Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Just a few pics . . .

Heinitzpolder - Dollard, Germany

I’m in North-West Germany for two weeks, arriving last Tuesday, visiting my sister who lives in the back beyond in Ostfriesland (East Frisia) right on the Dutch frontier. She and my brother-in-law, who retired last year, live in a concerted farmhouse typical of North Germany.

I brought my ‘new camera’ with me, a DSLR (digitial single lens reflex), and have been taking pictures of pretty much everything I want to take pictures of, but mainly stock photographs of the area and towns to submit to Alamy. I am now an accredited contributor (though, to be honest, anyone can become one if your three initial and subsequent submissions pass their quality control.

I call it my ‘new camera’ because although I’ve owned it for more than a year, I still haven’t quite got to grips with the innumerable variation of settings. In the 1980s, in Birmingham and Cardiff, I did a lot of photography, but this was in the pre-digital age of developing film and printing pictures. I had two cameras, but almost always used the simplest of the two, a Pentax K1000. The settings were simple: aperture, shutter speed and ASA (now called ISO, though I understand it is in some way a bit different as in the maths involved are different). That was it, but now . . .?

Here are a few I took yesterday in Papenburg, a town about 15 miles away where my grandmother was born and grew up. They are in B&W simply because I prefer B&W. They are not very interesting simply because they are just stock piccies of the town I want to submit to Alamy. The major employer in the town is a large shipyard, Jos. L Meyer, which shifted from town to a huge site on the outskirts. Where the old shipyard was has been covered and landscaped and now houses hotels and stores. The crane is from the old shipyard and, well, has been there to look nice. The others were taken a few days ago, hereabouts and thereabouts.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

What will be in Santa’s Brexit sack next March? Well, I’m buggered if I know

Remember what it was like looking forward to Christmas when you were young? Remember the excitement, anticipation and wondering what Santa - or later your parents - would bring you? You had no idea, none whatsoever. You might have dropped a great many hints about what you wanted, but you still had no idea as to whether they had been picked up and would be acted upon. The outcome come Christmas would be a complete surprise. OK, that was when you were still a child. Later as an adult - the cynical phrase as a ‘grown-up’ - you would often request something and get it.

Well, switch December 24/25 for March 29 and in one respect Brexit is very much like a child’s Christmas: none of us, not convinced Remainer nor convinced Brexiteer, has the faintest clue what the outcome will be. Certainly the sky won’t fall in overnight from March 29 to 30, and nor will Britain again be in a position to rule the waves. The result of Britain leaving the EU will only become apparent over the coming months and years.

There is, of course, any amount of prognostication from all sides. For example, British biscuit manufacturers who are banking on imported foreign biscuits becoming too expensive for most consumers and a substantial rise in sales of their products have predicted, are rubbing their hands in glee. I understand the Daily Mail has already

composed its front page to reveal - exclusively no doubt - the news to a grateful public, and apparently if you can prove your are middle-class and own your own home, their will be a biscuit premium for six month - buy one packet, get another at half-price!

. . .

I happen to have voted Remain, but with one important reservations (and I’m sure I’ve said this before): the EU is essentially a great idea, but of late has sometimes been trotting up an alley I didn’t always much like and regard as more than a little misguided.

Migration into the UK from EU member states - or immigration as purists choose to call it - doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and this country can thank the Lord for the extra work being done by the many Baltic states citizens and the French, Italians, Poles, Bulgarians and all the rest which our homegrown workforce is often unwilling to do. But I’ve always been wary of (and usually downright disliked) ostentatious zeal, which is simply the more polite word for zealotry, whether it is for the latest diet (don’t eat any carbs at all, just protein/eat nothing but diary products for five days, then drink nothing but tomato soup/always stand up when you are eating, only eat in short five-minute bursts, then take a laxative) or for those bores among us who claim to be ‘convinced Europeans’ and profess that they ‘love the EU’.

Well, I am neither a ‘convinced European nor an ‘unconvinced European’ and I neither ‘love the EU nor do I ‘hate the EU’. What I like and shall always support is co-operation, simplicity and pragmatism, and but for a few glitches - remember all those wine lakes and mountains of butter we were supposed to pretend didn’t exist to the EU could keep French farmers happy? - the EU is, as far as I am concerned, far more often than not a useful and essentially admirable institution. But what does leave me at the door and wringing my hands in despair is this ongoing zeal in Brussels for ‘ever-closer political union’.

On paper it makes perfect sense: were there - eventually - one European state with one European parliament which could bring in Europe-wide laws and, crucially for the long-term health of the Euro, impose a Europe-wide tax system and set a Europe-wide budget, the world - well Europe - would be a simpler place, at least on paper. As it is . . .

Anyone naive enough to believe that in a matter of years the vastly disparate nations in the EU will willingly sign up to resigning their sovereignty in an ‘all-for-one, and one-for-all’ gesture of solidarity is a directive short of a paragraph. That doesn’t mean it will never happen or even that it couldn’t ever happen, but it will not be for several centuries. Yet the notion of ‘ever-closer political union’ leading up to one de fact ‘United States of Europe’ is still one apparently at the top of the wish list for the EU’s top brass. Why? Can’t they see just how unrealistic it all is?

Often trotted out is the ‘fact’ that ‘the EU has preserved peace in Europe for the past 73 years. Well, put aside for the moment that ‘the EU’ has not existed as such for more than 25 years (the ‘EU’ was established by the Maastricht Treaty but let me be generous and say that the notion of a potential European Union has existed since our very own Winston Churchill called for a ‘United States of Europe’ in 1946 and the idea was started to be given tangible form with the formation with the Treaty of Paris in 1951), it is a bit of a stretch to claim that the absence of war in Europe since the end of World War II is down to the fledgling EEC/EC/EU. I think it is more down to the fact that after the horrors of World War II - horrors experienced not just by those who fought in that war but by every European born before 1939 who in some way or other was affected by it and its aftermath, no one had much stomach for any form of warmongering. The undoubted prosperity ushered in by increasingly tariff-free trade in Europe also helped, but it is not in the slightest churlish to add, for example, that the UK’s membership of the then EEC crippled the economy of New Zealand (whose trade links with Britain were more or less cut overnight). Once again the truism was demonstrated that for every winner, there’s a loser.

(Incidentally, if you’re the kind of idealistic lad or lass who likes world peace with your cornflakes, bring it on, though whenever I hear the phrase ‘world peace’, I am reminded of the toe-curling anecdote trotted out by President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. What do you want for Christmas? he informed the world he had asked his then eight-year-old daughter Amy. No doubt through teeth braces and a winsome smile the little Carter replied: ‘World peace, daddy.’ Me, I’m very much looking forward to the day when rain is far less wet.)

It is the unflinching zeal for pushing through notion of ever-closer political union’ in the EU which in part helped persuade a majority - actually a small majority at that majority, so it wasn’t as though Britain is wholeheartedly behind it - to vote for Brexit, although I suspect only a small minority of the Leave voters did so for that reason. The rest - well, the rest voted Brexit for any number of reasons, some quite rational, others batshit crazy. Many of them are on record for voting Leave ‘because there are to many foreigners in Britain’. That, as I pointed out above, most of those foreigners do sterling service for their adopted country - i.e. Britain - seems to have passed them by.

Having said that, when I listen to why many chose to vote Remain, I’m equally unimpressed with their thinking and dislike equally in too many of them a supercilious ‘we, the intelligent ones, voted to Remain’ tone.

. . .

This has all been a bit of a ramble, so let me rein myself in and try to get to what brought me to write this entry in the first place: no one, but no one, not Remainer nor Leaver, has the faintest clue what the state of Britain will be come March 2020, March 2022 and March 2025. I’m not sanguine, but . . .

More to the point I don’t think anyone bar a few pointy-headed civil servants in Whitehall and Brussels has the fainted understanding of ‘the options on offer’. None. ‘Canada-plus, Chequers, backstop, the Norway solution, the Swiss relationship - they could all be arcane sexual practices for all we understand about what they mean and what they entail. Every news bulletin brings ‘the latest develpments’ but I doubt I am the only one who can make neither head or tail about their significance.

But there is one detail we are all aware of and which I think we here in Britain all understand, one debate which pretty much symbolises just how dangerous this whole exercise is (apart from the fact that if Britain is a loser through Brexit, so is the rest of the EU, which is why they, too, want a reasonable deal). And this one detail is the nub of it all: will there, can there, should there be a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is the nut no one has so far been able to crack.

After 30 years of murder and misery, jointly caused by the Irish Republican Army and the various Loyalist paramilitaries, the island of Ireland has enjoyed a well-deserved few decades of peace. All that could - and might - well be lost if the EU and Britain don’t get it right.

I have sympathy with both sides: the EU is completely right that once the UK is out of the EU, its ‘customs union’ must be properly defined and that can only be with some kind of ‘hard border’. Its compromise more or less amounts to Northern Ireland still being in the ‘customs union’ while the rest of Britain is not, and customs checks being made on goods travelling between the mainland and Northern Ireland.

On the other hand Britain says simply ‘that’s not on, because it can’t be on’: Northern Ireland is a part of Britain and cannot be separated. And it, too, for very practical reasons - that it doesn’t want to see a resurgence of fighting in Northern Ireland - knows that the current arrangement of a ‘soft border’ between the two parts of Ireland is essential. But do the Remainers and the Brexiteers give a shit about that (and the majority in Northern Ireland voted for Brexit, without thinking through the consequences. In fact, when it came to the Brexit referendum, I don’t think anyone thought through the consequences - not David Cameron who called hoping it would calm matters in the Conservative Party, and not the voters with all their ‘fuck foreigners/I love the EU’ posturing.

So: Happy Christmas (if you know what I mean).

As for the EU ‘having ensured peace in Europe for the past 70 years, if - if - they have ensured nations won’t go to war in Europa, ‘ever-closer union’ will simply - in my cynical view - merely ensure that there will sooner or later by rather more civil wars than we have experienced in the past 70 years.

Friday, September 21, 2018

In which I learn that blog entries like lemonade can also go flat. Still. . .

Three Queens Hotel, Burton-on-Trent – Sunday, September 16.

NB This post was begun five days ago, an irony given what I write. Oh, well, you can’t win them all (and even winning some would be a bonus).

The saintly Guardian, always in the vanguard of modern journalism (motto ‘No trend too obscure’, although I would prefer it if they were more honest and adoped the motto ‘We’ll be in Heaven before you, don’t kid yourself’), has in recent years taken to, and made a great deal of, a new ‘style of reporting. I don’t think it has a name, but it might be named ‘Live’ after the prominent word at the top of each such report. And it is exactly that, ‘live’ reporting, though whether you take the view that this is yet another step in the progress of mankind or, like me, that it’s a spurious excuse to make reporting more ‘relevant and authentic’, is up to you. But if you do side with the Grauniad (and thus disagree with me) be warned: not only are you henceforth banned from reading this blog and be forced to forgo keeping up to date with my increasinlgy dyspeptic ramblings, but crucially I know (where you live). Funny old world, eh?

I was about to write that I suspect recent modern technology has made the Guardian’s proud ‘live’ reporting possible, but on reflection that can’t be true because reporters have been able to use, and have used, telephones for decades. What is perhaps new is the internet and the various devices and gadgets and practices it has enabled. So, for example, as soon as Pope Francis (to use just one example) reaches for the butter at breakfast of a day – and assuming he is not eating alone – the world can know about it almost immediately: someone or other sitting nearby can tweet or post on Facebook ‘Pope Francis has just reached for the butter on his breakfast table after pouring himself another cup of coffee’.

Just how significant it is that the Pope – and I know of no cholesterol concerns his doctors might have, or at least none which have been made public – should reach for the butter at breakfast or, more pertinently, just how vital it is that the rest of the world should know, I can’t say, though I imagine you can guess my thoughts on the matter. But however silly my example is, and it is a silly example, it is not so outrageous an example when I come to mention the Guardian’s new ‘live’ reporting practice.

. . .

When there is an important development in the news – or even when a new trivial item of gossip becomes known – I far prefer to wait for a full account once the dust has settled, the facts are in place and an informed analysis of those facts can give us a better understanding of what has happened and its possible significance. As for many folk claiming that as functioning, responsible and self-aware democrats in a functioning, responsible and self-aware democracy proud of fits free, functioning, responsible and self-aware press and the functioning, responsible and self-aware role it plays in supporting the rule of law, ‘having to know what has happened as soon as it has happened’ is essential.

I, on the other hand, regard it largely as a form of neurosis – one related to fashion as it happens – and one possible reason why I was not cut out to be a reporter. Despite not being a bad reporter and technically better than some, the rush and nonsense of having to get ‘the latest development’ struck me as ineffably silly, and even I am must admit that that is something of a fatal flaw in my profession. So the Guardian-style ‘live’ reporting does nothing for me.

There are, of course, some news stories where the practice – at a pinch – might make sense. The attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11 (11/9 for British readers) was such a huge story that . . . (well, fill in the rest yourself, because although I happened to see it live on TV, by chance, and was as aghast by it all as the next I can’t still can’t claim it was crucial that I should know everything about the incident just as soon as possible.).

Knowing what we know now about the attack (apparently it was masterminded by a gang of disaffected cleaning ladies in the Pentagon, although others rubbish the idea and point out that when you see the size of the hole in the Pentagon wall that just has to be nonsense) and knowing what subsequently happened – the invasion by The Forces Of Good if Iraq and subsequent (and I would add consequent) developments in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Turkey you might agree that a comprehensive view of the tragedy gradually formed over the following months and years is more useful than a blow by blow up-to-the-second account.

Quite possibly some wiseacre, in the hours after the Twin Towers attack, confided in his mates down the pub (US bar) ‘this isn’t looking good for the Middle East, I fear the worst’ but I somehow doubt it. At a pinch, I concede Guardian style ‘live’ reporting might be worthwhile - look, I’m trying! - but many other news ‘stories’, I suggest, don’t benefit one iota.

A regular outing of the Guardian’s ‘live’ reporting over these past two years has been ‘live’ reporting of the latest round of negotiations in Brussels between the EU’s Michel Barnier and whichever British politico ego has got the job this week of talking nonsense on our behalf. And when I say ‘live’ it will most certainly be a minute-by-minute blow of what is going on, or rather what is not going on. Given the delicate nature of these negotiations both sides like to play it close their chest, so of real substance we get nothing, but we will and do get breathless accounts of ‘Jeremy Somebody, the Brexit secretary’s junior deputy bag carrier, has just come out of the meeting and has headed off to the gents (US restroom). No one knows why he is doing this and EU officials are staying tight-lipped’.

. . .

Travelodge, Newmarket Road, Cambridge – Monday, September 17 (but not by much).

The reason for that rather longwinded intro about the Guardian’s ‘live’ reporting is that if it’s OK for the bloody Guardian, surely to goodness it is OK for yours truly, so a ‘live’ blog entry was on the cards. Sadly, it didn’t quite work out that way in that although the above was written in the breakfast room of the Three Queens Hotel, Bridge St., Burton-on-Trent, it is being continued here, in the breakfast room cum bar of Cambridge’s Travelodge at just after 1am after boozy night at The Pickerel Inn, Magdalene St., Cambridge).

I arrived here after a leisurely drive from Burton-on-Trent to Cambridge through, as far as I can tell, five counties – Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, something which might make our American friends a tad jealous given that it was a trip of only 105 miles which would probably not even take them to the nearest petrol station in some parts of the Midwest – at about 2pm and immediately took off to mosey around downtown, as in ‘central’ Cambridge which is made up almost exclusively of its university colleges.

I got in touch with one Paul S., a school friend of my niece Hannah, who is here doing a Phd in Engineering, but who, more to the point, knows a lot more about Cambridge University and who took me on a tour of the various colleges. Being a registered student meant he was able to take me into various chapels and colleges for free, saving me, I calculate at least £40 in entry charges. But that was not the reason I met up with him.

Our tour, which included Kings College Chapel, Trinity College, St John’s College and I don’t know where else, concluded with a long five-hour examination of just how much cheap pub red wine we could drink and still stay lucid.

Starbucks, High Street Kensington, London – Monday, September 17, a little later (just after 2pm in fact)..

Conversation was, as is often the case on such occasions very broad indeed. I have to say that as a conversation partner I find Paul very congenial in as far as he takes a broad interest in all kinds of topics. The conversation itself, by no means deep, included such sure-fire hits as ‘the point of philosophy’, ‘how language might well covertly define (and thus even perhaps) limit thought’, ‘how satire can be and should be very dangerous’ (and I made my standard point that given that in Turkey, Russia, China and Iran you can find yourself banged up for many years or even risk death if you dare satirise those in power, what is called and regarded as ‘satire’ in Britain is anything but. Poking fun and make jokes about our politicos, however funny the jokes, is not ‘satire’ and the worst that can happen to you is that you are snubbed in The Groucho or wherever (I wouldn’t know). And there’s also the point that satire doesn’t even have to be funny.

Our conversation was conducted in both English and German, both of us resorting to one or other of the languages when using that language made it easier to make a point using a certain word. And words which might seem to mean the same thing often to not quite: ‘ironisch’ in German is not the same as ‘ironic’ in English, and nor is ‘Zynismus’ quite the same as cynical. The German word carries more than just a hint of bitterness among other things.

I was staying in a Travelodge in the Newmarker Road and my walk hope lasted 30 minutes, useful if you are not quite sober. On the way I came across two Russians, the man, as I was, carrying a digital SLR, but unlike me he also had a tripod. He spoke some English but his femals companion spoke a little more. They had been to the wedding of a friend, also Russian, who had married – I presume – and Englishman living in Cambridge. Oh, and we joked about Salisbury. He even showed me a spoof short video he had made of a couple skulking around a house, then smearing something on the door handle.

. . .

The fun has slightly gone out of sending up the Gurdian’s ‘live’ reporting style in as far as I feel it has fallen a little flat, but what the hell. In a minute I shall set off for my brother Mark’s flat in Earls Court and take him out to lunch, but I wanted to finish this entry first.

St Breward, Friday, September 21.

I should have told you a lot earlier that the reason I was driving around the country and had washed up in Burton on September 15, was that I had taken my son to Liverpool where he is beginning a university course. We drove up last Saturday, unpacked, went for a coffee then I said goodbye and took off for Burton. Why Burton? Well, I was heading for Cambridge, but I didn’t know what time I would be leaving Liverpool and decided Burton was a convenient halfway spot. Makes sense, really, if you think about it. as for my son starting college and more or less leaving home, that, I think is worth and entry in its own right, so I shan’t say more here. Right, it’s now finished. Bit longwinded, eh, but what the hell, I’ve got to do something until it’s time to suck my next Werther’s Original (pictured).



Friday, September 14, 2018

I feel the itch, so let me scratch a little more (though whether you are in the slightest bit interested is neither here nor there. You are probably far more concerned with your own sodding itch)

That bloody itch to write, often nothing more than the obsession of a barroom bore to hear the sound of his own voice. And sadly I suffer from it. Well, at least I’ll admit to an itch to write - deciding whether or not I also have an obsession to hear the sound of my own voice I shall leave to those who don’t like me (and undoubtedly they will claim I do).

It’s odd: I enjoy writing these blog posts, but to be quite frank I have very little to say and certainly nothing at all to say of import. But then I do enjoy writing them. Sometimes, though - sometimes - I feel guilty that ‘I haven’t written a post for a while’ and an urge comes over me to post something. I like to think that I always manage to resist the temptation to drone on about nothing on particular, but perhaps that is just what I like to think. Certainly pretty much every day something occurs to me that I feel I should like to write about, and there are several things I often repeatedly feel I should like to write about, but being conscious that the role of barroom bore might fit me far better than I would be comfortable with, I keep schtum.

. . .

One thing which has been on my mind is ‘advice’, giving it and listening to it. The usual crack about ‘advice’ is to ‘listen to it, then ignore it’. Well, do what you think is best. I’ve found that some advice is very good, although all too often by the time I realise that a piece of advice I was given was invaluable, it is far too late to act on it.

A while ago I did, in hindsight rather pompously and presumptuously, offer the suggestion that there are only two worthwhile pieces of advice which could be passed on to a would-be writer - a would-be writer like me, of course, though I’m sure there are many others - but (a great example of Sod’s Law) I am finding it more than a just little difficult to listen and act on my own advice.

Those pieces of advice were simple:

1) Get it done.

2) It doesn’t have to be perfect from the off - you have all the time in the world to re-write and re-write and re-write again to get it into the shape you want it to be when you finally present ‘it’ to the world.

That first piece of advice stands proud and tall, and will be forever true. The songwriter Randy Newman says the same thing, though puts it rather differently: ‘Turn up.’

As for the second piece of advice (there is no deadline on knocking into the shape you want before presenting ‘it’ to the world), the irony is that 99.99 per cent of the world are not in the slightest bit interested in ‘it’, however much you think they should - or hope they might - be. When it comes to ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’, those 99.99 per cent are, whatever they might say, wholly and exclusively interested in their own ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’ and not in the slightest bit in your ‘me’, ‘my’ and ‘mine’. That’s what I tell myself, at least, and I do believe I am happier for finally having realised it, though at 68 - 69 on November 21, 2018 - it is still a comparatively recent insight.

I mention this for a very good reason.

When I retired on April 4 - five months and ten days ago - I was genuinely looking forward to finally proving to myself - ‘myself’ being the only judge whose judgment I could ever respect on the matter - that I was not just another of life’s bullshitters, all talk and no walk, and that I would get on with doing what I have planned and intended to do since I was 16. I shan’t spell it out here, but I have spelled it out previously, and that should suffice.

Well, I have not been lazy, but I have been less productive than I am happy with, although I am not quite as culpable as I might be implying.

. . .

At the end of June I began reading a novel by Ernest Hemingway - The Sun Also Rises - and really wasn’t much impressed. Yet that novel, called Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises in Britain, was and is regarded as ‘a masterpiece’. So where did that leave my judgment that it was nothing of the kind? Was I really that far off-beam? Puzzled and not a little intrigued as to what I might have been missing, I turned to page one of the novel as soon as I had finished it and read it again, yet still my judgment was the same: it is by no means a bad novel, but a masterpiece? Really?

I decided I would write a blog post about the novel and my apostasy, and work began. I searched the internet for reviews, for the views of others on the novel and the like, hoping that somewhere someone might agree with me. That search quickly dredged up a book published two years ago by a Vanity Fair journalist called Lesley M M Blume called Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. My
search also dredged up quite a few reviews of her book - all very positive I should say - which were additionally useful to me in that the reviewers all added, to a greater or lesser extent, their two ha’porth worth on Hemingway’s ‘breakthrough’ novel.

Within days I began writing, then re-writing, then searching the internet again and dredging up more information about the young Hemingway, his time on the Kansas City Star and a little later on the Toronto Star, then his sojourn in Paris, his marriage to his first wife and a lot more. But the more additional information I dredged up, the more I felt that what I had written so far needed to be refined a little, then a little more. So far I have written more than 11,000 words of that piece, and still I am conscious that it needs further refinement and further thought, and the process is going on. But back to my ‘advice’.

Am I getting it ‘done’? Yes, but slowly and a lot slower than I am happy with. But I am getting it done. As for the second piece of my advice - that it doesn’t have to be perfect from the off - to that I am, sad to say, tone deaf. Yet because I am conscious of my shortcoming in that respect - well, I wouldn’t be writing this post if I weren’t - I have not abandoned hope. I am just conscious that I must work harder, as in a lot harder.

. . .

What I have written so far falls into three distinct categories - Hemingway’s writing, the claim made that somehow his novel chronicles a ‘lost generation’, and the man himself, his ambition and ruthless drive to make it in the literary world. But when I re-read what I have written, I realise that the whole piece needs a better shape. My other problem is that I am an inveterate tinkerer and that when I sit down to read what I have written so far with a view to gaining some kind of overall perspective to enable me to shape it properly, I already get bogged down with re-writing this phrase, that sentence, cutting and pasting elsewhere this paragraph. So progress is still slow.

I am also conscious that unless the whole bloody piece is interesting, the 11,00o words I have so far written (though despite repetition which I must deal with, it will probably become even more) are unlikely to hold the interest of many people. And if truth be told whatever you are producing - whether it is a blog post, a poem, a short story, a novel, an opera, a sculpture, a sonata, a painting, a play or whatever onanistic enterprise of yours you have persuaded yourself the world lacks - must achieve but one thing: it must hold the interest and attention of the reader/listener/viewer.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest whether the great and good, those folk who make it their business to decide what is ‘good art’ or ‘bad art’ (and very often make a very good living from their pontifications) praise or condemn your ‘work’: if it holds the interest and keeps the attention of the reader/listener/viewer, you have succeeded. If it doesn’t, you have failed. It’s all very straightforward and rather simple (although the great and good - with both eyes on their income and bank balance - might be inclined to add that my claim is not simple, just simplistic. But who cares?

NB In past posts I think I have hinted at my view that ‘art’ is not ‘a thing’ or ‘an entity’ of some kind, but ‘a process’ (as in ‘art’ is what people - ordinary people like you and I - do). Furthermore it is essentially a lot more straightforward and accessible than the great and good who decide what is ‘art’ and what isn’t ‘art’ are prepared to allow. I often think that my view can be explained quite simply: on the one hand there might be a discussion on whether a work ‘is art’ or ‘is not art’.

On the other hand there is often heard the claim that ‘this is art’ but that ‘this isn’t art’. I contend that the distinctions between ‘art/not art’ and ‘good art/bad art’ are mutually exclusive: both cannot exist in the same universe. If they could, we would find ourself faced with the silliness that ‘bad art’, however ‘bad’, is still ‘better’ than a piece which ‘isn’t art’. Does that make any sense? Discuss. (Hint: no it doesn’t.)

While writing my long blog entry on Hemingway’s ‘masterpiece’ and why I think it is nothing of the kind, I am doing more than just writing another blog post. I am also trying to learn how to write. I don’t find putting down words on paper (so to speak) at all difficult, but I have long realised that there is far, far more to ‘writing’ than merely choosing words and then shuffling them in a certain order: there is also the absolute necessity of thought, and clear thought at that. (The writer Truman Capote remarked - and used the witticism several times about other works by other authors, being the sort who knew when he was onto winner - that Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road ‘is not writing but typing’) . In a sense writing is pretty much 90 per cent ‘thought’ and just 10 per cent ‘getting it down on paper’, and it is the ‘thinking’ which I don’t find very easy.

I am also trying, and so far not succeeding very well, to learn a little more discipline. I can be, and have on the past been disciplined, but it does not come easy to me, and I have still some way to go. Part of that discipline is finishing something, in this case my long post on Hemingway’s first novel, and so I have resolved not to begin my next project until this one is done and dusted and completed (and I do have my next project in line up).

. . .

Something else I realised quite some time ago was that I sharpen my thought and views best in conversation. Discussing this or that with someone, preferably someone who disagrees with me, I am far more able to hone my thoughts, to spot the flaws in my arguments, to realise how best to ensure my contentions lead on one to the next, than when I am pondering something on my own. Something akin to that happens when I write these posts: I clear my head a little.

Along those lines, though the the connection might not be obvious, I find I think ‘better’ and my imagination is ‘freer’ when I am away from home, preferably abroad and on my own. In fact, I like it quite a bit. Two days ago, I drove down to Truro - only 32 miles away - simply to visit a branch of Nationwide to withdraw some money, but also to treat myself to a pleasant meal, but oddly, ‘freed’ from being here at Lanke Cottage, St Breward, I breathed a little easier. I really don’t know why, but I do know that when I travel - alone - I love it. And it is true, my imagination is sparked a little more.

So perhaps, 2,200-odd words further down the line, you might understand why I quite often feel that itch to write. But here’s the thing: usually I write these posts and publish them, returning a day or two later to read them again and correct this or that literal and rephrase this or that piece of obvious gobbledegook. This time around the new, improved ‘learning to write’ me has already been through what I have written so far - twice - to make sure those silly glitches are sorted out beforehand. My mate Pete would be proud of me (eh, Pete?) though I don’t doubt he has already spotted more than one infelicity of some kind or another. Can a leopard change his spots? Probably not, but at least he can try.

PS Once I have complete the piece, I shall post it here, but as it might well be long, I shall split it into three or four and post them on my alternate blog where it might be read in greater comfort.

Monday, September 10, 2018

History isn’t bunk, Mr Ford, and I wish I knew far more of it

What with one thing and another - leaving Britain in June 1959 when I was nine to go and live in Berlin (after my father was posted there by the BBC), attending German schools for the next four years, returning to Britain in July 1963 and starting at a RC boarding school (which was then by no means of the first order), my education was in many ways quite patchy to downright bad.

For example, I began Latin at Das Canisius Kolleg in Berlin-Tiergarten when I started as a Sextaner (as in Sextanerblase) in late August 1964. Lessons were quite straightforward and methodical (our textbook as Ludus Latinus - the Latin game). I did Latin for the next three years, progressing from I don’t know what to I don’t know what - I have since forgotten most, though not all of it - and when we returned to Britain and I started at the Oratory School in Woodcote in early September 1963 I carried on with Latin. Except that I didn’t carry on at all - I came to an abrupt halt.

In Latin at the OS, we were pitched straight into Virgil’s Aeneid, and to this young German kid who spoke with an impeccable English accent but was, in fact, German, it was complete gobbledegook, blank bloody nonsense. Whereas our Latin classes in Berlin (Das Canisius Kolleg was and is a Jesuit college) it had been a slow and methodical progression of learning verbs and tenses, nouns, genders and cases, and slowly building up an notion of what the language might be, Latin at the OS as in reading and translating large chunks of ‘Virgil’ was a mystery to me, and moreover a mystery which my three years of learning the basics of Latin grammar in Berlin did bugger all to solve.

All of my fellow intake at the OS in 1963 - except me - had attended a English prep school and had already been immersed into Virgil, so the Latin classes were simply a continuation of what they had so far been learning. I’m not suggesting that they all knew a great deal more than me, but at least it what we were going through in class wasn’t utterly baffling. I can remember nothing about the classes - and even less about the Aeneid and Virgil except that he also be also wrote a long poem about farming and another about bee-keeping.

That when it came to grammar Latin nouns were declined differently in both countries didn’t help, either: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative and ablative in Germany but in England nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative. As for pronunciation, Lord help me. I had learned the German way of pronouncing Latin and the English way sounded hideous, and I never got used to it.

My education in history - any history - was worse: abysmal to non-existent. We did none at the The Sacred Heart, the RC primary school in Henley and none at my first German school, Steubenschule, in Berlin-Charlottenburg (and that is what I remembered it was called, not die Steubenschule, though I can’t find anything on the net to check either way.)

Then for the next three years at Das Canisius Kolleg it was ‘ancient history’ starting with - as far as I remember - Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome. Quite why I can’t suggest. Why no German history? They had as much of history as everyone else but preferred to start us off in 700BC, so, no, it was ‘ancient Rome’ and I can
remember nothing. So when I landed at the OS I and ‘had history’, I was pitched straight into the doings of some dude called Henry VII (left) and his Court of Star Chamber. And that, dear friends, was it. I’m sure we also did history in fifth-form but I remember absolutely nothing.

Since then I have over the years picked up a lot more and do know a little. We also did history as part of my five-strand foundation course at Dundee University, but all I can remember of that is that if our lecturer used the phrase ‘and at the end of the day’ once, he bloody used it 1,000 times.

The irony is that I find history interesting and the more I know, and the more I know about the different approaches to history and what we can draw from knowing it, the more interesting I find it. A few years ago I became acutely aware that I knew no history at all and went on a self-designed crash course of getting to know more British and Continental history, and read a number of books in a series called ‘The Plantagenets’, ‘The Tudors’, ‘The Stuarts’, that kind of thing. The series wasn’t called this, but might well have had the rather twee title of ‘Adventures In History’ or some such, they usually do when you are still at the 2 x 2 = 4 level I was operating on. But I’m not proud. At least I acquired a broad outline of what the bloody hell happened in Britain between ‘the Dark Ages’ and the 19th century.

. . .

I brought up history because it has one very distinct advantage over current affairs: to a large extent it is ‘over’. All right, that is obviously a gross simplification and I can already hear various bores clearing their throats, murmuring ‘are you sure?’ and readying themselves for a long and arcane historiographical discussion, but I’d rather not to into that here, if you don’t mind. My point has more to do with how little we know - and in a sense can know - about what is going on now, this week, this month, this year. (Incidentally, whenever a discussion such as this comes up, there is alway some wiseacre who resorts to quoting what is now a sodding cliche by the philosopher George Santayana. I shall not be quoting it.)

Yes, we know the ‘facts’ but it is the relevance of those facts and what underlying trend we might discern which is bloody difficult. If we were to look at say what the Brits call ‘The Glorious Revolution’ when William of Orange was invited to invade the country and usurp the throne, we can try to trace what happened, who did what - for example, the ineptitude of James II - and suggest various patterns. Can anyone really do that at the moment? Can anyone - although many try, almost always for good money coughed up by a media which should know better - really tell us ‘what’s going on’?

In the US the nation is into its second year of the erratic and bewildering presidency of Donald Trump. You reading this might disagree, but I am far more inclined to agree with the analysis that the man is a narcissistic, sociopath who has the world view of a dim New York cabbie. Furthermore, as far as I am concerned his baffling subservience to Russia and Vladimir Putin is easily explained if one accepts the overwhelming likelihood that he is deeply, deeply, deeply in debt to various Russian billionaires. That is certainly not ‘a fact’, but a real probability.

Here in Britain we are also in deep shit. I am not about to launch into a ‘Brexit - right or wrong’ discussion, mainly because that is now irrelevant. What is relevant is that next March (or possibly later if wiser heads prevail and the government asks for the date to be postponed so a few more ducks can be put in the row) we shall be leaving the EU.

Well, quite apart from no one having the faintest clue what the economic result of that might be - and I are thoroughly persuaded things are really not looking good - the political setup her in Britain is in no state to deal with what could become a constitutional crisis. Both of our major parties, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, are in complete disarray and pretty much split down the middle. (That happens to both parties periodically, but never at the same time.)

Abroad the far-right is gaining ground in several countries, most notably in the general election last night in Sweden. They didn’t do quite as well as was expected by many, but they did well enough. It’s not that they might be part of the next Swedish government - both the right-of-centre and left-of-centre blocs say they will have nothing to do with them in a possible coalition - but that the number of Swedish citizens who are won over by their illiberal arguments has grown and might grow even more.

Germany, too, has its far-right problem, mainly in the former East Germany, and although I believe its democratic sinews are as strong as in any other Western European country, it is not a problem which can be ignored.

Elsewhere, we have the growing totalitarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Putin (who has just raised the pension age in Russia) facing street protests, China having to deal with the apparent megalomania of Xi Jinping (but he is having to deal with the fact that his - what amounts to a - power grab is not going quite as easily as he hoped, Libya is falling apart, Egypt is getting restless again (a Lebanese woman visiting who complained publicly of the day-to-day sexual harassment of women in the country was jailed for eight years. Today’s news is that her sentence has been reduced to one year and that she has been released, although I am hazy on the details).

Historians - or even common or garden bloggers of my ilk - alive and at work in 2218 will have a fair idea of what was going on. They might point to the increasing liberalisation of Western Europe once World War II ended, a process which seemed to culminate in the end of the Soviet bloc and the emancipation of its various client states in Eastern Europe. That event even persuaded one historian, Francis Fukuyama, to publish a book with the title The End Of History. How different it all looks now.

In the US there seems to be very real talk of what can only be described - but which never would be - of a coup d’etat to remove Trump from office before he does something really, really stupid (At the height of his spat

Vice-President Mike Pence indicates how long the knife should be he would like
to bury in Trump’s back (for the sake of the American people, of course)

with North Korea, he is said to have wanted to ‘go in there and fucking kill’ Kim Jung Un. And he was all for the US invading Venezuela and had to be talked out of it by his staff.

The Western World traditionally pays little attention to South America and what is going on there, mainly, I suppose, because what does go on there has little effect on what happens in its own world (folk who like to bang on about butterflies flapping their wings in the Amazon rainforest notwithstanding), but there, too, seems to be something of a sea change in affairs. In Brazil, by far the biggest country, the presidential candidate ahead in the polls is actually sitting in a jail cell and his biggest opponent belongs to the far-right. And given Brazil penchant for resorting to military rule when and if, the Western World might be better advised to pay more attention.

Finally, of course, there’s the ticklish matter of ‘global warming’. It would seem to be real and ongoing, although I still can’t rid myself of the suspicion that a kind of apocalypsarianism is partly at play - folk love a disaster, although not one in their own backyard.

I shall be 69 on November 21 and I am keenly aware that we ageing folk are often inclined to doom-monger, so I am doing my best not to. But in many ways it isn’t looking quite as good as it did when the smug gits in the EU organised parades for the introduction of the euro and were pretty much convinced that Nirvana was just around the corner. Was it hell.