Monday, 27 December 2010

Paywall piffle

I'm finding it bizarre how much weight is being placed upon two arguments by the proponents of paywalls:

Argument 1. If something costs money - that is, quality journalism - people should pay for it. This should be the case even though it's free elsewhere and will surely remain free at the point of use for the foreseeable future (from the BBC, for instance).

A moment's reflection on the world around us is sufficient to show this isn't true: in monetary terms, things are only worth what people are willing to pay for them. It's ironically amusing that it's often the greatest supporters of free markets (most recently and egregiously Fraser Nelson, Matthew Parris, James Murdoch) that appear to believe that prices should be determined by producers on a cost-plus basis.

Arguement 2. Fraser Nelson commenting on Matthew Parris: 'the choice for my industry is clear: either we manage to make digital subscription work, or game over.' Why? Because 'Online advertising has not covered the cost of free articles.'

But as I've written before, a decline in demand for paid-for journalism should result in a decline in its supply until a new equilibrium is established. In other words, it's not the industry that's doomed but the marginal players. If a few newspapers go bust then the online advertising pie will be split between fewer newspapers and so be able to support their respective costs. If you added up the total value of advertising - online and print - dedicated to newspapers and divided it by the average cost of newspaper journalism (assuming distribution and printing is covered by paid-for print copies) you'd arrive at the number of papers that the market can support, roughly speaking. I don't know how many this is - but it's got to be more than zero (perhaps two or three each of broadsheet and tabloid?).

Journalists and media owners are the keenest employers of these dubious arguments. I suppose they're comforting despite their presentation of a binary choice between survival and total destruction: after all, a get-out-of-jail-free paywall means everything can stay the same and it's difficult to seriously envisage an entire industry disappearing. The alternative reality provides a messy middle ground and a painful march towards it: whilst the industry survives, a number of newspapers are going to go bust and a lot of journalists are going to lose their jobs.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Something beautiful

A window by Karl Parsons in St Mary's Church, Bibury.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

My post over at The Dabbler looks at a Christmas-time prediction from 1899. Surprisingly (or not?), a lot has stayed the same. At any rate we're not racing 'flying machines to Mars and back twice a day'.

Merry Christmas to everyone who checks in here and thank you for your interest and comments.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Hitch on the Tea Party

Hitch on the Tea Party, its demagogues and its apologists here.

On Beck and his followers:
The president is a Kenyan. The president is a secret Muslim. The president (why not?—after all, every little bit helps) is the unacknowledged love child of Malcolm X. And this is their response to the election of an extremely moderate half-African American candidate, who speaks better English than most and who has a model family. Revolted by this development, huge numbers of white people choose to demonstrate their independence and superiority by putting themselves eagerly at the disposal of a tear-stained semi-literate shock jock, and by repeating his list of lies and defamations. But, of course, there’s nothing racial in their attitude…

A Cotswold Village at Christmas


Saturday, 18 December 2010


Over there, I'm complimentary about one, not so much the other.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A touch of class

Our Julie:
The clever working-class youth of this country has been socially and spiritually "kettled" - hemmed in, suffocated and stifled...

Class politics had something going for it, you know.

Lovely winter post

This is an all-round lovely post, especially if you're sitting in the bleak, grey city (including a couple of nice photos).

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Diary of a Nobody

Today nobody blogs on Nobody over at The Dabbler. Be somebody - go and read it.

Monday, 13 December 2010

The great puzzle

Felix Salmon illuminates one of the great puzzles of our age (over here as much as over there). The puzzle, however, remains.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Where were the household cavalry?

The heir to the throne and his consort under attack? Isn't this the traditional response?

But as this didn't happen the news coverage seems a bit disproportionate. If you drive into a riot surely you can expect to get your car jostled. Anyway no harm done, at least to them.

UPDATE: Just remembered I wrote this about young graduates and how things suck for them. Things have got worse. Blame the baby boomers?

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Monday, 6 December 2010

Poor Americans

This chart shows how lobbyists working for business and the rich have screwed ordinary Americans over the last half-century. Funny how no-one over there seems to notice.

Has anyone got the same chart for the UK?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Shots in the dark

Drinking vodka Russian-style over at The Dabbler.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Latest Dabbles

I post on the joy of phone and the mysteries of the French Foreign Legion at you know where.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Fantastic Mr Christmas Fox

You can win a fantastic Mr Christmas Fox over at The Dabbler!

Thursday, 18 November 2010


I've been mulling over Andrew Anthony's entertaining and encouraging interview with C Hitchens at the weekend. It's full of good stuff and I was partcularly struck by this:
Hitchens once wrote a line that has almost gained the status of philosophical epigram or even scientific dictum: ‘What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’.

Very good and useful. However, an awkward question has popped into my mind: what evidence does he have for that statement?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A paradox

The online world seems inundated by people objecting to the attention being paid to the royal wedding. They're not helping.

But then what's really happening is that they enjoy getting into a bate about this sort of thing.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Enjoying Tales from Bibury Shop

Just to let you know, if you enjoy the countryside, you'll enjoy my brother's Tales from Bibury Shop blog. A couple of tasty tidbits today.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Burma - The Land of Green Ghosts

As we celebrate the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, I've posted a 1p Book Review of Pascal Khoo Thwe's The Land of Green Ghosts over at The Dabbler.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Back. Hurrah!

Thank you all for your kind comments under the previous posts. They really do help with the morale.

I've just got out of UCH. I'm a bit sore, which is to be expected, but otherwise I feel amazingly well. It's making me realise how under the weather I was pre-op.

Anyway, I'm now tentatively looking forward to a bit of decent health. No doubt blogging will resume shortly here or over at the astonishing webby phenomenon that is The Dabbler.

Monday, 8 November 2010


After several previous delays and disappointments, Gaw's latest operation has happened and he is recovering very well in hospital. He hopes to be home later this week.

Normal service should therefore be resumed shortly.

T, on behalf of Gaw.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Tales from the riverbank

The Tales from Bibury Shop blog is back. And there's more intriguing news of riverbank developments:
...I have noticed that the grass around the river banks is often streaked with a silvery deposit. I have worked out that this is heron poo. As they take flight from a morning's fishing they almost always emit a long streak of sparkling deposit. On closer inspection the poo is entirely composed of fish scales which contrasts vividly with the lush green grass.

If you don't like hearing about that sort of thing there's something wrong with you.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

In praise of Masterchef: The Professionals

Masterchef: The Professionals, where cocks of the walk end up as coq au vin. At The D.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Wednesday, 20 October 2010


Balti. Brum. Here.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

In praise of AR

Antiques Roadshow. Admit it - you'd miss it if it wasn't there. At The D.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Win, win, win!

You - yes, you - could win one year's subscription to Slightly Foxed over at The Dabbler. Should you be witty as well as lucky you can also win a Stan Madeley book. Hie over there forthwith!

Gauguin at the Tate

Today I dabble away on the Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Writing's on the wall for wool

Preparing to celebrate Wool Week yesterday, I was amazed to learn from the enthusiastic Lucy Siegle (right, in a non-wool scarf) that there are question marks over the sustainability of wool:
It's too much of a stretch to say that wool is highly sustainable (there's the animal exploitation, for starters, though the industry claims excellent welfare conditions for all its 1bn sheep), but it is compostable and water resistant. 
Yes, there's been a question mark over sheep farming for a while now. Those Arcadian Shepherds really were on to something:

Saturday, 9 October 2010

The strange persistence of "pseudo-history"

Well that break didn't last long. I guess if you're provoked enough, even a high temperature doesn't get in the way...

From a piece on trees in today's Guardian by Colin Tudge, a biologist and the author of The Secret Life of Trees (my emphasis):
But in Britain right now, woods are on the up. According to a survey carried out this week by the Forestry Commission for the UN, we have more trees than at any time since 1750 (after which we cut them down to build a navy to fight the French). In fact, we have 11,200 sq miles of woodland – which is more than twice as much as we had at the low point of the 1920s, after the first world war had taken its toll on timber and charcoal.

There is no evidence for either of the bolded assertions; in fact, the evidence points entirely the other way. The continuing use of woodland to harvest timber or make charcoal helps ensure its survival.

The other point to make is that there's woodland and woodland. Plantations - which ecologically have little interest relative to naturally occuring woodland - may well have increased our wooded acreage. However, ancient woodland has declined.

I came across this Richard Mabey review of the sainted Oliver Rackham's Woodlands. It makes the argument:
I was lucky to be at Rackham’s debut, at a conference 30 years ago. He was a shy young Cambridge botanist then, and was addressing the seemingly uncontroversial subject of The Oak Tree in Historic Times. But his paper turned out to be a bombshell, a clinical demolition of foresters’ paternalism and an awesomely evidenced account of the fact that, for most of human history, trees had been regarded and used as a self- renewing resource. He described how he had measured all the main timbers in the original part of his college, Corpus Christi (there were 1,249, mostly small squared trees about 7ins in diameter), and calculated how frequently such a building could have been created from the renewable oaks of an ordinary Cambridgeshire wood. He blew away the notion that felling trees destroyed woodland.

In the half-dozen books he has written since, he has revolutionised our understanding of historical ecology. In sharp and exquisite English, and with a historical intuition as strong as his scientific rigour, he has laid waste the conventional wisdom of foresters, the ideologies of theoretical naturalists, the “pseudo-histories” of historians. His simple — and to him sacrosanct — precept is that the final arbiter in all arguments about woodland must be the trees and woods themselves, in all their dynamic, mutable, particular detail.

And yet the "pseudo history" persists!

By the way, C Tudge appears to be plagiarising himself. His latest article begins and ends:
My passion for trees began at primary school, well over half a century ago. I was 11 when I started a nursery in our garden in south London, planting sprigs of sycamore, oak and holly salvaged from the bomb-sites that still pockmarked the city. They'd be grown by now, if I hadn't dug them up to make way for a greenhouse.
We've been treating trees badly for a long time. At Binsey in Oxford in 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented the felling of poplars: "O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew – Hack and rack the growing green!"
We still don't know what we are doing and in the world at large the hacking and racking continue more vigorously than ever. But right now, in Britain, although the leaves are dying the trees with luck are flourishing. I do hope we can keep it up.

Back in 2005 another article, which he must be proud of as he's posted it to his website, begins and ends:
At age 11 I started my own nursery—horse chestnut, sycamore, birch, oak, and holly, pillaged from the World War II bomb-sites that still pock-marked South London: those baby trees would be big by now, if they hadn't succumbed to later whims.
In Oxford in 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented the felling of poplars: “O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew—Hack and rack the growing green!” We still don't know what we are doing, and never can in any detail, but the hacking and racking continue more vigorously than ever. The only half-way sane approach if we want this world to remain habitable, is to approach it humbly. Trees teach humility. We need to take the world far more seriously. It would be a good idea to begin with trees.

Other bits are very similar too. He's a fan of recycling and in many ways it seems. In any event, he could do with some fresh input on 'hacking and racking', a good thing when it's done in the right way.

If I may quote: 'We need to take the world far more seriously. It would be a good idea to begin with trees.'

No posts for a bit

I've come down with flu so won't be posting for a bit. Happy days...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Happy odyseey

Yonda lies my postage on da Dabblah (T Curtis homage). About the happy odyssey of a legendary and alarming soldier.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010


Op cancelled, for the third time now. I've been waiting since the end of May.

This time I got as far as the operating theatre, in gown and stockings, before being informed that I wouldn't be going through the doors - they'd run out of intensive care beds. So at least four surgeons are also twiddling their thumbs this afternoon.

Anyway. Cup of tea.

Monday, 4 October 2010

On not hibernating

I'm off into hospital tomorrow for a big op and it's intended that I shall stay there for about ten days. As little blogging will be carried on during this time I thought I'd leave you with a difficult poem (referred to here). It is mostly mysterious but illuminated by flashes of beauty - and therefore rather lifelike.

It's called The Winter Bees. I suppose it has some personal resonance as the honey bees of the title don't hibernate, they slow down and huddle together to keep going; more or less my modus operandi over the last couple of years and for the next couple of months. It's by Jon Silkin, a poet the majority of whose poems I'm not fussed about. However, occasionally and when he writes about nature I think he can come up with poetry as good as anything written in recent decades.

Anyway, ta-ra! Don't be afeard - the operation is intended to restore me to full fitness so it's a good thing. What's playing on my mind most right now is that I'll be missing most of Masterchef Professional. For a second year, too.

The Winter Bees


Winter bees, finding enough blossom,
of the sweet small copiousness they cram
winter - frozen muddle - with amorous pressure;
the acetylene flare of bees, nectaring
in suffused purple light; the honey
cool moral, waylaid by feelers.


Flickering sugary flowers, their doused blameless
substance a gelid intermittent veining,
like strands of wintery heat - the bee hunts them
for liquor, jabbing a superfluity.
Veined blossom flickering, scalloped clouds, these consonant
sharing forms, a bee their suffering link,
is also a heated wire, quick form.


The zone forks its electrics, the sky, fanned
in ridges like a shell, splits with a flash;
the bivalve in a half form, coy fissure.


In cold this unceasing flare is work
a prisoner of honey slowly unwinds
as if it were a spidery filament;
oozed sugary superfluity
the jasmine hardly notices it yields.
The face is winter's


plum-coloured, a huntsman's hung up in the fog.
A doe, spotting soft grass and briar, her breath
gassed in exhaustion, inoperative limbs
tied as a thicket is, green liquid,
greasy manufacture you recognise
is gangrene. Recognise these shifting marshes,
the horses buttocks, the man's slighter ones
a contour upon the animal fixed like
a grin, blood misting the thicket. Remus,
with fierce light, with struggling blood, as if
you ploughed up North America, tune your horn
with fierce light, with straggling blood - as if
the evening's silvery flanks, the gashed flanks,
the simple sun, gashed. Hot star, rise up, see
your furred contemporary, curious nectar
of the lonely; the dead wings, without weight;


the embrasures of honey, the queen's furred kinsmen
in rows and layers, effigies for the spider;
pointed receptacles, corbels of honey
fluted with dust, scum upon amber fluid.
The young boy shoves off for lunch, whistling -
his little pipes, the unbroken larynx, are reeds
of cheerfulness, earth for him so much down,
fluff, a mantle, on the bellowing cheeks.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

It turns out I may be part-fairy

Tooling around on the web, as one does, I came across an extract from what sounded an interesting book, Wirt Sikes's British Goblins - Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. The author explained what he was about thus:
In the course of the summer of 1882 I was a good deal in Wales, especially Carnarvonshire, and I made notes of a great many scraps of legends about the fairies, and other bits of folklore. I will now string some of them together as I found them.

What I found particularly interesting was that he started this passage with a reference to the village near where my paternal grandfather's family are from (I wrote about my Taid here):
I began at Trefriw, in Nant Conwy, where I came across an old man, born and bred there, called Morris Hughes. He appears to be about seventy years of age: he formerly worked as a slater, but now he lives at Llanrwst, and tries to earn a livelihood by angling. 

It turned out the strange tale he had to tell concerned the farmhouse where my Taid's family lived, at least during the summer months (it was a hafod*), up above the Conwy Valley:
He told me that fairies came a long while ago to Cowlyd Farm, near Cowlyd Lake, with a baby to dress, and asked to be admitted into the house, saying that they would pay well for it. Their request was granted, and they used to leave money behind them. One day the servant girl accidentally found they had also left some stuff they were in the habit of using in washing their children. She examined it, and, one of her eyes happening to itch, she rubbed it with the finger that had touched the stuff; so when she went to Llanrwst Fair she saw the same fairy folks there stealing cakes from a standing, and asked them why they did that. They inquired with what eye she saw them: she put her hand to the eye, and one of the fairies quickly rubbed it, so that she never saw any more of them. They were also very fond of bringing their children to be dressed in the houses between Trefriw and Llanrwst; and on the flat land bordering on the Conwy they used to dance, frolic, and sing every moonlight night. Evan Thomas of Sgubor Gerrig used to have money from them. He has been dead, Morris Hughes said, over sixty years: he had on his land a sort of cowhouse where the fairies had shelter, and hence the pay. Morris, when a boy, used to be warned by his parents to take care lest he should be stolen by the fairies. 

Interesting to think one's ancestors had social relations with fairies. But the next passage is even more intriguing as it concerns a Williams from the area (and all the Williams from there seem to be related):
He [our narrator] knew Thomas Williams of Bryn Syllty, or, as he was commonly called, Twm Bryn Syllty, who was a changeling. He was a sharp, small man, afraid of nothing. He met his death some years ago by drowning near Eglwys Fach, when he was about sixty-three years of age. There are relatives of his about Llanrwst still: that is, relatives of his mother, if indeed she was his mother...

To think that fairy blood might run in my veins... It would explain a lot.

* Hafod is Welsh for 'summer dwelling or farm', and refers to the seasonal cycle of transhumance - the movement of livestock and people from a lowland winter pasture at the main residence (Welsh hendre) to a higher summer pasture from roughly May through October.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Age of the Infovore

Just read The Age of the Infovore by Tyler Cowen. I enjoy his blog very much but I was disappointed in the book. It's about how to thrive in what he calls the information economy.

It's poorly written - baggy, rather cliched and lacking clarity of expression at times. One of its major problems is that it sets out to explain how we should think about the digital economy through a couple of analogies that will be unfamiliar to most readers: autism and Buddhism (contemporary culture also happens to be like a marriage). Analogies are usually used to enlighten by translating the strange into the familiar. In this case the strange is being explained - very extensively - through comparison with the even stranger; there are too many moving parts. The lack of clarity of expression becomes an even more serious problem in these parts of the book.

Unfortunately, where it's not confusing its observations are mostly commonplace, wrong-headed or just bizarre. From a couple of pages chosen more or less at random (pp58-60), we learn that Shakespeare is losing out to the internet; that a Walmart store 'doesn't compare' to Mozart's Don Giovanni; that carrying around an iPod is preferable to carrying around a Caravaggio or Picasso in a pop-up box.

How and why do books like this get written?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The The

This weekend I'm over at The Spectator posting about Matt Johnson's The The, the band that never seems to arrive at a full stop (and Mind Bomb, probably their best album).

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Please don't try this at home

Amateur artists are often inspired to copy the masters. There must be very many conservatory impressionists working up pictures inspired by Matisse, Monet and Renoir. Now it looks like contemporary art is encouraging a degree of popular imitation:
Modern art makes a change from a fleet of noisy sports cars and screeching WAGs but the choice of garden decoration by Derby County’s stopper Stephen Bywater has won him no fans.

Instead of monogrammed electric gates and a Ferrari the championship goalkeeper created and displayed a piece of erotic artwork in his garden.

The makeshift exhibition, which included wind chimes, a blow-up doll embellished with rubber genitalia and a portable toilet covered in graffiti, were described by ‘eyesores’ by his neighbours and last night the keeper covered his handiwork with tarpaulins.

One of the mottos, painted on the side of a disused toilet block, coupled with a bright blue horse box, reads “piece and love” (sic).

I suppose it's remarkable in its way that the amateur installer is a professional footballer, a group until now not noted for their interest in transgressive conceptual art. But I guess one of the beauties of this sort of thing is how accessible it is.

H/t Fearraigh.

London in the rain from a double decker bus

I love this - it's exactly right.

Couple more here.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Monday, 20 September 2010

Leaving home

Further to big boys starting school I've just come across this by Linda Pastan. Excuse me, I think I may have something in my eye...

To A Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

H/t TNC.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Lives of the artist

I alert the world (via The Dabbler) to an amusing interview with painter Mark Alexander.

How to dismiss a pedant

From the New York Review of Books:

To the Editors:

It is truly discouraging to see, in a column by Tony Judt about sensitivity to language, “inchoate” used as a synonym for “chaotic” [“Words,” NYR, July 15]. Although this solecism is quite common, it still pains the ears of those few of us who are sensitive to the etymological resonances of English words. Didn’t Professor Judt learn Latin at the fancy school he went to?

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”—Tom Paine

Sam Abrams
Rochester, New York

Before his death on August 6, Tony Judt replied as follows:

Like most people of your kind, you assume too much: regarding both what I wrote and what you are qualified to infer. “Inchoate” means: “Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature” (OED). And that is just what I meant—the words begin to form but do not complete. If I had meant to say that they were “chaotic” I would have said so.

At the “fancy school” I attended (my education cost precisely nothing from the age of five to twenty-four: what about yours?) I was taught Latin, but also how to distinguish between knowledge and pedantry. I am glad to say that forty years later I can still smell the difference at fifty yards.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Fish scream

A letter in today's Guardian magazine about last week's interview with the bore Morrissey:
I recall Morrissey once telling Jonathan Ross that fish scream when they die. Is he aware that his favourite drink, Fanta, contains fish gelatin?

Every aspect of that letter seems emblematic of something ridiculous about today's world. But mustn't complain - partly for fear of following Morrissey's example.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The laddish Hitch what I'm discussing over at The Dabbler (that is aspects of the memoirs of C Hitchens).

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Reeds of cheerfulness

The eldest started school this week and seems totally unfazed by the whole experience. Cucumber cool. It's almost disconcerting - is he already a blasé little Londoner?

I have to admit to feeling a bit wistful. I stumbled across some lovely lines by Jon Silkin yesterday, which seemed to suit:
The young boy shoves off for lunch, whistling -
his little pipes, the unbroken larynx, are reeds
of cheerfulness, earth for him so much down,
fluff, a mantle, on the bellowing cheeks.

It's from a poem called The Winter Bees, which has flashes of beauty whilst being generally impenetrable, much like these lines. I can't find it online so may post it some time.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Only connect

It's D-day - I'm posting on the excellent Who Do You Think You Are?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Memoirs of a phynodderee

Pleasingly offbeat review by David Lodge of the late Frank Kermode's memoirs, in which the subject's humble Manx background looms large:
' become a university teacher is inevitably to become middle-class (if one is not already)—to grow out of, or away from, the subculture in which one grew up, to learn a different style of living, speaking, behaving... [I]n Frank Kermode’s case the required adaptation was particularly challenging and his self-transformation particularly complete. He gives a vivid account of his introduction to the middle-class home of his fellow student (and later colleague) Peter Ure:
'At dinner I sat listening to a continuous stream of well-formed sentences about important topics. I had never before eaten asparagus, and wouldn’t have guessed that in England it is finger food; and when strawberries appeared I refused sugar, not because (at that time) I liked them without, but because after the strain of the asparagus I had simply run out of courage and did not trust myself with the shaker.'
The reference to “England,” as if to a foreign country, is telling. The Isle of Man, at least as it was in Kermode’s childhood and youth, was not merely provincial; it was in many respects culturally and socially separate from and indifferent to the mainland...
As Kermode himself comments, “It is not surprising that some of us Manx who have made our lives in England have had to settle for a permanent condition of mild alienation.”

Just as Ireland is without snakes so The Isle of Man lacks asparagus.

I shall certainly be adding the work to my list of books to buy when out in paperback:
This is a very honest, sometimes painfully honest, autobiography, without a trace of vanity or pomposity in it. “I am not the sort of person I should choose to know if I had any choice in the matter,” he bleakly remarks at one point. It is also elegiac in mood... But this is a far from gloomy book—on the contrary, it is full of dry humor and occasional high comedy.

Lodge's review goes on to justify this view. On the way, it also introduces us to the word 'phynodderee, the charming Manx word for a clumsy fairy', which his father called the young Frank.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Gentlemen who share beds

Gentlemen sharing beds, you say? May I direct you to this pertinent post?

Fighter jets, Romantics too

I'm at The D today posting on a visit to Tate Britain.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The rise of printing, the birth of publishing

Printing and publishing has become a real interest of mine, what with my role at Newspaper Club , the blogpaper (see sidebar) and the novel. I find this story particularly interesting as it concerns the linkage between the birth of printing and the Reformation, which first intrigued me when I was a swotty schoolboy.

Extensive research has been done into what actually got printed rather than in what we now remember as being printed. It establishes a significant distinction between innovation and marketing:
Inventing the printing press was not the same thing as inventing the publishing business. Technologically, craftsmen were ready to follow Gutenberg’s example, opening presses across Europe. But they could only guess at what to print, and the public saw no particular need to buy books. The books they knew, manuscript texts, were valuable items and were copied to order. The habit of spending money to read something a printer had decided to publish was an alien one.

Food for thought there concerning the development of Newspaper Club: not least the potential importance of demonstrating how it can be used. We may need to make a market by selling the end-product as much as the service, by being a publisher as much as a printer.

Interesting to note, too, where the market lay initially:
What made print viable, Pettegree found, was not the earth-shaking impact of mighty tomes, but the rustle of countless little pages: almanacs, calendars, municipal announcements. Indulgence certificates, the documents showing that sinners had paid the Catholic church for reduced time in purgatory, were especially popular. These ephemeral jobs were what made printing a viable business through the long decades while book publishers — and the public — struggled to find what else this new technology might be good for.

How early printing was supported by the bread-and-butter jobs often printed for official, functional and routine reasons rather than the prestige ones that we now remember is underlined in the accompanying interview:
IDEAS: The one thing that most early printers seemed to do was to go out of business.
PETTEGREE: And the ones who didn’t were the ones who tended to have a close relationship with official customers. And this really I think is the new part of the story that we’ve been able to put together.
Most narratives of print have relied on looking at the most eye-catching products — whether it’s Gutenberg’s Bible or Copernicus or the polyglot Bible of Plantin — these are the ones which seem to push civilization forward. In fact, these are very untypical productions of the 16th-century press.
I’ve done a specific study of the Low Countries, and there, something like 40 percent of all the books published before 1600 would have taken less than two days to print. That’s a phenomenal market, and it’s a very productive one for the printers. These are the sort of books they want to produce, tiny books. Very often they’re not even trying to sell them retail. They’re a commissioned book for a particular customer, who might be the town council or a local church, and they get paid for the whole edition. And those are the people who tended to stay in business in the first age of print.

As an aside, I was under the impression that the Protestant demand for scripture had fuelled the rise of printing. But it turns out that Luther's impact was initially a net negative for printers - before transforming the industry:
PETTEGREE: It’s really not been remarked before, that when Luther was attacking indulgences, he was actually attacking a mainstay of the press. But he really was. I mean, the quantities that were published of these indulgences is quite phenomenal and often in very large editions. And this is the absolute dream commission for a printer, when they’re asked to produce a very large quantity of a single sheet item, a broadsheet, printed on only one side, which is what an indulgence is.
But the speed with which Luther’s works take off as a popular phenomenon is quite extraordinary. It’s fair to say that by 1530, 1540, Wittenberg was essentially a one-industry town. If you put together the printing that was going out and the students who were coming in to study in the university there, drawn by Luther, it has a phenomenal impact on Wittenberg.
Have you ever been to Wittenberg? It’s wonderful. I was there again last week. You can still visit all of the stages of his life, you can make the walk that he did up the street from his house at one end of the city to the Schloss at the other so as to post the 95 Theses. It is a very deeply atmospheric place.
But you can see how the people who lived off Luther spent their loot. Lucas Cranach, the famous painter, also had a monopoly on woodcuts for these Reformation [religious pamphlets]. And you can stand in front of the town hall and see the two houses he built with the money he made.

Lucas Cranach a media mogul? Who'd have thought.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Kinky trampler

Over at The Dabbler I write about a peculiar statue.

Saint's day

Whilst we were on holiday in Provence the village next door to the one we stay in had its fête votive (saint's day celebration, of St Barthélemy). It covers a long weekend and involves the whole village in activities, sacred and profane (mostly the latter), traditional and modern.

There was a lot to enjoy. Abundant frites and saucissettes, traditional 'pub' games to play in the square (many of which were new to me), a ceremonial feast focused on soupe au pistou, a band every night, a small funfair, and a number of goats being used to dispense frothing glasses of milk to willing children, to mention only a few.

I particularly enjoyed the local gooseherd manoeuvring his charges through the crowd outside the village's main café and around the stage where that evening's rock concert was to be held (he was on his way to a temporary petting farm). One of his charges strayed into the cables and stacks of the sound system and had to be fished out. It was a grand sight to see him - in floppy, pointed, brown felt hat and brown waterproof cape - reaching down into the electronic spaghetti to disentangle a fluffy white goose. He wasn't annoyed at all, token of which was the loving kiss he gave it once it was safe in his arms.

Here he is sharing a joke with a couple of friends:

On the saint's day itself the boys were terrified by all the gunfire, which accompanied the saint's statue on its annual procession from the church around the village. The neckerchiefed local hunters were firing into the sky like Mexican bandits.

But the weekend culminated in a thrilling race. The braver, more athletic men of the village - some of whom by this stage were looking a little haggard having begun celebrating their saint three days earlier - donned helmets, elbow pads and shin pads. The race was down a steep chicane-like strip of winding road that starts just below the church and ends by the bakery on the way out of the village. It was clear that some aggressive, competitive juices were flowing - as so often a bit of fun would be a chance to blow off some steam and even settle a few scores.

And the mounts? You'll never see a more impressive array of toy tractors.

Friday, 13 August 2010


I'm on holiday for a while and don't expect to be doing much blogging at all until the beginning of September. However, I've stockpiled a few at The Dabbler, the blog that's a holiday in itself. I suggest you pop over there, pour yourself a long drink and relax into a lounger.

I'll be back for a couple of days the beginning of the week after next and will post out Illuminating a Small Field (see sidebar) blogpaper orders received after today then.

As I intend to sit by a pool in the South of France for a lot of the time I shall leave you with Grace Jones' Private Life, which reached the charts around about 30 years ago this month. Great poolside music and with one of the best uses of French in a pop song: 'J'en ai marre with your theatrics'. That must hurt.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

More tales from Russia

More bizarre stories of a dysfunctional Russia here. They involve a Russian spy wanting to retain his assumed Peruvian identity; the revocation of something called perpetual (irrevocable) tenurepriceless being defined as valueless; and existence being defined as registration.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Tony Judt

Here's a very good, appreciative obituary of Tony Judt:
In two books, Judd used lines from Camus as epigraphs: "If there were a party of those who aren't sure they're right, I'd belong to it," and "Every wrong idea ends in bloodshed, but it's always the blood of others." They could stand as the mottoes of his own sadly abbreviated but splendid life's work.

I posted on his attractively written New York Review Blog pieces herehere, here and here. His relatively early death has deprived us of a lot of good writing and thinking, even if I didn't agree with a fair bit of it. It's depressing when we lose someone like him.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Wartime in Ghent

My latest post for El Dabblo is on a compelling, blogged account of the last war.

The tale of Gennady Osipovich

Russian writers like Dostoevsky and Gogol already had a lot to work with, and nothing much has changed since. This is from the Moscow Times:
A man was jailed by a Kemerovo region court on Thursday for assaulting a Gypsy fortune teller who predicted that he would be jailed, the Investigative Committee said.
Gennady Osipovich tried to kill the unidentified female fortune teller, who told him she saw a “state-owned house” — a Russian euphemism for jail — in his future, the committee said in a statement on its web site.
The woman managed to escape, but Osipovich stabbed to death two unidentified witnesses of the assault, which took place in October. He was sentenced to 22 years in a maximum-security prison.

H/t MR.

Saturday, 7 August 2010


A couple of short DVD reviews. Or rather observations about two DVDs, for what they're worth.

An Education is as good as Lynn Barber's book. It's based on the first part of the memoir, which had originally been a freestanding anecdote recounted in Granta. Interesting how Barber has spun so much from one short piece of writing. Good on her: a real professional.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is nearly wholly ruined by the worst voiceover I've ever encountered: in many parts it's little better than crass, irritating and redundant narration. At one point we thought we had the audio-description activated.

How ever did Woody think it was a good idea? Was he looking for a way to participate more noticeably in the film (he didn't appear in it, nor did a Woody cipher)? Something blinded him to its awfulness and vanity always seems to perform that trick mercilessly. Or was it driven by a commercial concern for accessibility and imposed by a cloth-eared producer?

Whatever, it's a shame: there's a very good film in there struggling to escape being button-holed by a man with a mike. And, in any event, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem are, of course, fantastically watchable. Their very evident chemistry made this recent event predictable.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Thursday, 5 August 2010

What the Reformation did for us...

Over at The D I post on one of the more unlikely products of the Reformation.

Sean bait

Here. Serve with silver cruets full of Henderson's Relish.

'A diamond pin in his tie'

Nice little anecdote illustrating how the craft of the historian is similar to that of a detective. Here's Richard Cobb playing Sherlock Holmes (more credibly than Benedict Cumberbatch was able to given the plot in the last episode: like antiques from china, it was very far-fetched):
At 4'o'clock one morning in a tabac in the rue du Four, I met a very drunken couple. One was a civilian pilot, who was to fly the next morning, and who had already been threatened with removal of his licence after a drunken landing. The other was a very well-dressed, rubicund man, with neatly brushed black hair, a hat with a dark band, well-kept hands, and a diamond pin in his tie. He looked professional and was at first reticent. But by 5 o'clock he was anxious to speak of himself, and gave me a number of hints. 'I am a Belgian; I come to Paris for the summer; I only work here in July, August, and early September; I only work in the XVIe and the XVIIe. My work in involves me with Post Offices, female servants, and chauffeurs.' It did not seem very difficult; I told him he was a professional housebreaker. He was delighted, opened a handsome pigskin bag, displaying some hundred instruments on runners. He was a man who enjoyed his work, but he also like talking about it, and needed an audience.

They seem to have had a better class of burglar in the old days (this was probably in the '50s) - just look at the Pink Panther films for corroboration. And housebreaking has so much more class than burglary, don't you think?

What took the practice so downmarket? Drugs?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

'Ottawa is the capital of Canada'

I enjoy a bit of grammatical pedantry probably more than the next person - though I make no claims to be a paragon. Someone who does is Simon Heffer, who presumably in his role as Associate Editor of the Telegraph took it upon himself to correct his colleagues en masse via email (and not just about grammar as the title of this post indicates).

And there's nothing wrong with that - someone has to maintain standards or they'd just go and slip, wouldn't they? But the dangers of such a detailed, not to say exhaustive, approach is you can all too often be hoist with your own petard.

A few quibbles:
Homogenous and homogeneous are not interchangeable and their respective meanings should be studied in the dictionary.

My dictionary tells me they're the same word, spelt differently.
Under age, like under way, should be written as two words.

Except when it's used adjectivally when it should be hyphenated, surely?
This will never be by splitting the infinitive...

Isn't the standard guidance (from K Amis and others) that one can split the infinitive if to do otherwise would sound unnatural or barbarous?

Anyway, I invite your opinions (and pot-shots).


Here he is on his cancer. I won't quote anything as it's all quotable. Stupendously good writing - and I say that as the sort of squeamish person who tends to avoid reading about illness.

Return of the big night out?

I post on the prospects for the revival of music hall over at The D (includes nice clip of Max Wall).

They have a word for that

Sometimes litigation is useful as it provides clarity in previously grey areas. In this instance, a court case has shed light on something that has to date - at least for me - remained nameless and indistinct despite my being in daily contact with it. One of life's 'unknown, unknowns' has been filled in.

I now know what a nurdle is. I shall try to work the term casually into the conversation at bedtime this evening.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Urban fox hunting arrives

A group called Urban Fox Hunters has posted a video on the internet that appears to show a fox being clubbed to death in an east London park.
The video, which the group claims was shot in Victoria Park, appears to show the fox being drugged and chased before it is beaten with a cricket bat.
A spokesman for animal welfare group League Against Cruel Sports said: "If the video's true then we're horrified people are behaving in this way."

Whether this is an example of sporting cruelty conducted by sick vigilantes or humane pest extermination conducted by responsible citizens appears to be the question at issue. The court of public opinion - as well as an actual court - may well determine the answer.

And I suspect the participants have let themselves down by using a cricket bat. The use of something more joylessly functional would have been appropriate.

An anti-iPad device

Hey, what's this? Tyler Brûlé, editor-in-chief of impossibly fashionable Monocle magazine, has launched a summer newspaper. The Evening Standard reports:
The electronic tablet is dead. Long live the newspaper.
Tyler Brûlé, editor of Monocle and self-appointed arbiter of cool, has launched a new summer offshoot of his monthly style magazine. He has produced what he is calling a summer newspaper, a 64-page broadsheet-sized read called Monocle Mediterraneo.
Clearly Brûlé, founder of Wallpaper* magazine, would like his well-heeled readers to pick the paper up as they swan around the Côte d'Azur and Sardinia.
Says Brûlé: “There's a huge amount of talk about the death of print, thanks to various types of 'pad' devices. But if you think of summer — with sand, swimming, sun cream and socialising — a carefully crafted newspaper is more useful and reader-friendly than a backlit screen that hates the sun and salt.”
But the Monocle man is surely mistaken. A newspaper is not just for summer, it's the perfect handheld wireless device for all year round…

That was the Evening Standard so they have a yacht in this race.

He describes the newspaper as an 'anti-iPad device'. It seems to be working: he reckons the venture has already made money before a copy has been sold. Luxury advertisers have been keen to buy space. It's priced at £7 online and €5 from newstands.

I wonder how you get to be 'a self-appointed arbiter of cool'? Sounds useful when you have a newspaper to plug (see right). But if you have to ask...

Monday, 2 August 2010

The would-be Caesars' wives up at The Dabbler.

Illuminating a Small Field now on sale

Today I'm starting to take orders for my blogpaper, Illuminating a Small Field (see here for some background and here to learn more about Newspaper Club, who helped me make it). If you would kindly cast your eyes rightwards you'll see a PayPal button. You can pay by credit or debit card or via your PayPal account and I shall do the rest (you'll be asked for delivery details). Any problems please email me at gawragbag(at)gmail(dot)com.

I'm sending them out by second-class post, so you should get them within a week of ordering. Overseas deliveries may take a bit longer. You can expect a 12-page colour tabloid, printed cheaply and cheerfully in the same way that very small circulation foreign newspapers sometimes are for the big hotel chains (i.e. legible but no work of art - though only to look at, naturally...).

May I remind you it's a mere £2 for UK delivery and just £3.50 for overseas? And you don't just get a newspaper for that - no, you're participating in a great cultural experiment. This is one of the very first blogpapers to have been published and distributed via the web. You have the chance to put a small piece of history in your hands.

I shall blog my experiences with this project further and will produce some sort of 'how-to' post in the event that other bloggers (or any other species of writer) would like to have a go. Not that it's at all difficult. In fact, it's all been great fun - putting it together was a particular pleasure: easy to do and very satisfying.

The 1p Book Review

Just so you know...

The 1p Book Review picked out of the bargain bin for the first time today by Nige - will be a recurring Dabbler feature. If you would like to recommend a book (fiction or non-) that can be bought on Amazon for a penny (or a cent?), drop a line, with your choice and justification, to

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Malty bait

 As Clare Balding remarks:
One can't change AA Gill.

He's had a go at the Welsh, ('ugly, pugnacious trolls' and that's the nice bit), the good people of Cheshire, the Albanians, the Germans, the English, etc. etc. But now, he's really bitten off more than he can chew. He's having a go at the lesbians or, more particularly, national-treasure-designate Clare Balding, who he described as a 'dyke'. Balding:
"This is not about me putting up with having the piss taken out of me, something I have been quite able to withstand, it is about you legitimising name calling. 'Dyke' is not shouted out in school playgrounds (or as I've had it at an airport) as a compliment, believe me."

Fair enough. Gill is now being Twitter-whipped:
The spat is being followed by thousands of people on Twitter. Balding, who made her debut on the microblogging site earlier this week to call Gill a "twat", is now seeking advice from fellow tweeter Stephen Fry. Last night former the Labour deputy leader John Prescott tweeted his support for Balding, referring to Gill as "a shit".

I'm sure Malty - commenter-extraordinaire and Gill-nemesis - could elaborate on JP's unusually pithy summary judgement. Shame he don't tweet.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Normblog profile

I've just been given a Normblog Profile. If you haven't come across it - which you may well have given it's one of the more ancient institutions in the blogiverse - I recommend Norm Geras's civilised, inquisitive and thoughtful blog.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Would you like some tacos with that? over at The Dabbler.

Allergy advice

Jam-filled donuts from the Co-op (or the Kwop as my Nain pronounced it). The usual allergy advice is on the packet:
This product contains or may contain traces of Nuts and Sesame Seeds.

But what's this underneath?
This product contains or may also contain traces of Wheat, Gluten, Barley, Egg, Oats, Milk, Mustard, Rye, Soya, Sulphites.

Oh, right. Donuts. Probably linked somehow. But, hang on, there's another bit:
These products have been prepared in an area that handles the following ingredients: Celery, Crustaceans, Fish, Lupins and Molluscs.

Never mind the allergy threat. Where on earth are they making these donuts?

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

First post

Here's my first post for The Dabbler. It's about writing and the Thames, the business end of it. Some go with the flow and some just, er, dabble.

A-dabblin' and a-scribblin'

A few bloggers from this small corner of the blogiverse have clubbed together to create a new blog The Dabbler ( It's going to be concerned with culture, a very wide field, at least as it's conceived in these parts. We anticipate hosting a few people and we will also be looking to develop some regular features (our first post is also the first of an ongoing feature - 6 Clicks for the Endless Voyage - and it's by our pal Brit).

At the moment it's in a cheap and cheerful wrapper but we hope soon to make it all glossy and elegant. Can we say it's in beta? Why not, I've always wanted to have something in beta.

The title is inspired in part by a quote from Kim*:
...he was no more than an inexpert dabbler in the mysteries; but at least - he thanked the Gods therefore - he knew when he sat in the presence of a master...

* Incidentally, this refers to one of Kiplings most intriguing characters, Huree Babu.

What they were all about

Yesterday evening I saw a trailer for an upcoming BBC2 season on the Normans. Good, I look forward to it - it's one of my periods. But in the montage of presenters one did claim, whilst standing in front of a church, that:
This sort of permanent public art was what the Normans were all about.

'Permanent public art'? The Normans had no conception of the words 'public' and 'art'. Churches weren't equivalent of anything we might think of as public art. But they were built for permanence.

So that's one out of three. Anyway, mustn't jump all over it as it's not often we get lots of history - story-book history, no less - at prime time on a main channel. Fingers crossed that it doesn't sacrifice too much sense and meaning for supposed accessibility.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

On the savannah

We went to Richmond Park for a picnic on the weekend. It's a strange place to find nested in London.

We accessed it through an easily-missed gate at the end of a suburban street of semi-detached cottages. It was like entering Narnia, except the world on the other side looked like African savannah rather than a snowy forest. A waterhole lay immediately ahead of us and yellow grass stretched into the distance punctuated by the odd, brown-spotted tree.

Once we'd lain our blankets down, the adults in the group stood up and looked out, one hand on hip, the other shading eyes from the sun. It was hot and there was a slight shimmer in the air. We did seem very well adapted to this environment: easily assuming a Meerkat-like stance and with a cooling gracile conformation.

The one element that disrupted the reverie was the low-flying passenger jets that regularly rumbled into the setting sun. And it wasn't just the noise.

At one point our eldest, who's four, hared off across the plains. He's practising his running a lot at the moment, probably as he's just reached the age when you can become properly good at it. He can run quite fast and for quite a long time now. Anyway, he was gradually transforming himself into a distant speck when we thought we'd better stop him. T. showed an excellent turn of pace to get within earshot and call him back.

So why had he run off like that? "I was trying to keep up with the planes - I wanted to see where they were going." I suppose it was that sort of exuberant curiosity that led us away from the savannah in the first place.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Persuading history to be kind

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown's account of the global financial crisis is to be published in November.
Mr Brown said the book would "explain how we got here"...

This seems to have been the former PM's first priority on leaving office. As Winston Churchill said, 'History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.' Brown does, however, have something of a steeper hill to climb.

Ragbag newspaper

I'm doing some work for a great business called Newspaper Club and I've decided to use them to produce a newspaper from this blog. It's a collection of posts I've written about me and my family, which together form a sort of memoir.

It's probably worth recounting how they came to be written, starting last summer. I'd been ill for a year and had been mostly confined to the sofa. I'd begun blogging to amuse myself and then, as I received some approbation from commenters, to amuse others as well. As my illness wore on, and being firmly in my forties, feelings of mortality made me think that I should record something about myself and where I came from. If anything bad should happen (not that it should - I was seriously and chronically ill but not fatally and with every hope of being cured) I would have left some sort of personal account. This seemed particularly worth doing as I'm the father of two little boys, who, if they're like their parents, will have a great deal of curiosity about their family background.

As in most families, there are a number of stories that have been told again and again over the years. I'd always thought a few of them remarkable in a way. Some also struck me as being very funny despite occasionally possessing a tragic, even disturbing element. I posted on these and other stories or incidents as they occurred to me, as events and references triggered memories. I didn't set out to write anything complete, comprehensive or consistent. I did consider recasting the various posts to create a more conventionally arranged memoir but decided that the material as it stood wasn't suited to being stitched together into a single piece of prose. I guess that's the nature of material written for a blog.

So why produce a newspaper from them? Well, I believe some of my blog readers would enjoy reading these posts collected and end-to-end, and they wouldn't be easy to lay out or to read comfortably online. I also have in mind some relations and friends who are only likely to read these pieces if they can hold them in their hands, printed on paper, but who would enjoy them nonetheless.

Set down on the page they read rather like a collection of letters but with only one side of the correspondence present. Posts are very often provoked by something else written online, by a fellow blogger, a journalist, an academic or a commenter. That element of dialogue, that dynamism, is one of the joys of blogging. It's obviously not available in the newspaper format. However, when you read it through you're not missing any necessary information as a consequence; it's sufficiently self-contained to be understandable.

Which leads me to thank those many and varied interlocutors - my correspondents, in a way - who helped provoke these pieces, particularly those kind commenters who were motivated to encourage me to write and to compliment me when they thought I'd done it well.

I'm doing this for a bit of fun and not seeking to make any money from it. I'm thinking of charging £2 a copy, which should cover production, packing and postage, with a £1.50 surcharge for overseas deliveries. I'm taking a cheap and cheerful printing option that also allows you to do a small print run very economically and as a consequence the print quality won't be brilliant. But then it's a newspaper - as long as it's legible and has a bit of colour it should be fine.

Once I've got the things printed I'll put up a PayPal button and we can take it from there. It's called 'Illuminating a Small Field'.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Mollusc van

From here.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Milk raids

Turns out there's a War on Raw Milk going on:
When the 20 agents arrived bearing a search warrant at her Ventura County farmhouse door at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday a couple weeks back, Sharon Palmer didn't know what to say. This was the third time she was being raided in 18 months, and she had thought she was on her way to resolving the problem over labeling of her goat cheese that prompted the other two raids. (In addition to producing goat's milk, she raises cattle, pigs, and chickens, and makes the meat available via a CSA.)
But her 12-year-old daughter, Jasmine, wasn't the least bit tongue-tied. "She started back-talking to them," recalls Palmer. "She said, 'If you take my computer again, I can't do my homework.' This would be the third computer we will have lost. I still haven't gotten the computers back that they took in the previous two raids." 
As part of a five-hour-plus search of her barn and home, the agents -- from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, Los Angeles County Sheriff, Ventura County Sheriff, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture -- took the replacement computer, along with milk she feeds her chickens and pigs. 
While no one will say officially what the purpose of this latest raid was, aside from being part of an investigation in progress, what is very clear is that government raids of producers, distributors, and even consumers of nutritionally dense foods appear to be happening ever more frequently. Sometimes they are meant to counter raw dairy production, other times to challenge private food organizations over whether they should be licensed as food retailers.

There was a time when 'raw milk' was known as 'milk'. In any event, this raw milk thing appears to be a practice that's engaged in by consenting adults.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

This is why they named it just the once

This video is tidy.

(But you have to have seen Jay Z's version for it to really work).

Funny old game

Funny old game, investment banking. And not only because it nearly destroyed the global economy a little while back. It happens to contain some peculiar characters.

Unfortunately many of them are versions of this nutty bunny:
I typically work 70-80 hours a week. I'm also married, raising two children, I work out 3-4x per week and I make sure that I spend no less than 20 days a year on the ski slopes. I'm also on the Boards of three not-for-profit organizations in healthcare, arts and education and I still have dinner with my parents every Sunday night. (Let me repeat that for all of the Moms and Dads out there.... I still have dinner w/ my parents every Sunday night).

So how does she manage such a precarious work-life balance?
I've actually come up with a model that helps keep me on track in this regard. In business school, we learned about the "weighted average cost of capital" and the "capital asset pricing model". My idea is built on the same concept -- it's called the "weighted average week".
For a Type A person like me ... and I suspect I'm not alone here - it's hard to even consider not being outstanding at everything I do every day. But the truth is, that's just not possible. There are too many competing demands: a career, a husband, a family, volunteer work, recreation, friends... and so I've learned to accept that I cannot be an A+ at everything every day ... but I've also learned that I CAN be an A, on average, over the course of a week in my life.

Are you allowed to mark your own work? She's at Goldman Sachs so I guess anything might be possible.

Another, less partial view of the over-achieving woman investment banker from the same article:
One buddy, a vice president in hard-charging, testosterone-filled M&A, spent the better part of a weekend lying on her side on the floor of her office, reading deal documents. She kept reassuring concerned colleagues that she was fine, until the pain got so bad that she relented and called her boyfriend. He came and took her straight to the hospital. The doctors operated immediately, assuming she had appendicitis. They found instead diverticulitis, which usually afflicts the elderly, and she was so close to a colon rupture that they had to remove half of it.
The partners at her firm instructed her to not to return until she had recovered fully. But this was September. Bonuses were paid at year end, and as she read the unwritten code, and knew that staying away too long would be seen as a sign of weakness. She was back at the office three weeks later, looking wan.
She later became the first woman investment banking partner at her prestigious firm. Her instincts served her well. Or maybe not. She later lost 90 percent of the vision in one eye to glaucoma, an easily treated disease, because her overloaded schedule made eye exams seem like a luxury.

But in addition to this species of cult victim you also get the occasional very wise person. This, written by an investment banker, happens to be the wisest thing I've read this week.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Gorbals boys

This is a great piece of journalism from a few years back. It seamlessly incorporates a number of different layers of story, each of which informs the others, and includes a brave bit of reporting from the front line of a Gorbals pub:
Then someone is at my table. He is about 5ft 6in, with long wavy grey hair, wearing a dark shirt and dress trousers. He looks like Roman Polanski on heroin, face heavily lined, eyes watery. “You could be polis,” he says casually. “I met two polis earlier today and do you know what really pissed me off? They were nice guys. I hate polis. What’s your name?” I tell him. “Kenny? You orange bastard.” The tone is still calm but the watery eyes have turned to ice.
He bends close. “You know what I am? I’m 47 years old and violent as f***. I just don’t care, and I’ve never been caught. You know how a knee-capping works? Get him right there.” He stabs a forefinger into a hollow on the side of my right knee. “You know what they say when you do it? They say, ‘Oh ya bastard!’ That’s what they say.” I make an innocuous comment as he turns away, and he swings back, anger whitening his face. “Don’t shout after my back! Don’t call me a c*** behind my back! Calling me a c***!” He stalks back to the bar and sits watching me.

Thankfully, the reporter, Kenny Farquharson, escapes intact.

I wonder, how do people around here rate James Kelman's 'How Late It Was, How Late', which is set in the same milieu (if I may be permitted to use such a poncy word in this context)? I thought it was dazzlingly well written, quite poetic in places and altogether very moving.

I also wonder whether anyone still reads Ralph Glasser's autobiographical trilogy, which includes the fascinating 'Gorbals Boy at Oxford'. (Having googled the latter and entered it into Amazon's search tool but in both cases had no predictive text offered, and having also noted it's out of print with plenty of second-hand copies available for £0.01, I guess not.)

For those who don't know, Ralph Glasser (who went on to be a psychologist, economist and consultant) won a scholarship to study at Oxford despite being brought up in the grinding poverty of a Gorbals tenement. His mother died when he was six, his father was a gambling-addicted tailor and as a boy, unable to continue his school education for want of funds, he worked in a garment sweat shop by day and studied by night.

The book begins with him cycling down to Oxford from Glasgow as he's too poor to get the train. His arrival in the city is one of most memorable things I've read. It's partly the perspective, as he relates elsewhere:
In pre-war days for a Gorbals man to come up to Oxford was unthinkable as to meet a raw bushman in the St James club, something for which there were no stock responses. In any case for a member of the boss class, someone from the Gorbals was in effect a bushman, the Gorbals itself as distant and unknowable as the Kalahari Desert

And vice versa.

In the course of the book, he goes on to provide some telling pen portraits of Oxford luminaries including an unforced evisceration of Richard Crossman, which succeeded in forever putting him beyond my sympathies. From memory (I lent/gave my copy away) the piece starts with Crossman airily enquiring at a seminar: 'Why do people work?' Glasser answers: 'Because they'd starve if they didn't'. Crossman, the archetypal arrogant Wykehamist bully, didn't appreciate having his balloon pricked. It's all beautifully written too.

Mind you, I recall Norman Stone - another Scot in Oxonian exile - commenting that he thought the selling point of Glasser's book was a bit of a swiz. Glasser having an intellectual Jewish background one shouldn't find it remarkable that he'd got on. And he had a point: Glasser's Wikipedia entry tells us that he attended a lecture by Albert Einstein at the age of thirteen, the sort of thing that Gorbals boys of that age, both then and now, don't ordinarily do. You're more likely to find them aspiring to get in The Brazen Head pub.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Don't worry, much

Further to yesterday's post and its comments, I have no doubt that in some ways we're more bestial than we were fifty or one hundred years ago and that in some ways we're more civilised. Personally, I think on balance we're more civilised than we were one hundred years ago and more bestial than we were fifty years ago. My guess is that two world wars and an economic depression did something to make society a couple of generations ago unusually disciplined.

However, I doubt it could be proven to general satisfaction and I have no real confidence that I'm right. We could share examples and counter examples until the cows come back, self-fulfilled, to their broken home.

But I am more sure of one thing and that concerns the fears of imminent social breakdown on the part of the Chicken Licken tendency. This is usually directed at the fear that Muslims are going to take over. But a different strain is coming to the fore as expressed by Sean in the comments yesterday and that is the fear that the People of the Abyss are going to strangle us in our beds if we can no longer afford to buy them off, an eventuality that may be just around the corner now that we're broke. (If you're interested in more spine-tingling tales, Chickenlickenism is retailed by P Hitchens, Melanie Phillips, Damian Thompson, and others as well as our Sean.)

Now I don't believe any of this is going to happen. In fact, I think it's a bit paranoid. But it struck me whilst watching the demise of the evil Moaty that anyone taking on the British state in determinedly violent fashion needs their head examined (as, indeed, did Moaty). There was enough force there - in one small and relatively remote corner of Britain and to challenge one individual whose threat to the wider society was absolutely insignificant - to defeat a small army. Tornado jets were deployed for goodness sake.

Leviathan has never been stronger. As a consequence, and absent some unimaginable catastrophe, reversion to a Hobbesian state is even more unlikely. I guess people might say we've gone soft and would shy away from a resolute response when the time came, that we've become too effete and decadent to defend Western civilisation (I'm beginning to see the attractions of this sort of language, by the way - declaiming stuff about 'Western civilisation' makes you feel very big and important).

The evidence is to the contrary, of course: we've gone to war on three continents six times over the last twenty years, a world record only surpassed (I think) by the US. At home, we have our largest ever prison population and a police force that's bigger, more militarised and better armed than it's ever been. And then look at your own circle of friends and acquaintances. Personally, I can think of plenty of people who I'd not want to get on the wrong side of by threatening them with forced conversion to Islam or expropriation of their goods and chattels.

The British state isn't one of the oldest in the world solely because it's been good at creating consensus and peacefully canalising conflict. It also happens to be one of the most effective monopolisers and projectors of violence that the world has ever seen. And that's not to mention the British themselves...

Monday, 19 July 2010

Golden days

Peter Hitchens appeared on 'The House I Grew Up In' this morning, giving him the opportunity to expatiate on life in the 1950s. He wasn't deterred from generalising from his own experience. He grew up in a southern English, middle-class, nuclear family with a father who was in the navy and where he and his brother were boarders at public school. He reckoned the things that children didn't do back in the 1950s included getting into your parents bed if you were scared, using (or even understanding) swear words and knowing about sex. You had to wait until you were an adult to comprehend raciness in language or deed.

His experience of the 1950s is obviously a touchstone for his reactionary political views. And I have no doubt that such a childhood was experienced by many. But it was hardly universal. I checked with my Dad, who's about ten years' older than P Hitchens: he often slept with his grandmother when he was little, knew all about the mechanics of sex from his earliest years (having seen it on the farm) and also knew just about every swear word there was (having heard them from his uncles and the farm labourers). You might say that his childhood was unusual, but a lot more people lived and worked on the land back in those days. And even more didn't grow up shuttling between the restrained household of a navy officer and an English public school.

Sexual behaviour was less regimented than P Hitchens would probably credit too. The grandmother whose bed my father shared when little was known in her younger days as Lizzie Droppy-Drawers - she had two (or possibly three) children out of wedlock, all of them being sent off to North American for adoption (and another six more conventionally with her ill-starred husband).

It's tempting to generalise from our own experiences, to assume common reference points. P Hitchens may have a point in desiring a restoration of traditional morality and conventional taboos with regard to the family - it would certainly be a good thing for more fathers to stay with their children. But his particular ideal wasn't just bounded by time, it was also bounded by place and class. A significant portion of society has always been more morally lax than the broom-up-the-backside lot would have us believe.

I have little idea what implications this observation has for policy, for how people might be made to behave better. But I suspect that whatever they are, they're not encouraging.