28 August, 2011

Taxing Times!

Fellow blogger Leann (http://crazyworld-leann.blogspot.com/) in a recent blog listed Warren Buffet’s  comments about taxation and the ‘need’ to tax the wealthy more highly,  as one of the items that she might blog about. Great minds think alike!  Even though the Atlantic Ocean and several thousand miles separate Leann and me,  I too was intending having a “rant” (or is it an informed debate?) about the same subject - taxation!
Warren Buffet

Buffet, consistently ranked amongst the world’s wealthiest people has called for higher taxes on the very wealthy. From what I understand and briefly seen whilst scanning Google and reading the Guardian he has received short shrift from many in his native USA. But yet he is not alone in his views. There appears to be some kind of feeling or move that is more widely spread than the comments of one very rich man. At about the same time as Buffet was making his point a number of very wealthy French people said very much the same thing. And in this morning’s paper I read that our Chancellor, George Osborne is intent on ensuring that everyone, especially the wealthy, pay their due tax. Osborne focuses on the very wealthy who “shelter their wealth in the tax haven of Switzerland” and “warns top earners who attempt to avoid tax that the government will find you and your money.”

The comments that Buffet and Osborne make, are, of course,  rather different. Buffet is, I understand, arguing for more tax to be imposed on the very wealthy whilst Osborne is making the point that people avoiding paying their due tax, whatever it is, should be brought to justice. This tax is a “taxing subject” so perhaps I should set out my basic premises!
Oliver Wendell Holmes

That great American, Oliver Wendell Holmes, a member of the US Supreme Court famously said that "tax is the price we pay for a civilized society" –and all of us pay some form of tax to enable governments to provide the amenities and actions that the society desires. These may vary from society to society but might include roads, guns, policemen, aid to foreign countries, hospitals, schools, soldiers, waste collection – whatever. If we don’t pay taxes, goes the argument, then these desired services might not be provided. Now there may be many views on this – indeed there are, for example in the UK  there currently rages a debate about the role, for example of private enterprise in the provision of many services – especially the NHS - but essentially that is what taxation is about – everyone making a contribution according to their means towards the general good. It is, however, rather more complex than this. Individuals in societies might argue about what is appropriate for taxation to fund and what private individuals or bodies should fund. We might dispute what is a fair level of taxation – indeed, this seems to be the point being made by Buffet. Or we might have quasi-political arguments about the role of the state and that of the responsibilities of the individual – a factor which is at the root of many of the current  debates in the USA  about Obama’s introduction of health care proposals  or in the UK about  social services spending and the welfare state. In the final analysis, however, these complex considerations do not detract from the general fact that we pay tax to fund the things that we desire and value as a society.
Eric Pickles

The whole thing is a mine field, however. A couple of weeks ago one of the UK’s most ridiculed  (and by many reviled) politicians Eric Pickles  (he is the “Communities Secretary” – whatever that is) opposed a proposal to introduce what is called a “Mansion Tax” whereby properties valued in excess of a million pounds are subject to a tax.  When I read Pickles’ comments I was incandescent! I did not object to his opposition to the tax – that was very predictable but rather his reasons. He said: "We as a Government have got to understand that middle-class families put a lot into this country and don't take a lot out.....People will suddenly find themselves in a mansion and they hadn't realised it was a mansion....I like people to keep more in their pockets for their family."

I found Pickles’ comments offensive and banal at every level. However people might argue it cannot, I believe be denied that  anyone classed as “middle class” is by implication more financially secure (and potentially richer) than many others and as such must be potentially subject to greater taxation. Secondly, I wonder on what he basis his claim that middle class families take less out? – this seems to be a very divisive statement  but, more importantly,  carries the implication that you only get out what you put in. This seems to run contrary to what I believed  was a fundamental on tax – it is about society not individuals and provides services for all and in many case protection for the vulnerable and less well off. And thirdly, his final comment  goes to the root of all taxation issues – it’s about greed. I want to keep more of my money for me so I want to pay less tax.

This last point is for me crucial on a number of fronts. Let me explain my position. Many of my views on taxation are based on a conversation I had some half a century ago but which still has resonance today  - as George Osborne’s latest comments (above) illustrate.

Contemporary picture of the
Boston Tea party
In the early 60s I left home in Preston to go teacher training college in Nottingham.  Like most students I received a grant which was calculated on parents’ income. My grant was  £162 per year – almost the maximum available (£164). My parents were not well off but they were still required to make a donation and they did. Each Monday morning I would receive from my mother a rolled up copy of the previous Saturday night’s “Football Post” (so that I could read the reposts of how my beloved Preston North End had played!) and hidden inside was a letter of all the family news and two pound notes. I know that the £2.00 mother sent me each week was a significant bit of the family’s cash – we were not well off – and I also knew I was lucky since many of my peers did not have such supportive parents and had to manage on their grant alone.  In the next room to me  was  a blunt, plain speaking Yorkshire guy. Terry and I got on quite well and soon after we started the course we happened to be discussing grants. Terry was mean with money (a Yorkshire man!) but never short of it. He told me that he got a full grant plus other benefits -  a clothing grant, an extra payment for books, a travel grant so that he could travel home for free – all things that had been denied me because my parents earned “too much”.  At first this meant nothing to me until after a few weeks his parents  came for a visit. His dad drove a very posh car – a Humber, the equivalent in those days of a top of the range BMW and his mother looked very well dressed. Terry told me that his dad owned a chain of gents’ outfitters in West Yorkshire – they were well off! When I queried his grant Terry was perfectly honest -  explaining that his dad had an accountant who made sure, by using every tax loophole, that his dad’s income appeared  minimal as far as the grant was concerned and that despite the booming business rarely paid any tax anyway! Terry was, therefore, the happy recipient of a full grant and every other available benefit! I thought back to the squabbles that there had been at home between my mother and dad about money, I thought of how much it “cost” my parents to send me the £2.00 each week from their meagre income and mostly I thought about the basic dishonesty of a system that allows someone to play it and reduce their financial responsibilities by clever accountancy. It seemed very unfair – the richer you are the richer you get! Perhaps Terry’s dad was not  acting illegally, just “playing the system”, but it all seemed wrong to me – and still does – and reinforces my belief that willingness to pay tax commensurate with one’s income is inversely related to  personal  greed. Pickles said that middle class people take little out of they "system" - that may or may not be true - but, I would argue, they are also more skilled and tax aware to ensure that their tax liability is minimised in the first place - as was Terry's father. Put simply the richer you are the greedier you are or the less you want to pay tax then, in all likelihood, the wealthier you are – you have a lot and you want to keep all of it. Precisely the point which I believe Eric Pickles makes l and which hopefully, George Osborne is going to try to reduce – although I won’t hold my breath on that one.

Robin Hood outside
Nottingham Castle
But of course, this is not new. There has always been a basic unwillingness to pay tax. People object either because they don’t approve of what the money will be spent on or object to what they perceive as “their money” being taken off them. “I’ve earned it so it’s mine” they say. Indeed that view of the world underpins the much repeated mantra of recent months in this country – “if the government taxes the banks and bankers at a punitive rate then they will go elsewhere to ply their trade and London as a financial capital will be adversely affected”. Well, maybe – although I’m cynical enough to believe that bankers and banks and the like are so governed by greed and their own personal  welfare that they will factor in other benefits of working in the UK and work out that they will be better off to stay.  And if they don’t then I for one would say that our society is better off without their attitude and greed!
But, as I say, taxation and people’s responses to it have been around for a very long time. There are references in the Bible, history is littered with examples and indeed, here in Nottinghamshire we have two superb historical examples which despite being based in far off history are still “of today!”

Is it Errol Flynn,
Robin Hood or
Warren Buffet in tights? 
In the Bible we read of Jesus’ comment about “rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – interpreted by many as a requirement for people to pay their taxes. We also read of Jesus’ friendship and calling of Levi the tax collector. In 1215 the English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta – a document that changed the world and which had its roots in what the barons saw as John’s unfair use of taxation. In Boston, America, in 1773 the “Tea Party” was a reaction against what the colonists saw as unfair taxation from London and the call for “taxation only with representation” – a few years later the USA was born following the event in Boston .  In more recent years the “Poll Tax” in Britain lead to widespread revolt in the 1990s and was a major factor in the final demise of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister.
The Wise Men and the sun
and the pond

But, back to Nottingham. As I drive into Nottingham city centre I can pass the famous statue of the town’s most famous son – Robin Hood. If I decide to have a summer afternoon out I can visit Sherwood Forest, a few miles away from where I live – Sherwood, the home of Robin and Maid Marion and the Merry Men - the subjects of books, poems, legends and Hollywood blockbusters. And why are they famous? Put simply, because they fought what was seen as an injustice to ordinary people – the unfair taxation imposed by King John to fund his life style and his foreign crusades. Of course, Robin had a quirky way of going about it that made him a hero – “he robbed the rich to give to the poor” – now, strangely,  that seems to me to be the basic premise of what taxation should be about – and something that perhaps Eric Pickles would not understand! He wants the rich (the middle classes) to keep their wealth – perhaps we need a modern day Robin, or indeed, perhaps in George Osborne we already have one! Perhaps Warren Buffet is a reincarnation of  Robin or Robin in disguise!  Perhaps some future Hollywood blockbuster might feature Mr Buffet starring as Robin in Errol Flynn type tights and Eric Pickles, also in tights, starring as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham – King John’s tax collector in chief!

Catching the cuckoo with the fence
But even closer to my home is the small village of Gotham (pronounced “Goat-ham” for the benefit of American readers) and not to be confused with Gotham (pronounced “Goth-am” where Batman and Robin fight evil). Gotham is a small community and more or less our nearest neighbouring village. An old friend is the Head Teacher of the local school and we have a number of friends  who live there. And what has it to do with this blog? – “The Wise Men of Gotham” – the original tax dodgers, the people who George Osborne and is railing against and who Eric Pickles would be supporting - is a world famous tale from the middle ages. It has been passed down over the centuries by word of mouth and put into children's poetry form on a number of occasions! When I was teaching, since my school was very close to Gotham, it was a frequent part of our assembly story telling and classroom studies. It is very much part of the "folklore" of south Nottinghamshire. There are no great theme parks but the people of Gotham are often good naturedly considered to be very wise of alternatively stark raving bonkers! I will explain.
The Cuckoo Bush in Gotham today

The legends of the Wise Men of Gotham, like Robin Hood, date back to the time of King John. According to the many legends King John’s soldiers and tax collectors were due in the village to collect the King’s taxes. The village elders met – how could they avoid taxation? The plan they hit upon was to appear stupid to the soldiers and tax collectors so that they would give up in disgust and frustration. And so began a number of bizarre escapades of which there is still evidence in the village. The soldiers observed the men rolling great cheeses down the village hill and when asked what they were doing the “Wise men” announced they were rolling their cheeses to market in Nottingham  - eight miles away! The cheeses of course crumbled and broke. Or at night villagers were observed leaning over the village pond and dipping their hands in. When asked what they were doing they explained that they could see  silver coins at the bottom of the pond and they were trying to catch them to pay their taxes. Each time they tried the coins broke up – it was the reflection of the stars! They made this even more bizarre by doing the same this the next day when they tried to catch the huge gold coin they saw each morning at dawn as the sun rose! The legends go on – my personal favourite is that of the cuckoo bush where the villagers tried to catch a cuckoo in a  bush. They built  a fence around the bush and, of course, the bird flew straight up high into sky. When the soldiers confronted them with the stupidity of this the villagers responded by agreeing that it was rather silly – they should have built the fence higher!  They did, and of course, the bird simply flew away again! Wherever they went the tax collectors saw the villagers of Gotham undertaking foolish tasks - the local people seemed incapable of understanding or doing anything right! In the end the soldiers and tax collectors shook their heads and agreed the people of Gotham really were mad, not worth the effort, a waste of time so they moved on and the good folk of Gotham were spared paying their taxes! And to this day Gotham’s “wise men” are remembered  - the Star Inn, Cheese Hill, an annual festival in the school, The Rising Sun pub, the Cuckoo Bush pub and the cuckoo bush memorial in the middle of the village!
Looking down Cheese Hill to

Of course, this is all good knock about stuff but it is about a serious subject. Whether it be in Boston or Gotham, whether it is the tax laws of the UK or the tax dodging of wealthy bankers, whether it is Warren Buffet or  Robin Hood, tax matters and over the years has had a profound impact on the world, how its people behave and react and upon politics, economics and indeed the moral base of society. In some future blog (be warned) I shall return to more serious tax considerations and set out my position, but for now, it’s sufficient to reproduce one of my favourite quotes by the father of modern economics and capitalism Adam Smith. Smith often regarded as the arch free trader is clear on taxation issues is the idol of right wing economists and yet he said two centuries ago: “To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature......... The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.....The rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion".

Adam Smith
That was  over 200 years ago but Warren Buffet today couldn’t have put it better! And I'm pretty sure that Oliver Wendell Holmes would indicate his agreement. And, as I read it, I am forced to the conclusion that poor old Eric Pickles - a modest man who, to use Churchill's words, "has much to be modest about" - is clearly out of synch with Adam Smith. And yet Smith is at the foundation of, and often used to justify, the current Tory philosophy about free markets, low taxation and capitalism espoused by Pickles. The right wing Tory "think tank" the "Adam Smith Institute" advises the party and others on these matters - and yet their founding father was clear about his position on a humanitarian tax system  two centuries ago. Clearly Eric Pickles is not strong on the exercising "our benevolent affections and the perfecting of human nature" bits of Smith's philosophy. And he certainly doesn't seem to go along with the rich "contributing more than their proportion" imperative. No, Eric is clear, he wants the wealthier middle classes to "keep more in their pockets!" Tax really is very confusing!

And, in writing this blog I’ve suddenly realised something else. I have written about Robin Hood, Nottingham and about my nearby village of Gotham and the tax struggles and avoidance there in medieval times. My fellow blogger Leann, whose blogs I referred to at the opening paragraph lives, I understand, in Massachusetts and  so must be somewhere near to that other great centre of tax avoidance in the late eighteenth century – Boston - coincidentally, also the birthplace of Oliver Wendell Holmes.  Clearly tax issues  are not bounded by geography or history – it is something that faces all of us wherever we live - and I do  like the symmetry of the events and personalities involved in the  Gotham/Nottingham/Boston “tax connection”. Great minds think alike!

13 August, 2011

"The school is closed, the childen gone, but the ghost of the teacher lingers on....."

Well, I survived the day - yesterday, I mean! Hopefully, I will get through today.
One of the envelopes that
came through my letter box
Don’t worry, so far as I am aware I am not in mortal danger - at least no more than I usually am as a sixty six year old with a chronic heart condition. No, I'm very well and  looking forward to this afternoon’s football match.  It’s just that there are a couple of days each year when I fear that should I collapse, fall and break my leg or do some similar injury to myself then I would lie there all day quite unnoticed, untended and uncared for. Yesterday was one such day. Today will be another. Let me explain.

Yesterday the world was good. The sun shone (although it was a bit humid), the cleaning up was done and my wife and I are looking forward to a few days with the grandchildren at our favourite hotel by the sea in Devon. Alright, so England is in the midst of riots, our city centres are in flames, introspection and self-flagellation courses through the national psyche and scream at us from our newspapers; our courts are working overtime handing out punitive sentences to youngsters for their part in the riots and our politicians, it seems, have the answers to everything - or so they would have us believe. Our banks are close to collapse, and the government stumbles from one crisis to another. But these are small irritations! Life is good - or at least it was until yesterday!!!!!

It all took a downward spiral, however, just before lunch yesterday. The postman came and I picked up the mail and, as expected, there was my copy of this week’s New Statesman - the political magazine which sustains me through the weekend and beyond and which my wife blames for my non-communication as I devour it! But then, my heart sank as I recognised another envelope. I immediately tried to hide it beneath the New Statesman but to no avail, my wife had already spotted it and I knew that whatever else might happen during the next day or two the whole world would stop, I could lay on the floor unattended for hours, the meals would remain uncooked, riots might lay waste our village, the four horsemen of the apocalypse could ride through our lounge at will……but the lovely Patricia would be quite oblivious to all this - and to the rest of civilisation as we know it!
The other - which ensured that
my wife would become oblivious to
the rest of the world! 

Her “old girls'” magazine had arrived!

Pat attended a girl’s grammar school in London through her teenage years - the Mary Datchelor Girls’ School in Camberwell. It was a very highly regarded school and although now closed still has a vibrant Old Girls’ Club - of which Pat is a member. The Club has been in place since 1889 - soon after the school was first established and funded by the London Clothworkers’ Company.  A couple of times a year the Old Girls’ Club publish a newsletter with the latest news of ex-pupils and staff. Many of the “old girls” are now indeed very much “old girls” since the school’s history goes back a century or more. Many of the ex-pupils have achieved positions of standing in the professions, business, politics and academia but others have lead more ordinary lives as housewives, teachers, librarians and the like - and each edition of the magazine is filled with their latest news - family news, professional news, reminiscences and the like. And when the magazine pops through our letter box I know what to expect; the work of the house will stop, my dear wife will sit and devour it for hour after hour. There will be the occasional “Oh…..I remember her” or “I used to be good friends with her” or "She was always a bit odd!" or “Don’t people seem to have exciting lives when compared with ours……… “ It’s not insignificant (and perhaps a sign of things to come!) that Pat and I have reached the age where she will occasionally read out, with a sigh, that one of her school peers has died - the grim reaper is popping his head over the distant  horizon!
Read all about it - all the "old girls"
strutting their stuff!

Old girls from Mary Datchelor permeate the national fabric and pop up when you least expect them. They have quietly forged links and tentacles that spread like spiders' webs throughout society at all its levels. I firmly believe that wherever you are or whatever you are doing you will not be more than ten feet away from an ex-Datchelor girl or someone who knows an ex-Datchelor girl! If some future dictator or evil Rupert Murdoch like character wishes to influence and monitor the goings on in every household in the country then he could do far worse that harness the Datchelor Old Girl network - their eyes and ears are everywhere!

For example, a few months ago Pat’s choir had a concert evening up here in Nottinghamshire. Pat was singing and before the concert she and I were selling tickets and programmes on the door. A lady came in who we vaguely knew - she was the wife of a man who I had taught with and known well for some forty years here in Nottingham. We chatted and during the conversation it transpired that she too was an ex-Mary Datchelor girl - quite unknown to us or her for all those years! Pat and she had travelled across London together to Camberwell on the bus each day! This wouldn’t have been so surprising had we still lived in the area of the old school but the fact that we are hundreds of miles away is some considerable coincidence!
Datchelor Prize Day 1961 - Pat tells me
she is on this photo somewhere

And last year Pat and I attended the ruby wedding celebrations of one of her old Datchelor school friends. This was 150 miles away from our home and many miles away from the school. There were over 400 guests there. As we sat down to enjoy our lunch I suddenly realised that the guy sitting at the side of me was a chap who I had been supporting and assessing as a trainee teacher here in Nottingham only the year before! He was, astoundingly, a mutual friend of my wife's Datchelor friend. The Datchelor network is everywhere! Not only is the world a small place but with Datchelor's help it is getting smaller! And if you are reading this in the USA - or any other nation on the face of the earth - don't feel safe. A quick glance at the Old Girls' magazine will quickly confirm to you that there are Datchelor networks permeating your far flung society too - Old Girls lurk behind every tree, peep from behind every door and listen at every letter box as they  exercise their hidden powers and monitor your every movement!
The school - now
expensive apartments 

Occasionally they have re-unions. If Pat attends one of these - usually with her particular friend, Susan,  who has been a friend since their days at the school - then I, together with Kevin, Sue's husband, know that the only sensible thing for us two men to do is to disappear down to the pub. There is absolutely no point in staying around the house. When Pat and Susan return home we will be forced to listen to the post re-union chat. “Did you see that dress she was wearing?”, “She’s put on weight!”, “Fancy, her being divorced!”, “Well, that explains why she was such a nightmare at school”…………..The post re-union dissection of fashion, appearance, lifestyle and the rest goes on for hours and excludes Kevin and myself. Any comments that we might make are met with a look of disdain indicating that we, mere men, could not possibly understand this female analysis - we are far better off in the pub. A few beers, perhaps even a pub meal (for no meals will be available at home!) is a far better option!
Old girls gather under
the entrance sign

And two more "old girls" -
in more ways than one! Pat and
her friend of over 50 years, Sue (Elkins as was).
When these two get together
Sue's husband and I go to
 the pub! 
Despite my light hearted disparaging comments, however,  I have to confess that although the world of Mary Datchelor is something from which I am excluded because I am a man and because I never experienced the school, I do harbour a slight envy. Although I don't know the school and, of course, was never a pupil I feel part of it - it has been so much part of our lives for over 40 years. I feel almost an honorary pupil. I can reel off the names of members of staff, I can describe the much hated hockey lessons in huge detail, I can give you a potted history of the various head mistresses or the many high flying girls who went through the school. I can tell you all about the glories of a Datchelor Latin lesson or can recite the Datchelor lunch menu at will (school dinners, like hockey, left a lasting impression on my wife!!!). I'm sure that there are many husbands of ex-Datchelor girls, like me, up and down the land who feel the same way and are equally knowledgeable! My own school days came and went - I have many memories, the vast majority of them very happy ones - but having left school the episode is a closed book. Through modern technology - Facebook and the like I have the occasional link with an old friend but these are very tenuous. Perhaps to a degree men are different - we are not such social animals - and may not retain those long social links  that women do? But the fact that there is a formal structure - the Old Girls’ Club - to ensure that links are retained means that although the school is no longer there in a sense it still lives.
Once a classroom, now an
executive apartment 

Today, the old school buildings have, I understand, been converted into modern high class apartments. I think they have retained the old main entrance with the school’s name which is a nice touch and reminds people of the school’s place in the history of the area and the country’s educational heritage and I wonder if, through those  stylish flats and apartments, there still lingers the ghosts of all the girls and teachers who populated the building for so many years. It reminds me of one of my favourite poems that I often used to read to children when I was in the classroom and which was always enjoyed by the class:

The Ghost Teacher
The school is closed, the children gone,
But the ghost of a teacher lingers on.
As the daylight fades, as the daytime ends,
As the night draws in and the dark descends,
She stands in the class room, as clear as glass,
And calls the names of her absent class.

The school is shut, the children grown,
But the ghost of the teacher all alone,
Puts the date on the board and moves about
(As the night draws in and the stars come out)
Between desks -A glow in the gloom-
And calls for quite in the silent room.

 The school is a ruin, the children fled,
But the ghost of the teacher, long time dead,
As the moon comes up and the first owls glide,
Puts on her coat and steps outside.
In the moonlit playground, shadow free,
She stands on duty with a cup of tea.

The school is forgotten -the children forget-
But the ghost of a teacher, lingers yet.
As the night creeps up to the edge of day,
She tidies the Plasticine away;
Counts the scissors - a shimmer of glass-
And says, "Off you go!" to her absent class.

She utters the words that no one hears.
Picks up her bag...

Allan Ahlberg

I’m no expert on poetry - but I like it. And I can’t believe that all the people who passed through my wife’s school (or indeed any other school) did not leave some kind of spiritual imprint. All the hopes and fears, the laughs and the tears, the aspirations and ambitions, the friendships made and the dreams dashed or fulfilled - they must have left an impression. And perhaps that is why the Old Girls’ Club magazine means so much to my wife and why she devours it and becomes engrossed to the exclusion of all else - it is bringing back all those dreams, ambitions, friendships, fears, tears and laughs. Perhaps its arrival signals a time to look back and reflect and take stock of what life is and what it might have been - a thing that we all do, I'm sure, in our different ways.
Pat Green (as was) -
Mary Datchelor girl

And Pat Beale as now is - in
Dubrovnik half a century after
the picture on the left! 
But ghosts apart, there is another dimension. It is surely good not to forget our past, our heritage, where we have come from, what has influenced us. Nye Bevan the great Welsh Labour politician of the last century often walked the hills above his Ebbw Vale constituency and when the mist came down it was easy to become lost. His solution was to look back towards where he thought the town lay and even on the darkest, mistiest day he could still see the glow of the steel furnaces shining through the mist. This  gave him a reference point as to where he was and where he should go next. As a result he  famously often said “You need to get your bearings and it’s only by looking back at where you have come from that you can get a sense of where you are, and from that you can know where you should go next”. How right he was.

So when the magazine dropped through our letter box yesterday I knew that was what my wife would be doing for the next day or so - she would be looking back, getting her bearings, reliving her past, looking forward to where she is going and all within the context of her heritage and what Mary Datchelor gave to her all those years ago. And for all of us, that is  perhaps an important bit of being human - the ability and need to reflect, draw strength from our heritage and beliefs and face the future.

So, I decided that I might as well get stuck into my New Statesman - after all that comes every week, the OG magazine only comes a couple of times a year. The lovely Patricia deserves her bit of remembering, nostalgia, catching up and reflection to remind her of who she is and what she is about. To be on the safe side, however, I have made provision for the next couple of days. I will ensure that I don't do anything vaguely dangerous (such as DIY). If I do I might  fall or cut myself - and then I will surely lie unattended and uncared for until the OG magazine has been devoured and dissected. I will also be meticulous in ensuring that I take my heart medication regularly - to miss a pill would be rash, indeed, for whilst my lovely wife is otherwise engaged she will not remind me. Nor would she even notice the paramedics as they bundled me into the back of the ambulance! And, finally,  I have made sure that we have a lot of bread and cheese in so that I can make the odd sandwich to sustain me whilst the cook and the cooker are out of action!

We are having a very quiet weekend as we both devour our respective magazines!

09 August, 2011

Reading, Recession, Riots, Redundancy and Roses!

The sun is shining but all is not well.  London is burning as riots and criminal activity sweep the capital and other major cities across the UK, my daughter has just been made redundant from her IT job and recession is again in the air as stock markets crash. I could start anywhere to blog on this – and wax long and not very lyrical about it. None of what I would write would be complimentary but can be summed up in a very few words – “we’ve had this coming for a long time” -  about thirty years, to be exact, since the time of the Thatcher/Reagan financial deregulation and the adherence to a free market. It seems to me that there is a terrible symmetry in the events of the past few days. Thirty years ago Mrs Thatcher proclaimed in two much misquoted statements: “You can’t buck the market” and  “There is no society” – well, that has become almost  a terrible self fulfilling prophecy in recent hours.   The deregulated free enterprise capitalism  spawned cultures defined by greed,  get rich quick and winner take all outlooks. In the quest for another million pounds in city bonuses people throughout the country – like my daughter – suddenly find themselves redundant as companies are bought and sold, or slimmed down to make a quick buck and to reduce costs so that the firm looks attractive as a sale item, or to encourage the next venture capitalist, or ensure the profit for shareholders. And those at the bottom of the social pile - perhaps  who live in poorest areas of our capital and perhaps, unlike my daughter, are not well qualified  but at the same time they live live within sight of the obscene wealth of places like Canary Wharf  - riot. Should we be so surprised? This, of course, doesn't excuse the huge criminal activity that we have seen on our TV screens – and that is what most of it is – criminal activity. But, it is the society that we have created and will not change until we change that society and its values. ”You can’t buck the market" and "there is no society” said Mrs "Torture"– a terrible symmetry.
A Lewisham street today - 2011

But no – I will not get into all that. Like millions of “little people” around the world I  just have to stand and watch while the shakers and movers shake and move. There is absolutely nothing that I can do about it so I will leave my thoughts and comments for another day – I warn you they will come! Instead, I will think of pleasanter things and perhaps continue a little from where my last blog left off.

Today, August 9th, is our wedding anniversary. Pat and I were married 43 years ago (1969) in Lewisham, London (where Pat had grown up). It was a hot day, like today – the only difference was that unlike today  there were no riots (so far as I know!) in Lewisham. My friend Vicki, who lives in Lewisham, has just e-mailed and told me that “It’s all pretty scary down here, to be honest. Riot van stopped outside our house at 3.30am this morning. They were trying to block a car. I am hoping it all calms down! Cannot believe the behaviour of these people. Just at work now, trying to go home at lunch time as the rioting started at 4.30pm yesterday and I want to be through Lewisham  and home by then  - just in case!!” Boy, it would sure have spoiled our wedding day all those years ago if we had had riots to contend with  – and I’m not sure what it would have done to my future mother in law’s nerves which were already shredded from all the stress of organising the wedding!
At a church in a
Lewisham street 1969

 But back to our wedding anniversary! In 1969 we had just qualified as teachers and were about to set off on our life together. We had very little money and were both a lot slimmer! Like millions of others we have had our ups and downs but so often say we can’t believe how incredibly fortunate we have been.  Like many of our generation we were lucky – for the first twenty or so years of our marriage we benefitted from the certainties of the politics and economics based on consensus and Keynes – full employment, a slow but steady rise in the standard of living, a value system within society that rewarded hard work and at the same time promised a bright future for our young. Then the whirlwind aggression of unfettered free markets hit the world – the rule of the jungle both in the city and throughout industry, politics and society. The “Big Bang”, “Bull Markets”, "aggressive capitalism" – even the language of the system has an undercurrent of aggression and violence. It’s a very fine line it seems to me  between the aggression and financial brutality of Gordon Gecko portrayed by Michael Douglas in the film Wall Street a few years ago when he says “ I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them! The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.” And the looter breaking into a London shop? – Oh, he isn’t stealing plasma screen TVs, he’s liberating the item! 
Gordon Gekko - "greed is good"
(So long as it's in the City and not
on the streets)

Yes, unsurprisingly, we have seen society, too, become aggressive and those that can’t win are thrown on the scrap heap. We should not be surprised at what is happening in the present world for that is today’s society – it reflects the values we have promoted and prized over the past three decades. I fear for the futures of  my grandchildren. My grand-daughters (and, I believe my grandsons too, but they are still very young) are two bright little girls – the sort who in my day would have easily been bright enough to go on to university and get a “good job”. But now, we say to even our brightest and best, being bright isn’t good enough – you must now get 5 "A stars", jump through more hoops and if you do work hard and get a university degree you may not be able to get a good job. If you are lucky you may get some casual work in McDonalds. And if this is the future for the brightest and best should we be surprised at disaffection and  discontent amongst those not so intellectually fortunate or those in  in the poorer, disadvantaged areas? The greed, aggression and financial “mugging” that goes on daily in the City and Wall Street and is given a veneer of respectability by sharp operators, analysts, bankers and politicians is just the same as the greed, aggression and mugging going on in the streets of London – it is part of the same territory. It is what our society has become.
No riots in 1969 - thank goodness!

But, as I say, back our wedding anniversary. This morning we lay in bed and opened our anniversary cards, the kids rang us to wish us a good day and I have just been down to the shops to buy my lovely wife a bunch of red roses (that should earn me a few Brownie points!)  – the flowers that she had on her wedding day all those years ago . And, as I write this, on the table in front of me lays my copy of this morning’s Guardian newspaper – something that has been part of my (and our) life for the whole of our marriage.
Red roses 2011 style!

Pat always says that one of the first things that she can remember about me was seeing me (before we actually knew each other) day after day in the college lecture room waiting for our lectures to begin and I always had my copy of the Guardian with me. She is right – the Guardian has been my companion for most of my life. Pat has never been a Guardian reader.  To her everlasting shame she insists on reading the Daily Telegraph – an anathema to good “Guradianistas” like me! I often used to say that I would take a brown paper bag to the newspaper shop to put her copy of the Telegraph in so that no-one would suspect that the dreaded Telegraph rag comes into our house! Perhaps it’s a good measure of the strength of our marriage that a Guardian reader and a Telegraph reader have been able to survive together for 43 years!

My love affair with the Guardian began over half a century ago – before, even, my love affair with my wife! When I was about twelve years old I began to work as a paper delivery boy I thoroughly enjoyed walking round the narrow Preston streets  reading the newspapers as I delivered them. The majority of papers I delivered where everyday tabloids – Mirror, Express, Herald, Pictorial, Mail etc. It was very much a working class area I was living in and delivering to. One house, however was special  –  the house just about at the furthest point of the round  - 17 Brockholes View. I never saw the house itself as it had a high wall around it and I posted the newspaper in a door in the wall. The only time I saw the owner was at Christmas when he would meet me to give me a small Christmas tip. But, he took the Manchester Guardian (as the Guardian then was) and I quickly learned that this was the only paper worth reading – by 13 or 14 I was an avid Manchester Guardian reader.
Today's Guardian

As I walked the streets I soon became aware that all the other papers were trying to manipulate me. They were producing articles for their readership – truth and accuracy had little to do with it. Initially, I noticed it with football reports – reading reports of games that I had attending and seeing how different papers reported and distorted the "facts" to create the impression or viewpoint they wanted. Then I realised this was also true of politics or other reporting. The right wing press I noticed always wanted to extol the virtues of the Royal family or the city gent. The rest of society was beyond the pale – but I was part of that rest. Equally I noticed other papers such as the Herald or the Mirror took the opposite stance – they were the voice of "the workers". I would read the "Cassandra" leader in the Mirror (we had the Mirror each day at home) and although I could agree with much of what it said, because it reflected my life, I wanted to make my own mind up by knowing the facts not having them presented in an edited, biased manner. The Manchester Guardian gave me that – I read football reports that bore a resemblance to the games I had witnessed. I read political and news reports which  seemed, so far as I could judge, to be factual with little or no attempt to influence me  by emotive language or appealing to my class or background or baser instincts. Political parties of all persuasions seemed to be praised or chastised in equal measure - but always with an argument based on fact rather than prejudice, inference or emotive language.  I didn’t know then that what I was reading was a reflection of the views of Guardian editor C.P. Scott – “Facts are sacred but comment is free”
My Guardian as I
 walked the Preston streets
 over fifty years ago

Of course, in those days I didn’t know that the Guardian was, and still is, unique amongst  newspapers being the only paper without an actual “owner” with any kind of  "axe to grind." The Guardian is run by a trust and its constitution requires that the membership of that trust reflects the widest  possible political, social and economic opinion. It does, of course , have a “position” an matters. Currently it is broadly supportive of the coalition government  and was increasingly  scathingly critical of New Labour. But its position is based on the breadth of argument expressed through its columns. It is also, of course closely linked to its history.  The Guardian was originally Manchester based and  originally set up by local philanthropic businessmen.   It quickly gained a reputation not as a socialist paper but as the "thinker’s paper" and as such a reputation for reporting fact and reasoned argument rather that emotive prejudice and vested interest.  Of course, many do not like it because it pricks the bubbles of vested interest and prejudice but that is its strength! It was founded by a young cotton merchant called John Edward Taylor in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which soldiers had killed 11 people at a public meeting in Manchester. Taylor was a reformer and religious nonconformist, and he wanted a paper committed to political change but even more, wedded to truthful reporting. His prospectus for the paper promised to "zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious liberty, warmly advocate the cause of reform, endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of political economy, and support, without reference to the party from which they emanate, all serviceable measures". I have absolutely no doubts that over the past 190 years Taylor’s ambition and the steadfast ethos created by CP Scott and successive editors have ensured that the paper has remained true to its calling. In modern times, The Guardian is the most cited British newspaper on Wikipedia as of August 2009 with 106,424 citations. The Times was second with 52,457.

It is the only   national daily to conduct  an annual social, ethical and environmental audit in which it examines, under the scrutiny of an independent external auditor and its own behaviour as a company. It is also the only daily national newspaper to employ an internal ombudsman (called the "Readers' Editor") to handle complaints and corrections. It daily prints corrections and clarifications – both factual and typographical.   Indeed, the nickname The Grauniad for the paper originated with the satirical magazine Private Eye. This anagram played on The Guardian's reputation for frequent typographical errors, such as misspelling its own name as The Gaurdian. The domain grauniad.co.uk is registered to the paper.

You will by now have grasped the fact that I am a committed Guardian reader. The points I made above I only discovered later in life but they confirmed my belief of the paper’s integrity. There is, however, another dimension which, over the years, I have come to realise and was perhaps instrumental in my becoming ‘hooked’ on the paper – although I didn’t know it at the time.
Smile please - little did we
know that 43 years later
a quiet part of SE London
would see rioting!

Presentation of facts, clarity of expression and analysis of argument is what the Guardian has always been about. Someone once said to me that they preferred The Times it gave them information in small doses but they found the Guardian too heavy it went into the detail. Exactly - and it is only by going into the detail that one can tease out what beguiling phrases used by politicians and others mean and imply. The Guardian gives me that precision and integrity – this was its appeal as I walked the streets of Preston all those years ago with my bag of newspapers around  my neck! I knew it was quite different from every other paper that I pushed through letter boxes. And as I walked the streets  all those years ago I saw other newspapers – influencing opinion by either a sloppy use of words or an intentional skewing of the facts. The Guardian, it seemed to me, went to great pains to detail and analyse what politicians and other said or meant – and then leave me to make up my mind. It satisfied my inner desire for clarity and detail.  Each day I took this paper out as soon as I left the paper shop with my full bag and read it all the way round the streets - it was very crumpled by the time I delivered it. I devoured it and dragged my feet as I approached the house and knew I would have to push it through the letter box. Once I began to buy my own paper there was only one for me! 
A few years later when I attended Blackpool Technical College to study for A levels we had, once a week, a General Studies lesson  and the teacher  -  a strange man called Dr Proudfoot (who was rather like Kenneth Williams from the ‘Carry On Films’!) - spent some weeks on what I suppose we would now call Media Studies. In the first lesson he reviewed various newspapers and I felt very self important when I was able to comment on the various Manchester Guardian columnists. No-one else in the class had any knowledge of the Guardian and at the end of the lesson he kept me back to congratulate me on my awareness! I have been a Guardian reader all my life – apart from one very brief spell in the mid-eighties when, I believe, the paper “lost it a bit”.  It became a victim of the political polarisation of the  Thatcher era  and it lost readers because, I believe, it took up a polarised position on the left and Guardian readers like me don’t like to be told who to vote for – they want facts from both sides and then make up their own mind. Undoubtedly, I believe the vast majority of the Guardian regulars will be left in their politics – but I also profoundly believe that the reason for this is that above all the Guardian is a “thinking person’s” paper – and anyone who is concerned for the facts rather than unsubstantiated opinion, who thinks seriously and objectively about issues, who tries to be aware when prejudice is clouding their view  and who  believes in the  virtues and ambitions of the Guardian’s founder John Edward Taylor cannot be anything else other than compassionate, aware - and politically left.  

Off on our honeymoon to
the Isle of Wight. No cars
ablaze here!
But, enough. I've looked back on what I have written and sadly see that despite my promises I have strayed into the occasional rant about our society, our politics and our economics.I began writing this blog several hours ago. Pat has returned from the hairdresser, we have had lunch and been for a walk around our local Country Park. I say walk – actually it was a shuffle – Pat has a bad back at the moment and my heart condition means that I am hardly likely to be competing in next year’s Olympics! We are just about to sit down to have tea together, as we have done for 43 years. I will read my Guardian while we eat and (sadly, since I can’t convince her of the error of her ways!) Pat will scan the Daily Telegraph – but hey, that’s what marriage is all about – rubbing along together – putting up with the foibles and annoying traits (yes, even  having to have the Daily Telegraph in the house!) of the other! 

And anyway, tomorrow (August 10th)  is Pat’s 65th  birthday so there’s more cards to open and presents to unwrap as we lie in bed in the morning. Hopefully the world as we know it will not end before then!

07 August, 2011

"Comment is free but the facts are sacred"

This blogging is hard work. I think that I have a form of writer’s block! Actually, that’s not true (you may be pleased to know – or not, depending upon your interest in my blogs!). It’s just that in the past few days I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time gazing at the lap top screen and the words are whizzing round my head but not necessarily in the right order!. Let me explain.

The Arnold Town
programme cover
One of my pleasures since I retired is writing. Indeed, the more I do it the more I am convinced that I should have set out on a career of writing all those years ago - I do love it and dearly wish that I had some real talent. Whether anyone reads what I write is to me pretty unimportant although it’s tremendously satisfying when I do get a response of some kind – even when it’s criticism. Apart from my weekly blog I write a number of other things. Two or three times a year I write the programme notes for my wife’s choir concerts -  a task I thoroughly enjoy doing and from which I learn huge amounts about musicians, composers, and particular pieces of music. And throughout the football season I write the programme for my local football club – Arnold Town - this requires eight or nine pages of football associated stuff each week. And finally, I put together a Club Newsletter each month so a lot of time is spent planning this, gathering items for inclusion and producing it. Well, putting all this together, everything has come at once this week -  a choir concert is in the offing, the football season is just beginning in England and the next edition of my Newsletter is due – hence, a long time spent in front of the lap top!

While doing all this, however, I have become aware of something that I hadn’t really thought of before and which - although the example I am going to quote is isolated - reflects, I believe, a wider and for me a worrying, trend.

When I write my notes for the football programme I write a number of articles – profiles of the players, a specific introduction to the particular game to be played, information about the club, upcoming events, a commentary about the recent results and success (or otherwise!) of the team. One of the major articles that I write I have entitled “Whisteblower” – and I write some commentary about something in the footballing news of the moment. Generally, but not always, these articles are rather grumpy pieces about the modern game. Indeed, the sub heading to the article is “A look at the current football news from a grumpy old man”. Much of it is tongue in cheek but intended (as indeed  it does) to generate a bit of light hearted comment and debate amongst the supporters as they watch the game! Well, this week I was considering how the reporting of football (indeed sport in general) has changed over the years and I copy below my article – if you are not interested in football you may as well stop reading now:-


The hacking scandal and the trials of  News International  has focused attention on the media and newspaper industry as never before. You will have your own opinions – for me, as a life time Guardian reader of 52 years, I have a quiet glow! But Rupert Murdoch apart it is also a timely reminder how our media -  and especially newspapers - has changed in the past half century.

I am often reminded of this when I flick through a book that my wife bought for me as a birthday present a couple of years ago. It’s a wonderful book of all the many press cuttings and photocopied pages related to  football games and the  history of particular teams – it provides all the match reports in national newspapers and the like dating from the early years of the last century. My book is, of course, all about my boyhood team, Preston North End but similar books are available for other professional teams.
A typical page from my newspaper reports
 of Preston North end games over the years.
These pages are from 1953 reports in
the Daily Mirror - a once great newspaper.

As I flick through it, look at the photographs and read the match reports of games that I was often at from the 50s onwards and read about games that took place before I was even born I am always intrigued at how reporting has changed. These are reports as they appeared in the Mirror, the Express, the Telegraph, the Sunday Pictorial and all the other papers – right up to the present day. The adverts too are still there, so I can see now, as I look now at my book, not only page 16 of the  Daily Mirror’s   report for Feb. 3rd 1958 of Preston’s  game against  Birmingham  but also adverts for Sherman’s Football Pools, a ‘Swiss Master’ watch which would have cost me 7/6, a  nurses shower proof cape (ex-government  stock) for 9/3 or a pack of ‘Carnation Corn Caps’ which would have soothed my feet for 1/1! But back to the football. The match report for that game – which Preston won 8-0 (and, as the table at the bottom of the page shows, kept Preston at the top of the table) is headlined ‘Preston’s artists massacre Birmingham’. I can still remember this game – it’s not often the Preston ever scored eight goals – so you tend to remember such things! And as I read the report I can relate to what it is saying. I was there.
Corn Caps in 1958!

And here’s the thing. It is remarkable how reporting of football and other sports events has changed. The reports of old are so factual, concerned with what actually happened, not filled with the hype and other stuff that we tend to get today. Today, it’s all about personalities, managerial outbursts, views of the game by so called ‘experts’ rather than a description of the game itself. So often these days, I read reports on games and haven’t a clue what actually happened. I might see a headline that says Rooney scores a ‘wonder goal’ but can find no-where in the report any actual description of the goal, what happened, who he beat, where he shot from etc.
Finney in the Birmingham game

But not in years past. The report on the Birmingham game describes Finney’s goals – just as I remember them. His second is described thus: “Receiving a pass from Frank O’Farrell near the half way line, Finney shook off Trevor Smith, Birmingham’s young England centre half. He dribbled on like lightening down the left wing (he did indeed – within feet of where I was standing!), changing his pace twice to waltz around two more Birmingham defenders. Then - twenty yards out – he stopped. And with as much deliberation as if he had been taking a penalty, cracked in a low, grass cutting shot which England keeper Gil Merrick hardly saw. The ball flew low and hard just inside Merrick’s right hand upright with the Keeper hardly moving” And it didn’t only describe and report on Finney’s goals in such detail but also on the other seven goals, including two hat tricks by Sammy Taylor and Tommy Thompson. Plus there was huge detail about other performances: “But for the brilliance of Merrick, Preston’s eight goals might have been doubled. He dived, punched, saved and tipped over shots which should have left him helpless”. Now that’s reporting – not just hype, opinion and punditry. It’s telling people what actually happened.  It is facts backed up by the view of the person who saw the event -  which is after all the function of newspapers – no more no less. And, importantly it is accurate – I can still remember that goal exactly and the descriptions of the other goals and Merrick’s goalkeeping heroics are spot on.
The great Gil Merrick performing
his heroics at Preston

Sadly this is no longer the case. Near the end of the book a full page copy of the Mirror report of the Derby v Preston FA Cup game in 2007 is printed. Preston ran out 1-4 winners at Pride Park. The headline says ‘Rams to the Slaughter’ so not a dissimilar headline to that of half a century before. But there the similarity ends. Despite  being a full page report and despite five goals being scored the only reference to what actually happened is: “After 14 minutes Andy Todd dithered in possession. Brown robbed him and delivered the ball for Hawley to steer home. Preston’s second came when County’s back four went walk about allowing Simon Whalley to stroke in a low shot into the corner. In stoppage time Hawley curled a superb 20 yarder past Lewis Price”. Having read the report I was no wiser as to who were the more skilful  team, which goals were scored with the head (if any), who else played well or badly, what happened  when the defence went walk about’ etc. etc. The whole of the rest of the page is filled with  transfer talk, comments from the two managers, comments about the ownership of Derby County and bizarre and not very “insightful” comments such as ‘Derby County have had more owners that one of Arfur Daley’s old bangers’ and  “Derby misfired miserably just like one of Arfur’s old bangers”.
Arfur Daley - TV's lovable rogue -
but you wouldn't buy
 a used car from him!

This is what reporting has been reduced to today. With  the overkill of live sport on TV there is less place for simple high quality factual reporting telling just how goals were scored, how players played and the like. With TV we can all see what happened so reporters have become analysers, moulders of opinion and the facts of the game are now unimportant. Football (indeed all sports reporting) is now  concerned of the celebrity and the star rather than what they did on the field of play – and in a sporting way, that’s just why Rupert Murdoch’s empire is in such trouble – he and his empire became too concerned with people, scandal, tale telling and opinion rather than facts and the simple reporting of news.

If you have read my article to the end you will see what I am driving at. You may disagree. Perhaps if you are reading this in the USA you may be unfamiliar with English football colloquialisms or the names and situations that I describe – but I wouldn’t mind betting that you have a similar situation in your country and in relation to your sports!
Newsreader Robert Dougall

The trouble is that if this was only restricted to sport it wouldn’t matter too much but my feeling is that the same style has permeated the main sections of newspapers and the media generally. I once remember many years ago one of the BBC TV new readers, Robert Dougall, getting into tremendous trouble because on reading an item of news he shook his head rather sadly – thus showing his disapproval of the  events that he was reporting. I could sympathise exactly with his feelings – but as a news reader it was not his position to show his approval or disapproval. He simply had to factually report the news.  As the great Guardian editor of  CP Scott famously said – and still says on the front of every edition of the Guardian – “Comment is free but the facts are sacred.” Of course, have the facts from every side but they remain facts not trite, uniformed opinions of journalists. Today as we watch the TV news we see and hear newsreaders clearly influencing opinion by the emphasis of their words and the changes in  voice tone as they report. There is a place in a newspaper or magazine for opinion – it is usually called the editorial, or their might be sections devoted to journalists and others expressing their view on some matter or other, but in the reporting of the news it is facts that are required. And, going back to my football reports, when I read a report I want to know what happened at the game, who played well who didn’t and how the goals were scored.
C.P. Scott - the great Guardian editor

Sadly, I believe this simple truth has been forgotten by much of the media. It explains very well the spot that the Murdoch empire find itself in; in their quest to sell papers and influence opinion they have turned a number of their journals into nothing more than the purveyors of tittle-tattle and scurrilous gossip – rather like the quote in the football article about “Arfur Daley’s old bangers”. Even more sadly, many people cannot tell the difference between fact and opinion – and that is a real danger to society. Most worrying, however - at least for me - is that the articles in my football book are largely articles in the popular press - not the broadsheets. The very papers, indeed, that have been read everyday by most of the population - the Mirror, the Express, the Mail and the like - the "tabloids". In days past these papers required something of their readers - they made some kind of intellectual demand and expressed their views/news in literate terms. Read the report of Finney's goal above if you don't believe me. As such they were important organs in the spreading of literacy, comprehension and understanding as well as the news of the day. The quality of writing, use of English or development of ideas, however, in today's "tabloids" is lamentable - shallow, prejudiced, limited in vocabulary and lacking in any significant worth. The same trend is clearly identifiable on TV and radio when "presenters" (what an awful term!) trivialise and dumb down rather than report "hard" news.  When this is what much of our society is exposed to on a daily basis then we should indeed be worried  - for a society that finds it difficult to express itself or to understand more complicated ideas will soon become a society that does not wish to understand. Indeed, perhaps we have already reached that stage with the sort of stuff that is published on a daily basis in organs like the Sun or the now defunct News of the World -  when  readers only want to read tittle-tattle, celebrity goings on and scandal.