Monday, 26 February 2018

Guns in the Classroom

I love to see coincidences in perfectly ordinary events, so last night when I came across this passage in a story called Flight, part of John Updike's collection called Pigeon Feathers, I took it as a coincidence, given the talk about arming teachers that is going on just now.

I also took it, like almost everything else I read by Updike, as evidence of Updike's astonishing ability. I admire the way that he can take unexciting things and somehow make them worth attending to, observing so closely, describing so accurately that the scenes in his stories about small incidents in uncelebrated lives shine like bright gems. I admire the tenderness he bestows on his characters - and, indeed, his close attention to ordinary reality is a form of tenderness, when you think about.

The truth is, the more I read of Updike, the more I admire every one of his skills as a writer. He is so unshowy, and yet he takes your breath away. If you read nothing else, try Walter Briggs, the first story in Pigeon Feathers. It is puzzling, apparently a wisp of almost nothing, yet it is resonant and mysterious - in fact, for me at least it is a masterpiece.

Anyway back to the passage that I took to be a coincidence; it concerns the story's protagonist's parents and how, because of the Depression, they had to find jobs that didn't suit them particularly well:

My mother went to work in an Alton department store, selling inferior fabric for $14 a week. During the daytime of my first year of life it was my father who took care of me. He has said since, flattering me as he always does, that it was having me on his hands that kept him from going insane. It may have been this that has made my affection for him so inarticulate, as if I were still a wordless infant looking up into the mothering blur of his man's face. And that same shared year helps account, perhaps, for his gentleness with me, for his willingness to praise, as if everything I do has something sad and crippled in it. He feels sorry for me; my birth coincided with the birth of a great misery, a national misery - only recently has he stopped calling me by the nickname "Young America". Around my first birthday he acquired a position teaching arithmetic and algebra in the Olinger high school, and though he was so kind and humorous he couldn't enter a classroom without creating uproarious problems of discipline, he endured it day by day and year by year, and eventually came to occupy a place in this alien town, so that I believe there are now one or two dozen ex-students, men and women nearing middle age, who carry around with them some piece of encouragement my father gave them, or remember some sentence of his that helped shape them. Certainly there are many who remember the antics with which he burlesqued his discomfort in the classroom. He kept a confiscated cap pistol in his desk, and upon getting an especially stupid answer, he would take it out and, wearing a preoccupied, regretful expression, shoot himself in the head.

Whether or not it is a good thing, I doubt such behaviour would be tolerated nowadays - "inappropriate" would probably be the term used by the prosecution.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Book 5 - 2018 The Euro by Joseph Stiglitz

I read The Euro by Joseph Stiglitz because Gavin Hewitt's Lost Continent had made me so interested in the euro project that I wanted to find out more. As Stiglitz has a Nobel prize, I thought this would be a better book than Hewitt's, but it isn't. Stiglitz writes inelegantly; here are some examples of what I mean:

1. This first is such a badly written sentence that I cannot extract any meaning from it, but perhaps other readers may be able to:

They argued that there were important instances where when governments had contracted government spending, and the result was that the overall economy grew.

2. This one includes the odd usage "intended at", which I don't think is normal:

Some of the reforms seemed intended at increasing the likelihood that creditors would be repaid;

3. This one seems to be missing a preposition:

... necessary if there is to be a transfer of resources from the crisis countries to those that they owe money;

I could go on, but you probably get the picture.

As well, Stiglitz is too personally invested in what has happened in Greece to be persuasive in those sections devoted to that country's travails; one feels he is arguing for his friends rather than for reason.

What does make the book worthwhile though is the fact that, despite being a huge believer in the EU as a concept, Stiglitz regards the organisation and its various institutions as they operate now as undemocratic and far from benign, with Germany his choice as prime villain in the construction of this state of affairs. His view is that the euro has brought nothing but misery to many countries who signed up to it, mainly because they cannot use exchange rate adjustments as a budgetary mechanism when in trouble. One Stiglitz suggestion is that Germany, which he sees as fairly monstrous in its influence over euro policy, be removed from the eurozone. Not something that is going to happen any time soon, but an interesting idea.

I was also pleased to see him argue that the EU's approach to Brexit is as destructive to the EU as it hopes it will be to the UK:

"Anything the EU does to the UK to try to punish it would have an “equal and opposite effect,” hurting itself at least as much in the process."

and that those in the financial sector who argue they have to leave the UK after Brexit are wrong:

Some in the financial sector have argued that without the single market, without free migration between the UK and the EU, with different regulatory systems in the EU and the UK, they would have to leave London and relocate elsewhere in the EU. While there may be some relocation, the case that there would have to be massive shifts is unpersuasive.

He also states that he believes austerity rather than Brexit to be the real threat to European union:

...the unrelenting commitment to austerity by the European Commission will probably do more to encourage exits from the eurozone than anything the UK does.

Unlike many, Stiglitz also highlights Juncker's utter unsuitability for the job of head of the European Commission, given his role as:

"proud architect of Luxembourg's massive corporate tax avoidance schemes."

He also argues well that rather than having regulations that impose uniformity across all the nations of the European Union, it might be better to have disclosure, allowing the consumer to decide which standard of product they want:

...there is a much simpler solution than the hypothetical situation of requiring all ice cream to have a certain cream content: adequate disclosure of the cream content. Provide the relevant information, and let consumers make the choice for themselves. Car windscreens provide a slightly more complex example. It may be slightly cheaper to force all cars to have the same glass standard—but by a small margin

Stiglitz delineates well the utter unfairness of the way that Irish taxpayers have been treated within the eurozone:

The critical issue is this: the Troika was asking ordinary Irish citizens to pick up the tab for regulatory failures of the ECB and other regulatory authorities within the eurozone

The Irish people were unjustly forced to pay the price for others’ mistakes—a double injustice, because it was in effect a transfer of money from the poor to the rich. But Trichet - 

[Stiglitz reserves particular contempt for Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank from 2003-11, going so far as to comment thus at one pointTrichet will be remembered for his colossal misjudgments,] -

knew where he stood: he was an ally of the bankers against ordinary workers, constantly demanding wage cuts that would lower their standards of living.

He never forgets the appalling way in which banks and other corporations were not required to pay for the financial mess they made, getting off scot-free while the unsuspecting general population had to pay off their debts:

In the 2008 crisis, hundreds of billions of dollars were effectively given (or lent at below-market interest rates) by central banks in the advanced countries to commercial banks, in the most massive government-assistance program to the private sector ever conceived. This program of corporate welfare for the suffering banks was greater by an order of magnitude than any welfare program constructed by any government to alleviate the suffering of ordinary individuals

nor the amorality of the actions of the banks themselves, aided and abetted by bad government:

The real moral hazard problem arises for banks, who have an incentive to induce countries to borrow excessively, knowing that current politicians benefit from the increased spending and future politicians pay the price.

He produces some alarming facts, among them this:

In virtually every country in the eurozone there has been an increase in poverty, especially childhood poverty

and also some infuriating ones (well, the whole subject is infuriating really):

.. the Troika demanded that Greek firms, including mom-and-pop operations, pay all of their taxes ahead of time, at the beginning of the year, before they have earned any money and before

Of the total lent to Greece, less than 10 percent ever got to the Greek people. The rest went to pay back creditors, including German and French banks.

and repeatedly highlights what he calls a "democratic deficit" at the heart of the euro project:

In each [eurocrisis] country, the newly elected government was told in effect that they had no choice: accept the conditions or your banking system will be destroyed, your economy will be devastated, and you will have to leave the euro. What does it mean to be a democracy, where the citizens seemingly have no say over the issues about which they care the most, or the way their economy is run? This democratic deficit destroys confidence in democratic processes—and encourages the growth of extremist parties that promise an alternative.

The growing democratic deficit is seen most obviously in the fact that when given the opportunity, the countries of Europe have repeatedly rejected the policies being imposed on them. 

Removing central banking from political accountability, at least in the way that it has been done in the United States and Europe, effectively transfers decision-making to the financial sector, with its interests and ideology.

As soon as some of the countries in the eurozone owed money to other member countries, the currency union had changed: rather than a partnership of equals striving to adopt policies that benefit each other, the ECB and eurozone authorities have become credit collection agencies for the lender nations, with Germany particularly influential.

The power to withhold credit becomes the power to force a country to effectively cede its economic sovereignty, and that is precisely what the Troika, including the ECB, has done, most visibly to Greece and its banks, but to a lesser extent to the other crisis countries.

He indicates how bad policy has helped to create the political climate we have today:

..if Europe continues with changes in labor legislation that weaken workers’ bargaining rights, and if, as expected (and partly as a result), wages do not rise much, that will also increase the resistance to accepting migrants.

He argues strongly against German dominance:

The problem is that Germany has used its economic dominance to impose its own views, and those views are not only rejected by large parts of the eurozone but also by the majority of economists. The problems were collectively created. The only solution is a collective solution. The reforms are based on different economic understandings

and mounts a strong case for the idea that the actual way the eurozone is structured is at the heart of the zone's problems:

There simply isn’t enough flexibility within the eurozone, as currently constituted, for the eurozone to work for the weakest.

Since adjustments in interest rates and exchange rates are among the most important ways that economies adjust to maintain full employment, the formation of the euro took away two of the most important instruments for ensuring that.

Not only did those countries signing up to the eurozone not fully realize the consequences of borrowing in a currency out of one’s control, they also didn’t realize the implications for their national sovereignty: a transfer of power had occurred that could be—and was—abused. When lenders wouldn’t lend to, say, Spain, the only recourse the country had was to turn to their partners in the eurozone, to get money through the European Central Bank or through some other mechanism. It was a fateful development.

While he states that:

The euro created the euro crisis

he also explains that the way in which the ECB was established has constrained it from being a force for good:

While other central banks, most notably the US Federal Reserve, have reformed, focusing much more on unemployment and the stability of the financial market—and even beginning to talk about how their policies affect inequality—the ECB’s mandate is limited by the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 to a single-minded focus on inflation. The deeper problem of the ECB is the absence of democratic accountability.

The result of the ECB’s focus on inflation is that growth and stability are lower than they otherwise would have been —ironic, since the alleged purpose of the economic framework of the eurozone was to promote growth and stability.

The ECB had become Europe’s sledgehammer, the tool by which Greece was forced to accede to what the Troika wanted.

While what he says about Brexit and the best possible outcome from it is probably true, I doubt very much whether it is the outcome the EU will manage to come up with:

The best outcome of the Brexit referendum would be that it acts as a wake-up call to the EU’s leaders: unless they make the EU more democratic, more democratically accountable, and more economically successful, the likelihood of further integration, political or economic, could be nil; the forces for disintegration will only mount.

So all in all the story is fairly grim - and there isn't much glimmer of hope on the horizon, at least not from either Hewitt's or Stiglitz's perspective. I am now thoroughly convinced that, for all its convenience for travellers, the euro is a very bad thing.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018


Yesterday, I mentioned dwarves in the contexts of beans and then, coincidentally - or possibly randomly, which isn't quite the same thing - I heard a discussion on a recent Spectator podcast about a new London phenomenon. It appears that people who in other areas of life regard themselves as decent, progressive, and so on and forth, somehow suspend their notions of all that is right when it comes to organising parties and have started demanding the services of dwarves as waiters and waitresses and general festive accessories.

During the podcast it was alleged that on occasion said dwarves have been asked to work naked, while on other occasions they are handcuffed to men at stag nights, who then post pictures of themselves at urinals, their locked-on dwarf standing behind them, being splashed. The apparent mood of patrons of such events is that this is a really larky new idea, rather than evidence of utter decadence. To further complicate things, a spokesman for dwarves reportedly asks that no one object, as this new fashion is providing lots of work for dwarves. However, while "please let us be humiliated, because otherwise we will starve" could be the rallying cry of any number of badly treated groups of people, as a long term strategy it sets no worthwhile goals.

It turns out there is an accompanying article in the Spectator magazine - here it is; the question it poses is a good one, namely, "What's beyond the pale and what is fashionable fun?:

From The Spectator, 10th February, 2018:

"You’re planning a party. You’ve hired the vaults of a former bank, Le Caprice is doing the catering, and a celebrity DJ will round things off on the dance floor — but you want that little bit extra to give your fashionable, jaded guests something to remember. What about a dwarf? It’s a curious fact that even people who think of themselves as modern and caring feel quite comfortable laughing at dwarfs.
Type the words ‘dwarf’ and ‘rent’ into a search engine and you’ll be amazed at the number of websites offering to ‘supply a little someone’ for every occasion. Just click ‘dwarf’ and ‘add to cart’. One online agency boasts: ‘If you require the midget to perform and dance… or if you would like our mini man to be handcuffed to a specific person this can be arranged.’
Fun-loving party-people seem oddly keen to be handcuffed to dwarfs. One video, with thousands of ‘likes’ on Facebook, shows a male dwarf standing with his face at groin-level, handcuffed to a man using a urinal. A comment reads: ‘I want one of these at my hen night!’ Other photos show middle-aged men on stag nights, posing with a dwarf dressed in nothing but a nappy, astride their knee. It’s surprisingly popular.
Some friends of mine recently attended the party of a beautiful socialite, where canapés were served by naked dwarfs. Why would intelligent, privileged women pay people with a genetic disorder to serve them food? And why nude? Does being naked make being short funnier? It must certainly make it more humiliating for the poor dwarf.
‘If we decide a dwarf at a stag night is unacceptable then where will it end?’
The term dwarfism covers a number of syndromes, the most common being achondroplasia, a genetic condition resulting in shortened arms and legs. Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenital (SEDc) tends to result in more proportionate limbs. If you consider that two people with dwarfism starting a family together have a one in four chance of their baby inheriting the gene from both parents and dying within days of birth, it’s not unreasonable to feel that bodies that characterise this condition aren’t all that funny.
And yet… I spoke to the actor Warwick Davis recently (star and co-writer of the comedy Life’s Too Short and co-founder of Little People UK), who showed me another side of what had seemed to me a pretty straightforward story. If we shame our countrymen into dropping the dwarfs, what will the unintended consequences be? Warwick says ‘solving one problem may well cause problems for little people elsewhere’.
Davis uses, by way of illustration, the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which has rapidly progressed from the downfall of a serious abuser to the criminalisation of clumsy would-be seducers. ‘If we decide a dwarf at a stag night is unacceptable then where will it end?’ he says. Will people start campaigning for pantomimes to stop hiring dwarfs as it is ‘demeaning’? In 2011 Qdos Entertainment re-cast children in the roles of the seven dwarfs in a panto version of Snow White. They claimed to be being politically correct, but in fact, says Davis, they were cost-cutting.
Davis has reason to be frustrated by what he describes as ‘people taking offence on my behalf’. The biggest challenge his Reduced Height Theatre Company faced in its 2014 touring production See How They Run was breaking through the political correctness barrier. ‘The play is a farce, people were meant to laugh at us! It had great reviews and those that came loved it, but persuading them to come was the hardest part.’ Another entertainer, Laura Whitfield-Phillips, agrees. ‘I get people apologising to me on bookings,’ she says. ‘Even trying to send me home early as now they’ve found I’m just a normal person, they feel bad for me. I tell them please don’t, I wouldn’t be taking any job I’m not happy to do.’
What’s beyond the pale? What’s just fashionable fun?
Perhaps what’s in the real interests of little people is just to smile politely and admire their ability to look dignified even handcuffed to a drunk and hope that there’ll be better jobs on offer in the future.
The set of See How They Run was built in proportion to the actors. Once it began, says Warwick Davis, everyone forgot they were watching dwarfs on stage. When the six-foot director came to take a bow at the end of the play the audience gasped at the sight of him, a giant."

Monday, 19 February 2018

Hello Old Bean

For the first time, I have grown climbing beans, as opposed to dwarf beans. For a while, my climbing beans were entirely focused on climbing and not at all on beaning - despite producing masses of pretty red flowers.

Luckily, I remembered my much loved Uncle Colin and his practice of walking past trees that weren't behaving, carrying an axe. He claimed that the trees in question invariably got down to the job of flourishing, after glimpsing him and his axe strolling about handle-in-hand.

I wasn't going to take an axe to a beanstalk, of course, and I understood that they would recognise I wasn't serious if I started brandishing one nearby. Instead, I stood within their hearing and talked threateningly about pulling out plants that called themselves beans but did not produce any. Sure enough, they all instantly started five-year-plan levels of bean production, (that is five-year-plan projections, rather than five-year-plan real outcomes, needless to say). As a result we now have to go out there daily and pick heap upon heap of the things.

Which is great, provided you keep on top of the job and never miss a day's harvest. But I let things slip last week when we went off to Sydney for a couple of days. While we were away, the beans devised a new way of being naughty, camouflaging themselves behind leaves and secretly growing very long and hugely fat and, I suspect, stringy:

I bet they hoped I wouldn't pick them or eat them, but little did they know I'd actually been waiting for just such a think to happen, so that I could try out this method. I didn't want to experiment with tender young vegetables but tough, fat, overgrown ones I thought should be ideal. As soon as I finish writing this, I'm going to the kitchen to start the slow process.

Meanwhile, my favourite story about beans comes from The Vegetarian Option, by Simon Hopkinson, which I mentioned the other day*. This is it:

Really it is a story not about beans but about the difference between English and French culture. While I admire care being taken about food - concern about where it comes from, how it is prepared et cetera - I am sufficiently Anglocenteric to think that weeping over the tails on very tiny beans is the sort of thing that only Johnny Foreigner would countenance. Perhaps the opportunity for our youth to avoid this kind of contamination by effete practices is enough on its own to justify Britain's decision to renounce its membership of the European Union, with all that that entails.

*The Vegetarian Option is a really good book and always comes in handy at this time of year. Last night, having a surfeit of tomatoes, I made its recipe for "baked stuffed tomatoes, Paella style"; the night before, I made its "Squash and tomato masala"; both were wonderful. No recipe I've tried from the book has ever turned out to be anything else.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Creativity of Twitter

Decades ago, when my aunt bought a colour television, my cousins and my brother and I would cluster around the thing and watch documentaries about how paint was made. That uncritical mesmerisation didn't last long, but I do think the Beatles's Magical Mystery Tour could have been boring had we not watched it in colour, (all right, I admit, I found it really quite boring, if mysterious, even with the addition of colour [in fact, I wonder if the secret to quite a lot of modern art isn't simply that it is mysterious; Beckett, for example, is almost entirely dull, but almost hypnotically peculiar).

Oh dear, as so often, I am getting off the point.

Back to my aunt, who quite quickly became concerned that, sitting there in front of the box, staring at its multicoloured pictures, we were allowing our brains to rot. Afraid of the power of her new possession, she began sweeping in and turning off the set. "Let's revive the art of conversation", she would announce as she did so, triggering a mass stampede upstairs to our separate beds.

Lately I've noticed an alarm about "screens" being expressed that reminds me of my aunt's worried cries about her colour telly. One example that springs to mind is the article I read yesterday in which someone described going into a university common room he used to frequent some 20-odd years ago. Then, the place had been full of the noise of talk and laughter; now it was quiet - although he counted 34 students in there, all of them were "staring blankly into their screens".

The assumption being made is that all 34 were passively absorbing the dreaded "social media", comparing themselves with their 367 Facebook "friends"'s uploaded version of their lives, or plumbing the depths of troll world on Twitter. It didn't cross the writer's mind that any of the people in that room might be a) learning Hungarian on their telephone; b) reading the Irish Times, the UK Telegraph, the Spectator or any other publication; c) taking a MOOC on history, music, art or anatomy (or any of the other countless subjects available on-line).

I've spent quite a lot of time waiting for a friend who is having medical treatment lately - and, as invariably happens with medical treatment, the doctors are ALWAYS running late.*  What strikes me about this is how different being kept waiting is these days, now that I am in possession of a dreaded "screen".  In the old days, if you were organised, (not me, not always), and you remembered to bring something to read, it helped, but, if you found what you had brought was actually quite boring, you had no alternative.  You couldn't carry around the enormous variety of time passing activities that, thanks to the telephone in your pocket, you can today. On my telephone, I have language learning materials; countless books, magazines and newspapers; music; audiobooks; and even some downloaded video programmes. It is impossible to become bored, and surely that is nothing but absolutely great. Waiting time is no longer wasted - I cannot see a downside.

Oh, but what about that horrid thing called social media, I hear you counter. Well, I only know about Twitter, and as I've mentioned rather often before, for me it is usually a source of delight.

My latest story of the benign side of Twitter happened last week. I found this absolutely charming article in my favourite newspaper, viz The Irish Times. I tweeted it and, inspired by that article, a Twitter friend sent me their own response:

"It sits, sturdy and proud, on its own table. The imitation brown wood covering looks much as it always did, and the sheer size of the thing means it cannot fit into what should be its home. It’s my National microwave oven, and it’s just turned 31 years old.
We go back, my National and I. Purchased by my parents not long after I was born, it was a pleasingly modern convenience in our brand new house, presiding over a kitchen that also boasted a Vulcan dishwasher. Learning to tell the time by our analogue kitchen wall clock, I found the National exciting. Its changing green numerals were the promise of the future. When I became old enough to appreciate such things, its touch button control panel elicited questions my mother hadn’t herself considered. Was she not stunned at its ability to count in minutes, tens of seconds, to powers of variable intensity, to ‘sense’, all with no apparent mechanical connection between finger and result? Like the pink frilly dress lady with the nice smile inside the National Microwave Cookbook, I was captivated by its abilities.
Thanks to its tank-like construction, the National survived its journeys with the family, from city to country to city, between five houses. An introduction to computers and games consoles meant the National’s technical wonders diminished for me, and it regrettably became just part of the furniture. Quietly and dutifully, it cooked peas for all, reheated the leftovers, and made a wondrous chocolate self-saucing pudding. Thanks to its impressive height, it swallowed the largest of dishes and made a larger pudding than the recipe stated. There were always leftovers.
Its size was its eventual undoing. The house to which my family moved, and in which my parents still live, had a space designed for a lesser oven. Its successor from the same Matsushita parent, a Panasonic, had more features in a slightly smaller size. What the Panasonic lacked, however, was Japanese manufacture. Nothing could make up for that, and all grieved the National’s passing into the garage.
A few years later, after the Panasonic had burned through its third light bulb (which could only be replaced by the service centre, of course), I fell ill; deeply and catastrophically ill. With the Panasonic still at the service centre (they didn’t hurry about fitting a new bulb), the National made its triumphant return inside, to the only place it would fit: the laundry bench. Even after its successor came home, it stayed. The irrationality that drove me at the time would not permit using the same microwave oven as everyone else. Too many germs, you see. Living on microwaved custard and porridge, I asserted ownership over the National. My parents didn’t mention sending it back to the garage; they were simply too relieved to have an eating son once more.
Several years later, I took the National with me. We left home forever, together, and set up in a flat. The supplied combination microwave and conventional oven, its cheap and nasty origins plain from first sight, could not touch the now elderly giant. The National has now sat, imposing and grand, on its table for nearly five years. In that time, it has witnessed more suffering, despair, human change, and triumph than any kitchen appliance should see. Once hidden from others in the secrecy of my home, it is now admired by new friends, who mistake it for a conventional oven. Its black door, with the 'Genius' pressed in silver on the lower left corner, has an air of mystery. As much mystery as a microwave oven can possess, of course. Not all of it, though, has survived intact. Last year, the interior light expired. It had never been replaced, and the only available (Chinese) substitute globe will die before the rest of the National does. As with all good design, the fix was simple. A screw, a flap, a twist, and there was light to lighten the platter once more.
It is trite and lazy to remark that things aren’t made as they were. Obviousness doesn’t diminish truth, though. Its duties these days are light; reheating only. I tell myself it’s because I’m a good cook, and good cooks use cooktops and conventional ovens. If I’m honest, part of the reason is an attempt to prolong life. It might be slowly killing me with excess radiation, but there will not be another microwave oven like my National. I will miss it when it goes."

Thanks to Twitter this lovely piece of writing came into being. How can that be bad?

*Don't the medical profession understand that their casualness about our time is what makes some of us avoid them wherever possible, for fear of having our entire lives subsumed by their hopeless time keeping and demands for punctuality on our part?

PS I should add that I have my Twitter friend's permission to include this enviably beautiful piece of writing here.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Peeling Groovy

I forgot to include Gerard Beaumont in yesterday's rogues' gallery. He was a Frenchman who stole an opera cloak and other clothing from the room of a woman he fancied but was acquitted after he argued that he stole the clothes to stop her dating his love rivals and asked the jury to think like a passionate Frenchman:

I have no sympathy, personally, especially as he already had a long "history of 'flashing' women", according to the museum's caption. You can't help admire him for cheek, I suppose, (if there is a double entendre there, it is entirely unintentional).

The two Barry McKenzie lookalikes on the left of this line up were arrested for breaking into a shop and stealing 25 pairs of boots, but acquitted because they were teenagers and first time offenders. Also possibly because they were rather adorable, if thick as two short planks?:

This young woman had the unique advantage of being the only woman in Sydney who managed to look even faintly attractive while wearing the appalling hat and clothing dictated by flapper fashion, (I've spared you the pictures of other less successful flapper cult members that were on display in the exhibition; the horror, Mr Kurz, the horror):
Unfortunately, the wicked creature used her good fortune for evil ends, seducing wealthy married men, who then were blackmailed by the man beneath her, (in the pictures, in the pictures - oh for goodness sake, you and your filthy minds). He had many irons in many fires and was all in all a very rough diamond indeed, nicknamed by the police, "the Grey Shadow", which is pretty poetic, for policemen.

And at last we come to the potato peeling conmen, William Papworth Willia O'Brien and Michael Keith Konz: 

They hatched an elaborate, if slightly ludicrous, plan whereby they set themselves up as something called "The Climax Agency", whose entire business was the flogging of potato peelers. The agency's targets were suburban shopkeepers who were appointed agents for "Climax", (please stop sniggering). Mr Konz effected this part of the business, persuading shopkeepers that it would be a huge boost for their business to sell potato peelers. This was quite a feat, if you think about it.

After he had managed his part of the transaction, O'Brien and Papworth would go into the shops, masquerading as "customers". They would order huge quantities of potato peelers. Konz would then collect money from the shopkeepers and supply the potato peelers. The customers, (O'Brien and Papworth) would, of course, never return, leaving the shopkeepers with a surplus of overpriced peelers.

If only it had been this time of year and the shopkeepers had had a bit of enterprise. Then they could have offloaded all those implements onto customers like me, grown desperate with the over supply of zucchini (courgette to English readers) arriving from their vegetable gardens on an hourly basis.  The shopkeepers could have told their customers about the brilliant way to use up those vegetables that involves a potato peeler, that is:

take zucchini, use potato peeler to slice it into numerous thin strips, scatter the lot with salt and lots of lemon juice. Leave to stand for as long as possible, possibly overnight. Add olive oil, ground pepper, lemon thyme, if you feel like it. Crumble over some Persian feta. Bob's your uncle.

The essential thing from the "Climax" agents point of view is this - you need a potato peeler. And the result is very good.

I think I will call it a Konz salad from now on. Or perhaps a Climax?

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Specials

We went to the Museum of Sydney yesterday and saw an exhibition made up of photographs called "specials", taken of suspects by the Sydney Police in the 1920s. The photographs were taken on (with?) glass plates and, possibly as a consequence, they are very clear, as if you are looking through a window, not back into the past.

One thing that struck me was how well dressed everyone was then. For instance, there is a shot of four complete rogues, taken outside Central Station in Sydney:

They are Thomas Craig, Gregory Leonard Gaffney, ("Gaffney the Gunman, alias Raymond Neil), William Thompson and Francis Wilson. The picture was taken on 25 January, 1926, when as the caption puts it "These four thugs were picked up during a police raid on a gathering of underworld figures. Gaffney has his arm in in a sling, probably as a result of a fight with the police, Craig and Thompson had once assaulted a tram conductor, simply because he had asked for their tickets, Wilson was quick with his fists and was the only one of the four to be convicted of assuaulting police." They were arrested on suspicion of "being in a house frequented by reputed thieves"

Despite their roguishness, they all wear good suits, very good hats and polished shoes. I think it must have been much harder to distinguish who was trustworthy and who not in those days, if you were trying to use clothing to help you make your judgments.

Mind you, I could easily have succumbed to the lefthand man in this picture, even though he wasn't particularly well dressed. He was part of a trio of confidence tricksters, if memory serves me right:

He looks amusing and totally unreliable, always an attractive combination, when you are young.

Another man who I suspect may have posed a danger to young women looking for an object for their affections is this chap:
His name was Timothy O'Connell, alias (never a good sign, an alias, surely, let alone two), Tim F Connell, Timothy Trengrove. His picture was taken on 6th March 1920, when he was arrested for possessing housebreaking tools. O'Connell was, as his name might suggest, an Irishman. He came to Sydney via Western Australia. He was convicted of the charge and appears to have left NSW as soon as he was released from prison.

Many of the photographs are mysterious but hint at possible sadness:

This man, Harry Burston, was photographed in 1922. His offence is not known, but I find myself wondering if he was gay before you were allowed to be and possibly worried that his double life was about to unravel. Of course, he may have been a violent robber, for all I know, but his expression suggests to me that he is doing his best to hide a feeling of humiliation.

Other pictures just tell straightforwardly sad stories:

This is Julius Friedmann (alias G Cohen, Louis Ferry, Gordon Leigh, Robert Stevens, Robert Wilson, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt). His picture was taken on 27 February, 1922. The museum's caption explains that Friedmann was a German theatrical manager who "lived with his family in a furnished apartment in the harbourside suburb of Neutral Bay. During an inspection, the apartment owner discovered that most of the furniture had been removed. In court, hoping for leniency, Friedmann said he had pawned the furnishings to buy food for his family. He was sent to prison, where he died shortly afterwards."

But let's talk about happy - or happier - things.

There is the slightly ludicrous - or should that be admirable in his refusal to give in to disability? - Henry "Lightning" Hastings,  a pickpocket whose right arm was partially paralysed, which must have added considerably to the difficulties of his chosen career:

There is Albert Raymond Clarence Fulton who was arrested on 9 August, 1921, after "luring a young female typist to his office with a fake job advertisement and dictating an extract from a pornographic publication entitled Sadopaideia, which he then asked her to read back to him":

There is this trio, whose central figure was suspected of stealing a large number of possum skins:
Even he seems aware that the charge is comic.

Best of all though, for amusement (the exhibition had numerous pretty dark exhibits, but you will have to go to the museum or buy the very good book that accompanies it to see those), was the section devoted to confidence tricksters.

First up was this character who looks a compete dill to me, but obviously fooled quite a few people so may have had more charisma when you met him in real life:

His name was Alex Westland Robertson, but his alias was Mountbatten. In 1923 "he was arrested for stealing from his employer, but he was better known as a confidence man. He specialised in swindling women, convincing them he was single, rich and related to Lord Mountbatten, when in fact he was married, poor and had no connection to the aristocracy. He impressed his targets with 'diamonds' that he claimed were from a South African mine he owned - they were actually pieces of glass. Robertson persuaded many women to lend him money, having assured them that he was expecting to receive £30,000. He even became engaged to one rich heiress

Then came this trio, who "convinced their target to place bets on horses that Reid, supposedly a jockey, would be riding. The victim happily handed over his money but eventually realised that Reed was not riding in the races. At trial, the target was reluctant to explain what he was paying for (probably to fix the race) and all three men were acquitted".

Next up was Barbara Turner Taylor, (alias Barbara Bradley, Edna Gillespie, Edna Florence Gillespie, Florence Gillespie, Barbara Taylor, Barbara Tiernan, Barbara Tierney, Barbara Turner):

Turner Taylor was described "by police as the cleverest confidence trickster in NSW. She manipulated her victims with ease. She targeted businessmen and lawyers with tales of hardship, convincing them to lend her money. Compounding her victims' humiliation, Turner Taylor later wrote a book about her exploits, naming and shaming those who had fallen for her scams. She hoped her life story would one day be turned into a movie", (and I'm guessing it could still be an opportunity for a caper film or even a television series).

The world was full of dangers from scams in those days, and Henry Marchant (alias Henry Burke, Henry Joubert, John Marchant, Henry Wilhelm), was a master of one called the 'Dutch watch' scam:

Apparently, Marchant "would befriend a stranger, before his 'Dutch' accomplice approached, offering to sell Marchant a watch at a fraction of its supposed value. Marchant would ask his new friend to lend him the sum, promising to pay him back. He would then head off to fetch his wallet, leaving the watch as security. Merchant would not return and the victim would discover he had been left holding an almost worthless watch".

My absolute favourite of these stories in the exhibition relates to the Climax Agency, a group of three men who made large sums of money with a confidence trick involving, of all things, potato peelers. I will save them for my next post though, when I will explain how those swindled might have managed to recoup some of their money, provided they were swindled at exactly the right time of year.

In the meantime, I highly recommend a visit to the Museum of Sydney or, failing that, ordering the book that goes with the exhibition. Unfortunately though, with my usual thoroughness, I never noticed what the exhibition was actually called. Shame on me.

Monday, 5 February 2018

I See It Clearly

I met a friend at the National Library of Australia  the other day. The National Library is probably my favourite post-1960 building, and the day I was there the abstract stained glass windows by Leonard French were radiant, huge jewelled sections inserted into the building’s walls. I’d never seen them glow quite like that before.

There is also an abstract sculpture over the front door of the Library. When my children were small, I worked at home, transcribing oral history interviews, and Tom Bass, who made the entrance sculpture, was one of the people whose interview I typed up.

In his interview, he mentioned his distress about that piece of work of his. It is made of bronze, I think - certainly some kind of metal whose appearance changes with exposure to outside air over time.  He had designed it with the idea that its effect would derive quite significantly from its weathering, but the people in charge at the Library coated the whole thing in a glossy dark brown varnish, which makes it look heavy and ugly.

Anyway, my friend and I went to the bookshop, after drinking some coffee in the café, and I bought some books (my friend, shockingly, suggested I should note the books’ names down and go home and order them from Amazon - this is the way the world ends).

One of the books I bought was The Best Australian Poems 2017, which I’ve been going through bit by bit ever since.

In all honesty, I was beginning to wonder whether I’d invested in a dud though. Then I came to a poem by someone called David Brooks and suddenly the purchase seemed worthwhile. I so admire the way he creates a vivid scene with such economy. Alhough I am sitting on my verandah on a sunny 28 degree centigrade afternoon, I can see the thin rain, the mist, the cockatoos settling, and almost feel that cold:

The Night Coming by David Brooks

I was thinking it was cold, the heater
struggling against the draught,
and that there was nothing I could say, how
empty my mind was,
but then looked up and saw you
working in the paddock in the thin rain in your              
jacket against the almost-
evening of the trees
with the white dog at heel
and the four sheep grazing about you
and the sounds, through the mist, of the                      
settling in the high branches,
the woodshed in its winter sleep,
the five wild ducks
moving in single file through the grass.

If I came across that poem far from home, it would have me booking an urgent ticket back to Australia, overwhelmed by  homesickness

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Weird Little Marks

Lots of my friends like Cormac McCarthy. I have tried to read his novels, but I find them portentous and woolly-minded, (the two things often go hand in hand). If I needed confirmation that McCarthy is not all he is cracked up to be when it comes to writing, then this piece, which reports that McCarthy despises almost all punctuation, provides me with just that thing.

 I think what I find most shocking in the article is the fact that McCarthy is so arrogant that he boasts about removing punctuation and:

'paring down an essay “by Swift or something”'

when nothing written by McCarthy is going to last a tenth of the time that Swift's work has already - and it, unlike McCarthy's work, will, I'm sure, endure, (ideally without his tinkering).

People who proudly say they don't use punctuation, clearly don't understand what punctuation is for. Punctuation is not a decorative optional extra, it's not some kind of doily; punctuation improves clarity, and writing without clarity is not worth doing.

It may have been the woman who copy edits at the New Yorker who pointed out that commas are stepping stones that guide the reader through the river of a sentence. Whoever it was, she is absolutely right. Ambiguity is always ready to drown meaning, especially in English, which is a language that seems to lend itself particularly to ambiguity. Take the sentence that begins the paragraph before this one: if I'd written 'People who proudly say they don't use punctuation clearly don't understand what it is for',  it would have been ambiguous or even downright misleading. I actually don't much like the comma I have put there - my inclination would be to expand the whole sentence and say 'Those people who proudly say they don't use punctuation only say so because they clearly don't understand what it is for', but in the end I decided that that would be unnecessarily long and that placing a comma before 'clearly', even though it is a bit inelegant somehow, does indicate that the people I'm referring to are declaring their pride in not using punctuation, rather than their pride in using punctuation in an unclear manner.

Similarly, in the following two sentences, the absence of one of those things that McCarthy regards as a  'weird little mark' in the first leaves the meaning ambiguous, while its presence in the second makes only one meaning possible:

'I could tell she’d been crying because her face was red and ugly.'

'I could tell she’d been crying, because her face was red and ugly.'

After reading about McCarthy and his stupid ideas, I went off and started reading recipe books to calm down. Not any old recipe books, mind you; I turned to one of the best writers I know.

His name is Simon Hopkinson. He hasn't won any prizes for writing, I don't think, perhaps because he only writes cookery books. Even so, to my mind he is a great stylist and better than most of the feted authors of today. This tiny example of his prose, taken from The Vegetarian Option, exhibits Hopkinson's care with words and his meticulous use of punctuation. In the space of one sentence, he conveys a piece of information he has been given, while also making it clear that he has quite serious doubts about whether it is reliable or not:

Okay, it isn't earthshaking, but it also isn't ambiguous - and that's good enough for me.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Book 4, 2018 - The Improbablilty of Love by Hannah Rothschild

Just after finishing The Improbability of Love I read an article in the Washington Post by Garrison Keilor, in which he describes accompanying his teenage daughter to a dance. When they arrived, he found that the kids were dancing to Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Fats Domino. "It dawned on me", he observes, "that when rock-and-roll got all progressive and artistic and inward, something you listened to and tried to figure out what the lyrics meant, it lost the power to make people jump around and have a good time".

It seems to me that a parallel thing happened to the novel when Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Proust and even the - to me - faintly baffling Henry Green got hold of it. Experimenting with plot, attempting to convey the flow of time and existence in all its glorious tedium became a marker of higher artistry, regardless of whether the results had the power to provide a good time.

One problem with this - leaving aside the thing I don't really like to admit, which is that I find Woolf and Joyce and Proust extremely boring (but, in my defence, I don't find Henry James boring, although most do; in addition, I believe he wrestled far more energetically with the problem of conveying experience than many of those writers I've mentioned, but that is probably an argument for another day) - is that writers who are immediately entertaining tend to be discounted, seen as of lower value than their experimental brethren. In my opinion, this is extremely misguided. Writing in a way that is accessible to many, if done well, is a great deal more difficult than the most "difficult" fiction. Easy reading is not necessarily easy to write, if it is any good. Creating characters that live in a reader's imagination, thinking up plots with resolutions readers care about, conjuring up whole imaginary worlds - and also writing without cliche but with perception and wisdom - is something remarkably few people are capable of. When it is done right, one of the best kinds of novel is the really entertaining easy-read.

And Hannah Rothschild has done it right. Somehow she has produced a book that could be recommended as a beach read while: being very well written, (no repetitive hackneyed turns of phrase or girlie nonsense); portraying nuanced relationships - most particularly that between the protagonist and her mother; raising difficult questions, (Nazism and Jewish reparations is one of the book's main themes; Rothschild's ability to introduce such dark and weighty topics without either treating them with lack of respect or destroying her book's tone is remarkable); maintaining a romantic plot line you care about; and providing quite a lot of art history to boot. The novel is highly imaginative and often funny. When I finished and looked the author up and discovered that she is Chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery in London - in other words, writing fiction is just a sideline, rather than her day job - I was awed. Mind you, the article I read did mention that this novel took ten years to finish. That shouldn't be surprising though as, unlike so many novels these days, The Improbability of Loe gives the impression of having been created with great attention. I enjoyed it very much.