Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Low violets

As Nige informs us, Monday was RS Thomas's birthday. But as he implies, celebration doesn't seem quite the right word when the subject sometimes left the impression that he'd rather not have been born. Another aspect of Thomas's misanthropy, which was by no means restricted to others.

This capricious, whimsical, peevish, moody and bad-tempered Welsh clergyman-poet was preceded by at least one other who also lived in the Welsh Marches (as Thomas did early in his clerical career) as I learnt in Peter Conradi's 'At The Bright Hem of God'.

According to Conradi, seventeenth-century Breconshire poet and priest, Henry Vaughan, was reckoned by a relation to be '"proud and humourous" where humourous takes its ancient meanings of capricious, whimsical, peevish, moody, or bad-tempered.' The upshot was that...
...his long life ended in a pitiful and alarming mess of law-suits and family recrimination.
First there was a violent dispute with his eldest son, Thomas, who took possession of the family house in 1689, agreeing in return to provided both a lifelong annuity of £30 to his father, who had decamped to a convenient cottage, and payments of £100 to be divided between his half-brothers and sisters. Thomas, compaining that he been duped by his step-mother into an arrangement that exploited him, refused to pay, was taken to court, then started proceedings against his own father, whom he accused, inter alia, of breaking, entering and stealing documents.
Then the court required Vaughan to pay his daughter Catherine, who had one lame hand burnt in infancy and also a disabled foot, half-a-crown per week through a third party. He referred to humble her by direct payments himself, as also by occasional  non-payments. She understandably filed a suit for maintenance. None of this reads prettily. The "absolute mercy of the poetry", as one of his biographers beautifully puts this, contrasts with the vicious retalitoriness of Vaughan's actions; or, as WH Auden put the matter, the works of poets are often in 'better taste than their lives'.

Truly, as I remarked of Thomas's, a poet's biography can provide 'a regular reminder that art is mysteriously capable of utterly transcending personality'. So having given you a sour taste of Vaughan's life here's a sweet demonstration of this truth, in the form of a couple of verses by Vaughan that I read at my maternal grandfather's funeral a few years ago ('The Timber'):
Sure thou didst flourish once! and many springs,
Many bright mornings, much dew, many showers,
Pass'd o'er thy head; many light hearts and wings,
Which now are dead, lodg'd in thy living bowers.

And still a new succession sings and flies;
Fresh groves grow up, and their green branches shoot
Towards the old and still enduring skies,
While the low violet thrives at their root.

Originally, I took these stanzas to be a complete poem, having found them presented as such in an anthology. However, I later discovered they were followed by a further three stanzas. What I initially took for a very short poem with a straightforward theme of nature's ability to renew itself, turned out to be something darker and more mysterious. Here are the additional verses:
But thou beneath the sad and heavy line
Of death, doth waste all senseless, cold, and dark;
Where not so much as dreams of light may shine,
Nor any thought of greenness, leaf, or bark.

And yet—as if some deep hate and dissent,
Bred in thy growth betwixt high winds and thee,
Were still alive—thou dost great storms resent
Before they come, and know'st how near they be.

Else all at rest thou liest, and the fierce breath
Of tempests can no more disturb thy ease;
But this thy strange resentment after death
Means only those who broke—in life—thy peace.

But then having looked into the poem a bit more in the wake of reading Conradi's book, I discovered a longer version again, with another nine stanzas! As well as very substantially lengthening the poem, this extra material complicates its already rather mystical and oblique meaning to such an extent I'm still in the process of trying to come to a vague understanding of it (here's a link to the whole thing).

This rather enjoyable experience of easy appreciation followed by a more thought-provoking process of discovery has made me wonder whether some longer poems might benefit from being anthologised in the form of edited highlights and presented afresh to the contemporary reader. I certainly wouldn't have used Vaughan's two verses as a reading in the way that I did if I'd come across them initially as part of a much, much longer poem. I'm not sure I would have persevered to the end and pondered sufficiently on its meaning (I was busy at the time) and I don't think I would have had the idea (or confidence) to abridge it myself.

I believe that longer poems aren't read much any more. We can bemoan this fact. But would it not be better to convert some unfashionably epic works - ones by Coleridge, Tennyson and Milton come to mind - into bite-size, digestible morsels, which might lead the reader onto an appreciation of the whole, if the alternative is to leave them largely unread?

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Interrogation of a troll-blogger

Apparently, this is not a product of satire. It's an accidentally hilarious interrogation of what I suppose we might call a troll-blogger.

I particularly liked (a) the absurdity of the wholly-justified accusations, (b) the fact that the shifty troll-blogger looks as if he's never worn a suit and tie before and (c) the combination of half-suppressed incredulity and disdain you can see in the eyes of the interviewer.



H/t The Dish.

******* ****, that's good

Honestly, Sir! It's a light beer made in Germany...


H/t Marginal Revolution

Fellow travellers ride again

I wasn't going to post on this as I thought it would be more widely reported than it was (Harry's Place did their usual reliable job, however). So, for what it's worth, I bring it to your attention.

A letter was written last week to The Guardian. It protested against a supposed threat to democracy posed most immediately by a Channel Four Dispatches documentary. This film alleged, very convincingly in my view, infiltration of the East London Mosque by Islamists.

So how do you manage to present as anti-democratic a film that alleges dangerously extremist - and anti-democratic - linkages in a purportedly mainstream institution that is a centre for teaching and instruction and is also in receipt of public funds? Rather Alice Through The Looking Glass isn't it?

Well, all it takes is a few imaginative parallels and collapsed definitions: Islamism is conflated with Islam; the documentary was therefore an attack on Islam; this is comparable to the attacks on East End Jews in the 1930s by Mosley's Blackshirts; the documentary therefore sits in an anti-democratic tradition of forcibly denying representation of minorities. Pathetically ingenious and totally shameless, particularly in its co-option of the experiences of London's Jewish community, a group which doesn't typically sit high in the affections of Islamists.

If the signatories were the usual lot of Islamist apologists - such as Galloway and the Muslim Council of Britain - then it wouldn't be worth noting. But whilst this galère is inevitably represented they're joined by a number of people who I really thought would know better. And not just because the argument is transparently shoddy but because you'd think these people would find it so obviously wrong-headed to share a platform with Galloway's lot.

Bonnie Greer, for instance, whose beautifully-modulated tones I will never listen to again on Newnight Review with the same attention. Avi Shlaim is another, an Oxford revisionist historian of Israel whose civilised, mop-topped head would swiftly be detached from the rest of his body after the establishment of a Woodstock Road* caliphate (Greer might just get away with full burka and the giving up of her books, articles and plays).

Along with these academic-types, some other signatories are interestingly similar in profile to another set of fellow travelling apologists, those of the Soviet Union: a handful of trade unionists (including Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson), the chair of CND, anti-war types, Livingstone, etc. It seems that these people will travel a long and convoluted way from their purported values in order to show sympathy to a cause - any cause - which sets out to undermine their home country, whether it's totalitarian communism or fundamentalist Islam. Or are a few of them merely dupes?

In any event, shame on them. And please don't forget to discount in future whatever this lot say about anything. Someone who's going to sign up to such a manifestly disingenuous and disgraceful argument, alongside such a bunch of extremists and apologists for clerical fascism, isn't worth taking seriously about anything.



* Home of his college (and my alma mater), St Antony's.


UPDATE: Here's a response from some lefties (and one or two others) who really do believe in democracy.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Our secret cyder weapon

If the music of the Wurzels isn't enough to strike fear into the heart of our political masters then we may have to resort to a far more dreadful weapon. One to induce quaking terror in anyone appreciative of spare, austere, modernistic free verse, the sort of person who would never dream of taking pleasure in, say, a lovely knob of butter before pondering how sad it will all seem when they die.

Yes, we will roll out the big guns: the poetry of Thomas Hardy. Let's see how they cope with that, eh? My finger is poised over the Share button in my Facebook 'Thomas Hardy's Cyder Poem for, er, Poetry Uk No. 1 Campaign'. And as it's bound to be ripped off I may add 'The 100% Official' thing at the beginning. (By the way, join this one).

As you'd expect Hardy, having written about most things in his prolific career, found room for cider (or cyder as he calls it in, well, Hardyesque fashion). And he goes a long way to demonstrate the virtues of the drink - it actually makes him happy. It's up there with dancing and love. But I suppose you will already have guessed how he might conclude such a life-affirming poem...
Great Things

Sweet cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
Spinning down to Weymouth town
By Ridgway thirstily,
And maid and mistress summoning
Who tend the hostelry:
O cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me!

The dance it is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
With candles lit and partners fit
For night-long revelry;
And going home when day-dawning
Peeps pale upon the lea:
O dancing is a great thing,
A great thing to me!

Love is, yea, a great thing,
A great thing to me,
When, having drawn across the lawn
In darkness silently,
A figure flits like one a-wing
Out from the nearest tree:
O love is, yes, a great thing,
A great thing to me!

Will these be always great things,
Great things to me?...
Let it befall that One will call,
"Soul, I have need of thee":
What then? Joy-jaunts, impassioned flings,
Love, and its ecstasy,
Will always have been great things,
Great things to me!

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Boy George

What the last five Tory Chancellors did before they got the big job:

Kenneth Clarke: a career as a barrister leading to appointment as a QC; over twenty years as an MP and over ten as a minister.

Norman Lamont: worked in investment banking and management becoming a director of Rothschild Asset Management; similar political experience to Clarke.

John Major: a career as an international commercial banker attaining a senior management position; three years as a councillor; over ten years as an MP and five as a minister.

Nigel Lawson: National Service in the Navy where he commanded a small torpedo boat; twenty years as a financial journalist and then about another ten working in editorial positions for national publications; ten years as an MP and four as a minister.

Geoffrey Howe: a career as a barrister leading to appointment as a QC; twenty-five years an MP and four as a minister.

George Osborne has had a couple of temporary, entry-level jobs, coming nowhere near a position of responsibility, before entering politics as a researcher. That remains his level of non-political work experience. He's certainly not unique in this nowadays (cf. Gordon Brown, et al.). He's also been fortunate enough to be able to rely on a private income to fund his reputedly rather splendid lifestyle. Pretty free-wheeling, eh?

I suppose we should be hearing what a boy wonder he is, how he's overcoming this lack of experience to shape up as a capable prospective Chancellor. But we're not. And polls are telling us this concern is widely shared.

I don't know about you, but I struggle to imagine how I might have possibly been able to develop what judgement and competence I happen to possess if I'd never held down a proper job or been burdened by some substantial experience of management responsibility. I'm pretty sure I'd be winging it most of the time. It's a shame for him that Osborne doesn't have Blair's barrister's charm and presentational skills or Brown's, well, Scottishness (a very much devalued indicator of financial probity) and boring, worthy doctorate. But he doesn't. He comes across exactly as he should.

Friday, 26 March 2010

From the fabled Beehive: or, private vices, publick benefits

Having grown up in what Recusant nails as the 'banker' part of Gloucestershire, I wasn't reared on locally-produced cider. The drink was usually first encountered in sweet, bottled form at the back of the village hall hosting that week's disco. And then when you were old enough to drink in pubs it was rarely drank straight, usually being consumed as an ingredient in that devil's own drink, the snakebite - but still from the keg and so mass-produced, fizzy and characterless.

My first consistent exposure to the proper stuff - that is scrumpy - came whilst I lived in Bath. I shared a flat with a chap who played rugby for Bath Football Club (as it still was then) located on the erroneously-named Quiet Street, a Georgian canyon linking Milsom Street and Queen's Street. The place was very cheap, very leaky and at the top of five flights of steep stairs.

We used to drink our scrumpy - this was back in the early-90s - at a pub called The Beehive. I think it was somewhere up Lansdowne Hill and was a proper, old-fashioned cider house. They may have sold beer but only incidentally. It featured lots of wood, including a sawdust floor, and smelled of pine boards, fresh wood-shavings and a mixture of pear drops, fag smoke and urine.

It seemed to permanently host a number of fellers of indeterminate age, who we thought of as cider-heads, but a more visual description would have been cider-noses (all a cheery and vibrant red) or cider-eyes (all watery and bleared). Perched unsteadily at the bar, they didn't move much, just shuffling periodically to the gents and back.

We used to begin our evenings there, which is why I picture it infused with a golden evening light, not unlike that found in a clear example of what we were drinking. Usually a pint; a pint-and-a-half if we were feeling bullish.

Anyway, the combination of this modest pomaceous libation with our five flights of stairs invariably proved lethal to our prospects of spending the whole night's sleep under a duvet. I guess the scrumpy acted as a sort of depth charge, its full effect only becoming evident late in the evening. One would wake in the permanent darkness of the stairwell, mouth not unlike the dusty floor of the distantly-remembered Beehive, wondering where the hell you were, before recommencing one's interrupted assault on the summit and its comfortable bed.

I'm conscious that this is hardly an advert for the healthy benefits of cider as part of a balanced and mature approach to alcohol. But, hey, I don't care! Blasted preachers!

But what I do think really sad is the loss of places like The Beehive, which I found had been converted into another bland wine bar sort of place when I went to look for it a few years ago. Yes, it was home to a number of alcies but, as we know, these people haven't gone away, they just sit at home, lonely and even more immobile, their red noses dimmed by the ghostly light of a cathode ray tube.

It's sad to lose one of those minor cultural peculiarities that help make one city different to another; making Bath different to Winchester or Cambridge or Gloucester. I for one don't want to live in a homogenised, pasteurised culture of crappy blandness. And that's one reason to be very annoyed at a Government that in withdrawing a sensibly encouraging tax benefit has so casually put the boot into a traditional, indigenous industry that is productive of a distinctive and enjoyable cultural by-way.

But we should not despair! Here's some encouraging cider protest history. To help the current protest along constructively, here's a very sensible compromise that this government or the next should adopt. I shall be posting it to the Facebook protest group's Wall. As I think someone recently said: "oo-ar, we can!"

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Prospects for the air signature

At the end of lunch yesterday I had trouble getting the waiter's attention. Eventually I caught his eye - he was on the other side of the room. He came towards me but I halted him as I only wanted the bill. The gesture I used to indicate this is what I shall call the 'air signature' (as in air guitar and air kiss): that squiggle you make with your hand up in the air as if you're signing a cheque or credit card slip suspended from the ceiling.

Now that we don't have cheques and have gone all chip 'n' pin, I wonder whether this gesture will die out? Perhaps it will continue to be used by a declining number of people who are now over the age of about twenty-five, being gradually replaced by the 'air finger-punch' (four jabs with the pointing finger at an imaginary suspended key pad). Or will it persist long after its referent has disappeared, rather like the handshake (open palm indicating no weapon is being held)?

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Wurzelcide

Incredible - I really thought I couldn't despise them any more. And then they do this:
Under today's [budget] plans, duty on cider will increase by 10% above inflation from midnight on Sunday.

But who's this riding to the rescue on a brand new combine harvester?
Britain's best-known cider drinkers The Wurzels were spluttering into their scrumpy today after their beloved brew was targeted in Chancellor Alistair Darling's Budget. The West Country hitmakers, who scored hit singles in 1976 with I Am A Cider Drinker and Combine Harvester, said they were being "unfairly penalised" by a tax hike...
The band - noted for performing with twine around their trousers - said: "We are all very upset that scrumpy cider, being one of the few pleasures that we cherish down here on the farm in the West Country, is being hit by such a tax rise." 
In a statement Tom Banner and Pete Budd of the group, who have performed yokel-style versions of well-known tunes for a number of novelty hits, continued: "We all realise that, in these current times, we have to tighten the string on our trousers, but we must admit that having to cut down on this local favourite leaves us feeling that we are being unfairly penalised."

Bloody jocks. Is it cos we are yokel? I can see some protest folk songs coming on. Or at least their modern equivalent. Join up and 'soothe all your troubles away, oo-ar-oo-ar-ay, oo-ar-oo-ar-ay!'

The poetry bug

A poet is trying to encode his work in the DNA of a bacterium. 'If it works, his poem could outlast the human race'. It really will be in his immortal words.

But the lengths people have to go to nowadays to get published! We're not told whether it will rhyme. I also wonder whether evolutionary processes may result in the bacterium eventually containing the entire works of Shakespeare.

Part of a larger whole

Peter Guralnik, writing about what soul music meant to him:
That was how it was with me...the sense of being clued in to something significant, of being on the edge of a Movement that was so much more than just another pop phenomenon. It was there for the audience; it was there for the protagonists. Over and over again in my talks with the people who made the music there was reference to this same kind of spiritual association, a sense of being part of a larger whole. No one has characterised it more eloquently, though, than Curtis Mayfield... Speaking...about the achievements of the larger world of soul he declared, "You know, to talk about the '60s almost brings tears to my eyes. What we did. What we all did. We changed the world - me, us, Smokey Robinson, Jerry Butler, the Temptations, Aretha, Otis, Gladys Knight, James Brown. We really did. Barriers broke down for us. And for all black musicians after us. I mean, to have lived through that, and to have been part of that, is more than anyone can ask".

This is surely where the positive radicalism of the Western world in the '60s really lies, rather than with the revolting students of '68 or the hippies at Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock. And I guess that despite all the violence and the vanity of the Mods, someone like Jimmy from Quadrophenia certainly felt something of that 'spiritual association'.

I also reckon that this sort of thing can only happen once in a society. Personally, I think the quite horrible Footloose, marks the point at which the idea of social liberation through music became a lazy, conformist trope (go, backwards townspeople!).

However, there are plenty of other parts of the world where music is presumably still doing this sort of thing in authentic fashion (meaning from the bottom up.) There's the raï that Gadjo posted a bit of yesterday, for instance.

I do wonder whether at some point we will come across a Chinese equivalent of soul (I haven't yet, but that doesn't mean it's not already out there). If it happens - and my bet would be that it does - then will it be a derivative of Western forms? Or is there a popular Chinese musical form that will begin to be used to mobilise young people, giving expression to their hopes and ambitions? We await the Chinese Sam Cooke: 'A Change is Gonna Come' perhaps?

Try to make some time to watch and listen to this:

Quadrophenia


[This was posted at Touching from a Distance yesterday - I've realised if I don't post it here I won't have backed it up.]

Apparently, Phil Daniels' autobiography has just been published. He's one of those actors who's indelibly and definitively associated with a single role: Jimmy from the film Quadrophenia. And as Quadrophenia's thirtieth anniversary has just passed I thought it would be good to tip my pork pie hat to what's one of my favourite films.

It's usually described as a cult film, which I take to mean it wasn't that successful commercially when first released but it's subsequently achieved a small but loyal following. I guess that's all a matter of fact rather than opinion. But sometimes defining a film as cult becomes a form of condescension, a way to dismiss something from serious consideration. Quadrophenia is no exception.

Most critical references earmark it as an historical curiosity, interesting mostly as a cataloguing of the Mods and their mid-sixties battles with the rockers; as much social history as cinema. Perhaps this is unsurprising. After all it's probably not unreasonable to assume that a film based on a 'rock opera' - the even more overblown and pompous offspring of an already overblown and pompous genre, the 'concept album' - is unlikely to have much genuine quality.

I must admit that when I first saw it about thirty years ago, I watched it primarily for the Mods and the music. But it soon became evident to me that there was something else going on here, something a lot more interesting.

It's not just a great coming of age movie - and the sort of coming of age experienced by a working-class Londoner rather than a Ferris Bueller - it's also a fascinating story of the disillusionment of a young idealist.

Jimmy's estranged from his family and bored by his work. He finds an outlet for his youthful capacity for belief in the Mod cult he and his friends follow - something that gives them a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose, albeit one confined to various forms of subversive hedonism and acts of self-assertion that range from the stylish to the violent (and sometimes both at the same time). The peak of this idealistic commitment arrives in the seaside resort of Brighton one bank holiday in a Dionysian orgy of violence punctuated by back-alley sex.

However, from this point, disillusion ensues. He's committed himself to being a Mod. But just like many a transformative human project the whole thing begins to fall apart, mostly through a series of casual and largely unthinking personal betrayals. Given that 'Brighton' and all it represents is providing the only meaning in his life - and being an idealist he desperately needs meaning - he begins to fall apart, he finds himself at sea without an anchor. The consequent nervous breakdown culminates in his near suicide, when he drives a scooter off a cliff and onto the rocks, jumping off at the last possible second.

The disillusionment of an idealist is a very modern tale. Rather than being a Mod, Jimmy could have been a communist, a Nazi, a hippie, a Hare Krishna - anyone who's looking to a set of radical beliefs to give meaning to his life. In this way the film entirely transcends its immediate subject matter. (Is it a bit too fanciful to think of its nineteenth-century novel analogue as being written by a Turgenev or even a Dostoevsky? Yes, probably.)

The journey is well-described: the arc of Jimmy's experience from enthusiastic true-believer to distraught nihilist is sensitively and compellingly drawn. It's psychologically convincing. It's well-acted by a superb young cast who would soon be numbered amongst Britain's better TV and film actors (Phil Daniels, Ray Winstone, Timothy Spall, Leslie Ash, Philip Davies, Kate Williams and Michael Elphick* - it also features an enjoyable gangster turn by John Bindon, who enjoyed one of Britain's stranger acting careers).

It's well-paced, the dialogue sounds authentic, it was shot in atmospheric and now historical locations in Brighton and London (check out the Goldhawk and Essex Roads in the late-'70s), and the soundtrack is superb, driving the film along on surges of emotion (the standalone concept album is actually one of the best of a justifiably maligned genre).

The film leaves you with an intriguing question: what happens to Jimmy? At the beginning of the film, we see him walking back from the cliffs having saved himself from the careering scooter. An optimistic view sees him as using his new-found maturity to set himself up in one of those 1960s careers where working class Londoners rapidly reach stratospheric heights, in advertising, the music industry, photography, film. The pessimistic view sees him in a mental hospital. And of course there are many plausible points in between. Perhaps he ended up just like his string-vest-wearing, stout-drinking, TV-watching Dad?

It's a great film. Better than American Graffiti, which it resembles in some respects, as it encompasses a lot more than the tooling around you do whilst waiting to come of age. But it's certainly not given the respect that that rather slight work receives. I suspect it suffers not just from being a cult film but also of not being part of a recognised body of work. We'd hardly pay the respect to the slight work that is American Graffiti without the subsequent success of George Lucas.

Quadrophenia was directed by Franc Roddam, who didn't go on to achieve the success of his contemporaries, Alan Parker and Ridley Scott. Perhaps if he had, Quadrophenia would be seen as the minor masterpiece it surely is.


* I exclude the execrable Sting from any praise. He's by far the worst thing about the film: he can't act, he can't dance, his hairstyle is cheap, he can't deliver dialogue, his idea of arrogant cool is to look as if he's sucking on a lemon whilst experiencing discomfort from piles.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Intermediation

It's obviously deeply satisfying to see Byers and his muckers in a state of disgrace and humiliation. But I can't get that excited about the immediate cause.

Weren't they doing what generations of (mostly Tory) MPs have done in setting out to earn a few bob by parlaying political contacts into business opportunities? Think of the droves of former Tory ministers that went into the City and industry as non-execs in the course of the post-privatisation '80s and '90s.

The reason this particular New Labour collection of superannuated politicos has been caught out is that the whole market in political connections has been thrown open. The old school tie, the old regimental tie, the old college scarf, and the elevated social circle are no longer sufficient routes by which buyer and seller can find each other and do business. In an age where mediocre polytechnic lecturers become Cabinet Ministers such links have to be intermediated. Introductions have to be made, deals arranged and monies passed across a daisy-chain of schmoozers. The growth of lobbying firms is a direct consequence of this new market structure.

In this way, what looks particularly bad does so not because it hasn't happened before but because for the first time we're able to witness it in all its grisly, whoring, sordid glory.

From a distance

I have a guest post up today at the arts and culture blog 'Touching from a Distance' (well worth keeping up with). I write about one of my favourite films.

Monday, 22 March 2010

What would Abe have done?

You may remember that during the presidential campaign Obama revealed he was reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on Lincoln, 'Team of Rivals' (posted on here). Most commentators saw it as prefiguring Obama's inclusion of Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates in his cabinet (Lincoln had brought on board rivals as well as talented people associated with parties other than his own).

All well and good. But I think people should take another look. In the course of his career, as recounted by Kearns Goodwin, two things worked ceaselessly in Lincoln's favour. Firstly, his almost superhuman patience and restraint exercised in the face of all sorts of pressure. He was willing to wait for the time to be ripe before striking, willing to ride out short-term setbacks. Secondly, his opponents constantly underestimated him, mistaking his circumspection for weakness and indecisiveness.

Ring any bells?

I left my home in Gallifray, headed for the Cardiff Bay...

Dr Who: Smitten by the Doc of the Bay

I love cheesy puns (no, not a snack) and this is the best I've come across in a while. It refers to the completion of filming in Cardiff Bay of the first episode of the new Dr Who. Hats off to having no shame: Otis Redding...?


[Got the headline wrong! Now corrected.]

From out there

This trailer is apparently for a single film. Talk about value for money! There must be at least three separate genres in there, let alone plots. It's called, quite rightly, 'People from Out There':



H/t: Ultrabrown.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Players are important too

It may be that the difference between Wales being a mediocre side and their being a very good one is three or four players. Commentators have been getting their knickers in a twist about coaching, tactics and temperament - and they're all important. But sometimes it's easy to lose sight of the fact that players play rugby. The quality of performance can simply come down to who you have on the field.

Stuttering in defeat last week and comfortable in victory this: the difference being Mike Philips, Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees (and, almost unthinkably, was Warburton's replacement of Williams a net gain?).

Gawjess

Whilst we're on horses I thought I'd introduce my favourite breed, the Welsh Cob. I'm not a horsey person at all but these creatures are magnificent. We used to have a couple on the farm until quite recently. Thankfully, given their size and musculature, they usually have wonderful temperaments; they also happen to be very easy to look after, being bred hardy to cope with a year-round life on the Welsh hills.

I have a wonderful photo of my Nain taken when she was a slip of a young woman. She's smiling shyly into the camera despite sitting confidently on one of these glossy beasts. But absent that, here are some amazing pictures from the running of the Section D Cob stallions at the Royal Welsh Show. Don't people look pathetically mean and shabby in relation to them? Another echo of the sentiment to be found in 'The Horses' from yesterday's post.

A comment on the site hosting these pictures:
i had a beautifull cob lovley brown colour named fulshedd he was gawjess xx

Friday, 19 March 2010

Horses

Coming back from the corner shop today I heard the leisurely clatter of hooves. It was the mounted police that regularly patrol our corner of Islington. I always get a thrill when I see them (as do the boys, as you can imagine). They were a threesome today and one, a majestic grey mare.

They always seem on a very relaxed sort of hack and I've never witnessed them in action. In fact, I'm not sure what action they are intended for: A cavalry charge of some spray-can-wielding hoodies? A mounted pursuit of shoplifters? But then they're probably not intended for action - rather, they're an equine deterrent.

And they make a tremendously impressive sight - much more comforting to the law-abiding citizen than the sight of a flashing jam sandwich. This feeling of being comfortable in their presence reminded me of one of the poems we 'did' at school, by Edwin Muir. It's spoilt a little by incorporating a measure of political didacticism (I suspect we were introduced to it by a CND-supporting English teacher) but it's nevertheless memorable and quite striking, even moving, in parts.

The Horses 
Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
'They'll molder away and be like other loam.'
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield.
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.

The new Asia

Things really are going splendidly in the world, you know. Now it turns out that Africa is the new Asia:
China and India get all the headlines for their economic prowess, but there's another global growth story that is easily overlooked: Africa. In 2007 and 2008, southern Africa, the Great Lakes region of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, and even the drought-stricken Horn of Africa had GDP growth rates on par with Asia's two powerhouses. Last year, in the depths of global recession, the continent clocked almost 2 percent growth, roughly equal to the rates in the Middle East, and outperforming everywhere else but India and China. This year and in 2011, Africa will grow by 4.8 percent—the highest rate of growth outside Asia, and higher than even the oft-buzzed-about economies of Brazil, Russia, Mexico, and Eastern Europe, according to newly revised IMF estimates. In fact, on a per capita basis, Africans are already richer than Indians, and a dozen African states have higher gross national income per capita than China.

I had no idea that Africans are per capita richer than Indians.


H/t Thomas PM Barnett.

Tweedy breeders

A strange sight at Paddington yesterday. Herds of waxy, betweeded creatures were being shepherded into pens in readiness for transport westwards. (Is this entirely humane? Indeed, is it legal?)

Apparently it's part of a pattern of annual migratory activity whereby solitary, rustic creatures from all over the British Isles flock to a field near Cheltenham where they feast on horseflesh. Presumably, it's all to do with breeding.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Walken and Willy

I was walking down the Euston Road yesterday, minding my own business and taking a discreet interest in that of others, when something caught my eye in the window of the very grand HQ of the very wealthy Wellcome Trust. It was this display:



In case the photo's not sufficiently clear, it says:
Evidence Dolls consists of one hundred plastic dolls used to provoke discussion amongst a group of young single women about the impact of genetic technology on their lifestyle. How will dating change when DNA analystis can reveal the presence of undesirable genes? Evidence Dolls come in three versions based on penis size (small, medium and large). A black indelible marker is provided to note down any characteristics on the doll's body. Hair, toenail clipppings, saliva and sperm can be stored in the penis drawer.

Ah, yes - 'the impact of genetic technology on their lifestyle' - that's exactly what a 'group of young single women' would talk about when presented with some dolls sporting matchstick-like penises. (And I wonder why single women? Are they expected to have a fresher, less prejudiced approach to penis size? And, by the way, exactly whose sperm might get stored in the mysterious 'penis drawer'? And why put toenail clippings in there? And...)

Here are some more images. The first one permits a good view of the intriguing 'penis drawer' - I think it may also reveal a racist assumption:


This one has a gay, possibly two:


Do you feel your views on genetic technology subtly shifting yet? My favourite image is the next one as it features a Christopher Walken Evidence Doll. If you study it carefully and compare it to the other dolls you will note that Mr Walken has a penis that falls in the category of 'large':


I've always been a fan of Christopher Walken but I'm not sure what I feel about him now. The one thing I would say is that he seems to be cropping up a lot in my online life at the moment (Elberry posted that dance video, for instance, and here's a Saturday Night Live sketch I came across in the course of this, which is near where I also found this treasurable artifact:



The Roald Dahl theme seems to tie everything together, don't you think?

Anyway, I continued my walk down the Euston Road minding my own business and taking a discreet interest in that of others.

The saliva of Cerberus

Nige in his typically observant and appreciative way notes the wood anemones are in flower. There don't seem to be any anemones in the woods around our place in the Cotswolds. This may be due to chance. However, I think I recall reading in Oliver Rackham's Woodland that such plants form part of the mycorrhizal-supported ecology that, uniquely, sits on the floor of ancient woodland (I've lent out my copy so can't check). Rather depressingly, I also recall learning it's not possible to recreate this habitat within a time-frame that can be encompassed by a human lifetime.

I suspect the beech woods and hazel and ash coppices of this area are relatively new creations. In any event, they do accommodate the occasional gorgeous, golden spread of winter-flowering aconites (they're probably still fully in flower, given how cold it's been this year).

Never having looked into the aconite, so to speak, I thought I'd google it. If Wikipedia is to be believed it has the most intriguing mythic origin - as well as characteristics that are more sinister than one would guess from its sunny aspect:
In Greek and Roman mythology, Medea tried to kill Theseus by poisoning him by putting aconite in his wine, in that culture thought to be the saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the Underworld. Hercules dragged Cerberus up from the Underworld, while the dog turned his face away from the light, barking and depositing saliva along the path. The saliva hardened in the soil and produced its lethal poison in the plants that grew from the soil. Because it was formed and grew on hard stones, farmers called it 'aconite' (from the Greek akone, meaning 'whetstone').

The whetstone, being dull, grey and blunt seems a most unlikely origin for the name of such a bright, aurulent and delicate flower. Or did the sharpness of the plant - its poison - somehow chime with its sitting on a sharpening stone?

The otherworldly associations don't stop there. Aconites are also known as wolfbane, superstitiously (and confusingly) reckoned to both induce and cure lycanthropy. The etymology suggests this arises from some Anglo-Saxon folklore. I'm sure some trawling around the internet - sorry, research - would produce more of this. It seems to be a plant that's had a magnetic influence on uncanny associations.

A mythic assassination, a demonic dog, a chthonic poison, the fodder of a werewolf, and more: all lying at the bitter root of one small, yellow, woodland flower!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

'The unpredictable character of administrative procedures..'

This interview with a professional corruption investigator at the not-for-profit TRACE cites a study which offers some interesting international distinctions:
In China, it describes corruption as an "inverted pyramid," with most bribery at the top while India is the opposite, with corruption rampant at lower levels but tapering off higher up.
"Russia is a solid block. There is bribery at all levels," Wrage said. "There appears to be sense of near-complete impunity, a sense of entitlement ... there is no sympathetic low level management, no sympathetic mid-level management, or sympathy at the top (for anti-bribery efforts)."

I've done lots of business in Russia, a fair bit in China and I'm friendly with a few Indians and what she says rings true to me. Also the character of corruption in Russia is a little more pungent - it doesn't merely involve paying a bribe to get a contract:
Wrage recalled a question at her first workshop in Moscow in 2002 which underlined the unique dangers of Russian corruption:
"Somebody came up to me in the break and said: 'If I don't pay the bribes here, I am really worried that my office will be burned to the ground.'"
Her reply? "Well, I have nothing to give you. I don't have any best practice tips to help with that scenario."

She's obviously got a good line in dry humour (probably a useful attribute in this field). She doesn't mix her words either:
"My recommendation is: 'Maybe you should reconsider doing business in Russia,'" she said. "I am considerably more optimistic about Nigeria than I am about Russia on this issue."

This is in contrast to Ikea's wonderfully euphemistic reason for halting their Russian expansion. It's all because of "the unpredictable character of administrative procedures in some regions." I guess they just can't plan on this basis: for instance, will it be your office or your home that gets burnt down? If only these guys could get organised...


From the mouths...

Here's my son's Radio 4 debut (yeah I know it's extra-indulgent, but I'm a proud Dad and it's my blog). I can't argue with his philosophy of life. Next up, a slot on 'The Moral Maze'.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Newspaper Club

I'm a fan of newspapers. I love their practicality. They're easy to read, combining text and pictures brilliantly. They're portable, flexible and robust, being quite difficult to ruin by accident. Whilst they can be infuriating, they're rarely a boring format, combining quite seamlessly the cheeky and the serious.

I also love their feel. There's something about newsprint that transcends the physical - it has a certain intrinsic romance, which I suppose is unsurprising given the heritage.

That's not to say the world of newsprint doesn't face real and well-documented problems. However, as I explained here, I believe the presses will be rolling way into the future. Some perspective is provided by Russell Davies:
"People make an error in conflating print and print businesses," he says. "The business models that are attached to print may be broken, but that does not mean that print itself is.
"It may not be the dominant technology in 10 years, but it will still be here. Television did not kill radio."

Russell's doing his bit to come up with the sort of new business model that can make the most of what newsprint can do. He's a co-founder of Newspaper Club, a start-up that I'm lucky enough to be doing some work with. I feel particularly intrigued by the whole thing because of my developing interest in publishing more generally.

So what does Newspaper Club do? This news story provides a good introduction. But in a sentence, their website helps you produce your own newspaper.

You don't have to have any professional design skills - their proprietary software helps you do the layout yourself and create your own look - though you can still upload your own design if that's what you prefer. They also offer a creative service where they'll do everything for you - not just design your newspaper but write it for you too. However, the anticipation is that it's the first option, the design-it-online one, that will prove most popular.

They're currently in beta mode but what you'll be able to do when they're fully open is go to the Newspaper Club site, fire up the online publishing module and start dragging across your material. You can very straightforwardly pull anything over: blog posts, photos, articles, Word documents and so on. Once you're happy with what you've got and how it looks, you'll be able to select your quantity and pay. Your newspaper will be delivered a few days later.

Here's a worked example and very handsome it looks too - as well it might given they recently won a prestigious Brit Insurance Design Award. What you get is a 12-page tabloid, printed on proper printing presses (in the downtime when they're not being used to print mass-circulation papers), available in colour or black-and-white. I think the pricing is affordable: from 30p a copy if you print 5000 to £7 a copy if you print off 5 (all including delivery and VAT).

They launched a few weeks ago but have already produced newspapers incorporating, amongst other things: blog postings (how it all started, and I know a live topic for some); promotional messages for an online retailer; a teaser for an upcoming book launch; a London-related, limited-edition art project; and the sort of written stuff that supports conferences and roadshows. They're getting interest from many different quarters, including from at least one couple who want to produce a newspaper of their wedding.

So all very exciting, not least as there are so many directions in which the business could grow. One of my jobs is to identify partners who will promote Newspaper Club to prospective customers. Any tips, ideas or introductions would be most gratefully received.

Monday, 15 March 2010

In their sleep

An interesting question from Eddie Butler's Breakdown email:
As for Wales, Paul Wallace summed it up for me when the old Ireland prop and brother of David said that if there is a list of five things, in rising order of difficulty, that you have to tick off in order to become a top team, then Wales can do four and five without difficulty. It's just they can't master the simpler requirements on one, two, three. They can run but not walk.
Which just leaves the question: would you prefer to be England, who can do the first three things in their sleep, but can't get their heads around four and five, or Wales?

Another question might be: who would you prefer to watch? Obvious, really. It's not just the England team who do the 'first three things in their sleep'.

Three puzzles

Like all parents with a four-year old I get bombarded with questions. I do my best to provide answers. The experience reminds me of three puzzles of my own childhood, which over time resolved themselves:

1. With, I think, Blue Peter's encouragement we collected milk bottle tops for the blind. I imagined they were used to make special glasses (this may be quite a common misconception - they were, in fact, recycled for money). In a parallel development, birds, such as tits and finches, had started to peck the tops of milk bottles whilst they sat on your doorstep in order to drink the cream. My question was: isn't it dangerous to give blind people glasses that birds will want to peck through in search of cream?

2. The Lord's Prayer contains the request to 'deliver us from evil'. I mondegreen'd it into 'deliver us from the eagle'. I had a vision of a raptor sitting on a gate-post eyeing me beadily. My question was: why does God employ eagles to punish us for our sins?

3. The everyday miracle of Fray Bentos Steak and Kidney pie bothered me. My question was: how is it possible that a pie - something whose very nature involves dryish crustiness - can be produced from a can, a receptacle whose contents are invariably moist and soggy?

I'm not sure why I never cleared these puzzles up through some questioning. Perhaps I thought asking might make me seem naive and that the answer would emerge in good time? I suppose I was right. I wonder what unspoken questions keep my little boy up at night?


For younger readers: this is what milk bottles used to look like. They were delivered to your doorstep daily in the early morning by a person known as a 'milkman' who was transported in a vehicle known as a 'milk float' (so-called as it was a form of hovercraft).


Sunday, 14 March 2010

Retail taxidermy

I came across this (below) here. It's our neighbourhood taxidermist. Yesterday, I saw a baboon in their window. Shop window + interest = impulse buy?



H/t Touching from a Distance.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Playing and ploughing

I love Ireland versus Wales. Rather like the Scotland match the games are usually entertaining. The Celtic teams typically are up for playing a bit fast and loose unlike the other team that occupies these islands.

I've seen the fixture at Cardiff a few times but only seen it the once in Dublin. It was the last match played at the old Lansdowne Road, which was an atmospheric, likeable place constructed mostly of crumbling concrete with some old-fashioned standing terraces and a small cottage in one corner (another peasant taking liberties with the notoriously lax Irish planning laws?).

I was there with my brother and after Wales were ignominiously defeated we spent the rest of the afternoon, evening, night and early morning drinking Guinness (natch) in one of the bars beneath the stand and then in what I believe is quite a famous pub, the Beggars Bush.

We'd got talking to a group of farmers from County Carlow. They possessed all the good farmer attributes, being wry, curious, and modest. It turned out they were also fortunate in that they possessed farmland that bordered some expanding towns and villages. The Irish property boom was at its peak: one had just sold a smallish field for three-quarters of a million euros and another had a bar and some other property in New York. So not so typical in that respect.

They invited us to the upcoming World Ploughing Championships. We declined but said they'd have to stay next time they came over for Cheltenham (which they did, at my brother's place). But I regret not taking them up on their invitation.

Apparently, the World Ploughing Championships are an absolutely massive event and they were to be held that year in humble County Carlow. Ploughing being a major sport in Ireland the inhabitants were in a frenzy. At the very least I should have enquired how you win - does the prize go to the fastest, the most accurate, the best artistic impression? Is Ploughing so popular in Ireland that it has its own televised spin-offs, with celebrity and talent show versions? Did any of my companions have a glamourous Ploughing youth, had they been Ploughing prodigies, hero-worshipped by the local community? At least, unlike rugby, it's not a sport that will be ruined by professionalism - I imagine the only way to be a Ploughman is to be a professional (doesn't the idea of the amateur Ploughman incorporate some form of category error?)

But an immersion in the joys of Ploughing wasn't to be. Ah, the furrow not followed. I can picture myself now: standing in a marquee in a muddy, bedrizzled field, the smell of newly-disturbed soil and hot diesel rising to my nostrils, a pint of Guinness in hand, being entertained by friendly, millionaire Irish farmers over the rumble of engines. What a miss!

I'll leave you with a favourite song, a bit of Irish soul-folk. This season, though, it could be the anthem of those other exponents of trundling up and down a field in straight lines, the England rugby team. Slow, predictable and boring: do they really have to let it linger?

Friday, 12 March 2010

More hysterical paranoia

Oh dear. It's getting into everything it seems - hysterical paranoia, that is.  This week we find a pant-wetting example of 'emotionalism and disproportion' coming from what I suppose we'll have to describe as the other side (though I suspect they have more in common with each other than the rest of us).

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown:
But this week even I, even I, can see that for the British establishment Muslims are contemptible creatures, devalued humans. As I prayed before starting this column I felt tears stinging my eyes and my face was burning as if I had been slapped many times over. Do they expect me to turn the other cheek? Millions of other Muslims must have felt what I did. And some may well go on to do things they shouldn't. Their acts will intensify anti-Muslim prejudices and will be used to justify injustice. The cycle is vicious and unrelenting.

Oh my God. What's happened? What dreadful provocations, humiliations, indeed crimes must have been committed to bring forth such a pitiful and, it has to be said, inflammatory response?

1. G_____ B____ at the Chilcot Enquiry didn't utter 'a word of sorrow' about the Muslim children killed in Iraq.

2. A judge jailed some miscreants involved in the recent demonstrations against Israel's treatment of Gaza.

3. Geert Wilders was invited into the House of Lords by Lord Pearson of UKIP to show his anti-Muslim film.

A few observations, seriatum:

1. GB is one of the most unpopular PMs in history and isn't representative of much; he's also totally shameless; the majority of murdered Muslim children in Iraq would have been killed by other Muslims; the Iraq War and the military actions pursued in its aftermath weren't directed at Muslims per se.

2. These were deterrent sentences that seemed deserved to me, having seen video footage of the demo. Suck it up, Muslim or no: you break the law, you may be jailed.

3. Lord Pearson, a member of the British Establishment? No, not really. Anyway, as long as the law isn't broken people can say what they wish. If it's any comfort, Parliament has hosted many forms of offensiveness in recent weeks from a Liberal peer, who appears to believe in the anti-Semitic blood libel, to a Respect MP who defends the Iranian government's vicious repressions.

Nevertheless, for Y A-B these incidents amount to a 'licence to strip the rest of us [Muslims] of our humanity and inviolable democratic entitlements.' The British Establishment (them again) 'steal our human and civil rights and don't even try to behave with a modicum of honour during and after war. The same people call upon us to be more "British" but treat us as lesser citizens.'

I feel I could dupe and revise some of my criticisms last week of Daniel Johnson's Standpoint editorial, simply changing a few of the nouns. Have these people gone quite mad? Perhaps some form of religious war might be more popular than one would reasonably assume?

The world was emptier then

How is it that people used to just fall into things? Doors were open, people were available. Ian McEwan recounts how he started out:
Determined not to have a proper job after having seen the civil service pay scale chart from entry level to retirement age, he spotted a new MA course at the University of East Anglia that allowed for the substitution of one module with a piece of original fiction. He phoned and was put straight through to Malcolm Bradbury. "I'd read a couple of his books and I was amazed that he was on the end of the line. But the world was emptier then. It seemed there was a limited amount [sic]* of people on the planet, and you really could phone them all up."
It's a phenomenon you often come across when reading accounts of twentieth-century, middle-class working life. Most recently, I witnessed young graduates stumbling into gainfulness in Lynn Barber's 'An Education' (posted on here) and in Ferdinand Mount's 'Cold Cream'.

Now these people were well-connected. But connections, whilst as important as ever, aren't sufficient. Nowadays, to get most graduate jobs, you need to demonstrate an existing interest in the field, usually by using up your student vacations hanging around an office, sometimes for nothing (fancily described as an internship). You invariably have to go through a rigorous interview process and sometimes sit some sort of written exam. You will need to have been involved with all sorts of clubs, societies, publications and events, turning your leisure time into a preparation for work. And you certainly need to have done lots of research on who you're meeting and why you want the job.

I turned up for the interview for my first proper job twenty years ago (a now coveted two-year graduate traineeship) having spent the previous year playing rugby in France and generally bumming around for a while in the US, never having done a job more sophisticated than builder's labourer. I doubt very much that I would have got the job today. Would I even have got an interview?

In the late-90s when I was hiring graduates I noticed how suddenly every applicant seemed to have done an internship - even between their first and second years, which I thought hugely beyond the call of keen bunniness. I guess that's when the rot set in.

I can't come up with any other reason why it was easier in the old days than McEwan's: 'the world was emptier then'. Presumably there was a shortage of graduates and a growing number of jobs that graduates were suited to. It seems that now the situation is entirely reversed.


* Wow. It feels good to 'sic' the great McEwan. The petty, pedantic pleasures of having a blog.

Massive noir

If you like film noir and Massive Attack, you'll love this. Quite mesmerising.



H/t Daily Dish.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Red Mannheim and the green fuse

I met my dear old pal Mark Alexander today to look at a couple of things. Firstly, his work 'The Red Mannheim' currently showing at Haunch of Venison. It's four metres high and quite unlike anything I've seen before - outside of Mark's work, that is (bottom - but a photo at this scale is unable to convey anything more than description).

It's composed of panelled screen-prints of the Mannheim altarpiece, a ruined and fragmentary rococo work. The surviving bottom corner pictures a weeping, cherubic Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden. The red is extraordinary, moving from a morbid stateliness to what one experiences as a sort of redemptive vibrancy. I found it beautiful, sad and inspiring. It's there until the end of the month, I think - if you go to see it I'd be interested to know your thoughts.

We also went to the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy. Stunning, of course. At one point, I wondered why images of cypresses, olive trees and mountains were so moving. For me, it's because the things pictured are so alive, so profuse it's as if they're collapsing in on themselves. It's like a green shoot that grows so furiously it can't support its new-grown weight and so curls and falls back. A sort of desperation for growth, to live, to be transformed that almost becomes self-defeating. And just as I was struggling to elucidate further a poem sprang to mind that entirely captures what I was trying to express: Dylan Thomas's 'The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives the Flower':
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Strange that these verses also happen to express something of what I felt on seeing 'The Red Mannheim'.

One-way traffic

It feels like a one-way street at the moment:

Baroness Manningham-Buller: US concealed torture from MI5
In a speech to the Mile End Group at the House of Lords, Lady Manningham-Buller said: “The Americans were very keen that people like us did not discover what they were doing.”

Britain made string of protests to US over Falklands row

Asked why the US chose to remain neutral despite Britain’s longstanding claims, the spokesman twice avoided calling them the Falklands, first saying “whatever you want to call them” and then using the Argentine name.

George Bush to David Cameron: don't derail Northern Ireland peace process
The former US president George Bush has made a direct plea to David Cameron to support the Northern Ireland peace process, amid widespread concern in the US about the Tories' new electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists.

Which all follows this:

Depressed Tony Blair told Gordon Brown he would quit after Iraq war
• Book reveals extent of PM's despair in aftermath of war
Sally Morgan, Blair's director of government relations, told [author] Rawnsley: "Iraq was a quicksand swallowing him up. The atrocities. Those terrible photos [of Abu Ghraib..."
The book relates how Blair's special envoy in Iraq, the former UN ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, came to No 10 at the end of his service in Baghdad to brief the prime minister. Greenstock knew that his "very gloomy assessment" had made him highly unpopular in the building. Some at No 10 tried to keep him away, fearing the impact on Blair's collapsing morale. In Blair's den Greenstock warned him that the situation looked "unbelievably bad" and would get more desperate in the months to come. "What can we do?" pleaded Blair. "We have told them [the Americans] again and again what we think is necessary. If it doesn't happen, what can we do?" Greenstock was left with the image of the prime minister "tearing his hair" over Iraq and "throwing his hands in the air".

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder and refraining from any public criticism whatsoever doesn't seem to have done us much good: being implicated unknowingly (at least to a degree) in torture; being put in an impossible position diplomatically over the Falklands, Britain's most sensitive longstanding foreign policy issue; having our politics interfered in so that the main opposition party is embarrassed over its policy on Northern Ireland; and then Iraq, which is by far the gravest of these slights in that we appear to have been concerned about the lack of post-war planning and then the lack of seriousness about reconstruction but been ignored.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock's unpublished memoirs would probably be one of the most important primary sources on the war's aftermath, which is where the real scandal of the whole episode is to be found. No wonder, their publication has been forbidden with no sign yet of their ever seeing the light of day.

The next time a British political leader is asked to sacrifice political capital - or more - to support US interests Foggy Bottom may be disappointed. But a refusal certainly shouldn't come as a surprise.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Glamorganshire pastoral

I've just finished Peter Conradi's 'The Bright Hem of God' (previously posted on here). It's a wonderful book. Rather than attempt a detailed appraisal, I'll provide you with a comparison: the closest I've come to it is the Nigeness blog, and there can be little praise higher than that.

One reason it has a strong personal appeal to me is the way it approaches its subject matter of the Welsh Borders, Wales, Welshness and the rural way of life. It explores the different ways in which these have been experienced and written about and is particularly dedicated to recovery and memorialisation: most of the books cited are out of print, many of the people talked about are long dead, their ways of life having either disappeared or now slipping into history. It's subtitled 'Radnorshire Pastoral', for which it's something of an elegy.

This chimes with my own appreciation of Wales, which is distant and partial, experienced as much through memory and story as anything. I was born on a Glamorganshire hill farm, part of an extended farming family, but at a young age removed first to the Marches, then to Aberystwyth and finally over the border into England's West Country, wherever Dad's studies and then lecturing took him (he couldn't make a living from keeping sheep on a hill-farm tenancy - I believe the farmhouse on Caerphilly mountain where I was born remains empty to this day).

But Dad, being a typical Welsh son and therefore tied to his mother's apron-strings, had us return to Wales every other weekend for years (the relationship between Welsh sons and their mothers is one explored by Conradi). These journeys seemed interminable - motorways weren't as ubiquitous then as now - taking four, five hours or more. My only memory of them has us crawling in our Austin Cambridge through the acrid atmosphere of the town of Bridgwater, a product of the yellow smoke which poured down from the chimney of the local cellophane factory.

Looking back, our accommodation also seems impractical and uncomfortable. I don't think I've ever been in a house smaller than Nain and Taid's. It was a sort of one-up, one-down terraced cottage into which two ground floor and two first floor rooms had somehow been accommodated. The upshot was that four of us - Mum, Dad, brother and I  - stayed in a single, small room.

It was cosy. Dad invariably went over to the local rugby club for a few pints on a Friday night. As a consequence, he'd often wake bursting for a pee in the early hours. The loo being downstairs in a lean-to, he would avail himself of a bucket, often with some expressive force. My brother recalls being woken from his sleeping spot on the floor by a fine, warm mist, not unlike some forms of tropical precipitation.

A good part of the weekend would typically be taken up with visits to the farms of the various cousins: P_________, F_____ Farm, T______ (and one or two others, whose names I forget). Each had its own characteristic experience.

P_________ was the home of my Uncle A_____, Nain's brother, a generous and handsome man who'd often give us boys a tenner (a lot of money in those days). He loved the horses and kept a few racers. By all accounts, he was a popular figure at Chepstow and around the livestock markets of South Wales and the Borders.

The farmhouse, though, was more squalid than any other property I've ever seen. The public rooms of a working farm inevitably get grubby and these were literally never cleaned: dogs and cats were everywhere, old bones and scraps of food lay on the shiny carpet, hair from various creatures infested the upholstery, anciently dirty plates lay strewn not just on the table but across arms of chairs and the cushions of sofas. It didn't smell too bad though - I think the dogs and cats ensured things didn't stick around long enough to putrefy. I always wondered how Uncle A_____ put up with it. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the way he ended his life: at the end of the barrel of his shotgun.

F_____ Farm was where some cousins farmed; it now lies mostly under an industrial estate. It was something of an adventure playground, especially the hay barn with its swing and scope for dens and tunnels. The farmhouse, although probably quite small, seemed to ramble. Heads, tails and paws of foxes, along with guns and antique bits of saddlery and brass festooned the walls. However, caution was always advisable. I remember one day I was playing alongside the cowshed when the bit of tin sheeting that covered the slurry pit came loose and I slipped in. I was up to my chest in liquid cow shit in no time and if Dad hadn't been there to pull me out by the hood of my parka I wouldn't be here now.

T______ was the nearest farm, being located just up the side of the valley (posted on here). It had recently been Dad's family home, shared with Nain's mother Nana, who died just after I was born, and a couple of Nain's younger siblings. It was now the home of Uncle M_____, another of Nain's brothers.

There were various sorts of livestock kept on the farm, often somewhat liberally. My brother and I used to delight in spending hours looking for eggs from the chickens that roamed around the place. The beehives at the back were another fascination, particularly as we were allowed occasionally to suck honey from the comb. Pigs, geese, guinea fowl (known as gleanies), horses, as well as the inevitable sheep were also present, sometimes near, sometimes far.

Unfortunately, it became increasingly uncomfortable to visit as old M_____ was losing his marbles. He would, however, drop in on us in the Cotswolds, unexpected, uninvited and claiming to be on his way back from parties in London where he'd supposedly been fêted by luminaries such as the Radio 2 disc-jockey David Jacobs (he imagined, erroneously, that he was a talented opera singer headed for unprecedentedly late stardom). He would outstay his welcome, serenading us excessively. The only way to get rid of him was to escort his Morris Minor van to the top of the Cotwolds escarpment, point him towards Wales and see him over the brow of the hill. We could be sure we wouldn't be seeing him for a while as his van couldn't get back up the slope.

So Conradi's snippets of half-remembered aspects of Wales had some congruence with my own experience, right down to some of the same modes of speech appearing. For instance, 'middling', which he takes to mean neither good nor bad whereas it's actually a euphemism for poor as in, "How are you today, Nain?" "Oh, middling, middling...". Another is 'well done, well done', being used less as a term of approbation and more as an exclamation of how things are all right in in the world, as in, "What's it like out, son?" "Nice and sunny, Dad." "Well done, well done..."

However, whilst I enjoy his unashamed romantic appreciation of the countryside and its inhabitants - he admits his debt to Rousseau - I can't buy it lock, stock and barrel. I grew up regretting our move from rural Glamorgan - it, too, seemed an incredibly romantic place. However, from a more mature perspective I can see why Dad considered it a good idea to get away from that life, quite apart from there being no money in it for him.

The general mental instability of a good part of the family seemed to be exacerbated by everyone knowing and partaking in each other's business. This was oppressive as well as being productive of innumerable feuds. At Auntie J____'s funeral a couple of years ago (one of Nain's sisters, mentioned in this post), every branch of the family sat at their own table, only communicating via a handful of (temporarily) acceptable persons (even my branch, living at one remove for over thirty years, was unable to interact freely with all but one or two of the tables). Small-scale farming is a difficult business at the best of times. When you have a collection of often volatile, wilful and unbalanced individuals sharing in the same group of family farming businesses the stresses multiply.

So I readily recognise the potential for unhappiness in rural ways of life. The romantically wild, far from producing Conradi's idyll, can be dangerous to your well-being, your health and sanity. I suspect the very freedom Conradi cherishes can allow dangerously full play to behavioural quirks and eccentricities. Nevertheless, something about it all still exerts a strong pull. The dream is far more powerful than the reality.