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- Big Things blocked by the trees of Southwark Park
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- Bookshops as Amazon showrooms
- Reflections on a strange coincidence involving an Android app and a malfunctioning bus stop sign
- Feynman Diagrams on the Feynman van
- Rothko Toast
- Wedding photography (3): Technology as sculpture
- And another posting from my smartphone
- Posted from my new smartphone
- Google Nexus 4 photos
- Wedding photography (2): Signs
- Wedding photography (1): The superbness of the weather
- A Fleet Street lunch
- So painters also used to “take” pictures
- Funniest run out ever?
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Category archive: Bits from books
Usually, when a blog goes rather quiet for no explained reason, one of two things then follows. Either the hiatus just goes on indefinitely, and the thing is eventually seen to be what it has been for some time, dead. Or, a mournful little posting appears in which this circumstance is made official. It’s over.
This blog is not dead, however. It is simply taking it easier. I did my customary period of relaxation over the summer, and found that this time I wasn’t inclined to get things here back up to speed, on the first day of some subsequent month. Instead, I have made a conscious effort to put more of my thoughts at my mothership, Samizdata, where many more will read them. And that means that less stuff goes here, what with there being only so much blogging that I seem able to do.
Quite a few of the recent postings here have been photo clutches, too photographically voluminous to be welcome at Samizdata, but which I have then linked to from Samizdata. I daresay that will keep happening.
Other postings, of the sort which go well here but not so well at Samizdata, have been fewer and further between. So, there’s been less here. However, Perry de Havilland does not encourage navel-gazing postings about the process of writing for Samizdata, and about its internal workings generally. So, if I want to say anything about that, as in this posting, it has to go here. Other things, which I just can’t be bothered to think about with the thoroughness that posting for Samizdata automatically encourages, also go here. Posting here is easier. Which might explain why so few people read this blog. They sense the casualness of it all. Life, for most, is too short for such casualness.
Another kind of posting that I prefer to put here, precisely because it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, is a big gob of stuff copied from a book, in a way that maybe flirts with copyright law. The most recent one of those being this.
I have been doing more for Samizdata and less here for purely selfish reasons. It is to my personal advantage for Samizdata to continue to flourish. So, if it seems not to be flourishing as much as I would like it to at any particular moment, it is in my interest to make it flourish a bit more. Which is not that hard to do, but it does involve a bit of effort.
It’s kind of the opposite principle to the Tragedy of the Commons. What would that be? The Comedy of the Commons? That’s not the right phrase, but I do like it.
I’m reading what I think will prove to be a terrific book, about The Fall of the Roman Empire by Peter Heather. Here is some of what Heather says about the massacre of the lost legions of Varus in 9 AD (pp. 46-47):
The massacre was the work of a coalition of Germanic warriors marshalled by one Arminius, a chieftain of the Cherusci, a small tribe living between the River Ems and the River Weser in what is now northern Germany. The ancient Roman sources describing the defeat were rediscovered and passed into broader circulation among Latin scholars in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and from that point on Arminius, generally known as Hermann (’the German’) - the delatinized version of his name - became a symbol of German nationhood. Between 1676 and 1910 an extraordinary seventy-six operas were composed to celebrate his exploits, and in the nineteenth century a huge monument was constructed in his honour near the small city of Detmold in the middle of what is today called the Teutoburger Wald. The foundation stone was laid in 1841, and the monument was finally dedicated in 1875, four years after Bismarck’s defeat of France had united much of the Cerman-speaking world of north-central Europe behind the Prussian monarchy. The 28-metre copper statue of Hermann is mounted on top of a stone base of similar height, which itself sits on top of a 400-metre hill. The edifice was a reminder that the triumph of modem German unification had its counterpart in the Roman era.
The Hermann monument is actually in the wrong place. The name Teutoburger Wald was first coined for the forested area around Detmold in the seventeenth century, as people began to conjecture where the ancient battle might have taken place. Thanks to some extraordinary finds, part of the actual battlefield has now been identified about 70 kilometres to the north. ...
On the right there is the monument.
I regularly read in books about classical music that opera was central to rise of nationalism in Germany, and also in Italy. But that really drives that point home, I think.
A few months back I discovered that there were other Emmanuel Todd fans out there besides me, notably Lexington Green of Chicago Boyz, and James C. Bennett. Emails were exchanged, and I met up with Bennett in London. Very helpful.
Here is a big moment in what I hope may prove to be the long overdue rise and rise of Emmanuel Todd in the English speaking world. Todd is quoted here by Lexington Green, and then linked to from here. Yes indeed, Instapundit. Okay, this is because what Todd is quoted saying happens to chime in with what Instapundit wants to be saying, but … whatever. That’s how Instalaunches work.
The Todd quote:
A double movement will assure the advancement of human history. The developing world is heading toward democracy — pushed by the movement toward full literacy that tends to create culturally more homogeneous societies. As for the industrialized world, it is being encroached on to varying degrees by a tendency toward oligarchy — a phenomenon that has emerged with the development of educational stratification that has divided societies into layers of “higher,” “lower,” and various kinds of “middle” classes.
However, we must not exaggerate the antidemocratic effects of this unegalitarian educational stratification. Developed countries, even if they become more oligarchical, remain literate countries and will have to deal with the contradictions and conflicts that could arise between a democratically leaning literate mass and university-driven stratification that favors oligarchical elites.
Todd’s book, despite its flaws, is full of good insights. This passage was prescient. The Tea Party (“a democratically leaning literate mass”) and it’s opponents, the “Ruling Class” described by Angelo Codevilla, ("oligarchical elites") are well-delineated by Todd, several years before other people were focused on this phenomenon.
This may cause a little flurry of Toddery in my part of the www. Not all of it will be favourable, to put it mildly, because the book quoted is fiercely anti-American, and totally wrong-headed about economics. Todd is one of those people who insists on dividing economic activity into “real” and “unreal” categories, solid and speculative, honest and delusional. Todd’s problem is that he imagines that the making of things that hurt your foot when you drop them is inherently less risky than, say, operating as a financial advisor or a hedge fund manager. But both are risky. It is possible to make too many things. Similar illusions were entertained in the past about how agriculture was real, while mere thing-making was unreal.
Todd believes that the US economy is being “hollowed out”, with delusional activity crowding out “real” activity.
The problem is that Todd is not completely wrong. Economic dodginess was indeed stalking the USA in 2002. But the explanation for the processes that actually did occur and are occurring, which are easily confused with what Todd said back in 2002 was happening, and which will hence make him all the more certain that his wrongness is right, is not that manufacturing is real and financial services unreal, but that for Austrian economics reasons (Todd appears to have no idea whatever about Austrian economics), all dodgy and speculative activities, most emphatically including dodgy manufacturing ventures, have been encouraged by bad financial policies. Todd also seems to imagine that only the USA has been guilty of such follies. If only.
Such are some of the flaws in this book that LG refers to.
But none of that impinges on Todd’s fundamental achievements as a social scientist, which I have long thought ought to resonate in my part of the www. This should help.
From the Preface of The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins:
A lawyer or a politician is paid to exercise his passion and his persuasion on behalf of a client or a cause in which he may not privately believe. I have never done this and I never shall. I may not always be right, but I care passionately about what is true and I never say anything that I do not believe to be right. I remember being shocked when visiting a university debating society to debate with creationists. At dinner after the debate, I was placed next to a young woman who had made a relatively powerful speech in favour of creationism. She clearly couldn’t be a creationist, so I asked her to tell me honestly why she had done it. She freely admitted that she was simply practising her debating skills, and found it more challenging to advocate a position in which she did not believe. Apparently it is common practice in university debating societies for speakers simply to be told on which side they are to speak. Their own beliefs don’t come into it. I had come a long way to perform the disagreeable task of public speaking, because I believed in the truth of the motion that I had been asked to propose. When I discovered that members of the society were using the motion as a vehicle for playing arguing games, I resolved to decline future invitations from debating societies that encourage insincere advocacy on issues where scientific truth is at stake.
I uphold the right of people to indulge in such debating games, but share Dawkins’s extreme distaste for having any part in them myself. I also think that Dawkins makes his point very well, as is usual with him.
The thing that pissed me off about university debating societies like this one was not so much the insincerity, as the fact that they seemed to use the argument as a mere excuse to do bad stand-up comedy. They weren’t seriously pretending to take the other side. They frivolously refused to take any side at all, and didn’t give a damn that they made this entirely obvious. Poor, pathetic you for taking the subject so absurdly seriously, for caring about it all, for getting so involved.
The thing some people don’t seem to get about Dawkins is how much emotion is involved in his fiercely logical harangues. They assume that because he is trying so hard to be logical, which he is, that therefore no deep feeling can be involved. But there is no necessary conflict between logic and depth of feeling, any more than there is a necessary conflict between a car engine and petrol.
Just now I am on the look out for little (or big) things from books, so that I can practice scanning stuff in, to my new computer, with my new scanner. Right now it is still a bit of a struggle, so expect more bits from more books.
Some months ago I began reading The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, which is a blow by blow account of twentieth century classical music. Reading and greatly enjoying.
Trouble is, it’s a very big book, even in paperback, which makes it not-ideal for carrying around London, travelling being one of the main ways I read books. (No internet to distract.) So, despite liking this book a lot, I now realise that I stopped reading it and that I switched to a succession of other equally enticing volumes that were not so big. I am only now back with it, having resumed at a time when I was at home, but de-internetted by new computer turmoil.
On page 317, Ross says something I have long thought, but never myself put into written down words, or even said out loud very much:
Hollywood may have been hazardous territory for composers, but they at least felt wanted there, as they never did in American concert halls. The shift to talkies had created a mania for continuous sound. Just as actors in screwball comedies had to talk a mile a minute, composers were called upon to underline every gesture and emphasize every emotion. An actress could hardly serve a cup of coffee without having fifty Max Steiner strings swoop in to assist her. ("What that awful music does,” Bette Davis once said to Gore Vidal, “is erase the actor’s performance, note by note.")
Well said, Bette.
But things improved. Ross continues:
Early movie scores had a purely illustrative function, which composers called “Mickey-Mousing”: if a British frigate sails into the frame, “Rule, Britannia” plays. Later, composers introduced techniques of musical distancing and irony, along the lines of Sergei Eisenstein’s counterpointing of image and sound. Music could be used to reveal a hidden psychological subtext, ...
Indeed. There then follows an admiring description of the music written for The Grapes of Wrath by Aaron Copland. Very influential, says Ross.
This soundtrack-composer-usurping-the-actors style of movie music only completely died out in the sixties and seventies, when they started using pop music for soundtracks, music with an insistent beat of its own which is quite unable to supply this kind of detailed and non-rhythmic “help” for actors. What a relief that was. Suddenly the actors were revealed as able to act perfectly well without such help. Every so often, I watch an old movie on the telly, starring someone like Doris Day, and suddenly we are back with that awful oh-look-she’s-adjusting-her-hat, she’s-a-bit-sad, ooh-now-Rock-Hudson-has-just-cheered-her-up style of movie musical accompaniment. I realise now that Doris Day was perhaps not a completely god-awful film actress with all the subtlety of a container ship trying to win a round-the-harbour speedboat race. It was just that the people writing, directing, editing and musically accompanying Doris Day’s performances were all tasteless idiots.
Another reason I am now reading The Rest is Noise is that I recently attended a lecture given by Ross at the British Library. The lecture rather outstayed its welcome, for me. Ross had about twenty interesting minutes worth of stuff to say about descending base lines as a way of signalling sorrowfulness in sorrowful songs, but took an hour to say it. Nevertheless, the point was a good one and there were many delightful musical illustrations, my favourite being when he played “Hit the Road Jack”.
Afterwards, having already read and liked some of the earlier Alex Ross book, I bought a signed copy of the latest one. But, not having finished reading the previous book, I wanted to do that first.
No welcomes outstayed in either of these books, or not so far. Almost every page of them contains stuff just as worthy of blogvertisement as the above bit that I happened to choose. And if, when you are reading a book, you fancy a break, you can have one. Lectures happen in lecture time. Books can be read in your own time.
Several times over the last few years in my bloggings I have referred to Professor C. Northcote Parkinson’s observations about the inverse relationship between architectural splendour and institutional accomplishment. It would have been useful to have been able to link to an explication of these ideas. Better late than never. Here are the paragraphs I had in mind. They are chapter 8, “Plans and Plants”, of Parkinson’s Law or The Pursuit of Progress, first published in the USA in 1957, and in the UK in 1958. The Edifice Complex is nothing new.
Every student of human institutions is familiar with the standard test by which the importance of the individual may be assessed. The number of doors to be passed, the number of his personal assistants, the number of his telephone receivers - these three figures, taken with the depth of his carpet in centimetres, have given us a simple formula that is reliable for most parts of the world. It is less widely known that the same sort of measurement is applicable, but in reverse, to the institution itself.
Take, for example, a publishing organization. Publishers have a strong tendency, as we know, to live in a state of chaotic squalor. The visitor who applies at the obvious entrance is led outside and around the block down an alley and up three flights of stairs. A research establishment is similarly housed, as a rule, on the ground floor of what was once a private house, a crazy wooden corridor leading thence to a corrugated-iron hut in what was once the garden. Are we not all familiar, moreover, with the layout of an international airport? As we emerge from the aircraft, we see (over to our right or left) a lofty structure wrapped in scaffolding. Then the air hostess leads us into a hut with an asbestos roof. Nor do we suppose for a moment that it will ever be otherwise. By the time the building is complete the airfield will have been moved to another site.
The institutions already mentioned - lively and productive as they may be - flourish in such shabby and makeshift surroundings that we might turn with relief to an institution clothed from the outset with convenience and dignity. The outer door in bronze and glass, is placed centrally in a symmetrical facade. Polished shoes glide quietly over shining rubber to the glittering and silent lift. The overpoweringly cultured receptionist will murmur with carmine lips into an ice-blue receiver. She will, wave you into a chromium armchair, consoling you with a dazzling smile for any slight but inevitable delay. Looking up from a glossy magazine, you will observe how the wide corridors radiate towards departments A, B, and C. From behind closed doors will come the subdued noise of an ordered activity. A minute later and you are ankle deep in the director’s carpet, plodding sturdily towards his distant, tidy desk. Hypnotized by the chief’s unwavering stare, cowed by the Matisse hung upon his wall, you will feel that you have found real efficiency at last.
In point of fact you will have discovered nothing of the kind. It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse. This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the more esoteric details of which we need not concern ourselves. In general principle, however, the method pursued has been to select and date the buildings which appear to have been perfectly designed for their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.
Thus, to the casual tourist, awestruck in front of St Peter’s, Rome, the Basilica and the Vatican must seem the ideal setting for the Papal Monarchy at the very height of its prestige and power. Here, he reflects, must Innocent III have thundered his anathema. Here must Gregory VII have laid down the law. But a glance at the guide-book will convince the traveller that the really powerful Popes reigned long before the present dome was raised, and reigned not infrequently somewhere else. More than that, the later Popes lost half their authority while the work was still in progress. Julius II, whose decision it was to build, and Leo X, who approved Raphael’s design, were dead long before the buildings assumed their present shape. Bramante’s palace was still building until 1565, the great church not consecrated until 1626, nor the piazza colonnades finished until 1667. The great days of the Papacy were over before the perfect setting was even planned. They were almost forgotten by the date of its completion.
That this sequence of events is in no way exceptional can be proved with ease. Just such a sequence can be found in the history of the League of Nations. Great hopes centred on the League from its inception in 1920 until about 1930. By 1933, at the latest, the experiment was seen to have failed. Its physical embodiment, however, the Palace of the Nations, was not opened until 1937. It was a structure no doubt justly admired. Deep thought had gone into the design of secretariat and council chambers, committee-rooms and cafeteria. Everything was there which ingenuity could devise - except indeed, the League itself. By the year when its Palace was formally opened the League had practically ceased to exist.
It might be urged that the Palace of Versailles is an instance of something quite opposite; the architectural embodiment of Louis XIV’s monarchy at its height. But here again the facts refuse to fit the theory. For granted that Versailles may typify the triumphant spirit of that age, it was mostly completed very late in the reign, and some of it indeed during the reign that followed. The building of Versailles mainly took place between 1669 and 1685. The king did not move there until 1682, and even then the work was still in progress. The famous royal bedroom was not occupied until 1701, nor the chapel finished until nine years later. Considered as a seat of government, rather than a royal residence, Versailles dates in part from as late as 1756. On the other hand, Louis XIV’s real triumphs were mostly before 1679, the apex of his career being reached in 1682 itself and his power declining from about 1685. According to one historian, Louis, in coming to Versailles, ‘was already sealing the doom of his line and race’. Another says off Versailles that ‘The whole thing ... was completed just when the decline of Louis’ power had begun.’ A third tacitly supports this theory by describing the period 1685-1713 as ‘The years of Decline’. In other words, the visitor who thinks Versailles the place from which Turenne rode forth to victory is essentially mistaken. It would be historically more correct to picture the embarrassment, in that setting, of those who came with the news of defeat at Blenheim. In a palace respondent with emblems of victory they can hardly have known which way to look.
Mention of Blenheim must naturally call to mind the palace of that name built for the victorious Duke of Marlborough. Here again we have a building ideally planned, this time as the place of retirement for a national hero. Its heroic proportions are more dramatic perhaps than convenient, but the general effect is just what the architects intended. No scene could more fittingly enshrine a legend. No setting could have been more appropriate for the meeting of old comrades on the anniversary of a battle. Our pleasure, however in picturing the scene is spoiled by our realization that it cannot have taken place. The Duke never lived there and never saw it finished. His actual residence was at Holywell, near St Albans, and (when in town) at Marlborough House. He died at Windsor Lodge and his old comrades, when they held a reunion, are known to have dined in a tent. Blenheim took long in building, not because of the elaboration of the design - which was admittedly quite elaborate enough - but because the Duke was in disgrace and even, for two year, in exile during the period which might otherwise have witnessed its completion.
What of the monarchy which the Duke of Marlborough served? Just as tourists now wander, guide-book in hand, through the Orangerie or the Galerie des Glaces, so the future archaeologist may peer around what once was London. And he may well incline to see in the ruins of Buckingham Palace a true expression of British monarchy. He will trace the great avenue from Admiralty Arch to the palace gate. He will reconstruct the forecourt and the central balcony, thinking all the time how suitable it must have been for a powerful ruler whose sway extended to the remote parts of the world. Even a present-day American might be tempted to shake his head over the arrogance of a George III, enthroned in such impressive state as this. But again we find that the really powerful monarchs all lived somewhere else, in buildings long since vanished - at Greenwich or Nonesuch, Kenilworth or Whitehall. The builder of Buckingham Palace was George IV, whose court architect, John Nash, was responsible for what was described at the time as its ‘general feebleness and triviality of taste’. But George IV himself, who lived at Carlton House or Brighton, never saw the finished work; nor did William IV, who ordered its completion. It was Queen Victoria who first took up residence there in 1837, being married from the new palace in 1840. But her first enthusiasm for Buckingham Palace was relatively short-lived. Her husband infinitely preferred Windsor and her own later preference was for Balmoral or Osbome. The splendours of Buckingham Palace are therefore to be associated, if we are to be accurate, with a later and strictly constitutional monarchy. It dates from a period when power was vested in Parliament.
It is natural, therefore, to ask at this point whether the Palace of Westminster, where the House of Commons meets, is itself a true expression of parliamentary rule. It represents beyond question a magnificent piece of planning, aptly designed for debate and yet provided with ample space for everything else - for committee meetings, for quiet study, for refreshment, and (on its terrace) for tea. It has everything a legislator could possibly desire, all incorporated in a building of immense dignity and comfort. It should date - but this we now hardly dare assume - from a period when parliamentary rule was at its height. But once again the dates refuse to fit into this pattern. The original House, where Pitt and Fox were matched in oratory, was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1834. It would appear to have been as famed for its inconvenience as for its lofty standard of debate. The present structure was begun in 1840, partly occupied in 1852, but incomplete when its architect died in 1860. It finally assumed its present appearance in about 1868. Now, by what we can no longer regard as coincidence, the decline of Parliament can be traced, without much dispute, to the Reform Act of 1867. It was in the following year that all initiative in legislation passed from Parliament to be vested in the Cabinet. The prestige attached to the letters ‘M.P.’ began sharply to decline and thenceforward the most that could be said is that ‘a role, though a humble one, was left for private members. The great days were over.
The same could not be said of the various Ministries, which were to gain importance in proportion to Parliament’s decline. Investigation may yet serve to reveal that the India Office reached its peak of efficiency when accommodated in the Westminster Palace Hotel. What is more significant, however, is the recent development of the Colonial Office. For while the British Empire was mostly acquired at a period when the Colonial Office (in so far as there was one) occupied haphazard premises in Downing Street, a new phase of colonial policy began when the department moved into buildings actually designed for the purpose. This was in 1875 and the structure Was well designed as a background for the disasters of the Boer War. But the Colonial Office gained a new lease of life during World War II. With its move to temporary and highly inconvenient premises in Great Smith Street - premises leased from the Church of England and intended for an entirely different purpose - British colonial policy entered that phase of enlightened activity which will end no doubt with the completion of the new building planned on the site of the old Westminster Hospital. It is reassuring to know that work on this site has not even begun.
But no other British example can now match in significance the story of New Delhi. Nowhere else have British architects been given the task of planning so great a capital city as the seat of government for so vast a population. The intention to found New Delhi was announced at the Imperial Durbar of 1911, King George V being at that time the Mogul’s successor on what had been the Peacock Throne. Sir Edwin Lutyens then proceeded to draw up plans for a British Versailles, splendid in conception, comprehensive in detail, masterly in design and overpowering in scales. But the stages of its progress towards completion correspond with so many steps in political collapse. The Government of India Act of 1909 had been the prelude to all that followed - the attempt on the Viceroy’s life in 1912, the Declaration of 1917, the Montagu-Chelmsford Report of 1918 and its implementation In 1920. Lord Irwin actually moved into his new palace in 1929, the year in which the Indian Congress demanded independence, the year in which the Round Table Conference opened, the year before the Civil Disobedience campaign began. It would be possible, though tedious, to trace the whole story down to the day when the British finally withdrew, showing how each phase of the retreat was exactly paralleled with the completion of another triumph in civic design. What was finally achieved was no more and no less than a mausoleum.
The decline of British imperialism actually began with the general election of 1906 and the victory on that occasion of liberal and semi-socialist ideas. It need surprise no one, therefore, to observe that 1906 is the date of completion carved in imperishable granite over the War Office doors. The campaign of Waterloo might have been directed from poky offices around the Horse Guards Parade. It was, by contrast, in surroundings of dignity that were approved the plans for attacking the Dardanelles. Might it be that the elaborate layout of the Pentagon at Arlington, Virginia, provides another significant lesson for planners? It would be unfair to detect an element of logic in the siting of the Pentagon alongside the National Cemetery, but the subject seems at least worthy of investigation.
It is by no means certain that an influential reader of this chapter could prolong the life of a dying institution merely by depriving it of its streamlined headquarters. What he can do, however, with more confidence, is to prevent any organization strangling itself at birth. Examples abound of new institutions coming into existence with a full establishment of deputy directors, consultants, and executives, all these coming together in a building specially designed for their purpose. And experience proves that such an institution will die. It is choked by its own perfection. It cannot take root for lack of soil. It cannot grow naturally for it is already grown. Fruitless by its very nature, it cannot even flower. When we see an example of such planning - when we are confronted for example by the building designed for the United Nations - the experts among us shake their heads sadly, draw a sheet over the corpse, and tiptoe quietly into the open air.
I am slowly reading through The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross. Slowly, because this is too big a book to be lugging around on my travels in London, and my travels in London are when I do a lot of my reading. To any readers wanting to know more than they know now about twentieth century classical music and the people who composed it, I heartily recommend it. It requires no knowledge of musical notation or musical jargon to read, for one of the most notable features of the Ross achievement is that he is able to write descriptively about music, which is, as anyone who has tried will know, very hard to do well.
I am now at the chapter on Weimar Berlin, Mahagonny, etc.. The previous chapter featured Sibelius, and here are a couple of good quotes to illustrate how well-written, entertaining and informative this book is.
First, here is Ross explaining how the almost instant public admiration, and not just in Finland, that greeted Sibelius contrasted with critical suspicion (p. 175 of my paperback edition):
Mainstream audiences may lag behind the intellectual classes in appreciating the more adventurous composers, but sometimes they are quicker to perceive the value of music that the politicians of style fail to comprehend. Nicolas Slonimsky once put together a delightful book tided Lexicon of Musical Invective, anthologizing wrongheaded music criticism in which now canonical masterpieces were compared to feline caterwauling, barnyard noises, and so on. Slonimsky should also have written a Lexicon of Musical Condescension, gathering high-minded essays in which now canonical masterpieces were dismissed as kitsch, with a long section reserved for Sibelius.
The fourth Sibelius’ symphony is more shockingly modernistic than his earlier works, and here Ross describes the Finnish reaction to that (p. 180):
When the Fourth Symphony had its first performance, in April 1911, Finnish audiences were taken aback. “People avoided our eyes, shook their heads,” Aino Sibelius recalled. “Their smiles were embarrassed, furtive or ironic. Not many people came backstage to the artists’ room to pay their respects.” This was a Skandalkonzert in Scandinavian style, a riot of silence.
Aino being his wife.
Finally, a quote from Sibelius himself. Sibelius was famously fond of alcohol, and also smoked a lot, but despite it all he lived to the age of ninety-one. Sibelius described this thus (p. 191):
“ All the doctors who wanted to forbid me to smoke and to drink are dead.”
The Rest is Noise has merits too numerous to list, but one in particular, for me, stands out, which is that Ross is always aware of what was going on in the popular culture at the times he describes, and especially of course in popular music. Another thing I like is that he is always aware of the wider historical setting in general. I am not just learning more about twentieth century music by reading this book. I am learning more about the twentieth century.
Well done the IEA for doing a new edition of Lawrence White‘s Free Banking in Britain - Theory, Experience and Debate 1800-1845, and my thanks to Johnathan Pearce for flagging this up. Here, quoted in its entirety below, is the Preface to the original 1984 edition, ocr-ed by me today so that others can copy and paste at will. The IEA is giving away a crudely scanned-in but perfectly legible version of this for free on line, so there’s no way they are going to object to me recycling a chunk of it here.
Economists who today support open competition in other industries commonly balk at the prospect of unfettered competitive supply of currency. Theoretical concerns notwithstanding, this attitude may ultimately be an outgrowth of early 19th-century English experience. England was beset with notoriously unstable country banks whose instability was an indirect consequence of the Bank of England’s privileges. The seeming perniciousness of the competition among the country banks in England turned many English economists and policy-makers away from free trade in banking. The supposed inherent instability of unregulated banking provided the pretext for the Bank of England’s accumulation of centralising privileges and powers through legislation, culminating in the Bank Acts of 1844 and 1845. It was as the result of legislative acts that the Bank of England came to play its central roles in the English monetary system; virtually the sole holder of gold reserves, guardian of the foreign exchange, lender of last resort, and banker to the state. Thereafter the English system, centred on the Bank of England, served as a model for national banking systems throughout the world. Today the triumph of central banking is largely taken for granted.
One of history’s great What If?s, in other words. It’s the old statist one-two. First wreck the free market, then get everyone blaming the free market for the resulting mess and wreck it some more.
Yet England might have moved in another direction in the second quarter of the 19th century. It might have allowed free banking, the unrestricted competitive issue of specie-convertible money . . .
Yes, I often read that phrase “specie-convertible” but am never entirely sure exactly what it means. What, in particular, does “specie” mean? I did a bit of googling but could only find circumstances where the phrase was used, rather than defined. I think that specie-convertible money means being able to swap a bank note for stuff, but would like that confirmed, clairified or modified. Anyone?
. . . by unprivileged private banks. In the banking system of Scotland the English had close at hand the example of a free banking system operating successfully for more than a century. The coronation of the Bank of England as a central bank in 1844 was not compelled by lack of a viable alternative. Nor did free banking lack cogent defenders.
This work re-examines free banking in Britain, both as it existed and as it was regarded by economists of the day. After building a theory of free banking, its central chapters explore the history of Scotland’s experience with free banking and the contemporary policy debate over the question of whether Parliament should allow free banking in London. The results begin to provide, we believe, a vindication of free banking in theory and in practice and a rehabilitation of the advocates of free banking. The resuscitation of the heretofore neglected Free Banking School in the British monetary controversies of the 1820-50 period yields, as an important by-product, a revised picture of those famous debates.
As the final chapter emphasises, the question of free banking or central banking need not be solely of antiquarian interest. . . .
You can say that again, so I will: “. . . the question of free banking or central banking need not be solely of antiquarian interest. . . .”.
Our recent banking turmoils have brought the free banking debate roaring back into the centre of our intellectual - if not quite yet our political - life. Until a few months ago, there was a widespread if not universal consensus that banks had to be regulated, and that they were being regulated satisfactorily. For die-hard statists, the lesson of the last few months and years is merely that the banks have been wholly unregulated by the state, and that the answer is lots of state regulation. For other slightly less ferociously statist statists, i.e. for many of the current political leaders of the rich countries, banks have been state-regulated, yes, but wrongly and insufficiently, and there must now be more and better state regulations. Think: Angela Merkel and John Redwood.
In the short run, this may be right. It may be that practical politics only now allows a choice between bad regulation and not-such-bad regulation, and in such a world, not-such-bad regulation may be the sensible thing to argue for, if you are a politician grappling with the here-and-now within the bounds of what is politically possible now. Analogy: suppose you lived in a world where railway nationalisation is a politically unchallengeable given. You are choosing between having good signals, or bad signals. You would choose good signals.
But such unsatisfactory policy dilemmas are inevitably making the keenest young minds of the next generation, the ones who don’t know what the ideal monetary regime would consist of but who want to know, to ponder one of the proposed ideal answers: a free market in money. I don’t claim that such thoughts dominate the minds of the next thinking generation. But I do say that such thoughts are being thought by enough of them to make a decisive difference to the intellectual atmosphere in the medium-term future, and thus potentially also to decision making in the long run.
Back to 1984:
F. A. Hayek (1978) is foremost among those trying to make it a live issue once again. Whatever the chances of political success for “denationalisation of money” in the near future (they admittedly seem to be small), it is necessary to consider the feasibility of free banking in order to gain a proper perspective on the role of central banking in a market economy. If the market process is competent to evolve a stable and self-regulating monetary order in the absence of a privileged central bank, as seen in Scotland, then central banking cannot be regarded as a necessary framework without which a free market economy would collapse. It must instead become evident that centralbanks exist for a different reason, principally that central governments have sponsored them as an effective source of revenue through money creation.
An unintended consequence of central bank activity, one stressed by economists beginning with the Free Banking School and moving on to Mises (1912; 1928) and Hayek (1935) and on still farther to Friedman (1960) and Lucas (1981), is the creation of monetary instability and business cycles. The severity and recurrence of business cycles in modem industrial economies should be viewed as evidence of endemic fumbling not on the part of the market order’s invisible hand, but on the part of the non market institutions of monetary authority. This point of view has been put forth strongly by Hayek (1978, p. 97):‘The supposed chief weakness of the market order, the recurrence of periods of mass unemployment, is always pointed out by . . . critics as an inseparable and unpardonable defect of capitalism. It proves in fact wholly to be the result of government preventing private enterprise from working freely and providing itself with a money that would secure stability.’
It may seem odd that a work on free banking by an American economist does not examine the well-known American experience and debates over free banking. It became evident early in the research stage that this work could not cover both American and British free banking in adequate depth. The choice was made to focus on Britain for three reasons. Firstly, the trial of free banking in Scotland was both longer and more indisputably free of significant government regulation than the various trials of free banking in American states. Scotland made a clearer case study. Secondly, the debates over free banking in Britain show a higher overall degree of sophistication than the American debates. Thirdly, and most importantly, the fact that Britain both experienced and debated free banking on a major scale is far less well known at least to American economists - than the fact that the United States went through a period of controversy over and experimentation with free banking. There remain for other works the interesting tasks of reinterpreting the American experience and debate, and contrasting them with the British experience and debate explored here.
I see that my earlier posting on free market money and free market banking has stimulated some refreshingly basic thoughts about money and about how governments intervene in and control money from Patrick Crozier.
“I will cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the scriptures than thou dost.”
John Carey on Shakespeare and the high-art/ popular-art distinction
Switching from dumb bombing to smart bombing
“I’ll build it with explosive bolts connecting the wings to the fuselage …”
If the Jews have been running the world they haven’t been doing it very successfully
Terence Kealey on the Wright brothers and their patent battles
Ed Smith on how baseball defeated cricket in America
Understanding is the booby prize exclamation mark
Will China fail?
A dreadful age
Richard Dawkins on the Muhammad cartoons affair
Is Jeremy Paxman a closet libertarian?