Sunday, December 30, 2007

Two cheers for the CofE. If it's not too much trouble and you feel so inclined

It's very easy to sneer at the C of E for being wishy-washy and vague, but that doesn't mean it's wrong to do so. Not when confronted by an article about Anglicanism, in this case by The Rev Canon David Meara, which, amid the bleating and the hand-wringing, argues that this is its main strength.

"Thou hast set my feet, O Lord, in a large room," says the psalmist, and I give thanks for the large room that is the Church of England, in which those who seek meaning and purpose can be welcomed, whatever stage of belief or unbelief they have reached.

In other words, belief in God is optional. So why bother attending a church which has no idea whether or not its doctrines are true? Apparently things would be worse if they weren't.

People come to church because they want a story to connect with, a guiding narrative that helps them make sense of human existence, and because they have found that unthinking multiculturalism and rampant secularism don't satisfy and don't work.

Hmm. This to me suggests that the Christian story is just that. A story, a fable, a fairytale and that the willing suspension of disbelief will make as feel better about ourselves; a grown up version of the excitement children get from awaiting Santa's visit. It also seems akin to an argument I've heard a few times that we need to have values derived from religious beliefs (even it those beliefs are patently absurd) because otherwise we will all do unspeakable things to each other all the time and degenerate into soulless automatons. (It won't be long before you'll hear the argument, again, that people go shopping because their lives are empty. I think it's bollocks).

I'm sorry if I appear to the most frightful Calvinistic bore; but it does rather matter to me whther or not that guiding narrative is true or not. If the latter, I would not use it a basis for "making sense of human existence". Otherwise we could perhaps try a thinking form of secularism and multi-culturalism.

But let us not be too harsh. David Meara is, after all, the cannon of St Bride's, the journalists' church. And anyone who is charged with caring for the immortal souls of Her Majesty's Press deserves a large deal of sympathy and compassion.

The cannon is right that Anglicanism's ability to tolerate different viewpoints is its great strength. Elizabeth I's idea of creating the proverbial broad church, to which different sorts of Christians could subscribe, helped avert a great deal of religious strife. True, there was still a series of civil conflicts in which religion played a part, a good deal of persecution and so on.

Yet the Church of England also alleviated the worse effects of religion in a different way, by placing minimal demands on its adherents and by a benign neglect of much of its flock. I've said before that the English never took, entirely, to Christianity and since the time of the Reformation, at least, there has always been a large substratum of society which never really went to church.

By the late Victorian era the situation is well described in Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers (I assume the echoes of Burgess are deliberate). I don't have the book to hand, so forgive me the following paraphrase which is made from memory. Essentially, the Church of England was presided over by a priestly caste of Oxbridge-educated vicars who tended to the spiritual needs of the rural gentry, the respectable middle classes and the establishment. Fortunately, their spiritual needs were not over-exacting. At the same time, it become utterly disengaged from the urban working classes (one reason for Methodism's appeal was that it understood and could communicate with the working classes) and some sections of the intellectual and artistic worlds. During the First World War, most army chaplains were hopelessly out of touch with the concerns of the men fighting in the trenches and provided poor consolation to them. (The Catholic priests, drawn mainly from the same stock as their charges, faired much better). This disengagement has since continued.

It has been said that High Church Anglicanism is the gentleman's atheism. It may be a back handed compliment, but the best tribute we can pay that institution is to thank it for doing its job by cooling things at time of religious tension – oh and giving us the Book of Common Prayer and King James bible – and send it on its way.

Certainly, we shoud end the absurd pretense that it's the state religion. If the tolerance and open-ness is such a good selling point, let the CofE compete with other sects and religion on equal terms. Although it may not be quite what David Meara would like to hear, I think this is the best legacy the Church of England has given us. It allows use to construct our own "grand narrative" and "make sense of human existence" in our own way, without the heavy-handed presence of a religious institution insisting it is the way, the truth and the life, and we must follow it or else.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Oh dear

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. That's almost up there with General John Sedgwick whose last recorded words were: "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."

There is a deep and very mordant irony about the fact that a corrupt, incompetent, feudal autocrat with a ropey human rights record was the best hope for Pakistan. But it's not funny, exactly.

Still, the awards for scariest country and most fucked up country of 2007 go to...


Friday, December 28, 2007

Successful journalist was good egg, shock

Hugh Massingberd was the creator of a great institution: the Telegraph obituaries section.

The impression given by the valedictories (and I've no way of assessing how accurate this is) is that Massingberd really did "reinvent the whole concept [of the obit]... Before his arrival at the Telegraph, obituaries had been regarded as an inferior branch of News, and afforded minimal space." I'm not sure if its quite so simple – on his That Was The Year That Was album, Tom Lehrer tells of his delight in the "juciest raciest, spiciest" obituary he ever read, that of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel (you can hear it here). Still, the fact that he felt it worthy of comment does suggest that the average obituary was every bit as dull and dry as has been suggested.

I'd guess that Lehrer would be a great fan of the various volumes of Telegraph obituaries. What really makes them special is the enormous fun of trying to stretch the rule of de mortuis nil nisi bonum by the masterly use of understatement.

Given the success of the Massingberd approach, the other UK broadsheets now make a decent fist of their obituaries. But the Telegraph's are still generally the best. I've always had the impression that whereas the Guardian's dream obituary would be the founder of the Ghanaian social services department, the Telegraph's is of someone who won the VC while charging a Japanese machine gun nest, naked except for a cravat, armed only with a swagger stick.

Just what it is it the makes the Telegraph obits pages so good? There's the distinctive style and tone , often copied by never bettered. As Massingberd explained: "I determined to dedicate myself to chronicling what people were really like through informal anecdote, description and character sketch" rather than giving the rather dry and reverential list of people's achievements which were previously preferred. (The Irish Times obits are still like this, if you want to find an example of how tedious this approach can be).

Massingberd's own obit gives some good examples of his approach.

readers found themselves regaled by such characters as Canon Edward Young, the first chaplain of a striptease club; the last Wali of Swat, who had a fondness for brown Windsor soup; and Judge Melford Stevenson, who considered that "a lot of my colleagues are just constipated Methodists".

The column also made a speciality of tales of derring-do from the Second World War. The foibles of aristocrats proved another fertile source.

The 6th Earl of Carnarvon appeared as a "relentless raconteur and most uncompromisingly direct ladies' man".

The 9th Earl of St Germans listed his recreations as "huntin' the slipper, shootin' a line, fishin' for compliments".

The 12th Marquess of Huntly married a nurse 40 years his junior: "I still have my own teeth. Why should I marry some dried up old bag?"

Part of the fun lay in the style which Massingberd evolved to pin down the specimens on display. Liberace, readers were gravely informed, "never married". Hopeless drunks were "convivial". Total shits "did not suffer fools gladly". Financial fraudsters seemed "not to have upheld the highest ethical standards of the City".

It seems somewhat fitting that the Telegraph has given Massingberd a much more entertaining and illuminating obit than that afforded to Benazir Bhutto. It is, however, a lasting tribute to the man that his successors are able to maintain the style, tone and standards he established. For an example, here's the best obit of recent months: Count Gottfried von Bismark.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Present for You All

Mareva: Pourqui Pas Mois?

At last; music that says something to me about my life.

Friday, December 21, 2007

More offensive music

Apologies if you've all heard this before; but ever since I reached the age of 25 I decided not to even try keeping up with popular music trends. I figured that things that would appeal to me would filter through eventually and that in the interim I could spend the time increasing my collection of classical music, music from other countries and so on.

It seems to be working as Harry's Place alerts me to something very fine indeed. The comment

I just watched the two videos. It's one thing for rational adults to have to endure that dirge, but there's something quite sinister about exposing those vulnerable children to his particular brand of miserablism. I don't know about myself, but I'm quite certain that Malcolm Middleton is going to die alone, and rightly so.

is an especial commendation.

We're All Going to Die by Malcolm Middleton.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cliff Richard never sunk so low

I don't have anything to useful to add to the BBC's ridiculous publicity stunt of bowdlerising, then reinstating of the Fairytale of New York – if you're interested there are sensible comments on the Political Umpire's blog – bar to draw your attention towards Peter Tatchell's comments.

What concerns me is not so much the use of the word "faggot" as the hypocritical condemnations of Radio 1's original decision to bleep it out. They wouldn't endorse the use of the words "nigger", "paki", "yid" or "spastic". For the sake of consistency, either the f-word should be disallowed too or these other bigoted words should also be permitted. It's the inconsistency that grates.

Whatever else he may be, Tatchell is not a Pogues fan or else he would surely be aware that 'yids' and 'Paks' appear in the Sickbed of Cuchulainn.

However, at this time of goodwill to all it would be clearly wrong to focus on one artist's ability to offend when a quick trawl through YouTube reveals a wealth of songs which allude to frankly sickening attitudes about sex, race, power and class. The fact that this includes some of my favourite songs indicates more clearly than anything I might say that I am clearly a very bad person.

In that spirit, I offer you a choice of six supreme examples of musical and moral turpitude. (Feel free to suggest your own things we shouldn't be listening to in the comments box).

1. Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones.
A song about white slave owners having sex with their black slaves on the plantations. And they make it sound like such fun. The BBC clip linked to here clearly endorses such disgraceful attitudes and could quite easily have let to an epidemic of young plantation owners exploiting their labourers.

2. Kill the Poor by the Dead Kennedys.
Because if a song articulates offensive attitudes, it clearly endorses them. I think it a sad indictment of the Reagan era that punk musicians should have thought it acceptable to advocate the mass murder of people on low incomes, but what did you expect from a band with a name which makes such a tasteless attempt to exploit poor Ted Kennedy's narrow deliverance from a road traffic accident which could have happened to anyone. (Thanks to Quink for suggesting this).

3. Lady by Fela Kuti.
A political activist and scourge of colonialism, corruption and sectarianism he may have been, but Fela,'s attitude here is "women, learn your place and do what men tell you". His later polygamy and dying of Aids may not be entirely coincidental.

4. Handsome Devil by the Smiths.
Mozza's recent Daily Mail-esque comments about immigration upset the perpetual students who inhabit the music press. Twenty years ago the tabloids were getting worked up about his witty references to gay teacher-pupil sex ("a boy in the bush is worth two in the hand/ I think I can help you get through your exams".) I suspect it would have caused more trouble had he produced that gem today (and what a pity he no longer produces such lines).

5. Lemon Incest by Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
You didn't think I'd do a list of this sort without mentioning Serge, did you? It is as well for you that my iron self discipline means I've restricted myself to just the one. His best-known song was banned in several countries. His finest work includes concept albums about deflowering teenage girls, murdering teenage girls with whom one is sexually obsessed, anal sex and the last days of Hitler (the buggery and Nazism are two different albums, by the way. A single long player about butt sex and the fall of Berlin would really be something to treasure). But this duet and video performed with his 13-year-old daughter set the bar pretty high if you are the sort of person to get worked about people exploring the more questionable recesses of the human soul. It is possible Serge was trying to provoke a reaction from that type of person.

6. They Ain't Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore by Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.
"And them Niggers, Jews and Sigma Nus all they ever do is breed. And Wops, and Micks, and Slopes and Spics and Spooks are on my list." It's just as well Radio One doesn't play much country music or this record would be beeping like an Italian motorist stuck in traffic on his way to the brothel. This is to say nothing of the potential for religious offence. If there's one thing I can't abide it's an ethnocentric racist.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Trollied Tuesday: Absinthe

Cheering news: the United States is the latest country in which absinthe can now be legally sold and consumed. There is nothing like the whiff of illegality to give a drink a particular cachet, yet in this instant that fact that said drink was a favourite of artists, writers, poets and other shady characters (Ernest Dowson's dictum "absinthe makes the tart grow fonder" is worth remembering in this context) and the rebellious cachet which attends the drink gives it a particular fascination.

You possibly know some of the abinsthe stories: that van Gogh cut off his ear after drinking too much of it; that Gerard de Nerval, whilst under the influence of the stuff, used to walk a lobster on a leash through the Bois de Bologne (almost certainly untrue, I'm afraid, even if it did inspire one of the best episodes of the Simpsons); that absinthism was regarded as a medical condition in 19th century France; or even that French troops in the trenches of World War One over-indulged in the stuff leading to its eventual banning.

Add to these legends the jukie-eque rituals attendant upon its consumption – set light to a spoonful of sugar which has been soaked in the liquid, stir it into your glass and then douse in water – and one can see why the drink holds such a fascination. And yet it is worth remembering that absinthe was invented by Henri Louis Pernod – and that taste-wise there is little to distinguish it from the pastis which bears Pernod's name or green chartreuse.

Yet I cannot wholly accept that the drink's distinctiveness is solely attributable to its historic notoriety. I can testify that absinthe does have a particular effect on the imagination (not least for the hangovers – like having your brain stem severed, according to one account. That's downplaying it). It's nickname - La Fée Verte, the green fairy – was well earned. Moreover, for the purposes of Trollied Tuesday, in which we scorn the authoritarian bullying which will insist on making us virtuous whether or not we wish it, I cannot think of a more fitting drink.

It may be that common wisdom is correct in this case and that absinthe's special nature is attributable to its decadent history and the fact that it contains Wormwood – or Artemisia absinthium – a substance which has the almost irresistible combination of being dangerous, hallucinogenic,* and containing Biblical, diabolical resonances – "And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter".

Perhaps the secret to the drink lies in its Satanic majesty. To borrow the words of one abinsthe-drinking poet.

Toi qui, magiquement, assouplis les vieux os
De l'ivrogne attardé foulé par les chevaux...

Toi qui, pour consoler l'homme frêle qui souffre,
Nous appris à mêler le salpêtre et le soufre,

Or: Better to drain in Hell than serve in Heav'n.

However, if the ritual of sugar and fire does not appeal, I suggest you follow Ernest Hemmingway's example and mix a dash of absinthe with a bottle of champagne for a Death in the Afternoon. (An homage, of course, to this).

The other good advice I can give you is: don't mix homemade Ukrainian vodka and absinthe. It will not end well.

*Although the link I've provided here does point out that the proportions of alcohol to Wormwood mean that the alcohol will have much more effect.


Sunday, December 16, 2007


I'm happy to take the credit for my foresight in comparing Gordon Brown with (and indeed to) John Major. But here's a new one via the Mail on Sunday.

One rebellious Labour MP even compared Mr Brown to Anthony Eden, the Conservative Prime Minister of the Fifties who resigned after less than two years in the job without fighting a single General Election.

This is somewhat unfair to Eden by dint of being untrue. Eden fought an election within weeks of succeeding Churchill (you can find the full results here if you are so minded. Not even I am sad enough to go through them all; but it's vaguely interesting to flick through them and note such historic details as the fact that many seats only had Labour and Tory candidates or that Belfast West was an Ulster Unionist gain).

One thing Eden did not do was spend weeks talking up the prospect of an election, publicly and visibly dither about it and then make some laughable claims about why he had called it off. If Eden really had been Brown-like, I suppose he would have tried to pretend he hadn't invaded Suez by sending in the troops after the French and Israelis had already done so, then tried to give the impression they were just passing through rather than invading the place properly and finished off by making a laughably unconvincing case that there was some pressing reason which prevented them from invading Suez at the same time as everyone else.

However, if we making comparions, it is worth remembering the following story about Churchill – who hung on for years to keep his heir-apparent out of Downing Street. Here's an account of his valedictory dinner which, it being in the Telegraph, is mainly intended to highlight Blair's disgraceful disrepect towards Her Maj. It does show some foresight, however.

When the Queen and guests had departed Number 10, the diarist Colville went upstairs with Winston. "He sat on his bed, still wearing his garter, order of merit and knee breeches. For several minutes he did not speak. Then suddenly he stared at me with vehemence: 'I don't believe Anthony can do it.' His prophecies have often tended to be borne out by events."

I think Gordon Brown will be Prime Minister for a shade under three years against Eden's a shade under two, however.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Trollied Tuesday: Shane MacGowan

December and the office party season are, to the serious drinker what January and the lose-weight-after-Christmas season are to the serious gym buff. A time to grit your teeth and keep your head down as hoards of amateurs invade your patch for a few weeks.

Still, this year's festive season gives us one particular thing to celebrate. On December 25, Shane MacGowan will be 50. Virtually since the day of his birth in, hilariously, Tunbridge Wells, he's adopted the what-does-not-kill-me-makes-me stronger approach to drink.

And what strength there is in some of his songs. As one of the great laureates of booze – and unlike Tom Waits he hasn't been forced to foreswear the drink – he has managed to capture some of the essential aspects we associate with this time of year: the loneliness, dreams, unrealised and potential unfulfilled until it all fades into a welter of drink and sentimentality.

The obvious thing to do then, would be to post The Fairytale of New York but I'm sure you've all heard it enough times over Christmas. Instead here's my favourite Pogues song: The Sickbed of Cuchulainn. It has many of the aforementioned qualities, including a dash of Christmas-y stuff, but there's a lot more there besides. The picture quality's poor, but I think we can stretch a point, especially for the Gay Byrne cameo at the end

Altogether now:

Do you remember that foul evening
When you heard the banshees howl?
There were lazy drunken bastards singing
Billy in the bowl.

They took you up to midnight mass
And left you in the lurch
Till you dropped a button in the plate
And spewed up in the church.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

If breathless journalism existed 2,000 years ago

The extent of Britons' ignorance about the Christmas story is illustrated today in a new report which shows more than a quarter of adults do not know where Jesus was born.

The extent of the gospel writers' ignorance of the Christmas story was illustrated today in a study which showed that just half of them had any detailed knowledge about the birth of Jesus n Bethlehem. In a development which is likely to raise concerns about authors' knowledge of events in first century Judea, only St Matthew and St Luke were aware that he was born in a stable in Bethlehem.

"Worryingly, both accounts display clear gaps in their knowledge of the Christmas story," said the religious commentator St Sanctimonious of Odone. "Only Matthew knew the story of the coming of the Magi, the flight into Egypt and some of the family background. But he doesn't mention the story of the angels appearing in the fields. Mathew and Luke can't even agree on whether the angel appeared to Mary or to Joseph. It really is important that subsequent editions of the Bible clear up this confusion to ensure that readers have a proper understanding of the Christmas story."

Of the other gospel writers, St Mark expressed total ignorance of the Christmas story, despite the fact that his gospel is believed to have been the earliest one written, a sign - some have charged - of the poor state of religious education under the emperor Nero.

"There is no excuse for someone like St John to miss out details of the nativity. But bar a passing reference to his birth, his knowledge is incredibly hazy" explained the journalist and historian Tabloidus Hackus. "His account was the last one written, after all. It's not good enough, when you consider that subsequent generations have been able to construct a coherent narrative out of it.

"It's all very well showing off your knowledge of Greek philosophy, but no matter how subtle your concept of λόγος might be, you're never going to have the cultural impact that a story about a baby being born in a manger will have. People miss the reassurance that a nice synoptic account gives them."

Hackus added: "It's all very trying to be inclusive and politically correct by sharing the feast day of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti with the cult of Mithras. But at the end of the day Christmas is a Christian feast and we shouldn't be afraid to remind people of that fact."

St Sanctimonious warned that the confusion about the Christmas tale might undermine the central role religion plays in our culture: "With increasing numbers of people rejecting Christianity these days, we can't allow a confused, fragmentary and garbled set of stories to stand. People might get the wrong impression about Christianity if they were forced to rely on the Bible tales. Ideally we need someone to reinterpret these things in a way that we can all understand."

UPDATE: this is slightly edited in light of Quink's superior knowledge of the finer points of John's gospel. He once won the prize for scriptural knowledge at school and I fear the achievement went to his head; even though he is strongly suspected of having cheated.


Wednesday, December 05, 2007

EDW: Yulia Tymoshenko

There are many things you can criticise the former and - most probably - future Ukrainian Prime Minister for; not least the cult of personality which her website does little to resist.

One thing you can't criticise is her awareness of the power of image and her talent for stylish power dressing which puts most Western politicians - male or female - to shame. Here she has dressed with all the care of a knight putting on a suit of armour – the braid alone is a weapon. It's little wonder that she lends herself to iconography. Certainly it beats Viktor Yanukovych's sartorial efforts.

Since I have little doubt that she is an avid reader of this blog, I'd like to offer the following advice to Wendy Alexander. If you started dressing like this, no one will be calling for your resignation. (Oh and try to lose the mixture of arrogance, self righteousness, entitlement and vindictiveness too, thanks)

(Thanks to Dom for the pic and other stuff).

UPDATE: A partial defence of Mr Yanukovich is offered the comments to Quink's in no way girlish writings about shoes. It looks like he – Yanukovich that is, not Quink – has fallen into the oligarch's trap of believing that money can buy you taste and confusing expense with style.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Trollied Tuesday: the dry martini, FDR and other high points of American culture

Ever since the introduction of Trollied Tuesday I had intended to discuss the dry martini. The popular clamour that followed convinced me that nothing less than a full discussion of that noblest of quests – the search for the perfect version of the drink – would do. So it was that I sat down intended to consider whether the construction of the drink is an art or a science, or even a form of alchemy which transcends these disciplines.

I still may do so yet, but it would be remiss of me not to deviate from my good intentions and launch into a spontaneous wassail in honour of something that is well worth remembering.

Tomorrow is Repeal Day: the anniversary of the end of the 18th Amendment: America's ill-fated attempt to ban the sale and manufacture of alcohol. This wretched measure, which brought nothing but crime and misery to the States, ought to be a salutary warning to all those who believe that the full weight of the law and the moral force of the government are a good, or successful, way of altering human behaviour in the way that those in power see fit.

Of course, some canny drinks manufacturers have seen fit to use it as a marketing opportunity but, since I'm the last one to complain about people trying to get me to buy their drinks, I don't think we need dwell on the commercial aspects (though I've no doubt they helped convince the US Congress come to its senses; it's worth noting in this context that the egregious Joe Kennedy was one of the main beneficiaries). Rather let us see Repeal Day for what it really is: a blow for liberty, freedom of conscience and a damn good excuse for a drink.

In any case, this deviation from my original intention is no bad thing. Had I stuck to the issue of what makes the perfect martini, I might well have found myself teetering along that line between aestheticism and anal retentiveness. And, intoxicated as I would have been by the subject, it might have been all too easy to stagger over that line.

I don't mean to belittle discussions about what ingredients should be used– very cold gin and a splash of vermouth, basically; and I've nothing against vodka-based variants, though I abhor the pretension that the vodka martini is the same as the real thing (sex and love are both fine too, but it's equally wrong to confuse them) – and I'll doubtless return to the matter. However, no matter what care you make in choosing the ingredients, no matter how scientifically you chill them and no matter how fastidious you are in your measurements; you may never enjoy a martini quite so sublime as the first one enjoyed by President Franklin D Roosevelt after the end of prohibition.

I've long believed that FDR's first drink after the repeal of prohibition and, since my desultory attempts to verify that have fact drawn a blank, we'll remain true to this belief for now. The 32nd President was certainly a fan of the gin and vermouth combination – although this article does suggest he liked them rather vermouth-y, weak and sweet; the sort of thing you'd give to a girl who isn't overly accustomed to strong drink when you were trying to lower her defences.

I think we'll overlook this small fault in a great man. If you were sat in the White House in late 1933 faced with a crippling recession, uncertain health, the vagaries of political life and – if you were prescient about these things – an alarming new government in Germany, your first unimpeachable martini would be all the more sublime for the knowledge that you had, at least, managed to increase the sum of human happiness by signing the 21st Amendment. What celebratory drink could ever taste sweeter? One day, perhaps, they might even raise a statue of you for that.

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We all have a cross to bear

This message is brought to you my our sponsors Goys R Us, purveyors of the finest religiously conscious children's toys.

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UPDATE: It seems that Kosher Bear, at least, is not wholly original. Not when you can buy a Mohel toy for your child or dog.


A lot for somebody from Sheffield

Gillian Gibbons, she of the heretical bear.

"I told her that she was on the international media scene, and that was a lot to take in for a lady born in Sheffield. It was a bit of a shock," Baroness Warsi said.

Come on. It's not as if the place is some sort of black hole from which nothing of note ever emerges.