Thursday, April 29, 2010

Car crash debates

So can't talk about work as it's commercial in confidence. But not much time to be thinking about anything else so a paucity of posts here.

How can anyone watch those leaders' debates on TV? All the answers are carefully crafted to avoid any error or hostage to fortune. They're totally formulaic and devoid of novelty or information. I really don't recognise the pundits' enthusiasm for totally turn-off TV. Perhaps it's like the amateur interest in Formula 1: we hang on in case we get a spectacular pile-up completely out of the blue.

Rather than working at home down in Wells tomorrow I have to attend a workshop in London. So I'm expecting to fully participate in the traffic nightmare of the pre-Bank Holiday escape to the West Country tomorrow evening.

Stephen Hawking has missed a trick in not calling for the new science of 'alienology' (cf. 'Kremlinology') which would study the dispositions, capabilities and intentions of alien civilizations 'out there'.

I'm with the 'keep a low profile' party - which I believe is not standing in the current election.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Our House in Well (end-April)

Working at home (i.e. down in Wells) proved very successful on Friday: the VPN worked well and telephone connections were fine. Plus longer for me in our new home.

Saturday we took a stroll in Shepton Mallet - there really isn't that much there - and then settled in The Swan Hotel (Sadler Street) back in Wells for an afternoon drink (pictured below). Today it was rainy so we strolled in the showers to the Leisure Centre. Clare is thinking of swimming and I heard mention of T'ai Chi ...

Clare & Adrian: washed out in the window is Wells Cathedral

Part of our back garden

Our front room

This is where I work at home

Our still-undecorated kitchen

The view from our main bedroom

The ensuite bathroom (Clare's new bath)

The upstairs hall - work-in-progress

Adrian & Clare explore Shepton Mallet church

Friday, April 23, 2010

As the Earth Turns Silver

Review of Alison Wong's "As the Earth Turns Silver" (Amazon Vine).


In Fay Weldon’s compelling typology (“Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen”) this is a ‘bad good’ book, one with literary pretensions but important flaws in execution.

Set in the early years of the twentieth century, the story revolves around the Chinese community in Wellington, New Zealand. We have forgotten what full, right-on racism and sexism feel like but Wong has carefully researched the times and has recreated their shocking unpleasantness. The dynamics of the story are grounded however in the dominant Anglo community. Sensitive Katherine McKechnie is emotionally and physically brutalised by her drunken rabidly right-wing brutalist husband Donald. She has a sensitive bright daughter and a hooligan tearaway son who idolises his father. Donald drunkenly falls into the sea one day and drowns, and Katherine and her family are thrown into poverty.

A chance encounter at the Chinese greengrocers throws her into the company and then the arms of Yung – a sensitive, refined, poetic Chinese man - and forbidden romance blooms across the racial divide: it was always going to end in tears. There is also quite a back-story for the Chinese characters, men who have left their families and marital ties behind in China to eke out a living in New Zealand where any kind of advancement always eludes them.

So what has Alison Wong done right? She has a small cast of characters who are distinguishable and have some hinterland. The plot is multilinear and moves along, if not always at a cracking pace. She has a poet’s gift for language and description, and the tensions of the time are starkly drawn. But here is the problem: the characters which dominate this novel are Racism, Sexism with Imperialism a bit-part player. It’s moral indignation which drives this novel along and post-colonial guilt which sent it high up the best-seller list in NZ.

Actually Wong does not care much about her characters, who are merely archetypes for attitudes: either infeasibly noble or dyed-in-the-wool black-hearted. Because the author doesn’t care much about them neither do we and so the novel degenerates into a crafted but ultimately unsatisfying polemic.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cliffhanger in the Mendips

This week's Economist to my surprise has an election piece about Wells. Here's an excerpt.

"Tessa Munt, the Liberal Democrat candidate ... tramps the constituency in a bid to unseat David Heathcoat-Amory, its Conservative MP since 1983. In 2005 she got within 3,040 votes of him. This time, because of boundary changes, she reckons she needs only 1,200 more.

She may just get them. Mr Heathcoat-Amory is something of a Tory grandee, with a career in government and shadow-cabinet jobs. But he was obliged to pay back nearly £30,000 in parliamentary-expenses claimed for manure and other gardening costs at his house in Pilton (which he counts his second home). Although he was within the prevailing rules, some former Tory voters in his constituency profess themselves scandalised and ask why a fresh candidate was not selected."

This prospect has made me determined to get down to Wells on voting day and cast my lot in with those seeking to unseat Mr H-A.

My rational core shakes its head in disbelief: I'm not a bureaucratic-centrist, more of a libertarian really. I like the idea of a minimal state which gets out of the way of capitalist dynamism (yes, I used to be a Trotskyist but they were realists too in a different paradigm). So I should be in favour of Tory philosophy against Labourist political correctness and over-regulation and Liberal wishy-washiness.

And yet ... there is something viscerally awful about Tories; their smugness, their pretensions to a mediocre upper-class clubbiness, their sheer identification with everything that was disgusting about the England of the 1950s which I loathed in my childhood. The Tories were the establishment which drove me to revolutionary politics: something tells me they still represent the same caste, the same frame of mind.

No, I can't vote for them and I will be delighted to see Mr H-A vanish from sight if it can be arranged. But if only we had a small-state, market-friendly, technophilic, professional, optimistic party in this country - something not unlike the image Tony Blair projected before it all went so horribly wrong ...

Clare is immune to the argument above. In her view all the parties have betrayed the people by shoving their snouts in the public trough. She will join the great band of principled abstainers.

I sure hope H-A doesn't win by one vote.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Our house in Wells (mid-April)

Just back now in Reading from my weekend in Wells. Alex was finishing up his week's holiday there and Adrian was enjoying his first week back from Canada and resting up his injured knee. Saturday was quiet: shopping in Tescos in the morning and then I reconstructed our filing system while everyone else moved the hinges on the fridge freezer so that the doors open the other way (don't ask - it makes perfect sense).

BTW, wasn't the first episode of ITV's remake of The Prisoner awful?

Alex and Adrian did the clever stuff with the hinges

Clare took a pose - in her own words - as a Greek Goddess

Today I accompanied Clare to Mass at 9 a.m. where we heard an apologia from the priest as regards the recent sins within the Catholic Church. Basically, he told us, it's a matter of a few bad apples. What do you expect in a congregation of 200 million?

His example of a bad apple was this guy (Marcial Maciel Degollado) and all we were told was that he had a habit of getting women pregnant, funding them by embezzling church funds and buying-off curious members of the Curia with brown envelopes stuffed with cash. No mention of his charming ways with the "apostolic schoolboys".

No institutional blame for the Catholic Church or Pope either. Instead the priest railed against attacks on the church from 'our enemies' (Jews, atheists, newspapers, the BBC ... you get the picture). So Clare got an even more irate rant than usual fom me at our post-Mass visit to the coffee shop.

Our back garden

Still, the back garden looks nice, doesn't it in the Spring sunshine (complete with the remains of last night's chicken).

Our front garden

The front garden is a riot of flowers.

Our sun-trap at the front door

And Shadow is in cat heaven in this front-door suntrap.

This afternoon we strolled in the woods near Priddy and then relaxed in the sunshine at The New Inn there. I still can't get over how beautiful the whole area is.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shame and abasement at Toyota Basingstoke

I picked up my car this afternoon from the Toyota dealer in Basingstoke. Since you ask, this was a three year service + MOT + two new tyres and new light-cover fitted: cost in excess of £500.

So far, so uninteresting. But what surprised me was the obsequious if not shamed attitude of the staff there. The level of deference, the readiness to cater to any whim I might have, well, it was almost ... Japanese.

I can only assume the (British) staff there - and presumably everywhere in the UK - have received the mother and father of a brainwashing session: I can imagine the sensei saying:

"We have let down our customers, we have compromised our ideals and our unique selling proposition - quality."

Or perhaps that's a little too much like western-marketing-speak.

"Now we must humbly grovel before our customers and let them feel our shame, lest they desert us for Nissan or Honda, or even worse that unspeakable Korean company ..."

So I guess that would be Hyundai then.

Pleasant as it is to be grovelled to at some level it's demeaning, brings out the inate tendency to patronise or even bully them. Snap out of it guys - sure you messed up. Prove you can get your quality back and inject a bit of excitement into your range!

And don't give me a courtesy car which was almost out of petrol and where the seat belt clip kept sliding beneath the car seat making it a major issue to belt-up every time I got into it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The most intelligent take on Christianity

Many other reviews have summarised Philip Pullman's story-structure as a rationalist retelling of the new testament and I will not repeat that here. The book is full of deadpan humour in the early chapters but builds up to a damning critique both of Jesus' own maximalist doctrines (insofar as we can recover them through historical scholarship) and the Pauline-inspired reconstruction of 'Christianity' to the point where it became the propaganda ministry of the Roman Empire after Constantine (a model it has basically stayed with ever since).

Pullman's hatred of hypocrisy shines through as well as his piercing intelligence. Pilate is the hard man you expect - no letting the Romans off lightly for political reasons - and the high priest Caiaphas is only gently mocked for his role as having to please all his constituents including his Roman masters. As diplomats always remind us, it may be a weaselly job but someone does in fact have to do it.

Jesus alone achieves a full clarity of thought but where does that leave him? It's characteristic of the sophistication of Pullman's work that the protagonist and antagonist both indignantly reject ambiguity, but that in the end is all we can ever get.

Review of Philip Pullman's "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" at Amazon.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Springtime at last

When I arrived in Wells on Friday evening, Adrian and Alex were already there, Adrian fighting the effects of the overnight flight from Vancouver and jet lag and Alex, altogether sprightlier, having only had to collect him from Gatwick.

Saturday we drove down to the Glastonbury B&Q in search of a new shed. Having had no success we ordered online and in the afternoon we had a family day out at Burnham on Sea which is I guess our nearest seaside town, around 20 miles distance and 45 minutes travel-time.

‘What's the difference between B-o-S and St. Tropez?’ Clare asked. I guess about £100,000 per annum per head annual income and the shops to match. However the sand was warm and the donkeys were out, the ice cream was good and the sea-front pub congenial. We'll go again when it's warmer and take a picnic.

This Sunday morning Clare and myself attended 9 a.m. Mass where the priest gave an astonishingly numerological homily on the numbering of days of the week. Apparently the ancients started counting ("1") on the day there were at, so the same day the following week was numbered "8". Hence 'on the 8th day' really means 'today-week'. I never knew that.

I speed read Phillip Pullman's really excellent book "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" which is a rationalist retelling of the new testament. It's full of deadpan humour in the early chapters but builds up to a damning critique both of Jesus' own maximalist doctrines (insofar as we can recover them through historical scholarship) and the Pauline construction/ reconstruction of 'Christianity' to the point where it became the propaganda ministry of the Roman Empire after Constantine (a model it has basically stayed with ever since).

Pullman's hatred of hypocrisy shines through as well as his piercing intelligence. Pilate is the hard man you expect - no letting the Romans off lightly for political reasons - and the high priest Caiaphas is only gently mocked for his role as having to please all his constituents including his Roman masters. As diplomats always remind us, it may be a weaselly job but someone does in fact have to do it.

This afternoon we confirmed the new shed will be delivered on Thursday (it’s of resin construction and should last about as long as Wells Cathedral) and Alex demolished the old, rotting one.

We spent the afternoon wandering the edge of Chew Valley Lake, crowded with people keen to enjoy the car park, toilets and burger cafe. There were few other attractions although we did see a pair of old chaps in mute adoration of a not-very-distinguished motorbike. They were still there 45 minutes later after we returned from our muddy ‘nature trail’ walk.

I suggested to Clare that I could buy a big hog – one of those with his ‘n’ her recliner type seats – and we could cruise around Somerset with her on the back. She seemed to suggest that I would allow it to fall over and would not be able to right it again (which given their weight is likely true).

We moved on to our next plan.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Vole-juggling returns

Quick update as of COB today.

The pantry is still dripping from the leak somewhere upstairs with no sign of the plumber tomorrow. Hopefully the roof will not collapse in the interim.

The cat, Shadow, showed his satisfaction with his new home by vole-juggling on the the stairs at 2.30 a.m. Sunday morning. After a search of the house we failed to find the escaped rodent. However we were woken again at 3 a.m. by the cat doing cartwheels at the foot of our bed in front of the catatonic vole. I scooped it up and took it outside: the cat was banished with his cat-basket to the kitchen where he has resided every night since.

Clare was in Glastonbury today checking out occult shopping while I was getting deeper into telecoms security engineering.

More soon, as we expect Adrian back from Canada on Friday morning: we shall all reunite in Wells.

UPDATE: Friday. Mirabile dictu! The plumber came and fixed it!

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Wonders of Easter

I hardly know where to start.

It's 2 p.m. Easter Saturday and the rain is pouring down outside. We have just come back from a failed expedition to Street where we were planning to transact business with the Nationwide: they were closed.

Reversing my car up our steep and narrow drive, I collided with the metal rail and so the rear offside plastic light cover has been cracked. Great.

This morning as Clare was cleaning out the pantry which sits immediately below the first floor bathroom where we have expensively installed a new shower, sink and toilet, she noticed drips coming from the ceiling. We have bowls in place and as I write one inch of water has accumulated. Probably the plumber on Tuesday will have to break all that nice new tiling upstairs to uncover the cause.

Clare, my mother (who's staying with us) and myself attended the Good Friday service yesterday afternoon at 3 p.m. The high point is when all the Catholics get to line up and kiss the offered cross (which is tiny - I thought they'd have a full-sized one).

How unhygenic is that? Just some altar-kid rubbing it down with the same piece of cloth after each kiss: yeuk!

So here's Clare who we dropped off in Wells so she could pop into the church and take her part in the Easter Vigil. She reports that the church was in fact closed ...

It's still raining.