Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Bad News

I suppose I expect no better from a Murdoch paper than to have celebrity tabloid rubbish about some actor (and isn't it a bit weird that this actor has spent several years entertaining people by playing an extremely wicked character but now that he may have done something wicked in real life his wicked character is to be axed?)  all over the front page:

Naively, I had hoped for better from The Telegraph:

even after the utter beat-up the other day about Cambridge caving in to demands to multiculturalise its English course (the university did nothing more than discuss the idea - when and if they make such a decision it truly will be a story, but for now it looked awfully like the editor of The Telegraph saw the opportunity to have a very pretty girl on the front page [mind you, I did wonder why the girl in question had had such very professional photographs of herself prepared, but maybe that is what everyone, except me, does these days?]):

and even after they chose to dominate their front page with the photograph of some woman who is the wife of a film star, or who is a celebrity human rights lawyer with film star husband attached, or both - but whose Halloween outfit is nothing at all to do with current affairs (and don't get me started on Halloween itself and the way it has sprung up as a thing in countries that never before celebrated tricking and treating and cut out pumpkins et cetera - all, I suspect, in order to merchandise stuff uniformly around the world, [but, as I said, don't get me started]):
The tabloid first name headline only makes it worse. Do they really believe their readers all know this face so well that they don't need to be provided with proper identification?

Eurgh. So cross. But luckily, I have found a safe newspaper haven. It is the Irish Times:


That is the kind of front page I want - the main story is something important, an event that I have vaguely heard about but am thoroughly confused on the details of; I can read the front page piece and discover who this Manafort person is and what he is charged with and why, rather than simply having celebrity shoved at me (how I loathe the cult of celebrity). That is what you get a newspaper for - not to look at pictures of celebrities. Or have I got things all wrong?

Of course, some might say that I should read the Financial Times instead, as it lives in roughly the same stable as the Irish Times, but the Financial Times is essentially Pravda for the European Union and the Irish Times publishes short stories and has many, many amusing and lovely bits of writing, which is something I don't think anyone could accuse the Financial Times of any more, (there was a time when the weekend edition had some really charming columnists, but those days are gone - and if you tell me Tyler Brulé is funny I will say, 'Well, up to a point, but the point is not very distant from a starting point of unfunniness and any amusement he may very occasionally create is mild, [feeble even?] and very, very far from enough reason to buy an entire paper').

Let me give you a glimpse of the gentle whimsy that one can fairly reliably expect from the Irish Times. To do so I will quote from today's Irishman's Diary column, whose author on this occasion is Pól ÓMuirí (did I mention the additional pleasure to be found in wondering how many Irish Times  writers' names might be said out loud?) and whose subject is the arc of creeping sophistication as witnessed in Ireland via coffee drinking habits, (tea - or as Pól would have it, "tae" - is not sophisticated):

"... You do not drink tae. You drink coffee. You are sophisticated, modern, European, outward looking. You take a chance on the word that you think you can pronounce: "I'll have a large cup-o'chino."

You do not realise it but you have made a big hames-o-chino of the pronunciation. You do not get the right emphasis on the middle syllable It is all right. The barista serving you the cup-o-chino is from Drogheda and no more knows the correct pronunciation than you. You learn Coffee Italian. You drink coffee. You are sophisticated, modern, European, outward looking. You start having latte and mocha and espresso - but you keep pronouncing it as 'expresso' like 'express' because that is the bus you get home! No one notices your bad Coffee Italian.

However, now comes another hurdle. You have to learn Breakfast French to go with your Coffee Italian. You drink coffee. You are sophisticated, modern, European, outward looking and you must therefore eat croissants. You ask for cruxunts and crocunts and kussants. (Damn all those years you spent learning Irish. What a waste. There is no Irish word for croissant!)

No matter. You drink coffee. You are sophisticated, modern, European, outward looking. You keep getting cruxunts, crocunts and kussants with your expresso from that little barista-run shop at the corner. You learn fluent Breakfast French and even ask for pain au raisin now and again.

Still, you have to point at the pain au raisin because the barista is from Belfast and thinks you have a speech impediment.

They introduce bagels. You are a bit wary about bagels. Bagels do not sound French and, therefore, many not be sophisticated enough for you. But wait? They eat bagels in New York? New York is very glamorous and hip and trendy. You too will eat bagels ....

Then you notice one day that they are serving something called the Breakfast Bagel in that nice barista-run shop at the corner. You are a bit suspicious of this. A breakfast bagel? What the hell is that, man? It is a bagel - bagels are cool - filled with bacon, sausage and egg.

You are Irish; you like bacon, sausage and egg. However, you also drink coffee and you are sophisticated, modern, European, outward looking.

Can you really have the breakfast bagel filled with lovely bacon, sausage and egg and still be on trend? No one is looking. You buy the breakfast bagel with your semi-skimmed, lightly frothed, latte-mocha and eat it at your desk.

In truth, you say to yourself, a breakfast bagel is fusion cuisine; it is the bringing together of two traditions and making a new, fabulously tasty, one.

You are Irish. You like bacon, egg and sausage. You forgo the cruxonts and the pain au raisin for a while. You start eating the breakfast bagel until, one morning, there is a queue out the door of that little barista-run place you frequent. You are forced into the local shop where you never go. (They do not have nice coffee.)

They do, however, have breakfast rolls, huge monstrously lovely white rolls filled with half a pig and enough eggs to keep you going till Easter.

You get it with tea - they do not have nice coffee - go back to your desk, eat like you were at a feast with Fionn Mac Cumhaill himself [the other thing about the Irish Times is the excitement of references you cannot even begin to understand, the sense of standing outside a culture, pressing your nose to the window and trying to make out what the hell is going on inside] and wake up in a cave, saying: 'Ah f@@k it! I am not sophisticated after all. I am Irish.'"

By the way, did you notice how nicely punctuated and edited that extract is? I think the Irish Times might even employ literate sub-editors, a miracle these days - and another very good reason to support the paper. I do not believe they would ever, ever be guilty of this, which is from the perhaps aptly named Pratt Tribune:


No Yolk

I have never been much of an egg eater, because I hate the consistency and flavour of boiled or poached egg white - ditto fried egg white, unless cooked by my granny who managed to turn it into some kind of crispy deep fried delicacy that looked like oily lace. Sadly, she has not been around for over 30 years, so that is no longer a culinary option - try as I might, I've never been able to reproduce the effect she achieved, despite setting off every smoke alarm within a 10-mile radius in the attempt.

Having renounced the granny emulation experiments, I have lately turned to trying to eliminate egg white from the egg eating equation entirely.  To this end, I have discovered that, if I use a teaspoon, I can eat the yolk of a fried egg or a poached egg or a soft boiled egg and, contrary to my longheld conviction, (and fear), no one is going to put me in the slammer if I don't eat the white as well - indeed, if I first pour off the white before frying or poaching an egg, I'm not even wasting it, as I can save it up and make meringues with it, (I am quite happy to eat egg white in that form.)

The one problem that has arisen following this discovery is that, since I have liberated myself from the dread of egg-white-avoiders' prison, I have become addicted to eating two egg yolks each morning for breakfast.

Yes, my name is Zoë Colvin, and I'm addicted to yolk.

I find this new situation puzzling; I can't quite understand why it has come upon me at this not exactly early stage in my life. I've given it some thought though and one thing that I've decided may contribute to my addiction is precisely the fact that egg yolk's attraction is mysterious. That is, when you try to define clearly to yourself what egg yolk tastes of, to pinpoint what precisely are the elements of its flavour, it is almost impossible to do so. Which makes you keep on coming back to try it one more time.

Yolk is creamy, I suppose, except that its consistency is thicker than actual cream, and it isn't as sweet. It is unctuous, except that it isn't actually oily. It responds well to salt - in fact, the taste almost vanishes without it. It is velvety, except, when you think about it, it isn't, as velvet is furry and yolk is utterly smooth. Sometimes I think if I had a whole jug of yolk I could get to the bottom of it, but I think I'd be sick, because yolk is, more than anything, rich - and perhaps that is its real attraction.

But there is yellowness too. That is important. Although I can't help wondering whether, if someone gave you a spoonful of yolk but blindfolded you and didn't tell you what it was that you were being given, you would be able to guess - or is seeing that brightness part of the way its taste is perceived? I think I heard something on the radio recently about someone colouring food unusually and people then no longer being able to recognise what they were eating, and I suspect if we were presented with a yolk that wasn't yellow it wouldn't taste nice at all.

Now I think about it though is my difficulty in defining how a yolk tastes actually just a tiny part of a wider problem - is taste itself always virtually impossible to explain? And is that a deficiency of the English language only - or is it something that all languages share?

And yes, I acknowledge, of course, that this post should really be called "No white, all yolk", but a pun is always irresistible. Isn't it?

Monday, 30 October 2017

Before I Forget

I've remembered what the new usage is that makes me shudder more than the now fortunately almost vanished cliché "pig in lipstick".

The new verbal tic that I have a neurotic allergy to is the insertion of the word "ahem" into sentences where it doesn't need to be (does the word "ahem"ever need to be written down actually? Should it ever be given a place in prose on the page?)

Here is an example of what I mean, (including a pretty funny anecdote about Princess Margaret, to sugar the pill):



Oh blast, what am I thinking about? That is not it - but I won't remove it, because it is a good story. This is the piece I meant to insert there:


Admittedly, it is from an article written by James Delingpole, about whom I'm not mad, despite his being very conservative, as I imagine I am, (although in that regard I have been disturbed lately by the dawning realisation that I could never bring myself to even vaguely imagine voting for Jacob Rees-Mogg - but I tell myself that that has nothing to do with political alignment and results entirely from the fact that, to my eye at least, Mogg, like Delingpole, is unedifying; there is something about each man's delicacy and pallor, plus the impression of slight clamminess that each exudes, [but particularly the MP], that will always leave me hesitant about agreeing with any view they express or suggestion they make; and I do acknowledge that that is very unfair and the kind of thing we females ought to be against, with our decades of objectification, blub blub - and no, don't worry, I'm not ever now or in the future going anywhere near the topic of Harvey whateverisnameis - but in my defence all I can do is quote the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who memorably, if unwisely, said "Life's not fair" [or perhaps that was my mother and Fraser's assertion was "Life wasn't meant to be easy", now I come to think of it - but, as we say in the Antipodes, "same diff", plus my mother is infinitely wiser than any Australian politician I can think of so probably more worth listening to.])

Oh, ugh - looking at the Delingpole extract more closely now, I see that it contains not only "ahem" but the pointless interpolation of "Hello" as well, which I reckon is very nearly on a par with "ahem". We are not on the telephone for pity's sake, we are not communicating aurally - the writer cannot just shout at the reader to try to get their attention. Absolutely vulgar and lacking in grace or skill.

Do let me know if you also hate "ahem" - or "hello" (or any other new phrase I have not yet decided to torment myself by loathing). A large part of the pleasure of blogging is discovering you are not entirely alone. Or so I'm told. (Sobs quietly into handkerchief).

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Death in the Heart

Having just finished Elizabeth Bowen's Death of the Heart, my eye was caught by the phrase "death in the heart", referring to something quite different, in PJ Kavanagh's 1975 essay Fear of an Odd Sort:

" ...time ... is the most fearful of all things. Children are time made flesh. To love a child is to love a cloud; a child changes, slips through our fingers, disappears, probably physically but anyway into the adult. It is a love with no end in view save separation. It has to be unselfish enough to encourage that separation, it has no consummation, is nothing except what it is and every day is a fresh blow on the wedge.

Iris Origo says the Japanese have a word for the fear of an odd sort such knowledge causes, something like "a death in the heart". And it is a death, a loss, an education in time and in an impossible unselfishness. We fail, of course, but we think about it and it is worth our thought. "

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Discovering a Loss

Two poets have died in recent days. Richard Wilbur was in his nineties, so his death was not entirely surprising, although I'm not suggesting it wasn't sad for all that. The second though was young - and,  as so often happens, it was only because of his death that I became aware of him. Gerard Fanning was his name and, only now that there are no more where that came from, I discover how good he was.

Here is a poem that appeared in The London Review of Books in 2000:

The Stone House: Dromod Harbour’

Gerard Fanning

Boat piers are much alike.
Stepping ashore at The Stone House,
Doused in the inky stream of Acres Lake
We walk a tarmacadam line
Where curvature comes together
As strands of carmine
Climb through migrant sprays
Of laburnum and maple.
In a wait that slowly accumulates
Until too long, hours refract,
And like a tiptoeing through a glass lean-to
We examine the stills of this romance –
The trays of alpines dusted over,
The hunter’s shot leaving no report,
The tennis court going under –
Trying to fathom that flinty allure
As somehow the wail
Of the long-haul Dublin train
Recalls a man who was falling,
Crying out somewhere
For his coffee-stained hill,
Folding his wings as if all he desired
Was a polished strip
Amongst petrified pines,
Where the stain of silence
Would be heaven sent,
And boat piers would greet the innocent.

I have always half-believed that those who die within a few weeks or months of each other spend a bit of time together, in some indescribable place where their spirits are readied for the mysteries of their next existence. I hope that Wilbur and Fanning are able to enjoy interesting chats while they sit in that celestial waiting room.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Belgian Memories I

I lived in Belgium for three years but left recently. I am planning to write about all the things I will miss/am missing about Belgium. As yet they aren't springing to mind, apart from the wonderful art nouveau architecture, but of course Budapest also is pretty good on the architecture front.

In the meantime, I have to say that one thing I am really not missing about Belgium is the regular experience in any cafe, restaurant or public place of having to go through the men's urinals to get to the women's loos. I don't know how anyone else feels, but for me the excitement of seeing Belgian men pee wore off very quickly.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Battered Penguins - The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen


The Death of the Heart seems to me less really the story of its characters than a kind of evocation of the shattered state of British society following the first world war, in which people are trying with varying degrees of success to cling to the wreckage of something approaching order and largely seem to have lost the instinct to take good care of the young and innocent.

The book opens with a conversation between Anna - a woman, who we later learn has given up the idea of children, after a number of miscarriages, been damaged by an unsatisfactory earlier relationship with a man called Pidgeon and married in a rather dispassionate mood, only to kindle in her husband after the event a passion he finds unquenchable - and St Quentin, her writer friend. They are talking about what Anna has read of the private diary of her orphaned 16-year-old ward, Portia. The conversation takes place as the pair walk in a wintry Regent's Park and faintly echoes the absurd tone of the Monty Python sketch in which Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw trade competitive aphorisms:

"Nothing arrives on paper as it started, and so much arrives that never started at all. To write is always to rave a little" observes St Quentin, continuing, "Style is the thing that's always a bit phoney, and at the same time you cannot write without style."

"Experience isn't interesting till it begins to repeat itself", declares Anna, while the actual writer of the book intrudes from time to time, as she does disconcertingly - and sometimes almost incomprehensibly e.g. "Life militates against the seclusion we seek. In the chaos that suddenly thrusts in, nothing remains unreal, except possibly love"- throughout the novel, with airy observations of her own, such as, "There is something momentous about the height of winter" and "writers find themselves constantly face to face with persons who expect to make free with them."

Portia, we learn is the daughter of Anna's husband Thomas's father and Irene, a dalliance of his, with whom, once found out, he was condemned to spend the years until his death, abroad and in hotels. It is there that Portia has until recently continued living happily with her mother, a woman who knew "that nine out of ten things you do direct from the heart are the wrong thing". As Portia's mother is now dead too, Portia has returned to Britain to live with her half-brother, from whence she is despatched each day to Miss Paullie's, an educational establishment dedicated to teaching girls important things such as that to "carry your bag about with you indoors is a hotel habit", as well as "the deportment of staying still, of feeling yourself watched without turning a hair", a place where "the lunch given the girls was sufficient, simple and far from excellent."

The only person within her own household who really seems to care at all for Portia is Matchett, the housekeeper, whose loyalty is to the furniture, rather than the family. Matchett tells Portia that Thomas's mother was all too pleased to chuck her husband out. "Sacrificers", she explains, "are not the ones to pity. The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice." When Portia protests that the woman "meant to do good", Matchett contradicts her, saying, "No, she meant to do right." Matchett, it is made abundantly clear, is the presiding priestess of the house: "The impassive solemnity of her preparations made a sort of an altar of each bed: in big houses in which things are done properly, there is always the religious element", we are told. She serves the furniture: "Furniture's knowing all right", she claims, "Good furniture knows what's what. It knows it's made for a purpose and it respects itself", she says, adding boastfully, "You can see ten foot into my polish".

Sadly, for a time at least, Portia falls for a young friend of Anna's called Eddie, after he writes her something awfully like a love letter. Eddie is "the brilliant child of an obscure home ... His apparent rushes of Russian frankness proved, when you came to look back at them later, to have been more carefully edited than you had known at the time" and he is "one of those natures in which underground passion is, at a crisis, stronger than policy". It is a mark of Bowen's good writing that just thinking about him now makes me cross. He is a frightful human being, and he is unsurprisingly dreadful to Portia. Their relationship comes to a head when Anna sends Portia away to stay at the seaside with Anna's childhood governess and her stepchildren, where Portia experiences a thoroughly rackety life amongst rather ordinary young people but in some ways feels slightly happier than she had in London. On her return to the city, where she feels unwanted, Portia encounters St Quentin, who tells her that Anna has been reading her diary.

This precipitates a crisis for Portia, but not a very enormous one. She turns to the novel's only two decent and trustworthy characters, Matchett and, before her, Major Brutt, a peripheral figure who has intruded into Anna and Thomas's life by chance and who has shown kindness to Portia, via the presentation of a couple of jigsaws as gifts. I suppose it is neither here nor there who I am fond of in the book, but nevertheless I can't help saying that Major Brutt is the character I like best in the novel. He is a returned soldier, who leads a life of great loneliness and increasing impoverishment in a hotel for paying guests. In describing him, Bowen explains that,

"Makes of men date, like makes of cars; Major Brutt was a 1914-18 model: there was now no market for that make. In fact, only his steadfast persistence in living made it a pity that he could not be scrapped."

Matchett, Brutt's counterpart in solid old-fashioned reliability, eventually comes to some kind of rescue for Portia. She is, after all, the upholder of the past, about which her masters do not care to remember - or at least so she asserts:

"They'd rather no past", she tells Portia, "not have the past, that is to say. No wonder they don't rightly know what they're doing. Those without memories don't know what is what."

The book ends without any real resolution. The various characters are left as they were at the beginning, groping through existence. However, has succeeded in conveying at least to this reader a sense of a society unravelling, a world in which all but a very few feel themselves to have lost their bearings, to be living on unsteady ground.

PS The books three sections are titled: the World; the Flesh; the Devil, as in the Book of Common Prayer's, "From all the deceits of the world, the flesh and the devil, good Lord, protect us". I wish I could say I find this enlightening.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Rake's Decline

The street I lived in in Brussels was never quiet in the daytime. This was mainly due to the reversal of fortune that has come upon the rakes among us. For so many years, the rake's progress seemed unstoppable, but now the damnable leaf blower has put it in decline.

Like so much else that is called progress, I find this development baffling. We live in a world where we are harangued about plastic bags and about not using too much pollutionary energy on this that and the other - and simultaneously made constantly anxious about the rise of obesity and indolence among our ranks. And yet everyone happily acquiesces to the increasing use of a pollutionary machine that reduces the amount of exercise its manipulator takes and doesn't actually do an effective job - if you regard collecting up leaves as the purpose of the exercise, rather than simply blowing them elsewhere.

While I'm having a moan, I'd also like to register how annoying I find the increasing tendency to pronounce issue not as 'ishue' but as 'is-sue'. I heard Rory Stewart is-suing a way madly on Any Questions and thought it might just be a thing of his class - something the rather unappetising Jacob Rees Mogg might be found guilty of but restricted to men who went to Eton or similar. However, yesterday I heard Jack Straw on the Today programme, hissing his way through issue, as if there were no other way of saying the word.  Why does it annoy me? I think it is because I cannot convince myself it isn't an affectation.  It also sounds prissy.

I really need to get a better perspective on existence and stop wasting my energy on things that don't matter. I know. I know.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Brussels Architecture

I lived in Brussels for three years. For most of that time, I sat around staring vacantly at the wall but in my final weeks there, suddenly gripped with a sense of urgency, I began marching about the streets, taking photographs of all the art nouveau buildings I liked, plus buildings with sgraffito, that beloved of Belgian designers decorative form, and those with colourful tiles, (and not only in Brussels, but also in the amazing area of Antwerp called Zurenborg). I am slowly putting the pictures that I took up here , should anyone be interested. I will continue to add to them over time.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Vibe

Someone very, very young asked me the other day, "Can you explain to me why Patti Smith is so great", and I was shocked and horrified. During my youth, almost every moment of my waking life was dedicated to a dream of looking exactly like Patti Smith. Which, given that I have a round, rather undefined, unangular face, fair hair, blue eyes and am solidly built, was always going to be a futile quest.

And actually "exactly like" isn't quite right - it was more that what I wanted was to look as cool as I thought Smith looked on the cover of the album Horses. Which I now recognise might have been a non-existent perpetual state for her and more a product of Robert Mapplethorpe's skilful framing - proof, if it were needed, that photography is truly an art.

Anyway, again the round face, blue eyes et cetera were working against me. Being cool is not something that goes with fair-haired people. It has taken me a long time to realise that, but think about it: even Marilyn Monroe, despite her enormous magnetism and charisma, was never cool. While the lead singer of Blondie may have been, her fairness wasn't real - it came out of a bottle.

Perhaps if Brian Jones had survived, we pale ones could have had a cool, blonde icon. But he didn't, and so now all we have is Boris Johnson - and, while he is many things, he is definitely not cool.

But to return to my young person's question - what was it that made Patti Smith seem a dazzling star in my youthful eyes? I think to understand her effect, you would have to be 19 years old in 1975. The image of her on the front of Horses would have to seem as inspiring and excitingly impossible to achieve as it did then - (the unsmiling stare; the wild, thick, but well-cut hair; the fine boned hands; the thinness that has no hint of frailty; the elegance of a plain white shirt; the confidence; the lack of any attempt to be pretty or pleasing) - and Because the Night would have to be playing on a small transistor radio on a shelf behind the counter in the hamburger joint in Braidwood where you've stopped on a velvety summer night en route to the New South Wales south coast. Like A Whiter Shade of Pale many, many years before it - and White Rabbit in the interim between the two, (although it didn't get much radio airplay in my memory, as it was more 'niche') - Because the Night, there, at that moment, seems startlingly unlike the things that normally come out of transistor radios and contains a note of something haunting and strange.

Novelty, by its very nature, does not last, of course; image is insubstantial. The word zeitgeist was pretty well invented for Patti Smith and Horses. I don't think anything else she did later captured the collective imagination as firmly. All the same, while it lasted, hers was a bright flash in the pan.

And, if I hear Horses now, while I recognise that it isn't tremendously substantial, (given a choice between Because the Night and the overture to Cosi Fan' Tutte, I wouldn't hesitate to take the latter), for me it has many associations. That is the special power of music - a song from a particular moment in your life remains evocative and loaded with nostalgia forever. It is the closest to time travel that most of us ever come.

The funny thing is, I am not actually much of a listener to music and I never have been. I don't even dare admit how little I know or care about so many of the bands and singers that the bulk of my generation admire. Nevertheless, there were records, including Patti Smith's one, that gave me a soundtrack to some bit of my life for a while. Joni Mitchell's Blue, for example, somehow got through to me with at least as much force as Horses. Similarly, by virtue of living in a household that was temporarily obsessed with Linda Ronstadt's album Heart Like a Wheel, the songs from that record conjure up the year I spent finishing off my Russian degree in Melbourne, (reading Anna Karenina in the original to a backdrop of "Some say the heart is just like a wheel, when you bend it, you can't bend it" may at first appear to be a clash of registers, but, on further thought, it actually isn't).

I wonder if others have similar bits of music where the aural equivalent of a glimpse of them - just hearing a snatch of the opening bars as you round a street corner -  can instantly resurrect earlier phases of existence in their minds?

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Way Back Then

I thought all the nonsense that goes with "management" - the away days with butcher's paper, the quarterly upward and downward assessments, the initiatives and restructures and workflow changes and team building - began in the 1970s, but reading Malcolm Bradbury's first novel, Eating People is Wrong, which was written in the 1950s, I came across this passage, in which a sociology academic called Jenkins explains his new academic interest to an English literature professor called Treece:

"'Let me tell you about Group Dynamics' [Jenkins said] ... 'It's a study of the social abrasions that are in-built into every group situation. You know how you feel uncomfortable at parties if you've forgotten to fasten your flies? Well, that's Group Dynamics. It's a new field. At Chicago we were doing experiments to show that the physical constitution of rooms had a big effect on the people who used them. We were doing some experiments with conferences for the Pentagon. You know how at conferences it's usual to use two tables set in a T shape? Well, we were able to prove that certain seats at the table were actually dead seats and that because of various factors - not being able to see the chairman's face in order to observe his reaction, and so on - the people sitting in them were virtually excluded from useful participation in the conference. A similar problem arose with the entry of people into the room; we found that some had to come in first and others last .. well, we knew that, of course; but we found that this tended to dramatise latent status problems. That is, people uncertain about their status in relation to others present were made aware of the quandary when it came to the problem of whether to enter the room first, or in the middle, or last. So, you see, we were able to make some useful recommendations; but the feeling that's left is that if only social engineering can get around to enough things, life will be a bowl of cherries.'

Treece said: 'I hope you don't mind my asking this, but what were the recommendations you made?'

'The recommendations?' asked Jenkins. 'Well, actually what we recommended was that conferences should use a circular table, and a circular room, and a separate door in the wall for each participant. I don't know whether the Pentagon are actually using this yet, but I fancy they will.'

'I see,', said Treece. 'I see.' He turned and looked around the room, with a mystified and oddly tired eye; if all the chairs had been filled with horses, instead of with lecturers and professors taking coffee in their latitudinal quiet, it would have seemed no odder to him than the conversation from which he had just emerged, as from some long black tunnel. Are there then, he asked with a mind that seemed over the last few minutes to have grown quaintly old-fashioned, in the cast of some barbarian confronted with Athens at its heyday, are there then people who do that and call it thought?"

Sunday, 1 October 2017

The Dangers of a Visual Age

Perhaps because I have never been a big one for idolatry, especially of my fellow human beings, I never was convinced by the cult of Aung San Suu Kyi. Mind you, I have always suspended my disbelief for Vaclav Havel - while I know he liked a drink and a fag and who knows what else, the clarity of his thought was over bowling.

The difference between the two leaders has been articulated better than I can by Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, quoted in an article about Aung San Suu Kyi in the current issue of the New Yorker:

"Havel came to his position by saying a lot, by being a moral voice. Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t say much at all. She was a moral symbol, and we read into that symbol certain virtues, which turned out to be wrong when she actually began speaking."

Words, not pictures - that is the way to pick your leaders.