My headline is not original. The phrase might or might not have been coined, but was certainly made famous, by Bob Hope. The comedian, an American citizen of course, was a native of Britain, so he was entitled to make a joke about our weather; a good joke too, IMHO.

I shan’t have a go at our weather; that would be pointless, although it sometimes seems that moaning about the subject is a national pastime. I remember many year ago, when I was running training courses in Scandinavia, one of the things people most wanted to talk about under the heading of “cross-cultural awareness” was what constitutes appropriate subjects for small-talk in Britain. This seemed to be a challenge for many Scandinavian businesspeople because there, in a business meeting, people tended (not always but generally) to get down to business immediately; they found our custom of verbal sparring through small-talk a challenge.

Well, the experts, and I am not one, say that the weather is rightly the #1 topic. That’s obvious to us but there is logic to it. Why? “Because it’s uncontroversial and it’s the same for everyone.” They might well have added that in Britain it’s worth talking about because it is so variable, as memorably pointed out by Bob Hope. If you’d been in the Sahara, on the other hand, and ventured the startling opinion that the weather was hot, it would be assumed that the sun had got to you.

No, my moan / whinge / rant is not about the weather but about the BBC’s feeling that we need to be given weather forecasts on a minute-by-minute basis, even when (and this is the key) those forecasts are, by virtue of programming time pressures, so short as to be meaningless. That’s leaving aside whether they are accurate. It’s not enough to have a full five-minute weather forecast a few times every day; useful for those who need to hear it and avoidable for the rest of us; my beef is with the assumed need to put frequent short weather forecasts into what are otherwise current affairs programmes.

Here’s an example, from BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme, this very morning. That’s the programme of which I heard Sandi Toksvig (national treasure in both Britain and her native Denmark, I think) say, while speaking at a dinner here in Bristol: “The Today programme; isn’t it wonderful? Twenty minutes of news, crammed into three hours.” Well, whatever the truth of her witty description, the producers feel it necessary to give us weather forecasts regularly throughout the show. A show, I stress, that is going out on a national channel, to a country with weather that famously fluctuates not just from minute to minute (thank you again, Bob Hope) but from town to town.

This was the forecast, at 0830 this morning, and it was typical: “Now the weather! Well, mostly dry today. Sunny spells but there will be a few showers.”

I kid you not.

If the forecast had been important to me, I would have been so frustrated. I would have been asking, “Where, exactly, will it be like that? In London? In Scotland? Here in Bristol, where I live? And when exactly will it be like that? This morning? This afternoon? Or will it be like that the whole day?”

Why bother with such a short and generalised forecast?

And while I’m about it; the language. I recently heard: “the rain eases this afternoon.” I think you’ll find, as they say, that the use of the present simple to describe a future event is supposed (for those of us who are anal about language) to be reserved for so-called timetabled events, e.g. “our train leaves at five”. Future weather does not come into the category of a timetabled event.

Despite the expensive facilities, large staff and undoubted modelling expertise of our Met Office, described in a fascinating recent article in the FT, the implication of certainty is ridiculous. Why, why, why don’t we adopt the US habit of saying things like “there is a 40% chance of precipitation”?

I can handle that. If they’d said 60% I might take an umbrella; for 40% I won’t.

Meanwhile, I go back to my usual method of weather forecasting. I look out of the window. That works for me.


Shock horror: the guard drops. A politician saying what he’s thinking. Malfunction of usual filter system.

Radio 4 interviewer on ‘Today’ programme this morning: “Your party normally does well in by-elections; how do you explain … ” (i.e. the fact they didn’t win the Oldham East by-election)

Lib Dem President Tim Farron: “We are also a party that is not normally in power. Don’t know if you’d noticed.”

Could this start a trend? I doubt it Quite a few LD people have committed indiscretions lately, though rarely live on ‘Today’. This was different; a gentle rebuke for an ingenuous question.

I’d love to see a similar phenomenon when sportspeople are interviewed just seconds after finishing their match or event. For example:

“How do you explain the fact that despite ….. you lost to Usain Bolt?” (this was actually asked, in even more patronising terms, of Asafa Powell, one of the pre-tournament favourites, immediately after the Beijing 100 metres final.)

“Well, Gary (apologies; it wasn’t Gary Richardson but I just have this thing about his questioning style), I ran as fast I could (maybe I even ran a personal best) but he ran even faster. Don’t know if you’d noticed … but he’s pretty good.”

Sadly, it won’t happen very often, thanks to a combination of politeness and the media training that all public figures (politicians, sportspeople and celebs of all kinds) get nowadays. Politeness is a virtue I value; but in these situations I’d appreciate a little less of it.


Do “ugly fonts” help us remember what we read? Is the everlasting trend towards making information more “readable”, and in general easier to digest, counter-productive? There was an interesting piece on Radio 4’s “Today” programme this morning, together with a very short and unscientific test of the theory: from three short pieces on three different subjects, all the presenter could remember about the text she’d been shown in Arial was that it was in Arial.

I said the test was “unscientific”, not just because it was so short (they probably had to leave enough time for yet another weather forecast) but also because I strongly believe that interest is the key to memory. If she’d been shown three pieces of text in three different fonts, but all on the same subject, then we would have removed a very significant variable.

If this theory is true (and it seems logical that making our brain work harder will aid recall), then my wonderful Kindle is too easy to read! Maybe it needs more font options. It currently has the choice of a “regular” typeface, also “condensed” and sans-serif.

I was somewhat surprised when I found that the Kindle’s “regular” typeface was a serif font; I’d always heard that sans-serif was better for reading onscreen, serif for print. Maybe the point is that the Kindle is designed to be as close as possible to the experience of reading from the printed page.


House prices up?

I read recently that domestic property prices in the UK increased by an average of 1.8% over the last month. That seemed surprising, given the economic situation but, according to a friend who is “in the know”, it isn’t a meaningful trend because the volume of sales is still small.

… or down?


However this rise followed “a big drop” the previous month, according to the Halifax. (I think it was 0.7%) Such a wide variation from month to month would seem to support the fact that these are not really meaningful trends. The less volatile three-month index showed a drop of 1.2% in the quarter.




First-time buyers still priced out


When last month’s drop was announced, a newsreader on BBC Radio 4 actually added: “however, first-time buyers are not taking advantage of the drop in prices”. Well, is that so surprising? Even if that month’s price drop had been a meaningful statistic, which it wasn’t, 0.7% is not much of a drop.


More importantly, UK property is still greatly overpriced. Who says so? The “Economist” magazine’s survey of international house price comparisons, taken in turn from official stats on price/rent ratios. According to the table the magazine published in late October, average UK property prices increased by 3% year-on-year; more importantly, property here is 32% overpriced.


To compare countries’ housing data over time, including price-to-rent ratios, see www.economist.com/houseprices

To view my guide to personal debt, “Back to the Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way”, go to www.back-to-the-black.com




Are the measures announced in HM Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review progressive or regressive, i.e. do they favour the poorest or the richest, relative to their respective incomes? Or are they totally fair, as claimed? You might well think that this debate has been flogged to death, so I won’t add my inexpert economic analysis; however the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) now states their view that they are on balance regressive.

That’s also the view of Tim Harford, presenter of “More or Less”, one of my favourite radio programmes. Here’s a clip of what he said on the radio on 21 October: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9113000/9113265.stm

(BTW, I found that clip easily, from the very user-friendly “Today” website. The programme is of course a National Treasure, though that other NT, Sandi Toksvig, says: “I love the Today programme: twenty minutes of news, crammed into three hours”)


A most interesting piece on the Today programme this morning, (about 07:15, if you want to find it on iPlayer) about the importance to our economy of the manufacturing sector in general and of small businesses in particular. I switched on part-way through but the interviews I heard were with companies in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham; they were honoured in this way, not doubt, solely because the Conservative conference is in the city right now. The excellent presenter (James Naughtie, I think) and his interviewees together made the point that successive governments and the banks have failed to provide the environment where manufacturing could prosper (it’s now a shamefully small proportion of GDP) but that fact has been known for years. But their final clincher was one that had previously escaped me, obvious though it may be to you, dear reader: other things being equal, (which they never are) every new job created in manufacturing will contribute to the creation of far more jobs in supporting businesses than any new job in the service sector. Maybe this fact has always been obvious to the German government and that’s why both their small / medium business sector and manufacturing have been supported by more than words and maybe that’s why their economy is both more healthy and more sustainable than ours.

We’ve often been told about the “trickle-down” theory, i.e. that increased wealth at the top will trickle down to those lower in the food chain (does this justify those massive banking-sector bonuses? Discuss). Maybe it works, maybe not, but this morning’s message about the crucial importance of our manufacturing sector could be called the trickle-round theory. Or the ripple theory. Whatever we call it, I hope that Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Cable were listening to the radio at the same time as I.

Sadly, after that excellent segment normal service was resumed; a piece about Sainsbury’s increased profits followed by one about the will-they won’t-they sale of Liverpool Football Club. The football story was repeated at least four times, I think, between 7:30 and 9:00; the manufacturing story was not. Perhaps that shows where our national priorities lie. No wonder the country’s in the same kind of debt crisis as Liverpool FC but, unlike them, we don’t have an American white knight on the horizon.