The Last Piece of The Missing Jigsaw

Apparently one of our political leaders made reference recently to the last piece of the missing jigsaw, and there was widespread hilarity in response to his gaffe.  The expression after all, should simply be the last piece of the jigsaw.  As a figure of speech, it usually refers to an elusive piece of information which, once apprehended and fitted into that which is already known, allows you to solve a conundrum and present a composite theory, and a complete picture, of something.  It’s the sort of thing Hercule Poirot might present before a group of well-to-do people, each harbouring a guilty secret, in the environment of a country house library, or the dining car of the Orient Express.  Voilà.  Problem solved. 

But what could the last piece of the missing jigsaw possibly refer to?  If you have that one piece and, say, 999 others are missing, how could you possibly reconstruct the entire solution to the puzzle?  Quite impossible, I would have said.  But then I’m currently reading Written in Bone by Sue Black (Doubleday 2020).  Professor Dame Sue Black is a forensic anthropologist who, amongst other feats, can sometimes reconstruct entire identities on perusing a piece of bone no bigger than a fingernail.  Most of the time, she is afforded more generous material to work upon, and her reconstruction, for the benefit of the police, of a complete skeleton, or several skeletons, from a plastic bag of bones dumped in a loch, does indeed resemble the completion of a jigsaw puzzle rendered more difficult by the ravages of time and nature.  I guess a forensic anthropologist needs the fastidious attitude of mind, the sedulous attention to detail of the jigsaw enthusiast.  I know some jigsaw buffs who like to turn the pieces over and solve the puzzle without reference to the pictorial aid.  That seems incomprehensible to me, but then I’ve never done a jigsaw in my life.  I’m a crossword geek.  As J. Alfred Prufrock has measured out his life in coffee spoons, so have I lived mine out in the half-lit world of amateur cryptography.

Written in Bone is a gruesome, if fascinating read.  But putting the work of Sue Black to one side, it strikes me that that last piece of the missing jigsaw might refer to an illusion of enlightenment, an hallucinatory “Ah-ha!” moment when you think you are placing the final piece into a constructed pattern that doesn’t actually exist, other than in your own febrile, fetid imagination.  The great scientists know that when they cry “Eureka!” they might have constructed a model that, while it is complete, self-consistent, and beautiful, may yet bear little relation to reality. 

I have known patients who have had a Eureka moment while reading a medical textbook, or perusing the Internet.  They’ve brought in the literature with them.  “That’s me, doc, to a T.”  It’s particularly true in the field of mental health.  DSM-5-TR is now so vast that it would be strange if you couldn’t find yourself, or somebody like yourself, therein.  People have described to me a profound sense of relief when they have discovered that, during all these wilderness years, they had never known that they were on the spectrum.  It’s like a confession followed by absolution.  They are off the hook.  It’s the last piece of the jigsaw.  Now it all makes sense. 

It is said that when you are a medical student you develop a serious illness at least once a week, when you encounter it in the literature.  Possibly because medical students have constantly to stuff their brains with facts, the diagnoses are often neurological; last week, Parkinson’s, this week, Alzheimer’s, next week, a brain tumour.  I was never afflicted in this way.  Quite the contrary.  I was ever in a state of denial.  I am like the professor of cardiology at the heart conference, who succumbs to a myocardial infarction, a bottle of antacid parked by his bedside.   

We might use the jigsaw, present or absent, as a metaphor for what used to be referred to as “the human predicament”.  The pursuit of happiness, or fame, or wealth, or gratification, or goodness, or serenity, or love, or a foe, or whatever pursuit it is that we deem to be important, can seem like the perusal of entrails to be ruminated over, a rune to be deciphered, an acrostic to be solved.  If only we could find the key.  The trick of life.  We search for it in religious texts, belles-lettres, and self-help books, seven billion souls in search of a diagnosis.  But nothing appears to fit the uniqueness of our own particular conundrum which, in any case, seems to be changing all the time.  Yet still we search.  Tomorrow I will wake with buoyancy and hope, full of beans.  I will discover the secret formula to my personal fulfilment, and I will say to everybody that it seemed such a small thing, and yet it completely turned my life upside down.  Now it all makes sense.

The last piece of the missing jigsaw.                              

Claire de Lune

Driving home from Glasgow yesterday evening I chanced to hear on the seven o’clock news that a total lunar eclipse was scheduled for 0436.  Planet earth would then intrude twixt sun and moon.  I imagine if such an event had occurred fifty odd years ago, when twelve earthlings actually walked on the lunar surface, the sight from their point of view – of a solar eclipse – would have been startling.  In a lunar eclipse from our standpoint here on planet earth, the moon assumes a bloody hue, apparently the reflection of a grand integral of all the earthly sunrises and sunsets, and in addition, if the moon is closer to us than usual, it will appear unusually large.  A Red Blood Supermoon.  Mindful of observing this phenomenon, on hitting the sack to grab some shut-eye, I set my internal alarm.  Thou shalt wake at 0430.

So it was.  Anxious to avoid any unfortunate publicity (“Neighbours telephoned police when an elderly gentleman in a state of undress was observed, keening to the moon…”) I threw on a few clothes and went out.  It was almost broad daylight, the dawn chorus already full-throated.  Alas the cloud cover was what aviators used to refer to as ten tenths, more recently eight, or even, in the spirit of exaggeration, nine okta.  Nothing to see here.  No bloody moon.  Actually, from a previous sighting, I would say it’s not red, more a salmon pink.  I went back to bed.

I’m fond of the moon.  I sat up all night in 1969 watching the one small step.  Magnificent desolation.  But I wouldn’t much like to visit.  The moon looks friendlier from afar.  I have a sense of gratitude that we don’t have to endure pitch blackness every night.  Then there are the tides.  It wouldn’t be the same, on an Ayrshire beach, alone, at night, without the sook of the bai.  The moon gives us the tides just as the 23 degree declination of the earth gives us the seasons.  Wouldn’t life be dull without time and tides?  The metaphysical poets knew that the moon caused the tides, even before Isaac Newton told them how and why.  In A Valediction: of Weeping, John Donne addressed his mistress:

O more than Moone,

Draw not up seas to drowne me in thy sphere…

I’m not sure if Newton knew that the moon is actually moving away from us, albeit at an almost imperceptible rate.  I expect he did.  Didn’t he tell Halley when to expect the next appearance of his comet?  The moon’s subtle estrangement by stealth comes about because tidal friction is gradually slowing down the earth’s rotation about its axis; consequently the moon is slowly drifting away to conserve the angular momentum of the earth-moon system.  It is the reverse process of that of the pirouetting ice skater, who contracts her profile in order to spin faster.  Had he known this, Donne might well have worked up another of his “conceits”.  How might it go?

What subtle harm doth we inflict ’pon thee

That thou shouldst ever from us seek to flee?

If poets are now less inclined to force disparate ideas, as in a particle accelerator, to collide with one another, maybe it’s because C. P. Snow was right when he said our society is blighted by the “two cultures” of science and art, like the earth and the moon, moving ever apart.  Ever since Beethoven composed his Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Opus 27, number 2, moonlight has become romanticised.  Donald Francis Tovey who wrote extensive commentaries on all the Beethoven sonatas was dismissive of Op. 27 No. 2’s name.

People whose musical taste is confined to favourite single movements may be contented to listen only to the first movement of this profoundly tragic work, and thus the popular title “Moonlight” sonata (or, as the Germans call it, “Moonshine”) may seem tolerable… But moonlight will not suffice to illuminate the whole of this sonata, nor even to constitute its dominating impression.  And if you do not understand the other movements you will have but a shallow idea of the first.

Personally, I can’t be bothered with this style of utterance, in which some arbiter of taste tells you that your response to a work of art is shallow and vulgar.  How can Sir Donald know the intensity of somebody else’s experience? It’s sheer snobbery, pure and simple.  I heard the RSNO play Sibelius 5 in Glasgow on Saturday night.  The opening to the last movement always reminds me of the protracted take-off run of a 747, or an Airbus A380.  All that hasty scurrying as the enormous machine accelerates to flying speed, giving way at last to a serene calm as we get airborne and the undercarriage retracts.  I don’t know what Tovey would have made of that.  Sibelius himself thought of a flight of swans, so I can’t be too wide of the mark. 

The attendance at the concert on Saturday was sparse.  Where was everybody?  Watching Eurovision?  Slava Ukraini.  I have a notion that the Kremlin will have great difficulty in concealing the result of Eurovision from the Russian people.  They will just have to put on an air of indifference and declare that Eurovision is decadent western Eurotrash.  They could assume the tone of Donald Francis Tovey.  Mr Putin is very displeased with Sweden and Finland, poised to join NATO, and Mr Lavrov has been passing dark remarks about universal “consequences”.  Meanwhile the heavenly bodies continue in their more or less unaltered courses, indifferent and unabashed.  Yet perhaps the moon will at length grow weary of our endless bickering and strife, and find some way of escaping our gravitational pull, to leave us to stumble alone on the beach of a pitch black night, beside an ominously silent, sullen ocean.  

Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra

Something went twang in my lower back on Friday morning – not for the first time – and I found myself lurching about, my posture the contour of a half-clasped knife.  I blame myself.  Poor posture – too much lolloping around.  Our practice physio used to tell me off when I slouched in front of the computer.    It was bad timing on Friday as I had a full day, entertaining guests to morning coffee, a bucolic stroll, lunch, and a trip to Glasgow in the evening for a concert.  I got through it.

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra played a programme in Glasgow City Halls entitled, “A very British Adventure”.  Grace Williams, Anna Clyne (the composer present), Dowland, Britten, and Vaughan Williams.  The viola player Timothy Ridout played Britten’s Lachrymae, and Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi.  Like all great string players, Ridout is completely relaxed.  The viola seems to suspend itself in front of the player, of its own accord, in situ.  I hold on to mine for dear life.  That’s probably why I’ve got a sore back.

The playing and singing on Friday was of the highest quality.  Yet the hall was two thirds empty.  Are we a bunch of philistines?  I’ve just finished reading the pianist András Schiff’s memoir Music Comes out of Silence (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2020).  It is very high flown.  Schiff reveres Bach and Beethoven.  I don’t think he thinks much of Lady Gaga.  And he doesn’t appear to suffer philistines gladly.  A bit pompous, a bit snooty perhaps? 

Being as stiff as a board come Sunday evening, I had little energy left but to sit and stare at the telly with a glaikit expression on my face.  I watched the BAFTAs.  The Academy bestowed its highest honour, the Fellowship, on Sir Billy Connolly.  I was reminded of a time back in the 80s when I worked for six months in Brisbane, Queensland.  I think it may have been on Hogmanay 1985 that, wandering amid the various festivities on the banks of the Brisbane River, I chanced upon the Scottish singer and entertainer Andy Stewart, on tour, no doubt, in the twilight of his career.  Of course I instantly recognised the stocky, kilted figure, the rather old-fashioned style of the White Heather Club, the songs, many of them, like Scottish Soldier, of a militaristic flavour so suited to Stewart’s charisma, that could be stirring, almost rabblerousing.  I recall he made a reference to the Falklands “conflict” – still very raw.  He belonged to a cadre of entertainers who would be wheeled out back home in Scotland to celebrate “the bells”, people like the lugubrious John Grieve, and the cadaverous Duncan Macrae and “the wee cock sparra”.  The man hit the boey, though he wusnae his farrah.  We would watch them at the close of the year and say, “That’s really terrible.”  Now looking back, we think of it as a golden age.   

Andy Stewart didn’t make a connection with Brisbane.  I guess the whole package was completely alien to a casual audience of predominantly youthful Australians.  If at that time they had responded to anything Scottish at all, it might have been to Annie Lennox of The EurhythmicsSisters are doing it for themselves was current.  I recall feeling embarrassed for Andy.  The end of an era.

I had a similar fin-de-siècle experience last night watching the BAFTAs.  Billy Connolly wasn’t present at London’s Royal Festival Hall to collect his gong, but he appeared in a pre-recorded message from his home in Florida.  He has Parkinson’s disease (he previously said that he very much wished Parkinson had kept it to himself) and he has been retired from the stage for two years.  He was very pleased and happy to accept the award.  He told a little anecdote that wasn’t meant to be particularly funny, but rather to illustrate how the world has changed over half a century.  In Shetland he had lost an earring and had gone into a jeweller’s shop to find a replacement.  The jeweller couldn’t understand that he was seeking an item for himself, and not for his lady.      

I think Sir Billy did well to stay in Florida, to speak from a position of retirement, and to speak naturally, without any sense of performance.  Clearly the British Academy of Film and Television has moved on.  Their accolade to the Scottish comedian was polite, formal, and brief.  What it lacked was a sense of love.  For that, you needed to have listened earlier in the day to Sir Michael Parkinson and Dame Judi Dench, on Paddy O’Connell’s radio show Broadcasting House.  But of course Michael and Judi are octogenarians.  Already, Connolly belongs to a different world.  I saw him in his pomp, performing in Auckland, a couple of years after I saw Andy Stewart in Brisbane.  He occupied the stage solo for over three hours and the time flew; it felt to me like about twenty hilarious minutes.   

As for the BAFTAs themselves, they were almost completely incomprehensible to me.  That is not surprising, as I watch hardly any TV, so I didn’t know any of the actors, and I didn’t know any of the shows.  And I didn’t care.  Normally I’m rather attracted to a bit of glitz and glamour.  But this left me completely cold.  I suppose I, too, belong to a different world.  The future is a foreign country!             

Log Off!

I have some sympathy for the Conservative Member of Parliament for Tiverton and Honiton, lately retired, whose hanging offence has been that, in the chamber, he was observed viewing porn on his mobile, not once, but twice.  Once he was identified, in relatively short order, he had the wrath of the female of the species descend upon him, the whip was withdrawn, and the opposition parties inevitably ganged up on the Tories to demand an explanation as to why it had taken so long.  Mr Parish reported himself to the Commons Select Committee on Standards, and was minded to tough it out, but, no doubt oppressed by the weight of the opprobrium, he chucked his hand in and resigned.  The din of censure did not abate.  There was even consideration of the idea that Mr Parish had broken the law, and ought to be reported to the police.  I don’t like to see a man being kicked when he is down. 

But what exactly is pornography?  Here is a challenge: construct a dictionary definition.  This is the Oxford Dictionary of English:

Pornography noun, printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.

But is that right?  Compare it with the definition from the same dictionary of “erotica”:

Erotica – erotic literature or art.

Erotic – relating to or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement.

All this would imply that pornography is merely a somewhat more explicit form and rendition of erotica.  Erotica is classy; pornography is coarse.  Erotica can be high art.  We established this in 1960 in the case of the Crown versus Penguin Books in 1960, vis-a-vis Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Before 1960, Lady C was mere pornography.  There was a notion amongst some elements of the small c conservative establishment in 1960 that giving Lady C the green light would open the floodgates to every manner of thoroughly filthy fellow wielding his lewd pen, and indeed from such a perspective this prediction turned out to be quite accurate.  I remember that great puritanical reactionary Malcolm Muggeridge prophesied that in next to no time sexual coitus would be portrayed on screen and in film.  At the time, even the most liberal minded poured cold water on such an idea.  Then in 1970 the film Ryan’s Daughter portrayed the act of love in a most tasteful fashion, and rather obliquely, utilising the so-called Pathetic Fallacy to convey sexual climax as a surge of wind through the forest canopy.  Remarkably, at the time this caused something of a sensation. 

But it won’t do merely to say that erotica is high, and pornography is low.  Pornography is a pejorative term, and not merely because it denotes bad erotica.  Here is Chambers:                        

Porno(o) in composition, obscene. – n. and adj, porn, porno, coll. shortenings of pornography and pornographic… pornography (Gr. graphein to write) description of prostitutes and prostitution: obscene writing, painting, and the like (Gr. porne, a whore).    

It is this invocation of the world’s oldest profession that gives a sense of why the female members in the chamber were so outraged.  Prostitutes are, by and large, victims of abuse.  Pornography is meretricious. 

Yet poor old Mr Parish stumbled on to that website the way he might have mistaken a bordello for a citizens’ advice bureau.  He was looking for something about tractors!  That conjured in my mind images of provocative femmes fatales draped across various marques of agricultural machinery.  Flagrant delectation aboard the combine harvester. 

But then, fatal error: he revisited the site.    

Now there are going to be all sorts of enquiries relating to sleaze, misogyny, predatory behaviour and the like.  All well and good, but it seems to me that, with regard to Mr Parish’s fall from grace, it would be quite simple to prevent a recurrence.  Just get all the sitting members to switch off their phones while in the chamber.  That is de rigueur in all sorts of venues – the school classroom, the concert hall, the opera house, the theatre, the cinema, any place in which a group of people convene in a communal act of interactive concentration.  But if you watch PMQs any Wednesday lunchtime you will see dozens of MPs preoccupied with their devices.  What, aside from damsels aboard threshing machines, are they all looking at?  And if the trolls’ tweets are so malign and so toxic, why on earth would they bother reading them?  For pity’s sake, log off.  Twitter is puerile.  If Mr Musk wants to spend $45,000,000,000 on a “platform” that has no existence in reality, good luck to him.                

I thought Mr Parish was dignified in defeat, graceful in cancellation.  I admit that doesn’t count for much.  After all, even Mr Lavrov sounds very plausible, especially when he speaks in remarkably fluent English.  Still I think the body politic should cut Mr Parish some slack.  He put up his hand and said, “Mea culpa.”  Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

There will a by-election in Tiverton and Honiton.  I wonder if Mr Parish might be minded to stand as an independent candidate.  He had a majority of 25,000.  He must be doing something right.                 

A Foreign Country?

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

It is the opening line of The Go-Between, a novel by L. P. Hartley, published in 1953.  As the Americans are wont to say, “We do things differently than here.”  Why does Leslie Hartley’s arresting opening line remind me of that of another book, E. C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case, published in 1913?

Between what matters and what seems to matter, how should the world we know judge wisely?

“The past is a foreign country” has slipped into common usage.  We reminisce about how things were in our childhood and youth, as opposed to how things are now, and we are wont to say, “It’s a different world”.  If you woke up one morning and found you had been transported by a time machine back into the past, you would be a cultural anomaly.  And the further back you were transported, the more anomalous you would become.  Indeed, if you had the misfortune to wake up in the medieval world, you would be so anomalous in the eyes of the inhabitants of that world that you might be burned at the stake before lunch. 

Before lunch!

That notion fits with the thesis of the psychologist Steven Pinker, who argues in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that the world is becoming progressively less violent.  Hold that thought. 

Cultural change seems to be accelerating, so that even the world that existed barely more than a single generation ago seems unrecognisable.  How would today’s young people cope in a world without mobile phones, the internet, and social media?  Could they prime the coin box in a red telephone kiosk, dial a number, and press Button A?  Could they enter the British Linen Bank between the hours of 11am and 3 pm to lodge a cheque?  Could they read a book, written on paper, between hard covers? 

Yet I would not identify the switch from analogue to digital as the biggest cultural change of my lifetime.  I’m not at all sure that this trend to live a life of virtual reality will last.  I think – to be honest I rather hope – that the whole thing might evaporate.  In the same way that young people have taken the lead in issues relating to climate change, environmental protection, and preservation of species diversity, that same generation might suddenly decide that the whole digital thing is a bubble, and log off, permanently, to embrace a real life of flesh and blood, in a tangible elemental environment of earth, air, fire, and water.  They might quote, as their mantra, Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, as it appears on the frontispiece of Gustav Holst’s masterpiece, Egdon Heath:

A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!

So, if technology per se has not been the biggest cultural change in the last fifty years, what else would you choose?

The widespread availability of efficacious methods of contraception – that has to be a contender.  Sexual mores – at least outside those of the upper classes – have changed.  The pill became available in 1960.  There is that famous stanza from Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty three

(Which was rather late for me)

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.

But, like digital technology, that too might be a blip.  See Margaret Atwood’s blistering short piece A Slave State? (2018) in her collection Burning Questions.

No, I would opt for two interrelated changes that have occurred in this country during my lifetime, and which indicate real cultural change: the abolition of capital punishment, shortly followed by the abolition of corporal punishment. 

They are related.  Their abolition is a signal of the realisation that violence solves nothing.  The wielding of the tawse in Scottish schools was a normalisation of brutality, necessary if you were going to train young men to skewer straw effigies, and then disembowel living people, with bayonets.  One of the things Winston pointed out during his wilderness years in the 1930s, was that the frequency and the severity of corporal punishment was increasing in German schools.  The abolition of the tawse was the abolition of the dictum that might is right.  That has been the greatest cultural change of my lifetime.

At least I thought so, until February 24th.

But then I discovered that L. P. Hartley was wrong all along.  The past turns out not to be a foreign country at all.  It turns out to be all too familiar.  We can go back eighty, ninety years, and feel right at home. The 2020s are turning out to be remarkably like the 1930s.  As for Steven Pinker’s assertion that violence is on the decrease, well, the jury remains out on that.  Another cliché closely linked to the past qua foreign country is one that started doing the rounds with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989: “History is at an end”.  We had thought that chilling names like Lidice, Babi Yar, Auschwitz, and Srebrenica, had all receded into the past, and that indeed we would need a concerted educational effort to keep these names alive, lest we forget.  But now we have Bucha, we have Mariupol.  They have brought the past back to life, vividly.

I’ve been listening again to Winston’s wartime speeches.  They are completely contemporary.  He used to deliver them in the House of Commons and then cross the road and record them for the benefit of the BBC and the general public.  I have a notion that en route to the studio to record his most famous peroration, “We will fight on the beaches…” he may have stopped off for a cordial or two.  “That ish th’resolve of‘s Majsty’s Guv’men, every man of ‘em…”  We had thought of it as a jolly inspiring “ra ra” call to arms, but in reality it spells out, graphically, how to go on to the end, “subjugated and starving” – beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, hills…  you alter tactics as you move from disciplined defence to scattered insurgency.  But Winston did his utmost to prevent an “unnecessary” war.  He wrote a piece on April 3rd, 1936, contained in his collection Step by Step, entitled Stop It Now!  With a few alterations of nomenclature, it might have been written last week:

Practically the whole of the German nation has been taught to regard the incorporation in the Reich of the Germanic population of neighbouring states as a natural, rightful and inevitable aim of German policy…  The financial and economic pressures in Germany are rising to such a pitch that Herr Hitler’s government will in a comparatively short time have only to choose between an internal and an external explosion…  It is an issue between Germany and the League of Nations… It therefore concerns all nations, including the German people themselves: but it concerns them in different degrees.  The countries which lie upon or near the borders of Germany are in the front line.  They see the wonderful roads along which four columns of troops or motor vehicles can move abreast, brought to their own frontier terminals.  They dwell under the flickering shadow of the most fearful sword ever wrought by human agency, now uplifted in flashing menace, now held anew to the grindstone.  Those that are more remote from the German arsenals and training centres have naturally a greater sense of detachment.  But none, even though protected by the oceans can, as experience of the last war proved, afford to view with indifference the processes which are already in motion. 

The desire of all the peoples, not perhaps excluding a substantial portion of the German people themselves, is to avoid another horrible war in which their lives and homes will be destroyed or ruined and such civilisation as we have been able to achieve reduced to primordial pulp and squalor…

Stop it!  Stop it!!  Stop it now!!!  NOW is the appointed time.                       

Situations Vacant (sic)

Whilst scanning Herald Appointments in this morning’s paper…

But soft.  Why am I scanning Herald Appointments?  Am I seeking a situation?  These notices used to come under the heading Situations Vacant, and I always used to wonder, why are they not “Vacant Situations”?  Are they placing the adjective after the noun, after the fashion of the French, to afford these job ads a certain exotic frisson?  I was a Student Medical, then an Intern Hospital, then a Physician Emergency, before I was a Practitioner General.  Maybe the reason why I pause to glance at the situations, is that I entertain the Mittyesque notion that, like some obscure, rusticated, long-forgotten Roman Consul, I am to be summoned from the plough to save the Empire.  I will be offered the situation of Bombatoory Big.

Anyway, whilst scanning Herald Appointments in this morning’s paper, I came across the following:

Lead Specialist

My first thought was we were talking about Pb, the 82nd element on the Periodic Table.  I may have been attuned to Pb because I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s wonderfully witty series of essays and short pieces, Burning Questions (Penguin Random House, 2022) one of which is Frozen in Time.  This relates to the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845, an attempt to discover the North-West Passage.  The crew of the exploring vessel apparently all succumbed to lead poisoning, due to the high lead content of the tinned food they were supposed to survive on. 

However, having read the rest of the job spec, I am reasonably sure (though not entirely certain) that the core business of this concern is not remotely plumbeous, that this situation has nothing to do with Pb, unless it is the Pb core of a pencil.  But see what you think.  I give the ad in full:

Lead Specialist

This role is specifically related to supporting the professional learning of classroom practitioners, wider educators, and support staff whilst contributing to the work of Lead Specialists within the team.

Education Scotland is looking for someone with a track record of innovation, development, and delivery relating to professional learning, leadership, and programme development and secure knowledge of effective models and approaches to professional learning development and facilitation. 

Clearly this utterance has been composed by a robot.  Let’s give it the critical run-down.  What does it mean?  What is the job that is on offer, and what will be the successful applicant’s contribution to the organisation as a whole, whatever its function?

It seems to have something to do with education.  The key words here are “learning”, “classroom”, and “educators”.  Aside from the fact that Education Scotland has placed the ad, these three words provide the only clues as to what this job may entail.  The nature of the education, whether it be primary, secondary, or tertiary, adult, extramural, vocational, and so on, is not stipulated.  The job does not appear to be for a teacher as such, but seems to be a supportive role, supporting not only educators, but also “support staff”.  You will be in the second tier of support, offering support to the support, clearly not on the front line, at the chalk face.  You as a Lead Specialist will also be contributing to the work of other Lead Specialists.  There is a team of Lead Specialists. 

What qualifications do you need in order to join this team?  You need “a track record of innovation, development, and delivery”.  In other words you need to have thought of an idea, worked it up, and made it real.  For example, if you were a baker, you might say, “I think I’ll bake a cake today!”  That’s the idea.  You assemble the ingredients and put them in the oven.  That’s the work-up.  You take it out of the oven and serve it up.  That’s the delivery.  Is it any good?  The proof of the pudding is in the eating. 

Any requirement for previous job experience in any walk of life can be spelled out in terms of “innovation, development, and delivery”.  That is a template for all of the one-one-one social interactions that take place millions of times every day and which ensure our communities survive and prosper. All of these encounters, at the supermarket checkout, the doctor’s surgery, the care home, the citizens’ advice bureau, the lawyer’s office, the police station, involve the innovation of an exchange of courtesies, the development of a communication, and the delivery of an end result.  What is specific about the innovation, development, and delivery sought after by Education Scotland?

This is where this particular advertisement becomes most obscure.  Read its second paragraph again.  This is the paragraph in which it becomes evident that we are being addressed by a robot.  The innovation, development, and delivery apparently relate to six entities: (1) professional learning (2) leadership (3) programme development (4) secure knowledge of effective models (5) approaches to professional learning development and (6) facilitation. 

This extraordinarily clumsy sentence could be rendered marginally more intelligible by the insertion of a comma after the word “development” in the second of its three manifestations, and by the addition of the word “of” after “models” in order to indicate that the models relate to both “professional learning development” and “facilitation”.  But these syntactical improvements would not conceal the fact that this sentence is, basically, meaningless.  This is why it has all the hallmarks of a sentence generated by a robot.  It is as if some inert and soulless contraption has blown a fuse, short-circuited, and started to spew forth clusters of gibberish of the sort sometimes articulated by obtunded, semicomatose individuals, and known as “word salads”.  Note again the abstraction, the lack of specificity: leadership… programme development… effective models… facilitation…  It could be an ad for the manager of an Amazon warehouse, or a call centre, or a plastics recycling centre, or for the next director of the CIA, or NASA.   

But who on earth would read an ad like this, smack it with the back of his hand, and declare, “That’s the job for me!  That’s got my name written all over it!”  How sad would such an individual have to be? 

Well, such an ad might appeal to somebody who was not disconcerted by a disconnect between a thought experiment, and reality.  Such a person might innovate a model, with scant regard as to whether it reflected the real world.  I once sat on a hospital committee, chaired by a manager, entasked with the brief to produce a description of the hospital’s disaster preparedness.  As the Clinical Head of the hospital’s Emergency Department, I soon became aware that the document being produced was not a Disaster Plan which could immediately be implemented, but an entirely theoretical treatise, little more than a wish list.  I protested, in vain.  I once heard a manager in the same institution say, without any trace of irony, “If it works, break it.”  In other words, playing around with ideas in a recreational way is an end in itself.  You construct a model, and don’t worry if it works, or doesn’t work, in reality.  After you’ve done that you can move to the next stage of abstraction.  You construct a word salad, and don’t worry if it is entirely devoid of meaning.  Once you have succeeded in joining up sentences that say nothing at all, your transfiguration is complete.  You have become a robot.             

Death & Taxes

If April is indeed the cruellest month, it is surely because we are faced with the burden of filling in a tax return for the financial year just ended, a grim task if ever there was one.  I have some sympathy for the Chancellor et ux, who seem to have fallen foul of the complexities of the system.  I myself have dual citizenship and “non-dom” status, though, as it happens I am non-dom not in the UK – where I am dom – but in New Zealand where, at the moment, I am only occasionally dom.  I have some savings accounts in NZ, and some years back I wrote to the Inland Revenue in NZ to enquire whether I was obliged to pay them any tax, other than a small sum designated “resident withholding tax”.  My letter must have been lost in the bureaucratic morass and I never received a reply.  So I did some independent research and satisfied myself that I was only obliged to pay tax on my worldwide earnings in the place where I lived.  “Worldwide earnings” sounds rather grandiose but be assured I am not operating in Mrs Sunak’s ballpark.

I can see the rationale behind my paying nearly all my tax in the UK where, after all, I benefit from all the public services of the community.  I can also see an argument for my paying tax on my NZ earnings, in NZ.  After all, that wealth is being generated in NZ.  Should not NZ therefore benefit?  For ought I know, Akshata Murthy might put forward a similar argument for India. 

Either way, the attack on Mr Sunak seems to me to be something of a confection.  What business is it of his, or anybody else, if his wife chooses to give succour to the subcontinent?  And what business is it of ours if he had chosen to hold on to his US green card?  That the Labour opposition should choose to criticise the Chancellor for his alleged disloyalty to the UK, his lack of judgment and “transparency”, is of course predictable.  But the opposition has proven itself extraordinarily inept at punishing the government.  All these open goal mouths – partygate, PPE contracts for cronies, Grenfell Tower, massive tailbacks of lorries full of rotting meat at Dover, a Ukrainian refugee “policy” mired in bureaucratic obfuscation, and now the scandal at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust, and they can’t seem to put the ball in the back of the net.    

Talking of green cards, a friend mentioned to me the other day that Gérard Depardieu, star, opposite Andie MacDowell, of Peter Weir’s film Green Card, not only holds the equivalent documentation in Russia, but has been a Russian citizen since 2013.  Allegedly he took Russian citizenship – an honour conferred upon him, at a special dinner, by Mr Putin himself – in order to avoid punitive French taxes. 

Green Card is a favourite film of mine.  In it, Depardieu’s character Georges Fauré and MacDowell’s character Brontë Parrish enter a marriage of convenience, he to attain a green card, and she to satisfy the requirements for ownership of her Manhattan apartment.  They go through the necessary procedure and go their separate ways.  Of course they meet again by chance.  She is dining with friends in a classy New York restaurant, and he happens to be the waiter.  One of the party asks for the vegetarian option, and Depardieu says, “Why?”

Inevitably, the Immigration and Naturalization Services catch up with them and subject them to an interview to see if their marriage is legitimate.  The interview is excruciating, and hilarious.   

Later Brontë is dining with friends in a very upmarket Manhattan apartment.  After the meal, one of the party plays Chopin on a magnificent Steinway grand piano.  Depardieu calls unexpectedly.  As he is a musician and composer, he is invited to play.  He sits at the piano, in silence, for a long time.  And then he subjects the party to a cacophony of atonality, fortissimo.  He finishes and says, “It’s not Mozart.”  The lady of the house replies, “I know.”  But then, just when you think Depardieu’s character as a musician is fake, he extemporises contemplative music of great beauty, and launches, in exquisite French, into a heart-breaking appeal for a charitable organization, which the lady of the house translates in real time, with tears in her eyes.

But to return to Rishi, I don’t think this current storm-in-a-teacup will do him much political damage.  All he needs to do is take a leaf out of his next door neighbour’s playbook, and ignore it.  Meanwhile that same next-door neighbour’s reputation currently seems to be riding high.  Boris’ unexpected visit to Kyiv seems to have gone down well.  And President Zelenskyy seems to like him. 

Meanwhile Mr Putin has appointed one General Alexander Dvornikov to lead the impending offensive in the Donbas region.  As General Dvornikov previously fought in Chechnya, and led the Russian forces in Syria, this bodes ill for what is now to come.  Is it not appalling that two Christian countries should be at war in the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday?  Gérard Depardieu, reportedly a buddy of Mr Putin, has stated, “I am against this fratricidal war.  Stop the weapons and negotiate.”  The Archbishop of Canterbury was on Question Time on Thursday evening and, from the perspective of one who had consecrated a mass grave in the Sudan, he made the observation that the horrors of war will not end until the war ends, that is, until the opposing sides negotiate, no matter how unpalatable that may be.  Naturally, another panel member dismissed this as naïve, but I note that even President Zelenskyy himself is willing to talk to Mr Putin, for the sake of peace in Ukraine. 

But how has it come to this?  On Sunday evening, I watched Thatcher and Reagan: A Very Special Relationship (BBC 2, 9.00 pm).  All of a sudden, in the 1980s, the west found itself able to “do business” with The General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev.  President Regan wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons; Mrs Thatcher didn’t.  She believed in the ancient doctrine of the Balance of Power.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall she opposed the reunification of Germany precisely because the balance would be upset.  In 1986, Reagan held a summit with Gorbachev in Reykjavik, but the stumbling block to real progress in bilateral disarmament was the Strategic Defence Initiative or “Star Wars Program”.  Mrs T also opposed Star Wars, because – aside from the fact that she didn’t think it would work – it would render the US unassailable, while the USSR would remain vulnerable.  Once again the Balance of Power would be upset.

But even in 1986 nobody was to know that the USSR was about to collapse.  Then we had thirty years to make the world a safer place.  And now look what’s happened.  This is not the return of the Cold War.  This war is already hot.

So what to do, as we hold our breath between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday?  Personally I will listen to Bach’s St Matthew Passion.  Then on Good Friday, we snuff out a candle.  Tenebrae.                            

The Sugar Boat

Saturday: walked in fine spring weather, with friends, from Loch Lomond Shores in Balloch, ten miles westward to Helensburgh on the Clyde Estuary, via the Three Lochs and the John Muir Ways.  From a vantage point of a thousand feet, an object in the middle of the estuary between Helensburgh and Greenock was pointed out to me.  I thought it was just a small islet, but it turned out to be the wreck of the Captayannis, sitting on a sandbank.  The Captayannis was a Greek sugar-carrying vessel that sank in the Firth of Clyde in 1974.

On the evening of January 27th that year, there was a severe storm, and the Captayannis dragged her anchor while delivering sugar to the James Watt Dock in Greenock.  Her captain ran for the sheltered waters of the Gareloch, but the vessel ran into the anchor chains of another tanker and sustained damage below the waterline.  Realising the ship was sinking, the captain deliberately beached her on the sandbank.  Everybody got off safely.  The vessel has lain there on her side ever since.  Everything of value has been removed – somewhat after the fashion of the salvage operation described in Whisky Galore. 

It is a very favoured part of the world, “Doon the watter”, as we say in Glasgow.  From our vantage point I could see the car ferries busily toing and froing between Gourock and Dunoon.  The saga of the difficulties of the ferries to the highlands and islands, both in their manufacture and operation, is a sorry one, but here the Western Ferries operate a first class service.  I use it not infrequently as I like to visit Tighnabruaich on the Cowal Peninsula, Argyll’s secret coast.  We holidayed there when I was a kid.  I would take a rowing boat across to the uninhabited north-west side of the island of Bute.  If the steamer came down from Glasgow and crossed the Kyles of Bute I knew to turn my bow to face the wash.  No life jacket, of course.  We often went for a walk round Ardlamont Point, affording a wonderful view of the north end of the Isle of Arran.  From here, the Arran hills have the contour of a sleeping soldier, lying supine in repose, a rotund individual, his helmet tilted slightly off the back of his head.

We also got a good view of Ardmore Point, just to the south of Helensburgh, on the route to Cardross.  Next to Ardmore is the farm shop at Ardardan, a place I know well because I once spent a summer working in the garden there, when the big house still existed.  It was owned by an aristocratic family, and my aunt, who had an extraordinary ability to acquire spacious houses, rented it for a period.  Sometimes I would stay for a weekend, entertaining the romantic notion to “write”, in gracious surroundings.  I don’t think I got much written.  I’d take my bike down to Helensburgh and go for a swim in the open air pool.

Helensburgh itself sits on a hillside.  The Hill House, designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh, well worth a visit, overlooks the town.  For a time Helensburgh was somewhat rundown, but the promenade has been spruced up, and there is a neighbouring plaza which is rather smart.  We sat outside there on Saturday, quite comfortably in the sun, drinking coffee.  The walk north-west on the promenade to the marina at Rhu is very pleasant, and if the tide is out you can cross on another sandspit to a lighthouse out in the middle of the bay.  I have a yen to move back to the seaside.  (In Devonport Auckland, I was “within coo-wee”, as the Kiwis say, of the Waitemata Harbour.)  So sometimes I entertain the notion to find a place in Helensburgh.  It’s well served by Scotrail, with two stations, upper and lower. 

But now here’s the thing.  This is why I have no plans currently to move doon the watter.  If you walk out to the lighthouse by Rhu, and stand and look north, you are looking directly at the submarine base at Faslane from which the four submarines of the Continuous At Sea Deterrent operate, to “keep us safe”.  To the west lies Kilcreggan, a beautiful peninsula.  If you drive past Faslane’s endless stretches of forbidding barbed wire you can access the peninsula.  It is very charming.  Keep driving and you arrive, on its north-west side, at the most sinister location in Western Europe.

Coulport.

I believe Her Majesty’s Government is minded, not only to update Trident, but also to increase the arsenal of nuclear warheads by 40%.  Clearly a world nuclear bomb stockpile of 13,000 is insufficient. 

From Helensburgh we got the train back to Balloch.  It was an idyllic day – even if I was always conscious of the blight on the horizon.             

The Birks of Aberfeldie

In this glorious spell of spring weather, I have enjoyed some lovely walks in the heart of L’Écosse Profonde, round Loch Leven, “the three bridges” in Callander, and the Birks of Aberfedly, in deepest Breadalbane.  I hadn’t been to the Birks before.  It is a steepish woodland walk for a mile or two to the head of a gorge, where you cross a footbridge over a vertiginous waterfall, somewhat reminiscent of the cascading waters of Corrieshalloch Gorge up near Ullapool. 

How fearful,

And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!

…I’ll look no more,

Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight

Topple down headlong.

(King Lear, Act 4, Scene 5)

Having crossed the bridge, you come down the other side of the river by a further series of waterfalls, back to the starting point.  It turns out that Robert Burns visited here on August 30th, 1787.  “I composed these stanzas standing under the falls of Aberfeldy, at, or near, Moness.”  I daresay The Birks of Aberfeldie is not the bard’s most profound utterance, though I would not go so far as to say that, like an actor treading the boards on automatic pilot, he “phoned one in”. 

The little birdies blithely sing,

While o’er their heads the hazels hing,

Or lightly flit on wanton wing

In the birks of Aberfeldie!

Burns writes in Scots, of course.  I was filling in my census form the other day – a strange questionnaire, all about my gender, my sexual orientation, and would I be able to start a job next week?  Well I suppose I would, if I absolutely had to, but if you take such questions too literally you just tie yourself in knots.  So I said no.  Then, did I understand Scots?  Did I read Scots?  Did I speak Scots?  Well, as we say in West Stirlingshire, Whiles.    

Well noo, ye ken, hen, ah hae nae doot that t’wud be rang o me tae spurn ma mither tongue’n aver a cannae jalouse whit Rabbie’s oan aboot, an’ wudnae pit pen tae paper anent ony matter ye wannae quibble ower, usin’ whit ye may caw’ a stairheid patois juz’ becuz them posh loons’n Auld Reekie cannae or wullnae cott’n oan tae whit ah’m sayin’.

Ken, Jimmy.

Professors of linguistics often hold the liberal view that there is nothing intrinsically inferior about such a mode of speech, just as there is nothing intrinsically superior about, say,  BBC Received Pronunciation.  Languages are democracies.  But is that true?  The professor of linguistics may be a great mimic and may adopt any brogue, and ham it up, but the prof is still likely to deliver his lecture, by and large, using a “higher register”.  When I were a lad, it was quite common for youngsters from a working class background to be sent to elocution lessons.  Their parents reckoned, no doubt quite rightly, that they would get ahead in life if they were able to “talk proper like”.  Gaelic-speaking parents very commonly and quite deliberately didn’t speak Gaelic in the home, because they felt their children would be held back if they conversed in the peasant language of the illiterate.  This was undoubtedly a misguided view.  The advantages of multilingualism are clear. Middle class parents now compete to send their children to Gaelic-medium schools.    

I find myself slipping into Scots all the time.  I think I must relish a perverse, contrarian delight in talking rough in the gracious drawing-rooms of Edinburgh New Town.  Then people give me sidelong glances, dubious as to whether I should have been invited in, after all.  One very useful aspect of having a low-caste, preferably urban, heavily industrialised lingo at one’s disposal, is that one can utilise it in the detection of humbug.  If a member of the establishment, a political Big Beast, elder statesman and Grandee, spouts something on the airwaves that you suspect might be a load of tosh, albeit delivered in the mellifluous tones of one born to lead, it can be useful to translate the statement into the local dialect, to see if it stands up.  I call this the SPT or Stairheid Patois Test.  It could as easily be done in some variation of Cockney, or Scouse, or Geordie.  But when somebody pompous comes on Private Passions and, unaware they are talking in cliché, says something like, “I cannot live without Schubert, Michael.  Sublime, pellucid limpidity…” I translate it into Glaswegian.  Then it sounds ridiculous. 

But then again, Glaswegian can be extremely expressive, and concise.  Remember the motto of NATO:

Hit wan, ye hit uz aw’. 

Don’t Talk about the War!

Monty, General Bernard Law Montgomery, was interviewed on Canadian television while touring that country shortly after the Second World War.  The interview reminds me of one of these improvised dialogues between the satirists John Bird and John Fortune, in which Bird took the role of interviewer and straight man, and Fortune the role of interviewee, an establishment figure, a politician, captain of industry, or military man, who turns out to be completely bonkers.  Fortune’s response to questions would become more and more ridiculous, his wide-eyed, disdainful expression more and more absurd, to the point that Bird would have the greatest difficulty maintaining his own serious demeanour, without “corpsing”.

Monty thought the generals of the Great War were a bunch of amateurs, and he recalled that thirty thousand British soldiers (his own statistic) were killed on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme.  “Imagine that!” said Monty, with Fortune’s wide-eyed stare.  “Thirty thousand!  Before lunch!”

And later: “I didn’t want to parley with General Rommel.  I wanted to smash him!”

As the harsh reality of the war receded from our collective consciousness, the conflict became a vehicle for gentle nostalgia, quips and ribaldry.  Hence the BBC produced shows like Dad’s Army – “Vot ist your name?” – “Don’t tell ’im, Pike!” and ’Allo ’Allo, which mocked the French Resistance – Listen carefully, ah weel say zees only wance), and even made fun of the Gestapo.  Then there is that Fawlty Towers sketch “Don’t talk about the war!” in which Basil, erstwhile Minister of Funny Walks in Python, does his ridiculous goosestep.  There is a marvellous Smith and Jones sketch which mocks our stereotypical notion of the character of senior officers in the Wehrmacht.  One of them listens to Wagner on an ancient Deutsche Grammophon contraption with its huge HMV trumpet, while his tailor measures him for a new uniform, and he enjoys the company of a Marlene Dietrich lookalike.  “You see, we are not all barbarians.” 

At Bayreuth, one of the Wagners showed Daniel Barenboim a passage in the score of Tannhäuser.  “This is the point at which the Führer wept.”  That line could have come straight from an Alas Smith and Jones sketch.  It is possible to laugh at anything, so long as the subject is safely locked up in the museum of the past.  I have even laughed at a joke about a concentration camp.  I can only remember the joke’s punchline: “You had to be there.” 

But now look what’s happened.  It turns out all these characters aren’t in a museum at all.  Far from being as extinct as the dinosaurs, they are very much alive and kicking.  The events of the late 1930s no longer seem remote.  They could have happened last week.  Actually, they did happen last week.  Winston’s great oratorical set pieces no longer sound archaic.  They have come alive.  It turns out that we have been deluding ourselves, as Winston said we would, in the theme of the final volume of his History of the Second World War, Triumph and Tragedy

“How the great democracies triumphed, and so were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life.”

In his second term as PM, Winston wanted to work hard at the preservation of the peace.  He wanted to convene a “summit” (he even coined the term) of the great powers to find a way to de-escalate the nuclear arms race.  But by that time the UK itself was no longer a great power, so his overtures to the USA and the USSR were ignored.  In the 60s, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Macmillan secured an uneasy détente, but the fact that there are said to be 13,000 nuclear warheads still extant in the world today is surely an appalling indictment of international diplomacy and, in particular, the members of the United Nations “Permanent Security Council”, an oxymoron if ever there was one.    

What are we to do?  There isn’t much point in quoting the Irishman you approach in the street to ask for directions.  “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”  It would be nice to return to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, when it seemed that the world was granted a golden opportunity.  But our greatest delusion then was the notion that “History has come to an end”.  We had the same delusion in 1918, with the notion that the armistice brought to a conclusion “the war to end all wars”.  It was a delusion again in 1945.  Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq.  We were deluded then simply because such conflicts didn’t directly affect Europe.  Even now, here in our remote island on the western edge of the continent, surrounded by our moat, we can’t quite take it in.  I met my friends at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday evening, as usual, and we listened to glorious Walton, Rachmaninov, and Elgar, and for a time we could almost, but not quite, forget the troubles of the world. I heard from a friend whose Swedish friend has just returned from her native land, that everybody there has packed an overnight bag, ready to go, and has identified the location of the nearest air-raid shelter.

Unfortunately, Mr Putin has opened Pandora’s Box.  If in any sense we are receding back into history, it is not to 1989, but to 1939.  Or, as the remarkable final sentence of The Great Gatsby has it:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.