Thursday, 27 August 2015

No greater bugbear


Strength is incomprehensible by weakness, and, therefore, the more terrible. There is no greater bugbear than a strong-willed relative in the circle of his own connections.

Nathaniel Hawthorne - The House of the Seven Gables (1851)

It's a common problem - strong-willed people who lack the capacity to be anything else, who cannot use their inflexibility for the common good. It isn’t merely relatives either.

Hawthorne presents the alternative as weakness which is harsh, but his was a harsh world and what else is it when we strip it bare? Somebody has to give way, be accommodating, turn the other cheek, adapt. Either that or move on, out of range.

A small percentage of such people cause havoc because they cannot be accommodated and without enormous disruption will not be ejected, sidelined or otherwise made safe for everyone else. More than a bugbear I'd say.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Who licks old china?

Only the simple and the humble were abroad at that early hour: purveyors of food, in cheerfully rattling carts, or hauling barrows with the help of grave and formidable dogs; washers and cleaners at the doors of highly-decorated villas, amiably performing their tasks while the mighty slept; fishermen and fat fisher-girls, industriously repairing endless brown nets on the other side of the parapet of the road; a postman and a little policeman; a porcelain mender, who practised his trade under the shadow of the wall...
Arnold Bennett – Sacred and Profane Love (1905)

The photo shows a porcelain coffee pot made in Bristol in the 1770s and as you see it is not quite in pristine condition. An old repair uses metal staples and wire inserted into holes drilled into the porcelain. Bennett’s Italian porcelain mender would have employed the same technique. 

I recall an expert telling us that the staples were inserted hot so that when they cooled they contracted and clamped the pieces together. A skilled job, especially when we consider that where staples were used in this piece, the holes were not drilled all the way through even though the porcelain is very thin.

Missing bits appear to have been filled with plaster which you may be able to see in the right hand image just below the lid. These old stapled repairs are quite common, especially for old Chinese porcelain. Presumably the owners still wished to display the piece even though its value would be much reduced. Was the servant responsible usually dismissed I wonder?

Today a restorer would take out the staples and begin all over again with modern adhesives and resins. The repair would not be easy to see without close inspection, as we discovered on a couple of occasions before we learned to be wary.

One way to tell is to lick suspect areas with the tip of the tongue which is sensitive enough to detect slight temperature or texture differences between porcelain and resin. The teeth are able to detect slight differences too. Any dealer will know what you are up to.

Monday, 24 August 2015


Dear Golden Roof Investor,

You may have heard that the Chinese stock market has undergone a minor bout of turbulence in recent days. This is to be expected in such an exciting, where-it’s-at market and is not a cause for alarm for anyone with the Golden Roof Investment Trust.

Although the whereabouts of our CEO Mr Wun Awei has been the subject of much scurrilous press comment, be assured that he is diligently seeking new opportunities. We intend to contact him in the very near future to discuss these opportunities plus a range of other options he may wish to consider.

Meanwhile, our advice for all investors in the Golden Roof Investment Trust is to sit tight while current disturbances are brought firmly under control by the Chinese authorities.

In addition to this exiting news, you may be interested in a new investment opportunity, the Platinum Roof Investment Trust for which you should already have a prospectus. Remember - you take the risk so we don't have to.

Yours sincerely

Richard Dastardly (Acting CEO)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Corbyn and the clowns


There appear to be two broad possibilities emerging as folk frantically try to predict the outcome of the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon. Two broad possibilities, disaster and blessing, each with a range of nuances:-

Unmitigated disaster.
Corbyn will be an unmitigated disaster for Labour, causing it to split into progressive and modernist factions leading to the rise of an alternative mainstream party.

Mitigated disaster.
Corbyn will be an electoral disaster for Labour in the 2020 general election but the party will make the best of it and will not split into progressive and modernist factions.

Mixed blessing.
Corbyn will be a mixed blessing for Labour, leading it to rediscover its core principles and reject the baggage of impure socialism left by Tony Blair.

Unmixed blessing.
Corbyn will be an unmixed blessing for Labour, leading it to rediscover its core principles, reject the baggage left by Tony Blair and triumph in the 2020 election as the only party of principle.

However things turn out, the only real pleasure in watching the political circus has always been the clowns. Jeremy Corbyn is a gift to jaded political palates. Whatever one thinks of him, he has surely exposed his leadership opponents as clowns merely by being straightforward.

What a brilliant wheeze eh? It’s all great fun too - they should do it more often.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Agents of chaos

There is a type of person, often a pleasant and likeable person, who sows chaos wherever they go. Not merely major outbreaks of chaos such as we see in banking circles from time to time, but minor outbreaks too, such as plans and schemes which never work and never could work because they exclude that essential element of stability - human adaptability.

At the very lowest end of the scale, agents of chaos are the kind of people who reach the front of a busy supermarket checkout only to find they have no credit card with them. Car drivers who cannot see the need to drive more slowly than usual in very heavy traffic, who cannot see why constantly switching lanes is pointless. You must have come across them, as I have. 

Further up the social scale agents of chaos sit in meetings making suggestions which may sound reasonable for a millisecond or two. Fatal flaws may become obvious to others quickly enough, but by then it is too late, discussion has moved into more dubious channels and isn't easily dragged back to the shores of sanity. Chaos branches out so smoothly and so rapidly into a veritable raft of chaotic possibilities.

So the meeting loses its way. The seeds of chaos are sown, pragmatic action blighted and there is nothing left but retrench and hope for better things in the future. Unfortunately new protocols, regulations and even laws are often the result and winding back has become virtually impossible.

Chaotic behaviour is a natural feature of the natural world, including the human world, its onset and its consequences being forever unpredictable. Here's the rub though - winding things back is usually unpredictable too. Consequences have emerged, vested interests have sprouted, people have adapted and tried to move on under the new regime. There is rarely any way back.

Moving still further up the scale, the pomp and fanfare of the political stage attracts agents of chaos like moths to a candle. Tony Blair was an agent of chaos in his handling of the Iraq war. Not the only one of course, but a significant player. Even without the Chilcot report and whatever else Blair may be, it is not easy to see him as the kind of person who if he could, would not roll back the bloody chaos he was instrumental in creating.

There is no common thread to agents of chaos other than their tendency to spin the next shambles from the most unlikely materials. At all but the lowest levels they seem to put far too high a value on their own minds, their ability to spin possibilities into probabilities. Those who would tread more carefully on more familiar paths are swept aside by a kind of madness, an insane faith that whatever happens things will turn out for the best because all has been foreseen.

In the corridors of power chaos seems to select its agents carefully. When they reach positions of power, that is the time to worry because corruption thrives on chaos and therein lies a powerful incentive to make a mess of things from the sidelines. 

So chaos will always be with us along with its agents - it pays.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Between a speech and a snore


Oftentimes they were asleep, but occasionally might be heard talking together, in voices between a speech and a snore, and with that lack of energy that distinguishes the occupants of alms-houses, and all other human beings who depend for subsistence on charity, on monopolized labour, or anything else but their own independent exertions.

Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip between their fingers
Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter (1850)

Hawthorne was writing about the staff of the Salem Custom House where he worked for a while, but I wonder how many people reading those words have their own soporific memories. Interminable meetings, dull training courses or over-long speeches.

It is easy to caricature these things, as Hawthorne’s original description was no doubt something of a caricature. It certainly stirred up the citizens of Salem. In many ways, ours is the age of caricature and has been for several centuries at least. From Thomas Rowlandson to the present day, caricature has been used to ridicule social, political and moral mores in a uniquely pointed way.

Caricature works, often being far more powerful than all but the most inspired prose, analysis or trenchant argument. Caricature is fun too, especially when it shows up the venality and stupidities of those who seek to dominate our lives.

Caricature bites hard into the soft tissues of an inadequate elite. Within living memory the elite were largely hidden from view, known only to their family, peers, personal servants and senior underlings. To some extent they could evade caricature by staying out of the public eye, by influencing a comparatively small number of people controlling the press.

Those days have gone, perhaps temporarily, perhaps not. The elite are not special except in their privileges. Too often they are not especially ethical, intelligent, courageous, astute or profound. So they and the social absurdities they foist upon us are fair game.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Andy Burnham's eyebrows

A search of Google images suggests many folk are particularly interested in Andy Burnham's eyebrows. Hardly surprising in my view because these are not party leader's eyebrows, not inspiring eyebrows. 

These are gloomy eyebrows, sorrowful eyebrows, eyebrows where disaster is expected as a matter of course and success isn't. Of course they may be right.