Misc

Misleading Infographics

I find few things more annoying than thoroughly misleading infographics. At the weekend, I was flicking through the latest copy of The New Statesman, and came across an advertorial published by Western Union addressing overseas trade.

The most startling part of the two-page spread was an infographic showing the top UK export destinations.

Now leaving aside the suggestion that WU Edge seems to present itself as the main route for this trade to be taking place, the most startling thing that instantly struck me was the scale of the US compared with everyone else. The size of the circle is significantly larger than any other circle on the page.

But hang on. If the US is worth $66.5bn, and Germany is worth $46.4bn (about 70% of the US), why does the German circle not look like it’s about 70% of the US one?

Let’s find out.

First of all, there are sometimes optical illusions, so I took a ruler out and roughly measured the diameters of the circles on the paper. (All more measurements and calculations from here on are a bit rough, with lots of rounding. However, the principles are correct.)

So the US circle is 28mm across, whereas Germany is 20mm, Switzerland 13mm and so on.

My suspicion is that they’ve sized these circles according to diameter or radius rather than area. Let’s see if I’m correct. Bearing in my mind I’m measuring roughly, here are my results:

If we assume a diameter of 28mm is equivalent to $66.5bn. then you can see that broadly speaking the other widths are in line with the printed numbers on the page give or take the odd billion.

But that’s a wrong way to do things!

If we were being presented with a bar chart, then the length of the bar would be fine. But we have circles here, and if we use radius (or diameter) as our measure, then the area increases exponentially. That’s because, as any schoolboy knows A = Πr2 (or Area = Π x radius2).

To show how this misleads, consider the US circle. The area of that 28mm circle (14mm diameter) is 616mm2.

That implies that $1bn = 9.3mm2.

But if we work back from that, then Germany’s circle should be 23.4mm rather than the 20mm it actually is.

That might seem a small difference, but with a circle it’s suddenly larger as this hand drawn (no compasses available) image shows.

More to the point, if you take a smaller example like China which in the printed chart has a width of 12mm, the calculations show that is should have a width of about 18mm.

An 18mm circle compared with a 12mm circle is significantly larger in appearance.

I’m not saying that anyone politically wanted to make the US look larger than the other countries, but misuse of circles, not taking into account radius, actively makes that impression.

Infographics are great, if they handle data responsibly.

This was a bad example and as a consequence presents a highly misleading picture.

“A portion of the proceeds”

This may seem unfair with respect to charitable giving, but I wonder if there are any more mealy-mouthed phrases than, “A portion of the proceeds”?

You hear this regularly when people are going to be donating something to a charity. The issue is that a “portion” might be anything from $0.01 to 99% of the revenues raised.

Intrinsically, many of us feel good about ourselves when we buy something knowing that there’s a charitable element attached. Do I favour product A over product B because there’s a charitable element with the former? Quite possibly.

And it’s not as though the companies concerned aren’t doing it, at least partially for genuine reasons. Many businesses have specific charities or foundations that they support, occasionally very generously.

But I much prefer an open and honest discussion about what proportion of proceeds are actually going to a charity. If you say a “portion of the proceeds,” I want to know what that means:


  • Is it a set amount per product, and if so what amount is it?

  • Is it a portion of the sale amount of a product? E.g. 50p for each item sold?

  • Is it a portion of the profits of sale?

  • If based on profits, when does something go into profit? (Entertainment products like books, music and films have notoriously opaque accounting practices, meaning that enterprises that look to all the world as profitable, haven’t in fact become profitable in the eyes of the publisher.)

  • Is it a lump sum that’s being donated?

  • Is there a cap to how much can be donated?

  • Is a business or organisation gaining a tax advantage by donating?

Instead of saying, “A portion of the proceeds,” is going to a good cause, I want to know an amount per unit sold, even if it’s capped, or a percentage. Because if you make a big deal about giving 0.05% of your net profits to a particular cause, I’m not going to think quite so highly of you. (Although admittedly, if you’re Apple, that 0.05% of $45.7bn is still a very sizeable $22.9m pa.)

Tube Strike Day

An all-out London tube strike seems to be quite a rare thing these days. While individual lines can be affected, or a percentage of services disrupted, the full network doesn’t go down all that often.

But today is one of those days when nearly the entire network has stopped working.

For many it’s a question of whether or not they actually need to be in the office. “WFH” or Working From Home is much more common these days, with many able to work one or more days away from their workplace on a regular basis. A laptop, mobile and internet connection, and you’re all set.

It certainly felt that many must be doing this when I started my commute on a Great Northern train. Aware that people who might otherwise use a tube may travel over to use the national rail service, I was prepared for crowds. But in fact the carriage felt slightly emptier than usual.

The train did fill up though, and by the time we reached Finsbury Park – where hundreds usually disembark – we were instead joined by locals who were looking for a train onwards to King’s Cross. Ordinarily my trains would head underground from here, by way of Drayton Park, and into Moorgate. But those are all shared Underground stations, and therefore they were shut. So trains were all redirected to King’s Cross.

This had the knock-on effect of our train becoming a bit like planes circling Heathrow in a landing pattern at a busy time, patiently awaiting a slot. There are 12 platforms at King’s Cross (Platforms 1-11 and, of course, Platform 0), and they’re ordinarily pretty full. Adding dozens of local commuter services into the mix isn’t easy to manage.

From King’s Cross it was more chaotic. I calmly unfolded my Brompton and then had to navigate hundreds of nomadic commuters, looking lost in an unfamiliar place, and with their noses buried into Google Maps on their smartphones as they worked out their onwards routes.

If you’re a black cab, mini-cab or Uber driver, you’re on duty today, and the roads outside King’s Cross were jammed up with cabs. A long queue of people snaked back at the taxi rank, but it was the weight of traffic rather than lack of cabs that kept the line stationary.

Crossing the Euston Road from King’s Cross without using the underpass is pretty fraught at the best of times. But with the tube station shut it appeared that the underpass was closed as well. Crossing the road means navigating as many as four sets of traffic lights – all separately. Cars have the priority here, not people. My fellow cyclists and I had to use the combined might of all our bells to stop people walking into the road when the lights turned red for pedestrians and ours green.

Many may have hoped to use hire bikes. TFL have upped the number of docks around King’s Cross of late, but they were all empty when I passed, all the spares kept in a nearby warehouse having been hired out. There were still a few bikes temptingly sat in their docks, but as you got nearer, a tell-tale red light showed that they were damaged in some way and not working.

The back streets of Bloomsbury are well suited to cycling, but wayward pedestrians meant there was a constant requirement to “keep your wits about you” as then Mayor Boris Johnson once said untruly of Elephant and Castle.

Walking whilst simultaneously reading your phone is a bad mix at the best of times.

Cars and other motor traffic were less of a problem, for the most part because they were all stationary. I would imagine that for the most part walking rather than taking a bus or car would have been the better bet today.

Some people still took a few too many risks – either because they didn’t usually cycle, or were impatient and late for work. That doesn’t really excuse playing chicken with a car when you’re on a bike. There’s only ever one winner in that game. And nipping behind a reversing lorry, as I saw several do, isn’t too smart either.

If you had managed to pick up a hire bike, you had one further issue – full docks in central London.

Broadly speaking, bike hire commuters come in from a ring around outer London, and dock their bikes near their workplaces in the middle of town. The reverse then happens in the evening. TFL try to manage this by shifting bikes around and freeing up spaces as necessary, but there’s a natural equilibrium usually reached – just enough central docks to manage the commuters. On a day like today, everything is disrupted. I was seeing people looking lost and confused at full docks, vainly attempting to find somewhere with space. A colleague had to travel to Regent’s Park, a good half an hour away, to find somewhere to dock his bike.

At work, talk was about how people “beat” the strike. Walking, for the most part. Someone mentioned their partner paying 4.8x “Surge pricing” on Uber. I bet most of that trip was spent stationary too.

BBC London posted a video that perhaps showed why driving around London doesn’t work:

The population of London increases by 10,000 every single month.

(It’s at 8.7m up 469,000 in four years.)

That explains why we need increased and greater diversity in our transport. Roads get clogged instantly with motor traffic, so that doesn’t work. Cycle lanes do work, and there’s scope for a massive increase in the number of cyclists on the roads. But we could also do with more secure parking facilities.

That’s also why Crossrail is essential, and we need to get a move on with Crossrail 2.

It also means that petty squabbles over who runs London’s transport are ridiculous. One organisation – TFL – needs to be in charge of as much of it as possible, whatever our cyclist-hitting Transport Secretary thinks.

Days like today remind Londoners how much transport is on something of a knife edge in keeping the city working.

Editorial Note

Looking at my WordPress dashboard, I see that I have over 100 posts in draft form – saved, but unpublished.

This is clearly ridiculous.

Now it’s true that many of them are only very slightly sketched out, but others are full pieces that I, for whatever reason, never quite got around to publishing. So I’m going to have a bit of a clear out. That may well mean that I higher than usual volume of stuff is going to appear here over the coming days and weeks.

Either that, or I will lose interest in the task at hand altogether…

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD

The comic, 2000AD, was launched in 1977 when I was 7 years old. While I read a fair few comics when I was young, I can’t say that I was reading 2000AD from the very start. It was more about The Beano at that time, which I’d begin to buy with my pocket money on a semi-regular basis. I remember that the 1978 Beano Book was the first of their annuals that I owned. It would become very well thumbed, as would be the Summer Specials. Otherwise it might occasionally be the Dandy, or perhaps Whizzer & Chips.

As I got a little older, I progressed to Warlord. Quite why a comic full of Second World War stories was relatively popular in the late seventies isn’t entirely obvious to me now. But as kids we’d eat up Bank Holiday screenings of films like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape. At primary school we’d re-enact scenes from these films, throwing dirt around to create dust cloud “explosions.”

(Warlord, Wikipedia tells me, lasted all the way through until 1986. But perhaps more staggering is the ongoing publication of its DC Thomson stablemate Commando. These comics, in compact form, continue tell tales of derring-do from the second war, each book having a self-contained story.

While I understand that there’s a certain kitsch appeal, which was probably why some compilation books were published a few years ago, and could be seen in Waterstones up and down the country, I can only think that it’s readership now is fairly elderly. It reminds me that Bauer Media had to close down a magazine called Der Landser while it was completing the purchase of Absolute Radio in 2013. That magazine seemed to be aimed at an elderly audience who were proud of their military heritage, but were not – the publisher argued – Nazi sympathisers.

As of 2013, Commando was still selling nearly 10,000 copies a month.

And today DC Thomson is still publishing 4 issues a fortnight, and you can get digital downloads too!)

But back to 2000AD. I’d probably read a few copies of it here and there. My brother had started reading the relaunched Eagle. But sometime around 1984 I started to get into a bit more purposefully. I know it was around this time because the second part of a fantastic story – The Ballad of Halo Jones – was just starting to be published.

I’d missed part one, so I started to hunt it out. I made my first visits to Forbidden Planet, which was then hidden away off Denmark Street.

I started to catch up on Judge Dredd too. Because some of the older Dredd stories were being republished in US editions, I was picking up some of those and reading up on key stories like The Cursed Earth, the Judge Child, and The Apocalypse War. I queued to get a copy of the first compilation of Halo Jones stories signed by writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson, and I had a Halo Jones T-shirt.

By now I was buying plastic bags to put my comics in, because I knew that was the way that you needed to keep your comics pristine.

In the wider realm, I was playing role playing games with my friends, and I bought a copy of the Judge Dredd roleplaying game. You could buy metal figures (I note from my nephew’s models, that today it’s more likely that you’ll be painting plastic). I fashioned polystyrene boxes, found around the back of the local Currys and Laskys, into a section of Mega-City One. I bought the ZX Spectrum Judge Dredd game – although I don’t remember it as being any good.

2000AD got me into comics.

I was more of a British comic reader than anything. But I was aware that changes were afoot. I started to pick up copies of Swamp Thing because I knew Alan Moore was writing it. Then came things like The Dark Knight Returns, Hellblazer and Watchmen. I started to learn who Neil Gaiman was, and would look for Vertigo titles. It was a good time for comics. Forbidden Planet had moved to larger premises and I was visiting it and other comic shops in London more frequently.

My comic habit only really slowed down when I reached university. With less access to comics, and plenty of other things to do, it took a back seat. From then on I became an occasional comic reader – always wanting to know what was happening and who were the big names. But the choice was vast.

And that about sums up my comic reading today. I’ll pick up a graphic novel now and again, or a short run series. I still enjoy a wander around Forbidden Planet (still in roughly the same part of London, but in much bigger premises at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue). And I’m pleased to see that 2000AD still survives even though I’ve not read a copy for quite a while.

This is all a very long introduction to the fact that I’ve recently watched Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD. I’d known that this was coming since over the past 18 months or more, I’ve had a steady stream of emails alerting me to the various interviews that the producers had been carrying out. They really had trawled wide and deep for this definitive history of the comic.

I knew a little of the fact that Action comic had preceded it, and had ended up being shut down after it had created a scandal, but beyond that my knowledge came from years of reading the comic on and off. The documentary details how the comic was created and the lack of support they had from the publishers almost from the start, since this was doing things that other comics weren’t.

In many respects it changed the mold of British comics. Aside from the smart way it could talk to both a younger audience by giving them action and explosions, it also held an older audience with wry takes on the politics of the day. The documentary pretty accurately reflects that.

Some of the stories in the documentary, I vaguely knew. It was certainly unusual that 2000AD credited its writers and artists. But as the film shows, this did mean that the top talent could be poached relatively easily – especially when DC Comics came calling, literally setting up shop in a hotel suite and inviting everyone to come along to them. Of course those same people then led the US comic invasion that completely shook up US comics at the time.

Then there was the fact that lack of intellectual property began to become a much bigger issue. The single most painful part of the film for me was when Neil Gaiman related how Alan Moore had explained to him where future Halo Jones would take the series. The character’s entire life. But he didn’t own the rights – he’d signed these over to IPC (at the time) and if anyone profited from the characters it was the publishers. Moore, of course, had lots of run-ins with comic publishers, notably including DC Comics from whom he refuses to even cash cheques for films like V for Vendetta and Watchmen, when they got made into films. Interestingly, it’s not totally clear that even today, if you create a new story for 2000AD, that they don’t own the rights. More than one contributor said that they hold back their best stuff for a publisher like Image who will let them keep more ownership.

Alan Moore, incidentally, is probably the main person missing from the film which is a shame as he’s such an entertaining character. But this is a film about Pat Mills really – he holds the entire structure of the piece together having been there at the very start, and still contributing to this day.

If there’s one part of the story which is covered – although glossed over quite quickly – it was the late nineties. I’d certainly lost track of the comic at that time, but there seemed to have been an attempt to replicate “lads mags” in comic form. The film is fairly honest about this period, including significant contributions from then editor Dave Bishop, who was not universally liked.

In 2000, the title was sold by its then owners Fleetway, to Rebellion. Primarily a video games developer, they are portrayed – probably quite fairly – as the first owner of the title who really understood what it stood for. It certainly seems to have prospered in that time, and current editor Matt Smith has been editing the title since 2002 – a remarkable period of stability.

The documentary shows how the title continues to develop new writers. Indeed it makes the very valid point that aside from 2000AD, every other comic on UK bookshelves today are franchises meaning that there’s no room left for original characters.

Perhaps the one part of story that seems to be missing from the documentary is the effect it had on the wider comic scene in the UK. There was a period where other titles like Deadline (home of Tank Girl), Crisis and Revolver were being published. While none of these lasted that long, many of the same writers could found working for these titles too. It was an exciting period for British comics.

Overall the documentary really is very good and very even handed. It’s not all wonderful, and it leaves you thinking that perhaps some of the participants aren’t so enamoured of some of the other ones. But the film makes a strong case for 2000AD having strongly influenced vast swathes of what’s come since, up to and including the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And I came away thinking, I really do need to pick up a few recent copies of 2000AD as the comic reaches its 40th anniversary in 2017.

And if you’ve never read it, then I do recommend picking up a copy of The Ballad of Halo Jones, either in print or digitally. If you’ve ever been intrigued by the favicon I use for this site, it’ll at least explain my “inspiration.”

Image Posting – A Bit More Optimised

Yesterday I mentioned that I was struggling with embedding properly responsive images that will go lovely and large if you have a nice big screen, but only download a small image if that’s all I need. Added to which, I use Flickr to host all my images for me.

Thanks to Emily in the comments for alerting me to srcset as being the way to do this properly.

While it doesn’t look like there’s a handy WordPress Flickr-embedder that will do this easily, you can spend a bit of time getting details of the URLs of each sized image, and put together some code that does the trick.

Here’s an example. If you’re looking at this on a mobile phone, you might only be seeing the 320px image. But on a lovely large or retina display, you may be seeing a 2048px image!

(At least I hope that’s the case)

Across the rooftops at dawn

Here’s the code I used to do this:

<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/adambowie/31836754726/" title="Across the rooftops at dawn"><img src="https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_cbbe667b3e_n_d.jpg" srcset="https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_cbbe667b3e_z_d.jpg 640w, https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_cbbe667b3e_c_d.jpg 800w, https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_cbbe667b3e_b_d.jpg 1024w,
https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_d378ecf063_h_d.jpg 1600w, https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_f37b9c6b4a_k_d.jpg 2048w" alt="Across the rooftops at dawn"></a>

Essentially, the first image, 31836754726_cbbe667b3e_n_d.jpg in my case, is the 320px image on Flickr. Then inside srcset are some of the other different sizes available. I probably could reduce this list a little, since you do need to get the precise Flickr URLs for each size from the download page for the photo.

Still, I think this all works, and so despite being a little bit more of a hassle to embed a picture than previously, I’ll try to do something like this in the future. Then I’ll see if Google likes it!

Rail Fares: Who’d Benefit From Cutting Them?

Today, most of the country went back to work, or at least began to return judging by the generally quiet commute I had today.

But a new year means new rail fares. Or more to the point increased rail fares.

It’s always worth noting that it’s UK Government policy to reduce rail subsidies. Like most forms of transport, general taxation pays for at least part of our transport needs. And it has been government policy to get rail users to pay for a larger part of the cost of the railways over time. Hence we see above inflation fare increases each year.

Certain routes and fares are capped, but others aren’t. For goodness’ sake, don’t try travelling from London to Newcastle on the spur of the moment!

(Of course, nobody thinks about “subsidies” to road users. New roads are considered “investments.” And no, vehicle licence funds (aka your “car tax”) do not pay for all the roads.)

Anyway, the usual protest groups were out today protesting the ever increasing fares we’re paying, and the increasing proportion of salaries accounted for by commuting costs.

On Twitter, I saw this Tweet from Buzzfeed’s James Ball:

Are rich people really likely to be the big winners if rail fare increases were reigned in?

The data in the Tweet above came from the 2014 National Transport Survey, and it’s worth noting that the numbers refer to the average number of journeys completed by each income group, and not percentages as you might at first believe.

The 2015 data is now available, so for the rest of this piece, I’ll refer to that.

Here’s the equivalent data from that 2015 survey:

The numbers are pretty similar, and would seem to tell the same story. The richest in society make more train journeys. So do they benefit the most?

Of course, these are averages.

But we can also look at the miles travelled:

This shows a similar story – the rich travel further.

But if we use both sets of data, we can look at the average trip length:

Suddenly the data is much closer. It seems that regardless of income level, if you travel by train, your journey will be broadly the same length.

Now this kind of overall data obfuscates things a lot. Buried within it are people who travel once or twice a year perhaps visiting family and going on holiday, and those who travel every day for work.

Other factors need to be considered too. If I’m very poor and in the lowest income level, then I’m likely to be either not in employment, or perhaps only have a part-time job.

The ONS shows that lowest quintile earns a median “final income” of £13,841. It notes that increases in tax credits and Jobseekers Allowances make a difference in this quintile.

If we assume that rail travel is relatively expensive, then it seems likely that anyone at the lowest level of employment is unlikely to travel a great deal, or indeed choose a job that is sufficiently distant the train travel is an optimal travel solution.

In other words, if I live in Croydon, and have a job in central London that gives me an income of just £13,841, I’m not going to be happy to spend £1,704, or 12.3% of my entire income on train fares. I’m going to look for a low-paid local job if I can that minimises my commuting costs.

On the other hand, if I’m in the top quintile with an average final income of £86,768, then spending just 2.0% of my income on my commute is far more palatable.

Just to be clear, this is really all about commuting. 56% of all rail trips are for commuting/business purposes.

But rail isn’t remotely suitable for commuting if there isn’t a line that works for you. It’s perhaps unsurprising that London and the south east see far more rail commuting than other parts of the country, simply because the infrastructure is there.

And note that this excludes tube travel.

With both property prices and earnings higher in the south-east, plus active disincentives to use other forms of transport – notably the car – then these London and home counties travellers significantly skew the results in favour of the wealthier.

Yet increases in rail fares do not solely affect those in the top quintile. All it means is that those transport users – who largely have no other choice of transport to use – are less affected than poorer users.

In many respects, the archetypal “Surrey stockbroker” can moan, but get on afford to pay for their trainfare. But a nurse who has to live far outside of central London through high property prices has pay the fares or look for a job elsewhere.

A Final Farewell to Demon

My first use of the internet was when I started university in 1988. We were all allocated an email address, but it was mostly used for sending around messages between ourselves, and gaining access to the mainframes that we conducted most of our work on. At least until I discovered the joy of news groups (this was pre websites kids!).

Sometime around 1996 I started a Demon subscription, with a personal email and some of my own webspace. But at the time I took the subscription out, I didn’t actually own a computer (indeed, for a short time before that, I’d also paid for Compuserve without actually owning a computer). I was using work computers out of hours access the internet. I think my first internet connected PC – a Gateway desktop was around 1997/8. I was on dial-up initially – 9,600, 14.4 and later 56k, with US Robotics modems.

Later I upgraded to ADSL. Speeds increased, and I was largely satisfied.

All the time I had that Demon account, although in due course I bought my own domain and transitioned all my email to that. However, email to my Demon domain would still make it through. Demon wasn’t the cheapest, but the service was good. But the company itself was changing hands pretty fast, and is now owned by Vodafone.

I finally closed my Demon account in August 2013. Fibre wasn’t coming any time soon, the current owners had seemed to have lost interest in developing it, and the BT Broadband with free BT Sport offer was too good to miss. But despite that transition, my Demon email account continued to work. I had Gmail poll it for any email that was still coming through to it. Yes – it was mostly spam, but there were emails from Arsenal and the New Scientist that were still making it through, and there was the possibility that someone I’d lost touch with still had that old email address. I wasn’t paying for this service, and the email domain still worked.

Sadly, this has now come to an end. A month ago, Vodafone announced they were finally removing Demon email services. They did provide details of a service that would let me continue to use the email account. But there’s no reason to pay for that service.

Over the last few days, Gmail has alerted me to the fact that my account no longer worked, and today, around 20 years after I first opened an account, I finally bit the bullet.

delete

Bastille Day at the Tour Was Memorable This Year!

Today’s stage on Mont Ventoux was probably as insane a stage as we’ve ever seen. While the win was contested by a three man breakaway, the overall standings were being contested further down the mountain with the Yellow Jersey, Chris Froome with Richie Porte and Bauke Mollema. Suddenly there was a crash. The TV motorbike had slammed on the brakes and all three cyclists ploughed straight into it. The road was so full of people that, that seemingly another motorbike ahead of the TV motorbike was prevented from moving. This effectively caused a pile-up. With all three riders on the floor, a police motorbike behind ran over Chris Froome’s bike and broke the frame.

Mollema got away first, while Froome quickly realised his bike was broken and had nowhere to get another one. Porte was last to get away – he’d been at the bottom of the pile-up. But in the chaos, the riders behind had passed them, and now Mollema, and to a greater extent Porte and Froome had lost time, instead of gaining time.

The UCI jury eventually gave Porte and Froome the same time as Mollema – who himself had lost some time, but recovered fastest.

Insanity!

The crowds were clearly too deep, and too many idiots try to lean into the riders too much. There weren’t barriers at this point on the course – just 1.2km from the top – but the organisers had already had to cope with a weather problem. They’d shortened the stage since 100km/h winds were making it unsafe at the top of the mountain.

Much more including photos on Inrng, although frankly it’ll be on the national news tonight, so bizarre is the image of Chris Froome running up the mountain!

Quite why the crowd that had waited for Froome to maintain his Yellow Jersey were booing him, I really don’t understand.


In the meantime, why not listen to a little feature that I helped put together for The Cycling Podcast this week – my second.

The Secret Listeners of Trent Park

Trent Park Campus from the Air

Last night I heard a man named Fritz Lustig speak.

Fritz is 96. He came to Britain in 1939, as a refugee escaping Hitler’s Germany, where his family were classified as “non-Aryans” – an immigrant who was seeking asylum, if you like.

At first, like most Germans in Britain, he was interned once war was declared. But in due course he was allowed to work for the war effort, eventually joining intelligence and becoming a “secret listener.”

The meeting I was attending was a campaigning group working to Save Trent Park. The park, close to where I live, comprises of a large mansion house built in 1923 for Sir Philip Sassoon, and surrounding parkland.

During the Second World War, the mansion house became a prisoner of war camp for very senior German generals and other high-ranking officers. They were imprisoned in relative comfort, with the freedom to walk around the grounds.

Why did the British show such leniency to these people? Because they were lulling them into a false sense of security and had actually secretly placed microphones all around the building – both inside and out.

The “guests” as they were known, would discuss military secrets, while down in the mansion house basement, teams of German translators were listening in around the clock, recording and writing down what was said, and producing thousands of pages of transcripts. Secrets revealed included early knowledge of the production of the V1, V2 and the V3, as well as Germany’s work on an atomic bomb.

Trent Park and its two sister sites could be thought of as relations to Bletchley Park where of course code-breaking was carried out during the war. All were providing vital information and secrets to the Allied war effort.

Fritz talked eloquently for a 96 year-old, and he is one of only two “secret listeners” still left alive. His work for the war effort was essential.

And of course, this came on the day that MP Jo Cox had been murdered in the town of Birstall in her home constituency. While I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, want to draw any direct correlation between what Jo stood for, including her support for Syrian refugees, and why she was murdered, I couldn’t help think of a different age when fascists were on the rise across Europe, and Britain took in something like 70,000 Jews (Although I wouldn’t want to pretend that many thousands more struggled to find a country willing to accept them).

The fact that so many of these Germans, like Fritz, then went on to do critical work to defeat Hitler is also not lost on me.


The Save Trent Park campaign group is working towards turning part of the site into a museum to celebrate its importance in the war effort.

I remember the site being used by the then Middlesex Polytechnic – once attending a series of holiday music workshops for children. Then it became a full campus for Middlesex University who finally left the site in 2012, selling it to a Malaysian University. This didn’t go well, and the site was never used. Finally, last year, it was bought by Berkeley Homes. But there has always been an educational requirement for using the land, and Berkeley will need to adhere to that in at least some form.

The debate now is what proportion of the mansion is turned over to become a museum. Berkeley plans to knock down some fairly ugly 1960s and 70s building, and put up in the region of 270 housing units. They’ve yet to submit their formal application and it seems clear from last night’s meeting that they’re thinking of a fairly low-key museum, whereas supporters of the Save Trent Park group are thinking of something rather more along the lines of Bletchley Park, the CEO of which was at last night’s meeting.

I must admit that I’m still trying to work out how a fairly exclusive enclave (the properties might cost £1m each) can co-exist with a tourist attraction, and I was slightly worried about inferences that the museum might be too popular. All the properties will be set well away from the main road in glorious countryside at the end of the Piccadilly Line. There’s no doubt this will be an exclusive place. We’ll see.

You can read more about Fritz Lustig’s story here.