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


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.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Purple, the new Ball Green

The Catherine Wheel, Bibury's local, has just reopened having been re-fitted following a change of ownership. When I drove past on Saturday the old sign was still up: white text on a pale-ish green background. The green was from the heritage, Farrow-and-Bally palette*, and I have to say I felt a moment of involuntary revulsion. That wishy-washy set of watery, drab, sick-based colours has really lost its appeal, at least for me. Too studiedly and laboriously tasteful.

Don't get me wrong, I've got the odd bit of woodwork painted in that palette myself. But I sense a change in the aesthetic: and if I've begun to notice it, you can be sure it must be well under way.

The new owners have put up a much bigger sign, and it's in a lusty, unrestrained purple. I think I may have glimpsed an indication that we're moving into a new age of taste, one where colours are jolly by way of compensation for all the other stuff. About time too.

* Having looked up the F&B colour chart it was somewhere around Cooking Apple Green, Ball Green and Stone White (sic). The purple doesn't appear on their chart - it is, quite literally, beyond the pale.

'...scarcely a single inhabitant..'

Francis in his comment on yesterday's post links to an enjoyable but astringent folk song about Cotswold second home owners. It's a vexed subject, and I have some sympathy with both sides of the argument. As with so many vexed subjects the only fair answer begins, 'Well, it depends...'

It's in large part a question of alternatives. Incomers drive up the cost of property making it difficult for locals to buy; sometimes they don't occupy their properties throughout the year removing demand and life from the village. But it might be that without their money the local economy would have struggled, properties might have remained empty, perhaps even falling into dereliction.

Where do the Cotswolds stand? Would the area's communities have remained viable without some sort of influx? This question seems incredible to us now but depopulation was a real concern at the turn of the twentieth century. This passage from A Cotswold Village by J Arthur Gibbs (published in 1899) is illustrative:
These four villages [Winson, Coln Rogers, Coln St Dennis, and Fossebridge], were all built two centuries or more ago, when the Cotswolds were the centre of much life and activity and the days of agricultural depression were not known. When we look down on their old, grey houses nestling among the great trees which thrive by the banks of the fertilising stream, we cannot but speculate on their future fate. Gradually the population diminishes, as work gets scarcer and scarcer. Unless there is an unexpected revival in prices through some measure of "protection"...these old villages will contain scarcely a single inhabitant in a hundred year's time. This part of the Cotswold country will once more become a huge open plain, retaining only long rows of tumbled-down stone walls as evidences of its former enclosed state; no longer on Sundays will the notes of the beautiful bells call the toilers to prayer and thanksgiving, and all will be desolation. If only the capitalist or wealthy man of business would take up his abode in these places, all might be well. But, alas! the peace and quiet of such out-of-the-way spots, with all their fascinating contrast to the smoke and din of a manufacturing town, have little attraction for those who are unused to them.

Gibbs got what he asked for: these particular villages are now packed to bursting with prime examples of 'the capitalist or wealthy man of business', not to mention our contemporary 'wealthy man or woman of celebrity'. And this helped offset the steep decline in agricultural employment of the twentieth centruy: the communities saw properties occupied, work provided and money introduced.

I've witnessed myself a change in the area's character over the last twenty to thirty years. When I was growing up, Cirencester was a sleepy market town where the Royal Agricultural College loomed large and the cattle market provided a high point of the social week. Pubs in the surrounding villages were often filled with farmers and farm labourers.

Now, the RAC mostly runs non-agricultural courses, the cattle market closed before re-opening in a smaller and out-of-town venue and the majority of pubs are gastro-type establishments catering for day-trippers and tourists; agriculture just isn't as important to us as it was, socially or economically. And of course, one of the biggest consequences of this new economy is that property prices have gone through the roof.

It's not an ideal situation but I would argue that from the perspective of the poorer villager it's better to struggle to afford or find accommodation than struggle to find a job. At least with a job you have a fighting chance of establishing yourself; without work you have no chance. And there's now more work in the Cotwolds than ever before.

In the case of the village I know best, Bibury, the fighting chance is helped along by an established estate of council houses, National Trust-owned cottages such as those in the famous Arlington Row (below) where a parent has to have been born in the village to qualify for residence, and - exceptionally - a number of housing trust-sponsored affordable properties that are just about to be put into planning.

Bibury needs more affordable housing - and one hopes the planners will permit it. But not every village is even in Bibury's needful but reasonable shape. In truth, the biggest curse on the locals isn't that visited on them by the incomers, who have brought money and work into the area; it's the reluctance of planners to allow affordable new village housing to complement the increased wealth and population. This, if anything, is where the injustice lies.

I think every village should be encouraged to build one or two dozen affordable homes with local ties. God knows what obscure forces are at work to prevent what seems to me to be a wholly reasonable policy if restricted to in-fill development that retains a village's character. The Nimbyish tendency certainly. But I've also heard it alleged that Prescott was opposed when 'Deputy Prime Minister' as he feared such rural developments would foster Tory voters...

After all, it should be in everyone's interest that villages remain working, commercial communities, with the old rural ways of life continuing at their heart. There is nothing as lifeless and depressing as a dormitory village that's more or less empty five days a week, one where you have to drive miles to get anything useful. Apart from the view, you'd just as well live in a suburb. Sadly, some of the Cotswolds villages are in this state: sterile and tiresome, with no school, no shops and if there is a pub, one that's filled on weekends with the people you left London to get away from. Build some cheap houses in each of them - paradoxically this will prove the best way to retain their character and preserve their traditions.

Monday, 23 November 2009

'The wold is, in itself, an ugly country'

Back to the farm this weekend. Driving through the wind and rain on Friday was a reminder of the bleakness of the Cotswolds during the winter months. Cold too; colder than Oxford certainly: every few miles driving westwards, the ground rising, has the temperature on the in-car thermometer dropping half a degree. We left London in warm drizzle and arrived in Bibury in freezing rain.

Of course, the popular image of the Cotswolds, or at least that portrayed in the press, is that of a picturesque playground for film stars and the London rich: the Primrose Hills, if you like. Pretty much true.

What brought them there - along with the two-hour drive from London - is the area's chocolate boxery; the sort of thing that irritates the hell out of cultural critics, the ones that can't see a conventional image without defacing it in some way (sometimes with reason). One of AA Gill, Jonathan Glancey, or Jonathan Meades - I forget - claimed the honey-coloured villages of the Cotswolds made him want to vomit. It takes a lot of intelligence to justify a reaction like that, so hats off.

But its chocolate box period started relatively recently, and was really only made possible by the neglect contingent upon years of economic decline. In fact, until the post-WWII agricultural revival, it was an area that had been stuck in an impressive, hundreds-of-years-long economic decline. The substitution of cotton for wool, foreign competition, changing fashions and the shifting of textile production to Yorkshire contributed to its fall from the wool-producing pre-eminence it established in medieval times.

So, the good times left some superb churches, manor houses and cottages, all built in the local stone and all on wool. And then the lack of further good times helped prevent their being demolished or otherwise improved.

Lovely buildings, rolling hills, not too far from London - surely tourism arrived in the Cotswolds as early as anywhere? No. The area was regarded as a dismal location during the first age of popular leisure by such opinion formers as Dr Johnson and William Cobbett. This from Rural Rides:
This wold is, in itself, an ugly country. The soil is what is called a stone brash below, with a reddish earth mixed with little bits of this brash at top, and, for the greater part of the wold, even this soil is very shallow; and as fields are divided by walls made of this brash, and as there are for a mile or two together, no trees to be seen, and as the surface is not smooth and green like the downs, this is a sort of country having less to please the eye than any other that I have ever seen...

It took a revolution in taste to create the possibility that this 'ugly country' might seem beautiful. That Romantic and epochal taste-maker William Morris did his bit (describing Bibury as 'the most beautiful village in England', for instance). But I'm convinced that it was the introduction of central heating that provided the foundation for the Cotswolds current popularity.

And exposure to a cold, wet November weekend reminds you how those hills are only considered a friendly habitat because of domestic technology. Driving towards Cirencester, the wolds rise and dip, bare and whale-backed, encrusted with barnacle-like dry stone walls. The colours are drab: ploughed brown and lichen-y grey-green. Liminal colours, certainly not dead but hardly vibrant with life. There's one stretch of road which contains as much old-man's-beard as I've ever seen before. In winter, it hangs on the denuded trees like scragged corpses suspended by a minatory game-keeper.

It's only when you reach a village, strung along a river valley like a trinket fallen into the fold of a cushion, that you receive some friendly impression. But look closer: the footprints of buildings are small and they have low ceilings; small and low too are the rather reticent windows, pulled back under the eaves; in all, they're designed to present a small target to the blasting weather.

The bleakness, however, has its compensations. The hills have an austereness that's desperately welcome in our colour-drenched, visually-busy world. There's no vegetative clutter as you might find in one of the more fertile western counties. Crisply curled lichen provides a sparse detail, returned as industrial dirt is no longer blown over from South Wales, and readily visible on bone-clean branches.

Walking on top of one of these wolds with a gusting westerly misting your face, you have the feeling of walking on the top of the world, a restoratively austere and uncluttered one. The alleys and canyons of the city are infinitely distant. A reminder that our appreciation of landscape is always changing, always contingent, always defined by what it isn't.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Schools, the discussion starts here

We have to choose primary schools for our eldest in the next few months. Yesterday we received the brochure containing the three dozen or so schools in the borough from which we have to choose three ranked in order of preference. It's not very useful.

There are no photos of the schools, just generic stock pictures from the file marked 'happy school kids'. There are some statistics, which are useful if you know how to interpret them; not always that straightforward. You might think that if places awarded are fewer than applications made this is a popular school. But if you then check out places available and these are greater than places awarded, people must have declined places to send their children elsewhere. So you have to work at it a bit. But at least they provide the raw figures.

Unfortunately, these are the only useful bits of data in the seventy-eight page brochure. The copy is quite humorously repetitive. Take your pick from: 'vibrant', 'warm', 'inclusive', 'friendly', 'happy', 'diverse'. Is 'warm and vibrant' better or worse than 'friendly and inclusive'? There's a danger in bringing some Kremlinology to bear, perhaps interpreting 'vibrant' as 'chaotic and out-of-control'; or 'diverse' as 'most of our pupils don't speak English as a first language'. But it's probably best not to over-interpret them. I'm sure they mean what they say, which is not much.

Anyway, what the vast majority of parents would like to read are words like 'traditional', 'strict', 'rigorous', 'disciplined'. No chance of that though - I can't imagine any head could have got to their current eminence professing such 'core values'.

So you're really left to work out for yourself what the schools are like. Perhaps this is what it comes down to anyway, and perhaps it always has done - you ask around, work off personal recommendations. That's certainly what we're doing.

But this, it seems, is disapproved of. One of the brochure's highlighted pieces of advice is 'Don't listen to gossip, what's right for other children might not be for yours'. Advice that would also lead you to disregard the stats above, which (when interpreted) provide guidance based on other parents' choices: 'Don't follow the actions of others, what's right for other children might not be for yours'. We know best so don't bother getting your information from anyone else. It makes you grateful for the Ofsted stats, which, however, are not provided here.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Joe 90

I dunno why the bizarre but pleasant tune embedded below started whirring away in my head - could have been an earlier pop music ding-dong. It's obviously not one of yer quality. But very enjoyable for a laugh, perhaps during that period of booze-driven euphoria described in the previous post (Soul Limbo would be another - see the bottom of this post for an excellent illustration).

I first heard it (to dance to anyway) in the weekly disco at Cirencester's Corn Hall in about 1980 when a couple of Northern Soulsters turned up with their own records. When it started playing it seemed a joke (your hardcore Northern Soul aficionado would certainly think so).

But when the flares got flapping around head height it seemed pretty cool, really. Perhaps it was a cool joke, it being the era of Madness. Anyway here you go (they've done a good job of making Joe quietly but enigmatically confident haven't they? Not an easy look to stick on a puppet I imagine):

Or perhaps it is.

Up, down, out and long gone

I've been re-reading 'Down and Out in Paris and London'. T received it free with The Times along with half-a-dozen other daily distributed Penguins. What a bonus! But a select one - the only place she saw them was at Highbury and Islington tube station, strangely; I certainly didn't receive any from my local newsagent.

Even if you already own an edition, it's a pleasure to receive another (for free) in that simple but strikingly elegant jacket design. The colours vary from the classic but are still recognisably part of the same antiquely modern palate: pink, maroon and light green (I suspect there are far more authentic names for these shades: pansy violet, tyrian purple and paris green perhaps?)

There's an artist, a good part of whose work involves painting roughed up versions of Penguin jacket designs but with sometimes amusing titles, Harland Miller. He seems to have done lots of them - the joke and even the aesthetic wearing thin. A testament to the perennial attractions of the design perhaps, but also to the economic imperatives of the modern art market: if you come across a commercial winner, flog it to death.

As for Orwell, there's surely nothing left to say that hasn't already been said. Another appreciation of Orwell's pellucid style, unshakeable integrity, transparent intelligence and reckless commitment is surely as needed as another Hirst spot painting. But George being 'a hero and a saint' - as I heard him described once by Mrs Thatcher's one-time house historian Norman Stone, with no irony but quite a lot of provocative playfulness - surely deserves it. Purely for his style, which T. described as like drinking clear, cold, fresh spring water: fluent and refreshing.

Reading 'DAOIPAL' now, one thing that strikes you is that it might well work today as reality TV, the campaigning, issue-driven end of it. Orwell's total immersion in poverty and hardship, however, is more extreme than anything to be found on television today. In fact, I'm not sure where you'd find an act this radical - it probably killed him in the end, as he may have caught his fatal TB whilst tramping in London. In the territory of conceptual art? Now a work like that really would deserve the much overused description 'brave'. The squalor, filth, infestation and dearth are all a few removes from anything one is ever likely to experience directly.

But there are also some passages that strike a chord of recognition in anyone who's been a bit reckless when young or dipped into life on the margins. Here's the best description I've come across of the euphoria, depression and self-disgust successively produced on a boozy, comradely Saturday night. The location was a bar in a slummy part of the Left Bank (now extremely chic and extremely expensive) and I've excised references to local characters to make it a bit more universal:
The brick-floored room, fifteen feet square, was packed with twenty people, and the air dim with smoke. The noise was deafening, for everyone was either talking at the top of his voice or singing. Sometimes it was just a confused din of voices;  sometimes everyone would burst out toegether in the same song - the 'Marseillaise', or the 'Internationale', or 'Madeolon, or' Les Fraises les Framboises'....
Everyone was very happy, overwhelmingly certain that the world was a good place and we a notable set of people.
For an hour the noise scarcely slackened. Then about midnight there was a piercing shout of "Citoyens!" and the sound of a chair falling over [a local character goes through his weekly turn - drunken speech, anger, tears, prostration, sickness, exit]
...The table was wiped by a cloth, Madame F. brought more litre bottles and loaves of bread, and we settled down to serious drinking. There were more songs... The doors and windows were opened to cool the room. The street was emptying, and in the distance one could hear the lonely milk train thundering down the Boulevard St Michel. The air blew cold on our foreheads, and the coarse African wine still tasted good; we were still happy, but meditatively, with the shouting and hilarious mood finished.
By one o'clock we were not happy any longer. We felt the joy of the evening wearing thin, and called hastily for more bottles... Men grew quarrelsome. The girls were violently kissed and hands thrust into their bosoms and they made off lest worse should happen... People seized each other by the arm and began long rambling confessions, and were angry when these were not listened to. The crowd thinned...
By half-past one the last drop of pleasure had evaporated, leaving nothing but headaches.We perceived that we were not splendid inhabitants of a splendid world, but a crew of underpaid workmen grown squalidly and dismally drunk. We went on swallowing the wine, but it was only from habit, and the stuff seemed suddenly nauseating. One's head had swollen up like a balloon, the floor rocked, one's tongue and lips were stained purple. At last it was no use keeping it up any longer. Several men went out into the yard behind the bistro and were sick. We crawled up to bed, tumbled down half dressed, and stayed there ten hours.
Most of my Saturday nights went in this way. On the whole, the two hours when one was perfectly and wildly happy seemed worth the subsequent headache...

Ah, happy days! This was once a familiar parabola for me, not always so extreme in its changes of direction and with probably more than a couple of hours of euphoric enjoyment at its hedonistic peak, certainly when I was young. Much has changed. Apart from hardly ever venturing out to booze nowadays, the euphoria seems a lot harder to generate - instead after more than one or two glasses I find myself just getting more relaxed, then sleepy.

I don't think it's solely a function of age because T. has found the same thing. That means it's probably down to the chronic tiredness produced by young children. Another of their uses: not only will they keep an eye on you in old age, they'll make it more likely you'll reach it, helping you avoid the awful consequences of that tyrannous curse, unique to contemporary life, the binge drinking.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Feel the width

In the wake of Brit's musings about his attic-based art collection, comes news of a great idea making it easier for us all to get that self-defining piece of art that we too can enjoy in the privacy of our attics. 20x200 is an online business that's seeking to sell 200 prints of an artists's work for the amazing starting price of $20 each.

As well as providing an element of exclusivity, the editions are limited to add a bit of urgency to people's purchases: buy now or you may miss the boat. The works probably won't appreciate in value, but then if you get lucky and buy something from an artist who later makes it big, who knows?

I think it's a noble project with the good old-fashioned mission of taking art to the masses. Of course, as Brit points out, it will probably be the desire to look cool and interesting that in most cases propels someone to make a purchase (especially if they can drop the words 'limited edition' into conversations with nervously impressed friends and, to be frank, those they'd like to bunk up with). Jan Bekman, the founder, is quite up-front about this:
“I want anyone who’s educated and even remotely affluent to feel self-conscious if they don’t have an art collection that they can talk about.”

All well and good; anything that sounds idealistic but appeals to people's baser instincts should do well.

However, I do have a concern about the economics. The artists (again, laudably) will receive 50% of the proceeds, leaving $10 for 20x200. So they stand to receive $2000 in revenue from each edition. That doesn't seem a lot to me for sourcing, printing, stocking, scanning, fulfilling, etc. the product (not to mention customer service: they're willing to recommend art that goes with the sofa). Perhaps they're planning to bait and switch, selling the more expensive, larger prints available for the same works for up to $200? Whatever, I'm sure they've done the numbers and must be looking to make it work through pretty huge volumes. Good luck to them.

Below is Feral House 7 by James Griffioen, for sale at 20x200 and which I've seen elsewhere recently but can't remember where. It's an abandoned house in depressed downtown Detroit.

H/t: Felix Salmon.


On the programme referred to in Brit's post, The Art on Your Wall, they revealed that the most popular print in the country is this image of Ullswater. The interviewees who owned the picture thought it looked romantic or restful.

Am I the only person to think of death, when I see it? I mean, apart from the depressive, funereal colour tones, surely piers or jetties are bridges that don't go anywhere? They represent a full-stop or at least a major interruption. I picture a Virginia Woolf-type figure wandering off the end, her pocket full of stones. Or perhaps a Viking longboat being pushed off, flames licking the bier.

I can't imagine the million (really) prints sold to date were all sold to people who thought, 'wow, what a lovely reminder of death - must get that for the sitting room'. So I wonder why I do? (Before anyone wonders, I assure you that I'm not clinically depressed or even non-clinically down-in-the-mouth).

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Close is enough for a cigar

Interesting but flawed discussion of Keynes and the failures of free market capitalism and contemporary economics in a book review by John Gray.

The book, 'Animal Spirits', is about the importance of integrating behaviourialist insights into the dominant rationality-based economics of today. People aren't rational in substantive ways; they're influenced by the animal spirits of the book's title. The rationalist assumptions that underpin contemporary economics need to be modified or complemented if the discipline is going to have adequate explanatory and predictive purchase. The authors believe that this will help us to identify and contain future financial crises.

But Gray argues that this improvement in the way we do economics won't be sufficient to make economics an effective predictive tool. We still won't have the wherewithal to see a crisis on the horizon and take evasive action.

Gray argues, and he finds support in Keynes, that nothing in Western economics can give us this predictive power: in Keynes words (and the title of the review): "We simply do not know!". And cannot know.

Keynes arrived at this conclusion after a consideration of the effectiveness of probability theory in predicting the future. There are risks out there and uncertainties: risks can have probabilities; uncertainties can't. However, there are so many uncertainties in play - some of them disguised as risks - that they render the probabilistic approach ineffective. It was this conviction, that the future is unknowable, that provided the foundation to Keynes's scepticism about markets. Gray, quoting Keynes:
...there was no way anyone could make forecasts. Future interest rates and prices, new inventions and the likelihood of a European war cannot be predicted: there is no ‘basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever...'

Working from this insight, Gray ascribes the recent crisis in the financial system - and the knock-on crisis in economics - not to a lack of appreciation of behaviouralist thought by the economics profession but to an inability to predict the future. Expecting the market to look ahead for us and direct us down the right path proved a disastrous approach as the market simply wasn't equipped to do that for us.
For Keynes, markets are unstable less because they are driven by emotion than because the future is unknowable. To suggest that the source of market volatility is unreason is to imply that if people were fully rational markets could be stable. But even if people were affectless calculating machines they would still be ignorant of the future, and markets would still be volatile. The root cause of market instability is the insuperable limitation of human knowledge.

(His argument over the course of the review happens to conflate free markets and contemporary economics. They're different things and it's possible to believe that one has greater predictive power then the other; personally I favour the former. But anyway.)

He also points out that the success of China refutes those evangelising for the universal applicability and unique efficacy of the free market capitalist model. China's doing well without most of what the free marketeers deem essential for economic success, most importantly free markets. It's also managing without one of the major amendments to the free marketeers economic constitution: the rule of law. He argues the success of China puts contemporary Western economics in its place, as 'culturally parochial, [...] its underlying concepts based on a few centuries of Western experience'.

So far, so dismissive. But I believe Gray overstates our ignorance of the future, its unknowability (a rather flippant quotation from Keynes carrying a weight that it wasn't designed to bear). Surely, the salient point about markets is not that they're always right about the future; rather, it's that they're right more often than any other method of prediction we've discovered.

More right in quite banal but important ways: Steve Jobs predicted people would want an iPhone; it turned out to be a wildly successful prediction; now we can predict that on-the-move interactivity is going to be a very big part of our technological future; other entrepreneurs will be making predictions on the back of this prediction. So small predictions become vindicated and support large predictions, which in turn create a whole lot of new small predictions as they begin to look good bets. This is the substructure, if you like, of modern markets, often obscured.

These predictions by entrepreneurs become predictions by providers of capital, share prices rise, capital flows. Some of it is spreadsheet-driven, some of it is intuitive (cf. the difference between free markets and rationality-based Western economics). But in the aggregate it provides a prediction (or set of predictions that form a consensus) about the future that can hardly be described as wholly unsuccessful, at least in terms of economic growth, which, in the most reductive way, is the end goal of the consensus.

Besides, it's simply not true to say that no-one forecast the financial crisis. To name three that got it right and either bolstered reputations or fortunes in doing so: Warren Buffett, Goldman Sachs, Gillian Tett. The problem was that these forecasters' views didn't become the consensus view. Why? Those old products of the animal spirit, hubris and cupidity, must take a good part of the blame.

The future, then, is neither entirely knowable nor entirely unknowable; but it is amenable to, at the very least, informed guesses. And it is the free market that both makes these guesses as informed as they possibly can be and brings them to our attention.

Even though he was writing about politics, it's Popper who for me conceptualises best why this should be the case: it's for the same epistemological reasons that Open Societies work better. Freedom of thought, freedom of expression, debate, dissent, representation, pluralism all provide us with best chance of coming to the best solutions for our problems, economic as well as political.

There isn't any single Platonic truth out there; but there is a reality that we might be able to approximate if we can work up an hypothesis, and the more information and intelligence we can bring to bear, the better. And at the epistemological level, it seems more likely that we'd arrive at something that conforms to external reality if we engage in a sort of society-wide Socratic dialogue than if the determination of truth is left to a small, authoritarian clique.

So when Gray dismisses free market economics as a parochial ideology because (citing Keynes) it can't be right about the future, he's allowing a failure to be perfect to discount an ability to be good. Free markets are worth employing because they're likely to be more right about what's going to work in creating economic surplus than any other system of organisation that we've come up with.

This approach undermines those policy makers and market operators who have a naive belief in the infallibility of the market (where are they all, by the way?). Instead, the market merely provides what is usually (not infallibly) the best view (not the correct view) of the future. There is therefore space for the state to intervene in the economy and, in doing so, it's not bound to be misguided and wrong. However, it's less likely to be right than the market and so should be extremely circumspect, even humble, in its interventions.

This approach poses fundamental questions about whether the rapid economic growth enjoyed by the centrally-directed Chinese economy can be expected to continue. The Chinese centre has been lucky in its predictions, against the odds, and it's going to need to stay lucky to maintain its success. I'm reminded of how the Soviets had the most advanced nineteenth century economy in the world fifty years too late, as this is what the planners thought modernity (full stop) looked like. It may have served them well in producing sufficient materiél to win the Second World War. But it didn't adapt, it didn't progress.

What mistakes is the Chinese centre making on the basis of similar misconceptions? The Chinese economy is superb if what you want is exports above everything. But after this? How will it adapt, how will it progress? Will the centre be able to repeat its predictive success? To use the journalist's most trite cop-out, only time will tell. And it might take quite a bit of time and trouble: the advanced nineteenth-century economy that the Soviets built in the twentieth, very nearly made it into the twenty-first.

Gray - whose books I find terrifically thought-provoking - commits the same mistake as the 'market fundamentalists': assuming that a set of practices, a collection of ways of doing things, makes up an ideology - in his case, he's then dismissive rather than evangelical. But markets are a tool, one that appears to arise naturally whenever people are in a position to exchange a surplus; when you find a lot of markets together they don't necessarily cohere into a system, they don't need to be encompassed by an ideology. In my view, it would be more useful to set about removing the ideological encrustations that encumber the way we organise ourselves today rather than dismiss the lot as a form of ideology that has no more purchase on reality than any other.

System-thinking, the construction, application and dismissal of models, can be highly misleading. This playing with Platonic forms obscures what works, what's useful, and in the instances discussed here, what's actually in front of our nose. It drenches our reality in ideology and as such encourages a bias to absolutist and procrustean thinking. John Gray is as prone to this as those ideologues he criticises.

H/t: Clive Davis.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Sieges and ambushes

Further to my previous post regarding the authorities' attitude to Islamism: how foolish of me not to realise it's not specific to Islamism.

My local newspaper, the Islington Tribune, reports on a series of attacks on Muslim students at City University:
Up to 30 youths attacked students on Monday with bricks and metal poles.
Last Thursday students were under siege in the law building as fireworks were aimed at them. Later that day, after being advised by police to split into smaller groups to avoid appearing "intimidating", a group of students was ambushed in St John Street, Finsbury, where four were stabbed.

Like advising a herd of gazelle to split into smaller groups to appear less "intimidating" to the lions. What's more, a siege, something that implies the passage of a fair amount of time. How is that allowed to happen? It was all in broad daylight too.

Further attacks ensued, vicious beatings with bricks, metal poles and bicycle seats (?), leaving one student unconscious.
It is believed the gangs, who have been taunting the students with anti-Muslim abuse, may live nearby, with several of those involved in the attack having been spotted in recent days.
The groups have been seen sending out lookouts to report back on the movements of students.
Three men, aged 17, 18 and 19, were arrested and released on bail until January. They have been banned from going within 100 metres of the university, and ordered not to contact students or prosecution witnesses.
"We view this generally as an isolated incident." Islington Police's Superintendant informs us - but a carefully organised one involving dozens of thugs. But not to worry - it may just be anti-student hi-jinks: "People mustn't forget the November 5 element" he goes on.

I hope the Super isn't referring to some of the less savoury aspects of 'November 5', as he excitingly labels it. Perhaps next year we might expect some sectarian immolations?

Monday, 16 November 2009

AQ Old Boys

Long Lartin is a high-security prison, just north of Gloucester. Despite the serious crimes perpetrated by its inhabitants it does offer a range of outdoor activities, some of which may surprise you. For instance, a prison XV plays (or played) regular matches against the region's willing rugby clubs, including the one I used to played for (more of which later). Home fixtures only, of course.

A laudable effort at rehabilitation, I think. However, there's a difference between humane treatment and laxity. The Prison Service appears to have been rather too amenable as reported in yesterday's Sunday Times. Apparently, it's been allowing Islamists in high-security prisons - including Long Lartin - to propagandise, both within the facilities and to the wider world. Some of these terrorist ideologues, planners and operators have been given formal mentoring roles to other prisoners; others have been able to use phones to communicate with their co-conspirators and, in one instance, broadcast on an Islamist radio station. Nuts.

I find it infinitely depressing how stupid and supine the authorities can be in their treatment of Islamism. It's not just the Prison Service. Various police forces have behaved similarly, such as in Luton, as has the Foreign Office.

I imagine a large part of the rationale is to avoid alienating moderate Muslims. But these are often the voices raised most often in frustration when the extremists are given latitude. The authorities need to show a lead; if they don't it's difficult to criticise others for not doing so. We should be throwing the book at the extremists and rabble-rousers, forcefully and repeatedly. (But only figuratively, of course: cf. torture posts passim). The rise of the English Defence League is in good part a consequence of not doing so: it was founded in the wake of the police's failure to take the initiative over the original Luton protest (as prefigured in this post from May).

But back to Long Lartin. I wonder whether the rugby matches continue? The fixture doesn't appear on my old club's list for this season. Did security issues end them? As the prison currently provides a home to Abu Qatada, purportedly head of Al Qaida in Europe, it might be a reasonable move. Particularly as the stupidity/supineness of the authorities would probably prevent them from calling off a fixture against, say, a touring Pakistani team, an AQ Old Boys. Might send the wrong message.

It would be a shame if they have ended and not just for the prisoners; it's quite an experience for the visitors. My trip there certainly impressed on me how stark are the differences between a high security prison and the holiday camp of tabloid comparisons.

I visited when I'd just started to play adult rugby, so I was sixteen, seventeen. I was turning out for Cirencester 3rds, a very entertaining combination of young bloods and wise heads. We had to change in the car park and were allowed to take in no more than gumshields. It took a long time to get into the prison proper as there were so many gates to pass through, a search being conducted at each one. We were then led straight onto the pitch, around which a modest crowd had gathered.

The opposition were captained by a prison warder, a tough old bugger. The rest of the team were an unusual bunch. I was playing in the centre and my opposite number was shaven-headed with a full, frizzy greyish beard. He had vacantly pale eyes and was covered in home-made tattoos; his high-stepping running style showed off a couple of carefully-placed spider webs, one on each bony knee.

It was one of the scariest games I've played, even scarier than playing away against the six-fingered denizens of the Forest of Dean. Not at all violent. Just the knowledge you were playing - and in rugby this means intimately grappling - with mass murderers, rapists, terrorists and so on. I thanked God I was playing in the backs and so at a remove from the closely-fought action.

We drew, the right result for all sorts of reasons. After the match, the prison warder captain let us know he'd spotted Denis Nilson and a handful of Libyan terrorists on the touchlines. They hadn't been very animated.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Something about the set of the lips

Good lord, where to begin? What a lazy set of non-sequiturs, ideologically-inspired, overblown clichés, and humourlessly and effortfully didactic patches of philistinism, all culminating in a redundant circularity the whiffling of which sounds like nothing so much as butterflies being broken on wheels.

A spectral '[will this do?]' sits apologetically at the end. And I thought blogging could err into the slapdash and knee-jerk. This is a whole manual of contortions worse. Anyway, enjoy.

There's also something about the set of this chap's lips. Reminds me of someone.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

A rum do in Cognac

I mentioned that I gave English conversation classes whilst spending some time playing rugby in France. This was a little over twenty years ago. The context to these classes might be described as rum.

Being a professional sportsman isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's actually very boring. Training isn't mentally stimulating and professional sportsmen tend not to be that interesting; they're usually straight up and down.

I was bored enough to put an advert offering English conversation classes in the local newspaper. This was the day before mobiles so I gave the phone number of one of the two restaurants in the town where I could - and invariably did - eat on the club's tab. I duly got a call.

The caller wanted me to be tutor to a young lad. But there was a condition: I would have to live with the family out of town. I declined - I didn't want to be out of the way; it was tedious enough to be stuck with not much to do in town, let alone out in the country. But the person (it didn't seem to be the father) persisted and I agreed to go out to have lunch with them to discuss things. I was to be picked up from the restaurant the next day.

Midday and a Range Rover screeched to a halt outside. A youngish man in a crumpled Hawaiian shirt, waving around a Marlboro red, swayed in asking for me. He seemed drunk. I left with him and jumped in anyway. I soon had confirmation that he was drunk. Swerving at high speed through the town we bumped the kerb regularly, mounted the pavement a couple of times and clipped the side of a tunnel as we passed under railway tracks. However, we were soon on the open road, speeding (in both senses) northwards towards Cognac. After a dozen kilometres or so we turned off, then a couple of kilometres later swept through cracked stone pillars onto a track.

On our left was a substantial, stone-built stable block. The track turned into a drive as it swung around through a screen of trees and into parkland dotted with ancient and majestic elms. Ahead, on the right, was a chateau, sitting in green lawns and with an apron of yellow gravel across its front. It was story-book standard, pale stucco, with round, cone-topped towers at either end, a moat and a drawbridge. To my delight, a huge Irish wolfhound padded out to meet us as we crunched to a halt, overtaken by a plume of dust.

At lunch I met the family and learnt a little about their life and business. They were brandy and pineau producers: we were in a prime area, near Cognac, and the fields surrounding the chateau were full of vines.

The count was tanned, greying hair swept back and with rather vulpine features. He laughed readily, twitching his nose as he did so, a fox savouring the immediate prospect of chickens. His wife was white, pasty, thin, with black-grey circles around her eyes. She shook like a leaf.

There were four children, all quite delightful. The eldest was a girl of about twelve, as I say, quite delightful except she insisted on calling me ce truc-là ('that thingy over there'). I was to be tutor to the next child, a nice boy of ten or so. A tomboyish girl was next oldest; she had somewhat oriental features and straight, black hair. The youngest was another boy, a toddler.

The youngish man who'd picked me up was presented as a friend of the family. A young man, Pascal - about my age, that is twenty or so - had served lunch. He was cook and factotum, and rather camp.

After lunch, the count took me into his study. I naturally accepted his offer of the job - how could I resist? - albeit after what was an awkward interview. I inferred that one of his objectives was to receive confirmation that I wasn't homosexual; I had wanted to confirm the details of how I was going to be paid, how much would be taken out for bed and board. But, embarrassed, we both shied away from pursuing our questions, resorting to dismissive jocularities. He was uncomfortable broaching the subject of sex and I was uncomfortable quizzing him on money.

At the end, he assured me we'd get on tremendously as he was practically British himself: his name was a corruption of a Scottish one, passed down from the founder of his line, a Scottish nobleman who'd made his fortune fighting for the French Crown as a mercenary in the Hundred Years War.

I moved in straight away. As you can imagine it was a fascinating experience. You could swim in the moat, glassily green and freezing cold on the hottest days. The entire upper story of the chateau had been abandoned; drapes covering antique furniture, the odd bit of ormolu showing; cobwebs hanging off bookshelves containing the shrouded spines of hundreds of gilt- and leather-covered books; windows shuttered.

Visits to neighbouring aristocrats revealed the parlous state of other seemingly unreconstructed gentlefolk: one family in a neighbouring village appeared to live entirely in the kitchen and parlour of their chateau - a multitude of filthy children wrestled with dogs under the table - the rest of the place abandoned to dereliction.

Not that my particular family of French aristocrats was without peculiarities. A mother who appeared in the throes of a terrible nervous breakdown, a child who looked part-Japanese, an almost in-house family friend who, whilst amiable, appeared to be dangerously drunk most of the time. I'd tried to get to the bottom of things but the only person who I felt I could ask was Pascal, the cook and factotum. Whilst friendly he was utterly discreet, to his credit.

Days passed lazily, the only structure - when I wasn't training or playing in town - being provided by daily English conversation classes (mostly comical) followed by a kick around with a rugby ball in the grounds. After a few weeks of this douceur I was due to leave: my young charge, a genuinely pleasant and bright boy who I'd miss, was off to boarding school.

The day before my departure, Pascal asked me to join him in the kitchen. Everyone else was out. With a look of relish and something of a flourish he announced he was going to reveal everything.

The count and his wife were first cousins. He'd wanted to make what would have been a dangerously consanguineous marriage, in part, to keep the family assets entire; she'd had profound misgivings mostly because she was very religious and wary of running up against the Church's proscriptions. She did acquiesce, but there followed a lengthy battle to arrange the relevant permissions. Eventually, the wedding arrived, as had the children and with little problem. The only concern had been the oriental-looking child, whose features were ascribed by Pascal to inbreeding.

However, a few months ago this carefully constructed household had fallen apart. The countess had discovered the count was gay. He'd been cruising via his recently installed Minitel, the French precursor to the internet, and she'd discovered his messages. Worse, his closest partner - the young drunk - had been diagnosed with AIDS, and was being supported by the count, whose prospects were uncertain. Pascal himself was gay and had met the count at a gay nightclub.

The cumulative effect of these revelations (except the last: she didn't know about Pascal and it was important that she didn't) had tipped the countess, an already fragile - and possibly guilt-wracked - personality, into a depressive crisis. After weeks of agonised argument, she'd decided that their eldest boy shouldn't spend another day in the house with his father. She intended to send him to boarding school. But the boy wouldn't be able to go until term started later in the autumn. Given this, she felt she had no choice other than to move out with the children during the interim.

The count was desperate for her to stay, but she wouldn't accept any entreaties or assurances. So when his young friend stumbled across my advert in the local paper, he made a proposal. If he could arrange for a decent young man - a rugby player, so absolutely guaranteed to be heterosexual - to stay with them until the start of term as the eldest boy's English tutor, would the countess relent? It turned out that, yes, she would. The Range Rover had duly weaved its way into town to pick me up.

The following day, my leaving day, the count asked me to go down to the stable-block to pick up the money he owed me (I hadn't been paid a penny at that point - I hadn't needed it). I'd never been down there before and was not at all sure as to why I'd been asked.

The stables were handsome and extensive and, once in the yard, it became obvious they'd been converted to offices. I climbed stone steps up to a first-floor door. Inside, there were sage-green carpets, natural oak fittings, contemporary furniture, glass internal walls: a tastefully and expensively furnished modern office. Telexes whirred. The count greeted me, nickle-and-dimed me (centime'd me?), shook my hand and wished me adieu, vulpine grin in place. Back in England some time later, I saw his brandy sitting prominently on the shelves of the local Waitrose.

All very rum.

Joy through self-assembly

Ever since it took me eight hours to build a bookcase - nails broken, knuckles grazed and back aching - I've been convinced that IKEA is not an entirely good thing.

We now have further indications. We knew that founder Ingvar Kamprad had enjoyed a flirtation with Nazism. Now we're told the business he founded is 'run like a sect, complete with spies, lies and racism'. Or so a former employee alleges in a recent book, noted by the very good English-language Spiegel Online. Hardly credible and not dignified by a response from the enigmatic IKEA.

By the way, when I bought that bookcase I was earning a decent wage. Once I added my hourly rate to the cost of the bookcase, it turned out to be the most expensive piece of furniture I'd bought to date by quite a margin. And it developed a bulbous case of blow-out after some water spillage. And...

Nice blueberry jam and meatballs though. But jam and meatballs do not a pleasant furniture experience make.

Friday, 13 November 2009

'A game of cat and mouse'

I love odd stories from the local press. I link to them on the blog when I come across them, which is usually only when I'm outside London - the Islington Tribune is typically full of non-whimsical murders and robberies. But my enthusiasm goes back a long way. I think one of my earliest newspaper memories was reading a story about how British Gas were leaving town, having tried everything to turn a profit from their unprofitable and soon-to-be-closed shop on the high street. The headline: 'Gas Showroom's Final Solution'. Queuing up, they were.

Here's one from - oops, one of our national presses - Wales Online (more here).

It's a real beauty, up there with the man who was arrested for 'attempted possession' of cocaine (I'm not really able to provide a summary explanation - click on the link to find out more).

This latest story is particularly precious as it provides a telling portrait of our diligent and lateral-thinking police service.

Not as we know it

For those of you who either enjoyed or were irritated (or both) by my post on the Republican wood-cutters:

I'd referred in the post how difficult it is to square the Republican rump's beliefs with conservatism, as I understand it anyway. Here's something that describes this dissonance better than I can.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Whence came they?

Carnage UK is a company that organises pub crawls for students. These events can be huge, involving over a thousand participants; they have also become very controversial.

However, I think this development should be welcomed by the concerned. It's a sign of binge-drinking becoming more controlled, more organised, more respectable, more middle-class, and shorn of its brawling. Testament to this is the company's name: 'carnage' - with a strong, snorting stress on the first syllable - was a description used solely by public school boys and girls when I used to be a binge-drinker. Usually preceded by 'absolute!'.

This was inevitable, really, as binge drinking only became an issue once it began to be noticed by the more respectable sort. On the back of a couple of random incidents of violence, the media decided to make it a spectacle, along with its companion activity, fighting. But it's now being sanitised and soon the craze will abate.

Craze is probably the right word. The binge-drinking craze has been rather like the witch-craze. Following the Reformation, young men for the first time became literate, read the Bible, began to understand it for themselves and sought to apply its literal truths. When they then turned around to look at their villages, wearing their new educated spectacles, what did they see? They saw all the old superstitious practices, holdovers from paganism, that had always been there. But they saw them differently - as a bit suspect and even, well, actually a bit satanic. Before long, witches were being 'discovered' and faggots were being stacked.

Similarly, in our own society more and more people have become middle-class and have adopted middle-class attitudes to things like public drunkenness and street fighting. These things, once accepted as part of the rough and tumble to be expected from young males, now look alien and even shocking to the middle-class majority.

They also seem closer to home as greater social equality, the idea of our living in a democracy of equals, suggests that middle-class attitudes and rough plebeian practices should share a common space. Rather than dismissing this sort of bad behaviour as simply what the lower sort get up to, the middle-class now interprets it as 'our' problem, that of society as a whole (which actually means, the middle-class).

So there's more sensitivity to bad behaviour and more chance that it will be taken as a challenge to social norms. All it takes to make these attitudes flare up into shock and moral panic is for TV and the newspapers to relate what's been going on. And when I say 'going on' I mean, pretty much, 'going on for ever'.

There's lots of evidence that those market places, town squares, village greens, and city plazas where young people congregate late on weekend nights have always been arenas for drunkenness and fighting. Certainly, in my youth, Saturday nights wouldn't have been Saturday nights without a massive drunken punch-up in the town's market place. In the youth of my parents, there'd similarly always be a punch-up to round off the evening in the dance hall of their Valleys village.

There's plenty of evidence from literature that binge drinking and binge fighting have been around at least as long as literature itself. Examples are legion: just to take a couple of books I've read in the course of this year, both of which report on what the lower orders were up to.

In Jack London's People of the Abyss, the poor of the East End get drunk whenever they can afford to. The women he sees on a nighttime walk down Commercial Street
...held carouse in every boozing ken, slatternly, unkempt, bleary-eyed, and tousled, leering and gibbering, overspilling with foulness and corruption, and, gone in debauch, sprawling across benches and bars, unspeakably repulsive, fearful to look upon.

The men are described as terrifyingly threatening 'gorillas'. George Borrow in Wild Wales is warned off walking after dark on a Saturday night because of the dangers presented by drunken, fighting miners. I know I could dig up many more additional examples.

Interestingly, in looking up the quotation above from People of the Abyss, I came across this observation:
The dear soft people of the golden theatres and wonder-mansions of the West End do not see these [dissolute] creatures, do not dream that they exist. But they are here, alive, very much alive in their jungle. And woe the day, when England is fighting in her last trench, and her able-bodied men are on the firing-line! For on that day they will crawl out of their dens and lairs, and the people of the West End will see them, as the dear soft aristocrats of Feudal France saw them and asked one another, `Whence came they?' `Are they men?'

Of course, there was no British Revolution which brought these two worlds together (a lack that would have almost certainly disappointed Jack London). But come together they nevertheless did, through the narrowing of the gap between classes produced by rising living standards and the accompanying dissemination of middle class values. Now, our predominantly bourgeois society asks, in the words of London's 'dear soft people': "Whence came they?" "Are they men?"

And now the practice of binge-drinking is being co-opted, it's being gentrified, the violence marginalised. It's now all going to be good naughty fun. Yes, it may encourage some coarsening in our middle-class young. But isn't this a small price to pay to make binge drinking as non-violent as that other former working-class excuse for a great punch-up, the football match?