Thursday 31 August 2017

Shining a light

The 1899 flashlight was a fiber tube with brass end caps and bulls-eye glass lens at one end.

All inventions were new once upon a time. Older fiction was often written during the early days of inventions we now take for granted. Sometimes that allows us to see familiar bits and pieces of our world from a different and less familiar perspective.

There is a trivial but interesting example in the fiction of Robert Barr. He was a friend of Conan Doyle in spite of the fact that he once wrote two parodies of Sherlock Holmes. Look up Sherlaw Kombs on Google.

In the passage below Barr feels it necessary to describe the workings of an electric torch so one assumes that most of his readers would be unfamiliar with such new-fangled gadgets.

It was perhaps half-past ten or eleven o'clock when I began my investigations. I had taken the precaution to provide myself with half a dozen so-called electric torches before I left London. These give illumination for twenty or thirty hours steadily, and much longer if the flash is used only now and then.

The torch is a thick tube, perhaps a foot and a half long, with a bull's-eye of glass at one end. By pressing a spring the electric rays project like the illumination of an engine's headlight. A release of the spring causes instant darkness. I have found this invention useful in that it concentrates the light on any particular spot desired, leaving all the surroundings in gloom, so that the mind is not distracted, even unconsciously, by the eye beholding more than is necessary at the moment. One pours a white light over any particular substance as water is poured from the nozzle of a hose.

Robert Barr - The Ghost with the Club-Foot (1906)

According to Wikipedia

The invention of the dry cell and miniature incandescent electric light bulbs made the first battery-powered flashlights possible around 1899.

Wednesday 30 August 2017

If it was not for the inspector


Well, I simply hate school.  I don’t care for children — they are unpleasant, troublesome little things, whom nothing would delight so much as to hear that you had fallen down dead.  Yet I would even put up with them if it was not for the inspector.  For three months before his visit I didn’t sleep soundly.  And the Committee of Council are always changing the Code, so that you don’t know what to teach, and what to leave untaught.

Thomas Hardy – A Mere Interlude (1885)

Is nothing new? The frustrations of modern life seem to have remarkably deep roots. 

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Sandra is calm and seems fine

According to trustedreviews  the latest rumour is that Apple’s iPhone 8 launch event will take place on September 12. Two weeks to go to the big day.

A few months ago Jordan Kahn of 9TO5Mac speculated about the new phone's potential for fun and games with augmented reality. Among various possibilities the above image surely sets a few hares running. 

Perhaps Sandra is calm because she views the future with equanimity. One day she may benefit from augmented equanimity. Or is that what these gadgets are all about anyway - a spurious sense of control?

Sunday 27 August 2017

Strangely modern

While on holiday we popped into Coleton Fishacre. For those who do not know the place, Wikipedia has this summary

The house at Coleton Fishacre was built as a country home for Rupert D'Oyly Carte and his wife, Lady Dorothy Carte, between 1923 and 1926. The architect was Oswald Milne, a former assistant to Edwin Lutyens, who designed the house with the principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement in mind: simplicity of design and quality of craftsmanship. The influence of this older movement notwithstanding, the house is influenced by its own time, especially in its Art Deco interior. 

An interesting house from an interesting period. Completed in the year of the General Strike, it is unsurprisingly modern and yet noting that it is quite modern comes as something of a surprise too. A huge number of us live in houses of a similar age or older, but this one has been furnished to resemble its original internal appearance from a century ago.

Yet apart from some obvious clues such as brass light switches, Lalique light shades, deco furniture and antiquated kitchen equipment the interior still feels remarkably up to date even though it obviously isn't. Bedrooms even have washbasin surrounds decorated with tiles made from recycled glass. Did somebody read the Manchester Guardian I wonder? One could easily live in the house today and that feels a little odd because the interior is almost a hundred years old. 

Take a look at the saloon pictured above. Imagine the Jazz Age background music played while we were there. Why is that odd? Maybe it isn’t, but this visitor was left wondering why we have made so few improvements to the domestic interior, as if there were hardly any worthwhile improvements to be made so we did not make them. That was not the case for ordinary people, but millions soon had all that Coleton Fishacre had apart from size, servants and setting. This has been improved too -

Or has it? How about this?

The world has certainly moved on from the nineteen twenties and taken us to where we are now, but after strolling around Coleton it is easy to imagine the vague shapes of an alternative future. Coleton seems to have embedded within it a range of possibilities, a range of practical ideals we could have adopted but never did, the best of which never took root and perhaps never could have taken root within the feckless agitations of human nature. Yet they are still there to haunt us, those ghosts of what might have been.

It is as if Coleton shows us a future where we might have made ourselves more aware of what is good and what works, what enhances life and what does not, what lasts and what is ephemeral and why that matters. The house has a timeless and even virtuous solidity we have managed to discard because cheap and disposable keep the show on the road while solidity does not and virtue has become political anyway.

Running counter to that thought is an irresistible temptation is to compare the best of the present with the grimmer aspects of 1926 and there is no shortage of those. We have so much that our ancestors did not. Vaccination, prosperity, the welfare state, mass education, all these changes reflect a harsh light onto the past. They also obscure the view. We cannot easily put them to one side and compare our present with an alternative timeline which never happened. And yet one is bound to wonder...

Saturday 26 August 2017

Red Arrows

Back from our holiday a day later than planned. We booked an an impromptu overnight stay in Sidmouth so that we could watch the Red Arrows display. Seen them before but crikey they are good.

More later.

Thursday 17 August 2017

Wednesday 16 August 2017

The prison on the plain

As a youngster I read a number of stories which impressed me, stories I’ve always remembered. One was about a futuristic prison set in a vast, uninhabited plain. The was no cover on the plain, no hiding place for prisoners should any be enterprising and lucky enough to escape its massive walls.

Not only was the prison itself secure, but above the plain robot aircraft patrolled day and night, designed to detect and fire on the slightest movement. The story concerned an escapee who made it to the plain but I can’t remember how he avoided those robot aircraft.

What I do remember is how fascinated I was about the notion of an escape-proof prison, because in my young mind that’s what it was in spite of the hero presumably escaping. A comparison with modern life is obvious. Even in my childhood the prison on the plain was not particularly fanciful. Suppose we stick with the word fanciful.

Imagine a future where there is no cash, nowhere to buy anything outside monitored electronic transactions. Everyone is known to the system, anyone can be monitored in any number of ways. Anyone can be financially deactivated within minutes and located within hours should they violate any one of an uncountable number of laws and regulations.

Is that fanciful?

Tuesday 15 August 2017

A bit o’ butter

This is a piece of eighteenth century porcelain. Made in Lowestoft round about 1770, the cobalt design has clearly run into the lead glaze but with Lowestoft that is not particularly unusual. Firing these things was an art and some firings turned out better than others but everything had to be sold if at all possible. I have included a 50 pence piece to show how small it is. The capacity is about 50ml.

What is it though? Sometimes such pieces are described as cream boats, sometimes as butter boats. Georgians were fond of cream and melted butter so perhaps they were used for both or maybe something else entirely.

If they were used for melted butter then the question of cleaning them afterwards may be worth a thought, especially if we bear in mind the greasy nature of butter, the lack of modern detergents plus the high cost of porcelain even with that runny design. It was expensive and could not be treated roughly.

In which case a servant would never give a porcelain butter boat to the kitchen cat to lick off the greasy remains of congealed butter. That idea would probably work as a cleaning technique but the risk of breakage is probably too high.

How about this possibility? After the nobs have finished their meal, a servant wipes the butter boat clean with a piece of bread, eats the bread then finishes off by licking the butter boat clean. A quick wipe with a kitchen rag and back on the shelf it goes – job done. 

That’s antiques stimulating the imagination.

Monday 14 August 2017

Shoe fetish

A widely reported shoe story is bound to catch the cynical eye.

Clarks has been accused of "everyday sexism" for a calling a girls' school shoe "Dolly Babe", while the boys' equivalent is called "Leader".

The girls' shoes carry a heart-patterned insole, while the boys' insoles are decorated with footballs.

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, said the situation was unacceptable and "almost beyond belief" in 2017.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative MP for North East Somerset, also criticised Clarks. "To call a pair of shoes for a girl Dolly Babe is dreadful. It's wrong in all sorts of ways ... this is just really silly," he told the BBC.

Carolyn Harris, shadow minister for women and equalities, described the situation as "blatant discrimination", while Sarah Ludford, a Liberal Democrat peer and shadow Brexit minister, called the name choices "depressing

So much madness. A blogger could easily post on nothing else - there is so much of it out there. One might respond more rationally in any number of ways. The obvious one is to suggest that if boys, girls or parents don’t want politically incorrect shoes then they can take their custom elsewhere. Clarks sales figures may then lead it to correct the situation because that’s what markets do.

This of course is part of the problem, the chattering classes do not approve of markets, they think they should be policed by people who think as they do. Of course markets are already policed with respect to standards, but as ever there are those who think they should be policed politically too. Hence our increasingly shambolic energy market.

What about the madness itself, the source of so many crazy stories? It is not the madness of insanity, but the madness of a civilisation that chooses not to recognise certain realities it cannot change but for political reasons must pretend to be changing. That is one for the future, one of the chapters in our ultimate collapse or a problem we learn to deal with in the wider story of our ultimate survival.

For the present we have a minor skirmish in the war against diversity which pretends to be promoting diversity. It also seems to my cynical eye that this battle over kids’ shoes is a reminder of where those stereotyped shoes came from, a reminder that gender stereotypes are popular, particularly with the young. They evolved because they work. Yet we are supposed to believe or at least accept relentless public harangues telling us that gender stereotyping is repressive, out of date, harmful, immoral, itchy or whatever epithet is fashionable, even though almost everyone knows it is not so.

Gender stereotyping is clearly popular out there in the real world. It can be observed over and over again, especially among the young. I recently saw a group of about a dozen young girls and every one of them had fashionably long hair, at least shoulder-length. That was only one of their ways to stereotype themselves.

To my low mind, one should not avoid the basics. Females tend to seek alpha males and in doing that they do not usually depend on gender-neutral footwear. This is the way of the world, one of the biological basics we should not avoid. I don’t know what drives the faux outrage apart from the obvious Pavlovian explanation, but if we neglect the basics we neglect what we know. 

Saturday 12 August 2017


We were walking on Ecton Hill today. A pleasant walk, part of which took us along a narrow country road which led to a few farmhouses before petering out into a track winding along a valley. This part of the walk was very quiet. We were well away from the Manifold Trail, there were no busy roads nearby, hardly any people and nothing to disturb the sheep from their contented grazing.

It was so quiet that we both noticed how silent it was. Hardly a sound apart from our own footsteps. It didn’t last but most of us have probably become so accustomed to noise that the lack of it is noticed, especially in broad daylight.

The picture shows an old millpond with a small derelict stone building in one corner. Not even a duck ripples the water.

Thursday 10 August 2017

Amazon Prime Trending Movies

Currently the first four Amazon Prime Trending Movies are

The Mask - a 1994 American superhero fantasy comedy film directed by Charles Russell, produced by Bob Engelman, and written by Mike Werb, loosely based on the comic series of the same name distributed by Dark Horse Comics.

Constantine - a 2005 American occult detective film directed by Francis Lawrence (in his directorial debut) and starring Keanu Reeves as John Constantine. Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Tilda Swinton, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and Djimon Hounsou co-star. With a screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, the film is based on DC Comics' Hellblazer comic book,

Practical Magic - Maria Owens, a young witch, is exiled to Maria's Island in Massachusetts with her unborn child for escaping her execution. When her lover does not come to rescue her, she desperately casts a spell upon herself to stop falling in love due to heartbreak, only to die soon after.

Annabelle  - a 2014 American supernatural horror film directed by John R. Leonetti, written by Gary Dauberman and produced by Peter Safran and James Wan.

To summarise - we have a fantasy based on comics, an occult tale also based on a comic, a dose of witchcraft and a tale of the supernatural. Movies are merely entertainment of course. However popular they may be, does their popularity cast doubt on the rational nature of our culture?


Tuesday 8 August 2017

Former People

"Comrade Lenin Cleanses the Earth of Filth" by Viktor Deni. November 1930

Written by Douglas Smith, Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy is not a cheery read. It is a very well written and horribly compelling history of the Bolshevik Revolution. “Former people” is a term applied to the tsarist ruling class, the class enemies of the revolution. Their story is told primarily through the grim fate of two noble families, the Sheremetovs and the Golitsyns. As Smith says -

History, we are told, is written by the victors. What is less often stated, though no less important, is that history is usually written about the victors; winners get more attention in the history books than losers.

The Sheremetovs and the Golitsyns certainly lost, although many nobles saw, however dimly, the inevitability of a Russian catastrophe. They knew Tsar Nicholas II was hopeless and they also knew things had to change and would change sooner or later. What they did not foresee was how ruthless, how astonishingly rapid and catastrophically devastating that change would be.

As the historian Evan Mawdsley commented, “The Civil War unleashed by Lenin’s revolution was the greatest national catastrophe Europe had yet seen.” Russia descended into savage anarchy beyond imagination. “War and strife, famine and pestilence—the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” Mawdsley wrote, “devastated the largest country in Europe.”

However, there are also a few touches of grim irony to remind us that human nature is not changed by even the most severe political turmoil.

The famine gripping Russia in those years spared no one, except for the new elite; the Sheremetevs’ remaining chef left them around this time to cook for Lenin and his comrades in the Kremlin.

Inevitably the hypocrisy took many forms.

Bunin reveled in pointing out the hypocrisy of Red leaders who preached “war on the palaces” and then moved into them as soon as the owners had been evicted. He was revolted by this “new aristocracy”: “Sailors with huge revolvers on their belts, pickpockets, criminal villains, and shaved dandies in service jackets, depraved-looking riding britches, and dandy-like shoes with the inevitable spurs. All have gold teeth and big, dark, cocaine-like eyes.”

With equal inevitability, some journalists had allegiances they were happy enough to share with their readers.

The British reporter Walter Duranty arrived in Moscow in 1921. Among his earliest impressions of the Soviet capital was the dreadful condition of the old aristocracy.

To another Western reporter, Edwin Hullinger, the same scene testified to the revolution’s great achievement. Having stripped away the institutional foundations upon which class and caste had been built, the revolution had exposed people’s true essence:

As proof, Hullinger quoted the words of a former countess. “Yes, many of us can see that the Revolution was for the best,” she told him. “It made us into living, real people. Many were only existing before. We have gained confidence in ourselves because we know we can do things. I like it better. I would not go back to the old. And there are many young people of our class who think as I do. But we paid a terrible price. I presume it was necessary, however.”

As a single example of that terrible price, here is the story of one life briefly told.

Consider the case of Professor Nikolai Nekrasov, the last governor-general of Finland before the revolution and a former minister in the Provisional Government. An excellent engineer, he had been arrested several times, most recently in 1930, when he was sentenced to ten years. He was brought to Dmitlag as an inmate specialist, yet was given his own newly constructed house in the “the free sector” along with a car and driver. He was released in 1935 but chose to stay on and worked at Dmitlag until the project was finished. In 1940, he was arrested for a final time and then shot.

The Former People story is well told and well worth reading, but to my mind the most lasting lesson of Smith’s book is a forceful reminder of something we already know. Former People sets before us an important political lesson to be drawn from the Bolshevik Revolution – the eternal role of political enemies.

Political parties, factions and movements all need enemies. Even the effete parties of our floundering democracies need them. There is an absolute political necessity to have or to invent the Outsider, the one who is responsible for present woes, the one who must be destroyed in order to set things right, who must be hated in order to relieve the faithful from any possibility of doubt.

Life, comrades,” Stalin announced in 1935, “has become better, life has become more cheerful.” His words became the defining slogan for the mid-1930s, the brief three years from 1934 to 1937 between the end of the First Five-Year Plan and the Great Terror.

The same year Stalin made his famous remark, the newspaper Komsomolskaia Pravda ran a series of articles on “Teaching Hatred” by such luminaries as Maxim Gorky and Ilya Ehrenburg. Hatred, it turns out, was not to be condemned but instilled, encouraged, and celebrated, for persons “who cannot hate with passion are unlikely to be able to love with passion.”

One is left with the impression that even our politically correct laws against hate speech may not be what they seem. By inventing haters we have surely invented yet another enemy. The person or social group accused of hating may in turn be hated with impunity. People who used to speak their mind on subjects now closed for debate perhaps. Former People we might almost say.

Monday 7 August 2017


August is a rum month. On the one hand it is still the height of summer but on the other it isn’t as the days become noticeably shorter and even the trees seem ready to shed their leaves. That delicious green of spring is long gone, leaves are darker, almost dusty in appearance.

It’s not that I dislike August. A bit more summer is always welcome, but September seems more honest somehow, more inclined to be what it is supposed to be. August isn’t like that. So far, here in Derbyshire August is a bit crap. It has sneaked in too much cloud and rain for a start. Give me honest September any day.

While we are on the subject of weather, I'm sure the Met Office forecasts are less reliable than they were a few years ago. Maybe it's their ridiculously expensive new computer - perhaps nobody really knows how to work it. Or maybe it relies on wind power.

Sunday 6 August 2017

The culture of the BBC

It was the usual round-up of rootless intellectuals, and the talk was the kind of thing you expect—terribly knowing and disillusioned and conscientiously indecent. I remember my grandfather had a phrase for the smattering of cocksure knowledge which was common in his day—the “culture of the Mechanics’ Institute.” I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be—perhaps the “culture of the B.B.C.”
John Buchan - The Island of Sheep (1936)

The quote surprised me when I originally came across it. Surely in Buchan's day the BBC was stuffy, high-minded and acutely conscious of its social responsibilities?

A casual observation by a character in a work of fiction does not overthrow that perception, but it certainly chimes with Buchan's general outlook. He disliked the kind of trite intellectual dominant in our public arena today and especially within the BBC. He would have raised an eyebrow at BBC salaries too.

At the time of publication, John Buchan as 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, was Governor General of Canada so he probably looked down on the BBC as a callow upstart in the world of social and political ideas. Perhaps he thought the corporation might mature into something weightier if only the right chaps were involved,  a perspective likely to be common enough within his exalted class.

Eighty years later the BBC seems to be much the same apart from the technology and the accents. Its culture survived and flourished while Buchan’s did not. 

Saturday 5 August 2017

An ineradicable daftness


We’re all getting old, of course, but you’re not acquiring the virtues of age. There’s still an ineradicable daftness about you.
John Buchan - The Island of Sheep (1936)

There is problem with being almost the same age as Jeremy Corbyn. In my younger days I knew people just like him, faux political radicals who were never going anywhere but a safe and comfortable niche in the public sector.

Even then it was obvious where they would end up. Even then it was clear that their talk was merely talk, a kind of futile strutting with no more substance than a mission statement.

That is the problem with being almost the same age as Corbyn. I find it almost impossible to take the chap seriously - it's the ineradicable daftness of the man. He should have grown out of it long ago. 

Friday 4 August 2017

Little Chef

Saw a number of derelict Little Chefs during the journey to and from our Suffolk holiday destination. Hardly surprising - the last one we visited was so grim that Mrs H left her most negative TripAdvisor comment ever.

For a while they were sometimes convenient coffee stops but those days are long gone. Slow service and a dated Formica ambience are not the way to compete with the likes of Starbucks and Costa. According to Wikipedia 

 On 1 February 2017 the Little Chef chain was purchased by Euro Garages Ltd. where the chain's future became unclear.
In February 2017 Euro Garages began a programme to close down all Little Chefs, replacing them with other brands available to them such as Starbucks. This is scheduled to be complete before the end of the year.

Stopping off for a coffee on long road journeys is not usually an enriching experience, but the demise of Little Chef could be a welcome improvement.