Saturday, 13 September 2014

music in your pocket, and a watch

the iPod Classic (you know, the chunky thing with the click-wheel) is to disappear. Those who still use one may do so until it dies, and then, oblivion. I have been reading with some interest some online debates about this. A lot of chaps, especially those of the family-man car-driving persuasion, are miffed at this move by Apple. When it's pointed out to them that they are not being deprived of music-on-the-go but can listen on their phone, and that most people can't fit their entire music collection on any iPod, they get even crosser. That's not the point, they say. My music identifies me. I say to that, if you need an iPod to have a sense of identity you are more of a slave to the capitalist conspiracy than I am. And I am. My first iPod, in 2010, had a click-wheel, and while I wasn't sorry when that was phased out, I really somehow liked the sound of that little wheel. After that iPod died I listened on my iPhone, and that was great. I needed to make playlists, but I rather enjoyed thinking each morning what I wanted to listen to on the way to work and putting a playlist on. I liked timing the playlist so the last track, played as I was walking into the building, was a punching, up-yours kind of thing. A favourite was "My Name Is Stain" by Shaka Ponk, or "Batard" (no translation needed I fancy) by Stromae. Is this a gender thing? Because chaps I know seem to HATE doing this. They want ALL THEIR MUSIC RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW. I managed to drop and break my iPhone about 18 months ago, and couldn't afford a new one, so now I have a Samsung Galaxy and I like it quite a lot. But I also now have a simple iPod Nano, for music only. Because iTunes.

Yes, iTunes is horrid, we all agree. But what else is a girl to do? You like a track, you get it for a euro. And no Wall of Plastic. Sig other has one of these walls, because he has many many CDs and is still adding to his collection. So I have to buy Billy bookshelves from IKEA to put the CDs on.

A watch. You know what I'm talking about. I have wanted one of these ever since I first heard about them. I just rather resent having to get a new phone so I can work the watch off it. Samsung do a stand-alone one. But the Apple one is a thing of beauty... What would you do?

Apple Watch
Samsung Gear Watch


Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Good King Richard

Richard III
this picture of King Richard III is quite well known I think, though it was not painted in his lifetime. It seems to be a copy of one that was, but is now lost. He's one of the better known kings of England, largely because of Shakespeare's play and the numerous subsequent film adaptations, especially perhaps Laurence Olivier in the part, with his hunchback and tights. The title of this post makes my view of Richard clear - he has been maligned throughout history, and the record should be set straight - but the story is not a simple one. Shakespeare was hired to trash his reputation, because the grandfather of Elizabeth I, queen in Shakespeare's time, was the usurper of the throne victor in the last battle of the Wars of the Roses, at Bosworth Field on 22nd August 1485. Shakespeare wrote about other kings, but it's only really Richard, and to some extent Henry V, who are remembered because of him. Shakespeare had to trash Richard's reputation, because even then, a century later, there were still people who knew, or suspected, that Richard was not the villain his Tudor successors had called him.

I came to Richard through the Shakespeare play, in my schooldays. The cartoon villain that play makes him uses such glorious language that I started wondering why he needed to be trashed. He was king for only two years, after all. He was defeated in battle. Why was he not forgotten? So I got to reading other things about him, and a teacher pointed me at Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time", most editions of which use this picture on the cover. I discovered that he was the last king of England to be English. The last king of England to die in battle. And the first one to have the laws of England written in English so that the people could understand them.

Nobody knew then that the remains of Richard, the only king of England not to have a marked grave, would be found underneath a car park in Leicester. But they were, in 2012. Something that was so unlikely that it's still hard to believe now, but it happened. I went to Leicester last month to see the visitor centre they have created, and to see the grave site in the former car park. It was rather affecting, like going to a funeral can be. But I was impressed. Richard is to be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral next March. I shall be there to pay my respects to his coffin, which will lie in the cathedral for three days before the burial. They are building him a tomb there now, and I hope it is fit for Good King Richard, which is how the north of England knew him.

Who killed the Princes in theTower? Nobody knows. Possibly no one did.

Did Richard have a hunchback and a withered arm? No, the bones establish that. He had scoliosis, which would have made one shoulder higher than the other, but the clothes of those days, and especially armour, would have disguised that very effectively.

The visitor centre in Leicester has a terrific display of pictures of actors who have played Richard. I never saw Kevin Spacey or Antony Sher play him, and wish I had. I saw the film with Ian McKellen, which is my personal favourite, and is quite terrifying. The display includes a picture of John Lydon in his Johnny Rotten days, and says that Lydon modelled his physical stage persona on Richard as played by Olivier. Really?

Things not many people know. When Richard was killed on Bosworth Field, his crown was found under a bush. I remember that from school history. But the crown was placed on Henry Tudor's head, then and there, by Stanley, who was supposed to be Richard's ally and had betrayed him. When Henry was king he got an Act passed declaring his kingship to have begun the day before Bosworth, which made Richard guilty of treason. So Henry Tudor's reign started with a lie.

Rest in peace King Richard.

After the bones were found, a camping equipment shop in Leicester put a sign in its window for its January sale: "Now is the winter of our discount tents". Oh, please yourselves. 

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

P J O'Rourke and the boomers

Ghastly right-winger that he is, I have always found P J O'Rourke hilarious. I particularly loved that his book on international conflict and crisis was called "Give War A Chance". Anyway, his latest tome, "The Baby Boom, How It Got That Way And It Wasn't My Fault And I'll Never Do It Again" is a bit variable. You have to love a writer who puts in ahead of the foreword a quote from Ecclesiasticus, in the Apocrypha bit of the Bible (I always used to get him mixed up with Ecclesiastes, because I could never remember which one you were supposed to read and which one not, but Ecclesiasticus is the Wrong One) "How can he get wisdom... whose talk is of bullocks?"  But a lot of this is a description of a 1950s-to-early-60s childhood in Ohio, attracting the reaction "So what?" And why do Americans have to refer to brand names all the time? For us ration-book Brits the only brand names with any nostalgia quotient are probably Spangles and Golden Wonder, neither of which exists any more. He refers to Depends and Levitra, both of which I had to look up (incontinence pants and Viagra variant, since you ask, neither of which probably existed when US boomers were children).

But O'Rourke's boomer credentials are impeccable. He used to be editor of National Lampoon. Largely because he was/is funny. He took a lot of drugs, at the right time. He lived in a shared house called Big Green.

Who are the boomers? Opinions differ. Most agree that the oldest ones were born in 1946, conceived usually by returning soldiers. The youngest, however, were born anywhere between 1959 and 1964, depending who you believe (O'Rourke goes for 1964). What did boomers have that was cool, and that has lasted? Our music, of course. We had the Beatles. We had the Rolling Stones. We had the Kinks. We had the Who (none of these American, just saying). Except that all these people are/were war babies, born in the 1940s. Not boomers. Who are the boomer musicians? The late Sid Vicious? Morrissey (at the younger end)? Elvis Costello? Well, I grant  you him, but it's not the same, if you get my drift. So what did our generation produce? We went into politics, some of us. The Clintons are boomers, at the top end of the age group, and so may Barack Obama be, at the bottom end. Tony Blair definitely is. Angela Merkel. But the boomers' time in the political sunlight was brief. David Cameron is younger than that. Nigel Farage doesn't count. Our time there is over. Fun while it lasted. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Like the rest of our lives really.

Artists? Writers? Not that many. Martin Amis, if  you like him (I do) scrapes in (born 1949). Jonathan Coe. David Mitchell is too young. Margaret Drabble is too old. The writers I choose to read, mostly, are older or younger than the boomer generation.

But P J O'Rourke is funny. And concise. He notes, rightly, that the tax bills to fund the boomers' retirement are barely starting to come in, adding that that ought to galvanise those Generation X slackers into doing some work, besides which it would help them get over the death of Kurt Cobain. Just as well, then, that we don't want to retire. If we did, we'd have to admit we were old. Our parents wanted to retire. Some of them did so in their fifties, because their working lives were quite hard, and they were glad when they were over. Us, no. We've been having a pretty good time, all told. Quite a lot of us died young without any wars to kill us off, unlike now (I've lost several friends my own age and younger), but (and I'm talking about Brits, here) we had home cooking not junk food when we were children, we played out, we were not driven around, we were allowed chips only once a week, and we acquired self-reliance by being outside the house without adults from early on. We never grew up, and we are going to live for ever.

That's not an indictment of my generation, it's a snapshot opinion of it. Will later generations think of us kindly?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Desert Island Discs in Yorkshire

Yes I know, posting your desert island discs is frivolous and shallow, but hey, I'm on holiday.  In Yorkshire, since you ask, for the walking, to help mend my leg. It's so cold for August I've had to buy warm clothes, even though I knew the summer clothes I would wear in Alsace would not do in Leeds. The tracks are in no particular order.

1. The Moody Blues, 'Nights in White Satin''. Tune of my teenage years, and I have never tired of it. One of the great swooning ballads of all time.

2. The Rolling Stones, 'Paint It Black'. It's not the greatest thing they have ever done, but I think it is the clearest and the most powerful. Most pop songs, rock anthems etc are not about death, or not entirely, even the girl-group tragedy ones (see below), but this one is.

3. The Hollies, 'Bus Stop'. A near-perfect pop song, with the then-great voice of Graham Nash.

4. The Shangri-Las, 'Remember'. The best of the girl groups. 'Rock Dreams', back in the day, called them "three schoolgirls in black leather". I love the pauses in this. I will never get tired of it as long as I live.

And now, moving a little nearer the present day:

5. Stromae, "Formidable". He sings only in French. The most famous Belgian. All human life is there. And every line is simple, as Brel was. "Tu etais formidable, j'etais fort minable".

Back again to the past:

6. Jacques Brel, "Amsterdam". A dead famous Belgian. He of course also sang only in French, but nobody asked about that then. A perfect chanson. "Comme des oriflammes, le long des berges mornes."

7. The Beatles, "Strawberry Fields For Ever". For the nonsense of it, though I suspect John Lennon took the words a little more seriously than I do.

8. Tom Lehrer, "The Periodic Table". Just because. No one else could.

A bit old, all these. And yet I like a lot of today's modern beat combos. I'm sure these favourites will change over time, but that is what I would take if I had to go today.

Book? To Kill A Mockingbird. (Tussle between that and Wuthering Heights, but the latter has too much property in it, which wouldn't really do on a desert island.)

Luxury item: Tussle between a supply of Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream and pen and notebook to write with. The latter wins, by a whisker.

The one record I'd choose of them all? Difficult, but it's the Brel.

Just a bit of fun. You? Love to hear it.

An artificial water war

David Aaronovitch, writing in today's Times (£) expresses concern at recent statements and lobbying by the Angling Trust and (allegedly) other organisations promoting angling. Their stance, he writes, is that other river users, and specifically canoeists, are damaging the riparian environment for anglers. This may of course be true, though it does seem to me that it is not canoeists who leave tangled lines on riverbanks which cause injury and death to water birds and other animals. I therefore took the opportunity to cast a cursory look at the document Aaronovitch refers to, namely 'Conflict on the Riverbank', published late last year by the Angling Trust. My attention was drawn to these words:

Angling Trust National Campaigns Coordinator Martin Salter said:
"The Angling Trust has been challenging the claims being made by militant canoeists that they should have
a right paddle up every river, stream or brook in Britain irrespective of ownership or the impact this has on wildlife or other people's enjoyment. The rights of navigation are clear in law and there are thousands of miles of navigable rivers and waterways to which canoeists have legal access. We also have well worked voluntary access agreements in place which allow canoeing on some rivers such as the Dart and the upper Wye at times of high water when fishing will not be affected.

"They should have a right paddle"? Who edits this stuff? John Howarth?

Be that as it may,there are voluntary agreements in place in respect of various of the rivers of England which aim to secure harmonious use of the rivers by various users - walkers, including dog walkers, cyclists, anglers, canoeists, and, oh I don't know, hang-gliders and aficionados of naked riverbank yoga for all I know. So it's surely possible for everyone to play nicely together. And as Aaronovitch points out, even if canoeists do damage the experience of fish-torturing that anglers enjoy, those canoeists have precisely zero influence on the leisure experience of walkers, runners, cyclists and (probably) naked riverbank yogis. So this is anglers trashing canoeists. Now I am neither an angler nor a canoeist, but I am a user of the riverside, as an occasional walker and cyclist there, and in the past few months I  have become a gardener on a riverside plot in my home country of France (where the rules are a bit different - let's not go there). I see canoeists and anglers apparently happily coexisting on my local rivers.

Anyway Aaronovitch's piece (he declares an interest as a sometime canoeist but is fairly even-handed on the whole) is helpful in drawing the nation's attention to this piece of meretricious bollocks.
The rights of navigation are in fact not very clear in respect of a great many rivers and other water bodies in England. Where they are they tend to favour canoeists, as Mr Salter knows, perhaps because canoeists have no effect on the wildlife ecology, as Mr Salter should also know. Banning canoeists from rivers, including school groups and children's holiday clubs, would be SUCH a popular cause in an election year, hein?
And "We" have well worked agreements? Who's "we"? This is a manufactured and artificial conflict. Mr Salter has form on this, going back to his time as Labour MP for  Reading West, and before. First it was "Trash the Cormorants!" (He urged mass culls of cormorants by shooting, attracting the ire of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, among others). Then it was "Trash the Otters!" (Little Tarka Must Die!) and, at least as worryingly, it was "Trash the East Europeans!" (who apparently don't torment fish for pleasure as True Englishmen do, but often fish just for some dinner (perfectly legal on most English rivers most of the time)). Leaving aside the question of how he could tell when it had been East Europeans doing Bad Things (did the fish report that a Nasty Polish Man Did It And Ran Away?), this last attracted the enthusiastic agreement of Joe ("Send 'em Back!") Baker of the Reading  Anglers' Association,  so I think we know whose vote was wanted there.

As the election approaches, what do the candidates where you live think about banning canoeists, otters, cormorants and East Europeans from the rivers?

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Rob Wilson, 'Eye of the Storm'

A long and tedious period of recovery following an accident in early February this year has curtailed my activity somewhat, but I am mending and back. A sick bed gives plenty of time for reading. Even more, it gives the opportunity to read the new books as soon as they come out. I do tend to try and do this anyway, rather than leaving them on a reading pile until everyone has forgotten why they might have been interested in the first place.  Dickens and Austen, by contrast, won't mind if it thus takes me a bit longer to finish reading them.

I do take an interest in the career of Rob Wilson, elected for the constituency of Reading East in the Conservative interest in 2005, and representing that constituency to this day. That is largely, but not entirely, because he was my successor as MP for that constituency. He has written a couple of interesting books, and this is one of them. People at the centre of events seem to be willing to talk to him. This book is about political scandals, and those at the centre of them, hence its title. For those readers who don't remember what the scandals were all about, be assured, it doesn't really matter.

Andrew Mitchell, who was innocent of what he was accused of ("Plebgate", anyone?) handled his scandal much less well than did Chris Huhne, who was entirely guilty. Probably because MItchell really did not imagine, to begin with, that accusations could simply be made up out of nothing. Well, yes they can, Andrew, and that is why most people still have some vague notion that you spat in the face of a serving police officer, or some other such poor creature. Whereas Chris Huhne, who was guilty of perverting the course of justice and went to prison for it, has been more or less forgotten, and if he is remembered no one is quite sure what if anything he did wrong. Mostly when people say there is a conspiracy against them they are not believed, as Mitchell wasn't. But sometimes it's true.

On the Jeremy Hunt affair, who seemed to me, as an outsider to all this, like a scandal that never was, Wilson cites a senior Tory as saying that the subsequent Labour motion, on which the LibDems abstained, although they were and are in government, was "typical LibDems - a high moral tone and low politics". Wilson describes Hunt's political survival as "a testament to his temperament and his resilience". It is the psychology of those in the eye of these storms that is beginning to emerge as interesting here. Those who can compartmentalise, and those who can stand outside their own emotions, seem to survive best.

Some language issues with the book ("steely" is rather too much of a favourite word); use of cliches ("little did he know": surely only used ironically these days?) and some iffy use of modals (a linguist writes).

Note that Jacqui Smith would not have been done over if it had not been for a malicious neighbour in London. This is how it always happens. "Officials took the unusual step of removing all the newspapers from Smith's sight" - hah! Porn films, we all remember. But I never claimed for any of this stuff, only rent. Why did these people do it? We got paid enough to buy all the DVDs we wanted. Smith said, allegedly, that sometimes when she meets people she thinks "Where were you when I needed help?" What did you expect, Jacks? For Smith "throughout the difficult period, her sister Sara would look after her in London, and would cook for her after work". Oh really? Where are the tears for the rest of us, who had no such creature to look after us?

He's a big fan of Stewart Jackson, the Tory MP for Peterborough since 2005, clearly. I've never been able to afford a house with a swimming pool. Others. John Swallow. Phil Jeffery. Nadhim Zahawi, quoted on his expenses scandal, "For two and a half weeks everything stopped." Really? I had this stuff for seven years. Very nearly non stop.

Charles Clarke, he says "made little attempt to reach out to backbenchers". I think that's wrong. He did. What he didn't do was call that in when the time came. Why not? He had more history in the party, and in various left groupings from NUS times on, than most did.

When you are at the eye of the storm, most of your friends will turn against you. Your family will undoubtedly turn its back on you. Your spouse won't, unless there were pre-existing problems. That's just how it is. This book doesn't analyse all that, but the psychology of scandal is ripe for a book. And this one will be part of its source.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Balkans: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Rebecca West, writing just before the Second World War, on her travels in the Balkans. I have done my own little bit of that travel, which is why this book took my interest. This edition, too, is introduced by Christopher Hitchens, but despite that I still think West is dodgy politically, and possibly intellectually too. However, this is the best travelogue I have ever read, by quite a long way. Studded with gems, such as this on the divide between peasants and bourgeois (which still meant something in the 1930s) "there is no man in the world, not even Stalin, who would claim to be able to correct in our own time the insane dispensation which pays the food-producer worst of all workers". She's right about the last bit, but - Stalin, the peasant's friend? In 1937?
On the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which then existed in living memory: "Such a terrible complexity has been left by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which some desire to restore; such a complexity, in which nobody can be right and nobody can be wrong, and the future cannot be fortunate". Look forward to the 1990s and that is true, but I do not think I blame the Austro-Hungarian Empire for the Yugoslav wars of that time.
A little politically incorrect by the standards of the left of today, I am glad to see: "the people of Dalmatia gave the bread out of their mouths to save us of Western Europe from Islam; and it is ironical that so successfully did they protect us that those among us who would be broad-minded ... would blithely tell us that perhaps the Dalmatians need not have gone to that trouble, that an Islamized West could not have been worse than what we are today."
Things not a lot of people know: Robert Adam was inspired by the Roman Emperor Diocletian's palace at Split: "When we look at a facade in Portman Square or a doorway in Portland Place, we are looking at Roman Dalmatia."
She talks to a Dalmatian professor in Split who had been a friend of Admiral Lord Fisher, about whom I learned, as often in my young days, from an Al Stewart song: "Admiral Lord Fisher is writing to Churchill, calling for more dreadnoughts; the houses in Hackney are all falling down."
She's a bit odd on sexuality; perhaps because she was a renowned feminist she felt the need to keep putting things in about it. But they are strange (to our ears now) sweeping statements, such as "But of course in a country where there is very little homosexuality it is easy for girls to grow up into womanhood."
On the culture and religions of the Balkans the book goes from marvel to marvel. In Kotor, where suddenly there are Orthodox churches, in contrast with most of Catholic Croatia, she notes "the dark, hugged mystery of the Eastern Church and the bold explanation proffered by the lit altars of the Western Church".
She is totally pro-Slav and pro-Serb, and sees Gavrilo Princip as a kind of hero. Those killers could not be sentenced to death, because they were all under twenty-one. But 13 conspirators were sent to Austrian prisons, and by the end of the war, three years later, nine of them had died in their cells. The three young men who were convicted of the killing are buried in Sarajevo. Are their graves still there? Are they still marked? West and her husband went to see them. I wish I had.
She is impressed, as most are, by the relentless, almost hilarious good looks of the people. "... one of those pale women with dark hair who even in daylight look as if one were seeing them by moonlight".
Elsie Inglis's Scottish Women's Hospital was in Serbia in 1914-15. Who knew?And what courage those women had. I'm glad she mentioned it.
Boy is this a long book. Knocks Patrick Leigh Fermor into a cocked hat though, and that's not something I thought I would say. "If Protestantism has done much harm by making religion identical with ethical effort of a limited kind it has done a great deal of good by putting down in black and white the ideas of Christianity, and showing us what life will lose if we abandon them."
Social history in the small mentions. She travels with a work-basket with silks in it. Did they have huge trunks and an army of bearers? Perhaps they did.
She describes the blood sacrifice of lambs and cockerels on a particular rock in Macedonia on St. George's Day, for women's fertility, in fairly nauseating detail. She is utterly disgusted by it, and says, rather oddly, that she has been living in the shadow of that rock all her life.
Byzantine titles are just wonderful. Sebastocrator and Grand Logothete, Grand Domestic and Sacellary.
The old Serbian poem about the battle of Kosovo Polye in 1389 (that battle was treated as a recent memory when I first went to Kosovo in 2001) tells West that "what the pacifist really wants is to be defeated". Not to avoid war, not to prevent bloodshed, but to be defeated. "Kill us, we deserve it."
And then "We said goodnight and stood in the porch under the Dorothy Perkins roses." How does she even know a Dorothy Perkins rose to look at? And why are they called that? And what do they  have to do with the shop?
This is a wonderful book. There is much more in it than I have been able to describe. The lives of the bloody and not so bloody Serbian kings, especially; the Austrians and Germans who treat the Balkans as their colony (she is not very pro-German), the architecture, peasant and bourgeois life, the Jewish and Greek minorities, and much much more..