Thursday, 30 July 2009


I know the previous post was a long one, but I hope it has its rewards. The play was a blast and forces me to qualify my opinion that theatre isn't a reliable and good value source of entertainment (philistine!). I still think it isn't. But when it works it really can be spectacular.

Anyway, the blogiverse is quiet, as are the buses and tubes (well, relatively). We're off too for a couple of weeks. Blogging will be light if done at all. (But there may be one I made earlier scheduled in the next few days).

Back fully in a fortnight or so.


"My dad said he jumped buses. Horseboxes. Jumped an aqueduct once. He was gonna jump Stonehenge but the council put a stop to it".

Elberry too is disturbed by the degradation of the professional, a person able to determine themselves the best use of the their time, into the employee, directed, targeted and incentivised. This time it's in the academic arena, where publication - now government's yardstick of academic merit and funding - has become a futile and probably nefarious end in itself.

This is the precise phenomenon bemoaned by Kenneth Minogue in his Slaves of the Bonus Culture, which I referred to in a recent post. And the transit from professional to employee needn't stop there: the description 'slaves' was used by Minogue advisedly. The surrender of self-government means government by others; it therefore necessarily endangers moral autonomy and private freedoms.

Reversing or even challenging this development will be difficult. Minogue remarks: 'As with all forms of moral change, there is no easy way back to the sensibilities so many people have lost.'

I think it's significant that he describes the challenge in terms of morals, sentiments and sensibilities rather than in the language of modern political theory, that is of rights, pluralism and civil society. It seems we're addressing an ingrained cultural phenomenon, one not necessarily susceptible to political action. Should we not then look to the cultural sphere as much as the political for illumination?

And then, in the mysterious way that art and society flows one into the other, a play emerges - explodes, really - that has a lot to say on the subject of Minogue's 'inherited integrities' and their dissolution. The quotation at the top of this post was lifted from the programme of Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, recently opened at the Royal Court (T and I went yesterday evening). It was a fantastic play - as good as the extraordinarily positive reviews said - with what must surely be one of the great theatre performances by Mark Rylance as the play's central character, Johnny Byron (left).

Jerusalem's central character is a contemporary wild man of the woods: Johnny is a raver, dealer, wizzer, boozer, storyteller, shagger diddakoi holed up in a caravan in a wood near a Wiltshire village, Flintock. He's middle-aged but his nest of libertinism attracts the wilder kids of the village, as it did their parents.

However, the village, through a new estate, has been encroaching on his wood and he's now threatened with eviction by council bailiffs supported by police - to appease the sensibilities of locals and also probably to accommodate another new estate. We join him a couple of days before the eviction, during the annual Flintock Fair.

Jerusalem is very funny and very obscene and incredibly layered. It references bacchanalia, misrule, myth, fantasy and links them to the contemporary culture of drugs, music and mobile phones. But it's also a serious meditation on the character and place of liberty in English culture, and where it might sit between libertinism and servility.

It references a store of words, symbols and stories that resonate with the idea of traditional English liberties, their enjoyment and their endangerment. Robin Hood hiding in his greenwood to escape the Norman yoke; the destructive absolutism of Henrician Reformation; the mischievous and magical escapism of Puck; Cavalier against Roundhead with Kings hiding in oak trees; Blake railing against the dark satanic mills; Byron the Romantic defying convention in the cause of self-expression; and more, all provide us with the backdrop to Johnny, threatened by Kennet and Avon Council and its eviction order.

The contemporary setting of this age-old conflict has Johnny Byron's bacchanalia hedged around by what Minogue would describe as 'official power'. The remote corporate brewery has the local landlord dancing (sometimes literally) to its every central directive, the council has its authoritarian and petty-fogging officialdom, the massed ranks of shielded and helmeted police await.

The villagers existence, on the other hand, has a cosseted, fearful quality; they have what seems almost a colonial mentality. Swindon and Salisbury come across as official outposts of a central power. And the villagers are complicit with this. They invoke official power to protect them; it is his village neighbours who petition for Byron's removal.

The play, not least because of Rylance's astonishingly charismatic performance, has us siding powerfully with Byron. The emotion and excitement produced by the play's climactic ending is intense, uniquely so in my experience of the theatre. Byron becomes mage-like in his defiance, we're under the powerful sway of his charisma and instinctively side with him against the ranks of complaisant but resentful villagers and the uniformed functionaries of official power.

But, ultimately, this isn't an easy identification; the play puts us on the spot. We may have strong sympathies with Byron, but a moment's honest reflection informs us that we too are villagers. They want him evicted and why shouldn't they? Their kids are buying class A drugs and getting noisily wrecked with a gyppo in neighbouring woods. We probably would too.

Once the thrill of the play's ending subsides we are left with the deflating reality of this conclusion. We reach out to official power to protect us. Official power regulates our lives because we want it to - our own fearfulness, our withdrawal from risk, our aversion to wildness, that which is uncontrolled, impels us to do so. We want official power - the state, the corporate - to save us, largely from ourselves. 'Why can't they do something?'. Of course, all we're merely doing most of the time is re-locating responsibility rather than risk, or exchanging one risk for another. The consequence is servility. But we do it nevertheless. Why?

I quoted Zeldin in the earlier post:

'[T]o live outside the protection of someone more powerful than oneself [is] too frightening an adventure.... It is important to remember that it is tiring, and trying, being free.'

Jerusalem leaves you in no doubt as to how frightening an adventure liberty can be. But I left wondering why we as a society seem to have become increasingly fearful, and why we have sought to escape from this fear into the arms of official power, its institutions and abstractions. It's a big subject and one that Jerusalem, in its way as capacious, rambling and multifarious as one of Shakespeare's works, compels us to address.


By the way, if you're going to see the play - and you can guess that I urge you do - go as soon as you can. Tickets were freely available when we booked last week but judging by the audience - we were sadly starstruck by the presence of Dominic West, Jeremy Irons and Zoe Wanamaker - this will soon be the hottest ticket in town.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Chimp lit

I'm not a great fan of fiction. Rather like the theatre, the hit rate isn't high enough for me to think of it as a reliable and good value source of entertainment.

The last novel I read, Netherland - which received almost universally favourable reviews - was disappointing, the more so as it was an intriguing and unusual proposition: a novel featuring a Dutch banker and his adventures with immigrant cricketers in post-9/11 New York.

However, I found it inaccurate in details, unevenly written, and self-indulgently didactic and ruminative. Elliptical but with nothing much in the gaps. Worse, it lacked emotional credibility, and too obviously strained for an off-beat profundity that in the end felt unremarkably generic. (That would be a 'no' from me then).

But the novel I'm reading now, Me, Cheeta, is great. It's a parody of the Hollywood memoir by Tarzan's best mate (not Jane; pictured below). Sort of David Niven's memoirs as told by Bob Evans*...but as a chimp. It was nominated for the Booker yesterday.

It made me realise that of the contemporary novels I've read, the ones that featured chimps have all been good: Brazzaville Beach, Great Apes and this one. It might take a chimp and a typewriter close to eternity to write the works of Shakespeare but the reverse appears to be a much more promising theoretical proposition. I think our own subjectivity - at least as it's represented in the contemporary novel - has become a bit boring.

So, roll on a new genre, chimp lit. It'll need its own prize, of course: how about the Fyffes Prize for Simian-Related Fiction, or for short, The Banana?

* Just noticed that Evans's autobiography (The Kid Stays in the Picture) is out of print. Shame, as it's one of the most entertaining and revealing books I've read on how films get made. It's also, I think, one of the best books I've read on the the art of the deal, and not just in relation to the film business.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Quiet Desperation

Radio 4: something you'd never want to be without. But, occasionally, capable of inspiring extreme and passionate dislike. The Archers, for instance, I can't bear to an almost allergic degree. 'Dum-dee-dum-dee-dum-dee-dee...' triggers a spasmodic launch towards the off button.

Quite strange, really, as it's pretty much all stolid, middle-of-the-road fare. But then that description gives it away: stolid, complacent, self-satisfied, bien pensant, intellectually lazy, middle-of-the-road fare. Fare.

And the reason this so enrages is, I'm sure, a product of the narcissistic significance of small differences. Those adjectives are exactly the ones that Radio 4 listeners like me fear might be applied to themselves - and secretly suspect they should be.

Anyway, here's an idea for the most platonically awful Radio 4 programme. Quiet Desperation: a whimsical look at human misery. Like You and Yours meets Saturday Live. The tone would be warm, involving and, like the title, gently ironic.

Naturally, it would be 'interactive'. A regular feature would be Your Way, where listeners would relate their sad and distressing stories to the accompaniment of a well-known tune played on an instrument of their own.

So: Olivia Strett on the death of her mother from cancer to the Theme From Mash played on elastic bands stretched across a selection of plastic milk cartons. Marjorie Orme on her bike accident (broken pelvis, leg and laptop) to Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong played on Apple's GarageBand.

No problem finding the right presenter. Spoilt for choice, really.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Threatened with being fed to dogs

Allegations of the British Government's complicity in torture keep coming. This time two British citizens are detained in the UAE on ridiculously flimsy grounds, are tortured, made to sign manifestly false confessions, and are released without charge. They're now back in the UK but messed up by their experiences, which sound horrible. For instance, they were threatened with being fed to dogs.

Statements made by their torturers and heavily censored correspondence between consular officials in the UAE and the Foreign Office suggest there may have been British security services involvement. (If the men were innocent and there was no British involvement in their imprisonment and torture why is the correspondence so heavily censored?)

Anyway, this incident exhibits features similar to other alleged incidents of 'outsourced' torture. It provides a particularly pithy illustration of how a policy of turning a blind eye to torture by others - whilst keeping the other eye on anything of interest that's turned up - is not just wicked, but useless.

Shockingly hypocritical too, of course. We need a judicial enquiry into all these allegations that our Human Rights-touting Labour Government was implicated in torture.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Rooted cosmopolitanism: Balti

Accompanied by a family-nan, there is surely no more restorative, tasty and cheap meal to be found anywhere than a Balti. It means 'bucket' in Hindi, and was invented in Birmingham. I gather it's a version of the wok-cooked curries of the Pakistan highlands - the source of a good number of Birmingham's sub-continental immigrants - made stew-like to appease local, Welsh-influenced tastes. The authentic Balti, if such a description can be used, is still only to be found in Brum.

I told an Indian friend about the Balti once. To his ears, I must have asked him if he'd ever tried eating a bucket. Even after my explanation, he was fairly incredulous.

I would recommend a mushroom-and-dhal (it's the only food I've come across that's better vegetarian) with a family nan if you're a party of more than one. Eat it without cutlery, the bread serves perfectly well. Yasser's, on the Pershore Road, used to be very good, especially as there's an offy next door to pick up a four-pack (Balti Houses are generally unlicensed: shop-bought Kestrel makes your meal even better value).

I like to think I played a small part in the popularisation of the dish. I lived in Brum for a year when I was just starting out in the world of work, in an area called Stirchley. Standing in the back-garden you could smell Cadbury's chocolate, wafting over from the Bournville factory.

A short while later I was going out with a girl who was a producer on TV-AM, the old ITV breakfast channel. She had to fix some features for when the show was to be broadcast from Birmingham. I suggested the Balti - then, as remote from West London as its sub-continental origins - would be a great thing to discover on a breakfast show.

She must have been desperate so fixed up the feature. Shortly afterwards the Balti invaded the menu of Indian restaurants in nearly every town in the country. The transformative power of breakfast television. But as I said, these imitation Baltis are generally inauthentic and taste nothing like your Brummy Balti - it's rooted, see? (It's also got something to do with the red hot, multi-shelved baking ovens the Brummy Balti chefs use, I reckon).

I liked Birmingham, even back then, in the pre-Selfridges days. The people are friendly, as is the accent. Great metropolitan and university art galleries with some nice Pre-Rapaelites. The Central Markets are (or were) good for fish. And of course the Balti.

I believe I had positive feelings about the city even before I'd ever been there (some may say this is when you are most likely to feel positive about Birmingham). Did you know that if you stand not too far from the Rollright Stones on the top of the Cotswold escarpment on a sunny day and look north over Warwickshire's green plain, you can just make out the glittering of windows as the sunlight catches the tower blocks of Birmingham? It's amazing what can be made romantic if you choose the right time or place and add a dash of fancy.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Professionals, employees and slaves

Kenneth Minogue provides an explanation as to why we're lacking integrity in public life at the present time: the decline of the self-governed professional and his or her replacement by the managed employee. It's a detailed argument worth following, but here's how he concludes:

'The decline of professionalism way of tracking the change in our moral sentiments over the last two or three generations. What is today recognised as a "bonus culture" is part of the enfeebling of inherited integrities and their replacement by the external inducements that governments and other powers use in the project of improving society. The problem is that the moral life includes not only doing the right thing (whatever we may take that to be) but also our duties to the character we believe ourselves to have. This is an inner responsibility for avoiding whatever we would despise ourselves for doing. It is a test that many people have failed in remarkably public ways today and there is a lot to learn from it. As with all forms of moral change, there is no easy way back to the sensibilities so many people have lost. We have become so accustomed to being administered and managed by official power that many in our society have no other principle of motion than oscillation between impulse on the one hand and external control on the other, without much of an inner core of self-direction in between. The classical Greeks called this condition "servility."'

He sheds light on something that's been bothering me and which I've posted on before: the strange death of self-government.

The mention of servility and Greeks reminds me of a discussion in Theodore Zeldin's* 'Intimate History of Humanity'. He reminds us that slavery is not an unusual condition in history and warns that it can come in many forms, some masked and unexpected:

'We are all of us descended from slaves, or almost slaves. All our autobiographies, if they went back far enough, would begin by explaining how our ancestors came to be more or less enslaved, and to what degree we have become free of this inheritance....[T]he world is still full of people who, though they have no recognised slave masters, see themselves as having little freedom, as being at the mercy of uncontrollable, anonymous economic and social forces, or of their circumstances, or of their own stupidity, and whose personal ambitions are permanently blunted thereby....

It is therefore important to understand what legal slavery meant.... There was slavery first of all because those who wished to be left alone could not keep out of the way of those who enjoyed violence. The violent have been victorious for most of history because they kindled the fear with which everyone is born. Secondly, humans became slaves ‘voluntarily’...overcome by depression, wanting to be rid of their responsibilities.... The third kind of slave was the ancestor of today’s ambitious executive and bureaucrat.... Slaves had no family, no loyalty to anybody but their master. They made the most reliable officials, soldiers, private secretaries. The Ottoman and Chinese empires were often managed by slaves, who rose to the highest posts and indeed sometimes ended as grand viziers and emperors; castration made sure that they placed loyalty to the state before family. There are no statistics to say how many people are morally castrated by their employers today.'

Zeldin's last example is the one that fits worryingly with Minogue's description of the current process of de-professionalisation. He also makes an important distinction: even the most powerful of people can live without freedom, effectively as slaves. Zeldin warns:

'The sting in the tail of this history of slavery is that once free, people often become robots, at least in part of their lives. There has been a great reluctance to abandon all forms of slavish behaviour...[T]o live outside the protection of someone more powerful than oneself was too frightening an adventure.... It is important to remember that it is tiring, and trying, being free; and in times of exhaustion affection for freedom has always waned, whatever lip-service might be paid to it...[F]reedom is not just a matter of rights, to be enshrined in law.'

Minogue's article is entitled 'Slaves of the Bonus Culture'. Worth pondering on.

* Zeldin is a francophone with a cosmopolitan background. He's an eccentric and eclectic thinker and very learned and readable. I believe Alain de Botton has secretly modeled himself on Zeldin. However, the original is often the best.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Contingency, irony, misery

Found an interesting new blog: University Diaries by Margaret Soltan, a Professor of English in the US. She's come across an interview with the late philosopher Richard Rorty which comes across like 'a satire on a psychoanalytic session'. He turns the volume on miserabilist agonising up to Woody Allen levels. (She feels suitably guilty about almost laughing, which I do too, of course.)

I was surprised: I'd always assumed Rorty had a sunny disposition. On the cover photo of probably his best known work 'Contingency, Irony and Solidarity' he's shown relaxing in a sunlit, blooming garden - an American arcadia in pastels (above). It felt Californian in spirit, even if that may not have been its location in strictly geographical terms.

For me, this situation explained a lot about the book, in which he suggests that in a world of post-modern, relativistic morality one way to create a basis for solidarity is through literature. The claim is that it provokes a universal feeling of empathy with those suffering cruelty and is thereby productive of an all-embracing solidarity. In one of those tricksy philosophical tricks, he dodges the question by providing an answer from a different terrain.

Always seemed a questionable thesis, given you had Nazis reading Goethe and Bolsheviks reading Gorky. But I put it down to the optimism you might feel about this sort of thing when sitting in a beautiful garden on one of the untouchable coasts of the US. Makes it all even more puzzling now.

I wonder whether in finding some humour in Rorty's interview I've done something that undermines his thesis?

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Leszek Kolakowski

Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski died on Friday. The Telegraph's obit is good, capturing his influence as well as his attractively sceptical and mordant approach to life. I think he was one of the heroes of the twentieth century.

I went to a seminar he gave in All Souls College once, on communism, about fifteen years ago. I left liking the man very much - as dry as talc but with a warm wit that revealed itself in asides made whilst sipping black coffee - but also with a feeling of disappointment: I hadn't heard anything new or revelatory.

But then I realised I'd just been listening to a man whose ideas had triumphed so absolutely in his own lifetime that they'd become part of the intellectual air I was breathing. I don't think there have been many thinkers fortunate enough to experience such a rich justification.

Christopher Hitchens has written an appreciative assessment of him here. I wonder what Hitch, author of 'God Is Not Great', would say about Kolakowski's views on religion? The latter's philosophy was deeply rooted in an awareness of the importance of Christian thought. He believed that the more worthwhile ideas to have emerged from Europe in the last three hundred years or so were ones that retained some basis in a foundational Christian morality, the 'good' bits of sceptical and secular post-enlightenment thought included.

Kolakowski is very interesting - clear yet subtle - on the role of religious belief in the contemporary world, its relationship with enlightenment and modernity. A good way in is to read his 1990 book of essays 'Modernity on Endless Trial' (you can get a taster on Google books).

The essays are elegantly and clearly written, accessible. Their sceptical, doubting arguments resolve themselves into a sort of optimism: it's the intellectual tussle - engaged with humbly and ingenuously - that's the point. However, not without leaving you with a few observations along the way that are more than capable of making you pause. This one paragraph, from the title essay, also illustrates why the word 'mordant' is so often used about Kolakowski:

'I was told that near a Nazi extermination camp, where the soil was superbly fertilized with the ashes of uncountable cremated bodies of the victims, the cabbage grew so rapidly that it had no time to form a head and produced instead a stem with separate leaves; apparently it was not edible. This might serve as a parable for thinking about the morbid tempo of progress.'

UPDATE: The Times obit has come out today. It provides an excellent overview of his thought across the years. It's especially useful in summarising his thoughts on religion, which deserve greater exposure in the debate with Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Rooted cosmopolitanism

The far right's old cliché prefaces 'cosmopolitanism' with 'rootless'. But it's always struck me that your common-or-garden cosmopolitanism - I can't speak for that of the super-rich - is anything but rootless. When the native and exotic mingle on the same patch of ground they tend to hybridise; and the hybrids root firmly and stay put. Or at least the best ones do.

What grows up in our variegated garden is not always a good thing (Yorkshire-Islamists, for example, are very much a bad thing); but it quite often is, particularly in the realms of food and music. And for me, at least, these little cultural plants are always interesting.

I've already posted on a few examples of rooted cosmopolitanism (as I shall call it): Jones Dairy Cafe and The Specials, for instance. But as I find it so interesting I think I'll do a series of posts on the fruits of this phenomenon.

Let's begin with what started me on this train of thought, as I was jigging around the kitchen to the closing music of 5LiveXtra's [sic] Test Match coverage yesterday evening. It struck me that there are few radio experiences more enjoyable than listening to Blower's fruity tones summing up the day's cricket just before Booker T and the MGs' Soul Limbo - BBC cricket's theme tune - comes on to play the programme out.

Booker T and the MGs were the house band of Stax and Volt, the record labels that produced greats such as Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam and Dave and others. That they were the tightest, most together soul band ever is beyond argument. The rhythm section always seemed to me almost spookily good: precise, rock-steady and, in counterpoint, accentuating the soul in the vocals.

Anyway, when they weren't accompanying Stax legends, they released instrumentals. Green Onions, the Mod classic, is probably their best known. But Soul Limbo can't be far behind, solely because a BBC producer back in the 1970s chose it as the theme for the Today at the Test cricket highlights programme. A small piece of unsung genius on his (or her!) part and a little lasting gift from the wave of black soul music that hit our shores in the 60s.

Now, its percussive precision, swirling organ and Caribbean rhythms, unfailingly bring to mind leather on willow, and those tin cans rattled by Windies fans. It feels the most natural pairing and I think it always will.

But stand back a second: isn't it difficult to think of a less likely combination than a Memphis soul backing band and the consummate public-school josher, Henry Blofeld? Wodehouse meets Wilson Pickett, but it works.

Here's an illustration of the effect Soul Limbo can have on a cricket loving audience ("fooking cricket!"):

Moon landings anniversary

Ah, the moon: 'sovereign mistress of true melancholy'. A favourite quotation that unfailingly springs to mind when I look up, moon-faced into a moonlit sky.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Riding to the rescue on a secularist hobby-horse

Francis Segemore's blog is a good one. It's got a scientific bent, which appeals to me because I know little about science and he's a good explainer. It's also often funny and politically engaged. Francis is wise and perceptive, in the sense that I tend to agree with a fair bit of what he says, quibbles aside. However, his latest recommendation - to sign up to the Iran Solidarity campaign - is one I won't be following.

I've signed up to a couple of things he's recommended in the past. And if you're familiar with my blog you'll also know that I support the Iranian protests, for what it's worth, and have been avidly following what's been going on there. Believe me, I would like to do more to show my support and hate being dog-in-manger on this issue especially. So what's not to like?

The approach of the Iran Solidarity campaign seems to me to be seriously flawed, in that it's based on a militantly secular and liberal world-view. From what we know of Iran, I feel sure such a view would not be subscribed to by the majority, probably the vast majority, of the protestors and their sympathisers. The calls of Allahu Akbar from the roof-tops are just one staggeringly clear indication that this is the case. Unfortunately, couching support in the terms chosen by Iran Solidarity negates the validity of its assumptions and intrudes destructively into its stated demands

The opening proposition is tendentious in that Iran Solidarity states that it stands with the people of Iran in opposition to the Islamic Republic. I think it's clear that Moussavi and other leaders of the protests are most definitely not calling for the end of the Islamic Republic. This may or may not be justified, or even genuine, but surely suggesting otherwise is potentially damaging to the opposition's appeal to the widest possible constituency. It's their protest, and we have no right to misrepresent it.

Of Iran Solidarity's ten demands a few in particular are likely to be of doubtful appeal to the majority of Iranians and, for that matter, to people in many countries that are a long way from being beyond the pale. A few examples:

Part of the fifth demand calls for the abolition of the death penalty. What makes anyone in the West think that this could be a pertinent and legitimate demand in this instance? It forms part of the judicial system of the United States and I understand it has majority support in opinion polls in the UK.

Until a few years ago the death penalty was legal in Turkey, a country that Iran would do well to imitate but is a long way from catching up with on the road to liberal pluralism. Personally, I oppose the death penalty but in the world we live in it provides no sort of sine qua non of civilisation, or even democratic pluralism. It's just beside the point, a distraction and irrelevant to the protests.

Part of the sixth demand calls for the unconditional freedom to strike, something we don't have in the UK and, surely, even more besides the point.

The second demand, in part, wants the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for killings and atrocities committed during the last thirty years. What business has anyone in the West to ask for this? It's certainly not the road chosen by South Africa and most of Eastern Europe in trying to heal the wounds inflicted during their periods of dictatorship. Indeed, such a demand if consistently applied could well cover members of the opposition who had served in previous governments, including Moussavi, who was Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s, during which time many Iranians were executed. So quite a bizarre, meddling demand and surely self-defeating.

The final demand wants the complete separation of religion from the state, something our own established Church of England would take issue with.

A good number of the demands seem to me, then, tendentious, irrelevant, unreasonable, insensitive and unhelpful. So why make them? Far from empathising with the protestors, Iran Solidarity appears to want to impose on them the values of a vocal group of Western secularist radicals. Why isn't it enough to support them in their demand for a representative, tolerant government and a state that's under the rule of law? That's going to be difficult enough, without shoe-horning the rest in.

I suspect that for signatories such as AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins the situation in Iran presents an opportunity to further their overarching project to get us all to stop believing in God and become as modern, liberal and free-thinking as them. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with having this as your goal. But choosing this moment and this means to advance your cause seems self-indulgent and cynical. Given the largely religious basis of Iranian society it's also, of course, tactically counter-productive. This consideration doesn't seem to weigh in the balance when there's a bigger crusade to be preached.

In short, Iran Solidarity's platform is spoilt by a form of instrumentalism carrying a strong whiff of a sort of colonialist, know-better-than-thou attitude. Sadly, this approach reminds one of nothing more than those missionaries to the developing world whom the secularists would surely deplore. It's with a heavy heart I write this, but it's necessary, chiefly because I believe Iran Solidarity's campaign will prove counter-productive.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Islington Dads' Breakfast Club

T was working today so, on the recommendation of a couple of neighbours, the boys and I popped over to a nearby 'Children's Centre' for the regular Saturday morning Dad's drop-in breakfast. A new experience for me and an unfamiliar concept. It's part of the Government's Sure Start programme to give children a helping hand early on in life. I imagine it was based on some research suggesting this sort of Dad-centred support is a good thing. In theory, paying for itself in the long run through better outcomes, I guess.

The Children's Centre, in inner city Islington, is a new building with well-designed, spacious and light rooms, including a chill-out room with soft, coloured lights and bean bags, a landscaped garden with pond, slides, climbing frames and so on and a little open air arena for stories and drama. The five staff were terrifically friendly.

The boys predictably had a good time. I did too. A cooked breakfast was provided for Dads - good quality English with all the trimmings served on a buffet. Fruit juices, buttered toast, nice jams. Chatting to the other Dads, we were all appreciative and not a little amazed that such a facility was open every Saturday morning to anyone. Or, at least, any man who was able to rustle up a small child or two. And free! (There were also enough tasty sausages left over for me to take home half-a-dozen for the boys' lunch).

I would guess that most of the other Dads (there were up to ten of us) were typical Islington professional types: working in media, law and the usual white collar jobs. One guy looked as if he could have done with a bit of help - he had five kids but was having a terrific time with them, chasing them around, driving them into a frenzy of laughter. He was a black guy and had an Obama cap and something of an American accent. One of the others was also American and one had an accent that suggested that he was either American or had learnt American English.

It's probably obvious which way this is going to go: a wonderful amenity provided (today anyway) almost entirely to people who can afford to do without it, all funded by the taxpayer. Remarkable. I can't be too hard on it because it was transparently well intentioned and well done. But it's clearly the sort of thing that shouldn't survive the upcoming squeeze. I must make the most of it!

The Battle of the Baked Potato

I've been meaning to post on this for a while, in fact since its subject died in June. Ralf Dahrendorf was a remarkable man reaching the peaks of achievement in the fields of both politics and academia, and what's more in two countries, West Germany and the UK. His obituary, impressive by any standards, is here.

My contribution to his memory is of little consequence really but I still think it worth sharing. It's not meant disrespectfully; rather, I proffer it as illustrative of how people of his generation and background were sometimes caught in the crossfire of clashes between the post-war consensus and the Thatcherite revolution. It also shows how academic life can bring to bear very big brains, wielding very big concepts, on the most footling of issues.

He was Warden of St Antony's College, Oxford when I studied there in the early 1990s. At this time, one of the fiercest disputes between the College's Governing Body (composed of senior academics and College administrators) and the students was what I shall sensationally call The Battle of the Baked Potato. I had a junior role in the affair as Treasurer of the JCR (effectively the College's student union).

The dispute centred on whether cheap but nutritious baked potatoes should be introduced to what was quite a superior lunch menu in the College hall. In favour were the massed ranks of mostly impoverished and hungry students. Against were what I gather were a minority of the Governing Body and the more militant representatives of the College's semi-organised labour, the chefs.

The chefs took the view that it was beneath their dignity to provide baked potatoes, they being a highly trained, elite brigade. I suspect that behind them were one or two powerful but shadowy college administrators who believed selling low margin foodstuffs might result in the creation of a black hole in the already precarious finances of the College kitchen.

Anyway, in the middle of the warring parties stood the Warden, sensitive to the Solomon-like burden of his responsibilities. After due deliberation he initially sided with the College servants (as, until fairly recently they would have been described) on the grounds that the College owed a duty to all its stakeholders, the interests of chefs weighing as much in the balance as those of students.

We, as representatives of the student body and, more tellingly, as the recently-fledged children of Thatcher fought back, arguing vehemently that the College and its employees, in this case the chefs, should meet the reasonable demands of its paying customers, the students. (By the way, are students the customers of a university or its product? It affects the basis of negotiation.)

In the end the College caved in to the demands of the revolting students, possibly having cut some deal to pacify the chefs. There may also have been talk of a student boycott of College lunches, which if the kitchen's finances were an issue could have been taken as a serious threat. Or was it simply a recognition of the way the wind was blowing?

The reason I relate this little story is that it shows how the old liberal pluralist approach, with its desire to reconcile all parties, clashed with the newly rampant demands of the market. The Warden's approach was consistent with his philosophy that institutions had a primary duty to manage and reconcile the conflicting interests of all stakeholders. But I can still only speculate as to why his judgement, having first sided with one party to the dispute, ended up being made in favour of the other.

As I say, a pretty negligible incident and one that I don't believe shows Sir Ralf (as he was then) in a bad light. I believe he was a kind man and in this instance he was trying to be fair-minded and do right according to his own lights. But the world was changing.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

English virtues

Just had to link to this. The truly English virtues transcend both time and social class.

I suppose they'd been 'binge drinking'.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The many layers of TV's fakery onion

TV's fake. Right, we know that: people in wilderness adventures pretending they're not accompanied by a film crew (and probably a catering crew and Winnebago too, for all we know); people arriving at houses and greeting the inhabitants with tones of surprised delight even though they've spent all morning together getting the shot right; supposedly live phone-in competitions that are pre-recorded meaning all your premium rate money's wasted (oh, hang on, that's banned now).

But TV's fakery onion is a many-layered vegetable. Just as I was beginning to forgive TV for its sins, I've been brought up short.

I learnt tonight on 'Who Do You Think You Are?' that Davina McCall was estranged from her mother. Sad but insignificant? Not when one of your most memorable advert moments is Davina in her Garnier Nutrisse ad chatting with her Mum about how her hair conditioner-nourishing-colourant stuff has done wonders for her bonce. And could do the same for you, Mum.

But then this could be quite complicated, not just pretend for the sake of an advert script. Is there a subtext here? Are we witnessing a moving reconciliation? Seemingly a light-hearted conversation but freighted with significance? Or is it a sort of wish-fulfillment for poor Davina? In any event, we're only now getting the full, complex story.

In fact, I'm beginning to view Davina and her Garnier Nutrisse moment in a totally new and quite a moving light. It becomes even more poignant when we learn, during what was actually a very good and moving WDYTYA, that her troubled mother died last year. In fact, I think I must have something in my eye, and it's not hair conditioning stuff.

Then during the same programme I learnt from someone who knows that even though people on TV flicking through old tomes in the Public Records Office are always filmed wearing white gloves, if you go there for real they don't require you to wear them. No idea why this fiction is maintained. Do the BBC's phone lines light up when a gloveless paw is impressed on old parchment?

And this follows hard on the heels of learning that Jools Holland's Hootenanny is recorded. Yes, recorded. So when they do the count down to midnight, they're doing it some time in early December, whole shopping weeks before the Christmas holidays. And it's not even midnight in early December, it's about 10pm.

All those guests telling Jools what they'll be doing on New Year's Day, what their New Year resolutions are, even whether they had a nice Christmas are all fibbing. And with straight faces. I'm thinking they're even pretending to be a bit drunk. Oh, and remember: some of these fake party goers will be your musical heroes. TV does that to people.

The fakery onion is an everlasting onion; layer after layer is revealed but you'll never reach the core. The onion core of truth. Just occasionally, though, it can provoke a tear; and mysteriously, despite all we know, it's a real one.


Last night on the iPlayer I watched the excellent 'Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution'. The talking head format was combined with footage from old black-and-white silent movies, which had a sort of repro-antique effect, and a well-acted docu-drama based on primary sources. It was all integrated very effectively.

The programme had a number of other strengths. Not least was the editing, which had an appalled and incredulous Simon Schama providing responses to the pro-Terror arguments of the bearded, swivel-eyed Slavoj Zizek (below).

Zizek's arguments in favour of mass-murder and expropriation were largely founded on the old breaking eggs to make omelettes justification. Schama's response was along the lines of people are not eggs and besides, the 'omelette' the French people were being forced to eat was rancidly inedible.

The Slovenian sage also argued that Robespierre's sincerity and idealism trumped the fact that he was a mass-murdering ideologue. I still struggle to understand how sincerity - and also consistency - are often seen, self-standing, as such virtuous qualities. Surely they have very little moral content in themselves, their value being determined by the principles they adhere to?

Another talking head was Hilary Mantel, who wrote a terrific novel on the relationship between Robespierre, Desmoulins and Danton: 'A Place of Greater Safety'. It's a great read and fascinating on the interplay of the personal and political. It also happens to provide a good overview of the Revolution for those who want to patch their historical knowledge up a bit.

The real star of the novel is flamboyant journalist Camille Desmoulins (above), who steals the show despite playing a less historically prominent role than Robespierre or Danton: mercurial, witty, mischevious and, judging from his portraits, looking like one of those cute French rugby players that make T a fan of Les Bleus.

I did wonder whether the programme should have tried to find a modern Desmoulins to argue* in favour of Terror. It would have helped convey why, despite its manifest wickedness, so many seemingly unremarkable and sensible people found themselves attracted to it. Charisma is always an important component in these things and Zizek, to say the least, wasn't able to provide a sense of the treacherous attraction of the demagogue.

'Terror!' (exciting title, eh?) is on the iPlayer for another three days, but it appears to be due for a repeat tomorrow night, meaning it could be there for another seven days after that.

* He was a stutterer who apparently lost his stutter when stirred to address a crowd. And a TV camera?

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Gone west

Hey! What happened to the old Westerns? Being a parent you tend to spend more time at home and a regular classic Western on the television would be very welcome. Lots of desert and dust; whiskey poured from a bottle in saloons full of loose women and crazy piano playing; mysterious feuds and quests; snuffling and skittish horses; climactic shoot-outs. It would pleasantly while away a rainy Saturday afternoon.

TV is obviously hopeless (it's what's to blame for this blog). But given there are literally hundreds of channels now, why isn't there one devoted to Westerns? They're obviously not popular nowadays - Hollywood has really given up trying to revive the genre. But then if popularity was a criterion most of what appears on multi-channel TV wouldn't be screened. My guess is they'd be cheap, too.

I think my younger self would be shocked by this state of affairs. Westerns seemed such a fixture then, an inter-generational male thing: often watched with Dad or Taid, both connoisseurs. Richard Widmark, Audie Murphy, Alan Ladd, Randolph Scott, Glenn Ford were names that tripped off the tongues of any red-blooded lad. My guess is that anyone under thirty-five would never have heard of them.

Richard Widmark (above) was a personal favourite. Blonde and handsome, a tough guy, of course. But he had a slightly crooked face, a bruised look in his eyes, and often a sardonic, almost wretched, moodiness which really appealed to me. Almost totally forgotten now though. He died last year.

So, I may be a member of the last generation of kids to watch Westerns on rainy weekend afternoons. I wonder what effect it had on me, an impressionable boy, witnessing these illustrations of what it was to be a 'real' man, whilst in the reverent presence of the mature males of the tribe? Anyway, it's an experience my boys won't have in quite the same way; just save us from films featuring Tom Cruise as his usual jumped-up, snotty little glove-puppet.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Racing Club des Beaux Arts

One of the paintings at Tate Modern's Futurism exhibition is a version of Delaunay's 'L'Équipe de Cardiff', inspired by a rugby match between Paris (presumably Racing Club) and Cardiff. This version (left), from the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, foregrounds its rugby-playing subject more than the others. Its dynamism, vividness and sheer size make it a visual delight.

Rugby being allied to the avant garde may seem rather unlikely. However, for France early last century, organised spectator sports would have seemed a cutting edge representation of modern life. I love how the player jumping for the ball is presented as just as iconic of the modern as the Eiffel Tower.

But there's very little 'high' art featuring rugby - I'm only aware of this one painting. There are, of course, plenty of workmanlike action paintings. One of my earliest rugby club memories is a wall-sized painting of a famous photograph showing Gareth Edwards diving over the try line with, I think, Scotland's Jim Renwick hanging onto him. It was in the bar of Taffs Well rugby club (my Dad's first club), and had an epically devotional quality: 'St Gareth Escapes the Toils of the Caledonian Demons'.

The fashionable Paris club, Stade Francais, has been a trail blazer in doing the reverse: that is, making rugby feature high art. One shirt design sported Warhol-style images of medieval French queen Blanche of Castile, of all people.

This is an unusual but logical extension of the French approach to rugby, with its preoccupation with élan. French rugby even has its own fashion brand, Eden Park, whose pink bow-tie motif came to prominence in the notorious 1990 French championship final when the Racing Club team's back-line played wearing pink bow-ties and drank champagne at half-time - fortunately for their rather preening self-regard they went on to win 22-12. (Their opponents, Agen, a rough old club of the south, didn't appreciate this light-heartedness, regarding it as metropolitan disrespect: they played extraordinarily brutally, with clear intention to maim; French rugby has a dark side).

It's appropriate that France provides the leading (only?) examples of the combining of rugby and art. The French regard rugby as an expression of a sort of English cavalier style; partly true, no doubt, but something happened in translation to accentuate this aspect.

Moreover, rugby over there is primarily a sport of the Midi, making its temperament essentially Latin. It's an approach that, whilst founded on the highest technical skills, emphasises self-expression, that instinct and flair be given their head. (Not forgetting, the darker Agen-style manifestation of this spirit; just as Latin, in its way).

Sounds familiar? The crossover is obvious. For instance, I see Picasso playing scrum-half for Perpignan (being a Catalan): an elusive, inventive, spontaneous, dark little fellow whose natural ability would mean he could top and tail a game with a Gaulois and a pastis to no ill effect. Matisse, on the other hand, playing fly-half for Nice, would be languid, elegant and poised. But capable of lighting up a game with almost otherworldly flashes of brilliance: deft, flicking offloads; an uncanny awareness of space; an occasional swerve of the hips that would make dummies of even his own team-mates.

France has also provided the only player I know of who on retiring became a full-time and now internationally renowned sculptor. The great Jean-Pierre Rives (below) was a superb captain of France in the 1970s, his flowing blond locks, more than occasionally, flapping into a face stained by his own blood - shed deliberately, the cynical would claim, to inspire his team.

So rugby and art only seem to have co-habited comfortably in France. But what's stranger is how rugby in Britain hasn't inspired its own literature, unlike cricket and, latterly, football. Strange, really, when you consider its component of highly-educated players, its strong sense of place, its hold on the imagination of certain communities, its social nuances, the heightened awareness of its own history. Eddie Butler, the Observer and BBC journalist, writes uncommonly well and has a knack for picking up on strong and intriguing themes in the sport - perhaps, in time, he'll turn his pen to the task of founding the genre?

(In googling for this post, I came across this French blog devoted to memorialising rugby's pioneers. It features really lovely old photos and other graphic memorabilia, such as adverts and cigarette cards).

Note: the Delaunay image is under copyright, which is acknowledged.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Futurism and more

Everyone had a day-off yesterday so we did what is now firmly established as a favourite London jaunt: the number 56 bus from Essex Road to St Paul's Tube Station, then a short walk through the new Paternoster Square, down to the river past St Paul's where, crossing over the wobbly bridge, you arrive at Tate Modern. One of the best short walks in London.

Just a couple of observations on yesterday's walk. Now it's been cleaned, the Portland stone of St Paul's is the precise colour of latte foam, with the same tones and gradations; it makes the stately exuberance of its baroque architecture even more enjoyable. Second, on a sunny day, the tower of the former Bankside power station can look laughably absurd rather than sinister. It shares with the tower of the University Library in Cambridge, also by Giles Gilbert Scott, what Orwell described (with reference to top hats) as an 'Assyrian absurdity'.

This time, our mission was to see the Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern. It was magnificent, the best exhibition I've attended there. I was under the impression that it just featured the Italian Futurists. It actually offered a cross-section of the works of future-looking artists from four countries - France, Britain and Russia, as well as Italy - but all from the period 1909-1915.

It was interesting to see contemporaneous works by artists inhabiting more or less distinct national styles but who were all innovating, trying to capture the qualities of the future. The real treat, though, lay in witnessing and appreciating, side-by-side, the very individual exuberance of artists such as Delaunay, Braque, Gontcharova, Wyndham Lewis, Boccioni and Severini. What's more, many of the works retained a freshness and crispness that still made them feel redolent of new beginnings.

I added the last artist - Severini - to the list above entirely as a result of the visit today, having not been familiar with his work before. Previously, I'd associated the Italian Futurists solely with images of mechanistic motion ('that looks speedy-fast', as our eldest said in the first room, which featured classic Futurist images of movement). But Severini's paintings are often light and playful: colourful streetscapes and large, busy interiors done in a style that whilst incorporating the dynamic perspectives of Futurism also exhibits a bravery in colour reminiscent of Fauvism. They're executed in lively (sometimes even pastel) colours in a hand that clearly loves paint. A melding of styles I found both unusual and beautiful.

I strongly recommend you visit. There's still plenty of time as it finishes on 20th September. I will certainly be back at least one more time.

Just a final note. On the way back, a journey of no more than half a mile, we enjoyed: some gypsy buskers playing Gypsy Kings covers on the south bank; a jazz ensemble playing songs from The Jungle Book on a street-piano and their own brass on the north bank; a contemporary dance group with sound system performing on the steps of St Paul's; another street-piano, this time playing boogie-woogie, randomly accompanying the activities of a tight-rope walker in Paternoster Square. We got on our bus happily overwhelmed by a surfeit of culture. What a city!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Three of his fingernails were missing II

I've posted before on this issue. There's a strong suspicion that agents of the British government have been complicit in torture, perhaps deliberately 'outsourcing' it to Pakistan to avoid direct responsibility. David Davis MP - who I'm not a fan of most of the time - did us all a valuable service in raising the issue in the House of Commons earlier this week. His statement is here and sums up most of my own thoughts.

I think it's of critical importance we get to the bottom of this issue. We need full disclosure in the matter and the bringing to account - prosecutions if at all possible - of any people involved in complicity with torture. I suspect there was at least a turning of a blind eye at very high levels.

Davis's statement ends with this moral summation:

'The battle against terrorism is not just a fight for life; it is a battle of ideas and ideals. It is a battle between good and evil, between civilisation and barbarism. In that fight, we should never allow our standards to drop to those of our enemies. We cannot defend our civilisation by giving up the values of that civilisation.'

Yes, but I would add a more pragmatically self-interested rationale. Our government mustn't be allowed to get anywhere near torture. It's not a precedent we, as citizens, can afford to tolerate.

'So that the monkey would have something to ride'

I like the 2009 Bulwer-Lytton runner-up. It's a contest to write the worst first line of a novel:

'The wind dry-shaved the cracked earth like a dull razor--the double edge kind from the plastic bag that you shouldn't use more than twice, but you do; but Trevor Earp had to face it as he started the second morning of his hopeless search for Drover, the Irish Wolfhound he had found as a pup near death from a fight with a prairie dog and nursed back to health, stolen by a traveling circus so that the monkey would have something to ride.'

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Old Soviet music clip

A friend of mine who has an enthusiasm for Soviet cinema found this clip from a movie called 'Ivan Vasylyevich's Changing a Job'. I have no idea what it's all about but it looks great; groovy in an off-beam way.

This friend keeps telling me how underrated later Soviet cinema is, that is outside of the acknowledged Tarkovsky. He's a thoughtful and confirmed anti-communist so I really should pay attention.

UPDATE: More information from my friend Jimmy:

"The clip is from 'Ivan Vasilievich Changes His Profession'. Like so many Soviet movies, it is extraordinary that the film was even made. It is based on a Bulgakov play, which was banned in the Soviet Union until 1965. The film itself was made in the early 1970s. The film is hilarious and incredibly subversive. It isn't terribly complimentary about the losers of the cold war."

UPDATE 2: There's a wikipedia entry that explains all. Sounds bizarre but potentially funny. I wonder if Lovefilm stock it?

A donkey crossed with a turkey

A new BBC sitcom was shown this evening. It's about TV foreign reporting and written by John Simpson's former significant producer. Unusually, it's an hour long and I spent most of what was a tedious hour - a good part of it shot on location in Africa - wondering how on earth something with a budget sufficient to fund a drove* of excellent Drop the Dead Donkeys got greenlighted. (Actually, I was webbing most of the time, as I'm sure a lot of people do now when they're peripherally 'watching' TV. But I feel sure I didn't miss any laugh-out-loud crackers). The BBC's bureaucratic commissioning process doesn't seem to help in assessing the merits of a script. It wasn't just unfunny it was needlessly inaccurate about the details, the grammar of TV journalism.

One thing that struck me is how often actors and scriptwriters fail to convey the tropes and mannerisms of a journalist's piece to camera (this time the actor was the usually good Martin Jarvis). I think this may be because they try too hard to ham up a format that is essentially formulaic and aspires to impersonality.

It may improve, once it gets going. But it does look like a tremendous misapplication of resources.

*Collective noun for donkeys.

Cabbies and clubbers

As we're on matters Turkish I thought I'd post on the only municipal Turkish Bath that I've come across. It's at Ironmonger Row Baths, a substantially inter-war edifice, on the Clerkenwell edge of the City. It's very reasonable at £8 for three hours.

I haven't been for ten years or more but I'm glad I went when I did as a shampoo was included in the price. As anyone familiar with the Turkish Bath would know, there was a lot more to this than the name suggests: you were laid out on a cool marble slab - as if you were the subject of a pathologist - then covered in bubbles generated by an unfeasibly large sponge. You were then scrubbed down by something that felt like a large, soft and stubby shaving brush before being thoroughly sluiced. Very pleasant.

The procedure was carried out by an elderly gentleman who looked like an older version of the man in the picture (though it couldn't be him as the site where it comes from dates it from the 1930s - perhaps it was his Dad?) and I believe it came to an end on his retirement. He made quite an impression on me as he was diminutive, almost bald and hairless and with the palest, softest, pinkest, marshmallow-like skin I've ever seen. The product of spending literally decades inhabiting a steamy, wet, artificially-lit environment. Phenotypic adaptation.

The Saturday morning patrons (my usual time) were an interesting mix: an older crowd of fat, hairy-arsed cockney taxi drivers formed one group with another consisting of toned, hairless young gays. Both groups dozed in the little day beds dotted around the rest room, sleeping off a hard night's cabbing or clubbing. I liked to think I'd be mistaken for one of the lithe young fellows but friends informed me, even back then, that it looked more likely that I'd just swung out from behind a wheel. Jealous obviously.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009


Yesterday's post with its description of expansive Turkish family barbecues, along with Worm's comment, reminded me of a dispute that was ongoing in Berlin a few years ago when I used to visit regularly (T. was based there for a while).

This harmless Turkish pastime clashed with the Germans' similarly innocent penchant for unembarrassed and public naturism. Berlin's extensive parks, much used in the sweltering summer months, provided the cockpit for this contemporary Kulturkampf: games of volleyball played out against a back-drop of head-scarfed grannies slicing aubergines.

I imagine some accommodation was reached, perhaps a system of zoning. However, the story has proven memorable perhaps because it provoked simultaneously images of kebab skewers and pink German genitalia. Two things that should never be brought into conjunction.

Perhaps I've revealed a deep cultural anxiety, ripe for deconstruction. On the other hand, I'm not proud to admit that my sympathies rest, on balance, with the skewers rather than the sausages. The Turks have no monopoly on prudery.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Magic carpets

Back in the Cotswolds this weekend. In 'A Cotswold Village' (a book I praised a few weeks ago), J. Arthur Gibbs bemoaned the impoverished and gradually depopulating villages of the area, the product of decades of agricultural stagnation (this was in 1899). He wondered whether Londoners might ever be persuaded to make their homes so far from the city and hoped perhaps the railway might persuade them to do so.

Well, this hope has been quite lavishly fulfilled, as anyone taking an occasional look at the weekend papers' property supplements would know. But refugees from the smoke are not the only people contributing to the buzz. Tourism, of course, is the other factor that's made these villages little humming hives of life, at least in the summer months.

Bibury today provides the most extreme example of this. We went down to while away a couple of hours at the trout farm (a bit of diversification that I'm sure would have pleased Gibbs). It's a beautiful spot, which usefully contains a playground. But the real thrill for the children is that they get to feed by hand the swarming, flapping shoals of fish. This also happens to be a great bit of economics for the owner: you pay for the food to feed his fish. So happiness all round.

It is, along with the village as a whole, a tourist honeypot. William Morris did his bit for Bibury's public relations (I think he would be less happy to see how things had turned out) describing it as 'the most beautiful village in England'. Undoubtedly, this is a claim that could be made by dozens of English villages, but receiving the imprimateur of Morris takes some beating. Or at least, it takes some beating if you want to attract the Japanese, who evidently love the English arts and crafts thing.

You will therefore see dozens and dozens of Japanese in Bibury in the summer months. It must be an essential part of the guided itineraries of Japanese package tours to Britain and has even given birth to a fishing kit-inspired Japanese fashion brand, 'Bibury Court'.

It was the first time, though, I'd seen them buying up trout fillets at the farm shop, slicing them into sashimi to eat, chopsticked, with what I took for soy sauce. Looked delicious but I don't suppose I'd trust myself to make my own sashimi: for me, it would just be raw fish if it hadn't received the sanction of a sushi chef.

What was also new to me were the groups of Turkish families, of every generation, making the fullest use of the trout farm's barbecue facilities. There are three or four built-in brick barbecues at the back of the farm, again in a lovely setting, and today they were really being made to work. The Turks, originally a nomadic people, appear to have retained a talent for al fresco dining: surrounded by brightly patterned oriental rugs, hubble-bubble pipes, exotic salads, marinades, bunches of herbs, tea pots being warmed on embers, and, naturally, lots and lots of fish being filleted, stuffed, skewered, broiled, and, of course, barbecued. By the look of their shopping bags, they were on a day trip from Harrow or thereabouts.

It was a grand sight. They were buzzing with excitement, unselfconsciously enjoying the food, weather and company. And I couldn't help wonder: J Arthur Gibbs, what on earth would you make of it all?

Thursday, 2 July 2009

My top ten memorable books

(Warning: lengthy post).

Completely fortuitously, I've ended up with a round ten in my list of most memorable books (the involved and obscure criteria for my selection can be found here). They're listed alphabetically, as ranking them doesn't seem very interesting or easy. I've tried not to be self-conscious in my choices and the result, I'm afraid, is a bit po-faced. Let's put it this way, I get teased for reading brick-like biographies of Lord Salisbury and the like on the beach and it shows (it's murder on the wrists too).

To my mild surprise the list feels pretty definitive. To my greater surprise I've identified a couple of themes that seem to preoccupy me more than I would have guessed (I won't go into them here but if you've got the stamina to get to the end and still have some residual interest, have a guess).

Right, here goes:

Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien

Its inclusion is testament to my honesty as T will mock me mercilessly about this one, using the usual hobbit-related insults. (Isn't it funny that women are almost all immune to the charms of Tolkien? They just laugh at it).

Since reading Lord of the Rings as a child, it's never really left my imagination. It's so difficult to move on from because of its sheer scale, the completeness of its alternative world. Also the greatness and perhaps unexpected relevance of its themes: sacrifice, hope, mortality, the self-defeating lure of power. And, of course, some great sword fights, battles and magical creatures.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce

It's difficult to say why this resonates so much. It's certainly an artful and convincing re-creation of what it feels like to grow up. The book's tone is sympathetic to Stephen Dedalus but at the same time unafraid to be gently and affectionately mocking. This seems to me, more often than not, to mimic one's own view of the younger self.

So there's sympathy filtered through an ironic distance, which lends the book some humour and makes it feel genuine. But I think, for me, what makes it truly memorable is the powerful impression it made, and continues to make, on my appreciation of what I'm going to have to call my own sense-experience.

I can't think of a more straightforward way to describe this I'm afraid. But sometimes images and sensations from the book seep into my own memories; or my own senses are inflected by moods and descriptions to be found in the book. For instance, its description of the everyday epiphany - the glimpse of the seemingly eternal or otherworldly that you are sometimes blessed with in the most mundane of situations - somehow resonates with my own personal experience of this phenomenon. I'm just not sure why this sort of evocation should end up being so affecting and of such ongoing resonance.

The Great Melody - Conor Cruise O'Brien

A substantial biography of Edmund Burke by one of the most stimulating writers and thinkers of the twentieth century. Burke is the thinker and polemicist who fully expressed, for the first time, why the idea of Britain and its tradition of cautious, respectful and empiricist conservatism has political, moral and historical force. He was a protagonist in the founding experience of modern politics - the dividing of left and right - and the most profound arguments against the 'refining projectors' of revolutionary France were minted by him and have remained in circulation ever since.

What O'Brien brings to this project - in addition to his lively style - is what must be a unique perspective. Born into Irish Republicanism, dying sympathetic to Unionism and variously political philosopher, writer, civil servant, politician, journalist and academic, he was well-qualified to bring out those aspects of Burke that are often under-appreciated - in particular, his deep concern for justice and for the oppressed.

The Kindness of Women - JG Ballard

I read this nearly twenty years ago and its imagery still sometimes flashes back into my mind. It's just a great work of art. It contains some of the same themes as Ballard's fiction, but where I often feel his novels are formulaic (mankind will always go off the rails, and technology will provide new, interesting and shocking ways for him to do so), this piece of novelised autobiography, perhaps because it's based on real lives, has a feeling of total authenticity married to an understated but almost hallucinatory naturalism.

It has that classical quality of great art in that it holds you in suspension between being repelled and being attracted. It's an artful combination of extreme violence and extreme tenderness. As such it's the most beautiful evocation of how radical it can be to be alive.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson - Robert A Caro

A biography in three large volumes (so far) of someone who, when I began reading it about eight years ago, hadn't really interested me very much. However, I've found it the most gripping, involving and complete work of biography I've ever read - and I've read a few (here are some more thoughts on a few of them).

In fact, 'complete' is a totally inadequate description: it's overbrimming. You get the life, and in fascinating detail. You also get: the most convincing psychological study of the subject; an insight into just about whatever there is to know about the age-old art of politics; and, finally, an expansive picture - but one largely made up of telling close-ups - covering American politics since the 1920s and sufficient for the reader to come to a pretty sound understanding of the contemporary Republic.

A staggering work and one so superior to any other biography I've come across as to be probably unmatched forever.

What is a Welshman? - RS Thomas

A slim volume of poetry that I bought in St Davids when on a rugby tour (I was a fairly mixed-up kid). RS Thomas ended up as one of my favourite poets. But, these particular poems still preoccupy me more than others for two reasons.

Firstly, we moved from Wales when I was a child but I remained half-immersed in things Welsh. I was surrounded by Welsh family (grandparents moved up with us eventually), we went back regularly (every other weekend initially) and I was in thrall to the stories of the old days with their rather unlikely characters. This had the consequence of making me feel a bit deracinated. 'What is a Welshman?' gave me clues to, well, the answer to the question.

However, that wouldn't have been enough for me to continue to reflect on these poems. They also happen to comprise the most insightful evocation of the mentality and predicament - cultural and economic - of the underdog that I've come across. The verse - angry, scornful, tender, wistful in turns - also happens to be of pellucid beauty.

Here's my second division (look these are my rules, OK?). These books just don't influence me quite as much as the first six, or they do so much more intermittently.

Lights Out for the Territory - Iain Sinclair

Opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world - that of psychogeography - but not one you'd adopt on a permanent basis. Appeals to the fantasist in me, its mentality has fuelled many an implausible reverie.

Straw Dogs - John Gray

Only read this a year or two ago. Finding its argument credible but not yet sure whether I believe in it. It seems a bit too confident in its view that we're fated to be contingently animalistic. Ask me again in a few years' time.

The Russian Revolution - Richard Pipes

The best description of the mindset and consequences of the types that have proven so destructive in the modern world: the superfluous men, the aspirant criminals and the spoilt intellectuals who are drawn to revolution and terror.

Thus Spake Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche

Cheered me up and mentally toughened me up when I was rather depressed in my twenties. Continues to do so.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Bluebottle banks

This rather incredible story will confirm any prejudices you might have about the murky cross-border world of private banking. If you don't have any, it'll get you some. Blue-chip? More bluebottle.

Memorable books

Brit considers having a crack at a sort of online parlour game which asks you to list the top fifteen books which 'have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing'. I commented that I didn't think I'd read fifteen memorable books. I wasn't being facetious as the more I thought of how I might define memorable (as short-hand for the criteria) the more difficult it seemed to get to fifteen.

At the risk of being pedantic and obscure (but when has that ever stopped someone on a blog?) I would use 'memorable' as a description for books that are remembered in an ongoing, iterative way. Such books would have influenced your thinking and, importantly, they would continue to do so, to resonate.

More, your relationship with a memorable book would be a dynamic one. You would regularly compare your lived experience to its contents, and most likely you would do so in dialectical fashion; your understanding of the world and that of the book would inform each other and shape each other.

In a sense, the memorable book would be one that hasn't really been finished. You're still reading it because you haven't, to date, been able to encompass it. You may never do so: it contains living ideas that may continue to grow.

Why would it have these qualities? It would have to contain subject matter of high significance to the reader. But at the same time, this material would be to some large degree intractable, indeterminate and irreducible. The subject's either too hugely expansive or too minutely intensive.

In this way, a memorable book would have some of the quality of your own lived experience, in that you struggle to determine objectively what it means. Its full meaning still hovers outside your grasp, but as a consequence it may provide some form of guidance, you suspect it's leading you somewhere important - or at least, important to you.

In contrast, books that are merely remembered are ones you have read, processed and absorbed. Their contents have effectively become an integral part of your own knowledge. You rarely reflect on them because their ideas now feel like your own and you happen to be satisfied with their usefulness or truth. They now form part of who you unthinkingly are.

That's my definition, overly involved as it may be. And it's why I'd struggle to get to fifteen. On the other hand, by putting the bar this high I may have made it easier to sort sheep from goats. I'll continue to think about which books are for me memorable in this sense and I'll have a go at listing them*.

* This sort of list is, of course, really an excuse for some wonderfully self-indulgent introspection. That's why a Desert Island Discs appearance is so coveted. Not only can you self-indulgently introspect, you do so in front of a rapt audience (or Kirsty Young at least), which validates your meandering down 'My Way' as objectively interesting and worthwhile. The ultimate self-justification. Anyway, if you can't get a watered-down shot of this from your own blog, it's a poor thing.