Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Leaning towards the sea

"Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain."

Monday, 26 September 2011

The name of the chair

The Windsor chair makers in the forests were probably doing it since the 16th century but it may be that it was first done not by forest bodgers but, as a sideline, by wheelwrights in their shops. It wasn't called the Windsor or acquired the distinctive steam-bent bow back until the 18th century. And why 'Windsor', in Berkshire, when it was mostly made in the beechwoods of Buckinghamshire? It is thought to be because it was middle-men in Windsor who were first responsible for buying up the chairs and shipping them off to markets in London. Another nail in the coffin of the idea of the self-sufficient craftsman and an early case of London being where the money was. Metropolitan domination plays a role in the development of the Buckinghamshire beechwoods too. They were first actively managed on a large scale to send coppiced firewood for the domestic hearths of nearby London - nothing to do with furniture and bodging. But the canals and coal put paid to that trade and only then did the bodgers move in, finding a convenient and underused source of small-section timber. They continued to coppice much of the woodland but towards the end of the nineteenth century furniture manufacture in High Wycombe had become sufficiently mechanised in factories for it to be using a significant number of local large timber trees. It was, however, a short-lived phenomenon, because it very quickly became cheaper to import beech timber from Europe. Thus the substantial markets for both the coppice wood and timber of the Buckinghamshire beechwoods disappeared, leaving them to become 'amenity' woodlands (at least for the owners, if not for the masses). And, of course, it soon became the case that the complete chairs themselves, at least for the mass market, were imported.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Controlled crying

End of the world approaches – short paragraph foot of page seventeen.

Charles Dickens, where are you when we really need you?

The world is staring into the abyss, again; the cash dispensers and their multitudinous seas incarnadine are about to run dry. It is all in the newspapers, but fourth or fifth down the list of news stories. We are all tired of stuffing our trillions down the insatiable maws of the likes of Mr Bob Diamond, those overgrown infants of the financial classes who forever demand the attentions and gifts of their sleep-deprived parents in the small hours of the financial night, with the Lagardes and Trichets, those international financial Spocks, telling us how to raise our unruly off-spring.

It is time to leave them to their own devices. No doubt it will be extremely unpleasant for us all for a while, but life cannot go on like this indefinitely.

It is time to end the absurd litany of a system that so hypocritically prides and preens itself of having lifted half the world out of poverty, and out of every concept of dignity and culture. Time for a bonfire of the Candy-ed, Salmond-farmed Trumperies of grotesquely misnamed Qatari sovereign wealth, and the prostitution of be-Fostered ‘starchitects’ littering the face of the planet with one Ozymandias tower after another, the Gherkins, the Bananas and the whole naturally ventilated green-grocery of vanity. Time to end the Jobs-worth progression of oh-so-purely-designed electronic frippery, 4 succeeded by 5, 5 by 6, to the Seventh Seal of cadaverous consumer approval. So that the worm infested apple of our consumer knowledge leads us beckoningly out of Eden, hand in hand with faltering steps and slow.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Making hay while the sun shines

'US stocks fell ahead of S&P's announcement [of a downgrading of Italy's soverign debt rating] but staged a late comeback as fears of a near-term Greek debt default faded on news of a possible deal to advance new bailout funds to Athens.'

Or at least while the can is still moving.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Breakfast reading


The poet Pope

Bertie Wooster: Oh, never mind about the poet Pope, Jeeves.

Jeeves: No, sir.

Bertie Wooster: There are times when one wants to hear all about the poet Pope and times when one doesn’t.

Jeeves: Very true, sir.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Ad astra

Rear of Canton Library, Cardiff

Atomisation 3

We are hearing much talk, post riots, of a 'feral underclass', with the two words linked seemingly inseparably together - "yoked by violence together", one might say. Yet many have pointed out that more glittering sections of our society are equally feral.

Underclass, overclass and in between, we're all feral now. Literally it means simply 'wild' or 'fierce', but we use it distinctively in the sense of having reverted to the wild - feral pigeons, feral cats, feral bankers. We certainly have a feral financial class; not just in their own undoubted (even if unaccountable) indulgence in fraud and criminality (especially, in banks, managerial fraud against shareholders as a class), but in their outright association, for straightforward material gain, with some of the heavier criminal classes at large, the drugs and arms dealers, the corrupt heads of state. The international rich are increasingly feral. Here in my village we already have a fully feral parish council and the ambitions, not just of Mr Pickles, but of Messrs Gove and Lansley promise to do much to promote the feral. One could make a good case for saying that our present government is feral, no longer feeling itself obliged to carry widespread electoral consent with it. The famous 'middle ground' is behind us all and well in the past. Internationally states have always been feral (see Randolph Bourne) and in modern times the scruples and the international moves towards regulation and restraint following two world wars in Europe now seem like a brief and fading interlude.

For all the dulcetly reasonable tones of our own Dame Liza Manningham-Buller's Reith Lectures (you could hardly hope for a greater concatenation of civilising, proper and gentilely British nouns than those six), the security services are as challenged against humane and honest norms as ever.

In this particular subject one could argue, only a little tendentiously, that the old official British refusal to recognise the existence of 'intelligence' agencies was an admission that their activities were never entirely justifiable (however occasionally - or more often - necessary), and that, once they were openly recognised and 'regulated', inevitably to some degree the unacceptable would become officially sanctioned and, in Orwellian processes, the lines of civilised behaviour become more blurred. It is an interesting speculation whether the 'security' services ('intelligence' services, 'security' agencies, 'defence' departments - we hardly even think of these terms as Orwellian) were not in practice more restrained and scrupled when they acted entirely in the shadows than they have been in recent years.

But I digress - and will again. In the face of the more open burgeoning of feral energy on all sides, the lumpen middle (high and low) of our society seems to be running out of energy fast. As I go around, on every side life seems to be running down like a clockwork toy running to a halt, entropy looms, from the state of the municipal flowerbeds to the demeanour of the people in the streets, to the quality of our higher journalism and broadcasting, to the popular participation in politics. In the last instance aided and abetted by our present government's intention to remove the compulsion on the public to co-operate with the electoral registration officer, to switch electoral registration from a household to an individual base, and to make it the Boundary Commission's sole responsibility to equalise the population size of constituencies, which, taken together, are expected to reduce electoral registration in this country from the present level of about 90 per cent to 60 or 65 per cent, so that the alien experience of the United States, where drives to increase voter registration are often the key to possible results in specific elections, will be, like so much else of which our new government is enamoured, transplanted across the Atlantic to these shores.

Yet we must not be too despondent. People still cultivate their gardens and sweep their paths (if they have any). Did we not learn a little while ago that Tesco was enforcing a dress code on its customers? No more midnight shopping in pyjamas.

In vain, in vain, — the all-composing Hour
Resistless falls: The Muse obeys the Pow'r.
She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primæval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy's gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea's strain,
The sick'ning stars fade off th'ethereal plain;
As Argus' eyes by Hermes' wand opprest,
Clos'd one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
Mountains of Casuistry heap'd o'er her head!
Philosophy, that lean'd on Heav'n before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos! is restor'd;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.

Alexander Pope The Dunciad Book IV
The end

Friday, 16 September 2011

About and about

John Donne

... On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death's twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body's pains; hard knowledge too
The mind's endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign'd kings' blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.
Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man's laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? Oh, will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin, taught thee this?
Is not this excuse for mere contraries
Equally strong? Cannot both sides say so?
That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;
Those past, her nature and name is chang'd; to be
Then humble to her is idolatry.
As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell
At the rough stream's calm head, thrive and do well,
But having left their roots, and themselves given
To the stream's tyrannous rage, alas, are driven
Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost
Consum'd in going, in the sea are lost.
So perish souls, which more choose men's unjust
Power from God claim'd, than God himself to trust.

Satire III 

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Atomisation 2: concision and elaboration

Thank you for this draft of hemlock. before I drain it to the dregs, could I just remark that there seem to me to be essentially two forms of discourse or desription.

The most fervently recommended today is, supposedly, concision, consisting in the isolation and abstraction of 'key points'.

A whole apparatus of techniques exists to support this approach: the bullet point, the executive summary, the abstract - as though the essence of an argument, of a conception, is something that could be abstracted from its context - the overhead projector, those boxes on the printed page. This is brevity, the less that is more, the distillation. It runs from executive jargon all the way to the new-age spiritualist aphorism. Modish, cliché-ed coinages are its handmaid.

Lurking in the despised shadows is another mode, that of elaboration, where the essence of a thing is approached, about and about, through the ebb and flow, relationship and counter-relationship, where the qualification may assume greater importance than the proposal. Here is no brevity, no magic bullet, only the flow and flux of a mutating thing.

Pity, like a naked new born babe, striding the blast...

Shock and awe 2

The official US prescription for dealing with the current shambles in European government debt and, perhaps more pressingly, banking system, is said to be "overwhelming force".

Sounds good - for the time being.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Trickle on down

Mr Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, speaking to the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport about the much criticised proposed high speed rail link from London to the north, HS2, has said: "Uncomfortable fact number one is that the railway is already relatively a rich man's toy - the whole railway." Trains are used by "the better-off". "If you are a factory worker from Manchester you might never get on HS2 but you will certainly be benefiting from it, if the sales director of your company is routinely hopping on it to meet customers, to jet round the world from Heathrow in a way that brings in orders to keep you employed."

This is a rich vein, of which we shall see much more.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Atomisation 1

When we nowadays talk, as we so frequently do, about 'communication', we often are referring to techniques to facilitate primarily verbal communication between physically distant individuals: the (nearly obsolete) letter, the telephone, the email, 'social media' - even blogging, though now we are getting more into the territory of publication rather than inter-personal communication.

It must have been very different in the days of settled societies, when personal mobility was heavily circumscribed. People of course talked to each other, but personal social interaction was not necessarily verbal. It consisted to a considerable extent in simple physical presence in the course of quotidian lives, in the interchange of goods and services. That was not necessarily stimulating, but the unexamined assumption that stimulation is always beneficial is a product of our own times.

It is significant that we do now talk about communication so much - its success or failure, its techniques; despite its unprecedented quantity in our time, it is always thought there is not enough of it, that the solution to all problems lies in 'more' or 'more effective' communicaton. There is far less consideration of what we might be communicating or of whether it is desirable that we should seek to develop new realms within ourselves for communication. With it of course goes the whole modern fixation with the virtues of 'self-expression'. In modern times the unexpressed life is the life not worth living.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Product placement

He's worried too

Lacoste, the people who provide golfers and others with fashionably anodyne clothes decorated with a rather twee crocodile, have reportedly asked the Norwegian police to prevent Anders Breivik from appearing publicly in their garments with logo visible to photographers.

It is not known what was the police response, but this clearly exposes a grave gap in international intellectual property protection legislation. It is to be hoped that world trade authorities will take rapid and effective action. Unless global corporations can control who associates themselves with their brands and how (and not only in such high-profile cases as this) the value of these brands, so important to the material and spiritual well-being of us all, will be undermined and social stability and growth will be betrayed.

We need a rapidly formalised and effective system whereby in purchasing any branded product we assent to terms under which the brand-owners can control when we should and should not display their goods to any group of more than three people, in what circumstances, in association with what other products and with what standards of personal appearance and conduct. This must be made to stick; get the legal draughtsmen onto it now.

I wonder, did they ask the crocodiles?

Go east, young man.

I think it's in that direction.

The idea constantly nags at the back of my mind, not only that sections of Western society and of our country in particular are partly responsible for the appalling developments in Russian society since the fall of communism, but that our own society here bears more than comfortable resemblances to Russia now.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that David Cameron sees relief in the East:

Downing Street intends for £215m worth of deals to be done between Russia and the UK when the prime minister visits the Kremlin, despite a warning to David Cameron from four former foreign secretaries that business people already operating in the country are "victims of an increasingly potent mix of corruption and lawlessness".

Their letter says hundreds of thousands of Russian businessmen are detained in jails after falling victim to corruption sanctioned by the authorities.

I don't of course mean by what I said above that Cameron and Osborne are busily puting British businessmen into clink here, but...

The exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky has warned Cameron that his decision to meet Putin is a "historical mistake" that will lead to more bloodshed inside the country. "The longer you speak with the gangster head of a country, the more victims there will be … until these cannibals are erased from the story," Berezovsky said in a telephone interview from London.

It will, of course, all fall on deaf ears. Cameron's untroubled view is:

"Russia is resource rich and services light. Britain is the opposite. In fact Britain is already one of the largest foreign direct investors in Russia. And Russian companies already account for about a quarter of all foreign initial public offerings on the London Stock Exchange"

The prime minister went on to say that Russia offered one of the strongest business environments in Europe and had some of the "lowest barriers to entrepreneurship" in the world. Britain, he said, was keen to work with the Russian government to help strengthen the business environment in the country, so that more British businesses were able to invest.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Banks are us

The Conclusions and Recommendations of the April 2011 report of the Public Accounts Committee on the Asset Protection Scheme states:

"2. The Treasury conducted extensive investigations of the assets put forward for inclusion in the Scheme, but both banks [RBS and Lloyds] encountered major difficulties in providing all the data requested. Two of the UK's major banks could not provide basic information on their assets and sufficient assurance that their assets were not linked to fraud or other criminal activity. As the Treasury did not have a complete picture of the risks the taxpayer would be taking on, it was put in a difficult position and the Accounting Officer had to ask for a Direction from Ministers before proceeding with the Scheme. The Treasury should take steps to ensure the banks address these gross deficiencies in basic data and, when considering the future role of financial services regulators, make sure that arrangements are in place to test whether this has been done.

3. The gaps in information on the banks' assets also begs questions about the role played by the auditors of banks ahead of 2008, when the full impact of the financial crisis became apparent. The Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have been working with organisations in the banking sector to improve the audit framework. They should now expand discussions to include the major professional audit and accountancy bodies. The Treasury should report back to us within a year on specific actions to ensure that professional audit standards and practices are up to the task of providing robust assurance on the internal control and governance of financial institutions, and on the valuation of assets."

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmpubacc/785/78504.htm .

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Designers and the riots - an exchange with Skree

I believe, along with many, that the recent riots were not primarily political in nature, certainly unlike the poll tax riots. Many have been blamed or criticised from single mothers to gang culture to the police. Whilst all these professions may have borne some degree of guilt, designers haven't either spoken up nor had fingers pointed their way. What were the most stolen items? not food; Waterstones remained untouched, no, it was the desirable consumables, mobile phones, computer games, laptops, trainers. A feast of designer goods. A new pair of trainers or a Blackberry brings but temporary comfort, dates and needs to be updated to take part in the fashion of object ownership. These rioters who can see no further than a pair of status symbol nikes are a lost generation. Politically the endorsement of material betterment that began with Thatcher but became the thrust of Blair’s 'democracy' has clearly left a gaping hole. These objects of desire deliver a longevity of ‘buzz' not much greater than a bag of heroin or a pipe of crack. But who thinks up material culture? is it not us designers? Are we not equally responsible for delivering these momentary highs as much as any? It is time that designers refuse the throw away, the fashion statement and show a materialism of depth. Arguably the Designer Craftsmen with their adherence to the Arts and Crafts ethos have turned their backs on the trivia of conventional product design and offered an alternative, objects of heirloom significance. The practice must transcend both the attack of the shock of the momentarily new and the self indulgent.

from Skreeworld blog

You could say that, but you would be saying that people rioted because they had been morally debauched by their taste for trainers and mobile phones. Perhaps they had. If they had taken food would we say they had been morally debauched by their need to eat? They didn’t take food, presumably because, although they feel themselves to be materially disadvantaged, they are not, mostly, at the point of not being able to feed themselves. You could simply say that, like most thieves in other contexts, they were after easily portable and saleable objects of high value. Some police spokespeople have said that the riots spread simply because, after the police failure to control the first riots sparked by Mark Duggan’s death, people believed they would get away with it. That amounts to saying that significant sections of society are in a permanent state of potentially violent disaffection and indicates an alarming degree of social alienation. In some broad sense that has to be considered ‘political’. We may be debauched by trashy consumer goods but I think one can overstate the extent to which that is a radical social change. There has always been a taste for quick gratification and often for the tawdry – to some extent. One might equally say that the alienation is produced by the constant display of highly expensive consumer goods that a very small minority can easily enjoy, but only they can. In that picture ‘designer-maker’ furniture comes off less creditably. What is new in our society is an alienation of ordinary people from the processes by which material goods are produced, and that applies equally to the high-tech electronic goods in everybody’s pockets and to the low-tech but immaculate purpose-made furniture.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Portrait of a nation

Our government is lining things up to sell hospitals to foreign corporations. Nick Clegg says he has 'used up a lot of political capital' (he means with Mr Cameron, not with the electors) and so he can make no further changes to the NHS bill.

Our security services are revealed as having organised their own rendition exercise to Colonel Gaddafi's Libya, after its sanctification by Tony Blair.

Planning policies and codes of conduct for local councillors are to be torn up.

FTSE 100 chief executive pay packages have risen by almost 50% since last year.

But the eggs are happy (hens' eggs that is).

And the chocolate trade is fair (tell it not in Zug).

Sunday, 4 September 2011