Sunday, October 30, 2005

You've got strife

Here's a nice streak of piss and vinegar from Peter Jenkins's The Battle of Downing Street, a venerable quickie book on the "In Place of Strife" controversy. We are operating from the point of view of the Prime Minster, Harold Wilson. It is June 1969, and we are attempting to get the TUC, newly led by Vic Feather, to create rules against unofficial strikes strong enough to save us from a doomed attempt to legislate against them. Lucky us:

One of the most effective weapons in the TUC's armoury is boredom. It has the capacity to deliver boredom by the megaton, the desolation it can inflict on the other side of a negotiation table can be terrible to behold. Many a rapacious capitalist had laid down his arms and put up his money at the rumbling of trade union leaders going nuclear. What a prospect for Prime Minister to awake to on a summer's morning with the birds singing in St. James's Park -- four hours with the General Council! The sight of them shuffling in, settling round the table in strict order of senility -- so many of them! Harold Wilson would struggle with matches and pipe trying to remember some of the dreary fellows' names -- who was that one, Alf, Bert or yet another Bill? Listening to them -- "speaking from long experience" (tendentious reminiscence); "plain words" (cliche); "making it quite clear" (unnecessary reptition); "brief intervention" (long-winded monologue); "point of information" (fatuous question); "expediting the proceedings" (wasting more time); "useful suggestion" (red herring); "summing up" (going over it all gain); "valuable progress" (hours wasted); "another meeting?" (Oh God!). "The TUC doesn't like rush", Feather had said. It was a war of attrition; the TUC's tactics: grind the enemy down, wear him to a standstill, bore him into submission.

The violence of the tone here is uncharacteristic: for the most part an ironic equanimity is maintained. And the portrait of Vic Feather is mostly admiring.

[The Battle of Donwning Street, by Peter Jenkins (Charles Knight & Co, 1970). Not exactly an enduring classic -- it's repititious in places, and prone to misprints even when not retouchtyped quickly by a blogger. On the other hand, refreshingly free of Thatcherite or Labour-movement's-big-missed-chance hindsight, which makes it easier to see how limited the measures in "In Place of Strife" were, and how farcical and contingent on tactics was their collapse. Probably my last trade union book for a while.]

Advice from the Windsors

"Never arrange to mate things within your own family." -- Prince Charles, in that Today programme interview. It was ages ago, but I had to wait until Pick of the Week before I was sure I'd heard right.

To be fair, he's talking about rare pigs; and his concern is prompted by his sister's boar ripping his sows' ears, rather than genetic disorders or hereditary porphyria or anything. Still, how unlike the home life of our own dear etc, etc.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Unread Book Route

So, about that "One third of people buy books to show off" thing. Yes, I know I'm days late; the dog ate my excuse. And yes, I know it's a "funny poll" story, the lowest form of press-release journalism. But there are some interesting distinctions not being made.

In the first category, there are the books bought to show off with no intention of reading. This is what the poll-answerers appear to be confessing to; few if any of the crowd of commenters on the blog entry are joining them, perhaps because that would be genuinely shameful.

Then there are the heavy or trendy books bought with the intention of reading, on which we give up; most commenters are confessing to this, but it seems hardly a sin at all. If, as Q.D. Leavis approximately said, good reading means living beyond your intellectual means, then it's not surprising if good readers shoot the moon once in a while. Shows ambition.

And then there is a category one of the commenters did mention: the show-off books read without understanding. Five years ago, I "read" Anna Livia Plurabelle, the supposedly most crowd-pleasing section of Finnegans Wake; I followed the advice of someone cleverer and took it in one gulp, as a sort of abstract word-painting, rather than attempting to decode it line by line. I believed myself to be enjoying it. I even had a hazy, distant sense of comprehension. This is now entirely vanished, along with every single word. Someone has failed a test there, and I think it's me.

Deeper still, and stickier, is the distinction between reading to look good and reading to be good, in the sense Q.D. would want you to. In front of a sceptical pollster, attempting to confess to the second could be even more embarrassing.

Disappointingly non-scary

My god, there's an official Daily Mail Editor's Blog. This creates expectations. Just how cute are Paul Dacre's kittens? And can he prevent them spreading subversion?

We may never know, I'm afraid. The editor in question here is called "Stacey" and posts mainly about how wonderful her website's new features are.

You may also notice that the website in question is starting to plug RSS systematically. It has been, as Stacey would say, an overwhelming success, with the Bloglines subscriber base of the main news feed soaring from 18 to 20.

By way of reference, the somewhat anomalous Guardian front-page feed is on 9,277; the Telegraph front-page feed manages 190; and even the Independent one has 54 subscribers, despite a pig-ugly interface, a tendency to throw in financial stories at random, and a main heading that reads "Articles from the Indepentent".

Monday, October 24, 2005

How terribly British

"The Northern Light was one of the most militant strike bulletins, and its distributors were often arrested. A touch of generosity, which would have been unthinkable in most countries, entered into relations between police and strikers here in Durham. When Stephenson [the editor] was fined £2 with the option of fourteen days' imprisonment, he chose to go to prison, but asked the police not to call at his home on the day he was due to go inside. They agreed, and he met them at the railway station. When Stephenson asked how they knew that he would keep his word, the constable was surprised. 'Funny thing, nobody ever thought of that'." -- The General Strike, Julian Symons.

Even more British was the end of the strike: the anway reluctant TUC leaders appear to have taken vague reassurances of goodwill from Baldwin as a promise of no reprisals. They awoke to employers imposing wage cuts and legislation that would broadly have satisfied Thatcher. If Baldwin had implied -- stopping scrupulously short of saying -- that he would meet you at the railway station, you would have needed police around his house at once.

[The General Strike, by Julian Symons (Cresset Press, 1957). Doubtless completely superseded account of great trade-union disaster; lots of great narrative colour, but the overall effect is more GCSE history than Strange Death of Liberal England.]

Sunday, October 23, 2005

For a list of literary lists

"Maps of towns and plains he sold, and other maps made to order. He would sell a young man a map that showed where a particular girl might be found at different hours of the day. He sold husband maps and wife maps. He sold maps to poets that showed where thoughts of power and clarity had come to other poets. He sold well-digging maps. He sold vision-and-miracle maps to holy men, sickness-and-accident maps to physicians, money-and-jewel maps to thieves, and thief maps to the police" -- Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz.

From the same book, but off-topic, here is an angry, misogynistic young man's view of cruise ship passengers:

The parents sat with the faces and necks of every day coming out of their holiday clothes, spongy backs and flabby arms of women in sun-back dresses, festive trousers on men with office feet. Girls displayed in the shops of their summer dresses the stock that had not moved all year, their mouths open with surrender, their eyes blurred with hope or sharp with arithmetic.

And here is the atmosphere in a mental hospital:

In the corridors a smell of cooking wandered like a minstrel of defeat.

[The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, by Russell Hoban (Cape, 1974). A middle aged cartographer runs away from his shop. His son sets an imaginary lion on him -- the real ones being extinct -- then follows in pursuit himself. They often near the border between the mythic and the stupid, but humour and bright, accurate description keep them mostly honest.]

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Through the funny mirror

"The Tories' biggest problem is that, like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have a fully developed philosophy and program behind their Third Way." -- New Democrat wonk Bruce Reed, in Slate.

Many Tories, I imagine, would fancy living in a world where their biggest problem was Tony Blair's ruthless philosophical coherence.

In the next seat

"On the third day, he had two pieces of luck. First, he met an entirely drunken man who told him about a church in Hammersmith that would give him food, and so he ate. Second, he trekked to the house of a friend in Neasden, north London, who lent him £100, which allowed him, among other things, to buy a one-week bus pass so that he could sleep on the night buses." -- No direction home, Nick Davies, Society Guardian, Wednesday, October 19.

I should have pointed to this days ago. I meant to. On the other hand, the Guardian should have had it on the front page of the main section (what else is that "Column Five" for?) rather than the front page of its local authority jobs section.

Signs I hadn't seen before

In Castle Street, Nottingham, between a pub that's turned into a bar and a bar that's turned into a ghost, there is a door with this on it:


No other information. I suppose that if a ban on human cloning cannot be effectively enforced, the devil's technology must be turned to the Lord's purposes.

Why not write to your MP?

I walked around Oxford with a friend the other day; we ended up in a charity shop, looking through an old copy of The Universal Letter-Writer. There was nothing in it as good as this...


Dear Mr. Pobsby-Burford,

Though I am myself an ardent Tory, I cannot but rejoice in the crushing defeat you have just suffered in West Odgetown. There are moments when political conviction is overborne by personal sentiment; and this is one of them. Your loss of the seat that you held is the more striking by reason of the splendid manner in which the northern and eastern divisions of Odgetown have been wrested from the Liberal Party. The great bulk of the newspaper-reading public will be puzzled by your extinction in the midst of our party's triumph. But then, the great mass of the newspaper-reading public has not met you. I have. You will probably not remember me. You are the sort of man who would not remember anybody who might not be of some definite use to him. Such, at least, was one of the impressions you made on me when I met you last summer at a dinner given by our friends the Pelhams. Among the other things in you that struck me were the blatant pomposity of your manner, your appalling flow of cheap platitudes, and your hoggish lack of ideas. It is such men as you that lower the tone of public life. And I am sure that in writing to you thus I am but expressing what is felt, without distinction of party, by all who sat with you in the late Parliament.

The one person in whose behalf I regret your withdrawal into private life is your wife, whom I had the pleasure of taking in to the aforesaid dinner. It was evident to me that she was a woman whose spirit was well-nigh broken by her conjunction with you. Such remnants of cheerfuless as were in her I attributed to the Parliamentary duties which kept you out of her sight for so very many hours daily. I do not like to think of the fate to which the free and independent electors of West Odgetown have just condemned her. Only, remember this: chattel of yours though she is, and timid and humble, she despises you in her heart.

I am, dear Mr. Pobsby-Burford,

Yours very truly,


--from "How Shall I Word It?", Max Beerbohm's attempt to add some less elevated letters to collections of the kind mention above, which is in And Even Now (Heinemann, 1920). Further praise ought by now to be superfluous. Surely someone could bring out a Selected Essays?

A sincerity test for classicists

Did you hate Gladiator? Will you say so?