Saturday, 30 July 2011

Something different

Having been too busy to write much for the blog for some days, I rather regret the visual impact of the last few posts, and so here is something more cheerful from my current architectural survey of my village, in relation to proposals for 'affordable' housing.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The one that got away

About this big

Monday, 25 July 2011

Meeting at night

The way they live now: a designer makers' guide to the hotel trade

'In common with other luxury businesses, the five-star hotel industry appears to have broken away from trends in the wider economy. London's elite hotels have performed spectacularly well, after only a brief setback in the immediate aftermath of the global banking shock in 2008.

'And being picked out by the most wealthy visiting families can transform a business in a few weeks. A spokesman for InterContinental Hotels said: "During the peak season you will get families taking 30 or 40 rooms to house their extended entourage. It is quite common for a whole floor, or even two, to be booked out by just one group. That's when you can get the really big hotel bills."

'Among the new crop, only the W Hotel might be considered a contemporary designer hotel, suggesting the fashion for modern minimalism may be waning.

'Though demand for London's most opulent hotels appears to be insatiable, lower down the Automobile Association's star ratings, many hoteliers are faring less well. A wave of businesses have gone to the wall, among them von Essen hotels, which included Cliveden, the Berkshire stately home at the centre of the Profumo affair.'

Sunday, 24 July 2011

A dangerous idea

Mark Blyth: Austerity' the history of a dangerous idea

As Mark Blyth says, we have been here before - in the 1930s - and, for a sign that the comfortable assent of the middle classes to the disposition of power and advantage in our society is eroding, read the remarkable article a day or two ago in the Daily Telegraph, vigorous supporter of the sanity of the status quo, by its editor, Charles Moore (Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge) headed 'I'm starting to think that the Left might actually be right'. I applaud his sentiments, but there is no guarantee that when such a sense of grievance spreads it will normally express itself in such generosity and evenness of spirit. The 1930s, in those parts of Europe that felt aggrieved (and who now does not feel aggrieved?) saw a public conflation of the spirit and motives of the once respectable popular 'right' with the exercise of state power and direction of the 'left'. Localism is not always warm and cosy.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


Near Hautefort

A word on lexicography

Caught in a web of words: James Murray, Oxford lexicographer

It would be a simple task to fill the Jekyll and Hyde Dictionary if the purpose were simply to point to words or phrases that had acquired annoyingly modish and vacuous usages, but that has never been the intention. The Dictionary attempts to identify words that in modern usage have simultaneously opposite or apparently conflicting meanings or connotations, neither of which we would wish to do without, but where we commonly have only one, or the other, in mind at any given time.

In that way it tries to illustrate a little the fascinating inter-relationship between thought and language, the ways in which each constricts or extends the other, and the ways in which we may enrich our thought by keeping alert to all the suggestions of the language we employ.

So the Dictionary is not intended as part of a campaign against annoying modern usages such as ‘going forward’ – and yet there is some area of overlap, and I wonder if it is entirely wise to tilt against some of the more serious examples of linguistic damage.

In a contribution I recently made to a furniture designer-makers’ forum I rather mocked the use of the word ‘iconic’ to describe a certain sort of design as the desired content of a future exhibition. The word has now sunk to the vocabulary of estate agents. It prompted me afterwards to search the Jekyll and Hyde papers and I found I was able to add another entry to my selection on this blog. It may or may not be connected to my mockery (but people are sensitive about these things) that the next post on that forum spoke of ‘major’ not ‘iconic’ pieces of furniture.

I suspect, however, that the contributor still has the same set of ideas in his head: he has merely sanitised his language. Words that embody concepts are used as shorthand, with a web of unarticulated ideas and thought assumptions behind them, mutually shared between author and reader or listener. ‘Iconic’ made a certain web clear, a web that exists, however much we may regret it, as a cultural phenomenon. To mock the word that identifiably expresses such debased thinking and to drive the ideas elsewhere, under cover of a less obviously perverted term such as ‘major’, may make the cultural assimilation of the web more likely.

Modish usages such as ‘iconic’ come with a pre-digested web of allusion; they are ponderous with stale meaning that has not life enough to interact with other words and phrases in the same discourse. That is what makes such terms so wearisome and annoying. Typically one follows another in a leaden accumulation. Such clotted thinking is addictive. At the opposite extreme lies Shakespearean language where startling coinages of words and usage interact with each other like quicksilver, each gaining its meaning from the context of the total expression. Meaning and thought is created by the new expression of language rather than words being press-ganged into the presentation of static and impoverished concepts.

pity, like a naked new-born babe, Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed Upon the sightless couriers of the air…

Friday, 22 July 2011

Sun rise

Is this the British spring, or will the waters close quietly over our heads again once this perturbation is passed? Murdock père et fils before the select committee were clearly in highly coached water-smoothing mode, successfully to judge from both the muted newspaper coverage the next day and the six per cent rise in shares in News Corporation on the New York stock exchange. Yet whatever the answer to my question, it is interesting to wonder what the Murdoch empire is actually for.

Although it might give the impression of being a ruthless commercial enterprise, and has set its sights on complete ownership of the highly profitable Sky, News Corp is not outstandingly successful in commercial terms. It is of course an impressively built up empire and provides handsome rewards for some glitzy individuals, including Elizabeth Murdoch, whose production company Shine was bought up by New Corp for a rather stellar $615 million, even more than the $580 million paid for MySpace, which was later sold for $35, but not in the Dow Jones league, bought for $5.7 billion, with $2.8 billion subsequently written off.

The Murdoch family owns just thirteen percent of the issued share capital of News Corp but controls forty percent of the voting rights, making it possible for them to follow their family ambitions, which have a dimension beyond the merely financial.

As the Murdochs were anxious to point out to the select committee, the News of the World and all the British newspapers represent a very small part of their total empire. Yet the value of those titles to the Murdochs goes beyond any sentimental attachment of Murdoch senior to old fashioned newsprint. With anything approaching Fox News being impractical, for the time being at least, in this country, the Murdoch red tops embody his ability to exploit and manipulate public sentiment and through that to influence the political agenda of government.

Murdoch has famously had the key to the back door of Number 10 since Margaret Thatcher’s time, with perhaps the exception of the last days of the Major government when he was already in Murdoch terms dead meat. Our political classes like to portray themselves as reluctant hostages of New International and a fine example of outstanding spinelessness in this regard was provided by Jonathan Powell, formerly Tony Blair’s chief of staff, in an article in the Guardian a few days ago. Powell seems to think that Lord Justice Leveson will be intimidated in his enquiry into practices and ethics in the British press by the prospect of crucifixion in Murdoch papers, citing the experience of Lord Hutton and the Kelly enquiry. Hutton was of course criticised by serious and non-Murdock papers as well, but the image of the noble lord finding the comfort of his retirement seriously impaired by what the Sun once said about him is laughable.

Politicians are far from being reluctant Murdoch hostages; they are not even simply willing accomplices. In our increasingly oligarchic society they are naturally comfortable bedfellows of the Murdoch press, indulging in very much the same kind of misleading and manipulating of public sentiment, as we saw pre-eminently with the Blair governments. Whatever clipping of Murdock wings is achieved in the present debacle, there is little prospect of change in political circles beyond a new degree of caution in their dealings with the press.

New Corporation’s two ambitions in this country were the complete take-over of BSkyB and the severe trimming back of the BBC. The first is now spending a period in the long grass, but the second remains a very active collaborative project between Murdoch and government. I would expect Murdoch to have ambitions to spread his broadcasting empire in this country across the whole spectrum, from reality shows to something equivalent to a broadcast version of The Times. If the BBC could be reduced to a sub-Reithian rump that would be an ideal accompaniment to the transfer of his newsprint grip on public opinion from a declining to a rising medium.

Cameron, whose background is in PR, where the conception of the long-term is something a little bit more calculated than the rabbit’s stare in the headlights, has embarked on the job. Transferring the World Service financing to the BBC licence payer in a few years, and provoking a few immediate cuts to demonstrate to the BBC the hostile reaction that will not enable it to starve the World Service of funds to bolster domestic broadcasting, is a neat tactic.

Cameron’s conspicuous after-thought in adding the BBC to Lord Leveson’s remit strikes me as a clear message to the Murdochs: “Look, we’re compelled politically to back away from you now. We have no more alternative than you eating humble pie in the House of Commons, but we’re still all on the same side.” Lord (Norman) Tebbit came in from his pasture yesterday to write in the Guardian that no “rational person believes [Cameron] is corrupt, bought or intimidated by the Murdoch empire”, but I find it less rational to believe that, with more political embarrassments due to emerge from the woodwork in the next months and maybe longer, Cameron is any less anxious to secure the goodwill of the Murdoch titles than he has ever been, or his predecessors before him.

There will be much relish amongst politicians at the embarrassments of the Murdochs (which may result in the loss of their grip on the direction of News Corporation), but those in government will be anxious to have attention focussed as much as possible on the newsrooms rather than Christmas lunch parties in Berkshire where no conversation was 'inappropriate', but unless we can change the philosophy and behaviour of the political class spring will not dawn on England’s pastures green.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Pierian spring water

I always knew responses, if I ever allowed them, might get me into trouble on this blog. My learned friend (though not in the sense that might interest Mr Murdoch in his present difficulties) has responded to my Herodotus quotation and murdochian musings. In the interests of public sobriety (There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, And drinking largely sobers us again.), and for the relief of modern-day furniture-makers and craft workers of all sorts, I post here his very informed response. 

However, Mr Murdoch has enough to trouble him just now, and so I should make clear that I saw the out-of-context quotation from Herodotus not in the Sun or the Wall Street Journal but on a caption next to a display of Greek pots in the Ashmoleum Museum in Oxford - and it just set me wondering, in sub-Dormer mode, about the status of crafts today more than about Herodotus. It did strike me as a little odd, but maybe if I had not been shouldered aside by polyglot camera-wielding museum visitors (who no doubt would have called up a few thousand words of digression from Herodotus himself) the Ashmoleum caption writer would have enlightened me further. I am grateful to my friend for doing so instead.
Dear Nicholas,

'The Greeks esteemed as noble those who avoided handicrafts.'

Beware of Murdoch editors bearing false quotations! Herodotus is talking about Egypt. (2.166-167). The warrior class engages only in military pursuits and their sons inherit this status directly from their fathers. Herodotus adds in a typical aside that Hellenes, Thracians, Scythians, Persians, Lydians and all other barbarians have a similar attitude to those who learn crafts. (A hint of the real herodotus shows through in the phrase 'the other barbarians'.) Amongst the Greeks, the Spartans despise craft work the most and the commercial Corinthians the least. Clearly he's commenting on the weird ways human esteem works in societies. He's seeing it as weird, as something worth comment. βάναυσοι or artisans are not really part of the city. As Aristotle tells us in the Politics, the βάναυσος is not allowed to attend the ἐλευθέρα ἀγορά, that's to say, to the assembly of free men.

I suspect that the disdain was for those who were tied to their work as contrasted with the superior status of those whose lives were dedicated to war. In practice, Greeks and especially Athenians valued craftsmen greatly. The Greeks had every respect for skilled artisans at every level - skilled potters and painters worked together in Keramicos. Some were free men and some were slaves. Ictinus and Callicrates worked with Pericles and had a higher status than our wretched modern equivalents such as the Gherkin Man. Not for nothing was Athena the goddess of crafts of all kinds and the concept of techne was the most basic source of intellectual metaphor for Greek philosophy. Knowing how to do something was the paradigm of knowledge. Disdain comes in because you had to be a free man and no slave if you wanted to aspire to the status of an Athenian gentleman. The disdain was for economic poverty and not for the skill or knowledge or products of men's hands. After all Ajax committed suicide when he couldn't get his hands on Achilles' armour. Its beauty is part of its high esteem. Same with Nestor's cup, and much else besides.

We still tend to regard military men as archetypes of honour and all the finest qualities, or at least we did when I were a boy. It's only in recent decades that people have finally gone over completely to applauding and crawling before the Murdochs and Berlusconis as though they really were the Lords of Creation. It all depends on what you esteem - it's one of Herodotus' favourite words! He's using comparisons to establish how things are and to point up just how weird they are. He is interested in the truth, but that doesn't mean to say that he thinks that everything's just fine and dandy with the world. What we are seeing in all this is men becoming aware of human values as something inherited and therefore potentially as something that can be shaped. Don't murdoch the man!

Monday, 18 July 2011

The way we live now

Murdoch and friends

'We have been sleepwalking into a Berlusconied Britain.'

Never mind: the retiring commissioner of the Metropolitan Police assures us his force has done and will do a wonderful job in policing those public circusses, the royal wedding and the olympics. We may sleep easy.


'The Greeks esteemed as noble those who avoided handicrafts.'

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Gear change

Is it a bus or a punt?

Meanwhile, as I focus on intellectually non-existent questions of the non-existent species of ‘furniture designer-maker’, and over here our politicians and electorate are engrossed in Mr Murdoch’s achievement of turning the Sunday Times into a semi-literate version of the News of the World, the European banking bus double-declutches and shifts down with a loud crash of gears and a squeal of ratings agencies.

I used to think governments were the mechanics of the bus depot, tightening up the wheel nuts from time to time, but now I see they are mostly in the driver’s cab, grappling with the steering wheel alongside the bank chief executives.

So I am off to Oxford, land of punts, buttered crumpets, real philosophy and bookcases, to pose as a furniture maker for a while.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Passionate souls

It is, I suppose, one of life’s cruelties – and the fate of many passionate souls – that one can plunge oneself wholeheartedly into some aspect of the world and end up feeling increasingly excluded. Internet living disrupts that pattern, placing us at the centre of whatever little world we choose, and it serves to show us at what cost we medicate the conditions of our existence. And George Eliot’s Casaubon demonstrated that the avoidance of passion is no recipe for happiness either.

'Designer-maker': a peculiar furniture question - postscript

A colleague has remarked, perhaps not disapprovingly, amongst other comments he had on my 'designer-maker question' and Peter Dormer recent piece,  that “in writing about John Makepeace and Waywood you have crossed that divide where we openly talk about each other's work”.

I was not actually conscious of crossing any divide, certainly not in any improper way. I do in fact have considerable admiration both for John Makepeace’s work as a whole and for the particular cabinet of Waywood’s on which I commented. In any case I did not consider myself to be offering criticism, in the sense of saying whether the work was good or bad. What I was attempting was to place what we do, as ‘designer-makers of furniture’ in the context of a currently live cultural matrix. I took John Makepeace’s work as a whole because he is so evidently the leading exponent of this type of work and the one whose output is both influential on other practitioners and most often commented upon by others. In some sense, willingly or not, he stands as elevated proxy for us all. That particular Waywood cabinet seemed to me to illustrate, better than any other individual piece of which I know, the ambivalent attitude we have (or might have – I do not know whether Barnaby Scott had in his mind any of the thoughts his piece stimulates in mine) to the principles of Arts and Crafts furniture, still our default cultural forebear.

At some level, as I said, it does not really matter: there is always a place for someone producing furniture without regard or deference to the culture around him or her. Yet culture is a collaborative enterprise, depending upon shared senses of what is worthwhile, although they need periodic refreshment or challenge.

It only makes sense, to take an extreme example, to talk of ‘morality’ in design in a context of shared cultural values. No-one is killing babies here. Any matrix of cultural values depends on acceptance rather than argument or logic. As soon as you question the foundations of such a matrix the whole structure above ground begins to look absurd, no matter how rigorously built.

It seems plain to me that we are designing and making furniture at a time when all of those cultural structures are tottering. Most of us, in our little community shelter somewhere near the ruins of the Arts and Crafts. Another group of designers and producers shelters in Modernism. Elsewhere numerous ramshackle structures, Deco and Dada, Constructivism and even neo-Classicism, have a surprising number of inhabitants, some a little shifty. But all of them have seen better days; none now looks entirely convincing. In this landscape of ruins some roam ever further afield, knocking on doors marked art, philosophy, technology.

Historically it is a relatively new kind of landscape. A few centuries back the artist craftsman (to employ a short-hand anachronistic term unsatisfactory at every time), whether he were making furniture or carving cathedral stonework, would have imbibed without deliberate choice or justification. Even later, when competing styles vied against each other, a continuity of basic cultural assumption underlay them. It was only towards the end of the nineteenth century that in the production of useful artefacts choices had to be made, about the way in which people worked and the nature of what they produced, that were seen to be acutely culturally defining. The Arts and Crafts and Modernism both had their distinctly moralising and missionary qualities, which we have neither shaken off nor entirely renounced.

In a curious way Modernism echoes the cultural certainty of the eighteenth century and its conception of ‘correct’ taste. If Modernism, from the beginning faced more cultural challenges than eighteenth-century culture it was not because its precepts were less self-confident but rather because no one class any more had a near monopoly of cultural expression.

Yet its day has passed and we have inherited its questions rather than its answers. I don’t believe we shall find new cultural accommodation for ourselves until many much wider questions of our social organisation have been answered (maybe even including in the great tide those hoary old things that troubled Ruskin and Morris). There are a great many contractions for us collectively to work though before we can hope to get to that stage. So, meanwhile, it might be better for us to focus our enquiring minds on what I have not – the actual workings and output of individual makers and making teams – but we do all in fact make it extremely difficult for that to be achieved, sometimes apparently thinking (perhaps in our commercial and socio-cultural anxiety) that the only communication worthwhile is the higher puffery.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Jekyll and Hyde: icons of lexicography

My researches into the Jekyll and Hyde manuscript papers pertaining to their collaboration on the Dictionary have uncovered that one of the sharpest disagreements between them (their relationship was not always harmonious) was prompted by their definition of iconic. When Dr Jekyll asked whether Mr Hyde wished to add anything to his own innocuous definition, ‘Of or pertaining to an icon’, the latter replied that, since an icon was defined as a portrait or representation of a sacred personage, an educated man had no more use for the word ‘iconic’ than for ‘portraitic’ and that it had no proper place in a respectable lexicon. When Jekyll, clearly a little exasperated by such truculence, ventured to observe that on such a principle most of Hyde’s definitions were redundant, and that they had resolved to be prescriptive more in the framing of their definitions than in their range of words included, the latter relented and provided the second definition of the entry that I have just added to my excerpts from their Dictionary.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

A better picture of age


L'affaire RM

"I'm not throwing innocent people under the bus" I might get my phone hacked.

Appropriately for the empire of a man whose empire sought to cow and suborn politicians, so much about the creaking News Corporation echoes the highest levels of political dynamics. It is a nice irony that 7 per cent of a company that depends for its generation of cash on the manipulation of popular sentiment is owned by the Sovereign Wealth Fund of the Saudi government, better known for its sympathy with money than its sympathy with people. Another bit is owned by our Church Commissioners (for the time being).

It is instructive to see how rapidly corrupt bedfellows in the murkier chambers of power can fall out. Politicians are now tumbling over themselves to snatch their underclothes back on, and even the Metropolitan Police seems (heavy emphasis needed there) to be rediscovering its public duty. Is there a lesson here for international bank executives?

And in the US ‘experts’ are covering the situation with their usual perspicacity. It's all about ensuring a smooth take-over of control by James. "It is a problem for succession. That is the key issue in the US, not the ins and outs of who hacked whom over in England," said Jack Lule, a journalism professor at Lehigh University. Presumably his equivalent banking professor was saying “The key issue is who gets to be the next CEO of Goldman Sachs, not who lent what to unemployed rednecks to buy their collapsing shacks.”

The famed ‘establishment hating’ intimate of prime ministers, as he flits from here to there in helicopter, private jet, yacht or chauffeur driven car, is as out of touch with mundanity as fin de régime Tony Blair (who, it is revealed through a Freedom of Information request, telephoned him on 11th, 13th and 19th March 2003 before troops went into Iraq on the 20th; Mrs T could draw a discreeter veil and, apparently, not mention the patriarch even once in her memoirs). The great man is reported as saying, "I'm not throwing innocent people under the bus." Does he recall that image of the London bus with its roof blown off or even know that his journalists hacked survivors’ phones?

Saturday, 9 July 2011

New found land

Talking to the New Labour think tank Progress Tony Blair argued that Labour should make the economy its priority: “I still think we need to focus a lot on the micro side: targeted policies that support business, jobs, that allow that large amount of cumulative reserves in business to be invested and that also gives us an opportunity to regain, which I think is very important to us, our relationship with business.”

The recognition that, at a time (at least in the UK) of continuing recession, business sits upon a ‘large amount of cumulative reserves’ is not new, but the idea that government needs to bring about detailed measures that will ‘allow’ business to invest those reserves, that our present structures and arrangements do not provide the opportunities for such private business investment, is something that might find common ground with our coalition government’s programme of reshaping, and shrinking, the state.

As Tony Blair says, “In the real world of the 21st century there will be some pick and mix of policy. Sometimes it will be less left v right than right v wrong. Above all today, efficacy – effective delivery…”

It always seemed to me that Tony Blair would see no essential difference between governing the country and managing Tesco. For New Labour to command the brand loyalty of Tesco might seem his ideal – and political loyalty cards might not be a bad idea either. Yet I believe much harm has been done by the now almost universal political lip service to the ‘middle ground’, that territorial discovery of Tony Blair’s, who then set about the ruthless extirpation of its aboriginal inhabitants. There needs to be a recognition that a society, and its organisation, does inevitably contain conflicting interests and that it is the task of government to construct a recognised and broadly acceptable balance of those interests.

Instead we now have the pretence that all our interests coincide, that ‘we are all in this together’, and that any discussion of competing claims or modes of organisation is mere residual tribalism interfering with ‘effective delivery’. So bring on ‘reform’ of public services (“motivated of course by values” as Tony Blair quickly parenthesises). Along with this goes an anodyne invocation of ‘fairness’ as the ultimate arbiter of all political choices, as if every measure were somehow vaguely and morally unquestionable. Even corporation tax rates can be set by ‘fairness’: we must be fair to consumers, tax-payers, businesses – to anyone or anything you care to mention.

Just like Tesco, fair to suppliers (don’t they want to sell?), and fair to customers (don’t they want to buy?). Or like News Corporation, so sure of what the public wants; so sure of its mission to construct the new society, safe from hypocrites and perverts.

Given that the News Corporation interest is primarily in making money rather than in nurturing the continuing health of its particular newspaper imprints, one wonders how those in command could have been so stupid as to imagine that they could continue to get away with, not just the scale of illegality at one or more of its papers, but with its sheer nastiness. How could they think that they could go on indefinitely blankly facing down every new revelation? The answer probably lies in the arrogance born of power (it conforms to a type seen presently in several areas of international politicking). Such arrogance was bolstered by the cravenness of our politicians who believed that the popular press could deliver that hallowed (and hollow) ‘middle ground’ to them. Did not those papers demonstrate, day after day, how firmly they had their thumbs on the popular pulse? Efficacy, thy name is Murdoch.

Friday, 8 July 2011

'Designer-maker': a problem peculiar to furniture?

The draft of some reflections on this topic, prompted by a reading of Peter Dormer's The Art of the Maker (1994) and The New Furniture (1987) can be found on the Talks and Articles page of this blog. 

Thursday, 7 July 2011

View from my window

Vale at nightfall

Sunday, 3 July 2011

What next?

Throughout the eurozone crisis the EU has insisted that Greece carry out the impossible in order to stave off the inevitable.
The Financial Times, Lex, 29 June 2011
The obvious question, with an equally obvious answer, is, why? Who exactly benefits from this process, both in the meantime and in the longer term? Nobody in the financial world apparently expects the Greek assets currently put up for privatisation to raise more than a quarter of the sum officially required. So, it must be a planned softening-up process, preparing the way for even more politically unacceptable transfers of state assets to the private sector. Greece today, Portugal tomorrow: soon everyone's going to be doing it.

Our government here is clearly deeply sympathetic. The British of course pioneered this sort of thing decades ago, even without IMFs and ECBs to push them into it, although, to give her her due, Margaret Thatcher did believe the national assets would end up being owned by a nation of Sids rather than a select group of spivs. After cutting their teeth at home, British investment banks, financial wizards and ex-government functionaries turned their honest shillings showing Russians and eastern Europeans how to do it, so creating the wonderful oligarchs who keep our football clubs and newspapers alive today. Who said the public doesn't benefit?

Saturday, 2 July 2011


A storm has just broken over the head of Johann Hari, radical commenting journalist who writes regularly for The Independent.

It seems Hari is in the habit of spatchcocking into his interviews with cultural or political thinkers unacknowledged quotations from their published work, as though those were parts of their utterances during the interview. A great cry of ‘plagiarism’ has gone up.

If anyone ever got to interview me, I would certainly indulge myself in a few regurgitations of my finest coinages from earlier efforts, but, leaving that aside, Hari is certainly guilty of bad practice and possibly of misrepresenting the current views of his interviewees – although it is probably no different from the way in which their work will be assessed (if it is assessed at all) after their deaths, unless they take care to publish regular updates of all their opinions.

Yet to accuse Hari of plagiarism – ‘the taking and using as one’s own of the thoughts, writings or inventions of another’ – is utterly ignorant and absurd. It reminds me somewhat of the recent ostracism of the western, heterosexual man who invented and surreptitiously promoted the gay girl in Damascus blog. He too was guilty of bad practice and perhaps of something much worse, endangering individuals whose cause he apparently sought to promote, but still the reaction all seems a part of the obsessive focussing on the individual rather than engaging with the reality of their creations. It is as though we were afraid of moving beyond the level of an officially scrupulous and prurient mundanity.

At this rate Tolstoy and all his works are certainly in the dustbin, along with most of the writers who are referenced on this blog: Ruskin is certainly included and so, probably, are virtually all the significant writers and artists of our culture. We cannot go to a Wagner opera or read the Cantos of Ezra Pound. If we ever get round to it in the world of design nothing will be safe: we won't be able to sit in a Le Corbusier chair ever again and we shall certainly have to throw over our universal deference to the stern views on decoration of that old reprobate Adolf Loos.

Hari is of course not in that rank, but it’s all part of the same tendency – as if everyone were running for election as president of the United States or wherever.

Friday, 1 July 2011


The government is not in favour of semantics, the science of signification or exact meaning: 'The prime minister's official spokesman dismissed the row. "People are getting caught up in a semantic debate," he said.'

The 'row' is about the goverment's proposals to change pension arrangements for public service workers so that they contribute more and receive less. Workers, including teachers, were yesterday on strike over this issue.

David Cameron claimed earlier this week that the system could "go broke" if it were not reformed. Yet a recent report by Lord Hutton, the former Labour work and pensions secretary who wrote the blueprint for the government's reforms, said that the cost of public sector pensions, as a proportion of GDP, was set to fall after peaking last year at 1.9% to 1.4% by 2059/60.

Faced with this piece of information, the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, who is leading the negotiations with the public sector unions, was asked to justify earlier statements that pensions were becoming unaffordable. Maude would only say that the Hutton report, on which the pension plans are based, had "very clearly" said that the status quo was not tenable. "You cannot continue to have more and more people in retirement being supported by fewer and fewer people in work," he said. 

Hutton's report would clearly seem to indicate that you can, but if Maude thinks otherwise he can alter the objectionable statistic only by denying some people pensions altogether, perhaps by a statutory selective cull at retirement age. A merely semantic ripost perhaps, but what is one left when politicians refuse to engage with logic?

Acknowledgement: The Jekyll and Hyde Dictionary has been of great assistance in the preparation of this post.