Saturday 31 March 2018

Hmm - I don't see the point of this

From The Local

What better place to break the world ice skating speed record than the vast expanses of ice in the LuleƄ archipelago in northern Sweden?

Dutch Olympic medal-winner Kjeld Nuis on Thursday reached a record-breaking 93kph, skating behind a car dragging a specially designed aeroshield to reduce air resistance.

Wednesday 28 March 2018

The picture on the wall

Graeme Archer has a fine piece in CapX. It concerns Labour party virtue signalling and that mural which caused Jeremy Corbyn so much easily avoided trouble.

You’ll have noticed that the Labour leader’s appeal to undecided voters has been undermined by the news that he proclaimed the virtues of anti-Semitic art. The mural praised by Corbyn was an act of undeniable Jew-hatred; you don’t have take my word for this, because the artist himself wrote: “Some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc as the demons they are.” Even Tower Hamlets council thought this was a bit much, and arranged the mural’s erasure.

I’m sorry to repeat the adult-Tory-to-Labour-infant exasperation, but it appears to be required. You can’t support the party that supports Corbyn and claim “I don’t support Corbyn”. There isn’t some alternative Universe, with a Labour Party that he doesn’t control, where your Labour vote safely lands and a man who praises anti-Semitic art doesn’t inch closer to power. There isn’t a box on the ballot paper that says “Labour, but not the anti-Semitic bits.” It says “Labour”.

It isn’t easy to see how Mr Corbyn failed to see the significance of the mural. He comes across as dim, intransigent and somewhat idle but surely he has advisers with a little more energy and nous. Perhaps he has and maybe that is where the intransigence steps in. The CapX piece is well worth reading and quite disturbing in the way it sets out what so many of us already see. It finishes with this.

How such people sleep at night or meet their reflection’s eye is their own affair and not my problem, thank God. But as the repellent psychodrama of their monstrous party staggers on to its terrifying conclusion, I’d ask them, in the meantime, to shut up about how good they are, how nasty the Conservatives are, how kindness entails a vote for Labour. Tories don’t succour anti-Semitism, comrade. In my book, that makes them better than you.

Monday 26 March 2018

So incomprehensible and so pure

It was certainly those eurythmic exercises of the Mahatma's ("holy ecstasy," he called them) which had reduced her hips after everything else had failed. And this gratitude for the reduction of her hips was exactly on the same plane, in her neat card-catalogued mind, with her enthusiastic faith in his wonderful mystical teachings about Self-Annihilation, Anterior Existence and Astral Affinities . . . all so incomprehensible and so pure. . .

Edith Wharton - Twilight Sleep (1927)

I love this quote. So delightfully sarcastic. I’m sure sarcasm is vital for a healthy life – much more invigorating than all those boring old vitamins with their unimaginative names.

Saturday 24 March 2018

Spot market

From the BBC we have news of Damien Hirst's new vision which rather confusingly turns out to be much the same as his old vision.

Spot the difference - Damien Hirst's new vision

His art is celebrated and derided in equal measure. But Damien Hirst is in no doubt about his talent - and for good reason.

"If I put it in a skip outside a pub, would someone take it home? And you think, 'yeah, they would.' If it's good, it won't get left in the street.

"I think that's a good way of working out if a painting's good or not."

Now he is taking over the spectacular gilded state rooms of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, to show a series of paintings which have never been seen in public before.

Hirst has removed 45 Old Master paintings by artists including Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds from the walls of the Palladian mansion and replaced them with what he has called his "Colour Space" paintings.

They are a new body of work based on the Spot Paintings which made his name in the 1980s - and are among his most recognised works.

Thursday 22 March 2018

Ant and Dec

I see Dec is to present Saturday Night Takeaway without Ant. From the BBC -

Declan Donnelly will present Saturday Night Takeaway on his own for the rest of this series, ITV has confirmed.

This Saturday's show was cancelled after Ant McPartlin was arrested on suspicion of drink driving on Sunday.

The following two episodes, which will air on 31 March and 7 April, will now be presented solo by Donnelly.

It's all very sad when this kind of thing happens. A successful partnership is suddenly fractured and things are never quite the same again. Amid all the sadness and regrets only one question remains.

Who the blue blazes are Ant and Dec?  

Wednesday 21 March 2018

A delectable sense of freedom

It is very agreeable to find yourself alone in a great city which is yet not quite strange to you and in a large empty hotel. It gives you a delectable sense of freedom.

W. Somerset Maugham – The Human Element (1931)

Some years ago Sackerson wrote a very interesting post on freedom - Three levels of freedom. The following post is intended to add another aspect to the debate. Not an alternative view of freedom but a possible way to frame questions of freedom - what it could be, why ideas differ so much and why freedom seems to fade away so easily.

In the above quote Somerset Maugham is clearly referring to freedom as a feeling - a delectable sense of freedom. Equally clearly people differ in how they react to restrictions placed on their freedom. Some appear not to notice many restrictions and may even welcome some of them. Others have a greater tendency to see restrictions as an oppressive burden, an imposition to be resented at every opportunity.

To take a familiar example, some motorists see our vast array of traffic laws as oppressive while others see them as necessary for road safety and not particularly oppressive. These are different reactions to the same situation and perhaps this is the important yet entirely familiar point - it is extremely common for people have different reactions to the same situation. Consequently they interpret the same situation differently – as we all know too well.

In which case neither freedom nor oppression are clearly identifiable situations in the outside world. There is an inescapable human element, an emotional component to do with feelings about oppressive situations and those feelings are far from universal. Maybe we should go further and suggest that freedom is not only a state of affairs in the outside world but also an emotion, a state of affairs in our brains. Hardly a surprising conclusion but worth exploring consequences.

How could freedom be an emotion? Not necessarily a strong emotion such as anger, but something more subtle such as unease, contempt, frustration or dissatisfaction. In her book How Emotions Are Made, Professor Lisa FeldmanBarrett says emotion is our brain’s way of interpreting an amalgam of bodily sensations linked to events in the outside world. An emotion is a concept, a way of making sense of things which affect us or seem to affect us.

This is not to suggest that ideas about freedom are caused by emotions. Ideas about freedom are themselves emotional concepts. They are rationales we use to explain and link our bodily sensations with events and situations in the outside world. Why am I fed up with all the traffic laws? Because sometimes they feel oppressive, life-sapping, frustrating. Not always though - and that is another clue.

Driving on modern roads can be mildly depressing and in some cases the feeling is explained quite well if linked to an objective reality of vastly complex traffic laws. Hence the label ‘oppressive’ applied to modern traffic laws. Yet without a feeling of oppression the laws are not oppressive. Oppression has to feel oppressive or we don’t notice because it isn’t there until we do notice it. We can’t work it out from the bare physical facts of the situation because it isn’t there - it is in our brains.

In other words, people who do not see traffic laws as oppressive are people who have little or no emotional need to interpret them as oppressive. There is no point arguing about it, no point saying that some people fail to see the oppressive nature of traffic laws. In themselves they are not oppressive. We make them so via our emotional concepts or we don’t. These emotional concepts are not our emotional reaction to the laws but our emotional concept of the laws – the laws plus our feelings about them.

To take a much more extreme example, most of us see North Korea as a grotesquely repressive regime, but from the outside this is an emotional concept of a situation we do not actually experience. Stories about North Korean oppression coupled with a sense of unease or outrage that these things can happen are probably conceived by most people in democratic countries as extreme violations of freedom.

However it is possible that many North Koreans have different emotional concepts of freedom and oppression. They may be familiar with heavily regimented lives and their sense of oppression may not be as generally acute as we suppose. In our terms they may not perceive the oppression as strongly as we think they should. Or they may perceive it more strongly than we imagine – it is not something we can simply work out from what little we know of North Korean realities.

The oppression does not cause the emotion because there is no oppression without the emotion. The oppression is an emotional concept we label as ‘oppression’ and we interpret the oppression as happening beyond our own minds, out there in the real world. Some of it is happening out there in the real world, but the concepts, the use of words such as ‘freedom’ or ‘oppression’, these lie within our own minds. Not in every mind though – that’s the point.

This is why familiarity may inhibit concepts of political freedom and oppression. It seems likely that many people do not see their heavily circumscribed modern lives as oppressive or as lacking certain important freedoms. Not because they are obtuse, but because they do not make the same use of emotional concepts others label as ‘freedom’ or ‘oppression’.

However -

In her book Professor Barrett makes a fascinating claim. She suggests that our emotional concepts are our own responsibility. We may choose to react differently to the same situation for a whole range of reasons. That’s something we see regularly too. We see it all the time in politically correct outrage – emotional concepts with a political purpose. The outrage feels artificial because it is – it has to be.

This may imply that people who do not interpret an oppressive government in terms of restricted freedoms are not well informed about what the government is actually doing or failing to do. Freedom may be an emotional concept encompassing the outside world, but people with a limited understanding of the outside world will have a limited ability to interpret their world as oppressive. Possibly no ability at all.

Perhaps a democratic government may become as oppressive as it wishes if it is also conspicuously benign – if it spins benign emotional concepts. If it also manages to avoid generating too many emotional concepts of oppression or lost freedom then there is no real barrier to totalitarian government within a democratic shell. Bare reality won’t expose it.

Freedom simply disappears.

And is finally –


Monday 19 March 2018

Terrifying statistic

Few people will be unaware of this issue, but Peterson is particularly good at bringing out just how important and intractable the problem is. Perhaps not terrifying because we live with it, but far bigger than most of the problems we are supposed to worry about.

A related problem is political honesty. Do we lay this problem on the political table and accept it as an intractable fact of life? Behind closed doors senior bureaucrats may be doing just that, but should the issue be brought into the open? If so then many members of the chattering classes will be outraged and deny that it exists or they will tout it as another government failing, implying as ever that it doesn't have to be a government failing if only enough money is spent on it.

Sunday 18 March 2018

Spring arrives early

Thanks to global warming, spring seems to have arrived early here in Derbyshire. Can't be my fault, I recycle yogurt pots. Is it you?

Saturday 17 March 2018

The BBC, education and poisoned air

Andrew McKie writes in CapX

James Purnell, the BBC’s Director of Radio and Education and a former Labour Cabinet Minister, announced the other day that the Corporation’s primary educational “mission” was to be on “improving social mobility across the UK”.

The BBC’s significant track record on producing valuable educational content – from its collaborations with the Open University to programmes such as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, or indeed whole channels, such as BBC Radio 3 or CBBC, which Ms Rock used to run – shouldn’t alter the fact that the “mission” of education is education. In other words, to instruct and inform, to teach and to train.

However valuable it may be to the individual and society as a means of improving income, productivity, personal choices, social mobility or a whole host of other desirable things, the provision of education is not, and should not be, affected by these considerations, but by the quality of the education offered.

As a contrast to the BBC's supposed educational function we have this from the BBC itself.

MPs have demanded an end to the UK's "poisonous air" in an unprecedented report from four Commons committees.

The Environment, Health, Transport and Environmental Audit committees want a new Clean Air Act, and a clean air fund financed by the motor industry.

They are also demanding a faster phase-out of petrol and diesel cars - currently set for 2040.

The government said air pollution had improved significantly since 2010 but there was "more to do".

MPs have been frustrated by the response from ministers, who have promised to publish a comprehensive clean air strategy later this year.

Their report says: "Air pollution is a national health emergency resulting in an estimated 40,000 early deaths each year, costing the UK £20bn annually.

"It is unacceptable that successive governments have failed to protect the public from poisonous air.

So much for education. The BBC could have pointed out that our air is obviously not poisonous in any rational sense of the word. Cities may in certain locations and at certain times of the day have unacceptable atmospheric pollutant levels. These levels may or may not have health consequences - it isn't easy to tell let alone quantify.

If the BBC had a spirit of education for its own sake it would be more honest than this report indicates. It would identify rhetoric, uncertainties and pressure groups involved in the debate. It would not quote Greenpeace as an authority on any environmental issue.

But it doesn't identify environmental rhetoric and it does quote Greenpeace and this is why it may as well be closed down. 

Friday 16 March 2018

It isn’t new is it?

The philanthropy was what he most hated: all these expensive plans for moral forcible feeding, for compelling everybody to be cleaner, stronger, healthier and happier than they would have been by the unaided light of Nature...

Don't you think it's glorious to belong to the only country where everybody is absolutely free, and yet we're all made to do exactly what is best for us?

Edith Wharton - Twilight Sleep (1927)

Thursday 15 March 2018

The land of official insolence

He makes you feel that you are once more in the land of official insolence, and that, whatever you are collectively, you are nothing personally.

William Dean Howells - Their Wedding Journey (1872)

Insolent individuals we may escape, avoid, ignore or deal with in any number of ways. Official insolence though, insolence as a political instrument, as an indicator of inescapable power - that kind of insolence is not so easily avoided. It is corrosive too, perhaps more insidiously corrosive than we ever imagine.

Assuming it was officially sanctioned, the recent Russian poisoning incident seems to be an example of official insolence. It highlights a difference between Russia and the West which will be noted by millions.

Or maybe that is a reason to be cautious when assuming that this was sanctioned by the Russian government. Clumsy insolence does not seem to be one of Vladimir Putin's characteristics.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

The Duke

Fear seized upon the shepherd-boy: the Duke was Jove himself to the rural population, whom to offend was starvation, homelessness, and death, and whom to look at was to be mentally scathed and dumbfounded. 

Thomas Hardy – What The Shepherd Saw (1913)

Hardy’s story has a shepherd boy alone at night in the shepherd’s hut keeping watch on the sheep. From the hut window he sees the Duke in the moonlight and his immediate reaction is to stay out of sight. Nothing good can come of making himself known to such a powerful aristocrat in mysterious circumstances.

This is one of those quotes which stayed with me for years, an insight into a grim reality of agricultural life not so long ago. There is something distinctly criminal about such a level of personal power over other people. Hardy’s Duke is not so far removed from a gangland boss living a life of surface respectability when everyone knows they must never cross him. Even being known to him is a risk.

Monday 12 March 2018

A whiff of nostalgia

The other day found us at a kids’ soft play area near to closing time. A young staff member was clearing up the mess of the day, setting tables and chairs straight, collecting rubbish and giving the tables a wipe.

She was a least three stone overweight and doing the job at about a third of the rate I would done it. Probably a crap temporary job on minimum wage, but she reminded me of the famous British Rail slouch from the pages of railway history. 

Excuse me, when is the next train to Perdition?

I believe Jeremy Corbyn wants to bring it all back, the nostalgic old coot.

Friday 9 March 2018

Obama on Netflix

From the BBC we have exciting news of a new type of entertainment.

Former US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle are in talks to produce shows for Netflix, according to the New York Times.

The couple would make exclusive content for the US streaming site focused on uplifting stories, the paper suggested.

If confirmed, the deal would give a global platform for the Obamas, bypassing mainstream US media such as Fox News.

Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to the former president, did not confirm the plans but said they would make sense.

"President and Mrs Obama have always believed in the power of storytelling to inspire," he told the paper.

"Throughout their lives, they have lifted up stories of people whose efforts to make a difference are quietly changing the world for the better. As they consider their future personal plans, they continue to explore new ways to help others tell and share their stories."

It isn't easy to plumb the deeper rationale behind this, but no doubt there is a more interesting story which could be told. What it does remind us of is the enormous role emotion plays in the whole political process. 

Obama was never an inspiring speaker and neither was he convincing, but he obviously stirred the emotions of millions of susceptible voters. Maybe something is being sold here, something bigger than Obama's retirement ambitions. 

Thursday 8 March 2018

1929 - Interviews With Elderly People

For some reason it feels odd, watching and listening to these people who lived most of their lives in the nineteenth century. Curiously mundane too. There is much more they could tell us but don't. A tantalizing glimpse of stories untold.

Wednesday 7 March 2018

A mind too boggled

A problem with the news is the increasing number of stories which simply boggle the mind. From the recent past we have ousted UKIP leader Henry Bolton's attempt to form a new political party called OneNation.

The ousted former leader of the UK Independence Party, Henry Bolton, says he is setting up a new political party.

Mr Bolton, who was voted out last month at a meeting of UKIP members, said his new party would "campaign unceasingly for our full independence from the EU".

He said "there is an urgent need for a new way of doing politics that truly involves communities".

When one considers his ignominious ousting from UKIP the mind boggles at his lack of political self-awareness. Please excuse the language, but maybe if he’d called his new party the Philandering Twats Party minds would be less inclined to boggle.

Next we have the case of Munroe Bergdorf, Jeremy Corbyn’s stunningly inept effort at finding suitable members of a Labour advisory panel for LGBT+ issues. A major mind-boggler this one, but that’s Jeremy for you.

Another fine example is the Washington Post’s claim that Donald Trump is supercharging the celebrification of politics.

Politics is downstream of culture. Trump’s election would never have been possible without systemic cultural shifts, enabled by reality TV and social media, that increased the premium average Americans place on celebrity for celebrity’s sake.

Strewth - presumably we are supposed to accept that Obama was above all that and Hillary Clinton would have shunned the celebrity game too. Yet again the mind boggles.

Monday 5 March 2018

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Toerag

Many years ago I bought a secondhand first edition of an AlanSillitoe novel. I can’t remember which one but after reading I was unimpressed enough to pop it into a charity bag. However, not so long ago we took a trip down memory lane by watching The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Wikipedia has the official middle class view of the film.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a 1962 film based on the short story of the same name. The screenplay was, like the story, written by Alan Sillitoe. The film was directed by Tony Richardson, one of the new young directors emerging from documentary films, a series of 1950s filmmakers known as the Free Cinema movement.

It tells the story of a rebellious youth (played by Tom Courtenay), sentenced to a borstal ('Approved School') for burgling a bakery, who gains privileges in the institution through his prowess as a long-distance runner. During his solitary runs, reveries of important events before his incarceration lead him to re-evaluate his status as the prize athlete of the Governor (Michael Redgrave), eventually undertaking a rebellious act of personal autonomy and suffering an immediate loss of privileges. The film poster's byline is "you can play by the rules...or you can play it by ear - WHAT COUNTS is you play it right by YOU...". The notion is echoed by other contemporary films, such as a rapid series of three contemporary Lone Ranger films.

The film depicts Britain in the late 1950s to early 1960s as an elitist place, bleak for working- to middle-class people. Sillitoe was one of the angry young men producing media vaunting or depicting the plight of rebellious youths. The film has characters entrenched in their social context. Class consciousness abounds throughout: the "them" and "us" notions that Richardson stresses reflect the very basis of British society at the time, so that Redgrave's "proper gentleman" of a Governor is in contrast to many of the young working class inmates.

I don’t think so. The film is well made and quite watchable but of its era and only interesting for that reason. Colin Smith, the “rebellious youth” is a feckless toerag, an idle thief and philanderer who seems to think the world owes him far more than he is prepared to offer in return. The film panders to this attitude as if none of Colin’s mean and stupid actions are his own responsibility. As if his entire life is the responsibility of someone else.

To my mind it is a watershed film, a clear indication of things going wrong because too many people were not clear-sighted and honest enough to see them going wrong. A washing away of personal responsibility in favour of a political blame culture where those who dare to take any responsibility are responsible for everything bad and nothing good. An incoherent nihilist ideology which has been at least partly responsible for where we are now.

Sunday 4 March 2018

One of Stalin’s lesser lies

Back in 2009 Slate published a piece containing the story about a fake chess match between Stalin and chief of the secret police Nikolai Yezhov. 

Chess was a natural fit for the Soviet Union. For one thing, many of its thinkers and leaders were avid chess players. Lenin was a serious player, but Russian author Maxim Gorky claimed Lenin got angry when he lost. Leon Trotsky reportedly played in Vienna and Paris. Stalin cared so much about his reputation as a chess master that he publicized a fake game in which he claimed to defeat party loyalist and future chief of the secret police Nikolai Yezhov. (Stalin later had him executed.)

 Experts can tell that Stalin did not actually play the match because, as the narrator in this YouTube version says, the opening moves are too professional. However, Stalin’s little chess lie did not have to be particularly convincing. As Orwell suggested in his novel "1984", when political dominance reaches a certain level then the lies don’t have to be convincing at all. Hence the ludicrous official adulation of North Korea’s Kim dynasty.

In which case, how dominant does a political position have to be before improbable lies are good enough for general release? To my mind political correctness has reached that point already.

Saturday 3 March 2018

Soft vigilantes

Anyone who maintains even a cursory interest in current affairs must be aware of how passionate some people are about their beliefs; particularly middle class people. In our prosperous world this amounts to many people and much passion.

It adds up to a vast swamp of emotional no-go areas around all manner of causes from animal welfare to gender politics to recycling, social justice, diet, education, environment, transport and many many more. So many issues and causes seem to grab some people so firmly by the throat that they simply cannot let go.

They might almost be called vigilantes, yet most are not physically active, they don’t go in for direct vigilante type action. They are not prepared to wave placards in the street, lie down in front of trucks, shout, swear, throw eggs at public figures or physically challenge burly police officers.

Perhaps they make a more dramatic stand in their dreams but in reality they don’t. What they do is to use modern media to attack those they see as their ideological opponents from a standpoint of obsessive, often supercilious conviction which may well dribble into social relationships. A clue to social class perhaps.

To some extent we all do this if we take even the most moderately active part in the public arena. Many of us are not obsessive though, we don’t press our cause at every opportunity, squeeze it into every debate whether public, private, relevant or not.

Maybe the armchair obsessives could be called soft vigilantes because there is always a sense of rallying to the cause and even a hint of thuggish intolerance. There is the vigilante’s righteous determination to defend the cause, to defeat all opposition plus a definite contempt for the conventions of civilised debate. This is not to claim that soft vigilantes are a new social pest, merely far more widespread and that seems to be due to the enormous scope of social media and the enormous size of the middle class.

At its lowest level, any comment thread linked to any contentious cause is liable to be hijacked by soft vigilantes who cannot bear the possibility that others may oppose their cause and may even oppose it with integrity and eloquence. That seems to be particularly unbearable. We’ve all seen them. I once counted over 140 comments by the same person on a single comment thread. That was a one-off by the way - I don’t make a habit of counting comments hem hem.

Stepping up from obsessive comments we have soft vigilantes who try to disrupt debate and free speech via a variety of approaches from attempting to have websites shut down to legal action to more or less abusive hijacking of comment threats. The point about soft vigilantes is not so much the techniques employed but the causes which attract them. On the whole these seem to be what one might call progressive causes revolving around totalitarian politics which is never admitted to be totalitarian, but there are never any boundaries to the reach of central power.

To tie the thing together and see if it floats, one might also suggest that both traditional vigilantes and soft vigilantes are an indicator of totalitarian politics. A kind of litmus test for extreme politics. The flies around the dung hill.

Maybe a few examples are worth noting. The catastrophic climate narrative certainly attracts large numbers of soft vigilantes, although numbers are admittedly difficult to estimate. However, to my mind the presence of soft vigilantes in and around the climate debate is good evidence that the issue is essentially political and totalitarian in nature.

Gender politics offers another field where one has to tread carefully to avoid the attentions of soft vigilantes. There are many others, but where does it all come from? It feels like a general trend towards intolerance, a narrowing of social norms, like a grim rebound from the tolerance many of us once felt was an established fact of life.

Are we seeing the moulding of the global citizen in all this? In which case the activities of soft vigilantes might provide some kind of outlet for aggression. The cause may be unworthy but feel the aggression and enjoy it. It is okay to hate the haters – that kind of thing.

It seems to me that there is also a class element as suggested earlier. Soft vigilantes seem to be essentially middle class and apparently fearful any future which is not fanatically regulated on their preferred terms. There seems to be a deep desire to be part of a universal family where there are no outsiders, where all outsiders have been eradicated, expunged, cast into outer darkness.

Thursday 1 March 2018

A hint of spring

Bird bath this morning
Togged up in full winter walking gear including boots we managed a fine walk to the Co-op and back. Is there a hint of spring in the air?