Monday, 30 July 2012

X,Y,Z

A writer should always know when to bring things to a close and never strive to keep alive for form's sake alone.

I have never done crosswords or Sudoko; I used to play a bit of chess but with no real talent. But I have been writing Compositions all my life. Now they may discharge my duty to remain Mentally Active. It is no accident that I chose to run through the Alphabet in the month which brought me my 65th birthday.

I had no advance plan; I made things up as I went along, and I hope it shows. For some letters, I had ideas in advance but always plumped on the day for something which felt as if it would write itself.

I had nothing in mind for letter X and for letter Z, I could only think of Zzzz. I did have a choice for Y.

I have often thought there is a nice essay to be written on the last lines of novels, even the last word - perhaps it's been done.

I never finished Joyce's Ulysses and probably never will, but I read Molly Bloom's soliloquy which concludes the novel and which, famously, ends with the word Yes:

and yes I said yes I will Yes.

yes yes Yes. It is life affirming and on its own ought to dispose of the idea that Joyce is merely a formalist - worse a cosmopolitan one in the purse-lipped rhetoric of F.R. Leavis.

yes yes Yes until we conclude that it is time to bring things to a close. No more.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Wild Thinking



The sky above, the earth around, the sea beneath have always provided us with things good to think with (Lévi-Strauss's choses bonnes à penser ) . Pansies are for thoughts, but so are the stars above, the creatures in the forest, the fish in the sea.

In pre-literate and pre-scientific societies, the natural world provides most of what there is to think with. The resemblance of a wild pansy to a pensive human face can set in train a whole chain of thoughts which, woven together with others, creates a vast network - a matrix, a structure, a cat's cradle - into which future thinking can or must be fitted in a process which Lévi-Strauss called bricolage - a term made so familiar by his work that it no longer needs to be translated.

The arrival of Books brings with it Peoples of the Book who no longer seek understanding from the skies above or the earth around but from their guiding Texts, their portable things to think with. Marxists scour the texts of Marx in no different a manner from religious scholars combing the Bible or the Qu'ran. All experience the satisfaction that their Texts can be made to yield things with which to think any and every situation.

Science goes against our nature in telling us to seek from nature not things which suit our ways of thinking but things which challenge them. Nature was not made for us to think with, though unless we have evolved to have some natural bent towards understanding it then we have no chance of understanding it at all ( a doctrine expressed most clearly by Charles Sanders Peirce). Science seeks to discipline our wild thinking, to tame the natural habitat of our thoughts in analogy and association, metaphor and metonymy, allegory and fable. Sometimes it succeeds.

For the artist (at least, the artist of the past) clay and marble, sound and silence, oil and watercolour are also things to think with. They are not - very definitely not - things with which we render concrete previously formulated thoughts. We run our materials through our hands, attend to them with an inner ear, judge them with our eyes and, in the context of the traditions (the media) to which we are heritors, wait for them to yield something which we could not have said in advance or been led to by contemplating the world of objects alone.

Pansies are for thought - but also for botanising and for painting.

_____________________________

(The cover illustration above is from the edition I read as a student in Paris, 1971 - 72, attending lectures by Lévi-Strauss later published as La Voie des Masques. I write about that book on my website www.selectedworks.co.uk under the title "The Way of the Masks")

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Vastness

For most (maybe all) of my childhood I lived in areas which were still polluted by smoke from fires and factory chimneys. Lower Belvedere, beside the Thames in Kent, where I lived from 1962 always smelt of the British Oil and Cake Mills factory in nearby Erith and just across the river there was the giant Fords of Dagenham plant, its huge red neon sign pointed towards the Thames. Occasionally, air pollution was so bad that, combined with weather conditions, it precipitated a pea souper - a fog dense enough to stop traffic. On one occasion, I had to walk the last few miles of my journey home from school and was ill for weeks afterwards.

When I went for my interview for admission to Oxford in the autumn of 1964, I stayed overnight. Returning to my lodgings in the dark, I was amazed - initially frightened - by the clear night sky, clearer than any I had ever seen. What had happened? There were stars. Not just a handful, but everywhere I looked. When years later (studying in Paris) I read Pascal, I had no problem when I came to "Le silence éternel de ces éspaces infinis m'effraye" (The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me).

Vastness has the power to terrify, to awe and to silence us. It doesn't even have to be complicated, just so big that the human scale of things is inapplicable. Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) still has one of the best accounts of our response to vastness.

In contrast, miniatures have no such power. They are often just curiosities, as when someone succeeds in writing the Lord's Prayer on the back of a postage stamp. (In Kyiv and no doubt in other cities, there is a Museum devoted to miniatures. It is interesting and maybe one professes amazement, but really it just shows that humans can set themselves perverse tasks).

There are no miniatures among the great works of art. The miniaturist who paints a portrait or even a whole battle inside a locket is recognised as having a craft skill and that is all. In contrast, if you blow up a quite ordinary photograph to a big enough size, you can get an aesthetic gain on what the photograph itself probably merits. (I don't know if they are still there, but at some point three of my photographs - views of entrances to courtyards in Yerevan - used to be on display in the University of Sussex. I had just made them big enough to dominate a wall)

This contrast between our reaction to vastness and to smallness surely explains why space exploration holds a continuing fascination which the microchip does not. And yet in my life time, it is miniaturisation rather more than space exploration which has transformed the world in which I live.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Unsponsorship

"The Time, sponsored by Accurist, ..."

It is no longer and that's a relief when you have to dial the Speaking Clock. But it was Accurist that gave me the idea of launching a Campaign for Unsponsoring Things (CUT). People like me would contribute small amounts (anonymously) and CUT would use it (anonymously) to unsponsor things. So they would go to BT and say, "OK. How much does it cost to remove the words sponsored by Accurist?" and a deal would be done.

If Accurist gave me the idea, it was Sponsored Municipal Flower Beds that made me think that CUT would really improve my life. I like flowers, a lot, and it's a pleasure to look at them - but not when framed by the name of some Estate Agent.

Worse, here in Brighton and Hove, sponsorship extends to the floral WELCOME display which greets motorists on their way into the city. I reckon that if you only want to WELCOME your visitors via a Sponsor then you don't want to Welcome them at all.

Imagine, you are going to invite some friends to a dinner party and you send out Invitations Sponsored by Pizza Poppa. If you are that dumb, you really do need to read How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Back in 1995 I visited Israel and planned to visit Yad Vashem (the principal Holocaust memorial and museum). I debated in advance whether it was the sort of place where you would take a camera or whether that would be offensive.

I found Yad Vashem in many ways moving and well-conceived: the black pillars and the railway wagon stay in my mind. But I was shocked to find that some things were Sponsored and not only that Sponsored by people who had their names displayed on little plaques . Of the ones I noticed, all appeared to be American. I just found it inappropriate and even offensive.

The modern Olympic Games would not exist without corporate Sponsorship, mostly from US based major corporations like Coca-Cola and MacDonalds. Now if the Olympic Games were unsponsored and we had to make do with amateur get-togethers, I think I might take an interest. It would remind me of how as a boy I went to football matches every Saturday and cheered on Dartford FC and no one told me I had to drink Coca Cola.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Time Management

Too many people try to walk and chew gum at the same time. This is the result of exposure to bad ideas about personal time management, specifically something called "Multi-tasking". More later.

It's often overlooked that the management of personal (individual) time is constrained by how public ( social ) time is managed. The management of public time is in the hands of governments, employers and religious organisations.

So there is a calendar with months and days and there is a clock.

The calendar is marked by religious organisations with holy days and by governments with public holidays and there is some overlap: in the UK, the government advises employers to lock out their workers on Good Friday and Easter Monday, the dates of which are variable and determined by religious astrologers. Few workers actually want holidays on these dates - in general, they would prefer holidays when the sun shines - so their ability to make good use of their time (personal time management) is undermined by the way public time is organised.

The clock is usually set by governments. Here in the south of England (where most of the UK population lives) we would like the clocks to be aligned with those across the Channel in Europe, yielding more daylight (all year round) after working hours. But Mr Cameron's government will not have it - despite the best efforts of a Tory MP, Rebecca Harris - and, as a direct result, not only are there more fatal road accidents in the winter gloom of the early evening rush hour but workers cannot optimise use of their private time.

Working hours are still largely determined by employers. Most public sector employers try to open when everyone else is open, in order to reduce demand on their services. Most private sector employers open at the same time as each other. This is why we have rush hours.

In terms of reducing stressful and unfulfilling activity in life, avoiding rush hour travel must be pretty near the top of effective strategies. It's one main reason why working from home is such a popular day dream. But, in reality, influenced by Time Management, people try to make their time on the Bus or the Tube "useful": read a book, answer emails.

I am not convinced. If the journey was shorter, I think people would enjoy the chance to day dream or simply relax. And the best place to read a book is on the sofa.
And on the sofa, reading the book does not need to be combined with any other activity. If it's not a sufficiently pleasurable activity in itself, then it is best avoided.

Time management is generally interpreted as maximising activity and minimising time committed to it.

There is a different approach which would concentrate simply on minimising time allocated to unpleasant and unrewarding activity. Don't like housework? Employ a cleaner!

Of course, that example shows that we are constrained in various ways - in this case, by whether or not we can afford a cleaner. But many of the constraints on our personal time management are imposed by the way public time is organised and managed for us.

I write this in a week when the Government has launched its scheme to make people regret living and working in London. It's called the Olympics and it's going to waste people's time big time.

_______________________

"The central fact of our existence is that time is the ultimate finite resource" Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Seven Deadly Sins

Go to "Seven Deadly Sins" on Wikipedia and you get a very interesting history of where the changeable list of Seven came from - imagine an ill-tempered committee of the not-so-great-and-good venting their spleen over the centuries: "We need to clamp down on these peasants. Forgetting their place nowadays! Full of sloth! Put that on the list! [Hyah, Hyah!] ... And another thing, they're at it all the time. No decency, no self-control, lusting after each other and laughing at us! Put that on the list! [ Hyah! Hyah!]"

Enough of that. I asked myself, What do I think of as Deadly Sins, sins which pitch people down the slippery slope towards perdition?

I think first of Sins against the Self.

I recoil from Self-Pity and Self-Neglect which show lack of Self-Respect or - in other words - Pride (one of the Deadlies). The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will always wound us, but with self-respect, not so deeply. Lose your pride, and you have stopped saying Yes to life and its possibilities, including the possibility of doing good in this world. So Pride protects us from the sins of self-pity and self-neglect. It gives us dignity.

Then there are Sins against Others

The Church proposes Temperance and Chastity as the Virtues which protect us from the sins of Gluttony and Lust. But Christian temperance does not always take the benign form of eating your Five a Day. It turns into Meanness, which is a lack of generosity towards the world. And Chastity as well as having no obvious moral merit often turns into Prudery, which is the vice of disapproving of one's fellow human beings - something which in the Vatican can be a full-time job.

Meanness and Prudery are Sins from which Gluttony and Lust afford some protection: in the film Babette's Feast, it is the experience of gluttony which humanises the sectarians. In the life of Oskar Schindler, it is his Lust which ensures that his heart is not locked against his fellow human beings (something which the disapproving biography by David M Crowe is unable to comprehend).

It is often remarked that the Seven Deadlies do not include Cruelty (Wrath certainly does not encompass it). But Cruelty is the sin which most brutally disfigures human relationships. It is an exercise of power: of parents against their children; of the Church against heretics; of despots against their "people" - and it gets passed down the line and from generation to generation. In Ireland, the cruelty of the Church disfigured a whole society - and, oh, in what Self-Pity that Church now indulges when held to account.

The virtues which oppose themselves to Cruelty are kindness or benevolence or love.

It is also remarked that Dishonesty is not among the Seven Deadlies; maybe the Committees responsible for the List were fiddling their expenses.

But I also hesitate to include dishonesty on my own List. It's sometimes cruel (so it can be dealt with under that head) but more often it's merely tiresome. I don't want to go to the wall on it, but I am inclined to think Hypocrisy a greater Sin than dishonesty because it is what so often cements societies around things which, actually, no one believes in.

Faith schools can only exist in the UK because most teachers are willing to keep their mouths shut about what they believe (or more often, don't believe). The core ethos of a modern Faith School is one where the Governors know the Maths teacher is an atheist, and the Maths teacher knows he can keep his job if he keeps quiet about that fact. And the kids probably guess what's going on.

The virtue which protects us from hypocrisy in ourselves is Pride and from hypocrisy in others, Wrath. Oh, how those teachers deserve a tongue lashing!

I am not counting but I am sure you can continue the task of constructing Seven Deadlies appropriate for a world where human beings care for themselves and for each other.













________

Retail

In John Lanchester's recent novel Capital, a main part is played by a family running an Asian corner shop. It's a sympathetic portrayal.

Retail in the form of independent shop keeping can't be much fun. The chances of survival are not good for a new business and an established business never stops being hard work.

There is the rent, which in England is kept high by our leasehold laws and unwillingness to build. Then there are business rates, also high though the Council does not even collect your rubbish. (That's why in city like Brighton there is always refuse on the street - there are multiple private collecting services for "business waste"). Then there are insurances: public liability and employee liability. Then there is VAT. Then there is National Insurance. Then there are people who nick stuff. Then, occasionally but not rarely, there are people who point a knife and demand the contents of your till.

Who wants to be a small shop keeper?

Then there is the skill involved in successful retailing.

Most retail is about break of bulk: you buy by the hundred and sell one at a time. Get your calculations wrong and you are left with stuff past its sell by date.Only in the case of newspapers with a one day shelf life does the supplier take back the unsolds.

Then there are the customers, of whom you have to attract an awful lot since most of them are only going to buy a bottle of water or a carton of milk which have to be bar coded and till receipted.

Just imagine trying to make a living from that.

Then there is the pavement outside your shop which you have to keep clean because the Council doesn't and which often enough means vomit and dog shit.

If at the end of this you do look reasonably affluent, it's because you work sixty or eighty hours a week. Sometimes I just wonder what figure comes out if you convert a small shop keeper's annual pre-tax profit into a pre-tax hourly wage rate.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Quiet

There's nowt so queer as folk, a truth from which all of us, in relation to some aspect of our lives, can take comfort. Some can also take comfort from a whole academic field of Queer Theory - but despite having spent a year following the courses of someone who inspired it (Michel Foucault), I don't know enough to make it the topic for my letter Q.

In my work I drive long distances across Europe, sometimes several hundred miles in a day. Nowadays, I never listen to the car radio or put in a CD. I am happy to drive, to day dream and to think.

At home, I have a home cinema system but it is not tuned for TV reception and I don't have a TV licence (I have a letter from the authorities permitting me this queerness). The last time I saw a TV programme was in 2010 - in someone else's house, I watched one of the General Election debates between the UKs party leaders.

I have a cheap sound system and occasionally play CDs but I never listen to the radio - I don't even know if the system is tuned to any particular stations; I haven't investigated.

My landline telephone is switched to silent and an answerphone picks up any messages (most of them spam). During the day, my mobile phone is not switched to silent and I answer calls from numbers it recognises. But I usually send texts or emails to people rather than call them. My business is now largely carried on through emails.

I quite like the background noise of cars passing, people going about their business, roars going up from a pub when someone scores a goal. But I don't add very much to the noise. I never use my car horn, though that is not unusual in England.

I live a very quiet life, not metaphorically but literally, and so quiet that I reckon it a bit queer. And I don't fully understand it.

Not watching TV - even selectively, as of course everyone does - I officially regard as part of what Auguste Comte called "Mental Hygiene" which for him involved not reading books (or not too many of them). It keeps my head clear and, since I use the time saved to read books and newspapers, hopefully better informed about the world than I would be from watching TV.

As for not listening to the radio, that I cannot explain other than by saying that sooner or (rarely) later someone talking too much, too fast or some advertisement full of false enthusiasm will irritate me and sometimes beyond reason.

Text messages and emails are wonderful inventions. I was never much good on the 'phone (I didn't grow up with it)and now I find it quite intrusive. It always shocks me when I see people together in restaurants, even romantic couples, who will break off a conversation to answer their phone.

So you see that in my taste for Quiet, I'm a bit queer. In every other respect, of course, I'm as normal as the chap next door.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Profit

I am going to act naive and maybe end up somewhere as a result.

The word "Profit" gets applied to very different things.

I am self-employed with no employees. At the end of each tax year, my accountant calculates what he calls my "Assessable Profit". This figure is arrived at by taking my Income (derived mostly from retail sales, in my case), deducting my Expenses (purchase of stock, other expenses)and then further deducting Capital Allowances (expenses which are claimed against tax in instalments).

I don't pay myself a wage: instead of a wage, I have this "Assessable Profit". It's equivalent to a gross annual salary.

Now some economists would say that I am only a rational actor insofar as I try to maximise that Assessable Profit (or, at least, that figure when converted to an hourly gross wage). But, of course, most self-employed people are engaged in satisficing not maximising: they aim to end up with an annual figure which seems satisfactory compensation for the hours-cum-effort they have expended and allows them to pay their mortgages and all the rest.

"Profit" here could hardly be more benign.

Quite different are corporate profits - what's left after all expenses and all wages have been paid. It's what is available to distribute to owners (generally, shareholders) or to re-invest.

Nowadays, I suspect that very few people actually live off profits in the sense of "income from invested capital" except as beneficiaries of a pension scheme which holds invested capital. I don't think Marx had pensioners in mind as capitalist exploiters.

And as we have come to realise - really quite recently - the interesting (morally, politically significant) exploitation occurs in the division of the pre - profit wage bill. It is executive remuneration which drives down everything else: worker pay, shareholder profit and the amount available for re-investment. In many large companies, executives behave like Third World extractive elites.

In both cases, power is being used to rack up a rent. Profit is not the problem.

So in poor countries cursed with one valuable resource (diamonds, oil) extractive elites exercise power in two directions. They use coercion and repression to keep down the incomes of those who work in the one-resource industry. And they use their control over the state to set monopolistic terms of trade with those who wish to buy the one resource. (This has, by the way, very little to do with capitalism as Marx understood it but it is a very good method of getting very rich).

Likewise, the executive class considered as an extractive elite both seeks to keep down the wages of "ordinary" workers (through casualisation and so on) and seeks sole control over the terms on which it is paid, excluding as far as possible the exercise of shareholder power.

Though this is most obvious in the private sector, it can and does operate in the public sector where nowadays top civil servants and heads of publicly-owned industries have secured considerable control over what they pay themselves. Think of the BBC.

So, for the moment at least, maybe we should worry less about Profit (the profit motive, capitalist exploitation and all the rest) as a driver of inequality and injustice and more about rent extraction.

I suppose someone is going to tell me that's back to Henry George.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Ostentation


Like the British state, the French state knows how to do ostentation. President Hollande ceased to be "Mr Normal" the moment he assumed office - an office which surrounds him with men (only men)in splendid uniforms, mounted on splendid horses, helmets and swords polished to perfection. It's not really Republican ostentation, it's Imperial, like that so often on display in London. It's just that in France, the State is the Empire.

I began to think back to 1977 to the coronation of the Emperor Bokassa I, an event entirely managed by the French government in collaboration with its haute couture industry but at a cost to the dirt-poor Central African Republic in excess of its entire annual state budget.

Google the photographs and you will see how Europe colonised Africa in more than one way. The ostentation we flaunt in the faces of our own subjects returns in the farce and tragedy of Bokassa's delusions of grandeur. There is even an imitation of that Coronation coach.

Bokassa was just one of many tyrants and kleptocrats sustained by the French over decades after independence. He had uranium. So what if he looted his country, tortured and murdered his opponents and even personally clubbed to death school pupils? Their offence? Protesting the cost of their compulsory school uniforms - made by a single supplier, the factory owned by one of Bokassa's many wives.

Liberty? Equality? Fraternity? Not for Africa.

If we began to address what we did in Africa and have done there up until the present, and if we examined how our own ostentatious images of power have been incorporated into the rhetoric of local tyrants, then I cannot see how we could continue to spend our own money on coronation coaches or black horses or red uniforms.

And looking at the medals on the chests of a Bokassa or a Mugabe or a Gadaffi - how can Prince Charles still go on wearing his? Of course, there is the difference that he didn't award them to himself; they are the birthday badges which, over the years, his Mum has given him.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

National Anthems

There are going to be a lot of them on the airwaves in the coming weeks and someone will surely organise an Olympic contest to pick a winner.

It won't be the United Kingdom; it doesn't have a National Anthem - loyal subjects call on God to make the Queen feel good and that's about it. If you don't believe in God or the Queen, you are a bit stuffed.

God has by now clearly heard better tunes: He has sent Her very few victories in her very long reign. The camera can cut to Team Argentina to illustrate successful invocation of the deity, but it can't cut anywhere else.

In the old days, when concert halls started the evening and cinemas ended with the National Anthem, I was one of those people who stayed seated. I recall one occasion when the concert-goer behind made valiant efforts to yank me to my feet. Another occasion was more interesting.

There used to be a cinema in Oxford Street which showed European films and was popular with students. They screened Ådalen 31 (Bo Widerberg, 1969), a powerful Swedish film about bad employers and good workers in the years before the social democratic party secured the hegemony which made Sweden a model for progressive politics (so much so, that I made Sweden the first foreign country I visited, in 1964).

The audience was clearly moved by the film, but no sooner ended than the Anthem struck up. The juxtaposition was jarring and, without thinking, I shouted some protest. To my surprise, it was taken up and afterwards people gathered round to talk. More usually, in ordinary cinemas, people simply walked out during the Anthem which is the real reason they gave up playing it. The Monarchy wasn't as popular then as it is this year.

Nowadays, I stand up for the Anthem, not to embarass those I am with. But in the sixties, we were all in it together.

When England throws off the yoke of the United Kingdom and declares itself a Republic, it will already have a flag and a football team. But it will need an Anthem.

An Anthem should reflect a nation's better self and aspirations; the words should be well-known and well-loved. Ideally, a football crowd should be able to turn in a half-decent performance.

That reduces the choice to two:

Jerusalem

Sir Hubert Parry set Blake's words to music in 1916 at the request of the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. It was designed as a contribution to the war effort. Parry soon had doubts about contributing to that senseless slaughter and may well have withdrawn the music but for the fact that Jerusalem was also quickly taken up by more progressive forces: the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (the Suffragettes)adopted it and Parry promptly assigned them the copyright. The Labour Party also took it up. ( I am relying on the very detailed interesting Wikipedia entry "And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time" ).

So as a National Anthem Jerusalem would nicely incorporate England's conflicted political history. Its God is not the primitive deity of the National Anthem and there is nothing in it an atheist cannot live with.

Imagine

First released in 1971, but not as a single until 1975. John Lennon's words are very well known (the world over - though in America they have a version which replaces "Imagine no religion" with "Imagine one religion"). I think it is regarded with great fondness though it did not become a #1 Hit until after Lennon's death. The words do appeal to our better selves and aspirations. Whether a football crowd could sing a verse, I am not so sure. But they'd give it a try.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Macadamised



High Milton Cottages, near Sauchrie, South Ayrshire (Grid Reference NS 3013). The road is believed the first to have been Macadamised.
Copyright Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

It's rained a lot recently here in the UK. Sidestepping the pavement puddles and driving along main roads sheeted with water, I remembered that civilisations in decline forget how to use - or cannot be bothered to use - the technologies which once made them great. Think of what happened to Britain when the Romans left.

In school, and quite young, we Did the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. We learnt about road improvement and knew the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834) and John Macadam (1756 - 1836), both Scotsmen.

I can still remember the diagrams, though I don't have the exercise books any more. The basic idea was something like this:



You built up the road with small stones and at the same time you cambered the road, so that water ran to the sides where it could be drained into ditches. Unlike the old mud roads, the Macadamised road would remain passable in the wettest weather.

In towns, water from cambered streets would drain towards gutters and from there channeled into drains. Pavements would be gently sloped so that water ran towards the gutters.

All this we have forgotten.

In towns, our roads and pavements are dug up endlessly by utility firms and councils. They employ the same firms: Bodger and Sons, Bodger and Daughters, Bodger and Bodger. None of them have heard of road cambering or water run off. Or if they have, they don't want to know. They want the money.

Not so many years ago, cumbersome council vehicles dropped great nozzles into street drains to suck out leaves and other debris and thus ensure that the drains were fit for purpose. Now we have privatised drains and no cumbersome vehicles. Drains are blocked: when it rains, the water may run towards the drains but there it simply overflows and spreads out into those great ponds of water which buses drive through.

On the main roads and motorways, large private companies extract from the Exchequer millions for maintenance. But Bodger and Bodger Plc has never heard of cambering or storm water drains or ditches and, if it has, it doesn't want to know. It wants to lay tarmac at however-many-million pounds a mile and move on.

This is a civilisation in decline. Remember that next time you hit a sheet of water laying across your motorway or as you dodge the puddles sitting on your high street pavement.

Further Reading:
Thomas Codrington, The Maintenance of Macadamised Roads. Second edition. E & F N Spon, London 1892.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Lovers

Husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, partners, even occasionally fiancés and fiancées: these are people to whom we are introduced. I don't think anyone has ever introduced me to their lover. And if they did, maybe it would just sound pretentious.

Wikipedia is of no help: it has "Lover" in the singular for two categories, "A person who loves" [ so, "Music lover"] and "A sexual partner" - though the reverse is not true: statistically, sexual partners are not usually lovers. Lovers need more time than a one night stand, though how much more is hard to say and film makers will always try to persuade us it can be done in a day.

"Lover" seems an intrinsically private category: people are only lovers for each other; that they are lovers is no more the business of the world than their longing or their lust for each other.

So "lovers" is the inside and "husbands and wives" (etc) is the outside, then? And sometimes the outside is all there is, an empty shell.

But aren't there people who are only lovers - people who aren't at the same time husbands and wives and all the rest?

When you consider that you probably think first of people having affairs or a man and his mistress. In other words, people who can't publicly declare themselves to be lovers because the edifice of their public lives would likely collapse.

The interesting thing about this is the way it links lovers to transgression: you only get to be lovers with someone if you are doing something you shouldn't be doing.

Lovers and forbidden love go together.

The lovers with whom we are most familiar in literature and the cinema are usually in transgression: they are separated by age, by class, by clan, by race, or by the prohibitions of a church. It is only the strength of passion which makes the transgression possible, but it is the fact of transgression which always dooms it: the law takes its revenge and love is beaten down to tragedy.

_______________________

There is a lovely autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras, The Lover (L'Amant). It's more than that; it's maybe the most beautifully written book I know.

As a teenager in French Indo-China, she forms a passionate, illicit, relationship with a wealthy Chinese man. They trangress the rules of age, of race and of social expectations. Duras published the novel in 1984, half a century after the love it describes. The film of the book angered her sufficiently for her to write a second novel-cum-story board, L'Amant de la Chine du Nord (1991), which reveals more than the first novel - she was younger than she had acknowledged, her family was more disturbed than she had painted it, her own behaviour too.

Both novels are lyric texts, as a love story must be, and like Nabokov in Lolita, Duras uses to the full the lyric power of the liquid letter L. Here she is writing about another girl in her school boarding house, her other love of that lost time in Indo-China:

Il y a celle sur un banc, allongée, celle nommée ici et dans les autres livres de son nom véritable, celle d'une miraculeuse beauté qu'elle, elle veut laide, oui, celle de ce nom de ciel, Hélène Lagonelle dite de Dalat. Cet autre amour d'elle, l'enfant, jamais oublié


Love: langorous, liquid, lost. La, le, li, lo, lu. L is for Lovers. L .

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Kit - Kat



I am sitting at my desk in York Road Junior School. A visitor is explaining to us that the makers of Kit - Kat are thinking of changing the flavour and we are asked to help. We will be given two bars to eat, there and then in class, and asked which one we prefer. One bar is the old flavour; one the new - but we won't be told which is which.

This is almost too good to be true, until it comes to the test. One bar tastes so revolting that I immediately spit it back into the wrapper and lift my desk lid just enough to slip the mess out of sight.

I have posted numerous autobiographical Blogs here, but have never written about my second school, York Road County Primary School in Dartford. I attended only the Junior half of a two-site school; the Infants department was located in nearby St Alban's Road but I did not attend that. I was a Junior School pupil for the three years 1955 to 1958, passing through the classes of Mrs Clarke, Mrs Faulkner and Mr Brown (whose job it was to prepare us for the 11+). The photograph shows me in Mrs Faulkner's class of 1956 - 57 - fifth from the right in the first seated row.

I lived a short distance from the school, at the top of East Hill over my father's shop Babyland and went home at lunch times. As I got close, I would be listening out to hear if my father was shouting. My parents' marriage was dysfunctional most of the time and it began to take its toll on me: I had night sweats, palpitations, food phobias, digestive problems. At some point in my Junior School years my mother took me to the doctor. I was prescribed phenobarbitones (barbiturates), small white pills, but could not swallow them. My mother got me to eat them, crushed into the middle of a jam sandwich. Later,maybe when I was eleven or twelve, I imagined that my mother was trying to poison me.

At York Road, I had my first and only crush on a teacher, Miss Orpen - Jo Orpen (we even knew her first name!) - who may well have been a bit alternative (CND? Beatnik?) and was a student teacher and very pretty. She took an interest in our playground games (and may even have joined in). We played cigarette cards: you propped some cards (mostly from Brooke Bond tea packets) against a wall and flicked other cards at them. If you made a card fall down, you won it.

We also played conkers, marbles, chase, and piggy back fighting: at one time, I wore a thin silver chain and Star sign pendant round my neck. Someone grabbed hold of the chain during a piggy back fight. I didn't fall off but went home with a red line round my neck and a broken chain.

I wasn't Miss Orpen's favourite. That was Graham Beech, the tall handsome boy looking down in the middle of the photograph and who as a young man was killed in a motorcycle accident.

I still have my Composition book from 1957 - 58 - it was as much about writing in ink with a steel pen as about writing. The actual Compositions are a mix of imaginative and factual:

Friday, 13 July 2012

Jealousy

We have courses in Anger Management but none, as far as I know, in Jealousy Management. We don't expect people to work at their jealousy; indeed, we indulge them. In France, kill someone in anger and you will go to jail (in the old days, to the guillotine) for a long time; kill someone out of jealousy and you won't. In consequence, every Frenchman - or,at least, French film maker - dreams of committing a crime passionel.

Both anger and jealousy are things which consume us and with which we seethe. Both are disorienting and even disabling.

To those who suffer extreme bouts of anger, we say they must find other outlets than hitting us. (Well, almost always. I once worked for a very aggressive boss, who terrorised and terrified people. One day, his superior confided to me that it was no different in management meetings - and that they were just hoping that one day he would actually hit someone. Then they could sack him).

But with jealousy, we think we have to live with it. We regard it as incurable. I don't think this is the case. I think jealousy can and should be managed and, not least, because its consequences can be so destructive.

Someone sleeps with someone else, their partner finds out, and some mix of anger, hurt and jealousy - in which the last often predominates - precipitates them into the nearest lawyer's office and thence into the divorce courts. No one expects them to manage their feelings even though the consequences are financial impoverishment, neglect of any children, and - two years later - regret for what they have done. These kinds of passion are generally very short lived things, despite what dramatists and poets would have us think.

I think the first question to ask the excessively / obsessively jealous person is this, Why do you want to spoil things? You have a nice relationship with your partner, why can't you enjoy it? Why are you checking their text messages and emails? Why are you throwing a tantrum when they want to go out on their own with their friends?

In this way, you can begin to break down jealousy into different components - insecurity, anxiety, envy, sexual jealousy.

It's the last which most frequently turns people into killers. A good start would be to stop glamorising that. How tiresome, how boring, how unimaginative. Get a life, don't take a life. Your partner has slept with someone else? Get over it.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Ingratitude

Someone was talking about cats and dogs and remarked on the ingratitude of cats. I think this is probably why I am at ease with them. In contrast, dogs make me uncomfortable. They are smelly and sloppy and jump all over you (reminding you of the time when you were attacked by one) but there's more to it than that. They just like humans too much. It's not natural.

Gratitude makes me uncomfortable. There is a spontaneous, uncomplicated kind of gratitude which expresses itself and then disappears. I am fine with that. But I am always afraid that gratitude will get mixed up with guilt and consequently endure longer than it should. It becomes an expression of loyalty and I am not very comfortable with that either. Loyalty usually comes mixed up with guilt or is used to dump guilt on the object of loyalty.

Children are naturally ungrateful and I think this is a healthy trait. The job of children is to exhaust you, take your love and your money, and then fuck off. They don't owe you any gratitude. If they still love you or at least quite like you after the way you have brought them up, that's surely wonderful and as good as it ought to get.

Children are not insurance policies against your old age, though that is how they have often been treated in many cultures around the world and still are. I always find myself quite angered by this when I encounter it. Of course, I know it's connected to the fact that my mother - as the youngest of seven - ended up with the job of staying at home to care for her ageing (and I suspect, difficult) mother and that, in turn, my mother (more than difficult) rather hoped that I would stay at home and keep her company. It may have been a close run thing that I didn't.

The interest to me of the Japanese film The Ballad of Narayama is that it portrays a culture where old people know they should make way: the story revolves around a man reluctant to carry out his duty, which is to take his mother up to the mountain and - now that she has reached the age of seventy - leave her there to die.

Compare and contrast with the sickly relationship between son and mother in the (amusing, of course) film Goodbye Lenin! .

I suppose one might say of today's Blog: There's gratitude for you!

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Hobbies

I declare an interest in this subject: as a stamp dealer, I make a taxable income out of other people's hobbies. So I will have nothing disagreeable to say about them. But I do want to reclassify as hobbies some pursuits which usually have other labels and that will be the controversial bit.

Hobbies - pastimes - stand in contrast to work. They may absorb much time and energy, but they are not the way you earn your living. This does not exclude that, at the end of the day - or sooner - a hobby may increase someone's assets: some collections turn into very valuable things. But not all hobbies are asset-building: bird-watching isn't

Hobbies contrast with work in another way. They may be pursued passionately and arouse passions, they may be intellectually demanding, but normally they do not involve the kind of emotional demands made by a job or even by life in general. They are relaxation. They take your mind away from work. They give you something else to think about. Thus is explained the surgeon who collects stamps.

Indeed, if something does engage the same emotions and strains as work or everyday life then we tend not to call it a hobby. Back in 1967, I spent a summer at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research working with Peggy Hemming. I was a politically engaged student. In conversation one day, Peggy Hemming called political activism, "a hobby". That was cynicism with a grain of truth: getting involved in politics can indeed be a way of passing the time. The time would have passed anyway; but not so quickly. Interestingly, I have never forgotten the remark.

But political activism isn't really a hobby: it's too close to the everyday world with its demands and unpredictability, its challenges and defeats. And it matters. You might say that the whole point of a hobby is that it isn't about making the world a better place or indeed having any effect on the world. A hobby isn't a hobby if its absence from the world would make a difference. A hobby can die out and the world goes on much as before.

In the fifth edition of his Fruit Manual, published in 1884, Robert Hogg lists several hundred varieties of gooseberry. The number is swelled by the fact that in parts of northern England, growing gooseberries for competitive exhibition was a popular 19th century working class hobby (pursuit, pastime). Hogg duly records after the name of each gooseberry the name of the man who introduced it: Freedom (Moore), Garibaldi (Walton),Independent (Brigg), Pastime (Bratherton), Railway (Livesey), Sheba Queen (Crompton) ...

Unlike pigeon fancying, gooseberry fancying - which came with its own Craft mysteries ("Table by which the approximate weight of Gooseberries may be ascertained by measurement with the callipers" Hogg, page 366) - is all but lost and forgotten. The world may be a bit poorer but not at a loss.

That is why for some people hobbies are a waste of time. Serious people don't have hobbies. They have better things to do. Even when they are absorbed in a relaxing activity, like watching a play, they are actually doing something better: improving their minds.

This then becomes the basis for many assumptions, among them that the State should subsidise theatre ticket prices. I suppose it's one of the main reasons that I have never really made it into the middle class that I can see no more reason why the State should subsidise theatre tickets than train spotting. When it comes to how other people's taxes should be spent, poetry has no more claims than pushpin.

A few days ago I took down from my shelves a book I bought maybe twenty or thirty years ago but have never read: Hegel's Aesthetics in the two volume translation by Sir Malcolm Knox. I have made a start...

Knox was a University professor of philosophy and then a university Principal. He did Hegel translations during his career and he continued in retirement: he retired in 1966 and the Aesthetics was published in 1975. His work became his hobby; or vice versa.

A lot of work done in universities within government-funded Humanities departments ought to be re-classified as Hobby. Editing classical texts, translating poetry, compiling bibliographies - these are splendid hobbies for doctors, engineers and bankers. In the past they often were. They provided intellectual challenge and required dedication - often enough obsessive dedication - but they also provided relaxation - escape - from the demands of demanding careers. There is no pressing reason why such activities should be funded by the State and jobs for life made out of them. The world might be a richer place if we had to rely on them being pursued as hobbies. And they are probably more satisfying than spending money or snorting cocaine.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Genitals

A lower level court in Köln recently ruled that ritual circumcision performed on baby boys constitutes a bodily injury (albeit, they said, minor) and is both a denial of a child's right to physical integrity and to its right to self-determination - which in the case of circumcision a boy could exercise when old enough to choose for himself. Consequently, those who instigate circumcisions (the parents)and those who perform them (the doctors) are both, in principle, criminally liable.

This fairly simple and straightforward court ruling is to be welcomed. Parents have no rights to mutilate their children's bodies even if they have "religious" reasons for wanting to do so and even if they employ doctors rather than traditional practitioners to do it for them.

It is one of the fundamental duties of the state to protect those who are not able to protect themselves - in this case, because they are too young. In traditional Judaism, ritual circumcision should be performed in the first eight days of life.

The form of the Köln ruling provides protection for both boys and girls - who, as we all know, are also targets for genital mutilation though within different cultures and for different reasons. In both cases, the mutilation can go horribly wrong - children can and do die.

The Jewish and Muslim religious "leaders" who are now protesting do protest too much. They know in their hearts that they are arguing in defence of a crime against children. They also know that they do not speak for all members of their communities: for example, there have been Jews opposed to ritual circumcision of baby boys for at least a hundred years.

And there are "lax" Jews who do not order the circumcision of their sons. The Köln court ruling gives encouragement to such laxness and this is why religious "leaders" don't like it: it further weakens their hold. We should remember that it is not only in the Christian world that religious "leaders" are often only tenuously connected to those they claim to lead. As Melinda Gates has recently made very clear, in defending birth control though herself a practising Catholic, the Pope does not speak for Catholics. Unfortunately, the mass media normally content themselves with reporting only the views of the "leaders". Melinda Gates broke through the barrier only because of her high profile and probably has more Catholics on her side than does the Pope.

Genital mutilation is a speciality of torturers and, often enough, a terrifying weapon in civil wars like those in Chechnya and Afghanistan. It has no place in civilised life and doctors who have sworn their Oath should take no part in it.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Feminism

For a few months in the middle of 1965, I worked in the Dartford Youth Employment Bureau. It was my "Gap" year between school and university. I cycled to work each day on my Raleigh Triumph.

One of my jobs was to issue National Insurance cards to school leavers.

One day a girl came into the office. There was something very odd about her. Her clothes were old fashioned, thick and woolen, though it was summer. She was wearing a hat in a style which to me was 1930s. She looked frumpish. She was 15, had just left school, and wanted her Insurance card. She seemed ill at ease and I guess I reciprocated

I felt something was wrong and later I asked my colleagues for an explanation. They knew of the girl. She was apparently very clever and her school had wanted her to stay on. But her family belonged to a Christian sect which required girls to leave school at the earliest legal age and go to work in family businesses until they married. The sect barred girls from all education beyond the minimum required by law. I suppose it provided their businesses with cheap and docile labour.

This was Kent, not Afghanistan. Googling today, I think it likely her family were Brethren of one kind or another [Plymouth, Exclusive]. The clothes were sectarian garments like those we more usually associate with fundamentalist Jews or Muslims.

Because these nasty little sects are isolationist rather than activist, we don't go after them unless some financial or sexual scandal becomes public. And, of course, they are very small. You can find Survivors' forums on the internet.

Nowadays we are much more likely to see young women in suffocating burqas than in the woolens of some purse-lipped and disapproving Brethren.
____________

Feminism has been at its best - at its best for over 200 years - when demanding equal rights: the right to own property and the right to initiate divorce proceedings; access to education at all levels; the vote; equal consideration for employment of any kind; equal pay; equal respect. And even the right to wear non-restrictive clothing: remember Mrs Bloomer?

Most of the time, organised religions run by men (they all are) have opposed feminist movements for equality and continue to do so. In Italy life is more skewed against women then elsewhere in the European Union, the legacy of a church now merely rotten with corruption. But there are still women willing to do its flower arranging.

For all that they have indeed legislated for equality, governments in the USA and the UK find nothing strange in standing shoulder to shoulder with a regime in Saudi Arabia which denies women the right to drive cars. Among other things.

Feminism has been at its worst when it has adopted the vices of religious sectarianism and sought to prescribe whether women should wear make-up or mini-skirts, whether they should flirt, what sexual fantasies and sexual positions they are permitted (if any). This disapproving, purse-lipped Sunday School tendency wants women to live their lives in shades of grey, preferably woolen, and is now generally ignored. It still provides an income for Anti-Sex League journalists who write Opinion columns for the better newspapers.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Experience

Experience is what we don't learn from.

Someone clears their throat, "Experience has taught me that .... " and you know you are about to hear a sixpenny morality tale. Life has simply served to confirm someone's prejudices.

You get drunk and you wake up with a hangover which is unpleasant. This experience may be repeated a remarkable number of times in a lifetime, quite painfully so, but whether it is "learnt" from is an entirely separate matter. If you want to avoid hangovers, you have to take decisions and stick to them. Neither has anything to do with experience. An alcoholic is someone who can take a decision but not stick to it, however painful the supposed learning from continuing hangover experience.

Of course, trying to master a practical skill, like driving a car, we learn how to avoid our mistakes, But it is not "experience" that tells us they are mistakes. It's the Driving Instructor.

We learn from teachers, we learn from books, we learn from thinking and imagining.

We simply change in ways we don't register as they are happening and over which we have no control. We become older and wiser or older and more foolish.

It's a contingent matter whether we become wiser or more foolish. Some experiences may push us towards wisdom and some may push us towards stupidity. Often enough, we don't get much choice over which way we make use of them.

Some experiences are crushing and telling someone to "learn" from them crushes them again.

Children don't become speakers from experience. They try to get in on the game everyone around them seems to be playing and seems to want them to join in with. What they hear triggers their native language learning faculty.

That goes off in its own delightful directions, wildly independent of what is going on around them. Only later do parents and teachers succeed in shaping the child's speech (and writing) into something approximating what they want.

Experience hasn't taught me very much. I think that is true for all of us.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Debts

When someone buys a Lottery ticket, they do so in full knowledge that it will be a miracle if they get their money back. Come Monday morning, they don't march indignantly into the local corner shop demanding, "Where's my money?"

When someone lends to someone else, they know there is always a risk that they won't get their money back. Shit happens, some of which can be insured against. A prudent lender will want to know what the money is going to be used for and whether the person lent to is likely to be both able and willing to repay. The greater the risk, the greater the rate of return - the interest - expected.

Society expects that if you have incurred debts you will at least try to repay them. But it also accepts that sometimes you won't be able to. In the latter situation, nowadays instead of the Debtor's Jail, everyone is expected to Move On. Like marriages, loans don't always work out.

"The French have always had a sure instinct for investing in bankrupt countries" - British Treasury Official 1928, quoted in Liaquat Ahmed, Lords of Finance.

When Greece was on its borrowing spree, lots of big institutions were also on lending sprees. Big banks like France's BNP Paribas bought lots of Greek bonds - in other words, they lent to Greece. Recklessly it seems. They didn't ask what Greece was going to do with the money or whether it was likely to be able or willing to pay it back. Because it was "sovereign debt", BNPs men in suits - or their computer programs - did not really consider the risk of default. They had their eyes fixed on their commissions and bonuses from these very big trades.

Now we are in a situation (and have been for a couple of years) where Greece fesses up and says that though it's willing to repay its debts, truth is, it can't. It pissed the money it borrowed up the wall.

The response of the banks - and other governments in Europe - has been to say that though Greece will have to be excused some of its debt, for the most part, the debt must be paid. Other people must pay it, people like German taxpayers. In this way, BNP Paribas won't go bust and the men in suits won't lose their shirts.

All this raises a completely different question about debt, When should I pay my neighbour's debts?

Parents sometimes pay their children's debts, just because it's their children. Friends sometimes help out their friends because they are their friends. Probably people do help out their next door neighbour who is in difficulty. And people put small ads. in Private Eye asking for help and giving their bank account details.

But Germany paying for Greece?

It does happen, and all the time. For example, Northern Ireland on the periphery of the UK is not a viable state. If it was as independent as Greece, it could not balance its budget. Locked into the sterling zone, it would not have the option of devaluing to improve its competitiveness. The only alternative to a vicious circle of cuts and deflation is for someone else to bail it out. This is what the UK parliament does, annually, using revenues from English taxpayers. Northern Ireland is subsidised, heavily and recurrently.

There are no obvious gains from this generosity, except lower bills for policing civil disorder in Northern Ireland. But that could have been achieved by throwing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom, forcing it to choose between independence and uniting with the Republic of Ireland.

English taxpayers don't really notice what is going on for two reasons. First, some of them think that they are In It Together with Northern Ireland - one language, one flag, one Queen - even if they would never dream of going there for a holiday. Second, there is no English Parliament to raise awkward questions about all this subsidising of peripheral regions.

So the way to make German taxpayers think of Greeks as their neighbours whose debts they should pay is simple. A United Europe Parliament, analogous to the UK Parliament. And no Bundestag to raise awkward questions.

The only alternative is to let Greece default and for everyone to Move On. That's what used to happen in the old days.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Crimes

Most crimes are inconsequential: the perpetrator does not gain very much and the victim does not lose very much. It's doubtful whether it makes sense to report them to the police and doubtful whether the police should do anything about them - well,you might say, it isn't doubtful; the police generally don't.

In many cases, it probably does more harm than good for anyone to be caught and prosecuted, if only because of the waste of time involved and the enormous cost to the public purse. Forced to choose, I would rather that teenage shoplifters didn't get caught - or at least, didn't get dealt with by the police and the Courts. Teenagers will soon grow out of it - only if they don't is some other solution to the crime necessary.

So we should have laws on the statute books which we think twice about invoking and enforcing. It makes for a more civilised society if most citizens don't end up with criminal records.

In some countries, the sense of this attitude is recognised in statutes of limitations: if you aren't caught and tried within a period of time - which may be variable according to the gravity of the offence - then the slate is wiped clean and you can no longer be investigated or prosecuted. You may even choose to admit to the offence at some future date, if it helps you to get it off your chest or helps someone else to know who did it.

The trouble with this approach is that it is open to abuse, as anyone who follows the affairs of Silvio Berlusconi will immediately point out. If you are wealthy, you can employ fancy lawyers to spin out cases until they have to be dropped because they have reached their Expiry date. Law-abiding citizens are then left with the sense that someone who ought to be in prison isn't and only because of his wealth.

This is why other countries don't have statutes of limitations, leaving it to the discretion of the police when to drop a case or decline to open one which just seems very old and best forgotten. That discretion can also be abused, of course. Ordinary citizens guilty of more modest crimes may be less lucky than was Lord Lucan.

In England, we do effectively have a statute of limitations in relation to drug offences. This is what enables our politicians to confess to "youthful experiments" confident that a police constable will not arrive at their door to take down a confession of possession.

In this case I think an Expiry date on the criminal offence would be one way of moving away from the deep freeze on sensible discussion of Drugs law. I can't see that it would give rise to much by way of Berlusconi-style abuse.

Laws should be enforced in moderation. One reason we need to talk about America is that its approach to law enforcement has ended up criminalising a significant part of the population, including a very large proportion of young black males who end up with prison records. It is dysfunctional at so many levels that we should work very hard to avoid it, not least by declining to throw  UK citizens to the lions of American justice.