Friday, 31 August 2012

Misty and the season of mists

Our Scottish break kept up its cultural joys for us, when we went into the John Muir house in Dunbar. That’s Muir as in Muir Woods, for those of you more familiar with the joys of California than those of Scotland.

We were there to see our daughter-in-law Senada’s latest creation: silk embroidery of a tracery of branches, displayed on a skylight so that when the sun shines (it happens in August, even in Scotland. Sometimes) it produces a pattern of light that brings a sense of trees – so dear to Muir – into the room, and splashes their shadow on the walls.

In Muir House: Senada's silk creation casts its light on us all
But then the holiday was over and we headed back to find our new little house. The cat, Misty, has now settled in well. He seems as happy as we are to be out of rented accommodation, to the point of having reverted to kittenhood: he’s taking to playing with things again in a way he hasn’t done for years. He also loves the windows, sitting for hours looking out of them. It must give him great satisfaction to know that, with his cat flap, he can get out there when he likes so doesn’t have to until he feels like it.

Misty: a cat will play with anything when he reverts to kittenhood
Not that he’s changed character at all. He still doesn’t come down to eat until I come down in the morning, even though he doesn’t need me to get access to his food. And while he seems perfectly happy with using the cat flap generally, if I’m around he likes me to let him out anyway. So if I don’t react fast enough he shows me his displeasure in the time honoured way, with a gentle swipe of the claws or nip of the teeth.

The other time-honoured tradition that we’re enjoying is the wood fire: we’ve put in a great new stove. Beautiful to see it lighting up the room in the evening.

Glorious. But in August?
Beautiful, that is, until I think that it’s still August (just). How the heck can it be that cold? Last night on the way home from the station I was sorry not to have gloves; this morning in the park with our dog I was sorry not to have worn a heavier jacket.

Oh, well. Autumn’s in the air. We may not have had a summer (unless we count that fortnight in March, and the Olympics), but we’re back on the way towards winter.

Life’s rich patterns, the rolling of the seasons. At least I have the joy of my cat teaching me manners and a fire to cheer the evening. And the memory of beauty in Scotland.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The glory of the Cameron government is all Latin to me

One of the glorious triumphs of the present British government is the introduction of so-called free schools.

These schools are free in the sense that we all pay for them out of taxes. They are free in the sense that they are not under local government control which means they don’t have to follow policies chosen by elected representatives or be guided by the general interests of the community to which they belong, or at least in which they reside. And they are free in the sense that their educational principles can be dictated by a small group of self-appointed experts on education.

One of the most outspoken supporters of free schools is a journalist called Toby Young who has become chair of governors at one of the first free schools opened. One of the handful, I might say, since schools have not been flocking to his banner as he rather suggested they might, before the last election.

An aspect of his school that has attracted particular attention is that it has made Latin a compulsory subject. Many argue that studying Latin will open children to the roots of our culture, presumably on the basis that reading Virgil will be easier and more stimulating to bored teenagers than reading Shakespeare or Dickens or, come to that, even Graham Greene.

They also suggest that a knowledge of Latin comes in handy when studying modern Romance languages. I’ve learned three of them, and I leave it to you to guess how invaluable I found it to know the behaviour of a deponent verb in Latin when I came to grapple with Italian, French and Spanish, none of which has such verbs. Or declensions. Or ablative absolutes. Or most of the conjugated forms. Or the ludicrous habit of sticking the verb pretty much anywhere in a sentence, often apparently at random.

I studied Latin for years and years. Five years at school. A couple of years as an optional subject at university. It left me in a particularly frustrating half-way house of understanding: when I came to do research on science in the eighteenth-century, a time when much of the material was still written in Latin, I had just enough mastery of the language to know what the writer was talking about, but not enough to know what he was saying about it. He was, say, talking about what happened to kinetic energy in collisions between elastic bodies, but was he saying it was conserved or that it wasn’t?

Blowed if I could tell. Very exasperating. If only they’d just written their own language, it would have spared me a great deal of pain.

Not that I think that a knowledge of Latin is completely without value. No. There came the day when we were introduced to the poetry of Catullus, for instance. Far beyond our power to understand, but what the heck, with a lot of help we managed to struggle through his short elegy 101.

What was it about? He’d travelled out from Rome to grieve for his dead brother. Standing there before the ‘mute ashes’ he pays his last respects, going through the conventional motions expected of a man at a funeral, presenting grave gifts wet with his tears.

Catullus, whose sorrow for the loss of his brother echoed down the ages.
At least as far as me.
And then came closing words that I found truly searing. At least once they’d been translated for me:

‘Atque in perpetuum frater ave atque vale’

‘And for evermore, brother, hail and farewell.’

There’s a deeply moving pathos to that long, forlorn goodbye, echoing down all eternity.

Worth seven years of study? Perhaps if that’s your choice, as it was mine. Worth investing public money in the compulsion of unwilling spotty fourteen-year olds? I doubt it.

But I hope before long we’ll be able to wish ‘ave atque vale’ to the government that came up with the idea. In perpetuum.

Postscript. People have pointed out to me that I tend to take a partisan line in some of these posts and don’t give the present British government credit for its achievements. 

To set the record straight and to re-establish my reputation for political balance, here is a full list of the most notable successes of that government so far:

Monday, 27 August 2012

Getting culturally improved in the Athens of the North

One of the great advantages of visiting Edinburgh at this time of year is being able to take advantage of the Festival, or more particularly of the Fringe.

As it happens, today seems to have been pretty much the last day. Since it is one of the great cultural events of this remarkable nation, we hurried into town while we still had (just) time, and took in a couple of shows.

The first we saw was a fine stage performance based on themes drawn from Shakespeare’s Tempest. A powerful tribute to one of the greatest figures not just of English but of world culture, it spoke directly to some of the deepest concerns of mankind’s psyche. OK, it was called The Magician's Daughter and had a cast of two supported by puppets but, hey, we had our granddaughter Aya with us and we had to find something that appealed to all present.

Ariel and Caliban: the Bard revisited for our time
We then climbed further into the esoteric by taking in a performance that ran through a series of metaphors on the human condition, involving juggling clubs, hula hoops, a trapeze and, at the very end, a pillow fight between the performers, Ken and Tina, and the audience.

Ken and Tina: revealing you have to climb high to
reach the peaks of culture offered by Edinburgh
It seemed only appropriate to round off the day with a visit to a bowling alley. After exploring the limits of our intellectual and aesthetic capacities, what could be more fitting than to put our physical skills to the test too?

Aya showing that the trials of her aesthetic sensibility
had done nothing to lessen her hand-eye coordination
The young man at reception in the bowling alley told us with great pride that he was Edinburgh born and bred, had lived there for 29 years (so far), and had never been to a single show at the Fringe. It wasnt many weeks ago that I mentioned my appreciation of the word curmudgeon so it was wonderful to come across so striking a living illustration of one today.

All in all we had an excellent day. Just goes to show that Edinburgh deserves its status as Athens of the North (and with little of the current economic unpleasantness of the Southern original). We who are privileged to live in the same country fail to take advantage of it to our great loss.

Aya rapt in 'Tumble Circus', her Dad rapt in Aya
Aya had a great time too.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

After the Olympics: why break up Britain?

Took a trip yesterday which might, in a couple of years, involve a border crossing. Possibly. Though probably not. 

We took a northbound train as far as the fine historic town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. There was a time that Berwick was jointly run by the English and the Scots but that involved an element of trust which, as most Scots would ruefully admit, ends up with regret on their side and prosperity on the other. For a while, the Scots guarded the north gate, the English the southern, but then visitors started noticing English soldiers on the north gate too and before long the town was English. All that’s left of the Scots heritage now is the fact that Berwick plays its football in the Scottlish leagues.

Beyond Berwick, we drove into Scotland proper. Though I use the word ‘proper’ in a loose sense. To give you an idea, we’re just twenty miles from Edinburgh and the town’s called ‘East Linton’, with that give-away ‘ton’ ending that says ‘Anglo Saxon’ in a deafening roar. Not that the word ‘East’ is especially Gaelic either.

Just to rub the message home, the village next door’s called Preston. There’s a bigger one of them in England (and quite a few smaller ones too). 

Ah, the Lothians, that glorious English bit of Scotland
Yes, this is the fine old English-speaking kingdom of Lothian, with its capital in that great Anglo-Saxon city, Edinburgh. All of which rather relativises that business about Scots independence. Independence from whom, exactly? The English? They’re right here, guys; take a look at the place names around you.

Still, that being said, I was never against the notion of Scottish independence per se, or not until recently at least. English nationalism isn’t an attractive force and, as the history of Berwick proves, it’s never been marked by generosity towards any nation that England can bully. It struck me that if the Scots wanted to go their way, well, what the heck, why not? I mean, no-one’s proposing an impermeable frontier between us, are they? They’d keep the same currency. They’ve already got a parliament. Independence wouldn’t be so much a quantum leap as a bit of incremental drift.

Now there’s nothing really inspiring about incremental drifting. Which may explain why no-one’s unduly inspired by it, even in Scotland. The great vote is due in the autumn of 2014, to coincide with the seven-hundredth anniversary the great Scots victory over the English at Bannockburn (I say ‘greatest’ as though there had been others. There have, haven
’t there?). 

If the polls are to be believed, the Scottish electorate won’t be voting for independence.

But Scotland’s run by the smartest political operator in Britain, Alex Salmond. You want evidence of his smartness? Look at the mess David Cameron’s making of trying to lead a Coalition government in England. He’s heading rapidly for the dustbin of history. Salmond didn’t even try to form a coalition, he just ran a minority government so successfully that it became the springboard to give him a majority administration of his own. Don’t rule out his being given a statue on Princes Street in the fulness of time.

Well, that smart an operator isn’t going to lose a referendum. How will he square the circle? He’ll get a second question on the ballot paper, a question for ‘devo max’, much extended devolved power for the Scottish parliament. Cameron says no but, hey, who even listens to him these days?

It’s devo max that’ll pass, and devo max that the Scots will get.

To be honest, I’m quite relieved. As I said, I wasn’t that worried about the breakup of the Union if it came to that. I feel much more English than I feel British, and the Welsh and Scots are even more tightly linked to their nations. In fact, the only true Brits are those who get the nationality by naturalisation, because they don’t opt for any of the constituent nations

But my attitude changed during the Olympics. The Team GB performance shone a different light on things. There were the Scots and the Welsh winning medals alongside the English under GB colours. There were some from Northern Ireland too, and that’s not even part of Britain at all.

Within a week of that triumph, England, on the other hand, was being thrashed on the cricket field by South Africa and, in the process, losing its hard-won and briefly-held status as world number 1 in that noble game.

Lamentable English failure after signal British success. Perhaps there’s something to be said for the Union after all.

So I’m delighted to be back in Scotland, delighted to be visiting my granddaughter
’s family and our friends, delighted to be seeing this beautiful country again.

And not a little relieved that there still isn’t an international border between us.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The making of an unexpected warrior

Amazing the things that float to the surface when you move house.

Some years ago I started to make an album of photographs I inherited from my father. One of those projects I’ll go back to in the future, when I have more time. Because some day I’ll have more time. Won’t I? Surely I will.

Anyway, I was looking at some of the photos and was struck, as I have been so often, by those of his time in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

I’m suspicious of the term ‘gentleman’, which traditionally meant a nobleman, and therefore someone who didn't work for a living, i.e. an over-indulged parasite on society, so I’m never wholly comfortable when someone uses it of me (that terrible thing in business: ‘thank you, gentlemen, for attending this meeting’; if I’m at the meeting, it’s because I’m working, and therefore not a gentleman).

If I'm sure of anything, it
s that my father, whether or not he was a gentleman, was certainly a gentle man, one of the gentlest I've known. So the idea that he rained destruction down on people from the skies is a hard one to reconcile with the image I have on him. Seeing him in uniform is, indeed, the only way for me to believe it true at all.

He was no happier with the idea than I am. It was a great relief to him that he never took part in the great raids on cities, because was assigned to 101 Squadron which did special operations: often a single plane dropping supplies to resistance groups, or paratroops into occupied territory. But he did have to drop bombs a few times and, as he would say, it was odd to fly over a field full of men and look back to see it just a mass of craters with barely a living soul left.

And that all happened when he was in his early twenties. Imagine giving that level of killing power to some of the 22-year olds you know today.

Of course, the truth is that we do. And we send them off to Iraq or Afghanistan, to conflicts in which it’s far less easy to believe than in the great struggle against Hitler. And rather more often than we’re comfortable about, it goes wrong, with one of these young men running amok with his hugely dangerous weapon destroying a lot of people, often including himself.

Oh, well. Bad news. Perhaps it’s better not to think about it and just concentrate on a few amusing photos instead.

My favourite is the last. Propped up agains the wheel of a Stirling bomber. And smoking a pipe! At 22 or 23: who does that? Still, makes a good picture doesn’t it?

I understand basic training can be pretty exhausting

A motorbike? Never saw him on a motorbike in my life.
Works though, doesn't it? Especially with that smile.

I sing of arms and the man. And the pipe

Monday, 20 August 2012

Julian Assange: tragic hero for our times

By tradition a tragic hero is a man (less frequently a woman) with the qualities for greatness, brought low by some flaw in his personality: Macbeth undone by overweening ambition, Othello loving not wisely but too well.

Julian Assange has to his name an accomplishment at least as notable as the victories won by those two heroes: through Wikileaks he has revealed abuses of power to a world that only guessed at them and was shocked by their extent.

Julian Assange addressing the world from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London
and getting a breath of (relatively) fresh air
Today he is up against difficulties that have led to his painting himself as a victim of persecution, a champion of free speech facing martyrdom for his beliefs. Prometheus taking on the gods, Mandela unbowed before the State. And when Assange appealed to word opinion yesterday, he even spoke out as a family man, a father denied the company of his children.

Yes, it’s an attractive self-image. 

And yet, and yet. The immediate cause of his difficulties is somehow not quite that noble. The flaw in his character isn’t quite the grand failing of a Cassius plotting against Caesar or a Lear giving away wealth and power out of love. No, it’s a failing much more appropriate to our time. The fatal flaw not of a Hamlet but of a Bill Clinton, another man who might also have been great without it.

He couldn’t keep his trousers zipped.

Which, come to think of it, rather relativises that stuff about the poor persecuted family man.

The irony of it all is that without being a legal expert, without even having seen the full evidence, but just based on the pretty extensive rehearsing of it in the media, and on my knowledge of how difficult a rape charge can be to prove, I’d have thought he had every chance of getting the accusations against him dismissed. Both those women in Sweden at some stage consented, so the issue is merely whether they were later forced to go beyond what they had consented to. And that’s their word against his.

With a good lawyer, he could surely beat that rap, couldn’t he?

I’ve been pointed to an article by Naomi Wolf that makes some pretty powerful points undermining the case against Assange. What it doesn’t do is challenge the standing of the Swedish judicial system. Now, I’m sure there are terrible miscarriages of justice in Sweden, just as there are everywhere, but given the choice, I’d be more inclined to take my chance on the Swedish system than on the British.

I’ve read some material about the Swedish attitude towards extradition to non-EU countries. It seems to me that the US would have some difficulty getting Assange extradited. More trouble, at any rate, than they would face in Britain. After all, the Brits constantly ship people off to the States for trial, even for crimes not committed in the US. It’s as though Uncle Sam has only to name someone over here for him to be sent over there.

Seems odd that Assange is so reluctant to try his luck in Sweden.

Unless, of course he has knowledge about his case which he hasn’t yet shared with us. Something that tells him that he shouldn’t be too confident about winning in Stockholm. If that’s so, it would be lovely to find out. Perhaps some internet site with a mission to disclose confidential information might tell us some day.

In the meantime, we have a curious spectacle. A man who wants to be seen as a whistleblower of historic stature is perhaps not being altogether candid about his own quandary. A man who is doing so much to protect his freedom is forced to live in a single room in a building he can’t leave. A man whose path to the reputation he covets is blocked by his apparent inability to master his appetites.

Yep. That seems to fit the bill. All the qualities that would make a tragic hero for our times.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Save us all from lazy politics

‘Law and sausage,’ said Otto von Bismarck, ‘are two things you do not want to see being made’.

Making law is by far the easier, which is why the lazy politicians I spoke about the week before last are constantly doing it. Here’s how it works.

Suppose a terrible crime is committed in Stamford, Lincolnshire. Or indeed Stamford, Connecticut. Perhaps a father killed his children, both under five, with a hacksaw.

There’s a massive scandal. In other words a few dozen journalists talk about next to nothing else for the best part of a week. The government feels bound to react.

What it should do is carry study the conditions in Stamford and other similar communities. It should find out whether this kind of crime is associated with particular economic or social circumstances. It should canvas informed opinion on how to deal with those problems, perhaps even looking at experience abroad on the most effective approaches.

Then it should adopt a sensible set of proposals and implement them. 

That takes time and costs money. The initial studies themselves are expensive enough and implementing the conclusions far more costly still. It might need more and better policing, better and more extensive social services support, tighter monitoring of children at risk, and so forth.

Meanwhile, once the initial furore has died down, the journalists who were demanding immediate action go back to their usual refrain, the need to cut costs. More police? More social workers? More support? Dream on.

So how does government square that circle? Easy. It passes new legislation. It receives the plaudits of campaigners by specifically targeting the killing of children with hacksaws. Pedantic lawyers point out that it wasn’t strictly legal to kill them before, but nobody listens. This terrible act has happened and it must be prohibited.

‘This must never happen again,’ they all chorus in unison, across politics, the media and the campaigning organisations.

The legislation provides for draconian penalties, including a minimum gaol sentence of 25 years, on which no judicial discretion can be exercised. Not that there was evidence of judges taking a particularly lenient view of infanticide with a carpenter’s tool before.

The opportunities for lawyers become immense. ‘Your honour,’ one will soon be pleading, ‘in common parlance a hacksaw has a blade not exceeding 20 mm in width and this one is at least 3 cm wide. It should be referred to more properly as an open-handled panel saw.’

There will also be gainful work for civil servants. Codes of application will have to be prepared for all the agencies affected: the police, the courts, social services. Consultants offering training courses will have a bonanza. Staff will be consulted and their comments fed back into new instructions and so on for at least as long as the full study would have taken.

That will about all the effect the new law will have. Its application requires effort and that requires manpower: more police and and social workers, for instance. But more police and social workers cost a lot more money, etc. etc.; see above for details.

One area where this kind of activity for its own sake is particularly prevalent, in Britain at least, is healthcare. We all really, really care about the National Health Service, so it’s almost a rite of passage for any new government to do something for, or at least to, the NHS.

The NHS. We love to love it.
And politicians love to muck it about
In the 27 years I’ve been working around the NHS, I’ve seen:
  • the old structure of governing boards, in which no one individual was responsible for the performance of a hospital, replaced by a bright new structure of General Managers who would be personally answerable 
  • control by the old geographically-based health authorities replaced by direct control of hospitals forming self-governing ‘NHS Trusts’ 
  • NHS Trusts, found not to be sufficiently powerful, gradually replaced by ‘Foundation Trusts’ with greater control of their affairs 
  • ‘General Practitioner Fundholding’ introduced so that GPs would contract for hospital services and negotiate the price to pay for them 
  • ‘Primary Care Groups’ to bury fundholding while still theoretically representing primary care physicians 
  • ‘Primary Care Trusts’ to beef up the powers of these organisations 
  • ...and now ‘Clinical Commissioning Groups’, smaller than Primary Care Trusts, to move power downwards once more towards GPs

Every one of these reforms has been announced with a fanfare, every of them has been found wanting and declared inadequate before being replaced by the next.

The Scots gave up on all this, and quickly went back to the geographically-based authorities (they call them health boards) to run their hospitals. There’s no evidence that Scotland does particularly less well than England.

What’s curious is that in among all these wonderful reorganisations, I’ve only really seen the English NHS improve markedly and visibly once: under the last government which increased funding by an impressive amount and cut waiting times – two years at their worst – to a statutorily backed maximum of eighteen weeks.

The current government intends to take £20 billion out of the English health service so it’s fairly obvious what kind of improvements we can expect in the next few years.

So what have all the reforms had in common? They’ve been dictated from above. They’ve required nothing more substantial than legislative effort. And they’ve given the impression that the government of the day was taking important matters seriously.

And one other thing: they all cost a fortune and spread massive demoralisation as the reorganisation axe fell.

Lazy men’s politics. Easy. Irrelevant. And massively damaging.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Pretty memories

August 15th: good day for a couple of pretty pictures. And I don’t mean to do with the feast of the Assumption, which will be celebrated more than enough around the world, especially in most countries with Catholic roots, where it's usually a day off.

We moved house last Friday and I spent some time putting books out on shelves. One was a favourite of mine: a coffee-table sized edition of the Rubayiat of Omar Khayyam with illustrations by Edmund Dulac. If you like Art Nouveau painting at all, then Dulac will knock your socks off. 

So here’s pretty picture number 1, his illustration for one of the most famous quatrains of the poem:

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
 A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
 Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
 And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
But the volume contains another picture, a pencil portrait of a woman.

Pretty picture number 2:

My grandmother.
Half the age I am now
It was from her, my grandmother, that I inherited the book and, of course, the portrait. It’s dated 1930. She was born in 1900.

When I was a child, it seemed to me that my grandmother was incredibly old, like most grandparents to their grandchildren. Why, when I first knew her she was in her fifties. It was almost shocking that anyone could be that old, a chastening thought now that I
’m seven years older than she was when I was born. Besides, I’m a grandparent myself these days.

And there’s that picture of her when she was a mere sprig of a thing at thirty...

I enjoy looking at it and remembering her, especially on 15 August, her birthday.

So, Grandma, happy birthday and thanks for the book and the great images. 

Or perhaps I should just say:

Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies; 
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Bankers: the wise man who saw them coming...

Words of extraordinary wisdom: talking about different types of human activity, the speaker mentions ‘the various ways of money-making – these do us good but we regard them as disagreeable, and no-one would choose them for their own sakes, but only for the sake of some reward or result which flows from them.’

If I were being really picky, I might question whether financial services do us good or whether they’re just a necessary evil, something we put up with just so that commerce can keep going and we can get the things we need to make life liveable. Or at least survivable.

But the rest – spot on. The only motivation for going into that shady sector is for the sake of the rewards. It’s almost as though the speaker had met the Bernie Madoffs of our days, the Fred Goodwins, the Bob Diamonds. To say nothing of those fine upstanding people at Standard Chartered.

Bob Diamond: sacrificing himself for all our sakes
with nothing but astronomical pay to show for it
These are the people who sacrifice themselves to do those disagreeable things which most of us wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, but which are necessary to ensure society keeps going. And who nobly reward themselves out of their clients’ or the taxpayers’ pockets because, hey, someone has to do that too, and why shouldn’t it be them?

So, you may be asking, whose wise words was I quoting? Why, Plato’s. In The Republic, from 2500 years ago. Smart guy, wouldn’t you agree? You certainly can’t fault his prescience.

The author of The Republic.
Saw it all coming
And what a testament to all the progress we’ve made since his primitive times.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

In memory of a woman who taught us about ourselves

It’s easy to be critical of Freud and psychoanalysis, often because it deserves it. Having watched people spend a fortune on years of analysis and emerge neither better or worse off for it, except financially, it sometimes seems little more than an inspired way of putting money in analysts pockets. 

In that context, it
s perhaps ironic that one of the examples Freud himself gives of the working of the subconscious, in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, is that while he often loses bills, he never loses cheques. Rather sets the tone for the therapeutic profession he launched.

That being said, and w
hatever the shortcomings of the therapy, in every way other than the financial, Freud’s insights into the workings of the mind are invaluable.

Take another example of the subconscious, from the same book. Freud talks about crossing the whole of Vienna on foot and only realising after getting home that he has crossed a great many busy streets and must have stopped at the edge of each to check when it would be safe to cross, but can remember none of it. That’s an illustration that speaks to me: I’ve done the same, admittedly in London rather than in Vienna, and have piloted myself around many obstacles with no conscious thought while I was doing it and therefore no memory afterwards of having done it. And it
’s worked a dream, if it's OK to use that word in this context.

The subconscious does habitual things well, like changing gear: easy when you don’t think about it, likely to go wrong if you do.

That’s why the trick in sport is to internalise technique: if you have to think about how you’re using your hands or your feet, you’re likely to get it wrong; when the subconscious handles it for you things go a lot better; so the advice ‘concentrate’, while useful for a beginner, is exactly the opposite of what you should do when you get proficient.

As well as the subconscious, Freud
s other great theoretical construct was the sex drive. Humanitys hunger to create is never stronger than in the urge to procreate. Sexuality is wrapped up with life itself, which it helps create, in that complex of forces Freud summed up as ‘Eros’, the Greek deity of love.

And yet that principle is not enough. Because in the human psyche, there is an urge to destruction alongside the tendency to create. At first Freud hadn’t allowed for this second principle, now summed up as ‘Thanatos’, the daemon in Greek mythology personifying death.

Even more powerful is the notion that both are intricately linked. The sexual act, though fundamentally creative, also involves destruction: the self is lost, destroyed, as ‘I’ dissolves into 
we’. Anyone uncertain of the intimate links between sex and self-destruction need only ask Bill Clinton. Or for a more jaundiced and less self-justifying response, perhaps Hillary.

The death principle added a new dimension to psychoanalysis, which saw the dissolution of as the basis for the emergence of something new: that dissociation allows a new becoming and therefore provides a mechanism for development.

And who came up with this powerful and enriching insight? Not Freud himself but a nearly forgotten pioneer of analysis, nearly forgotten perhaps precisely because she was a woman in a world dominated by men: Sabina Spielrein.

Sabina Spielrein:
added the destructive principle to Freud
s theories
It’s obviously for her insights in psychoanalysis that she most deserves to be remembered, but nearly as striking is the tragedy of her life itself. A Russian Jew, her path through psychiatry started as a patient, when she was admitted to the care Carl Jung in Zurich. Jung, who seems to have had a thoroughly Clintonian view of professional practice, had an affair with her but that didn’t prevent her recovering her mental health and then graduating from the University of Zurich as a psychiatrist in her own right, with a thesis in which she first stated her death principle.

In 1924, she moved back to Russia with her husband and two daughters. She set up a child psychoanalysis clinic in her native Rostov-on-Don and kept it going clandestinely after psychoanalysis was banned in the Soviet Union.

In the 1930s, her brothers and her husband were murdered in Stalin’s purges. Having first suffered in this way at the hands of the Communists, she then fell victim to the Nazis in 1942 when she and her daughters were shot by German occupying forces ridding Rostov of Jews.

After her death, her work sank into obscurity despite its significance. There have been attempts to rehabilitate her reputation, most recently in the 
 film A Dangerous Method covering the time she spent in Zurich. Her role is played, rather well, by Keira Knightley who like Spielrein herself deserves to be taken more seriously in her profession than she often is. It’s facile to write her off as just a pretty face, just because she has a pretty face.

Keira Knightley: like Spielrein herself deserves a better press
It was on 12 August 1942, 80 years ago today, that Sabina Spielrein died at the hands of a Nazi Einsatzkommando. Analysis has its faults, but even so understanding the psyche has to be an essential condition for improving the therapy of the mind. So today has to be a good occasion to celebrate the contribution of another woman to healthcare, one that is different but just as significant as those of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole or Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

If that does a little towards restoring her reputation, so much the better. After all, how much more can anyone do than to help us understand ourselves? 

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Moving to assert fundamental rights

One member of the household was far from certain about our move yesterday. He picked up the signals quickly and they worried him. He had no intention of being left behind, even if it meant he had to be brought across in a box with our general flotsam, as he made clear both at night:

You're not leaving me behind. Nighttime
and during the day:

You're not leaving me behind. Daytime

It must have been a relief when he discovered it was always our plan to bring him with us, and since yesterday he’s been having fun settling in to his new place. He’s been exploring the possibilities both at the back:

Exploring the garden, with his best friend

And at the front:

Checking out the front of the house
He should never have worried. After all, he was always going to be a main beneficiary of the move, given that we chose the house for one of its key features:

The key to freedom. For me as well as Misty

Yes. From now on Misty can get in and out whenever he wants. He doesn’t have to bite my feet any more to get me to come down and let him him out, or mew piteously to get me to come down and let him in. The way I think of it, we've just bought a cat flap so expensive it came with a house attached.

Worth it for Misty’s sake. Worth it for mine. So it’s wonderful that he’s enjoying his new-found freedom. And that I had a full night's uninterrupted rest.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Are the Brits going to master English?

Loved the sign I saw in Central London and wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

Funny they wanted cars in the lane instead of out of it
What caught my eye was the implied obligation. Why did traffic positively have to use the games lane? And just what were the authorities going to do with the rest of the road?

So, back in the same place today, it was fascinating to see a completely different sign.

Getting it together with the English, but no cigar yet
That’s an improvement, isn’t it? At least the sense of obligation’s gone.

Of course, it doesn’t actually tell us anything we didn’t already know. It’s obvious that any car could use the lane, the only question was whether the driver would collect a fine for doing so.

Ah, well. Who knows. One of these days the London authorities might really learn their English and start to use the word ‘may’.

Then we’d be really motoring.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Skim-read to reach out to curious headless martyrs

In the beginning, I’m assured on excellent authority, was the word. And just as well, I say. Because ever since words have provided us with excellent entertainment.

For instance, I continue to be enchanted by the expression ‘reach out’ with the meaning of ‘talk’, as in ‘please reach out to him and find out what the hell he thinks he’s playing at.’

The nice thing about ‘reach out’ is that it covers such a range of meaning. It can be used neutrally, as just a synonym for ‘speak’. Positively, it might suggest catching someone falling, providing crucial help when it’s needed. Negatively, it could be something that ends in strangulation, when the person reached out to has been more than usually obnoxious.

In the old parlance, that might have led to a good ‘talking to’. These days I suppose it would have to be a good ‘reaching out for’.

Equally, where governments used boringly to indulge in talks, now they can have meaningful reachings out. And in the preparatory phase, they would presumably have constructive reachings out about reachings out.

And then there
s another expression I’ve come to enjoy: ‘skim-reading’. This is a great euphemism for ‘not reading.’

Here’s the scenario. You write a key document. You distribute it to everyone. You wait a week or two. You hear nothing. So finally you ask, ‘Have you read my proposal?’

‘I’ve only skim-read it so far,’ you’re told. And you realise they haven’t even opened it.

It’s enough to make you want to reach out to them.

Fortunately, there are other words around that make up for this kind of experience, providing the light relief which is just the tonic we need.

Today I enjoyed reading about the Mars explorer that’s just landed on the red planet. It rejoices in the imaginative name ‘Curiosity’ and my paper informed me that ‘Curiosity has a robotic arm, with a scoop and drill.’

Interesting idea, isn’t it? I suppose curiosity can grab hold of you with all the power of a machine and then refuse to let you go. The scoop would be there to lap up all the random facts, and more frequently fictions, that curiosity harvests from gossip; the drill is for boring more deeply, as Curiosity likes to, leaving her victims painfully bored.

That thinking carried me through a London Underground journey, always one of the more purgatorial experiences, where a little gentle entertainment is particularly welcome.

Then I emerged from the station to hear a voice bawling ‘St Pancras, use the stairs.’

Later a headless saint, but today
he used his head to be less saintly

I looked everywhere for the martyr, but couldn’t see him. Certainly not on the stairs. It reminded me of William Hughes Mearns: 

Yesterday upon the stair 

I met a man who wasn’t there 
He wasn’t there again today 
Oh, how I wish he’d go away

My saint, like his man, wasn’t there. Even in the station he
s called after. Had he perhaps decided to be less saintly and cheat by using the escalator? If so, he clearly knew how to use his head. Which is remarkable since his head was removed from his shoulders when he was only 14. 

Which I for one find curious. And doesn’t that show how curiosity can scoop up any old string of words and derive whatever nonsense it likes from them?

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The indolence of Hitler. And some other politicians too

Do you know Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler? I can’t sing its praises loudly enough.

Gripping, insightful and
full of lessons for our own times too.
It is full of insight on the more obvious aspects of the dictator’s personality: the active cruelty, its underlying bigotry, principally but not exclusively against the Jews, and the fanaticism with which it was driven through; but also the passive cruelty of indifference, that allowed him to send millions of soldiers to their deaths without a word of grief for them or of compassion for their families.

However, these aren’t the aspects that interest me here.

Kershaw also paints a startling picture of Hitler’s idleness, right up to the first years of the war. The dictator would rise from bed late in the morning and go for his bath. He would emerge around noon and hold meetings until about 2:00 when he would have a much delayed lunch, to the despair of the kitchen staff.

In the afternoon he would hold another couple of meetings around tea. Exhausted by these exertions, he would then take a rest. Dinner was at 8:00 followed by films, music or conversation, mostly in the form of endlessly repeated monologues on whatever subject he cared to choose. He would get to bed at about 2:00 a.m.

This dilatory schedule didn’t stop his regime achieving some of its most striking successes: the annexation of Austria and later of Czechoslovakia; then, once war proper had started, victories in Poland and in the Balkans.

However, he was laying the seeds of the disaster to come. Paradoxically, though he kept adding to his personal power, he lacked the energy to provide much direction. Instead, his most senior leaders set policy through their turf wars, with each vying for personal advancement by attempting to do the things Hitler wished for, but hadn’t stated.

Kershaw calls this thinking ‘working towards the Führer’ and it was an appallingly inefficient way to run a government. By contrast, at the height of the war, Churchill could leave Britain for relatively long periods abroad, safe in the knowledge that the government he left behind would continue to operate along legal lines and implement agreed policy.

Churchill could have that confidence even though he left the government in the hands of the leader of the main opposition party, Labour
’s Clement Attlee, the man who would oust him from office at the first post-war election. If any tribute were needed to the superior effectiveness of democracy over dictatorship, this must surely be it.

Meanwhile, back in Germany, things started to change when Hitler went to war with the Soviet Union. Initial spectacular success soon fell apart as it became obvious to all but the most convinced Hitlerites that Germany was now in a battle with a massively more redoubtable power than it had ever previously faced. And as the war started to turn tough, so his behaviour started to change.

His old idleness began to disappear. He became an insomniac. During the day, he would pore over maps and orders and hold frequent long discussions with his generals. As he lost faith in them, he took increasing control himself. To deliver victory, he preferred to draw on his experience as a corporal in the First World War and his belief in the capacity of his will to achieve anything to which he set his mind, rather than the experience and training of his senior officers.

From being a layabout, he became a workaholic.

And how effective was it? A useful indication is given by the reaction in Britain to the proposal by Special Operations Executive, a young and violent wartime addition to the secret services, to assassinate Hitler.

‘On no account,’ replied the others, ‘there’s no possible replacement for him at the head of the German armed forces who we’d be happier to see in the position.’

The time of Hitler’s indolence sowed the seeds of his regime’s destruction. The time of his workaholism ensured and accelerated its collapse.

Interesting, isn’t it? Idleness in lousy politicians is bad news. But that’s as nothing to when they really 
get going.

In my view this is as true in a democracy as it is in a dictatorship.

George W. Bush may have been the laziest man to become President of the United States: briefing papers had to be summarised and even then they had to be read aloud to him; he would take extraordinary amounts of leave – up to twelve weeks a year – and rarely worked as much as six hours a day. Even then he managed to drag not just his own nation but several others into long, bloody and so far fruitless wars.

Can you imagine how disastrous things might have been if he’d stayed around long enough to become a workaholic?

In Britain today we have a Prime Minister whose reputation is for a relaxed approach much like Dubya’s. Rather than think a policy through, David Cameron prefers to come up with some half-baked proposal which he withdraws when it’s pointed out how unlikely it is to work.

It’s hard to feel much respect for him. Again, though, let’s be careful what we wish for. Imagine if he started actually working: how much more damage could he do? 

Probably safer, as with Dubya, to make sure he’s gone well before he emerges from the indolent stage.

Friday, 3 August 2012

An Olympic sport that is a triumph of realism

All sports are ultimately based on things that can really happen in ordinary life. 

Running is obviously vital, if only to help you get away from a criminal, or a policeman. Insofar as there’s always a difference. 

Swimming is to do with getting out of danger in water, and if you can do it with a smile and in perfect time with a friend, that just adds class to the experience.

And of course if ever you need to get away from a predator in the mountains, what could possibly be more convenient than to jam on skis and whip down a ramp someone has left lying around, to leap across to the other side of the valley?

But today I’ve got to know another sport, and this one more than any other I’ve come across, truly reflects the kind of experience any of us can encounter in day-to-day life. 

It’s called Keirin. I have to confess I initially thought it was a Japanese beer, but it turns out that it’s a cycling event. And it’s brilliant.

It’s starts out with a bunch of cyclists all filing out, in stately procession, behind a guy on a bike with an electric motor. You know, just the thing for a largish gentleman, with high handlebars. It probably doesn’t go ‘putt-putt’ but you feel it ought to.

Sedate. Restrained. Maddeningly realistic
He goes around the track a few times, slowly increasing the pace, with the riders following demurely, models of good behaviour all. Eventually, he gets out of the way and they shoot off like bats out of hell to try to win the race.

The thought that goes through my mind is ‘why do they bother with the bit with the doddery gentleman?’ They could start off several laps later in the race and just go flat out from there. But then I realised I’d missed the point.

The aim is to recreate real life. Anyone who’s cycled through a city knows the Keirin experience. Stuck behind somebody who’s lost but whose car is too wide to get past, even when it slows down to check door numbers of street names every few metres. You wander along behind waiting for him to get out of the way, but just when you can’t bear it any more and pull out to try to squeeze past, he speeds up leaving you stuck again. When he finally does move aside, you have to ride like a lunatic to try to make up for lost time.

It’s great to have an Olympic sport that so closely mirrors the complex emotions of real life. I just think that there are a couple of improvements that could be made.

First of all, instead of following a single bike, they should follow two buses. And not with electric motors but with diesel engines and badly adjusted exhausts. The rules would allow you to overtake but, having got past one, you'd be caught behind the next. Unknown to the riders, in randomly selected races a taxi would join the procession at the back and if ever a cyclist got past both buses, the cab should shoot through the field and pull in sharply in front, nearly knocking the rider down.

Finally, at some arbitrary point in the closing fast stages of the race, another taxi would suddenly pull out onto the track and take out a couple of cyclists within sight of the line.

Now that would put the Keirin way out in front of all other sports for pure realism.