Monday, 28 December 2009

Happy New Year

I've been posting a bit less in the last few days because of the demands made by turkey processing: roasted, sandwiched, cold cut, curried, stewed. And still it endures.

The blog will be taking a complete break in the next few days as we go to Cornwall for a well-earned respite from meat work. We will also be there to welcome in the Teenies, as I suppose we'll be calling them.

The more observant of you may have noticed my posts have been a little shorter over the last couple of weeks. This is because I've been beavering away on the novel: a little over 43,000 words so far.

I think I'm going to struggle to get it over 60,000 words and wonder whether this will do. At a shortish 250 to 300 words per page this is 200 to 240 pages. So a short novel but not so short it's actually a novella.

I've read that a minimum of about 80,000 words is required for a thriller. Perhaps I'll bulk it up if I'm lucky enough for this to made a condition of publication. If it's of no interest to a publisher, I'll leave it as it is and self-publish it on Lulu or suchlike.

When it's in reasonable shape - probably by the end of January - I may put it up on its own blog so as to elicit some commentary and criticism, if people would be so kind.

I happen to have been re-reading Thomas Hardy's poems and, without really meaning to, have ended up with a Hardy-related theme running through the novel, perhaps incongruously as it's otherwise about Russia, the City of London and terrorism.

Reading them is a reminder that Hardy was certainly prolific, having written at some point about almost everything. 'The Darkling Thrush' was written on December 30th 1900 as the new century dawned. So perhaps an appropriate one for now. It exhibits his usual strangely comforting miserabilism (poetry only: his novels surely possess few consolations if, indeed, any).

In the event that I don't post between now and then, do have a very happy New Year!


The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
     When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
     The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
     Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
     Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
     The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
     The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth
     Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
     Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
     The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
     Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
     In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
     Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
     Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
     Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through
     His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
     And I was unaware.

Iran

Gripping stuff happening in Iran. Could the overthrow of the regime be around the corner? The best place to follow events that I've come across is the Daily Dish.

Good luck to the green revolutionaries!

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Masterly

I thoroughly enjoyed this year's Christmas Doctor Who, which came as close to giving me nightmares as it has since I was about ten. It was the usual hokum but, my, how well it was done. There were quite a few references to cannibalism, which I believe is a new departure. I would be wary of allowing a young child to watch it.

The acting was particularly good. Bernard Cribbins, who played the Doctor's assistant over forty years ago, was a minor marvel. And David Tennant's talents are well-recognised.

But it was John Simm, who played the Master, the Doctor's enemy since Jon Pertwee days in the 1970s, who stole the show, occasionally chewing up what nowadays looks like quite expensively arranged scenery. His performance was pretty radical: he reminded me of Al Pacino in Scarface.

Another performance, this time probably more deliberately referenced, was Rutger Hauer's in Blade Runner: some lines and poses were similar and he also had his hair died blond. Doctor Who, intertextuality and the homage. Who'd have thunk it?

By the way, an appropriately spooky fact. Simm came to TV stardom via Life on Mars, where he played detective Sam Tyler. And Sam Tyler is an anagram of Masterly...

As I say, spooky. Is the actor, John Simm, in some parallel universe where he's doomed to play characters in TV sci-fi whose names all share the same letters? It could take a series or two to work out how and why...

This Doctor Who is a two-parter with the second part appearing on New Year's Day. I hope I'm brave enough to get out from behind the sofa.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

The Oxen

Here's one for today, a poem by Hardy which refers to a country legend that farmyard animals kneeled at midnight on Christmas Eve. I find it expresses a sympathetic sentiment.

I'm also enjoying his unfashionable clunkiness: poetry as jolie laide, defined somewhere on the web as where 'features are not pretty in conventional terms, but nevertheless have a distinctive harmony or charm.'

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Have a great Christmas! Thank you to everyone who's contributed to the blog and, on occasion, helped me along. It's much appreciated. All the very best to you and yours.


Monday, 21 December 2009

Snow in London

Snow in London: there seems to be more of it about. I'm sure we've had more serious snowfalls in the last two or three years than since we arrived in 1994.

Of course, in the old days, back in the post-war period, it was more common. I'm sure we all heard about those winters when our grandparents found themselves unable to dig their subsistent root vegetables out of the frozen ground for months on end and had to gnaw on pieces of cork instead.

Here's a picture of our neighbourhood from those days. Captures that eery feel imparted by snow, don't you think? Also you can almost hear them chatting in the snow-imposed quiet, about the weather no doubt.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The ups and the downs

We received a Christmas card yesterday sporting a photo of a cute white puppy dressed as Santa. Our eldest expressed his dislike of it, but on very particular grounds: "I hate up dogs!"

He's four and since he's been able to talk he's had the strangest taxonomical system. Things - when feasible - are divided into the "ups" and the "downs". So shorts and t-shirts are ups, long trousers and long-sleeved shirts are downs.

His preference depends on the category. In clothing, he always favours ups. So shorts and t-shirts, even in winter if we allowed it. With animals he prefers downs (at the moment). Hence his dislike of the puppy (a West Highland terrier).

But in what way can dogs be divided into ups and downs? Rather than using the obvious metric - height - it's decided by which direction their ears point. So an up dog would be like the perky sheep dog or chihuahua (or Westie), whilst a down dog would have the drooping ears of a spaniel or labrador.

As I say, with dogs the ups are deprecated. This approach may be generally applicable in the animal kingdom. For instance, he also hates all cats, notorious as a uniformly up creature.

All fairly straightforward. But I hesitate to ask him why he hasn't applied his taxonomy to his fellow children. After all, boys are obviously down people and girls up people.

Friday, 18 December 2009

They went without names

A Zbigniew Herbert poem I came across at Anecdotal Evidence:
“The Old Masters
went without names

“their signature
was the white fingers of the Madonna

“or pink towers
di città sul mare

“also scenes from the life
della Beata Umiltà

“they dissolved
in sogno
crocefissione

“they found shelter
under the eyelids of angels
behind hills of clouds
in the thick grass of paradise

“they drowned without a trace
in golden firmaments
with no cry of fright
or call to be remembered

“the surfaces of their paintings
are smooth as a mirror
they aren’t mirrors for us
they are mirrors for the chosen

“I call on you Old Masters
in hard moments of doubt

“make the serpent’s scales of pride
fall from me

“let me be deaf
to the temptation of fame

“I call upon you Old Masters

“the Painter of the Rain of Manna
the Painter of Embroidered Trees
the Painter of the Visitation
the Painter of the Sacred Blood”

As Kurp says:
The finals stanzas read like a prayer to the saints of art, anonymous in the beauty and grace of their work.

It's probably a prayer that could be said with benefit by more people what with our current obsession with self-assertion, whether in the form of celebrity or fame, or dignified through the use of words such as renown or legacy. I'm afraid we have to return to the sorry comparison of modest man with modern man. The intervention of these Painters is proving sorely inadequate in our age where, despite forgetting much, we all want to be remembered. (And writing this blog puts me on which side of the line?)

It's frightening

A quotation which I think encapsulates my underlying attitude to politics:
It’s frightening to think that you might not know something, but more frightening to think that, by and large, the world is run by people who have faith that they know exactly what’s going on.
Amos Tversky

Modest man vs Modern man II

Further to this, we have our answer. Blair wants offshore secrecy whilst being able to claim he's a UK taxpayer.

Not what Mr Attlee would have done.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The method of choosing leaders

I really enjoyed Frank Herbert's 'Dune' novels when I was going through my fantasy/sci-fi teenage period. I didn't appreciate it at the time - being transfixed by the imaginative and trippy ecology - but it turns out that they are replete with political wisdom, or at least thought-provoking political insights. They may deserve a re-read. Here's one quotation from 'Children of Dune' (flagged by TED):
Good government never depends upon laws, but upon the personal qualities of those who govern. The machinery of government is always subordinate to the will of those who administer that machinery. The most important element of government, therefore, is the method of choosing leaders.

As we've made the 'method of choosing leaders' more democratic, have the 'personal qualities of those who govern' improved?

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Flashback

A post by Brit reminded me of Killing Joke's 'A Love Like Blood', one of my favourite songs of the '80s and one I'd more or less forgotten about. Exploring what versions might be online, I found this one (below) on YouTube. It's a terrific live performance - a great reminder of how much extravagantly aggressive noise you can get from two guitars.

It's from The Tube, something else from the '80s that I'd virtually forgotten about. What a fantastic programme. It seems improbable now: a two-hour live music show that went out from 5pm to 7pm (I think) on a Friday on Channel Four. It was hosted originally (and during its best days) by those two witty, foul-mouthed imps Jools Holland and Paula Yates.

I remember tearing myself away from it about half-way through, showered and ready to go out. We'd meet down the local Drillman's Arms, which opened at six. No-one wanted to turn up too long after opening - you might miss something. The beginning of a long night of drinking, smoking, three-card brag, and if you were lucky, a few snogs. Perhaps rounded off with a punch-up.

One for the S&B:

You're already a cyborg

I came across this (relevant excerpt below) a couple of days ago and can't get it out of my head (so to speak).

Yesterday's octopus story brought it back to mind. When does a change in degree become a change in substance? That is, when does enhanced tool use change into, to coin a word, cyborgisation?

For that is surely what we're undergoing if you accept the logic of this argument:
Technically, you're already a cyborg. If you keep your cell phone with you most of the time, especially if the earpiece is in place, I think we can call that arrangement an exobrain. Don't protest that your cellphone isn't part of your body just because you can leave it in your other pants. If a cyborg can remove its digital eye and leave it on a shelf as a surveillance device, and I think we all agree that it can, then your cellphone qualifies as part of your body. In fact, one of the benefits of being a cyborg is that you can remove and upgrade parts easily. So don't give me that "It's not attached to me" argument. You're already a cyborg. Deal with it.

To think we may already have almost imperceptibly started morphing. Such ideas provide the thrill of science fiction - and yet we're living them. Possibly.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Gimme shelter

The emergence of the hermit octopus - but instead of using sea shells like the crab, it uses coconut shells. Cool. Evolution in action, I suppose.

For and against farmers' markets

Went to the local farmers' market with Dad on Sunday. It's always amusing to take him as he enjoys looking at the prices, which I think he reads as fascinating works of fiction.

He derives huge comfort from the prices for lamb. He sells organic lamb to some of the tonier joints in the Cotswolds at prices he believes are reasonable but full. After seeing what the good burghers of Islington are paying for meat direct from the producer, he feels like the sheep farming equivalent of Lidl.

A couple of beauties:

First up, a Christmas cake, 6" diameter, covered in nuts and cherries. Price: £44. Yes, you read it correctly (I had to go back and check). Not much bigger than a tea plate and fourty. four. pounds. But don't worry they had a 'credit crunch' version (as it was advertised) for a mere £22.

Secondly, a poultry product called 'boiling fowl'. These are chickens that have stopped laying eggs due to old age. Typically, they go into cat food if industrially farmed or are cooked up and fed to the dogs where free-range eggs are produced in a smaller way - these ones were free-range. They would make a flavoursome broth, without doubt. But this is resorted to not as choice but as necessity; there is no other way to enjoy the bird. Price: between about £14 and £16 each.

I found this offer even more staggering than the cake. At least with the cake you could imagine it had been decorated with gold leaf and was soaked in spectacularly expensive vintage brandy. But this bird? Its main function was the production of eggs. It is now unable to do so. Essentially speaking it is therefore a waste product. I had to admire their chutzpah and was tempted to hang around to see which idiots were taken in. By all means buy a tough old bird to stew up but don't pay £15 to £20 for it.

So why do we go? Veg is cheap, bread pricey but not beyond. Some meat products - sausages and pies for instance - are reasonable value. But as for cuts and joints of meat, even if they were reasonably priced I wouldn't be persuaded to buy them: keeping them for days on end on little blue blocks taken from the freezer can't be enough to keep them fresh, even at this time of year. As for summer, you can actually smell the rankness on some stands. As Robert Fisk - who always seemed to be in its presence - would describe it: 'the stench of death'.

The most compelling argument for going is that it looks nice and it's a good venue for people-watching. You'll never see a greater number of expensively-dressed scruffy people than at ours.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Neither am I

I'm writing a novel. To which the correct response is 'neither am I' (as per Peter Cook).

I used this rejoinder once, when I met Jake Arnott at a party. He was writing 'He Kills Coppers' at the time (neither was I - ha!). He quizzed me on the line's provenance (it must have been obvious it wasn't a product of my own wit, such as it is). Despite its obvious inadequacies in this context, he must have liked it as he used it in the novel, which appeared a few months after our encounter (I don't recall whether the character whose mouth he put it into was an irritating prick or not.)

This had been my one and only involvement in the production of fiction - a marginal one at best - that is, until now. I really am writing a novel. I've decided to make it a thriller. For those who know me this is a bizarre choice - I'm not a great reader of novels and I generally don't like thrillers.

I found myself encouraged to write a book by some of the kind comments posted in response to posts I've put up here. At first, following my interests and my perception of where my own aptitude lay, I considered writing history or biography. But nothing really gelled.

Then suddenly and totally unexpectedly I had an irresistible urge to write fiction - something I was convinced I'd never do. I'm still not taking myself particularly seriously in this task, which is probably why I'm doing a thriller, a genre which I also don't take particularly seriously (I know there are plenty of reasons to give it critical kudos, from Greene to Rankin, but there you are). Anyway, it's a Russian/UK, high finance/low terrorism, sex and lifestyle sort of book. Not too clever.

So why do it? Well the thriller format is proving tremendous fun. If it's half as much fun to read as it is to write then I'll be happy, as will others. But I wonder whether this is a good or bad sign in a novel? A danger of it being overly self-indulgent?

A more practical reason is that the thriller genre is one that insists on plotting and I'm finding my plot a very useful comfort blanket. I just negotiate my path from one plot point to the next, trying to fill in character and description as I go. I've stitched my plot together with the assistance of T who, thankfully, is a thriller reader (she's actually a compulsive reader of novels more generally and so a great help when I'm stuck).

My enjoyment is manifest in the fact that I've written 14,000 words in four days. I gather this is a fair clip (Stephen King manages about 2,000 a day and he's reckoned pretty productive). I've read it all through a couple of times and I'm not inclined to revise it much either, with one major caveat.

I'm worried that I might be using my plot up too quickly, potentially getting the whole thing finished in not much more than 30,000 words (about 70 pages) when I need to get to 80,000 (or about 200 pages) as a minimum (the genre usually demands somewhere between 90,000 to 120,000 words or 225 to 300 pages, so I gather).

However, I think it's important to get my plot out there, give myself a framework. And if the book ends first time round as too short then I'll have to do some backfilling, bulk things up with character and description, put some sawdust in my sausage (or sausage in my sawdust or, indeed, add more sawdust to my existing sawdust or...who knows?)

I may well be posting less as a consequence. However, I am wondering whether I should put some excerpts up to see whether people feel anything other than indifference towards them. We'll see how brave I'm feeling.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Meat and butter

Here's a fascinating comparison of Hardy and Eliot by Dan Jacobson. The author praises Hardy highly but admits he was a late convert:
Hardy — inasmuch as I knew his verse — struck me as something of a simpleton, a bumpkin, a striker-off of jingles, of tortuous rhymes and phrases, an eager deliverer of solemn queries masquerading as deep thought...

But he comes around:
What I did not notice in Hardy's poetry then, or dismissed glibly because it seemed to me so deliberately "unsmart", was how much steel there is in it. Nor did I pick up on its tenderness. Or its proud and close attention to detail. Or the poet's singular capacity, almost as if he were working in filigree, to create a sense of surprise and elevation by way of both his most elaborate and his most humble-seeming rhymes and rhythms; as he did also with the patterns constantly being drawn and redrawn on the page by the varying lengths of his lines. Yes, there are failures and absurdities in the poems — how could anyone deny it? — but they are more than balanced by utterances that fuse the speaker, the reader and the people figured in the poems into a unity from which none of them can escape. And from which they would not wish to escape, if only they knew themselves better.

I agree  - the poems of 1912-13 are surely some of the greatest in the language. However, I would also make a case for some of the more humble country verses, that some may well see as 'absurdities'.

The article sent me back to re-read some of the ones I'd liked as a young bumpkin and which I hadn't looked at for more than a couple of decades. On first reading them again my immediate response was that they could probably be best enjoyed as you would a naive painting of a rural scene: their charm is to be found in their innocent rusticity. But if you keep reading you begin to appreciate their clever internal rhymes, pattering rhythms and sheer freshness of expression. Then the seeming innocence in theme turns into something more insinuating. A show of innocence with ulterior motives, rather like the disarming simplicity affected by a negotiating farmer. Almost unawares you're left wondering, uneasy or reflective, despite the everyday subject matter.

I think it was John Wain who compared Hardy's poems to horses from a carousel, old-fashioned and ornate but capable of taking wing. Or am I reading too much into these unfashionable verses? Here are a couple:

THE PAT OF BUTTER

ONCE, at the Agricultural Show,
We tasted--all so yellow--
Those butter-pats, cool and mellow!
Each taste I still remember, though
It was so long ago.

This spoke of the grass of Netherhay,
And this of Kingcomb Hill,
And this of Coker Rill:
Which was the prime I could not say
Of all those tried that day,

Till she, the fair and wicked-eyed,
Held out a pat to me:
Then felt I all Yeo-Lea
Was by her sample sheer outvied;
And, "This is the best," I cried.


BAGS OF MEAT

"HERE's a fine bag of meat,"
Says the master-auctioneer.
As the timid, quivering steer,
Starting a couple of feet
At the prod of a drover's stick,
And trotting lightly and quick,
A ticket stuck on his rump,
Enters with a bewildered jump.

"Where he's lived lately, friends,
I'd live till lifetime ends:
They've a whole life everyday
Down there in the Vale, have they!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

More Waugh

Some more from Auberon Waugh's diaries.

Same day, different years. First, hard times - read carefully as they may return:
December 10, 1976
VALERIE JENKINS writes a thoughtful piece in today's Evening Standard about how she survives in Healey's Britain. She still manages to have meat and butter once a week, she says, but vegetables and potatoes have priced themselves beyond her reach, and for the rest of the time she makes do with fish-heads given her free by "our excellent fishmonger".
If she tells me the name of this fishmonger, I will introduce her to my lapidary in Manette Street who sells delightful pebbles of polished onyx, agate and chalcedony for holding in the mouth and sucking while the pangs of hunger last.
My family has had no meat for two months. I spend my time with a spade, searching gardens and woods around the house for any bones that dogs may have buried during 20 years of affluence, before the government of this country decided to subsidise New Review and suchlike projects.
For Christmas this year we are keeping aside some tins of Kit-e-Kat - very nourishing with dandelion salad. I would have preferred Kattomeat, but only the very rich can afford Kattomeat nowadays.

But the crazy whirligig will turn soon enough and we'll welcome back the problems of affluence:
December 10, 1982
MORE HORROR stories about the treatment of old people. A gang of thieves in St Albans has been giving them drugged tea and then robbing them while they slept. Or so it is claimed.
The reason why old people are at risk nowadays is that they are so rich. When their pension was only a few shillings a week, everybody left them alone. Now they are to be seen hobbling away from the Post Office every Monday morning carrying great fistfuls of £5 and £10 notes, even my fingers begin to twitch.
Something must obviously be done about this epidemic of granny bashing, and the first thing is for the Government to stop giving them so much money.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Sketches from a Russian notebook

Worm has some strange pictures of an abandoned Russian city. In the comments, I mentioned how corrupt Russia is, not just in terms of everyday corruption - bribery and suchlike - but at a psychological level. The deep-seated cynicism and paranoia, understandable when not justifiable, is something that wears away at you. I found it a fascinating country, but one which I was always glad to leave. Here are a few impressionistic sketches.


--------------------------------------------

Walking back to my hotel in Nizhny Novgorod in the early hours. It's too cold to smoke and the snow's so thick on the ground the only way to get around is to walk down the middle of the road, jumping into a drift when a car or lorry swishes by. I turn into the street my hotel is on and in the dull, white glow of the street lights see a gang of workers clearing debris left in the wake of a snow-plough. They're using extra-wide brushes that look like robust, supersize windscreen wipers. I get closer and see they're little old ladies, leaning into the brushes, putting all of their modest poundage into shifting lumps of ice and snow. They're so wrapped up they look like badly-rolled carpets, stumpy and bulging. As I walk past I look into one of their brown, walnut faces, not unlike my Nain's. The eyes are impassive.

--------------------------------------------


I'm sitting in the boardroom of a Russian bank, in the second day of negotiations concerning the split of fees on a bond deal. We're down to who gets the last few basis points. It's Friday afternoon and we're booked on a plane back to London that evening. But we're not moving; we're arguing in circles. Suddenly, the double doors swing open and in struts the boss: short, pale, curly-haired, snub-nosed. He starts shouting in Russian, gesticulating angrily. I don't understand it all but I can tell he's swearing and delivering some sort of ultimatum. He struts back out. My colleague and I go into conference: he's said that if we don't fold, our employer will never do business in Russia again; he also advises us that it would not be in our best interests to spend the weekend in Moscow. We call London, fold and are on the plane that evening.

--------------------------------------------


I'm staying with a family, as a lodger, whilst I do a language course. My landlady, a young, single mother, who shares the two-bedroom flat with her son, brother, father and, temporarily, me is generous and caring. She asks me if she can host a dinner for me and a couple of friends, one of whom has come over to pick me up a couple of times and has got on well with her. I gratefully accept. The night of the dinner arrives. My two friends are female academics, both fluent Russian speakers, and the dinner passes convivially. After a few vodkas everyone starts talking more freely. We move - inevitably - on to The State of Present-Day Russia, and my landlady and her brother inform us they hate the Jews. They were behind the Revolution and also the collapse of the Soviet Union. They run international finance and through that the big Russian enterprises: if only Russia could be free of them, all would be well. My two guests are Jewish. Both look Jewish and one has an unmistakably Jewish name. We move swiftly on, still friendly. The next day, feeling I should say something, I tell my landlady my guests were Jewish - she shrugs her shoulders. I tell her I'm an eighth Jewish - she pats me on the shoulder, breaks into a consoling, indulgent smile and says "But Gareth, you are one of the good ones".

--------------------------------------------


I'm in a provincial Russian hotel. It's only moderately dirty. Every night there's a raucous cabaret that goes on until about midnight. Sometime after the music dies down there's a knock on the door. Insanely (as I later reflect), I open it. A short, slab-faced man faces me. He's wearing a skiing jacket and swaying. He demands dollars. I say I haven't got any. Rather desperately I inform him I'm staying here as a guest of the Governor. He appraises me, seems to make a decision and walks away down the corridor. I close the door and lock it. When I check out the next morning, he's next to me in the queue. He doesn't meet my eye.

--------------------------------------------


I'm in Ufa, capital of the Bashkortostan Autonomous Region in the Urals. For reasons that escape me, it's shortly before dawn and a colleague who's been here before asks our driver to take us to a certain square. We pull into it just as it's getting light; it's open at one end. Looking east it's apparent that we're on the highest point of a river bluff, high up on the edge of the fault line that divides Europe from Asia. We look out over the drop, past an enormous, thrusting man-on-horse statue - an ancient Bashkir proletarian hero. Ahead of us, into the smoky lemon light of the dawn, stretch Asian steppes flat-lining into the horizon. I've only ever experienced such visual depth when looking into the Grand Canyon. It's like peering at the moon.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

The scarf of convenience

Who does David Cameron support? Which team makes George Osborne's heart beat faster? Whose results does William Hague look out for on a Saturday afternoon? No, me neither until I Googled them - it turns out Cameron follows the Villa (and it's in the family: his uncle was Chairman!). But he's obviously made relatively little of it; and for the other two: nothing. Unusual isn't it? And quite refreshing too. I wonder, are we coming to the end of politics' Age of Football?

It began with John Major, the South London boy who we could well imagine having a team - Chelsea, in his case. But as with so much, Major was unusual in this. The odd reptile tagged along as a Blues supporter (desperate careerist, David Mellor, giving up his first love, Fulham, to do so). But, at that point, football supporting amongst politicians was remarkable for its rarity rather than its ubiquity. And anyway, cricket was so obviously Major's greatest sporting love.

No, it really kicked off, so to speak, under New Labour. I say New Labour, rather than Labour, as it was very much part of that phenomenon. And quite appropriately. If you're going to ditch as many traditions of the People's Party as they did, then playing up your allegiance to the People's Game is a handy figleaf for your ideological embarrassment.

You might have gone to Fettes (the 'Scottish Eton'), been brought up in a Tory family, love tennis, be attracted to rich people, have no sympathy with socialism, but, hey! I'm a Newcastle United supporter! So I'm just like you, really - Tony Blair, member of the Toon Army. (But it turns out he wasn't lying about watching Jackie Milburn play).

Blair wasn't an isolated example: Brown (Raith Rovers), John Reid (Celtic, becoming chairman after retirement from politics), Jack Straw (Blackburn Rovers), Geoff Hoon (Derby County), Alastair Campbell (Burnley), Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool United, ha!), etc. etc. Here's a typical New Labour politician's profile, when attempting to look as normal as possible (for the Mumsnet website):
This is an edited transcript of a live webchat with Ed Balls, secretary of state for children, schools and families, on 9 Sept 2009. Ed is MP for Normanton, married to Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary, and they have three children aged 10, 8 and 5. He loves cooking and is a Norwich City supporter.

Two defining facts.

Interestingly, the more authentically left wing a Labour politician, the less it seems necessary to identify as a football supporter: I can find no record of John Prescott or the late Robin Cook following a team, for instance. None for that touchstone of traditional Labour probity, Clem Attlee, either - even though his East End affiliations might be expected to make him an Iron.

What about the future? The value of identifying yourself as a follower of the sport has probably diminished. In the age of corporate hospitality and £100 and above tickets, it's no longer an affordable weekly habit for your average working man. Bankers and lawyers are found in abundance at stadiums like the Emirates. And when Prince William identifies himself as a Villa fan (like Cameron: is there a trend here?) its potency as social marker can be said to be somewhat weaker.

It may also be that we're entering an age when politicians can be a bit more honest about who they are, not feel the need to pay obeisance at the shrine of the uncouth football supporter. Perhaps they feel they've nothing to prove: they may not like the People's Game, but they're still very much one of a perhaps more widely defined People. Or is not liking the game an admission that they're not one of the People - but who cares? We've all grown up about that now. Or perhaps they just realise people have seen through the charade...

If we have now got the confidence to dispense with the social fakery, the whole patronising rigmarole, I'd welcome it. It would surely be a sign that we don't care so much about class, our leaders no longer feeling the need to pander to 'ordinary people' by pretending to follow their supposed enthusiasms.

The proof of the matter may well come in how the Tories respond to Labour's new 'playing fields of Eton' attack line (a football school, by the way). If Cameron suddenly starts talking about how he cherishes the memory of sitting behind the goal at Villa Park (even if he was actually in the Directors' box) watching Peter Withe banging them in, we'll know that a football scarf is still seen as a useful accessory for pulling the wool over people's eyes.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Conservation kitsch

Article in the Observer about beavers being introduced to Scotland (I nearly wrote 'reintroduced' but there's very little evidence that they were ever there). The main reason to bring them back appears to be that man made them extinct (if they were ever there, that is) so it's man's duty to restore them. Other creatures may follow in their wake, such as wolves and lynxes.

The main argument against doing this is that a family of beavers gets through about three hundred trees a year, they dam rivers, flood valleys and eat fish, including salmon: evidently strong practical grounds. I'm sure I wouldn't like a local valley to be beavered: have its trees turned to stumps, footpaths flooded. If I owned or fished a beat of river I'd obviously be particularly upset to lose not just the fish but the river itself.

This story brought to mind the insistence by planners in the Cotswolds' Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that barn conversions can't have proper chimneys. Instead of a solid, traditional stone-built chimney to vent all the lovely wood smoke produced by your cheap and ecological wood-burner, you have to have a shiny steel pipe. The rationale is that a steel pipe is more authentic as it's true to the original, functional purpose of the building.

At first sight these might seem very different projects but both are driven by a desire for authenticity, a desire to rectify some sort of Fall. In one case, it's to restore a species destroyed by man, to go back to a posited Eden - but one whose re-creation is destructive to the interests of people today. In the other, it's to preserve the functional integrity of a building - but it's a functionality that's now purely notional and historical, the usual smoke-venting appendage for a building that is now a dwelling being a chimney, not an ugly and incongruous steel pipe.

Neither project serves the purposes of the people living in the countryside today. Neither fits into an existing, living context whether it's the local ecology or the vernacular aesthetic. Indeed, both seem to be instances of academic enthusiasts going out of their way to say 'fuck you' to the sensibilities and interests of local inhabitants.

So rather than being authentic, they're founded on fantasies and affectations. The beaver isn't there to fill a gap in the ecology: the Highlands have managed perfectly well without it. The area isn't a whimsical playground for beavers; it's a place where people live and work. Thinking that you can make a barn stay true to its eighteenth century barn-ness by sticking a twenty-first century steel pipe on it is just silly. There's an exaggerated, antiquarian respect here that would elicit ridicule from the farmers who once used these barns (in fact, it does). The structure is four Cotswold stone walls and a roof, which was once used to store grain, and is now used to house people. It should be allowed to adapt, to continue to make the material history of the future.

Projects such as these represent nothing so much as a bizarre form of reaction: whilst striving for integrity, they result in a sort of studied, intellectualised Disneyfication. As such, it's far from being a brainless phenomenon: you have to be highly educated to justify this sort of rarefied bad taste and self-indulgence. Unfortunately, there's only one word for fakery and sentimentality of this kind, this straining for insubstantial effect. The word is kitsch. It may be carefully theorised and academically founded kitsch, but it's kitsch nonetheless, conservation kitsch.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

What's a conservative to do?

A good summation:
The point of conservatism, you see, is not political. Real conservatives get involved in politics because they have to, not because they want to. And they have to to rectify obvious disasters or utopian assaults on freedom or radical attacks on established modes and orders. We are conservative in politics in part to restrict the claims of politics and to enlarge the claims of life.

More or less straightforward, most of the time.

But if global warming is an 'obvious disaster' in need of rectification, don't some of its remedies include 'utopian assaults on freedom or radical attacks on established modes and orders'? How do you separate out the pragmatic and prudential from the utopian and radical?

For the conservative who's convinced by the threat of man-made global warming, it's a tricky one. But unless a way can be threaded through this conflict, I don't think anything substantive is going to be achieved, at least while the consequences of global warming lie in the future. People and their governments, naturally conservative despite the rhetoric of politicians, won't wear it.

UPDATE: Just come across this - a good analysis of the problem.

Friday, 4 December 2009

They were the future once

Popped into the new Jack Wills in Islington today. It occupies an entire large, long and lowish building, formerly (and controversially) an antiques market, and before that a tram shed. On walking through the door and seeing a mannequin in tweed jacket with '70s-style sweatpants, I was immediately transported to a place that should be distant in every way from Islington: the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, of twenty-five years ago.

It was this outfit that was sported by the Rhodesian/South African (aka 'colonial') agricultural students (aka 'aggies') of the time. I guess the sweatpants, or alternatively baggy shorts for the warmer months, were inherited from their informal life on the range and the tweed had seemed a sensible addition to blend in with the locals (mistakenly, as it turned out).

I liked the shop - product and presentation had a lot of panache and a pleasing dash of quirkiness. It reminded me of an unstuffy Ralph Lauren or a funkier Hackett, but for youngsters. The look seemed to turn what I'd previously regarded as mix-and-match idiosyncrasies (such as those tweed jackets and sweatpants) and turn them into a formula (not meant as a criticism - this is retail).

Given the size of the store, Jack Wills must be aiming to sell barns' loads of colonial aggie kit to the youths of grittily urban Islington. I wonder how their self-description as 'University Outfitters' will help them in this? All-in-all I'm puzzled - but this may well be as it's not meant for me. Anyway, I shall watch the shop with interest and try to spot a varsity-inspired look being punted down the Essex Road.

Coincidentally, T went today to pay her respects to the local Borders (and fill her boots with cut-price children's books). I gather it was the busiest and most profitable branch; it certainly used to be buzzing with Islington's, well, Borders-shopping class. The buzz there now is the sound of bargain-hunters swarming over closing-down deals.

As T said, this is a particularly dispiriting sight as it seems only yesterday that, at least for the Friends generation, Borders seemed the future. What with its in-house coffee shops, its easy tolerance of browsing, its multi-media offer, and its relaxed and carefully lit interiors, retail and lifestyle were made one. This, I think, was how we pictured shopping in the twenty-first century. But, instead, it's turned out to be history.

Time seems to be running in all sorts of directions at the moment.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Modest man vs Modern man

I gather Kevin maintains that Labour politicians in a quandary should always ask themselves 'What would Mr Attlee have done?'

Here's a brief comparison of the activities of the two most successful Labour Prime Ministers on their leaving office.

After defeat in the General Election of 1951, Mr Attlee spends four years as Leader of the Opposition, power not being the be-all and end-all. On his retirement as Leader, he leaves the Commons, and is elevated to the Lords as Earl Attlee and Viscount Prestwood. As a peer, among other things, he campaigns for the decriminalization of homosexual acts in private by consenting adults. When he dies in 1967, his estate is sworn for probate purposes at a value of £7,295, a relatively modest sum for the time.

There's no question of our most recently retired Labour Prime Minister continuing in Parliamentary politics - job done, as it were. And there's obviously no question of his taking on a peerage, let alone an hereditary earldom. After all, he's more than representative of modern Britain; having helped shape it, he virtually embodies it. He's the model of the modern Briton.

No, what he does is this:
The former prime minister Tony Blair has received millions of pounds through an unusual mixture of commercial, charitable and religious income streams. Since he stepped down from office in 2007, his financial affairs have been described by observers as "Byzantine" and "opaque"...
Blair has a commercial consultancy, called Tony Blair Associates, plus jobs advising a US bank and a Swiss insurer. He has a multimillion pound book deal. He also has a charity, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, and another called the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Blair has a complex web of structures involving 12 different legal entities handling the unprecedented millions he is receiving since he stepped down from office in 2007.

It's not clear why this complexity and opaqueness exists: possibly to avoid inheritance tax? Anyway, The Guardian is attempting to get to the bottom of it via a wiki-style investigation:
So mystifying are the former prime minister's financial structures – which involve highly specialised limited partnerships and parallel companies – that the Guardian today launches an open invitation to tax specialists and accountants to attempt to explain the motivation behind such structures...

Ah, old Mr Attlee. Taking an earldom seems now such an innocent act, whether you regard it as perquisite or peccadillo. Churchill described Attlee as a modest man with much to be modest about (this was before Labour's 1945 landslide electoral victory). What we wouldn't give for some refreshing, sparkling, old-fashioned modesty now. Stuff being 'modern'.



Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Steam Intellect Society Englishman

Colin Welch blamed a certain sort of person for the Indian Mutiny:
The nineteenth century brought with it an Englishman of a new type, a Steam Intellect Society Englishman* - arrogant, radical, contemptuous and self-righteous, a leveller and a prig, convinced of his mission to direct and improve, untroubled by doubts, indifferent to  - or even ignorant of - what Indians thought, felt or said... All that stood in his path was to be swept, like so much lumber, ruthlessly aside. The thought that what he swept away might one day have protected or been of service to him in troubled times never crossed his mind: he thought himself invulnerable.

Of course, the type is still with us: the squinty glare of Ed 'Bully' Balls appears before me. Thank God we live in an age where such people feel constrained from a rigid application of their scientific socialism. Scientific environmentalism, though, that has legs and will surely grow some Balls in due course.


(H/t Fugitive Ink)

*I wonder about Welch's use of this pejorative label. It was the nickname of The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, a group with laudable aims that were by no means fully achieved - but then perhaps this was a consequence of their being pursued by some thoroughly overbearing, patronising types?

Woodland and woodcuts

Oliver Rackham's 'Woodland' combines the most recent and respectable research with a pleasantly confiding, conversational style. It's readably and usefully academic and the sort of book you feel compelled to lend out (I've only seen my copy briefly in months). Once absorbed, a walk through the woods will never be the same again, as I'm sure Nige would agree.

Not least of its attractions is the dust jacket cover , which features a woodcut (above) by Robert Gillmor. He's produced a number of covers for the renowned New Naturalist Series, of which 'Woodland' forms a part.

On the left is the cover for 'Gower', another beauty, which really captures the feel of the place on that rare sunny day. You can find some of the other prints for sale (with images) here. I wanted to get one of the 'Woodland' ones but missed the boat - there were only eight of them and I think they went pretty quickly.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The difference a "Wow!" makes

My youngest son - eighteen months old - is really relishing nursery at the moment. He's generally a happy little chap but he's seemed particularly animated when I've picked him up or dropped him off over the last few days. I was wondering why and then remembered he's just started exclaiming "Wow!", as in 'This is seriously amazing, you know!', and "Whee!', as in 'What a lot of fun this is!'.

I've always thought that experiences are a lot more enjoyable and, in a way, more real when they're shared. Traveling on your own, for instance, can be interesting but never fun. So, my guess is that the little fella has suddenly begun to enjoy himself more as he's now discovered those idiomatic bits of language that make it easier to share pleasure. It's lovely to witness. Wow.

And whilst we're on the subject here's a trailer for an upcoming movie documentary, 'Babies'. It's unashamedly cute and optimistic. Which is a good thing.



H/t: David Thompson.

China: boosters and sceptics

I'm sceptical that the world is going to be dominated by China. A book was published this summer by Martin Jacques with the over-reachingly grandiose title 'When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World'. I can't be bothered to read it as I it smells rather like the Webbs' 'Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation' and those boosterish books on Japan from the 1980s.

Jacques used to edit Marxism Today and I believe it may be a case of one form of implausible belief about 'Western capitalism' being replaced by another. (The book's thesis is rebutted here by Ian Buruma and its many errors and misunderstandings are most comprehensively enumerated here by Jonathan Mirsky; their understanding of China is far more detailed, concrete and sceptical).

The reason I mention this today is that George Magnus wrote a sensible and cautious piece on China's prospects in yesterday's Times. It should help take the wind out of the sails of some of those over-excited China projectors (including John Gray - the more he strays from philosophy into economics and economic history, the less plausible he becomes).

How to ascend the Graded Typology of Climate Changery

What do you need to believe in order to ascend my Graded Typology of Climate Changery? It's obviously desirable to do so. It can be socially embarrassing not to evince belief in this sort of thing - you might get labelled with the ugly word 'denier', someone whose ignorance and prejudice is destroying the future of our children and grandchildren. Worse, you might even get called a bone-head at a dinner party.

Here is the Graded Typology with added hurdles of belief - clear these and you'll feel initially doom-laden but before long you'll enjoy the satisfaction of being environmentally justified, one of the green elect:

[0] Believe nothing is going on whatsoever, everything's fine, really it is;

HURDLE A: Notice it's getting warmer (cutting grass in winter, wasps around at Christmas, etc.) and place credence in the various temperature measurers around the world, such as NASA.

you now [1] believe in global warming;

HURDLE B: You need to believe in the 'hockey-stick graph' which seeks to demonstrate that there's a strong correlation between carbon particles in the atmosphere (put up there by industrialisation) and global temperatures. As the name suggests it kicks up over the last century or so.

and you now [2] believe it's man-made;

HURDLE C: You need to believe in the output of climate models put together and run by scientists. These extrapolate the 'hockey stick' into the future and speculate what might happen - they all think it will be some form of catastrophe.

and you now [3] believe it may be catastrophic;

HURDLE D: You need to disregard the advice of sceptics such as Bjorn Lomberg and Nigel Lawson who argue that giving up carbon could be worse than continuing to use it but applying ourselves to the management of its consequences.

and you now [4] believe it requires us to give up carbon;

HURDLE E: You believe our ultimately unhappy experience with carbon is telling us something about modernity as a project. We need to abandon technology and depopulate the planet to restore the natural order.

and you now [5] believe it requires us to return to live in caves, eat nuts and berries and kill our firstborn.


As I related in my previous post, I'm a 2.65 right now. Here's why. Despite the recent cool spell, it does seem to have got warmer - there are lots of natural indications that this is so. There has undoubtedly been a significant increase in atmospheric carbon (I don't think anyone denies this). And I can credit there's a link between industrialisation, increases in atmospheric carbon and global warming.

There are problems with the 'hockey-stick graph': the medieval warming period may have been restricted to Europe, with the earth cooling as a whole, or it may not. The evidence doesn't seem massively convincing either way. However, I'm not sure it's that important: just because the Earth warmed for non-anthropogenic reasons before, doesn't mean that this time it's also not man-made. Perhaps we don't need the full stick?

Where I really struggle, however, is the extrapolation of what's happened to date - a mild, barely noticeable warming - into a catastrophic future. This prediction is supported through computer modeling. Extremely complex and huge models need to be used as you're modeling the multi-directional and dynamic relationships between industrialisation, atmospheric chemistry, atmospheric physics, the weather, clouds, vegetation, oceans, glaciers. Fantastically, quite incomprehensibly, complex.

I've written a few financial models in my time, which are simpler by many orders of magnitude. But they nevertheless usually turn out to be wrong - as the recent financial crisis amply illustrates. As Keynes pointed out in the arena of economics, but it surely applies in spades here: there are risks, for which you can estimate probabilities; then there are uncertainties which are simply not susceptible to probabilistic analysis. In his words: 'We simply do not know!'

However, despite all this, I'm beginning to lean towards doing something. Can we take the risk - or rather live with the uncertainty - that AGW could result in catastrophe? And anyway, wouldn't it be a good thing to reduce our reliance on carbon fuel producers, such as Russia and Saudi Arabia? In the course of writing this, I may well have persuaded myself up into the 3s.

I suppose if I truly believe this - if I could be sure to resolve the doubts outlined above - I should campaign about it. After all, it's global catastrophe we could be looking at. If I had to choose a cause it would be securing our food supply. We tend not to give this much thought any more but it's one of the fundamental duties of government and would be the main reason we'd get finished off by dramatic climate change.

However, the Government seems to be doing very little about it. The latest report I can find on the DEFRA website, 'Food Security and the UK', dates from 2006 and it concludes:
10.5 Although the broad conclusion is that the current policy framework is appropriate, the multi-faceted nature of food security suggests there remain areas in which further investigation could be informative:
  • The potential impacts of climate change on global food potential, and the prospects for global food supply generally, remain important.

Three years later, the Department is calling for a debate and sponsoring a conference on the issue. It just all seems a bit half-hearted and lacking in urgency, particularly as we learn that climate may have changed over very short periods in the past. If the politicians truly believed in the dangers of climate change wouldn't we be deciding on action by now (and even that might be a bit late with a general election next year)? (Some suggested actions: establish well-reasoned and detailed contingency plans for food production and processing; build appropriate core seed banks and animal stocks; increase self-sufficiency; develop marine and lacustrine food sources; increase urban and suburban market gardening).

It's all most peculiar. Why would you drag your feet on an issue that's this important? Either they aren't as convinced as they say, or they are, but for some reason can't be bothered to do the work or are inhibited for some reason that's beyond me. It really is puzzling.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Towards a Self-Locating Graded Typology of Climate Changery

The battle between Warmists and Deniers rages over our heads. Brave scientists versus purblind sceptics; or purblind scientists versus brave sceptics. But, of course, it's much more gradated than that. The vast majority of us, I suspect, sit somewhere in the middle or see some sense in both positions. And shift around a bit depending on the weather or what sort of day we've had.

Here I provide a handy scale across which you can plot your position ([0] is full denial, [5] is extreme warmism). It also has the wonderful attribute of removing any pejorative sense to our descriptions. Now, there need be no more ugly 'denier' or 'warmist' - it's a matter of being a 0.75 or a 4.3:

[0] Believe nothing is going on whatsoever, everything's fine, really it is;

or [1] believe in global warming;

and [2] believe it's man-made;

and [3] believe it may be catastrophic;

and [4] believe it requires us to give up carbon;

and [5] believe it requires us to return to live in caves, eat nuts and berries and kill our firstborn.


My score is about 2.65. Today, that is. It's no lower as it's raining really rather heavily. It's no higher because the people at [4] and above are asking us to give up carbon as if it's the logical and sufficient conclusion of the debate rather than the very start of it. Or rather, it's the start of the debate in which we, the 'ordinary people', need not defer to anyone, scientist, politician or even journalist. Being reasonably informed should be sufficient.

If I get to [4] then I would probably be arguing strongly for improved sea defences and national contingency plans for food production and water supply. On the other, preventative, hand, I'd want an immediate massive investment in nuclear power and hydro-electricity (tidal barrages, in particular). If we did this we'd look a bit like France, which gets nearly all of its electricity from these sources. We should pay for this investment simply by making electricity more expensive.

That's my view, one which others will take issue with. But I see little evidence of a real public and political discussion on proposals like these despite their importance and despite their being amenable to reasonably informed public debate.

Bryan Appleyard reckons we'd last a week without carbon (he obviously hasn't downloaded a precautionary survivalist manual). So sorting out how we're going to substitute for it is quite critical. And yet our Government, whilst fervent about the need to give up the stuff, seems quite leisurely about replacing it. Next decade, or the one after that, or whatever.

Our leaders claim climate change is a huge threat. But they aren't willing to use up any significant political (or financial) capital on countering it today. If anything, climate change seems to be a source of political capital, what with all that grandstanding at international conferences. And I'm not sure if I have a notch on my scale for that.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Devils in black



Here's a postcard from the French 'Rugby Pioneers' blog (above). It was issued in 1906, a souvenir of the visit to the British Isles by the first touring New Zealand side, the 'Originals' (below), who gained their forbidding All Blacks moniker on the tour. They were beaten only once, by Wales, a victory which is reckoned to have kicked off Wales' rugby mania.



However, a Welsh victory has only happened twice more in the 104 years since, Wales losing uncomfortably again a few weeks ago. Makes you wonder whether Wales were misled by their early enthusiasm - but then they've always had a good chance of beating England and that has surely made it very worthwhile.

The last time Wales won was in 1953 (I posted on Haydn Tanner, one of the players who'd played in the previous 1935 victory, here). The great Bleddyn Williams, 'Prince of Centres', played. He died earlier this year and a documentary was shown on BBC2 in the summer. He grew up in Taffs Well and went to school with two of my uncles. The programme showed a school photo of Taffs Well primary school's rugby XV and visible there were the little boys and future great-uncles, Mervyn and Arthur, arms folded, trying to look implacable. Strange to see them so young. (For those interested, I posted on the boys' father, my great-grandfather, here; on their equally ill-fated cousin here; and their home farm and some of my father's early farming experiences here.)

Anyway, last night the devilish All Blacks beat France 39-12 in Marseilles. As they say over there, plus ça change...

Saturday, 28 November 2009

"Get up amongst 'em"

I related in a comment on my last post how one of my early friends at Cambridge didn't appreciate - in some sense, didn't even see - the architecture, those staggeringly beautiful and ancient buildings. He just wasn't tuned into that part of life and would have just as happily pursued his studies in featureless concrete cubes.

I describe him as a friend, but he was more someone I associated with, living as he did in the same house as me, along with a few other like-minded types (like his mind, not mine). In this sense, at least initially, Cambridge was a huge disappointment, as it is for a lot of people. I'd left a provincial comprehensive with enormously high expectations of who I'd meet; but I'd somehow fallen in with a group of individuals more philistine, narrow and, actually, more childish than any I'd been friendly with at school.

Thankfully, again as I think most people do, I eventually began knocking around with some more sympathetic people (a couple of them are still amongst my closest friends). But I'll never forget the disillusionment, almost desolation of that first term.

The architecture was one thing, but the biggest consolation was what getting into Cambridge had meant for my family and, most keenly, for my Taid. He was someone I idolised. But he was also one of the most cynical men I've ever met. Not in a vicious way - he was kind and considerate - but in a literal sense with a twist: he tended to disbelieve in human goodness, and the louder it was declaimed the more scornful he became.

His biggest hatreds were reserved for the Pope and Bob Geldof. (I'd love to hear the vituperation that would have been provoked by the likes of Blair and Bono). It was the hollow self-righteousness that sent him spare, I think. Everyone fundamentally remains mysterious, but my guess is that this cynicism was produced in the conjunction of a sensitive, idealistic personality with rough-edged experience.

His early working life was hard, as it was for many working class men of the early twentieth century: avoiding the mine or quarry by leaving his home in the Conwy valley at fourteen to go to Manchester where an aunt had managed to find him work on the trams; then working for the Rhondda Transport Company, where he'd never know day-to-day whether he'd be given a shift (turn up at the depot at 5am; get taken on if he were lucky; work through until the early hours of the next morning if he was; start again).

But I think it must have been his witnessing of hypocrisy that had made him so bitter. It started early. I remember him relating how he and his Mam would be walking down the street when they'd see the black-clad priest coming towards them tipping his hat as he went. When he reached them there would be a slight acknowledgement but the hat would remain firmly on his head. This absolutely infuriated him to the point of tears, even seventy or so years later: why wasn't his mother good enough for that man? He loathed organised religion, which he saw as a racket and, in the case of the chapel, pointlessly cruel and dictatorial as well.

He'd joined the masons at some point, thinking it was some form of companionable but charitable organisation; he left a short while later disgusted at how people used it to connive in career advancement. Then there were the cruelties, small and large, inherent in life in the Valleys: fatal industrial diseases, degrading working conditions, poverty, strikes. He was obviously quite an innocent man, sensitive and well-meaning. The lack of reciprocity he found in the world upset him and continued to do so. But what infuriated him were the moral grandstanders, those who appear to thrive on a mission of alleviating misery.

He retired early for health reasons and he and my Nain moved up with us to the Cotswolds. He was a lot happier there; he found it less claustrophobic. But he never really got used to the English - not friendly - and he never lost the marks left by his upbringing.

He always felt smart people might be looking down on him (despite his being always immaculately turned out). He said he could never hear a posh accent without cringing inwardly, and he could never imagine being able to contradict someone who spoke like that (it must have seemed doubly alien to him: Welsh was his first language). He felt shamed by this. His conclusive advice to us children was simply to get on, to "get up amongst 'em"; make the most of what we had and don't make the mistakes he'd made.

But don't think this was the beginning and end of the man. In fact, very few would know about these private opinions and insecurities. He loved music (one son, my uncle, became an opera singer). He was tremendously curious, bombarding me with questions whenever I saw him. Most of all, he was extremely funny with an oblique but harmless sense of humour, always looking for a laugh, to send something up. At most social gatherings, before long, a small crowd would be gathered around him; he'd be making innocent wise-cracks, whilst cradling a very large whisky and lemonade.

When I got the A-level results I needed we had an impromptu family party. A couple of friends came to collect me to to go to the pub; they left in the early hours, Taid keeping them in laughter for much of the night. They wondered why I ever bothered to go out.

So after my first term, when he told me that he was enjoying walking down the street in the knowledge that he was as good as anyone, now that he had a grandson at Cambridge, I was obviously left speechless. I still don't have words to explain what this meant to me. I suppose I felt proud, but pride didn't seem anything like the right emotion.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Little savages

Children are right little savages. My four-year old, propelling himself along on his brother's brick trolley, swinging his plastic cutlass over his head crying 'Catch the robber! Cut, cut, cut! Kill, kill, kill!' His eighteen-month old brother laughing, trying to run away but when caught seeming to revel in his pretend (and quite careful) chopping up.

Where do they get the idea that this sort of thing might be considered fun? We do discourage it, albeit half-heartedly now. But it seems totally innate and unstoppable. Thank God for civilisation.

Work is funny

This is very funny. The jerk is a bit close to the bone. When I was a struggling entrepreneur I often asked people to give me stuff for nothing co-invest with me on a project in return for future upside. (My yacht-owning days lie ahead of me, too).

There are other amusing snippets of correspondence on this site. Work can truly be wonderfully diverting.


H/t Clive Davis.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The consolations of an education

God, I feel sorry for young graduates nowadays:
  • There are more students than ever before (nearly two million) meaning competition for graduate jobs must be more than ever before (student numbers have increased by about a million over the last twenty years);
  • The competition is supposed to hot up further: the government is still targeting for 50% of school-leavers to get degrees;
  • You may well not earn much more than you would have if you hadn't done a degree (arts graduates will earn over a lifetime about £35k on average more than a non-grad with two A-levels) with this premium presumably reducing further as more graduates are produced. What's more your chances of out-performing become a lot worse if you take your debts into account, which...
  • ...will be higher than ever before (between about £15k and £25k on average depending on who you believe);
  • At the moment, and for the next few years, your chances of getting a job are about as bad as they've ever been.
Oh, and even if you get a traditional graduate job the odds are that you won't be able to afford a middle-class family home (or, indeed, a middle-class family) until well into your thirties, unless that is you can get hold of some sort of ancestral assistance. Of course, if you don't get the traditional graduate job, you may have to forget about home ownership altogether, or at least for the foreseeable future.

(For what it's worth, I used to run a couple of retail businesses which hired lots of young people to work in shops. By the end, the majority of young hires were graduates of one sort or another who were really over-qualified to do a sales assistant role. They justified the jobs to themselves as stepping stones. The problem was that dozens of stepping stones circled in on just one or two traditional graduate-type jobs within the business...)

Crappy isn't it? If I were an unemployed or poorly employed, indebted graduate, perhaps the first one in my family to go to university, my early high expectations would have turned a bit sour, to say the least. I would be pretty depressed, not to say quite angry.

And there will probably be enough people like this to have an impact on our politics in coming years: imagine hundreds of thousands (even millions) of struggling, disillusioned and articulate voters all bearing a grudge and with little stake in the status quo. They'll seem modern day equivalents to nineteenth-century Russia's 'superfluous men': educated but with no outlet for their talents. And we know how well that turned out...

At least, they'll have the age-old consolations of an education to comfort them (if that is, indeed, what they received); quite ironic given the traditional justifications for an education have been cast aside by this government, it being all about economic competitiveness now. According to Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London, they won't 'face poverty with a blank, resourceless mind', unlike the uneducated poor. That's something worth having, I suppose.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Chromophilia

Chromomania: 'a craze for or strong attraction to colour'. Sounds a bit Timmy Mallet to me (left). The milder chromophilia, although seemingly not used in this sense*, is preferable: 'a love of colour'. I wonder why it is that we can find colours so affecting? Chromophilia is indulgent, sensual, even perhaps sometimes quite spiritual.

The other night on the programme Ugly Beauty, Waldemar Januszcak was talking to Anish Kapoor about his use of colour. Januszcak reckoned that with some of Kapoor's works the overwhelming intensity of the colour could induce a feeling of intoxication. Kapoor described them as putting us into a reverie, where time stands still just for a moment. Having seen (and stuck my head into) some of Kapoor's works at the Hayward a few years ago, I have to agree. Drunk on colour: 'chromo-intoxication'.

The fleeting intoxication induced by colour certainly has appeal. It permits an albeit brief escape from the present and from consciousness and self. To lift a quotation from Boswell concerning Dr Johnson (and presented by Brit):
He asserted that the present was never a happy state to any human being; but that, as every part of life, of which we are conscious, was at some point of time a period yet to come, in which felicity was expected, there was some happiness produced by hope. Being pressed upon this subject, and asked if he really was of opinion that though, in general, happiness was very rare in human life, a man was not sometimes happy in the moment that was present, he answered, "Never, but when he is drunk."

'...Sometimes happy in the moment that was present...' when drunk on colour, too. But I think it does have to be a very particular colour experience.

Of course, there's a whole theory of art concerned with colour: Colour Field Theory. But as much as I like some of the Colour Field paintings - I find some Barnett Newmans (below) can be particularly exhilirating - I've never felt drunk in front of them; only slightly tipsy. This may be because it's a lot to expect from a flat surface, to physically overwhelm you with colour. I think you need to feel you're drowning in colour to precipitate the full intoxication. You have to be able to lose yourself in it. That's why Kapoor's huge and concavitous coloured sculptures work so well.

It's also why stained glass windows can be very potent. I remember being in one church in Angouleme - a particularly fine example of the Romanesque - just before evening mass on a late summer evening. The low sun was refracting in the stained glass, pouring pure and vivid colour into the previously shaded recesses of the interior. The swirling smoke of insense was alternately concentrating and dissipating these colours, a peacock blue predominating. It was the first time I understood how an appeal to the senses can aid worship. I felt dizzily certain that I was in the presence of something deeply mysterious. Physics, perhaps.

I'm very familiar with one stained glass window that I know can produce rare feelings of transcendence, but this time in an atmosphere of pale stone and clear light. This is a window designed by Karl Parsons in 1927 and to be found in Bibury's St Mary's Church (two details below). A large part of its beauty, for me, lies in the velvety, limpid blues and the rich blood-red. Almost needless to say, these photos, superb though they are, don't do the window justice. The bottom one, headed 'CARITAS', I find particularly affecting. There's more here.






I wonder whether we're still only scratching the surface of what colour can do for us. Given that its potency is greatest when it's made to surround us or when it's projected across us, there's surely potential to do more with computer screens. We've seen the emergence of iPhone painting. Might we look forward to YouTube videos that project colour across us in a darkened room, for purposes of relaxation, worship, or meditation? (Of course, it may already have happened and I missed it.)


* 'Chromophilic' is a medical term meaning 'easily stained by dyes'.

Colours and taste

It's funny how secure we are in our belief as to what's in good taste and what's in bad. It's only when we're in a transitional phase between one empire of taste and another that you experience for yourself how contingent it all is. Everything from colours and trouser bottoms to landscape.

I'm experiencing one such moment now. I can clearly remember why I thought those Farrow and Ball colours were tasteful and quite attractive. And yet I've decided they look somehow dated, even somehow quite revolting. We do this and we feel it's one of those things that marks us out as individuals: "I love this"; "I hate this"; "I just do, I'm like that". But when we express our taste preferences about something that is so widely consumed as paint we are usually at our least individual; more often than not, we're a mere cipher for the culture.

There are a couple of places that always bring home to me how specific is our appreciation of colour. I enjoy colour anyway and these are places where it's inescapable. However, the palette seems rather outlandish to our eyes and might even, perhaps, be considered in bad taste. My guess is that to contemporaries they would have been unsettling initially but then matured into the epitome of good, mainstream taste.

The wonderful picture below (from here) is a great reminder of how the old days were a lot less drab than we tend to assume. It's the Victorian-era Smithfield market which was re-painted in its original vibrant colours a few years ago. It's a combination we would never dream of putting together today. In good taste or bad?


Here's another favourite place of extreme colour: the upstairs drawing room at the Sir John Soane Museum. It's south-facing (I think) and when the sun's in the right spot, the room envelopes you in sunshiny, lemon yellow. The scheme dates from the early-nineteenth century and has recently been restored: the shade is called Patent Yellow. Again probably something not considered terribly tasteful today. But how could Sir John Soane be lacking in taste?


Finally, one that I thought that was of a piece with the others, but apparently not. Worth looking at anyway just because it's so ususual. I thought Albert Bridge was another example of a Victorian structure being restored to its original - and, to our eye, quite strange - colours following its restoration in the early 1990s. However, it turns out the current scheme was an innovation designed to protect the fragile structure from collisions by making it more visible to river traffic. The purely functional justification makes its exuberant cake-icing appearance even more extraordinary.