Saturday, 31 December 2016

Quotes#4: Philip Larkin and Nas

Philip Larkin, in his poem Dockery and Son:

Life is first boredom, then fear, 
Whether we use it or not, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose...

Nas in New York State of Mind:

It drops deep, as it does in my breath/
I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death/
Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined/
I think of crime, when I'm in a New York State of Mind

Thursday, 29 December 2016

The 50 greatest things in life

In The Photographer's Playbook, a book of exercises for photography students, Dennis Keeley suggests listing "your fifty greatest things in life, in order" since "if you cannot identify, qualify, contrast, or uncover the hidden parts of greatness, it is more difficult to prioritise your own processes and procedures in making work".

I'm reading the book for general interest and life inspiration, rather than to improve my (infrequent) photography, but a) I'm fond of lists b) I thought listing the greatest things in life might help me prioritise how I spend mine and c) I can't find any reference to this exercise online and I think that's a shame because I think it would be interesting to see how different people's lists compare (imagine how cool it would be to read the lists of people you admire) and how people's lists change over time.

So, in possibly the most on-the-spectrum thing I've ever done, here's my list of the 50 greatest things in life, in order of sheer pleasure-giving power (as opposed to, say, the eradication of small pox, which, although indeed great, has never sent a shiver up my spine):

  1. Sex
  2. [Redacted pending legalisation]
  3. Love 
  4. Sunlight (felt) 
  5. The anticipation of / start of a night out 
  6. Women (appearance of) 
  7. Good writing 
  8. Synth 
  9. Colour 
  10. Uncrowded swimming 
  11. Sunlight (seen) 
  12. Water (sight of) 
  13. Other natural vistas 
  14. Beer 
  15. Electric guitar 
  16. Drumming 
  17. Blues guitar 
  18. Wine 
  19. The look of Michael Mann's films
  20. Lamb kebabs  
  21. Rum 
  22. Clusters of skyscrapers 
  23. Bass 
  24. Barbecue 
  25. Sitting in a field 
  26. Shelves of books 
  27. Racks of magazines
  28. An unexplored city 
  29. Getting into bed tired 
  30. Playing football 
  31. Crisp mornings 
  32. Quiet 
  33. Good coffee 
  34. Identifying with a tragi-comic fictional character's chagrin at the shitness of things 
  35. Neon 
  36. Running 
  37. Flowers 
  38. Buffalo sauce
  39. Good tea 
  40. Hunter S Thompson 
  41. The concepts of JG Ballard 
  42. The hard-boiled noir style
  43. Whiskey
  44. A cold glass of water on a hot day
  45. Hokusai woodcuts 
  46. Burnished metal 
  47. Staircases 
  48. Glass
  49. Wood
  50. Heft
I basically came up with this list in an afternoon, so it might change over the next few days and / or a longer period.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Worth

Are any human actions inherently worthwhile, rather than being worthwhile because of their impact on some other person or animal?

Maybe knowledge creation.

But can knowledge stand alone?

The universe is full of information that stands alone; knowledge is the conversion of information into a useful form.

If someone counted the number of grains of sand in the Sahara, they could choose to express their knowledge of that information by, say, writing one sentence for every grain. But that wouldn't be very useful: someone else would have to count all of those sentences to gain that knowledge. It would be more useful to write merely an order of magnitude. Every attempt to express knowledge of something also increases the amount of information in the world; the key to being useful is to minimise that increase as much as possible.

Which actually has nothing to do with the reason I started writing, so I'm failing my own usefulness test here - sorry.

I started writing because I'm wondering: how many things are worthwhile if they go unperceived by someone else?

Exercising is worthwhile if it makes you healthier and happier, even if it has no effect on anybody else.

But can a life be worthwhile if its effects are entirely self-contained? I think not.

So if you want your life to be worthwhile, does that mean your main pursuits should be outward-looking?

In The Photographer's Playbook, Ed Kashi advises aspiring photographers to "be passionate" about their subjects. He's photographed Northern Irish Protestants, Kurds and Syrian refugees. Worthwhile activities, no doubt.

But what were the Protestants, Kurds and Syrians doing while he was photographing them? They probably weren't photographing him back. They probably weren't photographing each other.

But maybe the happiest among them were making each other food. Telling each other stories or listening to them. Helping and healing.

So, does worth demand the existence of pain? And if so, is there enough pain to go around? And if not, what does that mean?

Today, the average person has to spend most of their life working. In the future that may not be the case - it maybe wasn't the case in the past, when we were tribal, for example - but today it is.

Are there enough jobs that directly salve pain for everyone to have one? No. So should we therefore create more pains?

Consumer capitalism creates pain in order to salve it for profit - ideally temporarily and repeatedly. This is bad if its overall impact is negative, for example because of impact on the environment, or if the pain grows through repeated invocation. But is that always the case? And does the involvement of profit necessarily negate good feeling?

We could instead slice these jobs more thinly among ourselves, but then would they be too thin to satisfy?

Or we could forget about manufacturing pain and instead try harder to slice genuine pain more thinly, through more effective redistribution.

But then what would we do with ourselves? What did tribal man do with himself?

Again, as Yuval Noah Harari asks in Sapiens: what do we want to want?

Everything is relative. Without real pain, would our boredom become the pain that we'd salve for each other through clowning? Would the meaning of life be to play the fool for others?

The wealthiest among us already have lives like this. Maybe I already have a life like this: what is my Facebook activity if not clowning for your amusement?

If it works, why am I writing this?

Sunday, 13 November 2016

What should we do?

What should we do, eh?

What should we do about our depression, anxiety and loneliness?

Now that a climate change-denying, disability-mocking, sexist, racist liar has been elected the most powerful person on Earth, we should probably spend the next four years fighting political fires. But what about after that?

As I wrote about here, Christopher Lasch thought we should establish systems of education, government and life in general that empower people, since small accomplishments achieved in local communities would involve the fostering of human connections and result in the satisfaction of jobs well done.

Which sounds great.

But it does rely on there being a sufficient number of appropriately difficult challenges for us to solve, forever.

Curing all diseases, alleviating all poverty and ending all wars and oppression are pretty decent goals that we're already trying hard as a species to achieve. Well, we're trying a little bit, anyway. But is it possible for all of us to make meaningful contributions to those tasks? I doubt it.

Preventing harmful climate change is probably the next-most pressing issue, and we can certainly all do our bit there, but can we do much as local communities? Again, I don't see it. Likewise preventing biodiversity loss.

Besides, while we certainly should be trying to repair the damage we've wrought on the planet, merely undoing our previous crimes feels like a waste of human potential. Think of it this way: if all you can say on your deathbed is that you did no harm, will that feel like a life well lived? You may as well have stayed in bed the whole time.

Likewise raising kids to be good people so that they in turn can raise kids to be good people so that they in turn can...

We need something else.

But what?

I don't know yet.

The best ideas I can come up with are a Star Trek-like interplanetary policing role and some kind of galactic artwork of the sort Fry carries out for Leela in an episode of Futurama:


But the first of those looks like a bit of a stretch given that we've proved to be pretty shit at even terrestrial policing, and the second would probably be an even more hideous misuse of our powers than any of the fuckups we've yet managed here on Earth (I'm reminded of a moment in one of the Red Dwarf books when a space crew rearranges the stars into an advert for Pepsi)... Oh, and they're both technologically impossible, too.

So I'm stumped for now. But it seems worth thinking about.

Book review: The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch, 1979

The Culture of Narcissism posits that when we tumble forth from the bliss-like satisfaction of the womb into the cold hard world, where not all of our needs are satisfied, we develop the capacity for anxiety; and that because the modern advertising industry keeps us in a state of constant desire, and because the bureaucratic nature of modern life makes us feel, and indeed often makes us in fact, helpless to act in many of the ways we wish to, we're not able to achieve or be satisfied with the minor victories that ought to be all we need to live fulfilling lives; and that we've therefore become creatures of anxiety and narcissism (as defined by psychotherapy as opposed to general usage) who vacillate between feelings of implausible entitlement and bewildered, depressed dissatisfaction; and that we therefore need to build a system of education and government that empowers people rather than swaddling and failing them.

Which is all pretty fucking good. Sadly it's mixed up with a fair dollop of Freudian codswallop about Oedipal complexes and castration fantasies and all that guff, but if you can hold your nose through that nonsense there's a great deal to like.

Too much to quote, in fact, although one turn of phrase in particular I thought was magnificent:

"Since the society has no future, it makes sense to live only for the moment [...] to become connoisseurs of our own decadence."

If that's not the perfect description for our modern inclination to do things like down 14 pints, vomit in our own lap and then brag about it to our friends, I'm a mongoose.

It's also highly pertinent to our recent fondness for voting for ludicrous quick fixes to complex problems, as I've written about here.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The modern malady

Whatever you think about democracy, it tells us more about a nation's people - through how they vote - than any other system of government in use today.

So what do the UK's EU referendum and the US presidential election - the two most significant voting opportunities of 2016 - tell us about the British, the Americans and the western / developed world in general?

The Leave campaign won in the UK, leaning heavily on the slogan 'Take Back Control'. The idea that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK was the number one motivation for Leave voters.

Trump won in the US, making similar use of the phrase 'Make America Great Again'. The man himself said that a Trump victory would be "Brexit plus plus plus".

What do both of these campaigns have in common? They leverage a feeling or fear of a loss of control.

Why would British or American people feel they've lost control?

Britain has relinquished an empire and its position as the world's primary manufacturing, military and political power, but most of that happened before most of today's voters were even born.

America, the replacement imperialist, is seeing rising competition from a resurgent China, but it remains the world's dominant superpower and is likely to stay such for decades.

Economic growth in the UK at the time of the referendum was the highest in the G7 group of the world's leading economies, while the US weathered the storm of the 2008 global financial crisis better than probably any other leading economy.

So what's the problem?

Many point to growing inequality, with the income of the top 1% of earners rising to hundreds of times that of the average earner.

But Americans have decided the best solution for what ails them is to elect a politically inexperienced billionaire with a history of off-shoring jobs from his own companies, while Brits have voted for a course of action that will probably make individuals and the country less well off and leave British companies having to abide by EU rules while no longer having a say in what those rules should be.

Both outcomes demonstrate the victory of easy promises of greater control over reasoned argument. How could this happen?

In the run-up to the UK referendum, the British politician Michael Gove was broadly castigated for having said that "the people of this country have had enough of experts". Even though he actually said "the people of this country have had enough of experts [from] organisations [with] acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong", the widely reported and broadly castigated sentiment was correct: people in the UK decided to ignore the advice of economists, business leaders and statesmen and vote for the easy answers.

Likewise, Americans decided to vote not for "the most experienced presidential candidate in history" but for someone who has never held political office.

In his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, Christopher Lasch quotes Ludwig von Mises as follows:

"Bureaucratic collectivism [...] undermines the "cool rationality and objectivity of capitalist relations" and renders the "plain citizen" dependent on the "professional propagandist of bureaucratisation", who confuses the citizen with his "empty catchwords" and esoteric obfuscation."

In other words, modern bureaucratic society (and what commoner objection is there against the EU than that it's overly bureaucratic?) and its 'experts' have made people dependent and confused.

Lasch goes on:

"Our growing dependence on technologies no one seems to understand or control has given rise to feelings of powerlessness and victimization."

So we're not only dependent and confused, we're also afraid and angry.

And it's not only that we're materially worse off and more dependent:

"Our society tends either to devalue small comforts or else to expect too much of them. Our standards of "creative, meaningful work" are too exalted to survive disappointment. [...] At the same time that our society makes it more and more difficult to find satisfaction in love and work, it surrounds the individual with manufactured fantasies of total gratification. [...] We demand too much of life, too little of ourselves."

Lasch is referring to promises of the absence of physical pain, lavish lifestyles, celebrity and adulation, but it's easy to see parallels with grandiose promises of 'making America great again' and 'taking back control' - or with that so telling phrase of Boris Johnson's: "I'm pro having my cake and pro eating it."

Lasch himself concludes:

"A reassertion of "common sense", according to Mises, will "prevent man from falling prey" to the "illusory fantasies" of professional bureaucrats. But common sense is not enough. In order to break the existing pattern of dependence and put an end to the erosion of competence, citizens will have to take the solution to their problems into their own hands. They will have to create their own "communities of competence."

Lasch was writing in 1979, when free market liberalisation and globalisation were only just being ramped up by Reagan and Thatcher. The problems he wrote about are much bigger today.

But at the same time that globalisation has split developed nations into the haves and have lesses, it's also lifted hundreds of millions of people in developing nations out of genuine poverty, while placing ever greater pressures on the environment.

And it's shown millions of people in Eastern Europe, Mexico, North Africa and the Middle East the kind of lives that people in the west are so desperate to protect, having lucked into them via the lottery of birth.

So while the solution Lasch advocates of greater personal and civic autonomy might well be the right one, we're also going to have to pay even greater heed to another of his points:

"The best hope of emotional maturity, then [...] lies in acceptance of our limits. The world does not exist merely to satisfy our own desires; it is a world in which we can find pleasure and meaning, once we recognise that others too have a right to these goods."

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

What is Theresa May doing?

What is Theresa May doing?

She backed the UK remaining in the EU, but took on the role of prime minister after the country voted to leave and - if "Brexit means Brexit" can be taken to mean anything at all - appears to be prepared to lead the country into an action she thinks is folly.

So what's going on?

I can think of several possibilities:

1. She never thought remaining was the right option for the UK, but thought the remain campaign would win and that it was therefore the most politically smart position in that it would ally her with David Cameron, who would have stayed on as PM. Now she's going for a hard Brexit because Brexit is what she's always wanted.

2. She's a barely competent opportunist who is prepared to do almost anything - including commit the country to folly - in order to further her own career. In becoming PM she learnt that she benefited from not having campaigned vigorously for remaining, and now she's playing her cards even closer to her chest over what she wants from the UK's negotiations with the EU because a) she can't do any better and b) she can claim whatever outcome results as being the one she wanted.

3. She always wanted the UK to remain in the EU, but didn't campaign hard so that if the leave vote won she could try to steer the UK towards the best outcome. Now she's playing hard a) to keep the leave campaign off her back and b) to convince the EU that she'll really go through with a hard Brexit and that all of Europe will suffer from the UK's loss unless the EU caves on its principle that the free movement of goods, capital and services must necessarily go hand-in-hand with the free movement of people, which - let's face it - is a political conviction rather than an economic one.

Where I come up short is in picking the possibility I think is most likely. The evidence to date means any of them could well be. May was an ineffectual Home Secretary who has nevertheless managed to craft an image of steely competence. She's presided over a horrifying series of policy suggestions that have kept the right wing silent while making the left more convinced than ever that Brexit is a terrible idea. And she's picked the worst possible timing for triggering Article 50.

So your guess is as good as mine.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The week's best reads #4

A pretty narrow selection this week. Use the comments to let me and the world know what I missed.

Ryan Avent in the Guardian on how the digital revolution is linked to rising nationalism:

"Moderate reformers will find themselves losing ground to politicians keen to unpick elements of the era of moderation ..."

Related, Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian on the UK Tory government's sharp swerve into populism:

"The only instruction the British people gave on 23 June was to leave the European Union. They did not issue an edict demanding the most extreme rupture possible..."

Adam Phillips in the Guardian on how we lose out by solidifying our sense of self:

"Taste is problematic when it is a militant and aggressive narrowing of the mind..."

Alberto Nardelli for Buzzfeed on how common extremism now is in Europe:

"Almost half of the adults in 12 European countries now hold anti-immigrant, nationalist views..."

Tim Harford in the FT on the efficiency of being disorganised:

"Your desk may look messy to other people but you know that, thanks to the LRU rule, it’s really an efficient self-organising rapid-access cache."

How to tell if you're foreign, by The Poke:

"Democracy is a key British value, and democracy means that the majority can vote to strip rights from the minority..."

The problem with the public

People living in poorer areas of the UK were more likely to vote to leave the EU. This wasn't the strongest predictor of voting Leave, but it was pretty strong.

A question many people, particularly pro-Remainers, are asking is why this should have been the case, given that most economists predicted that leaving the EU would be financially damaging, and given that the EU has been better than the UK government at redistributing funding to poorer areas (and not in the form of soul-destroying benefits handouts, but in the form of large-scale infrastructure investment).

Any suggestion that people were ill-informed in voting to leave the EU will be met with accusations of condescension from pro-Leavers. But some statistics in Andy Beckett's excellent history of early 80s British politics Promised You a Miracle provide an eye-opening illustration of how difficult it can be to deliver information to the public.

In a section on the 1979 Tory government's Right to Buy scheme, which enabled council tenants to buy their homes at a discount of between 33 and 50 per cent, Beckett relates how a 1988 report found that, five years after the scheme had been in place, and had been advertised on TV and via posted information leaflets, 45 per cent of tenants who knew about the scheme didn't understand whether or not they qualified (the vast majority did) and 10 per cent of tenants "were completely unaware of the scheme at all".

This is a scheme that could have saved tenants up to half the cost of buying their home, and 10 per cent of them were unaware that it existed.

In light of that, does it still seem unlikely that a large proportion of people who voted to leave the EU were unaware that trading with it from outside the single market could mean having to adopt many of its rules while relinquishing any say in what those rules would be, for example?

The right balance of representative and participatory democracy is difficult to find. But reducing a question as complex as a country's membership of the EU to a binary choice is certainly looking to have been a horrible misstep.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Film review: Blackhat, Michael Mann (2015)

There's an artist in the UK called Jim'll Paint It who uses Microsoft Paint to create affectionately absurd and frequently nightmarish renderings of scenes suggested by his fans, like "Zippy from Rainbow as John Hurt in Alien being held down as a human hand bursts through his stomach":

I mention this not only because it's utterly brilliant but also because, with a little help from this retrospective on Miami Vice by Stephen Hyden, I've realised that it provides a good way of illustrating how best to enjoy Blackhat, the 2015 hacker thriller from director Michael Mann.

Hyden says of Miami Vice that "the plot [...] matters less than how it looks and feels", and although I think Miami Vice is still a pretty terrible film, I also think Hyden's observation works perfectly for Blackhat.

Blackhat is about a hacker who gets let loose from jail so that he can help the US and Chinese governments track down a nastier hacker who caused a nuclear power station to go into meltdown. The good(ish) hacker is played by Chris Hemsworth, the same actor who plays Thor in those superhero films. Yes, really.

And despite his character's primary skills being by nature best deployed at a distance and distinctly non-physical, Hemsworth is soon gallivanting off to China and Malaysia, throwing tables at people and using screwdrivers for things other than upgrading his motherboard.

There's also a love interest, who's supposed to be a network engineer. This mostly involves caressing Hemsworth's forearms.

But none of this matters. What matters is that, as in two of Mann's masterpieces, Heat and Collateral, Mann has a reason for pointing his lens at things and making them beautiful. In this case those things include the interior of a Korean restaurant, the skeleton of a half-built skyscraper, bullet-riddled shipping containers and the control room of a decaying nuclear reactor.

Mann shoots cities, and people interacting with cities, better than anybody else around. Way better.

And so it doesn't matter how improbable it is that Thor-as-freed-from-prison-kickass-hacker would be sent into a still-hot reactor core to physically wrench out a hard drive while the walls crumble around him. What matters is that it gives Mann an excuse to shoot Hemsworth in a lime-green radiation suit smashing the place up with an axe (see one minute forty for a brief flash):


Just like Jim'll Paint It cramming Zippy, Kermit and Sooty into a reimagining of the Alien chestbuster scene, Blackhat takes a mountain of improbables and uses them as the anything-goes basis for creating something almost unbearably gorgeous. It's a work of art.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

This week's best reads #3

Italy's  anti-establisment - or is he? - PM Matteo Renzi profiled in Vogue:

"We sat with our coffees under the gaze of a stuffed owl Renzi placed on a marble end table to remind himself that his many enemies are always watching. Renzi has no shortage of them."

Ross Douthat for the NYT on how blanket cultural liberalism is affecting US politics:

"Among millennials, especially, there’s a growing constituency for whom right-wing ideas are so alien or triggering, left-wing orthodoxy so pervasive and unquestioned, that supporting a candidate like Hillary Clinton looks like a needless form of compromise."

Peter Beinart for The Atlantic on how American news is finally calling bullshit:

"Last Saturday, The New York Times published an extraordinary story. What made the story extraordinary wasn’t the event the Times covered. What made it extraordinary was the way the Times covered it."

The FT on how Swiss relations with Brussels affect the UK and vice-versa:

"Mr Blocher has suggested blocking access to the new 57km rail tunnel under the Gotthard mountain — the longest in the world — if its dispute with Brussels escalates."

Alfie Brown for LSE on how a new book on Dennis Hopper goes straight for what really matters:

"French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan started his project from the central belief that the discourses of structuralism and other philosophical models had always failed to account for one thing: enjoyment."

Hitchhiker "goes Berserk" after four days without a lift:

“He was a spoilt millennial, and he created a hell of a din. But all that time he was standing in the wrong place to hitchhike – a corner with poor visibility and nowhere for cars to easily pull over.”

Monday, 15 August 2016

Book review: Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari (2014)

Sapiens is the book to end all books. Literally. Well, almost.

It tells you everything you need to know about the history of human culture and thought, and then asks where we might be going as a species.

In the process it undermines consumerism, nationalism, the pursuit of individual happiness and the idea that mankind is shaping the planet in a positive way. Having done so, it leaves us with one question for our future: what do we want to want?

It's a question that we might well try to answer by writing books, and once we've settled on some answers we might well try to track our progress towards those answers by writing more books. Hence that "almost" earlier on. But most books have just been rendered pointless. Along with most of everything else.

I've spent my adult life looking for the answers to life's questions in books. How did we get here? Why are things the way they are? Is that how they ought to be? What kind of life should I lead? How can I do that better? Thanks to Sapiens, I now feel like I know most of the answers.

The past 500 years of unprecedented human productivity have given us Shakespeare's sonnets, Mozart's requiems, Leonardo's portraits, Manolo's Blahniks and Gangnam Style. Are we any happier or more satisfied as a result? Nope. Should I bother with them? Eh.

Only two things seem important now: community and the future of human activity. I've long struggled to foment ambitions, and now I think it's because I haven't been focusing on those two issues.

Am I focused enough to do so from now on? I guess I'll find out.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Gaika live at the Roundhouse

A photo posted by Gabby cooke (@gabrielle_cooke) on

Gaika delivered a confident and powerful performance of his 2016 album Security at the Roundhouse on 11 August, overcoming but not quite compensating for the over-hyping of a sparse bill.

The Brixton-raised self-defined Afrofuturist, whose music combines R&B, rap, grime and dancehall, was one of several musicians invited over different nights to make use of Ron Arad's Curtain Call installation at the Roundhouse - a "floor-to-ceiling artwork made of 5,600 silicon rods suspended from an 18-metre diameter ring [that] provides a canvas for films, live performance and audience interaction".

The Roundhouse billed Curtain Call as "incredible" and "epic", but on the basis of Gaika's show, a visual display encircling the audience is a backwards step from the more typical audience-facing live music array, which through multi-sourcing and layering offers far more opportunities to dazzle.

Gaika's show itself was billed by the Roundhouse as an "imaginary club experience" inspired by Security and its "dancehall-tinged songs for the city" but that too proved to be hype: four dancers on podiums were positioned around the Curtained space, and early on in the evening the "club" was guarded by "bouncers", but that was the sum total of the "immersion".

Doors opened at 21.00 and the venue closed at 23.00, already making for a painfully short facsimile of an actual club night, and to add insult to injury the first hour of the evening proved to be nothing but the chance to mill around the performance space while minimal use was made of Curtain Call to some vague musical accompaniment from the VIP bar area. There was no support, and nothing to see. It was a scandalous waste of people's time and ears.

Thankfully Gaika's performance itself, when it finally came, rose magnificently above the inauspicious start to proceedings. Either Curtain Call, the shape of the Roundhouse or Gaika's own proclivities meant that he delivered his performance from a small circular stage in the centre of the space, allowing the crowd of "clubbers" to push up close and move around freely.

It was an inspired choice that made the show much more intimate than most at the Roundhouse, which is a monumental building but, with a maximum capacity of 1,700, not a place where most of the crowd can normally get near the performers.

Gaika kicked things off by exhorting the crowd to rotate around him, which they briefly did before settling down again and remaining mostly static for the rest of the night, bar some self-conscious shuffling. It was possibly an acknowledgement on Gaika's part that he knew he was going to have to single-handedly deliver the 'epic immersion' people had been led to expect.

If so, he delivered. Security is strange beast of an album, claustrophobic and threatening but also heartfelt and at times uplifting and energising, and Gaika managed to translate all of that into the live show with an intense and physical performance. The crowd was an uncommon mix of achingly trendy arty types, tracksuited youths, bespectacled nerds and rather bewildered-looking middle-aged culture vultures, with most of the dancing taking place among those belonging to the first two categories, but those who looked like they'd actually known what to expect, rather than being enticed in by the Roundhouse's hype, appeared to greatly enjoy themselves.

I was one of those, and it was just a shame that the "club" of the billing was indeed imaginary: had Gaika's performance been the centrepiece of a real club night, or even of a properly organised gig schedule, the evening would have been a resounding success. As it was, only Gaika emerged with credibility intact.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Book review: Not The Chilcot Report, Peter Oborne, 2016

In Not The Chilcot Report, journalist Peter Oborne shows that Tony Blair outright lied to Parliament on at least one occasion and repeatedly deceived Parliament by distortion or omission, that several of his inner circle aided him in this, that his presidential style of government bypassed essential checks and balances, that he was fixated on regime change and prepared to try to game the U.N. Security Council to achieve it, that intelligence services allowed their work to be misrepresented in Parliament and the media, that Parliament and journalists were slipshod in not holding Blair and his circle to account at the time, and that Parliamentary committees of inquiry failed to do so subsequently.

He also asserts that these lessons have yet to be learnt. Chilcot is published on 6 July. Get ready for fireworks.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Friday, 3 June 2016

Brexit #2: what is and what might be

Vote Leave figurehead Boris Johnson has been taking flipflopping to new lows in his hijacking of the EU referendum, but even the most decided of the rest of us would probably admit to thinking there are pros and cons to being in the EU (although for us those pros and the cons will be different things).

I wonder though how many of us would admit that at least part of our inclination to vote one way or the other is due not to some fixed aspect of the EU's setup, but to our desire to either keep or change some temporary political circumstance that just happens to be the way we do or don't want it to be for the time being?

For example, I'm more in agreement overall politically with the current inhabitants of the EU institutions than I am with the current Tory UK government, due to our stances on issues like the refugee crisis, climate change, workers' rights, etc, and I can't deny that that's one of the attractive prospects about voting to remain. Of course if we were to vote to leave the EU then the UK government could theoretically reinstate many of the things I like that the EU currently gives us, like the maximum 48-hour working week, but would it?

In this FT article Joshua Chaffin wrote about how "Cornwall took in more than €654m from Brussels during the EU’s 2007 to 2013 budget cycle" (as part of the EU's scheme for taking money from wealthier areas and giving it to more deprived ones), and whether that's having an impact on Cornish residents' voting intentions. Boris has said the UK could redistribute money like this on its own without cycling it through Brussels first if we vote to leave, but one resident told Chaffin that "The EU’s been a much better mechanism for getting money from the wealthier parts of Britain to the poorer parts than our own government’s ever been”.

Likewise, when I spoke to an academic for a Brexit piece I contributed to for work, and put it to her that the UK government could, if we vote to leave, choose to more-than replace the research funding we currently receive from the EU with the money leavers claim we'd save, she said: "Nobody can convince me that if we weren’t part of the EU then the amount of research funding that’s available for the humanities around minorities or marginal groups would be increased under the present government. That’s absolutely inconceivable.”

In both of these examples, short-term thinking brushes up against long-term, and pragmatism up against wishful thinking. I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about these situations.

In his book And The Weak Suffer What They Must?, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis writes about how "Greek and Italian politicians [...] extended an intriguing offer to voters fed up with them" when their countries were considering joining the EU's single currency: "Keep voting for us and we shall soon rid you of ... our rule! Once monetary union is complete, our country will be administered de facto by Northern Europeans [...] Most Greeks I know secretly welcomed that offer [...]"

And look where that got them...

Maybe it isn't wise to make long-term decisions on the basis of short-term circumstances.

Right now I dislike Tory austerity (with the UK not in the Eurozone, we don't have to worry about Eurogroup austerity) and like EU's stance towards online privacy protection, for example, but in the future might I lament a more left-wing UK government being unable to introduce a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions because a more right-wing EU doesn't want one?

I think the best thing on June 23 will be to vote in line with whether you think the fixed aspects of EU membership or non-membership are good or bad: having a continent-wide system of governance, being able to influence that governance, being in some respects controlled by that governance; free movement; free trade.

But I suspect transient concerns will end up playing as big a role, if not bigger.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Book review: Democracy Without Nations? Pierre Manent, 2006

In Democracy Without Nations? Pierre Manent poses an interesting and important question, fails to answer it convincingly, but in tackling it leaves it all the more interesting.

The question, more fully articulated than in the book's title, is essentially: can Europe survive without its nations?

Manent's answer is no. Manent loves nations, and admits as much: "my own national passion, which is undoubtedly quite real". But why does he think Europe can't do without them?

He gives three reasons.

The least convincing is that "After more than half a century of trying, the European enterprise, the effort "to construct Europe", has not succeeded in overcoming our old nations."

The easiest demonstration that this is unconvincing is that Manent has felt the need to write his book: he feels the nation needs to be defended. Nations can't be both weak enough to be in existential crisis and strong enough to necessitate their continued existence. Manent is trying to have his cake and eat it.

Second, he likes the size of nations - they're "at once quite ample and neatly circumscribed". They're "the middle ground between the puny and the immense, the petty and the limitless".

That's a more reasonable point, but it overlooks the fact that China is a nation of about 10 million square kilometers and 1.3 billion people, whereas Luxembourg is a nation of 2.5 thousand square kilometers and half a million people.

Perhaps these nations are absurd outliers - the federal nature of the USA and India points to that - but the fact remains that China, Luxembourg, the USA and India are all reasonably well-functioning nations. There's nothing necessary about the size of the UK, France and Germany.

Manent does ask whether Europe can become the new nation that subsumes existing European nations, as I'm implying is a viable course, but he seems to reject the viability of this possibility simply because it hasn't happened yet, as in point 1. He criticizes Europe's "refusal to define itself politically", or in terms of either a territory or a population.

Although I find this unconvincing in terms of the answer to the overarching question, I think Manent has a point, and this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. He says "Europe cannot construct itself meaningfully unless Europeans in the various nations identify themselves with a common European political action", and I agree with him; but he ends the sentence with "and for the foreseeable future that means with the common action of European nations", and there I disagree.

Firstly: has Britain defined itself any better than Europe? Has France? Second, take the Pirate Parties, which are uniting people worldwide around a single thread of causes.

Manent touches on this - on how globalisation is allowing or causing people to identify with each other across the world based on shared interests and experiences - but he says that "Communication by itself does not create a true bond among people [...]", and here again we diverge.

Although I agree that "Today's popular term identity is a terribly impoverished substitute for the older term community", I think he's mistaken that nations can any longer be the site of community, if they ever were. Do I really identify more with a British criminal in Newcastle or a British Baron in Cornwall than I do with someone from another country who lives alongside me in London and shares my work ethic and lifestyle? Non, nein.

The scale of community is dozens or hundreds, or a few miles, or dozens of conversations; the scale of politics ...? For me, as is enshrined in the EU's subsidiarity, it depends on the scale of the problem.

Finally, and perhaps most convincingly, Manent criticizes the effectiveness of the EU's instruments, which he says "prevent any individual or collective action that is not the simple application of a rule or regulation authorising rights". Unfortunately he provides no examples and barely elaborates; the argument is the most convincing of the three because of what has happened in Europe to countries like Greece since the financial crisis, but DWN? was written before the crash, and I don't know enough about institutions like the European Central Bank to be able to judge whether their weaknesses are terminal or skin-deep. That's covered by the next book I'll read; for the time being all I can say is that Manent is too brief on this point.

So DWN? failed to convince me that the nation must remain the primary site of politics, although I'm happy to concede it could well remain a secondary or tertiary one. Questions about the level at which democracy works best and about how people will associate in this globalised age are fascinating ones, and DWN? is a fairly though-provoking read even if far short of being the definitive text. Probably no such text exists yet...

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Brexit #1: sovereignty

In my flat we have a cleaning rota. There are five of us, and every ten days one of us has to clean all of the communal areas. The others don't have to do anything. And then we rotate.

In flats I've lived in previously we've done it differently. In my last place there were three of us and every two weeks we each did one of the three communal areas. When I lived with an ex we did everything between us once a week. In another place we had a cleaner.

My point is that nobody tells us how to clean up after ourselves: we get to decide for ourselves. The Mayor of London's office hasn't decreed that crumbs must be swept on Thursdays and hobs de-greased on Sundays. Boris didn't care, and neither does Sadiq.

But Islington North, the constituency I live in, can issue fixed penalty notices for littering. Islington North Council has decreed it doesn't want some streets deciding that the gutters are a good place to dispose of rubbish while other streets opt for the bushes. Everyone has to use the bins provided.

What you have there is an example of subsidiarity, a principle the EU runs on. It basically says that rules should get made at the lowest level that makes sense. At some point in time every nation on Earth decided that murder shouldn't be allowed, so they all made that illegal at the national level. In London, for example, I can't just wait for you to cross over to Islington South and Finsbury and then crossbow you with impunity. And not even Zac Goldsmith was campaigning to change that, even if only because he wouldn't have had the power to follow through.

We've been hearing a lot about sovereignty in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. "Vote leave to reclaim Britain's sovereignty", outers say. And yes, EU law does override British law, and yes, according to Full Fact, somewhere between 15 and 50% of new British laws are made in Brussels.

But are we all running around trying to remember whether murder and sweeping up crumbs on Tuesdays are illegal? No, we're not, because EU laws mostly involve trade - the EU's main reason for existing is the single European market - and the environment. Enough people have agreed that starving due to climate change is a bad idea for the EU to decide that Europe-wide laws are necessary to stop a few bad apples smothering the rest of the barrel in fumes.

Did you get a say in that? Well, you had a say in it in the same way you had a say in your local council's littering policies, or the nation's stance on murder. You got to vote for an MEP candidate for the European Parliament, and you got to vote for your national government, which is represented on the European Council, and together these are the two bodies that decide on EU laws. And the group of MEPs that got the most votes picked the head of the European Commission, which is the body that drafts the laws for the Parliament and Council to shape. And if you don't like what any of the candidates are saying, well, don't worry, because you get to run as one yourself if you want to.

Does Britain have more of a say over EU law than Germany? No. Can Britain be outvoted by the other EU nationals collectively? Yes.  Do I have more of a say over my flat's cleaning rota than any of my housemates? No. Can they collectively outvote me? Yes. That's democracy and that's subsidiarity and that's sovereignty in a globalised world where the challenges we face are no longer confined to 50-odd other tribe members. And if you ask me, that's a good way of doing things.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Quotes #3: Saul Bellow

I liked this column by Jay Rayner in the Guardian, on what an exasperatingly circumscribing retort is "first-world problems", with the standfirst:

"It is possible to disapprove of machine-cut jamon and to feel outrage over Syria at the same time."

I often find the FWP retort quite amusing, but that doesn't mean I think it should be used to shut down consideration of anything other than disease, murder and starvation.

Here's Saul Bellow saying something similar in his novel More Die of Heartbreak:

"The sufferings of freedom also had to be considered. Otherwise we would be conceding a higher standard to totalitarianism, saying that only oppression could keep us honest."

Quotes #2: Jacques Herzog. Leonardo da Vinci's disgust and disbelief


For some reason I'm very struck by this comment from the architect Jacques Herzog in Rowan Moore's Guardian article about Herzog and his architectural partner, Pierre de Meuron. Here's the full paragraph for context:

Artists, says Herzog, are much better at uncertainty and instability than architects. He unexpectedly cites Leonardo da Vinci and the way he painted an angel’s wings: “You can see he was not a believer. When he paints the joint where the wings meet, when he has to work out how you attach a wing, you get a sense of his disgust and disbelief.” Great names of architecture, by contrast, seem to have no such doubt. “They were almost religious about their work, a bit absurd. Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier: how can they be such heroes?”

That paragraph, or Herzog's point, doesn't make much sense to me. The part about architects being religious about their work or absurd is fine, but if artists are "better" at uncertainty, why can Herzog apparently discern da Vinci's disgust? Shouldn't it be undetectable?

So it's not that I think Herzog makes a good point: it's the assertion he makes that strikes me.

To say that da Vinci, possibly the most revered artist of all, was so unbelieving as to be unable to keep disgust out of his depictions of angels' wings! Mein Gott! 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Book review: The European Identity, Stephen Green, 2015, Haus Curiosities


You'd expect a Tory peer to be Euroskeptic, but Stephen Green is also a former banker, and the finance industry is highly Europhile. Which is my roundabout way of saying: forget who Stephen Green is, unless you think it lends him authority.

The European Identity is a one- or two-sitting read that considers two things: how much Europeans have in common, and what that means for Britain. I suspect it isn't very original, but it is very well written and even more timely, given we British are 6 weeks away from voting on whether we want to remain in the EU.

Green is withering in his assessment of Britain's and even Europe's place in the world, setting out how the vast size of China and India will inevitably see Europe continue to decline. Some may find that unpatriotic; I found it refreshing.

He then provides a fascinating whirlwind summary of the philosophies that he thinks resulted in substantial differences in the characters of the people of the EU's big three: the UK, France and Germany. Brits are pragmatists, he says, the French are idealists, and the Germans are ... well, I didn't quite get that. Fantasists, maybe. But anyway, more importantly, he thinks we have more in common than we have in difference - namely:

"a commitment to rationalism, democracy, individual rights and responsibilities, the rule of law, social compassion..."

True of everyone, you might think, but social compassion and the US? Individual rights and Asia? The rule of law and Russia? Not so much.

If the book has a flaw, it's that it concludes with us exactly where we are today. With a loose alignment of European nations, cooperating where subsidiarity requires it and leaving well alone where national differences are cause for celebration or anyway too entrenched to quash. Which is all well and good, but a) people who aren't currently convinced are not going to read European Identity and b) even if they did, I don't think it would convince them. It's a great read, but it's more thought-provoking and informative than it is comprehensively or combatively convincing.

But then, it only professes to deal with identity: it leaves other books to deal with racism, job security, pressure on services, stifling bureaucracy ... And what it does it does very well.

Monday, 2 May 2016

On dancing

Why are some of us self-conscious about dancing? I myself am happy to share my intimate thoughts with people on this blog and elsewhere, with full knowledge that an older, wiser me might well look back and think them pathetic and contemptible, but when it comes to moving rhythmically in public, I need a body-weight's-worth of alcohol to get over the hump of what people might think.

Why?

I wonder whether it might have something to do with how you view your body, and whether that in turn might be due to how much trouble it's given you. Throughout my teens, twenties and to a lesser extent still today I've experience problems with my back - nothing much in the grand scheme of things, but enough for me to view my body more as a potential traitor that needs to be cushioned and cajoled, punished and placated than as an ally or a friend. Or as simply me, with no interlocutor.

I am my brain; my body is what will eventually kill me.

So when I'm dancing I'm not moving: I'm pushing a thing around. An unwieldy thing that has hurt me before and won't hesitate to do it again. Something to which I don't feel close without the dissolutive effects of alcohol breaking down barriers.

Or maybe I just don't have any rhythm.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Book review: On Being Blue, William H Gass, 1975


Towards the end of On Being Blue, Gass talks about the ability of literature to let us see inside another's head. He's clearly enamored of the idea, as OBB reads like the unexpurgated laying down of a stream of consciousness - and not just any consciousness, but rather one caught up in a dream or fever state. It's messy. It's as poetic as it is incoherent. As insightful as it is baffling.

It's like five short essays jumbled together and broken apart like torn leaves in a tossed salad, where for a couple of mouthfuls you're enjoying chicory, and then suddenly you're eating red chard. And then what's with the orange segments? Or like if wave foam momentarily resembled something, and then almost instantly became something else.

Which could be great, if there was substance to the shambles if not method to the madness. But having read 90-odd pages I've gained ... what? The knowledge that sex is difficult to write about? That philosophy can be unsatisfying?

Gass also says "you might expect writers to love their words, although the truth is that writers usually love whatever their words represent", and I didn't get the impression this was a criticism, but with Gass you suspect the opposite is true, and that words - like colours in a painting - are selected based on how they work together to convey not so much meaning but more sensation, like a drop of hot wax on a nipple is all the more intense when it comes after the frigid tracing of an ice cube.

Which would be fine over 90 lines, but it's less appealing over 90 pages.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Is it safe?

Picture the scene: you're a neighbour of Johnny Mercer, Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View. He's just finished assembling a pergola in his back garden, and he'd appreciate your help threading some clematis through it. He urges you to clamber on top and get your hands dirty.

"Is it safe?", you ask, worriedly eyeing up the flimsy bamboo and clumsy-looking joints.

"Well, it isn't going to thread itself, so yeah it's safe," he replies, "Up you go."

Johnny appeared on Channel 4 News tonight, to comment on a piece they ran about the UK government returning asylum seekers to what they say are safe areas of Afghanistan.

Asked by Jon Snow and Dr Liza Schuster whether regions like Kabul can really be considered safe when there are multiple attacks there every week, Johnny, who sits on the Commons Defence Select Committee and served three tours of Afghanistan, replied:

"It depends how you would define that term, safe. You cannot take some of their best people out and expect that country to rebuild."

That is, according to Johnny, whether something is "safe" is conditional. If there's work to be done, bombs on buses don't count as hazardous. Stop that cowering and hop to your commute.

"We really have to define what is safe in Afghanistan," he repeated, adding: "It's different to what's safe over here."

It had me imagining scenarios like the one above, and put me in mind of both the blood-curdling dentist scene from Marathon Man (not for the faint-hearted):



And Whoopi Goldberg's infamous "I don't believe it was rape rape" defence of Roman Polanski's having raped a child.

"Is it safe?" you ask Johnny, MP.

"Perfectly safe," he replies with a smile.

"But is it safe safe?" you ask nervously.

"Ah..."

Monday, 28 March 2016

Aphorising #1

Inspired by Aphorisms on Love and Hate, a Penguin Little Black Classics collection of Nietzsche's musings that I read recently, I've decided to come up with some of my own. Maybe if I misattribute them to somebody famous I can put a book together and cash in.

Here goes:

Life has a number of painful lessons to teach you, and it goes on teaching you long after you've taken the lessons to heart.

I don't think I've pinched that from anyone... It's inspired in part by my recently having read - I forget where - an aphorism attributed to Jim Thompson: Life is a bucket of shit with a barbed wire handle. But mostly it's inspired by my early afternoon: having just got over a highly debilitating neck crick, I was just starting to work up a good mood of the at-least-you've-got-your-health variety, when damn me if the remnants of storm Katie didn't whip a little chunk of grit in my eye as I was walking down the street, which proceeded to knuckle me, and I it, for the next two hours.

Anyway, that's number one.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Flaked, a Netflix Original

It was more than just the seemingly endless grey skies dulling London throughout 2016 and a sick-leave-severe neck crick (you know things are bad when you have to bend from the waist to eye your stream when urinating) that caused me to watch all 8 episodes of the first series of Netflix's Flaked in about 4 days recently.

Those skies were part of it, though: Flaked is set in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, a place where such unpleasantries as clouds and sweaters are apparently unheard of, and watching it feels like spending 30 minutes on a sunbed and then getting an icecream, too.

That brevity was part of it as well: the episodes are short enough that you don't feel you're doing the programme an injustice if you watch it when less than fully sharp - unlike with, say, the superb Peaky Blinders, the second series of which I've yet to build myself up to.

But also there's a likeably roguish main character, Chip, played by Will Arnett (who also produces and co-created), a warming / strained (i.e. interesting) best-friend relationship, quality dialogue, and an unusual overall tone that balances feelgood slacker with the threat or promise of something slightly sour. Most of the characters are coping(ish) alcoholics, and the tone is redolent of red wine on the cusp of going bad that gets drunk anyway cos it's all there is and what the hell.

That threat of something not-quite-right slowly builds and realises as the series develops, such that the compulsion to keep watching morphs away from wanting to catch up with friends and get some vitamin D to wanting to know whether Chip really is the nice guy most people think he is and whether, nice or not, he's going to do or suffer something awful.

This is, I think, the first Netflix Originals series I've watched more than a few episodes of without giving up (Jessica Jones seemed to aim for a similarly adult-ish tone,  but was more troubled-teen faux-attitudinal, plus it was taking forever to go anywhere), and has for the first time got me thinking that my Netflix subscription could become a permanent fixture, rather than something to wring dry then toss away. If Netflix produces more Originals like Flaked, based on interesting characters and good writing, and not just more sub-par superheroes, I might start to think of it less as a slightly soiled bargain-basement outlet and more as a rare premium service I can actually afford.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Book review: How to Live in the City, Hugo Macdonald, Macmillan, 2016


There's a chapter in How to Live in the City called How to be Hard and Soft. I'd hoped before starting the book that this chapter might cover aspects of urban living that are seldom acknowledged, like whether it's a good idea to make eye contact with strangers, whether you should give money directly to people who beg you for it, whether you should respond to substanced-up geezers who start talking at you on the night bus, how you should deal with neighbours practicing their MCing at 4 in the morning, how not to be psychologically scarred when removing human shit from your doorstep, whether you should try to rouse the guy lying maybe lifelessly on the pavement at the end of your street, etc etc.

But How to Live in the City is a self-help book from the Alain de Botton-founded School of Life, and as such it's more concerned with things like - that old standby - how to retain your zen when your commute involves trying to avert your nose from the armpits of fellow tube-users, and how to find time for yourself when there's just so much to do.

To be fair, I should have guessed as much from the cover. And more importantly, HtLitC is framed in the context of not only the opportunities but also the costs of urban living, opening and closing with a quote that warns "big cities have difficulties in abundance".

But even if I shouldn't expect grit from The School of Life, it would have been nice to have more personality from Macdonald - or rather, from his writing, since he seems like an interesting bloke. His affable, at-times blog-like, writing makes HtLitC an easy read, but far from a distinctive one.

And though the advice seems largely sound, albeit geared towards the affluent, there's little in HtLitC that you won't already have read elsewhere or thought of yourself if you're at all reflexive.

That said, it rarely hurts to be reminded of good advice, and Macdonald is an agreeable enough benevolent spirit - and a well-read one, if a little too ready to recommend the works of former mentors and employers. It's hard to be too critical of a book that exhorts you to be a radiator of warmth rather than a drain of life, and impossible to dislike an author who uses an addendum to recommend both Madonna's Ray of Light album and Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror TV series - I hope at least a few of the book's target audience give that latter a try...

Besides, Macdonald seems better at life than me, so what do I know?

Friday, 11 March 2016

Book review: You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat], Andrew Hankinson, Scribe, 2016


A second-person present-tense (mostly) account of the last eight days of Raoul Moat, who in 2010 murdered the boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend, shot his ex-girlfriend and then went on the run before killing himself, and while on the run shot in the head a police officer who subsequently also killed himself.

So a strange book, then. Hankinson's reason for using the second-person present tense wasn't entirely clear. The only other books I've read in that tense are those adventure gamebooks for kids that are chopped up into randomly-arranged sections and require you to choose between different sections to read next to determine your fate. Those have the effect of making you feel that you're actually involved in the action, whereas here that seemed only minimally true, and mostly only in the first chapter, which is how Moat ("you") filled out a psychotherapy questionnaire two years prior to his rampage. ("It asks about your family history. You write that your father is UNKNOWN.")

After the first chapter, the book reads more like an account for Moat, as though he might read it in the afterlife. This is particularly true where Hankinson adds square-bracketed inserts containing information not sourced from Moat's own accounts (the parts that are more-or-less transcripts of those accounts are in the first person): "Probably it's a relationship through the internet, something on Facebook [she met him while he was handing out flyers for karate lessons]."

It could simply be that the choice of tense was intended to intrigue, and it did intrigue me: I don't often read true crime, but everything about this book is intended to intrigue, from the title and its length to the cover, which is simply that lengthy title superimposed over a childhood photo of Moat in uppercase block red caps. The cover caught my eye from across the bookshop, and the tense hooked me in further.

But it could well also be that the tense is indeed intended to work like in those adventure gamebooks, placing you firmly in the action and, in this case, making you empathise with Moat. I was unclear whether the reader was intended to empathise with Moat or not, but I suspect Hankinson's intention was to let the reader decide that for themselves but to do everything possible to give them the full facts and feelings necessary to make that choice, including by putting them in Moat's shoes as far as possible. And if that was indeed his intention, I'd say he succeeded pretty well: the account does strike me as mostly impartial, although the placement of those inserts is an authorial choice, and they do slowly build to a rather negative accretion: "I never jumped on Sam's belly [she says you did]. There's been pushing and shoving ... [she says you dragged her by the hair and throttled her].

Possibly the reader isn't expected to sympathise with a man who murdered one person and shot two others, and who was convicted of hitting a child, but Moat's accounts of alleged police harassment, however paranoid and delusional, and of childhood bullying and of absent family members do evoke sympathy, and I think that probably is intentional. As if for further balance, at the end there's a rather heart-tugging account of how one of Moat's relatives did apparently try hard to be involved in his life when Moat was a child, but also a couple of rare leakings of authorial judgement: "You did that." "You killed him."

The treatment is unusual and impressive and thought-provoking, and the reading experience perhaps unique; certainly uncommon. It isn't an enjoyable experience, though. At best it's sordid (and I do mean at best, since making the reader feel sordid is surely part of the point) but at worst it's inane: there's a lot of repetition, and quite a lot of the sentences are sentences like: "Sean goes shopping." "You eat a burger." "Sean drives to Blythe."

(Sean was a friend of Moat's. One interesting aspect of this crime that the book's format does not allow to be explored is how Moat was able to convince two people to assist him on his rampage, who subsequently received lengthy jail sentences. There was a pretense that they were held hostage, but actually they were willing accomplices, which does raise the question of their motives. Were they extremely close friends, or merely also murderous characters themselves? How rare are such friendships?)

So not a great read as you'd typically define one, but strange, compelling, uncomfortable, provocative but controlled and apparently fair-handed. Challenging, in other words. Accomplished, in reviewer-speak.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The machines are winning

There was a time, after self-service checkouts were first introduced to supermarkets, that you would walk into your nearest branch of whichever one and enter a nightmarish auditory realm, as maybe a dozen of these machines would be chanting and echoing their pre-recorded messages in not-quite unison: Th-th-thank you for sh-sh-shopping at S-S-Sainsburys" (or wherever).

If you rarely saw the same staff members more than two or three times, you assumed it was because they'd gone insane from the hell's-fairground-theme bombardment and ended their misery by chain-swallowing ketchup bottles in aisle three.

Thankfully, most of these checkout machines seem to have been muted now, but that only throws an even starker light on the plight of their squishier counterparts: checkout people.

Stopping off at an M&S in St Pancras station at about half eleven last night after a day of talks, a two-hour flight, a connecting bus, a train and before my tube, the only person who seemed wearier than me was the solitary woman on the checkout, with bags under her eyes bigger than those under her counter.

I knew how she professed to be feeling, because when each of the seven or so people ahead of me in the queue reached her till, she would ask them how they were, and they, each wanting to be polite, would, after first dutifully delivering the obligatory "Fine thanks", ask her the same question in return. And she, of course, would have to respond: "I'm fine, thank you."

Was she fine? This woman, being made to parrot this same customer-service babble every 30 seconds, hour after hour until midnight or beyond?

I greatly doubted it.

Until last night, I'd always thought I was being nice in reciprocating when checkout staff ask me how I'm doing. Sure, I knew they were unable to answer truthfully - "I'm shit thanks, I have a killer hangover and I'd rather be in the bath" - but I still smugly thought I was a better person than anyone who didn't ask.

No more.

Last night, having heard this woman say she was fine thank you seven times in the space of four minutes, I, when my turn at the checkout came, said "Hi" but, when asked how I was doing, said nothing in response. Not even "Fine, thanks": nothing.

I won't pretend that she looked at me gratefully and we shared a moment. She didn't, we didn't. She just carried on looking tired and scanned my mini roll selection. If she thought anything at all, it was probably "Fuck you, dickhead".

But I didn't care then, and I don't care now. I stand by my taciturnity. Why, when supermarkets have taken pity on shoppers and staff in one sense and silenced self-checkout machines, do they still insist on forcing staff to engage in phony niceries?

If a shop is quiet, it can be nice and even genuine to pass the time of day in a friendly exchange. But near midnight on a Friday in the middle of a train station when everyone would rather be in bed, hello and thanks are all that's needed.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Pity the poor arseholes

There are lots of talking points around whether the UK should remain in the EU. I want to get to the seat of one burning issue.

On The Andrew Marr Show today, discussing the referendum, Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said he was worried about British plumbers and electricians being "undercut" by workers from elsewhere in the EU.

But plumbing and electricity services can only be delivered in person, meaning everyone competing to provide those services faces the same living costs (unlike for telecoms services) - with the exception of the cost of supporting dependents. It costs less to support children living in Bulgaria than children living in London.

There are at least two solutions to this problem: stop British people having to compete on costs, as IDS wants, or support them to compete with a benefits system, specifically child tax credits.

Why might the second option be better? Because it's more progressive.

If you want to renovate your bathroom along the theme of a Roman thermae, filling your bath from the teats of a golden Venus, then you probably want the very best quality workmanship - no chipped nipples or asymmetrical streams of hot and cold to tarnish the effect. And you can get that, by paying through the nose for the plumber best able to handle lovely Venus, helping that plumber to build an empire and thermae of their own.

But if all you want is your bog repaired, cost is your main concern.

Under a protectionist policy like IDS advocates, everyone who wants their bog repaired has to support the plumber's kids to the same extent, regardless of whether they wipe their arse with Morrison's own-brand paper or quadruple-quilted Andrex.

Whereas, under a system of tax-based support, those who buff their anuses to a high sheen with the under-feathers of fattened geese contribute more to little Jim and Jane's alphabetti spaghetti than those who have to wait for the burn to subside before they can sit down after taking a squat.

IDS would prefer to see the goose baskets of the wealthy brim-full with goslings, whereas I'd like everyone to be able to take the weight off immediately after a strainer.

Where do you sit?

Saturday, 13 February 2016

More is less

Photo by Maciek Lulko

More London. Every day there's more London. Not in terms of area - nobody's reclaiming land from the Thames, Zuiderzee-style - but there's more to a city's size than its dimensions.

It's people I'm thinking of. A city is nothing without its people, and so more people means more city - and we all know London's population is growing daily. More London.

But London is also shrinking. Not in physical size, and not in density, but in another way: culturally and civically.

Every time another cultural space gets converted into a block of luxury flats, London gets a little smaller.

There is less physical area in a way: less space that isn't roped off for a select wealthy few. But the range of behaviours and freedoms of expression open to us also shrinks, making London that little bit less interesting, that little bit less ours.

It's ironic then that More London should be the name of the "visionary business development" on the south bank of the Thames, just west of Tower Bridge.

You probably know More London as the site of City Hall, the shiny glass building shaped like a motorbike helmet - or, to former London mayor Ken Livingstone, like a testicle. But there are 13 buildings in total, on 13.5 acres of land.

Why is the name of this "professionally managed, high quality estate" ironic? Because on this site, More very much means less.

Less freedom. Less democracy. Less community.

Exploring how More means less was the purpose of a guerrilla event called Space Probe Alpha that took place at More London on 13 February, without permission.

The brainchild of Bradley Garrett and Anna Minton, Space Probe Alpha was an opportunity to protest the creeping privatisation of public space in London and the UK more broadly. More than 100 people congregated on More London's private property, which runs right up to the banks of the city's greatest asset - the Thames - on land that offers views of Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and the City, to hear from speakers such as Mark Thomas and Will Self about how this corporatisation is gradually diminishing the spaces in which public activity is constrained only by the law and allowing companies to impose their own rules.

It's not just antisocial behaviour that's being clamped down on. As I mentioned, More London is the site of City Hall, the seat of London's democracy. And what did members of the London Assembly find when they moved into their shiny new home in 2002? That they weren't allowed to be filmed for interviews outside it, former Deputy Mayor Jenny Jones told those gathered for Space Probe Alpha.

After much complaint, each political party was eventually given a single pass allowing them to be filmed on More London's land one at a time, but all other forms of commercial photography remain banned without prior permission. Skateboarding isn't allowed either, and you won't find many homeless people sheltering from the rain under More London's swooping arches.

As well as being educational, Space Probe Alpha was interventional: those in attendance were encouraged to take photos and sell them to each other for a penny a pop, in deliberate contravention of More London's rules. Throughout the event, More London's security guards watched on, occasionally joined by the odd policeman.

This event was allowed to proceed uninterrupted, but then it featured two peers and one of the UK's finest writers among its roster. Whether it would have been tolerated had such luminaries not been involved is anybody's guess.

What I do know is this: the more these kinds of spaces are allowed to proliferate, the less London belongs to the people who make it a place worth living in.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Writing processes: circling in, bursting forth and crapping out

I wrote a short post here about how I often don't know whether my posts are worthwhile until they're written (at which point I may as well publish them, unless they're dreadful), because I think them through by writing them. (You don't really need to click the link, that's pretty much the whole post.)

Today, via a friend (who blogs here; check her out), I read this article by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic, which considers different approaches to writing and why some writers are frightful procrastinators.

McArdle suggests that writers who leave their work to the last minute may have been people who found school easy, who therefore came to think of creativity / productivity as dependent on natural ability. After these people turn pro and have to compete at a higher level, she thinks, the fear that they might not have much ability then paralyses them until the near-certainty of a failure even worse than submitting a bad article - submitting no article - forces them to the keyboard:

"If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good."

She also spoke to a psychologist who agreed with her idea:

"For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is."

My earlier post fits with this: I must be a "growth" person, since I'm sure I have no natural writing ability but I'm hopeful of being good at some point, and as a growth person I have no qualms about writing something awful in the hope of revising it into something decent.

Anway, if you're reading this and are an incurable "fixed" person, I have a suggestion. Even if you can't make yourself stop believing that good writing springs from natural talent, consider some advice attributed to Hemingway:

"The first draft of anything is shit."

And do yourself a favour: try believing that writing ability is all in the revising, and make a start.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Hungover thinking - further evidence #1

I've written before about how hangovers can be conducive to thinking. I still don't know how well explored this has been by others elsewhere, but I was pleased to see Tom Hodgkinson ask Louis Theroux about it in the February 2016 issue of The Idler, which Tom edits.

Tom asks: "What about drinking and being hungover? You know how people say, and we probably all feel it, work can be quite fun when you're hungover. You can be more creative. Like some kind of barrier's been released."

Louis doesn't really address the question, instead talking about times when he feels he's been sub-par due to being hungover. I wonder whether Tom has written about it before...?

It's a pretty good interview, anyway. This is the first time I've read The Idler, but probably not the last.

I don't have permission to post my photo of this, but I'm hoping they won't mind since I'm basically giving them a free advert. The cover illustration is by Ellie Foreman-Peck.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

On blogging

I had an imaginary conversation with a friend this morning (this guy), in which he accused me of having a high opinion of all my blog posts.

While brushing my teeth, I mentally explained that most of the time when I start writing a post I don't know how it's going to develop or how it's going to end, as was the case yesterday. I write for a living at the moment, and in doing that I often organise my thoughts as much by writing the piece as by thinking about it beforehand. The same is true for my blog posts.

"It's not that I decide in advance that an idea is worth the effort of writing the post," I imagined I told him: "It's that I have an idea, write the post, and then decide whether the post is so bad that clicking 'publish' would be worse than the pain of not publishing something that's now been written."

He didn't get to reply: imaginer's prerogative.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Time and money

Since taking a big pay cut a little over a year ago, I've been keeping track of my spending much more closely.

After tax, rent and bills, I have about £7k left per year. That's about £20 a day, and £20 a day is how I think of it when I'm budgeting. Every day I wake up and add £20 to the running total of what I've saved - or subtract that amount from my arrears. Then throughout the day I subtract whatever I spend.
 
There are alternatives. I could do just one addition on January 1st and only subtractions for the next 365 days. But that would be hard to benchmark: I'd have to keep calculating how much I should have left at this time of year so that I could hold it up against what I actually had. It would also be depressing to watch my total do nothing but shrink for a whole year.

Or I could keep a running total like I do now, but add 83p every hour. That would be pretty labour-intensive though, and I'd be constantly forgetting my total.

So what I do is probably what most people in my position do. But there are consequences.

For example, for the most part I try to keep within my daily budget, only really letting that slide if I'm drinking. (Alcohol is so expensive it would be impossible to keep within my budget and stay out more than a couple of hours, so the budget goes out the window in favour of a vague attempt at not going TOO overboard.)

That means I tend to only buy things that cost about £12 or less - about the amount I have left per day after food and incidentals. Sensible you might think for someone without much money, but somewhat irrational given that I could equally well think of myself as having £40 for every 48 hours, or £140 for every week, the latter of which might make me feel free to buy anything up to about £80 so long as I bought nothing else non-essential that week. I could live like a monk for six and a half days, then splurge like a tourist in one orgiastic evening.

If I thought of myself as having 83p an hour, would I limit myself to frivolous purchases of only about 50p at a time - like cans of Coke and Kinder eggs? If by the minute, penny sweets?

If I lived by the year, would it be a big holiday?

By the lifetime, a car?

I don't know. I live by the day, so I spend my money on books, exhibitions and the occasional cake. I don't take holidays and I dress only in Christmas presents. I'm usually home by five on a Saturday.

How was your day?

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Book review: How to See the World, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Pelican, 2015


About two-thirds of the way through How to See the World, I thought the opening of my review was going to go something like:

"If you were to take How to See the World as an embodiment of its own instruction, you'd think that instruction was: incoherently. Mirzoeff never sets out his intentions, the book veers from one topic to the next and it's not until page 220 that you first come across any directions for viewing the world..."

I would have meant to be disparaging, obviously.

But then I started to make sense of it, and when I finished the book I thought I'd better go back and flick through the introduction again just to make sure Mirzoeff had indeed not set out his intentions . And it turns out he had.

So am I wasting your time by telling you this? I hope not.

I think it's informative that I managed to forget or not process what I'd read in the introduction, and I stand by the gist of my one-word summary. Only "incoherent" might be a bit strong: disjointed might be better. And I'm not sure that the book's disjointedness isn't intentional...

You see, part of the basis for Mirzoeff's instruction is that the world is too big and too complex to be seen clearly, and part of the instruction itself is that in order to see the world, we therefore need to piece together lots of fragments of information.

And he says as much in the introduction, using the clever metaphor of a 2012 recreation of the famous 1972 "Blue Marble" photograph of the Earth from space - the recreation being a metaphor because, rather than being a single photograph like Blue Marble, it was actually stitched together from several satellite images.

But having mentioned Blue Marble in the very first sentence of the book, he brings up the reproduction only after having talked in the interim about an explosion of youth across the planet, the vast increase in internet connectivity in recent years, climate change and selfies. 

I'm being a little unfair making a big deal of the disconnectedness of this part, but I think it's a legitimate microcosm of the book as a whole: you spend most of chapter 1 reading about portraiture, forgetting that it's supposed to be a quick history of visual culture as a field of study; most of chapter 3 reading about warfare, forgetting it's supposed to be about visualisation; most of chapter 4 reading about cinema, forgetting it's supposed to be about the (let's be honest, readily apparent) fact that most visualising is now done on screens, etc etc.

Looking back through these chapters, there are hints of the overall narrative running through them - it's just that you have to be paying close attention to find them: 

"Now we are trained to pay attention to distractions..." (Chapter 2)
"All action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a twilight..." (Chapter 3)
"... the sit-ins created a link between what was sayable and what was visible..." (Chapter 5)

Mirzoeff might well protest, and I might well just not be very perceptive.

But I prefer to think that, rather than How to See the World being a somewhat incoherent embodiment of what I mistakenly thought would turn out to be an incoherent instruction, instead it's a disjointed text that's deliberately disjointed in order to give you a chance to practice the very skills the book informs you you are now going to need.