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OpenLearn Live: 21st July 2016

Updated Thursday, 21st July 2016

The author who, choosing between her art and her husband, went for art; when Thatcher visited Poland. Then more free learning through the day.

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OpenLearn Live brings free learning and research into your world. This page will be updated during the day.

Yesterday, we found out how DNS works when it works, and heard about food poverty in the UK & beyond

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Today's posts

BBC Two, 8pm tonight: Full Steam Ahead

If you've enjoyed the Farm franchise - Wartime Farm, for example - and/or you're fond of trains, we've got a treat for you tonight. Ruth, Alex and Peter are going back in time to recreate the great age of steam for a new series Full Steam Ahead.

Here's a tiny taste:

Find out more about Full Steam Ahead - including details of a free poster

Soft eject: VHS reaches the last rewind

Ars Technica reports that Funai Electric, believed to be the last manufacturer of VHS machines in the universe, has decided to just stop:

At its peak, Funai Electric sold as many as 15 million VCRs per year, but last year only sold 750,000 units. That VCRs were behind sold at all still comes as something of a surprise, not only because VCR has been superseded by two far superior formats—DVD and Blu-ray—but hard disk-based personal video recorders have rendered its one advantage, the ability to record content easily, obsolete.

Three quarters of a million players in a year, when that year is 2015, actually seems really impressive. Presumably there's demand from places which transfer VHS into digital formats?

Read the full article at Ars Technica: Last known VCR maker stops production, 40 years after VHS format launched

Explore the success and failures of new technology down the decades with our Technology Makeover

Government papers - a short reading & watching list

Today, Parliament is about to break up for its summer holidays. Before the MPs head off, though, there's been a release of cabinet and Prime Ministerial papers from 1986-88.

The National Archive has published the trove:

The newly released files shed light on a number of events discussed from 1986 to 1988, including the government’s response to the AIDS crisis (CAB 134/5135 – 5137 and CAB 134/5253 – 5254), the prime Minister’s visit to Poland (PREM 19/23852386) and the House of Commons Defence Committee inquiry into the handling of press and publicity during the Falklands War (PREM 19/1883).

A larger number of files will be made available onsite at The National Archives and online throughout 2016.

Amongst the early discoveries was that Denis Thatcher took exception to a piece of fiction written by a Today programme listener:

The piece envisaged a world in which Mrs Thatcher had legalized hard drugs.

As a result "legitimate outlets replaced bankrupt drug syndicates. Crime figures plunged. Crematorium shares surged," it read.

In the story, the weak died, and "only the worthiest survived" while "the unfit died of freedom".

A file now released to the National Archives at Kew show the item went down badly at No 10, which sought legal advice on whether it was libellous.

The advice was yes, it was "a particularly revolting defamation".

The period the papers covers includes the point where American Cruise Missiles were being stationed on Greenham Common. The BBC has dipped into the Archive to refresh your memory:

The UK government believed it had a potent weapon to fight against the anti-nuke campaigners. Not bombs, but babies. Prince William was offered up as a distraction from the peace camps, reports The Guardian:

Newly released Downing Street files also show that Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, recommended the release of official footage of royal baby Prince William over the 1983 Easter bank holiday weekend, in order to knock Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protests out of the news headlines.

Ingham recommended using footage of the prince with his parents, Charles and Diana, to bury coverage of the anti-nuclear protests after admitting that alternatives such as an “assassination attempt on the Pope” or a “North Sea blow out” were in the “lap of the gods”.

The Independent is struck by how the Prime Minister had to face down her cabinet to keep Britain (for then, at least) out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism - the precursor to the Euro:

Files released by the National Archives show how by the autumn of 1985 the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, had concluded the Government's monetarist policies for controlling inflation and the public finances were “running out of steam”.

Mr Lawson, who had been hit by a run on the pound, warned that only joining the ERM – a forerunner of the euro which linked the exchange rates of the European Community member states – would convince the markets that the UK was committed to fiscal discipline.

“I am forced to conclude that not to join now would be a historic missed opportunity in the conduct of economic policy which we would before very long come bitterly to regret,” he wrote in a briefing note to the Prime Minister.

“My judgement is shared not only by the Governor of the Bank of England, but also by senior officials in both the Treasury and the Bank.”

There was a stormy cabinet meeting - but Thatcher closed down the arguments:

When Mrs Thatcher tried to argue back, Sir Geoffrey and Mr Leigh-Pemberton supported joining while Lord Whitelaw said he was prepared to trust the Chancellor and the Governor.

“If they felt the time was right to join, their views needed to be given full weight,” he said, at which point Mrs Thatcher abruptly shut down the discussion.

The official minute noted: “The Prime Minister, bringing the discussion to a close, said she had not been convinced by the arguments in favour of joining.”

In a document preparing for the Prime Minister's visit to Poland - then a Communist state struggling with the impact of martial law and the banning of the Solidarity Trades Union, Lynn Parker, Private Secretary, sketched a background of a referendum defeat and a desire to trade with the European Union - or European Community, as it was then known:

The visit comes at a crtical time for Poland and for General Jaruzelski personally. He became Party leader in October 1981, during the most diffcult period in Poland's post-war history. He banned Solidarity and imposed Martial Law in the belief that Poland would otherwise slide into choas and that this would lead to Soviet intervention to restore order. Matrial Law was lifted in July 1983 and Jaruzelski has since tried to increase the acceptability of the regime, but the hard-line forces within the Party have limited his room for manoeuvre. Consequently he has refused any dealings with the Opposition and avoided any changes which would undermine the primacy of the Communist Party. The resulty has been stability, but at the cost of political and economic stagnation.

The decline in the Party's authority and economic failure forced Jaruzelski in the autumn of 1987 to announce a series of reforms. These acknowledge the need for greater reliance on market forces and had as their centrepiece a reduction in subsidies. He also promised political reforms, but without spelling them out. In an unprecedented gesture aimed at winning popular support and silencing critics within the Party, he put the package to a referendum in Novemeber 1987. This however failed to win the necassary absolute majoruty and the price reform had to be implemented in a diluted form. Spiralling inflation and disappointment over political reform led to a new wave of industrial unrest in April and May of this year.


In line with most of its East European partners, Poland recently established official relations with the EC. They have also held a series of informal talks with the [European] Commission (most recently on 20/21 September) to lay the basis for negotiations on a Trade and Commercial Co-operation agreement (which may eventually also include some elements of economic cooperation).

If raised, the Prime Minister might reaffirm the importance we and our Community partners attach to developing our trade and economic links with Poland, and make clear that we intend to approach the forthcoming negotiations in a positive and constructive manner. However, the Community's relations with Eastern European countries are tailored to the degree of political and economic reform in the country concerned: Poland cannot expect to achieve in an agreement as much as Hungary has obtained. 

Three decades on, and Margaret Thatcher's successor is hoping for Polish support in negotiating a UK exit from the UK following a surprise referendum defeat...


Happy birthday: Buchi Emecheta

Buchi Emecheta book covers This week, we're celebrating alongside people whose birthdays occur this week. Yesterday, we met sociologist Barbara Risman. Today, it's the author Buchi Emecheta.

Buchi was born in Nigeria on July 21st, 1944. She left school at 16, and married almost immediately. In 1962, her husband relocated to London to study; Buchi and their two children came with him.

Her original plan was to study librarianship - half a century on, she's still living in the UK, and filling libraries rather than adminstrating them. Not just as an author, but also through the publishing house she runs with her son, the Ogwugwu Afor Publishing Company.

She started to write during those first years in London. A hard reaction from her husband crystalised her passion for writing, as the BBC World Service website explains:

The critical moment came when her husband refused to read her first novel and then burnt it. She realised just how important it was to her to write.... She left her husband, taking the children with her. 

As Buchi herself describes the moment:

"Tthe first book I wrote was The Bride Price which was a romantic book, but my husband burnt the book when he saw it. I was the typical African woman, I'd done this privately, I wanted him to look at it, approve it and he said he wouldn't read it. And later he burnt the book and I think by that time this urge to write had become more important to me than he realised, and that was the day I said I'm going to leave this marriage and he said "what for, that stupid book" and I said "I just feel you just burn my child""

Success as a writer took some time. She wrote while completing a sociology degree; after graduating, she balanced her writing with social work.

Early support came from The New Statesman, which ran extracts of her work. These peices would eventually become In The Ditch.

As an author, her themes include gender politics and race; her strong voice is driven by the power of her own stories. As she explains, with a hint of self-deprecation, in an interview with The Voice:

"Well, I admit that I'm not really very creative. I have to experience something or know someone who has seen something in order to write convincingly. People keep on going back to them (the autobiographical books) because when they read them they see a mirror of their own lives." 

She's published over 15 works of fiction, and written for children and television as well. She was awarded an OBE, but perhaps the more siginificant honour was in the description of her offered by Ashley Dawson. For Dawson, Buchi is "the first successful black woman novelist living in Britain after 1948."

Inspired to write your own stories? Try our Start writing fiction course





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