The softening effect of the snow is particularly welcome in the city. The traffic slows to walking pace, the streets get quieter, everything returns to a more human scale.
At London Bridge station, there was a column of drifting snow suspended under every missing section of the roof. Even better, people seem to look up from their shoes and communicate. At the station, a man shaking the snow from his shoulders caught the eye of the woman selling the Evening Standard, and they both grinned.
Right now, having just picked my way home, I can hear laughter on the street outside as the snowballs start to fly.
* * *
I was interrupted then by a neighbour bringing round a delivery she’d taken off the doorstep for us. We spent five cheerful minutes talking about how cheerful everybody is. Her husband was on the street taking a photograph, as he does every year when it snows.
I know it will have melted away by tomorrow, but tonight there’s a thin covering of humanity on the streets of London.
I think I missed something that happened with my clothes. Now, to my surprise, I own some underpants labelled “Stallion”. And another pair labelled “Simmer”. And another called “Guilty”.
Now, apart from saying much about the sexual pathology of this peculiar land (and I suppose I should point out that the wording is on the seat of the pants), this all came as a bleary eyed surprise while pulling things out of the drawer in a distracted attempt to get ready for the day. I retrieved the packaging and concluded that I wasn’t just being a lamebrained myopic; there seemed to be a concerted attempt to hide from me the fact that I was buying stallion pants.
I feel like a sheltered teen whose racy aunt has decided must be brought out of his shell a little.
Relatedly, the label on some other clothes promises “Japanese Care Symbols”. Lovely. Thanks. Is this some form of Feng Shui for trousers? Or are these collectible symbols, like Pokemon? Surely I should have heard of these ‘Poketrousers’? How do I make them fight? Will they strobe unexpectedly, causing epileptic fits in children?
I think I’ll take them back to the shop, just in case.
I admit, I didn’t suppose that I would end this week by applauding a headline in the Evening Standard. But tonight it is ‘WATER FOUND ON MARS’.
Now that’s a proper headline.
If you have a gut feeling that early, painful exposure to the boardgame ‘Monopoly’ taught you the true meaning of capitalism, you could be right. The game is allegedly a fraudelently patented derivative of ‘The Landlord’s Game’, invented in 1903, and played mainly by Quakers and socialists, who were alive to the fact that the game is an effective illustration of the terrors of a market dominated by rent and speculation.
Perhaps it’s just me, but Monopoly always seems to end in victory for the monomaniacal and grinding, tedious poverty for the rest.
(via Happy Software Prole)
I adore the little burble of street theatre you get when someone realises they’ve forgotten something.
Do they slow down first, checking their pockets or their memory? Or do they keep striding on right up to the moment when they’ve decided they’ve got to go home to retrieve it, lock it, or switch it off? Some people simply stand there a minute, either contemplating their own foolishness or making a carefully weighted calculation as to whether what they’ve forgotten is more important than missing their train or bus.
Then it’s that rueful turn on the heel and the trudge back home.
What I really love about all this is that it seems to be one of the few occasions that the British, out in a public space, wish to put on a display for complete strangers. You will never, never, see someone turn right around and walk the way they were going without some accompanying dumbshow that indicates that they’re not odd, they’ve just forgotten something.
There are a delightful array of displays in use. I list below some I’ve observed. I’m sure you’ve seen others.
1) As already indicated, the show of slowing down while ostentatiously drinking in the realisation that you have, in fact, forgotten something. Often accompanied by glances upwards (searching the memory) or scuffles of pocket searching.
2) Standing still on the pavement, looking puzzled and peeved.
3) Checking of watch. Pocket. Watch again. Glance at the station. Loud sigh.
4) Catch of the breath while coming to a halt. Thinking about it, then a visible slump of the shoulders as you ruefully turn around. I can’t believe my memory has done this to me again.
5) Brisk about turn followed by a grim-faced stalk back past the following pedestrians, as if with an unruly toddler in tow. Tight-lipped, slight shake of the head. I do this all the time, you know. I’ll never learn.
6) “Gah!”, throwing, ideally, both arms into the air a fraction. This precedes, and is a warning of, the shameful turn.
7) For those nervous that passers by won’t have fully understood that this is a forgetfulness/travel perplexity, there is the dance of indecision. Stop. Half turn. Set off again. Stop. Half turn. Think. Go back a yard. Stop. Turn. Turn again. Hand on head. Set off, at a dash, mumbling under the breath.
8) This morning I was walking some way behind a woman carrying a bag and a crook-handled umbrella. She stopped, hit herself on the head with the umbrella handle, then turned. As she passed me she was keeping up the mouthed monologue that doesn’t need to be heard to be understood.
What’s clear is that we regard the act of completely changing direction as bizarre enough to require public justification. We would rather perform the dance of indecision, exclaim aloud about nothing, strike ourselves, stand there waiting to be sure we are being properly interpreted, rather than simply turn around and walk back the way we came. What is it that we fear people would think? That we meant to do it? That we turned back for no reason at all? Whatever it is, it must be bad if we, the British of all people, would rather than just get on with it silently, instead put on a display that involves talking to ourselves in public.
Ugh. That was an unexpected rant. I warn you, it could have been much longer. I couldn’t face editing it. I would have probably, correctly, simply have deleted the whole thing. As it stands, the rant is longer than the article in question, and let that somehow be a lesson to us all.
Let me just make this public note that finicking over the press is hereby off limits in these here parts until further notice. If you catch me wavering, you know what to do.
That’s it. This is open conflict.
I know that I take British tabloid journalese far too seriously, but tonight’s batch are, so to speak, MY TABLOID SPIN HELL.
Two boards outside the newsagents (what is their proper name?). Two bile-inducing headlines.
The first, in retrospect, was pretty forgivable. ‘BROKEN HEATING LEFT OAP CRITICAL’ makes sense in tabloid, if not in English. I would suggest that it was the paper that was critical; the OAP was just very ill.
The second, the Evening Standard’s, wound me up in two entirely specific and separate ways. The headline:
MADNESS: More Drivers Sent to Prison than Burglars
To start with, this is typical Standard harrumphing. It’s tabloid froth. This rag isn’t called the Metropolitan Mail for nothing. I’ll say this for the Standard, though: it knows its core market. What do City boys like even more than the Stock Market? That’s right. Driving their cars. Correspondingly, they very much don’t like getting speeding tickets, parking tickets, or being pulled over for drunken or otherwise dangerous driving.
So, because most car related crime (aside from stealing and joyriding) is basically a dangerous modification of otherwise legal behaviour, it’s easy to see ‘drivers’ as an innocent group unjustly punished.
Burglary, of course, can’t really occur by accident or omission. If you are carrying a hi-fi without permission from a stranger’s house, it’s fair to conclude that you know you’re committing a crime.
This is, I think, the intellectual basis of the Standard’s upset. Burglars are bad people who should be punished. ‘Drivers’ (or, to you and me, ‘people who have committed car-related crimes’) are essentially good people who may have done something a bit naughty, but only need a slap on the wrist and a driving skills course.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The Standard, eventually, does make a couple of very fair points about the futility (the act of criminalisation, even) of jailing people for relatively minor offences. It also says that research demonstrates that driving courses can be a much more effective corrective than prison. Oddly, there isn’t enough room in the article to identify this research. I would have said that it is the story: don’t lock them up if remedial work is cheaper, more effective, and better for the community.
Funny, though, that the Standard doesn’t seem to be in favour of rehabilitation when it comes to burglars, regardless of how well it compares against jail.
Note, please, that I’m not attempting to morally equate car-related crimes and burglary. For a start, I’m far more likely to commit the former, as I suppose most of us are. I do own and use a car, but if I have a jemmy, I certainly don’t carry it around. As I say, I’m not trying to equate the two types of criminal. I suspect the picture is far more complex than that. Many burglars are more morally culpable than those committing a car-crime, many less so. It very much depends which cases you look at, doesn’t it? The Standard does want to compare them, and thinks it knows exactly how morally culpable each group is.
Which brings me on to the second specifically annoying aspect of the headline. Remember that I said that there were two things? Right.
MADNESS: More Drivers sent to Prison than Burglars
As the article itself acknowledges, we are not looking at similar measures. Something like 10% of burglaries end in convictions. The perceived clear-up rate for motoring offences is vastly higher, because, with a few obvious exceptions, motoring crimes are logged by the police themselves, who are immediately and accurately able to identify the car involved. Hence, even in the same population, the conviction rates vastly differ, as will the raw number of crimes of each type.
With admirable bravado, the Standard tries for a grander conclusion:
“There is, however, no such thing as an undetected motoring offence as police can only record those they observe.”
In defence of the ES, here “undetected” for some reason means “not resulting in an arrest”. They are not making an existential point about trees falling in forests. All the same, this statement is patently untrue. Rapid rebuttal: hit and runs.
Anyway, the point is that the statement ‘More X are jailed than Y’ is logically and politically meaningless unless X and Y strictly ought to be treated the same. More men than women. More black people than white. More left-handed than right. Otherwise, we’re just shouting random comparisons, based only on our own peculiar bigotries:
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than murderers
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than Jeffrey Archers
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than corrupt union officials
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than memorials to Princess Diana
MADNESS: More drivers jailed than percentage house price rise in London in 2003
MADNESS: More stars than planets
Hm. I quite like that last one.
Before I forget the moment entirely, let me record a thrilling moment from last week, on the night of the last full moon.
I returned home about seven in the evening. It was, unusually for the city, a silvery darkness. The usual urban backlighting of leached orange was strangely absent. It was a particularly clear night, and the moon must have been close.
As I stepped into the kitchen, lights still off, I could see it was illuminated. The windows were casting great milky boxes of light across table and floor. Though I knew it was the moonlight, the brilliance of it was so unexpected that I forced myself to check that none of the neighbours had installed spotlighting out in the back. There was nothing but the moon.
Then I sat on the kitchen step for a while and drank it in. It was gloriously like not being in London.
Why I read As Above, in two easy links:
First, the Daily Mail headline writer. Sample: “Could Channel 4
Destroy British Sovereignty?”. Wasn’t that a real headline from 2002?
Second, Mixmaster, which allows the frivolous to drop the content of one site into the layout of another. Hence, BBC Rogue Semiotics. Mind you, in proper Heisenbergian fashion, by posting on it, I’ll be changing the page itself.
Word from The Deep North of trouble with builders, even friendly ones, reminds me of our decorator.
Late last year we redecorated in short order the kitchen and hallways. Rather, I redecorated the hallways, and, as I didn’t have the time for the kitchen as well, we were put onto a friend of a friend who would do the kitchen for a reasonable price while I completed the woodwork elsewhere.
Nice chap. In fact, lovely chap. A fine decorator to boot.
By profession, I quickly discovered, a jazz trumpeter
All builders, decorators, plumbers, electricians and workmen of whatever stripe are whistlers. It is surely in the union rules, nestled between two sugars in the tea, thanks, and I normally don’t carry those, but I might just have one in the van.
So, a whistler who is musical. That’s alright, I thought, setting back to the woodwork. Makes a nice change, tunefulness. Perhaps he does requests.
Some hours later, the awful truth has long since dawned. The terror, like any good disaster, is threefold.
First, with his nigh perfect embouchure and practised projection, the chap can’t half whistle at a volume.
Second, did I mention that he is a jazz trumpeter? The meandering freeform beebop riffing is impressive, but hard on the listener. A couple of times I spot a motif returning after half an hour on the sidelines, but most of the time I’m pressed to tell if we’re still on ‘Oh when the Saints’ or if we’ve moved on to ‘Fly me to the Moon’.
Third, Oh Lord, third, the chap has of course mastered circular breathing.
It is incessant.
In the end, I am reduced to ever more frequent mugs of tea (two sugars cheers) purely to enforce a five minute intermission.
Kitchen looks nice, mind.
All right. Riddle me this.
I got home five minutes ago. Message on the answerphone. On it goes. The voice of a cheery American woman. It sounds like a prerecorded sales pitch. She says:
To disturb you, this message was intended to be received only by an answering machine. Thank you!
Who what why when how? And most of all, cui boni?
1) How curious to be spending the best part of an hour staring at myself in the mirror.
2) In fact, I must be spending more time watching myself in the mirror right now than I do for the rest of the month put together
3) How many other professions would tolerate the customer staring at them doing their job constantly?
4) I am offered tea or coffee. This is a sign of service: I am paying to be pampered.
5) This is personal service. This is the nearest thing in the modern world to having one’s own tailor.
6) But a tailor would not chat to you about their holidays. Is this a democratised form of personal service, or is the conversation just the result of the awkwardness of proximity?
7) There is power distributed on both sides. I must keep her sweet so that she doesn’t rake my scalp with the comb, burn the nape of my neck with the razor, or chip splinters of flesh out of my ears. Keep talking.
8) This is the one element of male personal grooming that it is permissible to contract out to a third party.
9) This is, probably, the only element of male personal grooming that is more or less universally and regularly followed.
10) Can I imagine spending an hour a month getting my skin moisturised, or my feet decalloused?
11) It’s like lawnmowing, really.
12) Is it because your hair is the most animal part of your body?
13) It’s actually an act of being civilised not because of the element of personal service, but because it exerts control over your creaturely self.
14) The personal service is surely a sublimation of this necessary function of controlling the animal.
15) Perhaps then my slow hair loss is a sign of my becoming increasingly civilised.
15) I spend as much on my hair as I do on clothes.
16) Maybe I’ll get my head shaved.
Talking of forgotten things, here’s a suggestion for how to actively forget.
The benefits may, in fact, be entirely calculable.
Martindale’s Calculators claims to list over 18,000 online calculators, useful for all of those awkward tasks one needs to fulfil nowadays, from Carbon 14 dating, calculating water drip rates and working out eye-colour inheritance to finding mandolin chords, calculating leg length and all those awkward properties of tubes.
Best of all are the sporting calculators, so that you can compute your decathlon score and, while you’re at it, work out how likely you are to get injured in the next twelve months.
I’m 25% likely to incur an injury playing football. Cricket would be a mere 20%, and dancing a babyish 15%. If I were a darts player I would carry a mere 6% risk of injury.
Just bump up your insurance if you’re a keen Gaelic footballer. You’re 85% likely to get injured playing the sport this year.
Five things I could do with in my world:
1) An orrery
2) A font based on my own handwriting
3) A gravity box
4) Silvio Berlusconi to go down, taking this absurd case against Dario Fo with him
5) An improved memory – or did I already mention that?
Sleep was dearly bought last night. I eventually got some only by exhausting myself in the effort.
The cause of the problem was one of the local foxes. It screamed and yowled its way through the night, presumably in pain. If you’ve heard such a thing, you’ll know what an uncanny sound it is – both catchingly human and at the same time very much not human.
It was still going, in fits and starts, this morning. The house cats had taken a vote and were not venturing outside. They sat by the kitchen window, quivering like leaves in the wind as they listened. They looked unconvinced that the dawn would take away their bogeyman.
I scouted for evidence of a stuck or injured fox, but found nothing. It is probably in one of the neighbours’ gardens. I could throw a stone into at least a dozen gardens from mine. Nevertheless, I’ll check again this evening to see if we’ve taken responsibility for a dying or dead fox.
I don’t know what I’ll do with one if I find it. There isn’t enough deep earth in my city garden for a burial, and I suspect that the binmen would dislike my using the wheelie bin as a fox hearse as much as I would.
You’ll notice that I’m deliberately not pondering what to do if the fox is there and injured. I’ll look it up in my dog-eared Scouting manual, but I suspect that even Baden-Powell didn’t cover that one.
In memory of my shockingly unpredictable memory, here are five things I’ve forgotten:
1) The names of most of my primary school classmates.
2) One of Aquinas’ five ways (although a quick check reveals that it is the argument from contingent and necessary objects).
3) At least fifteen birthdays in the last twelve months, up over 50% on the previous twelve months.
4) Something important I was supposed to get posted this week, or was it last week?
5) Some of my youthful dreams, and most of the nightmares.
Readers are invited to add their own below, if they can remember.
Not making big waves yesterday, despite its size, was the Queen Mary II, as of yesterday the largest cruise liner on the water.
It demonstrates just how much Britain has changed that this ship, twice the size of the QEII, barely registered on the news reports. Yes, it’s only a cruise ship, plying the Southampton-New York route for holidaymakers not travellers. Nevertheless the launch of a monster of engineering like this would, fifty years ago, have been the prompt for a round of chest-puffing around the country.
Is industry so dissociated now from our sense of national identity? With the constant decline in the numbers of people working in traditional industries, perhaps there’s a corresponding decline in industrial achievements. I wonder what would today receive acclaim corresponding to, say, the launch of the QEII? A British winner on World Idol?
It’s probably the spirit of New Year resolutions doing the rounds, but there seems to be a lot of talk about how many books one can read as against the number of books one wants to read.
Michael Honey calculates that he has time to read “only” 2,600 more books, at a steady one a week. Leaving aside any tiny gloating that I’ve already read some of the books on his to-read list, this is a disturbing prospect. He also posits Goethe as the last person to have read everything. I would have given the nod to Erasmus, but I wouldn’t swear to it.
cityofsound places this in the context of a general feeling of information overload: newspapers, magazines, journals, websites, blogs, emails, newsletters, comments, rss feeds, text messages. More stuff to read, less time to read books.
My suspicion is that it isn’t so simple as all that. I’ve always found that the more I start reading, the more I get read. No, that isn’t a tautology. The more books I begin, the more books I read. There is, I fear, a certain amount of natural wastage involved. Some books never get finished, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they’re no good. Perhaps they annoy you. Perhaps the wind changes. Perhaps they were never meant to be read through, or you only ever intended to read part of them.
Even given this rate of attrition, and even given the fairly constant percentage over time of books I’ve read measured against books I have, reading is, I think, habitual. If I have just finished a long, much enjoyed book, I must, I physically need, to get a fresh book in front of my face as a matter of urgency. I notice myself discreetly selecting or buying the next book even as I reach the end of this one, trying not to bring it to my own attention.
Right now the house is awash with open books. Of the two I bought today, one is meant to be read piecemeal (so that’s alright), the other looks bearable, from its introduction. Otherwise I have two, no three, other piecemeal books on the go, as well as a novel, which I have just crested (around page 100, as usual) and am now racing to finish.
Now, what will I be reading next?
Dealing with comment spam, lesson number one: mentioning it just draws in more.
Case in point being this hard-to-refuse offer to buy all my urea (second comment, until I delete it). As the man says, “If you can, we will give you all the details”; a symbiotic principle by which I try to live my life.
Perhaps if I just put Yang in contact with Mr David Negrin I can claim a neat commission. Who said blogging doesn’t pay?
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