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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: Books

Monday September 18 2017

Today I finally got to the end of The Judgement of Paris.  I have now started making a list of some short bits of it that I hope to reproducing here.

Meanwhile, by way of a small celebration, here is a Parisian photo I took, in Paris, way back in February 2012:

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It’s the Tour Eiffel, of course, photoed from under it.  Tour Eiffel is pronounced “Tour F L”, rather that “Tour I Fell”.  Which reassures me that I know how to pronounce the leading historical character, Ernest Meissonier, in the above book.  “May sonni eh” rather than “My sonni eh”.

Anyway, a big and very interesting interruption has stopped interrupting me and my life, and I’m very glad about that.

Monday September 11 2017

My recent life has been seriously deranged by this book, which is about French painting and painters during the nineteenth century.  It’s by Ross King.  Never heard of him until I acquired and started to read this book of his, but the loss was entirely mine.  (Sounds more like a boxing promotor than an Art write.) This is one of the most engrossing books about Art I have ever encountered.

I am learning about several subjects that greatly appeal to me.  There’s French painting, obviously, which I have always wanted to know more about, in particular the rise to pre-eminence of Impressionism, which is what this book is about.  There are fascinating little titbits about the rise of sport, the 1860s being one of the most important decades for that, because of railways.  There’s French nineteenth century history in general, which this book, bless it, contains a lot of.  In particular there is stuff about the 1870 war against the Prussians, and then the Paris Commune.  There is French geography also, French geography being something that many of the more affluent French (including the more affluent artists) were getting to grips with properly for the first time, again because of those railways.  There is a glorious few pages about a big bunch of artists going on strike!  There are huge gas balloons.  This is not the sort of book about paintings that is only about the paintings.  Which means that it is much better than most books about paintings, because it explains their wider context.  It explains what the paintings are of, and why.

I particularly like that the role of the media is well described.  Tom Wolfe did not (with this book) invent that.  Art critics, then as now, were a big part of the Art story.

But, although I know that I will be a much improved human being when I have finished reading this book, I am finding the actual reading of it rather tough going.  For starters, there’s a lot of it, nearly four hundred closely printed pages, and my eyesight isn’t what it was.  But worse, there are constant references to people and to things that a better educated person than I would already know a bit about.  Who, for instance, was Charles Blanc?  I feel I ought to have known this kind of thing, at least a bit.  And then there’s the difference between Manet and Monet, which is all explained, concerning which about the only thing I knew beforehand was that they were indeed two distinct people.  But, I feel I should have known more about exactly which of them painted exactly what.  I could have whistled it all up from the www, but I do most of my reading away from my computer, because that way my computer does not then distract me.  Ross King never assumes any knowledge, and introduces everyone and everything very politely, but I am still struggling to keep up.

Another problem is that this book is packed with little stories about excitements of this or that diverting sort, any one of which could have been the basis of an entire book, but in this book often get just one or two paragraphs.  (I’m thinking of those titbits about sport, especially horse racing.) Accordingly, I find myself wanting to stop, to contemplate whatever fascinating little yarn I have just read, rather than dutifully ploughing on.

But plough on I am determined to do.  Until I finish, you here must make do with inconsequential postings, based on things like my inconsequential photos, which I happen to have been trawling back through in recent days.  But when I finally do finish this book, there may be some rather better stuff here.  I promise nothing, but I have in mind to pick out some of those diverting little stories, and maybe also sprinkle in some pertinent paintings.

I also hope (but promise nothing) to do a more considered review of this book for Samizdata.

Monday September 04 2017

A few weeks ago, Patrick Crozier and I recorded a conversation about the First World War.  Patrick’s short intro, and the recording, are here.  (It would appear that Croziervision is now back in business.)

The “If only” of my title is because we talk about the question of “what if” WW1 had never started.  What might have happened instead?  The unspoken assumption that has saturated our culture ever since is that it would surely have been far, far better.  But what if something else just as bad had happened instead?  Or even: something worse?

We discuss the reasons for such pessimism.  There was the sense of economic unease that had prevailed since the dawn of the century, resulting in a time not unlike our own.  And, there was the fact that Germany, Austria, Russia and Turkey were all embarked upon their various journeys from monarchy to democracy, and such journeys are always likely to be, says Patrick, bloodbaths.  Whatever happened in twentieth century Europe, it surely would not have been good.

Friday June 30 2017

Last night I sent out the reminder emails concerning my meeting tonight, the first of the ones listed in the previous posting, and I hoped for a few more replies saying: I’ll be there.  So far: nothing.  So now I am worried there won’t be enough people, and I will look like a plonker.  This morning I woke up, but then went back to sleep and had a scary and absurdly over-the-top warning dream about what a disaster tonight is going to be.  The plot line was: I went out shopping for stuff, and didn’t even get back in time myself.  Maybe the message was: relax.  It’ll be bad.  But it won’t be this bad.

So, now I face a day of fretting, and a day of making optimistic preparations for what could be a fiasco that won’t need them.  So, what did I just do?  I dashed off a Samizdata posting about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and what a bad thing this is.

This is not as crazy as it sounds.  If there is one thing that will totally ruin by last-Friday-of-the-month meetings it is the universal (but unstated-to-my-face) understanding that I am now a person of zero significance, the significance of whose meetings is likewise: zero.  But, I like these meetings, so long as people attend them in sufficient numbers, and I would miss them if I stopped doing them.  So, I need to put myself about more, on Samizdata and generally.  Even though what I really like doing is reading books about people like Chopin, listening to music by people like Chopin, wandering around London and posting pretty pictures of it here, waffling about them, and troubling nobody.

When you get old, you have to go on being what you are and doing what you do, even if you’d rather not.

Sunday June 25 2017

I’ve been reading Adam Zamoyski’s book about Chopin.  So far, I love it.  And I love learning so much about a fascinating man, of whom I knew just about nothing besides his music, and the fact that he was Polish and is a very big deal in Poland, but that he lived mostly in France.

I have, in particular, learned just exactly how Polish Chopin was, and was not.  His father, Nicholas Chopin, was French.  But when the Polish aristocrat for whom he worked went back to Poland, Nicholas went with him.  In Poland Nicholas married a Polish woman, and Frederick was thus born in Poland, but with his French-sounding name.  It sounds French because it was French.

So far, I have reached the stage where Chopin has played his first few concerts at which he performed, to great acclaim, his first few compositions, most of them for piano and orchestra.  (I am very fond of these pieces, the two piano concertos and the various other one movement works for piano and orchestra.)

As for how Chopin played, Zamoyski supplies this especially pleasing quote, from an unnamed Warsaw newspaper critic:

He emphasised but little, like one conversing in the company of clever people, not with the rhetorical aplomb which is considered by virtuosos to be indispensable.

But Chopin found it difficult working with orchestras, and I’m guessing that this is partly why that stopped, and he concentrated henceforth on solo works.  But as I think the above quote reveals, that probably suited his manner of playing better.

Thursday June 08 2017

Yes, Jamie Bartlett spoke to Libertarian Home last night, at the Two Chairmen, Dartmouth Street, London SW1, and I was very impressed.  So impressed that this morning, I went to this much bother:

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Click on any of those little squares and get to the bigger picture.  They all look much the same to me, apart from the first two.  If you want to make further use of any of them, further use away.  If you would like a larger original version of any of these photos, get in touch.

The thing is, I took lots of photos of Jamie Bartlett, as he spoke.  Normally, most of such pictures would be a blur, but just like me, my camera really liked this guy, and almost always focussed amazingly well, considering the deeply unhelpful lighting that always seems to prevail at these talks, with the wall behind perfectly lit but the face of the speaker in near darkness.  But all cameras these days see better than humans do, so no worries about that.

Bartlett told a few stories about successful radicals of his acquaintance, which are also told in his book Radicals, which I will definitely be reading in the near future.  I prefer paperbacks to hardbacks because they weigh less and take up less space, but I may not be willing to wait until Jan 2018 for the paperback version of this book.

Going by what he said last night, the radicals he writes about are people who use their media savvy to turn hitherto rather somnolent movements into media circuses, thereby waking up and alerting the wider world to these movements.

I am not surprised that amazon reviewers wrote about what a good read this book is.  Jamie Bartlett is definitely a very engaging and thoughtful speaker.  Hewas late arriving, on account of buzzing around Europe speaking to lots of other people, but he was well worth the wait.  And because of this delay I got to do some enjoyable LH socialising.

My thanks and admiration to LH’s Simon Gibbs, for organising this excellent event.

Saturday April 22 2017

Indeed:

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The history of this particular picture is that GodDaughter 2 and I were in Waterstones, Piccadilly, which is one of our favourite spots.  She loves all the books.  I like the books too, but I love the views that I can photo from the cafe at the top.  This is not very high up, but it is high enough up to see many interesting things, and familiar things from an unfamiliar angle, of which, perhaps or perhaps not, more later.

So, anyway, there we were in Waterstones, and we were making our way up the stairs to the top, rather than going up in the lift, because I needed the Gents and GD2 needed the Ladies.  All of which caused me to be waiting on the book floor nearest to the Ladies, and that was where I saw this book.  I had heard about it, via a TV show that Hockney did a few years back, and I did a little read of the bit that really interested me, which was about how very early photography intermingled with “Art”.  I wouldn’t have encountered the book itself had it not been for GD2 and I both liking Waterstones, and had it not been for nature demanding GD2’s attention.  So, this is another picture I owe to her, to add to this one.

The way Hockney and his art critic pal tell the story of how early photography and the Art of that time intermingled is: that all the other Art critics say that the Artists were zeroing in on a “photographic” looking style, through their own purely Artistic efforts.  Nonsense, say Hockney and pal.  The Artists were already using the early stages of photography, and if my recollection of that television show is right, that this had been going on for quite a while.  They were using photographic methods to project a scene onto a surface, and then painting it in by hand.  These paintings look photographic because, in a partial but crucial sense, they are photographic.  Later, the photo-techies worked out how to frieze that image permanently onto that surface, by chemical means rather than by hand copying.  Those Art critics want to say that the Artists lead the world towards photography, but the influence was more the other way around.  Photograhy was leading the Artists.

This fascinating historical episode, assuming (as I do) that Hockney and pal are not making this up, shows how complicated and additive a technology like photography is.  It didn’t erupt all at once.  It crept up on the world, step by step.  And of course it is still creeping forwards, a step at a time, in our own time.  Early photographers couldn’t shove their pictures up by telephone onto your television screen, the way I just did, if only because television screens didn’t happen for another century.

Meanwhile, the book trade is creeping forwards.  In the age of Amazon, am I the only one who sees an interesting book in a bookshop, looks at the price, says to himself: I can do much better than that on Amazon, and contents himself with taking a photo of the book’s cover?  Are we bad people?

For this book, the difference is thirty quid in the shop, but twenty quid or even less on Amazon.

In that talk I did about the impact of digital photography, one of the uses I found myself emphasising was using digital cameras for note-taking.  How much easier and more exact to make a picture of this book’s cover with one camera click, than to record its mere title with the laborious taking of a written note.

Monday February 20 2017

Last night I sent out the email concerning the Brian’s Last Friday meeting this coming Friday, at the end of which email I found myself blurting out this:

Whenever I concoct these promotional emails I end up feeling very excited about the forthcoming talk.  This time, this effect was especially pronounced.

This was what got me “very excited”:

Marc Sidwell will give a talk entitled: Promoting Freedom in a Post-Expert World.

He will be speaking about “the ongoing erosion of power and technocratic authority (most recently visible in the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump) and proposing some ways libertarians can respond to this shift.”

Other talk titles that were considered: “Twilight of the Wonks” and “The Revenge of Common Sense”.

Marc Sidwell is an journalist, editor, publisher, and writer, most recently of a How To Win Like Trump, now riding high in the Kindle best-seller List.  More about Marc, his career and his publications, here.

For further information about the kinds of ideas Marc will be presenting, I strongly recommend a visit to: marcsidwell.com/.

It was there that I gleaned this quote, from Brexit campaigner Dominic Cummings:

“All those amazed at why so little attention was paid to ‘the experts’ did not, and still do not, appreciate that these ‘experts’ are seen by most people of all political views as having botched financial regulation, made a load of rubbish predictions, then forced everybody else outside London to pay for the mess while they got richer and dodged responsibility. They are right. This is exactly what happened.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if that quote gets a mention at some stage during Marc’s talk.

I would add that there are some kinds of expertise that continue to be held in very high esteem.  Nobody doubts the expertise of the people who make all the machines and devices, mechanical and electrical, that keep our world ticking over efficiently and entertainingly.  Not all expertise is now held in low regard, only the kinds of expertise that Cummings itemises.

The room is already starting to fill up.

Email me (see top left of this blog) if you want to know more about these monthly speaker meetings at my home.

Friday February 03 2017

Last night I was at the Institute of Economic Affairs for the launch of James Tooley’s remarkable book, Imprisoned in India: Corruption and Extortion in the World’s Largest Democracy.

Here are a few of the photos I took of him, talking about this book:

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James Tooley is the guy who roams the earth, seeking out freelance educational enterprises, and also setting up several of his own.  But then, he fell foul of India’s criminal justice bureaucracy, and got imprisoned for a while.  Scary.  And then he wrote a book about it.  I have only read the bit at the end, because I wanted to know that James Tooley was okay.  I of course intend to read the rest, and then do my bit to plug it.

Judging by last night’s performance, James is fine.  But he is also haunted by the knowledge that many other victims of the same corrupt system are not as lucky, if that’s the word, as he was.

Also present at the launch were James Bartholomew and Martin Durkin:

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Both were effusive about the book, more than they had to be, if you get my drift.

The Q and A focussed, inevitably, on what is to be done, about the vast scale of the corruption in India.  The mood of the room, although packed, was grim.  My feeling is: you start by telling the story.  You start by writing books like this one.

And the rest of us start by reading them.

Friday January 27 2017

Friday is my day for cats and other creatures, but it is also David Thompson’s day for more substsantial collections of all this weird and wonderful on the internet, and one ephemeron (ephemeros? ephemerum?) in his collection today is this:

Brutalist colouring book.  Because concrete needs colour.

I followed that link.

Quote:

Brutalism lovers, sharpen your cold grey and warm grey pencils and add some colour to some great concrete constructions. First edition of 500 hundred copies. Each copy is numbered.

Ooh.  First edition.  Numbered copies.  Very arty.  Sign of the times?  I want it to be.

I have long thought that the brutalities of brutalism could use a bit of softening, and actually, a lot of softening.  With colour.  Bring it on.

Someone who agreed with me, from way back was, actually, would you believe?: Le Corbusier.  He was into bright colours to soften the brutalities of his brutalism, from the getgo.

(See also: these colourful kittens.  No softening needed there, but it was done anyway.)

Sunday December 25 2016

The idea was that, all alone in my snuggery, I would do lots of tidying up.  I have done some, but mostly I have been reading Anthony Beevor’s book, misleadingly entitled ”D-Day”, and unmisleadingly subtitled “The Battle for Normandy”.  For Beevor’s story goes from the early agonising about whether (because of the weather), and if so exactly when, the landings would be launched, right up until the German catastrophe that was the Falaise Pocket.  Then as now, despite much behind the scenes agonising, the short-term weather forecaster got it spot on, despite having far less to go on than his equivalents have now.

There’s nothing like the misfortunes of others to cheer you up.  Which is a terrible thing to say and I wouldn’t say it if there was any chance that my bad attitude was able to reach back into the past and make the sufferings of those soldiers, and all those French people caught up in the fighting, even worse.  But it won’t do that.  And anyway, what I mean is, I am really just acknowledging how much worse things were for that generation than they have been for mine.

And then, come Christmas time, there was the Battle of the Bulge for all the participants in this book to put up with, if they’d not already been killed, or injured and stretchered off.

I haven’t been reading this book solidly, in its correct order.  I have been dipping into it, reading about this or that episode, pretty much at random.  Today I was reading about how Brittany was liberated, which until now I knew very little about.  It helps a lot having been to all the towns and cities that get a mention.

Earlier, I read about what those Hawker Typhoons did, known to me until now only as an oil painting.  What the Typhoons did was destroy a hell of a lot fewer counter-attacking German tanks than they claimed at the time and ever since, but they scared the hell out of the German tank guys, which was almost as effective.  The counter-attack was duly snuffed out.

And when that book has finished entertaining me, I have another book, full of more evidence concerning how nice my life has been, this time about something that happened a year earlier.  Kursk.

Friday December 16 2016

Indeed.  Photoed by me in the Victoria Station branch of W.H. Smith, last week.

Friday is my day for other creatures, and you can’t get more other creatury than Fantastic Beasts, can you?

And here is Where to Find Them.  Well, it’s one of the places to find them:

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All the Penguin Modern Classics that they are selling occupy just the one alcove.  Thirty books to read in a lifetime, one alcove.  And Fantastic Beasts, one alcove.  The J.K. Rowling juggernaut rumbles on.

And that’s not even to mention Robert Galbraith.

Sunday October 30 2016

Photoed by me in Leake Street (where this cat was later to be seen), in July:

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And what a very appropriate word it is, for the point I am about to make.  Which is that although this new Graffiti Style of painting has now upstaged the old My Kid Could Do That Modernism of an earlier era, the two styles both have in common that they are, among other things, trying to baffle you rather than inform you, unless you are part of an inside clique which gets it.

In his book, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe wrote about this earlier sort of bafflement, the sort where you had to know what the theory was that was embodied in whatever random daub you were looking at in an Art gallery.  The new Graffiti style actually gives you words, literally.  But, you only know what they mean if you know what they mean.

But at least there is some real skill on show, in the form of how the words are presented.  They at least look pretty.  Your kid probably couldn’t do it, unless he’s one of the ones who does.

Thursday October 27 2016

It’s for lots of other things, for other people, like: a telly.  But that is definitely one of the things that the internet is, for me.

Whenever a new kind of information storage or information transmission comes along, people fret that it will replace all the previous ones.  And the others, which when they started were things that people fretted about, become good for you.  When reading by the masses got started, there was concern that the masses were doing too much of it, getting addicted to it, enjoying it too much.  Dear oh dear, can’t have that.  But then telly came along, and reading suddenly became good for you.  Telly was the thing that people were enjoying too much, wasting their lives on, etc. etc.

And now that the internet is here, you even hear people moaning that Young People These Days don’t spend enough time watching telly, because they are, you’ve guessed it, addicted to their smartphones (on which they watch telly).

My own feeling is that Young People These Days spend far more time than is good for them gadding about in the open air and watching tiny screens and not enough time sitting at home watching proper telly and proper computer screens, big enough to see what’s going on, the way God and Nature intended.  But that’s a feeling, based entirely on which exact generation I happen to be a member of, not a real opinion.  Young People These Days, as always, have better eyesight than oldies like me, and, unlike me now, they like to get out and have fun.  When I was a (moderately) YPTD, I loved small screens, like the one on the Osborne.  (Look it up.  Another thing the internet is is a machine for telling you things like what an Osborne was.)

The thing is, new methods of information storage or information transmission typically give the old ones a new lease of life, rather than the kiss of death, at any rate at first and often for ever.  Printing didn’t stop people talking to each other, it gave them interesting things to talk about.  Trains caused a surge in horse transport, to get people to and from the station.  The telly adapts books into telly-dramas, and people buy the books to find out what’s going on and who these people all are.  Telephones, email and now smartphones make it easier to organise face-to-face meetings.  The first big internet business sold books.  And lots of telly shows now consist of bits from the internet, for those who like telly.

And now, for me, one of the most useful uses of the internet is enabling me to keep track of what’s on the regular old telly.  Recently, for instance, I recorded a whole stash of Columbo episodes onto DVD.  But, which episodes were they and what order should they go on the DVD in?  The Radio Times only tells you so much?  How many Columbo episodes were there?  Who else besides Columbo himself was in them?  Step forward, the internet, to tell me all about that.

See also this other blog posting that I just did, in which, among other things, I give a plug to a face-to-face meeting that I will be hosting tomorrow evening.

Friday September 23 2016

The internet is fighting back against … cats!

Quote:

Cats are colonizers: this is what they do. They have colonized the internet just as they have colonized so many other habitats, always with the help of humans. This is the lesson of Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, a new book by conservation scientist Peter P. Marra and travel writer Chris Santella. From remote islands in the Pacific to the marshes of Galveston Bay, Cat Wars traces the various ways in which felines have infiltrated new landscapes, inevitably sowing death and devastation wherever they go.

Perhaps the most famous case of genocide-by-cat is that of the remote Stephens Island in New Zealand. Before the end of the 19th century, it was home to a unique species: the Stephens Island wren. One of only a few species of flightless songbirds, the wren ran low to the ground, looking more like a mouse than a bird. After a lighthouse was built on the island in 1894, a small human settlement was established; and with humans, invariably, come pets. At some point a pregnant cat, brought over from the mainland, escaped and roamed wild. The island’s wrens, unused to facing such a skillful predator, were no match for the feral cats that spread throughout the island. Within a year, the Stephens Island wren was extinct. It would take another 30 years to eradicate the feral cats.

This is not an isolated incident. Cats have contributed to species decline and habitat reduction in dozens of other cases. Because they’re so cute and beloved, we have little conception of — and little incentive to find out — how much damage cats are doing to our environment. When researcher Scott Loss tallied up the number of animals killed by North American housecats in a single year, the results were absolutely staggering: between 6.3 and 22.3 billion mammals, between 1.3 and 4 billion birds, between 95 and 299 million amphibians, and between 258 and 822 million reptiles.

Most books that get multiple reviews on Amazon get around four stars out of five, on average, because most of the reviews are from admirers and there are just a few from detractors.  This book gets a star average of one and a bit.