Friday, May 28, 2010

Beatrice Bowed

The title is a declarative sentence, not a participle clause. The verb is the past tense of ‘to bow /bau/’, and not a passive participle. A number of questions arise, and will persist even when I add more context.

Why would someone called Beatrice bow?* (She is indeed a woman, and a very feminine one, not some 20-stone wrestler whose mother had a sense of humour). Furthermore, why would the daughter of an Earl (for such she is) bow on being introduced to a Viscount (the Viconte de Blissac, to be precise)?

If this were a Dan Brown novel or the script for a Hollywood film it would be simply explained- the writer doesn’t have a clue about these things and doesn’t care as long as the focus group liked the scene. But no, this is a novel the master himself, P.G. Wodehouse (Hot Water, 1932), and surely he does not make mistakes about these things.

Why, then did Beatrice bow?

*I did know a young lad called Raul who would curtsey exquisitely when the occasion demanded, but he was rather confused.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hedgehog Fetishism Revisited

My spiny co-blogger is a creature of strange habits. I have previously accused him of having an underwear fetish as he will run off with any bit of used clothing that happens to get left on the floor. They used to end up in one of his nests, which is why I assumed he liked being surrounded by the smell of human intimacy. But I may have misjudged him (slightly).

I now wonder if he just likes playing with things that smell like us, and he left them in his bed partly for warmth and partly to be sure he could find them again. But now that the heat is really beginning (it's 90º and we're only in spring) and he's been with us long enough to know his way around and to treat us as no more than a harmless, and sometimes useful, inconvenience, he just leaves them lying around when he's finished playing.

Because playing it is. In the summer he keeps them in his bed, too, but in summer we're in the mountains and it cools down rapidly once the sun goes down. But now, the days are hot and the nights are sweaty and he doesn't need a blanket. So he plays with underwear, and socks.

He pushes them with his snout, unable to see where he's going, following the sock as it veers left and right, until it gets caught on something or hits a wall. Then he stops, evaluates the situation, changes its position with his teeth, and goes off again, running behind it until it gets away from him again. He can do this for long periods. Then he will suddenly tire, leave the sock where it is, and go off to eat, drink, or run round in circles, something else he is very fond of.

He used to have a larger circuit, involving several rooms each with more than one door, so he could arrive back where he started and go round again. The region thus created was not simply connected, and I assumed thyat was part of the fun. Howevre, he has recently taken to running round in much smaller circles, of two or three feet, beside the bed, and he does it so quickly that he often loses his rear legs on the polished wooden floor like a F1 car taking the chicane late in a race. Quite why he finds this entertaining I couldn't say, though I do have a theory.

The problem, I suspect, is that, like all animals, he has hormones, instincts, sap, urges, an understanding of the phases of the moon etc, but he doesn't know that there is such a thing as a hedgesow. If he ever met one I can imagine his face clearing and his shoulders untensing as a lot of things suddenly fell into place. As it is, he is forced to expend his energies and seek an expanation of his inner feelings in forms of play.

Yes, Crispulito is a geek, a Trekkie, obsessed with the details of objectively pointless pastimes because he can't pull.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Neanderthals Again

The discovery that non-Africans derive a small percentage of their DNA from Neanderthals is extremely important to our understanding of our recent history. Of great symbolic importance (at least to me) is the fact that Homo neanderthalensis was almost certainly not a distinct species. This question has been the subject of much debate over the years, and appeared to have been settled when the mtDNA was sequenced a few years ago. But mtDNA is haploid and doesn’t contain the same information as nuclear DNA, and the sequencing of the complete genome shows a certain number of characteristic mutations which are not found in any African population but are found in people from Europe, and Asia. This means that their must have been mixing (reproduction) between Neanderthals and modern humans after we left Africa, which is believed to have happened about 60-100,000 years ago.

The upshot of this is likely to be that Neanderthals are no longer be classified as a separate species, and will be returned to Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, as some taxonomists had them until fairly recently. It isn’t like Pluto ceasing to be called a planet (in any case they’ll have to indoctrinate a new generation before that idea gets accepted). Pluto’s classification was changed not because we learnt anything new about Pluto, but to keep the labels tidy. We have learnt something new about the Neanderthals, something with important philosophical implications.

I liked the idea that, almost within recorded history, another intelligent, rational creature shared the planet with us, and even lived alongside us in certain places. A creature capable of rational analysis, industry, and presumably symbolic behaviour, including speech. It allowed me to speculate on how these species would have seen each other, and how it would have altered their attempts to understand the world, and their own identity, to have regular contact with something that was like them in too many ways for them to consider themselves unique, as we do, but was sufficiently different to obviously not be them. I discussed this (rambled on would be another way of putting it) here and here.

The essential point was that 40,000 years ago, at least some groups of European and Asian humans would not have had the instinctive feeling that they were obviously unique and special, and so they would not have sought to explain it and built upon it the way others, including us, are used to doing. It must have affected their concept of right and wrong, their attempts to explain their own origins, the way they accepted, or avoided accepting, their own mortality, and it would have been fascinating to learn about systems of belief from that time. It still is fascinating to speculate on what impact it might have had.

But it seems that they didn’t see the Neanderthals as anything more than another tribe, not exactly them, but to like them to be a threat to their uniqueness. Ah well, there’s still Flores, if anything certain ever comes out of the work there.

As usual, for real information about this subject, try John Hawks, and the original papers are here and here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Greatness Of Frobisher Wilhelmson

Frobisher P. Wilhelmson III was a great man. A truly great man. In a way he had greatness thrust upon him, but greatness, so thrusting, found Frobisher equal to the task of being great.

His sense of his own greatness was sufficiently measured not to irritate those who found themselves in his company, and a natural curiosity ensured that his interest in other people was charmingly greater than his interest in himself.

Frobisher became great at an early age, by chance, and continued to be great almost entirely against his will. At the age of eight his sister’s governess, a little overcome after an extended private interview with the butler, toppled into the lake in the grounds of Frobisher Hall.* The boy Frobisher, who was passing, dived in, and, with some difficulty, pulled her out. He had not previously known he could swim, and was delighted with the discovery.

His life was an unceasing round of acts of heroism, and triumphs of every kind. When an old lady needed saving from a burning building, when a cat was stuck up a tree, when a supermodel required a safety pin to keep her knickers up seconds before going on the catwalk, when rising tides cut off a group of sunbathers on one of the more treacherous beaches of Bali, there, it always seemed, was Frobisher, quietly, capably, modestly, up to the task.

When a few explanatory notes he had made on a shopping list were spotted by the assistant literary director at the Observer, Urban Minimalist Poetry was born. In the months it took for the craze to die, his notes to the milkman, reminders to himself to pick up the laundry, phone messages taken on behalf of his wife when she was out, corrections of spelling and style idly jotted on flyers from fast food firms, cryptic remarks scribbled on the Radio Times about some programme he was watching, were recovered from the fridge, the bin, and under the hedge, and turned into bestselling volumes, filled out with exegesis from Melvin Bragg and illustrations by a specially discovered Urban Minimalist Artist.

When a friend wanted someone to make up the numbers on a jaunt to South America, it was Frobisher who offered to help out, and when, due to a dodgy GPS device, and an unfortunate misunderstanding between the friend and a local guide, in which one of their number, trying to pay a complement to the beauty of the guide’s wife in a language he had started learning three days before, greatly underestimated the semantic range of the word for ‘attractive’, they all ended up lost in the Andes rather than on the beach as they had intended, it was Frobisher who not only led them to safety, but did so by scaling a legendary peak previously believed to be inaccessible.

A thousand such anecdotes make up the life of Frobisher P. Wilhelmson III, a man who was quite tickled to be great, but would have been just as happy if he had passed anonymously through this world.

After such an unintentionally glorious life, it would have been fitting if he had met his end wrestling with the controls of a doomed passenger aircraft after the pilot had ill-advisedly eaten the fish, or diving into an active volcano in an attempt to rescue a child from the lava, or expiring from exhaustion on a Florida beach having crossed the Atlantic in a rowing-boat.

If this were a story, I would have given him such an end, but the facts are simpler. He tripped over tying his shoelace in the park and struck his head on an ornamental coipu.**

*He was named for an aunt whose branch of the family had built the place long before

**Designed by a committee of schoolchildren for some reason long forgotten

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Craig Venter Creates Life. Perhaps.

One of the things that makes us human, we might agree, is our sense of morality. At the very least we all recognise that there exist such things as right and wrong. The reason we have a concept of morality, uniquely (or so we imagine) among living species, is quite obvious, despite the convoluted attempts of soi-disant philosophers to plough the answers back into the questions and complicate what is simple because they are unable to understand what is difficult.

We probably aren't the only species that is aware of its own existence, and perhaps not the only one that is aware of its own mortality. Nor are we the only one capable of exercising its will in certain circumstances. But we are the only species whose cognitive abilities are sufficiently developed to be able to analyze its own actions as abstract entities. No wonder we tie ourselves in knots trying to justify to ourselves the things that we have done or would like to do.

Anyhow, I was discussing with a friend the other day whether it was, in theory, possible to synthesize DNA- it is, after all, just a molecule, albeit a hugely complex one, a combination mostly of proteins and sugars. And, if you could synthesize it, what would happen.

Neither of us had the faintest idea, but we clearly weren't the first to think of it. Craig Venter has spent years thinking about it, and now he has done it. Here he explains how he created, artificially, the genome of a bacterium, placed it in a cell and observed how it replicated itself. Life is chemistry.

Consciousness, on the other hand, may not be, but it is possible that this is the first step towards the creation from first principles of intelligent life. If it does what we do, many of our ideas about ourselves will change so dramatically that most people will have to pretend it hasn't happened. Not that that's anything new.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

At Lords

We don't get to watch a lot of cricket in this part of the world. I'm quite prepared to pay for it but even so Sky tell me that for contractual reasons they can't stream me the Ashes. And the BBC can't stream the commentary, for the same obscure motive. I am left with this, which for various reasons, is not the same.

Which means that when Eurosport chooses to show the T20 World Cup, something that I would normally find it hard to take seriously, I order the finest popcorn and buff up the edge of my seat. Today we have beaten Australia, an unusually uninspired Australia, in fact. The main reason they beat us so often is that we prepare for a cricket match, while they prepare for the conquest of Persia. They just seem to care that bit more. Today we got to them early and often, and the fight went out of them.

To the true cricket fan, cricket is life. And to the cricket fan with a bit of art in him, art is an attempt to hold a mirror up to cricket. Francis Thompson has done this, producing the most evocative, if slightly obscure, lines ever written about the game, and the most beautiful image of all is in the second part of the stanza. It doesn't explain how it feels to win the Ashes, it is even greater than that; it expresses what it is to watch cricket.

"For the field is full of shades as I near the shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro: -
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

Francis Thompson was completely nuts, and the rest of the poem, particularly the WG Grace section, is unambiguously execrable. But he achieved a moment of genius. Forget Newbolt. "At Lords" is what the love of cricket does to people.

Teddy: A Day in the Life

"Teddy woke up cross. Yesterday had been a bad day. He had argued with Roddy the fireman about a parking manouevre and though he still thought he was right, the argument had been his fault... But it had to be done, he was the one who had lost his temper... At least he would be glad when it was over.

He was also annoyed because one of his eyes had fallen out. They were only plastic buttons anyway, and P.C. Perry checked them regularly to make sure he was safe to drive a car, but one of them was quite badly scratched and the other sometimes fell off. He had been born in a period of quiet revolution in which the traditional strong twine was temporarily out of favour and the simple piercing mechanism was fashionable. It had not lasted long but it had left him with an important organ that did not work properly. He fumbled around in the gloom, the other eye not helping much, and pricked his finger on the missing one. He jammed it back into his head and sat up to look out of the window. The sun was shining on Dennytown, and the leaves on the trees in his little garden were rustling in the breeze. Some were already starting to turn brown and before long they would be falling off. There was some cloud over to the south which might be drifting this way. He decided to have breakfast in the garden and watch other people going to work.


Benny walked off with his postbag, turned again to wave as he reached the corner, and disappeared down the lane to the farm. Farmer Kelly always had a lot of letters, official forms and so forth, and Benny liked the walk between the trees to the gate of the pig pen, which he would open and then walk carefully across the smelly sludge while the pigs rubbed against his trousers in greeting. That was why he loved the country and he loved being a postman.

Tommy the paperboy had already delivered the Dennytown News and Teddy looked through it carefully. It was edited by Mr. Maddy M.A. (Cantab), who got most of it by sitting in Molly's tea-shop all day asking everybody what was going on... He firmly believed that what you did not tell people in the tea-shop was no one else's business.

He saw that Farmer Kelly had a new pig, a big black boar which would be keeping the sows company for the next few weeks. He made a note to go down and watch them all later. P.C. Perry had asked some people in the cottages not to sing so loudly when they gathered around the piano in the evening... Mr. Maddy had written a piece about how the town was changing now that a lot of people had cars and could move around more quickly and hunt badgers by clutch control.

He turned to the back where Jimmy the curate always contributed a dulcegram. Jimmy did not like the idea of cross words and so the clues were entered in a gentle curve which spiralled out and off the edge of the page. Teddy thought for a while and solved a few clues before putting it aside for later and picking up his granny's letter.


He learnt that her legs were not too good at the moment, she could not walk around her garden and enjoy the smell of the roses and the song of the birds unless the maid pushed her in her bathchair. She wanted to know if he would come and push her round, since he was more gentle on the bends and she liked to hear his voice describing the way the flowers moved in the breeze. The maid was not very good at it, and she was particularly bad at describing the brinking and dipping of the goldfish, and counting the bubbles of those that came to greet her. Teddy decided he would visit her that evening and take her some cakes from Mrs. Molly's. Then he could tell her his news and what was happening in the village and push her round the garden to take the twilight and count the fish.


'Good morning, Mr. Welly, how is the cod today?'

'Pretty good, Mr. Teddy, it's perfectly fresh, I was at the river all night with my rods and nets.'

'Well you can't get much fresher than that, but I didn't know you fished at night, and I thought you had other people to catch the fish.'

'I do, but I have to pay them more and more and they don't catch enough. And people want fresh fish and they won't fish at night, so I have to do it myself.'

'That's terrible, Mr. Welly, these young people are only out for themselves. Why is it so difficult to find people to do the work? Granny told me only this morning that she can't get the boys to sweep her chimney any more.'

'They have it too easy, Mr. Teddy, they don't have to work any more. I think its Mr. Jolly's fault. He makes everyone put more money in the collection plate for the people down in the cottages and so the young lads there don't want to work.


'Good morning, Bobby.'

'Good morning Mr. Teddy, how are you this fine morning?'

'Very well thank you Bobby, but I wanted to talk to you about Mr. Welly.'

'Oh yes. What about him?' Bobby began to look worried. Perhaps he had heard about Mr. Welly's problems as well.

'The thing is Bobby, he's stopped delivering, except to old ladies and the vicar, and whenever I go to his shop he tells me the same story about how difficult things are for him because the young lads don't want to work any more. I can't do anything about it and its rather dull to here the same complaints all the time. He'll lose all his customers if he doesn't cheer up. You still deliver, don't you?'

'Oh yes Mr. Teddy, I get my boys to do it. They don't get any pocket money until they've finished their rounds, in spite of what the vicar says.' He tapped the side of his nose. 'Mr. Jolly is a very good man, but he doesn't know what I know; if you give them money for doing nothing they won't do anything at all. He's never had boys, you see.'

'Well, can you deliver me a little more each week. I'm going to stop visiting Mr. Welly's shop until things get better and he cheers up.'

'Certainly, Mr. Teddy. You're the third person today who's told me they're going to stop eating fish. If things don't get better soon for Mr. Welly he'll lose all his customers.'

'Yes, that would be sad. I don't know that I'll stop eating fish, I enjoy my Saturday cod, but I might go to the river myself for a while.'

'Until things get better for Mr. Welly?'

'Yes, just until then.'

On his way to Molly's Teddy came across Mr. Jolly and greeted him earnestly. He believed in the importance of getting on with men of the cloth, who could offer all kinds of help at times when things were not going well, and whose good opinion could make the difference between being popular in the village and being thought anti-social and unacceptable.

'Good afternoon, Mr. Jolly.'

'Good afternoon, Teddy, and how are you today.'

'Very well, thank you, Mr. Jolly. How are things at the vicarage?'

'Oh, the usual problems; sick people to visit, those who don't come to church to take to task, looking after the fabric of the church building. You know we want to replace the bell?'


'But Teddy, you must realize that we need to encourage people to attend service so that we can change their lives, and ask for more money. The poor are always with us, as Christ pointed out. And we really must have bells that make a joyous, spiritual sound, one tinny ring is not good enough for the house of God.'

'I'm sure you're right, Vicar. Perhaps you would be doing good by taking money from the poor people. I've been talking to Mr. Welly and he says he can't get the lads to work for him because they don't need the money now that you give it to them.'

'But that isn't possible, Teddy, we only give it to those who need, the boys who are working don't need it so they don't get any. It's very simple, we give to the poor.'

'Yes, Vicar, but haven't you noticed how there are more poor than they used to be? The lads who used to catch fish and deliver for Mr. Welly won't do it anymore because if they stop work you give them money anyway. And Bobby only gets his boys to deliver the meat because he doesn't give them any pocket money unless they do. I know what you say in your sermons, but he has to get his meat delivered.'

'Are you suggesting we should stop giving money to the poor?'

'No, no, Vicar, but if you gave it to the wives of the poor instead you might find that there weren't so many of them. Then you could use the rest of the money for the bells and more people would come to worship and you would have all the benefits of a larger congregation.'

'Very true, Teddy


'The village as a whole. How right you are, Teddy, the common good is what we must strive for. If you will excuse me I have to look at the catalogue again, we must of course have the best bells.'

He almost ran into the vicarage in his anxiety to do good and Teddy continued on his way to Molly's.


How is Farmer Kelly's new boar?'

'It's a fine animal, Mr Teddy, a real beauty, and it eats like a horse, or should I say like a pig. It hasn't produced any piglets yet, but Farmer Kelly is very happy because Mr Quilly the Mayor has given him some of the money to buy it and has promised to buy at least a hundred piglets at a very good price even if not that many are born and the village doesn't need them anyway. Then he can sell them to other villages and we can make a lot of money which he can give to the people in the cottages so they don't have to work and they'll be happy as well. At least, I think that was the idea. You know the Mayor's schemes are too difficult for me to understand.'

'I'm sure that's not true, Benny, but I look forward to talking to him about it. If you will excuse me, I'd like to have a word with Roddy. Goodbye, Mrs Benny.'

Teddy went over to the counter where Roddy was talking to Molly and said hello. They ordered tea and sat down together. Their quarrel was forgotten and they talked about the work Roddy was doing.

‘You see, Teddy, a lot of the fires I have to put out shouldn’t have started in the first place. The people on the hillside road smoke in bed and set their cottages on fire. The older women like to cook with open stoves full of wood and embers fly everywhere and set things alight. People don’t control their cats and they let them climb trees and then they can’t get down. I want Mr. Quilly to let me talk to people and tell them how they can stop all this if they’re more careful.’

‘It sounds like a good idea, Roddy, but the people in the cottages never listen, no one wants to use these new cooker things and I’m not sure how you can control a cat.’

‘Ah, but we’d have inspectors you see, who would go around looking through bedroom windows and bringing people up before the Squire until they understood what we were telling them. The women would have to be taught how to use a stove safely and they could only use the sorts that we said were all right. I don’t think we could get rid of the trees, so we might have to stop people having cats unless they can prove they don’t get into scrapes. Or we could make them have big boxes to keep them in. Mr. Quilly and his people can design something that cats can live in without getting into trouble and everyone will have to use it.’

‘Won’t people be unhappy if inspectors keep looking through their windows? I wouldn’t like it. Of course I don’t smoke, and I don’t have a cat.’

They will have to understand that it’s for their own good. And we’d have to check everyone, no exceptions. It’s much easier, you see, if you have a list of everybody and you tick them off as you go.’

‘But Roddy, if you do that and it’s successful, you won’t have any work to do.’

‘Oh but I will, because I’ll be the chief inspector, in charge of all the others.’ ‘Others?’

‘Oh yes, we’ll need quite a few, I think. I’ll be very busy, and you know what Mr. Jolly says about a busy mind in a busy body. You see, I see my role as concerned with prevention rather than cure.’

Teddy realized there wasn’t much point talking to Roddy. His eyes were shining with enthusiam and Teddy didn’t want to have another argument with him since they’d just made up that morning. He decided to talk to Mr. Quilly to see if he could stop him from doing it. Or at least to make sure his name wasn’t on the list.

Teddy wondered if Mr. Maddy knew about it and what he would think. He said goodbye to Roddy and went over to him. He had finished talking to Jimmy and was frowning at his notebook.

‘Didn’t you like what Jimmy was telling you, Mr. Maddy?’ he said.

‘No, I didn’t Teddy. It was very dull. He said he had an interesting story to tell me but it’s no good, not what anyone wants to read. Still, he is a curate, different things are important to him.’

‘Surely the same things are important to all of us here, Mr. Maddy.’

‘True, Teddy, true, but we don’t all want to read about them. We have Mr. Jolly to tell us about them.’

‘Mr. Maddy, do you know about Roddy’s plans for preventing fires? What do you think of it?’

‘Not a good idea to go round telling people what to do. It’s one thing to give advice; if we could go to Roddy and get advice that would be different, but telling them what to do and making them buy new stoves and spying on them- yes Teddy, spying on them, that’s what it sounds like to me, people won’t have that. Especially the Hillside Road people, and I have to take their side in this.’

‘But we’ve always kept an eye on our neighbours, Mr. Maddy, and we have a quiet word when we need to.’

‘Different, Teddy, Mr. Quilly and his friends want to make the rules. Not things we all agree about, new rules, made by them. They like making rules, think they know best. They don’t, of course. No sense making rules no one’s going to obey, is there. You know how it is, Teddy, every now and then they start having ideas, think they should do things, start making rules. It’s probably to do with the springtime, but people don’t like it, and I’ve got to tell people what other people are thinking.’

‘Well, I must say I agree with you. Roddy is my friend and the Mayor is a fine man but I don’t want either of them telling me what to do. I hope we can stop it all before Roddy gets his inspector’s cap. He’ll be disappointed if he has to give it back.’

Teddy knew about Roddy’s enthusiasm for new ideas, especially when they involved telling people what to do. He took his responsibilities very seriously and believed in thinking ahead to stop fires and other dangers before they happened. Very worthy, Teddy thought, and very like him, but when people didn’t listen to him and started shaking their heads and avoiding him he would soon realize he was wrong and think of something else. If Mr Maddy didn’t like it that was a good start. Teddy had a good feeling about it, there wouldn’t be too much difficulty, although he had to admit that the people in the cottages did need watching.


It was to granny’s house he went when he left Molly’s. He had a lot of things to tell her, as he usually did. She sent the maid away and they sat down to eat the cakes.

...When he’d told everything he was going to and they’d eaten all the cakes and drunk their tea he pushed her out into the garden to feel the warm evening wind on her face and smell the flowers. Teddy told her about them all and described the smell of them and the colour of them and the way the fading light played across them and changed them, and he told her about the fish when they went to the pool. There weren’t many left since the boys discovered granny couldn’t see them from the house, but they came round again and again and he could count the same fish a dozen times until granny began to be suspicious and he took her back in and called the maid to distract her until it was time for bed.


At home he sat in his favourite chair for some time, reading his new book about the injustices inherent in a society in which economic disadvantage was both inbuilt by birth and perpetuated by the legitimization of the effects arising from differing abilities and characters having varying fortunes in the commercial and professional world. He found it very interesting, but it seemed to be saying that if Bobby was better at selling meat than Mr Welly was at selling fish then Bobby should give some of his money to Mr Welly

...a lot of people had said what a good book it was, Mr Jolly and Mr Quilly liked it, and it was very popular on the Hillside Road.

... Teddy liked to see Mr Kelly working hard. If he didn’t they might not have enough food to eat. He thought of the new boar and hoped it was also busy making food for them. Up on the Hillside road most of the lights were on as well. Some people there never seemed to sleep. he lay in bed finishing his cocoa Teddy looked forward to tomorrow. He was sure it would be another good day. He put his loose eye on the table where he would be able to find it, and since he didn’t need to switch the light off he turned over and went to sleep."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On Expert Knowledge

Down here I am, of course, considered an expert on all things British and, having a known interest in politics, I had a lot of people asking me about the election: what the position was, who would win, what the result meant, who Nick Clegg is, what will happen now...

Well I'm still not sure who Nick Clegg is, but I was doing quite well on the rest of it, until I said, 'The one thing that will not, cannot, happen, for reasons I shan't bother to explain because they are so compex and subtle that only we experts can understand them, is a Con-Lib pact (we don't do coalitions, we don't even do alliances, you see). Absolutely not possible, just can't be, you wouldn't understand why not.

Well, that' s the end of Hickory as a political pundit. I still don't see how it happened. And it certainly won't last (ducks). But it is, an attribute most things do not have.

I also predicted, with my detailed knowledge of English football, that Fulham would honour their history tonight by doing nothing remotely memorable and losing forgettably. I seem to have got that one right. The fountain of Neptune (near the Prado museum) will be hopping tonight. Even here, 200kms south of Madrid, there are many fans, and they are now out in their cars, driving around honking their horns apparently in the belief that people share their joy and are not throwing potato peelings at them as they pass.

An odd way to celebrate something which is not even yours. Here we do handball; I may have mentioned that we have the best handball team in the world, and when they win the league or the European Cup there is sense in beeping your horn and jumping in the fountain, but the football fans have to make do with a semi-amateur team that goes bankrupt every few years and has to be refounded, so they follow the big teams.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

In Which I Tell of Storks

There are a lot of storks in this area, because it's close to Africa where they head in the winter, and the weather is very stable from early spring, when they return to breed, to mid-autumn when they go off again. There is also an abundance of the sort of place they like to nest, tall trees, church spires and isolated chimneys, but those things can be found in many places. I think they just like the weather.

There's a place near here, by the river, with a long line of tall trees (poplars, I think, but I'm not too good on trees) where they return to nest year after year in large numbers. Real life calls me away for a few days, but this morning I had time to wander down there to talk a look at them with their chicks. There were dozens of them, circling overhead nervously, pouncing on insects and small mammals in the long grass nearby.

From there I walked beside the river a couple of miles. At one point a 'piara', a group of wild boar, crossed the path in front of me and plunged into the water, disappearing and reappearing among the reeds as they made their way across. They didn't reach the other bank, they will have found a convenient place to hide, drink and maybe eat as well. It's rare to see them during the day (and not at all easy at night, unless you're very patient), I hardly ever come across boar, and I know the area, and especially the farm, is full of them.

A cloudy morning, where the air is warm but heavy, and seems to push back at you as you walk. And it's harder to breathe, because of the unaccustomed humidity.

Now off to Madrid, and reality.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Return to the Maestro

Two years ago, when I first trespassed on the presence of the man who was to become my blogging Maestro, I was as a schoolboy before his headmaster's study door, or even more like a priest's apprentice, newly rescued from the orphanage, sent to perform sacrifice at the feet of the idol.

A sense of my inadequacy filled me from spinning head to chilly feet, passing through a pounding chest, a face alternately red and white, a stomach churning dangerously, and knees that trembled so violently they could barely keep me standing. I saw myself from afar, an object of horror in my own eyes, appalled that one such should dare to enter that place. I would have turned and run, but my legs weren't up to the effort.

A 9th degree Technoratus, no less, the most highly transcended figure of that great celestial blogosphere of which most of us know nothing, preferring to believe that this poor thing we send our thoughts out into is all there is. A man, a being rather, so supremely pure that he did not blog in the way that we might understand it; he had no keyboard, no modem, no material connection to the world of the mundane blogger whose life consists of tapping out his idlest thoughts in the belief that someone, somewhere, cares what he has to say. No, the Maestro blogged in the purest, most spiritual way, entirely within his own mind, and his web site was the infiniteness of time, the gaps between the stars, the silences we mortals create by our inability to fill them, his readership the perfect and perfected creatures that inhabit those places.

Despite the gulf between us, he received me as great men do, as though I were the one doing him the favour, as though he had waited years for this moment, as though there were something he could learn from me.

'Maestro', I breathed, my forehead to the ground, so overcome I could barely even kneel, 'I would blog.'

The words were spoken; I had violated that place, the purity of the air that man respired, by my presumption that I could, in any way at all, be like him. I awaited death, which I was sure by them was the only possible punishment, with something approaching satisfaction.

'Then blog, my son. To blog is to live. To blog is to be. To blog is to become one with the universe.'

'How can I blog, in the truest sense, Maestro? I mean Blog, not merely blog?'

'You refer to readership, my son, stats.'

'Er, yes, Maestro. For it is written that a blog that goes unread is like a camel's armpit unbitten by fleas.'

'So they tell me, yes. You need a niche, my son, something only you can talk about in a particular way. What do you have to tell people about?'

'Hedgehogs, Maestro,' I replied, 'I am the goto man for reliable hedgehog news.'

'Hmm,' mused the Great One, 'not bad, but perhaps a bit too niche. Chuck in a bit of passionate and crudely analysed politics, and some whimsical humour. It'll help the hedgehogs along. Then go with whatever is making you think, whatever makes you feel strong emotion. Use words wisely and well, and transmit, my son, that feeling to others. Someone will listen. Be yourself, and don't take yourself too seriously because, lets face it, my son...'

Once he'd started he got up steam and went on like this for some time. I took note of everything he said, and have tried to be a good disciple. When he had said what he had to say he stopped and dismissed me, saying,

'Go out into the world and blog as I have taught you to blog. Return in two years and I shall weigh your worth.'

Those two years are nearly gone, and I must make my way once more to the Presence, and account for the use I have made of my Maestro's teaching.

I could lie, of course. Since he lives in a cave near the top of a particularly inhospitable mountain, and communciates only with those beings that inhabit the spaces between the lower level orbits of the hydrogen atom, the chances of him knowing my site stats are fairly slim. Or I could tell him I use the pseudonym Old Holborn or Guido Fawkes. But it wouldn't feel right. So I shall go to him bearing the truth, perhaps the greatest gift there is. And just in case, a box of the finest Belgian chocolates, which melt the hardest of hearts.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Elections Free and Fair

The pigs have mostly come in to land, the elephants are being washed down to remove the pink dye, the figures are slowly ceasing to spin incoherently and lopsidedly in the heads of those who've tried to pay attention, the snake oil is mostly drying in the grass, the last promises are being swept away with the rest of the junk, the last lies are being told, and the last opportunity for all but a handful of the unctuous, power-crazed mob to get on the telly and be taken vaguely seriously is being franctically sought.

On Thursday the final act of the often fascinating, often immensely dull drama we call a general election will be played out, a climax in which the press finally gets to look even more self-important and tedious than the politicians, and on Friday we will still have a Prime Minister, and a government, but we don't yet know who, nor what form it will take.

We can sure of one thing, though: whatever form the government takes, and whoever leads it, it will keep trying to do things; to control things, to forbid things, to direct every detail of everything we do, and to complicate even the most simple and natural of human acts to the point where life cannot be lived without constant reference to solicitors, accountants and administrative bureaucrats, in case we break the law by getting out of bed.

If there is no immediate winner, which is a distinct possibility, we can be sure of something else, too: some deal will be put together in secret by the leaders of the parties (I mean the real leaders, not the spokesmen they call candidates for PM) involving promises for future positions, payments, actions and laws which we, those who pay for it all, and who they are supposed to represent, will never be told of, but which will affect our lives and our country, perhaps in important ways. Deals will be done, hands will be shaken, pur future will be decided, but those decisions, those deals, will be made purely in the interests of the people who make them. We will not count.

There is a good chance that both PR and the public funding of political parties could be the result of those secret promises, effectively placing the choice of MP's completely in the hands of the party managers. We, the public, will have to pay for it all, and obey their rules, but we will no longer have any real choice as to who represents us. In fact, we will not be represented at all, as MP's will lose any reason to show even the shred of interest and loyalty to their constituents that most of them show now.

The 'leaders' of the three main parties are not leaders at all. I've said this before, but Gordon Brown is not capable of leading anyone anywhere (exactly where would you follow him?). He is not fit to captain his house third team. He's the sort who has to beg to be allowed to carry the drinks so he can feel part of the team. That's the Prime Minister we've had for the last few years.

Cameron and Clegg are quite good at what they do, which is create an image for their party which is inviting and doesn't frighten anyone off, but they are so busy doing that that they can't show any real qualities of leadership. Leaders are divisive, they are strong, decisive, magnetic characters, who hoover up the weak, attract the strong, and are hated by those who want to call themselves leaders but don't know how to do it.

Anyhow, enough rambling.

If I'd got the paperwork sorted out in time, I would almost certainly have voted Conservative. The MP in the constituency where I would have voted is a LibDem, a nice chap, born and bred in the town, a councillor for many years, mayor a couple of times, and a 'pillar of the community'. But as an MP, pretty useless. So I would probably have voted C out of habit, or possibly UKIP, because they are offering something concrete that I happen to agree with, and it might not be a wasted vote in that area.

The other day, on May the first, which is, I think historically, and certainly in practice, a celebration of international communism, I had the anarcho-sindicalists, a Trotskyite bunch (as they define themselves), both hairy and smelly (I don't know why the far left is so averse to personal hygiene) shouting under my window, waving anti-democratic flags and chanting slogans. Someone gave an incomprehensible (fortunately) speech through a megaphone. It's a funny kind of anarchy that demands more laws and regulations, on the other hand the demands for other people's money were rather more predictable.

But they are a bunch of harmless nuts. They weren't violent or threatening, and the fact that they can protest and make such demands in public is a sign of a healthy society. The fact that they will be completely ignored is a good sign, too.

I can vote on Thursday, together we can throw out that incompetent bunch and their mad figurehead, if we wish, and put someone else there. We can put Lord Pearson there, or Nick Griffin if we want, and the EU would cry foul, but that's democracy, and if we wish we have the power to do it.

Others don't. I blogged last week on the Cuban 'elections'. And at Harry's Place (an intelligent and informative, and genuinely free, left wing blog) a short post linking to Yoanni Sánchez, who explains how workers are forced to celebrate Worker's Day in Cuba (complete with spontaneous rejoicing).

So I'm happy to see the anarcho-Trots shouting incoherent and contradictory slogans under my window. It reminds me that the country I have chosen to live in, though far from perfect, is free in many impportant ways. And the fact that I can say what I feel about Gordon Brown, the Labour party and its policies, the EU and its antidemocratic imposition of bureaucratic tyranny, and so on, shows that the country I grew up in is also free in ways that other countries are not.