Say not the struggle naught availeth

I started this post a couple of years ago and never published it, but this has been a favourite poem of mine for many years, and the idea of a hyperlinked version must date back to before 2009, as that is when Sun Microsystems was acquired by Oracle.
The poem can be seen as being about several times when we seem to be in the losing side of some battle. When I originally started the post it represented, for me, the struggle between the general idea that knowledge should be shared, in particular Free (Libre or Open Source) Software,  as against the concept that knowledge should be a commodity to be owned by the powerful and used as a tool to maintain and increase their power.


The poem has been used as a message of hope in inspiration in several contexts, generally from the side who appear at the time to be the underdog.

Software and Internet Freedom

The context I originally thought of. Quite a lot has happened over the past decade or more. Linux, a computer operating system written by a Finnish student, Linus Torvalds, and offered freely to the world, now runs not only the computer I am writing this on, but those used by Google, Amazon, Facebook  – almost every big Internet facing website which is not owned by Microsoft. Android phones, set top boxes and cheap (£5) computers capable of running as a web server, such as the Raspberry Pi also run Linux.

On the down side, the way we communicate has largely moved from standards based, open email and openly published web pages to a small set of proprietary systems, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

Churchill and the Second World War

Winston Churchill famously quoted the poem in a speech of February 1941, when the outlook for Britain – and democracy in Europe looked bleak.

The war was won, even though at the time of the speech the outcome was very much in doubt.

In the same way that the self isolation needed to tackle Coronavirus, is making this a difficult time for many of us, Churchill struggled with what he called his Black Dog – his term for depression – but he overcame it to give inspiring leadership when it was most needed.

Chartism – the original context

The poem was probably written in 1849, in the wake of the dramatic revolutions of 1848, and the defeat of the Chartist Movement. Although some think it relates to the collapse of the 1848 Italian rising, I think the Chartist cause resonated more strongly with Clough, and in either case today’s situation brings hope. Britain, and much of the rest of the world now has universal suffrage, while Italy is an independent country.


Although the death toll continues to climb, health services all over the world are under immense pressure, and an economic depression looks likely, there are signs of hope.

Scientific American has made all its Coronavirus coverage available for free, and for anyone who really wants to know more about the disease a group at Harvard Medical School have made a Corvid-19 Curriculum available. Reading that reveals the importance of the international free sharing of information about the disease, particularly from Chinese doctors who first encountered it.

It is spurring fundamental medical research, and boosting systems of testing, such as the nanopore RNA sequencing, being done by Oxford Nanopore, whose preferred analysis programme runs on Linux, and whose software is available for community review and enhancement.

I hope it is boosting open Epidemiological models, such as STEM, although I have resisted the temptation to dive deeper into this area I hope a diverse range of models are being openly developed, and tested against the real data to work out which best matches reality. (I intend to write a bit more about that when I get round to writing about Diversity and Regulation in Science)

We are recognising those, from NHS staff and carers to refuse collectors, who really are ‘essential workers’ needed to keep our society working, and I hope, post Coronavirus we will remember the part they played, and that it will not be like Kipling’s Tommy

Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul? “
But it’s ” Thin red line of ‘eroes ” when the drums begin to roll

The crisis has unlocked creativity all over the world, and people are coming together in creative ways, almost too many to mention here.

The sharp reduction in international air travel has been good for the environment, and I hope unnecessary travel for meetings will continue be be replaced by Video Conferencing,

Bringing me back to the origins of this article, I hope the world will end up using some kind of solution which will be based on standards and openness, such as Jitsi, rather than a closed system which aims to lock people in.

On Isolation, being prepared and the NHS

As I write this we are in self isolation, in response to the Coronavirus. The situation is exposing the risks of much of the ‘Just in Time‘ world wide flow of goods and people which we normally take for granted to view. As the situation is unusual, many people have panicked and stockpiled things they think they might need. Unfortunately their system for deciding what to stockpile seems to be based on buying as much as they can of whatever seems to be in short supply, particularly toilet roll – thus creating a supply shortage.

Oil Rigs

The situation reminds me of some lessons from my past. From 1987 to some time in the early 1990’s I worked on an oil rig on the Hutton oil field in the middle of the North Sea.

I worked there in stints of a fortnight at a time, doing, as most of the crew do, a 12 hour shift, 7 days a week, although as the work was extremely interesting, and I did not have much else to do, I tended to work longer. I learnt a lot about many things, but of particular relevance to our situation was the way the rig was always prepared to be self sufficient in dealing with problems.

Travel to the rig involved a helicopter flight of several hours, and weather conditions could be extreme. I remember one landing where the wind was so strong that the pilot had to use the rotor for downforce, rather than lift, to keep the helicopter on the helipad, and the passengers, and their luggage, were passed along a chain of crew to the stairs down into the accommodation. If the wind had been any stronger there would have been no way on or off by helicopter.

Supplies arrived by ship, which stood to, near the rig, and pallets were removed from the hold by skilled crane operators on the rig, whose cranes could pull a load off a ship very quickly, as once the load was being carried by the crane it had to be moved out of the way before the ship came up and smashed it. Again, in a heavy sea there was no way on or off the rig by ship.

The systems on the rig were designed with an expectation that it could, if necessary, be self contained (i.e. in isolation) for up to a month. This meant holding spare parts for everything which might need it. My own work was the ultrasonic inspection of the legs of the oil rig, which was done by a winch lowering a complicated and expensive probe down a 75mm diameter hole in the centre of each leg. There were two probes on the rig, the one in use, and a spare, plus a full set of spare parts to replace any component which failed. There was also a well fitted out workshop, so when a component – luckily a common one, failed on a CAMAC module, I was able to replace it rather than have to wait for a new module to be flown in.

The rig was powered by two large generators, either of which was capable of powering the rig in production on its own (or a small town), plus a less powerful stand by generator. The need for this level of redundancy, and the way that, as a colleague of mine used to say ‘Murphy is always vigilant‘ was demonstrated one time I was out there, when one of the main generators was ‘on the beach’ – i.e. it had been taken off the rig and was onshore for a major overhaul. The main generator failed, and there were problems starting the backup generator, so the rig was running on is large bank of backup batteries. I shut my systems down, as they were in the control room, but not vital to the running of the rig but using its batteries, and waited in the emergency lit accommodation for the generators to be repaired. During this time a very wet worker entered the accommodation, as he had been in a compartment where the batteries had not been powerful enough to keep the deluge fire suppression system from operating. The problem was fixed – by engineers already on the rig, and life in the little closed world returned to normal.

There was not only redundancy in equipment. The regular crew were all trained in more than one job, so could cover if someone was sick, and workloads were designed to ensure that normal operations were calm and well organised – so that there was slack in the system available for an emergency.


Unfortunately budget constraints have squeezed the slack out of the NHS, even when they were operating under normal conditions. This is partly due to confusion over whether it should be treated as a set of isolated parts or as a single entity, even a single ‘superentity’ combined with the social care system. For budgetary purposes elements of the NHS, for example NHS Trusts or GP practices, are regarded as targets for budget cuts if their resources do not match their normal load, but if there is a sudden peak in demand they are supposed to be able to deal with it by diverting demand elsewhere – but the financial systems actively discourage this.

If we want our NHS to be able to deliver excellent service then we must build slack into the system.

Service excellence, spare capacity and virtuous cycles

At one time I was involved with managing an expensive supercomputer system. The support staff spent quite a lot of time apparently doing nothing, but training and learning. This meant that when there was a problem they could react quickly and knowledgeably. These large systems generally ran Unix (from which the the Linux system I prefer was derived). This is used in places where reliability is very important, and tended to run for many months at at a time. Because they were so reliable they could be monitored very carefully, and any problems investigated in depth. This created a virtuous cycle where minor potential faults could be fixed to make the systems even more reliable.

At another time in my career our over-stretched team were sent on a ‘Service Excellence’ course. One of the examples the instructor gave of excellent service was a company being unable to deliver a washing machine at the agreed time, and excellent service would be to not only reschedule at a time convenient to the customer, but then to plumb it in for free. They conveniently ignored the fact that if the team is already working at capacity, then other customers will not receive their washing machines as the delivery team will need to cancel other deliveries to meet this expectation. A vicious circle.


One of the themes which drives the world as it is today is regulation — in the meaning of the management of complex systems according to a set of rules and trends. With my science/engineering background I tend to think of it in terms of control theory, or like a regulator on a steam engine.

There are some key parts to the feedback loop as they relate to the Coronavirus, and the issues it has shown up.


This is vital to any kind of control loop – we need to know something has happened before we can do anything about it.


How long does it take between measuring something and being able to do something about it


On the basis of what we know from the measurements, what do we need to do.

Regulating Coronavirus

In the context of coronavirus, the experience of South Korea has shown how important testing is. Coronavirus, like most infectious diseases has its own feedback loop, in which each infected person infects more people, and in the absence of a good information about the disease, the only way we can control it is through the blunt instrument of isolation. This has a significant economic impact on the country – or world in general.

Regulating the NHS

The inherently long delay between detecting a problem and being able to act on it is very significant in the context of the NHS. Our modern, connected society has led us, and our politicians, to operate as if, once a problem has been detected, it can be solved quickly – our electricity goes out, we contact our supplier, or an electrician and soon we have electricity again. The expectation of a quick response means that we do not need to prepare for this. My family had a cottage in Argyll, where we knew that we had to be able to manage for some time without electricity, so we had firewood, hurricane lamps and a camping stove to mitigate the problem.

The NHS fairly quickly identified that it did not have as much of some kinds of equipment as it would need, and if we had either been a fully self sufficient nation, or the worldwide market had been normal then this could have been rectified more quickly; although still not instantly – it would have taken time to switch our respirator factories to three-shift working, or for container ship loads of respirators to arrive from China. As it is there is a longer delay while factories change the type of item they produce and there is international competition for purchasing all forms of medical equipment.

The time lag between knowing that we do not have sufficient doctors or nurses and them becoming available is several years, which is, unfortunately, further than the attention span of some politicians. A possible short term fix is to recruit already trained medical personnel from abroad, although some sections of our society seem to be determined to sabotage this approach by being as unwelcoming as they can to anyone coming here from abroad.

Shortages of doctors or nurses put extra pressure on those who remain, who are more likely to become unwell from stress,


Another theme running through my mind at the moment is the importance of diversity, and how we retain cohesiveness and diversity simultaneously.

The crew of the oil rig was remarkably diverse, and yet, as a small community, everybody worked well together. Keeping an oil rig clean (in the accommodation and working areas) requires constant hard work from the cleaners. Being there for a fortnight, with only a flight bag, meant that everyone was grateful for the unobtrusive overnight (or I assume overday for the night shift) way you could leave your laundry outside your cabin and it would be returned clean by morning. I got to know the people running the ‘ship’ side of the rig quite well. Many had been working on oil tankers, so seeing their family for a fortnight every other fortnight was a boon to them. They tended to be quite, steady and unflappable family men, from all over the country. The scaffolders were a slightly rougher crowd, younger, largely from Glasgow, and using the f-word as every other word, but very friendly and good natured. Like everybody they took their work very seriously, being the only people allowed to work outside the main body of the rig without being on a certified scaffold. The range of professions was fascinating ; Drillers – huge strong men who helped manoeuvre the sections of drill into place, I saw one carry two plates heaped high with food to the table and work his way through them ; Reservoir modellers ; Explosives experts ; Underwater submersible pilots – all fascinating to meet.

Working in such a close community, there was no room for social differences – I saw the OIM – the Offshore Installation Manger, playing table tennis with one of the cleaners.

If any good is to come out of this pandemic, I hope it will be to realise that, in our diverse world, we can, and must come together (figuratively, while still maintaining social distance), that we all have a role, are valued, and value and respect our neighbours in return.

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Christmas at Rest Harrow and Little Cucknells

When we were young, Christmas was a very special time for my siblings and me. We lived in Edinburgh, but our Grandparents, and most of our relations, lived in the south of England, or even further afield. Although I have written about going to Pickwick for Christmas, my father’s parents must have moved when I was quite young, as I remember being at Rest Harrow during the Winter of 1962-63, when the elder of my sisters was a baby, and the younger not born. (Although, when she was a small child and was told she did not participate in such great adventures she would protest ‘I was there, in Mummy’s tummy!’). Rest Harrow was snowbound, as was the whole village of Medstead, and my father had to walk to Four Marks for bread and milk. It is possible that we did not then go on to my mother’s parents at Little Cucknells,

Our normal pattern was that we would travel from Edinburgh to Rest Harrow – usually by car, with the journey becoming swifter as the years passed – in the early days I believe the trip incorporated a Bed and Breakfast somewhere around Nottingham. I do also remember flying (in a Comet) and being put to bed, and then woken to be taken by taxi to the station to go down on the train – though that may be have been to Pickwick.

Pre-Christmas at Rest Harrow

On arrival at Rest Harrow there were several common events before Christmas. Grandpa would have bought a Christmas tree, which would be in a pot in the sun room, awaiting our artistic, or enthusiastic labours to decorate it. We eschewed the minimalist approach, and it was impressive how many of the glass baubles would still be there every year, despite having been put up by small children.

Sunroom, Restharrow

As my brother and I grew usefully tall we also had the honour of helping to decorate the large Christmas tree at St Andrews Church in Medstead.

St Andrews Church

The while family would also be involved, to varying degrees according to skills, in the preparation of Christmas dinner. My Grandparents approached gardening on a serious scale, so harvesting and preparation of winter vegetables was a communal activity, preparing sprouts, peeling carrots, parsnips and potatoes, as well has mixing (and tasting) cake ingredients. Aunty Jennifer always made her famous cheese straws, in a variety of shapes.

Christmas Day at Rest Harrow

We would wake on Christmas morning to find that, no matter how resolved we might have been to catch him in the act, Father Christmas had been in the night and managed to fill out stockings (we used Heriots school socks) with presents. It is possible that Mother Christmas might have taken some tips from her relative, George Braund, and switched the stockings for ones which had been filled earlier.

The stockings managed to achieve an impressive balance, considering our range of ages, between fairness and personalised interest. Several of our toys only really made sense as communal toys, even though we knew which specific parts were ours – examples of this were the Floral Garden, the Zoo (with Britain’s Zoo animals) and the Farm (again Britains Farm animals, though with out of scale farm machinery. The stockings were filled in roughly the same order, and so opening them together we might have clues about what type of thing might be inside the individually wrapped parcels (in venerable wrapping paper). Recurring themes were

  • Some kind of small torch
  • A cub/scout/brownie/guide diary
  • A pencil
  • Notebooks
  • little sets of colour pencils
  • Chocolate coins (I suspect one bag was divided into four, and the balance became a delivery fee)
  • The aforementioned animals, parts of gardens and so on
  • A paperback book
  • Always a satsuma in the toe of the sock.

Opening the stockings often occurred on my parents bed, where they would be suitably impressed by the wisdom and good taste of Father Christmas.

Stockings on Christmas morning, Jane with Jennifer and Elizabeth

We would also show our new presents to Aunty Jennifer, who lived at Rest Harrow, and to Uncle Tim, who came from Geneva for the Christmas period. As a bachelor uncle – who had the opportunity to give us slightly less suitable toys (I remember a battery powered walking, noisy robot) Tim was relegated to the sofa bed on the lounge, where he may not have been having as restful a night. Despite this we felt it was our duty to bounce on him in the morning to wake him up. Some years later Tim married and had two daughters, and my brother and I relinquished the bedroom we had used, to sleep in the lounge. I remember being awoken on Christmas morning by the enthusiastic bouncing of two small girls, egged on from the doorway by their father, Uncle Tim.

During the morning my Uncle Michael and Aunt Fanny would arrive from London, and my Uncle Jeremy, with Aunt Claire, and her mother, Oma (Flemish name for Grandmother), and cousins Peter, Ian and Robert from Southampton or later Gosport. If the weather was fine we would go out into the garden.

Christmas Morning 1966, on the new seat in the sun
Jennifer with JF and CD on the swing.

My Grandmother would make a quiche for Michael and Fanny, who were vegetarians, but the rest of us would be keen to try it, as well as the traditional turkey. Fitting about twenty people round the table was a challenge, but we managed (sometimes by having a children’s table). The Christmas pudding had silver threepences cooked into it which were then exchanged for real money. Afterwards everybody helped clear up and wash up. We listened to the Queen’s Speech on the radio, and there would be the traditional family photo, in the sunroom if the weather was bad, of outside if we could. In the early years this was my grandfathers prerogative, using a self timer on his camera, with varied results. There are a number of pictures of a Grandpa shaped space in the family group, and I am sure there should be some of the sky or the grass due to tripping over the tripod trying to reach that space. We then chatted, or played games until the prolonged departures of the day visitors, normally after even more food.

Entertainment at Rest Harrow

There was no television at Rest Harrow for several years, when they were common elsewhere, but there were plenty of books, including a full set of the Swallows and Amazons series, and The Far Distant Oxus. We also played games, my grandparents had a Deluxe Edtion Scrabble board, on a turntable. Aunty Jennifer was a whiz at Pounce, and we also played Pickwick Rummy. She also always had some kind of craft activity available, from candle making to painting. She was also headteacher of Herriard school, and would bring musical instruments back from school. She also had a guitar, which we would attempt to play – she would teach us some chords, but we would generally forget them by next Christmas and have to start again. My cousin Peter, an accomplished musician, sometimes played his violin.

The Christmas present from Aunty Jennifer to my brother and me was a trip to London, on the train, visiting famous sites, such as Madame Tussauds and the Post Office Tower – back in the days when you could eat at the top. We traveled on the Underground, very exciting for boys from Edinburgh, and ended the trip with a visit to Hamleys, where Great Aunt Peggy was managing director (though we were more impressed by the railway running round the big central staircase, the teddy bears the size of a grown up and other amazing toys)

Christmas at Little Cucknells

When we were young we did not really celebrate New Year, but had a second, quieter, Christmas with my mother’s parents at Little Cucknels, in Shamley Green. Our interactions with Grandfather Box were limited – I only really remember him lying in bed in a downstairs room with the curtains closed, and greeting him awkwardly on arrival, and saying farewell when we left. Grannie Bee (My mother said it was because she was busy as a bee – though I assume the name really came from her being Box) cooked a second Christmas Dinner for us. She too cooked a Christmas pudding, but every piece came with a sixpence, courtesy of sleight of hand in the serving process.

Meals were cooked on the Aga, which also kept the kitchen and adjoining small dining/sitting room warm. I remember both at Little Cucknells and Rest Harrow (and at home in Edinburgh) that hot water bottles were part of the bedtime routine.

If the weather was good we could play in the huge, overgrown garden, or Little Cucknells wood, and if the weather was bad we had our new toys or books to read. Although the house was full of interesting antiques, such as the Bell of the Kishon, the longcase clock made by my Great, Great Grandfather – William Braund Box, and a chess table made by some ancestor – a model of this table made by the same person is in the Queen’s Dolls house in Windsor Castle – they were not very interesting to children, though the copies of National Geographic, with their maps and pictures of exotic places gave plenty to read and look at.

We would also go and visit my mother’s sister Aunt Sue, with her four boys, and her husband (until they were divorced) who I mainly remember for the smell of brandy and cigars, at their home in South Stoke, with Wolfie, the Wolfhound.

Somewheres and Anywheres

Receiving scans of Christmas past from my father’s slides sent by my sister coincided with me reading ‘The Road to Somewhere’ by David Goodhart. (I am still in the early stages). The book relates the differences in attitudes to society, and life opportunities between the majority (about three in five), of Britons who still live within 25 miles of where they were born – the Somewheres, and the possibly less grounded, but more influential Anywheres, who lack the deep connection to a single community, although they may well be members of several less tangible communities. My father, for example, spent most of his life far from his London roots, but was a member of a small international community of Research Foresters.

A description of the book can be found at ‘Anywheres and Somewheres‘ and another viewpoint at ‘The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart – a liberal’s rightwing turn on immigration‘ Despite the reference to immigration in the title of Guardian review most of the Anywheres referred to in the book leave a home in Britain to go to university, and then move to wherever their life takes them. My Grandparents, on both sides, uncles, aunts, brother, sisters, cousins, nephews and nieces fit the profile of Anywheres, as do many of the people mentioned in this blog, from the tragically orphaned Williams sisters to the Famous Freemans and Renowned Rebbecks.