Tumblr round-up, July 25th

A selection of the stuff I’ve posted to Tumblr in the past week.My favourite thing from the past week is this, mainly because it looks like a Death Star:

Actually it’s a round clay tablet from Ur which dates back to 2039BC. It records areas of fields and barley yield. I also posted a picture of an even older tablet from Uruk, 3300BC-3100BC, which uses a symbol for barley that looks like, well, an ear of barley.

Some decorative woodcuts by Fernand Chalandre, from about 1919: Peasant girl carrying pail — poplars near water — a bowl of flowers — the town of Nevers. And some aquatints by the Australian artist Fred Williams: Road and Saplings, CottlesbridgeTrapezeThe Can CanBurning Log.

A great photograph of Lucian Freud from the 60s. RIP.

There are some interesting photographs of Greek shadow-puppet shows in the British Museum. My favourite is Karagiosis the Astronaut, above, but Karagiosis can also be seen ‘In the Claws of the Gestapo‘ and shooting the head off a Turk.

Some links: why people are better at paper-scissors-stone if they are blindfolded.

The problems with software patents.

The perils of trusting your data to the cloud (or in this case, to Google).

Neptune’s heart, zipperback and the gangly lancer are among 10 new names that have been given to British plant and animal species, thanks to Natural England’s “Name a Species” competition.

An interesting new approach to designing wind farms.

Decorated initials: P — Q — E — B. Satellite photographs, via NASA: AlaskaAustraliaIowaBahamas.

Some odds and sods: baby millipedes — a weird caterpillar — a Brooklyn stoop, 1976 — Japanese iris plate — Gisèle à “La Boule Blanche”, Montparnasse, 1932 — an ingenious crossword — woman with garlic.

Out of sync

It’s always odd when you find yourself out of sync with public opinion. Specifically at the moment it’s the phone-hacking thing… there is a growing strand of opinion that the reaction is overblown and hysterical, that the media is only obsessed with it because it is a story about the media, that we should really be focussing on Very Serious stories like famine in East Africa and the possibility of a European sovereign debt crisis or a US default. And that the worldly, sophisticated reaction is to tut a bit over the bad behaviour of the tabloids but say t’was ever thus.

And there is some truth to it, of course. There is a touch of the feeding frenzy in the way that the story has completely consumed all news and politics for the past week or so. After all, the latest phase of the phone-hacking investigation had been rolling on for months; Andy Coulson resigned back in January. And there were already plenty of reports of large scale criminality at the New of the World, including payments to the police as well as blagging and phone-hacking, none of which seemed to get a lot of political traction.

And then the story of them hacking Milly Dowler’s phone came out and suddenly the world went mad. Yesterday, for example, BBC radio broadcast live, continuous, almost uninterrupted audio from parliamentary select committees for about seven hours straight. And it made a rather wonderful change, to get current events live and unmediated without all the usual commentary, analysis and gossip: but it’s still extraordinary, the way it pushed everything else out of the news altogether.

So I think you can argue that there is something disproportionate about that sudden ramping up in intensity, even if much of it was fuelled by events: arrests, resignations, the closing the of the News of the World. Either the media and politicians are overreacting now, or they have been underreacting for months.

But the reason I talk about feeling out of sync with public opinion is that I never understood why everyone wasn’t already horrified. Even when it was ‘just’ celebrities and politicians; I know people don’t necessarily empathise very strongly with film stars and footballers, but the idea that it’s not a big deal if journalists to casually listen in to their private messages, not as part of some kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism, but on the off-chance that they might hear something which will titillate the public enough to sell a few newspapers… I just don’t know what to say. The idea of it makes my skin crawl. And apart from the fact that it’s creepy and sordid, even if you had no personal sympathy for the victims, what about the fact that they were accused of hacking the voicemails of cabinet ministers. I mean, politicians are even less likely to get public sympathy than footballers, but doesn’t it imply something pretty terrifying about press overreach that they would do something like that?

However. Sometimes you just realise that other people are not outraged by the same things you are. And if they don’t share that emotional response, well, you’re probably not going to argue them into it.

» Tiger Shark! is © Miusam CK and used under a CC Attribution licence.

Tumblr round-up, July 18th

I may try to find a way, later, of incorporating the stuff I’ve posted to Tumblr more closely into this site, but until then I think I’ll start with a weekly round-up. The idea is to post a summary of the previous week, but since I’ve got a backlog, I’ll start by ranging a bit more widely. So here’s a selection of stuff from the past month or two.

That’s a Persian priest, by the C16th Danish/German artist Melchior Lorck. In the 1550s he was part of a diplomatic mission to the court of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople, and he was working on a book of woodcuts from his travels when he died in 1583. I stumbled across them when browsing through the British Museum collection. There are a lot more where that came from: just search for ‘Print made by Melchior Lorck‘. Apart from the historical interest, he has a real graphic designer’s eye.

Parrots have names. Or at least they have ‘signature calls that are used to recognise individuals’, and birds imitate the signatures of others to get their attention. And researchers have found that these names are given to the chicks by their mothers before they are old enough to call for themselves.

Of all the thousands of words I’ve read about the News of the World hacking scandal, I thought this Reuters article about the culture of the newsroom at the NotW under Rebekah Brooks was one of the most striking.

Some ceramics: a delftware wine bottle from C17th London; a Chinese wine-cup; another Chinese wine-cup, this one decorated with auspicious fruits; one of my favourites, a stoneware jug from C12th Korea. And I think this is gorgeous, a tin-glazed earthenware jug from Fez, ca. 1870:

A snail tongue; an amazing mineral; the head of a honey bee; some octopus tattoos; an extraordinary fish; a poisonous newt; a spotty squid [I think]; the newly-discovered world’s smallest orchid.

An icon of St George; a portable figure of Jagannatha (‘Lord of the World’); a guardian figure from Cameroon; a stamp; a watercolour of a stormy landscape by Penry Williams; a Chinese Francis Bacon; a C15th Swiss wild man and wild woman in stained glass.

Blogging, Google+ and tangled networks

Dave Bonta’s post about Google+ had me thinking about my relationships with various social networks.

I remember being rather resentful of Facebook because I had carefully carved out a space on the web: this blog. I liked being able to change the way it looked, and to fiddle with the internal workings; and above all I liked being able to post to my own space, without someone else’s corporate logo at the top of it, and someone else’s advertising running down the side.

And having gone to that trouble, it annoyed me to have to set up a new, separate web presence in Facebook’s walled garden, where my stuff would be presented the way Facebook thought was best. At least it wasn’t as bad as MySpace, but it still had a shitty user interface, and a cavalier approach to privacy, and I had to jump through hoops to get the material I was posting to my blog mirrored inside Facebook, and it never quite worked the way I felt it should.

But, that was where my friends were. So that was where I needed to be. And since RSS feeds never quite broke through as a mainstream technology, if I did want any of them to read my blog, there had to be some way to let them know when I posted something. And over time I’ve got used to it and it doesn’t bother me much anymore… until I need to change a setting somewhere, when it drives me nuts.

So that’s Facebook: whatever its other faults, it’s the social network which actually has my friends on it. Perhaps they could use that as a slogan.

Then there’s Twitter. In some ways, Twitter is Facebook with all the crap taken out; no stupid games, no ads, just a string of status updates. Which I like. And I like the fact that the relationships are asymmetrical; you can read their updates without being their ‘friends’. It makes it sort of semi-social in quite a nice way.

But not many people I know are really active on Twitter. The people I follow are mainly a mixture of celebrities, journalists, science writers, nature bloggers and so on. So for me, it’s not actually a social network at all; it’s just an RSS reader with ADHD.

I don’t have a Google+ account yet, but from what I’ve seen it seems like a nice balance between Facebook and Twitter: it has less accumulated cruft than Facebook (so far at least), better privacy controls, and asymmetrical relationships. It’s somewhere between a streamlined Facebook and a beefed-up Twitter. Which sounds like it might be a perfect replacement for both. Except unless the whole world agrees at once to ditch Facebook and Twitter, it won’t actually replace either of them: it will just be another endless stream of stuff to distract us.

Which brings me on to Tumblr. I didn’t actually join Tumblr for its social networking; I was posting lots of links on this blog and wanted to spin those off into a separate site and leave this blog for longer pieces. And rather than create yet another WordPress installation, joining Tumblr seemed an easy way of doing it. But in fact I got sucked into the ‘social’ aspects of looking through other people’s posts, and liking and reblogging them. Not that it feels remotely like a genuinely sociable activity — there’s not much personal connection there — but scanning through other people’s posts is fun, and when they like or reblog my own posts there’s a little hit of positive reinforcement, so it’s quite addictive and a complete timesuck.

And I’ve been enjoying it, but I can’t help feeling that the result has been to weaken this blog and to fragment my online presence even further. I’ve even thought of posting a weekly Tumblr roundup here, of some of the more interesting stuff… which might work quite well but just brings me back to doing a manual version of the automated links which Tumblr was supposed to replace.

In some ways I do want to try Google+; partially because it’s a new toy but also because they seem to have learnt from the mistakes and successes of previous networks. It looks genuinely well-thought-out. But another part of me thinks it’s just madness. I’ve already got an RSS reader, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr on the go, not to mention Goodreads and Flickr: surely I have enough information streams to keep me busy.

And this continuing fragmentation brings me back to my initial objection to social networks: I already have a bit of the internet, thank you, one which I set up years ago and I administer. And I want to be able to put my own website at the centre of my online identity: not my Google profile, not my Facebook page, not my Twitter stream. I know it’s a terribly retro idea, but I like the idea of my own website being my ‘homepage’.

However. That personal preference of mine is hardly the point. I’m sure the last sad users of MySpace had a strong personal preference as well, but in the end they just turned out to be a load of Cnuts. And the number of visitors to this site has been slowly but steadily declining. That is no doubt mainly my own fault for not being interesting enough, but whatever the reason: it’s depressing.

So where does all that leave me? I don’t know, really. Dissatisfied with the status quo but without any good ideas for how to change it.

» The spiderface image is a combination of Hendrik Goltzius’s woodcut portrait of Gillis van Breen from 1588, and The spider, a lithograph by Lily Blatherwick from 1927. Both via the British Museum.

The madness of commercial fishing

via Ed Yong, an interesting piece in New York magazine: ‘Bycatch 22 — As a twisted consequence of overfishing regulations, commercial fishermen have no choice but to catch sea bass, flounder, monkfish, and tuna—and throw them dead back into the sea.’

Basically the problem is that, since you can’t precisely target a particular species, fishermen end up throwing back a lot of marketable fish which they don’t have the quotas for — so the fish are just as dead, but no one gets to sell them or eat them.

I have sympathy with the fishermen, and throwing back lots of edible fish which are already dead does seem like madness: but the commercial fishing industry hasn’t exactly proved itself a trustworthy steward of marine ecosystems over the years. They continually campaign against the kind of quotas that would actually protect fish stocks, and they campaign against no-fishing zones, and the situation gets worse and worse.

The really interesting experiment would be to ban commercial fishing around the UK altogether for perhaps ten to fifteen years, and see what the seas looked like after having a chance to recover from 150 years of industrial onslaught.

But then I’m increasingly freaked out by the extent of environmental degradation I see around us, and too much of the time we seem to be doing ‘conservation’ — conserving what’s left — which in practice often just means slowing the rate it disappears at, whereas what we really ought to be doing is restoration. Trying to create more space for wildlife, more opportunities for wild things to scrape a living.

» By-Catch at South Beach 2005 is © mmwm and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

A palate cleanser

OK, enough with the all the Murdoch-ery. Time for something a bit more wholesome.

Summer isn’t a great time for birding; you can tell when summer is well and truly here because bird bloggers start posting pictures of moths. Moths are like birdwatcher methadone.

So it seemed like a good time of year to check out a dragonfly sanctuary. 23 species have been recorded there — half the British list — although to be honest, there are a fairly limited number I would have any chance of identifying. In the event I only saw a handful of species; some small blue damselflies, plus Banded Demoiselle, Emperor Dragonfly and Brown Hawker. But Banded Demoiselle and Brown Hawker are particularly gorgeous, so it’s always nice to see them. The Brown Hawker has a bronze-brown tint to its wings which looks amazing when it catches the light: like a warm halo around the insect.

And there were lots of butterflies around, too: Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Large Heath, Small Skipper. Nothing very remarkable, but nice to see. The best butterfly was Small Tortoiseshell, a species which used to be common as muck but which is depressingly scarce in the south of England these days.

And lots of flowers. I can’t identify most of them down to the species level, and didn’t try, but for example: loosestrife, willowherb, vetch, yarrow, mallow, bedstraw, deadnettle, teasels and thistles. What fabulous names they have.

The photo, incidentally, is of cinnabar moth caterpillars and soldier beetles on ragwort flowers. One of the beetles is Rhagonycha fulva; the other looks like it has darker wingcases, in which case it’s probably Cantharis rustica. But I’m relying on a pocket guide to the insects of Britain and Western Europe, so anything I say should be taken with a pinch of salt.

In defence of tabloid journalism (sort of)

The irony of the current situation is that at a time of much hand-wringing about the future of journalism, the News of the World was one newspaper that was actually making plenty of money. Unlike, for example, the Guardian, who exposed them. Or the Times.

And I like living in a country which has a strong, vibrant newspaper culture. Even if sales have been in long term decline, and the pressure to maintain profitability has probably led to a decline in standards over the past few years, we still have nine national daily newspapers and at least four of them are reasonably serious publications.

And it’s good that they have a certain ferocity and ruthlessness to them: better that than being instinctively deferential to the rich and powerful. I always thought there was something deeply wrongheaded about the American idea that you should ‘respect the office of the President, even if you don’t respect the man’. That’s one mistake you can’t imagine the British press making.

And I don’t particularly object to the popular press being driven as much by celebrity gossip as hard news, if that’s what sells papers. I’m certainly wary of a strong legal right to privacy if the result is simply that it hands the rich and powerful another tool to deflect criticism.

And I think that it is defensible for a journalist to use illegal means to get information in the service of a greater good. If the phone hacking and blagging and email hacking had been used to expose corporate fraud, or government corruption, or some other kind of criminal or highly unethical behaviour from a public body, I would be the first to defend it. Famously, the Telegraph paid for stolen information to break the parliamentary expenses scandal.

But. The trouble is, even leaving aside the most extreme cases, the British papers have spent the past thirty years undermining their own credibility. Celebrity gossip may be defensible. Phone hacking may be defensible in some circumstances. Combining the two is fucking insane. I don’t particularly care about Sienna Miller one way or the other, but illegally listening to her phone messages on the off-chance that you might learn something about her sex life which would help sell papers… it undermines the whole idea of investigative journalism. At this point, any tabloid journalist who stands up and makes a perfectly reasonable defence of the valuable role of journalism in a democratic society immediately comes across as hypocritical and self-serving.

Twombly, Poussin, Emin and Hungarian Photographers

A bit of an exhibition round up. This is not, as you might think, four exhibitions, because at Dulwich Picture Gallery at the moment they have a combined Cy Twombly/Nicolas Poussin exhibition. Which might seem like a rather odd choice at first glance, since they lived 330 years apart and one of them painted highly controlled classical paintings and the other did scrawly abstracts.

But there is a kind of logic to it. Both of them moved to Rome at the age of about 30, both use lots of classical references in their work, and Twombly specifically referenced Poussin in several paintings, most notably by painting a large group of four paintings called the Four Seasons, a subject Poussin painted 300 years earlier.

And while I don’t think it was exactly revelatory to see them together, it’s always interesting to explore these kind of comparisons, as an intellectual parlour game if nothing else. I guess you could argue that the Poussins brought out a controlled, restrained quality in the Twombly, for example, but it’s rather an elaborate way to make such a straightforward point. I did find myself warming to Poussin more than usual, though. Clearly he’s a great painter, but generally I find his work a bit sterile. But being displayed among modern paintings did at least make the paintings seem a bit fresher.

Meanwhile the Hayward is holding a retrospective of Tracey Emin. I went into it with mixed feelings. She has attracted so much bone-headed mockery from the media over the years that I’ve always felt the need to stick up for her… despite not actually liking her work that much. But seeing it all together it does hold up pretty well. The caricature is that she just splurges her personal life uncontrollably into her work for shock value; and that’s not completely unfair. But of course the execution is what matters, just as a confessional memoir could be good or bad could be good or bad depending on who wrote it. And at her best — some of the appliqué blankets, the video work — Emin’s work is sensitive and intelligent. On the other hand, by the time I had gone all the way round the exhibition, it was also starting to feel a bit repetitive. So she’s still not exactly my favourite artist, but I enjoyed the show well enough.

And at the Royal Academy is an exhibition of C20th Hungarian photography. Why Hungarian photography? Well, because five of the most notable photographers of the C20th — Brassaï, Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi — were all Hungarian. So they provide the core of the exhibition, but other, less famous people are included as well. In some ways the exhibition is about Hungary, with striking photographs recording the various wars political upheavals that engulfed the country, but it also includes many taken in other countries: Brassaï photographs of Paris nightlife, or Kertész shots of New York.

If there is anything distinctively Hungarian about the work, I couldn’t particularly see it. It did feel very European, somehow, and it reminded me again how much my idea of Europe was shaped by the Iron Curtain growing up. Austria ended up on one side of it and was therefore a ‘real’ European country; Hungary was on the wrong side and was part of some shadowy other Europe. And 20 years after the fall of communism, that sense of them not being part of the European mainstream still lingers. I don’t know how much that’s just me showing my age; people just out of university now, who were two three when the Berlin Wall came down, hopefully see the continent rather differently.

Anyway, geopolitics aside, the exhibition is definitely worth going to because it has some very fine photographs in it.

» The Triumph of Pan is by Nicolas Poussin; Hotel International, 1993, © Tracey Emin; Greenwich Village, New York, 30 May 1962 is by André Kertész.

Read The World: new country shock!

I’m actually surprised that I’ve spent three years trying to read a book from every country in the world without any new countries being created… but it looks like that’s about to change. Kosovo seemed like the favourite to join the list, but it looks like South Sudan have beaten them to it.

They’re not quite members of the UN yet, but they’ve been recognised by Sudan and the UN, so presumably it’ll be a relatively quick process.

Given the appallingly brutal recent history of Sudan, I’m not about to begrudge them a peaceful separation, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy to find a South Sudanese author to read. Ho hum.

» The flag of South Sudan is taken from Wikipedia.

The news of the News of the World

It has been an extraordinary run of events at the News of the World over the past week. The analogy that sprang to mind when I was lying in bed last night was, of all things, the fall of the Berlin Wall. I know that must seem like a ludicrously overblown analogy, particularly to my non-British readers; but it’s that sense of a power structure which has become so entrenched, so calcified, that it comes to seem inevitable and permanent.

Rupert Murdoch’s place at the centre of the British press has made him a power in the land for decades; he has been as much a fixture of the establishment as the Prime Minister, or the Director-General of the BBC, or the archbishop of Canterbury. Except we’ve been through a lot of prime ministers and archbishops in the past 40 years, and there has only been one Rupert.

We haven’t seen the back of him yet, of course. But still: to see News International in such disarray, and the poetic justice of seeing them at the mercy of a news agenda driven by someone else… it is extraordinary, and just raises the possibility that the whole edifice might come a-tumbling down.

But it’s not just Rupert, or the Murdoch empire: it is the whole brutal culture of the British tabloid press. And the relationship between politicians, the press and the police; the incestuous stew of money and power and fear. Because, after all, we have had decades of newspapers behaving badly. It’s certainly not news that they are willing to invade people’s privacy, trample on the vulnerable, display jaw-dropping hypocrisy and just make stuff up if they think they can get away with it. And it’s not really news that they will break the law to do it: anyone who has been paying attention already knew that they hacked phones and bribed the police, and knows that’s just the start of it.

But in the past it just never seemed to matter what they did: they always basically got away with it. It was easier for everyone to let sleeping dogs lie. The surprise really is that they managed to find something to do which was so repulsive that it still had the power to shock. But for now, at least, they have captured the attention of the British public. And they are running scared.

It’s early days, of course. In a few years, we may be looking back and realising that nothing really changed. A couple of years ago, when the world economic system almost collapsed, it looked like we might finally claw back the dangerous excesses of the financial industry… but the moment came and went.

But we can hope.  Perhaps the collapse of a 168-year-old newspaper and a few editors going to prison will be enough to scare Fleet Street straight. For a while. The real fun, though, would be for the investigation to spread to other papers. Apparently the police raided the offices of the Daily Star today, which is a start; but the real prizes are the Mirror, the Sun, and above all the Daily fucking Mail. This is not just about the News of the World, it’s about a journalistic culture which has poisoned British life for decades. We need big, serious changes, and this is a very rare opportunity to make them happen.

Oxford commas and other peevery

You may have noticed there was a bit of kerfuffle around th’internet [400 comments on Metafilter, for example] about the news that Oxford University Press were dropping their support for the Oxford comma (which they aren’t).

I’m always intrigued by the passion that people bring to this stuff. My feeling about the Oxford comma goes something like this: if a publisher as respectable as the OUP uses it, it’s probably acceptable. And since other equally respectable institutions like the Cambridge University Press prefer not to use it, that must also be acceptable. And since these two competing schools of thought have managed to co-exist for at least a century without doing any apparent damage to literature, journalism or anything else… well, it clearly doesn’t matter very much.

So where does all the anger come from? Why the fierce sense that, if there are two possible variants, one of them must be right, and, even more importantly, the other one must be terribly, terribly wrong?

» Comma (Polygonia c-album) is © Eco Heathen and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

‘The Cult of Beauty’ at the V&A

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. I’m tempted to sum up the exhibition as ‘The Pre-Raphaelites and their furniture’, given my recent post about how much I dislike the Pre-Raphaelites. But actually the exhibition is rather broader than than that. The Pre-Raphs do feature heavily, but it’s also the Arts and Crafts movement, Japonisme and so on; lots of Whistler, William Morris, a bit of Aubrey Beardsley, and designers like Christopher Dresser and Edward William Godwin.

And although most of this stuff is not to my taste, the V&A does this kind of exhibition superbly well. The quality of the exhibits is extremely high (I would expect nothing less), and it is always interesting to see fine art and decorative art from the same cultural moment displayed together; so often we see paintings hanging in plain, austere galleries, with no context but each other.

All the things that annoy me about the Pre-Raphaelites annoy me much less when it comes to furniture and ceramics and wallpaper. My problem with them, essentially, is that they are superficial: flashy, decorative, overly obvious. And the way that the paintings tend to pick other ancient or exotic cultures and reduce them to a stylistic quirk actually offers a clear parallel with the ‘Japanese’ furniture of the time. But it doesn’t bother me because after all, the decorative arts are, well, decorative. The moment you make a table which tries to do anything other than provide a stable flat surface, or a pot which does anything other than hold water, you are in the world of decoration and surface. Which isn’t intended to belittle those things: I’m fascinated by design, I love beautiful objects and I think that anyone who works to make sure that the objects around us give us pleasure is doing something very important.

But it says something about my different relationship with ‘fine art’ that I actually find Pre-Raphaelite paintings almost offensive. They irritate me in a way I can’t say I’ve often been irritated by a wardrobe or a candlestick, however ugly or ill-conceived I might think it is. I might be similarly annoyed by an object which doesn’t work properly because of bad design, but not usually by simple ugliness. What exactly that says about me… I’m not sure.

The figure who sits slightly oddly at the centre of this exhibition is Whistler. He seems stylistically apart the other artists; his paintings are exercises in understatement and control, and instead of scenes from myth and legend, he mainly paints people in houses. There’s a painting in the show (no doubt called something like Symphony in White) of a girl in a white dress. Apparently, when other people offered ingenious interpretations he insisted that, on the contrary, it was just what it looked like: a girl in a white dress standing in front of a white curtain.

So it’s tempting to see him as out of place in this exhibition, to think that really he should be over in some other gallery, maybe with the Impressionists. But clearly he is part of the same movement. There’s a room he designed for someone’s house (or at least a projection of it you can walk into) and it is full of the typical aesthetic motifs: peacocks, sunflowers, bamboo, blue and white porcelain. In his hands it’s rather lovely, I think; a lot of the interiors in the exhibition look like they would be claustrophobically busy — decorative knickknacks arranged on decorative furniture in front of elaborately patterned wallpapers and richly coloured patterned fabrics. Whistler uses the same motifs and while the result is still pretty full-on, with lots of strong colours and decoration everywhere, it is relatively cohesive and elegant. Even so, it’s hard to reconcile the richly decorative style with the simplicity of his paintings.

Although, having said all that, the exhibition did provide a good example of why the whole concept of ‘good taste’ should be treated with suspicion. In about the second or third room there was a group of paintings by Albert Joseph Moore. In some ways they are fairly typically Pre-Raphaelite: blank-eyed women with indistinguishable faces lounging around wearing ‘classical’ robes in a generically exotic interior. But the palette is all restrained pastels, and composition is carefully balanced and designed around a strict grid system. And I found myself thinking that’s a bit more like it, because they were more ‘tasteful’. But that seem like a pretty dismal way of thinking. To prefer the anaemic, milquetoast, decaffeinated version because it’s more restful: well, it’s not exactly going to produce art which is ambitious and interesting.

It is a fascinating conflict: I do think our lives would be hugely improved if more of the things around us showed evidence of good taste. Buildings, household appliances, packaging, signage, clothes, websites, books, posters, furniture… we are surrounded by things which are ugly or just mediocre. Which make our lives just slightly worse rather than better. But I also think that good taste is the great enemy of creativity and individuality, a stifling force that needs to be continually pushed back against. Especially since it is very difficult to separate an even somewhat objective idea of ‘good taste’ from simple social conformity.

» The vase is designed by Walter Crane, the sideboard by E.W. Godwin, the sconce by Thomas Jekyll, the wallpaper by William Morris, and the teapot by Christopher Dresser. The two paintings are Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Portrait of Thomas Carlyle by Whistler, and Reading Aloud by Albert Joseph Moore.

Olympic tickets: achieved!

I worked out what I wanted in advance, was waiting ready at 6am when sales opened, had my order in within minutes and got to the point where it was trying to process my payment… and the website basically died under weight of traffic. But after forty minutes of trying I managed to get the order in; and I learned today that I got tickets for beach volleyball and weightlifting, but didn’t get the basketball tickets I applied for at the same time.

Not getting the basketball means I’m not going to anything in the Olympic Park itself, which is a pity; but I was keen to see the beach volleyball, because of where it’s being held: Horse Guards Parade. Which is the parade ground behind Whitehall where they do the Trooping the Colour. You can actually see it from one of the windows of 10 Downing Street.

Weightlifting wasn’t my first choice; in fact, in a very literal sense it was my 12th choice, since I applied for nine sessions the first time round. But when I’ve seen it on telly it always seems naturally dramatic, and it’s cool to see people pushing the human body to its limits. It is, and I mean this in a good way, a bit of a freakshow.

» Park Yoon Hee of South Korea attempts a lift in the women’s over 63kg weightlifting finals of the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games. Photo: SPH-SYOGOC/Chia Ti Yan. Used under a by-nc licence.

Say aaah.

I went to the doctor today about a sore throat; he took a quick look down my throat, made me go aah, asked me where it hurt, and recommended that I just wait for it to get better.

Which is both reassuring — I’m glad he didn’t take one look down my throat and gasp in horror Oh my God, what is that thing? —  and curiously disappointing. Because, you know, you want your doctor to do some doctoring.

He obviously understood this, because he offered to write me a prescription for antibiotics if I really wanted, while making it very clear that he didn’t think I should use it.

Ridiculous though it is, I almost would have been happier to be given some pills which I knew were a placebo and told to take them three times a day.

Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s

I went along to the viewing of a sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s in London.

It’s always quite interesting going to see paintings at auction houses rather than the big public art galleries where I see most of my art. For a start, there’s the fact that everything has a price on it; of course they’re only estimates, but they give you a general sense of what’s hot and what isn’t.  The trends are somewhat predictable, of course; a large, stylistically distinctive painting by a Very Famous Artist goes for a lot more than a small, sketchy painting by a someone slightly less famous. The painting above,Les pins, bord de mer by Pierre Bonnard, is estimated at £150,000 – £250,000.* Which is quite a lot of money by most standards, but seems pretty modest compared to the £17,000,000 – £24,000,000 for some Monet waterlilies.

Actually, though, it’s not surprising that a large painting by Monet of his most iconic subjects is worth a fuck of a lot of money. If you’re a Russian oligarch and you put that on your wall, people are going to walk into the room and know you’ve spent shitloads of money on it.

In some ways it’s the lesser paintings which say more about the madness of art prices. Not even great artists produce masterpieces every time they pick up a brush, and there’s a plentiful supply of little sketchy paintings and ones which don’t quite work; paintings which look like they could have been done by any random weekend painter, but which go for hundreds of thousands of pounds.

A couple of other thoughts about the auction house experience. I quite like the fact that people feel free to talk, to have normal conversations at a fairly normal volume; and indeed to use their mobile phones. The sanctified hush of public art galleries, with everyone whispering to each other, can be a bit deadening.

And however artistically radical a painting may have been when it was new, seeing it surrounded by the sheen of money in an upmarket auctioneers really does strip away any last hint of anti-establishment.

* Update: it actually went for £337,250, fwiw.

My [non-existent] Olympic tickets

Well, I finally got confirmation yesterday that out of the nine events I applied for for next year’s London Olympics, I received a total of zero tickets. Which is fucking irritating.

For those who don’t know, it was a ballot system: instead of being first come first served, there was a period of a few weeks when you could decide what to apply for, specifying particular sessions and price ranges, and anything that was oversubscribed was allocated at random.

And now, those of us who were unlucky in the ballot get first dibs on the remaining tickets, which go on sale next Friday. So I went to the website to check availability, and the first sport I checked was tennis; completely sold out. And not just the glamour events, like the men’s semi-finals; all sessions, all prices. All the swimming tickets are gone. And all the gymnastics, the diving, the track cycling, the BMX, the badminton, the equestrian events. There are a few sessions which still have tickets at the table tennis, archery, beach volleyball, rowing, fencing, but those are going to be immediately swamped when tickets go on sale again, I’m sure. There’s even a few tickets left for athletics, but then it is an 76,000 seater venue and they are for morning sessions when it’s all early rounds.

So it’s quite frustrating. I always said I just wanted to go and see something at the Olympics, to be part of the experience while it was in London… but it looks like I really might end up going to see something like greco-roman wrestling, or handball.

If an event is massively popular, a lot of people are going to miss out. Which sucks, but you can’t sell more tickets than there are seats. However: these games had better be played to packed venues, or I will be So. Pissed. Off. If it turns out that masses of tickets allocated to corporate bloody entertainment and the fucking sponsors end up going unused… grraah. I will go round to Lord Coe’s house and personally give him a stern talking too.

The Maltese Baron… and I Lucian by Francis Ebejer

The Maltese Baron… and I Lucian is my book from Malta for the Read The World challenge. It’s a novel narrated by an old man called Lucian which begins with the return after decades of his childhood friend, the Baron. It is the story of their fractious relationship, and Lucian’s relationship with a woman called Katarina, cutting back and forth between the present and their youth.

It has quite a successful unreliable narrator thing going on — Lucian portrays himself as an upright, moral, dignified man in contrast to the Baron’s promiscuity and vulgarity, whereas we can see that he’s a pompous selfish prick, and that the Baron, despite a few flaws, is practically heroic in comparison.

Otherwise, though, it doesn’t have much going for it. The opening chapter has some prose which is so convoluted that it was practically incomprehensible, and I initially couldn’t tell whether this was supposed to be a way of characterising the narrator, some kind of advanced literary technique that I just wasn’t grokking, or just very badly written. In the end I decided it was a combination: Ebejer was trying to characterise Lucian as stuffy and self-important, but just wasn’t quite good enough to pull it off. The main narrative is more readable, most of the time, but it’s never any better than ordinary.

» Good Friday 2007 – Malta is © Antonio Caselli and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Wildlife round-up

I’ve actually done quite a lot of birding this spring, making the most of the freakishly hot weather, but I haven’t really blogged about it. So here are some pictures and whatnot.

First, some audio; this is all recorded with the built-in microphone on my phone, so apologies for the quality. These are marsh frogs, Rana ridibunda, at Rainham Marshes in Essex.

A nightingale, at Brede High Woods in Sussex, with what I think must be a blackcap in the background.

Birdsong in the evening at my local train station. A mixture of chiffchaff, song thrush, blackbird, and automated train announcement.

Another nightingale, this time from the Lee Valley, with ducks and geese in the background.

Man Orchid. So called because the flowers look like little men, although it’s hard to see that on this photo (even more amusingly man-like is the Italian Orchid, which isn’t actually Orchis berlusconii, but probably should be).

Some kind of broomrape. Maybe Ivy Broomrape? There’s something deeply fascinating about these parasitic plants.

A couple of Little Grebes.

An out of focus peacock on blackthorn.

Some sea-kale, growing down on the shingle by the sea-side at Rye.

And bringing us right up to date, a beetle I found in the garden today which I don’t remember seeing before. This is the Wasp Beetle, Clytus arietis. I initially thought it was some kind of parasitic wasp hunting for food or somewhere to lay its eggs, so I guess the mimicry is working.


Wasp beetle a video by Harry R on Flickr.

The Devil That Danced on the Water by Aminatta Forna

Aminatta Forna’s father was a doctor, then activist and politician in Sierra Leone, rising to be Minister of Finance for a while before resigning in public protest at corruption in the government. But she was born in Scotland to a Scottish mother while her father was studying medicine there.

Unfortunately politics in Sierra Leone was a dangerous business. We learn at the very start of the book that, when she was ten, her father was arrested and she never saw him again, but exactly what happened to him emerges over the course of the book, so even though it is in fact a matter of historical record, I suppose the polite thing to do is to issue a MILD SPOILER ALERT before I go on to talk about it.

So, as I was saying, her father (along with fourteen other men) was arrested and charged on trumped-up charges of treason, inevitably found guilty, and hanged. They had supposedly been conspiring to blow up a government minister — an explosion at his house did take place but appears to have been staged for the purpose.

After that Forna moved to the UK permanently, but even before that she had moved frequently between Sierra Leone and the UK according to her father’s fluctuating political fortunes. That in itself would be an interesting subject for a memoir, of course, a mixed race girl with a childhood split between the UK and Africa in the 60s and 70s; but inevitably her father’s story dominates the book, and the second half is the story of her return to Sierra Leone decades later to learn as much as she can about the details of her father’s trial.

I’ve actually been putting off reading this book because it sounded a bit depressing. But once again it reinforces the basic truth: my enjoyment in books is much more dependent on the quality of the writing than the subject matter. I got pleasure from reading this book, despite everything, because it is very well written. The childhood stuff particularly; she’s good at capturing the limited understanding of a small child caught up in a complicated, adult situation.

I thought the second part, her return to Sierra Leone as an adult to investigate her father’s trial, was less interesting. Just because it’s incredibly predictable, really. It was a political show trial organised by a dictator, and it followed the familiar pattern: forced confessions, a jury stuffed with political partisans, a cowed judiciary, ‘witnesses’ motivated by self-interest or fear, the accused denied access to a lawyer. Of course I can understand why Forna felt driven to find answers, but whereas her account of her childhood is full of individual, unique details, the second part just feels weirdly like you’ve read it before. Still interesting, still worth reading, but not as engaging as the first part.

Anyway, here’s a  little extract, from a period when her father is in prison and she is living in London with her stepmother and her siblings.

I used to walk down a road, any road, and say to myself: If I can just hold my breath until I get to the end of this street Daddy will be released from prison. Or, if I was crossing a bridge and a train went underneath, I wished my father would be freed. Sometimes I’d stand there until train after train had gone by, eyes closed, amassing wishes. Three times over three years, as I cut the first slice of cake, I used my special birthday wish so I could have him back. I wished on the full moon and the new moon, and then any moon at all. At Christmas, if I found the silver sixpence Mum hid in the pudding, I wished for my father’s freedom. I wished for nothing else.

As time went on I increased my challenges: to reach the end of the road with my eyes closed without bumping into anyone or anything; to leap every other paving stone, dancing between them, promising myself that if I could make it ten yards, or twelve, or fifteen, I would somehow, miraculously earn his freedom. gradually I upped the ante: I’d work my bike up to speed then aim the front wheel at a pothole or a speed bump. If I don’t fall off, if I can stay in the saddle, then they’ll let him out of prison. Alone in the flat one afternoon I stood in the galley kitchen passing my hand as slowly as I dared across the ice-blue flame of the gas ring, once, twice, thrice, until the smell, like burnt bacon rinds, rose from the scorched ends of my fingernails.

[…]

There’s a good reason exile was once used as a punishment. It is life apart, life on hold, life in waiting. You may begin full of strength and hope, or just ignorance, but it is time, nothing more than the unending passage of time that wears down your resilience, like the drip of a tap that carves a groove in the granite below. Exile is a war of attrition on the soul, it’s a slow punishment, and it works.

The Devil That Danced on the Water is my book from Sierra Leone for the Read The World challenge. Incidentally, although this book is clearly about the politics of a particular country, the name of that country doesn’t appear on the cover once: there are four references to ‘Africa’ and none to Sierra Leone. I know that we have an unfortunate tendency to lump all of sub-Saharan Africa into one entity, but you might hope that the publisher would make some sort of effort even if no-one else does.

» BP Gas Station in West Africa, 1967 and Lansana Kamara (centre) at his store/pub in Kabala, Sierra Leone (West Africa), 1968 are both © John Atherton and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Anticipating the Champion’s League final

It’s rather refreshing to approach the Champion’s League final, or any game, with Manchester United as distinct underdogs. I started supporting United in the first place because I was pulled in by the glamour of the big European nights, when English clubs were still feeling their way back into the competition after the Heysel ban. They would go to famous stadiums like the San Siro and the Camp Nou and it all seemed incredibly glamorous and intimidating, and it seemed like a big deal to be in the quarterfinals or the semis.

Whereas for the last few years, the top English clubs have gone away to big clubs in Italy and Germany with everyone expecting them to win, and we’ve had far too many all-English ties for the big games. Manchester United v. Chelsea might well be a good game, but it’s not exactly European. I want to see players and teams that I don’t see every week on Match of the Day.

And while Barcelona are hardly an unknown quantity — I’ve probably seen more of Barça this year than quite a few teams in the Premiership — they are definitely foreign, they’re definitely glamorous, and they’re definitely scarily good. I think United can beat them, but they might need a slice of luck to do it.

Anyone But England by Mike Marqusee

Subtitle: An Outsider Looks at English Cricket. Mike Marqusee is American, although he has lived in the UK since 1971.

I guess it shouldn’t be taken for granted that an outsider will have a clearer view of cricket than someone brought up with it; it would hardly be surprising if an American who became a cricket fan was seduced by the tradition and history of it, the whole nostalgic, self-serving image cricket tends to have of itself. Paul Getty being the classic example.

But Marqusee is a left-winger who first started watching cricket during the West Indies tour of England in 1976, a series when the race and class tensions surrounding cricket were made more explicit than usual.

And so he is clearly angered, rather than attracted, by the gentility and clubbability and the bacon‑and‑egg ties. In fact, given that all that stuff is such a huge part of English cricket culture, it’s amazing that he became such a clearly devoted fan of the sport.

The result is a very pointed examination of the sins and hypocrisies of English cricket. They picked this brilliant quote for the front cover, from Test Match Special commentator Christopher Martin-Jenkins:

‘A very intelligent book, very cleverly written, with a lot that provokes thought. But I am uneasy about the way he has a go at just about everything that cricketers hold sacred’

I mean, what right-thinking person wouldn’t want to pick it up after reading that?

So it’s comparable to Derek Birley’s excellent A Social History of English Cricket in the way it provides a counterbalance to the game’s self-image; but with the focus mainly on the modern game and with rather more needle to it.

It makes uncomfortable reading at times for an English cricket fan. All those incidents which at the time seem like minor sideshows to the game itself: when you read about them all at once one after another, it starts to look pretty ugly.

I’m not sure that English cricket administrators and journalists are uniquely bad, mind you; I daresay if you subjected Australia or the West Indies or India to the same kind of inquisitorial examination, they would have their own different failings and embarrassments. But that’s a pretty weak defence.

I was reading the third edition, from 2004; one measure of my enjoyment is that when I finished I was left thinking, hmm, I wonder what Marqusee would have said about the things that have happened since: like England’s 2005 Ashes win. Or the IPL. Or Allen Stanford. So yeah, I recommend this book.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

This book apparently started as an attempt to get to the bottom of a particular news story which went around the world but turned out to be, broadly speaking, a load of cobblers: the Millennium Bug. Davies wanted to trace the process by which a story could start with such limited foundations and keep going round the world, gaining in momentum, and result in governments spending a fortune on what turned out to be a non-problem — as proved by countries like Italy, who didn’t bother to do anything about it and were just fine.

But the book ended up being a much broader condemnation of the news media’s systemic failure to do its their job properly: assuming you think its job is to tell us the truth about what is happening in the world.

Interestingly, the most common accusation — political bias in the interest of newspaper proprietors — actually comes fairly low on his list of worries. The Millennium Bug story is a good example from that point of view; it would take an exceptionally conspiratorial mindset to claim that it was whipped up because Rupert Murdoch had some kind of financial interest in it.

He suggests instead that the biggest single problem is more prosaic and more fundamental: that news organisations are understaffed. The logic of commercial efficiency has led to newspapers employing less people to produce the same amount of content: not just reducing the total number, but shedding particular categories like regional reporters and court reporters. Meanwhile the same process has happened at the local newspapers and wire services that were another source of stories to the national press. And something has to give. Forget real investigative journalism: simple fact-checking becomes a luxury.

And of course journalists don’t need to be malevolent or deceitful to produce bad journalism. They don’t need to actively choose to tell untruths; simply not caring whether something is true is bad enough.

So if the newspapers aren’t employing enough people to gather news properly, how do they find enough stuff to fill their pages? Well, the first source is wire services (the Press Association, AP, Reuters etc). At least those are real journalists, although they are overstretched themselves and only claim to offer accurate quotes rather than true fact-checking. But all the news outlets are getting their stories from the same wire services, so it doesn’t exactly produce variety. The whole system becomes one big echo-chamber.

And the other huge source of content is PR. A huge percentage of so-called ‘news’ is directly reproduced from someone’s press release. Isn’t that reassuring.

The book also gets into the world of government propaganda, including the truly staggering scale of CIA spending on media and propaganda during the Cold War (did you know the the CIA owned loads of foreign newspapers? I mean, seriously, what the fuck?) and the suggestion that the War on Terror has given them an opportunity to ramp up their activity again. It looks into the ‘Dark Arts’; i.e. illegal news-gathering activities by British newspapers, including but not limited to the phone-hacking which has been in the news lately. And there are some case studies of bad practice: the decline of the Sunday Times Insight team (key quote: ‘there are some journalists who would rather inhale vomit than work for Andrew Neil’), the failure of the Observer in the build up to the Iraq War (inexperienced editors seduced by their cosy relationship with Number 10 end up just parroting the government line), and the Daily Mail (for being the Daily Mail, basically, except that the racism of the paper is even more overt than I appreciated).

Anyway, it’s thought-provoking, interesting stuff. I’ve no idea how fair it is, but it all has the dismal ring of truth to me.

Miró at Tate Modern

Without knowing a lot about Joan Miró, I’ve always liked his work when I’ve seen it. It’s interesting the way that the work of one artist will speak to you and another won’t… so I’ve aways liked Miró, never liked Chagall.

Or at least I say the work ‘speaks to you’ but that’s not the right metaphor; I don’t think it’s because the paintings are making some sort of intellectual or emotional connection. Or at least I don’t think that’s primarily what it is; it’s more to do with a basic visual aesthetic. I tend to like controlled, precise, carefully composed paintings with strong clear colours: so I like Vermeer, but find it hard to like Rubens. It’s suppose it’s a graphic design sensibility, really.

Articulating it like that does make me feel a bit shallow; taking great painters and sorting them into sheep and goats according to the most superficial and basic elements of their visual style, well, it doesn’t exactly make me a sophisticated judge. But there you go. It’s not the only factor which decides which work I like, but it certainly makes a difference.

So I was predisposed to like this exhibition. Which I did. I thought it was fabulous. Mainly because I liked all paintings, of course; but also because I didn’t know much about Miró, so it was interesting to see the chronological development of work. There was also quite a lot of biographical context, much of it related to Spanish politics — Miró’s Catalan identity, the Spanish civil war, WWII and so on. So that was all quite interesting.

But mainly I just love the paintings. I want to own all of them and have them on my walls.

» Women, Birds, and a Star, 1949. Which is in the Met, although I got the image from RMN.

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