Monday, 30 May 2011

Exhibition now running

My exhibition in Lyme Regis is now open. See the News and exhibitions page on this blog for details of location and opening.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Bank holiday diversions

"This week being sacred to holy things, and no public diversions allowed, there has been taken notice of even here, a little Treatise, called 'A Project for the Advancement of Religion: dedicated to the Countess of Berkeley.' The title was so uncommon, and promised so peculiar a way of thinking, that every man here has read it, and as many as have done so have approved it. It is written with the spirit of one who has seen the world enough to undervalue it with good breeding. The author must certainly be a man of wisdom, as well as piety, and have spent as much time in the exercise of both. The real causes of the decay of the interests of religion are set forth in a clear and lively manner, without unseasonable passions; and the whole air of the book, as to the language, the sentiments, and the reasonableness, show it was written by one whose virtue sits easy about him, and to whom vice is thoroughly contemptible. It was said by one of this company, alluding to that knowledge of the world the author seems to have, the man writes much like a gentleman, and goes to Heaven with a very good mien."

Richard Steele Tatler 20 April 1709

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Aging and maturing

There are few sadder sights than some of the pieces of furniture in the study collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum: some of those modernist items from the early years of the last century, once so smart, bright and shining, new materials once so glowing, pure lines once so crisply defined, now faded, scuffed and dowdy.

Their aging has been so less gracious than the sturdy solid timber tables and chairs of past centuries, whose marks, distortions and patina add to rather than detract from their appearance and attraction: their meaning enhanced rather than declined. Yet it is not only the solid timber work that matures in this way, Even the sophisticated cabinet work of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which too (unlike the early English oak table) were once sharp, bright and crisp but where now the ravages of time, use and dehumidified atmosphere have warped surfaces and opened up cracks, look, with the well polished care of the years, as if they have acquired a bloom rather than lost it.

What is it that determines whether an artefact will be capable of maturing over the years rather than aging, and what is it in our modern aesthetic, our manner of making and our philosophy or productive work that has lost us the ability (sometimes) to express our creative impulse in things that will have a positive participation in history’s progression? And which pieces from the work of current furniture designer makers will fare well or badly in this respect?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Exhibition of my furniture in Lyme Regis

I am holding an exhibition of my furniture in the Town Mill Gallery in Lyme Regis, here in west Dorset. It opens this coming Saturday and runs until Wednesday 15 June.

The furniture exhibited will be drawn from thirty years of my work designing and making furniture to individual commission.

(For those who might want to know what I was doing before then, the answer is that I was working in academic publishing – and the really curious will be able to find a few fruits of my erstwhile labours on the shelves of one of the exhibits.)

Although some of the furniture in the exhibition will be for sale, and other items can be repeated (or modified) to order, virtually all of them were designed (or their originals were) for particular individuals – even if that individual was very occasionally myself – and for individual locations. They are therefore very varied in character and type, but they are not confined to their original application. Some of the designs have found more than one home already, although most do remain unique.

Some of the exhibits have been borrowed back for this event and visitors may observe a few marks of their history of use. My furniture is for use, though it also seeks to embody something that may be unexpected, yet right seeming.

Designing and making furniture to commission is a fusion of the intentions and creative impulses of several people. For the commissioner the experience should not be daunting, it should be pleasurable – but it cannot be predictable. You don’t have to know what you want. You do need to know what you want the thing to do for you, and where you might put it: function is important, even if, sometimes, the main function is just to look attractive. Furniture does, after all, furnish a room. But you don’t have to be able to visualise it as a piece of furniture, know what shape it should be, what wood it should be made of, although there is no reason why you should not discuss all that if you do have ideas, positive or negative.

I hope visitors will feel free to talk to me about the process and possibilities, even if they do not think they want to embark on it themselves.

For full details of opening times and of the location please go to the News and exhibitions page on this blog.


"The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.”

Dr. Samuel Johnson, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, ‘Cowley’ (1781)

Justice delayed is justice denied

In the High Court in London the other day Mr Justice Tugendhat observed that “It is a further requirement of justice that the court should not make a finding adverse to a person in circumstances where that person has been given no warning of the case which is advanced against him or her.”

Was he rebuking the government over their application of anti-terrorist ‘control orders’ or whatever they are now termed?

No, he was commenting on tabloid newspapers’ recent attempt to have the privacy injunction on the former head of Royal Bank of Scotland lifted: "Sir Frederick Goodwin and the lady had had no opportunity to respond to the case in court."

My heading is usually attributed to William Ewart Gladstone, British Prime Minister and bane of Queen Victoria’s life, but this and other legal principles are equally honoured, in the breach if not the observance, in both this country and the United States:

"A sense of confidence in the courts is essential to maintain the fabric of ordered liberty for a free people and three things could destroy that confidence and do incalculable damage to society: that people come to believe that inefficiency and delay will drain even a just judgment of its value; that people who have long been exploited in the smaller transactions of daily life come to believe that courts cannot vindicate their legal rights from fraud and over-reaching; that people come to believe the law - in the larger sense - cannot fulfill its primary function to protect them and their families in their homes, at their work, and on the public streets." Burger, What's Wrong With the Courts: The Chief Justice Speaks Out, U.S. News & World Report (vol. 69, No. 8, Aug. 24, 1970)

Sir Fred, and all other anonymous citizens, may take comfort that they will be spared the law's delay, even if not the proud man's contumely.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Technological fix

A house in Vicksburg, Mississippi

In the southern English countryside in Hampshire on Saturday afternoon several members of the public contacted the police to report a tiger in a field. One had examined the beast through his camera zoom lens and concluded that it was threatening. A police officer confirmed the sighting. A team with tranquiliser darts was mobilised from the local zoo and dispatched in a helicopter, whilst the nearby golf course was cleared and preparations were made to close a motorway. Police on the ground found that the animal was not moving and cameras onboard the helicopter registered a lack of a heat source. Finally the tiger rolled over in the helicopter’s down draft revealing it to be a life-sized soft toy, of the kind that can be won at fun fairs.

‘It is understood that the tranquillizer dart was not used.’

‘The life-sized stuffed animal is being treated as lost property.’

‘Police continue to focus on more urgent matters.’

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Twitter ye not

To prevent Twitter posters from defying English 'privacy' legal injunctions (see Super good faith yesterday):

"... experts claim that lawyers at Schillings, who represent the professional footballer at the centre of the row, would need to file their case in California to have any success  and this would require them to publicly reveal the name of their client."

Who said the law was an ass? Not in California. But surely litigants are: what clearer confirmation could there be that the Twitterers have correctly identified the footballer than to threaten to suppress them by law?

"Twitter has been seeking to find a European base in London. It is not known if the recent row has made the company change its plans."

See also...

Saturday, 21 May 2011

DSK: the latest

The arrested suspect, now released on millionaire bail, has been unable to take up residence in New York’s super luxury Bristol Plaza building, where the management is said to have banned him from occupying the two apartments that his wife had booked there.

In the Plaza chambers of New York opinion is distinctly unsympathetic:

‘one resident said the media scrum was the first news he had heard of Strauss-Kahn's arrival. "It's outrageous. You think someone would have told us. I am going to object to this," he said.’

Meanwhile on the streets of Paris a more sceptical attitude prevails:

‘some people think Dominique Strauss-Kahn was stitched up by President Sarkozy. Some think it was the Germans, executing that well-known route out of a common currency, where you honeytrap the main defender of the euro. And some people think it was the Americans, acting out of sheer anti-French malice, or objecting to Strauss-Kahn's observation that the US has breached its debt ceiling (it stands at $14.3 trillion). What I didn't find was one person who actually thinks Strauss-Kahn could possibly have attempted to rape a chambermaid.’

Parisians point out that the gentleman had ample means to indulge his sexual appetites more discreetly, and that his power and wealth could command many women’s favours without protest. Another speculates that the maid, perhaps not knowing who he was, may not thereby have found him attractive:

‘By this rationale, DSK was brought down by his poor brand reach.’

As usual it’s all about brands. Would J**** D**** have had such a problem?

Trafalgar Square?

Always worth reading.

A hard rain's a-gonna fall

Super good faith

Legal injunctions prohibiting the publication of information about the supposedly private lives of famous people enjoying seven figure remuneration, such as bankers and football stars, have recently been defied by postings on Twitter and the internet.

(American banks tend to call it not 'remuneration' but 'compensation', and it normally comes in 'packages' - compensation for what private loss, one wonders - in this country bank compensation more normally means payments to depositors in failed banks.)

To return to the defiance of injunctions: ‘Lord Judge said he believed that ways would be found to curtail the "misuse of modern technology", in the same way that those involved with online child pornography were pursued by the police. "Are you really going to say that someone who has a true claim for protection perfectly well made has to be at the mercy of modern technology?" he asked.’

Our culture secretary, the celebrated Jeremy Hunt, accused Twitter of 'making an ass of the law'. It was of course Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist who famously yoked together the law and an ass, when he had Mr Bumble observe that if 'the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction' then 'if the law supposes that ... the law is a ass'. Well, Mr Hunt is only our government minster responsible for culture, but had he been a little more familiar with his Dickens he might have concluded that the law is not being made an ass now, but is already an ass for supposing that Twitter will act under his or its direction.

Abhorrent though the activities of paedophiles are, there is something deeply disturbing about the almost unrestricted panoply of official investigation, restrictions, and surveillance, and public demonization being applied to the internet pedlars of inconvenient or even false information. Lord Judge’s sentiment may be laudable, but his proposal presages a new apparatus of official control whose application will outrun the avowed intentions of those who introduce it, and will include no protection for the unprivileged from 'the proud man's contumely ... the law's delay, the insolence of office'.

‘The report also says that media reports of comments made in parliament which set out to contravene injunctions may be in contempt of court. Reports of statements in the Commons and Lords are only protected by parliamentary privilege if they are published "in good faith and without malice".’

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


As a footnote to my earlier reflections on Hand or machine? and Designer-makers: the world we have lost, it has struck me that the nature of accuracy in craft work has completely changed between hand and machine skills.

In hand work accuracy is the exercise of dexterity and poise, arising from judgement in the combination of the perceptions of the senses and the application of the hand. Skill is a constant response to, and if required, correction of what has been done to the artefact before.

Accuracy in machine work is all about consistent referencing to the established datum.

Sophisticated, modern, automated machines can establish a new accurate datum with each process, as programmed in advance. Hand operated machines, with scope for manually introduced error, need to be referenced back, as far as possible, each time to the original. Correction and modification is likely to result in unintended deviation.


Perhaps, as a correction to my immediately previous post, I should cite this (‘Reprofiling’), and, for good measure refer my reader to this (‘The New Normal’), which, all combined, poses the question whether corrupt privilege is so entrenched in our system that it can never be reclaimed for the public good, or whether the financial system is so inescapably compromised and crippled with its distortions that its collapse may be only a matter of (not very much) time.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Accountability, justice and power

The millionaire head of the IMF, known to be moving the organisation in a more ‘progressive’ direction, and likely socialist candidate in the forthcoming French presidential elections, at a time when, under intense American and Chinese pressure, terms for IMF assistance to Greece are to be renegotiated and a new agreement struck with Portugal, is photographed brought into a New York court on charges of sexual molestation, handcuffed, unshaven and in an ill-fitting raincoat, to have bail set at one million dollars, as a ‘flight risk’, with the comparison made with Roman Polanski.

Could anyone imagine such a thing happening to a chief executive of one of the major international banking corporations? Indeed, why should one? Different standards hold.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde's Dictionary

In his celebrated Dictionary, Dr Johnson famously provided some definitions in which he both exercised his wit and reflected his personal experience. Thus a lexicographer is ‘a harmless drudge’, a patron ‘commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery’, and a pension ‘is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country’.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, whose lexicographical collaboration is sadly little known, regrettably overshadowed perhaps by their other activities, were never able quite to agree on the legitimacy of such indulgence. They finally resolved their disagreement by dividing their work with Dr Jekyll providing the neutrally accurate definition and Mr Hyde adding to the entries in a way which displayed his more acerbic character, often as much in the choice of particular usages defined as in the definitions themselves.

I have posted on a separate page of this blog some examples of their joint work which I believe have a particular relevance to our own times. I may add to them from time to time.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Heart of Darkness

In a recent post, No subject, I reflected upon our inability to empathise fully with the greater suffering of, to take but one example, the people of central Africa, because we do not know them, because they are not ours. We assume, I suggested, that they have somehow brought their sufferings upon themselves.

We assume that, I think, partly because the horrific brutality they sometimes inflict upon each other seems so alien and incomprehensible: people do not, with just a few isolated exceptions, do that sort of thing with machetes in West Kensington or North Virginia.

I should have reflected that it was, quite likely, western practice that established such horrors in the minds and experience of the people of central Africa. In the Congo Free State the Force Publique made the practice of cutting off the limbs of the natives as a means of enforcing rubber quotas a matter of policy; the practice was widespread. In this country we tend to regard such things as an aberration attributable to the infamous King Leopold II of Belgium, who made the Congo his personal possession and who was thought to have reduced the native population by half in his process of expropriating its wealth. It was indeed international pressure lead by the British, and Mark Twain, that forced the Belgium government to take over responsibility for the territory and turn the Free State into a government administered colony, although it was not, by all accounts, exactly well endowed with infrastructure and social stability when it was granted independence in 1960.

British responsibility for the establishment of the free state is, however, not negligible, in that is was the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Welsh born but British be-knighted, who was instrumental in establishing Leopold's domain.

That, however, is history, but the present apparently finds western societies still bringing an overwhelming and malign influence onto the lives of the peoples of the Congo. A recent talk by the journalist Johann Hari at the Royal Society of Arts in London (how different a caché 'royal' bestows in this context from that of King Leopold II) shows us how intimately our personal lives connect with the sufferings of the people of central Africa.

In whose hearts is the darkness now?

Saturday, 14 May 2011


Monday, 9 May 2011

Schleswig-Holstein digested

The long-running tale of furniture designer-makers reforming their association has reached some kind of conclusion, but in the two or three year long process has become rather like the Schleswig-Holstein question. When I die no-one will understand it except our founder, who, by then, will be in a lunatic asylum after his long battle against the committee-ising tendency.

So, before I forget all about it, here, for the benefit of posterity, is my digested read.

There once was an association called DMOU without rules or leader. It had an internet forum called Discuss, or the forum, but you couldn't join Discuss except by being a member of DMOU, though you could be a member of DMOU and not take any part in Discuss. Being a member of DMOU was if existing members recognised you as such. After the Two Hundred Years War a majority of members of DMOU voted to call themselves FDMA, call Discuss the Forum, adopt a set of rules which nobody read but everybody thought were jolly good, and elect a committee which wasn't meant to do anything except keep the money, answer the post and deputise for each other when they fell ill from too many committee lunches. (Some hope there!) Since DMOU had no rules, no-one could say whether this was legitimate or not, but FDMA had 'force majeure' on its side. Following the example of David Owen when the Social Democratic Party merged with the Liberal party, some old lags from DMOU declared the vote was not legitimate and that they embodied the continuing DMOU. Others, like aging bishops slumped in their armchairs in the library of the Athenaeum, no longer knew what they belonged to. There then ensued the War of the Succession, which lasted for the next five hundred years, outlasting the survival of furniture as it was once known, and which, as I hardly need tell you, in our day has been totally replaced by Gravity Control Differential Force Fields and Invisibility Cloaks. If you're interested to know what 'furniture' actually looked like back then I think you can still find a few examples in Reserve Collection 5C of the European State Museum of Antiquities (normally open every third Wednesday afternoon of the month by appointment). As I recollect, there are even one or two pieces reputed to have been made by members of DMOU or FDMA. It is now difficult to know what functional purpose theses strange-looking objects possessed, and at least one of them has a peculiar mark called a 'Guildmark'. No-one now knows what that mark represented, but it is thought to have had some significance in the War of the Succession. Or not.

I hope that makes it all clear


The Hands of Jobs

An American company, owned by our very own dearly beloved WPP, has just released its annual ‘global brand power list’, where Apple has shot to the top of a scale that estimates brand value on the basis of such key metrics as ‘desirability’ and ‘buzz’. (Somehow you can tell this is the work of an advertising company, but I think money’s in there somewhere too.)

BP of course (wrong kind of buzz) has slumped to number 64 – do we still love it?

The top of the list is dominated by the commuter and communications world – not just Apple but Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Vodafone, IBM and not forgetting China Mobile – with a strong showing also from staff-of-life companies, MacDonald’s, Coca Cola, Walmart and Marlboro, and a sprinkling of lightweights such as GE.

Many of these brands of course, like WPP itself, share internationally creative taxation practices.

Our own Furniture Designer Makers’ Association doesn’t seem to have made it into the top hundred – perhaps because we haven’t sorted out our logo yet.

The Hands of God and Man

Sunday, 8 May 2011

War is the health of the state

'It cannot be too firmly realized that war is a function of States and not of nations, indeed that it is the chief function of States. War is a very artificial thing. It is not the naïve spontaneous outburst of herd pugnacity; it is no more primary than is formal religion. War cannot exist without a military establishment, and a military establishment cannot exist without a State organization. War has an immemorial tradition and heredity only because the State has a long tradition and heredity. But they are inseparably and functionally joined. We cannot crusade against war without crusading implicitly against the State. And we cannot expect, or take measures to ensure, that this war is a war to end war, unless at the same time we take measures to end the State in its traditional form. The State is not the nation, and the State can be modified and even abolished in its present form, without harming the nation. On the contrary, with the passing of the dominance of the State, the genuine life-enhancing forces of the nation will be liberated. If the State’s chief function is war, then the State must suck out of the nation a large part of its energy for its purely sterile purposes of defense and aggression.
'What is the State essentially? The more closely we examine it, the more mystical and personal it becomes. On the Nation we can put our hand as a definite social group, with attitudes and qualities exact enough to mean something. On the Government we can put our hand as a certain organization of ruling functions, the machinery of lawmaking and law-enforcing. The Administration is a recognizable group of political functionaries, temporarily in charge of the government. But the State stands as an idea behind them all, eternal, sanctified, and from it Government and Administration conceive themselves to have the breath of life. Even the nation, especially in times of war — or at least, its significant classes — considers that it derives its authority and its purpose from the idea of the State.
'Nothing is more obvious, however, than that every one of us comes into society as into something in whose creation we had not the slightest hand. We have not even the advantage, like those little unborn souls in The Blue Bird, of consciousness before we take up our careers on earth. By the time we find ourselves here we are caught in a network of customs and attitudes, the major directions of our desires and interests have been stamped on our minds, and by the time we have emerged from tutelage and reached the years of discretion when we might conceivably throw our influence to the reshaping of social institutions, most of us have been so molded into the society and class we live in that we are scarcely aware of any distinction between ourselves as judging, desiring individuals and our social environment. We have been kneaded so successfully that we approve of what our society approves, desire what our society desires, and add to the group our own passionate inertia against change, against the effort of reason, and the adventure of beauty.

'Every one of us, without exception, is born into a society that is given, just as the fauna and flora of our environment are given. Society and its institutions are, to the individual who enters it, as much naturalistic phenomena as is the weather itself. There is, therefore, no natural sanctity in the State any more than there is in the weather. We may bow down before it, just as our ancestors bowed before the sun and moon, but it is only because something in us unregenerate finds satisfaction in such an attitude, not because there is anything inherently reverential in the institution worshiped. Once the State has begun to function, and a large class finds its interest and its expression of power in maintaining the State, this ruling class may compel obedience from any uninterested minority. The State thus becomes an instrument by which the power of the whole herd is wielded for the benefit of a class. The rulers soon learn to capitalize the reverence which the State produces in the majority, and turn it into a general resistance toward a lessening of their privileges. The sanctity of the State becomes identified with the sanctity of the ruling class, and the latter are permitted to remain in power under the impression that in obeying and serving them, we are obeying and serving society, the nation, the great collectivity of all of us. . . . '

War is the health of the state


The cutting edge of luxury


Furniture designer-makers anxiously and interminably fret about their commercial viability, their social responsibility, and look to their new association to make them rich and famous (whilst keeping them ethical and sustainable).

It would repay us to reflect on an account of a commercially highly successful sector of the retail trade in the UK published in today's Observer. At first sight, we are the polar opposites of women's high-street fashion, but we live and work in the same world. Is that the globalised world?

Language, thought and metaphor

Is metaphor inherently a ‘category mistake’? (Denouncing such mistakes seems to have become the new form of witch hunting.)

Thought develops consciously through language, but language is formed by cultural accretion. Within that context, linguistic expression forms an expression within its own terms. That is not necessarily true to the perception that prompted the thought. Language has its own references and autonomy. I like to think that is why Samuel Johnson advised writers to re-read their texts and to strike anything they thought ‘particularly fine’. It was, I hope, not just an aversion to purple passages, but a recognition that what seems especially linguistically satisfying is likely to have forsaken the awkward attempt to express thought, and become a linguistic creation, a work or art – or perhaps craft – in its own terms.

Metaphor challenges and upsets the linguistic integrity. It is a higher form of art in miniature. Perhaps all art is a category mistake.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Designer-makers: the world we have lost

I should perhaps apologise, to those who come to this blog thinking it concerns furniture, that so many of the recent posts have been about the world and politics. Yet I have been reflecting, from a furniture designer-maker’s perspective, on skill, tools and machines – though I fear that, through them, we shall get to society again.

Skill in making, I reflect, is only expressible through tools – which is the only reason the dolphins have not surpassed us. And machines – are they not another form of tools? We use the word now to mean motorised devices, although it was not originally so, and that, I first think is the key distinction that makes a tool a facilitator of skill and a machine a limiter of it. Yet perhaps it is not so. Is there really any essential difference between the pole lathe and the electric one, the treadle fret saw and the electric one?

Let me take a step back, or sideways, and consider the meaning of the term ‘designer-maker’, which is so important to some small-scale producers of furniture. We style ourselves furniture designer-makers not simply as a description but in something of a declaration (honoured perhaps more in theory than in practice) that the furniture, and the person, actually benefit by being ‘designed’ and ‘made’ by the one person. It is not simply that knowing how to make something helps avoid having the design lead to faults and shortcomings in the made thing. Rather it is a belief that ‘design’ and ‘make’ are inseparable, that the quality of each is actually different when they are carried out by the one person. I have found that to be so in my own experience.

I don’t deny that there are attendant dangers, of being constrained in one’s imagination by one’s knowledge of making practicalities and difficulties, or that there can be some virtue in the unfettered design imagination that challenges someone to find a way of making it. Yet it is a particular and limited kind of virtue, often seen in a rather humble form in architects’ furniture designs, which typically call for the impression of lightness or disconnectedness at the very point where furniture needs maximum structural strength – and sometimes seen in its most extravagant form in some admired ‘art’ furniture where, as a colleague remarked, the desiderata are that it should be ‘unusable, unaffordable and preferably unmakeable’.

I have myself, in a mood of relief, sometimes designed upholstered furniture, about whose construction I know very little, and I have found the design process becomes largely a manipulation of forms – a not unworthy but a limited aspect of design.

So what, in this single human engagement with both designing and making, is the essential nature of the second element. Am I still the maker regardless of the extent to which I mechanise and automate the process?

People often say they would not go back to the drudgery of doing all the making by hand. Even William Morris welcomes the ability of machines to remove drudgery from hand work, and I myself would not go back to hand planning all my timber (as distinct from using the planer-thicknesser, to employ a now rather antiquated example). I would not do so even if the organisation of society would still allow me to make a living that way, which, largely, it does not. Yet I know that, even with the simple machine planer, something is lost in return for the liberation from drudgery. The loss is in the engagement with the material, and it is therefore a coarsening of the process of making - and the process of making is inherent in the object. In that sense machine manufacture, in artistic (without the metaphysical capital A) terms, is regressive.

People then accuse one of romanticism, based on an unreal idealisation of hand work. It is not so: I actually know from experience what that hand work is like, and, as I have said, I choose not to go back to it. Yet I know what is lost as well as what is gained. I recognise that in all aspects of our lives – making, living, consuming, aspiring – we are not saints.

‘Hand’ versus ‘machine’ is, I think, obscured by regarding machines as simply another manifestation of tools. Motorisation is perhaps not a distinct but still a key distinction, and it is what removes one from interaction with the material, as all makers know – and all the more so when one is kitted out in the health and safety ear defenders, goggles, face mask, with guards, push sticks and hold downs.

Who has not had the experience of putting a plank into the thicknesser, after anxious deliberation about feed direction and depth of cut, and having to stand helplessly by, listening to the painful sound of an awkward piece of grain tearing out?

People say the CNC machine does only and exactly what it is instructed to do by the operator (is he here designer or maker?). Maybe so, but the dual point is that the machine does it itself, instructed, pre-programmed rather than guided, and that it can be instructed to do things against which the material resists. Indeed the perfection of the machine (far advanced on my elementary planer-thicknesser) is to be able to overcome flawlessly the resistance of the material, to treat wood as if it were plastic. Wood is a very resistant material, more so than almost any other. Stone may be harder, but wood has more active resistance, or reactive resistance: it responds to what we do to it, or to how we change its environment, not always in ways we welcome, nor always immediately – wherein lies the flaw in the perfect woodworking machine.

With lesser machines and tools we strive for a balance between overcoming the resistance of the material and the resistance of the material overcoming the process. We achieve that balance by controlling the application of power, so that one knows when one has overcome the resistance of the material cleanly or when one has broken it, sensing immediately, or preferably anticipating, the clean cut or the tear. It almost parallels good and bad governance, applying power with assent.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Lord Chesterfield and Samuel Johnson

A little while ago I was chastised by implication on the designer-makers’ forum by a reference by a colleague to Lord Chesterfield’s (eighteenth-century aristocrat, politician and wit) letter to his son 1748, Letter XXX, February 22, later published as ‘Letters to his Son: on the Fine Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman’:

‘Some learned men, proud of their knowledge, only speak to decide, and give judgment without appeal; the consequence of which is, that mankind, provoked by the insult, and injured by the oppression, revolt; and, in order to shake off the tyranny, even call the lawful authority in question. The more you know, the modester you should be…’

'Others, to show their learning, or often from the prejudices of a school education, where they hear of nothing else, are always talking of the ancients, as something more than men, and of the moderns, as something less. They are never without a classic or two in their pockets; they stick to the old good sense; they read none of the modern trash; and will show you, plainly, that no improvement has been made, in any one art or science, these last seventeen hundred years.’

and more well observed reflections besides. No doubt amply justified as a reproach to my general character, but a bit harsh, I thought, as a comment on my particular postings.

Still, I should have kept my dusty 45 year-old Everyman copy of the Letters better thumbed. In fact I couldn’t find it on the bookshelves and had to bring project Gutenberg to my rescue.

That was rather the point. Chesterfield was writing in an age when, at least in ‘polite society’, there was heavy deference to the authority of rank and learning, and even more to the idea of politeness. We’re hardly in the same state now, when everyone has, if not a classic or two in their pockets, an equal subscription to the wisdom of Wikipedia, and the threats to thought come from an altogether different direction. Though perhaps we still suffer, in the midst of our rudeness, from a deference to some idea of politeness, or, as we like to call it, appropriateness.

I always rather sided with Samuel Johnson’s opinion. Letter XXX is a rather two-edged sword; was ever a man more careful to frame his arguments with such impressive oppression, and leave a few well-crafted insults, for later readers (although, in fairness, he did not anticipate his letters’ publication) to pick up, along the way?

Johnson’s opinion of Chesterfield was coloured by his experiences over his dictionary. Both men, as writers, strove for and achieved wit, in the eighteenth-century sense, and neither was without vanity or self-regard, but Johnson’s wit has a passion and humanity within it that makes Chesterfield look brittle and shallowly ‘polite’:

‘Seven years, my lord, have now past since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before ... Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it.’

Was there ever a rebuke, justified or not, to which effective response was less possible?

Chesterfield evidently thought not, because he kept the letter displayed on his table for his friends and visitors to admire, and the two were, finally, reconciled. Yet, as Johnson said of Chesterfield, ‘This man I thought had been a Lord among wits; but I find he is only a wit among Lords!’

A modest proposal

An article in one of our ‘serious’ newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, in the past few days has apparently proposed that voting in national elections here should be restricted to those who pay a minimum level of income tax. In that way voting would be confined to those who actually ‘make a contribution’ to society. How, other than financially, could anyone contribute to society?

Progressive though this suggestion is as a welcome partial re-introduction of the property qualification which we somehow lost in the nineteenth century, I have a much better one. Voting eligibility should be maintained as it now is, but all votes should be weighted according to the positive or negative contribution by the voter to the national exchequer. So the vote of someone who paid, for example, £50,000 income tax in the preceding year, would count as fifty positive votes, whilst that of someone who received £2000 in state benefits would count as two negative votes.

This idea has many advantages. It preserves the strangely hallowed twentieth-century shibboleth of ‘universal suffrage’. It reflects precisely the voter’s contribution to society across the entire range. It penalises tax exiles. It gives an incentive to governments both to increase marginal rates of taxation and to maintain state benefits for the poor: that would make mine truly a ‘one nation’ proposal, very likely to appeal to a Daily Mail readership, let alone the Daily Telegraph.

(I should explain for my North American readers that ‘one nation’, though always without the suffix ‘under god’, is a term that historically resonates in my country also, usually attached to our ‘natural party of government’ as ‘one-nation conservatism’, as embraced originally by Benjamin Disraeli, novelist and Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister 1868 and 1874-1880, as opposed to that dreadfully hectoring Liberal, William Gladstone. Could this nation today choose so conspicuously Jewish a figure as Disraeli as Prime Minister, or indeed so stern a moralist as Gladstone?)

Finally, my proposal has also the indirect advantage of surely bringing about a massive boost in tax receipts in the year preceding an election, to be emphatically utilised by the incumbent party to dispense largesse to the voters, and vice versa.

I rest my case.

For the avoidance of doubt, as they say, I should perhaps point out that this post takes its title from Jonathan Swift's 'Modest Proposal...' and the whole thing is intended ironically. Except, that is, for the reflections on prime ministers, where I do think that the Victorians, whom we tend to regard as somewhat hidebound and prejudiced, were perhaps more tolerant and publicly adventurous than we are today. Or maybe they were just tolerant of different things.

Perpetual motion

Yesterday commodity prices fell heavily in New York; crude oil by ten percent. Compared with the rises over recent years and months these falls are small, but for a one-day trading they are large.

On the BBC news a US commodity trading expert remarked that, with computerised trading, the market is now ‘very efficient’; nobody ‘really lost’ in these market falls.

This is wonderful news. In a market that consists solely in the transfer of ownership, in various sophisticated ways, of various naturally occurring, and usually finite, substances, and that directly itself requires no major physical infrastructure (it depends for its existence on mines and farms, etc. but the market can grow without any increase in those), value has dramatically increased over the past few years (no losers there presumably) and has ‘corrected’ itself yesterday with a marked fall without any losers.

This is the alchemists’ dream achieved. This is the new paradigm. This is the way we can all become richer and richer without pain or loss.

No subject

The justification for and satisfaction at the killing of the most prominent international terrorist of our time rests upon some debatable claims: that he was ‘uniquely’ evil, that the quantity he killed was ‘exceptional’.

Despite the overwhelming welcome and relief in the west at the news, behind it all there are strange notes of unease. Was it right to shoot him dead without any attempt to capture him, bring him back and put him on trial for his actions, when he was, apparently, once the ‘fog of war’ cleared, not fighting back, not armed and when, as most commentators assumed (perhaps mistakenly or perhaps not), he had not for some time had the ability to direct active terrorist campaigns?

The thought that ultimately put these qualms to rest was that he had ‘declared war on western civilisation’. The term is applied here in a way that is both hideously real and also metaphorical. However, wars between states are (or were) started with a declaration and ended with a treaty: the ‘war against terrorism’, like the ‘war against drugs’, is a war without beginning or end. The US officially regarded him as 'an emeny conbattant in war', though that had not prevented them from also indicting him in a criminal court in Manhattan in 1998.

Yet, in his own terms, declare war on us he certainly did, though the idea that he had any chance of destroying our civilisation, devastating its economy or overthrowing its cultural life and social organisation seems fanciful. Elements within our societies have done more to achieve all of those ends, and in very recent years, than he could ever aspire to.

There are plenty of places in the world where in recent and current times more innocent lives have been lost, more hideous suffering imposed, more human trust betrayed, more gruesome methods of inflicting pain been devised (and where much of the responsibility can be plausibly laid at the doors of individuals) than is the case here with terrorist outrages in western and other cities. Think of central Africa, the Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, to name only those that are not contentious to western political assumptions.

But somehow, I think, we in the west have the lazy and self-indulgent feeling all that was somehow their own fault; they brought it on themselves; the suffering and bloodshed were within and part of their own lives and societies. Ultimately, this implies, they were not as innocent as those who fell from the twin towers – perhaps not even the baby hacked to death by machete in its sleep in Rwanda.

Those people in central Africa were not ours; we did not know them; we will not on the tenth anniversary of their deaths be interviewing their surviving relatives on our news programmes. That, in itself, is a natural limitation on the expression of human empathy, but, as we interfere in far distant parts of the world, we need to keep under constant and deliberate review what restraints human empathy ought to place on our actions. In northern Pakistan it seems we have far abandoned that humane review. 'Predator drone' has entered the western joke lexicon, even, it seems, that of the President and Commander in Chief.

In our apprehensions, he was an ogre from beyond (he even looked the part – tall, straggly bearded, staring eyes, threatening mouth), who declared war on us and brought death and suffering from a realm outside our control or responsibility. He struggled hard to impose himself on Muslim and eastern minds, and for a while and in part, succeeded, as the fount, figurehead and active, gun-toting leader and mastermind of a ruthless armed struggle against assumed western and Christian oppression of and disrespect for his peoples and his religion. And he would not have succeeded as he did if there were not things for which we should reproach ourselves in our historic and present treatment of the peoples of the east. But beyond the actual spectacular and murderous outrages, his success was even greater in cultural than in practical terms, and perhaps greater amongst us, his victims and enemies, than among his own, whom he also did not scruple to kill and maim.