Saturday, 26 November 2011


Illuminated fish parade in Durham

No blogging for a while because we’ve been travelling. When Lois was a student at St Andrews, she did a trip around Scotland on a bike and envied people in campervans. So, we did the trip in our new van. We also took in the Lumiére in Durham on the way.
videoThe Lumiére was fascinating, I hesitate to say illuminating, because most of the time I had no idea what was going on or why. For example, a parade of children walks through the streets each child holding illuminated fish, made of paper maché. The fish are about 2 or 3 feet long and on sticks so they appear to float above the crowd. An enormous Heron, similarly illuminated, leads them. Why would fish be led by a Heron? Don’t Herons eat fish? Or has someone just discovered that Herons are now into fish farming? Anyway, it filled the street with a massive crowd all saying oooh and aaah. If you get enough kids from enough schools taking part, I guess you are guaranteed a big crowd of parents, aunties, uncles and other associates. I loved the huge perspex bubble over the statue. Filled with polystyrene balls and fans it made a snowstorm, like those little models you turn upside down.

One thing I did notice was the body mass of the people in the crowd. Mostly they look thin and fit. Durham centre is largely pedestrianised and full of steep hills that everyone must walk up and down to get anywhere at all. Have they solved the obesity crisis by getting everyone to take more exercise? It ought to be possible to compare obesity in hilly towns with flat ones. Someone should get onto it.

Throughout the town there are fixed displays, often exploiting reflections from the river that winds through Durham. Other features light up ancient buildings in novel ways, sometimes telling stories, sometimes just making ancient beauty visible. I found it hard to take good pictures because there were so many people milling around that it was very difficult to get a clear view of anything. 

After Durham, we set off north, hoping to find a service station to park at overnight. Unfortunately, we missed the last one on the A1 because the car park signs were confusing and we rapidly found ourselves in a position where there was no way back. A 23foot motorhome is not an HGV, not a coach and not a car or a caravan, so sometimes, particularly in the dark, it can be hard to guess where they want you to park.
Lois doing her own breakfast

Further north we found the road closed, with diversion signs. Very diverting, in that we spent the next hour in low gears winding and zig-zagging around parts of Northumberland, gradually running low on fuel and wondering what sort of maze we had stumbled into. We eventually emerged onto the A68 and found a lay bye with a sign that implied that there would be a snack truck during the daytime. We took that as an indication that it might be OK to park for the night slept. In due course, I had breakfast served by Sally who provides meals to truckers every day from 7am until 2pm. Such roadside meals are awash with gluten, so Lois ate in the van.

Sunrise on the A68
The truckers told us there was a fuel station a few miles south, so we went back that way. Unfortunately, the crucial sign giving directions was almost invisible behind a mass of foliage and we ended up on the A69 going east. As luck would have it, we had enough fuel to get into Newcastle, so filled up and spent the morning at the Sage centre and the Baltic Gallery.

The Baltic had an exhibition of the Turner Prize contestants. I’ve looked at many Turner exhibits over the years but this one did the least for me that I can remember. OK so it’s good to give one’s scoffing muscles a work out from time to time, but fortunately, there were another exhibits in the Baltic, and they were more fun, as was the graffiti on the walls outside. 

The most northerly surf beach on mainland UK
From Newcastle, we went to Aviemore, too soon for snow, but a good chance to check things out. The next day we headed on north until we could get no further.

Along the way we started getting messages that there had been progress on the house selling front so headed home rather than on around the north and west of Scotland.

We came down through the Great Glen, not seeing any monsters on Loch Ness, went through Glen Coe, around Loch Lomond through the traffic in Glasgow and down the M6. 

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Reflections on the Michael Jackson case

I'm not surprised that the jury found Micheal Jackson's doctor guilty. Using a drug that is pretty much a general anaesthetic, as a sleeping aid, always seemed unwise. The pity of the whole thing is that there has been little exploration of the deeper issues. I suspect that if the doctor had refused to use this drug, or something similar, then he would simply have been fired. Very rich people, who live in a bubble to protect them selves from the downside of their celebrity, have an inevitable tendency to surround themselves with yes men. There are probably yes women involved as well; I don't want my use of the cliché to be sexist.
This is not just true of pop stars or tycoons in general; politicians suffer the same problem. When you are in a position of power, it is most important to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth, whether or not it is uncomfortable. The Jackson trial at least does all the underdogs in that situation a favour. We can at least imagine a conversation where the next Dr Murray says, "No I won't give you that drug. Look at it this way, if I do, I might get four years, but you will be dead. Your choice."
Of course Dr Murray may have factored all that into his calculation, maybe he figured he would be fired before he accidentally killed Micheal Jackson. Maybe he figured that if he got four years, probably out in two for good behaviour, then he was still being paid pretty well on average, plus of course he will have plenty of time in prison to write the book and that will bring in a dollar or two.
OK I am lapsing into cynicism, it seems that Dr Murray is actually being foolish enough to spend some of his hard earned money on appealing. If he is not careful the lawyers will have all his money before he even gets the book written. It would be better to blame Jackson and announce to the world that he is sorry that he succumbed to the pressure of the money, the celebrity and everything else. Substantial parts of the media still call Micheal Jackson, "Wacko Jacko". There must be an argument for Murray along the lines of, "you have no idea how crazy it was, I regret that I was sucked into it all, I should have been stronger, I cared for him a great deal, I thought that if I quit then he would just hire someone less competent who would be persuaded to take even bigger risks, I'm sadder and wiser now." Something along those lines would probably get him back on the medical register. Maybe he should retrain as a psychiatrist.
Despite that, Dr Murray does deserve a lot of what has befallen him, because one way or another he brought some of this on himself. It doesn't matter exactly what happened. I remember the professor of anaesthetics saying to us "Once you give patients these drugs you have taken over responsibility for keeping them alive." Murray either never had that lecture, or he forgot. Whether Jackson in a semi comatose condition took some extra drug, or whether Murray gave too much, does not matter. Anyone using a drug that powerful, takes on a responsibility to make sure that nothing goes wrong. That means continuously monitoring what happens. Murray’s defence was futile; by admitting that he was not in the room, he had effectively admitted guilt. If the right level of observation had been in place then Jackson could not have given himself more of the drug. Equally, if proper monitoring had been in place someone would have seen that Jackson had stopped breathing and done something about it. 
The trial had to focus on what happened and who was to blame, but trials can sometimes ask the wrong question. If we ask instead "What would it have taken for this not to happen?" we get a very different answer. I am paraphrasing that question from something that was said to me by a man who investigated airplane crashes. I think it is a very powerful question because it tends to focus on learning and solutions rather than blame.
What would it have taken? It needed a doctor who could stand up to Michael Jackson's foolish demands. Someone who would not use a general anaesthetic as a sleeping pill. Of course if he had had such a doctor Jackson might well have fired him. It would take someone who not only stood up to Jackson, but also managed to do so in such a way that he wasn’t fired.
It is tough for an individual doctor in such circumstances, do you quit, or get fired, knowing that your patient may well take even bigger risks with a new doctor; or do you soldier on trying to walk the line between safe practice and not getting fired. This is only really a problem in private practice. In an institution, like the NHS, or a large hospital, an individual doctor could appeal to higher authority, to someone not connected with the individual case, who could impart wisdom and insist on sensible practice. This sort of system is called clinical governance, and that was what was lacking in Dr Murray’s case. He was accountable to no one, and supervised by no one, until the court case.
Politicians and the media often rail against medical institutions and make it seem as though an individual private doctor is the top of the range as far as care goes. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, but unless you are sure you can tell the difference, no matter how rich you are, you are safer with a system or an institution.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Snuff, Terry Pratchett and literature

My blogging has been curtailed this last two weeks because, first Lois, and then me, have been struck by a virus that likes to camp out in your sinuses and generally make life miserable. If that wasnt enough, we have also had the decorator in. The combination of inflamed nasal passages and assault by strange paint fumes definitely subdues the creative urge.
To the rescue comes Terry Pratchett in the form a new novel, Snuff. As it happens I accidentally ordered the audio book rather than the hardback, or possibly Amazon accidentally sent me that version. Either way it is something of a godsend because reading with your sinuses blocked and your eyes streaming is no fun.
I cant as yet make any sort of proper critical assessment of the story, because the disadvantage of the audio book is that it is easy to fall asleep while it is playing, especially if you have your eyes closed. No one has yet made the Iphone app that stops the playback when the listener starts snoring. How hard can it be? This means that despite listening to Snuff on and off for four or five days I have still not heard it from end to end in sequence.
Whilst this is unusual, it has some advantages. Losing the plot makes one notice the actual writing, the turns of phrase, gems of description and so on. This should come as no surprise I guess, because every creative writing class Ive attended always dealt with extracts of books when discussing technique and style. It is all too easy to dismiss Terry Pratchett as a rather successful comedy fantasy writer who has been very prolific and generated many fans, but because the books are full of Trolls, Dwarfs, Dragons, and in this case Goblins, they are somehow not literature.
This is nonsense and most probably a temporary position in the long evolution of the subject. No one suggests that Gulliver's Travels is some sort of silly fantasy novel, not to be taken seriously. Gulliver visited imaginary lands with imaginary species, not quite the disc world, but not a lot different. Orwell's Animal Farm sets the book on what is presumed to be Earth, but the animals talk and behave in ways that we know animals do not. Again, this is not widely regarded as a trivial book. Alice in Wonderland and its sequel are sometimes thought of as children's books, but never dismissed as trivial.
What do these authors do? They set up an invented world in order to focus on the relationships and scenarios between the key players. The dialogue and management of situations is used to get the messages across. What does Pratchett do? He sets his books on an imaginary world where the play of situations and characters makes the point. On top of that, he manages to produce endearing characters with whom vast audiences have an emotional attachment and hence has created a market for sequel after sequel. In his books, he tackles issues such as class prejudice, racism, misuse of power, foolish management, and many others. He addresses the human condition, both individually and as human societies. On top of that, he writes astonishingly well, and he is funny; maybe that's a crime to the literati, though that accusation is not levelled at Swift or Carroll.
Pratchett is often very economical in his use of words, capturing the essence of a scene simply by triggering the imagination of the reader. "Miss Beadle led the way into a room in which chintz played a major part." Do you need an elaborate description of the room in order to have a picture of the room in your mind?
Here is Pratchett, through a character, being tongue in cheek about the writing craft, "one day I thought, how hard can it be? After all most of the words are going to be and, the and I and it, and so on, and there's a huge number to choose from, so a lot of the work has already been done for you."
In Snuff, he develops the Goblins as characters, using them to explore a number of aspects of racial prejudice. Much of the language used by the oppressors could be taken straight from the concept of manifest destiny that was used to exterminate the Red Indians, or the sort of things that were said about Aboriginals in Australia or used to defend Apartheid. Pratchett goes further, the goblins say little, but when they do speak, he gives their speech a unique cadence, so that not only do you know when a goblin is speaking, but you have to concentrate. Too much of this would be a bore, so it is used very sparingly, and hence is even more effective. How many writers can say that you can tell which of their characters is talking, simply from the way the words work.
"Wonderful is good," said the goblin girl, as though tasting every word. "Gentle is good, the mushroom is good. Tears are soft. I am tears of the mushroom, this much is now said." The character comes straight off the page.
Of course he can make the language funny too "She's got me marked down for balls, dance, dinners and, oh yes soirées,' he finished, in the tones of a man genetically programmed to distrust any word with an acute accent in it." Again, it is economic, but there is no doubt, along with the laugh, that you know the man.
I appreciate that I may be in an abnormal suggestible and emotional state, in that this Snuff has rescued me from three days of feeling miserable and bored and unable to breathe properly, but I'm still pretty sure that this book, like so many other Pratchett novels could just as easily be classified as literary fiction as fantasy. Surely, it is time to wake up and realise that Pratchett is very much a political, and managerial satirist a commentator on modern life, using an important literary tradition of an imaginary world as the vehicle.
Of course, in that tradition, Pratchett has gone too far, writing more than fifty books, and producing endearing characters that people want to hear more of, hardly 1984. Alice did at least have a sequel, but there does not seem to be have been much demand for the further adventures on Animal Farm or Gullivers next voyage. On the other hand, I suppose that if word got around that Pratchett, despite his knighthood, is not a pillar of society, but is in fact a subversive political satirist putting forward an egalitarian liberal philosophy, hed probably never sell another book.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Coffee on the move

Among the many things involved in buying and breaking in a new motorhome is the question of espresso. Although these mini palaces on wheels come with beds, air conditioning, a shower and loo, fridge freezer, TV aerial point, gas, electricity in multiple voltages, and a gas cooker, it is a sad fact that espresso is not built in.
We have discovered the solution, or at least a solution. The little machine in the picture makes a single cup of the right stuff. The thing is ingenuity itself, but understanding the way it works leads one to wonder what the prototypes were like.
It operates as follows; first, you pump up pressure, watching a gauge to ensure that you have it exactly right. You lock in the pressure, pour in a measured amour of hot water, add coffee in a small device that fits inside, screw on the cover, turn it upside down over the cup and release the pressure. Water is forced through the coffee and out drips a genuine espresso (for a video see this link). You can get a version that uses coffee pods or you can put your own grounds into little capsule filter devices that fit inside. I use the grounds because I usually mix my own blend.
Our machine is covered in elegant black plastic to add style.
So, what we have is a bicycle pump with a sieve in a box, to which is added boiling water. Trying to imagine the process through which this was invented opens up all sorts of possibilities. I picture some enterprising boy scout, or possibly an intrepid cyclist sitting by a campfire idly playing with his bicycle pump while a kettle boils.
What if I attached the pump to the spout? The pressure inside would rise and superheated water would result. Did he pour this onto coffee grounds? Or maybe he had one of those vicious little Italian devices where you put the water in and as it boils the steam forces it through a central chamber full of coffee grounds. Those things do make espresso. We used to have one when I was a kid, but we never did find a way of avoiding the boiling water coming up with explosive force. The flavour was hard to judge when you have to lick the coffee off the kitchen walls.
At higher altitude, say if you were on a skiing holiday, the water boils at a lower pressure, so the coffee might be nothing like as good. Perhaps our intrepid cyclist was up a mountain, making unsatisfactory espresso in the Italian style when it crossed his mind that a bicycle pump might just make all the difference. Maybe a tyre valve welded on to the side of a coffee pot; who knows.
Whilst I am fascinated to know how the inspiration came about, the main thing is, it makes good coffee and it is very portable. You don’t even need a kettle, hot water from a thermos will do.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Is this really October?

We spent the first day of October trying out our new Campervan, except it is so posh it has to be called a Motorhome. It may even be a Recreational Vehicle. We slept last night at a conventional camp site where you can plug in electricity, but first thing this morning we drove down to Widemouth beach and watched the surf roll in.
The sun came up into a hazy blue sky, kicking off what may turn out to be the hottest ever day in October, we won't know that till the weathermen have done their sums, but down here in Cornwall it is near perfect (It did break the record). Add to the sunshine the fact that the surf is clean and up to 3 to 4 feet. The blackboard outside the lifeguard hut sums it up Conditions - Great! Thanks to the skill of the Met Office we knew it was coming and packed our wet suits and surf boards. The only thing wrong with the whole scene is that I am nothing like as fit as I used to be.
We surfed for about half an hour and then tested the next piece of kit in the van. We had hot showers, right there at the beach, changed into dry clothes and strolled off to have lunch in the beach cafe. We could have cooked our own, but we have a long running piece of research going to find the best beach cafe in the world. This one is OK but unlikely to make it into the top ten.
The economy may be in dire straights but it is interesting to see that the car park is full. Plenty of people still have the means to charge down to Cornwall to enjoy the sunshine and fill their shoes with sand. Cameron and Osborne need to lighten up and hit the beaches.
The only thing to diminish a perfect day is that there’s virtually no phone signal. Although I can write this on the Ipad, I can’t upload it until I get home, five hours drive away.
It appears that the temperature record for October was broken, Up to 29.9C. We now can enjoy the joke that the previous record temperature for October happened in March. (March is a place in Cambridgeshire).

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


I rarely talk about politics but a piece on the radio this morning filled me with dismay. The energy secretary plans to make it easier for people to switch power supplies.
This can only mean even more idiots phoning up. We have already made several attempts to register with the system that is supposed to stop cold calling. As far as I can tell this has made no difference at all.
"You get your electricity from ... (Insert the name of one of the big six here)."
Repeat of the question with caller gradually changing tone of voice to “Oh no, I'm dealing with an idiot” mode.
Eventually I say that we use a company called Good Energy, a supplier of 100% green energy.  If you've ever been to North Cornwall, they run those massive windmills near Delabole. By now, if these tariff switching cold callers had any sense, they would be getting off the line. They ought to have realized that they are dealing with a customer who has gone to the trouble of getting their electricity from a company that they have never heard of who run windmills. Warning bells ought to be ringing.
Sadly, they always press on with their pre-rehearsed chat about prices. By now they ought to have tumbled to the notion that I have the Internet skills to be able to compare prices, after all I have managed to find and contract with a company with a rather singular profile. A few clicks of a mouse could get them to Good Energy's web site and they'd be much wiser. They ought to realize that I don't care about the price; I care more about the environment.
Then it gets worse, they start offering me a better price if I have my gas and electricity from the same supplier.
'Oh great I say, how long will it take?'
'Just a few days.'
'Good heavens, that fast to lay two miles of pipeline.'
Once again, I hear the doubt creeping into their voice as they fall into the next trap. We don't have gas because the pipeline doesn't come within two miles of us. You would think it would be simple to mark out those post codes where there are no gas pipes and tell the call centres to lay off. Sadly, they are not that intelligent, or their bosses aren't.
I wonder if the energy secretary even knows that there is no gas in some parts of the UK. We don't have mains sewers either, but at least the water company gives us a discount for that and we run our own treatment plant. Before you start feeling sorry for me in my splendid rural isolation, I should say that we do have piped water; good broadband, and we can get pizza delivered.
I don't really mind the energy secretary trying to keep prices down, but could he do something to make the call centres less stupid; and while he's at it perhaps point out that old farmhouses built before 1850 don't tend to have cavity walls either. That sort of data must be available from planning offices; so another bunch of cold callers could phoning up and offering to foam fill the cavity walls that we don’t have. 
For me the big benefit of ditching all these telephone salespeople would be that I could get on with some proper writing instead of bending my mind to imagining scripts in which I am so rude to them that they never call again.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Sew to Speak

It is peculiarly appropriate that Lois's latest art exhibition involves a play on words, both because I am writing about it and because some of the sewing is in fact words. Several years ago Lois did a course on Machine embroidery at Malvern College. The group of classmates from the course have continued to meet and have managed to mount an exhibition of their work every year since the course. This year the show is in Ledbury and I am writing this on the iPad sitting in the gallery as the group decide what to hang where. It is absolutely fascinating to watch and listen to group creativity at work. The group has it's own blog site
Most of the exhibits hang on walls or display on tables with no difficulty, one is an exception (see the picture). Lois's sister Joy, is an artist and over the years they have corresponded about art, and of course all the other trivial that you might expect sisters to discuss. What to do with the letters has been a recurring question as we go through the process of downsizing. Simply throwing them away doesn't feel right, but on the other hand it seems unlikely that the British Museum will want them. Given the context, a work of art was bound to emerge.
Over a period Lois gradually settled on the idea of embroidering text from some of the letters onto an old boiler suit that Joy had used while painting. Initially the plan was for me to make a flat plywood model of a person, to go inside the suit so that it could be displayed like a shop dummy. Enter the second random addition to the plot. Through membership of various art organisations Lois has access to a local scrap store. This is a sort of Aladdin's cave of stuff given away by local industry and other sources, in the hope that it will be of use to local artists. It is surprising what you can find there, but even we were slightly amazed to come across two life sized plaster models created by a local artist but no longer required. We immediately bought one of the models in order to dress it in the boiler suit.
Once the model was home we had to work out a way of making it stand up on it's own. For a while it lay on the table in the studio looking suspiciously like a pale corpse. The model is made from plaster-of-paris bandages, the stuff they wrap around you in hospitals when you have broken your arm. The thing was obviously hollow, because it didn't weigh much and it made a sort of dull clonking sound when you tapped on it. After some thought I drilled holes in the feet and shoved three foot long pieces of hollow metal tube up the legs and stuck them in place by filling the legs with polyurethane foam, the stuff you can get from DIY stores for filling big holes in walls. Not only does it fill gaps but it also a pretty good glue. Be sure to wear plastic or rubber gloves if you ever play with any; oh and remember that the gas in the foam has cyanide in it.
videoContinuing the recycling theme, and giving a further insight into the problems we have over moving to a smaller place; I was able to use two large flat five kilo weights as a stand. These came off the multi gym that was wrecked by the floods in 2007. I knew they would come in useful one day. They have neatly drilled holes that used to have steel tubes in them, back when they were exercise apparatus. These allowed the tubes inside the plaster lady's legs to lock in place and keep her standing upright.
She is now standing proudly in the gallery in Ledbury, having been carried by me from the car park - see video clip for example of the writer looking silly. If it is art it's OK, right?

Monday, 12 September 2011

Making words work hard

I have been interested for a while in the way that some authors seem to pack much more interest into a given word count. How do they do it?
In all the material I have read about writing I have never come across this as a concept, so here is my take on it. I can't claim to have this completely worked out, but maybe it will strike a chord with other people who could provide some examples.
A word, or for that matter a collection of words in a phrase or a sentence can do a lot of different things. We all know that nouns are things and verbs are actions and these can be modified by adjectives and adverbs and joined together by conjunctions. OK so that gives us a mechanical view of the way words work, but there is an alternative taxonomy that could be applied. Words might describe a scene, or a character; they may create atmosphere, or drive the plot along. They may add back-story, or they may be there to add mystery or suspense.
I'm sure there are better taxonomies than mine but I think key thing is that really effective writers manage to get a lot of words to do more than one of those things at once.
At a simple level I'm sure all writers know that setting a scene will not only describe some physical features, like where the chairs are, but atmosphere could come in the same package and on top of that the fact that a particular character was in that scene might also tell the reader something about the character and it might be telling you something about back-story or adding something to the plot. If each of those things is done individually, the pace slows down and the piece can start to feel wooden and over written. When the same words do several jobs, readers find themselves more engaged because their brain starts to work the way it does in real life.
If I go to meet someone, for whatever reason, it is quite likely that as I walk into the room, something will remind me of another room somewhere in my past, at the same time I may be looking for the coffee, deciding where to sit and trying to remember all the things I was planning to say. I may be subconsciously taking in what the room tells me about the person I am meeting, or about the company he or she works for and maybe getting some signals about body language, or hoping their perfume doesn't make me sneeze.
If I was better at reading like a writer, I'd have stored up a load of examples, which I could drop with panache into the blog, but I'm hopeless at making notes and remembering stuff like that. You might say that if I don't have any examples to quote, how do I prove that it's true. As someone who spent their life promoting evidence based policies and research in health care, I have to say that's a fair point. In part I don't have the evidence because I'm lazy, but also if it's done right the reader hardly knows it's happening. That's the real trick.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Eminent Emin

Well, there's a laugh, I sit down in the cafe at the Hayward Gallery to write some thoughts on the Tracey Emin exhibition I have just seen. I type Emin and the iPad immediately changes it to eminent. Clearly I have to mind my words, she has powers I never knew of.

Lois and I came we accidentally saw a documentary about the exhibition on the TV last week and then realised that the exhibition was about to close. We are trying hard to schedule more spontaneity in our lives, so we jumped in the car and set off the very next day.

Over the years, I have come to like Tracey Emin, mostly from seeing her say things on TV programs, rather than a careful study of her art. When Eugenie Scrase won BBC Two's School of Saatchi competition it was Emin who kept her in the hunt in the earlier rounds, at least as far as we could tell from what they showed on TV. I loved the final piece that won, a tree trunk impaled on a fence that Scrase had seen while walking along a London street. Hardly art, you might say, but she did persuade the owners to let her chop out the piece of fence and find a way to exhibit the thing. I was impressed that Tracey Emin had seen something in Scrase’s earlier work that the rest of the judges seemed to miss.

The current exhibition at the Hayward is massive, partly because there are a lot of small pieces, as well as quite a few big ones. For me it was too much to take in while in a gallery that is determined to stop you sitting down to think. I know the Hayward is all dressed concrete, but a few chairs would not go amiss. There are a couple of concrete benches but they are specifically stationed to view particular pieces, so it is hardly fair to use them to simply to muse or let your lower back have a rest from standing.
Most of the people there with me were young women, so maybe they don't get backache from standing too long, but surely they must want to stop and think some of the time.
The audio guide, that can be downloaded to your smart phone relies on some kind of signal, an over enthusiastic assumption in a concrete palace. There is obviously a clever salesman at work somewhere because I had exactly the same problem with a similar system at Tate Modern. Do the people who run these places try using these devices?
 Back to the exhibition, what did I think? The most important thing is that I did think, though I have no idea whether what came into my head was what Tracey intended. In the TV show about the exhibition, she complains at one point about personal criticism in relation to her Viennale exhibition. I can understand why she objected; I looked up some of the reviews, the joys of the Internet mean that they are still available. Much of her work appears to be a personal narrative, endless variation on self-portraiture, much of it nude or semi nude. I am not sure if all the stories are true. It is almost as if she makes up stories about imaginary selves and draws and paints their experience, or maybe they are just embellishments of reality. We all do that of course, the stories that we re-tell are adjusted to suit the audience, even the most truthful people often leave out the boring bits, which makes the rest seem more intense. I suspect Tracey Emin is telling the stories of many of the women who visited the exhibition, or if not their stories, then their worst fears or hottest desires.
She is brave, and the simple truth of that strikes a chord with me. A superficial glance might suggest that she simply does not care what people think, but she is too brutally honest in her drawings for that. If she does indeed care and is prepared to expose herself, embellished or fictional, in this way then she must be brave, and she says things in her art that I suspect many women wish they could say.
The other criticism that comes up a lot is that she can't draw, or can't paint. Again it is easy to see where this comes from, many of the drawings are wild and approximate, often not things of beauty. On the other hand, they have an inner discipline of proportion that makes the subject unmistakable. I think that to be able to draw as "badly" as this you have to know how to draw well.
She is also outrageous and pushy, and that might make for some rotten reviews. Howard Hodgkin once said, "Ambition is so much more important than talent." I am in no doubt that Tracey has ambition, she may also be annoying, arrogant, self centred, and subversive, but at least she does it with verve and she has something to say.

Friday, 26 August 2011


This is a filler while I am writing a longer piece. 

While I was writing, Lois disturbed me to say that the partridges were out by the kitchen. We were adopted by a pair of partridges several years ago and we seem to have had a pair ever since. I don’t know if this is the same birds or whether the partridge grapevine has us down as a source of good food.

Every now and then, they produce babies but most years there are only one or two and they disappear quite quickly - possibly because there are foxes at the bottom of the garden.

This year a much larger brood appears to have survived and this morning they were running around just outside the back door. Despite the low light, I did manage to grab a few pictures with the long lens.

There are even more of them but like many children they won't keep still long enough for a group portrait.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The riots

Everyone seems to be writing about the riots, so here goes. 
I watched the TV in disbelief, trying to make sense of what was happening. It seems that the total number of looters and rioters is probably not more than a few thousand, but a few hundred people descending on an area, intent on doing damage, can certainly cause a lot of trouble before there is any chance of police getting there.
It is also not surprising that no one saw it coming. Opinion polls take samples of a few hundred people, so the chances of finding even one of the looters in a sample is vanishingly small. From listening to the few rioters who have been interviewed it also seems pretty unlikely that their opinion could be sampled, pollsters would be unlikely to make sense of the incoherent ramblings we have seen so far. I also doubt if any pollster has ever asked anyone what he or she would do if they walked past a shop that was smashed open. Would you pick up a cake? Actually I wouldn't, certainly not if it was lying amongst a pile a wreckage. Would I pick up a pair of trainers, or a jacket? It is hard to say, I suspect there is some object out there that none of us could resist.
We are now seeing many people coming through the courts and in due course they will have their lives made worse though serving jail terms, paying fines, losing their jobs and having a criminal record. There is a risk that this will create an underclass that have no reason to take any notice of the sort of rules the rest of us live by. In all probability, some of them will have regrets. It seems clear that some of the looters were just swept along by the opportunity and probably did not imagine getting caught.
One of the first cases to come up was a man who apparently pleaded guilty to something related to the riots. He has a job working in a school. What effect will this have on his career? Hardly likely to improve his prospects I suspect. Two more teenagers were shown coming out of court, one yelled at the media, 'we don't want to be photographed.' There are probably a fair number of shopkeepers happy to yell, 'we don't want to be looted.' The thing about society is that it is a two way street, we all have to play by the rules. You can't loot shops and then say you don't want to be photographed, you can't join in a riot and expect to carry on as normal the next day.
The deeper problem appears to be that there seem to be groups of people who have become disconnected with society in general. Whether this is the 'fault' of 'the schools' or 'the parents' or 'society' is a pointless question. Establishing blame will achieve nothing unless it can be part of a solution. The right question, which the media seem incapable of asking, is "What will it take to put this right?" We do not appear currently, to have any organisations or institutions that are up to the task.
Although parents are often blamed, the care system appears even worse. Children who grow up with the state as a parent are less likely than average to leave school with any sort of qualification. They are also more likely to end up in prison. The care system seems to be very good at taking innocent victims of family breakdown and turning them into people we can blame for something. Taking these children away from the parents would make little sense. Prison does not do much better, the numbers of ex-prisoners who end up back in jail suggests that locking up the looters in our current institutions is unlikely to reform them.
 I am drawn to the idea that something different is required. Fundamentally, it seems to me that the notion of serving time is the wrong model. We need people who are found guilty to come out of the judicial experience less likely to behave badly in future. Personally, I suspect we need something like American Grade School. We need to set some standards for behaviour and everyday competence and when those standards have been achieved, the offender can be released. If you don’t make the grade, you go round again. This is a bit like the theory test before the real driving test. If you can’t pass the theory of society then you need supervision. Some wide consultation would be needed as to the content of the test, the curriculum for being a model citizen, but we already have a citizen test for immigrants, so it can't be too hard to do.
I had always thought that some sort of compliance with society was what the probation service was supposed to achieve. I imagine that some sort of community service order together with geotagging of some sort would probably be effective. Given modern technology it would be simple to tag someone so that we would know where he or she was and if they were anywhere near some future disturbance we would know immediately.
To some extent, supervision must come from an organisation established for the purpose, like the probation service, but some element of supervision could come from the community, either through workplace schemes or contributions to what for anyone else would be voluntary work.
Ultimately if a person continues to offend they will end up in jail, simply to remove them from circulation; but if more potential prisoners were supervised in the community, and effectively by the community, there would be more time and space in jails to do more serious education and reform. It is foolish to assume that prison can completely prepare anyone for a return to normal life; it cannot replicate the same challenges, opportunities and threats. That means that every prison sentence should be followed by a period of supervision and testing in the community.
Of course, it is possible that offenders could cheat, crib the answers or lie, but modern psychometric tests are quite good at lie detection. It can't be very hard to spot many of the bad attitudes and behaviours, much of the time. I'm sure we would all feel more reassured if a significant proportion of potential troublemakers had geotags, and were made to do some useful work, and were only let off when they had proved that they at least knew how they were supposed to behave.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Half-price Senility Kits

As a child I was dyslexic, though at the time I'm not sure the term had been invented. It took me ages to learn to read. All my children have suffered from the same problem, so I suppose I may have inherited it from them (Joke).
One amusing consequence was that I often read things that were not there. This did happen when reading books, but in that case it is easily corrected by the context of the rest of the page. Billboards on the other hand are a different issue. Driving past in a car, I see words on a wall and my brain comes up with some totally ludicrous phrase. I've learned not to swerve, or even attempt to look again. Usually I just manage to laugh and ignore it.
Give me some examples, I can hear you say. Actually, that is very difficult because some other brain mechanism kicks in to ignore the whole thing. I laugh, but I can never remember what I am laughing about. This is a logical mechanism, and, no doubt, some sort of learned response. What is the point of remembering something that is obvious nonsense? It is almost as though my brain has evolved some kind of sense checker, like a spell checker in a computer.
Spell checkers are a wonderful thing for dyslexics, but they did not exist when I was learning to spell. Predictive text is something else. The iPad I am typing on at the moment has an amazing knack of producing words that I certainly did not set out to type. Proof reading has to be twice as good.
Now that I am older, a lot older, I have developed enough habits to keep on top of the dyslexia. However I am now going deaf and a similar phenomenon is becoming apparent, I miss-hear things that people say. David Lodge has written a whole novel around this (Deaf Sentence, Penguin) Actually I thought the book a bit on the self indulgent side with rather too many clever literary bits that seemed to be included just to show off. I will confine myself to just one blog post.
Last night while reading and watching TV at the same time, I heard a special offer for "Half price senility kits." My brain had already started to consider what on earth could be in such a kit before the error checking mechanism kicked in. I had got as far as wondering whether this was a kit to make you senile, or help you deal with it; when I realised that they had said "Half price cinema tickets." There are, of course, those who might consider the two things to be the same thing.
Unlike the circumstances of most of my previous funny dyslexic mistakes, this time I was reading on the iPad, so could immediately make a note. In the morning it still seemed amusing, so blogging seemed the obvious thing.
Although I remembered this particular miss-hear, I usually find that I forget them. It seems as if the brain really does have self-censoring function, spotting it’s own mistakes and forgetting them. I can see some survival advantages in that. Responding to mistakes is probably a sure way to get you killed in the long run, whether that is visual, auditory or cognitive errors. Miss-reads are a bit different in that most of the early ones probably take place in school, where there is a significant pressure not to look foolish. That would add a social stimulus to learn on top of any long term evolutionary effects.
All in all, a half-price senility kit may be worth snapping up, but you wouldn't tell your friends.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Burton Agnes Jazz Festival

I spent the weekend at the Burton Agnes Jazz festival. Burton Agnes is a Yorkshire village centred on an 800-year-old stately home, which is currently kept in very good shape by the current owners. It has some beautiful gardens, a vegetable patch in a walled garden that would put any allotment to shame, ornamental ponds, a maze and woodland walk, and a jazz festival. What more could you want? Well, good weather I guess. However, because it was raining a lot of the time I spent an hour in the main house looking at the paintings. Well worth a trip just for that. A very good collection of impressionists in a beautiful setting.
The sun did shine, some of the time, but it also rained a lot of the time. Fortunately, the stage was well protected and there was a big beer tent and tea tent, which between them were able to keep the crowd dry.
The big attraction, from my point of view was Saffron Byass, my son in law’s sister; I presume that makes her a relative of some sort. Short clip filmed with my Iphone attached.
There were a number of other acts including Jaqui Dankworth, though I thought her set was more suited to an intimate nightclub rather than a large well-groomed field with echoes off the stately home in the background. There were rather loud acts towards midnight that sounded quite good from 300 yards away inside my campervan.
One thing I did find interesting was that almost every act had guitars in their line up. My memories of jazz go back to the early sixties when Chris Barber and Acker Bilk were regulars around Bristol and I once saw Miles Davis. Actually, Miles Davis was utterly brilliant. He had Himself on trumpet, Sonny Stitt on clarinet and alto sax, Paul Chambers on double base and Jimmy Cobb on drums and I think, Wynton Kelly on piano. It was probably the best concert I’ve ever been to so it’s hardly fair to compare anyone with that. My point is that there was never a guitar in sight. In the two days I was at Burton Agnes, I didn’t hear one trombone, trumpet or clarinet. OK so I missed some acts, but it must be some measure of the way that the electric guitar has developed that it can now fill the space left by almost any other instrument.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

100 posts

This is my one-hundredth blog post. Some sort of landmark I guess, though why we are all so obsessed with round numbers remains a mystery to me. I ought to be able to deduce some sort of lessons or conclusions or possibly refine my blogging strategy as a result of this experience.
     Because the nice people at Google provide the data, I can of course instantly find out which are the most popular posts, but what does that mean? Two posts have had more hits than any other and neither of them is typical. A novel look at novels was a blog about playing with a new piece of software made available by Google. The analysis that it enabled was interesting, and I couldn't resist playing with it. Does it tell me what I should blog about? I don't think so. What it does say is that adding a bunch of strangers who are interested in something novel (that word again) will push the numbers up, but those numbers are not associated with a sustained upsurge in interest.
Similarly, the post about the Spearhead dinghy; that actually came top but it was put there in order to provide additional background when we were selling one of the boats on eBay. That didn't produce a sustained upsurge either.
Novelty is fun, but impossible to do all the time and each novelty probably attracts a different audience, who don’t necessarily stay.
What does push the numbers up or down? Not posting, or posting less often causes a downward trend. The couple of months earlier this year when my mother was in hospital, because she had been knocked down by a car, were associated with a considerable reduction in posts. I visited her every day for several months and it just takes up time. In the last few months I have been posting much more regularly, partly because mum is a lot better and also because Lois is now writing five blogs, all about different things, and putting me to shame.
As to subject matter, that is a harder question. The one thing I was sure about when I started was that I wanted to change my creative direction away from all the things I did when I was working. As a result, there has been very little about public health or the terrible things the government may be about to do to the NHS. I still read and correspond about it, but I don’t blog.
There was a brief relapse over Amy Winehouse, but I intend to carry on resisting the temptation as much as I can, though I might just do a bit more about alcohol some day, just to respond to Lexi and emphasise that it is OK to drink; how much, how often, what and how are issues that can be explored.
My biggest interest now is writing, so there are more posts about that than anything else. I still consider myself a learner, so inevitably I post more often on things that I find curious or frustrating. Repeating back to others the things I do understand seems somewhat pointless, at least until I reach the point where I am sure I know what I am writing about. This is of course contrary to the advice from the big-time bloggers. Give people something they need, they say repeatedly. Probably good advice, maybe when I get past two hundred I'll think about it.
The major area that I appear to have ignored altogether is blogging to attract an audience that might read my books. There is a dilemma here, more than one actually. The first is that it is difficult to know who the audience is. Amazon is very good at telling you how many books you have sold, but I have not found any way of getting demographics. On some of the writing sites, information is available and you can guess it from comment on others. The snag is that these are most likely writers who also read. Are they typical of readers in general? I read a much better blog about this by Livia Blackburne 
Her message is that blogging, particularly for fiction writers, may be a waste of time because the readers are likely to be writers and so not the real market.
Ho hum. Add to that a second problem, in my case - I am writing in two different genres. Should I be running two blogs, each aimed at a different audience? The second genre is Young Adult, and so far, I have not finished any of the books. Ideally, I should be doing something to create an audience before I publish a book. There are those who would suggest that the thing to do is to produce one book and virtually give it away in order to attract the audience and then produce another and another.
This is too much introspection for one blog, even my hundredth post. For the moment, I will set myself the modest target of being able to understand all this a lot better by the time I reach two hundred.