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"“Sacred cows make the best hamburger.” (Mark Twain)

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Fattypuffs and Thinifers - Andre Maurois 20/11/2015

Does size matter?

How to do Christmas presents while preserving the environment ? 10/11/2015

May all your Christmases be green

How to do Christmas presents while preserving the environment ? “Dear relative/friend/acquaintance/inadvertently-wrong-email-addressee, 1. As you may or may not have noticed, in the interests of cherishing the environment (nothing to do with saving money, perish the thought), I have not sent Christmas cards for some years, preferring to offer you my seasonal greetings by email, thereby preserving trees and reducing pollution from paper mills, printing works and postal vehicles. 2. To you all, therefore, once again for this year: Merry Christmas. 3. Mere acquaintances/inadvertently-wrong-email-addressees should now proceed directly to Para 16 below. 4. So should relatives and friends so distant or so little loved as to be omitted from my customary Christmas-Pressie list. If you wanted to be on it, perhaps you should have given me something sometime. 5. For those of you accustomed to receiving presents from me, let me explain that I have this year decided to apply the same green principles to gift-giving as to cards. 6. My initial step was to trawl the net for ideas for environmentally-friendly gifts. There are numerous sites that purport to specialise in such items, but none seemed wholly satisfactory. For a start, most of them seem to make only the haziest of distinctions between “environmentally-friendly” and “ethical” – a slippery term that encompasses all kinds of subjective value judgements of questionable relevance. Environmentalism is routinely conflated by these people with Fairtrade, Wholefood, and Vegetarian - all ...

Should we celebrate Halloween? 31/10/2015

Halloween Schmalloween

Marx Memorial Library, London 20/10/2015

They'll keep the red flag flying here

Marx Memorial Library, London My first impression, on entering the Marx Memorial Library, was that it was like going back in time. But back to when exactly? Certainly not all the way back to the early 18th Century, when the handsome, listed, double-fronted edifice that contains the library was built, but when socialist ideology was in its infancy. Nor even to the mid-to-late 19th Century, when Karl Marx himself was living in London, and when the building first housed radical political groups. Perhaps to the early 1900s, when Lenin briefly had an office here when exiled in London. Or perhaps to the 1930s when the capitalist world was over-shadowed by the gloom of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, whilst the Soviet Union was widely seen as a beacon of hope by those who knew little of what actually went on there. 1933, the fiftieth anniversary of Marx’s death, was after all the year that the Library was founded. But there are also echoes here of the Cold War, when a rump of die-hard communists in the west closed their eyes and ears to all the iniquities committed on the other side of the Iron Curtain and continued to long for a Soviet victory. That is the era reflected in the interior décor, with its paintwork in tired municipal tones, though the art and artefacts on display also run the full gamut of the earlier periods. Behind the red door The crowd gathering to view Marx House – as the building is now called – ran the full gamut too. The occasion was London Open House weekend, when ...

Jeremy Corbyn 12/10/2015

Repetition, rhyme or now for something completely different?

Jeremy Corbyn Sometimes, admittedly not very often but sometimes, it proves useful to have a grounding in history, or perhaps just a reasonably retentive memory. I know, having read numerous newspaper columns to the same effect, that I am far from being the only one for whom Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party resounds with echoes of that of Michael Foot to the same position thirty-five years ago. In each case the party reacted to defeat by the Tories by moving sharply to the left, appointing a leader steeped in the lore of class struggle, syndicalism, nationalisation and nuclear disarmament. In each case too, a leader without much aptitude, or time, for the presentational skills conventionally regarded as essential for communication with the wider electorate. “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy…” In the early 1980s, the repercussions were swift and disastrous. Leading Labour moderates who could not stomach the leftward lurch broke away to form the Social Democratic Party (later to merge with the Liberals), splitting the opposition to Thatcher. Labour went into the 1983 election with a leader lacking Prime Ministerial credibility and a radically socialist manifesto, later characterised as “the longest suicide note in history”. The Tories, who might have been vulnerable if faced with a more persuasive foe, not to mention a united opposition, won by a landslide. There are, needless to say, those in the Conservative Party who hope that ...

Serra de Tramuntana, Majorca 22/09/2015

Far from the Magaluffing crowd

Serra de Tramuntana, Majorca It’s really no secret that there’s much more to Majorca than beach-and-booze resorts. Discerning visitors have been singing the island’s praises for centuries, from long before the package holiday was invented. More recently and more personally, knowledgeable friends have urged my wife and me to sample the attractions of Majorca away from its over-developed southern coast, but only this year did we at last get round to heeding their advice. Better late than never, I suppose. A glance at the map gives a fair idea of where to aim for if you’re more interested in scenery than sun and sand: the string of peaks that runs right up the north-western side of the island. The Serra de Tramuntana, as this range is known, includes some serious mountains: the tallest, Puig Major, tops Britain’s champion Ben Nevis by some margin. To add to its attraction, Tramuntana is not only protected as a nature reserve but also listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. There are also hills (the Serra de Llevant) in the east of Majorca; less high and less often visited, they sound interesting and we have them earmarked as candidates for another time. This time, though, we opted for the obvious and concentrated on Tramuntana. Heading for the hills Driving north from Palma airport, we only needed to look ahead to be reassured about our decision. The range rears up from the plain like a barrier across the way ahead. Fortunately, there is now a tunnel through to Sóller, the central town of the ...

Top 10 Childrens Storybook Characters 05/09/2015

Read it again

Top 10 Childrens Storybook Characters Sorting out books to read to my grand-daughter reminded me of this review. My home is shared with my wife, our cats and about four thousand books. Clearly, the books are in the majority, unless you subscribe to the view that nothing can outnumber a cat. They are all over the place, literally and figuratively (the books, that is, not the cats). They are not sorted by author, title or subject matter. This arrangement – or absence of arrangement – is, I feel, good for the books, ensuring that they meet other books from different backgrounds, thus broadening their minds. It also has the merit of making it almost impossible to find a specific title, so that I always end up browsing around and chancing upon neglected treasures. I am frequently to be found hours after setting out in search of one volume deeply buried in another, the original quest long since forgotten. And never more happily so than when the treasure in question is one of the books I owned as a child, or read to my boys when they were young, which is often the same thing. Children’s books have two huge advantages over those aimed at an older audience. They don’t have to be credible to a mature intelligence, enabling their characters to be more extravagant and colourful than their adult equivalents, and their readers' imaginations are unfettered by experience, enabling their perception of the characters to be more vivid still. As a result, they make a deep impression, and stay with us for a long time. Here ...

It's time to sunbathe! Which are your top 5 products at the beach? 14/08/2015

Sun of a beach

It's time to sunbathe! Which are your top 5 products at the beach? Sunny summer beaches are, I believe, a bit like Christmas. The connection may seem tenuous, except to those of you reading this in Australia or some similar topsy-turvy corner of the southern hemisphere where a far from cool Yule may well, for all I know, be most tolerably celebrated with a barbie and a few ice-cold stubbies at the seaside. Being of a more northerly disposition, I am not thinking of that connection here. What I have more in mind is that in both cases the presence of small children is essential to their full enjoyment. No adult can hope to emulate a child’s delight on being let loose onto a sunny seashore any more than on Christmas morning when open season on stockings is at last declared. On such occasions, wise adults apply the principle of “if you can’t beat’em, join’em” and resort to sharing the child’s joy rather than seeking to match it with their own. Some may disagree. There are, I understand, plenty of adults who take an almost childlike pleasure in prostrating themselves on beaches to bake their bodies beneath a scorching sun. But I believe that the childlike quality of such pleasure will always need to be qualified with an “almost”. Admittedly, this belief may stem at least in part from the fact that I myself derive no pleasure at all from sunbathing. I’m tempted to say it leaves me cold, though actually it leaves me hot, which I find even less congenial. To me a beach is at it's best when clouded, when it is also likely to be less crowded. Just ...

Hurtigruten MS Fram 05/08/2015

Fram stem to stern

Hurtigruten MS Fram Four factors determine whether or not a cruise is going to be enjoyable. The first is the place(s) you visit, the second the ship on which you sail, the third your fellow-passengers and the fourth the weather. Of these, you can’t do much about the weather except by selecting the right destination at the right time of year to give yourself the best chance of a benign outcome. Neither can you do much about your fellow-passengers, except by selecting the type of destination and the type of vessel that you think might attract a congenial type of person. So, having selected your destination, it all comes down to your choice of vessel. Cruise-ship criteria In contemplating a cruise to the Norwegian fjords, my wife and I approached the choice with a number of preferences (or prejudices, if you prefer) in mind. Specifically preferences for: - ~ A smaller rather than larger cruise-ship. We like things on a human scale, and nothing could appeal to us less than the floating megahotels one sometimes sees advertised, with dozens of decks, thousands of cabins, themed restaurants and entertainment centres. Apart from which, from a purely practical viewpoint with our proposed destination in mind, only smaller ships can manoeuvre in the narrower fjords. ~ A smaller rather than larger cruise company. Yes, in case you’re wondering, I’m also prejudiced against chain hotels, especially international chains. Part of the thinking here though, was that a local specialist cruise-line would ...

Summer is starting, barbecues are reemerging from the sheds… But which is your favourite? A regular charcoal one or modern, gas/electric one? 24/07/2015

True to tradition

Summer is starting, barbecues are reemerging from the sheds⦠But which is your favourite? A regular charcoal one or modern, gas/electric one? As with most questions, you can address this one in at least two ways, the two that spring most readily to my mind being the practical and the romantic. From the practical point of view, there is no need to coax the reluctant brain out of hibernation to arrive at a conclusive answer. For ease of use, speed of lighting, heat control, cleanliness, environmental virtue and minimisation of the quantity of carcinogens generated by the cooking process, a gas barbecue wins every time. Against dirty, slow-lighting, unpredictable charcoal, gas is a shoo-in. Arguably for flavour too, though this is subjective, since some prefer the smokier charcoal taste. Leaving such personal preference aside, the competition is a mismatch, and I expect the bookies have long since stopped taking bets on the outcome. Even electricity would probably canter home ahead of charcoal for practicality, though personally I would lodge an objection with the stewards on the grounds that an electric grill does not strictly qualify as a barbecue, for which a naked flame is the minimum pre-requisite. But what a soulless, unromantic world it would be if our choices were determined by ease of use, speed, control, cleanliness, environmental virtue, carcinogen avoidance and suchlike trivia alone. To treat them as decisive in the case of barbecues is to lose sight of what barbecues are really all about. “They’re about eating,” the practically-minded might retort, “Eating food. Grilled food. Food grilled outdoors.” ...

Should Pluto still be recognised as a planet? 15/07/2015

Plutonic love

What is your view of the Greek economic crisis? 11/07/2015

Greek tragedy

What is your view of the Greek economic crisis? What would you do in the two following sets of circumstances? i) A few years ago you, together with others, lent a friend a lot of money, which they now can’t pay back, as they’ve already failed to pay back other creditors. Instead, they want you to lend them still more money. Reluctantly, you offer to do so, but only on condition that they take steps to sort out their finances and live within their means. Although this was also a condition of your original loan, they haven’t managed to live up to it, and without it you see little chance of ever being repaid. At the last moment they announce that they can’t agree without consulting their family, which they do very publicly, urging the rejection of your conditions and describing you as a bully and blackmailer in the process. With the support of their family they come back to you and demand the right to borrow the money on easier terms. Do you agree, or tell them to go and stew in their own juice, even though this means you may have to write off the original loan? ii) A few years ago, finding yourself in grave financial difficulties, you borrowed a lot of money from a group of friends, which they lent to you only on condition that you sorted your finances out. You’ve tried to do so, but it’s proved harder than you expected, especially as you were never convinced that what they asked was really the right way to go about it. Indeed, you think they’ve made life more difficult for you and you still can’t make ends meet. To keep ...

The Norwegian Fjords, Norway 24/06/2015

The scenic route

The Norwegian Fjords, Norway Which is better: a sea view or a mountain view? This is of course an impossible question to answer, since both have their own unique attractions, and the choice is a matter of personal preference. Although we both like both, my wife prefers above all to watch the waves, whilst I feel most at home when I have slopes and peaks to gaze at. So a trip to the Norwegian fjords, where towering mountains overshadow deep sea inlets, might seem like a natural for us. I’m tempted to say I can’t think why we didn’t do it years ago, though in fact I do know why, which was all to do with cost and practicality. Essentially, there are two ways to go. The first option is to tour by car/caravan/campervan. This was challenging enough even in the days when a car ferry crossed from Newcastle to Bergen, but that service has been discontinued. So, if you want to take your own vehicle, you must use a shorter crossing and face a long drive up through Denmark, Sweden and Norway before you even reach the fjords. You could fly and hire a vehicle locally, but that constricts what you can carry and is expensive. Indeed in Norway everything is expensive, including accommodation, food and – especially – booze (yet another reason why you might prefer to take your own vehicle with your own supplies). Once there the roads are few, circuitous and slow, not always reaching the fjords in the areas you’d most want to visit, so you’d have to allow extra time to do some strenuous hiking, or take trips on local ...

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton 06/06/2015

Not everything is illuminated

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton Towards the end of The Luminaries, one of the main characters, Walter Moody by name, falls in with an Irishman as he sets out on a journey. They agree to tell each other their stories to alleviate the boredom. “Moody was silent for a time, wondering where to begin. ‘I am trying to decide between the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,’ he said presently. ‘I’m afraid my history is such that I can’t manage both at once.’ ” The trouble – if it is a trouble – with The Luminaries is that it is hard to tell which of these alternatives – if they are alternatives – the author has chosen to follow in her own narrative. Even to pose this question assumes, of course, that she has her own perception of the ‘truth’ of her story, in the sense of an immutable and coherent sequence of events that underpins what is related to the reader. Probably she has, but it is possible that she would regard such a foundation as unnecessary, even misleading. * Sometimes one writes a review in order to express what one thinks of the subject, at other times in order to find out what one thinks of it. This review is of the latter kind, so forgive me if it turns out to be a bit discursive. My excuse – apart from that of casting around to discover what I think – is that the book is more than a little discursive too. Indeed, I can’t begin to compete. When it comes to discursiveness, few are in the same league as the author, Eleanor Catton. She is, of course, highly regarded and The Luminaries has ...

What will it mean to Great Britain that the Scottish National Party claimed almost every seat in Scotland at the General Election ? 23/05/2015

Scot free

What will it mean to Great Britain that the Scottish National Party claimed almost every seat in Scotland at the General Election ? The thought will, I know, be quite unpalatable to many, but let me invite you for a moment to imagine you are David Cameron. You are ensconced in Downing Street contemplating what moves to make in the numerous games of diplomatic chess and political poker in which you are unavoidably engaged, one of which concerns the unruly sub-division of the realm known as Scotland. In public, of course, you make what you would like to think are the right noises about the place (why else, after all, has one been to Eton, if not to make the right noises?), but secretly you believe it to be utterly beyond the pale and an infernal nuisance. And as for the Scots, what can one do with such ingrates? Despite already getting more than their fair share of UK public sector jobs, public expenditure, seats in Parliament and influence over the affairs of the rest of the Britain, they seem unable to recognise when they’re well off and are still demanding more! You’ve half a mind to forget your own unionist orthodoxy and let them stew in their own unappetising broth: to tell them that if they’re so keen to rule independently their benighted windswept wasteland they should go away and get on with it. At this point, a mischievous thought enters your head (why else, after all, has one been to Eton?). Everyone keeps telling you that because those Scottish Nationalist oiks were so unaccountably successful in the General Election, you should engage with them more, keep the promises so rashly made at the ...
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