Whence Comest Thou?

About twenty five years ago in Middlemore Hospital emergency department, Auckland, New Zealand, I said to a doctor who I thought might be Chinese, “Where are you from?”  He coloured slightly, and said, “Auckland.”  That was the first time I realised that my question, even if well-intentioned, was fraught with difficulty.  At least I didn’t follow it up with, “Yes, but where are you really from?”

In New Zealand, people enquired of my provenance all the time.  “Do I detect an accent?”  (Actually they said, “Do ah duteect un uk-seent?”)  I would reply, “I don’t have an accent; you have an accent.”  Thus we would josh one another and that was okay.  Context is everything.  It seems that Lady Hussey compounded a problem last week by her persistence; an enquiry became an interrogation.  And I dare say there would be an issue of tone.  I remember seeing a fly-on-the-wall documentary on TV some years ago, when during a palace reception a lady from an African country asked her hostess, a lady of extremely high caste, whether she had visited her homeland.  “Visited it?  I gave you your independence!”  The whole purpose of the documentary was to pick up such nuggets as this, and to broadcast them without comment.  The aristocrats were so tin-eared that they might have watched the programme later and not realised they were being ridiculed.    

The “Where are you from?” question is common in language classes.  An introductory spiel round the table is almost de rigueur.  “Ich komme aus Glasgow und ich wohne in Stirling.”  So far so good.  In Gaelic, people might say, “Who are your people?  Ah yes, I know them.”  Again, context is everything.  But even here, difficulties can arise when one’s resumé continues to unfold.  Marital status – Married/single/divorced/separated/widowed/it’s complicated/no comment!…  Children/ no children…  Student/employed/retired/unemployed…  It can be quite intrusive.  Some textbooks actually remind you that you’re simply practising language and there is no need to tell the truth.  But this I think can backfire.  Rather than saying, “Single, retired, no children, I am a sad old git…” you might be tempted to construct a phantasy world that will spill over into other areas of your life.  At this time of year, for example, you might be tempted to send out a Round Robin circular with the Christmas cards: “Jack loves Gonville and Caius as much as Ophelia does Brasenose.  Letitia had time to scale Everest during her Nepal gap year…”    

The trouble with “Where are you from?” is that it can be code for “You are not one of us, are you?”  I remember when I was a medical student in Edinburgh a consultant physician asked me, “What does your father do?”  I had no idea at the time that he was trying to place me, socially.  I guess he chose a reasonable surrogate for potential social mobility, or immobility.  According to Sir Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, and Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, who gave the annual Bowman Lecture at Glasgow University last week, the two most powerful indicators of life chances are where you live, and what your parents did.  In the UK, to have any chance at all, your parents had better have gone to University, and you had better live in the South East of England, or the East of Scotland.  I don’t think he was referring to Hastings, or Thurso; rather London and the Home Counties, and Edinburgh, the centres of power. 

Sir Paul’s special area of interest is in regions of extreme poverty across the world.  (He included his own home town, Sheffield.)  Why can’t they escape the cycle of poverty?  Incidentally, Sir Paul’s own life chances may not have looked particularly rosy when he were a lad.  Not only did he come from Sheffield, both his parents left school aged twelve.  Now he is an academic in Oxford, advising such august bodies as the IMF, the World Bank, and the Minister for Levelling-Up.  He attributed his own success to the post-war Prime Minister Clement Attlee, a modest man, according to Churchill, “with much to be modest about.”  I have a notion Churchill also described him as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”  Yet Attlee’s government founded the welfare state, despite the fact that post-war Britain was bankrupt. 

Sir Paul’s graphs depicting the gap twixt rich and poor in the UK were startling.  It occurs to me that in our society, that question, “Where are you from?” is being asked all the time.  This is what an interview for a place in medical school is all about.  They want to know if the candidate is “doctor material”.  In other words, is he, or she, one of us?  Did they go to the right school, have they prepared a faultless “personal statement”, were they groomed to pass the UK-CAT test, have they got umpteen A* A-levels, did they find a cure for cancer during their gap year, above all, do they, at interview, sound like a doctor?  Yet the end product of this exhaustive and exhausting process is a health service on the edge of collapse, with burnt-out professionals leaving the sinking ship in droves. 

Talking of sinking ships, Sir Paul compared the UK to a sailing dinghy.  A sailing dinghy has two conditions of equilibrium – one when it is sailing, and one when it is capsized and upside down.  Sir Paul considers the UK to be in the latter state.  He did not mince his words. 

Yet he was not without hope.  Even if the antiquated institutions of the UK are no longer fit for purpose, if they ever were, people needed to be empowered to solve problems at a local level.  I thought of this when I heard a lady on Friday’s Any Questions, a nurse of 40 years’ experience, ask the members of the panel, given the dire state of the NHS, what they would do about nurse recruitment and retention.  After the panel had had their say, the chairperson returned to the questioner and asked what she would recommend.  Answer: a £500 bonus, bursaries, a pay deal in line with inflation, on-site nursery facilities, subsidised meals, and subsidised car parking.  As a doctor, nine times out of ten, all you need to do is sit and listen, and the patient will hand you the diagnosis on a plate.  I hope the government was listening.       

It’s a Wrap!

In my German conversation class at the Goethe Institut we have a weekly slot in which a member of the class gives a Vortrag or lecture on a subject of their own choosing.  It is generally a light-hearted and interactive affair.  The element that differentiates a conversation class from a more traditional language class with its accent on grammar and syntax, is that the conversation can go off at a tangent into unknown and unpredictable regions, for which you can’t prepare.  For „Jims Vortrag“, for example, we each had to bring along a paperback book, any book.  “In English or in German?” we asked.  “Any paperback book!” said Jim, with an expression of mock exasperation.

I picked off my shelf, more or at less at random, an ancient and dog-eared paperback of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice.  Now, I mused, would I be required, in the language of managerial break-out groups, to “talk to it”?  Better prepare a few stock phrases.  The title, for example.  I settled for, Nur zweimal lebst du.  Same number of syllables as in the English.  That, after all, is quite important, because the title is the first line of a haiku, or poem of seventeen syllables, which James Bond composes after the fashion of the Japanese poet Basho.

You only live twice:

Once when you are born,

And once when you look death in the face.

Bond’s Japanese mentor in all things cultural, head of the Japanese secret service Tiger Tanaka, enchanted, claps his hands softly.  He scribbles a few ideograms in Kanji to see if the haiku will work in Japanese, but no, too many syllables.  The haiku form is quite strict – three lines of five, seven, and five syllables respectively.  It occurred to me to see if, with a little poetic licence, I could get it to work in German.  I came up with

Nur zweimal lebst du:

Einmal geboren, einmal

Vor Todes Gesicht.

I’m very fond of You Only Live Twice.  It is late Bond, psychologically damaged, bruised and battered Bond who has somehow retained his humanity, and a sense of humour.  It is as much a travelogue, ein Reiseführer, as a thriller.  What else might I be able to tell the class about it?  It is really part three in a trilogy, concerning Bond’s arch-Nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE.  Blofeld is, naturally, a megalomaniac.  How do you say that in German?  Ein Größenenwahnsinniger, apparently.  SPECTRE is the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion. 

Der besondere Vorstand für Gegenspionage, Terrorismus, Rache, und Erpressung.


So there we are.  I attended the class, armed to the teeth.  And of course, true to form, the conversation went off completely at a tangent.  I should have known.  Jim did say, bring a paperback, any paperback.  So the content didn’t matter.  His Vortrag was, timeously, a lesson on how to wrap up a book in Christmas paper.  We were issued with paper and sellotape, and directed with close instructions in German.  I really ought to have paid more attention, because I am the world’s worst wrapper of Christmas presents.  Captain Maladroit.  I have this notion that the constituents of parcelling conspire against me.  First, I allow the end of the sellotape on its roll to adhere to itself, and completely disappear.  I can’t find the end, and when I do, I can’t figure out which direction on the roll to direct my gouging fingernail.  If I can get past this hurdle, I generally attempt to cut three generous lengths of tape, and adhere their ends to the edge of my worktop, for subsequent use.  The lengths of tape generally curl underneath the table there to adhere.  Meanwhile I align my book on its sheet of wrapping paper, cut more or less to size, and fold two opposing ends across the front of the book along its long axis.  I pinion this first fold with my left hand, and must now, with my right, extricate the first length of sellotape from the clutches of the table’s underside, and secure the first fold of paper with the tape.  This is of necessity a one-handed manoeuvre, and it has to be my right hand, because I am an incredibly right-handed person.  Truth to tell, my entire universe is right-handed.  I won’t say I suffer from spatial neglect.  I wouldn’t go that far.  I know the left-hand side of my world is there.  I just don’t pay it too much attention. 

There are various things that can, and do, go wrong, in the transfer of sellotape from table to book.  Generally the sellotape attempts to adhere to itself.  The adhesive is so strong that this is a terminal event, requiring a fresh start.  If I can get the sellotape to the paper in an uncurled state, the next challenge is to affix the first fold, one-handedly, with the sellotape running parallel to the paper edges.  This I achieve rarely.  But at least, at this stage, the paper’s fixation is serviceable. 

I turn my attention now to the short axis of the top of the book.  This is a complex piece of origami requiring me to infold the two ends of the paper in two triangular shapes, then to fold the rest of the length over the top of the book, then to repeat the pernickety task of transferring sellotape to paper.  It becomes clear at this stage that I am using too much paper; there are redundant wrinkles and creases, and the inner aspect of the paper is visible, like the underwear of somebody who has dressed too hurriedly. 

Repeat stage two, at the bottom end of the book. 

An absolute pig’s breakfast.  Jim told me as much.  I handed the wrapped book on to the class teacher, who double-wrapped it, perfekt. 

I can’t say I’m too phased.  Maybe I’m just not that interested in Xmas wrapping.  I do as little DIY as possible and I hope never to assemble another flat pack.  I was complaining to somebody the other day about my clumsy ineptitude, railing about the sullen recalcitrance of things, and they replied, “What are you talking about?  You play the viola, you can stitch people up!”  True enough.  This profession of incompetence, it’s really an affectation, like women who say they can’t do mathematics.  I said to another friend on another, other day, “D’you know, I’ve never done a jigsaw in my life.” 

She said, “Do I sense a certain pride in that assertion?”

“Ah!” said I.  “You see through me.”                                       

Not in this Text

COP27 ended, two days late and at dead of night, not with a bang, but a whimper.  The gavel was thumped, and there was a smattering of uncertain and disconsolate applause.  The remaining delegates looked utterly exhausted.  Alok Sharma had been emotional in Glasgow at the end of COP26; now he was beside himself with rage and frustration.  “Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary.  Not in this text!  Clear follow-through on the phase down of coal.  Not in this text!  A clear commitment to phase out all fossil fuels.  Not in this text!  And the energy text, weakened, in the final minutes.  Friends, I said in Glasgow that the pulse of 1.5 degrees was weak.  Unfortunately, it remains on life support.”  Well, Greta said it would be a greenwash. 

I wonder about the way our politicians negotiate.  Well-known clichés are iterated, and reiterated, at international summits.  “This is going down to the wire.”  “Nothing is decided, until everything is decided.”  “We can walk away!”  “No deal is better than a bad deal.”  It’s brinkmanship, waiting for the other guy to blink first.  Such tactics are based on the received wisdom of entrepreneurs who have struck it rich through “the art of the deal”.  In business, you make sure your own interests are protected, and if the other guy goes to the wall, well, too bad.

But the Conference of Parties is, or ought to be, different.  I’m always suspicious of another frequently reiterated cliché, “We are all in this together” – that’s what George Osborne said before Austerity Marque 1 – but this time it’s true.  We might have said in Glasgow, “Hi’ wan, ye hi’ us aw!”  The trouble is that we are trying to tackle a global emergency using the sorts of negotiating tactics that would have been favoured by Bismarck and Disraeli. 

I can understand the frustration of the climate activists, though I can’t see that daubing a Monet with mashed potato, or pouring tomato soup over a Van Gogh, or gluing yourself to a train, or stopping a woman in labour from going to the maternity unit, contributes much to the debate.  Indeed, it is counterproductive, because it only makes the average man in the street conclude that the activists are weird, and to be avoided at all costs.  Still, I don’t think the government should be rushing through legislation further to curtail the activities of demonstrators.  If somebody is inflicting criminal damage, or committing a breach of the peace, they are already breaking the law. 

My impression is that the Westminster Government does not really believe we are in a pickle.  Doubtless, collectively, the members of the cabinet believe in Climate Change, but it does not appear that they believe in Climate Catastrophe.  That Mr Sharma was demoted from the cabinet just before COP27, and that Mr Sunak was originally minded not to go to Sharm El-Sheikh – the autumn statement at home was more important – would suggest as much.  Yet Mr Guterres has told us not only that we are going to hell in a handcart, but that our progress thereto is accelerating.  That would suggest that the human species, collectively, is committing suicide.  Lemminglike?  Another cliché, which does the lemmings an injustice.

But why should we knowingly and willingly hurl ourselves over a precipice?   The answer must be that our gut instinct is that we are not in danger, because – putting isolated incidents around the globe to one side – the danger is not immediately apparent.  A similar phenomenon is observed in human pathophysiology, when the organism adapts to a recurring insult, in order to preserve le milieu intérieur.  Let’s say the patient is bleeding.  A whole host of physiological mechanisms will kick in to maintain the pulse and blood pressure.  You adapt, adapt, adapt… and then quite suddenly you can no longer adapt.  You “decompensate”.  The blood pressure drops, catastrophically.  You only believe it is happening, when it happens.  And by then it is too late.

You can well understand how difficult it is for the affluent to perceive how far along this curve they may have travelled.  There is, after all, something self-justifyingly reassuring about a condition of prosperity.  It feels right, to be comfortable.  This is why it is more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  The rich man thinks he has already arrived.  All that is left for him is to flaunt his wealth, in a demonstration of conspicuous consumption.  As Ben Jonson puts it in Volpone

…and, could we get the phoenix

Though nature lost her kind, she were our dish.

A Mid-Clef Crisis

Musically, a punishing schedule last week, with rehearsals of the Dunblane Chamber Orchestra on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for a concert on Remembrance Sunday.  We played Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, and, a first for me, a concerto for accordion and orchestra, “In Liquid”, by the contemporary Danish composer Martin Lohse.  It became apparent on Wednesday evening that the soloist, BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist Ryan Corbett, is an extraordinary talent.  In the atmospheric last movement of the Lohse, music perhaps reminiscent of Arvo Pärt, the soloist appeared to enter a kind of trance.  You could have heard a pin drop.

Then on Thursday after my German conversation class in the Goethe Institut in Glasgow I popped into the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in time for the organ recital.  Lots of lollipops – the adagio from Bruch’s G minor violin concerto, Dvořák’s Humoresque, the Grand March from Verdi’s Aida, and the Toccata from Leon Boëllmann’s Gothic Suite.  You can play anything on the organ and, in the right hands, it will sound great.  It occurred to me that the same could be said of the accordion, a kind of portable organ. 

At some stage on Thursday, I think I must have eaten a piece of dodgy crumpet.

To the baths in Stirling for a sauna and a swim.  I glanced at myself in the changing room mirror.  “You’re a wee bit peely-wally!”  The symptoms of staphylococcal food poisoning can come on very quickly.  I became unwell on the drive home.  I focussed on the job in hand and got to within three miles of my destination.

Road closed.  Sod’s Law.  I pulled over.  Now what?  I had no alternative but to take the long route home.  I took a deep breath and got going.  Concentrate!  In the commercial aviation world, there is a rule that pilot and co-pilot must never eat the same item on the lunch menu.  Nausea is debilitating for a whole variety of reasons, not least that it interferes with perception.  I had the odd feeling that in the gathering darkness the milestones of my alternative route came around much quicker than usual; even so I didn’t make it.  A further stop was required.  Eventually I limped home, went to bed, and slept for twelve hours.

On Friday I was washed out, but I really wanted to hear the accordion again.  I struggled along to rehearsal.  “Wie geht’s?” asked a viola colleague.  “Nicht gut.”  I explained the situation.  “Schwach, wie ein Kätzchen.”  Weak as a kitten.  She said, “Always avoid dodgy crumpet!”  Incidentally, I’ve just finished reading Ian McEwan’s latest, Lessons, a biography of someone who happens to be contemporary with McEwan, and who leads a rather chaotic and perhaps even aimless life against the backdrop of cataclysmal world events – the Cuban missile crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin wall, Covid, climate change…  The protagonist’s first wife is German, a writer, so there is a smattering of German throughout the book.  Each utterance is followed by an English translation.  I would hazard a guess that that was an editorial decision.  We whose mother tongue happens to be English are not encouraged to gain fluency in foreign languages.  At school, we were taught foreign grammar fastidiously, but never learned how to order a cup of coffee in Paris or Berlin.  At the Institut, nobody seems to mind that my genders and cases are all wrong, so long as I get the meaning across, and get the gist of what is coming back, by recognising a few phrases and filling in the gaps in my imagination.

In my spaced-out, convalescent world, I decided it was better to keep going than to sit and moulder at home.  On Saturday, to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, and the Sir Alexander and Lady Gibson Memorial Concert, a performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  I’ve known the War Requiem for a long time, because at school I wrote my Sixth Year Studies English dissertation on it.  The connection with Eng Lit was of course the settings of Wilfred Owen poetry.  The culmination of the War Requiem is the setting of Strange Meeting.  Owen’s poem has a couplet:

I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,

Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.

For reasons best known to the composer, he changed this latter line to:

Even the sweetest wells that ever were.

I remember pointing this discrepancy out to my English teacher, who read the line aloud and said, “Yuck.” 

I was always a bit ambivalent about the music, like the curate’s egg, I thought, good in parts.  I’m more inclined now to admire it as it is.  And conductor Thomas Søndergȧrd was ever musical.  His interpretation had a chamber music feel throughout.  And the RSNO Youth Choruses were magnificent. 

Remembrance Sunday.  To Dunblane Cathedral.  I managed the two minute silence without keeling over.  On to the concert.  I shared a desk with a professional violist.  It doesn’t half lift your game.  She used to play violin but at some stage crossed the floor.  As she put it, “A mid-clef crisis.”  The concert went well.  The soloist played two encores – Mendelssohn and Bach.  Quite magnificent.  I have a bad habit of saying after each DCO concert, “I really must keep practising!”  Then the viola, well, she lies dormant in her case (nota bene shedie Bratsche – feminine) until the next time.  But this time I’m inspired by an accordionist who makes his own arrangements of great classical music.  Time to get out the Bach cello suites and fiddle partitas, transposed to the alto clef.                     

Let’s Talk about the Weather

Greta was on the Vine Show last week on BBC Radio 2.  As one of the world’s most influential women she is easily identifiable by first name only.  So used to the obfuscations of government ministers as we are, her directness was a breath of fresh air.  Jeremy was asking about the early days, of sitting outside the Swedish Parliament with the home-made “school strike for climate” placard.  Didn’t her school friends urge her to lighten up?  She laughed.  “I didn’t have any friends. I was a geek.”  What about her teachers?  Were they worried about her?  “They just ignored me.  I was invisible.”  At what point did she realise she had become a celebrity?  “We don’t have a celebrity culture in Sweden.”  When she said that, I was reminded of a certain high court judge from New Zealand who was drafted in by Westminster to lead an enquiry into historic sex abuse in high places.  How would she cope with the Establishment?  She didn’t understand the question.  “We don’t have an Establishment in New Zealand.”  For whatever reason, the judge changed her mind about the enquiry and went home.

Matt Hancock, who, at least according to the title of the TV programme he has joined, thinks he is a celebrity, has jetted off to Australia apparently to devour the reproductive organs of kangaroos live on air.  It was really the Japanese who inaugurated this particularly gruesome form of reality TV.  The late Clive James used to show clips of the citizens of Tokyo being suspended in a tub of maggots and, just as there was an ironic remove in having Margarita Pracatan close his show, the predilections of the Japanese were viewed through a prism, and at a distance.  How can these people be so bizarre?  Now we’ve caught up.  Some people are angry with Mr Hancock because he has gone off on a media junket while an enquiry into the Westminster government’s management, or mismanagement, of the pandemic has started.  People died as a result of government policy, and the erstwhile Minister of Health has disappeared into the jungle.  Personally I got angry with Mr Hancock quite some time ago, when he instructed the GPs in England to use Zoom as the default mode for GP – patient interaction.  Consultations would remain remote.  “No more going back to your bad old ways,” he said.  This was before he resigned, having broken Covid rules.                 

Jeremy asked Greta about Cop 27, in Sharm El Sheikh.  Should King Charles have gone?  Should Rishi go?  She made diplomatic noises about conflicting priorities.  Should Boris go?  She giggled.  There was quite a lot of giggling. I think she has lightened up, without compromising her position.  In fact she has “created” a book – The Climate Book (allen lane 2022), a comprehensive compilation of short essays by climate scientists and other interested parties, about the state of the planet.  I popped out to Waterstones and bought a copy.  It is a sobering read.

I don’t think Greta is going to Egypt.  I think she’s given up on big movers and shakers.  Bla bla bla.  My guess is she is with George Orwell – If there is hope, it lies with the proles.  So her “creation” is, I think, an attempt to galvanise popular opinion in order to drive the politicians to act.  A kind of trickle-up effect, if you like.  I was relieved to hear she still holds a stake in the game.  There was a time when we didn’t hear much from Greta.  I didn’t know whether she had fallen silent, or whether the media moguls had chosen to cancel her.  Frankly I was worried that her silence implied we had crossed a tipping point, or, as they might have called it following the Paris Accord, “un point d’appui”.  Greta had given up because there was no longer any point.  But no.  Limitation to an increase in global temperatures of 1.5 degrees may be a missed opportunity, but every 0.1 degree rise is worth resisting.  In other words, we are no longer staving off disaster, but striving to mitigate it.

Do you remember the spring of 2020?  The world closed down and everything came to a grinding halt.  Life became very simple.  You held yourself aloof, stayed at home, and occasionally went out to exercise or get provisions.  That was it.  It sounded very miserable but in fact we all began to notice certain benisons.  The absence of industrial noise.  Little traffic on the roads, and none overhead.  Birdsong.  Profound silence.  And a breathtakingly beautiful spring.  We all said, “Let’s not forget this.  We mustn’t go back to our bad old ways.”   

At noon, Jeremy Vine has taken to summarising his show in four words, reflecting the four topics to be covered over the next two hours.  “Chancellor Drug Nose Badger”.  Or “Energy Racers Strike King”.  I jot them down, thinking they contain some arcane secret message, of the sort that London might have broadcast to the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France.  “This is a message for Pierre in Dieppe.  Greta Hancock Celebrity Kangaroo”.  Perhaps they are crossword clues.   

Is it just that I am entering my dotage of disgruntlement, or has the BBC, aged 100, become utterly puerile?  I gather that Radio 4’s Today programme has lost 600,000 listeners in the blink of an eye.  They appear to have defected to Radio 2 and the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show.  I used to quite like Zoe on telly’s Strictly – It Takes Two.  But I confess I can’t listen to the Breakfast Show.  How can anybody be this relentlessly upbeat?  Particularly at that time in the morning.  The BBC has dumbed down.  It has opted for the amusing over the serious, and as a result is neither amusing nor serious.  The funniest thing to me about Have I got news for you is that I can sit through it with a stony face.  Lord Reith must be turning in his grave.  But I don’t think the controllers will much care.  They will echo the words of Winston, when Reith once left a meeting in high dudgeon.  “There goes the Wuthering Height.”                               

Growth Growth Growth

“You’re sharp!” said my local shopkeeper, font of all human knowledge, when I dropped in to pick up my newspapers.  “To the bottom of the glass.”

Bottom of the glass?  Ah!  “Harp!” I said.  “Stays sharp, to the bottom of the glass.”  These ancient advertising jingles stay with you for a lifetime.  It’s a measure of how successful the ad-men were.  The chocolates that melt in your mouth, not in the hand; the sweet you can eat between meals, without ruining your appetite; the chocolates with the less fattening centre; amarsadayhelpsyouworkrestandplaythemilkybarkidistoughandstrongdontforgetthefruitgumsmum…

Actually I was sharp.  Up with the lark, still on British Summer Time, in denial.  I hate it when the clocks go back.  I wish they wouldn’t monkey with the time.  This is my least favourite time of year, compounded by these two ghastly medieval festivals, Halloween and Guy Fawkes.  I see that the Big Ben bongs are back, or will be on Armistice Day, chiming out in Greenwich Mean Time for the first time since 2017.  I would prefer to stay on summer time, and have a shorter working day, so that children can walk to school (if they still do) in daylight.  But that would never do, for “productivity” would decline.  And that would adversely affect “growth growth growth”.  Apparently Ms Truss’s heart was in the right place.  I wonder if growth growth growth is an eternal feature of political utopia.  Should we have a 2% increase in Gross Domestic Product every year for perpetuity?  How would that look after another millennium?  

I suspect it would look like hell on earth.

Anyway, what’s in the paper, for which I was so sharp?  I’m in the paper!  I was surprised.  I wrote to them, a truncated version of last week’s blog (Daft Wednesday), and when the letter didn’t appear on Thursday, I just shrugged and echoed the words of Mr Johnson, “Them’s the breaks.”  But lo and behold, I was merely on back-burner, today to be produced, oven-ready.  Now I must hold myself in readiness for ripostes, enjoinders, animadversions, and diktats to wake up and smell the coffee.  So good to chuck one’s hat into the ring.

All news is bad news; or so it would appear.  What a litany of disaster across the world.  It occurs to me that most of it is mad-made.  The Four Horsemen, War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death these days would appear largely to be products of our own lust for growth growth growth.  The war in Ukraine was not inevitable, so neither was the disruption of energy supplies and grain exports.  Neither was the hike in fuel prices, nor therefore the £8 billion (plus) profits in the last quarter for Shell.  It’s a mystery.  Meanwhile some people have to choose between eating and heating.  Yet the rest of the world is in such dire straits that people would risk getting into flimsy dinghies that are less than seaworthy, to risk being deported to Rwanda by Ms Braverman (whose coat remains on a shoogly peg). 

Talking, obliquely, of migrants, I came across, in my German class, Griechischer Wein, an Udo Jürgens song (if I have interpreted it correctly) about Greek migrants getting maudlin about home over a glass or two in the pub.  It is a classic example of Schlager, a style of German language pop-folk music.  Jürgens won Eurovision; in that context it may be said some people find Schlager rather kitsch.  You can see and hear on U-tube a great exponent of Schlager, Helene Fischer, sing Merci, Chérie to an older Udo Jürgens, evidently much moved by her rendition.  I rather like it.  In the Goethe Institute our teacher caught me humming Griechischer Wein at coffee break and said, “It is a musical worm.  You cannot forget it.”  Griechischer Wein reminds me of Schubert’s Das Wirtshaus in Winterreise.  Maybe the greatest Schlager exponent is Schubert.  But I digress. Back to the papers.               

Mr Musk has bought Twitter for $44 billion.  He is to be chief twit.  I wonder how that figure was arrived at.  How can you put a price on something that is merely ethereal and has no material existence?  Another mystery.  It’s a cliché to state that social media constitute the town square, or the agora of ancient Greece.  I never visit.

But I mustn’t affect this disillusionment with the world.  I’m beginning to sound like the last of the Mahler Rückert Songs.  Ich bin der Welt abhandengekommen.  I am lost to the world.  I might flatter myself that I am like late Schubert, circulating his manuscripts amongst a few friends.  But no.  I scribble away.  I hope yet to do some damage.  Hat still in the ring.  Oh yes.  I have a readership.  I have twenty followers!  I’ve had a like!                      

Daft Wednesday

On BBC Radio 4’s Any Answers on Saturday, one Don MacKay, aged 17, phoned in from Cornwall, to express his disaffection with party politics.  Behind his evident reticence, he was highly articulate.  He thought politics was a façade covering dishonesty and corruption, that government ministers evinced no particular skill set – it was the civil service that ran the country – and that the party system fundamentally undermines democracy.  It would be better if MPs were independent.  Hold these thoughts.       

The evening of Wednesday October 19th must surely represent the nadir for the current administration at Westminster.  Surely.  Labour had put forward a motion to continue the ban on fracking.  The Government issued a three line whip to Conservative members to ensure Labour would be defeated.  There was a division.  Just before members entered the lobbies, a government minister announced that there was no three line whip.  This took the chief whip, and her deputy, by surprise.  They resigned on the spot.  Apparently.  Chaos on the floor of the House ensued, with members allegedly being manhandled into the “appropriate” lobbies.  There was a lot of bad language in the air.  I saw it reported, with bemusement and amusement, on German telly.  “This is a ****ing shambles” und so weiter.  But apparently it had been a vote of confidence after all.  Or had it?  Mysteriously, the whips “unresigned”.  The following day, the Prime Minister resigned.  She has not yet “unresigned”.  At time of writing, Rishi Sunak is the front runner to replace her, but Penny Mordaunt is still in the running.  She has until two o’clock to garner 100 supporters in order to trigger an online ballot of the Tory Party membership.  Boris has ruled himself out.  He isn’t going to be Cincinnatus after all.  But I seem to recall he ruled himself out once before, after David Cameron resigned.     

Whatever the outcome, there is a universal acknowledgment that something is rotten in the state of Westminster.  Sir Keir Starmer, Sir Ed Davey, Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford, et al, declare that the only way to end this farce is to call a general election.  But would it make any difference?  And in any case, a general election is not within the gift of the opposition parties.  Only the party in government can call a general election and that, so the cliché says, would be like turkeys… Christmas… bla bla bla.  And therein lies the rub.  Why would you vote to lose your job?  As Sir Charles Walker remarked in a scathing indictment of his own government, “There is nothing so ‘ex’ as an ex-politician.”      

All over the world, the satirists are having a field day.  Even Dmitry Medvedev joined in, in congratulating a lettuce on surviving Liz Truss’s premiership.  Witnessing Daft Wednesday was like witnessing the fall of the Roman Empire.  Didn’t Caligula – or was it Nero – make his horse a senator?  Meanwhile Mr Putin continues to bomb Kiev, and Mr Xi has quietly assumed absolute power over China, apparently for life.  Democracy is extremely vulnerable.  The House of Commons needs to be put into special measures. 

I agree with Mr MacKay from Cornwall.  We don’t need merely to tweak the system.  It seems to me there is a fundamental problem with our democracy, as currently practised.  There is an inevitable conflict of interest between pursuing a political career, and following the dictates of your conscience.  It is not unlike the conflict of interest that is recognised in a court of law, when it transpires that a potential jury member happens to know the defendant.  That individual will be excused.  Similarly, when a member of parliament is called upon to vote that fracking be given the go-ahead, or should be banned, it seems to me their vote should be disallowed when it becomes apparent that their future career, their ability to pay their mortgage, put bread on the table, and support their family, is dependent upon how they vote. 

In that sense, the whip is rather like an agent of the defendant in court, who infiltrates the jury and leans on jury members with threats and intimidation. 

The whip is the origin of political humbug.  When you express and avow opinions which in reality you don’t actually hold, you need to adopt techniques of humbuggery which, at least, evince a degree of cognitive dissonance, and at worst, demonstrate an ability to hold two diametrically opposing views simultaneously.  George Orwell called this latter technique “doublethink”.  Such techniques are apprehended universally as the political norm.  When a politician appears on the Laura Kuenssberg Show we no longer expect they will answer a question in a straightforward way, or, indeed, answer the question at all.  You could even argue that the ability to speak the language of humbug is the only skill that is peculiar and particular to the political profession.  People who speak Humbug are under the whip.

The whip is not always applied.  MPs are sometimes afforded a “conscience vote”.  Oddly enough, issues that are absolutely fundamental to our innermost being, issues that are existential, for example, termination of pregnancy, assisted dying, capital punishment – these tend to be conscience votes.  But then, if fracking is going to destroy the planet, then fracking becomes an existential issue, and surely a conscience vote.

In truth, every vote, from how often the council should empty the bins to whether or not Trident should be maintained and updated, is a conscience vote.  But if you are being leaned on, and your spouse reminds you that you need to pay the children’s school fees, what are you to do?     

If the whip is absurd, are then political parties absurd?  We should be careful of going down this road.  Totalitarian regimes think political parties are absurd.  They ban them all – except their own.  It is the most natural thing in the world for people in pursuit of a common goal to organise.  Yet we need to recognise that it is impossible that even a small group of like-minded individuals will share the same opinion on every topic known to man. 

Maybe the absurdity lies at a deeper level.  Perhaps it is the political career that is absurd.  I wonder if the electorate might, at the next general election, whenever it may be, consider bypassing the political class and voting in “normal” people.  A typical candidate might be somebody entering the seventh decade of life, at the top of their professional game whatever it may be, who might be persuaded, albeit reluctantly but out of a sense of civic duty, to stand for Parliament, for one term only.  No whip, every vote a conscience vote, no second term.  Imagine!

Now you may say I’m a dreamer…                               


Back in 2019 I started attending a beginners’ German class in Stirling.  Then the pandemic came along and we had to go on line.  Then that too came to a halt, and all I could do was try to read a little every day.  Jeden Tag versuchte ich, während des Lockdowns, ein bisschen Deutsch zu lesen.  This year, when the autumn leaves began to fall, live meetings in real time began to start up again, and I resolved to find a German class.  I contacted the Goethe Institute in Glasgow.  I had to sit a test, so that I could be placed in an appropriate class.  Then I had an interview on Zoom, mostly in German.  I thought, why on earth am I subjecting myself to this?  I suppose a lifetime of education, then further education, then “professional development” and so forth, becomes habit-forming.  Anyway, I was treated with the greatest kindness and forbearance, and now I attend a class on Thursday mornings in the Institute in Glasgow.

It’s an early start for me.  The morning rush hour on the M80 merging on to the M8 east of Glasgow is horrendous, so I avoid that and take the bucolic route through Strathblane.  Moreover parking in the environs of the Institute is very expensive, so I’ve got into the habit of leaving the car, for free, in Kelvindale, and walking for thirty minutes through Glasgow’s west end.  This is home for me.  I played in these streets as a child.  I don’t think they’ve changed that much; just more traffic.

The Botanic Gardens, Hillhead, Glasgow University Campus, Kelvingrove Park.  How odd to be back in this environment, qua student, of sorts.  I cut through the erstwhile Arts Quadrangle of the university’s main building, and the cloisters.  Mingling with the undergraduates, I feel like a ghost.  I remember at the top of the stairway leading up to the Arts Quadrangle there used to be a prominent poster advertising UGSAS – the Universities of Glasgow & Strathclyde Air Squadron.  It is no longer there, and I don’t suppose UGSAS exists any more.  But I was a cadet pilot in UGSAS all these years ago, and I used to attend “Ground School” at the Squadron’s HQ at 12 Park Circus, also, so far as I remember, held on a Thursday.  The Goethe Institute is fifty metres away, at No. 3.  Walking past No. 12 I feel even more like a ghost.  The only thing to indicate the former life and occupancy of No. 12 is a bare flagstaff above the entrance. 

RAF educational techniques occasionally involved an interview without coffee, a “bollocking”, for some perceived piece of stupidity or insubordination.  All was subsequently forgiven in the bar, where, if not careful, one could rack up a substantial “mess bill”.  There is no bar in the Goethe Institute, but there is coffee.  And a very relaxed atmosphere.  I sometimes have to remind myself that there is no point in harbouring any angst.  It doesn’t in the least matter if I get my verb endings wrong.  I’m doing this for fun.  Still, habits of a lifetime’s past exposure to threats and intimidation are deeply ingrained, and hard to expunge.  I still experience a pang of dread if I discover I have inadvertently missed out a piece of homework.  Absurd! 

After the class, I’ve got into the habit of walking back past No. 12 – per ardua ad astra – and the statue of Lord Roberts of Kandahar sitting astride his horse and looking across Kelvingrove in the direction of Glasgow University tower.  I descend on to Kelvin Way and walk along to the Art Gallery and Museum just in time for the one o’clock organ recital.  In the German class we are tasked this week to describe a museum we have visited and say what is interesting about it.  The Art Galleries would be too obvious.  I’ve opted for the House of Memories, 12,000 miles away in Waipu, North Island, New Zealand, where Scottish settlers formed a community in the middle of the nineteenth century.

After the organ recital in Kelvingrove, I generally have a wander through the paintings and exhibits.  One seems out of place to me – a Supermarine Spitfire hanging from the ceiling.  It is an amazing machine, but it is an engine of war.  Put it in a museum of flight, I say.  It is sobering to think that if I’d been born a generation earlier I might have had to fly one of them in combat with the people I now have a chat with about museums over coffee on Thursday morning.  I’ve been very fortunate.  My most crucial assignment this week is to provide the biscuits.

Das is die Weise, wie der Keks krümelt.                                         

Pie in the Sky

I’ve been thinking a lot about pies this week, ever since the Prime Minister announced that it was her intention, not to divide up the pie among us more equably, but rather to “grow the pie”.  Her idea is that you give free rein to the risk-takers and entrepreneurs to do whatever it is they do – basically, to create pie – without being impeded by needless bureaucracy and red tape, so that the sliver of pie allotted to the disadvantaged grows in absolute, if not relative terms.  She outlined all this during her keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference last week.  She was briefly and peaceably heckled by Greenpeace who held up a banner asking, “Who voted for this?”  The protestors were removed.  Ms Truss said she had three priorities: growth, growth, and growth.  That reminded me of Mr Blair’s three priorities: education, education, education.  Who are the speech writers who cobble together such clanking soundbites?  The PM went on to say, “I will not allow the anti-growth coalition to hold us back.  Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP.  The militant unions, the vested interests dressed up as think-tanks.  The talking heads, the Brexit deniers and Extinction Rebellion and some of the people we had in the hall earlier.  The fact is they prefer protesting to doing.  They prefer talking on Twitter to taking tough decisions.  They taxi from North London townhouses to the BBC studio to dismiss anyone challenging the status quo.  From broadcast to podcast, they peddle the same old answers.  It’s always more taxes, more regulation and more meddling.  Wrong, wrong, wrong…”


But back to the pie.  What exactly is this pie?  I suppose it is a representation of wealth.  Gross Domestic Product, perhaps.  Energy is a part of it.  Actually, energy is all of it.  That is fundamentally why we eat pie; it is a source of energy.  Mr Putin has switched off some of our energy sources so, it is said, we need to drill and frack for oil and gas, open new nuclear power stations, and keep chasing the disconsolate chimera of nuclear fusion.  The PM has advised the King not to attend COP 27 in Egypt. 

It all sounds like old hat to me, the sort of buccaneering attitude that created the British Empire three hundred years ago.  The East India Company wasn’t much burdened by excessive oversight and red tape.  I think we need to dump this concept of “growth”.  The fact is, the pie is finite.  We are like a colony of bacteria occupying a small and fragile petri dish.  We extract nutrients from the agar, exponentially multiply, and discharge toxic waste into our source of sustenance.  It can’t go on. 

It seems to me that economics is, or should be, applied thermodynamics.  Every time we have fouled up – 2008 would be a prime example – it is because we have tried to ignore the basic laws of thermodynamics, that energy can be neither created nor destroyed, and that there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. 

I wonder how many members of the British Cabinet have a working knowledge of, or even a passing familiarity with, the Second Law of Thermodynamics?  The novelist C. P. Snow used to buttonhole members of the London literati at cocktail parties and ask them if they knew the Second Law.  Snow believed that the gulf between the sciences and the humanities was damaging society.  It is salutary to look at the make-up of the British Cabinet in this regard.  Currently it has twenty three members, including the Prime Minister, and a further eight ministers attend cabinet meetings.  Of this total of thirty one, six studied a STEM subject at university; two physicists, two engineers, a chemist, and a mathematician.  The rest for the most part read one of the Humanities, such as history, philosophy, economics, and law.  Ms Truss studied PPE at Oxford.  The current holders of the great offices of state studied classics and history, hospitality, and law.

If economics is a subspecialty of thermodynamics, then you might argue that anybody who is scientifically illiterate must also be economically illiterate.  Judging by the reaction of the markets to Mr Kwarteng’s mini-budget, a lot of financial movers and shakers evidently thought so.  But the trouble with economics is that as a discipline it bestrides science and the humanities.  It is an art as well as a science.  It is a behavioural science, and that is why it is so dismal.    

Reading the Riot Act

Greatly looking forward to the inaugural concert of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s new season, and having arranged to foregather with friends in Ask Italia, across the road from the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, I descended upon Glasgow circa 1730 on Saturday evening.  I was disappointed, though hardly surprised, as it has been the case for some time now, to find that the Buchanan Galleries car park is still closing at 2100.  What earthly use is that on a Saturday night?  But all is not well with Buchanan Galleries, a splendid shopping mall which, rumour has it, despite being, in terms of the normal life span of a building, virtually brand new, is about to be pulled down.  I guess the “footfall” is dying away as people opt to shop, and carry out virtually everything else, on line.  So I parked in the Concert Square car park, a grim Lager with its sullen ammoniacal reek, and slipped across to the concert hall.      

Closed!  I walked up Sauchiehall Street, past the gently billowing tumbleweed, to Waterstones, browsed, and returned to the concert hall, still closed, not to be opened until 1815.  This is outrageous! – I said to the hapless doorman, conscious that I sounded like Bernard Levin, complaining he could not purchase champagne at the Usher Hall bar during the Edinburgh International Festival.  This is not worthy of a great cosmopolitan city.  Yes, sir.  I will write to the papers!  You do that, sir.  I repaired to Ask Italia, and offloaded my gripes and grumbles upon my longsuffering friends who, under the weather from La Grippe, and from recent Covid and ‘flu vac boosters, now had to put up with my rant.

The lasagne was excellent.

To the concert.  Balsam.  The leader of the RSNO, Maya Iwabuchi, introduced the programme.  She can be quite laconic.  She didn’t say anything about the contemporary work that would start the concert’s second half, but said that later the composer would come on stage and “explain himself”.  But she did give us a warning.  Brace yourselves.  For the first half, the orchestra played Stravinsky’s Fireworks, and the Benjamin Britten Violin Concerto.  Fireworks, Stravinsky’s Opus 4, was enchanting, impressionistic, perhaps reminiscent of Debussy.  The Britten was very haunting, particularly its protracted closing passages, masterfully played by the young American violinist Stefan Jackiw.  We repaired to the bar.  Friends from Canada said they envied us having all this culture on our doorstep. 

Part 2 commenced.  David Fennessy did indeed come on stage to talk about the impending World Première of his commissioned work, The Riot Act.  The composer had at his disposal the forces required for the work that was to follow, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  The availability of such massive forces is, apparently, a composer’s dream.  The Riot Act was of six minutes’ duration, and Mr Fennessy remarked that he distrusted introductory talks that exceeded the length of the music.  (I think he ran it pretty close.)  The Riot Act concerned an event that took place a stone’s throw (as the composer said, literally a stone’s throw) from where we now were, the Battle of George Square, on January 31st 1919, aka Black Friday or Bloody Friday.  On January 27th, 3,000 workers met in St Andrew’s Hall to demonstrate against unemployment, and the imposition of a 47 hour week.  A strike was called, and over the course of the next few days flying pickets amassed 40,000 workers.  In London there was nervousness about an impending Bolshevik uprising.  A War Cabinet was held on January 30th, chaired, in the absence of the PM, Lloyd George, by Andrew Bonar Law.  The Sheriff of Lanarkshire called for military aid, and troops, along with six tanks, were despatched, but not from nearby Maryhill Barracks, whose occupants might have sympathised with the workers.  A mass crowd had gathered in George Square.  The people were ordered to disperse.  The authorities read the riot act.  Literally.

Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the Act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assembles.


In David Fennessy’s piece, the Riot Act was read, or sung, by the tenor Mark Le Brocq, while the orchestra took the part of the rioters. 

The Riot Act proved to be absolutely ghastly.  I say that, not because it was avant garde, or “difficult”, or dissonant, or tuneless (though all of that is true), but because it was painfully, and I mean painfully, loud.  An enormous percussion section, going at full blast, was augmented by four musicians scattered about the choir stalls deploying shrieking police whistles of the Acme Thunderer variety.  It was excruciating.  It was also a health hazard.  I had to cover my ears. 

So from my muffled redoubt I can’t be sure what next transpired.  I think the document being declaimed was snatched away, and since the Riot Act was not fully read, it could not be enacted. But I suspect that’s wishful thinking.  In the event, there was a baton charge by police, some of them mounted.  Machine gun nests were installed in George Square.  The crowd was dispersed.  Fortunately there was only one fatality, a policeman who later died as a result of a head injury.  So perhaps the “Battle” of George Square is an exaggeration.  I’ve been reading Kate Adey’s autobiography, The Kindness of Strangers, in which she gives a very vivid account of events that took place in 1989 in and around Tiananmen Square.  She was there.  Her description is extraordinarily vivid, and the events truly horrific.   

In his talk, David Fennessy extolled our rights of freedom of assembly, and of freedom of speech.  It crossed my mind to stand up during the performance and exercise such rights by carrying out my own personal demonstration against noise pollution.  But I would not have been heard.  People might have thought I was part of the performance.  There was a further irony in the juxtaposition of The Riot Act with The Rite of Spring which, at its first performance in Paris in 1913, caused a riot. 

But now I was no longer in the mood.  I’ve been here before.  I attended a London Prom in 2008 (on the night the great champion of Arnold Bax, the conductor Vernon Handley died), featuring Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica, Iannis Xenakis’ Pléiades, and Holst’s The Planets.  The RVW was beautiful, and the Xenakis, a percussive piece, like The Riot Act, an assault on the delicate mechanisms of the inner ear.  I whispered to my neighbour, “Life’s too short”, and left.

And I would have done the same on Saturday night, but for the fact that my friends might have concluded I had taken ill.  Which, in a way, I had.  But I no longer had any desire to hear the Stravinsky.  Attending a concert is a bit like sitting down to, in this case, a four course meal.  The palate demands a certain congruity, or continuity; each course informs the one to follow.  But now somebody had evacuated on to my plate.

What a racket.  Think I’ll write to the papers.  My friends, wearied of my expostulations, nodded.  “You do that, James.”