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.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

States of confusion

One day I'm informed the President of the US is a Marxist-Leninist, the next that he's a Republican. The latter seems a darned sight closer to the truth. But as Brit pointed out somewhere: whatever is true of the US, the reverse is just as true.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction

Frank Key proffers some extracts from four contemporary reviews of Wilde's 'Picture of Dorian Gray'. We assume our journalism is pretty vicious nowadays but I don't think I've read anything like these, even when a work by Martin Amis was the subject.

Here's one of them, probably the fruitiest:
“This is a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French decadents – a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” – The Daily Chronicle

Pop over and read the others.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Top marks for imagination

The NAACP accuses the Tea Party movement of having racists and bigots within its ranks, whom its leadership should repudiate. This sounds pretty reasonable - but how can one be sure that these 'racists and bigots' exist to any significant degree?

This is how the official spokesman and former Chairman of Tea Party Express (a leading organiser of rallies in support of the Tea Party agenda), responded to the NAACP's call:
"You're dealing with people who are professional race-baiters, who make a very good living off this kind of thing. They make more money off of race than any slave trader ever. It's time groups like the NAACP went to the trash heap of history where they belong with all the other vile racist groups that emerged in our history," Williams said.

So, part of the Tea Party leadership believes that slave traders were no worse, really, than a civil rights-inspired lobbying group? The NAACP seems to have been seriously understating the problem they'd identified.

Here's another story from today, which describes how leaders of the North Ohio Tea Party regretted placing an image of Obama next to one of Hitler. They said it 'just totally wiped everything else and it misrepresents the tea party movement'. Part of the everything else that it 'just totally wiped' was an image of Lenin on the other side.

It's true that the anti-war left compared Bush to Hitler during the last administration. That was nuts too - but it didn't seem so popular.

Last night when I read Richard Cobb describe the American reading public as 'possibly the most unimaginative, certainly the most ignorant in the world', I was inclined to dismiss it as the product of particular a streak of anti-Americanism sometimes found in that generation. I still think in one respect he's definitely wrong: there's nothing 'unimaginative' about this particular portion of the American public. If anything, their imaginations run away with them.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Eggs and omelettes

It's Bastille Day today, a celebration that marks the date from which Britain and France began to use the same words but with quite different connotations (for instance, it would be difficult to ban the burqa over here under the banner of Liberty).

I shall mark the day by relating my favourite anecdote of the French Revolution. It concerns the fate of one notable aristocratic intellectual during the Terror and is from Simon Schama's Citizens:
The great exponent of a state in which science and virtue would be mutually reinforcing, the Marquis de Condorcet, died in abject defeat, escaping from house arrest in Paris in May 1794 and walking all the way to Clamart only to arouse suspicion at an inn when he ordered an omelette. "How many eggs?" asked the patronne. "Twelve," replied Condorcet, suggesting a damaging unfamiliarity with the cuisine of the common man. He was locked up for the Revolutionary Tribunal but was found dead in his cell before he could be transported to Paris.

Now that really is irony. Extra helpings, in fact.

By the way, I've plugged it before somewhere but I recommend Hilary Mantel's novel about the French Revolution 'A Place of Greater Safety'. It's fascinating, accomplished, stylish, educative, epic and credible. I wonder why it isn't a film yet?

Are you a double-dipper?

One of the most important political debates in the country right now - as it has been for the last few months, and as it probably will be for the next couple of years - is whether spending cuts and tax rises are going to precipitate a 'double-dip' recession. Expert economists and not-so-expert newspaper columnists are lining up on either side; politicians have staked out their ground, seemingly full of certainty, even passion. Who to believe?

Having consulted with professional economist friends, there's not much that you can robustly rely on in either the theoretical or the empirical research (that is, through looking at computer models or at history). You'll hear people bandying about terms like aggregate demand and referring to dates such as 1937. But the data, wherever it comes from, is inconclusive.

And this is unsurprising as the economic success of the budget fundamentally comes down to two things. Firstly, the world economy - if that goes down it's likely we will too, regardless of our fiscal policy.

The second factor is close to home (literally, in a sense): confidence, of businesses, individuals and markets. In an important respect, your answer is as good as anyone's as you are (if you're reading this in the UK) one of those individuals whose attitude will determine whether the budget ends up promoting economic growth.

So tell me - did the budget make you feel good about the future or bad?

The more people and businesses feel confident in spending and investing because they see government debt and the future tax burden coming under control, the more the budget will have been good for economic growth.

The more people and businesses feel too worried to spend and invest because they see immediate spending cuts and tax rises resulting in fewer jobs and less demand for goods and services, the more the budget will have been bad for economic growth.

Whether you feel good or bad about the future - and whether most people and businesses agree with you - will determine what happens next. And that's something economic models or a study of history cannot estimate with any certainty. There can be a very respectable difference of opinion on this. But it's difficult for even the best economists - and certainly newspaper columnists and politicians - to claim any special insights.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Unedifiication abounds

Mandelson retails more unedifying stuff on the last Government. Most of the Cabinet believed they were 'fucked'. Why? Douglas Alexander:
Everything we face comes back to leadership. Everything.

And the doubts were widespread from the very beginning. So why was D Milliband so reluctant to challenge Brown when Blair stood down?
Mandelson offers some support for David Miliband, who has faced criticism for failing to accept Blair's advice to challenge Brown for the Labour leadership in 2007. "I think he felt that entering a leadership race at that stage would be like entering a football match when you are already four nil down with only 35 minutes left to play."

Hardly the sort of courageous, never-say-die player you want on your team is it? "No, boss. I'm not going on as we're losing too badly". Even if he'd run and lost - as was, indeed, probable - he'd have done everyone in his party a favour: Brown's legitimacy would have been bolstered and he would have established his credentials as an alternative leader.

Mandelson's comment also suggests that D Milliband's reasons for ducking out of subsequent challenges were similarly, let us say, prudential. (And by the way, can you believe such an interjection can be thought of as 'support'?)

Monday, 12 July 2010

Through a glass brightly

(Fernand Léger's stained-glass window at Central University of Venezuela courtesy of Caracas 1830).

David Hockney made quite a splash last year with his iPhone art. The light, the colour, the spontaneity, the freshness all gave his images a distinct appeal. And as you'd expect with any new art form, people are working through its potential, including how these works might be displayed. Just because it was made on an iPhone, doesn't mean it will only ever be viewed in the palm of your hand.

Tinker, a design business based in London's Shoreditch, has come up with a means of displaying Hockney's art in a more traditional fashion, i.e. on a wall. Their project involved taking a number of iPod touches and embedding them in a frame, where they display the artist's jewel-like pictures.

Alex Deschamps-Sonsino, Tinker's CEO, explained to me how the framed screens are programmable, the idea being that you can remotely upload whatever picture you'd like or, perhaps more interestingly, subscribe to an artist's image feed. Hockney tends to email his i-art to his friends as it's made - often in the early morning, which is why it so often features sunrises. Imagine waking up in the morning to find your daily art has already been delivered, digitally and fresh from the artist's screen.

The use of iPod touches does have its problems, however. They're small and you need a few of them to create visual impact across a room. Hockney is now making use of the larger iPad, whose size makes it a more suitable vehicle for wall-mounted digital art. Perhaps the frame could be some sort of recharging station whereby you could make aesthetic use of your iPad when you're not holding it?

But how about TVs? Flat-screen TVs have long been pushed as a way to display art (and now in HD) but without ever really taking off. Perhaps we should persist with them? Personally, I think not: in my book TVs are for watching, not looking. Displaying art at such a focal point places a burden on it that it's not designed to bear: art in a domestic setting really should be peripheral, available for the refreshing glance or to turn to for some quiet contemplation. A TV, perhaps a bit mysteriously, doesn't seem to fit the bill.

My own preference would be to go with an outsize, high quality, strongly-lit, digital glass photo frame, the ones with connectivity and a memory.

I suspect, though, that domestic digital art will only really catch on when you have a wide variety of decent artists producing for the market. Where might these artists find inspiration? Certainly, the possibilities of a new medium are exciting. But I would argue inspiration is available by looking back as well as looking forward. You see, this art form isn't as novel as we might first assume. In fact, one could argue that what we're actually witnessing is the rebirth of a rather ancient artistic medium.

All pictures use light, of course: its bouncing off the surfaces of an oil painting, for instance, creates the multifarious effects that make the possibilities of this form practically inexhaustible. However, Hockney's digital paintings use light not to reflect off surfaces but to illuminate them; the light doesn't fall on them, it's emitted by them. This illumination gives them a boldness and, depending on the colours used, a freshness or a warmth that cannot be consistently reproduced in painting. They're decoration but also potentially a light source, so able to project colours and create moods.

A moment's thought will tell you that these effects and their application are actually very well known. Until relatively recently they had been explored and implemented by a whole class of craftsmen and artists and for hundreds of years. I'm talking about another form of illuminated wall decoration, the stained-glass window.

A number of modern artists have used this medium, including Léger (top), Richter, Doesburg (above) and Chagall. But the last group of artists and craftsmen to have regarded the stained glass window as a central and vernacular means of expression were those associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, itself born out of the Pugin-led Gothic Revival.

An artist who I'm familiar with (from St Mary's Church in Bibury) who continued to work in this revived tradition well into the twentieth century was Karl Parsons, whose windows are to be found across England and Wales. Their vivid colour combinations and sheer effervescence make them a joy.

It's intriguing to consider the possibilities here. Firstly, old wine might be put into new bottles. We might be able to enjoy in our homes a detail from one of Parsons' windows or something from one of the glories of Gothic, such as Chartres's Rose Window. Or if straightforwardly religious art isn't something you'd consider then perhaps a scaled-down version of an entire modernist window such as Doesberg's one above might suit? Or alternatively a piece whose abstract qualities come from its materials such as the one (right) from Zurich that incorporates slices of agate, or a section of one of the alabaster windows of Orvieto Cathedral.

However, the new is often made by finding inspiration in the old, by reworking and reinterpreting it. Certainly, contemporary artists such as Hockney, David Kassan and Brian Eno - whose  ambitious 77 million paintings project mustn't go unmentioned here - are blazing a variety of trails. But perhaps digital artists of the future might be able to rework the aesthetics of this thousand-year old stained-glass tradition? If so, who knows what might be produced? From the Renaissance and its classical antecedents to Modernism and the inspiration it found in the 'primitive', artists have always been inspired to innovate under the influence of strange and distant traditions.

Heaven on earth

From here:
Alan Wolfe reviews Terry Eagleton's new book:
“We cannot pass reliable moral judgment on the human species,” he argues, “because we have never been able to observe it other than in desperately deformed conditions.” Lift the burdens imposed by scarcity and poverty, and then we will find that human beings need not kill others to make up for their moral and psychological failings. This seems to me, if I may be so crude as to repair to the language of social science, a non-falsifiable proposition, assuming, as it does, a condition that will never be met. Such futuristic speculation is not what we would expect from a self-proclaimed realist, but logical consistency is not remotely Eagleton’s strength.

Not quite right. '[T]he burdens imposed by scarcity and poverty' have been lifted in parts of Cheshire and Surrey and, no, they don't seem to need to kill each other. Well, not much.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

How brief the main event

I liked a couple of the sporting poems to be found here, including this one by Alan Jenkins:
Great Sporting Moments, Vol LV

A brace of goals that I was meant to score,
Aged ten – how else can I explain them? Taken on the run
Or on the turn, from outside the eighteen-yard box.

The last-minute try that means we have won –
My first game for the big school's first fifteen – except
The full-time whistle has already gone. (I blunder on

Through their bewildered backs . . .) The catch
I take so deep in the outfield it almost knocks me
Backwards over the boundary. Last man out. End of match.

I can still see myself, skinny legs in baggy khaki shorts,
Forehand-drive my way through the singles draw
Against the white-clad ones on the tennis-club courts

And hurtle towards the crossbar that day I leapt
Into the record-book . . . How reliable these moments are
That I replay endlessly! But all the same it shocks me,

To think that I was once that little star,
So lean and taut and primed – the boy who mocks me;
How brief the main event, through which I must have slept.

Schoolboy sport always seemed to me to be a preparation for adult sport. This is natural, school being a preparation for adult life more generally. And yet, for me too, 'the main event' was all too brief. I didn't sleep through my short adult sporting life so much as hobble through it.

From the age of sixteen I broke an arm twice, dislocated a shoulder, tore the cartilage in a shoulder, strained ankle ligaments in both ankles, broke a leg, ruptured the cruciate ligaments in a knee, broke my jaw, had a compressed fracture of my cheekbone, and blew out an eye socket (these last three happened all at once - I still have a plastic plate under one eye). I also pulled various muscles (most irritatingly, the hamstrings) and was concussed two or three times (I forget).

Except for one broken arm (fighting) and the broken leg (football), it was all rugby. I played my last match, perhaps understandably, at the age of twenty-four. I always think that the game gave me up rather than the other way round.

By the way, another (well, the only other) of these sporting poems I enjoyed is by Kit Wright and is elegiacally concerned with cricket (it's the final one).

Friday, 9 July 2010

Daisy, daisy: Jon Silkin and a floral tradition

This year is the eightieth anniversary of the birth of the poet Jon Silkin. These sunny summer spells when we sometimes find ourselves sprawled across a lawn - studying the ground-level flora a little more closely than usual and from some unfamiliar angles - never fail to remind me of his work. One of my favourite poems of his concerns a flower that blooms down there at lawn level and at this time, 'A Daisy'.

Despite this small and common flower being little valued - and when they crop up in the more carefully-tended lawns, enthusiastically eradicated - I predict you'll never look at them in the same way after reading Silkin's precise and yet uncanny description.

Uncanny partly because of the precision. He's studied them minutely; he's considered them meticulously. These familiar, everyday flowers are re-presented to us new and strange. (Observant and long-standing readers with good memories may remember this poem being posted around about this time last year. But, hey, it's a favourite - I may put it up this time every year.)
A Daisy

Look unoriginal
Being numerous. They ask for attention
With that gradated yellow swelling
Of oily stamens. Petals focus them:
The eye-lashes grow wide.
Why should not one bring these to a funeral?
And at night, like children,
Without anxiety, their consciousness
Shut with white petals;

Blithe, individual.

The unwearying, small sunflower
Fills the grass
With versions of one eye.
A strength in the full look
Candid, solid, glad.
Domestic as milk.

In multitudes, wait,
Each, to be looked at, spoken to.
They do not wither;
Their going, a pressure
Of elate sympathy
Released from you.
Rich up to the last interval
With minute tubes of oil, pollen;
Utterly without scent, for the eye,
For the eye, simply. For the mind
And its invisible organ,
That feeling thing.

Silkin's imagery seems wonderfully fresh to me. And yet, he was working within - and echoing - what we might describe without exaggeration as a tradition of daisy poetry. It may seem unlikely that such an unconsidered, everyday flower - weed, even - should support its own poetic tradition but it does. As literary environmentalist Bobby Ward wrote in his 'A Contemplation of Flowers' (a book I've recently discovered and something of a treasury):
After the rose and the lily, the daisy is probably the flower most often mentioned by poets. Chaucer was passionate for it, Shakespeare included daisies in the drowning Ophelia's 'fantastic garland' of flowers and Wordsworth wrote at least three poems to it. Robert Burns, Ben Jonson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Clare, and countless others referred to this simple but adored flower.
From early on the daisy had dual uses as an oracle and a herb. It became popular for telling prophesies because its composite form, or collection of numerous florets comprising the flower head, made the petals easy to pluck. Goethe supposedly gave Marguerite [incidentally, a French word for daisy] a daisy-like flower to determine Faust's love for her as she recited the now popular chant, 'He loves me. He loves me not.' Further, because the flower head looks much like an eye, herbalists using the ancient Doctrine of Signatures thought daisies could cure bloodshot eyes and various other eye problems.

So the daisy was being written about when the first recognisable English was being written. The 'passionate' fan, Chaucer, gave us an etymology:
That men by reason will it calle may
The daisie or elles the eye of day

Of Ward's other examples, Wordsworth and his 'To the Daisy' interests me as it seems so consciously to embed itself in this floral tradition. And it ends by bequeathing the flower to future poets. Its penultimate verse also appeals mystically, even magically, to what Silkin describes as 'that feeling thing':
When, smitten by the morning ray,
I see thee rise alert and gay,
Then, chearful Flower! my spirits play
With kindred motion:
At dusk, I've seldom mark'd thee press
The ground, as if in thankfulness,
Without some feeling, more or less,
Of true devotion.

And all day long I number yet,
All seasons through, another debt,
Which I wherever thou art met,
To thee am owing;
An instinct call it, a blind sense;
A happy, genial influence,
Coming one knows not how nor whence,
Nor whither going.

Child of the Year! that round dost run
Thy course, bold lover of the sun,
And chearful when the day's begun
As morning Leveret,
Thou long the Poet's praise shalt gain;
Thou wilt be more belov'd by men
In times to come; thou not in vain
Art Nature's Favorite.

It's a shame that Silkin - writing in 1965, so well before Ward wrote his book - wasn't included in 'A Contemplation Upon Flowers'. But then Ward's taste is traditional. Which also presumably accounts for Williams Carlos Williams' exclusion. He was an American admirer of Pound and his own daisy poem provides, perhaps predictably, a wilder, more expansive context for our little flower. I think it's rather wonderful that he begins it with a nod to Chaucer's 'the eye of day':

The dayseye hugging the earth
in August, ha! Spring is
gone down in purple,
weeds stand high in the corn,
the rainbeaten furrow
is clotted with sorrel
and crabgrass, the
branch is black under
the heavy mass of the leaves--
The sun is upon a
slender green stem
ribbed lengthwise.
He lies on his back--
it is a woman also--
he regards his former
majesty and
round the yellow center,
split and creviced and done into
minute flowerheads, he sends out
his twenty rays-- a little
and the wind is among them
to grow cool there!

One turns the thing over
in his hand and looks
at it from the rear: brownedged,
green and pointed scales
armor his yellow.

But turn and turn,
the crisp petals remain
brief, translucent, greenfastened,
barely touching at the edges:
blades of limpid seashell. 

'Turn and turn/the crisp petals remain'. Perhaps more so than he knew.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

A quick recommendation

Just a quick film recommendation. We saw (500) Days of Summer this evening on DVD. A charming, funny, clever film well worth an evening of your time. Lots of filmic references in it especially to The Graduate.

Also, given yesterday was National Ringo Day I can relate the following exchange:
Girl: I like Ringo Starr.
Boy: Nobody likes Ringo Starr.
Girl: That's why I like him.

Keep an eye on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the male lead. You may know him as the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun. Reminiscent of Heath Ledger but in a good way.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Creative thinking

It's amazing what can happen if you relax your brain when you're watching the TV news. Occasionally, the creativity can flood in. It came to me in a flash: why don't they use the Psychic Octopus to locate Raoul Moat?

Old made new

Here's a photo of my Nain that my sister emailed me today. It was probably taken in the mid-1930s and was quite badly damaged, being creased, dog-eared and with a bit missing. My sister had it digitally re-conditioned and I think it's turned out very well. Nain's on a Welsh Cob, posted on here.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Consider the sword-lilies

The gladioli are back (ones grown in this country, that is). They are a striking flower to have in the house, especially the reds, which we put in a tall glass vase against a white wall in the kitchen. They also happen to represent excellent value for money.

I asked the local flower stall holder we patronise ('tell me, my good man...') why you get so much for your money when you buy glads. He reckoned it was because they are unfashionable. Still? They seem to have been unfashionable for as long as I have been noticing flowers.

It would be easy to blame their status on Dame Edna, who for decades now has cast armfuls of the things into her audiences, making them her signature flower. And yet the meticulous Barry Humphries must have been drawing on an existing naffness when he chose them.

Even without knowing anything about suburban Melbourne and its floral tastes, a critical, rather puritanical eye might see something flashy about them, a touch of grossness, a primped bourgeioserie. They have a rather stately, self-regarding look, which one might wish to deflate. Perhaps it should have been Gladiolus Bucket rather than Hyacinth?

But, thankfully, we don't have a critical, puritanical eye: a bit of exuberance and colour are always welcome.

Looking up the etymology, it turns out that the word 'gladiolus' references the sword-shaped leaves and presumably the long pointed flower-stem; hence its other name, the sword-lily. So not a bad flower to put in the hands of a formidable old bag who regards her audience as adversaries: a comic gladiator armed with gladioli.

Well, whatever its fashion status, we don't care. After all, they were good enough for Van Gogh (above). And long may they remain unfashionable; long may they remain a bargain.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Life, the universe and everything - an update

Explanations of life, the universe and everything have been dominated in recent years, at least in the West, by the neo-Darwinists and the militant atheists: the Dawkins, Dennetts, the Hitchens, Graylings, etc. Naturally, they've found themselves opposed by those we might describe as the straightforwardly religious, most loudly by America's Christians.

But more interestingly (at least to me) a counter-argument is being sounded more and more resonantly by the not-so-straightforwardly religious - those who may believe deeply but not dogmatically - and also by those who feel more-or-less agnostic about the whole thing. They argue that the scientists are claiming to have solved mysteries that they're not equipped to solve, that they're claiming to have tidied up questions with answers that are insufficient or misdirected.

By way of example, B. Appleyard had this to say last month about Evolutionary Psychology (which, according to Wikipedia, 'attempts to explain psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, that is, as the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection'):
[Evolutionary Psychology] assumes we can account for human behaviour and culture on the basis of Darwinism. Unfortunately, since we have no idea how the mind – the creator of behaviour and culture – works, this cannot be science. The mind may have developed according to some non-Darwinian process. It certainly leads us to do things that are unaccountable in Darwinian terms. E[volutionary] P[sychologists] tell stories about how these may be so accountable. They do this because they feel it must be so. This is an act of faith. The stories are only coherent and, maybe, plausible, if the missing link of the mind is somehow included. That cannot currently be done. For the moment they are just stories that generate superstitions.

The most compelling account I've come across of what it is that science hasn't comprehended is an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson's very favourably reviewed recent book of essays 'Absence of Mind'. It ends with a rather beautiful passage:
The universe passed through its unimaginable first moment, first year, first billion years, wresting itself from whatever state of nonexistence, inflating, contorting, resolving into space and matter, bursting into light. Matter condenses, stars live out their generations. Then, very late, there is added to the universe of being a shaped stick or stone, a jug, a cuneiform tablet. They appear on a tiny, teetering, lopsided planet, and they demand wholly new vocabularies of description for reality at every scale. What but the energies of the universe could be expressed in the Great Wall of China, the St Matthew Passion? For our purposes, there is nothing else. Yet language that would have been fully adequate to describe the ages before the appearance of the first artifact would have had to be enlarged by concepts like agency and intention, words like creation, that would query the great universe itself. Might not the human brain, that most complex object known to exist in the universe, have undergone a qualitative change as well? If my metaphor only suggests the possibility that our species is more than an optimised ape, that something terrible and glorious befell us, a change gradualism could not predict – if this is merely another fable, it might at least encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are.

One of her messages is that we can't exclude 'felt experience' in our assessment of mind. I recalled this as I was re-reading a couple of favourite Tony Harrison poems (which I did having referenced one of them here) from 'The School of Eloquence' collection.

They are concerned with bereavement but are witty, even playful. They seem to delight in the creative spark and this - perhaps inadvertently - suggests an expansiveness about the possibilities of creation more generally. He recounts two experiences in relation to his dead father:

James Cagney was the one up both our streets.
his was the only art we ever shared.
A gangster film and choc ice were the treats
that showed about as much love as he dared.

He'd be my own age now in '49
The hand that glinted with the ring he wore,
his father's, tipped the cold bar into mine
just as the organist dropped through the floor.

He's on the platform lowered out of sight
to organ music, this time on looped tape,
into a furnace with a blinding light
where only his father's ring will keep its shape.

I wear it now to Cagneys on my own
and sense my father's hands cupped around my treat --

they feel as though they've been chilled to the bone
from holding my ice cream all through White Heat.

White Heat: a popular Hollywood movie, starring James Cagney.

Marked with D.

When the chilled dough of his flesh went in an oven
not unlike those he fuelled all his life,
I thought of his cataracts ablaze with Heaven
and radiant with the sight of his dead wife,
light streaming from his mouth to shape her name,
'not Florence and not Flo but always Florrie'.
I thought how his cold tongue burst into flame
but only literally, which makes me sorry,
sorry for his sake there's no Heaven to reach.
I get it all from Earth my daily bread
but he hungered for release from mortal speech
that kept him down, the tongue that weighed like lead.

The baker's man that no one will see rise
and England made to feel like some dull oaf
is smoke, enough to sting one person's eyes
and ash (not unlike flour) for one small loaf.

What I think is rather peculiar in these poems is how someone who's an atheist provides such powerful indications of some sort of continuation after death, albeit in places implicitly. The second poem is explicitly atheistic ('there's no Heaven to reach'). But it imagines a bodily resurrection (in the course of denying it) with a vividness I can't recall coming across before. His father's ashes are sufficient for 'one small loaf', a measure that can't help but make us think of the Last Supper and the transubstantiation of the Mass. It's as if his art is subtly subverting his rationalism.

These two poems make me recall the sentiment expressed by Larkin, a near-contemporary and also an atheist poet, that 'what will remain of us is love'. Larkin described this insight (from 'Arundel Tomb') as produced by an 'almost-instinct', which I take to be an awareness, sensed irrationally, peripherally and involuntarily, that the material world might just not be everything.

Another 'spiritual atheist' James Joyce described such moments of awareness as 'epiphanies', taking what was originally a religious form of experience and filling it with a more open-ended appreciation of the ineffable: 'A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused' as Wordsworth put it in 'Tintern Abbey'.

These three modern writers - Harrison, Larkin, Joyce - are (or were) atheists; clear-eyed and self-aware strugglers against false impressions, reassuring sentimentalities and idle comforts. And yet their work, perhaps despite themselves, contains reflections of 'felt experience' that trace the immaterial, transcendental, otherworldly.

Human consciousness remains mysterious. Science has no good account of the human mind. But that doesn't mean there are no other ways to explain and explore it as Robinson relates in arguing an alternative to the reductionism of science:
The gifts we bring to the problem of making an account of the mind are overwhelmingly rich, severally and together. This is not an excuse for excluding them from consideration. History and civilisation are an authoritative record the mind has left, is leaving, and will leave...

This approach limits the authority and application of science. And surely its inevitable corollary is to re-legitimise literature and the other arts as means to approach a form of transcendent truth, a deeply unfashionable approach for a couple of generations now. If so, if Robinson and her allies are successful in their refutations, forms of creative writing may be looking at a more confident and influential future than the recent past might indicate.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Aunt Bo and Uncle Joe

With over 6500 members, the Fabian Society is Britain's leading centre-left think tank, publishing pamphlets, books and magazines, and running seminars...

In my younger, leftier days I occasionally went to Fabian Society events. I wouldn't have countenanced joining it though because of its origins; namely, its founding by the Webbs.

The admirable Harry's Place in its 'From the Archives' series has just put up a post, which underlines these reservations:

A niece’s impressions
Letters to the editor
Manchester Guardian, February 4, 1958, p.6.
…. Aunt Bo, as she [Beatrice Webb] was affectionately known to members of her family (she was my husband’s aunt so it was this capacity that I knew her), despised the working classes with all the zest of her admirable middle-class Victorian upbringing. She disliked their fecklessness, their good nature, and the way they stood up for each other when in trouble…..
Most revealing of all, I remember, was one day after their [Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s] Russian visit, I had asked the headmistress of one of our local secondary schools who had been on an extensive tour down to the Ukraine to come and meet them. Over the teacups the headmistress mentioned her horror at finding her party in a station where several cattle-trucks of “enemies of the State” had been pulled up at a siding on their way to Siberia. “Very bad stage management,” said Aunt Bo severely, “Ridiculous to let you see them; the English are so sentimental!” At which the headmistress, rather shocked said: “But Mrs Webb, they were starving and held out their hands for food – they were in a pitiable condition.” “I know,” the great one replied, “but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”….
Yours &c.,
Hadspen House, Castle Cary, Somerset.

This hardly has the status of revelation. However, it's worth returning to as it's a reminder of how seemingly respectable people can believe appalling things (see here). And indeed how some can get away with it in some quarters even when their evil - I think that's probably the right word when referring to Aunt Bo - is obvious for all to see. It is rather shocking that the Fabian Society has never been persuaded to disown this person.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Move Klose

My song of the tournament: 'Move Klose' by Fill 'is Boots-on. You can't help singing along...
Move Klose, move your body real close until we really feel we're making goals...

(Sorry - I can't resist a dreadful pun - or should that be 'hun'! Boom, boom.)

Living for today

Learning of Beryl Bainbridge's death I was reminded of a diary item written by AN Wilson a couple of years ago:
I could see, as Beryl tucked into her fried bread, fried eggs, and greasy bacon, that there was something different about her appearance, not least that her arms were covered in purple bruises.
'Oh, lamb - I had a heart attack.'
Apparently, after one of her breathless fits, Beryl was taken to hospital where they told her she had indeed had a heart attack. They next tried to find a vein - hence the purple bruises - into which they inserted 'stents,' she said proudly chewing a sausage. 'Look it up in a dictionary.'
I just have - 'a tube implanted temporarily into a vessel' is sense one, and sense two is 'an instrument of torture'.
'Did it hurt?'
'It's all right while they are shoving it up your tube thingies, but when it reaches your heart it hurts like hell.'
'Did they tell you it was OK to eat fried food after the heart attack?' I asked.
'I didn't ask,' she said, as she swallowed the last mouthful of cholesterol. 'But honestly, pet, I have never felt better in my life. All my depression is gone. I came straight home from hospital and cleaned the house, and today I am going to write an article, and then get on with my bloody novel. You haven't got any ciggies on you, have you?'

These people are brave aren't they? I say 'these' as this devil-may-care attitude has surely been shared by Christopher Hitchens, whose diagnosis of oesophageal cancer we've recently learnt about. This is a cancer that's almost certainly caused by drinking and smoking too much.

I used to smoke, and I used to drink a little immoderately, but I stopped the former and cut back on the latter. I didn't want to contribute excessively to my chances of dying too soon. Those who persist despite these fears are worthy of some admiration, I think.

There's a tendency to medicalise the whole thing, to think of it solely in terms of dependence. This is reductive. Why not believe it when Alex Massie says he smokes 'for enjoyment'?

It can all become very patronising and I can't think of less suitable subjects for that treatment than Dame Beryl, The Hitch and A. Massie. Rather, they have demonstrated a pretty serious commitment to living for today, one that deserves some respect.

Friday, 2 July 2010

A fascinating review of The Red Mannheim

Fascinating review of the Mark Alexander works I reviewed here. Fugitive Ink again pulls off that most difficult thing: pointing out what should be evident but somehow isn't. As Orwell said 'to see what's in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle'. We're lucky that Fugitive Ink is there to struggle - elegantly, as ever - on our behalf.

How to get on with the locals and impress your children on holiday

An Englishman - P. Oborne of the Mail - explains how to ingratiate yourself with bar owners, restaurateurs and retailers when holidaying on the Continent:
Anyone planning to travel to Eurozone countries during the summer should consider what has previously been unthinkable - the fate of euro notes and coins if the single currency falls apart. 
Certainly, on my travels, I'm going to be wary of accepting euro notes with serial numbers that are prefixed with the letters Y (coming from Greece) or M (from Portugal). 
I shall also strongly steer clear of notes with the serial numbers starting G (Cyprus), S (Italy), V ( Spain), T ( Ireland) and F (Malta). 
This might sound as if I'm being ridiculously alarmist, but you cannot be too careful.

Imagine lunch at the taverna. His kids are really going to hate him.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

'Anyway, we delivered the bombs...'

Some movie critics - those with a concern for seriousness - blame 'Jaws' for ruining American cinema: it was the original blockbuster and the one that made busting blocks the be-all and end-all of film production. In doing so, it arguably killed the last golden age of creativity in Hollywood, that period covered by Peter Biskind's highly enjoyable 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls'.

However, 'Jaws' was a considerable bit of movie-making. This clip and piece of useful exposition explains one of the reasons why. It culminates in one of those moments when you feel the meaning of the phrase 'spine-tingling':
So eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen come out, the sharks took the rest, June the twenty ninth, 1945.' Quint takes a drink. 'Anyway, we delivered the bombs...

(Note also how effectively Shaw plays drunk - subtly understated but pitch perfect.)


As you may have noticed, I've started contributing a few posts to arts and culture blog 'Touching from a Distance' (however, I haven't always remembered to point this out when I've put them up). It's now been taken over by The Spectator and the lure of the big time means I'll probably cross-post a bit more over there. (Incidentally, the arrival at the venerable Speccie of a blog that covers pop music and other aspects of post-WW2 cultural life hasn't been, ahem, universally welcomed - read these comments, they make our Sean come across like Jeannette Winterson).

The mysterious 'T.', who's featured occasionally on this blog, has been persuaded to enter fully the bright lights of the virtual world. Her post on the new Woody Allen film is here.