troughs depending on whether the show is running. Interest in "Manchester United is high and has been gently climbing since 2013. "Religion" which is just as abstract an idea as "social class" has been pretty steady. The overall levels of all three make interest in "social class" look insignificant and the spike in 2013 look like a pimple. If interest in "Britain's got Talent" in 2009 were K2 interest in "social class" in 2013 would be Richmond Hill.

In the big picture the 'explosion' was more like the pricking of a small  balloon filled with hot air.

99 Düsenflieger
Jeder war ein großer Krieger
Hielten sich für Captain Kirk
Es gab ein großes Feuerwerk

Monday, 9 November 2015

And which one would you take

So, if you were given that fateful Desert Island Discs choice of which one would you save from the wreck, what would you choose? There is enough consistency about my preferences to say that it would have to be a love song by Robert Burns. Can anyone come up with a better 4 lines than:

Not vernal showers to budding flowers
Not autumn to the farmer
So dear can be as thou to me
My fair, my lovely charmer

 Here is the definitive version.

Gutted 2

I mentioned last week my deep disappointment when Amazon proved themselves not up to the job of delivering my copy of Social Class in the 21st Century on the day of publication. It's only fair to report that they did manage to get it to me on Saturday & knocked off the price of delivery so credit where credit is due. In the end I got it for £6.29 (RRP £8.99). 

I can barely restrain myself from reading it all at once, but sadly I have a few more important things to do this week so I'm not sure when I'll get around to it. I couldn't resist though flicking through it  and within 30 seconds managed to spot my first howler. Unfortunately I don't have a scanner in my office so a webcam picture will have to suffice. Turn to page 82 where you will find the words: "Figure 2.2 shows clearly how all the different components of economic capital have similar age profiles."

Here is the figure they are talking about:

Well, similarity is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder, but forsooth, perhaps you'd like to have another go at that one guys.

Perhaps you'd also like to have a go at explaining why the average 16 year old in the GBCS has £50,000 worth of savings (especially generous rich uncles?) and more than £200,000 worth of property? (we know that the £40,000 in income isn't  pocket-money but the joint household income which mostly isn't theirs to dispose of). Could we, perhaps, be mixing up a few different processes that we really shouldn't be confounding (like moving out of the family home)?

Take that nonsense away and do you really think these profiles are similar? Honestly? You do? OK er..

Houston, we have a problem...

Oh what a lovely war...

So there I was in the kitchen preparing the chicken chasseur, having a crafty sip of what I must say was an excellent 35 year old Spanish red and expecting to hear Desert Island Discs on Radio 4. No luck because it was trumped by the Remembrance ceremony from the Cenotaph. Fair enough, I'm as much in favour as anyone of  acknowledging the debt we owe to those we've put in the firing line. It would also be good if we did a better job of looking after them when they leave the armed forces, but that's another story.

But what left me momentarily speechless was the march being played by the military band. Which buffoon thought it was a good idea to play Oh what a lovely war? I'm sure the satirical intent was obvious in 1917 when it was a music hall hit, but at a solemn ceremony in 2015? I'm not sure that was a good place for postmodern irony.

Here's an even older song about one aspect of the military life.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Strange Case of G. E. Bartlett - Part 2

This is the second part of this post. 

The question now arises as to whether there is anything else about Bartlett's data that suggests something untoward? Abernethy points out that the heaping is suspicious. I'm not entirely convinced it is, but let's run with a related idea. I would conjecture that when people "estimate" or make up data a real give away is that they tend to underestimate natural variability. That translates into a pretty straightforward prediction. If Bartlett's numbers aren't entirely kosher then the residual variation from his observations should be smaller than the residual variation from all the other interviewers.

There is a simple test for this. In effect we estimate a regression both for the level of income and for its variance. To keep things simple and feasible the only predictor I use for the latter is whether or not the observation is attributable to Bartlett. Bruce Western and Deirdre Broome have a nice paper on how to do this and more importantly some  Stata code to get the job done. I use their two step maximum-likelihood method - in effect an iterated gamma regression for the variance. It's also possible to do this kind of thing by REML with Stata's Mixed procedure however I lost patience waiting for the full model to converge and gave up. With simpler less heavily parameterized models the estimates point in the same direction though.

So here are the results. Same model for the means as in Part 1, but now with an extra equation for the residual variance. If Bartlett was "estimating" we would expect the variance of his observations  to be smaller than the variance of the observations generated by the other interviewers, in other words the coefficient for the Bartlett dummy should be negative. And this is indeed what we find (λ =-.14, t = 4.52). 

Though this proves nothing definite, Abernethy's case seems to gain some strength.

At the beginning of Part 1 I mentioned a detective story, so for those who are really interested in that rather than statistical games with 80 year old data, here it is. Abernethy notes that "Little is known of G. E. Bartlett..." True, but after a bit of spade work I can make a conjecture as to who he was. The evidence is circumstantial, but taken together is, I think, quite convincing. If I'm right it also may explain how he was able to carry out his prodigious interviewing feat.

Using a well know genealogy site I was able to look through all the Bartletts in the 1929 London Electoral Register. It turns out that there is only one with the initials G. E. - George Edwin Bartlett. It's easy to find George Edwin in the 1911 Census. He is living at 32 Netherfold Road, Clapham, SW with his wife Sarah Louise, two children and a domestic servant. The most important piece of information is that he is an LCC Attendance Officer, in other words somebody employed to make sure that kids go to school. This is significant because we know that a lot of the NSLLL data was collected by school attendance officers and this is the thing that tips the balance of evidence towards our man.

George Edwin Bartlett was born in Brighton in 1865 the son of a plasterer and seems to have been an attendance officer at least from the final years of the 1890s. There is in fact a reference to him in a London School Board document of 1898.  At the 1881 Census he is recorded as living with his parents in Clerkenwell and his occupation is given  as Confectioners Errand Boy. By 1891 he was lodging in Islington and in the census he is recorded as G. E. bartlett with the occupation Confectioner's Assistant. In 1901 we know from the electoral register that he was living in Lavender Hill in one furnished room. The Census has him as a visitor at another address and tells us that he is a School Attendance Officer and  a widower. By 1918 he has remarried and is living at 30 Union Grove, Clapham which is where we find him in 1929. He died in 1935 aged 70.

We don't actually know what Bartlett was doing in 1929, but at 64 it is not impossible that he had retired and therefore had a lot of time on his hands. As a School Attendance Officer he was in a sense a professional nosey parker and would have known  the circumstances of many of the families on his patch pretty well. More than 30 years of working for the LCC in this capacity may well have acquainted him with a very large number of people. A retired man who was still reasonably vigorous could easily do 20 of the the rather minimalist interviews required of him during the day, especially if he was willing to take his data from the the most easily accessible source which would have been the wives of the men who were away at work. This of course raises the possibility that the estimating and rounding were not done by Bartlett and that he was merely faithfully recording what he was told by the wives about their husband's earnings.

At the end of the day the important question, as Abernethy strongly points out, is should we trust the NSLLL data? I think one thing is clear: no modern survey organization would let one interviewer collect 20% of the data. Even if the "bias" attributable to that individual is small in percentage terms - the sheer weight of their contribution might be important for some questions. It is of course, important though to make that judgement within the context of a particular question. To take a modern example, we know that the earnings data from the modern Labour Force Survey though biased are good enough for some broad brush stroke comparisons. However you would be very ill advised to use them for questions which rely on information about the tails of the distribution ie very high or very low earners. 

As it happens for what I was interested in - the rank order of  occupational average earnings  - it really makes very little difference whether you include or exclude Bartlett's contribution. The Pearson correlation between the occupation averages (actually the shrunken level 2 residuals) with and without Bartlett is 0.98 and that is good enough for me.


My day has been utterly ruined. Those of you who have been paying attention will know that today is a very important day for British social science for it is the publication day of what Nicola Lacey, whose expertise is in criminal law and legal theory, has called "a magisterial new analysis of class" - Savage et al's Social Class in the 21st Century. Naturally I placed my advance order with Amazon so that I would receive this instant classic on the very day of its publication. Imagine my horror when I looked through my emails this morning and found this:

We regret to inform you that the following items have been delayed:

  Savage, Mike "Social Class in the 21st Century (Pelican Introduction)"
    Estimated arrival date: December 19 2015

I guess I'm just going to have to bite the bullet and wait until the Christmas vacation unless someone wants to send me a review copy.

Assuming that everyone is in the same boat you can get an inkling of the content from the audio of the launch event that took place last Monday.

The best part of the whole thing is around 1:03:15 when the red haired lady says in reply to a question about the policy conclusions of the book "...for me now really it's just end capitalism  [wild applause from the floor]." At least she says what she thinks without equivocation. Perhaps though she might appreciate the sentiment behind this.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Strange Case of G. E. Bartlett - Part 1

This one has two of my favourite ingredients, numbers and a detective story. The time is 1929 the place is the London School of Economics. Hubert Llewellyn Smith is Directing the New Survey of London Life and Labour  (NSLLL) and Arthur Lyon Bowley is in charge of sampling London households.  In the field are more than 150 interviewers collecting information on household income.

Fast forward to 2015. I want to categorize the occupations recorded in the 1931 Census. The NSLLL contains information on the occupation and earnings of the household residents. I figure it could give me some guidance about the similarities between occupations. The NSLLL was probably the largest social survey carried out in Britain during the inter-war period and more to the point it is, to my knowledge, the only one that has (mostly) been digitised. Even more to the point, I happen to have a copy of it on my hard disk.

The question is: can I trust these data? Why not? I hear you ask. Well, mainly because of the activities of one of the interviewers a certain G. E. Bartlett who appears to be responsible for conducting not far short of 20% of all the interviews. Bartlett regularly clocked up over 400 interviews a month and in October 1930  managed 600, 20 a day if he worked 7 days per week. Strictly speaking we don't know for sure that Bartlett was a 'he' but the evidence on the surviving handwritten cards suggests it was so. He certainly had an incentive. He was making more than a shilling per  interview, and £30 for a months work was roughly 3 times the median working-class earnings level.

Bartlett's Stakhanonvite workrate and more importantly seeming peculiarities in portions of the data he recorded certainly made Simon Abernethy  - a Cambridge history postgraduate - suspicious. In a very interesting paper he argues, very plausibly, that though it is unlikely Bartlett literally sat at home and made the data up, the evidence is consistent with him estimating a large portion of the earnings data he was supposed to be collecting. On first reading I found Abernrthy's account pretty convincing. But then I started to wonder. 

Admittedly things look bad for Bartlett, but was 600 interviews a month as implausible as it sounded? Bear in mind these were nothing like modern survey interviews. Very little data was actually collected - the interview probably lasted no more than 10-15 minutes and the addresses were heavily clustered. Most of Bartlett's households were in Battersea, Camberwell, Lambeth, Southwark, St Pancras and Wandsworth and the sampling fraction was about 1 in 50. Someone who knew the areas well could probably make fairly rapid progress. Perhaps 20 interviews a day for someone working on it full-time was not as surprising as it seemed.

Then I had another thought. If you believe  that someone is guilty and that proof of that guilt is to be found in unusual data patterns then unless you carefully specify before peaking at the data which unusual patterns you are looking for then you are bound to turn up something. There are a very large number of observations in the NSLLL and plenty of scope for sub-group analysis. Seek and ye will find. We all know about the "look elsewhere effect" don't we? Perhaps what Abernethy finds is nothing more than extreme values that are due to chance (regardless, so to speak of what the p. values say). Indeed, what he does is looks at small subsets of the data - particular occupations for example - and shows that data collected by Bartlett differ in some ways from data collected by the rest of the interviewers. 

But what happens if we look at all of the data and, to provide a bit of comparison, distinguish from the rest the second, third and fourth most industrious interviewers. J. Hopkers, J. Ludgate and A. N. Winter though not in Bartlett's league  were each responsible for surveying more than 800 households. Is there any evidence that they produced unusual results too?

Time for some data analysis. I'm working with the public release version of the data which is restricted to the 'working class' households (Abernethy  has also digitized a large portion of the so called ' middle class cards' but these data are not yet in the public domain). My sample consists of everyone who is either employed or self-employed and aged over 13. Observations are clustered within households and the primary variable of interest is weekly earnings expressed as shillings per week (12 pence to a shilling, 20 shillings to a pound). I exclude a few cases where the earnings that are reported are in some sense 'joint' and not attributable to a single earner.

For all sorts of reasons interviewers differed in the level of earnings they reported. About 10 percent of the total variation is between interviewer variation.  To put that in context the table that follows also gives numbers for  some other salient sources of variation.
The amount of variation attributable to interviewers is roughly  similar to the amount attributable to household membership and very roughly double that attributable to the fact that people with similar incomes tend to live in proximity to each other. The heavy hitter here though is occupation - which is good for me given that this is what first brought me to these data. Of course interviewer, household, geographical area and occupation are confounded with each other so we can't read these numbers as unique contributions to the total amount of earnings variation. Interviewer "effects" will undoubtedly shrink once we control for other sources of variation.

But before we do that let's examine the data a little more closely. In the figure below I superimpose a histogram of the earnings information (in units of 1 shilling) collected by Bartlett (white bars with black borders) on top of the earnings information collected by all the other interviewers (in green).

The question is: are these distributions different? The answer is (obviously): yes. But so what? You wouldn't expect them to be exactly the same. They share some features and  differ in some ways.

 Actually the stand out feature is the heaping of observations on certain values, multiples of 20 shillings for instance.  Heaping is to be expected for at least 4 reasons. Firstly  it might reflect reality - employers paying an hourly rate calculated to deliver a nice round number for a standard working week. Secondly respondents may be rounding their actual wages up or down to a particularly salient value - say £3 a week. Thirdly, the interviewers might be rounding what they are told. Fourthly, the interviewers might be using their own estimates (perhaps based on good local knowledge) rather than actually asking the respondents about their earnings.

Any and all of these things could be happening. We don't know and it is very difficult to draw conclusions from just looking at the  the distributions. Where most of the interviewers heap, Bartlett also heaps.  Sometimes he heaps a bit more sometimes a bit less. A lot of his data is crowded into the 50-80 shillings range which might be taken to suggest that something untoward was going on. It might also just reflect the fact that he interviewed in particular areas with particular concentrations of occupations that received similar wages. To get any further we need to impose more structure on the data.

The basic idea is to estimate some regressions that control for a lot of stuff. We could do this in a number of different ways but I'm going to keep it simple. The dependent variable is weekly income in shillings and I include fixed effects for the 433 occupational groups and the 36 areas. There is a dummy for gender and for whether the respondent is employed or self-employed. Hours of work are controlled as are age and age squared.  Finally I distinguish four interviewers (Bartlett, Hopker, Ludgate and Winter) and a residual group and the dummy indicators for these are interacted with gender. The estimated coefficients for this interaction are of central interest.

The table below gives the average deviation for each separately identified interviewer from the conditional mean earnings level recorded by the other interviewers taken as a group. This deviation is expressed separately for male and female wage earners. There are of course a number of different ways to parameterize this interaction, but for our purposes this seems to be the most enlightening.
What this suggests is that Bartlett's numbers  on average had working class respondents earning around 2s and 6d to 3 shillings more than the figures obtained by the majority of the interviewers. The difference between his male and female figure is statistically significant, but of little substantive importance. 2s and 6d is, as my grandmother would say, a lot of money if you don't have it but it's also just about 5% of the median working class wage and a somewhat lower percentage of the median male working class wage. If Bartlett was guessing or "estimating" he was, on the whole, actually doing a pretty good job! He was also not alone in his "inaccuracy".

 Hopker appears to have erred in the opposite direction, underestimating both male and female earnings while Ludgate, though he does a good job for the males, seems to find particularly well paid women. Of the 4 only Winter is, as it were, consistently on the money.

The point is I'm pretty sure that if I looked at the next 5 most prolific interviewers I could find differences of this magnitude  and probably also  if I continued looking all the way down to where the group size is so small that it would take truly massive differences to produce statistically "significant effects". My conjecture is that these results on their own don't reveal anything particularly unusual about Bartlett's  modus operandi.

In Part 2 I'll look at a different indicator of the unusualness of Bartlett's data - the variance and I'll tell you who I think this man of mystery was and how he managed to do all that interviewing.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Social Mobility in Australia

Australia truly is an amazing country. Of course we all know it is a classless society but I hadn't quite realized the extent to which it epitomizes liquid modernity.

I was a bit puzzled by my unexpected déclassement when yesterday I filled in ABC's class calculator  which is based on the work reported in this publication coming out of ANU. In fact I was so puzzled I filled it in again - with the same answers and, because I'm an obsessive, I even had a third go. Here is the screen shot of the outcome of iteration 2 and 3.

So, in the space of 24 hours I've gone from being part of the "established working" class to membership of the "mobile middle"  and in two minutes from the "mobile middle" class to the "established middle" class. All on the basis of inputting exactly the same information. I'm beginning to think that someone, somewhere, is taking the piss. Perhaps they outsourced the programming to Crocodile Dundee. Now he would appreciate liquid modernity. Still, Australia does have some wonderful philosophers.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Prolier than thou

Fair dinkum cobber, the land of the cultural cringe has come up with its own version of the Great British Class Survey and like the original it has its own little online quiz you can take  which will reveal where you fit into the (class) scheme of things. For a bit of fun I filled it in and this is what came back:

So in Britain with exactly the same characteristics I was classified as part of the "elite" but in Australia I would just be established working class. That really is the world turned upside down. Clearly stratification works a bit different according to Australian rules. Or perhaps there are just a few little glitches in the old programming there Bruce. 

Just time for a few tinnies of the amber nectar before I settle down to watch what is going on in Ramsey Street. I should be so lucky.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Friday Night Music

A little something for the weekend?

Shawn Colvin and Richard Thompson.

That will do nicely.

I'm so excited

As Kate Fox points out at great length in Watching the English we are, on the whole, a reserved lot.  We find introductions awkward; we are entirely capable of holding a  stilted conversation with a stranger at a social event without introducing ourselves or bothering to find out the other fellow's name. In fact we don't care what their name is - it makes it easier to ignore them next time round. By instinct we are masters of understatement, pessimists, inverted snobs, turn everything into a joke, and are easily embarrassed by overt displays of  "enthusiasm" or emotion. We must drive the natives of other nations bonkers.

So now explain to me a convention that I've observed developing in the academic twittersphere.  It now seems de rigueur to tweet something along the lines of: "So excited to be sharing a platform with (fill in the name of a very serious person)" or words to that effect. Excited? Really? Are there any signs of somatic arousal? Has your pulse quickened? Breathing got shallow? Having trouble controlling bodily functions? No? I thought not. The English do not get excited by the thought of going to an academic seminar. Let's get real, half of the audience won't even be listening, they'll be too busy telling all their friends where they are.

So here we are again, self-puffing bullshit. The English are not modest. They just do self-promotion in a different way.

Which is all in the way of an excuse for a bit of Pointer Sisters.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Bullshitization of Everything

Last weekend I began watching the BBC's documentary Ted Hughes: stronger than death. To be honest his poetry leaves me cold, but when I went to school he was one of the "modern poets" we were supposed to "respond" to.  How was I supposed to respond to  poems about hawks and  jaguars,  animals I had never  seen in the flesh, not even in a zoo?  To me they were just words.

Roughly two and a half minutes into the documentary the following text appears on screen: This major documentary explores how Ted Hughes's life shaped his vision as a poet. Is this what it has come to? The gratuitous self-puff.  Surely it is for the viewer to decide how "major" it is not for the maker to so describe it. And what utter triteness. Do we really need to be told that a poet's life shapes their vision? For G...'s sake, what else is going to do it?

And so bullshit routinely consumes everything. Of course you could  say, don't take it so seriously, it's all just a game you know, nudge, nudge, wink, wink... But that is to miss the point. Bullshit once it becomes established is not optional, it becomes coercive. Not agreeing to "play the game" becomes a black mark against you. 

It now seems compulsory to describe every academic event, meeting or institution in PR speak as "vibrant" and if you refuse to play along you are immediately suspected of being at best a kill-joy and at worst subversive. If you think that personal and professional authenticity is important and that the words we use actually matter, you should be concerned. The signs that bullshit and the bullshitters have won are all around us. The fact that we have come to take Newspeak for  granted is the biggest victory. 

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

What's wrong with changing your mind?

So, all the rent a mouths are sounding off about the Shadow Chancellor changing his mind about the government's so called "charter of fiscal responsibility" (actually a charter of fiscal irresponsibility but we are in Newspeak territory here). Everyone can agree that he probably should have thought about it a bit more (perhaps taken some advice) before signing up in the first place, but shouldn't we actually be congratulating him for realising that it really isn't sensible for anyone, let alone a sovereign state, to bind themselves absolutely not to borrow even for investment purposes in normal times (whatever they are)? Come on guys, its not that difficult, even this non-economist, can figure that one out.

Of course the politics of backtracking needs careful handling. Perhaps that nice Mr Corbyn can call up a few competent mates to explain rather vigorously why McDonnell is now espousing roughly the right thing. Or is the tactic to let the half of the party that doesn't know what it is talking about blather on and provide even more copy for the idiot media that are attracted to all the sound and fury rather than the actual policy issue at stake.

As Keynes said, or perhaps didn't say: when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?

Friday, 9 October 2015

Life is stranger than art

It's funny how occasionally you come across little snippets of information that momentarily knock your otherwise stable image of the world a little sideways. Often the information is of little significance in and of itself, but it's like an inverse loose thread, when you pull it things don't unravel, but on the contrary you begin to see how things are connected together.

The other day I was reading about Arthur Henry Ashford Wynn who as "Agent Scott"  turned out to be the major recruiter to the Oxford Spy Ring that the Soviets attempted to establish in the 30s and 40s. He actually had a remarkable life, a distinguished public service career, and appears to have done much good in the world. There is little evidence that anyone he recruited ever passed on anything of much importance to the Soviets.

Wynn's second wife was Margaret "Peggy" Moxon. She was apparently the first girl from Barnsley High School to get into Oxford and, it is alleged by Boris Volodarsky, that as well as being active in Oxford CPGB circles she was the agent referred to in Soviet intelligence files as "Bunny". Now here is the curious fact. The Wynns had four children and if you look their births up in the England & Wales Civil Registration Indexes you will find that for one of them, born in the mid 40s, the maiden name of the mother is given as Moscow! Serendipitous mistranscription or was she leaving a joke for posterity?

That is mildly amusing, but reading a little more about Wynn uncovered another surprising Oxford connection. As well as being a brilliant scientific polymath,  he also qualified for the bar and before the war had intended to form a partnership with his friend Stafford Cripps specializing in trade union law. This plan was scuppered by the outbreak of war. 

Now in 1942 Stafford Cripps returned to Britain from the Soviet Union where he had been  British Ambassador and immediately entered the War Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal. It turns out that he was a close friend of none other than Robert Rene Kuczynski the German refugee scion of an extremely wealthy and well connected banking family. Kuczynski held the Readership in Demography at the London School of Economics and after arriving in Britain in the 1930s he and his family took up residence in the infamous Lawn Road Flats where they were neighbours of, among others, Arnold Deutch (the controller of the Cambridge 5 and Athrur Wynn's recruiter) and Melita Norwood - the so called "spy who came in from the co-op". 

It is now well established that Kuczynski passed on War Cabinet gossip he acquired from Cripps about Britain's attitude towards the Soviet Union to his daughter Ursula  (Sonya) who was a Soviet agent (and later Klaus Fuch's handler) and that Ursula Kuczynski transmitted this information to Moscow from a Heath Robinson radio transmitter she had erected in the cottage she rented in the grounds of Neville Laski's house on Oxford's Woodstock Road. Neville Laski, a distinguished judge, was the older brother of the LSE's Harold Laski, though he did not share his brother's political views. Chapman Pincher makes the case that Neville Laski and Roger Hollis (the head of MI5) were on friendly terms, though the evidence for this seems to be entirely circumstantial. 

The broad outlines of who knew who are rather clear. Much less clear are the outlines of who knew what. Nevertheless there is a fascinating web of connections linking Oxford, Cambridge and the LSE. It wouldn't be at all surprising if British Intelligence took an interest in what was going on in British Universities.

And here is a thought to end with. Wouldn't it be richly ironic if the tremendous growth of sociology as a discipline in the UK in the 1960s was strongly influenced by the security concerns of the 1930s and 40s? The role of the Oxford "spys", in as far as it can be determined,  was essentially to become sleepers in the British establishment.  Of course it's not unknown for the security services to make use of their own sleepers.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Is there something we are not being told?

Magistrate resigns after paying destitute asylum seeker's court fine. I'm wondering on what grounds the magistrate was suspended? As far as I'm aware it is not an offence to pay somebody's fine for them.Yet again the law shows itself to have two long ears and a tail.

Friday, 25 September 2015

A good use of "big data"

And finally a good example of the use of "big data" to answer social scientific questions that someone actually cares about. This IFS study by Britton, Shephard and Vignoles uses matched HMRC data on earnings and Student Loan Company data on graduates to provide better estimates of the gap between graduate and non-graduate earnings than have heretofore been possible. The full paper is here and very worth reading. 

Now then UCAS, if HMRC and SLC can allow administrative data to be linked and then make it available to academic researchers investigating a matter of clear public interest why can't you do the same with your administrative data?

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Do Academies work?

There is a good piece on Vox by Andrew Eyles and Steve Machin about the performance of the early tranche of academy schools. Unlike a lot of the late switchers these were mainly poorly performing schools. Their research - which has a very nice design  - finds that the KS4 performance of schools which switched to academy status improved  by roughly 0.2 of a SD (it would be nice to know what that means in terms of GCSE points) compared to relevant comparators. What is  intriguing is that this effect was almost entirely driven by improvement in so called community schools - in the UK context essentially non church schools. Also notable is that switching to academy status was quite highly correlated with a change of leadership in the school, which of course raises the question of what exactly the "treatment" was. I particularly liked the fact that Eyles and Machin are at pains to stress that early adopters of academy status are very different from late adopters.

Monday, 21 September 2015

UCAS and their data

My old colleague Vikki Boliver has just just posted a very nice piece about UCAS - the body that has sole responsibility in the UK for handling undergraduate admissions -  and their very odd views about data.

The issue at stake is whether  applicants to "elite" UK  universities who are similar in all relevant respects apart from belonging to different ethnic groups  have the "same" probability of getting an offer of a place. I don't know anyone who has claimed that there is no public interest in devoting resources to getting as good an answer as we can to this question. Indeed one can say exactly the same with regard to gender, social class and a whole bunch of other characteristics - some of which are explicitly the subject of equality legislation.

I'd actually go further and say that the very large proportion of the population that now makes applications to enter higher education have a right, as citizens, to know that the process they are going through is fair and that they can have confidence that they will not be discriminated against. And that right is not merely the right to hear bland assurances from interested parties but a right to actually see the evidence and the right to know that that evidence has been evaluated by parties independent of the admission process.

Though the data that UCAS holds tells only part of the story, it is a crucial part, and without independent scrutiny nobody is in a position to feel assured about anything. We are supposed to be living in an age of open government, but there are still organizations that don't seem to understand this.

UCAS itself is a charity rather than a direct arm of government but what it does is, I assume, supposed to serve the interests of the public. It certainly has an interest in keeping the cost of the application process to the public at a low level, or at least that is their explicit justification for their commercial arm UCAS Media whose profits are cycled back into the charity. 

UCAS Media got itself into a spot of bother with the Information Commissioner's Office earlier this year for failing to give applicants "a clear option to avoid marketing" and being "unfairly faced with the default option of having their details used for commercial purposes". Naturally after getting a slap on the wrist for being a bit lax about the way that applicants' information was used to promote the interests of caffeine fuelled soft drinks companies  the organization is sensitive about any suggestion that its data is used for anything other than pukka purposes. And quite right too.

But there is a world of difference between using applicants' contact details to generate income from the commercial sector - to be clear UCAS "...does not sell, disclose or give access to applicants' personal data for advertising or marketing purposes"  though it does use these data to facilitate communications between commercial clients and the pool of applicants - and providing bona fide researchers with anonymized data for the purposes of auditing the fairness of the university application process. These are not remotely the same thing and shouldn't be thought about in the same way.

It is perfectly consistent for me to not want my personal details  used  to send commercial marketing in my direction while at the same time to want my anonymized data to  be used by suitably  qualified people within an appropriate regulatory framework to monitor whether the admissions process works in the public interest. At the moment UCAS rather bone headedly seems to not to recognize this distinction.

In many ways all this is rather fantastical. UCAS insists that it is right and proper to only release anonymized applications data to researchers for those applicants that have explicitly given permission for their data to be released.  But this is to apply the wrong logic. Administrative data is already released - in a tightly regulated way - to genuine researchers without the explicit permission of those required to provide the data and without - as far as I know - there ever being the slightest danger of the disclosure of the identity of a single individual. The National Pupil Database is one example, the Census Sample of Anonymized Records is another and the ONS Longitudinal Study is a third. Access to UCAS micro data could be granted on exactly the same basis as it is granted to these. It really does no credit to UCAS to pretend that there are difficult technical and legal problems involved. All of these have been solved and are well understood. 

The bottom line is this. Applicants to undergraduate courses in the UK have no choice but to apply through UCAS. They can't go anywhere else if the don't want their data to be used for anything other than the admission process. At the moment nobody is asking them whether they want the data they provide to be used to make sure that the process they have to go though is fair. It's not obvious that there is a public interest case for doing so, but if there was, what would we make of those who refused to allow their data to be used for that purpose?

Thursday, 17 September 2015


It's pretty obvious really; the actual state of the world & what "the public" believe about the world are not necessarily the same. So if you are a politician an obvious strategy is to work on the latter, especially if working on the former is too hard or you don't give a damn about it. Personally I prefer a politics that does give a damn about the  real state of the world  (otherwise we may all just go and look after our own gardens) but at the same time acknowledges that while what people currently believe is of tactical importance, it is of  strategic importance to change it when it is not well aligned with reality.

One of the battlegrounds is simply over the sloppy and (unwittingly?) damaging way that  commentators, the media, etc. are allowed to redefine words to delineate the contours of their story. Given that many (most?) people are uninterested in politics except when put on the spot to give an opinion or make a choice between one or the other  of the horses that are running, they clearly have to rely on the vocabulary and stock of narratives that are easily available to them (just as I do when I'm asked about something I don't know much about - which is more or less everything). So firmly  challenging media vocabulary and media framing is actually very important. 

Historically it seems to me that the political right have been much more successful at doing that than the left - think of Mrs T or even Ronald Reagan. The current lot are also pretty good at it - how else, against all the evidence, is it possible to persuade the great British public that the Tories have a monopoly on economic competence while the Labour Party is single-handedly responsible for the crash of Lehman Bros. and Gordon Brown incompetent in the way he handled the resulting mess.

All of which is a preface to a new occasional series - New(s)speak - what the media says and what it actually means. So our starter for ten is:

Out of touch - anyone with an opinion that differs from the one that me and my mates pulled out of our jacksies this morning at the editorial conference while scoffing cinnamon buns and talking about last night's football. Closely related to:

Not living in the real world - contrary to the line that the owner of my organ told me to take or that I arrived at after several minutes of intensive research with a few unnamed sources ("think-tank" interns, parliamentary wannabees, people I went to school with, people I slept with at Cambridge, people I didn't sleep with at Oxford...) in a  Soho cocktail bar.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Media Advisor

Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should give  Hans Rosling a call (after he has done his choir practice).

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Secular Hymns

I've always been fascinated by the minor sub-genre of popular songs that have something of the feeling of a spiritual or a hymn about them. Probably the best example is Macca's Let it Be but Chris Wood's Come Down Jehovah gives it a good run for its money. Any other suggestions?

How to win an election

So we got Corbyn. It's not great, it isn't a disaster either. To all those who think Labour can never win with this leader I can only ask: do you honestly think you were going to win with any of the others? Let's face it, they couldn't persuade  a majority in any of the party constituencies, so what hope the electorate? I had high hopes for Yvette Cooper - clearly the smartest of the 4 runners -  but her campaign was abysmal and only came alive in the last week, too little, too late. I think we have to draw the conclusion that she is a good team player (if she can get over her sulk)  but not leadership material.

So, looking on the positive side, at least we are now going to have an opposition that is actually going to oppose. It's also likely that there will be recognizable  alternative policy proposals. Naively, I've always supposed that that was what parliamentary politics was supposed to be about.

Everyone also has to do some growing up and deal with some hard facts. Firstly, it's perfectly reasonable to give your support to a party leader who advocates some policies you don't personally endorse. For G..'s sake, all parties are coalitions and not all policies are worth going to the stake for. Personally I don't think principled egalitarians - or indeed anyone who is aware of the empirical evidence - should be in favour of abolishing university tuition fees, but compared to mounting effective opposition to politically engineered deflationary austerity, the fate of tuition fees is neither here nor there. So I'm in favour of anyone who can do the latter regardless of their views on the former.

The same is true of Trident. We really need a mainstream Westminster party to argue the case that it is the height of foolishness to spend a vast amount of money on an "independent" nuclear deterrent that is er..., actually not independent at all. Can anyone come up with a scenario in which the UK would be launching its nukes without US approval? Can anyone tell me in what way is Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium... less protected from external threats than the UK because they don't have nuclear willy extensions? I'm under no illusions as to how hard this is going to be to sell to the typical Sun/Daily Hate Mail reader, but that doesn't mean it can't be done.

I could go on. Re-nationalization of the railways or anything else for that matter is probably not going to make anything any better - does nobody remember what British Rail was like? But its not obvious that it is a vote loser. The same argument applies to policy on the EU. Personally I think it is bonkers to be even discussing leaving the EU, partly because I believe that a UK cut adrift from the European social democratic and, lets be honest, christian democratic mainstream, is a UK that will march  towards US style market liberalism ie a society completely dominated by the preferences of corporate elites. But the EU is not a party issue and again its not obvious it is a vote loser.

So, what should Corbyn do? Well, like Simon Wren-Lewis  I think one of the major battles  will be about the shaping of the media discourse and that he has to  quickly get a media strategy together and a team of advisers who can help him to aggressively challenge  the framing of the economic agenda that the Tory party has so successfully sold to the newspapers and the BBC. It isn't going to be pretty and it is going to look confrontational at times, but Corbyn is actually pretty good at appearing reasonable and measured (it's pretty amusing to see Dennis Skinner calling out Emily Maitlis over her lazy juvenile cliches, but too much of that will probably backfire).

And they really do need some action here. The Today programme was running a vox pop this morning from "one of Liverpool's most working class districts" in which several  "hard working" citizens expressed some stereotypical views about welfare scallies. No attempt was made to contextualize their opinions with anything like the odd fact or two and the "balance" was provided by Frank Field who was so unfocussed as to be practically incoherent. If Labour are going to provide effective opposition they have to do better than that. It should be  possible, but they need to get the right people in the right places and those people need to well informed about the facts.

Thursday, 10 September 2015


I've been reading Owen Hatherley's A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain. By the time I'd got to the middle of the first chapter I thought I was going to hate it and had to restrain myself from chucking it on one of the piles of unread and possibly unreadable books that litter my office space and are gradually taking over my house (note to myself - it really is time to ring up the carpenter and get those bookshelves installed). What was wrong with it? Convoluted academic architecture prose full of esoteric isms and ists interlarded with gratuitous  and unenlightening  digs at "neo-liberalism". In short the usual blah blah bull of the "sophisticated" metropolitano: all show and no substance. But I'm glad I persevered because the rest of the book is really very enjoyable. Once he clears his throat and drops the pseudo professorial pretense he writes well and, joy of joys, has something to say. 

The book is an account of a sort of road journey - though most of it is by train - around Britain with a photographer friend (one disappointment is that the photographs are so small and grainy that it is difficult to get much out of them) to view the architecture of "regeneration" in a number of cities and urban areas throughout Britain. This is all linked together with a pretty shrewd commentary on the poverty of aspirations that instantiated itself in the built environment created  under New Labour's urban building policies or rather non-policies.

What I liked about the book is that it wasn't uniformly bleak - though a lot of what has been built is. Hatherley sort of likes Milton Keynes - and so do I. Just because you build a town that works for the automobile doesn't mean that you have to neglect public spaces in which people walk about. The edges of the urban planning vision that made Milton Keynes possible  are already being chipped away and Hatherley's account is a sort of elegy for it. He also likes Glasgow, and so do I - at least I did the last time I went there. The Scots, unlike the English, mastered the art of urban living and produced cities that bear some resemblance to the way most modern  Europeans live.

The other places he visits I can't say much about. I've never been to Southampton, Cardiff, Sheffield or  Newcastle and my experience of Manchester  and Liverpool is restricted to little more than rushed day trips. I'm now looking forward to reading his follow up volume A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys Through Urban Britain where he writes  about Coventry and Oxford, two cities that I know very well.

This Summer we upped sticks and took ourselves to London for a month and reading Hatherley focused my mind on why I found it so liberating and refreshing to get out of Oxford and reconnect with a real city. 

The cliches are  about academics recharging their batteries in their Summer houses in Tuscany, on the coast or in the rural boondocks. Delightful as these retreats no doubt are they don't do much for me. I need to go somewhere that is properly urban, that has pavements that are wide enough to pass someone on, roads that have more than one lane in each direction and trains that can take you to endless numbers of places in under 20 minutes. 

But I also appreciate the  urban village thing. Oddbins on the corner where you can buy a decent bottle of beer, the park at the end of the street where you can stroll, have an impromtu game of badminton or just hang out and watch the fitness freaks exercising with their personal trainers. I like the local  Carnegie library with its free internet,  the  art gallery with its cafe where you can always get a seat  (outside too if the weather is good) - no tourists are interested in the exhibitions of largely local interest  - and the walk along  the River Crane -  that most urban of waterways - where one moment you can be collecting blackberries to make jam and the next you stumble on some 1950s low rise public housing. London is all about possibilities in a way that Oxford just isn't.

In fact I've come to the conclusion that Oxford isn't a coherent city at all. At best it's just an amalgamation of different zones with little either socially or geographically to connect them. At worst it currently feels that the powers that be are doing their best to turn it into a sort of  open prison as the endless roadworks on the city's arterial routes make a living hell out of trying to get in or out of the place. 

But perhaps the worst thing is the mean-spirited provision of public space best exemplified by the way Broad Street - right in the centre of town - is used. In most European cities a space like this would be a pedestrianized square. In the Spring, Summer and Autumn ordinary people would sit outside at a pavement cafe or restaurant, drink a beer, meet their friends and just hang out. And what does Oxford do? Use it as a parking lot, strangling the life out of just about the only space in the centre of town  where there is room to let people get off the impossibly crowded and narrow pavements. 

It's actually remarkable how little genuinely open public space there is in the centre of Oxford. Christchurch Meadow, though not strictly speaking public is at least open to the public, but most of it is fenced off and used to graze cattle - as though there weren't any suitable agricultural land in the rest of Oxfordshire. It's pleasant to go for a stroll around it, but it's hardly a place of urban sociability. Nobody says: "I'll meet you in Christchurch Meadow" unless it is some sort of assignation. There is nowhere to sit and nothing particularly to do; it's just an empty space preserving in aspic a "heritage" view. Cross the river to the towpath and you can hardly be said to enjoy a relaxing walk. Most of the time you are minding your back and trying to stop your progeny being mown down by various species of cycling fascist.

As a city for ordinary people to live in Oxford is pretty much a failure. But I suppose that is only to be expected when you realize that its real purpose is to be a playground for ruling class trainees with no lasting stake in the city and when they aren't using it to be an attraction for tourists to gawk at.

Offshore Ownership

Private Eye have produced a neat searchable map of offshore property ownership in England & Wales. Enter your postcode and you can see which properties in your area are owned by legal entities registered outside of the UK. In some cases what turns up is entirely legitimate - why would Lidl not be registered in Germany? In other cases...I'm struggling to think of reasons why so many British properties are owned by companies incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. Surely nothing to do with avoiding UK taxation...

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

In search of...Giles Edward Michael Eyre

One of my "fun" pieces of reading over the Summer was "Somme Harvest: Memories of a P. B. I. in the Summer of 1916" by  Giles E. M. Eyre. It was first published in 1938 and relates Rifleman Eyre's experiences in the 2nd Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps during the prelude to  and first few weeks of the Somme campaign. 

It is in many ways a remarkable book, literate and literary  - Dante is cited in Italian and classical references are liberally sprinkled throughout. It reads like a novel with no doubt a certain amount of poetic license being taken to render into direct speech conversations that took place almost two decades before they were set to paper. Giles Eyre clearly had more literary talent than the average private soldier which makes his account especially interesting as a counterpoint to the standard "Goodbye to all that" type efforts of the  public school subalterns  who managed to survive the slaughter.

Eyre's war came to a rather abrupt end when he was captured at Contalmaison in late July 1916 while, according to his narrative, attempting to get back to the British lines after an unsuccessful raid. And there the book ends, almost as abruptly as it begins. We are told practically nothing about the author except that he had served in France since 1915,  fought at Hooge and copped a blighty at the end of that year.  So who was Giles E. M. Eyre and what became of him after the war?

Here he is in a photograph included at the front of the 1938 edition of his book, probably taken in Schneidemühl camp in Prussian Posen, now Piła in Poland, which is where his POW records say he was taken after spending a brief period in a camp at Dülmen near Munster. He looks rather young, rather dark and rather short - both heals are clearly off the ground. He's wearing the standard German issue POW uniform that you can see in countless images of this sort. Nothing much to go on here.

It turns out that there is a bit of discussion about him in a  WW1 related forum, including some basic biographical information contributed by a descendant. This includes the intriguing revelation that in the 20s and 30s he was a  Fascist (not a BUF Facscist but a member of  the early British crank movements).

 A close reading of his book does  give some clues to his political views. There is a strong sense of  disillusion with contemporary political leadership and several laments about the lack of unity and purpose in the post-war world. There is also a certain amount of moaning about  those who apparently did well out of the war as well as some casual anti-semitism. It's a strand of feeling that was common across Europe in the inter-war period among young men gradually realizing that there were no homes for heroes waiting for them and that the best  (and worst) years of their lives were over. Instead they had to stand on the sidelines and watch those who had "had a good war" help themselves to the spoils while making a bog up of the economy for everyone else. We know what this led to in Italy and Germany. What is remarkable is that the domestic  result in Britain was more farce than tragedy.

Giles Edward Michael Eyre was born in 1896 in Messina Sicily and was in fact Italian both by birth and, at least partly, descent. The family moved to London in 1908 after the Messina earthquake and the 1911 census has them living at 95 Bouverie Road, Stoke Newington. What's left of the contemporary houses on the road seems to indicate that the 15 year old schoolboy lived in lower middle class respectability. The reality might have  been a little different. The 1913 electoral register reveals that they occupied 3 first floor rooms, unfurnished at a rent of  5 shillings a week. His 39 year old father Michael Samuel Frank Eyre-Varnier describes himself as a Professor of Languages but the fact that he worked on his own account suggests that in reality he was a language teacher giving private lessons. His birth place is Patna, India. 

Giles' mother was Henrietta Hopkins. In 1911 she was 56 - considerably older than her husband - and though born in Messina she is described as a British subject by parentage. It is also noted on the Census form that she had been deaf since the age of 15 and was feeble-minded. The Census form dates the marriage to 1895 and Giles appears to have been an only child. It is likely that Henrietta was  the child or more likely the  grandchild of Samuel Hopkins who was Deputy Commissary General to the British forces in Sicily.

There are few traces remaining of Michael Samuel Frank Eyre-Varnier. In the 1920s he lived in Islington. His first wife died in 1925 and he remarried in 1931 and by 1935 was living in New Malden where he died in 1948. One curious fact is that the family name was Varnier not Eyre and on 9th July 1920 he renounced the former by deed poll in favour of the latter. Eyre was in fact Michael's mother's maiden name (she was the daughter of a career soldier who did most of his soldiering in India). She married  John Joseph Varnier, a clergyman, in Allahabad on the 14th February 1860. 

It would seem that name changes ran in the family. John Joseph was born in Sicily, the son of Mariano Varnier and his name is a truncated anglicisation of Michele Giovanni Giuseppe Varnier Miritello. J J was a Roman Catholic priest, sent as a missionary to India to undermine the English Protestant church. The flies and the dust only succeeded in causing him to turn coats and he joined the (English) established church, thereafter becoming chaplain to the Protestant church in his home town of Messina. Like his grandson he had some literary aspirations and wrote an account of his conversion "Why I left the Communion of the Church of Rome; or a narrative of inquiries regarding the grounds of Roman Catholicism" published by SPCK in 1869. He also had some entrepreneurial ambitions. According to an item in a 1872  issue of Californian Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences  J J, described as "...an Italian gentleman residing at Patma", succeeded in making "wine" from the fruit of the Jamun tree which apparently reminded him of Sicilian grape varieties. He must have been serious for the piece goes on to say that with the aid of one of his fellow countrymen hesolved the problem of preserving the wine in India's rather unforgiving climate.

So much for the ancestry, but what of our man Giles? In the first half of the 1920s he is to be found living with his mother and father in Brewery Road, Lower Holloway. And this is when it starts to get interesting. On the 14th October 1924 The Times reports that Giles Edward Eyre, an interpreter,  was charged at Bow St Police Court with insulting behaviour.  He had gone along to a Communist meeting at Trafalgar Square and made a nuisance of himself: "A police sergeant stated that at the conclusion of the meeting Eyre, who was wearing a Fascist badge, was surrounded by a crowd of about 300 persons. He was shouting, "You are a lot of dirty dogs". The crowd became very threatening towards him, and as Eyre refused to go away, to prevent a breach of the peace the witness arrested him."

He was bound over to keep the peace and with studied understatement the magistrate admonished him: "To shout out, "You are a lot of dirty dogs" was not very prudent. There is not very much in this. You should have gone away when you were told..."

As a coda to the piece The Times tells us that: "Brigadier-General R B D Blakeney, President of the British Fascisti, writes that Giles Edward Eyre was informed by letter last week that his name had been removed from the list of members of the British Fascisti...and that Mr Eyre in no sense represents British Fascism...".

Rebecca West in The Meaning of Treason opines that the British Fascisti "...was never numerous and had few links with the influential admirers of Mussolini, having been promoted by an elderly lady, [The Fascisti was founded by the bizarre Rotha Lintorn-Orman who was born in 1895 which actually made her 3 years younger than West, though it was actually bankrolled by her mother's fortune] member of a military family, who was overcome by panic when she read in the newspaper that the British Labour party was sending a delegation to an International Conference in Hamburg. Her creation was patronized by a certain number of retired Army men and a back bench MP and an obscure peer or two; but the great world mocked at it, and it has as aim the organization of amateur resistance to any revolution that might arise. It was a charade representing the word 'barricade'."

Eyre may well have known William Joyce (AKA Lord Haw Haw) another keen street fighter who was briefly a member of the Fascisti before quitting in 1925 to move on to better (and more violent) things. Meanwhile Eyre was still doing silly things. The Gloucester Citizen reports on 27th August 1925 that he was fined 10 shillings at Marylebone Police Court for possessing a revolver without a license. "A police constable said that on the 3rd inst. he saw the defendant in a public lavatory at the junction of the Edgware and Harrow roads. Eyre was attired in the black shirt of the National Fascisti, and in a sash around his waist he had a German revolver." It turned out that the weapon was unloaded.

 In 1926 Eyre was again in trouble with the law  appearing before Marlborough Street Magistrate's Court accused of having made insulting remarks in Oxford Street West. This time he was "at the head of a group of 400/500 blackshirted fascists" leaving Hyde Park at Marble Arch after a Fascist rally. There was fisticuffs with anti-fascist protesters who sung the Red Flag during the national anthem. This time the magistrate discharged him.

As well as making a nuisance of himself on the streets of London, Eyre found time in 1926 to get married to Louise Annette Neal and from then until 1939 they are recorded as living at various addresses in the Battersea/ Wandsworth area, always  houses in multiple occupation, never staying in the same place for more than a couple of years. In 1927 he was back in court, this time as one of the "victims". Eyre and some toughs allegedly went to the National Fascisti headquarters in Hogarth place Kensington and demanded to see the accounts. They were then threatened with a sword and a pistol by Lieut. Colonel Henry Rippon Seymour who claimed that he feared they were going to smash the place up. The story appears in the Gloucester Journal (12/3/1927) and is repeated in a number of regional newspapers. The Wikipedia entry on the National Fascisti reports the incident but mistakenly claims that  Seymour's threats were offered to Charles Eyres the leader of the Croydon branch of the Fascisti. This mistake, which is also made in at least one scholarly paper, probably stems from a typo in Richard Thurlow's  Fascism in Britain 1918-45 (pp36) where Eyre is rendered as Eyres.

For a few years Giles seems to keep himself out of trouble, but then in August 1933 he is back in the news. The Times (31/8/1933) carries the story of a brawl involving 50 or 60 black shirted members of the British Union of Fascists who broke into the offices of British Fascists Limited. This time Eyre is a witness for the prosecution. The incident seems to be nothing more than a turf war between rival fascist groups, but the really interesting thing is what Eyre says under cross-examination.  He claimed that during the war he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Cross of St George [an Imperial Russian decoration]. The Times report continues: "Defending council Mr Hutchinson said there is no record at the War Office of any such foreign decorations being awarded to you.

Eyre: 'I certainly got them. I was taken prisoner by the Germans. I escaped and was afterwards sent to Russia to fight.'

Hutchinson: 'If the War Office records show you were repatriated from Germany in 1919 and that you never fought in Russia, that would be incorrect?'

Eyre: 'Yes it would'

Hutchinson: 'Have you the usual certificate of permission from the War Office to receive these foreign decorations?'

Eyre: 'I have but I cannot produce it now. It is among my papers which are all in disorder.'

Mr Hutchinson said that there was a War Office official in Court who would give evidence on these matters.

The Magistrate: 'You cannot call evidence on the question of the witness's character. I suppose the War Office official is here as a sort of scarecrow to make the witness careful?'

Hutchinson: 'I should not like to call a War Office official a scarecrow. Say an intimidator.'"

All this is very odd indeed. Was Eyre telling the truth or was he a fantasist? Why would he claim - as reported in a subsequent Times court report that he fought in Russia from September 1917 to June 1918 if it wasn't true? The publicity blurb for the 1938 edition of his book mentions an attempted escape from a German POW camp:

"Giles Edward Eyre, now forty-three, has had a crowded life of breathless adventure. One of the few survivors amongst the British residents of the Messina earthquake of 1908, journalist, wanderer in the far corners of the Empire, sailor before the mast, soldier, nearly drowned in swimming across the Vistula in an attempt to escape a German prison, lecturer and propagandist, supporter of lost causes; in these pages, full of quick action, tragedy, pathos, and comedy, he shows us how very great the humble "Tommy" was, and how fine was the human material of our War Army."

If he did escape the probability of surviving the 350 mile trek East through enemy territory to the Russian front line - notwithstanding his little swim in the Vistula - seems a little unlikely. But if it wasn't true why would a War Office official be present in court to intimidate him over his little Munchausen moment? Fantasists in court are rather common and officials from major Government departments rarely attend the trials in which such trifling and inconsequential stories are regaled,  stories moreover that have no bearing on the substance of the case.

It so happens that we can check at least part of Eyre's tale. His medal records survive. There is no mention in them of any foreign decorations. Moreover there is no record in the London Gazette, which usually recorded the award of foreign decorations or in the French Journal Officiel. What the medal records do reveal however is even stranger. Eyre was not demobilized in 1919. In fact he was issued with a new regimental service number and record that he was awarded the "IGS Medal and Clasp Wazn 1919-21". As it happens his medals came up for auction in  March 2008 at Dix Noonan Webb and sold for £150. The auction blurb is worth quoting in full:

"India General Service 1908-35, 1 clasp, Waziristan 1919-21 (6838190 Pte. G. E. Eyre, K.R.R.C.) contact marks, nearly very fine, rare to regiment £120-140

Private Giles E. Eyre, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, entered the France/Flanders theatre of war on 25 August 1915. The I.G.S. medal with this clasp to the K.R.R.C. is rare as there was no battalion of the regiment present; only a small detachment serving at India at the time qualified. In the 1924 K.R.R. Chronicle, an officer and six men of the 1st Battalion are listed as being presented with the medal and clasp at a church parade on 3 February 1924. Sold with copied m.i.c. confirming the award of the 1914-15 Star, British War and Victory Medal; also with an extract from the rolls which confirms the I.G.S. medal and clasp to Private Eyre as ‘4/K.R.R.C. attached Hd. Qrs. Waziristan Force. Dera Ismail Khan’."

So though Eyre may not have been in Russia the official record places him on the Indian North West Frontier taking part in a campaign against hostile tribesmen. This doesn't sound like the sort of thing that would normally happen to a repatriated POW who would have been  in pretty poor shape after the best part of 3 years in captivity.

After 1933 there are few public traces of Giles Eyre. He does not appear to have been a member of the British Union of Fascists and during World War II he joined the Home Guard. He died in 1971.

Who then was Giles Eyre? An oddball? A fantasist? A misfit? Probably he was all of these and possibly more. What strikes me  is that I thought I was reading a book about three months in 1916 when in fact  I was reading  a book about a structure of feeling created by the disappointments of the inter-war years and probably common to many of the P. B. I.. In other countries this led to tragedy, in Britain merely to oddity.