Thursday 30 August 2018

A glass of madness

Destiny sometimes proffers us a glass of madness to drink. A hand is thrust out of the mist, and suddenly hands us the mysterious cup in which is contained the latent intoxication.

Victor Hugo - The Man Who Laughs (1869)

Frank Field seems to have decided that there are some potions he cannot swallow.

Wednesday 29 August 2018


I wouldn’t call Hall a friend exactly, but circumstances threw us together that evening. The others had cleared off in search of somewhere more exciting but we weren’t interested in excitement. After one more pint Hall suggested that we should watch the sun go down over the salt marshes.

So we left the pub’s bright lights to stroll off down a quiet track in the general direction of the sea, eventually finding a vacant seat on the path by the marshes. We sat for a while in the gathering gloom without saying anything. Men sometimes do that, feeling no need to break a silence.

It was one of those memorial seats with a little metal plaque set into the back. A favourite view of somebody no longer with us. I could guess the import of the inscription without even reading it. Couldn’t read it anyway in that light.

An old chap sat nearby, apparently perched on some kind of shooting stick jabbed into sandy earth by the path –

“Do you watch the news much?” Hall broke into a train of thought which wasn’t going much further than the practicality of shooting sticks. I’d never tried one you see.

“I’m not much of a news buff,” I replied. I wasn’t in the mood for the outside world. I’d assumed that was why we were sitting there under that great slate sky flecked with shades of pink and deeper tones of red. Not quite beautiful or majestic but still impressive in a louring kind of way. Worth absorbing after a few drinks.

“No neither do I. The news - it’s all so bloody gloomy these days.”

“Ignore it then. I do.” Wasn’t quite true but near enough.

“I can’t ignore it – what’s that?”

“It’s an oystercatcher somewhere out there in the marshes It can sound quite eerie.” I caught Hall’s faint sense of unease. Perhaps he wasn’t a nature lover.

“Hell of a spooky sound. Can’t say I appreciate that kind of thing myself - atmospheric though.”

“Yes it is atmospheric. I love it – come here quite often.”

“Nice sunset too,” Hall added. “Maybe I ought to do this kind of thing as well. Get away from things.”

“Get away from what?”

“Oh all kinds of things. Work, the general grind, events – no not so much events. Trends – global trends.”

“What trends?”

“Well – here’s one I think about a lot. Imagine a world where you can go wherever you like at the drop of a hat.”

“Sounds wonderful.” I could tell Hall had something to get off his chest. Dusk over the marshes, the oystercatcher’s call, a modest sunset and that faint rumble of the sea giving the shingle what for. The natural world was not what he was here for.

“Does it sound so wonderful? Maybe it does from some angles.” Hall paused and scratched his head. He sat silently for a while, as if gathering something together, some slowly maturing idea lying deeper than the beer.

“From some angles? Not yours I presume.” I realised I didn’t know Hall well enough to grasp his angle without an explanation. If he’d been a friend I’d have known, but then perhaps our conversation would have been more superficial, a skating over known surfaces.

“Suppose – oh I don’t know. Suppose in a world without national borders there are jobs which might be anywhere in the world. If you want one you just have to go there because you can’t get anything local.” Hall paused again. The old chap on the shooting stick hadn’t moved and by now it was getting dark. Maybe he was listening to our conversation. Maybe he wanted to know what Hall had to say.

“Okay let’s suppose that,” I prompted.

“Well – suppose everything is known about you – suppose it is all in the global computer systems –“

“Which it is already.”

“Yes - which as you say it is already. They probably know more about us than we do ourselves. Now suppose a job pops up on your screen and it’s a job which would actually suit you – really suit you. Location, salary, the job itself – every box ticked. The global systems already know it would suit you and they are right and you know they are right.”

“Even if a distant job suits you, what about leaving friends and family?” I asked. Obvious question but Hall had all that worked out too.

“In this global system you never lose touch with anyone. Doesn’t matter where you are in the world you never lose touch. It’s making a difference already.”

“Okay what about children, what about relationships?”

“Eventually children will no longer be a parental responsibility. Things are moving that way too. Children will be brought up in official crèches, taught and socialised professionally. Nothing left to chance or the vagaries of human behaviour.”

“That’s not new though is it?” I relied. “Skinner had all that mapped out decades ago. Who takes it seriously now?”

“It is taken seriously by some. It must be because it’s an obvious trend – we are moving towards it and there is no alternative trend which says we shouldn’t go there. It’s all down to a fundamental weakness in our ability to reason, to work out what we really want out of life.”

“You may say that here on this bench,” I replied, “but in the final analysis people won’t stand for it.”

“They will stand for it because we have a deep problem with happiness. We pursue happiness as if it is a desirable state, as if it is the ultimate desirable state. Achieve happiness and there is nothing else to achieve. That’s the crucial driver, the crucial assumption.”

“Well it isn’t a bad state to be in – happy. I’d go for it and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t.”

“I agree, who wouldn’t? The best possible care and complete freedom within our capabilities. That’s where we are headed and there is no way of stopping it.”

“Do you want to stop it?”

“Yes, even though I can’t decide if the whole idea is wonderfully liberating or a new kind of serfdom.”

“Happy serfdom?”

“Yes that’s about it and the more I think about it the more nightmarish it sounds, yet sometimes it doesn’t and I don’t like that either -”

“I’m so sorry but I could not help overhearing your fascinating conversation.” A pleasantly modulated voice oozed out of the darkness behind our bench. It was the chap with the shooting stick. He loomed over us like a crusty old teacher delighted to catch a couple of pupils smoking behind the bike sheds.

“It all sounds most satisfactory to me,” he added, his head on one side like a huge bird. It made his smile rather odd, more like a leer. By now the sun was merely a livid gash in a sable sky, reflected in crimson glints deep within his old, old eyes.

Monday 27 August 2018

Changeable with sunny intervals

As regular walkers we always check the Met Office weather forecast before going out on a walk. We aren’t looking for pinpoint accuracy, merely an indication of what to expect, what to wear and what to take with us just in case. For hill walking we take waterproofs anyway, whatever the weather and whatever the forecast.

In our experience Met Office forecasts are pretty good, but in recent years they do not seem to be as reliable as they were. Often the weather we actually get seems to have been better than the forecast, but forecasts change throughout the day so this perception isn’t easy to nail down.

Of course there may be nothing to nail down. It may indeed be a matter of perception. The Met Office puts so much resource into projecting itself as the premier national authority on all matters meteorological that it may inadvertently lead us into expecting more than it can possibly deliver.

Attaching names to storms, giving scary colour-coded warnings about weather we once saw as normal, pushing the climate alarm game, all this may create expectations which the Met Office cannot actually meet. We may not be aware of having enhanced expectations but they may be there, in the background, colouring our perceptions.

Our weather is variable and frequently unpredictable until the moment it happens. Met Office predictions improve over the years but they improve slowly and for all we know may not be improving at all at the moment. Promote, promote, promote is the modern way, but as a supposedly sober, technical outfit the Met Office may not be getting the balance right.

Today our local weather was significantly better than forecast. We were not surprised.

Sunday 26 August 2018

Smith on speech

The other day I came across an observation by C Aubrey Smith. He was an interesting and accomplished chap as this Wikipedia introduction suggests.

Sir Charles Aubrey Smith, CBE (21 July 1863 – 20 December 1948) was an England Test cricketer who became a stage and film actor, acquiring a niche as the officer-and-gentleman type, as in the first sound version of The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). In Hollywood, he organised British actors into a cricket team, much intriguing local spectators.

Obviously Sir Charles was well into middle age when the talkies came along.  He had this to say about what he hoped their impact would be.

The first thing the British actor learns is clear enunciation and correct speech. Pure speech has been one of the traditions of the stage since the days of Shakespeare. It is a good thing because it fosters the love of pure speech in the public at large. I hope the talkies will do the same thing from the screen.

Once upon a time perhaps, but one might almost say that the love of pure speech in the talkies must have expired with Sir Charles. As for the public at large, we never had a love affair with it. Imagine the effect of teaching children to speak clearly and well. I'm not sure I can imagine it. Lack of clarity is such a subtle poison. 

As for Sir Charles' clarity, he was clear enough about Greta Garbo.

She's a ripping gel.

Friday 24 August 2018

A sort of divine immobility

If it were true, too, that civilization was a check to excessive natality, this phenomenon itself might make one hope in final equilibrium in the far-off ages, when the earth should be entirely populated and wise enough to live in a sort of divine immobility.

Emile Zola – Fruitfulness (1899)

Zola wrote his novel in part as a counter to Malthusian angst which at the time was very fashionable. His novel was a contrarian hymn to the power of human fruitfulness and the need in his eyes to maintain the French birth rate and populate the whole world with worthy, hard-working families.

It is a highly optimistic book and not one of his best, but within it there is this single, fascinating fancy, an ideal end-game for humanity when the earth should be entirely populated and wise enough to live in a sort of divine immobility.

As a more or less vague ideal this is obviously not new. Equally obviously it comes in a variety of guises. Heaven is presumably a sort of divine immobility. Perhaps Hell is supposed to insist on the horrors of variety. It seems to be the ideal behind many religions and political movements even though it may not be explicitly stated. The wrapper varies but they all promise to deliver the same ideal.

Ironically this seems to be a covert ideal behind modern progressive political notions which apparently envisage an ideal world where everything is settled, everyone is equal and there is no progress whatever. Progressive immobility perhaps. Sounds like an unpleasant disease associated with age. In one sense maybe it is.

Thursday 23 August 2018

An official memory hole

I see Jeremy Corbyn would like to see government fingers inserted even more deeply into the media pie.

Speaking on Thursday in the Alternative MacTaggart lecture, Mr Corbyn said the British press is "the least trusted press in Europe".

He said he wants greater investment in investigative, public interest journalism. Existing not-for-profit news organisations, like the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, could be given charitable status, he said.

This "public interest media fund" could be paid for either through a content sharing and advertising revenue agreement with Google, similar to that agreed in France or Belgium in 2013.

Or, if it is not possible, he said a Labour government would be prepared to explore a one-off tax on the profits of the market-leading search engine and other platforms.

As ever this sinister waffle seems to display Mr Corbyn's profound distrust of anything not sanctioned by a totalitarian government. But that is my private view and no doubt Mr Corbyn would like to see such views cast into the memory hole. 

Tuesday 21 August 2018


Avocet on Titchwell Marsh this afternoon. Lots of them around but always worth watching. They seem so fastidious as they delicately pick their way across the mud.  

Sunday 19 August 2018

The inhumanity of bureaucracy

Reason in politics leads to the inhumanity of bureaucracy.

How many of his own people did Stalin kill during his bloody career as Soviet dictator? As we know it was tens of millions but it is worth reminding ourselves of the wider question - who actually killed all those millions of innocent people?

Who pulled the all those triggers or stole tons of crops needed to keep people alive? Who herded people onto trains bound for Siberia? Who organised it all – on the ground, behind the guns, the uniforms, the paperwork and in the offices? It was not Stalin personally but as leader he is usually given the responsibility. Quite right too – but who else was involved?

In its broadest sense it was various Soviet bureaucracies because that is what the Soviet communists built, an all-embracing totalitarian bureaucracy. Stalin was inhuman but so were his bureaucracies and to a lesser extent so were the Tsarist bureaucracies before them. Bureaucracies tend to become inhuman unless constrained by some kind of feedback, some humanising pressure from the outside world – pressure from people beyond the grey walls of officialdom. Democracy restrains, but undermine the democracy and we undermine the restraint.

Most of my career was a gradual progression from local to national to transnational bureaucracy, although the transnational aspect was only beginning by the time I retired. This long, interesting and at times frustrating experience suggests to me that Allan Bloom was right – there is a deep well of inhumanity in bureaucracies and the bigger they are, the more remote they are, the more inhuman they are. They try to insulate themselves from from external influences and to a significant degree the insulation is a deliberate and obvious strategy. It is an essential strategy in the bureaucratic game.

The EU is a good example of how the bureaucratic game is played. The EU could have copied the most successful federal constitution the world has ever seen – that of the USA. Here was an extremely successful template to be picked up and moulded into a European version but as we know this is not what happened.

Perhaps it could not have happened because Europe has too much baggage and too many barriers, but adapting the federal structure of the USA to a European situation was never the bureaucratic way. Bureaucracies do not gravitate towards measures of success which lie beyond their remit. They gravitate towards bureaucratic permanence, towards their own internal criteria of success as a bureaucracy. They do not seek democratic feedback and feedback is what a European version of US federal bureaucracy would have delivered. Minimal feedback was the preferred EU approach. Still is.

To my mind was probably a major factor in the Brexit referendum, the obvious inhumanity of EU bureaucracy. Indifference to southern EU unemployment, indifference to the structural problems caused by the euro – perhaps the most stupid political project since WWII. Indifference to problems and uncertainties caused by mass immigration. All these issues point to an inhuman EU bureaucracy. That is not to suggest that UK bureaucracy is any great improvement but UK bureaucracy is necessarily less remote, more exposed to UK feedback and with fewer internal barriers to surmount, language being the obvious one.

The NHS is a good example of a huge bureaucracy struggling against its inherent drift towards an inhuman ethos. It is not and never could be seriously inhuman because medical staff deal with patients every working day. They are subjected to a constant flow of external feedback from patients and other interested parties, much of which they do not seem to enjoy, but it all goes to make the NHS what it is.

Yet there is inhumanity in the NHS – that inevitable bureaucratic inhumanity. We see it in attempts to cover up gross incompetence, hide needless deaths, botched operations, botched diagnoses, wasted resources. We see it in attempts to stifle criticism and gag whistleblowers. The NHS is not inhuman but there is a strong element of bureaucratic inhumanity which it will never expunge.

Neither will it ever attempt to expunge it as long as we have the Labour party as one of our two main political parties. The Labour party is there to ensure an unending source of servile, politically motivated feedback which prevents the NHS from being as responsive towards its own failings as it should be.

We even see bureaucratic inhumanity in the BBC, in its indifference to financial hardship caused by the compulsory licence tax, its indifference to political balance, excellence, genuine debate or even education.

While we focus on political parties and personalities, bureaucracies are free to undermine what political parties are supposed to achieve. They are free to undermine democratic accountability which is merely human feedback injecting a drop or two of humanity into the game. As the game grows bigger so does the inhumanity. This is a significant factor, the size of the bureaucratic game. The EU and the UN are not your friends – never could be.

Thursday 16 August 2018

Which newspaper is best -

- for cleaning the car windscreen?

As we know, a ball of newspaper is quite good for cleaning the inside of a car windscreen. This morning I used a sheet from an old copy of the Daily Telegraph probably acquired last year as packing material, but there are only one or two sheets left and these days we do not receive a free newspaper to replace it.

Problems, problems.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

I'm not surprised

A few weeks ago a section of road on our school run turned wet and stayed wet. This was during the summer heat wave which seems to have disappeared now, so the cause was rather obvious - a leaking water main under the road.

The water company duly set up traffic lights, dug a large hole in the road, left it for about a week, did some work, filled in the hole, took away the traffic lights and cleared off. Hooray!

Unfortunately the same section of road turned wet again and stayed wet again. still during the summer heat wave so the cause was even more obvious - the leaking water main under the road was still leaking.

The water company duly set up traffic lights, dug a large hole in the road, left it for about a week, did some work, filled in the hole, took away the traffic lights and cleared off. Hooray again!

Unfortunately the same section of road on our school run turned wet yet again so the cause was super duper obvious - the leaking water main under the road was still leaking.

It was still leaking yesterday.

Sunday 12 August 2018

The great political talent drought


One of the great changes in my life has been the demise of political talent. It's a blogging problem - a hell of a blogging problem. It may be easy enough to write another post about Jeremy Corbyn, but therein lies the core difficulty – the man is just too ridiculous. Even a modicum of talent can be interesting, but no talent at all, not a single crumb of it – that’s hard going when it comes to generating interest.

I suppose a chap could make things up as the mainstream media so often do. Maybe write about Mr Corbyn’s career as a medium who specialises in contacting dead uncles. That might be interesting, but Mr Corbyn is so dull that the idea is bound to flounder. Improbable untruths sometimes do that - flounder. Look at climate change.

Yet how on earth does one write about a major political figure such as Corbyn when he has such obvious failings? His lack of flexibility, his absurd dependence on facile ideology, his risible choice of political cronies – ghastly creatures such as Diane Abbott, John McDonnell. How does one write about such absurdities? There is little value in pointing out that they are indeed absurd. No rational person is likely to overlook that.

Oh well – the spuds are boiling and the asparagus needs preparing . At least food is interesting. Asparagus makes your urine smell but some people can't smell it. Now that is interesting.

Saturday 11 August 2018

Ghosts on the shore

Christopher Harding has an interesting piece in Aeon. His subject is Japanese ghosts, their complex relationship to modern life and what they might have to say about modern secular cultures.

It was a moonlit night in early summer, about a year on from the great tsunami. As waves broke gently on a beach half-obscured in fog, Fukuji could just about make out two people walking along: a woman and a man.

Fukuji frowned. The woman was definitely his wife.

He called out her name. She turned, and smiled. Fukuji now saw who the man was, too. He had been in love with Fukuji’s wife before Fukuji had married her. Both had died in the tsunami.

Fukuji’s wife called to him, over her shoulder: ‘I am married now, to this man.’

‘But don’t you love your children?’ Fukuji cried out in reply. His wife paused at that, and began to sob.

Fukuji looked sadly at his feet for a moment, not knowing what more to say. When he looked up, the woman and the man had drifted away.

From Tōno Monogatari or Legends of Tōno (1910) by Kunio Yanagita, author’s translation

This is a true story. Or so the man who wrote it down wanted his readers to believe. Kunio Yanagita was one of Japan’s first folklorists. He collected such tales from the village of Tōno in Japan’s northeastern Tōhoku region, publishing them as the Legends of Tōno in 1910. His hope was to rekindle in the inhabitants of big, modern cities such as Tokyo and Osaka the feel of nature’s mystery and magic – the unknowns of the world – which, Yanagita worried, these people had of late begun to lose, mislaying it amid the noise and smog and reassuring distractions of urban life.

Not usually my kind of perspective, but I certainly found myself wondering why that might be.  The whole piece is well worth reading. This gem for example.

Yanagita, for his part, was at pains to point out at the beginning of his Legends that he had recorded stories such as Fukuji’s exactly as he had ‘felt’ them. This, he hoped, would be a means of preserving and transmitting around Japan something of the way that the people of Tōno experienced life: as yet untouched, or untainted, by gakusha kusai koto, or things that ‘stink of the [modern] scholar’.

Things that stink of the modern scholar - who doesn't know that aroma?

Friday 10 August 2018

No apology is required

I see Rowan Atkinson has defended the right of Boris Johnson to make jokes about the burka

Rowan Atkinson has defended Boris Johnson after his controversial comments about women wearing burkas.

The actor, known for his comedy performances in Mr Bean and Blackadder, said the remarks were funny.

Atkinson wrote in a letter to The Times: "As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson's joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one."

He added: "All jokes about religion cause offence, so it's pointless apologising for them.

"You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required."

I suspect a huge number of people would agree with Mr Atkinson - no apology is required. Away from the mainstream media there are numerous jokes and visual lampoons concerning the burka. One would have to live in a light-proof tent not to know that.

The whole fracas is yet another embarrassing example of establishment grovelling in the face of blatant special pleading by politically favoured minorities. Special pleading for what? For unequal treatment ironically enough.

A longer running and more pleasing joke is the inability of feminists to join in. 

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Mad as a box of frogs

Yesterday we visited Burghley House as it was too hot to do much in the open air. An interesting place but towards the end Mrs H and I gazed up at this painted ceiling for a while, both of us consumed by something which was not admiration. From the guide book

The Hell Staircase

The ceiling of this dark and lofty staircase was painted by Verrio as his last commission at Burghley. Sadly by the time he made this contract, he was heavily in debt and was unable to retain his assistants who drifted away to more financially secure projects. Working mainly alone, this ceiling took 11 months to complete. It shows the mouth of Hell as the enormous gaping mouth of a cat and countless souls in torment within.

Mrs H and I had pretty much the same reaction – mad as a box of frogs.

Saturday 4 August 2018

Friday 3 August 2018

A certain type of incompetence

There is a particular form of incompetence which seems to be surprisingly common. Allow me to describe it via an example. A purely imaginary example hem hem.

Picture a cafe where the owner has obviously put a great deal of effort into both the decor and the quality of the food. It is only a cafe serving coffee and casual meals but it does that well in pleasant surroundings. Attention to detail is obvious everywhere.

Now imagine a person employed to represent the cafe, to greet customers, take orders and serve the food. An overweight person perhaps, with a conspicuous level of self-esteem but very limited ability to be genial, welcoming or even friendly towards customers.

A person who seems to see customers as mildly inconvenient strangers. A person who may be willing enough to put that inconvenience to one side on condition that it is not forgotten. On condition that it is as conspicuous as the carefully crafted cake display or the enticing aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

What is strangely obvious about such people is that any attempt to guide them out of their incompetence is bound to be futile. Their self esteem is armour-plated. They are incompetent and not even hard-working but they don’t see it.

They will never see it yet they are not dismissed until significant hidden damage has been done. Even then they may cling on because nobody wants to tackle that armoured self-esteem. It is formidable and behind it lies the certain promise of vast emotional turmoil if the facade is ever challenged, let alone punctured.

Thursday 2 August 2018

Lost bacon


I sat at an outside table next to the beach with a fresh bacon butty in front of me and a cup of coffee all ready to wash it down. With a blue sky and the sun glittering on the sea what could be more delightful?

Then without any warning, over my shoulder came a draught of air, a flapping of wings and a herring gull zoomed off over the beach with half my butty including most of the bacon. Not only that but it knocked over my coffee during the raid. Presumably they don't drink coffee.

Mildly annoying but I almost admire how slick it was. Didn’t touch me and the coffee was probably wafted over by the draught from its wing. Unpleasant birds but good at what they do unfortunately.