Saturday, 30 January 2010

Youth

I learnt of JD Salinger's death shortly after I'd finished reading the brilliant 'Youth', the second part of Gregor von Rezzori's 'Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: A Novel in Five Stories' (recommended to me by Gadjo).

The coincidence got me wondering why we find the bildungsromanthe coming-of-age novel - Salinger's 'Catcher in the Rye' being probably the best-known modern example - so perennially fascinating. We've loved them ever since Goethe's smash-hit 'The Sorrows of Young Werther' had moody young men mooning about all over Europe.

My guess is that the revelatory subject matter - the revealing of the adult world to a youth - lends itself to the novelist's more general task of revelation (don't literary novels always aim to unveil the true nature of things?). I'm sure we also enjoy reading about that period of our lives when so many significant things are experienced for the first time (yes, sex, of course: thrilling, fearful, fascinating - few would have no interest in vicariously exploring that territory again).

Whilst I'm not a great one for novel-reading, here are a few that have made an impression, in no particular order:

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce
First Love - Ivan Turgenev
Youth (a story within Memoirs of an Anti-Semite) - Gregor von Rezzori
The Buddha of Suburbia - Hanif Kureishi
Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
The Rachel Papers - Martin Amis
Great Expectations - Charles Dickens [the only Dickens I've really enjoyed]

I ran this list past T. Off the top of her head, she would add 'Cat's Eye' by Margaret Atwood and metaphorically throw 'The Rachel Papers' across the room (as would most women - the truth is pretty awful to learn).

Friday, 29 January 2010

What - comes next?

As someone who watches the news quite closely, I found this v funny:



A perfect nailing, I think you'll agree. But, as with all satirists of TV news, Charlie Brooker is doomed to do no more than rewrite The Day Today, one of the most scarily prophetic bits of television ever. My favourite bit is six minutes in. Ich nichten lichten!



H/t Alex Massie.

CowerPoint

Apparently the 'pernicious affliction' of PowerPoint presentations may be on the decline (we're talking about the overhead projector ones where the picture is the main event).

Our commentator summarises what must be the classic j'accuse:
PowerPoint is digital Valium for user and viewer alike, calming the fears of nervous presenters while assuring the audience that instead of awkward human interaction, a comfortable somnolence awaits.

He reckons people are moving away from the drug-like technology as it's become 'high art' and therefore not so functional. It has also become something of a graphical arms race with presentations getting more and more technologically sophisticated and expensive. As a consequence some managers, in an outburst of rationality, are opting out, some even dispensing with slides altogether.

However, I can't believe this battle will be won quickly. The perniciousness of PowerPoint runs deep.

Let's put the PowerPoint experience into context. You have an opportunity for speaker and audience to enjoy some face-to-face interaction, something that today is highly prized (pop concerts have never been more popular or profitable). What's more, everyone has invested time, effort and money to be together, in the same room. So you'd expect the human - the bodily, tangible bits of being human, really - to be the main event.

But instead of gestures, looks, expressions and nuances being in the foreground - all the stuff you can't get down the line - Powerpoint hides these elements or distracts from them. You're left with the husk: the sort of passive, mediated consumption of information that you can get by looking at any sort of decent size screen, anywhere.

A scandalous squandering. And therefore something that must be happening for very compelling reasons. Firstly, as is commonly noted, this effect suits a lot of speakers as it shields them from their audience. And who can blame them? Public speaking is a nightmare for many (I certainly used to think so).

The second reason is more subtle and, I believe, more powerful. I think that offering up a wizzy bit of animated Powerpoint has entirely transcended its intended purpose of enhancing communication. It's now more what anthropologists would describe as a 'gift giving' ritual, a potentially powerful mode of social exchange. Gifts are used to as a form of flattery, to indicate respect, to suggest wealth, to create a liability owed to the giver, to ingratiate.

In this way, the medium truly has become the message: the overly-colourful, complicated, difficult-to-follow, dazzling graphics are actually the point. What is being offered is the peacock's tail of presentations. They're big, colourful and get your attention, and they unmistakeably demonstrate that you value your audience, that you had the desire and resources to make the effort to get them something really impressive. You might not have made a particularly useful effort. But, whatever: it sure looks good and must have taken some fairly expert people ages to put together (and that's an easier and more self-satisfying an appraisal to make than having to do the work of judging the content).

This seems a great example of how technology sets out to do one thing - make communication more effective - but is actually used to achieve some near-oppositional goals: reducing the visibility and accountability of the speaker and offering a purely emblematic token of their esteem for you. However, these goals are very alluring ones. They play to fear, on the one hand, and the desire to ingratiate, on the other: two powerful impulses in the corporate world (along with greed, probably the most powerful). I therefore can't see the PowerPoint ritual disappearing anytime soon.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

One year old

Today my blog is one. Hurrah!

Looking back, one thing I've noticed is that over the year I've become less reliant on the printed media for inspiration. In the early days, I'd often write something in response to what I'd read in the paper (in my case The Times from Monday to Friday, The Guardian on Saturdays and the Observer). But now, as far as written media is concerned, I almost invariably post in response to what I read on the web.

I've discovered that there's a lot more expert opinion and stimulating writing on the web than there is to be found in newspapers. Blogs tend to go deeper and more knowledgeably into particular areas but do so in a way that is more immediate, more involving and less hieratic.

The expertise point must be down to blogs being written generally by people who have been intimately close to what they're writing about - having worked in the field, for instance - something that is rarely true for journalists writing full-time for newspapers. And when bloggers write about their life they're generally dealing with what is known in media circles as 'real' life, i.e. it's not conducted whilst existing within a media circle. In the right hands, this is more interesting material.

The style point is surely a function of blogs' intrinsic interactivity. The medium is more soap-box than pulpit. It's open to plenty of direct and immediate questioning. I think this produces a more confiding, tentative and conversational style, one that draws readers in whilst asking for their forbearance in advance and inviting a response. Having written a bit for the print media back in the '90s, I can tell you soap-boxes are far more fun than pulpits - if worse paid. And more fun for readers as much as writers.

I don't think this means newspapers are going to die. But I do think they're going to have to raise their game. Perhaps they should do more of what blogs find it difficult to do? One thing might be to print a greater number of lengthier articles, ones that are more easily read on paper than on screen? More Sudokus and crosswords too? And er...

Anyway, a sincere thank-you to all of you who gather around my patched-up, ramshackle soap-box, whether to encourage, barrack, jump up alongside or just pass the time of day.

Declinism and Newsnight

Newsnight had a 30th birthday celebration programme on Saturday night, which I watched yesterday on the iPlayer. It took the form of a review of archive clips followed by discussions. In the light of my latest posts on the splendid state of the world, I was interested to hear what the guests on the discussion of world affairs had to say about developments over the last thirty years. An upbeat story of progress or a sad tale of decline? The guests on this particular panel were Lords Patten and Kinnock and the novelists AS Byatt and Martin Amis. Can you guess?

Firstly, Paxman (chairing) seemed intent on pushing a line that the Cold War world was one where we knew where we sat and so felt safer - the 'security of paralysis', I think Amis called it. Assuming he wasn't playing devil's advocate, which I think it reasonable to do, isn't this view almost pathologically wrong?

Nuclear war with the Soviet Union would have had far more catastrophic consequences than anything we face today. And we were keenly aware of the danger at the time. Even at thirteen (as I was in 1980), I remember being periodically terrified of nuclear war, the threat of which seemed quite immediate what with the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Paxman was also pushing the line that Britain's place in the world was 'much diminished'. Another bizarre hypothesis. In 1980, Britain was known as the 'sick man of Europe' and had recently been rescued by the IMF. The country was quite commonly regarded as ungovernable. As Paxo would say: come off it! At the very least, we've come full-circle...

Three of his guests - Lord Kinnock, AS Byatt and Martin Amis - were, on the whole, all too eager to jump on his declinist bandwagon (the fourth, Lord Patten had a more reasoned view of recent history).

One failing Lord Kinnock perceived was that we in Britain had passed up a massive opportunity to align ourselves with the forces of progress in the former Soviet Union; he put our failure down to an inability to make our minds up about Europe. Everything in this view strikes me as wrong.

It overestimates our influence over Russia, under-appreciates the efforts that were made to help at the time, and fails to recognise the truly incredible achievements that have been made: for instance, who could have predicted in 1980 - or even dared to hope - that the Baltic States and most of East-Central Europe would not only be in the EU but in NATO by now? And, if anything, Britain was the most enthusiastic supporter of the EU's expansion eastwards, being fully engaged in this project.

He presumably meant we hadn't managed to produce a liberal Russia. Well, that's quite a sizable world-historical goal he set us there. And it's one that's quite beyond the influence of anyone except the Russian people themselves and perhaps even them for quite a while.

He went on to say that we don't believe enough in what's good about ourselves, that we don't give people the opportunity to embrace what we stand for. I'm not sure what more we could do. I interpret the military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Kosovo as quite forceful impositions of such an opportunity.

Martin Amis, however, was the most insistent proponent of declinism. He believed we were still dealing with our radical demotion after the Second World War, when we went from being the 'hegemon' (we weren't) to being 'a second or even third rate power'. He purported to believe that this explains almost everything that happens in Britain politically or socially.

Lord Patten rebutted this view by pointing out that post-WW2 decline happened to everyone except the Americans. But setting the rest of the world aside, does anyone (certainly under the age of sixty) still feel disoriented because we lost the Empire (except, presumably, for Martin Amis)? I would venture to answer 'no'.

And we're a 'third-rate power' (whatever that means)? I can't be bothered to spell it out but think of the interventions mentioned above plus nuclear weapons, the seat on the UN Security Council, the English language, being the sixth biggest economy in the world, the fifth biggest military power, the originator of the world's most popular sports, second most popular music, etc. etc. Not that this is a particularly important debating point to the vast majority of the British, I would say - a clinching rebuttal of his thesis in itself.

'Europe' was spectrally ever-present at this feast of depressive delusion. The most unintentionally humorous comment came from AS Byatt who expressed her disappointment in the European project. Apparently she'd believed that the European Union would see all the 'best' aspects of European countries coming together in triumph, that is the 'civilised, quiet, non-self-glorifying, non-aggressive' bits. But that doesn't happen, she bemoaned. Rather the uncivilised, noisy, self-glorifying, aggressive stuff still continues and is all too evident. It makes her worry about democracy.

So the EU hasn't managed to reform human nature? Who'd have thought? And as for democracy, I'd say quite a lot of these fairly negative attributes are intrinsic to its rough and tumble (never mind the European Union itself being largely non-democratic).

The overall tenor was one of regret - albeit mostly unfocused and unreasoned. The general message was straightforwardly summarised by the otherwise mostly sensible Patten: apparently we 'can't get people to be like us'. Again, I'm at something of a loss to see why we would worry too much about this. And anyway, I'm not sure how you can support this belief. Have any of these people been down the Uxbridge Road, Cricklewood Broadway or the Kingsland Road in recent years and looked around them? They will find a remarkable number of people from all over the world who have made the biggest commitment possible 'to be like us'.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

More cheer

I'm afraid I have more good news for you (we obviously don't like it or else we'd hear more, wouldn't we?). Having recently learnt that the world's poor are becoming significantly better off despite huge increases in global population comes this:
Armed conflicts worldwide have decreased 40 percent since [the early '90s], proving that globalization's recent and rapid spread around the world has not led to more state-on-state wars. In fact, such wars have essentially disappeared. Instead, what we are left with falls almost exclusively into the category of intra-state mass violence, including governments battling non-state actors, civil strife among non-state actors, and civil conflicts that sometimes attract interventions by great powers and the U.N.

This is from last year's Report from the Human Security Resource Project of Canada's Simon Fraser University. Rather bizarrely this year's report goes on to show that the lethal effect of these 'intra-state wars' is more than mitigated by improvements elsewhere:
...when it comes to chronic conflicts in the world's developing regions, "nationwide mortality rates actually fall during most wars." That's not to imply that warfare is good or improves mortality rates, but rather to note that intrastate conflicts have become so shrunken in their impact and lethality that their negative byproducts (i.e., indirect deaths by disease and malnutrition) are consistently overwhelmed by society-wide advances in these realms, in large part thanks to international aid focused on health care (especially early childhood care).

And wars are smaller despite the planet's population almost tripling since the '50s:
The average war in the 1950s killed 10,000 people a year and ran for 3 to 4 years, yielding an average cumulative "direct death" total of 33,000 lives. By contrast, the average war today lasts less than a year and yields an annual average of roughly 1,000 direct deaths.

We used to have football matches that were more lethal. So why is there less war? And why is what is left less deadly? A pithy summary: the interconnectedness of globalisation, pax Americana, health care improvements and humanitarian aid. Read the whole thing for more detail. I've also written before about why we should be more positive about the now, people.

(BTW, if you're interested in global strategy keep up with the excellent blog of the clean-cut, no-nonsense, probably-smokes-a-pipe Thomas PM Barnett (right)).

Monday, 25 January 2010

The jewel in the crown

Famous British brands such as Jaguar, Land Rover and Whyte and Mackay have been acquired by Indians in recent years. The idea is to use these established, quality brands to tap into India's large and rapidly growing middle class - reckoned to run into the hundreds of millions.

And there are signs that the strategy might prove very successful. Whyte and Mackay's whisky brands, which include Dalmore and Jura, have apparently gained an impressive 13% share of the Indian single malt market in the mere five months since launch.

So it may not be too surprising to learn that the Indian market was a decisive factor in Kraft's purchase of Cadbury's.

Cadbury's brands and distribution are strong in India, and are targeted at this same attractive middle class whose consumption of branded processed food of all sorts is expected to rocket. Kraft wanted to build on Cadbury's platform and was willing to pay handsomely for it.

So the post-Empire strikes back - again. Funnily enough, a descendant of Cadbury's founder was reported as having described the company as a 'jewel in the crown' - just the phrase used to describe the Indian Raj's splendid setting amongst Great Britain's overseas possessions.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Large movements, complexly coordinated

There's some new research on dance and sexual attractiveness:
The results showed that women gave the highest attractiveness ratings to men with the highest levels of prenatal testosterone. The men with the lowest testosterone in turn got the lowest attractiveness ratings. "Men can communicate their testosterone levels through the way they dance," Lovatt told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And women understand it -- without noticing it."
...The men who got the female students hot under the collar danced with large movements which were "complexly coordinated." But it's a fine line between hot and not, however: Those men who made big moves but who were less coordinated came across as dominant alpha males -- and were unlikely to win women's hearts. The researchers also found that the size and complexity of the dance moves decreased in parallel with testosterone levels.

So women fall for men who dance with 'large movements' that are 'complexly coordinated'? Of course they do - who could deny it after seeing this?



Saturday, 23 January 2010

Aural landscapers

Talk in bed this morning with the boys about dragons - one featured in a recent nightmare, apparently - perhaps inevitably turned to Ivor the Engine (a fluting "I'm cold, Mr Jones" is a bit of a catchphrase in our house). It reminded me we hadn't watched the DVD for at least a year, having watched it for what felt like every day for a few months (after that sort of exposure certain phrases stick in the mind.)

There's been a fair bit of celebration of Oliver Postgate's genius - and I use the word justifiably - since his death in 2008, including the BBC4 documentary last shown just before Christmas (it isn't available on the iPlayer at the moment but presumably will be at some point). Of course, the chief focus is bound to be on the animation, the landscapes, the characters and the stories. But in this documentary, as well as elsewhere, there's been too little attention paid to the music and the sound more generally: the Bagpuss folk songs were featured but I don't believe Vernon Elliott received even a mention. Elliott was the composer and bassoonist behind the theme and incidental music in Ivor the Engine, Pogles Wood, Noggin the Nog and Clangers.

Listening to Ivor this morning, whilst the boys watched, I'm in awe of what I suppose one would call the aural landscape. I may well have no clue about this but I would guess that Ivor the Engine is one of the richer TV experiences for blind children.

In the wake of watching yesterday's Brian Eno evening on BBC4, which celebrated his ability to create distinctive, well, aural landscapes, I'm wondering whether Oliver Postgate is the Brian Eno of cartoons? Or is Brian Eno the Oliver Postgate of pop? Whatever, they make marvelous twin eccentric inventors, both very English in their improvisation and playfulness. Hobbyism taken to transcendent heights.

If you want to enjoy some Vernon Elliott performing his Ivor the Engine themes straight-up, a CD can be bought from the Trunk Shop (a site that specialises in recovering unfairly disregarded pieces of pop culture - the wonderful Tony Hart's 'Vision On' logo being their latest project). As well as sounding lovely - bassoon and piano alternately upbeat and melancholy, rich and light - it's great music to do things to, unsurprisingly as it was written to accompany a hard-working steam engine. The 'Cruising Theme' and the 'Fast Theme' also provide unusually non-annoying but nevertheless distinctive ring tones. The 'Cruising Theme' works for me, anyway.

Having searched the web for some straight-up Vernon Elliott to end this post it looks as if the Trunk Shop has the market cornered. So instead here's an Eno collaboration featured last night whose ineffable beauty had somehow slipped my mind (don't be put off by U2's presence, or try not to be). Along with Malcolm McClaren's 'Miss Butterfly' it's the only decent pop/opera combination I've come across:

Friday, 22 January 2010

Cheer up!

Impressive things have happened in our world in recent years:
World poverty is falling. Between 1970 and 2006, the global poverty rate has been cut by nearly three quarters. The percentage of the world population living on less than $1 a day (in PPP-adjusted 2000 dollars) went from 26.8% in 1970 to 5.4% in 2006.

Perhaps the most miraculous aspect of this is the fact that:
Although world population has increased by about 80% over this time (World Bank 2009), the number of people below the $1 a day poverty line has shrunk by nearly 64%, from 967 million in 1970 to 350 million in 2006.

Huge numbers of new people and yet a massive decrease in poverty - in absolute terms not just relative. Leftists who continue to talk of a crisis of capitalism or the disasters of globalisation are partaking in some strange fantasy.

On the other hand, Greens may have more of a point. It may well be right to worry what this increase in wealth and population might do to the planet. But the jury really is still out. In the meantime, we should take heart at this incredible achievement. Things for most people in the world just keep getting better.


H/t Marginal Revolution.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Sketches from a Hunter's Album

Elberry finds a blog that records the exploits, interests and thoughts of a handful of American hunters. He praises the prose but the photographs are remarkable too (bottom) and it's full of good sense. Of one post Elberry writes:
This guy writes beautiful prose because he has something to write about, something he knows and cares about, has observed closely, and lived with. His prose is good because he’s an observant man...

I suspect country sports lend themselves to good prose: hunting, shooting and fishing require careful observation, undertaken ostensibly for practical reasons but inevitably spilling over into a sort of aesthetic appreciation. Genuine enthusiasts of these sports will almost invariably tell you they do them less for the bag, the catch, the kill than for the enjoyment of being out in the field, or on a riverbank for the day, and seeing nature unfold, whilst you participate in a small part of its cycle. That and the deep satisfaction to be had from working closely with an animal, whether dog or horse.

There's something there that we don't quite understand, something that fundamentally must remain quite mysterious, paradoxical too perhaps. A passage is quoted in the blog from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's 'River Cottage Meat Book', which captures part of the strange fascination:
"... As I pull the trigger and the bird falls, or the beast tumbles, I feel the gap between me and the quarry, which a moment ago seemed unreachable, closed in an instant."

These pastimes are such an intriguing mix of the practical, aesthetic, companionable and, on occasion, the near-mystical that it's hardly surprising they can be productive of compelling prose.

Here's the penultimate paragraph in Turgenev's 'Sketches from a Hunter's Album':
And on a wintry day to go walking through the high snow-drifts in search of hares, to breathe in the frosty, sharp-edged air, to crinkle one's eyes unwillingly against the dazzling, finely speckled glitter of the soft snow, to wonder at the green hue of the sky above a reddening forest!. .. And then there are the first spring days, when all around everything gleams and crashes down, and the smell of the warmer earth begins to rise through the heavy steam of melting snow, and skylarks sing trustingly under the sun's oblique rays on patches where the snow has thawed, and, with a gay noise, a gay roaring, the torrents go whirling from ravine to ravine...

(From the Penguin Classics edition translated by Richard Freeborne.)


Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Chocolate language

Gadjo and Brit have been deconstructing chocolate discourse, interrogating it for deeper meanings. But what strikes me about your modern chocolate bar is actually how very few words are now used to sell the stuff.

Bars of confectionary, just like old-fashioned comedians, always used to have catchphrases. But, just as in the world of comedy, these no longer appear to be a necessary accompaniment.

This development is presumably informed by some terribly clever marketing insight. But it seems to me to represent something of a loss: all those little chocolate sub-brands must have just a little less purchase on the minds of the younger generation than they did on mine. Token of this is that I can immediately reel off a dozen or more chocolate bar strap-lines (is that what they're called?). Some of them have strong associations:

Crunchie: "That Friday feeling" [From a chocolate bar? Yeah, right.]

Fry's Turkish Delight: "Full of Eastern Promise" [i.e. "Get your scimitar, you've pulled", says dusky bint.]

Cadbury's Fudge: "A finger of fudge is just enough..." [No it's not.]

Flake: "Only the crumbliest, flakiest milk chocolate..." [This phrase still evokes the funny feeling I started getting when I began to notice the Flake advert at the age of about thirteen.]

Mars: "Helps you work, rest and play" [Wholesome, boring.]

Bounty: "A taste of paradise" [Semi-naked women on beach, not boring.]

And so on. As far as I know none of these are in use any more and the brands seem somehow stripped of personality as a consequence.

It may well have something to do with them no longer being advertised on TV (I assume this is the case but, ahem, I don't watch a lot of ITV). But why aren't they? Has the market changed in some significant way? Perhaps they're advertised elsewhere now. Online?

All very mysterious and, I feel, a minor but sad diminution in the gaiety of the nation.

If they're good enough...

A 17-year old and a 19-year old have been selected for the Welsh Six Nation's squad. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither Tom Prydie nor Kristian Philips have played a full season of top level rugby.

Wales have a habit of giving debuts to teenagers, as previous examples across the ages demonstrate: Willie Davies (18), Haydn Tanner (18), Keith Jarrett (18), Gareth Edwards (19), Dai Young (19), Scott Gibbs (19), Leigh Halfpenny (19). And that's without thinking too hard. And there are dozens and dozens of examples of players who have made their debuts whilst just out of their teens.

I believe Wales is unusual in this. The only country that I can think of that has a similar track record is Australia (at least according to my entirely non-statistical, sort-of-just-what-it-seems-like analysis). It's certainly a different path to that taken by England, where on the rare occasion a youngster is picked, he's usually dropped soon after rather than backed to learn and improve (Danny Cipriani (20), most recently, and before that Matthew Tait (17)).

I suspect there's something of a cultural reason for this willingness to take a risk on youth. Wales is a small nation with a big and powerful neighbour and it's had to rely on cunning and cheek to keep its end up. In such a culture, crafty - not to say cocky - little buggers are highly valued.

Think of Jack's character in 'Jack and the Beanstalk' (right, in Welsh jersey and cap) - he's a plucky and rather irresponsible lad who lives with his Mam but he still manages to outwit and outrun the Ogre (who claims to smell the blood of an Englishman, but never mind about that).
This phenomenon also explains why the Welsh place such emphasis on the fly-half position, often filled by one of the smallest but most influential players on the pitch. The Welsh talk of the classic fly-halfs as being 'wizards' or refer to their 'magic'. I genuinely think this is some sort of cultural relic left over from the legends of Myrddin (Merlin). Magic is a type of craftiness and is also to be relied upon when challenging a more powerful enemy.

The Welsh have turned something of a necessity into a prized virtue. They love expressive and crafty play. And for good reason - it's often been very effective. Here's some footage from the classic 1971 Scotland vs Wales match that I enjoy particularly because it contains some wonderful breaks by the legendary Gareth Edwards and the magical Barry John (who "flits like a little phantom" in the commentary, a reminder of the homely eloquence of the late Bill McLaren):




H/t for the video to the excellent Alex Massie.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Golf love

According to the BBC obit, Bill McLaren's wife fully shared his enthusiasm for at least one of his sporting hobbies: 'the couple famously used to play 18 holes of golf together every day.' Something I can only imagine happening in Scotland...

Mourning on the streets of Hawick...

'And they'll be mourning on the streets of Hawick about this tonight [and elsewhere, too].'

That's an adaptation of one of his trademark phrases. Another one was: 'some ill-mannered whistling from the crowd there'. He always pointed that out, God bless him.

Watch your back

Brit is getting understandably hot under his collarless grandpa shirt about the Kraft takeover of Cadbury.

It's at times like these that we Brits need to draw on our moral and cultural reserves to resist. And a perennial source of inspiration has been found in England's glorious literature. Where else did Winston Churchill find his resonantly defiant phrasing?

To this end, I've adapted one of Nobel-laureate Harold Pinter's anti-American poems, 'Democracy':

There's no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They'll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back,
And your Creme Eggs.


Oh yes, we shall fight. And I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears, sweat and overly sweet, creamy vegelate.

Stupidity echoes down the ages

Apparently sights on US rifles being used in Iraq and Afghanistan are stamped with references to biblical texts. These sights have sat on rifles used to train members of the Iraqi army.

The Indian Mutiny was sparked by a similar example of rifle-based insensitivity: rumours of forbidden beef and pork fats being used in the manufacture of cartridge cases which had to be bitten open by their Hindu and Muslim users. And look how well that turned out.

History is truly a merry-go-round of dumb misunderstandings.



H/t Daily Dish.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Sick-making

This is sick-making. If you read it all you can be in little doubt that three detainees were murdered whilst being tortured at Guantanamo. It's the sort of story that emerges from some barbaric little dictatorship rather than from the world's greatest democracy.

Bush and Cheney have done more to damage America's reputation than anyone since Kissinger's bombing of Cambodia. I love America: I still think it's the world's best - in some ways, only - guarantor of freedom. But I can't believe that this has been allowed to happen - and that people still support the corrupting policy of so-called 'enhanced interrogation'.


H/t Daily Dish.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

'Aids to cheerfulness'

I'm leaving the novel I wrote over Christmas to marinate whilst I explore the strange and daunting world of publishing and, more instrumentally, how to go about getting a book deal (if anyone's interested in taking a look at the novel - even for the mere pleasure of reading - please email me at the address on the right).

In the meantime, I need something to do other than the blog as I'm still too crock to do much work, other than what I can do at home (these posts explain things for new readers).

T pointed out to me today the dedication in John Buchan's '39 Steps', published in 1915. It is accompanied by an explanatory letter:
My Dear Tommy
You and I have long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which the Americans call the 'dime novel,' and which we know as the 'shocker' - the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my source of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it, in memory of our long friendship, in these days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.
J.B.

The dedication reads: 'To Thomas Arthur Nelson, Lothian and Border Horse'. Wikipedia informs me the poor chap was killed in the First World War at the age of forty, two years after the book was published. He had played rugby for Oxford University, Scotland and London Scottish, the latter team of 1914 being entirely wiped out in the War. Various frustrations seem rather petty in this wider perspective.

So having found the writing of one novel a certain 'aid to cheerfulness', and being at a loose end now, I've decided to write another.

This second novel features the same main characters as the first. This time, rather than concerning itself with London, Russia, international finance and terrorism, it will focus more on the English countryside, the wilder fringes of environmentalism and the biotech sector. I think I'll also set some of it in France and the US, knowing bits of both places quite well. Though little of this is settled yet.

I've written the first chapter. Based on some feedback kindly provided by some early readers of the other novel, I thought it would be a good idea to start it with a bang (quite literally, folks). You may think this particular opening incident struggles to 'march just inside the borders of the possible'. But it does, as is duly revealed...

Here are the opening pages. I hope you enjoy them, but criticism is welcome:


CHAPTER ONE

A furious beating of wings, syncopated by a rising chirrup. Gavin looked ahead: a blur of feathers freed itself from ivy snares and sprays of dead twigs; it ricocheted its way up to the tree tops, then away.

"Over!" A deep 'o' and the 'r' gutturally rolled.

Through a net of branches he watched the bird rise over the field then bank steeply left, catching the wind.

"Back!" Repeated a couple of times.

A succession of shots, sounding like small explosions, crackling and distant. Something about the way the wind was blowing must be giving them a slight echo, at least from where he was standing. This particular way of hearing the guns always made him think of the rolling sound of artillery heard far from the front as reported in novels and memoirs. The shoot here had been going for at least a hundred years, and he wondered whether those poor buggers back from the trenches had managed to adjust to a life of civilian shooting. Must have been uncomfortable for some.

He recommenced his thrashing, head dipped slightly so the peak on his cap helped shield his face. He enjoyed beating far more than shooting. All that standing round, watching the world go by, before the intense and often short period of blasting. He liked getting stuck in, rooting around in undergrowth, like some khaki'd pig truffling nuts. The exercise, the fresh air, the close contact: all somehow seemed to purge him.

His head scanned from side to side, looking for pheasants nestling in the leaf mould or in the odd patch of tufted grass sitting on the fringes or in an opening created by the demise of adjacent plantings.

You had to have a degree of strength to do this sort of beating effectively: bashing through the undergrowth of a youngish spinney required it. Thorn, bramble, burrs. When he was a kid he had usually been given a tapping job: just the sort of thing for a child or the more delicate women. But more boring even than shooting. And just as cold-making.

You'd sit at the other end of the drive from the oncoming beaters, blocking off a little route of escape - something offering cover like a ditch or a hedge - with nothing to keep you warm except for the regular percussion of your stick on a post or a branch, tap, tap, tap. Not enough to get the blood moving. That is, unless you got a bit of a flurry in the bottle-neck you'd created. Then a roman candle of brown, green and russet plumage might explode in your face. You'd jump up, a star jump, a halloo'd shout, some waves of the stick. Get the buggers up! Nice and high for the guns.

High birds, that's what you wanted. High and fast - makes for sport. Today was a good one. Some very nice birds. Dry, so they didn't sit tight, with a decent wind that whipped them up and away. You'd only get them by swinging through with the gun, aiming way ahead of them. Shot didn't move that fast.

That could be one. He put his lips together in a pout, made a high-pitched, sibilant trill. God knows why beaters made that particular sound - but it seemed to work, got them moving. Another rustle, something disturbing a tump of beige, wickered grass ahead. A bird? No, it was one of the dogs, a little cocker. Pretty thing, chestnut colour.

"Good girl, that's it. Get in!"

Barks behind him, where the last bird had flown, turning to growls and yelps. A dog fight? People really should control their dogs - last thing you wanted whilst the drive was underway. Some people didn't have a clue. Endlessly indulgent or shouters lacking authority. Hopeless.

Now some shots and a couple of shouts. Someone seemed very surprised about something. He hadn't heard any birds go up, no warning cries from the beaters. A fox! That's what it must have been: drove the dogs wild and when it had cleared the area, when it was safe to point the gun at ground level, they'd blasted the bugger. Perhaps he was staggering on? He wondered whether there were any hunters around! They didn't like their quarry killed. But fuck them. Kill them when you have the chance was his view. Fucking chicken rustlers.

More shouts now from that part of the field, and across the line of guns. All hell breaking loose: dogs making just about every sound they were capable of, an all-round cacophony, another shot, and another, a couple more in quick succession. He thought he'd tramp over to the edge of the wood, where he could get a decent view of what was causing the commotion.

A burst of energy - some karate-kicking strides and one or two head-down surges - took him out of the thick brush. A couple more easier steps brought him to the edge of the ditch running down that side of the wood. He leant out over the defile, extending his neck to peer around an overhanging branch.

The first thing he saw was a head-scarfed woman, wife of one of the guns, who'd been holding a dog on previous drives, letting him do the odd retrieve. She was running across his field of vision, parallel to the wood; knees high, trying to get the best footing she could, heels kicking out, trying to lift her feet clear of the rutted mud. Her arms were in the air, presumably for balance, but somehow making her look as if she were fleeing something. Quite a parodic, comical look. But then he saw her mouth: open in a silent scream. Her eyes. He'd only seen such terror once or twice in his life. She half turned to look behind, stumbled and almost fell. What the fuck was going on?

He looked back, following her attempted eye-line. A mass of dogs and something else, like a heap of fur rugs. But undulating somehow. Movement back over towards the right caught his eye. He flicked his gaze in that direction: some of the guns were breaking from their pegged positions, running down the line towards the, the whatever it was. They were aiming as they ran. Not advised.

He turned his focus back. What was that thing? Then the writhing mass of creatures broke up, a dog flying through the air away from it, already seeming lifeless and prone as it hit the mud. The undulating fur formed itself into a crouching shape, then a charging shape. Could that possibly be a bear? Yes, it could. It was heading as fast as its galloping paws could take it after the fleeing woman. And that seemed very fast. It bowled along like some sprinting racehorse, but somehow bundled smaller, and more fluent. Shots were being fired. He looked right again.

Three guns from three different points of the field were aiming and firing. One of them re-loaded as he looked. He heard a scatter of shot in the branches just to his left. Fuck! He'd better hit the deck, he'd be in the line of sight in no time. As he went down he saw the bear stall, then begin to pull up, half-rearing as it moved ahead, much slower now. He saw a white flash of teeth in its jaw as it bellowed, an almost subterranean sound. More shots, and this time there was no peppering of the branches around him; rather a ball of shot crashed through the stooping canopy over his head, just where he'd been standing. Wood splintering and cracking. He inhaled the sweetly sulphurous smell of hot gunpowder.

He kept flat to the ground for a few seconds. No more shots. Dogs whimpering now rather than anything more alarmed or aggressive. A short silence then the sound of two dozen people talking animatedly all at once. A couple of women crying, one beginning to scream, a keening sound.

He got up slowly, looking ahead as he did so. No: no guns pointing his way. He looked where the bear had been. It was still there but in fur coat mode. A mound of thick, brown furs, piled high. A couple of the guns walked slowly towards it, shotguns unbroken and ready to fire.

The woman - Marjorie, he now remembered - was on her knees, looking back at the bear, just a few yards away from her. The keening sound was hers. Even from a distance of about twenty feet he could see she was shaking violently. He scrambled down the bank and leapt over the rivulet in the bottom. The momentum of his jump took him most of the way up the other side. He grabbed a couple of tufts and pulled himself up.

He could see more of the field now. Two or three dead or injured dogs away to his left, people kneeling down attending to them, shaking their heads, placing comforting arms on shoulders. He put one hand on a fence post, high-jumping the wire, helping himself by bouncing a foot on it as he went over. He landed, regained his balance, and walked over to the bear. Bear! He could hardly believe that that was what he was looking at. But it sure as hell was.

He looked across at Marjorie. Her face was streaked with tears, her nose and cheeks bright red. Mud was smeared down the front of her navy Puffa jacket. He assumed she was in shock. He had no idea what to do so thought he'd better leave her to it. He couldn't face giving her a hug. Anyway his curiosity had to be sated.

The two guns - Philip and one of the guests, an old chap - were now standing over the glossily furred carcass. It was a deep, changeable brown, just a shade or two lighter than the curds of mud it was resting on. He couldn't help noticing its shattered and bloody muzzle pointed directly to where Marjorie had crumpled.

The guns' heads were down, unmoving. They were staring at the beast, obviously transfixed. As he approached nearer, Phil must have become aware of him. He lifted his head: his eyes were shining, his nostrils flared. Excited as hell, his words tumbled out, his breath catching:

"Gav - it's a - fucking grizzly!"

Friday, 15 January 2010

Civilised malice

A great discussion of Isaiah Berlin and academic bitchiness, obviously its highest form (fostered no doubt by the variously-attributed comment that 'academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.')

It's entitled 'Isaiah Berlin's Civilized Malice' and is mostly concerned with a TLS review by AN Wilson of Berlin's correspondence. It turns out that we have a bitch-fest on our hands: perhaps unsurprisingly as Wilson is a masterful exponent of jousting with stilettos.

One treasurable little anecdote is recounted by the post's author, Charles Rosen. It concerns AL Rowse, the Cornish historian and fellow of All Souls, whose 'pride in his humble Cornish origins and his subsequent intellectual renown were legendary':
One story often told about Rowse is that he came down one day to breakfast at All Souls, fulminating about a bad review in The Times of his latest book, and said, “You see the way the upper class resent that I have been able to rise into their midst entirely by my own merit.” John Sparrow, then the Warden of All Souls (he had been elected in 1952 over Rowse), looked up from his breakfast and said, “Rowse, whatever gives you the impression that only the rich detest you?”

This is from the often stimulating New York Review of Books blog where the indefatigable Tony Judt recently posted engagingly on the food he grew up with in an East End Jewish family and later at Cambridge. It concludes:
Were I ever truly to set out in Search of Past Taste I would begin with braised beef and baked turnip, followed by chicken tikka masala and pickled wollies swabbed in challah, Kingfisher beer and sweet lemon tea. As for the madeleine that would trigger the memory? Naan dunked in matzoh ball soup, served by a Yiddish-speaking waiter from Madras. We are what we ate. And I am very English.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Books and shopping

T and I were bemoaning the demise of Borders. Having lost both of Islington's independent book shops years ago, we are now left with just Waterstone's. We visited last weekend, book tokens (or rather those credit card-type things) burning holes in our pockets. We left with a couple of children's books. But the shelves I go to first didn't hold anything tempting: Biography was OK but overfull of celebrity crap, History poor, and Politics hopeless.

It's a dispiriting sight, the bookshop battlefield. So many slain: Borders, Books Etc., Dillons, Ottakars and surely hundreds of independents. And the remainder increasingly uninspiring, Waterstone's being a case in point.

The problem is that there was nothing there unexpected, just a limited focus on the better sellers. It seems strange to criticise a shop for stocking what sells but I do feel that specialist high street bookselling, if it's going to survive, will have to surprise somewhat, present you with titles you hadn't decided to buy before you came in. I tend not to browse Amazon. I go there to buy what I know I want. So a bookshop could persuade me to shop there regularly if it offered me the chance to buy things I don't already know about. Otherwise, why bother when Amazon is so easy and cheap?

But this, of course, requires some investment by the retailer: in slow-moving stock and knowledgeable buyers. And this must be difficult to justify in a shrinking market. So we have something of a vicious circle: falling revenue leads to cuts in costs, which reduces the distinctiveness of your offer, alienating customers. And so on. Perhaps now Borders is gone Waterstone's will use its bigger market share to raise its game?

Of course, when it started it set a new benchmark for the multiple retailing of books. An old friend and I were discussing this the other week. He recalled how when he worked at the Waterstone's on Charing Cross Road during his gap year - nearly twenty-five years ago now - he was given responsibility for the History shelves. In those days, buying was done by the store and he was given some responsibility to select stock. As he was interested in Italy and Spain he filled his shelves with titles on these countries.

His neighbour in Philosophy happened to be Ray Monk, a few years later to be a respected biographer of Wittgenstein and already with a considerable reputation as a Wittgenstein scholar. Guess what the philosophy shelves were full of? My friend reckoned they must have had a more current and exhaustive selection of Wittgenstein-related titles than most university libraries.

Now, I'm sure some were infuriated by this policy. But it sounds great to me: personal enthusiasms increasing the chances of serendipity. There were other benefits too. Apparently, Wittgenstein students from across the world would pitch up at Waterstones on Charing Cross Road to have a chat with guru Ray.

A publisher friend told me the other night that there would be more blandness around today even without the rise of online retailing. Apparently, it's all down to the demise of the Net Book Agreement (back in the '90s), which fixed retail prices for books. This guaranteed publishers' margins and gave them the latitude to have broader catalogues. They could make money from smaller print runs, meaning more marginal authors were profitable. Germany still has this arrangement and a correspondingly more vibrant and eclectic publishing industry. However, I doubt very much indeed that that genie will be put back in the bottle. The supermarkets, for one, would oppose it.

Thank God for the odd superb (they have to be) surviving independent. We love Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street. It's much, much more than a travel bookshop (what it's best known as). It's highly likely you'll find something there that's interesting but which you've never come across before - even if it's on a subject you thought you knew well. Lovely space, too.

I sincerely hope good bookshops, like Daunt, have a future. Surely now, there's a niche for a comfortable, offbeat, coffee-serving, destination bookshop in Islington? There's no sign of the tide turning yet, however. Let's hope it does. The fate of Laredo, Texas stands before us as a terrible warning: a town of 250,000 without a single bookshop. I wonder whether Amazon has disproportionate business from Laredo customers? Or do people just not read in that benighted city?

The linked article reckons 'residents will have to travel about 150 miles across arid ranchland to San Antonio to buy books.' Now that's what I would call a commitment to culture. Perhaps taking the bus down to Marylebone isn't too much to ask, after all.


Wednesday, 13 January 2010

What's Welsh for 'Après ski'?

Another exhibit in the gallery of global warming alarmism, I'm afraid. It's an article that really struggles to be news. The gist of it is that we might get glaciers on Snowdon. However, this won't be related to the current cold spell, oh no; rather, it will be down to the Gulf Stream stalling due to global warming. But it's worth pointing this out now because today's cold weather helps us imagine what this might be like. Screw your eyes up a little, tilt your head to one side: see? There'll be lots of ice and snow. That's what cold does. As we can see at the moment.

But the idea of glaciers on Snowdon does stimulate some intriguing thoughts. Whilst on skiing holidays I've occasionally wondered what a Welsh one would be like. Especially when I've been in Austria, for some reason. Could Wales be the new Austria?

Lunch up on the mountain would be cawl (Welsh lamb stew) or toasted cheese (Welsh fondue?). Tea back in the chalet (or perhaps the static down at Llandudno) would be Welsh cakes and bara brith (buttered fruit cake). Dinner: sewin and chips with a few pints of beer. I suppose hip flasks would be charged with Welsh whisky. The evenings would be whiled away singing hymns with Dai, your ski instructor (Dai the Ski?), or perhaps Blodwen, both of whom speak surprisingly good English. After a night of boozing and singing, I think we'll skip the breakfast of cockles and lava bread.

However, this may all remain a dream for the foreseeable future. At the end of the article, a sceptical climatologist (they, too, occasionally get reported) expresses his doubts about this prediction, albeit rather apologetically:
...the variables involved mean that this cannot be cast in stone as absolute fact beyond all reasonable doubt, and as interesting as it sounds, I for one, cannot subscribe to it.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A ruthless war song

Via the excellently enthusiastic Rugby-Pioneers blog I've come across a great Toulon rugby tradition. Apparently the supporters have a call and response chant that mimics to a degree the All Blacks' haka. They use it at the beginning of the game and sometimes during it:



The words translate as follows (crowd's response in brackets):
We are the ruthless Pilou-Pilou warriors
(Pilou-Pilou!)
Coming down from the mountain to the sea
(Pilou-Pilou!)
With our tousled women breastfeeding our children
Under the shade of the great white coconut trees
(Pilou-Pilou!)
We the ruthless warriors sing our ruthless war song
(Aaarrrggghhh!)
I said our our RUTHLESS WAR SONG!
(AAAARRRGGGGHHHHH!)
Because Tou-lon
(RED!)
Because Tou-lon
(BLACK!)
Because Tou-lon
(RED AND BLACK!)

I love French rugby (I posted on it here) - it seems to be a more imaginative sport there than elsewhere. You have to love that Gauginesque reference to 'tousled women breastfeeding our children / Under the shade of the great white coconut trees'.

As worthy as little tin-plated saucepans may be of sung praise,  in comparison they are a bit prosaic (on the other hand, pilou translates as cotton lint - no idea why).

Jonny Wilkinson is currently playing in Toulon and is apparently renewing his contract for another season. He's enjoying the whole experience it seems. I certainly can't think of many better places to play rugby. Passionate local support, a Latin commitment to flair (and brutality too, however) and the mild weather. Then off the field all that great food and wine. Just what that uptight little bore needs, I'd say.

Before Jonny and other new recruits put the spotlight on the club, I would have associated Toulon primarily with Eric Champ (right), the French flanker of the 1980s. An unconventional open side flanker for the time, being 6'5", I remember him as a real handful for opposition teams - and sometimes his own, given his ill-discipline. He was also in possession of a haircut that would have made Kevin Keegan weep with envy.

I haven't been to Toulon for about twenty years but despite it being a rough sea port (it's the home of France's Mediterranean fleet) I remember the Old Town being full of character and a great place for seafood. At night I might now find a tour of its bars a bit too lively. It's not on any tourist itineraries but well worth a visit if you're passing by. For lunch, say.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Wrestling with a Fuzzy-Wuzzy

In a small way, life is more pleasant since I promised myself that I wasn't going to post any more on the Brown racket. Putting yourself into an impotent rage isn't great for your mood for the rest of the day: sour-making. Also one of those futile little assaults would impart a curious feeling of being soiled, the online equivalent of going head-to-head with a slippery Fuzzy-Wuzzy, the old Ethiopian warriors whose frizzy locks were clotted with rancid butter.

But what if wrestling with Fuzzy Wuzzies was your life? What must it do to your psychology to deal with the seedy lack of scruple which one finds in politics, day-in, day-out?

One of my old tutors at Oxford was at college with a Tory former Cabinet minister, whom he'd known as good, warm company. He ran into him having not seen him for a number of years and they shared a drink. He said he left feeling quite chilled: his old friend's eyes were dead, even whilst the rest of his face was animated.

Can you imagine what you'd feel like if you had to deal with Brown-Balls regularly? Dead eyes would be a minimum level of desensitisation I would have thought.

Serendipitously, I've come across this entry in Auberon Waugh's diaries for this date in 1985. He's explaining why he finds drinking water 'a strangely unnerving experience':
What put me off in the first place was when I discovered the human body is composed of 98% water. This means you only have to add 2% - perhaps a few tablespoonfuls - of Hattersley Essence (for instance) to a bathful of water and out will climb the repulsive, farting Opposition Spokesman on Economic Affairs, ready to make a conceited speech describing himself as a Dream Ticket.
A similarly minute quantity of some other extract and you have Mrs Thatcher or Mrs Shirley Williams; add a touch of black treacle or soot and you have Lord Gowrie. The only thing these people have in common is that they are all made of water. Nothing will convince me it is a healthy substance to drink.

I think we can guess what the addition to bathwater of a certain admixture containing rancid butter might produce.

Anyway, must move on!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Commercial break

Not sure how to put this without coming over all advert voiceover. Perhaps a little old-time personal testimony? A year or so ago I discovered some excellent boxer shorts: soft cotton, amusing colours, button fly and comfortably cut. They were pricey but I bought them in a sale for around £10 each. Well, I need some new ones now and looked up the brand on the web: Coton Doux, from Paris.

Keep your excitement under control as they're on sale (as is every French retail business if it has sales-driven marketing: they have legally-designated sale periods). You can now buy these terrific boxers for just €9 each (plus p&p). I don't think this is too pricey: these are very good quality shorts, with dozens of colour options - pictures below.

I address this recommendation to women readers too: they would make a nice gift, though perhaps not sufficient for birthdays. Unless, that is, the man you know gets as much satisfaction from having nice boxer shorts as I do (I'm hoping this is known as 'just gay enough', but I'm sure someone will put me right).


Friday, 8 January 2010

Excitement from a puddle

The more I hear from Mr Hockney, the more wonderful he seems. This from the Today programme:
I’m living now. I want it exciting. Mind you, I can get excitement from a puddle.
(H/t: Joe Moran).

He edited an edition of Today over the holiday period and sent fellow smoker, the rather wonderful Caroline Wyatt on probably one of the best journalistic assignments of the winter: to investigate how smoking bans were being managed in Paris, Brussels and Berlin.

This involved what sounded like a convivial round of visits to bars and restaurants in each of these cities. I know Caroline a little and know she wouldn't be so rude as to refuse any hospitality proffered. The conclusion? One way or another the bans in each country have been adapted, either formally or informally, to accommodate the interests of smokers.

As an ex-smoker and continuing drinker with small children, whom I regularly take into pubs where they can irritate other adults, I'm naturally all in favour of a ban. But I do think we could be a little more accommodating to smokers. Particularly as after a bottle or two I often fancy a fag.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Frosted

I posted a snowy view of our street the other day. Here's a more distant one (bottom right hand corner, partly obscured).




Go here if you'd like to see it in more - truly beautiful - detail.

A great big greedy nincompoop

The eldest's bedtime read is currently Roald Dahl's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. Dahl is a superb story teller and the young fella is transfixed. Nearly as much as when he had 'Fantastic Mr Fox' read to him: when it ended he burst into tears, he'd enjoyed it so much. (However, I'm reliably informed the recent film is rubbish).

Yesterday evening I read him the chapter where Augustus Gloop's greed leads him to fall into the Chocolate River, where he flounders before getting sucked up a pipe to be made into fudge, or so it's suggested.

I've had a similar experience to young Gloop.

My first proper job was working in the Fry's Somerdale factory near Bristol (below), part of the Cadbury empire. It made the old Fry's products such as the dark chocolate and variously flavoured 'Cream' bars and Turkish Delight (which contains rose essence made from Nepalese roses, oh yes), as well as a number of Cadbury ones: Mini Eggs, Double Deckers, Crunchies, and so on.
It's quite a beautiful place: a vast, towering, red-brick, 1920s edifice that stands in a rural situation on the banks of the Avon. I had an early start and I've witnessed fewer more beautiful sights than approaching it at dawn, when at a certain point on the road you see it through rising river mist, its storied expanse of east-facing windows aflame. It was also surrounded by playing fields for the workers, being founded as one of those idealistic Quaker enterprises that sought to provide for the health and happiness of its workforce.

Sadly, it is due to be closed by the current Cadbury's management and its production moved to Eastern Europe, a fact that should give pause for thought to those objecting to the current Kraft hostile bid on patriotic grounds, particularly as Kraft have offered to rescind the decision. Not that you can trust any of them, however.

Anyhow. It was not the most stimulating job but it had its small rewards. A large cardboard box containing various chocs in the office, for instance. I am something of a sucker for chocolate and at about 11am and 4pm each day I struggled to resist the temptation, putting on about half a stone in my first three months. In fact, I'm almost ashamed to say that I'm something of a greedy swine when it comes to the brown stuff. And this gluttony nearly led me to Gloop-like doom.

My job occasionally took me up to the Chocolate Making Department (more sexily called 'CMD') which was at the very top of the factory, having panoramic views through its large, many-paned windows of the surrounding cow-strewn countryside.

The chocolate was mixed in vast, eighty-year old, granite-lined troughs, mighty steel rollers pounding up and down, mixing remorselessly and grinding ever finer as they did so. Conveyor belts fed these troughs with something called 'crumb', a raw sort of pre-chocolate, and more belts as well as pipes translated the resulting substance to other floors, where it was heated and made silkily smooth enough to coat nougat, fudge, honeycomb or whatever. These belts whizzed around your head and disappeared through holes in walls and floor.

One day I found myself alone up there. I happened to pause just where a fully-loaded belt was moving past me at about head height. I was fascinated: gobbets of chocolatey goo, with the consistency of stiff cake mixture, were gliding effortlessly past, close enough to just reach out and touch...

Well how could I resist? I looked right and left and stuck my finger out to catch a little blob. However, the mixture landed on the belt however it fell; it was unpredictably lumpy. As my finger poked out, what it had been aimed at had moved on, and instead of catching a little blob on the end of my finger, I ended up catching a large, satsuma-sized blob on the side of my hand.

Panic seized me: could this be a disciplinary offence? Perhaps I could even be fired: I was being horribly unhygienic. Gross misconduct. Totally gross.

I did the only thing available to me. I stuffed the satsuma-sized chocolatey blob into my mouth and ate for my life, or at least my job. I got it down me pretty quickly and then, swallowing madly, had to wait for my saliva to run sufficiently clear to lick its traces from the side of my hand. I composed myself and returned to work, feeling uncomfortably sick and also sweaty - an excess of chocolate can bring on a sweat. Believe me.

But at least I wasn't made into fudge. And it obviously didn't put me off chocs.


Me in my Cadbury days - I had more hair then

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The kings of the underworld

Spell-binding excerpt from an interview with Richard Burton where he talks about mining. Some wonderful lines. It's a reminder of why coal miners were held in such esteem - not to say awe - back in the day.



I'm sure he's being straight when he talks about the attractions mining had to his family and his schoolboy peers - appealing to an idea of machismo.

My family, however, were rather more circumspect. 'Being sent down the mine' was held out as a horrible fate, one that was made flesh when we used to visit my Uncle Horace whose silicosis - a lung disease caused by rock dust inhaled down the mine - meant he couldn't move far from his armchair and oxygen cylinders. I can still hear his awful, rattling wheeze. And I suppose the familial desire to 'get on', to avoid any chance of ending up down the mine, eventually resulted in my growing up in Gloucestershire rather than the Taff Valley.

The film is also a reminder of what a wonderful talker Richard Burton was, what terrific charisma he possessed. His death in 1984, four years after this interview, was the only one outside the family to have traumatised our household. He really was a hero to my Dad's generation. Perhaps though not so much to the one before: Taid and his brother, my Uncle Elis, thought him a self-romanticising show-off. Of course, both views were correct.

In any event, he seems pretty stupendous to me. He had everything. People are aware of his voice, his acting, his sexual success. But Neville Coghill, the don who was his Oxford tutor, reckoned he'd taught only two students of genius: WH Auden and Burton. He also played first class rugby for Aberavon when not much older than a schoolboy and was reckoned by some - including Bleddyn Williams, reputedly - to have been good enough to have one day played for Wales.

So much for the good fairies. Unfortunately, the bad fairy also gave him a susceptibility to alcoholism, like his father. Burton was only 58 when he died: we might have expected much more from him. His O'Brien in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' could have been the start of a brilliant late-flowering.

I've discovered the full interview here (it's inset a little over half way down the article). Also the Melvyn Bragg biography 'Rich' is a good, romantic read. It's for sale for 1p on Amazon - plus p&p of £2.75!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

'the only serious corruption'

Excellent review by Ferdinand Mount of a new book on suburbia. I always find Mount worth reading - fabulously well-read and wise to boot.

He ends by making a point that I'm highly sympathetic to:
The planning laws in their present rigid state give rise to the only serious corruption in British politics: they enable landowners to capture enormous unearned profits; even in a time of prosperity such as we have just enjoyed, they cause crippling housing shortages. Above all, in an age when thousands of acres are no longer needed for agriculture, they prevent ordinary people from living where they would most like to live (and from fostering biodiversity in their back gardens). As the Treasury report on land supply pointed out in 2003, current policy is bringing about “an ever widening economic and social divide”.

Rory Stewart in his article in the Sunday Times, where he recounts a walk he made across the Penrith and Borders constituency of which he is the Tory PPC, highlights one local consequence of the peculiar disregard shown in present-day politics for this most fundamental of social problems:
I’ve found out that the government has spent three times as much on upgrading a mile-long footpath as on the entire affordable housing for the district.

What very peculiar priorities for a purportedly Labour Government! But then its capitulation to those who think tidy footpaths (presumably now ticking various boxes concerned with safety and accessibility) are a higher priority than having sufficient roofs to put over their erstwhile supporters' heads is evidenced all around us.

But rather than extending suburbia, which seems to be what Mount is suggesting, my suggestion (as outlined here) would be to add, say, a dozen or two dozen houses to every sizable village in the country. Any Government implementing such a policy might expect opposition from nimbies. But I really do think an injection of life - young couples and families - into a village should be good for everyone. For a start it would help keep pubs, shops and schools open. In any event, such rejectionists shouldn't assume they own their village. It existed long before they did and if it is to have a real life after them then it needs to change and adapt.

Funnily enough both Ferdinand Mount and Rory Stewart are Old Etonians. Truly are we strangers in a strange land: OE's pushing suburbia and social housing over the Labour Party's preference for upgraded footpaths in picturesque places. O tempora, o mores! as these two public school classicists might remark.

Monday, 4 January 2010

More belated criticism

So the tele then.

I watched three shows over the holiday period: the Christmas Day episode of Enders (there may have been more than one, I wasn't paying attention - mine occurred at about 8pm), the two-part Dr Who and the Gav and Stace special.

Eastenders seemed hardly to have changed since I first (and almost last) watched an episode about twenty or so years ago. One innovation was the insertion of a highbrow reference: Gavin's Dad off Gavin and Stacey who's the Dirty Den character in Enders had a sentimental attraction to a snowglobe, which fell from his hand when he was bashed over the head with a bust (not Babs's). I believe this to be an homage to Citizen Kane. Classy. Apart from this it was comforting to know nothing much had changed. If I ever need exposure to shouty Cockneys I know where to go (though they are quite abundant around here).

The good Dr Who had a very good Part I but a Part II that was Caribbeanly Piratical in its impenetrable absurdity. It also reminded you of why Timothy Dalton was such a crap James Bond: underneath his bluster you can tell he's a bit of a poof. It overly milked a multitude of farewells to David Tennant, too: by the end I wanted the puppy lookalike put down without further ado. But then he was, being replaced by an ugly young man. Unsatisfactory.

Gavin and Stacey I thought v enjoyable. I could watch Rob Brydon all day, a fact that might give his character, Uncle Bryn, a peculiar but not unpleasant feeling. The ending was satisfyingly well milked and I'll certainly miss it. So I imagine will Barry Island, whose tourism must have been given an enormous boost. The place certainly looked a lot better than it did when I went there on day-trips as a young boy thirty-five years ago. Porthcawl was the posher place to visit, as I recall, but its good burghers must now be weeping into their cockles and candy-floss to witness the TV fame achieved by their great rival.

Finally, we started the New Year with Wallander. Beautifully shot and acted, as was the last series. But ruined by an implausible plot! Last night the capture of the baddies relied on the police reviewing a piece of CCTV film shot in a bank by a second camera. Why they'd only reviewed the film from the first camera at the beginning of the programme wasn't made clear. The second camera's footage was manifestly available and obviously had potential value. So why not look at it? We must assume either flimsy plotting or hopeless policing. Everything else tells you they're quite good police, particularly the lead character. So disbelief just crashes to the ground. Shame. What a waste.

A belated criticism

I know it's a bit late but I keep getting distracted. Anyway, to have posted this over Christmas would have felt churlish - now we're in miserable old January it seems more appropriate to have a moan.

I think the Christmas Eve midnight mass should be traditional and short. Why? Because it attracts a high proportion of infrequent attenders at church who want to hear something recognisable and because it's late at night, certainly way past my current bedtime.

So why did the vicar at my local church think it was a good idea to give the congregation a convoluted and lengthy service that required two printed sheets and a hymn book to navigate?

Simply from a logistical point of view this was impractical. I found myself getting lost across the three documents as we were required to switch constantly one to another (strangely, the chosen hymns were to be found in all three). And juggling them along with the lighted candle we were to hold for the first half of the service was a quite comically impossible challenge. Everyone around me at some point dropped something.

What's more the language - which previously at that church has been from the Book of Common Prayer - was from a more modern source, uninspiring and unpoetic. I suspect this was why we had resort to printed sheets rather than a prayer book. (We also had lots of smells and bells - not to my taste but evidence that some aspects of traditionalism still seem to appeal).

Then to continue the service for over an hour, including a fifteen-minute repetitive sermon?

Why do this? The vicar probably gets some sort of satisfaction from stamping his own imprint on the service. He would also talk about relevance and accessibility, I'm sure.

But, of course, that's nonsense. It was merely confusing, frustrating and, in the end, boring. It's enough to make you despair of the Church of England ever being able to play to its real strengths, which other than the beauty of its buildings, lie in the familiarity and poetry of its liturgical traditions. These should be relied upon unapologetically and invariably. But I would guess that there's little to no chance of that attitude returning.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Penzance pleasures

We spent the New Year with a great friend down in Penzance. Despite its reputation for being a bit rough around the edges - it's literally the end of the (railway) line and is reputed to have something of a heroin problem - I found the place terrific. Lots of life, a real working port with plenty of good pubs.

I don't think I've been anywhere that's had more of what the political scientists call 'civil society'. Just about every street seems to contain its own club or society. Without really seeking them out we stumbled across an arts club, a film club, a private library, a swimming pool association (for the amazing, huge, sea-fed Jubilee Pool), and a gentleman's club.

Walking through the town centre on a couple of evenings I was struck by the number of single men walking from place to place. Perhaps paradoxically I interpret this as a sign the place is friendly and well-integrated. It suggests there are plenty of pubs where you can expect to find a group of people you can fall in with just by turning up. The sign of a town where people don't know each other as well, where pub life is more transient, more shallowly-rooted is when you only see people walking around in groups from place to place.

It also happens to have some fine Georgian and Regency terraces and villas and some lovely small parks and gardens: historically it was always fairly prosperous, providing services for the local centres of mining as well as being an important commercial port. It's now rather frayed around the edges and is more ruggedly handsome than pretty. But doesn't that have its attractions? Anyway you can always look out to sea and across Mount Bay if you want a taste of the picturesque.

I suppose I'm building up to recommending it as a decent base for a Cornwall holiday: it's a short drive away from some of the best beaches around, such as that at Sennen Cove. And a darned sight cheaper than St Ives.