#bigotgate & proportional representation

Two passing observations on the election.

Firstly, on Gordon Brown’s little faux pas today. Clearly being caught describing a voter as ‘a bigoted woman’ makes him look like an idiot, especially since she hadn’t actually said anything especially bigoted.

On the other hand, I’m curious about the ethics of the news organisations using a recording of a private conversation which they recorded by accident. I bet that every news broadcaster keeps a store somewhere of the amusing, stupid, unguarded things that politicians say when they are miked up but not yet on air: a blooper reel for their own amusement. So for the sake of fairness, perhaps we should hear all those things. And indeed the things that journalists say between themselves after talking to members of the public.

And secondly, I’ve been thinking a bit about voting reform. I have become increasingly sick of first past the post; quite apart from the national implications of governments getting large majorities with a minority of the vote, I’m personally fed up with tactical voting. I don’t want to have to think about who can win in my constituency; I want to vote for the party I actually want and believe my vote counts for something.

But seems like something where the law of unintended consequences is sure to come into play. Depending on the exact system we switched to, it wouldn’t be a small change. After all, if you just took the last few decades of  election results and converted them to a proportional system, we would have had 25 or 30 years of permanent Lib-Lab coalition; or perhaps the LIb-Dems as permanent kingmakers. And having the same people permanently in power is exactly what we don’t want, I would think.

In fact, what would probably have happened by now is the increasing importance of small parties; the Greens, the BNP, UKIP might well all have MPs. The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Irish parties would probably have more influence. And it’s quite possible that the major parties would have split: both Socialist Labour and New Labour MPs, for example. I have no idea whether all this would have been a good thing or not; but it is certainly a big deal.

The thing is, FPTP is only really suited to a two-party system. Which I think means that the current system is broken. On the other hand, changing to PR would mean a radical change in the political culture of the UK comparable to the great C19th Reform Acts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but we do need to go into it with our eyes open.

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Treading Air by Jaan Kross

Treading Air is an Estonian novel which, to quote the blurb, ‘follows the life of Ullo Paerand through thirty years of violent upheaval in Estonia’. I’ve actually had it on my to-read list for some time, but to be honest I kept putting it off because the back cover made it sound a bit depressing. And while it’s perfectly reasonable that a book telling the story of Estonia over the twentieth century would be a little gloomy, I didn’t particularly fancy it.

I’m glad I finally read it, though; it’s a fine novel and not nearly as depressing as it could be, although partially because it chooses not to dwell on the bad stuff. In fact, it is mainly about Paerand’s life as a young man before the Soviet occupation, which is handled quite lightly and with a good deal of humour; the bulk of his adult life under the Soviet regime is skipped over in a few short chapters. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be symbolic of Estonia itself: a closing down of the possibilities of life, a kind of hibernation for the whole country.

Anyway, it’s a fine novel which deserves more attention than I am going to give it in this post. And it is my book from Estonia for the Read The World challenge.

» Tallin, Estonia – St. Olaf Church / Iglesia de San Olaf is © Claudio Alejandro Mufarrege and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Interesting idea in BNP manifesto

I never thought I’d find a thought-provoking idea in the BNP manifesto — it’s not a party of deep, lucid or original thinkers — but I did think this was, if not a good idea, at least an intriguing one:

30. Outlaw the conducting or publication of opinion polls in the last three weeks of an election campaign to prevent manipulation of the democratic process.

I can only assume that this policy has its origins in conspiracy theory — part of the BNP’s ‘New World Order, Jews control the media’ schtick — but it would genuinely be interesting to see what would happen if we tried this. Because it seems quite clear that polling results do feed back into peoples opinions and effect their voting intentions.

To take an example from the current campaign, the single thing which has done most to grant Nick Clegg credibility is the polls showing the Lib Dems overtaking Labour to move into second place. It’s one thing to watch the debate and think that Clegg did well, but quite another to learn that loads of other people thought so to. And everyone likes a winner.

I don’t know what the impact of banning polling would be: would it favour the minor parties? Would it hand more power to the newspapers? Certainly there’s no obvious reason to think it would produce better politics or better results. But it’s an interesting thought experiment. At the very least it would be amusing to watch the pundit class floundering as they tried to divine the public mood without the help of any actual information.

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Blue Bay Palace by Nathacha Appanah

Blue Bay Palace is my book from Mauritius for the Read The World challenge.

Looking over some of my old posts about books, I’ve noticed a tendency to bend over backwards to find nice things to say in an attempt to seem fair-minded, to the point that I re-read the reviews and think they are a bit misleading. So I decided to be a bit harsher when necessary. This is one of those times.

I had problems with the prose style from the first page; it’s trying too hard for a certain kind of literary gravitas that it can’t manage, and as a result it is badly overwritten. In fact the combination of florid prose and a rather conventionally told love story reminded me above all of Mills & Boon: especially since it features a poor girl with a rich lover in an exotic location (although the ‘exotic’ part is fair enough). The main difference is that Mills & Boon novels have happy endings, and this book doesn’t; in fact, once the love story starts going wrong, it gets a bit more interesting… but then it blows it with a melodramatic and unsatisfying ending.

On the positive side, it was very short.

The Church of the Long Now

The Clock of the Long Now is a very interesting book about the idea of building

a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

This is not just an interesting engineering project. The idea is that the clock could act as a symbol of the ‘long now’: that is, a way of looking at the world which sees us within the long context of history.

Because ‘now’ means different things is different contexts: ‘I’m hungry now’; ‘tartan skirts are fashionable now’; ‘The United States is now the world’s only superpower’; ‘India is now moving northward into Asia, forming the Himalayas’.

The Long Now Foundation is actually building this clock; it’s not just a thought experiment. The idea is to promote long-term thinking: the kind of long term planning and policy making that might help to prepare for the risk of a hurricane hitting New Orleans, or to mitigate the economic impacts of an ageing population. Or, of course, try to minimise global warming.

These kinds of problems do not lend themselves to the five-year cycles of democratic politics, let alone to the ever-shorter cycles of 24 hour news media.

I remember it as a thought-provoking book, although I think I left my copy in Japan*. I don’t know whether it is really possible to make people take very long term planning seriously, for psychological as well as pragmatic reasons. But it’s an interesting idea.

I’ve been thinking about the Long Now recently because of a particular current news story. If there is any human institution that lends itself to Long Now thinking, it is the Catholic church. Their holy book is 2000 years old, and they still refer back to theologians like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, from 700 and 1600 years ago respectively. I recently went round the V&A’s newly refurbished Medieval and Renaissance galleries, and they are a reminder that the church was a wealthy and powerful organisation before the Norman Conquest. It is nowhere near as wealthy or powerful now, in relative terms, as it was back in the middle ages; but it’s not doing badly.

Perhaps that’s why their PR in response to child abuse stories has seemed so woefully inept: when you operate over a timescale of centuries, a scathing article in the New York Times doesn’t seem like such a big deal. An organisation which has survived the Great Schism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, not to mention the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and a whole load of religious wars, is not going to throw around the word ‘crisis’ lightly.

And strategically speaking, they’re probably right: Benedict XVI is the 265th pope. Does anyone really think there won’t be a 266th? And by the time we get to 269 or 270, these scandals will be very old news indeed.

It’s not necessarily a morally bankrupt attitude; it’s not the same as ignoring the problem and waiting for it to go away. It might be nice to see them reaching out to the victims a little better and show a bit more public remorse, but the most important thing is to ensure that those kind of cover-ups don’t happen in future, and they say they have reformed the system to prevent it happening again.

I find it fascinating, looking at the world in this way. For example, I think it is an important principle of human rights and human dignity that women should be treated as full human beings with all the same rights and responsibilities as men. So if I was pope — an odd thought, admittedly — I would allow women to be priests. But from the long view of the Catholic church, with 20 centuries of institutional and theological tradition to draw on, the women’s rights movement could turn out to be a passing phase. Hell, there aren’t many countries where women have even had the vote for one century.†

And if I was pope, I’d allow gay marriage, contraception, and abortion. But I don’t expect the church to agree with me any time soon. And even though I disagree with everything they believe, from the existence of God downwards, there is something deeply intriguing about that kind of institutional continuity. You can see why some people find it seductive.

The Catholic church may be old-fashioned, but it has been old-fashioned for hundreds of years now; entire empires have risen and fallen while the church trundled on, being old-fashioned. It may be ludicrously archaic that important church documents are still issued in Latin, but the church was communicating in Latin before the English language even existed, and the church is still here. They are hardly going to be stung by the accusation that they’re not keeping up with the times.

* if only I’d had the long-term perspective to realise I would want to write a blog post about it several years later…

† In chronological order: The Pitcairn Islands, The Isle of Man, The Cook Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and Finland. According to Wikipedia.

» From top to bottom, the images are: the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now, a C9th-10th crucifix reliquary from the V&A, and Titian’s portrait of Poe Paul III.

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So I went to see Kick-Ass, the generally well-reviewed superhero film. And I enjoyed it, it’s a clever, well-made film. But it did remind me of a quote I posted to Salmagundi the other day:

‘And then I realised that Watchmen was in no way extraordinary but perfectly symptomatic: we are, after all, living through an age in which the fabulous ingenuity of craft is being lavished upon the realisation of a pathologically adolescent imagination.’

You can read the whole of that article (from the games magazine Edge) here.

I don’t know. I actually do think that cinema is often at its best in a populist mode, and I’m quite sure it’s possible to make a superhero movie that transcends the genre, just as it’s possible to make a western that transcends that genre. But I’m not entirely thrilled to be living in the Age Of The Superhero Movie, somehow. Hell, at least SF usually attempts to create a whole new world: superhero movies, set in a contemporary setting, is a form of imaginative fiction that seems strong on wish fulfilment and weak on real imagination.

Having said all that, if you fancy an entertaining evening at the cinema, you could certainly do worse than Kick-Ass. I enjoyed it. I’m just being grumpy.

Birds, birds, birds

Just a little catch-up of last week’s birding action. I went for a walk on the Isle of Sheppey, in the Thames estuary. It’s a transitional time of year: still plenty of wintering ducks and geese — some lovely brent geese still apparently unable to face flying back to the high arctic to breed, as well as white-fronted goose, wigeon, gadwall, teal and so on — but the skylarks were singing, and I saw wheatear and my first swallows of the year. And the lapwings were making those extraordinary calls which are just about my favourite noise in the world.

Also marsh harrier, little egret, linnet, meadow pipit, curlew, oystercatcher, redshank… and two really good sightings. The more visually stunning of the two was a great view of a pair of bearded tits, which are gorgeous birds and not the easiest to see well. But the other one was probably the closest thing to a proper rarity I’ve ever found for myself in the UK: black winged stilt.

That’s not actually my photo but it may well be my bird: it turned up the following day at Rainham Marshes, about 30 miles west of where I saw it. And I have to admit I didn’t see it as well as that: it was quite a long way away and I didn’t have my scope with me. Still, it’s a distinctive bird which I’ve seen before in the Mediterranean, and I recognised it immediately.

It’s not an extraordinarily rare visitor to the UK — typically about 5 records per year —  and it’s not actually a British tick for me; I saw the offspring of a pair that bred in Norfolk back in 1987. But still, by my standards as a casual birder, a pretty good sighting.

» Black-Winged Stilt is from Flickr and is © Hawkeye2011.

Thirsty River by Rodaan Al Galidi

This is the second book in a row for the Round The World challenge which I can say, without any caveats, that I straightforwardly enjoyed. So that’s good. Thirsty River is my book for Iraq, though Rodaan Al Galidi fled Iraq for the Netherlands in 1998, so it’s actually translated from Dutch.*

It’s a multi-generational family story tracing the history of Iraq from before the Saddam years to after the American invasion. One of the blurbs says “García Márquez for Colombia and Al Galidi for Iraq”, and the book is in that kind of magical realist tradition; although as with a few books I’ve read recently, I find myself wanting to refer to ‘magical realism’ even though there isn’t actually much magic in them. A book like One Hundred Years of Solitude has genuinely impossible, supernatural events in it; Thirsty River has some unlikely, striking events, but they are not generally supernatural. But there’s a similar mood, a kind of theatricality, with odd things happening to slightly odd people.

Of course there’s nothing exclusive to magical realism about exaggerated characters and slightly implausible plots; you could say the same about Dickens. And I wonder if I would even think of referring to it as ‘magical realism’ if it was set in Surrey rather than southern Iraq. But there’s still something that seems to connect these books into a sort of genre; perhaps it’s a slightly detached attitude to the central characters?

Anyway, such taxonomical considerations aside: I did enjoy it. By the end of the novel the enjoyment was of a slightly mixed kind, because Iraq’s recent history has not been all unicorns and rainbows, and the book’s characters have a pretty brutal time of it.

Here’s a little excerpt.

Hadi the Rocket was a middle-aged man. He had a thick black moustache, from which he always plucked the grey hairs with tweezers. In his chest pocket was a comb and a miror, with which he kept his moustache in shape. Hadi the Rocket came from a poor family in Boran, whose members sold ice in the summer, and coal and oil in the winter. His father had owned a cart and an old horse. After primary school, Hadi began to work with his father. He had thought at was his lot to get old sitting int he street, until he became a member of the Ba’ath party.

“God in heaven, the party on earth,” he always said when the Ba’ath party was still underground.

“The party in heaven, Mr President on earth,” he said when the Ba’ath party seized power and was the only party remaining.

“Mr President is the heaven of the fatherland, the party his ground,” was the slogan when Saddam seized power.

Sometimes Hadi the Rocket forgot  his own house, which the party had given him, his wives, which he had also received from the party, and his children and he slept in his uniform in the party’s house. Every time people became more afraid of him, he felt safer and became friendlier. Little photos of Saddam Hussein were pinned to his clothes and he wore watches bearing his image. he gave the photos to everyone, and the watches to people who were higher up in the party then himself, as if it were an offering to the gods. No one was as attached to anything as Hadi the Rocket was to the Ba’ath party; not medieval suitors to their lovers, nor knights to their swords, nor believers to their gods.

* Incidentally, full marks to Luzette Strauss, the translator, for her sparing use of endnotes: just 12 for a 300 page novel. Since I’ve been reading a lot of translated fiction over the past couple of years, distracting and unnecessary endnotes have become a real pet hate of mine.

» saddam elvis, originally uploaded to Flickr by and © rakkasan69.

Exhibition roundup: Nash, quilts, Moore

Dulwich Picture Gallery currently has an exhibition of the English painter Paul Nash, best known I guess for his work as a war artist in both world wars. I know I first encountered him at school, when we were doing Wilfred Owen or Robert Graves or someone.

This exhibition did include some of that work, but also provided a bit of context for me. It was certainly interesting to see the kind of surrealist/symbolist paintings he did, often of the English landscape, when it wasn’t wartime. But it wasn’t really to my taste; it didn’t trigger that acquisitive urge. All else being equal, I am drawn to paintings which use strong, clear colours and sharply defined forms: Vermeer, El Greco, Matisse. Provençal Van Gogh rather than Flanders Van Gogh. Paul Nash is kind of the opposite: grey-brown tones and splodgy brushwork.

Meanwhile, the V&A has its first exhibition of British quilts, Quilts 1700-2010. I went to see it at an evening event in aid of Fine Cell Work, a charity that teaches prison inmates to do needlework as a rehabilitation exercise. There’s a quilt in the exhibition made by inmates with FCW; it is given context by a quilt made in a Japanese POW camp and one made by inmates on a prison ship who were being transported to Australia in 1841. Not surprisingly, the exhibition is keen to tease out this kind of social history from the quilts, but the other pleasure of it is just the extremely high quality of work on show. I’m fairly familiar with this stuff — my mother is a keen quilter — but they really have put together some great pieces.

The curator of the exhibition has managed to seriously annoy my mother by coming out with stuff like this in the Guardian:

Curator Sue Prichard thinks this enthusiasm is partly due to the global downturn. “I started on this project in 2004. Now there is a huge revival of interest in traditional crafts. There are a lot of women out there who are really keen to learn new skills and step away from their computer and their Blackberry.”

or in the Times:

Ms Pritchard said she hoped that the museum would inspire a revival of the craft through workshops that would teach people traditional techniques.

Because if there’s one traditional craft which didn’t need a revival, it’s quilting. That’s what appeals to me about quilting; it’s a genuinely living tradition, a vernacular art form which is thriving. It doesn’t need to be supported by government grants, it’s not the preserve of a handful of obsessive enthusiasts. Quilt shows are big business; indeed, the V&A’s exhibition is their most successful ever in terms of advance ticket sales. If there’s one criticism I have of the exhibition, it’s that it doesn’t give much sense of the liveliness of that current tradition. That gripe aside, it’s well worth visiting.

And finally Henry Moore at Tate Britain. Henry Moore was perhaps the biggest name in British art in the mid-C20th century, but he’s probably been rather out of fashion for a couple of decades, so it’s quite interesting to see this big show at the Tate.

Rather like the Paul Nash, I can’t say this particularly excited me, though it had its moments. Moore’s sculptures are often quite appealing as objects, with their curves, and the textural qualities of the materials; but it often feels like they are attractive in the same way as a weathered tree stump. Don’t get me wrong, I like a weathered tree stump as much as the next person, but I kind of feel that art could aim a bit higher than that.

The most interesting bits were probably the famous drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz. Even though he makes the people look so much like his own sculptures, they have more impact than the sculptures themselves. They seem to hit a sweet spot between sculptural dignity and living humanity. There were some fine pictures of coal miners at work that managed the same trick.

Some of his post-War sculpture had some of the same human vulnerability and oddness, a bit of edge to it; but generally he seems to have reverted to weathered tree stump territory. Perhaps his greatest strength was a knack for producing sculptures that really worked as public art: large scale, impressive, and just about modern enough while unlikely to offend anyone.