Saturday, 30 May 2015

Are You Going to Scarborough Fair?

Well don't - unless you want to be depressed. We did a few years ago and were shocked by the signs of decline in the town that contains Anne Bronte's grave.

This Theodore Dalrymple article, which I just came across, although it was published in the Spectator in 2011, is exceptional in the clarity of its description of the place and its analysis of what has gone wrong - not just in Scarborough:

"If it is evidence of the decline of British civilisation that you are after, you cannot do better than go to Scarborough. It is precisely because the material traces of that civilisation are still so much in evidence there, albeit dolefully altered, that the impression is so strong and so painful. 
The town retains its wonderful position, of course. One is still struck immediately on arrival by ‘the freshness of the air, so different from what is breathed in the interior of England’, as described by Dr John Kelk in his The Scarborough Spa, its new chemical analysis and medicinal uses; to which is added, On the Utility of the Bath (3rd ed. 1855). To see people walking their dogs and playing with them on the beach is to be reminded of the simplicity of many of the greatest pleasures in life. And the custom of endowing a public bench in memory of departed parents, schoolteachers, appreciative visitors or local notables, so that strangers might sit and contemplate the splendid view in silence, has always seemed to me a noble one. 
But there is no disguising the very considerable impoverishment of the town, an impoverishment that is actually characteristic of a high proportion of the country. This impoverishment is as much of the spirit as economic: nowhere in the world (at least nowhere known to me, including very many poorer places) do you see such a concentration of people who have given up on themselves, or rather, who never had any self-respect to give up on. 
What one sees is a purely materialist society that is not even very good materialism, for it does not promote even those mental and moral disciplines that promote material success. A large proportion of the population has been left to the mercies of a popular culture whose main characteristic is the willing suspension of intelligence, and which does not merely fail to inculcate refinement, grace, elegance and the desire for improvement, but actively prevents them and causes them to be feared and despised. An inability and unwillingness to discriminate always leads, by default, to the overgrowth of the worst, from which the better can never recover. 
The magnificent architectural heritage of Scarborough has been not so much destroyed as comprehensively spoilt by a combination of the ceaseless social engineering that, mysteriously enough, never results in the social equality that is it supposedly designed to bring about, and the rampant, cheap and short-term commercialism that such engineering inevitably calls forth: for the more you suppress the opportunities to make money, the less constructive will be the means by which people strive to make it. And what Scarborough demonstrates, apart from architectural vandalism, is architectural spivvery.
It is true that the centre of the town has been subjected, like almost everywhere else in Britain, to the destructive impulses of the modernist brute, by comparison with which the Luftwaffe employed mere pea-shooters. The architectural historian, Anthony Vidler, described the modernist sensibility as the desire to escape history and raze the past as a kind of therapeutic procedure: a barbaric, egoistic and fundamentally stupid sensibility, if sensibility is quite the word for it. 
But this is not what has done most harm to Scarborough’s architectural heritage, bad enough as its effect has been. It is the short-term commercialism of the kind that a truly commercial nation would not display, combined with the total indifference to aesthetic considerations that years of non-discrimination have made second nature among us.
Scarborough’s Esplanade and its hinterland contains some of the most splendid Victorian domestic architecture anywhere in the country, much of it in honey-coloured stone. The architects built terraces and squares of great elegance and aesthetic unity (I remember, with rage, how in my childhood the term Victorian was still one not only of moral, but of aesthetic abuse, meaning that one could do no damage to a Victorian building because there was nothing there to damage). 
The unity of these terraces and squares was destroyed, once and for all, by the humble mansard, cheaply inserted in practically every building with no regard for the overall appearance of the individual building or the whole district, which were in fact inseparable. All this was done in the 1960s and 1970s, almost certainly using the argument of economic necessity (no doubt the owners of the Crown Hotel, built in 1840, argued precisely this); the owners sought and obtained the permission of a complaisant and corrupt council — at least, one hopes it was corrupt, for any other motive is too horrible to contemplate.
What these mansards show, apart from a desire to pack as many people in and secure as much rent as possible, is the egotistical narrowing of people’s considerations. The view of the sea from picture windows was no doubt gratifying from the point of people looking out; but this was at the expense of people not in, but looking at, the building. The mansards were and are a symptom of the increasing atomisation of our society, an atomisation in part brought about, or at any rate accelerated, by social engineering, all with devastating aesthetic, or anti-aesthetic, effect. 
Whether or not my analysis of the causes is correct, the lack of pride, egotism and cheap commercialism are evident everywhere in the town. The Grand Hotel, for example, was once the largest and grandest in Europe. ‘The tastes and tendencies of the present age,’ wrote a Scarborough journalist at the time of its opening in 1867, ‘are towards greatness, vastness of enterprise, magnificence of appearance.’ Actually, the building is far from my favourite in the town, but it undoubtedly has a magnificence of its own. Now the marble pillars of the portico are used mainly to support bronchitics, exiled from indoors, as they puff desperately at their fags. Criminally vulgar posters, advertising cheap meals and rooms, are posted on the dirty windows, surrounded by finely crafted architectural detail. 
Everywhere there are small, as well as large, signs of degeneration. At Anne Brontë’s grave (she died and is buried in Scarborough), there was a small bouquet of flowers — stuck in a dirty jam-jar. 
No greatness, no vastness of enterprise (WH Smith, Tesco and Poundsaver don’t count), no magnificence of appearance. We are barbarians living in the ruins of a civilisation."

Friday, 29 May 2015

The News Cycle

Three years ago on its evening television current affairs programme, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation screened a shocking story about a small Aboriginal community in New South Wales. I remember being horrified and baffled at the time that we were letting such terrible things happen in our own country - and still feeling proud of ourselves.

It was one of those disturbing stories that presented you with something you would like to do something about but provided no clue about what you might be able to do. Here is the transcript:

:Despite tens of millions of dollars of government funding over two decades, issues around living conditions and housing problems still plague the town of Toomelah, on the border of New South Wales and Queensland.

 CHRIS UHLMANN, PRESENTER: Australia's one of the richest countries in the world, Sydney the 7th most expensive city, yet just hours away from such privilege and wealth lies a community in turmoil and decay. The scale of the dysfunction locked inside the tiny Aboriginal mission of Toomelah is breathtaking. In recent week there's have been rumours of a government-led intervention, or of a complete relocation. Those rumours have amounted to nothing. But the people of Toomelah and the children living amidst the turmoil desperately need help. How has it come to this? Caro Meldrum-Hanna has this special report.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA, REPORTER: It's 11pm on a Thursday night, and on the streets of this small Aboriginal community it's unusually quiet. It's bitterly cold, but a group of indigenous children is roaming the streets. They've just lit a bonfire to stay warm.

(speaking to children) So you will be up until midnight, 1am?

ADOLESCENT: About 3, 3:30.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: 3:30 in the morning? And then you go to school?


CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Does everyone go to school here?

CHILD: We got expelled.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What happened?

CHILD: Took the teacher's car.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: You took the teacher's car?

CHILD: Yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: A few streets away, inside one house the sounds of another long drinking session begin. They will be at it 'til dawn.

Behind me is the Aboriginal mission of Toomelah, located just inside the NSW/Queensland border and surrounded by the muddy waters of the Macintyre River. It sprang to life in 1937 - originally a Pentecostal mission. But today the religious influence is long gone, and the passage of time has not been kind to Toomelah.

This is the local primary school. Considering some of the 52 children enrolled here have been up all night, surprisingly most of them are here today. It's lunchtime but the school canteen isn't open. In fact, it hasn't been open for months. Instead, there's a mobile food truck driven in and out every day.

KAREN STEWART, CATERER: With the canteen it was run by the school but they closed it down because of the number of break-ins, and it was just constant.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It's certainly been put to me that for many kids here this would be actually be maybe their first meal, but possibly their only meal for the day?

KAREN STEWART: That's probably a fair comment, yeah, I would say, yeah.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Children and parents are drifting in from outside the school gates. That's because there's nowhere else to buy food. The local shop is vandalised and boarded up.

RENE ADAMS, TOOMELAH CO-OP: You know, they go home crying to mum and dad if there's nothing in the house for them to eat. You know, they look at our community and say, "Well they're all alcoholics out there. Why are they drinking? What else is there to do? There's no access to employment out here, there's no access to programs. You go and blame that Federal Government down there, they made the decisions. They put us here to start with."

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: For decades the mission and its people went unnoticed and ignored until Marcus Einfeld, then-president of the Human Rights Commission, crossed the divide in 1987, and launched an investigation into the living conditions and the state of housing inside Toomelah. What he found shamed the nation, and forced the Government into action.

MARCUS EINFELD, PRESIDENT, HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION (1988): Well, it should have been drawn to the attention more loudly and more often and you should have stood on the steps of the buildings until they provided the services.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: After that, the dirt roads were paved, housing was built, a sewage system was put in place. But despite the tens of millions of dollars worth of government funding that has poured in over two decades, and the involvement of dozens of government agencies, the problems that plague the Toomelah of yesteryear are somehow still present. Children are still exposed to raw sewage.

(to Sharon Duncan) So Sharon, we're at the back of your property here, and I can see it right in front of us here, that would be the raw sewage?

SHARON DUNCAN, TOOMELAH RESIDENT: Yep, there's been there for two and a half months now.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Just starting to pick up the smell of it too now.

SHARON DUNCAN: Yeah. My baby got sick from it, my one year old.

GLYNIS MCGRADY, TOOMELAH ELDER: It's simple basic stuff to other people in this country but to the people in Toomelah, you know, it's... there's a huge difference in the stories about living in the so-called "lucky country".

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: And the chronic levels of unemployment that existed decades ago have gone from bad to worse. Since four years ago, when the Federal Government wound up the work for the dole program, the CDEP.

RENE ADAMS: So what did they do? They turned to drugs and alcohol. These are men, proud men that were working in their community for their own community; they were seen as a role model for their children because Mum and Dad got up and went to work.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: On the other side of town, Toomelah resident Norman McGrady took us to the community hall. It used to look like this. Once the heart of Toomelah, today it's broken.

NORMAN MCGRADY, TOOMELAH RESIDENT: We used to have discos in this hall and I just don't know what happened, how it come to be like this here.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: We went to the local oval, only to discover that the community's champion football team, the Toomelah Tigers, stopped playing years ago. We found the team's former captain, Michael McGrady, at the nearby pub. He recently returned to Toomelah after nine months in prison.

MICHAEL MCGRADY, TOOMELAH RESIDENT: A bit of a shock when I went out there see Toomelah like that. Breaks your heart.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What did you see?

MICHAEL MCGRADY: I see a mission like no one cares.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Since Michael McGrady left, the Toomelah gym has also been destroyed. Tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment torn out, dumped and left to rot.

NORMAN MCGRADY: We had over millions and millions and millions of dollars put in this community, and we've got jack shit... sorry, we've got jack... sorry, nothing to show for it, you know, nothing to show for it! Nothing.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Where's the money gone?

NORMAN MCGRADY: That's a good question.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: There are now allegations of rorting and mispropation of government funding, and revelations that the local Aboriginal Land Council hasn't filed financial reports or audits for three years.

(to Glynis McGrady) So has it ever been as bad as this?

GLYNIS MCGRADY: Not that I recall, but this is the worst that I've seen it, you know, in my time. Very unsafe.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Local elder and resident, Glynis McGrady, has witnessed the ongoing trauma of Toomelah. Today, the rate of self harm and suicide is on the rise.

GLYNIS MCGRADY: Yeah, present in a huge way. We used... you know, our organisation used to work with support people who were sort of trying to commit suicide, and on average probably... you know, on average, there's sometimes up to three a week.

SHARON DUNCAN: And we do need help, a lot of help. But mainly I reckon the main concern is, like, the young ones. They need help big time, because they are the ones that hasn't got nothing to do, they get that bored, and once they get bored, look what happens.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: This is what happens. Street brawls and fights, fueled by drugs and alcohol.

Sharon Wittwer is a former drug and alcohol worker at Toomelah. 

(to Sharon Wittwer) What did the alcohol and drug abuse lead to, what sort of breakdown and dysfunction?

SHARON WITTWER, FORMER DRUG AND ALCOHOL WORKER: Domestic violence, children being abused, women being abused, youth suicide... terrible stuff.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It would have been very distressing working at the front line?


CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: It's clearly stayed with you.

After two years working at the coalface, Sharon Wittwer left Toomelah. She said child sexual abuse was rife, and the abusers were tolerated.

SHARON WITTWER: I don't understand why people who are paedophiles are allowed to live in the community, I don't. If it was a community and people worked together the way they used to in communities, in Aboriginal communities, that wouldn't have been allowed. They would have been turfed out.

MICHAEL MCGRADY: Kids being abused? Yep. In my time there was a lot, but can't say who. Yeah, that's what happened. Too hard to explain it, you know. Yeah... but it did.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: That happened?

MICHAEL MCGRADY: Yeah, that happened.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: And that has stayed with you?

MICHAEL MCGRADY: Yeah. It happened.

GLYNIS MCGRADY: Young children... how would I put it... below the ages of, you know, five, that have actually been raped, I mean, physically raped. The victims, you know, the young kids can actually see their perpetrators coming and walking, and they start trembling and shaking and all that sort of stuff and having nightmares - that stuff continues, yeah.

MAUREEN KNIEPP, FORMER TOOMELAH NURSE: There would not be a family at Toomelah or Boggabilla that is not affected in some way by child abuse and neglect.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: For 18 years Maureen Kniepp was the community nurse alternate Toomelah health clinic. Over that time she says she was exposed to the most extreme cases of child sexual abuse imaginable.

MAUREEN KNIEPP: Things that happen at night, sometimes the children are not capable of going to school because of their physical appearance after having been abused during the night.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: The abuse is to such an extent that they physically cannot get themselves to school?


CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: At one point, the abuse travelled outside the Indigenous community and began to trade at the nearby Boggabilla truck stop.

MAUREEN KNIEPP: The girls were going to truckies, and they were performing sexual favours for cigarettes and money.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: How old were the girls?

MAUREEN KNIEPP: Between, I think, nine and 12 at the time.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: Maureen Kniepp reported the incident, and the authorities intervened. But many more reports and pleas for help went unanswered. And the trauma of Toomelah has changed her forever.

MAUREEN KNIEPP: I wasn't sleeping, I was drinking a lot of alcohol, I was very depressed, a lot of crying, a lot of soul-searching - yeah, it took a lot out of me.

CARO MELDRUM-HANNA: What were you searching for?

MAUREEN KNIEPP: Just to come to terms with how things are; that these things are really happening and there's nothing we can do to change things, it has to come from within."

A few months after the report, a young girl died in a house in Toomelah. It caught fire with three children in it and no adults at home. 

I have searched the Internet but found no more recent references to Toomelah. The media caravan appears to have moved on. The appalling actions of trusted priests in small country towns has taken over as the focus of our disbelief and disgust for the moment. Then there is the epidemic of the drug 'ice' in country towns - and on and on it goes.

What might help in Toomelah and places like it? The reporter mentions early on that 'religious influence is long gone'. I suspect the majority might well think the disappearance of the church is a good thing - except that it appears that with its departure all trace of a moral framework vanished too.

More importantly, the basic things that make up what Vaclav Havel called the civil society seem to be missing, and why this is I cannot understand. It appears that there is no authority in Toomelah willing to protect the Toomelah children from predators - or, indeed, to protect their elders from descending into drunkenness. Penal solutions rarely work in indigenous situations, but just letting it all drift, letting people go unhindered when they neglect their children and, worse, damage them horribly is not something that should be allowed. 

Somewhere in our house I have a book of the reminiscences of administrators of the British empire in India. My husband bought it for me because it includes the memoir of an ancestor of mine. I read what he had to say when I first got the book and was deeply disappointed by his banality - his essential point was that, provided you put in very efficient and thorough methods of accounting, everything else will flow from that. Society will run smoothly and fairly. 

Alas, I realise that blood is actually thicker than water; I now see the world through similarly dull, bureaucratic eyes. That is to say, I am increasingly of the opinion that almost every problem of poverty, social disaster et cetera that exists in the world would be if not solved certainly greatly improved by the application of reliable, orderly governmental procedures.

And I still don't understand what good reporters think they are doing when they bring us tales of horror and malfunction and then leave us gasping, unable to work out what we can do to help. If there isn't some constructive point to this kind of reporting, it must surely be mere titillation. 

Who knows. It used to have the point that it did at least sell papers. But apparently it no longer even does that. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2015


I needed some anchovies today. On the shelves of the local shop were a bewildering variety. I could have chosen the cheapest. I could have chosen the smallest tin.

Instead I chose a rather expensive brand, because the traditional - or possibly retro - design appealed to me:

Those adorable little sailor figures, the simple beauty of the design, won me over.

It is probably not very sensible to be swayed by the look of a package when buying foodstuffs but, as someone said to me long ago, sometimes there is too much choice and that is the hardest thing.

Which is not my way of saying I want to go back to the kind of supermarkets I saw in Ceausescu's Romania, which had nothing in them except a few jars of greying peas, complete with hand-typed labels glued on any old how - and, in one memorable case, on a counter a saucer which contained a lump of something really horrible, congealing in a puddle of oil and skewered with a toothpick on which someone had fastened a handlettered sign that read "Crap".

Tuesday, 26 May 2015


I'm not sure if I've already mentioned this but, when we were in Budapest a month or so ago, we remembered how, when we'd been looking for a house, a local architect had tried to persuade us to take one that was potentially lovely although fairly, (all right, extremely), battered. He assured us that it would be ready within the year (the year being 1999), which was fine as our lease was only running out in a year's time.

I was all for it, but my husband, while seeing the potential, was a bit hesitant. He wasn't entirely convinced by the architect's promises.

On a walk in April of this year, (i.e. 2015, some 16 years later), we found ourselves in the vicinity of that house. As we had always half regretted letting it slip through our fingers, we decided to go and see how it looked in its reincarnated renovated form.

As it happened, we had absolutely no trouble recognising it. Here is why:

I think the only progress made in the last 16 years is that the renovators have bought some better fitting bin bags for the windows. Meanwhile, the organisation for which we were seeking a house has packed up and left Budapest. It may return one day - perhaps in a decade or two. Who knows whether the house will be ready by then or whether it will remain frozen in its melancholy, could-be-lovely state.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Modern Manners

At the moment, my life includes rather a lot of giving hospitality to strangers. I have been through similar phases before but one thing has changed since those earlier times. At some point in the interim, some bright spark decided that, along with each invitation, a request for information about guests' dietary requirements should be included.

Whereas I was brought up to accept anything I was given, cutting it up and pushing it round the plate if necessary or rearranging it so that I appear to have eaten quite a lot of it  and am now too full to finish, the people of today seem to have no such qualms. To demand something special when someone has been kind enough to offer you dinner or afternoon tea or whatever would be extremely churlish, according to the principles I was raised on. Hah - here is a typical example of what happens now:

Friday, 22 May 2015

Calling All Bowerbirds

I love a good auction - and quite soon in London there is going to be a beauty. I don't actually need any of the stuff on sale, but I'd love to have some of it. If you want to disappear down a pleasant electronic rabbit hole for an hour or two, here is the catalogue link. It is in a good cause, provided you are fond of Bamber Gascoigne

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Print Me a Ming Vase, Darling

I am a crank about crafts. I believe we would all be happier if we made things regularly. This view has got me into trouble on occasion.

For instance, I remember asking a mature-age student radical, after he'd explained to me that until he was 35 he'd been a cabinetmaker, why he thought studying political science and anthropology was a better way to live his life. The question was evidence that I was a patronising snob, apparently.

But I wasn't being patronising. I genuinely thought spending your life making things would be a deeply satisfying way to earn a crust.

I even took my enthusiasm so far as to incorporate it into what I, totally absurdly, sometimes like to refer to as 'my career'. That is to say, I worked for a while at the Crafts Council of Great Britain, (now defunct, I believe), on their magazine, Crafts, (also now defunct, I think).

To my surprise, I soon began to notice that my colleagues at the council didn't appear to be quite as keen on crafts as I was. But perhaps, I told myself, it was just that they were English and therefore less noisy and demonstrative than me, an Australian (or at least a half-Australian).

That worked for a while but one day, during a discussion about how we ought to do more articles on textiles, the truth became distressingly clear. In the course of conversation, I let slip the fact that I liked making patchworks from old clothes.

The reaction was an icy silence. The magazine's editor, (a woman who is the only occasionally-sung inventor of the phrase 'Sloane Ranger', [Peter York sometimes mentions that it was her, but usually allows it to be assumed that he thought it up himself]), looked at me in horrified amazement.

'Ugh', she said, 'I hate making things.'

Looking back, I think I may be able to faintly discern some of the reasons that Crafts and the Crafts Council have both since vanished.

The council certainly didn't help itself, at least in my view by, in its dying days, organising a V & A exhibition that was supposed to showcase English crafts. I went along to this exhibition, with very -(naively) - high hopes.

My hopes, needless to say, were quickly dashed. While they did have the odd item of traditional, richly skilled craft, the exhibition's organisers  reserved their real excitement and enthusiasm for brand-new technology - most especially 3D printing.

The exhibition was my introduction to 3D printing. This was about 10 years ago and at the time I'd never heard of the process before. It seemed kind of amazing, if you find machines extruding things amazing, but nothing about it, so far as I could see, could be described as a traditional English craft.

Leaving that quibble aside, there is no denying that 3D printing has been on the rise ever since. Nowadays, most people seem to agree that the process is going to revolutionise everything from medicine to house construction. At an exhibition in Brussels the other day, I saw a bicycle on display, together with some armchairs, all produced by 3D printing. Everything in the exhibition was very impressive, inasmuch as things made out of plastic can be very impressive.

But, leaving aside the fact that, so far as I can tell a 3D printer has not yet managed to extrude a walnut-veneered Beidermeier chest of drawers or a mahogany library table with a gold-tooled leather top, there is one other aspect of the new global 3D-printing enthusiasm that bothers me: namely, the aspect that involves relying on printers.

As my younger daughter wisely observed to me the other day, while all our other gadgets leap forward in their speed and ability to perform miracles, there remains one area of machinery that seems to have got stuck in the 1980s and that area is: printers. You can flash pictures across the world in an instant, you can chat away to people in Australia while you sit in Europe, you can discover the dates of Carolingian dynasties in a millisecond, (supposing you want to), but, when it comes to printing out a letter, you are stuck in an earlier age of recalcitrant equipment, sweating and cursing as you wrench mangled, ink-smeared bits of paper from the maw of your printer, hovering beside it, like a nursemaid by a baby's cradle, for the entire time it is required to function (Warning: do not watch this clip if you object to swearing):

Given this reality, how is the 3D revolution going to work exactly? If we can't manage to produce a printer that doesn't jam, exhaust itself of ink or that powdery laser substance, (of which there always seems to be more than enough to blacken your fingers and add smuts to odd bits of your face, when you take the old cartridge out to change it), or simply go on strike for no clear reason at all, how are we going to manage to build whole cities with the things, as some people are predicting?

Or perhaps I have suddenly hit upon the solution to the inevitable post-automation rise in unemployment. All the people who used to make the things that the 3D printers will now be making for us will get lovely new 3D jobs instead - they will be paid to spend their lives standing beside the 3D printing machines, soothing them into operating without a hitch.

Or mightn't it be better just to go on using our hands and our eyes, slowly accruing greater and greater skill and gaining huge satisfaction from  making things ourselves?

Monday, 18 May 2015

Too Good for Puns

It would be far too easy, when setting out to write about Cologne, to make some pathetic joke about 4711 or Eau de. But I'm not going to, because I am too genuinely impressed to start taking the mickey.

What I am impressed by is the Wallraf Museum - or more particularly by its curators, most especially the people who write the information that goes up on its galleries' walls.

At last I have found a gallery where they actually tell you something that is helpful, something that gives you a genuine insight into what the artists who made the work on display were actually trying to do, something that helps you understand the perspective of the people who first stood in front of that work many centuries ago. At last I have found a gallery that provides a few keys to start unlocking the world of the past, helping you to look - if only fleetingly and dimly - through the eyes of the people of the time.

I may be exposing my startling ignorance - far from the first time, alas - but until I went into the Wallraf, I was unaware that there was more than a decorative reason for the golden backgrounds in medieval paintings. One of the wall captions brought me this revelation:

"A gilded background is commonly found in mediaeval panel paintings because it is seen as the embodiment of divine light."

I should have guessed, I suppose, but I am remarkably unimaginative. It was wonderful to look at pictures like this with a new understanding:

Simone Martini, Siena c.1284 - 1344 Avignon, Mary with the Child 1316-1317

Again, a floor above, in a gallery of paintings made some two hundred years later, I came across one of those paintings that have always somewhat baffled me - the ones that show a carcase hanging in an unknown room. The wise soul behind the scenes at the Wallraf understood my predicament. After all my years of wandering round galleries, brow furrowed, wondering why people long ago painted pictures of raw meat, enlightenment came at last:

"This gaping, eviscerated carcase of a sow is hanging from a beam in the hallway of a farmhouse. All the details of the creature's body, its skeleton, the muscles, the layers of fat and the sinews are brightly lit. The shudder we feel at the sight of the pig's opened body is enough to remind us of our own deaths. The warnings against immoderation are given here with none of the joys of a narrative accompaniment":

Joachim Beuckelaer, Antwerp c. 1533-1574, A Slaughtered Pig

I won't go on and on and on, although there was so much of interest - explanations of pictures that were really a kind of prototype of today's graphic novels:

Labelled "The Passion in Cinemascope" this is by a Master of the Passion who worked in Cologne between 1415 and 1440. The painting was made between 1430 and 1435 and is called the Passion of Christ in 31 Scenes. If you can persuade two friends to lay their Ipads side by side with yours, you might be able to get an idea of the thing as a whole

This is captioned, "Narrating with pictures, Cologne style (as opposed to Gangnam style?). It was made by an unknown Cologne artist between 1450 and 1460 and is a Devotional Picture with 12 scenes of the life of Christ

of how egg tempera was made; of the evolving approach to landscape and portraiture; of how painters developed luminous colour through layering coats of paints .....

I said I wouldn't go on but I can't resist quoting from one more wall board, this one more general in scope than those I've quoted up until now. It is an introduction to an entire room. In this text, the writer tries to help the visitor understand the approach to existence that was prevalent at the time the pieces on display were made. There were many equally instructive wallboards in other rooms, deomonstraing, I believe, the thought that the people at the Wallraf museum have given to what the institution is trying to do.

I applaud them and I wish other art galleries would follow their example. Unfortunately, in my experience most museum administrations provide either bare historical facts about a painter - dates, who he painted for, very little more - or very abstract comments about harmony of colour and composition that don't clarify much at all. Here is how they do it in Cologne. It works for me:

"Vision and Reality
In this gallery one can feel the enormous tension which accompanied people's lives during the late Middle Ages, an era of change.On the one side was the daily reality that surrounded them: human environments from the town and country crept into the altarpieces in the form of backgrounds. On the other side there was the prospect of life after death. This was linked with hopes of eternal life in Paradise, but also with fears of punishment in Hell's fire. The painters developed specific forms and ideas to depict these opposites. One ingenious Cologne painter "portrayed" the river and land sides of his home town on the front and rear sides of a panel. But for a visionary subject, the apparition of Mary and Jesus, that same artist used a number of large rounded forms. They are arranged rhythmically, or indeed almost musically in his composition. A comparison between this "Glorification of the Virgin" and the neighbouring paintings reveals that such large, rounded forms were in fact a highly popular means of depicting mysterious and mystical visions of the end of time. Unlike people today, history was not regarded in the Middle Ages as flowing ever onward. The understanding of history at that time was "teleological", which is to say directed towards a goal. The goal and simultaneously the end of history was the Last Judgement and the Apocalypse, the Resurrection of Humankind, and the descent of the New Jerusalem (Paradise) to Earth. This serves as the common denominator of the quite diverse paintings in this gallery":

To leaven all this dry stuff, here are a few pictures I thought were particularly charming - or, in the case of the last one, just very, very striking and somehow more modern than its time:

Somehow I didn't write down the details of this, but a great many nuns get massacred, St Ursula may be involved and it is all set beside the city of Cologne. I am especially fond of the fish - and the fisherman look a bit like something out of Tove Jansson's Who Will Comfort Toffle. The next few pictures are all of it. Again some friendly Ipads laid side by side may allow a full view of the entire thing

Look, look, there is Cologne cathedral - and, so remarkably, it is still there today

Perhaps I went overboard a bit with this picture (overboard, geddit? Yes, it's true, I can't really completely rid this blog of puns) but for some reason it appeals to me a lot and I've not seen anything quite like it

This was captioned, "And One More Spoonful for Daddy" & the text explained that every single object in it has a significance beyond the ordinary, (loaf of bread & jug of wine point towards Last Supper, etc). It is by Jacob Jansz who worked in Harlem between 1483 & 1509 & it is called The Holy Family at Table. It was painted between 1495 & 1500

 I was too hopelessly sloppy to note down who painted this lovely tryptych, but I like the animals and the background landscapes shown in the next few photographs of details of it

This is the Birth of Christ by Aert Claesz (Aertgen van Leyden) who lived in Leiden from 1498 to 1564 and painted this between 1525 and 1530. I find it fascinating - that great red figure with its back to us; and look at his(?) shoes

If you want to see more pictures, you can look at Swanning around, my tumblr account, or my Instagram, zedmkc - I will try to get round to putting more up there before too long. I only saw a small bit of the collection, so I will also add more to the tumblr next time I visit Cologne.

Oh crumbs, I almost forgot - the museum also contains possibly the ugliest thing ever produced in the Middle Ages, something they describe as a piece of Medieval multimedia - that is to say a painting with horrid ceramic heads sticking out of it. If you're going to the Wallraf with children, for goodness sake don't let them see it; it's the stuff of nightmares, it really is:

Made in Cologne between 1425 and 1435, but no-one is owing up to it, it is called Christ on the Cross between Mary and John

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Why I Am Buying a Mask

A long train journey provides an opportunity to catch up on old New Yorkers. In a slightly too lengthy article on developments in artificial intelligence, in the issue of 19 January, I just read this passage::

"By scanning facial action units, computers can now outperform most people in distinguishing social smiles from those triggered by spontaneous joy, and in differentiating between faked pain and genuine pain. They can determine if a patient is depressed. Operating with unflagging attention, they can register expressions so fleeting that they are unknown even to the person making them. 

[Its co-inventor] often emphasizes that this technology can read only facial expressions, not minds, but Affdex is marketed as a tool that can make reliable inferences about people’s emotions—a tap into the unconscious."

Right - that is the last you'll see of me (inasmuch as you have seen anything of me to begin with) - I'm off to scour the Internet for a full-face mask.

Friday, 15 May 2015

I'm On the Train

Actually I'm not. But I was a couple of days ago, and I will be again tomorrow, and it made me a bit gloomy. Not all of it; I love train travel. But one aspect on this occasion troubled me. It's not something new; I think I've always been vaguely aware of it. Until the day before yesterday though I'd never focussed on it properly before.

And who knows, perhaps I'm making too much of it. Maybe I'd just got into a slightly pessimistic mood because I spent most of the journey reading Deception by Edward Lucas, which is about the largely unrecognised danger that Russia poses to Western countries. It is a very good book, but not exactly cheery.

Anyway, as the hours passed and the countryside of Europe rolled by the window, I began to realise that, extremely quickly, I was growing ridiculously territorial about the little space I occupied in the train carriage I'd chosen. After a mere couple of hours, I started to feel that this was my domain and people shouldn't think they could just march right in and spread themselves out, if I hadn't invited them.

Before I knew it, I was brimming with resentment. At each new station, I would see a fresh horde of passengers scrambling on, and I didn't feel welcoming. As they rumbled suitcases up and down the aisle or tramped through in backpacked troops, scouting for seats, I felt cross at their presumption. What gave them the right to come in here and take up my space? How dare they, these invading aliens? Why didn't they just rack off somewhere else - ideally, back to wherever they'd come from?

So much for tolerance. But let's hope I'm just a particularly unpleasant human being. If not, I'm worried. If other people experience the same kind of thing - if they also rapidly start to feel they have rights over train carriages or corners of cafes or cosy little back rooms in country pubs, places that they are only passing through themselves, places they don't really have any emotional investment in, then heaven help us when it comes to our feelings in our own homes, our own regions, our own districts when faced with the arrival of the homeless and the desperate, who these days are increasingly flooding across the world,

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Having a Lend

I was fairly astonished by the dress Mrs Cameron chose to wear on the day after the UK election, espeacially when it was claimed that it cost £915 - how could any dress cost that much, let alone such a horrid one?

But then I looked in Stella magazine, and I realised Mrs Cameron had actually been doing the best she could. The clothes Stella was proposing were so very much worse than what she had on that I had to conclude British shops are full of nothng but unwearable things and Mrs Cameron simply took the least unwearable thing she could find.

If you don't believe me, just look at these garments, which I don't believe anyone could be persuaded to wear voluntarily, let alone pay good money for - they seem almost wilfully designed to make the person inside them look an utter dork:

 And, no, so far as I can tell neither of the above outfits are meant for pregnant women.
I'm ashamed to say this could have been me in 1975 or so, but I have learnt my lesson since then
Yards and yards of buttoned denim flapping round your ankles. I fear a repetition of that 18th century suicide who left a note that said, simply, "All this buttoning and unbuttoning

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Hey Mr Postman

I've never been convinced by Tolstoy's "all happy families are alike" statement at the start of Anna Karenina. It's not a claim that can ever be proved or refuted definitively, of course, especially as the terms are never sufficiently defined. All the same, judging purely by my own small experience of family, I can't help having my doubts.

For a start, I regard myself as coming from a happy family, and yet my parents are divorced. I suspect Count Tolstoy would therefore argue that a) we aren't actually a proper family and b) we can't possibly have been happy. Yet we are - or were; sadly, my father is dead - in our own peculiar way.

Additionally, I have now created my own offshoot of the mother-ship family unit, and, while I would claim it fits fairly neatly into Tolstoy's category, I can't say it looks particularly like anyone else's version of a happy family

On the other hand, had Tolstoy rejigged his statement and started Anna Karenina with the statement, "All post offices are alike", I wouldn't be able to raise a single objection. I probably wouldn't have gone on to read the rest of Anna Karenina, mind you, but would that have mattered? At least the great man would have been articulating a genuinely unarguable, universal truth.

Sadly, Tolstoy let his readers down on this point - which was why it took me until last Tuesday afternoon to recognise it for myself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was in a post office at the moment that the revelation came to me.

Strangely enough, in superficial terms, the post office I was in was actually somewhat unusual. That is to say, it was not grimy, or cluttered with cheap plastic gadgets and second-rate cookbooks that no-one would think of buying unless they had been driven mad by standing in a queue for over half an hour. In fact, it appeared to have been fairly recently renovated. Instead of dirty linoleum floors and bare fluorescent tubes on the ceiling and dirty little marks on the wall where a decade ago some notice had been sellotaped to the effect that post office workers were no longer supplying some service the public wanted or that the Post Master General had decreed that customers couldn't send parcels between the hours of three and four thirty on Thursday afternoons, there were clean floor tiles and the walls were freshly painted. I suspect there were countless plastic-coated wire bins, filled with discounted neck cushions and fridge magnets and  CDs of the collected works of Nana Mouskouri, lurking out the back, where they'd been shoved during the recent renovations, but on the day I was there the place felt curiously spacious - and almost, (but not quite - stuffiness is a prerequisite of post offices), airy.

Still the main ingredients were present. To begin with, there was the traditional post office queue. And behind the counter there was the same combination of personalities that occupy positions behind all post office counters all over the world.

At the end nearer to me - teller number 4, as the computerised queuing system called him, (no, I don't know why the numbering system started in the distance and moved upwards as it grew closer to the customers) - was the obligatory slightly prickly old guy with thick glasses and unwashed hair, the one who refuses to smile or meet your eye and, if he possibly can, continues a conversation with one of his colleagues while serving you. To either side of him, (tellers numbers 3 and 5), were the standard pair of middle-aged women, both of whom appear to spend their spare time experimenting with harsh shades of hair dye - usually in the bright orange spectrum. The scrawny version with wacky spectacles, whose main pleasure is telling customers that things are not possible, sat to his left; the overweight one, who is usually dressed in something floral that looks like it might once have covered a sofa, to his right.

Teller number 2 was missing, and teller number 1, way out on a limb on his ergonomic chair at the far end of the counter, was the perennial young guy, the one who has either a nose ring, or tattoos, or a pink mohican, the one who believes he is still autonomous and hip and is only doing post office work for a year or two, before departing in a blaze of some kind of glory, (little does he know that he will in fact eventually become teller number 4, complete with the glasses, the prickly manner, [it's the disappointment, I'm guessing] and the unwashed hair.

All of them exuded the universal post office worker air of tired, very barely concealed irritation. I suppose the job is pretty dull, and I can see that it must be annoying to have to keep getting up to go and fetch parcels from the back. Rifling through folders to find the right sort of stamp, turning your body slightly to reach the weighing machine on which you place envelopes, must also get tiresome. Nevertheless, the level of dispiritedness among post office workers seems disproportionate. It is as if expectations have been severely dashed, as if each one of these workers entered the employment of the post office with glittering visions of themselves engaged in some other kind of activity dancing in their heads,

What were they imagining, I wonder. There can be few jobs that are more straightforward, where there is less scope for self-deception about glamour in the workplace than a job in a post office. What is more they do have stamps, (not the adhesive kinds but the inky ones you thump down on documents - I saw quite a lot of that going on during my time waiting, and no-one can convince me that that part of the job isn't downright therapeutic).

I suppose though that it's the customers that get them down.

Not that we are all bad of course, but I have noticed that, if you end up waiting in there long enough, (and you usually do, not through choice), there is generally one customer who turns up and decides he cannot tolerate the way the post office is run. The most memorable I've witnessed of these characters was many years ago in a post office in Kensington Church Street. That strange creature who claims to have wifelets came among us and before very long he decided to kick up a fuss. I suppose it was predictable that he would have a sense of entitlement - although up close his unattractiveness is considerable, I guess there must be women out there who cannot see the man for the house he owns and the combination of their fawning attentions, his title and his considerable inheritance may shield him from the fact that he is ugly and charmless to the naked eye.

Anyway, on Tuesday we did not manage a Marquess, (or not one I recognised). Instead, we were served up a pantomime Frenchman, straight out of Allo Allo, (or my idea of Allo Allo, as I've never actually watched it). He was dressed in torn jeans, espadrilles, a battered straw hat and a blue artist's smock. He carried a woman's (as an Anglo, it looked to me like a female accessory, but these foreigners ...) shopping basket, which had a silk scarf tied to one of its leather handles. He sported a droopy moustache and a pair of David Hockney tortoise-shell spectacles that had lost one arm - these last I think were by way of a prop, as he spent more time gesticulating with them than wearing them, (although possibly, had he worn them, he might not have got confused about how the system at the post office worked in the first place and the resulting fracas might never have occurred).

Anyway, whether because of his tendency not to wear his spectacles or for some other reason, the Frenchman failed to spot where the queue ended. He then attempted to barge in and be served ahead of a pensioner with a hearing aid. The pensioner was standing at the part of the counter presided over by the scrawny woman with the flame-dyed hair and multi-coloured glass frames. She took the opportunity to give the spectacles waving Frenchman a tongue lashing.

Having tried and failed to fight his corner, he retreated and started trying to wrangle the other waiting customers onto his side instead. As his approach was to complain about 'These bloody Belgians', he made very limited progress. In fact, I had the impression he might end up with a fight on his hands. Sadly though, as events were accelerating to a showdown I completed my business. As I'm not a fan of boxing and I'd already wasted enough time, I left before anything kicked off.

What I did find out later though was that all post offices are also alike in inefficiency. Having gone there for one purpose - to send a letter by express trackable mail - and having been given a tracking number that I was assured would enable me to follow my envelope from Uccle to my bank in London, (and having paid the amazingly enormous amount of 35 euros for the service), when I sat down the next morning at the computer and fed the number into the computer, this is all I got in reply:

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Meanwhile in the Nest

The boss of Twitter may be inarticulate, (see yesterday's post), but the members of Twitter are often witty and fun. Today, I was reminded of this when Timehop threw me back the Tweets from a game some Tweeters played a while back, (four years ago, as it happens).

The idea of the game was pretty simple: people were invited to contribute the names of cooking songs. Here are some of the suggestions that I found amusing, with attributions, where available:

"It's a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll", (contributed by the Northern Territory News, apparently);

Paul Young's "Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you";

"Yabbie Road";

"The chops are burning", by Midnight Oil;

"Happiness is a warm bun", (my brother came up with that one);

"Still haven't found what I'm cooking for" (a Tweeter called @dkfcdotnet);

"Addicted to l'oeuf" (@kandidan);

"Please cheese me";

"We are the champignons" (@JonPowles);

"House of the rising bun";

"I'll never find another stew";

"Let it brie";

"The first time ever I saw your plaice", by Roberta Flack;

"Peas train", by Cat Stevens;

"You've got a friand", by James Taylor;

"Bette Davis eyes (#cannibalcookingsongs)";

"I left my heart in San Francisco (I never cared for offal)".

So many people tell me they don't like Twitter, that it is vicious and vile and a seething tank of hatred and horror, but I think these kinds of games, (which happen quite regularly - and always spontaneously), show that there is the odd pocket of sheer silliness in there too. And silliness, surely, is never a bad thing.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Chief Twit

"As we iterate on the logged out experience and curate topics, events, moments that unfold on the platform, you should absolutely expect us to deliver those experiences across the total audience and that includes logged in users and users in syndication."

This breathtakingly meaningless sentence was created by the Chief Executive of Twitter recently. The brilliant Lucy Kellaway dismantled it with great skill, for those of us who don't understand modern English.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

A Dollop of Trollope

On a long car journey recently we whiled away the time listening to Nigel Hawthorne read The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I had tried to read the book myself several times, egged on by numerous enthusiastic friends and acquaintances, but the first dozen or so pages always found me marooned.

With Hawthorne, we sailed through what I'd have to say are fairly dense thickets of exposition and reached the heart of the matter. Which didn't turn out to be all that wildly exciting. Of course, it would be more than possible to recognise a great deal that is relevant to politics now in the text - and also to make out what turned out to be a prescient, if sadly ignored, lesson in the portrayal of the damage that the Radicals' reform-for-reform's-sake zeal ended up causing. All the same, the stand of the Warden seemed slightly pointless, ultimately, and, whether or not Trollope intended it, the character I particularly liked was not the saintly figure of the title but his son-in-law, the extremely flawed, but very human, Dr Grantly.

I'm quibbling though. The lack of thoroughly gripping or convincing plot didn't really matter. Two other aspects of the book made it fun for me. The first was Trollope's excellent characterisation. Take Sir Abraham Haphazard as an example.

Trollope describes this eminent lawmaker as having“the appearance of a machine with a mind”.

He goes on to tell the reader that Haphazard was “a man whom you would ask to defend your property, but to whom you would be sorry to confide your love. He was bright as a diamond, and as cutting, and also as unimpressionable. He knew everyone whom to know was an honour, but he was without a friend”

“Sir Abraham was a man of wit, and sparkled among the brightest at the dinner-tables of political grandees: indeed, he always sparkled; whether in society, in the House of Commons, or the courts of law, coruscations flew from him; glittering sparkles, as from hot steel, but no heat; no cold heart was ever cheered by warmth from him, no unhappy soul ever dropped a portion of its burden at his door.”

“And so he glitters along through the world, the brightest among the bright; and when his glitter is gone, and he is gathered to his fathers, no eye will be dim with a tear, no heart will mourn for its lost friend.”

Also always of interest to me are any descriptions of food provided by a novelist. Trollope gives us not one but two meals, plus an intriguing post-prandial interlude. That is more than enough to make me his fan.

The first meal Trollope provides for us is the rather marvellous breakfast provided at Dr Grantly's establishment:

The breakfast-service on the table was equally costly and equally plain; the apparent object had been to spend money without obtaining brilliancy or splendour. The urn was of thick and solid silver, as were also the tea-pot, coffee-pot, cream-ewer, and sugar-bowl; the cups were old, dim dragon china, worth about a pound a piece, but very despicable in the eyes of the uninitiated. The silver forks were so heavy as to be disagreeable to the hand, and the bread-basket was of a weight really formidable to any but robust persons. The tea consumed was the very best, the coffee the very blackest, the cream the very thickest; there was dry toast and buttered toast, muffins and crumpets; hot bread and cold bread, white bread and brown bread, home-made bread and bakers' bread, wheaten bread and oaten bread; and if there be other breads than these, they were there; there were eggs in napkins, and crispy bits of bacon under silver covers; and there were little fishes in a little box, and devilled kidneys frizzling on a hot-water dish; which, by the bye, were placed closely contiguous to the plate of the worthy archdeacon himself. Over and above this, on a snow-white napkin, spread upon the sideboard, was a huge ham and a huge sirloin; the latter having laden the dinner table on the previous evening. Such was the ordinary fare at Plumstead Episcopi.

He then moves on to the rather less satisfactory dinner that the Warden finds for himself in London, while trying to keep out of sight of Dr Grantley:

He was rather daunted by the huge quantity of fish which he saw in the window. There were barrels of oysters, hecatombs of lobsters, a few tremendous-looking crabs, and a tub full of pickled salmon; not, however, being aware of any connection between shell-fish and iniquity, he entered, and modestly asked a slatternly woman, who was picking oysters out of a great watery reservoir, whether he could have a mutton chop and a potato.
The woman looked somewhat surprised, but answered in the affirmative, and a slipshod girl ushered him into a long back room, filled with boxes for the accommodation of parties, in one of which he took his seat. In a more miserably forlorn place he could not have found himself: the room smelt of fish, and sawdust, and stale tobacco smoke, with a slight taint of escaped gas; everything was rough and dirty, and disreputable; the cloth which they put before him was abominable; the knives and forks were bruised, and hacked, and filthy; and everything was impregnated with fish. He had one comfort, however: he was quite alone; there was no one there to look on his dismay; nor was it probable that anyone would come to do so. It was a London supper-house. About one o'clock at night the place would be lively enough, but at the present time his seclusion was as deep as it had been in the abbey.
In about half an hour the untidy girl, not yet dressed for her evening labours, brought him his chop and potatoes, and Mr Harding begged for a pint of sherry. He was impressed with an idea, which was generally prevalent a few years since, and is not yet wholly removed from the minds of men, that to order a dinner at any kind of inn, without also ordering a pint of wine for the benefit of the landlord, was a kind of fraud,—not punishable, indeed, by law, but not the less abominable on that account. Mr Harding remembered his coming poverty, and would willingly have saved his half-crown, but he thought he had no alternative; and he was soon put in possession of some horrid mixture procured from the neighbouring public-house.
His chop and potatoes, however, were eatable, and having got over as best he might the disgust created by the knives and forks, he contrived to swallow his dinner. He was not much disturbed: one young man, with pale face and watery fishlike eyes, wearing his hat ominously on one side, did come in and stare at him, and ask the girl, audibly enough, "Who that old cock was;" but the annoyance went no further, and the warden was left seated on his wooden bench in peace, endeavouring to distinguish the different scents arising from lobsters, oysters, and salmon.

Having furnished such a wonderfully vivid picture of what it was like to try to find a meal in London in the 19th century, if you didn't know your way around, Trollope goes on to introduce us to a phenomenon that I had never heard of - and that I rather wish still existed - the cigar divan, (and his description makes me wonder what exactly was offered in the guise of coffee - or is it simply that the Warden is by this time very, very tired?):

"... as he paid his bill to the woman in the shop, [the Warden] asked her if there were any place near where he could get a cup of coffee.”

“Though she did keep a shellfish supper-house, she was very civil, and directed him to the cigar divan on the other side of the street.

Mr Harding had not a much correcter notion of a cigar divan than he had of a London dinner-house, but he was desperately in want of rest, and went as he was directed. He thought he must have made some mistake when he found himself in a cigar shop, but the man behind the counter saw immediately that he was a stranger, and understood what he wanted. "One shilling, sir,—thank ye, sir,—cigar, sir?—ticket for coffee, sir;—you'll only have to call the waiter. Up those stairs, if you please, sir. Better take the cigar, sir,—you can always give it to a friend, you know. Well, sir, thank ye, sir;—as you are so good, I'll smoke it myself." And so Mr Harding ascended to the divan, with his ticket for coffee, but minus the cigar.”

“The place seemed much more suitable to his requirements than the room in which he had dined: there was, to be sure, a strong smell of tobacco, to which he was not accustomed; but after the shell-fish, the tobacco did not seem disagreeable. There were quantities of books, and long rows of sofas. What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book, and a cup of coffee? An old waiter came up to him, with a couple of magazines and an evening paper. Was ever anything so civil? Would he have a cup of coffee, or would he prefer sherbet? Sherbet! Was he absolutely in an Eastern divan, with the slight addition of all the London periodicals? He had, however, an idea that sherbet should be drunk sitting cross-legged, and as he was not quite up to this, he ordered the coffee.

The coffee came, and was unexceptionable. Why, this divan was a paradise! The civil old waiter suggested to him a game of chess: though a chess player he was not equal to this, so he declined, and, putting up his weary legs on the sofa, leisurely sipped his coffee, and turned over the pages of his Blackwood. He might have been so engaged for about an hour, for the old waiter enticed him to a second cup of coffee, when a musical clock began to play. Mr Harding then closed his magazine, keeping his place with his finger, and lay, listening with closed eyes to the clock. Soon the clock seemed to turn into a violoncello, with piano accompaniments, and Mr Harding began to fancy the old waiter was the Bishop of Barchester; he was inexpressibly shocked that the bishop should have brought him his coffee with his own hands; then Dr Grantly came in, with a basket full of lobsters, which he would not be induced to leave downstairs in the kitchen; and then the warden couldn't quite understand why so many people would smoke in the bishop's drawing-room; and so he fell fast asleep, and his dreams wandered away to his accustomed stall in Barchester Cathedral, and the twelve old men he was so soon about to leave for ever. ”

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Blowing in the Wind

Have you noticed how certain words and phrases you have never heard of before suddenly emerge as normal parts of everyday speech - or at least they become a regular part of the vocabulary of people who talk on Radio 4 and who write columns in newspapers?

These neologisms don't always last for long, although sometimes they become part of the linguistic furniture for decades. Whether they are fleeting or permanent is irrelevant in my experience, since I rarely manage to grasp precisely what they mean, no matter how long they hang around.

At the moment, the two that I seem to encounter daily are:

1. "binary". Things are very rarely binary apparently. We should not be presented with choices that our merely binary. Problems do not submit to binary solutions. What is the alternative to a binary solution? A solution in triplicate? A pluralist solution? No solution at all is usually the answer.

2. "transactional". I first heard this at dinner one evening when the EU official next to me observed that "Britain has always preferred a transactional approach" to the Union. The next day a young pregnant woman told me that her obstetrician was good but very "transactional". Since then it's been a "transactional" snowstorm, hardly a conversation has gone by without someone referring to something as being "transactional". No idea whatsoever what it means. It's a good yardstick for working out whether someone's a bit of a bore though - if they use it, chances are they might be.