Sunday, April 29, 2012


There are many Ouses in England, and consequently much debate about the meaning of the word. The source is generally supposed to be usa, the Celtic word for water, but I favoured the argument, [Sussex] being [a] region of Anglo-Saxon settlement, that here it was from the Saxon word wāse, from which derives also our word ooze, meaning soft mud or slime; earth so wet as to flow gently. Listen: ooooze. It trickles along almost silently, sucking at your shoes. An ooze is a marsh or swampy ground, and to ooze is to dribble or slither. I liked the slippery way it caught at both earth's facility for holding water and water's knack for working through soil.
-- from To The River by Olivia Laing

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

'It all turns on affection'

We have one memory of [my grandfather] that seems, more than any other, to identify him as a sticker. He owned his farm, having bought out the other heirs, for more than fifty years. About forty of those years were in hard times, and he lived almost continuously in the distress of debt. Whatever has happened in what economists call “the economy,” it is generally true that the land economy has been discounted or ignored. My grandfather lived his life in an economic shadow. In an urbanizing and industrializing age, he was the wrong kind of man. In one of his difficult years he plowed a field on the lower part of a long slope and planted it in corn. While the soil was exposed, a heavy rain fell and the field was seriously eroded. This was heartbreak for my grandfather, and he devoted the rest of his life, first to healing the scars and then to his obligation of care. In keeping with the sticker’s commitment, he neither left behind the damage he had done nor forgot about it, but stayed to repair it, insofar as soil loss can be repaired. My father, I think, had his father’s error in mind when he would speak of farmers attempting, always uselessly if not tragically, “to plow their way out of debt.” From that time, my grandfather and my father were soil conservationists, a commitment that they handed on to my brother and to me.
-- Wendell Berry

Monday, April 23, 2012

England, awake!

As Scotland goes on its way, deciding what it is and what it will be in increasingly numerous and often positive directions it would be wonderful to see England do the same, to decide it is something more than the media’s presentation of the feudally servile, or drunkenly violent, the pitiable list of scared tabloid negatives - Not Foreign, Not Gypsy, Not Dying of Cancer yet. And it would be wonderful to see if London can be one of the places where England remembers how many possibilities there are in Englishness and how much it has survived. It would be magnificent and life-saving if London reminded Britain that we built a welfare state from nothing but faith in a broken country and that it worked very well. And perhaps London can be one of the places where England remembers that its entertainments weathered religious and political censorship, the closing of the playhouses, the forgetting and suppressing of songs and dances and ways of being with each other that made human beings feel they could be better in themselves and with each other.
-- A L Kennedy

Sunday, April 22, 2012

'Referential mania'

In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. All around him, there are spies. Some of them are detached observers, like glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others, again (running water, storms), are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate surroundings, but, alas, it is not! With distance, the torrents of wild scandal increase in volume and volubility. The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther away, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up, in terms of granite and groaning firs, the ultimate truth of his being.
-- from Symbols and Signs by Vladimir Nabokov

The Gulf, two years on

For me the Gulf spill has had an almost metaphoric importance beyond the spill itself. It’s shown me how we [in the US] think as a nation. How we get obsessively into something, then ignore it, and how we operate in panic mode, emergency mode. One thing most of us certainly don’t do is think like naturalists.
-- Bethany Kraft

See also Sick fish, eyeless shrimp and dead dolphins

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Science and the open society

Fang Lizhi was good at explaining how, for him, concepts of human rights grew out of science, writes Perry Link. In an essay in [the NYRB] he named five axioms of science that had led him toward human rights:
1. “Science begins with doubt,” whereas in Mao’s China students were taught to begin with fixed beliefs.
2. Science stresses independence of judgment, not conformity to the judgment of others.
3. “Science is egalitarian”; no one’s subjective view starts ahead of anyone else’s in the pursuit of objective truth.
4. Science needs a free flow of information, and cannot thrive in a system that restricts access to information.
5. Scientific truths, like human rights principles, are universal; they do not change when one crosses a political border.

A forest of signs

The stream of data continued. Gas volumes pumped through the BTC and Druzhba pipelines, racial assaults in Australia, coltan mining yields in the DRC free-zones, incidences of Marburg hemorrhagic fever in those same zones, hourly volume of technology stocks traded on the Nikkei...Jaz was no longer analyzing these clusters himself, just feeding him into [the new global quant model] Walter, which was unearthing connections at an alarming rate. Everything seemed to be linked to everything else: the net worth of retirees in Boca Raton, Florida, oscillating in harmony with the volume of cargo arriving at the port of Long Beach, Southwestern home repossessions tracking the number of avatars in the most popular online gameworlds in Asia. At first Jaz had wondered whether the model was a hoax, something that existed only in Cy Bachman's imagination. Now he found himself disturbed by its power. What would happen when they started trading?
-- from Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Darkness

In A London Address, an Artangel podcast recorded in January, the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez says:
Great books are more intelligent than their authors.The books we call classics are Pandora's boxes whose warnings tend to be vindicated by history. One of the most fearsome characters in [Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel] The Secret Agent is Mr Vladimir, theoretician of terrorism, who at some point in the novel suggests a series of outrages: "Let them be directed against buildings for instance," he says, "and that on two conditions." The first is that they must be a fetish, recognized by all the bourgeoisie. And second the attack must be "of a destructive ferocity so absurd as to be incomprehensible, inexplicable, almost unthinkable - in fact, mad."

I was not in London when the twin towers of the World Trade Center [in New York] fell in September 2001, but later when the war in Iraq was broadcast live on television I watched it from a friend's living room near the Emirates Stadium. Like many, I thought the war was a mistake. Like many, I regretted the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. Like many, I was wounded by the images of the red buses torn apart in the 7th of July [2007].  But like very few I remembered the all too believable words of another terrorist pronounces in Conrad's novel: "To break up the superstition and worship of legality should be our aim. Nothing would please me more than to see Inspector Heath shooting us down in broad daylight with the approval of the public. Half the battle would be won then. The disintegration of the old morality would have set in in its very temple."

To what extent did they achieve this, those who attacked New York and London?  I do not yet have the answer, but I will not stop asking the question.
The question remains urgent. See, among others:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A too-soft heart

The 2010 Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, currently in prison in China, wrote that the Mao era "caused people to sell their souls: hate your spouse, denounce your father, betray your friend, pile on a helpless victim, say anything to remain 'correct'", and argued that the consequence was today's "Age of Cynicism in which people no longer believe in anything".

Such generalisations can feel uncomfortable to those with little or no first-hand knowledge of China. Many recent commentators have noted the futility of trying to summarise everything currently taking place in China, let alone trying to predict what may come next.

But Yiyun Li's fiction echoes Xiaobo's analysis of a society hollowed out by its past, of people who have lost their moral bearings and struggle to find any meaning in life. Character after character in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl rejects intimacy in favour of isolation, and those who do scramble after lust or affection end up disappointed or betrayed. "People who do not cling to life perish, one way or another," reflects the narrator of the opening story, "Kindness". Every story in the collection has a suicide.
-- from a profile of Yuyun Li

Thursday, April 12, 2012

'The Blue of Distance'

There is no distance childhood...Their mental landscape is that of like a medieval paintings - a foreground full of living things and then a wall. The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy and loss...
-- Rebecca Solnit in an Artangel podcast

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The land beyond the sea

I happen to come across this today (hat tip GM), which happens to resonate with things I've been thinking about for a couple of months.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Got Better

Granta has published a short piece by me on running and not running as part of its 'exit strategies' series. Since I wrote it I have heard from my GP that the X-ray shows no indication of osteoarthritis, and I am in the clear. (The pain and swelling in my knee may be the result of running in shoes that were worn out and other factors. After more than a month's rest I'm feeling fine, and am starting - cautiously - to run again.)

Anyway, I can say 'got better', at least for now.  Any resemblance I may bear to a newt is down to something else.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Hinkley C

You have explained several times now that you favour the deployment of new nuclear reactors which you believe could consume the existing waste legacy as fuel. Some people question the feasibility of this technology and I don’t know enough to comment on it, but I would encourage you to continue this line of research, as a supportable method for dealing with our toxic legacy is still needed.

But good or bad, this is not the technology on offer at Hinkley C. What we are opposing here is the same old waste pile, the same old lengthy and expensive decommissioning, the same old secrecy and state collusion, the same old “off site emergency” hazard, and potentially the same old thyroid cancer for my daughter, 25 miles away. It only looks different because it has been re-invigorated by the fear of climate-change, modern propaganda techniques, the ageing of the anti-nuclear generation, and the lack of any democratic platform for opposing specific plans on the ground.
-- Theo Simon to George Monbiot