Friday, November 29, 2013

Nigella and the Gogglebox

I returned to work yesterday having recovered (almost) from this dreadful man-flu. It was good to see my colleagues again and enjoy a little office banter.

Topic of the day was Nigella Lawson and whether she's 'a lovely lady with a dreadful ex-husband who's using a court case to destroy her reputation'  or  'a coke-head and a bad role model at odds with her public image.'  I've simplified the two positions of course, but I'd say opinion was fairly evenly divided.

Frankly, I'm not taking sides but I did ponder on two thoughts on my way home.

The first was to note the relatively restrained tone of the assessments towards Nigella - in the press as well as by many of my colleagues - compared to that meted out to other cocaine users: the disgraced former chief of the Coop bank would be a good example. If the allegations are true I'm not sure there's much difference in what either was up to?

The second was a remark I overheard, claiming that to describe Nigella's drug habit as criminal wasn't correct. Excuse me - buying huge amounts of cocaine, and allegedly for her daughter too? Yes but she wasn't dealing! I can understand why someone might regard dealing as more serious, but possession of a Class A drug carries a seven-year sentence - that's a criminal offence in my book. Whether it ought to be is a different issue - in the meantime see yesterday's post on truth and logic.

But much more fun than Nigella was the chat about Gogglebox.

Universally loved by everyone in the office - it's the most weirdly compulsive programme I've seen in years. The format, if you don't already know, is a fly on the wall of various couples and families watching television. This week the cameras captured their reactions to Doctor Who, the Ashes defeat, a Star Wars Movie...

The characters are all larger than life and I guess everybody has their favourite - I especially like Leon and June the retired teachers from Liverpool; Jane likes the posh hoteliers who are always sloshed. Evidently Gogglebox has proved so popular they've already sold the rights to America, and China is considering a series.

But what I find most fascinating about Gogglebox, is the uncomfortable realisation that we've come to the point where TV is so dull, we'd rather watch other people viewing it than sit through the programmes ourselves!

I wonder if that principle could ever apply to blogs - don't bother reading the Bike Shed, just click the webcam to watch me typing... and sneezing (though not from cocaine I assure you).

 Somehow I don't think it would catch on.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Truth and logic

The other week I read a quote in passing which went something like: 'think wrongly if you wish; but whatever you do, think clearly.'  The exact words aren't important; it's the distinction between truth and logic which is.

I often meet people who say If it's not true, then how can it be logical?  The reason is important to all critical thinking, and especially to philosophy - it's not difficult to grasp, though to some it is clearly counter-intuitive.

One of the characteristics of studying philosophy is that it teaches us to evaluate arguments, not only in relation to evidence (which remains vital too) but also by reference to their consistency. For an argument to be logically sound it needs to expressed in a way that the constituent parts are compatible and not contradictory.  Being logical does not mean that you are 'right' in the sense of the facts and evidence  - but it does mean that you 'could be right' in 'some possible situation'.

Let's take an example.

George believes that the threat of prison makes no difference to the way people behave. At the same time, he thinks we should give tough sentences to those selling heroin because it might deter young people from becoming dealers.

George may well be right in his conclusions that tougher sentences would deter drug dealers - but his reasoning is not logical.  If the threat of prison makes no difference to the way people behave, then it follows that tougher sentences would not deter a young person from becoming a dealer. The two beliefs are incompatible because in no possible circumstance can they both be true.

Here's a different slant.

Susan explained she held five dinner parties last year; at everyone she undercooked the main course and on three occasions her guests suffered food poisoning - the puddings were so inedible they've become a standing joke amongst her crowd.  Despite this Susan says she's an excellent cook - she's just been over ambitious in her choices given she's had no formal training.

Now Susan is almost certainly delusional- all the evidence suggests she's a dreadful cook and ought to get the caterers in. But although her assessment may be silly and irresponsible, it is not illogical in a formal sense. That's because her view is not strictly incompatible with her attempts at entertaining - there is some possible (albeit highly improbable) scenario in which she is correct.

The test of consistency can be applied to simpler beliefs too.

For example, if I say  'all the males in Lincoln are dowagers,' then I'm saying something that is inherently contradictory (only women can be dowagers) and therefore, necessarily untrue.

We need also to watch out for the trivial - some beliefs can be logical and true - but frankly, they don't say much.

Saying 'all eligible bachelors are men,' is self evident because to be a man is a requirement of being an 'eligible bachelor' -  dropping 'are men' from the sentence wouldn't change its meaning or truth.

These are only a few examples, but hopefully, they illustrate the distinction.  The key point is that logic requires our beliefs to be consistent with each other; for conclusions to be compatible with the premises.  It is possible to be logical in our reasoning but get the facts wrong and vice versa.

So why does all this matter?

Because in the real world, many things we debate are not 'true' or 'false' in the sense they can be proved. And even when there is persuasive evidence it may be disputed, the factors weighed differently, interpretation coloured by cultural or political bias...

Economic theory is a contemporary example of this - you'd think by now we could simply measure the 'facts' and determine what's the best route to achieve a given set of objectives? But in reality, extremely intelligent professors are regularly at loggerheads over the importance and implications of one statistic or another. Despite decades of study, there is no agreement akin to that in say, chemistry.

And when we come to examine issues such as 'morality' or 'wellbeing' or 'justice' then we've moved even further from any possibility of pinning down 'truth'. Here consistency especially matters in testing the compatibility of our beliefs across different but related issues. For example if we believe in freedom of information, then that has implications for our policy on the press, the internet, accessibility to government documents, etc.

The reality is that only a small percentage of our beliefs are evidence based - many more, and especially those related to our views on right and wrong, derive from a cocktail of intuition, emotion, cultural background, personal bias, self-interest, ignorance, and sometimes, plain old confusion.

What philosophy tries to do, is bring some order to the jumble - to rationalise the inconsistencies and create as coherent a system of beliefs as is possible. It regularly fails of course - and philosophers are as apt to think wrongly as the next man.  But to be fair - most of them will at least try to think clearly.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

More things we desire

Last night Dylan was writing his Christmas list. It included various electronic games, a boxing head-guard and big brother crusher!  In truth, he doesn't really know what he wants, because, like a lot of nine year old boys in happy and relatively prosperous families, he has everything that matters.

Later, I was pondering what presents I might fancy opening and came up with an equally vacuous list. For a moment I felt quite smug that I'm not burning with material desires. But before getting too self congratulatory, I remembered it's easy to be less-materialistic when you're comfortable.

It also misses the point about presents, which are about more than satisfying needs and desires - but that's not really my subject for today

Some years ago I met Satish Kumar and recall him saying that material goods don't make us happier.  He claimed that our cravings for the latest fashion, for washing machines and gadgets and bigger cars and patio furniture, don't lead to fulfilment - in themselves, these 'things' seldom change our lives and often the constant desire (and the envy of others) can be self destructive. I buy all that (what a delicious pun).

But I don't buy the idea that the worth of material progress and possessions is a chimaera. Indeed, I also remember Satish balancing his spectacles and me thinking, somewhat unkindly, try going without those!  

My experience is that there are many possessions (often long wished for) which turn out to make little difference to my life - and there are others, which (often unexpectedly) have enhanced it immeasurably.  The interesting thing is that there seems to be no pattern or relationship to the cost.

Certainly, the new possession which has given me the greatest pleasure this year has been my saxophone - coincidentally, a Christmas present last year, and something I'd long desired. It wasn't exactly cheap, however, it cost less than some folk would spend on a trip to London. If I had to choose a second item it would be the coffee machine I use every day - price £180. Again, not trivial, though hardly exorbitant for the number two slot.

As a bit of potted bike shed philosophy I'd say there are three types of materialism I see.

The first is a legitimate desire for goods which genuinely improve our lives - of course, we misjudge this at times, but wanting warm and secure housing, refrigerators and computers and spectacles... are to mind reasonable aspirations in a modern world. That the distribution of these goods is unequal and unjust is an important but different matter.

The second is the desire for goods which deep down we know to be trivial. I have a homespun theory that the more heavily something is marketed the less intrinsic worth it has: cars and beauty products spring to mind; kitchen gadgets (to which I'm especially prone) would also fit. This is where Satish is right and where it's hardest to resist.

The third and most toxic form of materialism is when we measure our self worth through the goods we own. An image of the balding business executive, drooling over his bigger and faster car, is a stereotypically sad example. But it applies equally to the other end of the social scale. And it's not just a middle age crisis - for teenagers, the minutiae of possessions can acquire an importance which mystifies those of us who've forgotten what it's like to be sixteen.

In finishing, let me dismiss any idea I'm uninterested in possessions. The other week Dylan asked me what was the best thing I'd ever bought? Our house in Wales, I replied. That alone tells you something. I'd like to think that it costing less than a mid-range car today is relevant context - but in truth, it is a materialistic privilege which has given me more pleasure than any other.

Perhaps the important thing is I'd sell it tomorrow if it threatened his happiness or that of any of my boys. Quite whether a 'big brother crusher' will do the same I'm still debating.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


My friend Satya Robin published a new book today.

I've no doubt it will be a good read, but it's interesting to me in other ways.

I first met Satya, or Fiona as I knew her then (she's since become a Buddhist monk), more than ten years ago, on a course for business facilitators. We were placed in the same 'support and challenge' group, and being a trained counsellor she was good at that sort of stuff - by far the best on the programme. And I especially remember us sharing doubts about the direction our carers were heading - neither of us sure which way to go.

As it happened, I stuck with the corporate world; Satya became a full-time writer and a counsellor. Despite our different paths, we've remained in touch ever since -  and both choices were right I think.

Satya could easily find a traditional publisher and indeed used to have one - but in recent years she's chosen to self publish, using Kindle and a network of contacts and social media to promote sales. I'm in awe of her constant initiative and regard her as one of the best and most innovative networkers I know.

It strikes me that this approach to self-publishing is good for all writers, new and old. In today's challenging times, even well-established authors find it hard to attract mainstream support. One option is crowd-funding through agencies such as Unbound - see here for Rory Maclean's project on Transnistria. But while traditional print still has its place, there's also one for well produced, well promoted - and well written - ebooks, that can be made available without the need to jumping quite such high hurdles.

There's a lot of bloggers and would-be writers who could learn from Satya. Meanwhile, if you'd like to read the reviews and buy her book, click here.

Enough from me for today - or actually, not quite

For to celebrate the launch of Afterwards, Satya has produced a gallery of works inspired by the title - if you click the link, you'll find an image and some writing by me.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ten commandments

Task for the day:

You are God. 

Write a list of ten commandments - with sub-clauses if you like (I didn't bother).


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Writing and other art

Notes in a sketchbook

A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked my view on the difference between writing and other art forms - in terms of producing and receiving it.  It's a vast question, and not one I can hope to answer fully, but yesterday's post of old paintings reminded me of the request, so I thought I'd offer some potted wisdom.

Of course, it all depends on what you mean by art - so let's get that out of the way.

To me, art's defining characteristic is that it is both a 'response' to the world and an attempt to communicate beyond our everyday senses. This is different to 'craft', which however skilful, is the result of a predetermined process. The making of exquisite furniture or quilts or Faberge eggs is not to my mind art - though crude children's drawings often are!

This notion of 'art as response' and art as 'communication beyond the literal' is important - for different forms, necessarily approach it in different ways.

Painting, as my tutor used to say, is the silent language of marks - all true painting shows a 'control of' and 'response to' the chosen medium. Anyone who has painted for even a short time will have experienced the shifting relationship between artist, medium and image - and understand that the outcome is never certain. This applies to figurative as well as abstract painting, though to the layman it is perhaps more obviously so in the later.  That painting is occasionally used as therapy, is testament to its ability to create connections and resolutions which we struggle to 'put into words'.

Music I can say the least about with any authority, but it seems to me there is a huge artistic difference between interpretive music and original composition - not dissimilar to the distinction I made between craft and art. Unlike traditional notions of painting, we have an intuitive expectation that music will not simply replicate the sounds we could hear in the natural world -  rather, it will reinterpret those experiences and in so doing, heighten our experience it.

The philosopher Brain Magee argued that classical music was the most powerful of art forms precisely because it was the most disconnected from the physical world. I don't share his conclusion, but I agree that music's strength is we tend to approach it with less need for 'literal' explanation.

The Ancient Greeks considered writing and drama to be the greatest of the arts. I'm not sure these hierarchies are relevant, but I do understand that writing has a capacity to involve the recipient in a way which is different to other forms. The very first thing we learn as writers is to 'show not tell' - in a sense, to let the reader be part of the outcome. Words are also less fixed than we might imagine - anyone who writes a lot will know how ideas 'happen' on the page.

It seems to me that writing's great strength is that it uses the language we all understand - this makes it accessible and perhaps the most outwardly literal of the arts. The corresponding weakness is that often we can't find the words; that we resort to cliche - and that because of its very literality (is that a word?) we hold back on the truth.

To some, much of this will sound like gobbledygook. A good friend of mine would surely say, painting is about likeness, music is about tunes and writing is about telling tales - end of story!

I believe he'd be wrong.

But I can't prove it -  I can only suggest that experiencing the process is the best way to understand.

When you next have a quiet moment, think for a second or two of how you'd paint the taste of ice cream; of making music in response to a scent; or writing a poem about love.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

From the archives

I usually consider posting a picture to be cheating - at least it is for a writer.

But if you painted them yourself,  I guess that's a little different.

The one below is how I feel at the moment.

And probably how others feel when I play my saxophone!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The John Prescott Test

Some years ago I watched a documentary in which John Prescott made an off-hand comment that struck me as entirely reasonable, especially from a politician. I've tried to apply it ever since.

His point was simply that he had no time for people who moaned about problems but didn't offer solutions.

That might sound obvious, but I regularly read blogs, articles, even books which rail at the status quo, then offer nothing in return.

And when you think about it, that's too easy. Challenge and complaint are fine, but in a world of difficult choices, it's incumbent on us to propose alternatives, and understand the implications of these too.

I've made it a rule on the Bike Shed that whenever I complain - even in my visceral rants at wind farms - I'll try to offer solutions.

And if my reasoning doesn't convince, I suppose I can always apply the other Prescott formula...

... punch 'em in the face!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Photos from Pembrokeshire Birds Blog

It's been a 'mega' weekend in Pembrokeshire.

Not because of the weather, though it was surprisingly good. Nor was it due to the tides (big at this time of year) - or even Wales winning the rugby.

Rather, it was because of a bird - a Western Orphean Warbler to be precise - taking residence in a garden near Dale.

That might not sound very mega to you - but in the bird watching community, it's evidently a big deal. In twitching vocabulary (yes, there's actually a wiki page on this), a 'mega' refers to an extremely rare sighting - and in this case a first official recording for the UK.

The birding internet sites were all of a flutter at the news; folk began travelling from afar - some from very far indeed. The garden welcomed a stream of visitors all weekend - special parking arrangements were made, film crews were present, there were allocated time-slots for viewing - and a grand time was had by all. I might even have gone myself had I not been struck down with a heavy cold.

But why, might you ask, make all that effort for a tick on a list?

Twitchers would tell you there's a social aspect to these events; that making the trip is half the fun; that there's scientific benefit to their collective recordings... I'm sure there's truth in all this. But I'm equally sure that obsession is at the root of it all.

And on the whole I rather like obsessives.

In this case, the craze manifests itself as a willingness to travel thousands of miles to eye-spy a small bird in an apple tree. But I could point to equally (apparently) irrational activities by stamp collectors, train spotters, international travellers... I even know someone who's been to see Barry Manilow over 100 times!

For the sake of clarity, I'm not talking here about obsession as a compulsive disorder - that's a form of mental illness, often linked to tormented thoughts, and not something to be light hearted about. It's a different use of the term.

Rather I'm referring to those obsessions which it seems to me to drive positive action - actions that are often highly creative and life enhancing.  Without it we wouldn't have brilliant musicians, genius scientists, outstanding sportspeople...  I reckon I could coherently argue that, more than any other human quality, obsession has deepened our knowledge of everything from the stars to statistics, from mountains to molecules... almost anything that takes time and effort to acquire.

Of course, not all obsessives are geniuses or ever likely to benefit the rest of us - but without encouraging the many, we won't find the few who are. And if a little bird in a garden can do that - then in my book, that's pretty mega too.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Law - and its limits

Two of the first philosophy books I studied at university were Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. They offer contrasting views on the role of law in society; a debate that's relevant today whether you read dusty old books or not.

Leviathan was published in 1651 and needs to be seen in the context of the civil unrest at that time. Its central idea is that society is a social contract between men to submit to laws, rather than live in anarchy. Without government, there is continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Hobbes favours a strong monarchy and gives barely a passing mention to the notion of democracy. Clearly, this is out of date, but what's still relevant about Leviathan is the concept that the role of law is to protect us from a worse fate - and that we require strong powers to do so. Hobbes says little on the limits of the law or the concept of personal freedom.

In contrast, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (published in 1859, and after the impact of the French Revolution), starts with the innate rights of man. Mill says that the only legitimate purpose for which power (laws) can be exercised is to prevent harm to others. On Liberty, sets out the basic liberal principle which remains influential - that we should all be free to do as we please, so far as we don't impact the freedom of others.

This tension between the limits of the State (even if protective of its citizens) and the desire for personal freedom, is still very much alive. The furore over Wikileaks is a modern manifestation, so to is the debate over freedom of the press, laws to fight terrorism...  Less obvious, but essentially a similar debate, is the role and limit that should apply to taxation, welfare provision, social obligations and behaviour.

So for some (Mill), freedom is about an absence of restraint; for others (Hobbes, and ironically many Socialists too) it is about securing the conditions that allow us to meet our aspirations. In practice, we compromise and pragmatically sway between one view and the other. But the side of the divide you're intuitively on has massive implications for the law and its role in our society.

I'll close this post with mention of another book from university: Hedley Bull's, The Anarchical Society (1977). Somewhat out of date already, it nonetheless poses the question of how we best regulate the world of independent Nation States. Oh God, it's getting even more complex...

Another time perhaps.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Capitalism - common currency

The pension fund of which I'm trustee has a number of members over 100 years of age. That's a sign of progress in itself, but even more astonishing is to think of the events those people have lived through - the Great War, Fascism, the Depression, Communism, the Cold War, Welfare State, European Union, Middle Eastern crises (many and varied), the re-emergence of China...

Every century has its seminal events, but there's never been a more turbulent one in terms of political and economic ideas. Europe might feel settled, (though we often overlook the uncomfortably recent conflicts in Bosnia and Eastern Europe) but on a world stage, we still have violent clashes of cultures and aspirations - the Middle East and North Africa being obvious examples.

But if political conflict remains, capitalism has been the clear winner in the struggle for economic ideas. There isn't a single major economy which isn't essentially capitalist - including China - and it's hard to think of emerging ones which aren't.  There are a few rogue states such as North Korea and Transnistria (look it up), and a few outliers such as Bhutan - but essentially we live in a capitalist world.

Of course, there are still debates about the shape of capitalism - largely around the level of social equality and extent of welfare provision - but very few are seriously postulating an alternative model. Frankly, the days of Socialism in its purest sense are dead - we've moved to other debates. Arguably, the biggest contemporary challenge to Capitalism comes from the 'Green Movement' and its concern over the sustainability of economic expansion.

I'm not commenting here on whether this is right - just observing that the capitalist model is for now so common currency as to be seldom questioned. If that sounds obvious, contrast it to the Thirties and the days of the Popular Front, or the 1968 protests in Paris.

Perhaps the operative words in that last paragraph are 'for now'. The epithet is also used in Ian Morris's brilliant book Why the West Rules - for now which suggest there will be other models and cultural norms in time. More pessimistic, but equally brilliant, is Straw Dogs from the philosopher John Gray, who challenges not so much capitalism, but the hubris of humanism - we're all doomed!

But returning to the century view I began with - we should view the progress of Capitalism in relation to other societal pillars I've discussed in recent posts. Capitalism has succeeded because it's developed in tandem with democracy, meritocracy and rule of law - arguably, these parallel institutions have saved it from its own excesses.

Will Capitalism be so dominant in another 100 years?  Who knows, but it's interesting that the investments we are making for the pension funds of the future have almost (not quite, to be strictly accurate) that horizon in mind.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Democracy - as we know it

Holyrood - the Scottish parliament 

In yesterday's post I suggested that although meritocracy was ingrained in our sense of fairness, it wasn't a concept that people gave much thought to - some weren't even aware of what it meant. The same can't be said for democracy, which is universally understood and is regularly used in our daily decision making as much as it is to elect governments.

We all know what democracy is - the idea that everyone has an equal say regardless of their sex, race, religion - and that the majority view should prevail. It originated in Athens and is arguably the greatest political concept of all time. But it would be a mistake to think too much of past influence - democracy as we know it, is a relatively modern concept.  The UK, for example, only allowed all women to vote as late as 1928!

In Britain, we tend to think of democracy in terms of the Westminster System - we like simple majorities and mistrust complex formulas which suggest weak and unstable government!  Neither do we like American presidential style politics - all a bit brash, and unfathomable. (In truth, very few of us could accurately describe the German or US systems - despite these being the two most successful world economies). No process is perfect we say - if we give it any thought at all - accepting a compromise between our principles and the need to get on with life.

Talking of daily life - we've also adopted democracy as a commonplace way of making decisions. Think of the times it's used at work, in the club house, or in the family, as way of settling disagreements - would that have happened a hundred years ago?  We take this for granted, but there are still huge parts of the World where it wouldn't be.

That said, democracy has been on the rise since the fall of the Soviet Bloc - it's become a byword for freedom and is now universally adopted by the 'Western World'. Democratic institutions are a non-negotiable criteria for entry into the European Union - though significantly, not for the United Nations. Arguably that's correct, because the supremacy of democracy is not without its challenges, and again we compromise for the greater good.

In truth, we compromise extensively at home too. The House of Lords remains absurdly anti-democratic; the Monarchy (sorry, I really do have nothing against them personally) is inherently so; it could be argued our party political system is a means of limiting true democracy - it is rare that a UK Government achieves more than 50% of the vote.

I've heard it said that a benign dictatorship would be the best form of government - what isn't mentioned is that the dictator would need to be a genius. The view also denies something more fundamental - that all citizens should take an interest in their society and its freedoms. Devolution is a topical case in point.

We all know that democracy can be slow and inefficient - and that many contemporary issues (the economy for example) are well beyond the understanding of those of us who vote. The philosopher AC Grayling has argued this is actually a benefit in that it limits repression and bad law too.

Personally, I prefer Karl Popper's assessment - that democracy is the worst possible way to govern a country - bar all the rest!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Meritocracy - or could try harder

My school photo 1979 - I often wonder where they all are now

Earlier this week I mentioned the word 'meritocracy' in a meeting at work. A junior colleague asked what I meant, another asked how to spell it.

I was somewhat taken aback - not because I expect the company of philosophers - but because meritocracy, together with democracy, the rule of law and capitalism, is a defining characteristic of our society.  Everyone should understand what meritocracy is, and why it matters.

In a nutshell, meritocracy is the idea that progress and rewards should follow a person's skills and abilities. In other words, the better and greater your contribution, the more you should expect to prosper. Perhaps that idea is now so ingrained in our concept of fairness that it's not surprising some don't give it much thought.

Had they lived in medieval times, I suspect they might. Under the feudal system, you were born into a social class and that's where you stayed - regardless! We left this behind with the coming of the industrial revolution and the expansion of democracy.

There are other models. Some indigenous societies don't recognise merit's relation to fairness in the way we do - in order to survive they put the 'collective need' at the top of the list. Whoever made the kill is not relevant to how the meat is shared. But these are very particular situations, which in societal terms, predate even feudalism.

In theory, there are egalitarian societies, where everything is shared equally, though in practice they rarely operate to the strict principle. A few sects or monasteries might qualify - but in the wider world, the failure of Communism has put paid to any idea that communal equality can operate at scale.

In truth, we don't operate meritocracy to a strict principle either. Our idea of fairness is underpinned with a foundation of first meeting 'basic needs' - and only thereafter does merit kicks in. That's because we are compassionate, and recognise some need help regardless of whether or not they 'deserve' it or can afford to pay. In a world of unequal rewards, there's a safety net for us all.

At a more sophisticated level, we also recognise that inequality affects people's ability to progress. There is no merit in been born rich, but the reality is that wealth confers advantages which help you fulfil your potential - being born poor has largely the opposite effect. This is why some - myself included - favour 'positive discrimination' to help those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds make a breakthrough; to give them a truly 'fair' chance.

Schools are a key battleground for this idea - for if we are born unequal, then education is a vital tool in levelling the playing field. My deeply felt objection to private education is that it is counter to the meritocratic principle. Regardless of all the benefits which public schools confer on individuals and society (and there are indeed many) - the fundamental issue is that the majority of places are open only to those to can afford to pay. That cannot be meritocratic, and deep down I believe those who chose this route for their children, even with their very best interests at heart, are uncomfortable that it's so.

But perhaps we should not be surprised that meritocracy is misunderstood or conveniently set aside. Consider institutions such as the Royal Family, inherited peerage (still 92 in the Lords) or simply the 'old boys network'. Meritocracy then is still a goal to aspire to, rather than a state we've achieved - though thankfully, the days of buying an Officer's Commission are long gone!

As a vaguely related aside it was reported today that the Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested the criteria of 'faith' should be disregarded when assessing applications to church schools. In this case, it was me who was confused - do they still do that? Because when you think about it, faith (or rather the faith of a child's parents) is somewhat objectionable criteria for selecting pupils at the age of five.

If I were to mention the equivalent of that idea at work it would be illegal!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Home town blues

Occasionally I look back in my notebooks and am surprised by what I find. Here's a piece I found today, written over ten years ago. Though I'd craft it differently today, it still made me smile.

A while ago, I returned to my home town - for a meeting at the headquarters of a small chain of newsagents. They're opposite the old Classic cinema, at the top of Monkseaton Drive. I arrived without missing a turn; once worked for them as a boy.

It's twenty five years since I’d been to that cinema (to see Rollerball on a Friday night with Louie) - it's closed now of course; long since boarded up. After the meeting, I drove to the sea, past new estates with unfamiliar names: Ocean Court, Redlands Farm, Priory Mead - the fields gradually giving way.

The seafront wasn't as I remembered. The Pitch and Put, the Lower Prom, the Esplanade, the Spanish City, (memories of Dire Straits and school discos) – all shabbier now; not so much flaking-paint, as a general gaudiness - cheaper, tackier...sadder.  And smaller too; it had all seemed so much bigger back then.

There’s a one-way system in town; it takes you behind Woolworth's, past the bus station and Morgan’s hardware store (still there!) to avoid the new pedestrian centre. I looked for old friends and realised, with mild surprise that, of course, they’ll be older now - mothers with children, men in suits, electrician’s vans.  There are no familiar faces.

But as I stop for petrol, there's the accent of the girl in the kiosk... 

Nostalgia washes over me, as I start the long drive south.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Collections 19 - scotch egg photographs

By way of what began as a joke, I've started to collect photographs of scotch eggs.

Really, I have!

These are not any scotch eggs mind you - only ones I've eaten.

It began in a London pub where they serve a rather posh version with runny yolks - we couldn't figure how it was done, and hence the first photo.  Some of my colleagues thought this was amusing, and before I knew it, we were messaging each other with photos of fancy eggs.

The designer aspect isn't as jumped up as it sounds.  Far from having humble origins, the scotch egg was invented by Fortnum and Mason in the eighteenth century, as a handy snack for coach travellers. The term 'scotch' evidently, has nothing to do with tartan and lochs - but refers to the idea that the egg had been added to - or  'scotched'. Today, there is even a company specialising in handmade versions, with forty recipes to chose from.

I'd like to think this collection is still an ironic joke - but I find myself ordering and getting the camera out at every opportunity.  Spurred on by a sense of competition, I'm on a bit of a mission to collect another ten by Christmas.

Should I succeed in this pointless exercise, it would, as they say, take the biscuit.

Or should that be pickle?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ramblings on the future of books

Sony e-reader - the UK's first mainstream e-reader, launched 2008

Last week my book was promoted as a free download for Kindle - as a consequence, it rose quickly up the Amazon rankings and many new people will now get to see my work. I'm delighted; I don't write for the royalties - the more who read Counting Steps the better.

The same can't be said for small booksellers who fear the growth of digital e-readers, regarding them as the final nail in their coffin. UK book sales were down 6% last year (in part due to price reductions), but the headline masks deeper issues. Every year the Internet takes more market share, and it is this shift, more than Kindle or Kobo which is undermining independent bookstores.

A major attraction is price - Amazon sells books at a rate which booksellers can't hope to match. But more than this, Internet retailers are convenient: 24-hour access, unlimited catalogues, free and speedy delivery...  Downloads, of course, are immediate - no need even to wait for the postman.

Technology has also transformed international availability. For every one of us who takes a bestseller on holiday, there are thousands more living abroad benefitting from access to English language titles that was once inconceivable. Before we rant at the evils of digitisation we might pause a moment for the positive impact on millions in the developing world - they seldom, by the way, download bestsellers. (Their determination to self improve is an inspiring topic in itself)

For all this, we still have an attachment to bookstores - and libraries for that matter. There's a special pleasure in the process of browsing; knowledgeable staff can be a boon, and there remains something to be said for the physical experience of holding a book, flicking its pages, feeling the weight... Interestingly, children's books have fared relatively well in traditional stores.

By any standard, the Charlton's are heavy book buyers - over 100 a year.  Being candid I purchase the vast majority online; second choice, the local bookstore; third the Kindle (my original Sony e-reader is now virtually ancient technology); and very occasionally, the library which is increasingly depressing to visit. So I suppose we support all types - even the local car-boot!

On a lighter note, I smile at the marketeers' need to define these new formats. There's a rather ugly tendency in the media to talk of 'hard copy and digital content'. Amazon more elegantly refers to Print and Kindle books - but is silent on the existence of competitors. I've even seen reference to 'bound books', 'traditional format' and my favourite - 'physical books' - as opposed to metaphysical ones? 

Quite what's wrong with 'books', I don't know.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Returning to write

This afternoon we saw a Painted Lady. The butterfly was resting on the pavement, wings closed in the fallen leaves, three thousand miles from home.

It will not survive our winter. They migrate each year from Morocco and only a handful return; we don't know why.

I guess the sighting is what you'd call a writers 'prompt'; a serendipitous find that sparked enough of a notion to get my fingers tapping. In truth, the butterfly might well have come from France - it could be the offspring of a migrant - and for all I know it might make it through to spring. None of this really matters - except that is, for the spark.

Today I returned to Criccieth, meeting friends from a course I tutored last year; the idea was to kick start our writing. It's a long drive and on a strictly time and effort basis it would have been easy to say 'pass'. But then writing (and friendship for that matter) can't be measured in those terms.

We understand writing in much the same way that we understand the life cycle of Painted Ladies. We know about the process, the steps to follow and in what order - but our knowledge of what drives the creative imagination is about as vague as our understanding of why the butterflies return.

For my part, I know only that certain places light the spark.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Because it's there

Y Garn, Snowdonia

Because it's there, is the line attributed to George Mallory, answering the question of why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. It's probably the best known summary of what drives mountaineers.

That's understandable because the quote is a memorable and witty encapsulation of an urge which is beyond the comprehension of some. It also works at a deeper level, in hinting at the sense of adventure, the pull on our imaginations, which mountains evoke.

A strong candidate for the opposite of Mallory's line is the quip I must have heard a thousand times - there's a path round the back you know! Not only is this not witty, it hints at nothing but a lack of originality in the joker who called it out.

I'm being unfair in that last paragraph, for while it's perhaps best to grin politely at the wags, it's more difficult to answer their underlying question - why are you risking so much on something so intrinsically pointless?

The problem with the Mallory quote is not that it's wrong, but that it's incomplete. The motivations for climbing are many and complex, and no soundbite is ever going to be a credible answer.

Alfred Wainwright said that we climb mountains, not for the view from the top, but from below. I understand his point - climbing a mountain changes our perception of the landscape. We look differently at mountains we have climbed - we have association, familiarity, a shared history.

There are other reasons too - for bravado, for status and pride (at national and personal levels); popular at present is raising money for, and awareness of, good causes. The recent proliferation of 'adventure sports' draws on these and many similar motivations.

But as explanations, they remain incomplete.

For in my view, tackling all but the most casual of mountains, involves an inner as well as an outward journey.

It's well understood that the hardest routes require as much composure as physical strength. But 'control to power' is not what I'm getting at.  Rather, it's the counter-intuitive fact, that by being so physically all-consuming, climbing gives us a space to reflect and rejoice - to feel more alive - that is so difficult to find in our daily lives. At its best climbing helps us come to terms with the world and our place in it.

In a sense, we climb not because it's there - but because we are here. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Knowledge vs information

Dai's Shed, Pembrokeshire - windy Sunday, cold fingers as I drew.

Last week on BBC's Autumnwatch a viewer sent in a photograph of some moth eggs. The presenters couldn't identify them, so they asked for experts to email the answer.  As this was happening, one of the crew suggested that years ago they'd have let the eggs hatch, reared the caterpillars, and arrived at the answer the hard way.

At which point Chris Packham made an aside which struck me as interesting. Yes, he asserted, and that's the difference between acquiring knowledge and simply finding information!

My first response was negative.

I'm suspicious of the rather Protestant notion that information which isn't hard-won is somehow less valuable than that which comes more easily.  In the early days of the Internet this view was especially rife - but who would want to go back to the days when Encyclopaedia Britannica was the oracle?  And how many of us went along to the library every week to turn its dusty pages?

But as I reflected I softened a little.

Not least because I was one of the nerds who actually raised the caterpillars. I also drew and photographed them, wrote details of their development, and ingrained on my brain, details of their lifecycle and physiology that I'd have long forgotten if acquired in seconds from a website.

Drawing is a particularly apt analogy.  John Ruskin said that its purpose was to train the eye and not the hand - and he's right. I know of no better way to understand at an object than to render it on paper - photography doesn't come close. Interestingly, almost any book on amateur astronomy will recommend that the enthusiast draws what they see through the telescope.

The point about drawing is that it requires intense concentration - as does philosophy, and writing..  any activity which fully absorbs us. I'd bet musicians and mathematicians and athletes experience something similar.  And it seems to me that there's something about that process of immersion which allows 'information' to transcend into what Packham calls ' acquired knowledge'.

Before writing this post I looked at some of my old sketchbooks. They still arouse vivid memories, not only of the subjects but of when and where I drew them; how I felt at the time.

That is knowledge of the deepest kind and something which Google - or Autumnwatch for that matter - can never begin to equal.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A bumper harvest

A vintage crop this year

Is there a better shrub than quince?

It's virtually evergreen,  flowers in the late spring and produces copious amounts of fruit by September.  What's more quince jelly is delicious - and if a bit of a faff to make, it has a double benefit in that the leftover pith can be used to make membrillo or quince cheese.

This year we had so many quinces that we didn't bother with the cheese. After a weekend's bubbling and straining, we had over thirty jars of jelly. The first batch is strong and piquant; the other somewhat sweeter - just like me and Jane!

I find it interesting that there's been such a huge revival in crafting and home making. Who'd have predicted that some of the top-rating TV shows would be on sewing and baking - or Kirsty's Crafty Christmas for that matter! Maybe it's a recession thing, but it seems we can't get enough of 'make your own'.

And I guess that's a good thing in small measure.

Being candid, I'm not one of those who yearn for the good old days when we 'grew our own, baked at home and shopped from little village stores full of wonderful seasonal produce...'  That image seems to me to be a nostalgic myth.

Like most folk I appreciate the convenience and choices of modern life, and I rejoice at how fortunate we are compared to past generations. While I have reservations about the power of big retailers (food and clothing especially) and am suspicious about the cost and quality of some of what we are offered (again, food and clothing especially) - frankly, I'd hate to go back to the limited produce, poorly stocked shops, and time-consuming processes that I remember from my childhood.

But that doesn't mean I can't see the delight in home produce too.  Jane has long fancied the idea of keeping chickens for their fresh eggs - a good choice, but I wouldn't swap eggs for jam - and especially quince jelly; piquant or otherwise.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Heaven bespoiled

Proposed development on Belford Moor

Last Tuesday  I wrote an email to my friend. It read: Please God, they say no to this one. 

I attached the same photo as the one above, pressed send and could feel my body welling with anger. Eight words were all I could muster without lapsing into expletives.

But I'm going to now - of all the places, in all the world,  I'd rather there wasn't a fuck-ugly windfarm it would be here.  I'm still so drunk with rage at the prospect, that this post is going to be difficult to control.

The place of course, is Belford Moor - the piece of heaven about which I wrote yesterday. As we were driving down the hill I'd noticed a yellow sign on the fence below the rise: No turbines - object now!  I could have been sick at the wheel.

What are we doing to our landscape for goodness sake?

It seems we're seriously considering nine massive turbines that will bespoil one of the most precious landscapes in Northumberland. They will destroy the moor, ruin the skyline; be visible for miles and miles and miles. What's more, we'll subsidise this destruction beyond compare, ensuring a massive profit for the generating companies, who frankly don't give a toss for the place and its importance as part of a wider landscape.

And in return for this destruction?

Let me put this as fairly as I can...
  • We'll generate a trickle of electricity, that will do next to bugger all to help the environment. 
  • The community of Belford might (possibly) get some paltry compensation. 
  • A few metropolitan policy makers and environmental campaigners will feel smug because they've made another notch towards an arbitrary and meaningless target 
Okay, that's a one-sided view - but then you see these darn turbines are like that.  Because it takes just one decision to ruin the landscape for a generation - and we have one chance to to save it.

Photoshop representation of proposed wind farm

I've been clear many times on this blog that I hate windfarms with a passion.

But this time it is deeply personal - for the first time in my life, I think I can truly understand how the road protesters at Newbury felt, how the peace camp campaigners at Greenham Common felt, how those on the Kinder Trespass felt...

The picture above is not an artificial representation - it is the already devastating impact we've sanctioned on the area to the south of Belford Moor. 

Next time you look at a windfarm imagine it being in your most precious place. If you're one of those many bloggers with a picture of a personal landscape on your homepage, imagine it covered in turbines. If you're visiting the countryside this week - imagine it as a semi-industrial site with access roads and restrictions and whirling blades...

And if none of that worries you, then you're made of different stuff to me.

Please God, they say no to this one.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

My piece of Heaven

On Tuesday morning, arriving at the Lindisfarne causeway, I realised I’d miscalculated the tides. The crossing to Holy Island wouldn’t be clear till midday; we had an hour or two to kill.

No matter, I said to Dylan, we can go to the best palace ever, instead!

For thirty years, if anyone has asked me about visiting Northumberland I’ve a list of recommendations to hand. And amongst the tourist highlights (Hadrian’s Wall; the Simonside Hills; Bamburgh Castle) I always include one or two personal favourites. You’ll not find these in a guidebook, I say - but trust me; make the effort, and they’ll stay with you for life.

The top of that secondary list is Bowden Doors on Belford Moor. It’s a high sandstone crag on a windswept hill halfway between the coast and the Cheviot. To reach it you take the road toward Wooler, park by a gate on the summit, and head north across a sunken field for what appears to be a jumble of stones.

By this time, trust in my recommendation is probably wearing thin. But round the corner of those first rocks and you’ll see the point. Bowden Doors is the best and best-situated sandstone crag in England; rock climbers know it intimately and the likelihood is there’ll be some scaling its cracks and walls. At its far end is the ‘wave’ a gobsmacking geological feature that’s worth the visit in itself.

But Belford Moor is much more than a climbers’ playground.

This landscape is where the Vikings first came to Britain; it’s where St Cuthbert’s body was hidden for seven years; long before that it’s where Neolithic peoples carved the rocks with cups and rings. It’s where hares and geese and ravens have been coming for millennia.

As we clambered to the top of the rocks the panorama of the coast and the cheviot opened before us. I reminded Jane that when the time comes it is here that I’d like my ashes scattered. Really, she scowled, after all this time – and not in Wales? 

You could do half and half, I joked.

But in truth, this is my piece of Heaven. It is where I first climbed; where I came of age; where I learned the healing power of landscape. Despite long absences in recent years, it remains my favourite place in all the world. The view, the sounds, the smell and feel of the air, are imprinted on my soul.

As we left, the clouds were scudding from the west, dark shadows on the heather and bracken. Dylan was a little behind us, standing on a rounded boulder, screaming my name into the wind. I waited for him and we walked the last yards together - a vista of castles and coast unbroken below us.

Only when we got back to the car did I see the warning of an impending horror... 

To be continued...

Friday, November 1, 2013

The things we desire

I've wanted one of these for forty-five years.

On a childhood holiday to Scotland I tried to buy one but didn’t have enough pocket money; either that or my parents said they were ‘common’. 

I still remember the disappointment. 

But I’m older and wealthier now – and able to make my own decisions on what constitutes good taste. Not everyone might agree on my aesthetic sensibilities, but I’m thick-skinned enough to know I’m right and they’re missing the point!

So on this week’s visit to Edinburgh, I thought, what the heckyou can afford it …  go for it Mark!
Ten quid later I’m the proud owner of not one, but TWO, ceramic Nessies - and different sizes too!

It was almost worth the wait.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Untested assertions

The other week, strolling on the beach, I was commenting on the number of dog walkers, when Jane mentioned an item she'd heard on Radio Four. An expert had said that Labradors were now five times more popular than any other breed? 

Nonsense, I replied, I don't believe it.

And with the tide rolling in, I began to rant...  how many Labradors do you see compared to other dogs? No way are there five times more... typical untested journalism... I bet if I look it up at home...

Jane squeezed my arm, snuggling close. You’re such a troubled soul, she laughed. Why can't you just accept some things at face value?  Does it really matter if it's five or four times - or none at all, for all I care. It was only an item on the radio?

In an important sense, she’s right. 

Of course, it doesn’t matter – after all, it was only an item on the radio.  And I know I ought to fight my inner sceptic with a little more vigour – stop questioning the data, cease looking for logical flaws; frankly, to let things go.  If nothing else, I’d receive fewer kicks under the table when friends come round.

But in another, equally important, sense, she’s perhaps missing the point.

At times, I worry we’re so accepting of unproven assertions that we’re losing the ability to reason from common sense.  Journalism is not what it once was – not that it was ever much – and in today’s climate the newspapers contain little more than press releases and wire copy. Only a tiny percentage of what is put out as ‘fact’ is properly verified. The broadcast media is little better; the Internet an encyclopedia of potential misinformation.

It took me two minutes on Google to confirm (from three different sources) that the ‘five times’ quote was inaccurate – either Jane misheard or the ‘expert’ on Labradors was wildly exaggerating. Of course, it wasn’t entirely wrong: it’s correct that Labradors are the most popular of the pedigree breeds in the UK and USA. But even if we ignore the cross breeds (which seems to me, a massively unwarranted omission), the maximum multiple would be two or three times.

Acceptance of unproven assertions is amplified by our tendency to defer to ‘authority’ figures. It’s significant that the guy on the radio was a so-called ‘expert’ – and while a misleading statistic on domestic dogs is hardly likely to have repercussions – when it comes to politics, or economics, or medical science, why do we think the assertions are any more accurate?

Even as I write that last line I can sense some people huffing defensively – come on Mark, there’s more accuracy and verification on important political matters; the facts are clearer in these instances; and the media might be bad at some things, but surely it has standards for basic facts that we can trust?  The answers I’m afraid are: no, no and no again.

As an antidote to the blatant nonsense, we are fed by the media, I’d recommend three books.  Jamie Whyte’s Bad Thoughts:a guide for clear thinking is a witty and cutting deconstruction of the inadequate logic and unproven assertions that surround us.  Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News is a damning exposé of the standards in press and media. And Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, is worth reading if only for the chapter on Dr Gillian McKeith (or, quoting Goldacre, to use her full medical title: Gillian McKeith).

None of these are difficult books – they're not particularly philosophic or technical – in essence, they are applied common sense.  Read any one and I’ll bet your inner sceptic is awakened; read all three and you might become as cynical as me. 

But in truth it shouldn’t take books to convince us something is wrong – my most potent bullshit sensor is simply to ask; does that assertion match my experience? Hardly an infallible approach, but after fifty two years on this earth, it's not a bad starting point either.

That said, the other day I mentioned to Jane I’d heard a commentator on the radio claiming one in three of the UK population now has a tattoo.

Nonsense, she replied, I don’t believe it…

And she’s quite right too.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Kelly and Victor

The novels of Niall Griffiths are among the most raw and savage of contemporary narratives. His better known titles include Sheepshagger, Runt and Wreckage. In reading his books, you’re made intimate with an underworld of drugs, sex and violence…

And never more so than his 2002 novel, Kelly and Victor – mention of which induces a sharp whistle from those who had the stomach to finish it.  The story is so intensely disturbing that of all Griffiths’ books, it’s the one I’d have thought least likely to be made into a film.

Which just goes to show how much I know.

This week Kelly and Victor opened at independent cinemas across the UK.  Its portrayal of the protagonists’ destructive love affair is as eye-wateringly graphic, as deeply perturbing – and as tender and empathetic - as is the book.

Kelly and Victor is the story of two young people, swimming in a whirlpool of abuse.  The psychological damage they have suffered takes its physical form in their lovemaking – the intensity of which momentarily releases them from the vicious spiral.  But in so doing, stirs an equally addictive, and ultimately tragic, compulsion.

Directed by Kieran Evans, the film stars Antonia Campbell Hughes and Julian Morris. It is beautifully photographed and carefully paced to maintain the tension; it does the book justice without being a slavish copy. And at ninety minutes, it’s thankfully not too long – something that’s the curse of so many mainstream movies.

Campbell Hughes is an especially inspired casting; her portrayal of the frail and elfin Kelly is both believable and entirely absent of sentimentality – for me, she was the standout of the film.  The soundtrack would be my second choice: wonderfully evocative of the mixed up, fucked up, under-world inhabited by the characters. A close third: the cinematic treatment of the urban landscapes, reminiscent of the original Get Carter.

Actually, that film isn’t an unfair comparison as a whole. Because, as with Get Carter, behind the superficial brutality lies a deeper compassion. The genius of Kelly and Victor is not that it is unflinchingly profane – but that despite this, you care about the characters. And the reason is that in being so flawed, they are also deeply human.

The British Film Institute has chosen Kelly and Victor as their pick of the week.  There are plenty of detailed reviews on the intranet and frankly, there’s not much I can add here.

Except, as I came out of the arts centre, I was struck by how intense the experience had been – how much I’d enjoyed it; how engaged with the film I’d been.  In recent years I’ve come to loathe contemporary cinema – the predictability of yet another Spielberg inspired white-knuckle opening scene, literally sends me to sleep.

This was different – it was cinema as it should be; real drama – and it takes its cue from an almost lost heritage of great British cinema. We need more films like Kelly and Victor.  But for that to happen I guess we need more people to make the effort. 

Go see for yourself.