Thursday, 8 December 2016


Best postal service. Someone in Finland ordered three CBe books, and I posted them. Someone else misread Thailand for Finland. The royal Thai post system returned them. I re-posted, refusing to pay again and using the original ‘single-use only’ postage label, and today the books got to the right place, after travelling around 13,000 miles.

Worst train service. Not-so Great Western Railway. I’ve been on just four day-return train journeys this year, and two of those were GWR. The first, to Bristol: the train never left the station, because they couldn’t get the brakes off. The second, yesterday, to Taunton: the train got as far as the first stop, Reading, and then decamped all passengers and returned to London, because something had been triggered.

Best new font: Palatino Sans. Discovered last week on the cover of a re-issue by a Canadian small press of Anne Carson’s Small Talks (2015; first published 1992), found in an Oxfam shop last Saturday for £2.99. The book was designed by Robert Bringhurst, who is not only a master designer of books (and has a classic book on typography) but also has a very fine Selected Poems available here from Cape. Most sans-serif fonts lack wit and character; this one doesn’t.

PS: on the same visit to Oxfam bookshop, I picked up the DVD of the documentary film titled Helvetica. Sans serif. Haven't watched it yet. I know, I know: the country is going to the dogs, up shit creek, plenty clich├ęs on hand, and Syria and Yemen are open wounds and I'm fussing about train times and typefaces.

Monday, 28 November 2016

On German doors and Buckingham Palace

In the 1980s I worked for a company that produced coffee-table books, some of them instructional, and the company took on a project to produce DIY books to be sold in Germany and France as well as the UK. No one seemed to have noticed that in Germany and France they wire and plumb differently. We hired a couple of consultants who got expenses-paid trips to London to explain things, and the more we talked, of course, the more differences became apparent.

Doors, for example. An English door is basically a rectangular thing with straight edges. A German door has rebates, often more than one, matching rebates in the frame: it keeps out draughts. The hinges are different too. I visited Germany at the time, and took in some art and some castles, but what seriously impressed me most were the doors. And the windows. They were streets ahead of anything I was familiar with in the UK. I was in Germany last week, which is why I have their doors on my mind.

A significant factor in the current UK housing crisis – quite apart from the lack of commitment over decades to building social housing, and the absurdity of ‘affordable’ housing – is the dilapidation of a large part of the UK housing stock. Our cars and laptops and coffee-shops and fashion match those of the rest of Europe, but the houses we live in are generally more decrepit and therefore more expensive to renovate or even keep in good repair (besides being insanely expensive in the first place).

For example, Buckingham Palace, comprising 755 rooms and lived in by the Queen for only a part of each year, now needs major refurbishment (new wiring, new plumbing) at a cost of £37 million. It hasn’t been redecorated since 1952. (What is the point of having £34 million in the bank – the Queen’s wealth, according to the 2015 Sunday Times Rich List – and not having fun painting the throne room pink and yellow, and polka dots in the state banqueting room?) Who has allowed the place to get into this condition – the government, the Royal family? And who now pays?

The Royal Collection (‘being the works of art held by the Queen in right of the Crown and held in trust for her successors and for the nation’) is large: its website has records for over 250,000 objects. A fraction of these have been seen by the public. The collection includes a couple of Titians, 27 works by Rubens, 33 by Van Dyck, 69 by Rembrandt, 237 by Canaletto and 567 by Leonardo Da Vinci (the latter including a drawing, c.1510, titled ‘A Cloudburst of Material Possessions’). As a contribution towards the £37 million, couldn’t some be sold? Does the Royal family (does anyone) really need over 230 works by Canaletto? These are not rhetorical questions. A little less Canaletto – I don’t think they’d even notice.

Friday, 11 November 2016

9/11 (2016)

A couple of posts ago I wrote: ‘The Brexit vote was won by the comment threads, the surrender to opinion. Not thinking.’ Now Trump …

I’m not constructing an argument here, I’m too lazy for that, but here are a few things in my head.

The net and social media and online journalism and radio phone-ins (a really cheap, cost-cutting way of doing broadcasting) have opened up all topics-for-debate to everyone with a keyboard. Everyone has their say, often on subjects they know little about. (I mentioned in that previous post that, bizarrely, I have an opinion to spout on the TV baking programme, even though I’ve never watched it. And there are certainly some writers I have an opinion about even though I haven’t properly read them.)

Not Cogito ergo sum, but: I have an opinion, therefore I am. (And I am not – yet – going to be shot for it. In some countries I would be. This one is still, I’m told, a ‘free country’.)

In the space where opinions are aired, they tend to coalesce, in a way that often involves a further degree of not-thinking. X (who may be a close and long-time friend, or a group of friends, or a critic or a politician or some other professional I have learned to trust) thinks this about Y (which might be globalisation or a particular issue in gender politics or the England cricket team selection or Z’s new novel), therefore I think this too.

A ridiculous BBC notion of balance – if publicly funded airtime is given to this argument, then there’s an obligation to give airtime to the counter-argument – encourages this free-for-all of opinion. It’s democracy, innit?

Some people do know whereof they are speaking. They used to be called, and often still are, ‘experts’. Skilled and qualified people who have devoted their whole working lives to learning about, and thinking deeply about, a particular subject (climate change, for example; or poetry).

The diminishment of automatic respect for expertise, certainly for an expertise that is built into the status-quo establishment way of thinking and dealing with things, has been healthy, also the loosening-up of deference. The world is not flat. Giving votes to women – and god, the struggle to achieve even that – was not a bad idea. The trampling of expertise by opinion is not healthy.

It’s in these my-opinion-is-as-good-as-yours democracies that the votes for (1) Brexit and (2) Trump have been counted. It’s in this my-opinion-is-as-good-as-yours atmosphere that the Brexit campaigns were conducted, utterly lousily, utterly condescendingly, without trust in the intelligence of their constituencies, by both sides. Rhetoric. Fear. Money the only god. Instant opinion. Re-tweet.

And the experts? The experts the media treated us to, day after day, were not the ones who have devoted their lives to the issues but the ones who claim to know about how the issues play into politics. And they got it wrong, every time: on Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, on the last UK election, on Brexit, on the US election, on who would win the last Ashes series (cricket) between England and Australia, and a whole lot more. They consistently get it wrong, and they are paid to be wrong. The message then being: experts, huh. Climate change, huh.

The proposition in the last post, by the way, that the Palace of Westminster – home to the Houses of Parliament, whose decaying, asbestos-ridden fabric will cost around £4 billion to repair – might be demolished and rebuilt in the Midlands, and that on the present site there might be new social housing – was meant completely seriously. No irony. It’s too late for irony. Why should Trump be the only one who can go out of the box and still win? What box?

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Parliament: a health warning

According to the government’s Health & Safety Executive, ‘Asbestos is the biggest occupational disease risk to construction workers. HSE commissioned research estimates it was responsible for the death of over 2,500 construction workers in 2005 – more than two-thirds of cancer deaths in the industry.’

The Houses of Parliament are falling apart, and they are riddled with asbestos. This is from the official website: ‘There has been significant under-investment in the Palace [of Westminster] for decades. Parts of the building, including the House of Commons chamber, were renovated following bomb damage during the Second World War. Other areas have not undergone appropriate renovation since the Palace was built in the mid-1800s. Currently, the speed at which the work can be carried out is slower than the rate at which the building is deteriorating, therefore the backlog of essential repairs, and in turn the risk of system failure, is growing significantly over time. These challenges are compounded by the presence of asbestos throughout the building and fitting work around sittings of Parliament. The current piecemeal approach of repairing only those areas at highest risk of failure to ensure the work of Parliament remains uninterrupted is no longer sustainable and we have now reached the stage where a substantial renovation is needed.’

And this is from a Guardian report dated September this year: ‘Plans to move MPs and peers out of parliament for six years of repairs to the Palace of Westminster could end up costing more than £4bn, as a report on the restoration works put no firm price tag on the project. Tina Stowell, who co-leads the joint committee on the Palace of Westminster, said the restoration and repair works were essential to mitigate the risk of parliament burning down or suffering a catastrophic systems failure.’

The UK is falling apart. There is increasing wealth inequality: ‘The poorest fifth of society have only 8% of the total income, whereas the top fifth have 40%.’ There are divisions between between old and young (75% of 18–24-year-olds voted remain in the Brexit vote) and along other faultlines (race, gender), and between London and the regions (a major element of the Brexit vote was protest by those who felt neglected by the ‘metropolitan elite’).

It’s possible that the current UK political system is already suffering ‘a catastrophic systems failure’. A divided UK is currently ruled by a divided government that came into power committed to staying in Europe and that is now committed to exiting Europe, that rejects the High Court’s judgement that the terms of Brexit should be debated in Parliament, that holds a small majority in the Commons and yet faces an Opposition even more divided than itself. It’s possible that more than ‘substantial renovation’ is needed.

Knock the Palace of Westminster down. Rebuild in the Midlands, out of London. On the present site, build social housing for those teachers, nurses, social and transport workers and others who keep this city running but who are priced out of the property market. I’d vote for this.

(Not for the total irrelevance that is the Garden Bridge, on which around £40 million public money has already been spent. To go ahead with this now would be at least as provocative as Marie Antoinette’s ‘Let them eat cake.')

Monday, 7 November 2016

On consumer protection

The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 ‘prevents manufacturers, retailers or service industry providers from misleading customers as to what they are spending their money on’ (Wiki).

So, if I buy something online and it turns out to be not as described, or the wrong size, or there’s a bit missing or malfunctioning, I can cancel the deal and get my money back.

Sometimes, of course, I just change my mind (it’s what minds are for).

The UK version of parliamentary democracy also offers a form of consumer protection. If I don’t like how the party in government is acting, I have the opportunity – every five years at least – to vote for a different party.

Brexit does not work like this. And irrespective of whether you voted in the referendum to leave or remain in the EU, there is this godawful mess to be dealt with: in the last General Election the UK voted into power a party that wanted the UK to stay in the EU, and is now governed by a party committed to getting out of the EU.

The 2015 Tory manifesto of course played it both ways. Here’s the relevant passage, page 74: ‘We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market. Yes to turbo-charging free trade. Yes to working together where we are stronger together than alone. Yes to a family of nation states, all part of a European Union – but whose interests, crucially, are guaranteed whether inside the Euro or out. No to ‘ever closer union.’ No to a constant flow of power to Brussels. No to unnecessary interference. And no, of course, to the Euro, to participation in Eurozone bail-outs or notions like a European Army. It will be a fundamental principle of a future Conservative Government that membership of the European Union depends on the consent of the British people – and in recent years that consent has worn wafer-thin. That’s why, after the election, we will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in Europe, and then ask the British people whether they want to stay in the EU on this reformed basis or leave. David Cameron has committed that he will only lead a government that offers an in-out referendum. We will hold that in-out referendum before the end of 2017 and respect the outcome.’

There are no arguments, there is no reasoning, here. ‘We say: yes to the Single Market’. No explanation of what that is. Capital letters, as if it’s a thing – like God, say, or Nature – that can’t be changed, a thing that’s just there. Wiki takes the capital letters off, because it is not a given, it’s something that has to be worked for, and in this case has been, for decades: ‘A single market allows for people, goods, services and capital to move around a union as freely as they do within a single country – instead of being obstructed by national borders and barriers as they were in the past. Citizens can study, live, shop, work and retire in any member state. Consumers enjoy a vast array of products from all member states and businesses have unrestricted access to more consumers.’

Freedom of movement of goods and services and capital without freedom of movement of people is not a single market. We know this; the Tories know it, and knew it when they constructed that manifesto, and said yes to the single market. And now, after being elected by the UK democratic process on the basis of saying yes to it, they are saying no to it.

The preceding sentence is hideous: ‘what we want from Europe’. ‘Europe’ is some other place entirely from which we demand things, even expect them as our right? Maybe history has got it all wrong, maybe the UK (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and god knows that was hard to achieve, over centuries) really is some free-floating little continent all to itself.

The ‘will of the people’ – in this case 52% against 48% – is a fickle thing. On the whole, this system we live under allows for this: we can change our minds, we are protected against our own impulse-buying habits. In the case of Brexit we have no protection. And we’ve been sold a pup.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

What do you think?

Very often, I don’t know. Je ne sais pas. Often, Je ne comprends pas.

About the Clinton emails, for example, I haven’t been following. I don’t know much about Hillary Clinton except that certain people I respect who do know about her have no respect for her, despise her, but on the other hand … This binary thing. Of course I have an opinion (first definition in my online dictionary: ‘a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge’) about Clinton, but that’s not the same thing as thinking. I have an opinion about the silly things, about the way Clinton is so often called Hillary, while Trump is Trump. I have an opinion about the way this whole thing is played out on the media that reaches me. I have an opinion about the way meatballs should be cooked (poached, since you ask; no need to pan-fry them first).

I’ve recently come out of Facebook, or maybe just ducked very low, because of this: it’s a medium that excites immediate opinionating, and I was doing that, about things I hadn’t thought through, and I was getting into binary arguments I shouldn’t have, and was being liked or disliked, but a lot less than I was disliking myself for getting into this mess.

Radio phone-ins: some are very good, they filter. The comment threads on news sites are moderated but less filtering, they are more a free-for-all, which is their point? Current online Guardian offers me the opportunity to opinionate about the US election, Bake-Off, Uber, Russian involvement in Syria, England cricket team selection and something titled ‘The end of cleavage’. I could, if I could be bothered, comment on all, not least the cricket thing, which is a part of my life, and the Bake-Off thing, which I’ve never watched but which I still, oddly, find myself opinionated by, but why?

There is news and there is news, the latter being people’s opinions (those party promises, all of them: ‘We will listen’) which are scrunched, analysed by well-paid people and then themselves become the news, and then policy, and then round we go again, and can someone get a grip? I’m thinking, enlightened despotism. Because this way of democracy clearly isn’t working (and not just because I disagree with some of its decisions).

The Brexit vote was won by the comment threads, the surrender to opinion. Not thinking.

No, I don’t distrust ‘the people’. Among them, the 27.8% of the electorate, well over a quarter, who didn’t vote in the referendum. The 33.9% of the electorate, over a third, who didn’t vote in the last general election. More people didn’t vote at all than voted for any particular party. I do trust; see last post. I trust in a third of the electorate’s disaffection from political rhetoric.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Down the road from Wetherby

A few hours after writing the last post – on Wetherby – I met someone whose mother came from Knaresborough, which is just 8 miles from Wetherby, and whose father was a German prisoner-of-war in Knaresborough. I had no idea this POW camp existed (nor any of the several others located in Yorkshire), even though it wasn’t finally empty until after I was born (after the war it served as a camp for displaced persons).

The POW camp at Scriven Hall, Knaresborough, was an internment camp for low-risk prisoners – no watchtowers, no barbed wire, and the prisoners were generally able to wander in and out. The camp was home to Italian POWs from 1941, and later Russian and German ones. Extracts from an online research paper on the Knaresborough camp:

‘Under escort, [the Russians] were allowed to visit the nearest “local”, which was the Royal Oak on Bond End, where they sold beautiful hand-made wooden toys to supplement their income … The Russians were well thought of by local farmers and endeared themselves further at Christmas 1944. The local paper recorded: “For some time a number of Russians have been working on the land in the Knaresborough district, and have won golden opinions from the farmers who have employed them. Although the men receive only a few shillings a week, they have expressed a desire to make some contribution to the Christmas festivities of evacuated children in the town and have subscribed in small amounts a total of £16, which was presented by their representatives at a special meeting of Knaresborough Urban District Council on Tuesday afternoon. The men have also sent about 100 toys for the children. This is a thoughtful gesture that is very much appreciated.”

‘German POWS seem to have arrived after this and were not repatriated until two or three years after the end of hostilities … Otto Feltz was in the Luftwaffe, captured in France a short time after the outbreak of war. He spent the rest of the war in sixteen internment camps in Europe and the UK, including Scriven. During the winter of 1947 he was sent into York to clear the streets of heavy snow and where he encountered some hostility from the Jewish community who “poured hot drinks into the freezing snow so that we could not drink ...”. Nevertheless, Otto chose to remain in the UK after the war and farmed at Brereton … Heinz Emmerich had commanded a German minesweeper before it was sunk in the English Channel in 1944 and he was captured. Speaking good English, he became an interpreter in British POW camps, moving from camp to camp throughout Yorkshire and he spent some time at Scriven. Disregarding the rules, and trusted by the authorities, Emmerich used to drink in pubs and had English girlfriends. His First Officer had been the son of a brewer and whilst they were held in a Rotherham POW camp, they began to distil illicit spirits which were sold at £1 per bottle to both prisoners and the public outside the camp on the black market, the alcohol being marketed by British army drivers. By the time of his release in 1948, Emmerich had accumulated an impressive total of £800 in savings from this illegal activity. He was repatriated to Germany but found that it was not the country he had known and so he returned to marry an English girl.

‘By the end of the war, more than 400,000 Germans were being held in POW camps on the outskirts of most towns and by 1946, these prisoners were responsible for 20% of all farm labouring in Britain. They also made significant contributions to the major rebuilding programmes of roads and housing.

‘One resident recalls the POWs selling slippers door to door around Knaresborough and remembers how “they were mostly nice people who fitted well into the community” … At Christmas 1946, about one hundred POWs were invited to spend Christmas Day in the homes of local residents, a number of whom travelled by car to the camp to pick up their guests. The remainder of the prisoners were allowed liberty from the camp during the day and groups of them, in their uniforms of blue or brown with the distinctive POW patches, were to be seen about Knaresborough. In the evening, the men put on an impromptu concert which included pieces played by their own band … In January 1948, The Germans hosted a party at the Methodist hall in Knaresborough High Street for 100 local children as a return for the hospitality they had received in the area. The children were given gifts of hand-made toys, described as “miracles of ingenuity and improvisation”, from old pieces of wood, tin and wire, painted in bright colours.

‘POWs apart, there were many people at the end of the war who were, for various reasons, unable to return home. Some of these displaced persons (DP) were also accommodated at Scriven. From 1947, under the European Volunteer Workers (EVW) scheme, citizens of any state, including “defeated hostiles”, could apply to come and settle within the UK. This was an effort to aid those who had been rendered homeless during the war and to help alleviate the chronic labour shortage in essential services within Britain immediately thereafter. Although most successful applicants were single, EVWs could subsequently invite close relatives to join them in the DP camps and a number of children were born in UK camps … Only the Poles were welcomed into the UK as a group of immigrants, being allies who often could not return to Poland. They were offered naturalisation, language training, help with housing and vocational courses to help them settle here. Some 300,000 Poles settled in the UK after the war … Vacated by the European Volunteer Workers, the camp was empty in August 1952.’

I find the above oddly moving: the acceptance – not unanimous, of course: if you’d had a son or husband or brother killed in the services, or relatives killed in the Blitz, it can’t have been an easy thing to have captured enemy soldiers walking the streets of your town: but in general, acceptance, yes – by a largely rural, conservative community of outsiders dumped on their doorstep. The making do, the getting on with life, the bonds formed. The absence of political rhetoric.