The Oliver Observations

Archive for February 2013

Local Press Gems: Lance Armstrong’s performance enhancing shrugs

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Local papers, forever fighting an uphill battle to fill space, do come up with some wonderful stories, which deserved get picked up further afield.

A particular recent favourite [spotted by my friend Jamie Wroe is from The Bournemouth Daily Echo – ‘I’m stuck with 10 000 Lance Armstrong DVD’s to shift‘.

This tells the sad story of a ‘Poole entrepreneur’ who bulk brought 10 000 DVDs of cyclist Lance Armstrong, a man for-ever destined to have the word ‘disgraced’ prefixed to his name – like Neil Hamilton.
The ‘wheeler dealer’ had hoped to resell them at a higher price, but sadly purchased them just before Mr. Armstrong admitted having used performance-enhancing drugs and cheating his way to winning the Tour de France.

As he usually benefits from others’ misfortune, buying up and reselling the stock of bankrupt businesses and says ‘This is one of the few things I’ve managed to buy that has come back to bite me’ it’s hard to find the story anything other than funny, particularly when it includes such choice quotes as:

‘I was hoping the problem would die down and I would be able to find a home for them. Now I don’t think I would get a tenth of the money back.’
‘I could make a tower or build a big dominoes track for my three-year-old.’
‘Armstrong has had a good life for the last 20 years. I just wish he had either kept his mouth shut a bit longer or not done it in the first place.’

I’m sure Lance feels the same.

Of course the readers of the Bournemouth Daily Echo dutifully rally round with typically helpful and sympathetic comments:
“Re-Cycle them!”
“Always sell them off as coasters. Bit risky buying that amount when an investigation was going on.”
“What ever you do Don’t go on dragons den. I’m out.”
“Yeah, I know a couple of blokes who’d take ’em off your hands: Del Boy and Rodney”
“Oh well you have always got 10,000 black DVD cases you could always flog? Be quick though burning DVDs is on the way out”

and such wisdom as

“Fair play to Lance Armstrong for riding a bike on drugs. I tried it once and hit a dog and fell off.”


Written by oliverobserves

February 10, 2013 at 8:03 pm

‘Shadows begone! Richard’s himself again!’ – some thoughts on Richard III

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I wrote must of this piece on Monday, 4th February when Richard’s bones were found, but have only just got round to finishing it and posting it – always the first with the breaking news.
(The title is an inaccurate but fitting quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III as used by Walter Scott for one of the epigrams in Ivanhoe.)

This morning I played my own small part in the media circus surrounding the rediscovery of the body of King Richard III by archaeologists at the University of Leicester.

While Channel 4 may present popular archaeology shows fronted by Tony Robinson, BBC Radio Sheffield relies on his near namesake – Sheffield institution and general polymath Rony Robinson.
I was interviewed on his radio show, giving my reaction to Richard’s re-emergence, along with osteologist Linzi Harvey from the University of Sheffield’s Archaeology Department offering her expertise in bones and John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, offering a wonderfully passionate/shameless case for why Richard’s skeleton should be reinterred at Worksop Priory in his constituency.

We offered some thoughts on the discovery, sandwiched between such appropriate music choices as Dem Bones.
(I was only surprised they didn’t have a topical reworking of The Funny Bones theme ‘In a dark, dark town, there was a dark, dark carpark…’)

If you’re interested the recording is up here (at least for the time being)
The discovery is discussed throughout the show, and I’m on at 21.40 and again at 1.49.40.
[Rony’s show is easy enough to do given as one colleague said ‘He laughs uproariously at anything!’

I tried in my rather brief appraisals of Richard’s record to strike a balance between the ridiculously evil devil incarnate portrayed by Tudor propagandists, and the sentimental, saintly figure depicted by some of his defenders.
I’m not sure how much I succeeded – coming down a bit too much on Richard’s side, presenting him as a lovable ne’er-do-well; ‘Of course he had a few of his enemies murdered, but which of us hasn’t done that.’ etc
But I genuinely meant it when I claimed that ‘This is the greatest day for the Plantagenet cause since the Battle of Tewksbury’.

News of the archaeologists declaring ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the skeleton is Richard’s instantly went international, and the last Plantagenet King of England was soon the subject of chatter and jokes at water coolers and watering holes across the world.
To me all this publicity is great for the debate around Richard, and for increasing awareness of Medieval History. I think historians have to be honest and admit this find will do more to ignite interest in the prototype Game of Thrones saga of The Wars of the Roses than a thousand academic books and journal articles could.
Such a discovery is also great for the discipline of archaeology showcasing the depth of the field (or indeed car park), and for Leicester itself, putting both the City and the University onto the world’s front pages.

I doubt the University of Leicester’s Archaeologists will have much difficulty demonstrating their ‘research impact’ in next year’s REF.
As prince of the Higher Education wonks, Mark Leach, put it ‘Breaking: Public value of education discovered under a car park in Leicester’.
Knowing how academia often contains as much jostling for tradition as any Medieval court, I did find myself momentarily thinking ‘If you were working on other research at the University of Leicester just how fed up with Richard III would you be now…’


Most of all, however, this week where Richardian references were everywhere has made me ponder the continued public interest in Richard III, and why this might be.

Of course I’ve no more idea than anyone else why public interest, which can be as fickle as the false, fleeting, perjured Clarence, has maintained a fascination with the ill-fated monarch over the centuries but I’d hazard a guess at a few possible factors:

The very fact that he was doomed and ill-fated is intriguing. There’s a sentimental romance and glamour that clings to a lost cause, whether it’s Jacobites pining for Bonnie Prince Charlie, Yorkists for Richard or Republicans for Mitt Romney.

There’s an undying debate around Richard’s record and character – was be a villain and a tyrant or a virtuous man and just King unfairly maligned?
People always even joining such a debate and picking partisan sides, rather like the arguments over whether Saul in Homeland or Snape in Harry Potter (pre-the Seventh Book) are good guys or bad guys – stretched over half a millennium.

The debate comes complete with the classic murder mystery – including the conundrum of whether there was even a crime – of The Princes in the Tower. Were they murdered? By whom? If not where did they end up?
The truth is of course lost in the mists of time, thicker that the fog at the Battle of Barnet, but this hasn’t stopped generations enjoying trying, and failing, to solve this mystery of history for centuries.
Depictions of the princes as wide-eyed, golden-haired innocents, straight out of a Millais painting have only added to the comic book villainy of traditional interpretations of Richard.

This depiction of Richard as a cartoonishly evil figure has also ironically helped ensure his memory lives on. As King John, or the executive Producer of the millionth ‘Great Dictators’ documentary for the History Channel, will tell you – there’s much more marketing potential in a villain than a dull saint.

Whichever side of the debate you’re convinced by, Richard is a colourful character, and probably one of few English Monarch’s instantly recognisable to than yeoman in the street. The larger than life, controversial Richard III and Henry VIII still charge their way through popular culture and bestride the history curriculum like a Holbein portrait, whist the well-governing bureaucrat Henry VII between them vanishes in comparison.

The facts (if such they be) of his life appeal to the Ladybird Books school of History, while many people vaguely remember the strong images of his story, taught at school or picked up through cultural osmosis – the poor little princes locked in the tower, their Uncle, tormented by the phantoms of his victims, screaming in his sleep on the eve of Bosworth, Richard personally killing the ‘poor old man’ Henry VI while he kneels in prayer, and overseeing Clarence’s drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine, before meeting his dramatic end crying ‘A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!’ within striking distance of killing Henry Tudor and winning the war. (As the rainbow itself tells us the colourful Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.)

The crown of course rolls into a gorse bus where it is picked up, given to Henry Tudor, who immediately marries Richard’s niece, and unites the nation in a stroke of design genius by delighting both feuding houses in the War of the Roses with the Tudor Rose Logo.
(I suppose had he used different PR consultants he could have united Richard’s white boar and the Tudor’s Welsh dragon as a flying pig…)

If nothing else Richard would maintain a place in pub quizzes as the last English King to die in battle, and indeed the first since Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066. If we believe the Tudor chroniclers’ tales of his murdering Henry VI and the boy Edward V, he would also, I think, be the only King to kill two of his predecessors – though I’m open to being contradicted.

The manner of the discovery is bound to be the latest chapter in this memorable tale of Richard, and ‘the King in the car park’ does make an excellent addition to the story.

Richard’s royal status inevitably also plays a part in fuelling interest. Catherine Fletcher, from the University of Sheffield’s History Department, strikes a note of caution amidst the enthusiasm, detecting an element of historical hierarchy and snobbery in the interest around the discovery, featuring as it does ‘celebrity and royalty’.
She does have a good point – if the skeleton had turned out to be a 15th century equivalent of the unknown soldier, interesting as this would have been, it would have been lucky to get much publicity beyond a ‘News in Brief’ paragraph in the BBC History Magazine.

As in so many of our national identity, Shakespeare was a major influence in shaping our picture of Richard, and the villainous version, guaranteed to please his Tudor patrons, depicted in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, is probably the biggest reason of all Richard remains so well remembered.
Famous actors across the centuries from David Garrick to Laurence Olivier portraying Richard and refining the stereotype have also been largely responsible for his imprint on popular culture.

This stereotype has also proved self-sustaining, with such performances, particularly Larry Olivier’s, being constantly parodied, memorably by the two Peters – Sellars and Cook; Peter Sellar’s performing a wonderfully sinister cover of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in the manner of Olivier’s Richard III, and Peter Cook providing some brilliant cod-Shakespeare in Beyond the Fringe (Performed here with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, and Terry Jones as a worthy stand-in for Dudley Moore at the first of Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Balls in 1976), and of course years later in the first episode of Blackadder.

Richard’s rediscovery with its saturation media coverage inevitably produced some good jokes (and some terrible groan-inducing ones)
I particularly liked the twitter account @HMRichardIII (which had about 500 followers when I checked on Sunday before the findings were announced and now has over 8000) where our late lamented King provided commentary such as:

Looking forward to a good catch up with my nephews. Oh….wait.

The two Princes may or may not be buried underneath the Swindon branch of Lidl. That’s all I have to say on the matter.

500 years in a wooden coffin. Talk about splinters of discontent.

Burying people in multi-storey car parks. That’s wrong on so many levels.

I wonder if Chris Huhne could get his wife to pay my parking fines for me.

My jokes are like my legs – lame.


Whatever the reason, Richard III is clearly embedded even deeper into our national consciousness than he was under a Leicester car park.

And whether through a mawkish love of celebrity and spectacle or a noble desire to comprehend the past, I did feel a bit of a thrill seeing images of him, knowing this is the first time he’s been seen in nearly 528 years.


As a lover of historical what-ifs I’ve also found myself idly wandering this week just how different England and the world would be if Richard had won the Battle of Bosworth and remained King?
The answer is of course nobody has a clue but its intriguing to speculate…

There would have been no Tudor dynasty and no King Henry VII or King Henry VIII. In fact there would have literally been no Henry VIII as his parents would never have married. Though given the rumours in the last year of his life that Richard planed to marry Elizabeth of York it’s quite possible a future King of England, sharing half Henry VIII’s genes could have come to the throne around the same time.

Without Henry VIII of course there would have been no single, dramatic break from the Church of Rome, and it’s quite possible England would still be a Catholic country today, subjects perhaps offering a prayer during mass for the royal Saint Richard of York.
There would almost certainly be no established ‘Church of England’ whatever the national faith.

Broadly speaking, most histories will tell you that Henry Tudor brought relative stability to England, uniting the warring Houses of Lancaster and York, providing children and a clear line of succession which had been sorely lacking, and growing the treasury through years of shrewd management and scooping up taxes with Morton’s fork.

We could assume that if Richard’s reign had continued this stability would have been missing and the Wars of the Roses might have continued.
Though it is at least arguable that stability and peace might have been attained a different way.
Richard might have united managed to unite the country, either through clever politics and strategic marriages, or by shear force having won the battle, killed Henry Tudor, and supressed the House of Lancaster.

If Richard had won in 1485 the House of York would have held the throne continuously since 1461 (apart from Henry VI’s sad and sorry second reign for five months in the winter of 1470-71), and with every year the likelihood of a Lancastrian revival could have faded.
Richard might also have reigned King a long time, being only 32 when he died at Bosworth. (His Father also died a violent death, like his father before him, but his mother lived to be 80 so it’s not fanciful to imagine a triumphant Richard ruling well into the 16th century, by which time the civil war would be long forgotten.)

Had he triumphed at Bosworth it’s fair to assume one of Richard’s first priorities would have been to remarry, (after his wife’s death the year before) possibly to Princess Joan of Portugal, and produce a ‘son of York’ to succeed him.

We might also assume the Treasury would have recovered under Richard, if a period of peace could have been provided, given many of Henry’s policies were built on initiatives begun under Richard. He had also presided over the Council of the North before becoming King, which can be seen as overseeing early attempts at regeneration or prototype-Keynesian economics, aimed at boosting the North’s economy which had never quite recovered from the devastation wrought by the Harrying of the North after the Norman Conquest.
If Richard had remained King might the North-South divide now be reversed and the country’s economic hub be – perhaps – York under the shadow of the even larger Minister Richard intended to fund?

Another fascinating point to consider is whether a hypothetical post-1485 King Richard would have listened to a Genoese gentlemen who visited England in 1488.
Christopher Columbus, during his long quest to finance his crazy sounding scheme to discover a new world, or at least sail to Asia, dispatched his brother Bartholomew to the English Court seeking patronage. Bartholomew was received by Henry VII and the King was intrigued by his plans but eventually they didn’t pass his risk assessment and he refused to put up the cash.
The Columbus Brothers eventually received capital from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and the rest is history…

Had England had a King less fiscally prudent than Henry, say with a history of taking brave gambles and sanctioning investment in large projects, South America could well have been claimed for England generations before the Pilgrim Fathers and others colonised the North.

To sound a bit like a Ladybird Book, for once it’s no exaggeration to say the course of History as well as the King changed with the slash of a sword (or it now seems the blow of a battle-axe) on the 22nd August 1485.

The Boundary Changes Showdown: The Result

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I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest and non-sarcastic kind comments my last post, with its rather obsessive analysis of the parliamentary arithmetic of Tuesday’s vote on boundary changes, or the Electoral Registration and Administration Act (2013), received.
I was also pleased Andrew Sparrow kindly included it in his excellent Guardian Live Blog of the day’s events (I now have no ambitions left in life).

So, due to popular demand – i.e. no open dissent – because I’m still getting quite a bit of search engine traffic from people clearly after information about the vote, I thought I should update it with details of the result.

Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham and High Priest of parliamentary arithmetic, rebellions and back-bench behaviour, has already written two fine analyses the vote. In the first he addresses the vexed question of whether this can be described as a ‘Government defeat’, when part of the Government was clearly delighted to defeat the rest of it, while in the second he examines five more aspects of the result.

Intriguingly he notes that the Commons Authorities actually miscounted the result and therefore the Tellers – the MPs who announce the result declared the result as 292 votes for to 334 votes against, while in fact 335 MPs who went through the No lobby – meaning the Opposition’s majority was 43 rather than 42.
This doesn’t make as much difference as the occasion John Major’s Government lost in the Commons by one vote, to find later it was a miscount and they’d actually won, but it does show the result was even worse for the Conservatives than initially thought.

In terms of the way MPs actually voted, David Cameron’s much heralded plans to get MPs from minor parties to vote for the bill came to nothing.
Or not quite nothing as I was wrong to assume that Naomi Long, Alliance Party MP for East Belfast, would vote against, along with the Alliance’s sister party the Liberal Democrats, as she in fact became the only non-Conservative MP to vote with the government.
According to the best available source – Alliance Party members on twitter – this was because on principle the party believes in reducing the number of MPs.

Nadine Dorries, not technically a Conservative MP after having the whip withdrawn last year and presumably anxious to get back in the party’s good books, also voted for, leading to online mockery from Labour MPs.

As well as failing to attract support from outside the party, despite their appeals Conservative whips were unable to keep all their own MPs onside.
4 Conservative MPs voted with the Opposition – David Davis and Philip Davies, whom I’d predicted would, and John Baron and Richard Shepherd whom I hadn’t.
2 others on record as opposing the boundary changes – Glyn Davies and Andrew Percy – abstained, which in such a tightly whipped vote I think can fairly be counted as a rebellion.

Conservative whips could at least have comforted themselves over a brandy after the vote that the rebellion wasn’t even bigger.
Some Conservative MPs who’ve previously opposed the boundary changes (such as Geoffrey Cox) clearly voted in favour on the day. Perhaps such MPs had been won round by the strength of the arguments, or maybe felt they needed to be loyal seeing their party being done over by the devious Lib Dems. They might also have felt they could comfortably vote in favour, not wanting pointless rows with the whips or possible damage to career progression, safe in the knowledge that the changes had no chance of passing anyway. We can draw our own conclusions depending on our level of cynicism.

Five other Conservative MPs didn’t vote. Two, David Amess and Lee Scott [who I remember for his resignation as a PPS during the tuition fees vote], weren’t eligible to vote as they’d served on a Committee of the Whole House. I’m afraid my parliamentary knowledge fails me as to quite why this means they weren’t couldn’t vote – presumably they’d previously scrutinised the Bill and had therefore had their say, and therefore need to remain neutral.
(The latest edition of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Procedure is currently reduced to a mere £274.05 on Amazon if anyone really wants to know.)
Regardless of the obscure reason, they were joined as non-voters by Labour’s Katy Clark who also served on the Committee. (Thanks to the @LabourWhips‘ helpful twitter feed for this information.)

Three Ministers also missed the vote – William Hague, Ken Clarke and Helen Grant.

William Hague was in the United States hosting a farewell dinner for Hillary Clinton as she leaves the State Department.
As the only foreign country to have their offer to host a farewell event accepted, you can see why the Foreign Office wanted the Foreign Secretary in attendance rather than voting to redraw boundaries in Westminster. Though given Hillary Clinton’s fondness for David Miliband, perhaps they could have struck a deal where the two were paired and co-hosted the dinner?

A bit of digging reveals Ken Clarke was in Brazil as part of his new role as the Government’s roving trade envoy (or as some journalists have put it ‘Minister for not writing his memoirs’).

While Helen Grant, the Equalities Minister, was meeting Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty; either going AWOL as Labour MP Chris Bryant suggests, or being allowed to miss the vote as the whips knew it was already lost.

The opposition in contrast were at their full strength with all the 254 Labour MPs eligible to vote present, including two serving as tellers, and all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs – including the 9 months pregnant Jenny Willott [another MP who eventually resigned as a PPS over tuition fees] – turning up to vote against their Conservative Coalition partners.
They were joined by all 6 SNP MPs, 3 SDLP MPs, 3 Plaid Cymru MPs, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Respect’s George Galloway, and the Independents Sylvia Hermon and Eric Joyce.

Only the Democratic Unionist Party weren’t at full strength – with 2 of their 8 MPs, Sammy Wilson and Jeffrey Donaldson not voting (perhaps absent in there Northern Ireland constituencies – where Wilson also serves in the Northern Ireland Assembly as Minister for Finance and Personnel in the Northern Ireland Executive?), while the remaining 6 joined the opposition.

And that concludes more than anybody could ever want to know about the boundary changes vote. The full division lists can be found in Hansard.


As Tim Shipman, The Daily Mail’s Deputy Political Editor reports in an article full of vintage vitriol, the vote has caused real resentment amongst Tory MPs towards their Coalition Colleagues, with much talk of Lib Dem betrayal in the air.

Given how big the defeat was, despite the time and effort committed to trying to force the new boundaries through, it’s hard to see how David Cameron’s authority, and hold over his own party isn’t damaged to some extent by this.
For example if you’re a Conservative Minister and want to vote against a measure you disagree with at some time in the future, why should you have to resign to do so when Liberal Democrat Ministers can remain it their posts while voting against Government Bills?

As the next election slowly hoves into view, and the tension both between and within the Coalition parties grows, we can’t rule out seeing more such split votes, and maybe even some new precedents for just how loyal Ministers have to be to Government policy.
Parliamentary arithmetic fans will be delighted.