Friday, February 15, 2019

time travel to the shops in 2002


anti-bacterial moisturising handwash



get it together


Bench, Psycho Cowboy, Drunknmunky


A deep family-style trolley full of bulging white bags. Only the French stick and a big packet of bread rolls need to travel exposed.


                                    [photo of Harry Potter type  reading a book of spells]

Low prices on books,

even when he graduates


Osiris (skate shoes - extravagantly wide tongues, named designers)






pots big x 5                 coke
new pots                      diet coke
carrots x 2                  olive oil
leeks x 2                      rice
onions x 2                   spaghetti
fine beans                   bread
mushrooms                rolls
                                    bolg. sauce
                                    chicken tonight
                                                - h + m
tampax – reg.             kievs
snackajacks               stuffing balls
packed lunch              actimel
            stuff                parsnips



B L U E   H A R B O U R

(accompanied by an oblong of blue and red on a black background, suggesting a nautical flag)


Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile, Orange, Virgin Mobile


Butter     Oats    Flaked almonds
Honey    Ground almonds     Lemon Juice

Serpentine Green, Peterborough 2002

[Image source: ]


CLIMATE CHANGE -- OUR VIEW     (pamphlet in Esso service stations)

There is much concern today about man’s potential role in climate change, often referred to as ‘global warming’, and the long-term risk this may pose.

Man-made greenhouse gas emissions occur primarily from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). So we take climate change very seriously. There are still many gaps in the understanding of climate change, but it poses serious long-term risks and uncertainty is no reason for inaction.

Action is needed, but as greenhouse gases arise from everyday energy use, it is important that actions should address environmental concerns but not threaten standards of living or economic growth. A focus on new technology will be essential.


- Vigorous pursuit of energy efficiency. Saving energy reduces emissions.

- Promotion of carbon ‘storage’ through forestry and agriculture.


It is consistent with Esso’s longstanding commitment to the environment, reflected in our track record of leading our industry in introducing ‘cleaner’ fuels to motorists in the UK, our global record of excellent environmental performance and the recent confirmation by the international quality assessor Lloyd’s Register that our company is ‘among the leaders in industry’ in integrating environmental management into our business.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

the last word in Shakespeare


Ah, hark, the fatal followers do pursue,
And I am faint and cannot fly their fury;
And were I strong, I would not shun their fury.
The sands are numbered that makes up my life....

(3 Henry VI, 1.4.22-25)

This post is about an ornament that shows up in early Shakespeare plays. It consists of making successive or nearly-successive lines end in the same word, e.g. 1.4.23-24 in the passage above.

It probably has some technical name that I don't know. (I don't feel like co-opting the rhetorical term epistrophe.) And it probably should be studied in the wider context of the early Shakespeare's fondness for patterns of word-repetition elsewhere (e.g. the beginnings of successive lines) . But for this post, we'll ignore that and stick to the line-endings only.

This ornament is quite different from identical rhyme in Chaucer and others. Identical rhyme requires two homonyms with different senses, whereas in Shakespeare the repeated words usually have the same sense.

Below are some quick counts from 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI , 3 Henry VI , and Richard III. They are not rigorous. I haven't investigated how reliable each reading is. I've ignored word-repeats when they are separated by more than one intervening line. I've also ignored them if the words are unstressed syllables. Some rhymes are moot so I've used my own judgment: in hindsight I probably should have included rhymes where one ends in -s and the other doesn't, but it's too late now. Anyway, my totals are:

         word-repeats   rhymes
1H6      20                   123
2H6:     18                   37
3H6      44                   48
R3        58                   51

The two devices are not used in the same way. Rhymes tend to clinch a speech or end a scene. Word-repeats often jump between speakers and suggest ongoing debate rather than a concluding cadence.

In viewing these figures, authorship specialists shouldn't get too excited. The plays differ widely; for example 1H6 has some fully rhymed scenes (mostly by Shakespeare, according to Vincent), 2H6 has quite a lot of prose, 3H6 has hardly any prose, and some scenes in R3 are very highly patterned.

Both word-repeats and rhyme are conscious devices, and Shakespeare (or whoever) employs them  in an artistic, intuitive way, so these wide variations in the totals probably aren't significant from an authorship point of view.

1 Henry VI

Lines ending in repeated words:

1.1.86-87 France
1.3.15-16 here/hear 44-45 face
1.5.4-5 thee
2.5.17-18,20 come 33-34 come
3.1.68-69 Winchester 147-148 not 168-169 blood 180,182 York 186-187 York 207-208 all
3.2.117,119 Burgundy
3.3.36-37 Burgundy 74-75 men
4.1.86-87 wrong
5.3.124,126 wife 178-179 Margaret
5.4.171-172 England
5.5.66-67,69 king


1.1.33-34, 89-90, 146-147, 158-159, 179-180 (ends scene)
1.2.13-14, 86-87, 92-93, 115-116, 117-118, 133-134
1.3.43-44, 45-46, 53-54, 55-56
1.6.30-31 (ends scene)
2.4.17-18, 36-37, 69-70, 127-128, 134-135 (ends scene)
2.5.8-9, 76-77, 128-129 (ends scene)
3.2.138-139 (ends scene)
4.1.194-195 (ends scene)
4.2.55-56 (ends scene)
4.3.29-30, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, 40-41, 42-43, 44-45,46-47, 53-54 (ends scene)
4.4.8-9, 38-39, 45-46 (ends scene)
4.5.16-17, 18-19, 20-21, 22-23, 24-25, 26-27, 28-29, 30-31, 32-33, 34-35, 36-37, 38-39, 40-41, 42-43, 44-45, 46-47, 48-49, 50-51, 52-53, 54-55 (ends scene)
4.6.2-3, 4-5,6-7, 8-9, 10-11,12-13, 14-15, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21, 22-23, 24-25, 26-27, 28-29, 30-31, 32-33, 34-35, 36-37, 38-39, 40-41, 42-43, 44-45, 46-47, 48-49, 50-51, 52-53, 54-55, 56-57 (ends scene)
4.7.1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, 11-12, 13-14, 15-16, 17-18, 19-20, 21-22, 23-24, 25-26, 30-31, 32-33, 36-37, 38-39, 40-41, 42-43, 44-45, 46-47, 48-49, 50-51, 95-96, 98-99 (ends scene)
5.1.60-62 (ends scene)
5.2.4-5, 19-20
5.3.58-59, 85-86, 108-109, 116-117

2 Henry VI

Lines ending in repeated words:

1.1.185-186 Protector 212-213 land
1.2.103-104 broker
1.3.136-137 law
2.2.49-50,52 son 67-68 king
2.3.32-33 realm
3.1.6,8 himself 105,107 France 241-242 life 266-267 deceit 274,276 priest
3.2.62,64 groans 299-300 Suffolk 369,371 thee
5.1.43-44 prisoner 185,187 oath 212,214 bear


1.1.221-222, 270-271 (ends scene)
2.1.173-174, 175-176, 201-202, 203-204, 209-210, 211-212, 217-218 (ends scene)
2.3.35-36, 37-38, 39-40, 45-46, 47-48
3.1.203-204, 222-223, 302-303, 328-329, 387-388 (ends scene)
3.2.224-225, 309-310, 427-428 (ends scene)
4.2.141-142, 179-180
5.1.217-218, 219-220 (ends scene)
5.2.29-30, 71-72, 73-74, 89-90 (ends scene, apart from a half-line)
5.3.33-34 (ends scene)

3 Henry VI

Lines ending in repeated words:

1.1.13-14 blood  79-80 crown 102,104 crown 114-115 head 131,133 king 144-145 crown
1.4.23-24 fury 161-162 tears
2.1.4-5 news 25-26 suns/sun 52-53 Troy
2.2.131-132 right 153,155 day
2.3.33-34 thine
2.5.5,7 sea 6,8-9 wind 86-87 heart 104,106,108 satisfied
2.6.25-26 pity 71-72 faults
3.1.64,66 content
3.2.38,40 good 88-89 queen 97,99 queen 171-172 crown
3.342-43 sorrow 53-54 amity 78,80 queen 139-140 king 201-202 friend 207,209 him 239-240 loyalty
4.1.39-40 itself 41-42 France
4.2.24-25 him
4.3.60,62 do
4.6.26-27 virtuous 82,84 him
5.1.4-5 Montague 31,33,35 gift
5.2.7-8 shows
5.5.56-57 child 73-74 do it
5.6.13-14 bush


1.1.8-9, 223-224
2.1.116-117, 122-123, 186-187
2.2.61-62, 173-174, 176-177
2.5.10-11, 19-20, 121-122
2.6.29-30, 109-110 (ends scene)
3.2.107-108, 109-110, 194-195 (ends scene)
3.3.19-20, 36-37, 127-128, 163-164, 231-232, 254-255, 264-265 (ends scene: a half-rhyme (misery/mockery))
4.1.104-105, 110-111, 147-148 (ends scene)
4.4.14-15, 23-24, 34-35 (ends scene)
4.5.28-29 (ends scene)
4.6.14-15,16-17, 30-31, 75-76, 87-88, 99-100, 101-102 (ends scene)
4.7.38-39, 71-72, 86-87 (ends scene)
5.6.90-91, 92-93 (ends scene)
5.7.45-46 (ends scene)

Richard III

Lines ending in repeated words:

1.1.29,31 days 55-56,58 'G' 105-106 obey
1.2.60-61 unnatural 62-63 death 80,82,84-85,87 self 124-125 effect 134-135 life 141-143 husband
1.3.54-55 grace 66-67 self 76-77 need of you 142-143 world 147-148 king 154-155 Queen thereof 159-160 me 197-198 king 199-200 Wales 250-251,253 duty 292-294 him
1.4.228-229 weep
2.1.36-37 friend 48-49 day
2.2.72-73 Clarence 74-76 gone  77-79 loss 82,84 so do I
2.4.9-11 grow
3.1.49-50 place 53-54 there 79,81 long 113-114 give 128-129 me
3.4.79-80 me
4.1.102-103 well (ends scene)
4.2.70-71 enemies 75-76 them
4.4.40-46 kill him / kill'd him 63-64 Edward 95-96 thee 140,142 crown 218-219 destiny 257, 259 soul 284-285 way 350,352 last 392,394 age 410-411 but by this 452,454 go 483-484 north 502-503 arms
5.3.83-84 mother 127-128 despair and die 189-191 myself 197-199 degree 203-204 myself 253-254 enemy 266,268 attempt
5.4.7-8 horse


1.1.39-40, 56-57, 58-59, 64-65, 75-77, 83-84, 99-100, 161-162 (ends scene)
1.2.267-268 (ends scene)
1.4.82-83, 247-248, 272-273 (ends scene)
3.4.106-107 (ends scene)
3.6.13-14 (ends scene)
3.7.2-3, 103-104, 220-221
4.2.63-64, 121-122 (ends scene)
4.3.54-55, 56-57 (ends scene)
4.4.15-16, 20-21, 24-25, 103-104, 114-115, 124-125, 130-131, 166-167, 168-169, 170-171, 195-196, 210-211, 395-396
5.1.28-29 (ends scene)
5.2.23-24 (ends scene)
5.3.17-18, 150-151, 156-157, 166-167, 172-173, 174-175, 176-177, 183-184, 270-271, 305-306, 313-314
5.5.38-39, 40-41  (ends scene)

The Taming of the Shrew

Lines ending in repeated words:

1.1.213-214 Lucentio
1.2.74-75 Padua 97,99 Minola 157-158 it is 172-173 prove
2.1.141-142 pale 187-188 Kate 200-201 and so are you 207,209 buzzard 230,232 sour 275-276 Kate 376,378 argosy


1.1.3-4, 64-65, 68-69, 70-71, 158-159, 166-167
1.2.11-12, 17-18, 34-35, 173-174, 187-188, 212-213, 227-228, 229-230, 243-244, 278-279 (ends scene)
2.1.73-74, 239-240, 325-326, 328-329, 332-333, 339-340, 341-342, 404-405


Monday, February 11, 2019


Ulla-Lena Lundberg is a Finland-Swedish author. Is was published in 2012. The English translation, by Thomas Teal, came out in 2016.

The novel is set on the Örlands (a made-up name, I think), one of the many groups of tiny islands to the east of the main Åland mass. (The Åland islands are part of Finland, but are almost exclusively Swedish-speaking.) It begins in May 1946, with a young priest and his family arriving to take up the vacancy. That's really all I want to say, it's a book to be shared but not written about. Here's a typically low-key, almost inert, registering:


Every day it changes a bit -- more hay, less grass -- but what hay! The sea level is still low, the sun shines, there is a light breeze. A dry spell so perfect that Mona ventures out after only two days to start turning the windrows, in the afternoon when the hay on top is completely dry. The windrows are so light and fine that it's a joy to let the breeze help as she turns them with her rake. At times the windrows seem to turn themselves. She walks beside the verger's Signe, who works the neighbouring row. It's not heavy work and they talk as they go, about the animals and their hope that the weather will hold and folks will finish their haymaking well before they start getting ready for the herring fishery. Signe tells her how it used to be, when they all went off to the fishing camps and stayed until well into September. She talks more than she could have in the verger's company, and before the day is over, the hay is turned and the smell has changed -- more barn, less heaven. Both of them are pleased and sweaty. "Almost makes you want to jump in the sea, if it weren't for all those sailboats," says the pastor's wife. But Signe says that you jump in the sea if you want to kill yourself. Otherwise you wash in the sauna!

For the next few days, Mona is deeply nervous. She runs around doing her chores and suddenly stops to look at the sky. This strangely beautiful weather can't last, it's only natural for the sea level to rise a bit at the shore, it's starting to get cooler and there are banks of clouds above the outer skerries. Everyone who came to church on Sunday was astonished that the pastor's hay was already mown. If it rains on the hay now, everyone will say that they were in too great a hurry. She passionately wants to show them that this is the time to cut grass, not when the hay is overgrown, and with all her might she tries to keep the clouds away. "Stay out there!" she commands them silently. "Don't you dare come in over these islands!"

The verger, who is her friend and admirer, states with all his authority that the granite is now so warm that the rain will go around it. "Even if it rains at sea, that doesn't mean it will rain on land." He is wise and experienced, no nonsense about God's will. Why would he want it to rain on her hay! She walks down to the meadow one more time to check. If it doesn't rain, it needs only one more day. At least one, because the humidity is higher now and the hay is drying more slowly. She noticed that with the laundry she hung out.


Petter and Mona are incomers, and their attempts to connect with the Örlanders, both their success and the inevitability of failure, is the bread-and-butter of the book. This provisionality gradually develops a more cosmic dimsension.

They live on the small "church isle", in the centre of the group. A rivalry exists between the east villages and the west villages. In summer you get about by boat; in the winter, the Örlanders are connected by sea-ice.

[As usual, I label Finland-Swedish literature under both national traditions, since Finland-Swedish literature (being in Swedish) is so widely read in Sweden.]

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Hugo Alfvén

Mainly due to people asking me what I want for my birthday, I've managed to build up quite a stock of music by the Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén (1872 - 1960). I'm not much good at writing about classical music, but this post gives me a chance to arrange the various pieces on these CDs into chronological order. They are all either orchestral or for chorus and orchestra.

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 11 (1898-1899)

At the time this was the most ambitious Swedish symphony. At this date Alfvén was not so far behind the musical developments of other European traditions: it's late romantic, chromatic, and Alfvén brought a new virtuosity of orchestral handling into Swedish music (comparisons with Strauss don't really do him much service, though). There's a slight lack of balance: the first, third and fourth movements hang together as a fine medium-to-bold symphony, but the long second movement aims at being positively heroic, or should I say Eroic?

Vid sekelskiftet (At the Turn of the Century), Op. 12 (1899)

Cantata for soprano, choir and orchestra, with text by Erik Axel Karlfeldt. Very enjoyable!

Klockorna (The Bells), Op. 13 (1900)

A rather dramatic ballad for baritone and orchestra. (Text by Frithiof Holmgren)

Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil), Op. 19 (Svensk rapsodi nr. 1) (1903)

Doubtless the best-known piece of Swedish classical music outside Sweden, this is an irresistible popular piece, book-ended by folk-dances with a serene Nordic night between.

En skärgårdssägen (Legend of the Skerries), Op. 20 (1904)

Stormy tone-poem depicting autumn night on the skerries. (To some extent intended as a contrast to the preceding piece.)  Probably my single favourite piece by Alfvén: everything develops so naturally and inventively from the opening calm. The composer has such a stock of good ideas in these early years, and his orchestral skills make for very satisfying elegant pieces... Scandinavian-design sofas and shelving units.

Alfvén was very fond of messing about in the Stockholm archipelago (the skerries). The locale also inspired his Symphony No. 4.

Symphony No. 3 in E major, Op. 23 (1905-06)

Alfvén's sunniest symphony, written in Italy and in love. Very attractive and enjoyable. I would say more if I didn't seem to have lost the CD. (When I opened the case, I found Act I of Aida instead.)

Uppsalarapsodi (Uppsala Rhapsody), Op. 24 (Svensk rapsodi nr. 2) (1907)

A charming and cheerful piece based on students' songs, evidently recalling Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, but much less elaborately composed. The luminous colours make some atonement for that.

Kantat vid Reformationsfesten i Uppsala 1917 (Cantata for the 1917 Reformation Festivities in Uppsala), Op. 36 (1917)

The text for the final section (Luthers hammare) is by Karlfeldt. Its late arrival meant that Alfvén wrote a stark and dramatic arrangement, in effective contrast to the more elaborate choral writing of the first two sections.

Symphony No. 4  in C minor "Från havsbandet" (From the Outermost Skerries), Op. 39 (1918-1919)

To some this is his greatest work, along with the ballet Bergakungen (see next). His first three symphonies had been easy to enjoy as symphonies. In this case the four movements flow together and all share the same melodic material. It's a symphony that's trying to be a large-scale tone poem, including sections with two wordless voices and a sort of skeletal narrative.

"My symphony tells the tale of two young souls. The action takes place in the skerries, where sea sea rages among the rocks on gloomy, stormy nights, by moonlight and in sunshine . . . the moods of nature are no less than symbols for the human heart."

 I find these two quite different forms difficult to meld in my head while I'm listening. Harmonically it's his most "advanced" work, reminding me of Scriabin sometimes.

whelm   reproach    4
  beach    hull
then   arose   cliff
 hall      shake   wrack
weeps the arm stretch
tendrils mutiny
we cried      we kissed
  tempest     autumn

Suite from Bergakungen (The Mountain King) (1916-1923)

Alfvén worked on the ballet pantomime Bergakungen (Op. 37) from 1916 to 1923. This concert suite has just four pieces; the breakneck Vallflickans dans (Herdmaiden's Dance) is one of his most popular pieces, often performed separately.

Dalarapsodi (Dalecarlian rhapsody), Op. 47 (Svensk rapsodi nr. 3) (1931)

The last of the three rhapsodies, a comparatively melancholy piece, based on Dala folk melodies from the area north of Lake Siljan. Alfvén outlined a program (a shepherdess's memories and thoughts, returning with a crash to present melancholy). The composer, though born in Stockholm, made his home in Dalarna for much of his life.

Elegy from "Gustav Adolf II", Op. 49 (1932)

Written for the play "Vi" by Ludvig Nordström, later part of a suite called "Gustav Adolf II", but this Adagio is often performed on its own. The motif of two falling chromatic seconds also occurs in the 4th Symphony (the young man's theme).

Festival Overture, Op. 52 (1944)

A triumphal piece for a popular audience.

Symphony No. 5 in A minor, Op. 54 (1953...)

I can't help thinking about Sibelius 8. That of course was abandoned/destroyed.  Some might think that Alfvén should have done the same with this, but I'm so glad he didn't because it is fascinating. It was performed in 1953, but the ageing composer still wasn't satisfied and withdrew it for further tinkering. The first movement is an impressive charred slab of what Alfvén does, but more chromatic, dominated by a descent of three semitones ("det minst dåliga jag gjort"..."the least terrible thing I have produced"). Here, as in the other movements, it may strike you that the symphony is eking out quite a small stock of melodic material (and even so, some of it is recognizable from earlier works).The idea of being trapped, of being caught in the workings of a clock; we experience this at the same time as quite different emotions. The third movement has a sarcastic motif like a joke that continues to turn out wrong; the second movement is understatedly beautiful, the fourth tries to be an optimistic celebration; but nothing is quite what it seems. No point in listening to it with a furrowed brow, and when I set out to just enjoy each movement for its colour and its simplest aspirations, then that's when the experience is most worthwhile. (Assuming that private listening to old-fashioned music is ever worthwhile: a moot point.)

Concert suite from Den förlorade sonen (The Prodigal Son) (1957)

The ballet was based on folk pictures of the biblical parable. Alfvén at 85 was unable to compose a complete ballet from scratch (I don't think it was given an Opus number). He re-used some pieces of earlier music as well as adding new material based on folk melodies, which is what we get in the very attractive concert suite. The polka and final polska are a delight.

There's some inconsistency about the names of the seven sections. These are the most complete ones I can find.

1. Gånglåt från Leksand — Sonens gånglåt
2. Polska från Orsa
3. Drottningens av Saba festmarsch
4. Polketta
5. Steklåt
6. Polka från Roslagen
7. Final: Polska


Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Swedish/English idioms

A frozen Lake Mälaren

As I've mentioned before, I'm half-Swedish but have always lived in England. (A matter of significant regret right now, as I've got no chance of qualifying for a Swedish passport.)

Anyway, the upshot is that I'm apt to regard English culture as a bit mundane and, on the contrary, to idealize Swedish culture because it reminds me of childhood memories and holidays. It's therefore been a salutary experience, now that I'm making a daily effort to read the news in Swedish, to discover that the two languages share many of the same idioms and clichés.

A Swedish politician is as likely to slip on a "bananskal" as an English one on a banana-skin.

The pithy phrase "slowly but surely" is in Swedish the equally pithy "sakta men säkert".

Words used in the same figurative way in both languages:

Hörnsten: cornerstone
Målat in sig i ett hörn: painted her/himself into a corner
Grönt ljus: green light
Gör sig hemmastadda: make her/himself at home
Ett steg längre: one step further
Lämna stafettpinnan vidare: hand on the baton
Klämtade klockan: the bell tolled
Tappa mark: lose ground
Banérförare: flag-bearer, standard-bearer
Tummen ner: the thumbs down

And finally, it isn't just British politicians who say this:

Det är helt oacceptabelt att resenärer drabbas så fort det blir lite vinterväder.
It's completely unacceptable that travel is disrupted as soon as there's a bit of winter weather....

What classes as "a bit of winter weather" might vary between the two countries, but the sentiment remains the same!


Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Free Reality Street PDFs

That essential but now sadly defunct poetry publisher Reality Street Editions has announced that eleven of its out of print titles have been made available as free downloadable PDFs. You can get them from the Reality Street front page (towards the bottom, on the right!)

The eleven happens to include two of my favourite books, Ken Edwards' eight + six and Carol Watts' Wrack -- I've touched on both of them here.

Today, however, I'm more interested in the books I bought but never managed to get into, Fanny Howe's O'Clock and Emergence .

Discovering a new poet is not usually a matter of love at first sight, at least that's my experience. Many arid and bad-tempered hours of reading usually precede the moment when something happens... or rather, when I become aware that something has happened. So it was with Ken and Carol, and with Andrea Brady, and Drew Milne. My initial feeling about all these now-beloved poets was at best sulky, critical, resentful. I positively disliked Drew's poetry (I recall that it was the Australian writer Alison Croggon who first put a different idea in my head). At this early stage of reading I certainly was not on board with the program -- but I kept on reading, and that's the thing. Of course I believe that all books of poems are good, but how long will I have to keep on reading  (and stopping reading, and thinking, and trying again), before I can see it... will I be able to sustain the effort?

And what is it that happens, when it happens? It isn't so simple as re-reading a poem and suddenly liking it or suddenly understanding it.  Not in these sorts of poetry. The thing that clicks is more something about the project as a whole. It's not that I understand the project either. But  there's at any rate something I get, the geography of the page has become meaningful, I have guesses about where the poet is trying to go and the places they keep returning to, my vision of their individuality as a poet is more distinct, perhaps I'm even beginning to move to the music. All of these formulae are analogical. And so is this one: Every poem makes a statement and now I can hear it being made, though I still don't know what it is.

A great deal of serendipity attaches to this matter of getting into a modern poet's work. I gave up on Fanny's two books, but now I've been given a second chance. I look at them and seem to know them, but better than I did; as if after all I've been reading them the whole time.

Two from O'Clock (a sequence of short poems written while in Co. Monaghan and on the road in the UK)


Every task works its way to infinity.
But blue eyes don’t make blue sky.

Outside a grey washed world, snow all diffused into steam
and glaucoma. My vagabondage
is unlonelied by poems.

Floral like the slow-motion coming of spring.

And air gets into everything.
Even nothing.


I f you mess up, run to the west
and hide in its sunset.

P retend invisibility
can be opted for

w hen it’s everywhere
until you want it.

I f you need to get lost, go underground.
T here you grow strong and fertile as a slum.

From "Alsace-Lorraine" (in Emergence):

The fancy they builded had many,
had fancy, many mansions once,
but no room in, each one full
     “All in the head” as celestial
mansions be
Now of that collection only an image stays, dazzle
in a traveling surface
Can also hit their hearts by a ballet or Monet
but never build again, outside the house of art.

She wants to find a really lonely village
     set off, see
in a shade of day lily      this bitter sensation
and early morning dense misting
     White iron where spirits’ll meander, the gone
ones she can’t believe in
leaving her, the way they hang her heavy head,
     as sculpture, still
saying nothing of the truth’s ill tense.

Steven Toussaint's review of Emergence:
Maureen N. McLane on Fanny Howe (considers, among other poems, O'Clock and "Alsace-Lorraine")


Friday, February 01, 2019

single use

Stack of single use cups (Wild Bean Cafe, Christmas 2018)
The single use cup is one of the defining products of our era. Walking down a street, hot drink in hand... It's our new hearth, the provider of essential warmth and comfort but without contradicting our longing to be mobile and possession-free.

And I suppose it will be around for quite a bit longer yet, despite concerns about waste, recyclability, and carbon footprint. The cups shown here are Christmas specials, prettier than the standard disposable cups at other times of year. In Islamic countries the big coffee chains issue similarly decorative cups during the nights of Ramadan.

There were news stories a couple of years ago about the cups being unrecyclable, because they have a thin layer of plastic bonded to the cardboard. For years we had been chucking them in cardboard recycling -- apparently that was wasted effort. Somerset waste facilities now have a separate bin for the cups, along with other plastic-bonded items such as milk and juice cartons. I suppose they're now properly recycled, though I  wonder if that involves packing them off to questionably-monitored facilities in foreign countries (a subject much in the news recently).

Costa say they'll recycle any single-use cups you hand in at their cafés.

Meanwhile, there are some efforts to make us addicts switch to using our own re-usable cups. One of our local chains, Boston Tea Party, has stopped issuing single use cups altogether. (Waitrose cafés have done the same.)

Another local chain, Coffee #1, provides fully compostable single use cups. You'll also get a 25p discount if you bring your own re-use cup. Most of the big coffee chains offer a similar incentive. Pret A Manger (50p), Starbucks (25p*), Costa (25p), Greggs (20p). Caffè Nero don't discount the drink itself, but they do give you a double stamp on your loyalty card, which I reckon equates to about 25p.

*Starbucks also charge an extra 5p if you want a single-use cup, so they could argue you're "saving" 30p.

So what about the carbon footprint? Common sense would say that all those cardboard cups in landfill are locking up a lot of carbon that will take many years to be released, so maybe that's a good thing? But carbon dioxide is also released during the manufacture of the cups. What about the emissions from manufacturing plastic, porcelain and stainless steel re-usable cups? I can't help wondering about all the re-usable cups that are purchased and then never, or hardly ever, re-used.... And what about the emissions from washing-up machines? These are difficult sums. And behind all such ruminations comes the thought that really what's required is to go to less cafés, drink less tea... live a little less.

Anyway, things may be different in the metropolis but here in peripheral Britain I still don't see that many people handing over re-use cups to be filled. I've become one of them in the past year. I'm sticking with it, though frankly it's not ideal. Carrying my cup wherever I go is boring. Washing it up properly between each drink is often impractical. Tea in my re-use cup never tastes quite as good as tea in a single-use cup.


Anyway it seems there's still a place in the world for our planned booklet (one of many), 100 Uses for a Costa Cup.

The first of those uses is making more hot drinks in it. While travelling through Europe last summer, we must have got forty drinks out of each one before it finally fell apart.

You can also use them to eat food out of... Muesli, soup...

If you fold over the top, you have a crush-proof container for, say, a slice of cake.

Or for food waste, or nuts, or sea-shells. Or, uncrushed, to drop screws and other small things inwhile you're doing some car maintenance. Or a pen holder, a tissue dispenser, a coin pot.

One cup jammed inside another to make a leak proof disposal container for e.g. oil, baby-wipes.

The property of being squeezable to varying degrees. Hence, a flattened cup to correct a wobbly table. As valueless bulk for packing. To protect a fragile item in a parcel. A separator to stop furniture items rubbing together. (A stack of cups to space large items.)

An impromptu vase for flowers and grasses. An ashtray.

A subject of known size in a photo or drawing.

A mould, a pastry-ring. A prop when acting. In children's games (almost as versatile as a cardboard box).

A good scoop for water or sand.

Re-use cup and single use cup (Caffè Nero, Christmas 2018)

Saturday, January 26, 2019

saving history

1912, Atlantic Ocean

'Anyone left here on deck E?' cried Liam O'Connor. His voice echoed down the narrow passageway, bouncing off the metal walls. 'Anyone down here?'

It was silent save for the muffled cries and clatter of hasty footsteps coming from the deck above and the deep mournful creak of the ship's hull, stressing and stretching as the bow end of the ship slowly dipped below the ocean's surface.


That's how it starts. Three teenagers from various places and times come together in New York/2001. Time travel technology was invented in 2056, but the effects are disastrous. The TimeRiders' mission is to police time, to detect attempts to interfere with it and to counteract them. To save history. They must do this even though by 2026 (Sal comes from Mumbai/2026) it's apparent that the world is in steep decline, its environment poisoned.

It's Kramer, the villain of volume 1 who tries to change this history of decline, by gifting 21st century technology to the Nazis in 1941 so that they win the war and impose an authoritarian world order, with the intention of reining in human self-harm. But of course the villain's hubris and paranoia undoes him, and in 1957 (now himself Fuhrer) he changes his mind and decides it's best to destroy the world instead.

Much of the book takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland peopled only by starving cannibals, while against all odds the TimeRiders seek a way to regroup and resurrect enough technology to travel to 1941 and roll back to History 1.0 .


I can't review TimeRiders. I've read hardly any other science fiction and hardly any other books aimed at teenage readers. But I did enjoy it and I have a lot of admiration for Alex Scarrow's creation.

These books are material-greedy and he draws it from a vast array of popular sources. Even I could recognize a few, for instance Cormac McCarthy's The Road in those post-apocalyptic cannibals. And in that opening scene, too, what's evoked isn't so much the historical as the cinematic Titanic.

Scarrow's aims require breakneck functional writing for the most part, but every so often he stuns us with a graphic image, in the best traditions of noir and Marvel comics.

(Winter evening in Nazi Washington DC/1957)Dull vanilla lights flickered beyond drawn curtains... a wet handful of mushed cardboard...soft pattering of sleet...

(After an attack) Then silence except for the rasping sound of her and Maddy's breath, the distant repetitive drip of moisture from somewhere above and the sound of an enamel mug rolling back and forth across the floor. 'Oh my God,' exhaled Maddy...

(About to be liberated from prison camp) A row of jagged holes suddenly stitched its way across the thin plywood walls of his hut, sending a shower of wood splinters on to the floor and leaving a line of pale sunbeams lancing through the air.


Teenage fiction seeks both to represent and to engage in the debates of its readers. From the fresh perspective of adolescence this is usually a debate about values.

The values of TimeRiders are a mix. Anyone who reads it will be confronted with an eye-opening global perspective on global problems. It's right-minded in a progressive sense, so far as it promotes gender and race equality and laments environmental loss (though of course poisoned dystopias make great settings for action). Nationalism and religion are viewed as somewhat comical preoccupations that are strange to our heroes.

Yet TimeRiders is profoundly anti-revolutionary. It's the villain, not the heroes, who wants radical change, and the message is clear that such idealistic people are unconsciously driven by their own egos and display an inhuman lack of respect for the lives, opinions and cultures of other individuals.

 In contrast, the TimeRiders respect what is. There's a strong emotional pull towards the comforting normality of double cheeseburger and fries in New York (even Liam doesn't take long to adapt to this normality, though its details are new to him).

Of course it makes a difference that the TimeRiders are children while Kramer is a forty-ish adult. In this first volume the TimeRiders have their own adult sage/lore-giver/teacher (Foster) who is passing on the baton to them [an idea that goes at least as far back as the vampire-hunters in Bram Stoker's Dracula]. The team are notably compliant, even though Foster is refreshingly pictured as a quite fallible leader. At some level the TimeRiders have an emotional need for a parent and for a narrative that gives meaning to their existence. (Although, as usual in adventure stories, the heroes are liberated from the encumbrance of real families.)

And it's no surprise that self-realizing local emotional attachment (loyalty, love) is presented as the deepest value of all. I haven't so far mentioned that the team also includes a "meat robot" called Bob. Bob's brain is an AI supercomputer and is meant to be rigorously logical. The result is often comic. Bob, recalling Spock in Star Trek, has a small human component and occasionally observes mysterious influences on his thinking: "Is this what they call friendship?"  But of course it's usually the human heroes who, at crucial stages of the plot, stand up for emotional attachment in preference to logic and its utilitarian weighing of probabilities ("I'm not leaving without him!"). And this stand on attachment is always validated in the end. Abstract considerations are always trumped by human warmth, by the conviction that your mates come first.

It's a conviction that has been key to the marvellous and terrible success of our species, even though it often leads us to kill other humans who are not our mates. It may yet lead to us drowning in our own sludge.


Friday, January 25, 2019

William Shakespeare: Henry VI, Part 2

Queen Margaret, Cardinal Beaufort, the Earl of Suffolk

[Image source: . From the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, directed by Scott Kaiser and Libby Appel.]

My Lord of Winchester, I know your mind;
'Tis not my speeches that you do mislike,
But 'tis my presence that doth trouble ye.
Rancour will out: proud prelate, in thy face
I see thy fury: if I longer stay,
We shall begin our ancient bickerings....

Just give me a company and I'll direct it myself! I thought as I read on. There's nothing a director needs to do, really; the play speaks so directly to the rancour and intransigence of our Brexit days.

That was from the first scene, a virtuoso disintegration of the formal concord with which the play begins: Henry, Margaret and Suffolk sweep from the stage, and one by one we meet the court's other variously discontented and opposed parties: Gloucester, Beaufort, then Buckingham and Somerset, then the Nevills (Salisbury and Warwick) and finally York. (It's a great way to grab our interest. Marlowe copied the main idea in The Massacre at Paris.)

For my part, noble lords, I care not which;
Or Somerset or York, all's one to me.
If York have ill demean'd himself in France,
Then let him be denay'd the regentship.
If Somerset be unworthy of the place,
Let York be regent; I will yield to him.
Whether your grace be worthy, yea or no,
Dispute not that: York is the worthier.
Ambitious Warwick, let thy betters speak.
The cardinal's not my better in the field.
All in this presence are thy betters, Warwick.
Warwick may live to be the best of all.
Peace, son! and show some reason, Buckingham,
Why Somerset should be preferred in this.
Because the king, forsooth, will have it so.
Madam, the king is old enough himself
To give his censure: these are no women's matters.
If he be old enough, what needs your grace
To be protector of his excellence?
Madam, I am protector of the realm;
And, at his pleasure, will resign my place.
Resign it then and leave thine insolence.
Since thou wert king--as who is king but thou?--
The commonwealth hath daily run to wreck;
The Dauphin hath prevail'd beyond the seas;
And all the peers and nobles of the realm
Have been as bondmen to thy sovereignty.
The commons hast thou rack'd; the clergy's bags
Are lank and lean with thy extortions.
Thy sumptuous buildings and thy wife's attire
Have cost a mass of public treasury.
Thy cruelty in execution
Upon offenders, hath exceeded law,
And left thee to the mercy of the law.
Thy sale of offices and towns in France,
If they were known, as the suspect is great,
Would make thee quickly hop without thy head.

(from Act I, Scene 3)

In this extract the good Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, makes the error of showing his irritation at Queen Margaret's persistent needling. He reaps a whirlwind of trumped-up charges; he's a marked man from now on. 

But whatever the immediate point at issue, the tone of debate in 2H6 remains constant: high-mettled, indignant, thin-skinned, factious, uncompromising, blameful, dismissive. Everyone has ammunition and everyone wants to use it.

Presumably as Warwick says "Warwick may live to be the best of all" he half-draws his sword. At any rate the threat of violence is palpable. 2H6 portrays a society on the brink of civil war... That war begins in earnest in Act V (with the battle of St Albans) We're not exactly in the same place today, except online: our Brexit civil war is a virtual one. But the rhetoric is unnervingly similar. 

Our director (me or another) could develop plenty of other Brexit angles too. Jack Cade's crusade against anyone who can write his own name might recall some modern remarks about having had enough of experts. The Earl of Suffolk's utter contempt for ordinary people is pure cosmopolitan elitism in action. Anti-French feeling courses through the play -- Cade regards being able to speak French as evident collusion with England's foes. Yet this is an entirely English power struggle, and we see that its big players are apt to exploit nationalism and xenophobia for their own ends.

But these analogies are, relatively speaking, just a bit of fun.While, on the contrary, the play's portrayal of spreading rancour and its consequences is a serious as well as thrilling thing to contemplate.

Here's Suffolk, the Queen, York and the Cardinal, rationalizing their murder of an innocent man. 

That he should die is worthy policy;
But yet we want a colour for his death:
'Tis meet he be condemn'd by course of law.
But, in my mind, that were no policy:
The king will labour still to save his life,
The commons haply rise, to save his life;
And yet we have but trivial argument,
More than mistrust, that shows him worthy death.
So that, by this, you would not have him die.
Ah, York, no man alive so fain as I!
'Tis York that hath more reason for his death.
But, my lord cardinal, and you, my Lord of Suffolk,
Say as you think, and speak it from your souls,
Were't not all one, an empty eagle were set
To guard the chicken from a hungry kite,
As place Duke Humphrey for the king's protector?
So the poor chicken should be sure of death.
Madam, 'tis true; and were't not madness, then,
To make the fox surveyor of the fold?
Who being accused a crafty murderer,
His guilt should be but idly posted over,
Because his purpose is not executed.
No; let him die, in that he is a fox,
By nature proved an enemy to the flock,
Before his chaps be stain'd with crimson blood,
As Humphrey, proved by treasons, to my liege.
And do not stand on quillets how to slay him:
Be it by gins, by snares, by subtlety,
Sleeping or waking, 'tis no matter how,
So he be dead; for that is good deceit
Which mates him first that first intends deceit.
Thrice-noble Suffolk, 'tis resolutely spoke.
Not resolute, except so much were done;
For things are often spoke and seldom meant:
But that my heart accordeth with my tongue,
Seeing the deed is meritorious,
And to preserve my sovereign from his foe,
Say but the word, and I will be his priest. ...

(from Act III, Scene 1)

[York loathes Suffolk and the Queen, they despise both him and the Cardinal. It's wonderful how working together on a well-scoped project brings people together.]


Thursday, January 24, 2019

precious times

Escaped convict. That was an idea in my childhood, it came from a story.

In these short days there's a lot to do. You don't want to cook in the dark, or wrap presents, or fix the heating. But sometimes it rains in the day, and then you might have to sit tight, because every time you open the door there's more water to contend with. Keeping the van dry is a constant preoccupation, like charging the phones. After a wet day you are certain to bring mud into the van when you get up at night for a pee.

You set the cabin light so it doesn't come on when you open the driver's door. You don't want to spotlight yourself as soon as you park up. Even if it's raining hard, you need to jump out, to fold the wing mirrors and get the bedding into the front: -- but not via the doors like you would on a dry night, instead you bundle it over the seats. Two carry mats, two four-season bags (one inside the other), two pillows, a fleece blanket, and the windscreen sunshade for a bit of privacy.

But rain is a good thing because it raises the temperature. Knowing the temperature is important. Making a HWB is boring but not as boring as trying to sleep when you're cold. But if you make the wrong call and brew up when you don't need to you'll overheat. A couple of degrees either way is all it takes. But after a time you stop looking it up on the phone, you just know.

Even on cold nights you must have the window open an inch or two, or the van condensates.

The stream of traffic starts at 5am. Before that, in the quiet hours, I'm watching the steam of my wee rising from the stiff ground, which without my glasses is a blurry marbled pattern of pale leaves.

Dawn's a precious time. I've put my bedding away, had a steaming wee, cleaned my teeth in the wood, scraped the windscreen if it needs it. Got the motor running and the radio on.Day begins with driving to a coffee and croissant somewhere. Gregg's is the cheapest and is good, but Wild Bean coffee is a little stronger. Both of them are lively places at 7 am.The scaffolders and quarry boys, the heavy dirty jackets, the emergency services and the midwives are all here fuelling up for the day.

Grey. galvanized railings, orange gantry. Pavement wet with frost melt, not rain. I'm full of the excitement of 08:45.

The daylight hours are busy. The launderette, the library, preparing food in the back, recycling rubbish, tidying, getting a shower at the public baths, getting some exercise, making sure I have a good poo. Now's the time to save some money and have a break from sitting in cafes. That comes later, it's dark by 17:00.

Oh those long evenings. McDonalds is the cheapest, you can make a 99p tea last a couple of hours and you can charge your phones and use wifi. You always check the parking restrictions, how long can I stay before I get fined?

Who's noticing me? Having found the places that work best for you, you're at risk of over-using them. "I noticed your van here every day..." Driver's-side window to driver's side window. That was Gerry the tinker, a nice fellow, but I took the warning. You have to keep moving, change your favourite lay-by, your favourite hangout. 

Regulars. Not as if I don't recognize them myself. The ungainly tranny who sits in the corner, the gregarious couple who always seem to have just had a few drinks, the talky bloke at the library who keeps saying "Excuse my French", the man in gaiters, the ones who just stare straight ahead, the sacked teacher who lives on a narrow-boat, and the stocky guy with the laptop who is at the usual table. I've never seen him go. I used to think I was different. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Nationalism and universalism

Thoughtful article today by Umut Özkirimli, political scientist at the University of Lund.

Lund is in the deep south of Sweden, the power-base of the far-right Sweden Democrats. But it was also the author's experience of Swedish state and society, both for good and ill, that's produced the not so predictable questions raised here. 

Particularly struck by the starting point forfa model of cosmopolitan social contract, based on a negotiation of universal rights with the duties of citizenship. Extract follows:


I had to understand that the central question is, as the Swedish historian Lars Trägårdh puts it, whether it is possible to resolve the fundamental tension between, on the one side, “universal moral rules founded in notions of human rights”, and on the other, “nationally bounded claims derived from the idea of citizenship in particular nation states”.

My answer is yes, and the formula is simple: emphasise the connection between rights and duties; speed up the process of integration of newcomers (refugees or migrants) without demanding that they fully assimilate into the dominant culture, but asking them to respect the existing social contract; foster a sense of common destiny that does not necessarily require myths of common ancestry; and engage with the demand for recognition in a fair and equal way, without privileging either minorities or majorities.


Umut's perception that political correctness involves a "vigilantism" that denies empathy is worth pausing on, too.


Thursday, January 17, 2019

women: poetry: migration : Chris Tysh, Cia Rinne

Crocus. Beckington (Somerset), 17th January 2019.

Two more caplets from the anthology women: poetry: migration ...


"You're now part of this trip
they kept me from"

"How silly," she adds,
"a thousand years have passed

and I'd recognize it at once"
With its milky white skin

frosty garlands and angels
cupolas and balustrades

the municipal casino
surrenders its arms

at the stroke of noon
It is not without magic

from Ravished     (a "transcreation" of a 1964 novel by Marguerite Duras, Le Ravissement de Lol. V. Stein. Published in full in Hotel des Archives: A Trilogy (2018).)


17 questions
(eine frage des charakters)


[CT: born in France, lives in USA. CR: born in Sweden (to Finland-Swedish parents), lives in Berlin]


Honesty. Beckington (Somerset), 17th January 2019.

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Saturday, January 12, 2019

Sir Walter Scott: The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte

In 1786, [Napoleon] became an adventurer for the honours of literature also, and was anonymously a competitor for the prize offered by the Academy of Lyons on Raynal’s question, “What are the principles and institutions, by application of which mankind can be raised to the highest pitch of happiness”. The prize was adjudged to the young soldier. It is impossible to avoid feeling curiosity to know the character of the juvenile theories respecting government, advocated by one who at length attained the power of practically making what experiments he pleased. Probably his early ideas did not exactly coincide with his more mature practice ; for when Talleyrand, many years afterwards, got the Essay out of the records of the Academy, and returned it to the author, Buonaparte destroyed it, after he had read a few pages. He also laboured under the temptation of writing a journey from Valence to Mount Cenis, after the manner of Sterne, which he was fortunate enough finally to resist. The affectation which pervades Sterne’s peculiar style of composition, was not likely to be simplified under the pen of Buonaparte.
In 1789, Buonaparte, then quartered at Auxonne, had composed a work, which might form two volumes, on the political, civil, and military history of Corsica. He addressed a letter to General Paoli, then residing in London, on the subject of the proposed work, and the actual condition of his countrymen. He also submitted it to the Abbé Raynal, who recommended the publication of it. With this view, Buonaparte invited M. Joly, a bookseller of Dole, to visit him at Auxonne. He came, he says, and found the future Emperor in a naked barrack room, the sole furniture of which consisted of a wretched bed without curtains, a table placed in the embrasure of a window, loaded with books and papers, and two chairs. His brother Louis, whom he was teaching mathematics, lay on a wretched mattress, in an adjoining closet. M. Joly and the author agreed on the price of the impression of the book, but Napoleon was at the time in uncertainty whether he was to remain at Auxonne or not. The work was never printed, nor has a trace of it been discovered.

(from The Life of Nopoleon Buonaparte, Ch XIX in the full edition, but Ch I in mine)

Auxonne (pronounced "Aussonne") is in Burgundy, a few miles east of Dijon.

Louis Napoleon, in one of the numerous corrective footnotes that he added to Scott's work, tells us that M. Joly's account was romanticized. Napoleon had been allocated a good, larger-than-average room, as it was known that Louis was going to be staying with him.


It's taken me a couple of years -- longer than Scott took to write it! -- but I've finally finished reading the Life of Napoleon Buonaparte (downloaded to the Kindle app on my smartphone). Mostly in the dark, while settling down for a night in the van. Not ideal, especially since the phone screen got shattered. That was last August, while we were messing about on the fitness machines outside the "aire" at Le Mans.

Some provisos. Scott's massive book was published in nine volumes (June 1827 onwards). The eighteen introductory chapters, about the French Revolution and the wider European context in which Napoleon first emerged, are most unfortunately missing from my text. This text, I should explain, formed part of a £1 collection of Scott's complete works in Kindle format. The OCR-produced text is atrocious. It swarms with typos and many passages, especially in the numerous footnotes, are simply incomprehensible. These footnotes interrupt the main text, and each other, without any warning. So I became resigned to giving up an anecdote in mid-sentence with no assurance of when, or if, I would get to hear the end of it.

I had two motives for embarking on the Life of Buonaparte : to read more of one of my favourite authors, and to redress some of my ignorance of a part of European history of enormous cultural significance.

I don't regret the time I spent, but I'm not sure I could honestly recommend the exercise to casual readers. The Life of Buonaparte was mostly written during the worst year of Scott's life (discounting the final ones, when his health had broken down and his writing  became a mere compulsive tic). In 1826-27 the dire background of bereavement, illness and bankruptcy didn't  stop Woodstock and the Journal from being great books. But the Life became increasingly a conscientious slog, a way to numb himself from his own pain and grief. Scott's characteristic humour and breadth of acute reference are almost entirely missing.

A French translation followed later in 1827, then German and Spanish. The book was a commercial success but the reviews were critical. French reviewers thought that Scott wrote too coolly of Napoleon; British reviewers thought that he wrote too warmly. Though these criticisms, and others, appeared flatly contradictory, yet you can't help wondering if the critics were united in sensing an endeavour that fell short of its potential . Scott didn't disagree. Soon after its publication, he told his friend John Leycester Adolphus, "I could have done it better, if I could have written more at leisure, and with a mind more at ease."

A visual of the full text, in both English and French, can be read here:

There are hundreds of Lives of Napoleon. Napoleon died on 5th May, 1821, so this is certainly a very early one. (Good luck finding a list, by the way.)

It's very detailed, and yet I think a modern reader will repeatedly think of questions that seem to call for some attention but don't receive any.  At least, that was my experience.

The earliest volumes make the best reading. Scott's account of Napoleon's Italian campaigns is often thrilling. Scott is always happiest when he can be honestly enthusiastic about his protagonist, even (or especially) when the protagonist isn't on his side.

But as Napoleon's less admirable features accumulate -- the duplicity and atrocity in Egypt, the bonfire of democratic freedoms in France, the serial lying of the Moniteur, the monstrosity of appointing himself emperor -- so the author loses his zest.

He remains, however, scrupulously just. If we miss Scott the visionary novelist, the stirring poet, the chatty essayist, yet still we have Scott the adept compiler of history and, perhaps above all, Scott the lawyer. The best sections of the later volumes are when he pronounces weightily on a moral point. For instance, Napoleon's accountability for the execution, or murder, of the Duc d'Enghien; whether Napoleon had a moral case for interfering in Spain in 1809, or for declaring war on Russia in 1812;  whether Bernadotte was disloyal to Napoleon, once he had accepted the Swedish crown; whether there was any validity in Napoleon's claim that he had been betrayed by the British when they exiled him to St Helena, etc.


My desire to learn more about European history arose, of course, in reaction to the dismaying result of the 2016 referendum.

Well, at least no-one witters any more about history being over. History is unmistakably here and is moving with frightening speed. It's curious how almost everything I read now, historical or otherwise, seems to have something urgent to say about our own times.

But perhaps the most striking thing, in this case, is Scott's profound belief in the importance of genuine democracy; a theme that arises particularly in connection with Napoleon's practical despotism, though not only there. (By modern standards democracy in the early nineteenth century was  a distinctly limited affair, but as an alternative to absolutism it seemed very precious.)

I can't help contrasting his view with where we are today.  On the one hand, the willingness of today's right-wing populists to subvert democratic process by any means available, criminality and fraudulence not excepted, and the willingness of so many to overlook this.

On the other hand (and no less alarming) the refusal of so many of us earnest left-leaning progressives to understand our obligation to accept a democratic outcome regardless of whether we voted for it ourselves.

Surveys seem to show that young people are becoming less committed to democracy. Perhaps they see it as a system that has serially failed to counter the evils of capitalism and the catastrophe of environmental destruction.

But is that really an informed view? Hasn't it, rather, been failures in the implementation of true democracy that have made our systems of government less effective than they need to be?

Would disentranchising some or most people be likely to solve the enormous problems of capitalism and environmental destruction?

But this isn't, at root, about systems of government. It's about whether people, people such as ourselves, still recognize an over-riding social duty to behave with integrity.

I'm thinking in particular of the integrity to reject, not only the transgressions of the other side (everyone does that), but the transgressions of our own side. It's becoming a rare virtue. Perhaps many don't even regard it as a virtue. Who wants such unreliable people around? Especially in a battle?

But is battling, of all things, what we really need?

Granted that Scott was well-born, white, male, Protestant, and a firm Tory in a period when Tories were seriously hard-line, his unfailing belief that all questions are moral questions feels like something we might have to learn from at some stage. As history is speeding up, it might be soon.


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