Musings, Watches

The 241 year old pendulum clock that’s more accurate than your watch

241 years ago today, John Harrison, one of Britain’s finest clockmakers died.  He left behind designs for a clock that makes the accuracy of that quartz watch on your wrist look pretty average.

Harrison

John Harrison (thanks to http://www.inverse.com)

Chances are, your quartz will be be reasonably sharp.  Probably just +/- 15 seconds a month.  Not shabby, given the low price of a mainstream quartz.  If you have a modern mechanical watch, +/- 15 seconds a day would be normal.  Still impressive, particularly with a balance wheel inside that has to revolve nearly 700,000 times each day.

But how about John Harrison’s pendulum clock built from a set of 241 year old plans? How long would it take to gain or lose a second?  Just to make the question more interesting, imagine it was designed by a man who’d started life as a rural carpenter who made his first clock out of wood.  Then imagine he’d decided not to lubricate the mechanism either.

How accurate would a clock like that be over 100 days?

This is Clock B, made by clockmaker Martin Burgess from John Harrison’s pendulum clock theory. Harrison was the eighteenth century English clockmaker who should have won the Admiralty’s Longitude Prize and pretty much invented the accurate marine timekeeper.  In January this year Clock B finally vindicated its designer’s 1774 claim that he could design a pendulum timepiece that was accurate to within a second over 100 days.

Harrison was living proof that you need more than talent to get on in life.  He endured knockback after knockback throughout his 63 year career.  The British Admiralty picked fault with each of his chronometers. Rivals criticised his work and publicly undermined him.  And his final assertions that his pendulum clock with his own grasshopper escapement could be accurate to a second in a hundred days were met with derision.

Harrison's H5 Chronometer

Harrison’s H5 marine chronometer

Little wonder that his snappily titled final work, “A description concerning such mechanism as will afford a nice, or True mensuration of time”, was so bitter. Later clockmakers referred to it as “…the ramblings of superannuated dotage.”

Two things in Harrison’s background seem to have combined to make him a remarkable and innovative clockmaker.  First, he was – in effect – a natural materials scientist.  He’s often portrayed as ‘just’ a rural carpenter, but that understates his affinity for, and experience with, the materials he used.

Rory McEvoy, Curator of Horology at Greenwich and a Harrison expert, explains, “Take the way he used metals in H3, his third marine chronometer.  The brass gear wheels in the movement are wide and very lightly made, yet they’re perfectly true. If you or I tried to produce wheels like that, with the inherent tensions within an untreated sheet of brass, we’d end up with something shaped like a crisp.”

Not only this, but Harrison instinctively understood the need to reduce – and even remove – lubricants from clock mechanisms.   As McEvoy explains, “Oil was the Achilles heel of any clock or watch. Harrison did away with lubrication altogether in his pendulum clocks and large timekeepers.”  Modern watchmakers are still trying to find ways to do this.

Second, he was self-taught.  That meant that he was able to think outside contemporary clockmaking practice.  As McEvoy explains it, “Harrison came at things from a different angle, almost from first principles.  He wasn’t indoctrinated with current watchmaking ideas.”

It was this fresh thinking that led to the plans for Clock A, an ultra-accurate pendulum clock, being realised by clockmaker Martin Burgess.

Burgess B clock

The escapement of Harrison’s B clock

Clock A was commissioned from Burgess in 1975 by the Gurney family, a Norwich banking family.  Completed in 1987 (proving you can’t rush good clockmaking) they gave the clock as a gift to the city of Norwich where it ticked happily in a local shopping centre, the Castle Mall, until it was removed in 2015.  Burgess had also started another Harrison pendulum clock, Clock B, but not finished it.  The parts for the clock gathered dust on a shelf in Burgess’ workshop until 1993.

In 1993, he delivered a paper at a Harvard horology symposium where he talked about the ‘scandalous neglect’ of Harrison’s work in pendulum clock innovation – and, crucially, mentioned Clock B.  Art historian and clock collector Donald Saff read the paper, tracked him down and persuaded him to sell him the unassembled and unfinished Clock B.  Saff then commissioned English clockmaker Charles Frodsham to complete the project.

Once the clock was completed in 2014, it attracted the sort of attention from horologists that premier league footballers would be familiar with.  They began studying the clock in March 2014 and how it worked…

It quickly became clear that Clock B was something very special indeed. McEvoy continues, “We looked at the behaviour of Clock B very deeply, and we found that any fluctuations in its timekeeping were cyclical.  In other words, they weren’t a problem because they were wholly predictable.”  So although the clock’s timekeeping varied by a few fractions of a second, in effect, it evened itself out.

Finally, to determine whether Harrison’s words were indeed “…the symptoms of insanity” as The London Review of English and Foreign Literature suggested, Clock B was sealed in a perspex case in January 2014 and trialled for 100 days.  

To ensure there was no horological tinkering, the National Physical Laboratory and Worshipful Company of Clockmakers oversaw the trials.  At the start, Harrison’s B clock was running a quarter second behind GMT.  After 100 days of running, it was a mere 5/8ths of a second behind.

Harrison B clock 1

Harrison’s B clock – thanks to http://www.rmg.co.uk

Guinness World Records have confirmed Clock B as the “most accurate mechanical clock with a pendulum swinging in free air.”  But that bald description understates the achievements of both Harrison and Burgess.  This is a clock that is so accurate, its curator was able to measure the impact of barometric pressure on its going. “As the barometer moved up, so the clock slowed down with air density,” explains Rory McEvoy. ‘When we adjusted the clock to take barometric pressure into account, it was 96% accurate.  On most clocks, you wouldn’t even notice the error, let alone be able to correct it.  We don’t see this sort of accuracy until at least 150 years after Harrison’s death.”

You’d think that with pin-sharp accuracy like this,  Clock B would be a horological prima donna, throwing timekeeping tantrums if it was stopped or started.  But not so, says McEvoy, “Once it’s adjusted, Clock B is remarkably stable.  You can stop and start it without any problems.”   

So why did Harrison do it?  Why did he persist until almost the day he died in developing, defending and promoting pendulum clocks?  He had a vision that, one day, every port would have a public pendulum clock, accurate to within fractions of a second, for mariners to set their marine chronometers by.  This would mean they were able to calculate their position at sea to within a few nautical miles, thus missing shoals, sandbanks and rocks.  Harrison realised that accurate timekeeping wasn’t just a theory, it was a lifesaving practice.

So, today, the 24th of March, raise a glass to Mr Harrison’s 241st anniversary.  A remarkable man very much ahead of his time.  This year, take a trip to Greenwich and take a look at Harrison’s other remarkable marine chronometers – it’s well worth the visit.

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Driving, Musings

Brooklands

There weren’t many better places to enjoy clear, blue sky and things with engines than Brooklands last Saturday. It must have been a study for the English country idyll in 1906 when Hugh Locke King (the chap who owned most of Weybridge) decided to build the world’s first motor racing track on his fields and woods.

All the best ideas need a bottle or two.

Like most good ideas, it was hatched over several bottles, a good supper and some good pals. And, despite a conspicuous lack of key performance indicators, service level agreements and “official” suppliers of branded anything, it became the crucible that produced British motorsport and British aviation.

One I was sorely tempted to bring home.

A proper Rolls Royce. One I was sorely tempted to bring home.

The Brooklands banking in sunshine.

The Brooklands banking in sunshine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take Selwyn Francis Edge, a businessman, car importer and noted motoring enthusiast. Even before the track was open, he decided that he would set a record for driving at 60mph over 24 hours.  That was an impressive ambition in the days when cars broke more than they ran and injured their drivers about as often.

Mr Edge and the Napier.

Mr Edge planned to use his seven-and-a-quarter litre Napier with a heady 60bhp, on tyres barely wider than a motorcycle’s, and establish the record over the night of 28 – 29 June. He would start at 6 o’clock in the evening, so he’d still be alert when darkness fell.

The feat meant hustling a car that only its good friends would have described as ‘overpowered’ and ‘skittish’ around a banked concrete oval of 2.75 miles for 24 hours. With acetylene headlights needing – shall we say – a little help, it meant lighting the edge of the nighttime track with lanterns and flares. And it meant sitting on a seat that was really a green buttoned-leather club chair. With brakes that looked better than they stopped – and they weren’t pretty. Oh, and it rained all night. One leading doctor told Edge he’d either die of exhaustion or be driven mad through boredom.

To give a little context, just thirteen years earlier the first motor race had been run from Paris to Rouen. The winner’s average speed? 10.7mph. Although that would now get you a speeding ticket in parts of Islington, back in 1894 it was hailed as a huge achievement.

Mr Edge’s record?

Edge smashed the Paris-Rouen speed and covered 1,581 miles and 1,310 yards of Brooklands track at an average speed of 66mph, near as dammit. That’s an average 66mph. If you think that doesn’t sound very fast, check the average speed display on your modern car – bet it doesn’t say much more than 48mph.

To get a sense of what it must have been like, try steering a wheelchair down the Stelvio pass – blindfolded – while people drench you with fire hoses.

That’s the sort of place Brooklands is. It reeks of history. Still. They made Wellington bombers here (2,500 of them), Sopwiths and Hurricanes too. The Royal Flying Corps’ 1, 8, 9 and 10 Squadrons had their homes on the in-field. Hugh Dowding (he of “Dowding Spread” machine gun harmonisation fame) learned to fly at Brooklands. You can still smell the 100 octane and cordite.

Historics’ Auction

The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?

The banking in the sunshine. 148mph, anyone?

I’d gone to see some of the cars in Historics’ June auction. There were some real beauties. And a couple I rather fancied. An Amazon 121 combi (that’s the shooting brake version of mine), a little Alfa 1300 Junior, a proper Rover P4 and a T1 Bentley (really a Shadow that reeks just a little less of cheap cigars and sheepskin). Also, to demonstrate what a taste-setter I am, a Rolls Carmargue – they’re soon going to be seriously hot property, mark my words. And a couple of BMW 635CSis.

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No, that’s fine. Rest your catalogue on this E Type’s roof.

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They wouldn’t have let the likes of me in back then.

Some Mercedes are Grosser than others.

Some Mercedes are Grosser than others. Here’s a 600 on the finishing straight

The auction was fascinating. There were serious dealers with every other catalogue page clogged with Post-Its.  There were dilettantes like me, with more hope than expectation. And there were chaps in scruffy jeans with 18ct gold Submariners who, I suspect, owned some of the more exotic kit on offer.

The auctioneers had a perfect line in cynical, slightly combative patter. To a buyer offering a £100 increase “Ah, a squeak. I see we now have a mouse-bidder” and, to another reluctantly plodding bidder, “I asked you for £50,000 twenty minutes ago and now you’ve just bid £50,000. You could have saved me the time, couldn’t you?”  All splendidly good natured.

Auction prices.

The first lot of the day – bits of a Bentley 3 1/2 that the uninitiated would use to make a garden shed – was expertly auctioneered up to just over £1,100. A white Bentley Continental R with under 50k on the clock sold for under £25k. Even if it was lard-white, that’s still insanely cheap for a soft top Bentley. A Noble Ferrari 330 P4 replica with a £30k reserve hit just over the target – which may have been bargain of the day. And a Delorean DMC-12 with barely delivery mileage and the factory papers still in the window clocked up a busting £57,120.

As a Z3M headed north of £17,000 I decided I’d stick with the Amazon.  But my Carmargue didn’t sell, so there’s always August’s sale…

The Brooklands the council wanted rid of.

So I left the chaps with wads of fifties that could choke a racehorse and went to look at the other Brooklands – the banking and the airfield.  There’s not much of it left now after decades of development and incursion from the surrounding area. But the finishing straight is still there, with the WWII air-raid shelter off to the right.  And the Members’ Bridge and banking.  A very special place.

On a summer Saturday I was expecting it to be packed. Instead, I had it to myself.

I walked in the sun up past the old Bofors gun towers and a soon-to-be restored AC Aceca and, simply by strolling through a gap between a couple of barriers, I was there on the pitted, concrete track.  I soaked up more sunshine as I walked what’s left of its length. Without doubt, this is the most important and significant piece of motor racing heritage in the world.

This was where motorsport records started.

Men and women with more ability than sense hurled unstable, overpowered and underbraked machinery round with little regard to their own mortality. Courage like that seeps into the stone.

An AC waiting to be restored.

An AC waiting to be restored.

A couple of other solitary pilgrims were walking by now. One father was telling his increasingly wide-eyed son about Birkin and Barnato’s Bentley Blower No1. I walked on, thinking that it must have been a wonderful, if closed, world for those fortunate enough to be part of it.

What would they have thought?

I sat down on what would have passed for a crash barrier and thought about how important this few square metres of racetrack are to British motorsport and aviation. And then about the chain-shop retail park that now sits at its south western corner, thanks to the local council’s decision to trade motor racing history for cash in the 1980s. And the risk-assessed, compliance and procurement-controlled corporate offices within its ambit.

And I wondered what Edge, Barnato, Dame Ethel Locke King, 84mph Joan Richmond and 143.44mph John Cobb in his 24 Litre Napier-Railton would make of it.

Not very much, I suspect.  But then they’d probably have taken the same view of an ex-comprehensive school lad from a rather different sort of estate hanging around their track.

Progress ain’t always a bad thing.

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Musings

Being Santa.

December 18th. Nick Whitelock sat at his desk by the window and looked out as the cold, winter rain tracked its way down the pane. “Sleet, more like.” he thought to himself. He was, as usual, the last one in the office. The rest of them would be in the Arms by now, backs to the log fire and pints in hand, an anticipatory celebration of the Christmas holidays.

He looked down as his phone buzzed.

“Nick Whitelock.” That was it. No greeting, no fuss. That was Nick.

“Nick – it’s Sarah from Field Cottage. Can’t talk long – but I’ve been let down and I’ve tried everyone else. Can you be village Santa for the switch-on tonight?”

Ashleigh was only a small village, two-and-a-half-thousand souls, but it had it’s own little supermarket, a proper butcher, a post office and, Continue reading

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Musings

Village Remembrance in Bampton

In need of bacon, as one often is on a Sunday morning, I nipped into the Bampton shop just before the village remembrance parade. A young lad, about thirteen I’d guess, walked in and moved, a little hesitantly, towards a spot just in front of me in the queue. The usual uniform. Trainers. Trackie bottoms. Hoodie.

I noticed he had a handful of change. A couple of pound coins, some silver. As though he’d raided his moneybox.

Royal British Legion poppy

He gave me a nervous smile and said “‘Scuse me…”

He reached past me to the box of poppies and the collecting tin by the till. He carefully dropped his coins into the box, took a poppy and a pin. My turn to smile.

The youth of today, huh?

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Musings

RAF Manston officers’ mess party tricks. Revisited.

It was in 1993 when she was 70.

I’d thrown a party and, of course, Ma was invited too.  She wasn’t the sort of mother you’d leave off the invitation list.  Not only were parties her natural element, but all my friends adored her.  There would have been trouble had she been left on the bench. She drove up from Somerset in her venerable automatic Volvo 323, in which she could out-corner and out-face most other drivers on the road.

She arrived on Friday night and, as ever, we did a little damage to a bottle of gin as I cooked supper.  Her, leaning against the kitchen worktop, peppering the conversation with tips; “Splash of sherry vinegar with that, Darling.”  She told me about her old people; the ones she visited and went shopping for.  She was still managing a local charity shop – full time – and keeping the local Parochial Church Council on the straight and narrow.

She recounted all the news over the meal, how she’d sent her latest fundraising idea up to head office, how the new vicar was settling in (“I think he may be a little evangelical for St John’s.  He won’t sing the gospel the way Geoffrey used to”) and her plans for holidays with her thick-as-thieves friend Christine.

The next evening, the party started.  Friends rolled in from across Oxfordshire and from far further afield.  Bottles were opened, glasses filled and, as ever, Ma held court from her accustomed chair.

I loved the way friends who were barely a third of her age would gather around her, keep her glass filled and listen to her stories.

And such wonderful stories.

And she looked so innocent.

And she looked so innocent.

She’d grown up in Kent in WWII, where she’d lied about her age to start driving ambulances and nursing at Dover’s underground hospital.  She’d tell the story of how she’d cycle to work through German air raids, sticks of bombs plummeting from ‘planes overhead “And of course, I knew I was safe. I had my tin helmet on.”

She’d tell the stories of how she used to be invited to cocktail parties at RAF Manston where various pilots would vie for her attention, plying her with cocktails.  “Well, I’d drink the first couple then tip the rest away under my chair.  I do wonder what the poor mess steward must have thought the next day.”

1940 was as real to her as yesterday.  She’s watched the Battle of Britain wheeling above her from the clifftops at Dover.  I once took her to a concert at Blenheim Palace where the highlight of the evening was a flypast by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.  As a Spitfire’s supercharged V12 howled overhead, she held my hand tightly as she wept.  “So many wasted young lives…so many friends.” she whispered, looking into the distance, watching the ‘plane as it slowly disappeared.  She kept them alive with her own memories, which she’d sometimes share.

She was in the middle of one of these stories – about one of her mess party tricks – when something happened that will stay with me always.

“So, I’d balance a pint of beer on my head, get down on all fours, then lie down, light a cigarette and then stand up again.  All without spilling a drop.”

A barked laugh, and “Ha! I’ll bet you couldn’t do it now!”

One of my friends, intending nothing but a little joshing, instantly ended up on the pointy end of Ma’s gimlet stare.

“Would you get me a pint of beer and cigarette?” He looked relived to leave the room, but came back a few minutes later bearing the beer and a scrounged packet of Marlboro.

Ma stood up from her chair, thanked him, smiled broadly and took the pint from his hand.  After a typically comic sham of being the worse for wear (she could drink me comfortably under the table) she placed the pint on her head. With both hands, just to be sure.

Ma never needed to say much to command a room. Just walking in would usually do it.  So by this point, other conversations had died and everyone had turned to watch.

She loved it.

She went down on one knee, then the other.

Absolute silence.

From there, she lay flat on the floor, her arms in front, the pint of beer still perfectly balanced.

“Still so sure?” she grinned up at my doubting friend as she gestured for him to pass her the packet of cigarettes.

He did.

She called for a light.

She flicked open the packet, drew a single cigarette, put it to her lips and, despite having given up twenty years earlier, lit it and drew deeply.

Ma, doing what she did so well, larking around.

Ma, larking around, as she so often did.

The beer barely rippled.

Then, she drew her arms towards her, straightening up.

In a single, fluid movement, she stood. She put the cigarette in one hand and took the pint glass from her head.  She took a sip and passed the glass to her provocateur. A pause. “I never really liked beer.  Would you get me another G&T?”

I only heard the second part of the sentence because I was standing next to her.  The rest of the room was cheering, clapping and toasting her.

My mother achieved a huge amount in her 80 years.  But I was never more proud of her than at that moment.

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Musings

Clipping the wings of small business

In yesterday’s double-dip “Emergency” budget, George Osborne announced a new tax that means that one group in society will be paying around £2,000 more from next April.  No, it’s not hedge fund managers, multinationals or the ultra-rich.  It’s small businesspeople.

A reform or just a tax-grab?

Sneaked in under the banner of ‘dividend taxation reform’, his tax hike on share dividends means people running their own businesses as limited companies and taking basic dividends will pay around £2,000 more tax next year.

How?

Taxing you twice

The Treasury used to believe that it was fair to tax things just once; apart from road fuel where drivers are made to pay Fuel Duty on the price of fuel then VAT on top of the Duty.  It seems that enterprise is now fair game too.

If you run a small business, perhaps turning over £200,000 a year and employing a couple of people, you pay Corporation Tax at 20% on the profits.  Business owners used to pay themselves using those profits (already taxed under Corporation Tax, remember) as dividends, paying no more tax until they hit the higher rate tax band.

Pay an extra £2,000 in tax – to start with

Let’s say, like most directors, you take some of your income in salary and some in dividends.  As of next year, you’ll be paying an additional, new 7.5% Dividend Tax.  Unless you earn enough to become a Higher Rate Taxpayer, in which case it’ll be an additional 32.5% of new tax.

For a pretty average business owner earning around £42,000, that’s going to be an extra £2,000 tax to pay on money that’s already been taxed once. And the Chancellor has made it very clear indeed that he sees this 7.5% tax raid as just the start. Expect to see it rise – sharply – in the next few years.

George has got his sights set on your wallet

George has got his sights set on your wallet

But it’s all OK because this “will continue to encourage entrepreneurship and investment, including through lower rates of corporation tax“. Let’s look at that…

Take the money now, get a bit back later

Reductions in Corporation Tax don’t start until two years later in 2017 (19%), then slowly phase in until 2019-20 (18%).  The Dividend Tax hits straight and full-on from April ’17 on earnings from the previous tax year.  And the dividend tax take has a rather greater impact on small businessmen’s income than the reductions in Corporation Tax.  And, in the meantime, the Exchequer will see around £2.5bn in extra tax roll in.

“Aw, diddums,” you’re probably thinking.  “£42k a year, your own business and bitching about paying a bit of extra tax”.  Indeed.  That’ll be £42k that’s come from someone leaving employment and starting their own business.  No more company car, company pension scheme, lunch allowances, private healthcare, redundancy pay, sick pay or holiday pay.  A lot of hours and a lot of stress, sweat and tears in the hope that they’ll – one day – make it.  And most don’t.

Putting the brakes on enterprise

This is a raid on people who are starting out, perhaps a couple of years into running their own business and struggling to make it work.  These are the businesses that are heading down the runway, building up speed and hoping to get properly off the ground.

Osborne said in his Budget:

“This is the first Conservative budget for 18 years. It was Conservatives who first protected working people in the mills, it was Conservatives who introduced state education, it was Conservatives who introduced equal votes for women.  It was Conservatives that gave working people the Right to Buy, so of course it’s now the Conservatives who introduce the National Living Wage. For this is the party for the working people of Britain.”

He should have added “…unless they run their own businesses.”

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Musings, Writing

An open letter to the Chancellor.

Today, George, you delivered your first budget as a Tory chancellor. Those who voted for you – the people who believed Conservatism was about a hand up, not a hand out and who run their own businesses – are now sitting shellshocked, wondering how they could have been so utterly gullible.  They should have realised that the die is cast at prep school when the scions of the seriously wealthy first realise the earth is theirs, their pals’ and everything in it.

Thanks to you, they’re instantly around £2,000 a year worse off.  That’s because they always believed Tories thought owner-managed businesses were a good thing.  How wrong they were.  As you dish out Corporation Tax and Inheritance Tax cuts to your City pals, the changes in dividend taxation means small business people feel the pain.  Overnight, they go from getting taxed once, through Corporation Tax, to twice; once corporately and then again personally.  And they’re the lucky ones.

Many of them got a full grant for a university education; one of the most reliable ways of getting up and out of the swamp. Today, they wouldn’t be able to afford it.  No more grants; it’s loans instead.  If they believed that education was about more than landing the plummiest job (no old boy network for them), they’d be screwed today.

But that’s OK. A university education only makes the plebs uppity. They should know their place, shouldn’t they, George?

They’ll have come out of university and rather than enjoying a gap yah or an internship, they’ll have got a job. A shitty, badly-paid job (no old boy network, remember?) But they’ll have worked hard at it and clawed their way up a bit.  And worked hard at the next one too.  Then the next.  And the next.  And that’s fine, because they knew that no one could take what they achieved away. Until today.

This latest tax grab on those who dared to believe that they could make a go of running their own businesses is the worst.  Not because it instantly removes a chunk of their incomes, but because of what it means.

It may look, from the outside, as though they’re doing alright.  And, compared with most, they are.  But it’s precarious and a constant struggle.  They know that next month’s mortgage payment depends on capricious clients, unstable markets, luck and their own climb-that-bloody-hill determination. There’s no safety net, no employer to help out with sick pay, holiday pay, pension provision or benefits.  That’s fine too – their choice and they’re used to it.

But George, you and your pals have family fortunes and trust funds that mean you’re able to make mistakes. People like them don’t and can’t.

But even that’s fine too. they don’t want help from you or a Ma-Pa corporation. But what they do want is some acknowledgement that your world view – big houses, Pimms on the terrace and a maid to serve it – and theirs, are very very different.  And they want a little certainty; that someone like you can’t simply walk up, whack them round the head with a tax-filled sock and take a chunk of their income away.

George, you talk a lot about aspiration.  Plenty of people aspire and have been aspiring since they started.  But it’s bloody hard to keep at it when someone who’ll inherit a few million stamps their handmade Lobb boot on their head every time they start trying to get up.

You talked today about a level playing field.  But you’ve made it clear that means the rest of us doffing our caps as we cut the grass, not being allowed onto the wicket to play the game.

Aspiration. Tonight there are plenty of people thinking you don’t have a bloody clue what it really means.

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