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Maria

I love it when two ideas come together. At lunchtime, I was talking about Roger Taylor’s new book on open data, public policy and how to grab back some little part of our human agency from the maw of big data. Last night, already three hours delayed by that corporate gaslighter Ryanair, I was shuffling through the endemically slow passport queue at Stansted, soon to brave even further delayed luggage, and wondering why an airport that has just had millions spent on it is so utterly crap.

This morning, as I stood in a District/Circle line caterpillar train– the ones whose lack of carriage dividers always makes me guesstimate the unimpeded range of a bomb blast (I’m cheerful, that way) – it came to me. Facebook/Google/WhatsApp are bad for consumers in just the same way Stansted is.

Bear with me.

I wanted to go to Girona, a city in Catalunya, to spend a few days with a group of women brought together by an old army-wife friend to do running, cycling and general fitness. All good. The only way to get there from London was with Ryanair. So already, I felt a bit let down by capitalism. Where was all the market choice and innovation to translate my myriad human desires into a competitive range of options for me to choose from and pay for? Then it turned out that Ryanair would only leave from Stansted, which I dislike, so I had to satisfice like some too-lazy-to-compare consumer or a half-arsed social democrat.

So that’s the first similarity. Any colour as long as it’s black. Any social media, search or advertising platform as long as it’s Google or Facebook. (Before anyone starts, I use DuckDuckGo for search, subscribe to an actual hard copy newspaper as an alternative business model to PPC advertising, and have been on Ello for two years, making it just under two years since I’ve interacted with anyone on Ello.)

By now we all know the saying, ‘if you’re not the customer, you’re the product’. If you are a passenger in Stansted Airport, you are most definitely the product. It is said the RAF calls soldiers ‘self-loading freight’. Well, I’ve been in Brize Norton and it’s a lot nicer and better run than Stansted.

Passengers in Stansted are not people who have paid for a service (except of course they have paid for it, but in a disintermediated way that means the service provider doesn’t give a stuff about them). They are not even freight that needs efficient through-put. If you delay them, they will spend money, topping up those useless five euro vouchers only good for MacDonalds. What you want to do, if you run Stansted Airport, is extract every further penny you can from them. This is why once you stagger out of security with your shoes half-tied and your still belt in your hand, you have to run the gauntlet of a curving shopping mall hard-selling perfume, booze, sweets and cigarettes. [click to continue…]

The Facts of Life

by Maria on September 5, 2016

Mind your own beeswax

Today’s lunchtime irritation; the password re-set questionnaire.

1 The second school I went to? I don’t know. I was FIVE. It was for a year, somewhere in the north of England. I was terribly unhappy and it was dark all the time. When Mum and Dad could afford a roast chicken, we’d call it a party and invite the neighbours. They’d have a great time but the next day it would be back to distant nods and hellos. At that point we were moving around a lot. See ‘Employment figures, Ireland, 1970s’, also ‘economic migrants, bloody Irish’.

2 The first person I kissed? Are you fking kidding me? This is information I need to a) share and b) regurgitate (I chose the verb carefully) at will? Actually, the first person I kissed, i.e. necked/shifted/snogged, was an Iraqi soldier and I was 11. Consent wasn’t really on the agenda.On the plus side, I finally understood the expression “I wanted to wash my mouth out with soap.” And no, I didn’t catch his name. The second one was fully consensual and later that same summer, and, oddly enough, made me puke. But sure, I’ll offer it up for access to a crummy user interface that can’t be arsed investing in two-factor authentication.

3 It turns out I have no idea what ‘town’ my father was born in. (It was Ireland in the 1950s. AFAIK he was born at home or in a nursing home down the road from the farm. He was about the fifth child and the fourth son, so no one was really paying attention.)

4 The first band I saw live was kind of big in Ireland in the 1980s, but their name only has two characters.

5 It is a matter of both principle and policy with me that my favourite film is Point Break. But this system disagreed. Maybe my punctuation was out or I wasn’t allowed a space? Or perhaps, as Lori Petty so memorably told those beautiful, testosterone-poisoned boys, I just wasn’t doing it right.

6 My first primary/elementary (Elementary? Really? Are we just giving up already and going to use American spelling, too? Dizaztrouz.) school was called after a saint. Who is to say, a year after I typed in this information, that I’ll get the right combination of Saint / St / St. correct? The possessive apostrophe, no problem, though. But was that really my first primary school? Or was it just a nursery? It was the loveliest Montessori place that ever cherished a small, pathologically shy child. I spent the rest of childhood wishing I could go back. What about the school I had to start Senior Infants in? (In Ireland, being a Senior and also an Infant was a real thing.) I remember as clear as day being forced to memorise (memorize!) the alphabet, a concept that seemed pointless, alien and far less interesting than reading my older brother’s books through. I sat at my tiny desk and counted up the number of years of school remaining. Fourteen. People say small children don’t understand time. Not necessarily true. And something inside hid itself away, probably for good. But the official name of the school which changed according to who was principal in the course of my life sentence? Not a clue.

7, 9, 10 Favourite subject? When? Sometimes English. Often History. For the last stretch, Biology. I also did Social and Scientific Home Economics, which clever girls were supposed to avoid, and loved it more than probably anything. This question would get firmer answers, i.e. ones that don’t change according to the vagaries of memory and taste, if it asked for the least favourite subject. The subject I spent years biting my lip to keep the tears at bay, glancing around to wonder at others who seemed to just know how it worked, endless grinds and the edict that whatever I said and however badly I did at it, I must remain in the top stream. Because. The one I buy popular books about to this day, to prove, oh, I don’t know what it is to prove. But yes, I remember that one. Ask that. I’ll get 100% this time. It’ll be very emotionally cleansing, at last.
Favourite teacher? It varied then and it varies now. Women, most of them nuns, I owe a debt to that I can never pay back, only forward. For all the damage corporal punishment was said to do, I didn’t and still don’t feel badly about the ones who gave us the odd thump, or ‘puck’ as it was called. The one where the dull metal Sacred Heart ring would deaden your arm but leave the tiniest bruise – tant pis, it was different times, then. But the one who did cold-blood humiliation and masochistic mind games? Dead to me.

And what I wanted to be when I grew up? No fucking clue. Still don’t.

9 Favourite childhood holiday? OK, this one I can answer because it’s where I still go. I’m not sure I want to offer it up to Big Data, though, seeing as it handles the rest of my memories so callously.

These are not authenticable factoids to be fed into the maw of some crappy insecurity system. I will not harvest my childhood memories for the convenience of NetSuite or Microsoft or whoever the hell. They are not fixed data-points, ready for commodification and re-use. My memories are just as irreplaceable as a fingerprint biometric, and turning them into smooth, round interchangeable tokens exhausts them in a way I despise.

Also, if I could remember half of this &%$%$, I could probably also remember my password.

#asamother

by Maria on July 8, 2016

Andrea Leadsom, the Tory leadership candidate beloved of the people who brought you financial catastrophe and geopolitical Armageddon, has hit on why it is that she, and not chilly securocrat Theresa May, should be crowned the unelected Prime Minister of the UK. It is because Leadsom is a mother and May is not.

Leadsom, who began her every flaccid intervention in the final televised referendum debate – the one where the parties suddenly realised they should wheel out some women, and, ok-fine, one non-white guy – with ‘As a mother’, did yesterday concede in her front page interview with a paper of record wherein she developed the hell out of the theme she’d road-tested on national television, that she didn’t want this to be all “Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t”.

Bless The Times, though. They’ve unreeled all the rope the Dickensianly named candidate needs to hang herself (Leadsom invented hanging, you see. And also the Large Hadron Collider. All while acting as the Chief Investment Officer of Invesco Perpetual. OK, the assistant to him. Sorting out payroll. Same thing, really.) Interspersed with Leadsom’s damning quotes are snippets of May’s dignified sadness at her and her husband’s unwanted childlessness. And also a call, issued before Leadsom’s comments, that the campaign stay within the ‘acceptable’ limits of political debate.

I will draw an unusually capacious veil – a maternity wear issue, naturally – over what may now be imagined to comprise the acceptable limits of Britain’s national discussion.

Tonight, as the cover of tomorrow’s paper does the rounds of Twitter, Leadsom is getting her denial in early. She didn’t say any of that. Or maybe just some of it. Or maybe it was out of context. She must mean the bit where she said May might have nephews and nieces, but she, Leadsom, has children. And anyway, as Loathsome concern-trolled May, it must be ‘very sad’ for her not to have children. Sorry, Leadsom. Don’t know why that keeps happening.

(And hey, it’s not as if May is a friend to families, not to immigrant and asylum-seeking ones, anyway.)

The direct quotes have Leadsom arguing that having her own children gives her more of a stake in the future. And not just in the next one or two years, but the next ten, even. Astonished though many of us may be that someone who campaigned for Brexit was thinking even two weeks ahead, let alone beyond Christmas, let’s take the assertion on its merits.

Do parents have a bigger stake in a nation’s future? [click to continue…]

Summer Reading for a Rainy Day

by Maria on July 2, 2016

If food is the only dependable pleasure, then reading is the one true consolation, offering both immediate escape and a longer narrative arc that suggests how today’s shocks and swerves ultimately become the story. Also, on the whole, fiction has as its meat human characters – or artful approximations of them, anyway – and so little patience for ideas of perfectibility or progress.

That said, I hope to go straight from anger over the referendum to grim acceptance, bypassing grief and sorrow. But here is something from someone with his emotions less defensively expressed, a former infantry officer shocked not just by the result but the depth of his sadness at it:

“Security is not police, soldiers and border checks. It is social cohesion, education and equality – our society is global now and stepping away from that can only be damaging to the things that deliver long-term security.”

Here are some of the books I’ve read in the past six months that I unreservedly recommend for summer-reading. And they’re not even all fiction.

The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig
For those who haven’t already read this classic memoir of a Jewish Viennese intellectual who lost everything – family, home, culture, books, hope – in World War II, it feels like the book of our own historic moment. Zweig describes what it is to grow up comfortable, refined and secure and then be expelled by fascism and war from everything you know and love. Yes, war happens to clever middle class people, too.

Zweig’s father and grandfather “lived their lives in a single, direct way … spent all their days in the same country, the same city, usually even in the same house.” Such wars as they experienced were short or far away. But Zweig’s generation, born at the end of the nineteenth century “lived through everything without ever returning to our former lives, nothing was left of them, nothing was restored. It was for our generation to experience, to the highest degree, events that history usually bestows sparingly on a single land over a whole century.”

History is something we like to read about but would prefer to experience as little as possible of. So it is just a little sickening that we in the still-peaceful countries must now actively coach ourselves to not consign those whose homelands have been incinerated to some frightening, plague-like category of ‘other’.

So be it. If all a book does is hammer into our core the realisation that ‘this could be me’, then it’s almost enough. What it can’t do is direct or encourage what we do with that knowledge. That is up to us. Read Zweig. Then think about what is called for.
[click to continue…]

Making our peace

by Maria on June 17, 2016

On Wednesday, I gave a talk about the Internet of Things in relation to ‘smart cities’, inequality, and high modernism. As a topic, it sounds a bit like the addressing system Mongolia has just decided to implement, where three random nouns – apple.truck.envelope – are used to represent a place instead of, say, a street-name, townland or unmemorable grid reference. (But actually, there is a there, there in my talk. Combining three parts from another naming system is the clue: ‘James’, ‘C’ and ‘Scott’.) In the Q&A, there was a question about how the platforms we design for good are used for evil. How/should we deal with that?

My answer was a hostage to fortune. I said we needed to chill the hell out about bad things happening and understand that the Internet reflects or even amplifies what is still, basically, human nature. That’s the kind of thing you can say between bad things happening, when the horror is ebbing just a little and the next awfulness hasn’t yet occurred. I still think it’s the right answer, but I’d give a lot to erase the hands-upturned shrug I did at the end.

How do we make our peace with the fact that yesterday an MP was savagely assassinated outside her constituency clinic? It would be hard at the best of times, but at a historical moment when violent ill-feeling is being stoked by right-wing politicians and newspapers, we can’t just shrug, as I did, and say this is a regrettable and awful cost of doing democratic business. [click to continue…]

Post-Democracy

by Maria on May 20, 2016

I’ve been reading and re-reading Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy on and off for about eighteen months, and just spotted a nice precis of it on OpenDemocracy in a piece by Kit de Waal about celebrity activism:

The term ‘post-democracy’ was coined by Colin Crouch to refer to the fusion of corporate power with government, generating an elite politics based on a political-financial cycle in which money buys power and power rewards money. Post-democracy is a plausible imitation of democracy. It has a popular, consultative appearance, while the real politics of power and money consists of a continuing round of inter-personal transactions among elites.”

What makes Post-Democracy hard for me to digest more than a dozen pages at a time is not, I think, its relentless rightness, which I personally find more or less inarguable, but how little there appears we can do about it. My experience of reading it is basically ‘yes, this is better researched and thought through than I’d ever manage, and I agree; we’re basically fucked.’

I get that I’m experiencing nothing more than the cognitive dissonance of a social democrat who knows capitalism is awful and probably tending towards disaster – but more the chronic debilitating disease kind of disaster of, say, a slow-boiled lobster, than the explosive, revolutionary and strangely psycho-sexual climax of sudden foment and change – but who has neither the temperament nor the constitution for either ripping it up or walking away. (Hello Rosa Luxembourg. Like my hero Virginia Woolf, you would despise me, too.) But simply knowing this doesn’t help.

About a decade ago I was at a weekend conference in New York on what was then called ‘the new philanthropy’. The impeccably well-educated and well-spoken man who’d been Angelina Jolie’s fixer in the world of Davos and the UN system was there to say how great it was that celebrities were now getting down into development issues and doing things that governments didn’t have the will for. At the Q&A, I made myself a bit awkward by asking how democratic it was that those people could re-order policy priorities on a whim, and wouldn’t it be better if they just voted and paid their taxes like the little people. The guy got a bit irate and basically said how we needed celebrities and millionaires to improve the system and should be grateful to have them. I’m being unfair to him, I’m sure – memory is pretty self-serving. The session was being chaired by a friend who unexpectedly broke with protocol and came back to me for a response to the response, but I wasn’t expecting it and flubbed. I suppose you dwell on the things you get wrong, and the whole philanthropist – corporate – state nexus has bugged me since then even more than it would otherwise.

But we’re still all basically fucked, right?

UK elections open thread

by Maria on May 6, 2016

After last year’s horror I can barely turn on the computer, let alone the radio or TV. Oh, we don’t have a telly. Anyway. Some titbits of info are still filtering through.

Scotland. Seriously? You lot are dead to me. OK, I can see that you are now just voting pro or anti Union, but it’s a rum day to see the Conservatives in second place. And yes, Blair and post-Blair Labour gave you the middle finger way back when, but let’s pin it on the guy who got the job last summer.

Wales. You do know UKIP is for English people? They don’t like you, either.

Norn. Irn. I don’t blame you. Not one bit. If I had to choose between SF and the DUP, I’d emigrate.

London. I get that Sadiq – the man the Conservatives changed from a dull, machine politician into a racy radical – is winning. But who-TAF are all those people voting for Goldsmith? Do they live on my street? Did I smile at them in the polling station? Or is it just the combined forces of Kensington, Wandsworth and Richmond who think it’s a good idea to vote for the shouting-like-a-mofo-at-your-dog-Linton-in-a-public-place-and-then-kicking-the-bejaysus-out-of-him-when-he-comes guy?

Dudley. I don’t know what to say to you.

The rest of England. Whatever. Carry on.

National Hero

by Maria on March 25, 2016

This weekend we celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising, the rebellion that gave the Republic of Ireland its foundation myth. As an origin story, Easter 1916 can be hard to live with. Its egalitarian and revolutionary ideals were quickly brushed aside by a deeply conservative political class intent on pushing anyone feminist or left-wing out of Irish politics. And the bumps and inconsistencies in how the leaders of the rising behaved were ironed out till the whole thing looks like one of those over-embroidered altar cloths with starched creases in all the wrong places. The whole enterprise fell victim, for many decades, to a pietistic impulse to canonise the leaders of armed rebellion, making them seem weirdly inhuman. But they were never distantly inhuman to me, despite what I learnt in school. When I first came across Benjamin’s now over-used expression, ‘rubbing history against the grain’, I knew exactly what he meant.

In 1916, my great-grand father, Eoin MacNeill, was the head of a dissident army, the Irish Volunteers. At its height, before many left and volunteered to fight in World War I, the Irish Volunteers numbered about eighty thousand men. (To put it in context, that’s within a few thousand of the British Army’s post-austerity total, today.) Eoin MacNeill was one of the most unlikely rebel leaders you can imagine. He was a scholarship boy from a small town in Antrim. He devoured Latin, history and Ancient Greek, and as a scholar opened up new areas of research in Irish language and laws. With Douglas Hyde, he co-founded the Gaelic League, a countrywide movement that was part of Europe’s late nineteenth century surge in cultural nationalism and also a great way to meet young people of the opposite sex. In pictures, MacNeill looks pale and fine-boned. He wears the fastidious little glasses everyone did who spent most nights reading in poor light. He is as far from a soldier as anyone can be. [click to continue…]

Pretty much every woman who’s ever called out sexism and sexual harassment has met the same kind of response; ‘he didn’t really mean it’, ‘it’s just a misunderstanding’, ‘you must have misinterpreted it’, ‘I don’t mean this the wrong way, but are you sure you’re not exaggerating just a little?’.

It goes deeper than just a bit of mansplaining suggesting to women that what just happened to them actually didn’t. Many people simply don’t see sexual harassment, even when it’s happening right under their noses. It seems normal that young and often not so young women* should spend part of their professional efforts graciously fending off unwanted sexual attention in a way that doesn’t damage anyone’s ego or their own reputations.
Here is a definition of sexual harassment:

“Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.”

(Note to readers: if sexual behaviour is something you are trying to make happen in the workplace, it is almost certainly unwanted. Do you want to risk your colleague’s sense of wellbeing on the sub-1% chance that she really ‘wants it’?)

Another kind of response to complaints about sexual harassment at work is to flip it back onto the person who is calling the behaviour out and try to undermine them or make them seem less credible.

Another response – one that goes irrationally alongside saying something didn’t happen or isn’t happening – is to say it’s not such a big deal anyway.

Another response is to say that all women it happens to have a responsibility to report it, putting the onus on individual women to solve a widespread social and political problem.

Yet another response is to tell them to stay quiet as saying something will ruin their reputation because they will forever be ‘that woman’. [click to continue…]

D&D for Me and for Thee

by Maria on February 19, 2016

I went to a conversation the other night. It was between David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro and the approximately two thousand people watching them.

David Mitchell said he always asks other writers whether they played Dungeons and Dragons as teenagers. He keeps a mental list of writers who did and who didn’t. He played D&D himself (surprise!) and feels a certain bond with other writers who did.

Kazuo Ishiguro had never even heard of D&D. Not a surprise. He is the wrong generation. Too old. And also, he is that kind of very straight writer who conjures a pinch of the clothes peg when dabbling in ‘genre’. (That said, he came across as a lovely man, and one who has come carefully to terms with his necessary public persona.)

But, guess what, according to David Mitchell, Michael Chabon not only played D&D but was a dungeon master to boot. I wonder what other contemporary writers played D&D or who must have done? It would make me like them a little more, too.

That Apple FBI back door thing

by Maria on February 19, 2016

Here at CT we’re not big on posting about topics just because they’re happening. (Unless it’s the 6 Nations, obviously.) But this Apple FBI back door saga is making me feel I should post something, not because it’s topical, not because I know a lot more about it than anyone who reads a decent newspaper / tech journal etc. (because I don’t), but because it’s becoming clear that this event is morphing into something of a turning point in how governments interact with tech firms in the US and, at more of a distance, the UK.

(For a comprehensive and thought-provoking piece on governments and tech intermediaries, read Emily Taylor’s recent piece, The Privatization of Human Rights: Illusions of Consent, Automation and Neutrality, for Chatham House.)

I’m going to assume you know most of the facts and the larger repercussions, and just jot down a few observations of my own and that I’ve come across in various digital rights back channels. [click to continue…]

Original Sin

by Maria on February 3, 2016

The Just City story is triggered by an attempted rape. The god Apollo chases and tries to ‘mate with’, as he puts it, a nymph called Daphne. Nymph-chasing is one of his favourite hobbies. Daphne flees and prays to Artemis who turns her into a tree. Apollo cannot understand why Daphne would do this rather than be mated with by a god. As Apollo later points out, “Father’s big on rape”, swooping down on girls and carrying them off. Apollo likes the seduction and the chase; they’re on a continuum for him, and not binary states with consent as the switch that turns the light of passion on or off.

He goes to his sister, Athene, who explains the idea of consent. What Apollo terms ‘equal significance’ – of the volition of gods and mortals, and implicitly of men and women – is so novel and strange to him, that he decides to become mortal to try to understand. He joins Athene’s Just City as one of its founding children.

Plato’s thought experiment in the Republic becomes a real-life experiment on the conditions needed to live an excellent life. Hundreds of children are dropped on an island out of time and raised as the philosophers who will perfect the Just City when they grow up. Meanwhile, they are educated and subtly manipulated by a group of committed Platonists plucked from throughout human history. [click to continue…]

Shackleton Solo; Journey’s End

by Maria on January 25, 2016

This isn’t how the story is supposed to end. Podcast by podcast, day by day, step by freezing, wind-blown step, Henry Worsley has been documenting his solo trek at the South Pole. He was no under-prepared amateur. It was his third trip to the pole and his first time doing it alone. He was following the route of Anglo-Irish merchant navy officer Ernest Shackleton’s race to the pole a century ago. Although Scott’s journey is better known, Shackleton is respected for having run a tighter expedition and, crucially, for making the necessary sacrifices in glory-seeking and his own food rations to bring all his men home. He famously said of his second expedition ‘a live donkey is better than a dead lion, isn’t it?’ and it is.

Stuck in his tent for two days, too ill to move, Worsley finally called for rescue late last week. He died yesterday of peritonitis that caused multiple organ failure.

Every day for the past couple of months, Worsley has been doing a daily update on his progress and talking about what it is like to be alone and pressing on through some of the worst conditions on earth. E, who served under Worsley, had been following the podcasts. (Most nights he would get into bed and put it on, and I would grumpily roll over and tell him to use his headphones.) At the end of each recording, Worsley would answer questions, many of them from the children who listened in each day. There was something sweetly old-fashioned about that. He would satisfy questions like ‘what is it like to celebrate Christmas on Antartica?’ with a condensed but not unrealistic description of life in the white darkness.

I will never understand why people want to climb Everest or walk to the Pole. The human drive to ‘conquer’ landscape and survive in hostile environments is wholly alien to me, and probably to most of us. It just seems to be one of those quirks that the human race throws up from time to time, and without which we probably wouldn’t have survived. It’s not an instinct that finds much outlet in late capitalist life. Most of us are not very brave. Most of us avoid physical discomfort and unnecessary exertion whenever we can. But in ways epigenetic and day-to-day practical, most of us depend on people who do not.

Worsley wasn’t a thrill-seeker or a for the hell of it risk-taker, or one of those people who only feels truly alive when he is fighting for his life. He was doing this trek for a reason, and he was doing it because he could. It can sometimes be easier for officers to slot back into civilian life, and he felt a deep obligation to support military charities that help wounded and other soldiers in transition. Worsley had already met his fundraising goal. He was just thirty miles from journey’s end. He was almost there. He was almost home. The story wasn’t supposed to end this way.

Happy Almost New Year, Timberteers

by Maria on December 30, 2015

Nothing welcomes you back to London after a soggy spell in the west of Ireland like a gold-plated (surely not real?) Lambourghini, vanity plate; F1 IRAK, whizzing past you on the Chelsea Embankment. Ah, world’s super-wealthy, with your love of obscene and ill-gotten goods and your disdain for pettifogging traffic rules, I have missed you.

Fear not. Plenty of riches are to be had here on CT. Having failed to post a timely Christmas picture of the Crooked Timber dog, and having also failed to post any recommended reads from 2015, I still have it in mind to share some wealth in the form of our own middle class intellectual status indicators. Here are some non-book gems I enjoyed this year. Maybe you have some of your own?

Milo and Fury, Christmas Day 2015

Podcasts
Philosophy Bites, by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, comprises well over 300 20-minute interviews with philosophers on everything from Stoicisim to inequality to Foucault and power. CT’s own Chris Bertram does a particularly good session on Rousseau, ranging over the life and works and making me wish – not for the first time – that I’d paid more attention in college. Philosophy Bites makes philosophers sound surprisingly chatty, collegial and willing to tackle questions we all puzzle over and never get very far with.

BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ with Melvyn Bragg is fantastic, if you are in the UK or have a VPN to vouch for you. The format is that the slightly irritable and impossibly well-read host asks questions of three experts on a topic from history, literature, philosophy or science. Bragg is a national treasure on a level with Alan Bennett but has a more pleasing sympathy for the under-dog. The podcasts that include a few bonus minutes ‘with the cameras off’ are terrific, and show how much more interesting radio is when it can be less didactic and improving.

Entitled Opinions from Stanford Radio’s Robert Harrison can be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes the cultural theory gets a bit circular and obtuse – but that’s mostly when there are guest presenters. Each programme lasts an hour and the pace is expansive rather than quick. It’s what I love most about a good podcast – instead of me going ‘yeah yeah, I get it’ and skipping ahead to the end of the paragraph or the chapter, I have to stick with it and take in the ideas at the pace the presenter is willing to give them out. The bliss of being entirely in someone else’s power. Harrison’s interview with Colm Tóibín about The Master is wonderful, (also, I never knew James’ house in Rye was later lived in by the man who wrote Mapp and Lucia and used it as their respective fictional homes) though Harrison joins the rest of the anglo-sphere in being unable to pronounce Tóibín’s name.

The Royal Literary Fund’s ‘Writers Aloud’ series can be uneven but is often utterly brilliant, especially when Carole Angier is doing the interviewing. (Yes, the same Carole Angier who wrote the magnificent Primo Levi biography.) The stand-out interviews from the last year or so are with the poet Julia Copus and CT’s own favourite, Francis Spufford, who gives an inside track on the writing of Red Plenty.

Videos
OK, fair cop, my 2015 Youtube consumption has been driven by watching repeats of Graham Norton’s chat show (the one where Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Hugh Bonneville corpse laughing and go to pelt pineapples at the audience is a classic, though it actually happened in 2014) and also interviews with My Boyfriend Tom Hiddleston. The ideal is an interview of Tom Hiddleston by Graham Norton, which actually happened a couple of months ago. Hiddleston did an above average impression of Robert de Niro who was sitting nearby (celebrities’ lives are weird). For several minutes afterwards you can see Hiddleston going pinker and pinker and clearly regretting it, and I had an urge to jump into the screen and tell him what was obvious to anyone watching; ‘Don’t worry about it. You were great and are lovely. De Niro is clearly an arse.’

So, obviously I’m not proud of my Hiddleston crush, but it really is completely chaste. A few weeks ago, Ed and I were walking to a cafe for a weekend treat and, apparently, I was going along just smiling vacantly to myself. Ed asked what I was thinking about – at this stage he didn’t know about my little pash – and I said ‘I was just explaining the Tuisil Ginideach to Tom and saying how funny it is that it is both universal and nearly always irregular.’ Not everyone knows, I said to Ed, that the Irish language has a genitive case for nouns. It’s the Latin influence. (I personally hadn’t a clue that’s what it was until fifth year when a teacher mentioned it in passing.) And so then Ed had to ask who Tom was etc. etc. and why would he be interested in the grammatical structure of the Irish language. To which the answer could only be ‘Oh, Tom? He’s interested in everything I’m interested in.’ And then we ran into a neighbour in the cafe so that was the end of the (external) conversation. Tom. He’s dreamy.

Onward!

Crooked Timber people, and I’m especially looking at you, Kieran, you MUST watch Martin’s Life. (if you don’t know it already, which you probably do as it’s based in a small town near Cork city) Martin’s Life is a series of 2-3 minute animations about a young hipster and returned immigrant living with his parents in rural Ireland. It completely takes the piss out of the cultural cluelessness of the parents, but it’s really affectionate about them, too. One of my younger sisters played it for the extended family over the summer, and we were falling about in tears of laughter, parents included. If you do one thing today, watch Martin’s Life. Especially, for the season that’s in it, the one about Skype. Or the Christmas one. Or the old ESB ad one. This is literally every Irish expat’s life. Aithbhlian faoi mhaise duit, a Mháirtín.

OK, last orders. Have you no homes to go to?

The winner of Christmas was a Youtube video Henry put on on Stephen’s Day when we were all full of blueberry pancakes and sausages from Kilcullen (best in the world), and perhaps a little regret. The intro was unremarkable but when the singer began, the whole room changed. It was one of those moments when conversation fades away (rare in our house) and people drifted from the table towards the screen to listen and see. When this song finished, and amongst atheists, believers and fence-sitters alike, there was surreptitious nose-blowing, studied non-eye-catching and sudden impulses to be alone, outside, looking out over the bog and out to sea. Here, amongst all the seasonal oddities is the strangest wonder of all; Patti Smith singing Oh Holy Night to Pope Francis.

Poppy Love

by Maria on November 9, 2015

E and I give money to the Royal British Legion every year. We sit down towards the end of the year and talk about who to support, which direct debits to keep and which to swap out. The Legion is the one item in our charity basket that stays in with no need for discussion. It supports serving and former members of the armed forces, and isn’t choosy about which wars the veterans fought in. Its appeal is based on the need to keep faith with a life-long social covenant, rather than the dangerous conceit that all soldiers are heroes.

But most of the Legion’s funding seems to come not from regular donors but the annual November – now shading into mid-October – frenzy of poppy-selling. In its drive to sell as many poppies as it can for Remembrance Day, the Legion has allowed itself to become part of an increasingly nasty annual tradition of bullying of people who choose not to wear a poppy or are somehow ‘caught’ without one.

Today, the Legion announced an astonishingly tone-deaf campaign for celebrities to film themselves silenced by a poppy held across their lips, ahead of the official two-minute silence on Wednesday. The dark irony of using the poppy to literally silence people in public life seems to be beyond the ken of the Legion’s hyperactive communications team.
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