Friday, 22 May 2015

Merely to express herself


In the Five Towns, and probably elsewhere, when a woman puts her head out of her front door, she always looks first to right and then to left, like a scouting Iroquois, and if the air nips she shivers — not because she is cold, but merely to express herself.
Arnold Bennett - Hot Potatoes (1912)

Nobody is unfamiliar with this type of body language. We see it all the time in one form or another, yet watching human behaviour isn’t the same as having it articulated in the way Bennett does. if the air nips she shivers — not because she is cold, but merely to express herself. I recall the image which still pops into my mind when I read this passage again.

I see a long row of terraced houses lining an empty street. It must be early because there are milk bottles on doorsteps and the scene is tinged with the past and the sombre, sooty grey of a November morning. A woman puts her head out of her front door, shivers and after this brief imagining I’m back with Bennett's story.

For a TV drama the image would be much the same but it would not be articulated as Bennett articulates it – obviously. We are shown the scene, recognise the body language and the drama moves on. Maybe she picks up the bottles of milk, hugs them to her chest for a moment then disappears back into the house.

This difference between the written word and the moving image is important simply because one is articulated and the other isn't. TV drama doesn’t prevent us from articulating such human subtleties but doesn’t help either. It isn’t feasible for a character to pop up and say to the woman:

I see you looked first to right and then to left, like a scouting Iroquois, and as the air nips you shivered — not because you are cold, but merely to express yourself.

Of course one cannot use this to demonstrate that TV makes people less articulate. We may assert it but that’s not good enough and in any event we probably do too much asserting. Yet the difference is still striking and still feels important.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Bowl bodge

As you see, this porcelain bowl is not in pristine condition. An old glued repair has given up and two lumps fell off. The bowl was made in Lowestoft, probably in the 1770s, so rather than throw it away I decided a crude epoxy job would do.

First stick the two escaped bits together.

Then stick them into the bowl like so. 

When the glue has dried the bowl goes onto a shelf.

Why bother though? With that amount of damage, even a 250 year old porcelain bowl is worth very little. Because of its condition I only paid a couple of quid for it about twenty years ago. 

A professional restorer would have stuck it back together in such a way that only a very close inspection would reveal the damage, but the cost wouldn't be worthwhile. As far as collectors are concerned it is still a badly damaged and not particularly rare bowl.

Yet I could never have thrown it away. It's nothing to do with the value because it has none to speak of, but the age of the thing seems to give it some kind of cachet. The cachet won't last though. One day a descendant is bound to wonder what on earth it is and throw it out.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

A kind of comedy


And what is all this life but a kind of comedy, wherein men walk up and down in one another's disguises and act their respective parts, till the property-man brings them back to the attiring house. And yet he often orders a different dress, and makes him that came but just now off in the robes of a king put on the rags of a beggar. Thus are all things represented by counterfeit, and yet without this there was no living.
Desiderius Erasmus - In Praise of Folly (1511)

Now the election is behind us we have the razzmatazz to look forward to followed by a long coast downhill if the past is any guide to the future. Which it isn't of course so why not be optimistic and see it as Erasmus saw it - as a kind of comedy put on for our benefit?

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

A move in the game


Although I don’t have much time for David Cameron, he does seem to have played a weak hand pretty well. The coalition was not popular with the chattering classes yet his party emerged with an overall majority in the House. Not only that, but the forthcoming EU membership referendum seems likely to deliver a hefty blow to those of us who think the UK should leave.

The promised EU referendum was an election trap for the unwary and it is as well to ponder what might happen after the out vote loses to superior firepower, better tactics, fewer scruples and various advantages accruing to the status quo.

Cameron is bound to have other issues to contend with, but the referendum may also give him a hold on the subtle and pervasive power of the BBC, our increasingly shaky establishment broadcaster.

Add in the appointment of BBC-basher John Whittingdale as the the new Culture Secretary and we have some clues as to what may transpire. Mr Whittingdale's voting record is certainly not pro-EU but not without its ambiguities either. In addition, it is he who may or may not kick away the licence fee stool on which our bland and podgy BBC squats. Yet the appointment already seems more cosy than one might have supposed it would be.

John Whittingdale is "a good choice" as culture secretary whose appointment last week will not have an adverse impact on the BBC, the outgoing vice-chair of the BBC Trust has said.

Diane Coyle said Mr Whittingdale recognised the BBC "has great popularity" with Conservative voters.

Sajid Javid's successor, she went on, is "a pragmatic, sensible man".

Quietly pushing the pro-EU cause, allowing its tame celebrities to label everything else with the fruitcake and racist memes are right up the Beeb’s street. Neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Whittingdale has any need to mention or even hint at a possible quid pro quo re the referendum. The Beeb would have been happy to oblige anyway.

So the licence fee issue may well be kicked into touch if the BBC finds its inner Tory. We eurosceptics may not like it and things may turn out differently, but it is a good idea to consider the strengths of each position and weigh them. Interesting too.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Horses, wine and shoes

Some believe the Good to be that which is useful; they accordingly bestow this title upon riches, horses, wine, and shoes; so cheaply do they view the Good, and to such base uses do they let it descend. They regard as honourable that which agrees with the principle of right conduct – such as taking dutiful care of an old father, relieving a friend's poverty, showing bravery on a campaign, and uttering prudent and well-balanced opinions. We, however, do make the Good and the honourable two things, but we make them out of one: only the honourable can be good; also, the honourable is necessarily good.
Seneca - Epistulae morales ad Lucilium c. 65 AD

So with 650 newly-minted honourable members, the House of Commons should be awash with prudent and well-balanced opinions.

Maybe we should wait and see though. I think Cameron's lot may still be swayed by riches, horses, wine, and shoes.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

We spend our very selves

Our stupidity may be clearly proved by the fact that we hold that "buying" refers only to the objects for which we pay cash, and we regard as free gifts the things for which we spend our very selves. These we should refuse to buy, if we were compelled to give in payment for them our houses or some attractive and profitable estate; but we are eager to attain them at the cost of anxiety, of danger, and of lost honour, personal freedom, and time; so true it is that each man regards nothing as cheaper than himself. 
Seneca - Epistulae morales ad Lucilium c. 65 AD

Any reasonably complex society seems to be built on a mountain of expendable human life. It appears to be an essential profligacy of hierarchical societies, a need for stark contrast between high and low. Otherwise what’s the point of aiming high if not to waste the lives of those who never made it?

So previous ages had all those futile wars plus millions of lives spend in worthless servitude, endless drudgery and toil from which there was rarely any prospect of escape. Rule by waste where countless millions of human lives are the waste. 

The expendable many have always supported the less expendable few because that’s the only system we ever devised. Or rather, that’s the only system the few ever devised. Managing vast numbers of people is just too damned difficult even for the rarest of rare geniuses. And elite geniuses are pretty rare so there is much waste.

Moving on to the present day, we have for some time attempted to correct this appalling waste of human life. Well sort of – to a degree. Except we still have the original problem, the problem of hierarchy and we’ve made it worse. Global control-freaks gibber and plan while crazy wars sputter and flare as madness stalks the land.

What’s the answer?

Much stronger local government presumably. Local government where the basic political unit is local enough to tackle local complexities, to find out what works and what doesn’t, small enough to reject a thousand vain political fantasies. 

Many of those vain political fantasies are dreamed up by the big to control the small by wasting their lives in endless futilities, thus preserving the precious hierarchy. But the small can usually control and direct themselves and if they don’t, then at least they suffer the consequences without dragging down everyone else.

It’s called trial and error and it’s how we learned everything from throwing spears to launching satellites. Yet somehow we’ve drifted into a lunatic state of affairs where we must have trials on a vast scale but dare not notice the correspondingly vast errors. Will it work out for the best in the end? What do you think?

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Under the spell

Lost in Space episode "Wish Upon a Star" from 1965 has Will and Dr. Smith finding a derelict alien spaceship and a mysterious machine which creates whatever they wish for.

They put a strange conical hat on their heads and whatever they wish for appears before them. Apples rain down from the sky, favourite foods pop out of thin air, even a collection of classical music tapes is not beyond its capabilities. Although nominally a popular science fiction series for youngsters, much of the science is much more akin to magic. Will and .Dr. Smith's alien machine is closer to Aladdin's magic lamp than physical reality.

Much science fiction is disguised magic where what is depicted is known to be nonsense. Dr Who's "sonic screwdriver" is a magic wand, Dr Who himself is a magician rather than a scientist. His TARDIS a magic phone box not entirely unlike Enid Blyton's Flyaway Cottage and equally nonsensical.

Captain Kirk's problems with dilithium crystals are problems with magic. Whatever dilithium is and whatever it is supposed to do, it has no connection with physical reality. It's an essential ingredient of the magic spells by which Scotty keeps the starship Enterprise on its magical journeys.

Not that there is anything wrong in presenting magic under the guise of science if the drama requires it. Magic has been with us for much longer than science and we aren't giving up on it without a fight, almost as if it has some hold over our genes and we can't let go.

Borderline magic is even more interesting. Economic predictions which owe as much to the crystal ball as they do to a world of real people coping as best they can without the benefit of magical foresight. From climate models to homeopathy, from the latest diet fad to sustainable energy, from the impossible exploits of James Bond to the mystique of the monarchy there is still a great deal of borderline magic in our system.