November 2012
30 November 2012  ~ The Dig Tree

I finished reading The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatroyd this week, only ten years after it's publication. The book looks at some of the early European explorations of the Australian interior and in particular at the shambles that set out in 1860 and is now known as Burke and Wills expedition, though often ill-fated is also added. The main backer was the Royal Society of Victoria.

When news of several deaths linked to mismanagement created a stir, a Royal Commission was set up. The governor of Victoria, despite being the president of the Royal Society, appointed the five commissioners, including his father-in-law, a member of the Royal Society and two  politicians who had close links to the Royal Society. The Royal Society got off  lightly and men who had been the victims of the confused management became scapegoats. Murgatroyd writes, "
Most people dismissed the whole inquiry as a cynical exercise in political expediency."

How readily the great and the good use their influence and connections to avoid the truth coming out and to shunt the blame elsewhere.

Sadly, Sarah Murgatroyd died of cancer at the age of 34 not long after the book’s publication. The Dig Tree serves as a monument to her talents.

29 November 2012  ~  Bullying  Alive and  Kicking in the British Army

Channel 4 last night broke a major story about widespread harassment of women in the  Army. Of 400 women surveyed all reported unwante
d sexual attention.

But this grim statistic was only part of a report compiled by General Lorimer. He describes bullying as a major problem.

 “There is still evidence from some that bullying – in all its manifestations – is perceived as acceptable. Some personnel have experienced physical bullying and have been involved in or witnessed this behaviour.”

The report also questions the effectiveness of existing procedures and disciplinary systems. This is bad enough, but the Army has form.

  • In 2000, bullying drove desertions to a record high.  
  • A "watchdog" was set up in 2004, following the deaths at  Deepcut Barracks.
  • A report in 2005 showed 75% of Army personnel believed bullying took place. A key point in the report is that  zero tolerance of bullying had not filtered down to instructors.
  • A 2008 BBC TV programme revealed bullying of recruits at Catterick.
  • Two soldiers went AWOL in 2009 to escape "beastings"

How does such bullying persist? And what hope for reasonable treatment of people help by the Army when mistreatment is rife within its own ranks?

Sadly the Channel 4 story has suffered from the attention given to the Leveson Report. Going by a Google news search for "General Lorimer" the only major paper to carry the story was The Telegraph.

18 November 2012  ~  At Hiruharama Update

After my entry on November 12, I emailed Hermione Lee, who is working on a biography of 
Penelope Fitzgerald, asking about the source of At Hiruharama.

Professor Lee was most helpful. She wrote that Penelope Lee,

"heard the story from a New Zealander she met on a visit to the Holy Land. She had not been to New Zealand, though she had visited Tasmania and Hobart, the subject of another story in The Means of Escape. "

June 2012 interview with Hermione Lee at Literateur on The Life Biographic

November 2012  ~  Parakeet Update

Further to entry on November 11th, I have two emails from Hannah Peck of Project Parakeet at Imperial College London.

I have seen just 3 or 4 cases of blue and yellow birds amongst the flocks and from these observations they seemed to be treated no differently by the green parakeets. I think these
are likely to be escaped captive birds which have managed to join the feral population as I suspect the colour mutation would be lost in the next generation if the birds were to mate with normal green birds in the wild (although I may be wrong!). It'd be interesting to know what their survival rate is in the wild as they may have a higher risk of predation than the green parakeets, particularly at the roosts where they really stand out amongst the other parakeets.

And following the photo of Bluey and my query about gender:

...all you can tell is that it's either a female or a young male. The males develop the black ring round their neck after 18 months to 3 years.

Thanks Hannah.

12 November 2012  ~  At Hiruharama by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by A.S. Byatt and first published in 1998, includes one tale set in New Zealand before the Great War, if not a few decades earlier. Penelope Fitzgerald (1916 - 2000) began writing fiction quite late in life. When she was published, her work met with great acclaim.

At Hiruharama first appeared in Fitzgerald's 2000 anthology, The Means of Escape.  I am curious what led her to use a location in New Zealand. Having scanned the Internet, I can find no mention of her visiting  nor a reference to her taking any other interest in the country.

The story refers to land being too expensive in Auckland and a couple buying at property at Hiruharama, accessed by turning off the road between Awanui and  Houhora.   Awanui is in the far north, over two hundred miles from Auckland.

It's a great story, which I won't spoil by revealing the twist with which it concludes.

If anyone has insight into the origins of the story or Fitzgerald's connection with New Zealand, I would love to hear and / or share the information here.

PS See entry for November 18.

11 November 2012  ~  Norwegian Blue In Wembley

Wild green parakeets  (Psittacula krameri and called Ring-necked or Rose-ringed)  have been spreading across London for almost thirty years. We have had up to twenty at a time in our garden feeding and waiting to feed on peanuts and sunflowers. No sooner had we found ways of keeping squirrels off the bird feeders than the parakeets descended in numbers. We now see them everyday.

Parakeets are amusing to watch as they use their beaks to manoeuvre around the cages surrounding the food and squabble with each other.  Sometimes they are so busy bickering a blue tit or goldfinch flies in, grabs a a seed and flies out unnoticed.

Last week we had four visits from a bird that appears to be a blue mutation of a ring-necked parakeet. Bluey's shape, size and behavior is identical and the other parakeets treat it no differently. See photo.

More on London parakeets - Research Project  - Wikipedia

5 November 2012  ~  The Dilution of Safety Standards

In 2011 a UK  government review of safety at work produced the Löfstedt Report. This concluded that, "In general, the problem lies less with the regulations themselves and more with the way they are interpreted and applied."

Despite this,  a number of announcements have suggested cutting back on regulations relating to health and safety.  Fortunately, many trade associations have joined unions in pointing out the risks of further cutbacks  at the Heath & Safety Executive and trimming the the HSE's powers.

Today the New Zealand Government issued a Royal Commission  report on the explosion at the Pike River Coal Mine in 2010 which killed 29 workers. The report makes clear that the danger of an explosion had existed over time and been ignored by management.

"In the last 48 days before the explosion there were 21 reports of methane levels reaching explosive volumes, and 27 reports of lesser, but potentially dangerous, volumes... The reports of excess methane continued up to the very morning of the tragedy. The warnings were not heeded.

"It is the commission’s view that even though the company was operating in a known high-hazard industry, the board of directors did not ensure that health and safety was being properly managed and the executive managers did not properly assess the health and safety risks that the workers were facing. In the drive towards coal production the directors and executive managers paid insufficient attention to health and safety and exposed the company’s workers to unacceptable risks. Mining should have stopped until the risks could be properly managed.

"The Department of Labour did not have the focus, capacity or strategies to ensure that Pike was meeting its legal responsibilities under health and safety laws. The department assumed that Pike was complying with the law, even though there was ample evidence to the contrary. The department should have prohibited Pike from operating the mine until its health and safety systems were adequate."

Does the UK have to have a similar  loss of life at work  before the lessons from the tragedy of PIke River are  understood here by the government?