Coming soon: Pumpkins of the Nineties. Here now: 5 Good Things

Greetings, dear heart. Apologies that I’ve not updated for a while, I’ve had a few pieces on the go and it’s just a case of getting round to finishing them. There is a new book review below-look, there it is! – So you can read that just now. I hope to have a piece on Halloween done before Halloween, in a miracle of convenient and sensible planning, and am also just dusting up the introduction to the beginning of a series on 90’s pop. So look forward to that. Or don’t, whatever. Haters.

Also, by way of creating regular content which is key to a blog but not necessarily possible given my verbosity, I present to you five good things, a frequent update of things that, in total, amount to five, and are considered laudable by myself.

5 Good things:

1) Autumn: Author of an intangible, smoky mien, bringer of birthdays, killer of wasps. Best season of the year.

2) Portobello. Experiences may vary, but I enjoyed it when I was there on Saturday.

3) Sunderland unbeaten in the Premier League in the past month, despite playing Liverpool, Arsenal and Man Utd. Empirical evidence to support the claim that they are by far the greatest team the world has ever seen.

4) Dominic Sandbrook’s latest piece of social and cultural history of Britain has been published. It’s git big and I’m reading other books just now but his previous offerings on the fifties and sixties were probably the best books I read last year.

5) Bear Gryll’s Born Survivor. A description would make it sound rubbish, but it’s really enjoyable, so you should watch it.

 

Not pictured: Dying wasps. Haha.

 

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I read a book, it was called…

Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed

I first saw this book in the departure lounge of Tullamarine airport in Melbourne, where I was searching for some good local history that wasn’t, really, essentially, when it comes down to it and you really think about it, a bit racist. I was instead drawn to this book solely by its cover, which is quite exceptionally good. An embossed, almost filigreed title, set against a sumptuous antiquarian gold background which acts as a stage for the four central bakers of the early twentieth century, standing atop a melting monetary globe. In fact so convincing was the cover’s decadence that the shop had seen fit to charge about £32-that’s pounds-for it. Deciding that all that glitters is not necessarily worth £32 I decided I would try to pick it up cheaper in the UK, where I found it on a 3 for 2 a few moths later.

Whenever I saw it resting on the bookshelf each day I wondered if I had solely been drawn in by the cover. A 500 pages book about reparations, equity, the gold standard, trade embargos, illustrated with graphs,-the actual economics of the Great depression, not the soup kitchen drama aspect-seemed a bit keen, in hindsight, for someone who laboured to achieve a C in maths at GCSE. I picked up a book about the Nazi Economy about the same time last year, but after about 170 pages I became uninterested in milk yields in the Third Reich, irrespective of what sort of insight they offered on one of history’s most depraved episodes*.

I had a week’s holiday booked though, with time to read a challenging book built in. So after two months of deliberation I picked up Lords of Finance, more or less with the intention of being able to say that I had read the big book with the really nice cover, with a sort of intellectual trepidation akin to how your body feels about a challenging mountain climb: One day someone will point at it and say something positive, and you will be able to go one further and claim a deeper appreciation of the phenomena because you did it, without admitting that in reality all that amounts to is being able to say a slightly more personal declarative statement when the subject arises. A puritan duty to bettering myself, without joy, possibly as penance for being frivolously drawn to a book solely for its burnished jacket, was my inspiration when I picked the book up.

This weight of sombre conviction was quickly evaporated however. Lords of Finance is an excellent, multi-disciplinary work which comprises biography, politics, economics and social history. The narrative begins on the dawn of WW I and follows a linear course through to the mid thirties, framed through the lives of the major economic figures of the time. This is a clever device as it allows for a simpler, yet dramatic explanation of the necessary but frequently indecipherable inclusion of economic theory. The debate over British currency in the mid twenties, for example, is given a full chapter, and an exploration of the jousting between Maynard Keynes and supporters of the gold standard is elevated into exciting intellectual history with its own set pieces and chronology.

The greatest strength of this biographical approach however lies in the opportunity to examine the four great powers of the time and their reaction to the challenges of the First World War.  Each country involved is essentially assigned a standard bearer in the form of key economists of their time, the eponymous Lords of Finance. Hjalmar Schacht exemplifies the post-Bismarck Germany, his class and regional resentment married to the prodigious success borne of a modernist education, established bureaucratic structure and ambition; American banker Benjamin Strong Jr is an example of the classic contradiction of American real politick, where genuine moral idealism fights a frequently losing battle with cold, self informed pragmatism; The cape wearing Montagu Norman, sharp of wit and principle but woolly headed and sentimental, illustrates the growing anachronism and naivety of the British Empire; and Emile Moreau of the Banque de France, whose paranoid, extravagant and bathetic nature served to inform economic policy which was as much political as fiscal.

“Montagu Place named after Montagu Norman, former Governor of the Bank of England? Dig it chile. Groovy. ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sign.”

All of these figures are portrayed as rather tragic, yearning for a stauts qou of mercantilism and imperial prosperity long  tested to breaking point . Ahmed contends that this attitude only served to prolong the ungainly transition of an old order however, and in doing so the great bankers of the era helped to ensure a generation would experience massive destitution.

The birth pangs of a new and necessary epoch are evoked brilliantly through recounting the economic events of the post war world . The swing from the confidence of hard, demonstrable material prosperity and its attendant financial respectability and civility exemplified in the gold standard, to an economic wasteland where reams of paper currency are required by the wheelbarrow full to buy a loaf of bread. Britain, once banker of the world, too proud to devalue its currency, choosing instead to foist depression on her population. Germany, with nothing to lose, playing the equivalent of economic Russian Roulette, nihilistically testing and teasing a fiscally aggressive and nervous France. While Europe smoulders in the ruins of the war, Wall Street booms and stock rates reach a level of pure, hubristic fantasy. A concise but full study of Maynard Keynes and his clarion brilliance serves to underline the sense of a status qou revelling in ostentatious, obsolescent death throes.

There are parallels to be drawn with current events of course. There is more there than purely narrative history for the attentive reader. The last chapter is an excellent essay which compares the events of the book to the financial climate of the 1990’s onwards. There is a large garnish of economic theory which can be essentially picked at or devoured depending on your interest. As a critical point it should also be noted that the author is/was a banker (Boo, etc), so make of that what you will in terms of bias.

In light of the events of the last few years I certainly expected this to be the sort of history you read sagely whilst slapping your forehead at the inability of humanity to learn from its previous mistakes. History definitely repeats itself, and there are shades of that here.

The great accomplishment of Lords of Finance however is to evoke a world almost unimaginably different from the one we live in now, and in this regard it is an assured and brilliant study.  No one really knows what lies around the corner in terms of the world’s financial state, but in comparison to the grotesque, almost carnival economics of the 1920’s things seem positively pedestrian in their stability.

I’ve always enjoyed history because at its best, it is more incredible and brilliant than anything you could ever make up, and this book, in its measured, warm way, is an excellent example of that.

*As an aside: My wife always laughs at me when I jest that I’m in danger of attracting females when heading out to the Gym or the pub. “What are you going to do, seduce them with history chat?” Reading that paragraph back just now it seems as though that’s exactly what I’d do, intentional or otherwise.

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I read a book, it was called…

A World Without Bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum

A chilling portent of a future bereft of the alphabet’s second and much maligned character, A World Without Bees is essential reading for those who are accustomed to now threatened words such Baboon, Babylis, Barbarian, and Shibboleth, to name but four. The fate of nations rests…What’s that? Oh, A World Without BEES. Ahhh.

My copy of this was a charity shop acquisition and is very deserving of this status. It’s the perfect book to not quite finish and leave lying around for someone else (within a bed and breakfast or youth hostel, perhaps) who will in turn also not quite finish it and so on. It’s not a bad book, but it would have made a much better magazine feature. The key elements are all pretty engaging, to wit: Bees have been essential to the world, specifically humanity, for most of recorded history; bees are dying in unprecedented numbers; disaster beckons.

As the opening chapter makes clear, bees are remarkable creatures. Their sentience is so neat, complex and absolute that they could feasibly exist as a platonic blueprint for the perfect automated civilisation. The members of a colony are split into a strict hierarchy, and as the bees within it age they appoint themselves the relevant role designated to each point of their existence, with nurses, scouts, soldiers and drones all forming the elements required to make the hive a complex, efficient society. Scouts inform bees of the whereabouts of honey through the ‘waggle dance’, a complex sequence in which the jerking of the bee indicates the location of pollen by way of indicating distance, direction and even the flower’s location in respect of the sun’s movement across the sky.

And best of all, Bees make honey. As Eddie Izzard noted incredulously, “Do earwigs make chutney?” No, they don’t. But bees make honey. Ambrosia. The food of the gods. Bees make that. Go and have some honey now, or imagine you are. Isn’t it wonderful? BEES MAKE HONEY. And in so doing they pollinate a vast array of flowers and fruit, which in turn affect a myriad of other life forms, and the ecological system is fulfilled in perpetual glory.

It is probably because of this great, simple mystery that humanity has been very interested in bees for most of its existence, and in charting this the book is again strong. The earliest cave paintings found indicate bees (though I am sad to report not giant bees hunted with spears, as I initially hoped). Zeus is said to have given bees their sting, reducing its barb to a suicidal form of self-defence after they went around abusing their sting’s unlimited use. Jars of 300-year-old honey have been discovered buried alongside sarcophagi, themselves encrypted with bee hieroglyphs. The complex civil workings of the hive have been used to justify and decry a variety of political and philosophical theories.

Bees are thankfully nothing like this. This picture demeans bees.

The bee has been a companion and participant of history, an endlessly fascinating symbol open to reinvention and re-interpretation. It is genuinely tragic to think that its existence is under threat, replete with all of the ramifications that will follow.

The writing of the book was sparked by an unprecedented number of Bee deaths over the past few years and investigations into a phenomena known as CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder). The authors also examine the effect of pesticide, breeding, and commercial pollination on the bee and their effects on the decline of the world’s bee population. One would expect this to be the real meat, the fulcrum of the book, but it falls down by resorting to strong conjecture. As the authors frequently state, bees are creatures accustomed to tragedy. They have a relatively poor immune system that has failed to evolve as strongly as it might have done and are consequently prone to any number of viruses or biological menaces. Whatever is done to arrest their decline, bees will always have a high mortality rate. It might be the case that the modern world is simply too full of the artificial enemies that the post-industrial bee would have been kept from. That said, humanity is now accustomed and hugely dependent on these same elements for its existence. But humanity is also reliant on its ecological system, which requires bees to function, and so on. It’s a huge problem.

This complex tangle is recognised as an essential element within the book in practice, yet the actual substance of the narrative belies this. It makes sense to investigate the liberal use of chemicals and practices of capitalised farming in the decline of the bee population, and in truth this is almost certainly partly responsible, but what to do if it was? Stop commercialised farming altogether? The awkwardness of potential conclusions never seems to be apprehended, and as such the line of questions seem to have been based around an overly simple formula: If x kills bees, stop x.  This might be because the majority of evidence is unsubstantiated in any case-the formality and frequency of mass bee death is such that nothing but the most vivid of effects could really be pinpointed as causal, and this is reckoning without the scientific culture of prolonged debate and rivalry over theories.

All this leads to a confused, odd tone, clearly accusatory towards certain subjects without having the evidence to be so. I suspect anyone who picks the book up would be all for adapting a different lifestyle to help their bee friends, but as the book lacks the conclusive proof to prescribe an effective change the veiled criticisms of different industries just come across as naïve and slightly spiteful, largely aspirational, if very well-intentioned deductions which chime somewhat with the anarchist’s reactions to capitalism. ‘Just tear it all down, man. Start over again.’

Distilled, the contents of A World Without Bees would make a fascinating article, but there just isn’t enough here for a book. It’s desperate that bees are dying on such a scale, and it’s essential that more work is done as to understand why, but sadly that’s as far as we’ve got just now. There can be no last word on it because the case is still pending. This shouldn’t stop a book being written on the subject by any means, but it should affect the tone in which it is written, and in this case ten chapters of ‘It could be this, it probably is this, but we just don’t know’ is hardly compelling over 200 odd pages. The first few chapters are nonetheless a passionate, informed guide to a wonderful, sanguine, somewhat sad wee beastie whose life eminently needs preserving, and it’s all the more poignant for the fact that it’s by no means clear how humanity will achieve this.

Cheer up! Here’s a nice song about a bee to play us out.

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Quintessential: Some thoughts on Jaws

Hello

If threatened at gunpoint (always a good idea to prepare for these eventualities I find) I would suggest that my favourite film was Jaws. I’ve been meaning to write something on Jaws for a while now. You the know one, with the big shark. Aye, that one. I don’t tend to feel affection for films in comparison to other artistic media but I do have quite a trenchant loyalty towards the 1975 Blockbuster. It’s got an excellent cast in it, as well as a massive Shark. What’s not to like? Most of all though, it’s got Sam Quint.

I’ve never really encountered a Quint in a book before.  You do get him in a narrative sense;  It would be hard to argue against the suggestion that Quint is highly derivative of both Captain Ahab from Moby Dick and the eponymous Geezer in Hemmingway’s The Old man and the Sea in that he is consumed by the existence of a big nautical creature, and all of the vices and virtues this allows the story to riff on.

But Robert Shaw’s role as Sam Quint is at least as compelling as Captain Ahab, and this is accomplished within about forty five minutes as opposed to 500 odd pages. It is superlative acting and one of the biggest vindication’s of the power of drama, certainly that I’ve ever seen. To even do justice to the rich, hoary old sea devil type would be impressive and compelling, but through Shaw’s performance Sam Quint becomes nothing less than a force of nature.

You see, Quint acts as a conduit between the old and the new, but this is an old and new rarely touched effectively. It’s an old that existed before nationality, or capitalism, or democracy, or any of those things. AA Gill recently wrote a superb piece of reportage on how Morris Dancers stand as a totem for an England that seems almost fantastic in it’s distance from the modern, and for me Quint evokes something similar. He touches upon things that must be human, because for most of history humanity knew nothing else, but these are things we only see through a mirror darkly because of the dense and complex structures of the modern and specifically post- modern world. There is something Bacchus like in the way Quint staggers form drink to fight to slightly unhinged but harmless conversation, and then back again. It’s not so much a case of moral composition as simple base potency, which is momentarily tamed, at points, otherwise gushing out in varying degrees of chaotic effect. It just doesn’t fit traditional twentieth century comprehension and it’s extreme polarities of morality, such as is exemplified by Hollywood.

In Jaws, Quint is set against these modern, novel and oft perceived stultifying inventions of civilisation such as careers, retirement, capitalism, civil protection and hobbies. Quint’s primal, virtually anachronistic behaviour is squeezed into the mass produced starched shirt and tie of this new modern world, and the tension that results is glorious and terrifyingly unpredictable.
At one point Quint utters a strange tombstone epithet with a wicked grin to a yuppie voyager. In terms of plot it leads to absolutely nothing, it’s a simple throwaway line. But it hangs in the air like a strange curse, pointing towards something bigger and stranger than the money and the science and the education of the biologist and the reassuring clarity they offer.

Hello

Quint’s presence injects a sense of the wyrd and the old. He is the hellhound on the trail, the glimpse of something odd and slippery and grotesque in the water, the force that though rarely seen can remind one of the closeness between the spiritual and the material, between eternity and mortality. In Quint’s scenes we see a distillation of the tensions of the twentieth century which were being culturally played out throughout the sixties and seventies in America; banal civility encouraged for the most part by material contentment, versus destruction and prejudice. I’m not sure whether this was intentional or not. Either way though it points towards a tension which was nonetheless prevalent throughout the post war years and a conciseness of the fact that it was going on. “The times they are a changin’”, and all that.

I can’t help but feel the intellectual and cultural landscape in the West has lost this to an extent. The Past is not so much a different country as something that happened once and shouldn’t be dwelt upon. It saddens and scares me to think about what this level of crashing arrogance and misplaced naivety does to humanity’s prospects in the current century, and as a result I find my attachment to Quint grows each year. His person prophesies not so much a wrath to come as one which is always here, albeit one which the West has tried to silence or ignore, usually to the detriment of those who can’t enter the very modern paradise of upward social mobility.

If you’ll permit me some further indulgence, I realised quite be accident whilst writing the above that my new and bewitching neighborhood of Leith  appeals to me for a similar reason. It is the Sam Quint of Edinburgh. A once separate town now municipally annexed by Edinburgh, it provides a fascinating opportunity for character study for a young, well off intellectual but is sufficiently bound within the often-suffocating structure of modernity so as to remain eccentric and thrilling without danger.

All of the images of Leith are copywrighted for some reason; here's one that isn't

Occasionally though something nasty happens, and there is the chance that you might meet with massive, life changing forces that cause you to stop and consider how flimsy and crude your self preservation is when invested in a bastion of money, and a job and an education, and how quickly they would crumble in the face of sustained violence and the power of the elements. Leith isn’t entirely safe but it isn’t sanitised of humanity either. It provides an occasional glimpse into older and bigger truths that both thrill and disturb the soul. Much as the sudden appearance of twenty-foot shark might do on a pleasant afternoon’s fishing trip.

That’s my take on Jaws, probably quite a specific one. I’ve found it to be a criminally under-watched film by my own peers for some reason. Give it a go! Don’t be put off by my comprehensive reflections either. It’s to the film’s credit that it allows a pursuit of depth, but It’s not dense or difficult to watch. Give it your full attention and the film’s magnificent blend of uneasy stillness and calm being momentarily ripped apart by sudden, visceral violence will provide if nothing else an intense sensory experience, in that special way that only a really good film can.

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Me, Myself and Zei(tgeist)

Trying to write a blog, 2009

Hello Internet. How’re you? That’s good. How Am I? Aye, I’m not so bad. Yes, I know it’s been a while. I’m sorry I haven’t written for a while, I meant to. I’ve certainly been thinking about you. NO, I have! I swear. Really. I know it’s been over a year, and I know that I promised I would give the blogging thing a go. It was hard though, you know? I was young and confused, didn’t really know what I was doing-directionless, ill conceived ramblings here, overly long essays there. I was a mess.

I’ve been thinking though Internet. Thinking that I’d like to give it another go. You know, blogging. You, me and my words. I’ve learned a lot in the last year, I’ve matured a lot. I was thinking that maybe I would limit myself to writing wee pieces on sort of cultural things. You know, books, music, TV programmes, maybe a board game or two, the odd film. Maybe a bit about Sunderland AFC. The little things that interest me and make me happy. I..I’d like to share all of this with you, if you’ll let me.

I’m going to try and keep things light, but remember that this is me. I’ve done a bit on the film Jaws that’s maybe a bit deep for some, and there will be other occasional moments where I get carried away, but that’s who I am, and I don’t think it would be right for you to change me completely. But I’m willing to compromise. For the most part I won’t stray beyond a few hundred words, and I’ll be around more often and have more varied things to say because of that.

I really think this could work this time. I..I’m going to post that Jaws thing just now. See how it goes. But after that I’ve got something lined up called ‘I love ninety songs of the nineteen hundred and nineties’, which will be lightsome. Yes, lightsome. No, I didn’t know it was a word either. Your friend Microsoft Word 1997 told me it was though. Yeah, he is pretty old.

Anyway, thanks for your time, Internet. Take care.

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