Thursday, June 29, 2006

what do they know of england

Further to that post I did on The Sharpener, some more musings on the confusion the English have between England and Britain.

I remember watching some of Simon Schama’s acclaimed History of Britain a few years ago and finding much of it was a History of the English Monarchy. It didn’t do much on things that didn’t affect English interests, and even less on how any of it affected ordinary people.

I mean, if I were living in a small Yorkshire village farming my own plot, did it make that much odds when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church?

The programme’s website encouraged viewers to take an interest in national history. It linked to English Heritage’s website. But not to Cadw, Historic Scotland, Manx National Heritage or the Northern Ireland Heritage Service.

This Anglocentrism is the main problem of popular understanding of British history and constitution.

Frustrated by being part of academic institutions that taught with such outrageous bias, Norman Davies' wrote his mighty work The Isles as a deliberate attempt to cover the history of these islands from a more balanced perspective.

He explains in the introduction:

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

The true extent of this morass of mix-ups is marvellous to behold. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the current scene lies in the number of citizens of the United Kingdom who do not appear to be familiar with the basic parameters of the stair in which they live.

They often do not know what it is called; they do not distinguish between the whole and the constituent parts; and they have never grasped thc most elementary facts of its development. Confusion reigns on every hand. Nor is it confined to the old bad habit of using ‘England’ as a shorthand for the United Kingdom as a whole, and hence of travellers who imagine that they carry an ‘English’ as opposed to a British passport.

Such lapses are commonplace. But they form the tip of a far larger iceberg. The scale of the problem only begins to emerge when one observes the inability of prominent authorities to present the history of our Isles in accurate and unambiguous terms.

For a preliminary sounding, one only needs to enter a bookshop and examine the opening passages of the most popular volumes on British history.

My own experiment was conducted in a bookshop where, to my query about the best books in circulation, the assistant pointed out three titles: Roy Strong, The Story Of Britain (1992), The Oxford History of Britain (1999), and Antonia Fraser, The Lives of the Kings arid Queens of England (revised edition, 1997).

All three books undoubtedly possess manifold virtues in those aspects of the subject which most concern them. I was not making a general assessment. The point of the experiment was simply to test how they define and introduce the overall subject.

Roy Strong’s volume, for instance, was inspired by an admirable and passionate belief in the present generation’s need for a straightforward narrative history. Yet it opens with the baffling sentence, ‘Britain is an island’. One is tempted to mutter, ‘Well, yes and no.’

On the facing page, Strong offers a physical map showing an unnamed archipelago consisting of two large islands and several smaller ones. Uninitiated readers, say from Mars or Japan, would be forgiven for asking which of the islands was called ‘Britain’. And they would not helped by the answer, ‘It all depends on what you mean.’

Initiated readers, of course, would quickly recognise the familiar outline of the ‘British Isles’. For their part, they would be justified in wondering whether the book dealt with the history not of one island but of all of them. Judging by the contents, it would seem that Strong is using ‘Britain’ as the accepted shorthand for the United Kingdom.

The trouble there lies in the fact that, in its present form, the United Kingdom consists of two parts - Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So it is not ‘an island’ (singular) in the present tense. Indeed, it has not been one island since 31 December 1800.

Roy Strong’s misconception follows in the steps of numerous predecessors. One of these was A.L. Rowse, who published a survey with the same title as Strong’s. Rowse’s Story of Britain (1979, 1993) opens in almost exactly the same way:

The story of Britain is that of the island which has influenced the outside world more than any other island in history.

There it goes again - the one island fixation, embellished with an imperial flourish. And it is still there in the final sentence of Rowse’s epilogue:

It remains to be seen how the people work out their fate; and whether in this lucky island it will be worthy of so remarkable a history.

At this point, many readers may want to reach for their dictionary. The latest edition of the ultimate authority, The Oxford English Dictionary, defines ‘Britain’ as follows;

The proper name of the whole island containing England, Wales, and Scotland, with their dependencies; more fully called Great Britain; now also used for the British state or empire as a whole.

For the adjective British, the OED supplies five basic meanings;

1. 0f or pertaining to the ancient Bntoris
2. Of or pertaining to Great Britain or its inhabitants
3. Of or belonging to, Brittany. Breton. Obs(olete)
4. ellipt. as sb. pl. British people, soldiers, etc. [i.e. ‘The British’]
5. comb., British-born, -built, -owned adjs., British-man

From this, one learns that ‘Britain’ can refer to any one of three different entities - to the geographical unit of Great Britain’, to the British state, and/or to the British Empire.

Incongruously, however, British has somewhat different geographical connotations. It can only refer apparently to Ancient Britain, to Great Britain, and to Brittany. It does not pertain to the United Kingdom, therefore, except in that short period of history when the Kingdom was coterminous with ‘Great Britain’, i.e. from 1707-1800. Surely that cannot be right for a dictionary published in 1994.

If one turns for elucidation to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the plot thickens. The meanings of’ ‘British’ are essentially the same as in the OED, although point 5 is omitted.

The main definition of Britain is also essentially the same, except for one curious amendment. Where the OED reads ‘now also used for the British state or empire as a whole’, the SOED has ‘now used for the British empire as a whole’. For some reason, among its definitions of ‘Britain’, the SOED has chosen to to drop the ‘British state’.

If this is correct, then Roy Strong’s Story of Britain could be a history either of the island of Great Britain or of the British Empire, but not of the United Kingdom.

The inconsistencies are legion. They centre on the thorny question of what constituted the United Kingdom at any particular time. In their further explanantions to their definitions of Britain, both the OED and SOED use a similar formula.

The OED states:

After the O(ld) E(nglish) period, Britain was only used as a historical term, until about the. time of Henry VIII and Edward VI, when it came again into practical politics in connexion with the efforts made to unite England and Scotland; in 1604 James I was proclaimed ‘King of Great Britain’; and this name was adopted by the United Kingdom, at the union in 1707…

The SOED uses a condensed version of this information, while the OED adds some further details:

After that event [the union of 1707], South Britain and North Britain are frequently in acts of Parl. For England and Scotland respectively; the latter is in occasional (chiefly postal) use. (So West Britain, humourously or polemically for ‘Ireland’.) Greater Britain is a modern rhetorical device for ‘Great Britain and the colonies’, ‘the British Empire’, brought into vogue in 1868.

These comment are instructive, of course, as far as they go. But one cannot help feeling that the Oxford editors have been stranded in a rather distant period of history. Indeed, they appear to have progressed very little beyond 1707. They do not let on that the name and territory of the United Kingdom have changed twice in the last two centuries.

West Britain, for example, could only have applied when Ireland formed part of the United Kingdom between 1801 and 1922. Britain as shorthand for both ‘Great Britain’ and the ‘United Kingdom’ only remained unambiguous during the lifetime of the united ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’ between 1707 and 1800. Ever since 1800, as the dictionary definitions indicate, Britain has had to assume alternative meanings.

Nor is the matter much clarified by turning to the dictionary for an explanation of the term England. The SOED seems to offer three definitions:

1. The territory of the Angles. Only in OIld] E[nglish]
2. The southern part of the island of Great Britain… Often: the English (or British) nation or state
3. Short for The King of England, also for the English or a portion of them…

Looked at closely, this entry reveals that the SOED is actually offering seven definitions of England. Point 2 alone contains five. These five are:

- The southern part of the island of Great Britain - i.e., a geographical or territorial unit.
- The English nation, i.e., a community of people.
- The English state, i.e., a political entity
- The British nation.
- The British state

It is unfortunate that the editors elide all five definitions into a single point. One possibility is that they considered both ‘English’ and ‘British’, like ‘nation’ and ‘state’, to be synonyms and that all four terms are coterminous with ‘the southern part… of Great Britain’. If so, they have laid themselves open to some serious queries.

In this light, or twilight, one can turn to The Oxford History of Britain (1999). The editor’s foreword opens as follows:

The distinctiveness, even uniqueness, of the British as a people has long been taken for granted… Visitors from overseas, from those ubiquitos Venetian ambassadors in the late fifteenth century, through intellectuals like Voltaire or Tocqueville, to American journalists in the twentieth century, have all been convinced of the special quality of British Society.

The key phrases here are ‘the British as a people’ and ‘British society’. They immediately arouse suspicions of anachronism There can be no doubt that Voltaire in the eighteenth century, de Tocqueville in the nineteenth, and the American journalists in the twentieth were all reporting on a people and a society that could properly be called ‘British’. But there has to be a question mark over what exactly was visited by those Venetian ambassadors in the late fifteenth century.

More than two hundred years before the formation of the British state, one has to suspect that the Venetian ambassadors had only visited England and that their comments were confined to the special qualities of the English people and of English society.

It is surely out of place to suggest that the ‘English society’ of the fifteenth century was simply an earlier version of the ‘British society’ of the eighteenth century and later.

Reading on, one’s hopes for clarification are dashed when one meets a statement containing a still more convoluted muddle:

A basic premise of this book is that it deals with the history of Great Britain, two partitioned, poly-cultural islands, and not merely with England.

The book does not deal ‘merely with England’. That is fair enough. It supposedly deals with the ‘history of Great Britain’. Yet Great Britain cannot possibly be equated with ‘two partitioned, poly-cultural islands’. As the OED confirms, Great Britain is the full name of ‘the whole island containing England, Wales, and Scotland, with their dependencies’. It does not include Ireland. Unlike ‘Britain’, it can’t be made in refer to ‘two islands’, whether ‘partitioned’, poly-cultural’ or otherwise.

So one is faced here not just with an anachronism or with an ambiguity but with a fundamental error. It is rather disturbing. It would appear that the mix-ups are being disseminated by the very works that should be disentangling them.

Investigation of the constituent chapters of The Oxford History of Britain provides little reassurance. Despite the editor’s declaration, the ‘basic premise’ is largely ignored. The chapter on the sixteenth century, for example, is entitled ‘The Tudor Age’. It begins with a section on ‘Population Changes’, which contains no information on the population of anywhere other than England and opens with a statement that:

The age of the Tudors has left its impact on the Anglo-American mind as a watershed in British history.

Surely, the age of the Tudors, who reigned in England, Wales, and Ireland but not in Scotland, is an important period in the history of England. But it hardly represents a watershed in British history.

The chapter following, entitled ‘The Stuarts, 1603-1688’, offers meagre improvement. Once again, Scotland and Ireland are ignored; and the chapter opens with a remark about the Stuarts being ‘one of England’s least successful dynasties’. Such a judgement on an ancient Scottish dynasty which reigned only briefly in England is, to say the least, out of place.

In his foreword, the editor of the Oxford History makes a heartfelt appeal to the patriotism of Britain. ‘This rooted patriotism,’ he writes, ‘embracing Welsh, Scots and Ulstermen over the centuries – though, significantly, never the southern Irish - endured and remained unchangeable.’

One has to suppose that southern Irishmen like the Duke of Wellington do not come into the reckoning. But if Welsh, Scots, or Ulster readers take the trouble to seek out what is, and what isn’t, said about their countries, their presumed patriotic feelings are due for a dousing. If British historians are to continue to appeal the patriotism of the non-English, they will have to address non-English concerns with rather more accuracy and sensitivity.

If one now turns to The Lives of The Kings and Queens of England, one finds still more sources of confusion. Lady Antonia begins by saying that ‘in one sense… the volume… needs no introduction.’ A glance at the table of contents, however, reveals that on one point at least an introductory explanation is sorely needed. For the contents open with William the Conqueror and close with Elizabeth II.

For no apparent reason they exclude the ten pre-Conquest monarchs from Edward the Elder to Harold Godwinson, who were undoubtedly Kings of England, whilst including the eleven representatives of the Houses of Hanover, Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha, and Windsor who have been monarchs not of England but of the United Kingdom. All the Queen’s loyal but non-English subjects have good cause to feel aggrieved.

This Sceptred Isle was a book published to accompany the highly successful BBC Radio series in 1995-6. Liberally laced with trenchant extracts from Winston Churchill’s History of The English Speaking Peoples (1954-6), its fifty-five episodes cover the two thousand years from Julius Caesar to Queen Victoria. Both the book and the radio series revealed the public’s appetite for old-fashioned narrative history and for a comprehensive chronological framework to historical knowledge.

Yet, as the adoption of Shakespeare’s catch-phrase implies, the interpretation is Angloccntric to a fault. It accepts without a word of hesitiation that England is the only part of the Isles that counts and that British history is a mere continuation of English history.

Finally, one last book needs a mention. Paul Johnson’s Offshore Islanders (1995) bears a subtitle, A History of The English People. It opens on the frontispiece with a quotation from Milton’s Areopagitica:

Lords and Commons of England - consider what nation it is whereof you are and of which you are governor.

Amen to that.

…The ultimate devlopment in this regard was perpetrated in a recent TV advertisment which unceremoniously amended Shakespeare and came up with the ineffable line:

‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Britain.’

The advertisers must not be blamed. After all, they are imitating the most distinguished academics.

One would be hard put to find another state or country which is so befuddled about the basic framework of its past. One of the few parallels that does exist can be found in the textbooks of the late and unlamented Soviet Union.

Although the Soviet Union was not created until 1923, Soviet historians customarily pretended that Soviet history stretched back to prehistoric times, just as it was destined to stretch up and away into the eternal future.

The standard textbook of the Stalinist era, A.M. Pankratova’s A History of The USSR, appeared in Moscow in three volumes in 1947-8. Only the third volume treated the formation and development of the USSR. The first volume opened with a section on ‘The Primitive Community System in Our Country’, and closed with ‘Important Dates in the History of the USSR since Ancient Times until the end of the Seventeenth Century’.

In this period of the ‘Soviet past’, space was found both for the ancient Greek cities of the Crimea and for Genghis Khan. The second volume opened with a chapter on ‘The Founding of the Russian Empire’ and closed with ‘Important Dates in the History of the USSR in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’. The first date on this last list is ‘1682-1725… Reign of Peter I’.

One may be amused. But to state that the reign of Peter The Great formed part of Soviet history is no less eccentric than stating that the reign of Henry VIII formed part of British history. Soviet historians at least could plead that they were writing to the prescription of ideological commissars. British historians have no such excuse.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

a demented badger

The best three opening words of a newspaper article that I've ever seen.


I love that bit from Kevin Witts. He's so keen on badgers that he's the spokesperson for the Devon Badger Group. His zoological knowledge must be far greater than yours or mine. And how does he express his understanding?

'An elderly badger that's losing it a bit'.

For my part, I suspect it's just a bit more outgoing. Any crossing of paths with a badger is likely to see you coming off second best. The assiduous scientific research at Kerosene Oyster Hell shows that badgers are even harder than swans.

Be careful out there.

Friday, June 16, 2006

fight not to win, but because we should

Been thinking some more about one of those astonishing quotes from Greenpeace staff in the Iceland article.

Greenpeace's Frode Pleym said, ‘the reason for not getting involved in the dam issue was that we felt that the decision making process had gone too far.’ And now there’s a direct action campaign, Greenpeace is still staying out.

Ignoring the fact that the planning process is only decided on for one of the dozen dams, let’s deal with the point of principle. Supporting those who resist ecological devastation used to be part of Greenpeace’s work, irrespective of the immediate chances of winning.

Greenpeace gave some help to the anti-roads campaigns in the mid-90s, in terms of public statements of support and direct practical assistance on the ground with media training and materials. There was never any real chance that the individual roads being targeted would be stopped, but that was not the point. The benefit came in raising the issues, giving space to different ideas and priorities that did win the day, and the government’s roads budget was slashed to a tiny fraction of what was planned.

We did not fight at Newbury to win there, but because of that inevitably defeated campaign we didn’t have to fight at Salisbury or any of the dozens of other places threatened by schemes that were swiftly abandoned.

When Greenpeace sent ships to French nuclear tests in the Pacific, there was no real prospect that they would stop the tests. The decision making process was too far gone. When they blocked the Sellafield outflow pipe in the Irish Sea, Sellafield was already up and running, it was not going to be stopped.

By Frode Pleym’s explanation of Greenpeace’s rationale, none of these actions should have happened. They were contradictory to the idea that it’s not worth raising your voice if a planning process is too far gone. Either Greenpeace should not have been supporting those campaigns, or else it should be supporting the Icelandic dam campaign. There is no other consistent position.

So either Pleym is a liar, or Greenpeace has retreated from its radical tradition (or both).

Greenpeace was founded – and is funded by subscribers who want to see it continue – on the premise that somebody gives resistance. They get in the way and attempt to stop things not just when there’s a good chance of winning, but because these things should be challenged on principle.

But we don’t just oppose on principle, though that in itself is reason enough. We oppose because we often can’t tell how possible or realistic our aspirations are. Many of us who remember the 1980s never really believed apartheid or the Soviet Bloc would be gone in our lifetimes. Political change doesn’t happen in steady, visible increments. It often seems like there are only a few fringe nutters who are bothered and then - bam! - out of apparently impossible situations huge victories are won. And even when we fail, we have left seeds of inspiration behind in the hands of those who will come after us and succeed.

The activists who started the suffragettes, the anti-apartheid campaign and innumerable anti-colonial independence movements began struggles decades long that many of them never lived to see the end of. How thankful we should be they never entered into deal-making with their opponents, accepting their power and merely looking for ways of mitigating some of the wrong. The people committing unconscionable acts should not be allowed to do so unopposed, and a public who would agree with us should be made aware.

These actions make people ask why we are objecting, and in giving powerful, informed answers we make it more likely that future projects will be stopped. It is quite frequently not about winning on the ground where we are fighting, but about preventing the battles in future, sowing the seeds for a lasting victory later on.

Two centuries ago anti-slavery campaigners could have sought compromise with the slave traders and owners. There could have been improved conditions for slaves offered, and any anti-slaver would have felt bad turning it down out of some pig-headed adherence to moral absolutes. How easy for the well-fed white idealists to refuse the compromises offered of longer chains and less whipping. It would have been unreasonable and unrealistic to expect such a huge industry on which so much of the economy relied to be eradicated. Even if that were a long term goal, surely some short term gains in the conditions of slaves would be welcome.

But no. The core activities of the slave trade were unacceptable. To lend support to some slavers or some of what they did implies they have a good moral disposition in general. To see them as someone with whom we do deals means we accept their position and power. It lends their existence a legitimacy it does not deserve, it would actually reinforce them and makes it less likely that they’d be abolished.

Doing deals to curb certain areas of an opponents activity has the effect of not challenging the rest of their activity, it affirms the legitimacy of what is not being challenged. With an oil company, with an aluminium smelter, with an airline or a nuclear installation there is no compromise to be had, no core activity to be endorsed.

As the world’s ecological crisis worsens many of the organisations we’ve trusted to fight the destruction are effectively reinforcing the power of the destructive corporations. As our need for change becomes ever more urgent and so the solutions needed are ever more drastic, some of the larger NGOs find themselves actually asking for less and less change.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

flagging up the identity crisis

I've written a piece about how the devolution of the other UK countries has pushed the English away from confusing the terms 'English' and 'British', and how all those World Cup England flags are helping the English to understand their national identity.

Here's some excerpts:

Slovenian or Polish governments may sell EU membership to their electorate as an equal footing with Germany and France, there may even have been the odd Uzbek who thought they’d get a good bargain from Soviet status, but if there’s a clash of interests there’s little doubt who’ll get the benefit. In the same way, for all the talk of integration, there has always been one dominant nation in the British union.

This has discouraged the English from thinking clearly on the issue and differentiating between England and Britain. Intelligent and educated English people will use the terms English and British interchangeably, often switching from one to the other in a single sentence, even though the words refer to very different bodies of land and people...

The English having their own national symbols and a clear sense of what they are (and what they are not) goes some way towards sorting all this out. The flags on the cars are a welcome catalyst.

The full thing (and the place to leave any Comments) is over on The Sharpener under the title Flagging Up The Identity Crisis.

Friday, June 09, 2006

remarkable things

I do actually read more books than I list in the 'reading' section of the sidebar. That's just for things that really hit me big time, that make me feel changed and that I recommend to absolutely everybody.

Jon McGregor's If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things was just one of the great bands and books that Zoe from Goldfish Nation got me into. It has some of the most magical prose I've ever read. It depicts a northern English inner city, the diversity of people who live on a street, it sees it all from everyone else's perspective, it takes everyday circumstances and holds them up, examines them under a light that shows their beauty and meaning that usually passes unnoticed.

Not only does it find the remarkable in the everyday, but it finds everyone having exceptional aspects to their lives, yet they often remain unexpressed. He gets inside so many different lives, he avoids using names so it feels like a dreamy internal swirl.

It makes you see the wonder of the life going on around you, and has been written in an immensely clever fresh and beautiful style that pulls you constantly forward in the book even as it takes several pages to describe a single moment.

So I'm hugely excited by the news that he's finished his next novel, So Many Ways To Begin and it's out in August.

Goldfish Zoe does another blog, 613 Sadnesses, which just gives you an extract from some great book she loves. Inspired by that, and in celebration of the imminentness of McGregor's new one, and to make you all go and get both of his books, here's the opening scene of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.

If you listen, you can hear it. The city, it sings.
If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of a street, on the roof of a house.
It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.
It’s a wordless song, for the most, but it’s a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings. And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note.

The low soothing hum of air-conditioners, fanning out the heat and the smells of shops and cafes and offices across the city, winding up and winding down, long breaths layered upon each other, a lullaby hum for tired streets.
The rush of traffic still cutting across flyovers, even in the dark hours a constant crush of sound, tyres rolling across tarmac and engines rumbling, loose drains and manhole covers clack-clacking like cast-iron castanets.
Road-menders mending, choosing the hours of least interruption, rupturing the cold night air with drills and jack-hammers and pneumatic pumps, hard-sweating beneath the fizzing hiss of floodlights, shouting to each other like drummers in rock bands calling out rhythms, pasting new skin on the veins of the city.
Restless machines in workshops and factories with end-less shifts, turning and pumping and steaming and sparking, pressing and rolling and weaving and printing, the hard crash and ring and clatter lifting out of echo-high buildings and sifting into the night, an unaudited product beside the paper and cloth and steel and bread, the packed and the bound and the made.
Lorries reversing, right round the arc of industrial parks, it seems every lorry in town is reversing, backing through gateways, easing up ramps, shrill-calling their presence while forklift trucks gas and prang around them, heaping and stacking and loading.
And all the alarms, calling for help, each district and quarter, each street and estate, each every way you turn has alarms going off, coming on, going off, coming on, a hammered ring like a lightning drum-roll, like a mesmeric bell-toll, the false and the real as loud as each other, crying their needs to the night like an understaffed orphanage, babies waawaa-ing in darkened wards.
Sung sirens, sliding through the streets, streaking blue light from distress to distress, the slow wail weaving urgency through the darkest of the dark hours, a lament lifted high, held above the rooftops and fading away, lifted high, flashing past, fading away.

And all these things sing constant, the machines and the sirens, the cars blurting hey and rumbling all headlong, the hoots and the shouts and the hums and the crackles, all come together and rouse like a choir, sinking and rising with the turn of the wind, the counter and solo, the harmony humming expecting more voices.

So listen.
Listen, and there is more to hear.
The rattle of a dustbin lid knocked to the floor.
The scrawl and scratch of two hackle-raised cats.
The sudden thundercrash of bottles emptied into crates. The slam-slam of car doors, the changing of gears, the hobbled clip-clop of a slow walk home.
The rippled roll of shutters pulled down on late-night cafes, a crackled voice crying street names for taxis, a loud scream that lingers and cracks into laughter, a bang that might just be an old car backfiring, a callbox calling out for an answer, a treeful of birds tricked into morning, a whistle and a shout and a broken glass, a blare of soft music and a blam of hard beats, a barking and yelling and singing and crying and it all swells up all the rumbles and crashes and bangings and slams, all the noise and the rush and the non-stop wonder of the song of the city you can hear if you listen the song

and it stops

in some rare and sacred dead time, sandwiched between the late sleepers and the early risers, there is a miracle of silence.

Everything has stopped.

And silence drops down from out of the night, into this city, the briefest of silences, like a falter between heart-beats, like a darkness between blinks. Secretly, there is always this moment, an unexpected pause, a hesitation as one day is left behind and a new one begins.
A catch of breath as gasometer lungs begin slow exhalations. A ring of tinnitus as thermostats interrupt air-condition-ing fans.
These moments are there, always, but they are rarely noticed and they rarely last longer than a flicker of thought.

We are in that moment now, there is silence and the whole city is still.

The old tall-windowed mills, staggered across the sky-line, they are silent, they are keeping their ghosts and their thoughts to themselves.
The smoked-glass offices, slung low to the ground, they are still, they are blankly reflecting the haze and shine of the night. Soon, they will resume their business, their coy whispers of ones and zeroes across networks of threaded glass, but now, for a moment, they are hushed. The buses in the depot, waiting for a new day, they are quiet, their metalwork easing and shrinking into place, settling and cooling after eighteen hours of heat and noise, eighteen hours of criss-crossing the city like wool on a loom.
And the clubs in the centre, they are empty, the dance-floors sticky and sore from a night’s pounding, the lights still turning and blinking, lost shoes and wallets and keys gathered in heaps.
And the night-fishers strung out along the canal, feeling the sing of their lines in the water, although they are within yards of each other they are saying nothing, watching luminous floats hang in the night like bottled fireflies, waiting for the dip and strike which will bring a centre to their time here, waiting for the quietness and calm they have come here to find.
Even the traffic scattered through these streets: the taxis and the cleaners, the shift-workers and the delivery drivers, even they are held still in this moment, trapped by traffic lights which synchronise red as the system cycles from old day to new, hundreds of feet resting on accelerators, hundreds of pairs of eyes hanging on the lights, all waiting for the amber, all waiting for the green.

The whole city has stopped.

And this is a pause worth savouring, because the world will soon be complicated again.

It’s the briefest of pauses, with not time enough to even turn frill circle and look at all the lights this city throws out to the sky, and it’s a pause which is easily broken. A slamming door, a car alarm, a thin drift of music from half a mile away, and already the city is moving on, already tomorrow is here.

The music is coming from a curryhouse near the football ground, careering out of speakers placed outside to attract extra custom. The restaurant is almost empty, a bhindi masala in one corner, a special korma in the other, and the carpark is deserted except for a young couple standing with their arms around each other’s waists. They’ve not been a couple long, a few days perhaps, or a week, and they are both still excited and nervous with desire and possibility. They’ve come here to dance, drawn sideways from their route home by the music and by bravado, and now they are hesitating, unsure of how to begin, unfamiliar with the steps, embarrassed.

But they do begin, and as the first smudges of light seep into the sky from the east, from the far side of the city and in towards these streets, they hold their heads high and their backs straight and step together in time to the slide and wheel of the music. They dance with a style more suited to the ballroom than to the bollywood movies the music comes from, but they dance all the same, hips swinging, waists touching, eyes fixed on eyes. The waiters have come across to the window, they are laughing, they are calling uncle uncle to the man in the kitchen who is finally beginning to clean up after a long night. They dance, and he steps out of the door to watch, wiping his hands on his apron, licking the weary tips of his fingers, pulling at his long beard. They dance, and he smiles and nods and thinks of his wife sleeping at home, and thinks of when they were young and might still have done something like this.

Elsewhere, across the city, the day is beginning with a rush and a shout, the fast whine of office hoovers, the locked slam of lorry doors, the hurried clocking on of the early shifts.

But here, as the dawn sneaks up on the last day of summer, and as a man with tired hands watches a young couple dance in the carpark of his restaurant, there are only these: sparkling eyes, smudged lipstick, fading star-light, the crunching of feet on gravel, laughter, and a slow walk home.

Monday, June 05, 2006

you're ugly and wrong

Sat on the coach, I couldn't help but look across the aisle at the woman reading Cosmopolitan. More precisely, at the magazine itself.

The 100 Beauty Products That Will Change Your Life article featured a sublist of 35 Products Beauty Editors Swear By. This was followed by a piece on Natural Radiant Beauty.

How natural is radiant beauty when it's made from a hundred tricks performed with a heap of several dozen different products?

A few pages further in we came to an article entitled How Normal Are Your Breasts?.

Is there a meter you rig them up to so you can find out? "Hey, I'm a 7.5 but you're only a 4.6!" What might the unit of measurement be called?

Beyond there, a full page ad for some Nivea skin product headlined Catch Everybody's Eye. What's that about? 'Want attention but been convinced by this mag you're ugly? Buy our product to get attention and be worthy of it'.

What would a skin cream have to do to make the wearer catch everybody's eye? All the options I can think of certainly wouldn't look good, that's for sure. Most of them are really gruesome. And that's before we consider a literal interpretation that involves fish hooks or somesuch.

How could you compete with Cosmo? I'm thinking of starting You're Ugly And Wrong Monthly, featuring articles like 58 Expensive Things To Buy For No Real Reason, or 100 Things Repulsive Inadequates Like You Bought To Make Themselves Physically Acceptable.

As Mary Schmich's classic Chicago Tribune column said, do not read beauty magazines; they will only make you feel ugly.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

dirty old town

The other week I deduced that Formby lies on one of the greatest convergences of double-entendre leylines on this earth.

But I would venture that it happens elsewhere too.