The 7th annual Christmas stuffing post

It’s time for the most pointless Christmas tradition of them all! We’re having goose this year instead of turkey, but naturally I’m doing stuffing to go with it.

As usual I’ve made two versions using a base of sausagemeat. Normally they both have sausage, onion, celery, breadcrumbs and egg, but my sister isn’t eating wheat, so this time I skipped the breadcrumbs. Hopefully it won’t adversely affect the texture too much.

I was bored of doing chestnut and mushroom, but my mother insisted that the meal had to include chestnuts somewhere, so one stuffing is apple and chestnut. It has Bramley apple, chestnuts, parsley, thyme, some Calvados and the liver from the goose.

The other one is a repeat from 2007: cherry, apricot, almond and ginger. Dried apricots and sour cherries, some almonds, candied stem ginger, a pinch of mixed spice and some brandy. Oh and the cherries were a bit old so I soaked them in Grand Marnier overnight first.

Books of the year 2011

I guess if I was a newspaper I would have published this rather earlier to serve as Christmas gift buying suggestions. Still, friends and family be damned, you can always buy them for yourself as New Year presents.

As ever, these are just a handful of the books that I enjoyed this year; for a more comprehensive list you can browse my archives or check out the even more comprehensive list on Goodreads.

The Read The World challenge came up trumps this year with a couple of absolutely cracking books — as well as some deeply mediocre ones. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas is just a perfect short novel about childhood and landscape and loss. One of the best novels I have read for a long time. And on the non-fiction side, Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich was also brilliant: interesting, tragic, sometimes darkly funny and surreal, and brilliantly written.

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa was a genuinely remarkable bit of writing — I can see why people rave about it — but it didn’t give me quite as much pure pleasure because it felt a bit like hard work at times.

Looking back over the year, there are a couple of non-fiction books that stand out less for their literary merit than their topicality: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, and Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson. Nick Davies is the Guardian journalist whose stories helped bring down the News of the World, and Flat Earth News is his book about British newspaper culture. It was written three years ago, before the latest round of that particular scandal broke, but it still provides plenty of useful insights into the industry. Treasure Islands, a book about tax havens, didn’t actually get me very excited at the time I read it — I only gave it three stars on Goodreads! — but it has been sort of bubbling away at the back of my mind ever since. Especially because, thanks to the Occupy movement and UK Uncut, corporate tax avoidance is very much on the political agenda.

I think Lee Jackson’s anthology, Daily Life in Victorian London, deserves a mention, both because it’s really good — I kept reading bits out to people — and because of what it represents about the rapidly changing face of publishing, as a self-published ebook which is as good as any anthology I’ve read for years.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Full title: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. I’ve had this book since February and was finally spurred to pick it out of the pile by the death of Kim Jong-il.

It’s based on interviews with refugees from North Korea which were conducted over several years by Barbara Demick, an American journalist. She interweaves their stories into a chronological narrative to create a picture of everyday life in North Korea over the past few decades.

Obviously there are limitations created by her almost complete lack of access to the country itself, but she focussed on people from a particular city, Chongjin, near the Chinese border, and did her best to cross-check as many details as possible. The result is a very solid and convincing picture. It’s a fascinating and horribly grim picture of a personality cult, rigid bureaucratic social control, and constant fear that saying the wrong thing could get you sent to the gulags… and then the famine kicks in and it gets even worse.

It seems bizarre that a Stalinist system like this can still survive into the twenty-first century, decades after Communism collapsed elsewhere and even as South Korea and China become rapidly more prosperous. But I guess the really extraordinary thing is that it lasted as long as it did in Russia, China and Eastern Europe.

Anyway, it’s a good book, well worth reading.

» The photo Arirang (DPRK) is © Gilad Rom and used under a CC attribution licence.

My Prime Minister went to Europe and all I got was this lousy veto

So, David Cameron went off to Europe, with the continent in desperate need of an agreement that might stave off financial catastrophe. And it was always going to be difficult to come to a deal which was acceptable to all the various countries, which was why the wrangling has been going on for months. But this was, everyone agreed, a moment of crisis, when domestic political concerns had to be weighed against the appalling consequences should the worst happen.

As it turned out, Cameron wasn’t able to sign a deal. His conscience simply wouldn’t let him. And what was his line in the sand? What was the principle that he was willing to alienate the whole of Europe over, and risk economic catastrophe for? It was (drumroll please)… he didn’t want to upset the bankers.

You know, when the whole financial system initially went tits-up, I wasn’t particularly inclined to be angry at the banks. Sure, where there is actual evidence of fraud and deception it’s a different matter. But mostly it doesn’t seem to have been illegality, it was just greed, recklessness and incompetence. And it’s hard to apportion blame when the whole world goes mad together. After all, banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, central bankers, rating agencies, governments and regulators all failed in one way or another.

But when the global economy went off the rails, that was the opportunity for everyone involved to pause, take stock, and think about what they’d done. All the stupid things the banks did to get us into this mess — that didn’t make me angry. Their miserable failure to take any responsibility for what they’ve done, the lack of contrition, the lack of gratitude for the fact that mountains of taxpayers’ money has been shovelled at them to save them from the consequences of their own incompetence — that is teeth-grindingly infuriating.

And these are the people the Prime Minister is bending over backwards to protect. Fucking marvellous.

» The picture is of David Cameron with David Cameron’s eyes.

» Incidentally, I’m not at all convinced that the European treaty is going to do anything to save the Euro anyway, with or without the UK, as it seems to be designed to solve the wrong problem. But I’ve demoted that point to a footnote because it only would have complicated a perfectly good rant.

The next sacrifice on the altar of mammon: British wildlife

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement was pretty depressing all round, but there was one particular part of it that seems worth a comment. Which is that they will ‘review the implementation of the EU Habitats and Wild Birds Directives’. The Chancellor said:

We will make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.

You might think that the Conservative party would instinctively see the value of trying to preserve something of our shared natural inheritance, so that there is still something there to hand on to our children and grandchildren. It seems like a good, traditional conservative instinct. But no, for George Osborne the environment is just another kind of red tape that is getting in the way of the only thing that matters: private enterprise.

I’m never quite sure what’s going on with people who place so little value on the environment. The first possibility is that they just don’t care. They’ve never had any interest in wildlife, they couldn’t recognise the most common birds in their own garden, they’d rather see a well-manicured golf course than a scruffy bit of pasture with wild flowers growing on it. They’ve never had an emotional relationship with the natural world, and so the idea of habitats being destroyed and species going extinct simply has no resonance for them. And if you feel that way, then if the choice is between creating jobs or preserving a piece of habitat… well, there’s no conflict to be resolved.

And I’m sure there are those people: people who regard the whole idea of ‘the environment’ as ridiculous sentimental tosh. But I’m not sure they’re the majority. Most people at least like to see butterflies and hear birdsong, they enjoy the bluebells in spring and the leaves changing colour in the autumn. But there is an idea, I think, that environmental concerns are exaggerated. Because if you walk through the British countryside in May, everything is an incredible lush green, the hedges are thick with white hawthorn blossom, the verges are full of cow parsley and oxeye daisies, and there is a bird singing in every bush. Everything seems right with the world.

But actually the British countryside is profoundly ecologically impoverished. Just this week we had the release of new official government figures showing that farmland bird numbers are at their lowest ever, down 50% since 1970. That’s a 50% decline over a period when the environment has been a relatively strong political issue; and 1970 was hardly some kind of pre-industrial idyll anyway. And even that 50% figure doesn’t tell the whole story, because that’s the overall number: when you dig into the details, it turns out that some species have held up relatively well — which means that others have declined catastrophically.

The list of badly-hit birds makes incredibly depressing reading. It includes many of the species that once would have been seen as the most typical species of the British countryside, the birds that we have poems, Christmas carols and nursery rhymes about: cuckoo, skylark, turtle dove, partridge, nightingale. Others are less famous but no less typical: yellowhammer, corn bunting, tree sparrow, yellow wagtail, wood warbler, spotted flycatcher, lesser-spotted woodpecker, willow tit, redpoll. Some of them are generally much less common and harder to find; others have been eliminated from large parts of the country altogether. Many of the species I’ve mentioned are down by 70%; the worst-hit, like the turtle dove and the grey partridge, are down by over 90%.

And it’s not just birds. Take butterflies, for example; many of the less common butterflies in the south of England are downland species: that is, they live on chalk hillsides, preferably grazed by sheep. Well, there’s chalk all the way across the country, and there are still plenty of sheep, but if you want to find those butterflies, you have to go to special sites managed for wildlife by conservation charities. Think about what that means: those species coexisted with agriculture for thousands of years. No-one made any special effort to protect them. Now they only hang on in little scraps of land which have to be specially managed for their benefit.

There was a time when the normal farmland which makes up the vast bulk of the British countryside was a fairly rich habitat, supporting a wide variety of wild flowers, insects and birds. But with modern farming practices that’s really not true anymore. There are various different reasons — pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers are part of it but not the whole story — but the result is that a lot of modern British farmland is biologically pretty sterile.

That BBC News article has a telling quote from Harry Cotterell, the vice president of the Country Land and Business Association:

Finally we might see a time when human beings are treated with about the same importance as bats, newts and dormice.

The thing is, I can entirely see that it can be incredibly frustrating for someone who is trying to run a farm or some other small business, when some government bureaucrat tells them that they can’t drain a pond because it has rare newts living in it. But the idea that human self-interest is being continually thwarted because we as a society are bending over backwards to put wildlife first… it’s just ludicrous.

Goodbye to all that

I’m sorry to say it, but I’m glad to see the back of the poppy season. The omnipresence of poppies on television, the competitive patriotism of the tabloids and the increasingly reflexive tendency to refer to all servicemen as ‘heroes’ has made me a bit twitchy over the past few years, but it was really brought into focus by the ludicrous storm in a teacup over FIFA’s refusal to let England team wear shirts with poppies on them. Perhaps most creepy was hearing that both the sports minister and David Cameron had described the poppy as ‘a symbol of national pride’, which I found genuinely unnerving.

Unnerving because when you come from the same culture as someone, you assume that there are some basic cultural touchstones whose meaning is well-established and uncontroversial. I thought everyone brought up in this country agreed that the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for those killed and injured in war; David Cameron saying it is a symbol of national pride is as unexpected as if he said that on a traffic light, red means go.

The whole thing would make me even more uneasy if I thought there was any chance that all this very public symbolism had much chance of turning into anything more sinister. Because if Britain had a history of military coups, I would be wondering if we were heading for the point where we wake up one morning to find a tank parked on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street and a TV bulletin with a man in uniform announcing that, for the sake of national stability, the army had reluctantly found it necessary to install themselves in a transitional government which would of course be strictly temporary.

But we are not that country, and I don’t think that all the slightly shrill rhetoric about sticking up for our boys is really militaristic in origin. It’s that ‘our boys’ have done an awful lot of fighting over the past few years, in wars which no one is very enthusiastic about any more. Thankfully they’re out of Iraq, which started to seem stupid, ill-conceived and counterproductive almost immediately, but Afghanistan just keeps grinding on for year after year and it becomes harder and harder to see what the point is. And on top of that, although it’s something the the tabloids are unlikely to say out loud, there’s the sense that the British forces haven’t actually enhanced their reputation; that they went in with a lot of big talk about their professionalism and expertise in counterinsurgency, and ended up having to be bailed out by the Americans.

So there’s a deep well of anxiety associated with the subject of our armed forces. And if it was a conscript army currently fighting in Afghanistan, that anxiety would probably be expressed directly as anti-war protests. Instead it gets manifested as an insistence that all our fighting men are ‘heroes’ by definition, and as ever more elaborate public displays of support.

However, even if the whole business is, in the end, mostly harmless, it still makes me twitchy. Hopefully now Remembrance Sunday has passed for another year, the press will at least turn down the intensity a couple of notches — although the Mail and the Mirror both have front page headlines about ‘our heroes’ today, so perhaps I’m being too optimistic.

» The photo, Fading Beauty, is © David Maitland and was Specially Commended in the ‘In Praise of Plants and Fungi’ category in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2011.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

I’ve just read two books for the Read The World challenge; one of them, Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, represents the downside of the challenge. It was somewhat interesting, but to be honest, reading it felt like doing homework. And there have been quite a few books which were either boring or just embarrassingly bad. Overall, though, those have been balanced out by all the engaging, interesting books which I never would have read without the challenge.

And, just often enough to keep me going, there are books which are genuinely brilliant; The Ice Palace is one of those. It’s a novel about an eleven-year old girl, Siss, and those weirdly intense childhood friendships, and suspense, and uncertainty, and loss. And it unfolds over the period of one Norwegian winter, so it all takes place in a setting of ice and snow, of darkness and silence.

The most important thing to say about it is that it is a beautiful piece of writing; hats off to the translator, Elizabeth Rokkan, for making the English beautiful. The most obvious thing to pick out is the physical descriptions, of landscape and weather, but I also think the portrayal of Siss’s interactions with the world, and her tightly wound inner life, is nuanced and convincing.

I was saying the other day, in the context of Fernando Pessoa, that there is something of a divide among readers between those who care about prose and those who care about narrative. It’s an oversimplification, but I think it’s a useful one. I am generally reading for the prose, not the plot; but The Ice Palace strikes me as a wonderful example of the narrative working to enhance the pleasure I get from the prose.

Normally when we praise something as having a good plot, I think it suggests ingenuity and intricacy. But this has a very simple plot; by thriller-writer standards, it barely has a plot at all. But what it does have is a very effective narrative structure. The book revolves around one key event, fairly early in the story, which we know more about than the characters, and which creates a situation which needs to be resolved somehow. And that creates enough tension and uncertainty to drive the rest of the book, and means that the eventual resolution, when it comes, feels like an end-point, a closure.

» The photo, On a windy day 1, is © Randi Hausken and used under a CC by-nc licence.

Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, ed. Anono Lieom Loeak, Veronica C. Kiluwe, Linda Crowl

Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands is my book from the Marshall Islands for the Read The World challenge. It’s a compilation of short pieces published for the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Islands constitution. It includes a variety of subjects, including personal memoirs, accounts of traditional crafts, and more political pieces.

The two chapters I found most interesting were both political: one was an account of the way that, thanks to lax adoption laws in the Marshall Islands and an immigration compact with the US, the islands became a popular target for Americans looking for babies to adopt.

The other was survivor accounts of radioactive fallout from American nuclear testing. The Americans seem to have treated the survivors badly, but they also failed to warn or evacuate the islanders on some of the atolls which they must have known were at risk of exposure. Usually I believe that cock-up is a better explanation than conspiracy, but given the darker corners of Pentagon’s history, you have to wonder whether they knowingly allowed people to be exposed so that they could serve as test subjects.

I found other chapters rather less interesting — there was a description of the techniques for building outrigger canoes, for example, which was just too technical for me — but to be fair I really wasn’t the intended audience for the book.

» The image is, obviously I guess, a screengrab of Google Earth centred on the Marshall Islands. Blue, innit.

Needling camels

I think it’s fascinating the way that, quite accidentally, the Church of England has been drawn into a debate about the state of capitalism. Because the protestors were not targeting the church; it was a pure accident of geography that a protest aimed at the Stock Exchange should end up camped around St Paul’s.

But that was how it turned out, and the church has been forced to take a position, and lots of commentators have been cheerfully picking out their favourite bible verses about camels going through the eye of a needle, and money-changers in the temple, and arguing about whether or not it makes any sense to call Jesus a socialist. And a lot of people who would not normally have any interest in the opinions of the Dean of St Paul’s or the Bishop of London are suddenly watching them very carefully and asking serious questions about the kind of relationship the church should have to wealth and power: always awkward ground for an established church which has the Queen as its head and an archbishop chosen by the Prime Minister.

And unexpectedly, the support for the protest by at least some of the staff of the Cathedral has given the protesters extra credibility. Because, after all, the protestors who turn up to these things are easy to mock, and their specific political aims, insofar as they have been articulated at all, are often a bit dubious; but the ham-fisted and divided way that the church handled the situation helped frame the debate as a moral question about inequalities of wealth and power.

But the next confrontation could be even more interesting. Now that the church has had a change of heart, the legal challenge to the protests comes from that strange entity called the City of London Corporation. At its most mundane level the Corporation is the local government for the ancient City of London, the ‘Square Mile’. But it is also a very weird historical anomaly. The Corporation has been around for a very long time — the oldest recorded charter, in 1067, confirmed rights and privileges that already existed — and over the centuries it has carved out a semi-detached relationship to the rest of the country; mainly because a succession of kings and governments were willing to make concessions in return for the financial support of the City.

And so, in the middle of what is nominally a modern democracy, we have a borough where corporations still have the vote, and the votes of actual human individuals are vastly outnumbered by the votes cast by businesses. That anachronism wouldn’t be particularly sinister if the Corporation confined itself to organising street-sweepers and mending the roads. But it is also a very wealthy organisation explicitly committed to lobbying for the interests of business, and particularly for the financial industry. It even has its own representative inside Parliament, the ‘City Remembrancer‘.

In other words, it is the perfect symbol for the influence of money over politics. Over many centuries, time and again, from autocratic kings to democratic governments, everyone has flinched in the face of the City’s power. The anomalous existence of the City of London is the result of a thousand years of regulatory capture.

That makes them an excellent focus for protests. If the protestors do manage to turn the spotlight on the Corporation, it could be interesting to watch.

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

I think there’s a great division among readers between those who read fiction primarily for the plots and characters, and those who read for the pleasure of the prose. Not that the two are mutually exclusive — indeed one might argue that at its best literature should provide both — but I do think there’s a real difference there, and if you read book discussions on the internet, you often see people from the two sides talking across each other.

I would generally say that I am one of those who are more interested in prose style than narrative. But The Book of Disquiet really served to test that idea. It contains some of the finest writing I have encountered for a long time; it also has absolutely no plot.

It is presented as the ‘factless autobiography’ of a Lisbon clerk named Bernardo Soares, and it is a compilation of short pieces — some just a few lines, others three or four pages — which chronicle his inner life: philosophical musings about literature, love, dreaming, religion, and so on. Sometimes it’s aphoristic, sometimes detached and analytical, sometimes more personal and emotional; but it’s almost all inside his own head. We get little glimpses of his office and colleagues, and the streets of Lisbon; but really very little.

The result is often brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes waffly, sometimes aggravating — Soares is too snobbish and solipsistic to be completely likeable — and I did actually enjoy it as well as being impressed by it. But what it doesn’t have is a lot of forward momentum. And so it took me quite a long time to read and I had to make a conscious effort to pick it up again and push through to the end.

» The two photographs are by Eli Lotar from the series ‘Lisbon from 1930-1934’. I found them on the website of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux [1, 2].

London Film Festival: Target and Tahrir 2011

The last two films I went to see at the LFF were Target, a Russian film directed by Alexander Zeldovich, and a documentary abou the recent Egyptian revolution called Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician.

They don’t have distribution for Target in the UK at least, so I don’t know how likely you are to get to see it, but if you’re the kind of person who cares about such things I should warn now: SPOILERS.

Target is science fiction, from the philosophical end of that genre rather than the lasers and bug eyed monsters end. It’s set in a near future which is described in the LFF catalogue as ‘dystopian’, although I’m not sure that’s quite right: it’s quite hard to tell exactly what kind of society they live in, because the focus is quite narrowly on a group of wealthy Muscovites. There’s some sign of serious wealth inequalities, government corruption and a trashy media culture; but by those standards, Russia is probably a dystopia already. There are also hints of some kind of odd, bureaucratic, government enforced social hierarchy, but it’s never really explained in detail.

The film centres around a group of people who go out to a site way out in the Russian steppes to have a treatment which is supposed to be rejuvenating; it becomes apparent that the treatment actually stops ageing altogether, but it also makes them slightly mad: full of energy but manic and impulsive. Most of them self-destruct, including two who die and two who have to flee the consequences of their actions.

There were things to like about the film: it often looks great, for a start. One of the characters works as customs on a massive 12-lane motorway packed with heavy goods vehicles travelling between Europe and China, which looks spectacular on screen. And the landscape out on the wilds were they get the treatment looks amazing too, especially in the final shot of the film which is stitched together out of three separate shots, the first of which is, they think, the longest single tracking shot in cinema history. And there are some nice set pieces, including scenes of a trashy celebrity cooking show, manically presented by one of the main characters.

And I rather liked the fact that the film had unlikeable characters and a shortage of happy endings. Although that fact is only noteworthy because the bulk of commercial cinema is quite so incredibly conventional and limited.

But in the end 2½ hours was too long. It almost always is, really; at least at the theatre you get an interval so you can stretch your legs and relieve your bladder. Not that it was a slow film — it’s not 150 minutes of meaningful silences, thank God — there was just a lot of material. Too many subplots. And so by the end I was losing concentration and finding my stiff buttocks increasingly distracting.

Tahrir 2011 is actually three documentaries made by different people and stitched together — hence The Good, The Bad, and the Politician. The first of them, ‘The Good’, is a fairly nuts and bolts telling of what happened in Tahrir Square this spring, which combined interviews with people who took part and lots of footage filmed at the protests. It’s a fairly conventional documentary, but the events were so amazing that it is riveting to watch. Fascinating and moving.

‘The Bad’ is made up of interviews with members of the police and security services, asking for their account of what happened. Potentially that’s a fascinating subject, but it’s less successful than it could be because they obviously found it very difficult to find anyone willing to talk to them — some of the interviews are conducted in silhouette — and the interviewees are obviously very conscious of finding themselves on the wrong side of history, so they are understandably cagey and defensive.

‘The Politician’ is a portrayal of Hosni Mubarak, framed as an attempt to find out how someone who came to power as a liberal, reforming figure ended up as a dictator. It attempts to present it in a fairly tongue-in-cheek, jokey way, broken into a list of ten items with little animated inserts between them, like a Channel 4 list program. But it doesn’t really come off, and by the end I was falling asleep.

» The photo ميدان التحرير يوم الجمعه ٢٩-٧-٢٠١١ is some rights reserved by أحمد عبد الفتاح Ahmed Abd El-fatah.

The Monk

More from the London Film Festival. Le Moine is a film of the 1796 gothic novel The Monk by Matthew Lewis. It’s a long time since I read the book, but I remembered that it was an overblown, melodramatic, sensational novel, so naturally I was keen to see a film version of it.

It lived up to the melodramatic tone of the book, anyway, although it didn’t really try to be shocking by modern standards; they could easily have incorporated a lot more graphic sex and violence if they wanted to, especially since they were messing around with the plot anyway.*

It reminded me of Black Swan, actually: a fundamentally silly paper-thin melodrama masquerading as an art film. It even has Vincent Cassel. It’s set in [early C17th?] Spain, and it looks beautiful, with lots of medieval buildings, arid Spanish landscapes, winding back alleys, and even some gorgeous frocks. Plus an amazing scene of a religious procession through the streets of the town. And the broody Cassel holds the film together as the monk. But no amount of intense acting and beautiful camerawork can disguise the basic ludicrousness of the plot.

Now personally I enjoyed Black Swan, although I know a lot of people hated it, and I enjoyed The Monk. But I think in both cases you need to go in with appropriate expectations: I think a few people went into Black Swan expecting a serious psychological thriller and were irritated to find themselves watching an expensively made horror movie. Whereas I went in expecting it to be a piece of high camp, because I had seen the trailer, and I enjoyed it for what it was. And I enjoyed The Monk on the same terms.

* something I didn’t realise while watching the film — I don’t remember the book well enough for that — but while checking the novel’s synopsis on Wikipedia. I don’t think it’s the kind of book that invites reverential treatment, though.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Grayson Perry has curated an exhibition at the British Museum that combines his own work — ceramics, textiles, ironwork — with objects from the museum collection. Which must have been *the most fun ever*. I mean seriously, I’ve spent hours browsing the BM’s collection online, looking for things to post to Tumblr, but how much more fun to actually wander around the stores, talking to the experts, poking around in drawers and cabinets, and actually handle everything, with an open-ended brief to find anything which is beautiful, or interesting, or funny.

In fact, if it had just been stuff from the collection with some commentary from Perry, that would be enough to make a very interesting exhibition, because he always writes well and interestingly about art and he clearly has an excellent eye.

But the inclusion of his own work does work well. His work always combines a seriousness with humour and absurdity, and its presence affects the way you look at the other objects. Human beings often are absurd, after all, and museums aren’t always the best places to bring that out. For that matter, museums don’t always do seriousness very well. I mean, they’re good at dry, academic seriousness, but they don’t necessarily create the environment for human seriousness.

And in turn it gives you some insight into how he sees his own art to see the things he’s chosen to show alongside his work, and the themes he arranged the exhibition around: pilgrimage, magic, sexuality, maps and so on. And since I haven’t said so explicitly yet: Perry’s work is interesting and attractive in its own right.

So, yeah, a playful, entertaining exhibition full of striking, interesting and beautiful things. Go and see it.

» The image is of a painted wooden figure of a dancing Bes holding a tambourine, standing on a lotus. It’s Egyptian, from about 1800BC. It is from the BM, but it wasn’t in the exhibition.

On The Ice, London Film Festival

The London Film Festival is going on at the moment, and I went to see the first of the four films I’ve booked, which was On The Ice, set in Barrow, an Alaskan town which is the most northerly in the US. It focuses on a pair of Inuit teenagers, and in some ways it’s your classic conflict-between-tradition-and-modernity setup. The film equivalent of a lot of the books I’ve been reading for the Read The World challenge. So they’re living in a world of drugs and hip hop, but also seal hunting and whaling.

The plot revolves around a drunken fight which gets out of hand, and the unfolding consequences. And generally I thought it was very effective. There was a moment in the middle when I thought it was in danger of losing its way, but it pulled itself together and finished strongly.

There’s a particular appeal to these kind of films, made on a microscopic budget with no real prospect of making any money. Not that I have anything against commercial cinema; on the contrary, I tend to think that when an art form ceases to have a real popular following, it dies as an art and becomes a heritage activity, like calligraphy, or hand-weaving, or jazz. Nothing wrong with those things, but their golden ages are behind us.

But still, it seems like there’s a kind of clarity of purpose when a film isn’t even trying to be commercial. It can just focus very straightforwardly on the characters and the story. And while the lack of budget presumably brings its own set of compromises, at least it helps keep the director from being distracted by all the bells and whistles.

Anyway, it’s a good movie, worth checking out if you get the chance.

Tumblr roundup, Oct 12th

I spent some time in the Smithsonian collections this week, browsing a load of photos from Benin and Nigeria, mostly from about 1970. They all turned out to have been taken by Eliot Elifoson on various journalistic assignments in Africa. This is women dancing at the royal palace in Abomey:

Other Elifoson: appliqué workers in Abomey — the dance of the women warriors — John Adetoyese Laoye I, Timi of Ede — cutting down a tree — a football match between Dahomey (i.e. Benin) and Nigeria.

Captain Scott’s biographer makes a plausible case that we should remember the Antarctic explorer not as a heroic failure, but as someone whose reckless incompetence resulted int he entirely avoidable deaths of five people.

Mike Konczal runs the numbers on the We Are The 99% Tumblr to find out what the posters are mainly talking about, and reaches some (gloomy) conclusions about what it implies.

Devil’s Flower Mantis — a truly remarkable looking crustacean, Galathea pilosa — something that looks like a cross between a gorilla and a donkey, but is actually a chalicothere — a super-cute stoat video — a camouflaged lizard.

Soviet cotton-picker fabric design — a segmented tree — collage by Juan Gatti.

The Annunciation, Gerard David, 1506 — Young Woman with Ibis, Edgar Degas — Bowery, Paul Himmel — Night: Izcuchaca aqueduct, Arequipa, Peru. Carlos Vargas and Miguel Vargas, 1922.

Belated France follow-up, French civic geekery edition

I know I’ve been back for a while now, but there was one thing I’ve been meaning to blog about. The place we were staying was only a village, really, but in the best French manner it had a town square with a handsome town hall, in front of which was an obelisk-shaped monument that looked like it might be a memorial to the dead of the Great War, or just an ornamental drinking fountain.

But when I wandered over to look at a face carved into the top of the obelisk, it turned out to be Galileo. Which seemed a bit odd. Surely the great man had no connection to this little village in Languedoc? And on the other side was a portrait of Isaac Newton. But it gets better:

Yup, as a nearby sign explained, this is a monument in honour of the metric system, erected by the mayor of St-Victor La-Coste in 1888 for the centenary of the French Revolution.

Admittedly, given that the French revolution was, among other things, a brutal, blood-drenched clash of social classes competing for the chance to wield power, it might be seen as whitewashing to memorialise it as a rationalist Enlightenment project typified by a sensible reform of the system of measurements. But the French are hardly alone in being selective about the bits of their history they choose to celebrate.

And you know what, the metric system is a pretty great idea. Hurrah for the C19th French provincial bourgeoisie and their civic pride in the ideals of the Enlightenment.

On the other three sides of the obelisk, there are a list of the mayor and local council members who erected it, and some further details about the town. But my favourite bit is this:

I love that boast: ‘The metre adopted in France in 1795; the rest of Europe in 1872’. I’m just surprised they resisted the temptation to add a line saying ‘England: still in the dark ages’.

Originally there were also a thermometer and a barometer attached to the monument, but they have sadly gone.

Incidentally, I just love the typography.

The numerals and the Q are particularly pleasing, but the whole effect is very good; it’s a pretty standard Roman-style inscription but it has a bit of character. Perhaps it’s just the extra personality that comes with being hand carved by a real craftsman; we are surrounded by too much bland computer-generated signage these days. I miss hand-painted shop signs.

Steve Jobs and William Morris

In my post about Steve Jobs I quoted William Morris’s famous dictum ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

I just wanted to say: yes, I am aware of the irony of quoting a socialist and anti-industrialist in praise of a great capitalist, a titan of industry who sold products by the hundreds of millions, each one assembled by low-paid workers in vast, sterile, soulless factories in China.

But then Morris’s vision of handmade, artisan production was quixotic even when applied to things like furniture and books; he couldn’t uninvent the industrial revolution. It certainly wouldn’t work for smartphones.

And to leave the politics to one side for a moment; aesthetically the Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the way that mass production cheapened and coarsened material culture. It was a reaction to all those second-rate industrially produced imitations of traditional craftsmanship. Well, Apple’s best products have also fought against the shoddy and second-rate; but instead of rejecting mass production, Jobs wanted to do it right.

I suppose Morris would argue that was little consolation to those workers in their factory in China.

» The wallpaper is Morris’s ‘Fruit’ pattern. I picked it because it includes some apples.

Steve Jobs RIP

On the desk in front of me are a computer and an external hard drive for backup. The computer is a 24″ aluminium iMac from 2007, and the hard drive is a Western Digital My Book Pro from about the same time.

The iMac is 4 years old, so the novelty value has long worn off, but I still get a degree of satisfaction from looking at it: it’s an obviously high quality object, well-made and well-proportioned. The design, with the whole computer and screen suspended from an angled metal foot, might be precarious if it was done badly; but in fact it is solid as a rock, and the angle of the screen adjusts easily but stays where you put it. The Apple logo on the front is the same glossy black as the screen surround and contrasts with the soft, non-glossy brushed aluminium of the body.

The hard drive is designed in broadly the same style: it’s a plain metal box formed out of rounded rectangles, with a simple glowing blue ring on the front. But the metal doesn’t have the same quality of finish as the computer: it’s greyer and slightly shinier, and it’s held together by an ugly plastic rim that immediately makes the whole thing look cheap. And it’s flimsier, and it’s been manufactured via a cheaper process; I think the iMac was machined out of a block of aluminium, whereas the hard drive looks like it was made by bending sheets of metal into shape. And the logo etched onto the side is a bit ugly. And the grille on the top is cut with an odd pattern of square holes and slots which is presumably intended to be attractive but just looks like design for the sake of design. And having managed to find, download and install the right driver to make the button on the front work, it now communicates with me via an arbitrary and completely unintuitive system of flashing lights: if the light is going round in a circle, that means one thing; flashing means something else; a steady light means something different again. If I ever need to know what they mean, I look it up in the manual, then immediately forget again.

Don’t get me wrong, the Western Digital drive is entirely good enough for my purposes and I would cheerfully recommend it to a friend. And despite my nitpicking, it’s not a hideous object, it’s a normal-looking bit of consumer electronics. I’ve seen much worse. But when Apple made the iMac, they didn’t settle for ‘good enough’, ‘not hideous’ and ‘normal looking’. They made something excellent.

I know Steve Jobs didn’t personally design my iMac. The credit for that has to go to Jony Ive and his team. But Jony Ive was already at Apple before Jobs came back, and the company wasn’t winning any design awards. And I bet there are talented designers working at Samsung and Nokia and Sony and even Microsoft. But what Jobs did was create the environment where design is able to survive. He made sure that the good work of designers was not always being undermined by the pressure to ship products quicker, to make them cheaper, to include badly-executed features so you can list them on the box. I bet there are amazing, beautiful prototypes sitting in labs at HP and Sony and Samsung; but at Steve Jobs’s Apple they were still beautiful when they reached the customer.

William Morris said ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. Under Jobs, Apple made products that were more beautiful — something that seemed to irritate a lot of technology people, who apparently regard the quest for beauty as suspicious and potentially subversive. But they also made products that were more useful, because Jobs understood that it doesn’t matter how many things a device can do; it only becomes more useful if you actually use it, and you only use it if it’s easy enough to use.

Tumblr round-up, October 5th

As ever, this is just a selection of stuff I’ve posted since last time.

Here’s an enamel portrait pendant from the late C18th Iran (via the Met), a big version of which is my current iPhone lockscreen wallpaper. I probably ought to do a post about iPhone wallpapers some time.

Also from the Met, some Egyptian stuff: a scarab, a perfume bottle in the shape of two trussed ducks, a hippopotamus figurine. And from the Caribbean, a Taino deity figure.

Some links:

— An eye-opening article about shamateurism and exploitation in US college sports. Eye-opening for this non-American, anyway.

— An interesting and slightly depressing description of what it’s like to write for the Daily Mail.

— Luke Harding’s account of what it’s like as a foreign reporter being harassed by the Russian security services.

— Some fascinating anecdotal evidence of arctic ravens cooperatively hunting for large prey.

— Amazing fossils that preserve the iridescent colours of ancient beetles.

Reminiscences, and some brilliant old photos, from Max Lea MBE, a football referee in the East End of London.

Wildlife photos: an amazing spider; an amazing moth; a butterfly; a great bird photo; another one. The eye of a waterflea, which is just one of the remarkable entries from Nikon’s annual photomicrography competition.

Something I learned about from i heart photograph: nature printing (1, 2). Which is a technique predating photography that used the imprint of the physical plant to make the printing blocks. LIke this, from The Nature-Printed British Seaweeds, published 1860:

Some art: flowers by Odilon Redon — a Blue Morpho by Martin Johnson Heade — View of the Village by Jean-Frédéric Bazille — a scene from the Mahabharata — Three Ellipses for Three Locks by Felice Varini — Surprised Ducks by Félix Bracquemond.

Miscellanea: Tourmaline with Lepidolite and Cleavelandite — exploding crayons — a time-lapse film from the front of the space station — a whale balloon — Russian tentacles — an Albanian coat — a voodoo ceremony.

My perfect Strictly Come Dancing lineup

Peter Mandelson
Winona Ryder
Christiano Ronaldo
Werner Herzog
Tina Fey
Carey Mulligan
Sachin Tendulkar
Venus Williams
Mark Zuckerberg
Sarah Palin
Prince William
Scarlett Johansson
Tom Cruise
Condoleezza Rice

Obviously.

Provençal wildlife roundup

It was really a bit late in the year for the best of the wildlife; many of the classic Mediterranean birds — bee-eaters and what have you — were probably already in Africa, and there weren’t many flowers around. Although the oleander everywhere still looked spectacular.

Not that it was a complete bust on the bird front. It was nice to see lots of black redstarts everywhere; I saw a couple of female pied flycatchers, which are also charming little birds; there were crag martins flying around at the Pont du Gard (above); and I saw dipper at a coffee break on the way back. So no absolute show-stoppers, but some nice things.

Also, to stay on-theme with my recent post, I was pleased to see plenty of hornets around. It’s very much wasp time of year, of course: my mother tells me that the wasps ‘come with the plums’. It’s not strictly true, you see wasps all summer, but there are a lot more in late summer/autumn. That’s because (I learnt recently while reading about hornets), a lone queen starts a new nest every year.* Which makes large wasp nests all the more impressive.

The queen then has to build the nest and gather food for the young on her own until there are enough workers around to do the scut work, and she can concentrate on producing eggs. And they build up the nest until in late autumn they produce a load of reproductive individuals — queens and drones — and those fertilised queens who survive the winter set out and start the cycle again in spring. So a single wasp queen may have generated thousands of individuals by the time the plums are ripe. Or hundreds, for the hornets.

Also pleasing was a praying mantis; we don’t get those up here in northern Europe. I think the species was Mantis religiosa, which I guess was the very first of the mantids to be given a Latin name, presumably by Carl Linnæus personally.

Another curiosity with a great Latin name was a tree with what looked like huge red chiles growing on it. It turns out the tree is a relative of the pistachio called terebinth (another great name, incidentally), and the ‘chile’ is a gall formed by an aphid, Baizongia pistaciae. To which I just have to say: baizongia!

And finally on to the Lepidoptera. Above is a pretty little day-flying moth, related to the burnets, called Zygaena fausta. The flower is Virgin’s-bower, Clematis flammula.

And there were loads of good butterflies, which I mainly don’t have photos of. Clouded Yellow, Cleopatra (the Brimstone’s flashier cousin), Southern White Admiral, some kind of amazing iridescent blue which was probably either Adonis Blue or Turquoise Blue, and the curious-looking Nettle-tree Butterfly or European Beak.

And there was this tiny little fellow, the Geranium Bronze, living up to his slightly inaccurate name by sitting on a pelargonium:

The Geranium Bronze is actually an import from South Africa which apparently arrived on imports of pot plants. Notice the teensy little swallowtails! Cute.

But the most spectacular butterflies were two big species. One, the Great Banded Grayling, is hard to do justice to in photographs because it sits with its wings closed, but this blog post shows one displaying itself properly.

And most remarkable was a huge great fast-flying thing which when you see it properly, looks pretty amazing above and maybe even more spectacular below. Yup, it’s one of Europe’s most exotic-looking butterflies, the Two-tailed Pasha or Foxy Emperor. Woo-hoo.

* or to be more strictly accurate: most European species of social wasp start a new nest each year; your local wasps may vary.

Only Yesterday by S.Y. Agnon

S.Y. Agnon is apparently a key figure in Israeli literature, and Only Yesterday is very much a novel about Israel. But it is my book from Ukraine for the Read The World challenge.

My reasons for assigning the book to Ukraine were basically pragmatic — there wasn’t an alternative from Ukraine which sprang out at me, and I felt like reading something more contemporary for Israel — but it’s quite fitting anyway. It’s a novel about the early waves of modern Jewish settlers to Palestine at the start of the twentieth century, and although nearly all the action takes place in the Middle East, in many ways it’s a story of eastern and central Europe. The various characters are still as much identified with their homelands — Russia, Hungary, and so on — as they are with any nascent Israeli identity. In fact the book’s central character, Isaac, moves in an almost completely European world; the Arab population of Palestine is occasionally mentioned, but I can’t remember a single named Arab character. The few non-Jewish characters seem to be European Christians.

Neither Ukraine nor Israel existed as independent nations when this novel is set; Isaac is a Jew from Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who immigrates to what is then the British Mandate in 1908. It is obviously not a coincidence that S.Y. Agnon was also a Galician Jew who made the same move at the same date. The novel is clearly only autobiographical in a limited way, though, since Isaac is an unsophisticated working man rather than a bookish one.

This is the book I have been whinging about (1, 2) because of its sheer physical weight. And it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I do think I would have finished it quicker and perhaps enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been so unnecessarily bulky. But I still enjoyed it; it’s humane and even quite funny, as literary novels go.

The human story of Isaac held my attention; I did sometimes start to lose focus with some of the more detailed stuff about Zionism and so on. There are so many people and organisations who get mentioned: writers, politicians, theologians, Zionist charities, settler organisations, religious groups. There wasn’t too much of the book taken up by characters sitting around in cafés and having conversations about Zionism, but there was a bit, and I just got the feeling that generally in the novel there was a whole level of commentary and satire that I was missing because I didn’t have enough context. Which is unfortunate.

But even if I didn’t get all the nuances, I still thought that the ideological aspect was important to the novel. One of the striking things about it is the portrayal of people trying to create a new place from scratch. It’s not a utopian project precisely, but all these settlers have made the difficult and expensive journey from Europe to Israel because of some idea or idealism, whether political or religious, and that idea may or may not survive contact with the reality . At the very least, the reality is unlikely to be exactly what they expected.

One of my reasons for reading it was that I was interested in a book set during that early history of modern Israel. But it’s not a history book, and like all(?) good novels what makes it work is an interest in people, not in ideas. And it is a very good novel, and generally a readable and engaging one.

» The first photo is of a street scene in Jaffa in 1917. The second is Jerusalem in 1918. Both from the British Museum.

Hornets, and toodle-oo for now

About three weeks ago, I was in the garden and I saw a largeish brown and yellow insect fly past which I thought looked like the right general size, shape and colours for a hornet… but I thought that couldn’t possibly be right, and it must be some kind of hornet mimic — a large hoverfly species, or (more excitingly) a hornet moth or one of the bee hawkmoths. But I almost immediately lost track of it.

And then, ten days ago I was in the local park, standing on the little walkway over the lake looking for dragonflies, and again I saw an insect-that-looked-surprisingly-hornety, and again it didn’t wait around for to get a good look at it. So you can imagine how pleased I was a hundred yards later when I came upon this sign:

I should probably explain at this point, for all you norteamericanos, that I don’t mean something like your bald-faced hornet, which looks like an attractive little beasty but still a fairly typical wasp. No, I mean the one-and-only original, authentic, European hornet. Vespa Crabro. They say: seven stings to kill a horse, three to kill a man and two to kill a child.

This catchy little bit of folk-wisdom turns out to be rubbish, as a lot of folk wisdom does; apparently it’s only a bit more painful than any other wasp sting. But it captures something of the mystique around the hornet. It is, in the end, just a wasp, but it’s a very large wasp; it’s about twice the length of other British social wasp species, a great big bulky brown and yellow thing.

The reason I was so surprised to see them in south London was that I was under the impression that they were uncommon to rare in this country, and certainly unlikely to turn up in suburbia. But increasingly as you get older you find yourself wrong about things not because you learnt them wrong in the first place, or because you misremember them, but because the facts changed when you weren’t paying attention. And apparently hornets, which in the 60s were largely confined to the New Forest, have been spreading gradually for some time and particularly rapidly in the past ten years.

Who knows, maybe it’s global warming; but even if they are a portent of doom, they’re still a great insect and a very pleasing addition to my garden list.

And, fyi, I’m going to France tomorrow. Just for a week. So I probably won’t be posting, although I suppose if the place we’re staying has wifi I might blog from my phone.

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