Friday, 30 April 2010

Clearing up any confusion there may be about potentially fatal disease metaphors

Many commentators have been mulling over the widely reported comments of the Secretary-General of the OECD with respect to Greece. For example:
It wasn’t very nice to liken the Greek debt crisis to the Ebola virus but, as a former Mexican finance minister, Angel Gurria knows a thing or two about contagion and financial sickness. “When you realise you have it,” he said, “you have to cut your leg off to survive."

I hate to be pedantic (no I don't) but Sr Gurria's metaphor just doesn't make sense. This is how Ebola works:
The virus interferes with the endothelial cells lining the interior surface of blood vessels and with coagulation. As the blood vessel walls become damaged and the platelets are unable to coagulate, patients succumb to hypovolemic shock. Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids, while conjunctiva exposure may also lead to transmission. 

Cutting your leg off will do nothing vis-à-vis Ebola other than weaken you further. The virus lives throughout your body.

I think what Sr Gurria is referring to is something like necrotising fasciitis, the flesh-eating bacterial infection, which along with dangerous dogs and killer hamburgers was for a time a preoccupation of the tabloid press:
...aggressive surgical debridement (removal of infected tissue) is always necessary to keep it from spreading and is the only treatment available.

But I suppose I know what he means. 

A dab of vole-y water

Exciting blog news. My brother has started a blog, recording his experiences as a shopkeeper, sub-postmaster and farmer in the Cotswold village of Bibury. Should be a contrast to the gritty urban perspective of Ragbag, eh?

And he's waded straight into what's currently making the village buzz: voles. Given he's a literate chap I think it's safe to say his post title is a reference to one of the most magnificent lines in literature:
Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.

But it's more a case of gum-booted through the plashy rack isle passes the vole quester. Anyway, if you wish to explore issues around voles then read on...

Really, really terrible

The comment below is from a columnist on The Atlantic responding to last night's debate. I guess he's from the centre-left, at least in US terms (he worked for Carter) and I have no reason to think he isn't objective and fair-minded about British politics. It reminds you what a wonder it is that such a figure as G***** B**** was ever able to maneouvre himself into power.
Gordon Brown is really, really terrible as a public figure. Every time he wags his head scoldingly "No, No" when the opponents are speaking, he must lose another 500 votes. No policy judgment here. Just saying that -- based on this sample, plus these past few days' "bigot" disaster -- this is someone with neither aptitude nor (apparently) training as a TV-era public figure. The more that the general election becomes "presidential," the harder it is to imagine that people will choose to have him around for a few more years as the main figure to listen to in the news.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Three Jockeys Before the Race

Brum has two good art collections: the City gallery and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. The latter is part of the University of Birmingham, and I think it's housed in a building that's just along from where tonight's Leaders' Debate was held.

I have no idea who did better this evening - I guess it depends which version of reality you choose to adopt. But the parading around the paddock is nearly over now and the runners and riders are heading onto the racecourse.

Nice then that this painting - [Three] Jockeys Before the Race by Degas - was hanging a few yards from where the three leaders were this evening. It's a stunner, isn't it? If I look at it long enough all this politics will fade into the background again...

Is Goldman Sachs the new Lenny Bruce?

When I see Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs blinking into the TV cameras the name of Lenny Bruce keeps springing to mind. Not because he looks like him (he doesn't) and not because he shares a New York Jewish background.

No, it's more because Goldman has entered a similar arena to the one that finished off controversial comedian Bruce. They're being prosecuted - but their guilt of the charge in question will not be that relevant in determining their fate.

Lenny Bruce is a legend now, inspiring the humour of such as Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor and foreshadowing in part what came to be known over here as Alternative Comedy. But at the time - the '60s - his aggressive humour offended the US public's sense of taste and propriety, as well as that of a critical mass of powerful politicians and bureaucrats. They went after him: he was prosecuted for crimes that weren't really crimes; when he was acquitted they just hounded him some more until they could find something that could result in a successful prosecution.

He ran - trying to go abroad but ending up in California - but he couldn't hide. In the end, it was the hounding that got him rather than any convictions: he was found dead in a hotel room (being a heroin addict didn't help, of course).

An admission of wrongdoing on the part of the authorities arrived by way of the full pardon Bruce received in 2003. But I think the lesson is that when it's sufficiently offended American propriety just has to be satisfied and any means will do - justice be hanged, at least for the meantime.

You don't have to think too hard to find other examples where a populist righteousness had resort to legally dubious methods: Prohibition (which despite being enforced by Constitutional Amendment inarguably contravenes the spirit of the Constitution), the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two, the McCarthyite black list, Cheneyite torture, to name a few. In all these instances, justice has had to wait until the heat has gone out of the politics.

I suspect we have another example shaping up before our eyes. Blankfein won't be going to jail and he won't be hounded to an early grave. But I have my doubts as to whether Goldman will be in great shape after the political-legal-media mob have finished with them, successful prosecution or no. They certainly have better lawyers and lobbyists than Lenny Bruce so may well manage to extricate themselves. But they're in an undeniably dangerous bear-pit for the moment. And as to whether they deserve to clamber out? Well, it's not as if Goldman is blameless. Lenny Bruce undoubtedly was a foul-mouthed user of hard drugs but he didn't hurt others much, if at all...

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

It's not just the way you tell 'em

When children grow up the building blocks aren't lined up into sensible rows all at once. Our four-year old has a formal understanding of what a joke is, but not a substantive one (well, either that or he's a surrealist):

Boy: "Why did the house climb up the tree?"

Father: "Er, I don't know. [Genuinely puzzled] Why did the house climb up the tree?"

Boy: "To eat the monkeys!" [Much hilarity].

The second volcanic eruption of the election?

A second volcano erupts. Greek government debt gets blown into junk; Portugal's slides; Italy's trembles; Spain's bond holders brace themselves. I wonder whether the ash cloud will reach Britain before polling day? It might introduce a note of reality about the economies we'll need to make.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The long line

The Queen visits Caernarvon today, recalling her son's investiture there as Prince of Wales 41 years ago. It was all a bit cod of course - stage managed by that arch-poser Louis Mountbatten - but nevertheless effective: despite various nationalist protests (or partly because of them?) it boosted the monarchy's popularity in Wales. Having access to the pageantry on the TV proved both alluring and, I would guess, flattering (the Welsh are grateful just to be noticed).

Opinion polls have consistently confirmed the popularity amongst the Welsh of the Windsors and what is really the English office of Prince of Wales. Over 70% of Welsh people (the proportion is about the same for Welsh-speakers) would welcome Prince William as Prince of Wales (can't remember where I read this).

I wonder when it will happen? Quite a useful card for the Palace or the Government to play if they're in need of a bit of a boost some time (the timing of the last investiture, which had been promised since 1958, may have been politically motivated, occurring as it did in the wake of some Plaid by-election successes). I have no doubt it would again be a ceremony of great pageantry, probably supplemented by a large portion of sentiment. The Welsh fruit of the English Rose, that sort of thing (feeling queasy?).

Anyway, if Wales does ever get sick of the English royal house, it's not short of candidates to take up the princely reins: the Anwyl of Towyn family have a good claim and the Williams-Wynn family (one ghostly member of which can be found commenting in this parish) a less good one.

I can't quite see Wales as a republic. Such a disunited nation needs some sort of unifying symbol that sits above the jealousies of politics. It's also a place where rationalism isn't highly prized but romance is (note that Wales is the only nation in Western Europe to have a heraldic beast on its national flag). Even in RS Thomas's otherwise seemingly disillusioned poem on the Investiture one can find an attraction to the 'long line' that renews itself:
To pay for his keep

So this was on the way
to a throne! He looked round
at the perspiring ranks
of ageing respectables:
police, tradesmen, councillors,
rigid with imagined
loyalty; and beyond them at
the town with its mean streets and
pavements filthy with
dog shit.
              The castle was
huge. All that dead weight
of the past, that overloading
of the law's mounting
equipment! A few medals
would do now. He permitted
himself a small smile,
sipping at it in the mind's
coolness.
               And never noticed,
because of the dust raised
by the prayers of the fagged
clergy, that far hill
in the sun with the long line
of its trees climbing
it like a procession
of young people, young as himself.

'...sipping at it in the mind's coolness': very good, that.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Er, hang on a minute...

In Saturday's Guardian, I learnt that David Cameron's favourite book is Robert Graves' 'Goodbye to All That'. It's a relatively interesting choice for a politician as it's a book with a controversial point of view, not the usual unobjectionable chaff (conversely, his most admired living person was Nelson Mandela, as it was for all the other politicians interviewed in this Q&A, natch).

Later on in the same paper* I discovered that Cameron's guru (and many other people's charlatan) Phillip Blond blames our condition of 'rootless cultural relativism' and our 'pervading lack of daily joy' on, amongst other things, the disillusioned war memoirs of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon.

I don't know whether to be disappointed by the evident lack of real intellectual engagement on Cameron's part or relieved that he isn't taking that seriously Blond's so-called Red Toryism, which when it isn't incoherent is mildly fascistic. I think I'll go for the latter.


* Not available online - I assume this is because it was a re-print of a Jonathan Raban piece for the London Review of Books.

UPDATE: A mysterious, masked reader comes to our aid with this link (I mistakenly thought that the LRB was behind a paywall). Thank you! Read it as it's a very effective takedown.

The child on the Highbury omnibus

T. overheard on the bus this morning a group of secondary school children on the way to the local comp discussing the rise of the Lib Dems. A heated and fairly well-informed debate was conducted on change, PR, and the policy on Trident. Not the usual bus experience and nice to see the engagement. The rise of the Lib Dems is a good thing.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Fundamentally flawed

Good, longish piece about the strategic choices facing the publishing business. Publishers don't seem very well equipped to survive, at least as chief arbiters of what gets turned into a book. They're being disintermediated as it's put in the securities business, but they're stuck:
Tim O’Reilly, the founder and C.E.O. of O’Reilly Media, which publishes about two hundred e-books per year, thinks that the old publishers’ model is fundamentally flawed. “They think their customer is the bookstore,” he says. “Publishers never built the infrastructure to respond to customers.” Without bookstores, it would take years for publishers to learn how to sell books directly to consumers. They do no market research, have little data on their customers, and have no experience in direct retailing. With the possible exception of Harlequin Romance and Penguin paperbacks, readers have no particular association with any given publisher; in books, the author is the brand name. To attract consumers, publishers would have to build a single, collaborative Web site to sell e-books, an idea that Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House, pushed for years without success. But, even setting aside the difficulties of learning how to run a retail business, such a site would face problems of protocol worthy of the U.N. Security Council—if Amazon didn’t accuse publishers of price-fixing first.

Doesn't sound a great place to be - sitting in the middle and being eaten alive. On the one side are Amazon, Apple and Google, who are dealing the whole bookselling business a double whammy: the low price, high volume, direct route to the consumer is undercutting bookshops; their market power and the rapidly growing ebook format are also driving down publishing margins potentially making big, traditional publishing totally unprofitable. On the other side are authors, from established to fledgling, who are increasingly likely to sell direct to their readers usually through one of the new players. The biggest question posed by the article it seems to me is who is going to gobble up most of the publishers' pie?

More generically, the catastrophe that's looming for traditional publishing fits well with this analysis of why complex business models collapse (it's by web guru Clay Shirky).

By the way, the author of the article is Ken Auletta, who about twenty-five years ago wrote 'Greed and Glory on Wall Street: The Fall of the House of Lehman'. I recently re-read it as I wanted to be reminded of the last time Lehman had 'fallen', in the early '80s (that time the firm had survived, it just lost its independence). It had also nearly gone bust in the early '70s and a number of times before that.

Securities businesses - that is ones that broke and trade shares, bonds and nowadays derivatives - have a tendency to do this once in a while. Like sheep they can sometimes suddenly and without much warning go tits up. They trade over-aggressively and get stuck with unmanageable losses when the market changes. That this happens to one or two every few years is really unavoidable. Unfortunately for us, nearly all banks today incorporate a large securities business.

Few in the UK appear to be taking financial reform very seriously despite it being, after the deficit, the most important issue the country faces. There's only one real long-term solution to the risk presented by the City's unprecedentedly large securities operations and that's to shrink them. They need to be made less important, more manageable, more easily killed or rescued. To get from here to there you could make the business less profitable by hugely increasing capital requirements, or you could reimpose a split between commercial and investment banking, or both; and I'm sure there are other solutions.

Unless we do this, when the next securities business goes bust we won't be able to let it fail without the rest coming down; but we won't have the resources to do so, it will be too big. As a consequence, the whole lot will come tumbling down after all, the financial system will collapse and the country will go bust too. Global depression will ensue.

Not that anyone cares. I'm not optimistic anything substantive is going to happen (cf. Shirky above). Anyway, what was that about +/-1% on employers' national insurance?

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Agrestic

Serendipitously, the thoughtful Ghost of Elberry sends me the word agrestic, meaning 'pertaining to the countryside'. Just the other day I'd been looking for that very word. But despite feeling pretty sure something like it deriving from the Greek would exist, I'd failed to track it down (inadequate googling skills).

I'd wanted a substitute for rural, which I felt was carrying too heavy a burden in what I was writing. However, all I could find were words which approximated its meaning but whose connotations were overly charming, such as rusticpastoral, arcadianbucolic (the last, sometimes twinned with bliss, really wouldn't do, for instance.)

As well as to preserve the stories whilst they're still in living memory, one of my purposes in writing about the stranger fringes of my family history was to rebut the thesis that people and the lives they live are necessarily better in the countryside, that they're axiomatically more healthy. Most recently I'd come across this romantic view of rural life in Peter J. Conradi's consciously Rousseauan recent work, which carried the subtitle 'Radnorshire Pastoral'. But it can be found in many times - as the charming adjectives above imply it was originally a classical idea - and many places - writers as seemingly diverse as Roger Scruton and Paul Kingsnorth spring to mind.

Earlier this year, I'd watched an interview with R Scruton (posted on his blog but no longer available) in which he'd remarked on the unusual wholesomeness of his fellow hunters, ascribing it to their organic and traditional relationships, with each other, with their animals and with their environment. I write as someone who opposed the hunting ban and has relations and friends who have hunted but I'm convinced that's a lot of sentimental tosh. Hunting does have some deep meanings - but it won't necessarily make you a better or more complete person, believe me.

But despite all evidence to the contrary - if you bother to look, there's plenty of it - the romantic and morally positive view of the countryside remains a remarkably persistent cultural trope and a lasting foundation for philosophical speculation. My guess is it has something to do with the sublimation of the heavenly ideal, brought back down to earth in our more secular age, combined with the perennial restlessness and dissatisfaction of humans, more familiarly expressed in the belief that the grass is greener on the other side.

Writers are unavoidably part of civilisation - a word, note, that flows from the idea of the city - and they're pretty much unavoidably part of an industrialised, modern economy (at least if they want to type on a laptop and get published in some form). If they're going to sustain what is a rather impossible idea - that of a real, if necessarily diluted, heaven on earth -  they need their ideal to be located elsewhere, somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere that's handily mysterious to most of their readers. This place, if you're urbanised, civilised, industrialised and modern, is usually the countryside*. The grass there is both literally and figuratively greener.

And the more estranged the writers are from this agrestic world (ahem) and its people the easier it is for them to inscribe their fantasies on to it. To take the writers mentioned above, as far as I can discover none of Conradi, Scruton and Kingsnorth were raised on farms, or even in the countryside.

I don't want to be overly critical as this mentality has been productive of some wonderful art - writing, music and painting. However, it's something that it's worth keeping an eye on as it can lead to all sorts of unpleasant political ideas (viz. the French Revolution, the Khmer Rouge and many points in between).


Watteau's 'The Shepherds': rich people having fun pretending to be peasants.


* Rural romantics of the right tend to locate their Arcadia nearby but often in a former time whereas their leftist brethren locate theirs more distantly - so that it's mostly someone else's countryside (or jungle, etc.) that they end up hankering after - and also more contemporaneously. To do with patriotism versus internationalism, no doubt.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Clegg and shag-hag-dreg-prig

This conclusion from S Richards (my emphasis):
In the middle of an election campaign the thoughtful cabinet minister is offered an answer to what the profound change might be amidst the crises and scandals. For now it comes in the form of a single word: Clegg.

Remarkable in any event but particularly so given what K Amis has to say here in his discussion of symbolic forms ('that class of word that stands somewhere between onomatopoeic words like cuckoo and sizzle on the one hand and ordinary non-echoic words like beauty and bedstead on the other'). The word that attracts Amis's attention is pig, and having dealt with its unfortunate beginning of 'pi-', one it shares with pimp, pish and piss, he moves across to its ending:
To take the other end of the word, of monosyllables with a short vowel ending in '-g', a large number again convey contempt, some of them again indelicate and several of them slang: bag, cag [?], drag, fagslag, nag (in two senses), shag, hag, dreg, prig (archaic slang for a thief), frig, bog, hog, wog, quag (mire), bug (in two senses), slug, mug (in two senses), smug - and when we meet Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend, we know at once he will be up to no good.

But when first introduced to Nick Clegg - far from knowing 'at once he will be up to no good' - most of us appear to fall at his feet. What's more, clegg could easily have made Amis's list as it's another name for the horsefly, that most unpleasant insect.

Either NC's charisma is so vast as to blot out the connotation of his name, or it has all been an unfortunate oversight that will soon be rectified. But who knows? Normal rules appear to have been suspended.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Space 2014

This is good to see: we're very used to seeing New York blown up by aliens (yawn) but less so London. It puts volcanic ash clouds in perspective, anyway. And a great if unlikely soundtrack.



It's part of a campaign to bring the World Science Fiction Convention to London in 2014, an objective that seems both worthy and fun and which we (OK, I) at Ragbag support wholeheartedly (that should swing it).

But 2014, eh? For someone who grew up watching Space 1999 that sounds an impossibly long time into the future. We will surely be living on other planets by then and travelling by jetpack (volcanic dust permitting, of course).

H/t Urban 75.

Still Jewish

Excellent post by Tony Judt on Jewish identity:
Some years ago I attended a gala benefit dinner in Manhattan for prominent celebrities in the arts and journalism. Halfway through the ceremonies, a middle-aged man leaned across the table and glared at me: “Are you Tony Judt? You really must stop writing these terrible things about Israel!” Primed for such interrogations, I asked him what was so terrible about what I had written. “I don’t know. You may be right—I’ve never been to Israel. But we Jews must stick together: we may need Israel one day.” The return of eliminationist anti-Semitism was just a matter of time: New York might become unlivable.
[...]
Unlike my table companion, I don’t expect Hitler to return. And I refuse to remember his crimes as an occasion to close off conversation: to repackage Jewishness as a defensive indifference to doubt or self-criticism and a retreat into self-pity. I choose to invoke a Jewish past that is impervious to orthodoxy: that opens conversations rather than closes them. Judaism for me is a sensibility of collective self-questioning and uncomfortable truth-telling: the dafka-like quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other peoples’ conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish.

Read the whole thing - it's a good argument, well expressed.

Monday, 19 April 2010

By the gurgling brook

Through Sidonia, I also learnt more about a cousin, M__, who's demise I'd described here. Rather than his dying as a straightforward consequence of the substitution of his horse for a tractor as post-pub transport - an incident justifying something of a Luddite approach to life - the truth was a little more complicated. Apparently, he'd lost control of the tractor, it tipping over on top of him, because he'd lost the strength in one of his arms. He was carrying an injury having only recently been shot.

Towards the end he'd become very protective of his property and patrolled it constantly. When he'd found some boys from Caerphilly poaching rabbits one night, they'd thought it advisable to shoot him rather than fall into his hands. His reputation had preceded him.

One of his acts of violence had reached the front page of the South Wales Echo: he'd punched prostrate the driving test inspector who'd failed him. And most recently - though the boys may not have known this - there had been a parallel incident, as Sidonia related.

She and her sister sometimes helped out at M__'s farm. They'd been climbing the hill up to it one morning when a woman holding the hand of a young child and in obvious distress came running down towards them. She explained her husband had been digging up a clump of primroses from a bank near the road when the local farmer had come across them. Furious, he had kidnapped the guilty husband. The woman was beside herself and begged for help. Sidonia and her sister rushed up to the farmhouse and managed to persuade M__ to release the prisoner. She reckons that if she hadn't intervened M__ would probably have killed him. So, all in all, the young poachers had been quite wise to adopt the precautionary principle.

And it's not as if M__ was innocent himself of this sort of thing. He was a notorious sheep-rustler, sometimes stealing sheep from his cousins at night, selling them at market the next morning. However, the law and the press had caught up with him here too. Sidonia reckoned he'd been deported to Saskatchewan for two years, a widely-reported punishment, if one I've never heard of before. Apparently his mother was distraught, inconsolable, and yet she too was a victim of his.

Again, Sidonia recalled arriving at the farm one day to find her doubled up. She'd been scrubbing the floor when M__ had arrived back home. He'd kicked up her up the backside with such force that she couldn't stand straight. The girls insisted on her seeing the doctor who said she seemed in quite a bad way internally. They managed to get her to hospital but she refused to stay, returning to the farm and her beloved son as soon as she could (Sidonia pointed out that she provoked these excesses: she spent a great deal of energy winding her family up into various species of frenzy).

But like a number of men in the family, M__'s grave flaws were accompanied by good looks and charm. And he was always immaculately turned out, hair brushed back and shoes polished to a sheen. Nevertheless, quite apart from his violence and thievery, his life was disorderly. His attractive if monocular girlfriend, with whom he had two children, was a working girl who plied her trade down the docks. She would leave for a number of days at a time, presumably when she was short, the dates of her absence being carefully noted in his herd book alongside the insemination records of his stock.

He didn't, however, always take such a practical view of the relationship. One notorious fight with her occurred in the high street of Tongwynlais, the village at the foot of the mountain, which at the time was on the main road into Cardiff (it's now been bypassed). Presumably, she was on her way to the docks but without his blessing. He'd attempted to run her over but had only succeeded in knocking out her glass eye. Things calmed down when her loss became known to him; they patched things up whilst searching the gutters for what must have been an important and possibly expensive cosmetic accessory.

He was a hypocrite in this area as well. One of his criminal convictions arose from his firing a shotgun into the door of the outside lavatory whither his sister had fled after he'd accused her, erroneously, of being on the game (the police, despite their fear of approaching the property, found they couldn't overlook this transgression). However, a genuine second family connection with this world was to be found in his younger brother T__'s similar taste for the down-at-heel demimondaines of the docks: he had a girlfriend who resided in the rough district of Butetown and had gone missing in the course of one visit.

But despite M__'s acts of violence - including ones perpetrated on her - his mother, just as she pined for her absent youngest son, mourned the death of her eldest. Her grief wasn't assuaged at his funeral, where the presiding vicar - whom M__ had befriended during his gunshot-induced stay at the Miners' Hospital in Caerphilly - had said just four words to the mourners: 'What can I say?'

A year to the day after M__ had been crushed under the tractor she walked down to the Brynnau stream at the bottom of the farm and removed her outer clothes. Folding them in a neat pile beside her, she lay down in the shade of the wood and died, accompanied by nothing more than birdsong and the gurgle of the brook. The family advertised her death to see if it brought her other son T__ back, but to no avail. They never heard of him again.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Cravings

I bumped into a heavily pregnant neighbour yesterday in the local deli-cafe (the baby's due on Wednesday). Given the venue, I wondered whether she was experiencing any cravings. Not really, she answered, except for one that had come upon her very recently: she fancied tasting the cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland. She imagined it would have a sulphurous flavour.

The volcano story has been comprehensively - if not exhaustively - covered. But not from this angle as far as I'm aware. Is an expert available to explain?

Friday, 16 April 2010

Fairy tales

On the way back from Carmarthen earlier this week we turned off the M4 at Cardiff and meandered northwards. I wanted to visit some family haunts, including my birthplace, partly as I hadn't been back for a number of years and partly as Sidonia had elaborated on some stories concerning various great-uncles and great-aunts and I wanted to see their setting once more.

Rather than take the main road up the Taff Vale, we'd skirted the humdrum, pebble-dashed suburbs on the northern side of the city, before climbing one of the lanes that wind up the wooded valley sides. You soon emerge out of the shade and on to the hilltops where the terrain undulates, small farms nestling in cwms and hollows. This particular lane took us up on to Caerphilly mountain. We halted in one of the dips and pulled over into a gateway to take a closer look at the farmstead where I was born.

It's been empty since shortly after we left forty years ago, the reason being the usual family feud. Just after we left, the elderly cousin who we rented it from died; her daughter inherited and moved in but died unexpectedly and intestate. The beneficiaries were siblings who couldn't agree on who should have the property and as they couldn't afford to buy each other out - or even agree a price - they left it empty, abandoning it by default. However, being a sturdy stone dwelling it's survived in reasonable shape. It's a very pretty little cottage, which I hope one day is restored and re-inhabited.

We then took another of the roads that scale the side of the mountain, this time driving down through open ancient woodland. A milky haze of wood anemones - I've never seen so many - spread in every direction. As we drove, my mother had been pointing out places which brought back memories: that was where the Morris Minor van had flipped over one icy night, skidding along upside-down until they'd hit the bank on the next bend; this was where she remembered hearing the prehistoric bellow of the ships' hooters from outside the fog-bound port of Cardiff; it was down that slope that she'd chased some old broken-mouthed ewes, finally catching them as they paused to munch at the privet hedges of Rhiwbina.

And then we turned a corner and were faced by the fairy-tale turrets of Castell Coch, a nineteenth-century folly constructed to the Romantic requirements of the Marquess of Bute. Many a childhood walk had started here, invariably taking in the Blue Waters, a spring-fed pool that shimmered green-blue for some obscurely geological reason, and sometimes also the more distant Seven Arches, a miniature network of caves and hollows.

This landscape - all of a ten-minute drive from Cardiff - is one that, particularly for a child, possesses an unavoidably magical feel. It doesn't take much to see it as a setting for fairy tales. And this seemed quite appropriate as we drove round that day as it was here that the stories Sidonia had filled out for me had unspooled, stories which possessed some of the qualities of fairy tale, albeit the more grotesque.

For instance, I was reminded by Sidonia that my Great-Uncle M_____, whose fantasies about being a celebrated and feted opera singer I referred to here, had other strange preoccupations. He'd had a religious conversion late in life, prompted by being taken to see Billy Graham by my Great-Aunt J____ (who also featured here).

Her religious mania was very familiar to me. She would write me long letters when I was at university annotated with passages of the Bible picked out in coloured inks. She would strategically blu-tac prayer cards over the pictures of scantily-clad women I had on the walls of my teenage bedroom. She left evangelical booklets in my sock drawer to be discovered - disconcertingly - sometimes weeks later. I was also aware that this obsession stemmed from a mental disturbance occasioned by her being hit on the head by a hammer and left for dead by her husband, who had ended up dying in prison (she'd married late having dedicated her career to nursing, not that that explains much). All very memorable. However, my great-uncle's unbalanced evangelism had slipped my mind, which is strange as it too took on some peculiar proportions.

He had insisted on wearing white (actually, now I picture him, his clothes were more cream-coloured). He had also insisted on painting white various parts of the farm as well as his lorry, a vehicle he'd recently acquired in exchange for a 200-strong herd of pedigree friesians.

This concern with whitening himself and his surroundings culminated in his painting parts of the mountain white - stones, rocks, even trees. The logic to this became more apparent when he began using his white-accented eyrie as a venue for preaching. Perhaps wishing to echo the miracles of our Lord - or perhaps hoping to lure an audience - as he preached he would scatter to the winds cartons of cigarettes he'd bought in bulk for the purpose. I can imagine him cream-jacketed with his fair hair swept back, as impeccable as a hotel waiter, except for his windmilling arms, the twitching of his curled moustaches and his pale eyes burning fervently bright. I have no doubt he would also have attempted to serenade whatever congregation he had managed to attract.

Finally, I learnt more of his final days. Having been tipped over the Cotswolds escarpment in his van (see here), he ended up having to walk back home, the van not lasting much longer than the free-wheel into the Severn Vale. It took him two or three days apparently. Shortly thereafter he entered hospital where his kidneys packed in and he died. When they entered his house they found seven dead dogs in his bath. No-one knew why.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Disturbances and deposits

The other night there was a loud crack outside our window accompanied by the tinkle of glass. It sounded like a shot. I wasn't wholly shocked as quite a lot can happen around our streets (last year's August bank holiday afternoon saw someone round the corner being half-murdered with a macheté before being thoroughly run over by a Beamer - all ok, however: it was drug-related). Nevertheless, I took the precaution of opening our shutters from a crouching position. Thankfully, we weren't under armed attack.

Having gone outside to inspect it was evident that the noise had come from the smash of a beer bottle thrown against the surround of our front window. People opposite had also come out thinking they'd heard a shot so we didn't feel too foolish. Counting our blessings that the bottle hadn't smashed any windows we went back to our telly.

Further inspection the next day of the basement-level 'area' between the front of our house and the street (a sort of moat/light well that has much-appreciated defensive qualities) revealed the missile had been a bottle of Kronenbourg 1664 (better, somehow, that it had been a premium beer - there are standards, you know).

We're a bit blasé about this sort of thing as this is the fourth time in six years someone has taken it upon themselves to launch an object at our window. In reverse order we've had: a round, small pebble that made a round, small hole; a handful of stones that entirely shattered a pane; a large, black plastic dustbin that smashed and stoved in half the window. The first (in time) was obviously the worst, particularly as we had a young baby who at one time or another had been lying in his baby chair more or less under the window. That time it had been kids, who had perpetrated a rash of dustbin defenestrations in the neighbourhood - some sort of craze, no doubt. The other stone-related incidents I suspect were also carried out by kids. I imagine the most recent bottle incident was committed by some embittered, venomous drunk.

There's not really a lot to be done about this sort of thing. We inform the police, who sometimes increase the frequency of their patrols. We keep our shutters firmly shut after dark (I hadn't fully appreciated their defensive qualities when we first moved in, thinking of them largely as aids to privacy). Despite my fantasies about bringing the .410 shotgun into town (a poacher's gun that would sit quite comfortably behind the telly) the whole thing is something that just needs to be borne. That and the deposit or two of dog shit that is to be found somewhere on every street - ideally in clearly visible but not overly-prominent locations.

Front window-seeking missiles and near-ubiquitous dog shit: my two biggest concerns right now. I wonder if there's anything about them in the manifestoes?

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Illuminating a small field

South Wales is a place of great visual interest. Driving westwards along the length of the motorway you have on your right valleys, ridges and hills with villages suspended along their sides for your perusal; on your left you have the sea, rolling fields, port cities and an enormous steelworks. There's barely a mile that goes by without some striking vista, usually combining contrasting elements.

Formerly remote Carmarthenshire rushes up on you - the distractions playing their part but the M4's new lane and other road improvements being chiefly responsible. We were visiting my Great-Aunt Sidonia, a wonderful name she shares with her grandmother and my great-great-grandmother, Alice Sidonia Thomas. Literally meaning 'from Sidon' (a biblical location), she believes it's somehow linked to the commander of the Spanish Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, whereas I'm inclined to put it down to an ancestor who enjoyed fairly obscure biblical references. I also wonder whether the novels of Disraeli might have had an influence: Sidonia is the name of one of the characters in Coningsby, an avatar of the author but a name that was perhaps thought better suited to a female.

Sidonia lives in a large, boxy Georgian house with a double-gabled roof. It stands alone, near the top of the south-facing slope of the Gwendraeth Fach valley. On the sunny day we visited, the top fields on the other side were green and neat in contrast to the ridge's scrubby crest of golden-brown gorse, bracken and rock. And everything glowed, a glittering light flooding the valley from the west, where lay the invisible sea. I was reminded of RS Thomas's poem, 'The Bright Field':
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help exploring something of 'an imagined past'. It was irresistible in that location.

The house appears in a Daphne du Maurier novel, 'Hungry Hill' (though all names were changed). The eponymous hill was the geological source of the wealth of the Puxley family, Irish copper magnates whose story the novel was based on. They possessed a huge gothic mansion in County Cork next to their mines, now a ruin having been burnt down by the IRA. Sidonia's house was their Welsh home, a place they resorted to for holidays and to keep an eye on the Welsh ports that imported their ore.

It's a fairly plain structure, the uniform, rendered exterior sealing its featurelessness. And although large, it used to be larger: the back third, probably topped by another gable, was demolished at some point, presumably to make it a more manageable property.

Like a number of large Welsh houses it sits next to a predecessor, used until recently as a cowshed. I'd been told this was a Welsh longhouse: a long, low structure built to be shared by people and cattle. It fits this label in every respect bar one: it houses the largest chimney stack I've seen outside of a grand country house.

The chimney is whitewashed brick and has a footprint at its base equivalent to that of a garden shed; it is nearly as wide as the building. It rises in stages like a ziggurat, each irregular step being about three feet high, before resolving itself into a slope, the angle of which becomes periodically more acute as it climbs. Such a chimney seems unnecessarily large for a longhouse, impractically so. My theory is that the present structure was carved out of a much larger building, most probably a medieval manor house. It was, most likely, the kitchen.

Whatever its origins, it's a very atmospheric little building. The ancient walls are intricately constructed from blocks, irregular in size and colour, the local stone being a mix of bluish-greys and rusty purples. Impressive pieces of slate have been incorporated for use as sills and lintels, slick grey-purple slate also tiling the roof.

The living quarters were at the downhill end, their upper parts - formerly a loft - bearing traces of a still vivid and exhilarating cobalt-blue paint. This end is divided from the rest of the building further up the slope by the mountainous chimney, a small connecting door squeezed in alongside its jamb. After a couple of largish rooms that served as byres, the other end terminates in a dovecot, now smothered with glossy tentacles of ivy.

The whole place is on the verge of falling into ruin - another five years and my guess is that gaps will have appeared in roofs and walls. But Sidonia has no desire to re-develop the site, despite the potential of the longhouse and its neighboring stone barn as holiday lets or workshops.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Through French eyes

We had a lovely dinner on Saturday with some charming French people resident in London, one couple for ten years and one couple newly arrived. It's always interesting to see your own country through the eyes of others. Here's the list of things I learnt (there may have been some other, out-and-out negative, observations but perhaps our company was too polite to share them):

- London is the sixth biggest French city in the world

- London's traditional 'high class, family' butchers supply better and cheaper meat than they were used to buying in Paris

- The British acceptance of the expression of religious difference inside the workplace was surprising: in France you leave all that at the door, secularism prevailing when on neutral territory. For instance, if you worked in a shop selling fashion, you wouldn't be allowed to wear a headscarf

- A French translation of something written in English uses 30% more words. This was ascribed to English having a larger vocabulary making context less important in determining meaning

- Schools in France don't teach sport for the most part (I did know this). Clubs, often subsidised by municipalities, take on this job

- The lycées overseas, including the ones in London, are run by the French foreign ministry rather than the education ministry. They're considered part of the international promotion of French culture and language

- A culture of targets and appraisals supported by incentives and bonuses is second nature in the UK but very much the exception in France

- It came as a surprise that 'Angleterre' contained so many nationalities (the idea of a multi-national Britain is not that well-known in France)

- Britain seems a lot less centralised than France with respect to the headquarters of major firms. More are to be found outside the capital than in France, where Paris dominates absolutely, Lyons coming a distant second and no other city being placed except for Toulouse and its aerospace industry

- Education is a nightmare in London: finding a good school is difficult, kowtowing to the Church in order to get into a good Catholic primary school is bizarre

- The Millennium stadium in Cardiff is the best

Talking of which, I'm off to Wales for a couple of days to experience some more exoticism. Back on Wednesday.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Aggrieved seafood-loving operatic tigers

A nice bit of inadvertent surrealism (from here):
Philip Hope-Wallace...was a particular victim of misprints... Owing to the nature of his work as, at various periods, theatre, music and opera critic...the bulk of his writing was dictated over the telephone. [H]is own favourite...concerned his description of a Tosca as being 'like a tigress robbed of her whelps.' The editor, possibly Lady Rhondda, who for a time owned and edited the paper and was an early feminist, changed 'tigress' to 'tiger' and 'her' to 'his'. The printer, on his own initiative, then changed, 'whelps' to 'whelks'. So Tosca appeared 'like a tiger robbed of his whelks'.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Marriage tax bull

This is a very incoherent form of gesture politics:
The Conservatives are proposing to give four million married couples and civil partners an annual £150 tax break.
Under their plan, the tax break would apply to basic rate taxpayers earning under £44,000 where one partner does not use their full personal allowance.
 [...]
The Tories would achieve the tax break by allowing some people who are married or in a civil partnership to transfer part of their tax free personal allowance to their spouse or partner.
That spouse would be able to transfer £750 of their personal tax-free allowance to their working partner, which the Tories say will represent a tax cut of about £150 a year for four million people.

Apparently, according to Tory sources, it's a 'symbol and message' about marriage. But since when does a 'symbol and message' need monetary expression? Seems more like a patronising and worthless little tip to me. Anyway, I'm really not interested in the approbation of that lot, or indeed anyone. Who on earth do they think they are?

It doesn't even work on its own terms. It's not really about marriage in general or it would apply to any married couple. It actually recognises the merits of having one of you (in reality almost invariably the wife) stay at home and not earn; a pat on the back for these already generally fortunate people.

But where both parents working is an option freely taken without regard for financial considerations, what business is it of government to implicitly send the 'message' that your marriage doesn't merit a government 'symbol' of meritoriousness? And where both of you working is an option taken for financial considerations - so the mortgage can be paid or holidays and treats afforded and so on - then surely the state has even less business in withholding its gold star?

There's an argument to be had about the benefits of one parent staying at home to look after kids. But the presence of children isn't a factor here. A childless married couple where one partner doesn't work would benefit (as long as the earner was on less that £44k). A married couple with children where both partners worked wouldn't (unless one of them earns less than about £6k). What possible wider social benefit is there in this arrangement?

I wonder how many people find this policy as stupid and offensive as I do?

Friday, 9 April 2010

Never trust a hippy (or indeed any pop impresario...)

Sometimes the advice to 'never trust a hippy' is ascribed to Malcolm McLaren. Sometimes to Jonny Rotten and sometimes to Jamie Reid (the Pistols' art director). It's hardly surprising it has many fathers as it's one of the most sensible bits of advice dispensed in the latter half of the twentieth century. I prefer McLaren to have been the originator as he was surely something of an expert on trust and its abuses.

Anyway, I won't say rest in peace, as I can't think of anything less likely to appeal to the Godfather of Punk. Not that some of his music didn't have moments of great serenity and beauty. Here's Miss Butterfly from his much underrated opera fusion album, 'Fans':

Work as a vocation

Do we take work too seriously? Is it now all too often seen as a vocation rather than merely a means of gaining money? Two pieces of anecdata. Here's AW's 'illustration of idleness on the Mirror in the 1960s' (it concerns Roland Hurman, the paper's industrial correspondent):
Roland ('Roly')...would arrive at his office from deepest Surrey at half-past 11 or so to find his assistant, Len Jackson, who was older than he was, already hard at work. Hurman would flick through the morning papers, perhaps even make a telephone call... Then Roly would look at his watch. 
'Bless my soul, it's five to 12 already. I must rush.'
And Roly would stroll down Fetter Lane... He would reach El Vino's at midday. At three, when the bar shut, the company would cram themselves into a taxi or even two taxis and make for the Forum restaurant at the top of Chancery Lane... At half-past four or so the company would disperse. Roly would make the short journey to his office to find Jackson still hard at it. After a few inquiries about progress...Roly would look at his watch.
'Good heavens, it's five to five. I must dash.'
And he would amble down to El Vino's again, where he would remain until between seven and eight, when he would take a taxi to Waterloo.

I wonder whether Len felt he worked in an atmosphere of 'idleness'? Was the luxury of some supported by the hard graft of others? Could be. But then Fleet Street's printers also had it extraordinarily cushy.

And noted here, some anti-work sentiments from the 1980s that although subversive, nevertheless went as mainstream as you can get:
I always think of Wham Rap as the flipside of UB40's One In Ten; another great song about unemployment but so miserable and whiny. I'm not going to suggest that Wham's response to joblessness is more accurate or valid, more reflective of the reality of recession and it certainly shouldn't be the basis for policy - but when you were 16 and surrounded by unemployment you didn't need telling you were 'a statistical reminded of a world that doesn't care', you needed showing that you could get an incredibly cheap holiday to Fuengirola and buy espadrilles. And in a Thatcherite world a statement of pride in joblessness was somehow radical and certainly appealing.

I'm certainly sick of being piously informed how hard-working some band or other pop artist is. What happened to messing around and lucking out? I thought that was part of the point of pop glamour.

Anyway, it's all quite puzzling. We work harder (very often the two of you, if you're in a couple) and we are richer. But because everyone's doing it, we live in a state of stressful competition and appear to get less for our money.

My own experience of work only really kicked off in the 90s - perhaps some older readers might suggest how they feel things have changed?

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Writing in words

P. Kurp provides us with a quotation (concerning Emerson), which chimes with something I've just read. First, the quotation:
“Choosing words and using words are the central inescapable acts of writing. `No man can write well who thinks there is any choice of words for him. [By choice here Emerson means a group of acceptable words, any one of which he could choose.] The laws of composition are as strict as those of sculpture and architecture. There is always one right line that ought to be drawn or one proportion that should be kept and every other line or proportion is wrong….So in writing, there is always a right word, and every other that is wrong.’”

Alan Watkins talking of the Conservative politician who was his editor at The Spectator:
Not that [Iain] Macleod wrote as politicians customarily do. Real writers write in words; most literate people in ready-made blocks of words; and politicians, commonly, in whole prefabricated sentences or sometimes paragraphs.

(Watkins, by the way, writes in words).

We can look forward to a lot of prefabricated language being lobbed our way over the next month. The stuff we heard at the parties' election launches reminded me of that interlocking styrofoam you get packed around electrical goods: it all fitted together neatly and was cautiously protective but it had no interesting features; but it encased little of any value. Unfortunately, it seems we have very few people in the front rank of politics who betray a liking for language for its own sake. I guess saying something interesting or striking is thought of as too risky a pursuit.

However, two politicians who do follow Macleod - both journalists - are Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, with the latter having more access to what might be the 'right word' (if not always the correct one) than any of us could ever hope. I don't think it's a coincidence that they've both had rapid rises, are highly influential and tipped to progress further.

The 'right word' and an original turn of phrase may be riskier tools of communication than standard-issue verbal styrofoam - and, by their nature, impossible to pre-test with a focus group - but they're still of political use. I just wish we heard more of it.

BTW 'The Great Ignored'. I hope Gove didn't come up with that one - a bit bathetic, if not silly. Sounds like the fat boy no-one liked at school. And I wonder what the overlap is with an even more disregarded group 'The Great Unwashed'?

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A great thing

Recusant informs us that the cider tax will be repealed. He's right. It was the hammer blow from Hardy which did it, I'm sure - it's amazing what a spot of morbid reflection can do.

Anyway, I think a monument (as per this one (below), adverted to by Jonathan) is in order to mark the victory and to honour the protest's informal leaders, the Wurzels. How about a 100ft tall set of steel combine harvester keys? We could erect them somewhere off the motorway near Swindon. I'll get on to Mark Wallinger.

A neo-classical, electricity-generating bus hive

I'm doing some work for the excellent Sofa.com (strongly recommended!). Their warehouse is just off Wood Lane, behind the behemothic Westfield shopping centre. In this chopped-about and still largely open area - the site of the 1908 Exhibition and the Olympics of the same year - stand two strangely impressive buildings.

They are massive. The pair's footprint must be close to that of a football pitch and they stand about three times higher than a double-decker bus - I know the latter dimension as one of them is being used as a bus garage. And yet they're easy to miss, tucked away in this disregarded corner of London. 

It says here that
The Dimco Buildings, built in 1898-9, originally served as an electricity generating station [Europe's first] for the Central London Railways, the forerunner of the Central line, before becoming a machine tool shop for the Dimco firm. The buildings then fell into disrepair but have recently been refurbished and restored...

To use a cliche that was well-worked when St Pancras's railway shed re-opened: they each contain a cathedral-like space. But the visual fascination arises from rather more than this. As they stand alone and can be viewed from a distance you very clearly get a sense of the scale of the voids. This lends the buildings a delicate, lattice-like quality, an impression accentuated by the careful detailing of the brickwork with its suggestion of columns; the perfectly-judged arched and round windows; and the roofs, which are effectively vast, pitched sky-lights.

The colours are appealing too, what with the attractively mottled bricks and the windows containing the sort of virescent reflections you find in antique glass. The interior is decorated with generous strips of cream, brown and green glazed bricks - apparently, a typical London transport livery of one hundred years ago you may recognise from some Tube stations (it seems familiar but I can't recall from where).

Finally, the scale of everything in view is intriguing. These outsize, red-brick wendy-houses are dwarfed by the even more gigantic hull of the Westfield. And the buses that dart in and out have something of the quality of bees. The red double-deckers lose their usual ponderousness and heft: in this over-scaled context, accommodating to an almost ridiculous extent, they seem to glide and zip.

I'm conscious of being perhaps excessively rhapsodic about a brick bus garage and what I believe is still an electricity generating station. See them and judge for yourself (the images I found here; whilst lovely they only show details).

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The most hopeless, the most despairing, general election...

I do like dear old Alan Watkins. He's one of the very few reasons I ever call in at the Independent's site (I haven't picked up the paper in years). I missed this column from a couple of weeks ago. He sums up why a lot of people who are disaffected with Labour are nevertheless not inclined to declare as Tory voters:
The reason lies in the deeply dispiriting nature of the Conservative Party.
The more I know of Mr Cameron, the stronger my doubts become. His career in Carlton Communications seems to have consisted mainly in trying to please the boss, Mr Michael Green, in bullying his subordinates, and in misleading various journalists.
There are those who claim to discern a calming influence in the form of Mr William Hague, but I cannot see it myself. Mr Hague was the most belligerent politician to urge on Mr George Bush in Iraq – more so than Mr Tony Blair was himself. I have already referred to Lord Ashcroft. Mr Hague has hardly covered himself with glory in this respect.
As for Mr George Osborne, I confidently expect the Fraud Squad to arrest him at any moment for trying to pass himself off as a competent finance minister. Happily, or alas, it is not going to happen. Mr Cameron should switch Mr Osborne with Mr Kenneth Clarke. That is not going to happen, either.
There is no means of voting for a hung parliament. A vote for the Liberal Democrats is more rather than less likely to lead to such an outcome. But it is by no means certain. It is, I think, the most hopeless, the most despairing, general election since that of October 1974.

Watkins coined - or was instrumental in popularising - such phrases as 'the chattering classes', 'young fogies' and, a personal favourite, 'a complete ignoral'. This last was an invention of George Brown and very useful it is too. I'm inclined to give the election one of them.

I think I'll re-read Watkins' excellently gossipy and stimulating memoir of where journalism and politics met (and drank), 'A Short Walk Down Fleet Street'. It also contains added rugby, so even better.

Southern Soul 1st XI

1. Goalkeeper - Percy Sledge.

2. Right-Back - Donald 'Duck' Dunn. (One of the MGs, who I've picked en masse as a very tight back four.)

3. Left-Back - Al Jackson.

4. Centre-Back - Booker T Washington.

5. Centre-Back - Steve Cropper.

6. Centre-Midfield - Otis Redding (capt.).

7. Right-Midfield - Sam.

8. Left-Midfield - Dave.

9. Centre-Forward - Sam Cooke.

10. Forward - Joe Tex.

11. Forward - James Brown. See here.

On the bench you'd have Rufus Thomas (Defender), Al Green (Forward - no team could accommodate three forwards like Sam Cooke, James Brown and Al Green; AG would come on for the last twenty), Arthur Conley (Midfield), Solomon Burke (Midfield), Eddie Floyd (Defender/Midfield).

I feel bad about leaving Aretha out. But it's not just because she's a woman - I mean, where would she play?

They could meet Motown's 1st XI in the final of the World Soul Football Cup at Wigan Athletic's DW Stadium.

Could be one in a series... to be followed by the Heavy Metal RFC's 1st XV, Punk Rock's village cricket XI and Britpop's field hockey 1st XI.


H/t That Python sketch.

Monday, 5 April 2010

The Garrincha of soul

Having finished the chapter on The Godfather of Soul in Peter Guralnik's Sweet Soul Music, I went in search of James Brown clips. Here's one I found pretty useful actually. I'm up to about 25 seconds in - another month and I should have mastered the lot:



JB was a talented sportsman: baseball was his game. He could have had a shot at being a professional but, according to Guralnik, he had to give it up because of injury (what injury could have possibly prevented him from playing baseball but allowed him to dance night after night like he did?).

Physically JB reminds me a lot of Garrincha (below). I bet he would have been one hell of an inside right / right winger. Tell me, when you see Garrincha's shimmies and shuffles, you're not now seeing JB? Fast feet, swinging hips. We've seen samba football - I guess soul football is a bit of an historical what-if.



Anyway, back to JB. Wow:

I would have but they never asked me

This is more like it:
...the authors of the letter you published (Islamophobia is a threat to democracy, 25 March) are quite wrong to equate legitimate concerns about the leadership of the East London Mosque and the Islamic Forum of Europe with anti-Muslim bigotry. To do so betrays those who have genuinely suffered discrimination. The East London Mosque has frequently allowed intemperate clerics to speak on its premises, some of whom have promoted values antithetical to those required in a tolerant and progressive society.
They intimidate and bully other Muslims into accepting their contested theology as undisputed truth. Their allies and associates across south Asia have encouraged discrimination against minorities, opposed the reform of family laws and supported laws on blasphemy.
How can it be right for those of us who believe in liberal democracy to leave unchallenged those who would discriminate against religious minorities, women, homosexuals and Muslims with dissenting or heterodox views?

Shame on Bonnie Greer and Avi Shlaim. What's wrong with them?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Under the rainbows

Brit and Nige have left me wondering what work of art I would associate with Easter. A spontaneous response was Millais 'The Blind Girl'. I think the mixing of images of hope, transformation, protection and love with those of blindness, unknowability, fragility and insecurity creates a tension that seems worth pondering now  - as much from a natural and human perspective as religious.


Happy Easter!

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The river to the rescue

The roaring acceleration of the Thames Clipper catamaran as it clears Tower Bridge certainly blows away one's irritability. I woke this morning feeling acutely dissatisfied. I concluded it was down to a concern that the holiday weekend was going to slip away wet and cold and otherwise unremarkable.

We'd lasted about thirty minutes in the storms and the sticky mud of yesterday's funfair on the Heath. I mean, I've still got in my coat pocket a token left over from the Bumper Cars (three goes for £6 rather than £2.50 each). Things had got desperate.

Today just had to be better! But without a plan we were drifting to a listless and boring trip to the shops, at best.

The eldest came to the rescue, asking whether we might go on a boat to Australia (the antipodean enthusiasm continues). We both knew how he felt. But no, not Australia - Greenwich, however, might be a possibility. After a look at the TfL website, it was down to St Pauls on the handy number 56, across the wobbly bridge - whose steel-grill floor had a sugar-on-a-silver-salver quality in today's glimpses of sunlight - and we were soon walking the gangplank from pontoon pier to catamaran deck.

You take the couple of stops before the Tower sedately. You're paddling in the Pool of London and not really on the open river. On this stretch, it's mostly office buildings and, the eldest's favourite view of today, HMS Belfast. But once you're out of the Pool you speed eastwards, churning up enough of a wake to lift your spirits - transported.

Now you're sweeping down a shuffled frontage of Victorian warehouses and modern blocks, all of them pretty much given over to flats: mile after mile, there's that many. It brings home how London's business used to be things - from everywhere you'd care to mention they came to these wharves to be loaded, unloaded and reloaded - but now it's people. Most everything along the river now is for people: to live in, to drink in, to eat in.

Our roaring scud paused briefly beneath the citadel of Canary Wharf and then, in no time really, we were in Greenwich. A short walk around the Naval College seemed about right as it still hadn't rained.

I enjoy the melancholy air here. It's like the abandoned, moth-balled capital of a mysteriously disappeared nation. Such grandeur but to so little purpose nowadays. You turn a corner, half expecting to stumble across a royal court still slumbering under some centuries-old malign spell. But today we wondered into an Indian wedding, which was being conducted next to the chapel, the bright silks not looking at all out of place in this baroque setting (touches of Vanity Fair). I almost wish it could be left to sublime and picturesque ruin.

However, dilapidation may have to wait. Despite the downturn, London looks as if it's still compulsively reinventing itself: cranes and scaffolding are as ubiquitous as tourists.

Anyway, we made it home having avoided rain the whole day, and all bright-cheeked from our scoot down the river. The river - it never lets you down. Even on a grey day it allows you to drench yourself in light and air and history.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Easter loveliness


Yesterday morning saw our boys' nursery's Grand Easter Parade and Egg Hunt. The focal point was the garden square round the corner from us. Thankfully, the weather was beautiful.

Each class of children had its signature seasonal accoutrement, from yellow bonnets to hand baskets sporting colourful tissue paper rosettes to decorated bunny masks:


As you can see it all looked idyllically and memorably cute. The only thing it lacked was skipping lambs and fluffy chicks.


The idyll didn't last long though - it was dark and wet by about five as thunderstorms struck. Roll on summer.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Some old Walken magic

There's a census going on in the US (ours is less than a year away now, due on 27th March 2011 - count those days down). It's to be welcomed as it has resulted in this bit of old Walken magic being posted at MR. The film quality is pretty crap but I find the understated, weird hilarity shines out.

The joys of popping down the shops

Last weekend was a long one in the country. It occurred to me that an almost insuperable problem in living there permanently would be the planning required. I'm not sure my mental pathways could adapt now to the necessary changes.

In the city, if you'd like some lemon on your fish, or fancy a few slices of salami, or have run out of milk for the porridge you just pop round the corner. In the country, you have to do massive, cover-all-eventuality shops, planning menus days in advance. And if you mess up or fancy something on a whim you'll go short unless you drive to the nearest town.

We don't use the car for days sometimes and often decide what to have for dinner just before we have it. It's liberating to come back to.