Good Questions: Selling off the family silver?

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The Independent Culture
OUR weekly assortment of answers to readers' queries.

How much is the National Debt, who was responsible for it in the first place, and when? If we sell the entire contents of the British Museum, would it clear the National Debt at a stroke? (M A Lambert, Pimlico, Herts.)

At the end of the 1991-2 financial year, the UK National Debt was pounds 214,527.6m, which is 5p short of pounds 3727 for each man, woman and child in the country. The debt dates back to 1692 when a government bill pledged the receipts from beer and liquor taxes as security for a loan of pounds 1m. It was driven up over the next 150 years by the need to fund an assortment of wars, and by 1840 the debt was over pounds 800m. It decreased during the second half of the 19th century, but two world wars with a recession in between forced the figure up again dramatically: nearly pounds 8bn in 1920 and over pounds 21bn in 1945.

Despite the rapid growth in recent years, the National Debt is now around 50 per cent of the GDP (value of all goods and services produced) compared with a peak of over 100 per cent.

Could we sell everything in the British Museum to pay for it? With 10,500 books from the collection of George II, the 79,575 pieces from Sir Hans Sloane's collection that started the whole thing off, the mummies of cats, humans and crocodiles, and hundreds of thousands of other trinkets that now cover over 13 acres, there is little doubt that at current market prices, a valuation would at least come close to covering the pounds 214bn.

After all, a Van Gogh sold for pounds 49m in 1990, and the British Museum has plenty of stuff better than that. Finding 20,000 things worth pounds 10m each should be possible, especially if we throw in the National Gallery and sell the buildings.

The trouble is the deflationary effect it would have on the art market. The highest prices all seem to be paid by Japanese company chairmen, the Getty Museum or Greek shipping magnates, and there are not enough of them to go round. And think of what it would do for the rarity value of mummified cats. Economically, the whole venture lacks sense and we advise the government against it.

Why does the PM in 'Prime Minister's Question Time' say - several times - 'I refer my honourable friend to the answer I gave some moments ago'? And why always the same question as to his activities? (Mrs S Morrison, Glasgow).

The procedural trick of asking the Prime Minister to list his official engagements for the day enables the questioner to gain the chance to spring a supplementary question without having to give prior notice of its content.

'The idea,' according to a House of Commons explanatory leaflet of 1979, 'is to mask under a very general opening question a particular unseen supplementary question.' Since specific questions are usually referred to the minister responsible, and the PM, apart from overall responsibility, has few specific responsibilities to go with the office, the question about his planned activities has evolved as a good way of ensuring his undivided attention.

'Of the 119 questions tabled for answer by the PM on 30 October 1979,' the information sheet tells us, 'all were of this type'. Earlier the same year, the Sessional Procedure Committee had recommended against the practice. The House endorsed its recommendations and nothing happened.

An additional advantage for the MP asking the question is that his original 'What are you doing today?' question has to be tabled a fortnight in advance, while the choice of supplementary can be left until the last moment.

In her book The Downing Street Years, Margaret Thatcher says: 'I always briefed myself very carefully for Questions. The real question is the supplementary, whose subject matter may vary from some local hospital to a great international issue or to the crime statistics. Each department was, naturally, expected to provide the facts and a possible reply on points which might arise. It was a good test of the alertness and efficiency of the Cabinet minister in charge of a department'.

I am puzzled by the 'compass' surnames and the apparent fact that South comes out at about one-third of expectation. In York (including only pure names - no Eastman or Southern) there are 60 people named North, 10 named South, 24 East and 100 West. (C C Tutton, Tonbridge, Kent).

This is more puzzling than it seems. All authorities on surnames seem to agree that North, East, South and West were originally indications of where a person came from. The high preponderance of Norths and Wests might therefore appear to be explained by a south-easterly drift of population, which, with the capital in the south east, sounds reasonable.

The picture becomes considerably more complex, however, if we compare the figures for different areas of the country. We have counted the compass names in three telephone directories (private subscribers only) for extreme areas of England. Cornwall, in its 750 pages, provides us with 49 Norths, 23 Easts, 9 Souths and 228 Wests; the figures for Northumberland (in the same order) are 5, 3, 1, 28 (500 pages of directory); and for Canterbury (same order) are 39, 40, 9, 235.

The highest proportion of Souths comes from Canterbury, and Cornwall has more Wests than Northumberland, which is hardly according to plan. The most striking feature, however, is the very small number of compass names in Northumberland.

We can draw two conclusions: many of people returned to Cornwall after collecting their surname (West) elsewhere; and they don't care where you come from up North. Either that or nobody, except possibly people called Scott, ever decide to move to Northumberland.

Is it not the case that, if Einstein's Theory of Relativity holds true, the outside edge of a long-playing record, once played, must be younger than the inside edge surrounding the hole in the middle? (Christopher Grace, Norwich).

Absolutely true, but it should not be significant enough to interfere with your enjoyment of the music. The best way to look at it is to imagine a vast gramophone record rotating on a turntable 150,000 miles across. If it rotates at 33rpm, which is just under two seconds for each revolution, a point on its diameter would, by Newtonian calculating methods, be travelling over 200,000 miles a second, which is faster than the speed of light.

By Einstein's theory, that is impossible, and his brilliant insight that explains it is that time effectively slows down for an object travelling at speed. The slowing down is insignificant except for speeds commensurate with the velocity of light, but it still happens and Einstein's theory provides a formula to calculate it.

If we could carbon-date the plastic on a gramophone record by a method that allowed differences of billionths of a second to be measured, we would find that the first movement of a symphony on the outer edge of a record, once it had been spun on a turntable, had indeed aged less than the presto finale that is closer to the hole in the middle.