THE DAVID LANE WEBSITE

This website is simple indulgence. There is no reason why anyone other than me should want to read it, but the same went for diaries in the past, and it goes for blogs today. Oscar Wilde suggested that one should keep a diary so that one had something interesting to read. I can't carry my computer round with me, so that argument won't work, but I might want to be reminded in the future of things I thought of in the past. So this blog is intended partly to overcome incipient dementia, to remind myself of all the things that I would otherwise have forgotten. If anything happens to be of interest to anyone else, that is a bonus.

I suspect that the reason why people keep diaries is fundamentally the same reason why authors write books, teachers teach or preachers preach. They all want to pass on their understanding of life, to make their mark, to map out the way they see the world, to create conceptual structures which they hope others will use after them.

Cicero said that he was more concerned about what people thought of him six hundred years after his death than during his lifetime. The Latin word sescenti meant figuratively thousands rather than specifically six hundred, and if posthumous fame is what Cicero really wanted, he was fortunate, as, together with Aristotle, he became one of the two great classical authors studied from mediaeval times onwards.

So maybe the point of creating blogs is the hope of leaving an intellectual inheritance, putting down an ephemeral electronic marker that we lived - no more than a sophisticated way of identifying a territory like dogs peeing on lamp posts. Kilroy was here. So was I.

04 04 05

And now for a letter sent to the Guardian, which they did not publish, so I will.

Dear Sir,  

Re Tom Webb's suggestion that you don't need vowels (Letters 16 March), you've already been there. In the days of the Grauniad there was a piece where you ran out of "o"s.   The Catholic Church was planning to rehabilitate Galileo (a little late) and your report said that the Ppe intended t crrect errrs abut Galile. R wrds t that effect.  

Yours sincerely,   David Lane

16 03 06

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The Ethics of Killing Slugs

 

Slugs have always had a bad press. They are unpleasant to look at. They are even more unpleasant to handle. They are slimy. They even leave a trail of slime wherever they go. And they eat our flowers and vegetables.

 

If you consider the popularity stakes for living things, cuddly puppies and bluebells are near the top. Bees do better than wasps. Butterflies do better than moths. Why? It' s not clear. But snails do better than slugs. Slugs are the pits. Excluding some things we can' t see, such as Lassa fever microbes, slugs are down there at the bottom of the register, battling it out for last place with Scottish midges.

 

When I find slugs eating my plants, my automatic reaction is to want to squash them. They go for the ones I have just planted. Kathleen says that she read somewhere that they go for the damaged plants. I think that they just like the sort of flowers which I like, except that I like their looks and slugs find them tasty - French marigolds, mimulus, and Livingstone daisies.

 

Most things seem to have a purpose in life. Certain weeds ward off blackfly and greenfly from vegetables, for example. Docks can be used to counteract nettlerash. Wasps kill off garden pests. But what do slugs do that is beneficial? Is there a point to slugs?

 

The only redeeming qualities which I have found in slugs are (1) that they don' t run away but stay there and accept their fate, and (2) that they gather round their dead comrades' bodies (eating them, I suspect) so that one can squash more of them the next day. I haven' t tried eating them. Perhaps they would make a good starter but, though  there must be a tribe somewhere in the world which considers them a delicacy, I have no intention of trying them. I would have to starve quite a lot before taking a bite out of a slug.

 

So, as far as I am concerned, there is no place for slugs in my garden. I stamp on them, and if they are on a hard surface, this makes the big ones go pop, and their insides squirt out. This gives an unwelcome feeling of satisfaction, arising from some primitive part of my psyche.

 

While I take positive personal action to be rid of slugs, there is no place in my garden for snails either. Their appetites are just as voracious, and they seem to have developed a tactic of mass attacks on single plants. One finds three or four granddaddy snails climbing up a new plant and dismembering it. By morning it is gone, disappeared, with no sign that one had planted it the day before. Next night another goes. And so on.

 

The difference between slugs and snails is obvious. Snails have shells. They can be picked up. Some people then toss them into their neighbours' gardens. Besides being unneighbourly, I consider this practice pointless. They just come back. I put in some new very delicate flowers the other day, and that night, on going to inspect, I found a convoy of three dreadnought snails in line ahead, steaming round from next door' s garden, having smelt food from afar.

 

So my solution for snails has been to collect them and put them in the garden waste bin provided by the Council. Every few weeks they go for a trip. Those that use powerful glue stick to the inside of the bin lid and come back. Most of them go for a long journey to the Council' s compost recycling system. What happens there I do not know. They may survive or they may get scrunched up in a huge grinder. I have not enquired.

 

Whether this is more ethical than stamping on slugs I am not sure. I have used slug pellets in the past, which do away with snails and slugs, and for all I know, the toads that feed on them too. I became unhappy with this, as I felt that if I was wishing death on them, I should face up to it, and do the deed myself. (Wasn' t there a short story by Guy de Maupassant or some other French writer about a man who became public executioner on the grounds that if he were a member of a state which approved of capital punishment, it was his duty to play the role?)

 

In terms of the snails, all I am doing is passing on the responsibility. I am the man who loads the tumbrels or trains to Auschwitz, and looks the other way. That is, unless I find out what happens and base my further actions on what I find out.

 

I have to accept, though, that slugs and snails appeared as part of God' s creation long before me, long before gardening led mankind to want to propagate and protect particular species, and long before mankind appeared on earth. If mankind' s concern - as God' s creation “a little lower than the angels” - is to be steward of creation and act in the best interests of all living things, surely slugs and snails have their place upon earth and their right to live.

 

As a gardener, I may see no point in snails and slugs, but from a Darwinian point of view, they have carved themselves out their niches in the grand scheme of things, and theologically they presumably have a purpose in creation, even if it is concealed from me. The durability of the small quantities of slime which they exude to ease their passage suggests to me that there should be commercial applications if its chemistry could be understood.

 

Overall, I do not believe in wiping out species. Mankind is causing too much havoc on the earth at present. We have to take a greener, more ecologically sound, long term approach, both in our own interests and in our role as guardians of the planet.

 

So I do not want to see snails and slugs disappear. I simply don' t want them in my garden. In my garden I have to act as arbiter between the different living things, and as my design for the garden entails having pretty flowers which Kathleen and I, our neighbours and visitors can enjoy, I am going to give precedence to flowers. Perhaps I should put out saucers of beer. Slugs and snails love that. They drown in it, but what a way to go. And I would no longer feel guilty about splatting them.

24 07 05

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Speeding in Norfolk

 

A couple of weeks ago I was stopped by the Police for speeding on the A11. “You do realise that you were doing on the wrong side of 85, do you?” the officer said. “Oh, was I?” I said, feeling irritated mainly because I had not noticed him following me. “Yes. Didn' t you notice that nobody was overtaking you?”  I didn' t have much of a leg to stand on, as I was travelling late at night from Cambridge to Cromer, and was anxious to get back home.

 

He looked at my licence and noticed that I hadn' t bothered to get a clean one since my last speeding ticket nine years ago. Over the years I have had three lots of three points, as a sort of serial offender. “I can see that punishment doesn' t work with you”, the officer said, “so I' m going to try education”. He then put forward a number of arguments why speeding was dangerous in Norfolk, such as the abundance of elderly drivers who might pull out of side roads without warning.

 

As we set off again, my wife cynically pointed out that the officer' s reason for educating me was that it was now two minutes to midnight, that he was probably about to go off shift and that he was wanting to avoid doing the paper work. Why, otherwise, had he failed to breathalyse me? He could not have known that I would have been clear.

 

I personally am happy to take the officer at face value. The occasional fine and points on my licence do not persuade me to keep within the speed limits, as I think that the limits are often unreasonable. It will take education to persuade me to want to change my behaviour. But that education needs to take place away from the moment when I was stopped. At that point, I was the small boy being told off by the teacher, prepared to be compliant to avoid the cane, but underneath as naughty as ever. As the officer was in the position of power, he could win the argument on the spot and I could not argue back, but once away from the situation, would I be convinced not to speed?

 

I suspect that I am typical of many motorists. Other than the speeding, I have had a clean licence. I have driven about x00,000 miles in the course of the last forty years, and only been involved in one accident for which I was responsible, skidding early one winter morning on black ice on one of Norfolk' s untreated main roads. Like other motorists who regularly use motorways and main roads, I frequently exceed the speed limit, while keeping to what I deem a safe speed. My estimate is that on a typical motorway at least three quarters of the motorists travel at over 70. Like me, the majority of these people are probably otherwise law-abiding citizens in responsible jobs.

 

It is only in speeding that the law is flouted so regularly. People can only be governed with their consent, and on this point, a large section of the population do not consent to the official limits. Such people therefore run up against the law, in the form of the police officer, from time to time.

 

So what are the arguments that persuade us to speed or not to speed?

 

Clearly, if there is a crash, the faster those involved are going, the worse the injuries are likely to be. There is less time to respond and breaking distances increase dramatically with greater speeds. On the other hand the quality of road surfaces, road design (in some parts of the country) and cars has improved considerably over the years. Although there are occasional crashes on motorways, they are relatively rare if the volume of high speed traffic is taken into account the number, and if one considers the number of times that people on over-busy motorways have to make sudden halts. I have seen no evidence that speed kills, just that it exacerbates accidents.

 

When I read in the papers about fatal accidents, certain groups seem to stand out. There are the young boy racers, often driving at excessive speeds through built up areas in the early hours of the morning, frequently after several drinks and without insurance. Drug-taking is also cited in some cases. Speeding is certainly a factor in the deaths they cause, but it is not the root cause.

 

There are the deaths of elderly pedestrians and children. These often seem to be on housing estates, near shops or schools. I can understand the need for caution in these areas, and would be happy to see these areas designated as zones where pedestrians take precedence, and cars are limited to a maximum of 20.

 

In Norfolk, I understand, a high proportion of accidents occur on little country roads. This does not surprise me, as many miles of them are single track, and if two vehicles meet, there is nowhere to escape, with the high banks. I would not advocate speeding on these roads.

 

I also gather that another group of motorists who suffer a high level of accidents are the older motorcyclists, perhaps because they still see themselves as young and virile, when their reaction times are unhappily deteriorating.

 

Clearly, road conditions need to be taken into account. My experience is that people slow down for heavy rain to the point that urban roads may become choked, but that they often do not slow for fog on motorways, causing serious hazards.

 

These examples make sense to me. I am not an advocate of speed per se, but the 70 limit for motorways in good weather makes no sense to me. Some of the new 50 limits on main roads also seem to me unnecessary. Indeed, if the authorities feel that 50 limits are needed on major trunk routes, it seems to me that they should be ashamed that their road design is so poor that such limits are needed.

 

Can those who advocate the lower limits, then, produce the evidence that will persuade me - and the thousands like me - not to speed on roads such as the A11 in good conditions? It is worth noting that motorists are persuadable when the arguments are sound. It is a very small minority who do not wear seat belts now. Most drivers who want to drink take a taxi, or one of the party stays on soft drinks. Fewer people seem to use mobile phones while driving now, but there is some way to go before there is full compliance. Except where there are cameras or where police are spotted, though, I have seen no sign that motorists are slowing down.

 

In my view the motoring public needs a lot more information. I have never seen regular columns in the papers or items on regional television, for example, that look at accident black spots or dangerous roads, and analyse what happened before speed limits or cameras were introduced, and then consider their impact. We need more information on the main causes of accidents if we are to be persuaded.

 

Of course, it is possible that the speeding law-breakers are right. Maybe the speed limits are wrong. If the officer who stopped me reads this, maybe he would like to respond.

 

04 06

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A New Paradigm for Britain's Services

 

Legislation and Re-organisation are not Panaceas.

 

When politicians look at ways in which they can improve public services, they usually think in terms of legislation which places new requirements on service providers or a re-organisation of services so that they can be delivered more efficiently.

 

It is questionable whether either of these approaches is as effective as governments think. Over recent years there has been a massive amount of legislation which has presented those responsible for implementing it with major problems concerning the pace of change and the sheer volume of work entailed, often resulting in a failure to implement efficiently or quickly.

 

Frequent re-organisations have also often left workers demoralised and dispirited, and they have undermined the sort of commitment required of staff to maintain a high standard of service, encouraging the workforce to look after its own interests rather than those of the people they serve.

 

Both the recent approach to legislation and re-organisations of services have taken a mechanistic approach, assuming that if people are told to work in certain ways, they will do so like automata, when in fact they need to be trained, supported, looked after and valued, if they are to respond and give their best.

It is time for a new dominant paradigm in Britain' s services.

The Professional Paradigm

Some decades ago, the professionals were dominant, respected by their clients, patients, pupils etc.. In general, their control was benevolent and there was a spirit of public service among the professionals, but the relationship between professionals and those whom they served was uneven. The professionals were clearly in charge and those they served were usually in no position to claim rights and would rarely have thought of complaining.

Rights and Targets

Over the last three decades, the rights of service users, patients and children have been emphasised, giving them a greater say and increased powers of complaint and redress. In parallel, there has been the setting of standards and targets for services. These approaches have been successful in driving up standards and they have changed the power balance between professionals and those whom they serve.

This paradigm is now tired, however, and in some cases counter-productive. A number of problems have become apparent.

(a)          Target-setting is a very crude mechanism. Things that can be measured are selected over more nebulous characteristics, which often militates against human criteria.

(b)              Sometimes targets are badly identified, and in trying to meet them, workers skew the direction of the services so that they fail in their primary purposes.

(c)              Assessing services against targets can create the wrong values. Workers learn to obtain job satisfaction by playing the game of achieving the targets, and disregard the more complex needs which the services were set up to meet.

(d)              Assessing whether targets have been met often entails the gathering of a lot of information, and services become bureaucratised.

(e)          People using services have been taught to demand higher standards and to complain. If they do, they may threaten the reputation of the agencies or individuals about whom they complain, and they may undermine the achievement of targets. The risk is that complainants may then be seen as a threat, and relationships between workers and service users can become antagonistic and counter-productive.

(f)           The ultimate danger is that services become splintered, with each agency or individual seeking to blame others when targets are not met.

A New Dominant Paradigm : Partnership

It is therefore time for another paradigm to become dominant. Since all parties - professionals, service users, their families, tax-payers and the community at large - should all want services to be of high quality, to be effective and to provide good value, it makes sense to use that combined aim to create a partnership model, with all stake-holders working together to ensure that needs are met. Under this model, all participants should be respected and play significant roles, with none being dominant.

A partnership model would :

(a)          build on strengths and encourage participants to complement each other;

(b)          be focused on problem-solving, so that energies are directed at reaching solutions rather than playing games;

(c) encourage people to co-operate, rather than see others as threats;

(d)          entail people sharing problems rather than complaining mechanistically through lengthy formal processes;

(e)          require less bureaucratic checking and waste of senior workers' time in meeting monitoring requirements;

(f)           be less wasteful and cost less;

(g)          be more humane and friendly for all stake-holders, and more rewarding for staff in terms of job satisfaction.

It may be argued that the partnership model is already advocated, and that is true. But it is not dominant. It is also true that the present target-setting paradigm has its strengths and should not be ditched completely. The question is which paradigm should be dominant, and it is time for a change. A shift is needed towards a more humane approach.

 

This paper has been kept brief in order to make its basic point. The arguments could be filled out, however, in relation to a wide variety of public services in the United Kingdom - health, education, social services, transport and so on.

 

The key point is that a change of approach, - rather than additional legislation, re-organisation or even extra funding, - could prove to be the most effective in improving service standards, and people would welcome the chance to get on with their jobs, with time to implement existing expectations rather than have to face further change.

 

DCL                   

 

13 06 06

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