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Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Book Learning

How many books have you read? I count in books per week rather than day or month and I reckon that my average must be about two a week and that average probably holds up over sixty years now. 

Reckon a year at 50 weeks (easier math), then that’s three thousand weeks and so, six thousand books. I don’t count books which I skim or abandon early on and, in any case, I tend to be a dutiful reader who once started keeps going to the often bitter end.

Anyway, six thousand. A very small number. The best-selling among my own books in the Amazon ranking is currently in position 560 353. Lot of books out there, most of them desperately seeking readers.

Six thousand. If you locked me in a room for a week, instructed to write out the authors and titles, I would struggle. How many could I actually recall even at the entry level of author plus title? Maybe I could make a start with the books read in other languages which I am sure would number no more than a few hundred, nearly all in French. I have (for example) only ever read two books in Spanish, both by Eugenio Coseriu and in historical linguistics - easy enough to understand since all  the technical vocabulary could be guessed via the very similar French.

Those six thousand books have left me in possession of a great deal of book learning, though they have not made me learned because I have never been much concerned to achieve “chapter and verse” recall. I have never read biblically, and can’t quote you Shakespeare or Marx or Virginia Woolf, let alone the Bible. I don’t think of books as monuments onto which memorable inscriptions have been carved, but rather as things which develop or express ideas and feelings which can be put to use without it being necessary to recall the exact words used. Sometimes the exact words matter, but not often. I’m an active reader, but not a faithful one. 

All this book learning goes towards making me an educated person, and all this book learning dies with me, if not before - I think it is already slipping away. It can only exercise its effects in my conversation, in what I write, in how I conduct my life. And then it ceases to exist at all.

Will the young people in the street now permanently attached to smartphones eventually turn to books and catch up with my kind of score, a score which must surely be common among older people?

Friday, 12 July 2019

A Niqab and a Panama hat

This week I was in Germany for a couple of days in a city very familiar to me. I was working but in my lunch breaks  and evenings, I did my usual things. I like to stroll, taking in the people. On a lunch break stroll in a pedestrianised shopping area,  a woman appeared coming towards me out of the crowd: tall, slender and dressed in an immaculately well-cut and seemingly brand new niqab, the first I had seen on this visit. When I see a niqab, my habit is to look at the male who will be walking alongside the female and, yes, he was there: rather shorter, hunched a bit over his smartphone, and dressed according to the regulations: a bit of stubble, tee-shirt, jeans, and trainers. My rapid visual profiling didn’t manage to take in the logo on the trainers so I don’t know what brand he favoured.

It’s very decent of God to permit young men to dress in ways which are practical for life in any European city. It means they can run after a bus, vault a barrier to cross a road. They can pick up children with ease, put them on their shoulders and, perhaps most importantly, kick a ball around and  outrun their own children.

I just wish God was a bit more thoughtful about female dress. The niqab can look very stylish; so too can high heels. But both are impractical. I guess the niqab can be very hot inside on a climate warming summer day. More importantly, it is isolating. I will come to that.

I glance back at the woman. She is staring at me, intensely, her eyes a perfect study in black and white, because those eyes are picked out with some expertly applied kohl. 

But I can’t decode the look as angry or friendly or just inquisitive - there is no mouth gesture to help out. I’m stumped to understand why I should be worth a very frank stare. The stare is  made possible, I guess, by the fact that I’m wearing sun glasses (advised for cataracts) and so, from her point of view, there is no eye contact.

Then, as we pass each other, a penny drops and I laugh. I’m old and male and pale and I’m wearing a Panama hat, a proper one with a broad black band. Hitherto, I have understood the Panama as standard issue for bald-headed elderly gentlemen on sunny days. But I realise that on my stroll today I haven’t actually seen another Panama - I would notice. So maybe a Panama is not a German thing, even for elderly bald heads. So it’s like this now: she is my first niqab of the day and I am her first Panama. I think it's the hat which caused the stare.

People do sometimes call out to me when I’m wearing a hat. Later, in the central park, a young woman on a bench with a boyfriend called out  Bonjour though I was too slow to turn, lift my hat, and reply Bonjour, Mam’selle. Anyway, it shows that there’s at least one person in the city who reckons a Panama a French thing.

That brings me to me to the point I skipped over. We are often led to believe that in modern urban environments, people walk around as if no one else exists, isolated monads who don’t interact. That is false. A lot goes on, an awful lot. I give one example relevant to what I want to say.

If in the street I see a child behaving in a way which is charming or delightful or just funny, I will almost certainly smile at whichever person is doing the parenting. I think that is the norm rather than an elderly eccentric exception. It is also the case that the parent will acknowledge the compliment about the child which the smile implies - they will smile back. Some who are more bold will end up exchanging a few words, not quite “passing the time of day” but about things specific to the child, like the child’s age or name. If I smile at a parent who happens to be wearing a hijab, as I do, she will also smile back.

When women wearing the hijab first began to appear at shop tills in London and then where I live, I acted in a correct but very restrained manner, as if attending a vicarage tea party. I didn’t engage because I imagined that it might be unwelcome. Now I will pass the time of day, sometimes crack a joke, encouraged by the fact that there is usually a smile on offer and even a joke.  I now wonder whether in national and local contexts which are not always friendly, it is really quite nice when old white males in panama hats behave as if they were ordinary human beings.

The woman in the niqab is pretty much excluded from this small change of everyday life. It really makes a very big difference that you can’t see a face and from the face gauge whether a compliment or a joke would be appreciated or has gone down well. Leave aside that the man in tee-shirt, jeans and trainers might not approve. Leave aside that she is not going to initiate any exchange anyway. The face covering inhibits any exchange. I suppose that is its purpose.

The exclusion is not total: if there are women wearing hijab on the streets, they do engage with women wearing the niqab and vice versa. (I’ve been watching this on my strolls elsewhere). Perhaps the best hope for the future is that the women who wear headscarves enable the women in the niqabs to change their style, at least for everyday street life. Maybe the niqab would then become something reserved for special days, a reminder of the past, like the traditional dress that jeans and trainers males put on for formal occasions. It would cease to be a burdensome obligation of everyday life. 

In the same way, though I can't understand why anyone would want to wear impractical high heels for shopping or work - and most certainly should not be obliged to do so - I can understand why someone might want to wear them for special occasions, even if they often end up being kicked off and abandoned.

Later in that lunch break stroll, a group of teenagers wearing hijab passed me. One has combined her hijab with bright yellow stiletto heels. I think that's another story for another day.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Girl or Young Woman With a Rose: A Nineteenth Century Painting from Finland

Click on Image to Magnify

I bought the painting recently, bidding online in a Finnish auction on the basis of how it looked on screen. Now it hangs to the side of the desk where I am typing this. When shipping costs were added, it still cost me under two hundred euros. Those who viewed it in the actual sale room would have seen that it is damaged - the line which runs horizontally across the painting starting from the girl’s elbow marks a repair.

On the back, a very recent label reads “Luultavasti Aino Aalto” - “Probably Aino Aalto”. That proves to be unhelpful. The most famous “Aino Aalto” was a Finnish architect and designer, born 1894, died 1949. Google not only knows all about her work and illustrates it profusely; it also reckons there is no other Aino Aalto worth knowing about. All I get from Google is the new knowledge that Aino is a first name for a female.

The label is ambiguous. It most likely assigns a probable painter but could assign a name to the sitter. From the style of the painting, the fairly crude wooden stretcher, the style of the gilt frame, the dress and hair of the sitter - well, I think this painting dates from before the advent of portrait photography, from the first half of the nineteenth century. 

I guess the age of the sitter at between thirteen and nineteen. She’s not displaying a ring but then it’s only her right hand that you can see. The rose is probably a conventional symbol - the bloom of youth, romance - but one should remember that portrait painters (and subsequently photographers) got sitters to hold things simply to stop them fidgeting with their hands. The painter has solved the problem of the other hand by simply chopping it off.

Aino is a Finnish name. There were women painters in nineteenth century Finland, so there is no obstacle to the painter being the Aino and a label on a painting for auction is more likely to attempt to name the painter than the sitter.

In the nineteenth century, someone who was Swedish-speaking was more likely to have been able to afford a portrait in oils. That I infer from my general knowledge, not from Google, though that probabilistic knowledge certainly does not exclude that the sitter was Finnish-speaking.  Likewise, from general knowledge and from the sitter’s hair, dress and facial features, I infer that this is not a girl from the Russian governing population - the Grand Duchy of Finland passed from Swedish to Russian control in 1809. Her religion will be Protestant.

To my eye, the portrait is not in any way cute. Though she has been made to hold a rose, the girl in the portrait looks seriously at the painter, with eyes which are unwavering. If she is nearer to thirteen than nineteen, she may just be uncertain about herself. Nearer to nineteen, then she is a determined young woman.

I can think of no way of finding her name, her date of birth, details of her life, the date of her death. It’s possible that no one anywhere now knows those details, or how to retrieve them. It’s also possible that she figures in some family genealogy, but that the link between the person in the genealogy and the person in the portrait has been lost. After all, this nice portrait ended up in a public auction. 

I do think it’s a portrait, not a genre painting for which some temporarily anonymous model has been paid to sit. The idea of the “genre” painting is very convenient for art museums; it saves them from a great deal of homework, and in this case would result in the title, Girl  With A Rose or Young Woman With A Rose, depending on how you resolve her age. 

And without a name for her, that generic title cannot be improved.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Motorway Service Stations: A Model for Universities?

This post from 6 January 2013 had a large number of readers; I'm not sure why. Maybe visitors who were looking for information on Brighton's club scene.

This week, The Economist has a very good piece about UK motorway service stations (5th January 2013, "Serviceable", page 21). If you want to open one, government regulations require you to keep it open 24/7/365 (and 366 in Leap Years). This seems like commonsense: people are on the move 24/7/365 and if they are on a motorway journey, they will need to stop for petrol, food, drink and the loo - and the loos (says the government) must also be open 24/7/365 and  free of charge.

Of course, motorway service station workers don't work 24/7/365. Staff work rotas.

The other day, someone reminded me of a truth I used to know very well: at weekends, my local university campuses (there are two: Brighton, Sussex) are deserted and most of their services closed down. This ought to strike us as strange. Reading, writing, thinking, experimenting are 24/7/365 things. People's brains are on the move all the time. And since universities are supposed to be connected with - and supportive of  - brains on the move you would expect this to be reflected in their opening hours. Universities are places where the lights should burn long into the night and all through the weekend.

Instead, the lights are burning in Brighton & Hove, the large town (or small city) which neighbours the university campuses. The pubs, the clubs, the cafes, the restaurants, the shops - some are open almost 24/7/365 but especially at weekends when Brighton fills up with students and other visitors arriving (often in tens of thousands) to sample its weekend delights (basically music, alcohol, drugs and maybe some sex though probably the alcohol and drugs are incompatible with much of that).

The only people missing from the Brighton late night and weekend scene are the majority of University staff, teachers and administrators who are busy doing Middling England kind of things: decorating the house, going for walks, giving dinner parties.

Innocent enough but the overall effect is to routinise intellectual life into some nine to five Monday to Friday office schedule.

Students - whatever they may think they are doing - are already living the kind of On / Off life their Middling England parents live - there's just more Off to it.

Academics have settled for attending their committees and meeting their Research Output quotas rather than pursuing the life of the mind which was once (perhaps) the vocation associated with their salary.

The life of the mind can of course be a troubling thing. Even what's left of my mind can have me sitting here banging away at the keyboard from 8 34 to 9 05 on a Sunday morning - almost a definition of Off time. But then I was always a bit defiant.

But I have learnt to compromise; the computer will go to Off and I will  take a walk along the seafront.

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Walking in Port Meadow, Oxford, May 2019

Oxford is one of those places which has big open green spaces very close to the city centre. On a recent visit and taking advantage of a sunny morning, I started my day with a walk into Port Meadow, an extensive area of low-lying flood plain which has been common land for centuries. But such walks always cause me a bit of anxiety. I make them without any props and I often find myself the only person out and about who hasn’t got the kind of excuse which a prop indicates; I am just a solitary walker, without even the cover which coupledom provides.

The dog-dependent are out at this time of day, their presence in the meadow justified by the dog. After all, what are green spaces if not dog toilets? A notice at the entrance to the meadow tells me that to reduce the risk of dog faeces spreading parasitic infections to animals grazing in the meadow, those faeces must be gathered up and disposed of into a bin. In addition, a single person may not bring more than four dogs into the meadow, perhaps to discourage those who depend on dog walking for their livelihood and for whom the meadow would be a convenient, unpoliced shittery. A more prominent notice tells me that one of the horses which graze in the meadow has recently died in a savage dog attack and the Meadow custodians would like to know whose dog.

This makes me a bit anxious and I guess does the same for the joggers and runners who are out, mostly young women dressed in clothes which indicate their seriousness of purpose. I think of their clothes also as props, means by which someone can justify their presence in the open air on a sunny morning: I am here because I am keeping fit, though I rather anxiously hope that my sprinting legs do not attract the attention of a savage dog.

Then there are lots of cyclists, most heading south towards the city centre and most, I guess, with the practical aim of getting to work or to class. They look rather intense, as if they might be late for an important date. But the bicycle is the prop which legitimates their rapidly passing presence.

A few of the joggers and the cyclists greet me but, of course, there is no reason for them to stop and pass a time of day in which I would  tell them that I have been watching a pair of young goldfinches, feeding on dandelion clocks.

There was a time when, in response to my anxieties about walking alone, I used to carry a stick - a sort of indication that I was a serious walker, up there with the serious jogger or cyclist. But I could never bring myself to don the expensive garments which signify someone as a Rambler, garments made all the more signifying by their binary contrast with the Naked version. Eventually, and despite the fact that I am getting older, I gave up the stick and now present myself, albeit uncomfortably, as that species of solitary walker who pays some attention to what can be seen and what can be heard around them, but with no real excuse for being out in a meadow on a morning.


Later, I walked down to the city centre, a world crowded with young people and, of course, seething with props: smartphones with their own human beings permanently attached. Where are the flâneurs and the flâneuses, I asked myself? Surely there must be other people nearby, strolling and trying to pay attention to the viewscape and the soundscape. But I don’t see many. 

As for the smartphones, their human dependents would be so full of the beauty of youth if they would but detach themselves, look up, look around, pay attention, stroll or strut their stuff. This, after all, is Oxford and the young people I see clearly have the benefit of good diet, good dentistry, and effortless taste in the way they dress. They are quite unlike the young people I see each day in the decayed south coast resort where I live. But, fortunate or not, both rich and poor all now have in common that they are not looking at the world around them, or listening to it. Especially, it seems, when crossing a road.

But then I said to myself, In my day surely we must have had our own props; and then I thought, yes, the smartphone has replaced the cigarette. Back then, it was a cigarette which solved the problem of what to do with your hands, or at least, one hand. The cigarette gave you an excuse for your existence and a prop to navigate social life. If not a cigarette, then maybe a handbag or even just a rolled up newspaper (the latter a common sight in the past).

Human beings are natural fidgets; so many of our problems stem from our inability to sit, stand or walk quietly, without a prop to soothe. In the days of portraits in oils, it was a big problem for the painter who partly solved it by equipping the sitter with a fan, a flower, a book, a riding crop. Next to my computer, I have hung a nineteenth century portrait of a young woman who is equipped with a rose in her right hand. The painter has quietly solved the problem of her left hand by allowing it to disappear under the gilt frame, bottom right corner.

I walk back to my guest house. A woman approaches me, perhaps a grandmother, pushing a buggy and addressing soothing words to its occupant. She passes and I half turn to look at the baby, big-eyed, big-eyelashed, and wide-open mouthed:  an old-fashioned pink plastic doll.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Islington North in 2017 and in 2019

This is what I Blogged on 18 4 2017. In the May 2019 EU elections, the Liberal Democrats out-polled Labour in Islington. Quite soon, we may have a General Election again. 

Islington North is the most important constituency in the forthcoming UK General Election. Back in June 2016, 78% of those who voted in the Brexit referendum voted to Remain. Since then, their Member of Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, has done one thing and failed to do two others:

- failed to insist on the sovereignty of Parliament when Mrs May sought to by-pass it in triggering Article 50. It was left to Gina Miller and the Courts to remind Parliament of its duties

-marched his party into the Tory lobbies in support of triggering Article 50

- failed to secure a single amendment to the bill triggering Brexit

In these circumstances, the electors of Islington North deserve a better candidate than Mr Corbyn. In the last General Election, the Conservative came second, the Green candidate third, and the Liberal Democrat candidate fourth.

The Green candidate intends to stand again and has a good case for being regarded as the pro-Europe alternative to Mr Corbyn.  Ideally, the Liberal Democrats should stand down or, if it seems they have a better chance this time, the Greens should stand down. It would be a tragedy  if they failed to agree a pact.

Alternatively, a high profile, combative, progressive and ideally young, pro-European should be sought to stand as a Popular Front candidate with the noisy  intention of dislodging Mr Corbyn and thus helping to create one condition for establishing  a strong Parliamentary opposition to Mrs May’s National Conservatives. This can only be achieved by knocking Mr Corbyn out of Parliament.
The rest does not matter. Here is one quote from immediate coverage of Mrs May's decision to call an Election. The Financial Times thinks that to date "resistance [ to the Government] has been lame to the point of culpability" . They mean Mr Corbyn. The Daily Mail today would have to lump the FT among its "Saboteurs".

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Going to the Dogs: Alexander McQueen's Will meets Tullett Prebon

This Blog post from 26 July 2011 had hundreds of visitors presumably because it includes the name “Alexander McQueen”; the real story is what follows on from that and it is still pertinent in 2019 where UK  government policy (or lack of one) is making it even harder to pay down debt:
All the papers report that Alexander McQueen left his money to the dogs: £100 000 to Battersea Cats' and Dogs' Home, £100 000 to the Blue Cross sick animal centre, and £50 000 in trust for the lifetime care of his own pet dogs.

In a Will worth £16 million, it's not a lot, just rather sad. Why didn't he leave it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Very few people now leave money to the State, voluntarily that is, though they used to. A Report out today indicates that we badly need them to.

Officially, public debt stands at around £900 billion or over 60% of GDP. But lots of things are kept "off balance sheet". In a report for the brokers Tullett Prebon, Project Armageddon, Tim Morgan factors them in:

Add the final costs of bank bail outs, of unfunded future public sector pension commitments and of payoffs under Blair-Brown private Finance contracts and the debt figure rises four times to £3.6 trillion representing £135 000 per household. [I am using The Daily Telegraph's reporting]

It seems inevitable that at some point, like when they die, the present generation (the Baby Boomers - people like me) should be asked to pay and, failing that, made to pay.

Only yesterday, I took comfort in the £200 000 equity in my flat, the mortgage down to a few thousand. This morning I have to subtract £135 000 from that - the burden of public debt per household. Of course, if you shared out that figure proportionately rather than simply dividing by households, it would be less. For Sir Fred Goodwin it would be more.

However unpalatable to the Tory faithful, Chancellor George Osborne is going to have to look hard at inheritance tax. I make one suggestion.

At present, there is an exemption limit and above that the State takes a percentage of the value of an Estate at death. I would modify that to a variable percentage. Just as the State imposes supertaxes on alcohol and tobacco in its attempts to discourage them or make their users pay for the social costs of their habits, so it should tax legacies it deems noxious at a higher rate than those it deems benign. Ninety five percent on legacies to cats' and dogs' homes