Sunday, 31 October 2010

Progress isn't always all it's cracked up to be

When Mark Mazower wrote his powerful history of Twentieth Century Europe he entitled it Dark Continent. This struck me as unduly cynical. After all, the century gave us victory over bacterial infections (at least temporarily, for as long as antibiotics remain effective), huge classes of people pulled out of hunger and sub-standard accommodation, to say nothing of great increases in access to culture: for example, at the beginning of the century, the cinema was in its infancy; by the end, its products could be enjoyed in our living rooms.

Mazower’s point is that it was also the century in which mankind learned to be more destructive and more vicious to itself than at any time in the past. This reverse progress, the dark mirror-image of the extension of enlightenment, is probably most striking expressed by how attitudes changed in the space of just a few decades towards the killing of civilians in warfare.

An excellent example is given by the use of submarines against merchant shipping in the First World War.

The rules governing the use of military force against maritime commerce had come down to us from the eighteenth century. They specified that the military ship must ensure that its victim belonged to an enemy or was carrying contraband goods to an enemy port. If it could establish either of those, it was entitled to take possession of it or, having evacuated and taken into safety all the crew and passengers, to fire on the ship and sink it.

The trouble with those rules is that they’re practically impossible to apply in submarines. You can’t tell the nationality of a ship through a periscope. To carry out the search means surfacing, which means giving up the one tactical advantage a submarine has: caught on the surface it is particularly vulnerable to an enemy coming to the rescue of the merchant ship. In addition, a submarine simply doesn’t have the space to take on board the crew and passengers of its victims.

What does that mean? In order to use submarine warfare against merchant ships, nations in the twentieth century had to abandon standards of civilised behaviour established in the far more primitive eighteenth. This was made clear by US President Woodrow Wilson writing to the government of Imperial Germany in 1915, whose attention he drew to:

… the practical impossibility of employing submarines in the destruction of commerce without disregarding those rules of fairness, reason, justice and humanity which all modern opinion regards as imperative.

What strikes me most strongly in Wilson’s words is their moral content, their appeal to fairness and humanity.

Twenty-five years later, in the Second World War, there was no expectation that any such moral concerns would limit the use of submarines against commerce. In the Atlantic, Germany drove Britain nearly to defeat by destroying its maritime supply lines; in the Pacific, the United States meted out similar treatment to Japan.

Thirty years after the Wilson letter, we had the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Clearly, by then we had reached such a pitch of enlightenment that the killing of hundreds of thousands – literally – of civilians seemed perfectly acceptable in the pursuit of war aims. Such had progress been.

From our standpoint today, the twentieth century looks pretty dark. If we don’t want it to look merely grey and overcast from the point of view of the end of the twenty-first, it might be a good idea to start doing something about it now.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Let there be less light

Some time ago, when my wife Danielle was still commuting to work and therefore taking her bike on the train each day, she was told off by station staff for having left the light on as she wheeled her way across the platform one morning. Just the other day, I heard the same reprimand being dished out at my local station.

It seems that leaving a bicycle light on in a station can confuse the train drivers.

I keep trying to picture the confusion. Here’s the driver of the 7:17 to Euston coming into the station, minding his own business, perhaps already thinking of the cup of tea at the end of his shift. ‘Crikey,’ he cries out suddenly, jerked out of his reverie by a terrible sight, ‘there’s a very short, very thin train with a single light coming across the platform towards me. Stone the crows.’

Clearly, if station staff are so keen on preventing this kind of behaviour, they must fear the appalling consequences to which the confusion might lead. I find this puzzling. What do they expect the driver do? Take evasive action? Would he throw the steering wheel over in a panic-struck over-compensation to the perceived peril, mount the opposite platform and cut a trail of mayhem, death and destruction amongst the poor innocents waiting for the 7:22 to Manchester? A terrifying image.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see how anyone can reasonably object to turning off a bike light. It’s just that as a frequent passenger on British trains, I’m concerned that the people who manage our railways think their drivers likely to get that confused, that easily.

What does it say about the drivers? What does it say about the managers?

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What women wear

Age old customs are being honoured still, it seems, as the mayor of a small Italian seaside town decides to outlaw women wearing 'too short’ miniskirts or showing ‘too much’ cleavage.

This comes only a couple of weeks after France banned the wearing of full-face veil burqas, a move that many allegedly enlightened European countries would like to emulate. Even in Britain, the idea has some high-profile defenders, if an obscure backbench Tory MP can be regarded as high-profile.

This is a perfect expression of the age-old desire of men to control what women wear or don’t wear and, no doubt, when, where and for whom they take it off. As usual, lurking in the background is some argument based on moral or religious principes, or perhaps democratic and civil liberties concerns, that act as a wonderful veil for much more basic fixations.

Since this is perfectly traditional, I suppose it should please those who feel that a respect for tradition is an essential element of a healthy society.

For my part, it simply calls to mind a quotation I came across recently from Konrad Lorenz: ‘I believe I’ve discovered the missing link between apes and civilised man. It’s us.’ Apposite, I feel.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Luton: the house has been approved. Official

Slowly, the pile of boxes is going down, and the place we’ve moved into is beginning to resemble somewhere that people live. For the moment though, it doesn’t really feel ours. I suppose it takes a little while before one can turn a house into a home.

This doesn’t, however, apply to all of us. One of us adapted immediately to the new place, for reasons that remain obscure to me – but then practically everything about him is obscure to me.

Our cat Misty liked the house in Luton immediately. He had no sooner got out of the car than he started inspecting every room, and purring with pleasure at each place visited. I’ve never seen him so instantly pleased with anywhere.

He particularly liked having a garden bigger than any he’d previously known. He took possession of it with great aplomb: confronted by three other cats who’d clearly got used to regarding it as their own, and who left him intimidated and cowering at one end, he was delighted when Danielle released Janka, our dog, to join him. Once Janka successfully driven away the occupants turned into interlopers, he stuck his tail in the air and stalked to the other end of the garden with tremendous pride, delighted to have a powerful ally who could protect his (self-assumed) rights.

So it was particularly unfortunate when he disappeared that night. At quarter to four in the morning he demanded to be let out, with mewing so loud and irritable that I simply couldn’t ignore it. It was freezing cold and at that time of day I was in no fit state to think carefully about what I was doing, so I closed the door behind him, locking him out, since we have no cat flap.

Back downstairs at 6:00, properly up and awake, I went out calling for him. To no avail. Danielle tried all day, I tried again that evening when I was back from work, but there was no answer. It was desperately sad. This cat who had travelled with us, several times, between France, Germany and England, always with success, was lost within a few hours of having moved into a place which he apparently found particularly congenial.

As the one who’d locked him out, my sorrow was compounded by a strong sense of guilt.

But fortunately it was all premature. At 6:00 the next morning, after he’d been gone for well over 24 hours, we heard a familiar mewing at the back door. We let him in and filled his bowl; he threw himself onto it and emptied in a matter of minutes. He then bestowed a quick purr on us and headed for his bed – actually, our bed – to get a good day’s sleep after, no doubt, a hard night’s work.

We had no apology, no explanation, no gratitude. But on the other hand, we had our cat back.

And with him came the seal of approval of the new house. And that’s worth a lot.

Contentment. And that means the house is approved

Friday, 22 October 2010


At a hospital today – seeing someone in the Supplies department, I hasten to add: there’s nothing wrong with me, or at least nothing that can be treated by medicine – I was directed to the ‘Old Nurses Home’. This has happened in a few hospitals I’ve visited, where I’ve met management people in an Old Nurses Home.

It worries me. I mean, if Finance or Supplies are taking these places over, where do the Old Nurses live?

On the train on the way home, there was a Jewish couple across the aisle from me. Now we Jews like to have extraordinarily large extended families. Second cousins twice removed are important people to whom we have to communicate good news, to collect their good wishes and, to be honest, excite their envy.

I guess in the natural course of things I’d have had a family like that, living in and around Vilnius, but Hitler made sure that didn’t happen. This couple, on the other, were clearly well endowed with relatives. Because for the full two hours of the trip – which they made me feel was a lot longer – they were phoning every single one of them to announce that ‘Jonah proposed to Lindsey today – yes, yes, in Marrakesh – no date yet, depends on when we can get the rabbi – hold on, I’ll pass you Rachel, she wants to talk to you too.’ And Rachel started her conversation with the same words every time ‘Yes, we’re so excited…’

Mazel tov, I say to them. At least they had some real joy to spread, not random noise like those guys in cars who want to share their music with you while you’re waiting for traffic lights to go green. Even so, I’d like to tell the couple with the happy news from Marrakesh, ‘when your other son pops the question, would you mind making the calls from home before you catch the train, rather than from the middle of a crowded carriage?’

To try to get a break from the monotony, I listened to a podcast of one of my favourite BBC radio programmes, In our time. One of the learned university researchers said of a major figure that she was discussing, ‘he was the theoretician of the movement, if it had a theoretician.’

Don’t you just love academics? Let’s assume for a moment that this movement didn’t have a theoretician. In that case, what would this guy have been?

I’m very fond of academic research. It seems to be that getting to understand things better is one of the most vital of human functions. Now Mrs Thatcher is in hospital at the moment, and this is leading to a lot of talk about her, including some slightly ghoulish speculation – for someone not yet dead – about whether she should have a state funeral or not.

When she became Prime Minister, she was asked by a journalist how she felt about being the first woman to hold that post in this country. She replied that she preferred to think of herself as the first scientist. It’s true that when she was a chemist she’d done some seminal work on the surface tension of soft ice cream. This made it all the more surprising to me when she revealed herself to be research-averse, cutting funds to many academic institutions and setting as her goal to finance only research that was ‘useful’.

The trouble with this attitude is that usefulness is difficult to define when it comes to research. I once worked for a man who’d previously spent three years on an international collaboration involving dozens of scientists, working on the colossally expensive equipment at the European Nuclear Research Centre outside Geneva. They were looking for the intermediate vector boson. I have no idea what one of these is, but I’m prepared to accept the word of physicists who tell me it’s terribly important. Anyway, it seems my boss’s collaboration failed because they were looking in the wrong energy range, whatever that means.

So was his research a complete waste of time and money? Well, someone had to establish that it was the wrong energy range so that scientists could feel free to look at others. A negative result may be a crucial contribution on the way to a positive outcome. That’s what people who apply a narrow definition of utility seem unable to realise.

That reminds of an exchange that took place at one of the public displays of electricity Faraday used to give in the late nineteenth century. Someone in the audience asked ‘Yes, but what use is it?’ Priceless, isn’t it? From our vantage point of today, what could be more risible than someone questioning the usefulness of electricity? But until you’ve found out what the use is, how can you possibly know?

That’s what lay behind Faraday’s answer: ‘What use is a baby?’ A baby may turn into a Faraday, or he may turn into a neo-Thatcherite of the kind running our government today with its renewed onslaught on academic institutions. A baby is a chance you take, hoping it’ll turn out OK, but with no certainty that it will.

Anyway, Louis Pasteur got it right. ‘There’s no such thing as applied research, only applications of fundamental research.’ Do the fundamental research, and we’ll find the applications in due course.

Otherwise we might as well go and sit with the homeless Old Nurses and tell sad tales of random matters, such as people who are shining examples of discretion in the use of mobile phones, if such people had discretion.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

End of an era, end of an error

It’s strange to see a ‘To Let’ sign suddenly sprout outside the house where you live – it feels slightly as though the ground is being cut out from under your feet.

The reality, of course, is just that we’re moving. Last weekend was my last as a resident of Stafford, and like most last weekends, it was dominated by cardboard boxes, being filled one by one and clogging up our living space.

What shall we miss about Stafford? One place, certainly: magical in its wildness, Cannock Chase with its deer and foxes, with its wide open high ground in contrast to its lush wooded valleys and gentle streams.

Far more than that, though, we shall miss people. Stafford was a surprisingly friendly place, where people you meet almost aways seem to have a smile and cheerful greeting. At the office, I enjoyed the company of colleagues who as well as being competent and hard working, were friendly and fun. And we were extraordinarily lucky with our neighbours. We shall miss them badly, and I very much hope that they meant it when they told us they would take up our invitation to visit us in our new place.

For us it’s the end of an era. For me, professionally, it’s also the end of an error. It’s received wisdom these days that mergers and acquisitions don’t do much for businesses, often being little more than a way for the acquiring company to show its virility and adding little or nothing in the way of value. Sadly, that seems illustrated by my stay in Stafford.

Some years ago I was working with eight other people in a tiny little company in which, when we weren’t fighting about how badly we were doing commercially, we had a great deal of fun. We had customers we enjoyed knowing, products we were proud of and projects that gave us exciting challenges. Unfortunately, the rows kept getting louder because the one thing we didn’t have was anything like the number of sales we needed.

Then we got a call. An old friend and former colleague contacted us from a company that might be interested in acquiring us. It was as though the 6th Cavalry had just come over the hill. Within a few months we had been absorbed. The acquiring company got six of the nine staff, with whatever skills we had, our thirty clients with their maintenance payments and some reasonable products.

Unfortunately, it all started to unravel within months. The first blow was that the old friend who had launched the acquisition process was made redundant. Then the users we had brought with us began to wake up to the fact that the new company was not going to be doing any work on the products they had bought. They began to drift away.

Next the attrition on the six staff started. One by one, voluntarily or pushed, we left. It was my turn when I was made redundant this summer, most courteously but nonetheless firmly escorted to the exit.

That still left one of the six in place, but I did a reference for her last week. Since I rate her highly, what I wrote isn’t going to make her new employer review the decision to take her on.

So in a few weeks none of us will be left. A handful of clients have stuck around, but the products have vanished. A chapter will have closed.

Not that I’m complaining. The acquisition gave me over four years of a good salary and my severance terms were more than fair. The sad thing is how little I was able to contribute. Thanks to a talented team, I was involved in the launch of one new application of which I’m really proud, but so many other things I got started and had to leave unfinished.

So this was another acquisition that delivered far less than it might. An episode that started with great hope left me at its close with a lot of regrets. The end of an error indeed.

These are thoughts I need to put behind me. It’s sad to move away, but it may be the only way to move on.

For me, it’s time.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Heroes with feet of clay

The heroes I prefer all have feet of clay. Or perhaps I mean more precisely clearly visible faults. And if I’m strictly accurate, they’re not actually heroes.

The word ‘hero’ is massively overused. A hero is a larger-than-life figure who, driven by conviction of the rightness of a cause, takes on massive, possibly insuperable odds, knowing that there is little or no chance of success.

I read today that ‘Hat-trick hero Mathers provides finishing touch’ to secure the footballing victory of Thackley over Parkgate. Never heard of Thackley or Parkgate? Totally indifferent to the outcome of the game? Didn't even know they were playing? My point precisely.

Leonidas is a hero, at the head of his 300, battling the entire Persian Army and knowing all he can hope for is to sell their lives dear to give others the time to prepare a defence of all he holds precious.

Not all heroes are even particularly nice people. Take George Armstrong Custer, he of the famous Last Stand. He was arrogant to the point of insanity, and a racist to boot. Despite all that, it’s difficult not to feel a touch of admiration for the way, convinced that he was right, he went into the Battle of Little Big Horn with no chance of emerging victorious. Or even alive.

Splendid stuff. Except that all his men were wiped out with him, and that’s to say nothing of the thousands of men, women and children who paid with their lives for his gesture, when the US Army tuned up to wreak horrible vengeance for his death on the Cheyenne and their allies.

That’s the problem with heroes: they may be giants but like most giants they don’t notice who they’re trampling on around them.

So I’m not all that keen on heroes. But even among non-heroes, I prefer to see the faults of the figures I admire. That’s why I’ve always liked Voltaire. Outstanding when he went into combat for justice and decency, he also had all sorts of terribly obvious faults which, to me, just underline his humanity.

For example, he was certainly not above deviousness. As well as publishing anonymously, a prudent move if you had controversial views in that authoritarian age, he also liked to publish in the names of other people – most notoriously, a near pornographic piece that he gave out in the name of a painfully virtuous churchman who’d made the mistake of opposing him. He was also gloriously rude: I’ve never been able to track down the quotation, but I hope it’s true that he once wrote, ‘I am in the smallest room in the house. Your letter is before me. Soon it will be behind me.’ I used to study Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis who had the misfortune to fall out with Voltaire. Maupertuis had written that ‘the best doctors are those who think the least and practice the most.’ Voltaire quoted only the first nine words. It’s underhand, but so effective that I find it difficult not to admire.

Here’s a good hero story. Herbert Massie’s Castles of Steel is a great piece of work by an American on the history of the (British) Royal Navy in the First World War. From it I learned that at the outbreak of war, Count Spee was the Admiral commanding the German East Asia squadron based in Tsingtao, China.

In passing, I was amused to discover that the rather pleasant light Tsingstao beer that I keep drinking in Chinese restaurants but, somehow, nowhere else, is produced at the brewery set up by the Germans in their concession there.

Spee headed for South America where he threatened the British settlement on the Falkland Islands, the only Royal Navy base in the South Atlantic.

Against him was Christopher Cradock, an Admiral who'd expressed the wish to die either while out hunting or in combat. He had a squadron that was massively weaker than Spee’s. The Admiralty promised him one of the new battle cruisers, Defence, but then ordered it back and didn’t tell him. It sent the powerfully armed ship Canopus to be the ‘citadel’ around which he could mount his attack, but didn’t seem to realise that it was obsolete and far too slow. Cradock pointed out the problems, but perhaps not clearly enough for the First Lord of the Admiralty to understand them. The Admiralty’s orders were confusing, sometimes contradictory, but in the end Cradock was left with the clear impression that his superiors thought he had enough force to take on Spee and expected him to do the job.

Cradock wasn’t going to be accused of cowardice, so he took on Spee. True heroism. He knew his ships had no chance against Spee’s but he fought anyway. The result? The British lost two ships. And 1570 men, including Cradock, as he had wished. Damage to the enemy? Three sailors wounded.

Heroism cost 1570 men their lives for no discernible advantage.

And back at home the Admiralty had made things worse with its incoherent orders and misjudgements. Who was the First Lord at the time? A certain Winston Spencer Churchill.

Now there’s a popular hero, voted the greatest Briton ever in a BBC poll a few years ago. But the sorry tale of Cradock’s defeat at the Battle of Coronel tells a slightly different story, doesn’t it? A story repeated rather a lot in Churchill’s career: in his idea for the disastrous landings in the Dardanelles in the First war or at Narvik in Norway in the Second, his fixation with keeping Britain on the gold standard in the twenties despite the damage to the economy (shades of the present day), the appalling replacement of a fine general Auchinleck by the showman Montgomery in North Africa, to mention just a few of the most flagrant cases.

Yet he was undoubtedly a great man. My mother was a young but astute political observer at the end of the thirties, and as she says, he got it right then: only his little group realised that Nazi Germany was a threat that had to be defeated and couldn’t be appeased. And in 1940 he rose to challenge with flying colours: I always feel his greatest contribution consists of four words, ‘we shall never surrender’. No words could be more important, at a time when even his Foreign Secretary favoured negotiations for peace with Hitler.

A great man, Churchill, no doubt, but his failings were in proportion to his greatness and we ought to remember them.

Was he a hero? Well maybe at times he was. At his worst times, as at Coronel.

And they cost a lot of other people their lives.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Andrew hasn't marred my pleasure

My good friend Ronnie wrote to me yesterday to question my continued commitment to blogging, given how comprehensively bloggers had just been ‘marred’.

The reference was to a recent diatribe against blogging by someone I rather admire, Andrew Marr, journalist, broadcaster and highly talented populariser of history. Still, my view, to adapt an old saying, is that what is marred can be mended, and his indictment hasn’t left me downhearted at all.

It’s quite an indictment, though. ‘A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting,’ he ranted at a recent literary festival in Cheltenham. ‘They are very angry people,’ he went on, and though he admits that ‘many of us are angry people at times’, he doesn’t buy the concept of citizen journalism, which he describes as ‘the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism.’

Well, Marr is an outstanding writer and it would be a great pity to lose his excellent work with its insights and its lucid explanations of complex matters. It would be just as great a pity to have to do without the journalism of the correspondents on the better papers, such as the Independent or the Guardian here in Britain. Certainly, blogging isn’t going to replace them.

But sadly these aren’t the only journalists. To take another British example, how about this extract from today’s Daily Mail?

‘I had a fling with a waitress and it made me feel manly, says David Arquette.’ How many people know who David Arquette is? How many care?

We’re told that the author of this exposure of skuldeggery is a ‘Daily Mail reporter’. It seems they’re proud of it. Glancing further down, we can see why. There’s an appropriate photograph of the waitress in question, followed by the riveting information that ‘as Arquette went public over their encounter, the brunette beauty broke cover to attend her no doubt daily gym sessions dressed in a flimsy vest, leggings and a low-cut sports bra.’

I particularly liked that ‘no doubt’. Who needs facts when you can speculate and pass it off as research?

Now in the past I’ve contributed posts to a Labour Party blog and I’ve had some pretty ranty replies, I can tell you. On this blog, of course, the comments have always been courteous, kind and sensitive. Out there, in the big-blog world, they’re a bit more like One flew over the cuckoo’s nest. Certainly, that kind of stuff is pretty unappealing, and it can’t hold a candle to our best journalism.

But what about our worst journalism? Marr needs to realise that there’s another end of the spectrum from his own. If the journalism of the Mail and our other tabloids, here, on the Continent or across the Atlantic, were replaced by even the least inspiring blogging, would it really matter? Would we be any the worse off? Are the bloggers really that much worse?

In any case, my reply to Ronnie is simple. I don’t write for Andrew Marr’s pleasure but for my own and, I hope, for my readers’.

So I'll keep enjoying Andrew Marr's work on many topics. But when it comes to blogging, I'm afraid I won't be paying a lot of attention to his views.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Silver linings

It’s often said of Britain that the country has no climate, only weather. It’s certainly true that whereas one might head off to the Maldives with a reasonably certainty of sun, or to the Austrian Alps with a good hope of finding snow, if you go to the Derbyshire Dales you’re likely to see beautiful countryside but shouldn’t be unduly concerned if you forget to bring your sun block.

Officially what I think of as ‘the Dales’ are actually called ‘the Peaks’. Since these peaks don’t tend to get much beyond 500 metres, it feels to me more sensible to concentrate on the valleys between them, the dales that give the area its beauty. We were there on Saturday and Sunday, as a kind of farewell to the region: after two and a half years in Stafford, just over an hour from the village of Castleton where we spent the weekend, we’re moving to Luton which is more like three hours away.

We went with friends who were once near neighbours, and soon will be again when we complete our move. It was an excellent demonstration of the principle that I mentioned before, that with really good friends, when you pick up again even after far too long a separation, it’s as if you had never been apart.

Castleton really doesn’t have a huge amount of entertainment to offer: wonderful walks during the day, certainly, but at night there’s really little more than the pubs. Plenty of them, for a village that size, but that’s about it. So we spent the evening catching up with our friends, and a great delight it was too – picking up conversations as though they had barely been interrupted, revisiting old interests and pleasures as though they’d never been suspended. Since we were spending our time in pubs, we helped the conversations by lubricating them with a moderate number of drinks. And then a few more, since even a taste for moderation is something one shouldn’t indulge to excess.

We had one reasonably long walk up on the ridge linking the various ‘peaks’. That was where I had a wonderful illustration of why it’s possible to enjoy holidaying in England despite the weather: suddenly, and for a brief moment, the gloomy skies split open and the sun shone through.

It’s the one great thing about living with so much greyness – you really appreciate the occasional glimpse of brightness. It’s just like a weekend with friends, after having gone through a difficult time, with redundancy and unemployment: a real breath of fresh air…

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Unrequited love

Seduction is never easy. You can make every possible effort. You can offer tenderness, kindness, a readiness to bend over backwards to meet needs. You can show solicitude, you can be attentive and caring, and get nowhere. And the worst of it is that someone else can come along with the right gesture, the right act of sympathy, or quite simply the right body language, and conquer where you have systematically failed. Leaving you with nothing but a silly expression and the terrible task of trying to make the best of a harsh destiny.

Ever since we moved to Stafford, I have been the only one of us who has regularly responded to the slightest cry of need by getting up out of bed, wandering downstairs and opening the back door when required to do so. One of us, up every morning at an appalling hour, has made sure feeding bowls – yes, in the plural – are full of the most succulent food. One of us allows himself to be scratched and bitten when the need to go outside is not being met quickly enough, and indeed rather than lashing out with a well-placed blow or kick, has leaped to his feet to accommodate the slightest whim.

I mean, while I tend to rush more than ever to meet Misty's slightest whim when he becomes particularly unbearable, Danielle just pushes him away or even hisses at him. I bear the unbearable. I open the door or the packet of cat food. I bend over to please.

But when we’re watching the latest episode of Dexter, Downton Abbey or Mad Men, whose knees does he come and lie on? Mine? Dream on. He chooses his tormentor, Danielle. And purrs, damn his whiskers.

This was made all the more insufferable last week. We were visited by dear friends from Strasbourg. And every night our good friend Antoine would sit in his favourite armchair – it is rather comfortable, I have to say – and Misty would come and lie on his knees. And he hardly even knows Antoine.

The faithless one prefers Antoine to his devoted servant

Perhaps it helps that Antoine is a man of the cloth, a Protestant Pastor. Perhaps he exudes a calm that comes of spiritual wellbeing and a sense of peace with the universe, and Misty appreciates that. Whereas I, of course, bite my nails and fidget all the time, neurotic to the ends of my fingers.

But, I would argue, doesn’t that mean that if anything I need the comfort of a purring cat on my knees even more than the others do?

Does Misty think of that? Selfish little blighter. Of course he doesn’t.

And the worst of it? It’ll still be me that gets up to let him in tonight if he decides he’s had enough of being outside and can’t be bothered to climb through the window we leave open for him.

He's incorrigible. And I never learn.

Blithey he rests, sublimely indifferent to my bruised feelings.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Glimpsed in railway stations

It’s a commonplace that a pleasure’s all the greater for being unexpected.

For example, there are lots of good things to be said of railways stations. Obviously, they’ve got a lot going for them if you want, say, to catch a train. Hard to imagine doing that without a station, to be perfectly honest, unless you plan to jump onto a moving carriage in time-honoured Western style. In addition, though, they often provide other things too: a cup of coffee, a passable meal at an occasionally less than rip-off price, or even, in certain shining examples such as the major London terminals, access to some fairly good shops. A decent latte in the morning, Marks and Spencer fresh orange juice in the evening, and I feel Euston station has done a good job of topping and tailing my day.

What I don’t expect from a station is art, particularly not art that strikes me. So I was pleasantly surprised the other day at St Pancras station to come across Paul Day’s sculpture The Meeting Place.

My first feeling was that there was humour to the piece. It seemed a bit cartoon-like in treatment, for instance the overstated folds of the clothes, and that made me smile. At second glance, what struck me was the contrast in the scene: on the one hand, the meeting itself, an incdent repeated dozens of times a day at stations around the country, so unexceptional as to be banal, while on the other hand there's the sharp poignancy of what it represents – the end of separation.

It made welcome relief from the dullness of station life. It also reminded me of a similar experience I had several times as a teenager when I used to travel to Devon from Paddington Station. The train left from platform 1 which is where the Great Western Railway First World War memorial stands. Now I generally feel that, if railway stations have little to do with art, war memorials have even less. Most war memorials are trite representations of a young man striding resolutely forward, a rifle with bayonet fixed in his hands or at his shoulder. It’s all about courage and heroism, and feels completely artificial in sentiment.

The exceptions are the memorials that are about loss not glory, like the Vietnam wall in Washington. Or Charles Sargeant Jagger’s memorial on platform 1 at Paddington.

The man is young but no teenager. He’s in battledress but not striking a warlike pose. Instead he’s wearing all the clothes he can, against the cold and probably the wet (whenever I see the statue, I feel that something about it says that it’s raining). He’s reading a letter from home. So, the statue’s not about heroism, but about longing to be somewhere else, which could hardly be more appropriate than in the trenches. And isn't out of place in a station.

Two London stations, two uplifting moments. I recommend them if you’re anywhere nearby.