Category Archives: General Musings

Passchendaele, Hedd Wyn, and enduring beauty

The centenary of the start of the battle at Passchendaele carries a particular poignancy in Wales. Amongst the first wave of casualties was Ellis Humphrey Evans, a farmer from Trawsfynydd in the foothills of Snowdonia, who wrote poetry as Hedd Wyn, and whose poem “Yr Arwr” – “The Hero”, would have seen him receive the Bardic Chair at the 1917 National Eisteddfod. Ironically Hedd Wyn translates as Blessed Peace, but it is clear that the reluctant soldier found little peace or blessing amidst the mud and squalor of First World War Belgium.

There is, however, an enduring and heart-rending beauty in the poetry that Evans left behind, and which is exemplified in his poem titled “War” (this translation by Louis Flint Ceci) :

Alas, this is an age so mean
That everyman is made a Lord,
For all authority’s absurd
When God himself fades from the scene.

As quick as God is shown the door
Out come the cannons and the sword:
Hate on hate on brother poured
And scored the deepest on the poor.

The harps that once could help our pain
Hang silent, to the willows pinned.
The cry of battle fills the wind
And blood of lads–it falls like rain.

In common with other First World War poets, Evans struggles to reconcile the peaceful orderliness of the world he has left behind, with the godless devastation of the battlefield. The observation that the suffering and pain of war falls disproportionately heavily on the poor and least powerful, is one that is repeated throughout the poetry of the time (and has been borne out in every conflict to the present day).

The senseless loss that is represented in Passchendaele is perhaps best described by Evans’ cousin, Gerald Williams, who still lives near the Gwynedd farmhouse that Evans’ was forced to leave on conscription : “All the cream of the young men had been killed – a whole generation wiped out – for what? I don’t know – it doesn’t make sense whatsoever. I don’t understand war at all.”

 

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Yearning for a glimmer of hope

I promised myself that I wouldn’t sully this blog with any reflections on the UK General Election, but not to write something would be to undermine why I started blogging in the first place. Having just finished drafting what follows, I can say that it really does feel good to have got it off my chest. Better out than in, indeed! Fear not, there will be no more election stuff here during this campaign.

It’s a miserable time to be a wishy-washy liberal. In a complex, networked world, it is a cruel paradox that everything is now seen in strictly binary terms. You’re either with us or against us. Brexiteer or Remoaner. Patriot or saboteur. Strong and stable, or an agent of anarchy. Metropolitan elite or northern working class. One of ‘us’ or one of ‘them’. The pragmatism and pluralism that have underpinned UK politics for most of the past 100 years are no longer respected values. Instead, we have a cruel parody of a democratic process that sees the two main parties peddling lies and half-truths, supported by a press that long-since abandoned any pretense at impartiality. There is an irony in the fact that broadcast media is now so dependent on politicians to fill the endless of hours of live news programming that it can no longer risk alienating those politicians by actually holding them to account. There seem to be no checks and balances to the abuses of process that have become common-place in UK politics. And all this while sneering at the events in Washington. Look first to the plank in your own eye.

Both Labour and the Conservatives (aided and abetted by most mainstream media outlets) are determined to downplay Brexit in the General Election campaign. This is not surprising. In less than two years, the UK will leave the EU. Both Labour and the Conservatives appear to believe that this momentous change in our relationship with our most important trade partners can be negotiated in a way that will leave us better off at the end of it. This is delusional and amounts to a monumental fraud against the British people. It is possible that UK plc will be able to survive outside the EU. New trading agreements with Europe, the USA, other members of the Commonwealth, may well emerge. If we’re really lucky, they may take less than ten years to conclude, and at the end of the process we may be in a position that is no worse than we have now. What nobody seems able to answer, is what the impact of the intervening period will be. And there will be a long gap between the end of the Article 50 process and the signing of significant new agreements. Ask the Canadians. There are some clues. Wage growth is stagnating; house prices have flat-lined; the initial ‘boost’ to exports following the devaluation in the pound is now balanced by escalating raw materials and food costs, hitting household income and driving up inflation. City firms are planning to move staff and operations to European capitals; others are reviewing decisions on new investments. Sweetheart deals with the likes of Nissan are providing a having a short-term palliative effect, but there are only so many holes that can be plugged in the dyke before the water comes crashing through. In this context, to be making claims for increased investment in public services or defence or preserving the pensions triple-lock, or committing not to increase taxes, is at best irresponsible and delusional; at worst, it is cynical and calculating. And the analysis applies to both the hard left and the hard right, Labour and Conservative, in this campaign.

What’s a wishy-washy liberal to do in the face of this seemingly hopeless situation. I’m lucky. As an exile in a foreign constituency for the time being, I can at least vote for an anti-Brexit candidate with a realistic prospect of success. It’s possible that I might even have the unusual thrill of casting my vote for the winning candidate in a General Election (this hasn’t happened much in my lifetime to date). Admittedly, the Greens won’t be forming a government any time soon, but at least I won’t be voting hopelessly.

Better by design

There was a fascinating programme on BBC2 television last evening, reviewing the design innovations of Sir Kenneth Grange. Across an astonishingly diverse career, Grange has been responsible for the design of the Kenwood Chef, disposable razors, and the InterCity 125 locomotive. It was great TV and the sort of thing that the license-fee funded BBC can do, but which would probably be almost impossible to get commissioned on a commercial channel.

Prompted (I guess) by the programme, there was a feature on product design and marketing in today’s Guardian newspaper. Alongside a discussion of the Kenwood kitchen aid and an old style telephone handset, there are features on lip balm (some contain chemicals that actually make your lips dry so that you end up using more of the product!); and Heineken beer (with the smiley face ‘e’s that are deliberately designed to create a sense of happiness and fun in the branding.

Good design is critical to the success of products in a consumer-driven society; but it’s also important in terms of the quality of our lives on a day-to-day basis. Another story in the news today focuses on nature deficit disorder. This is the term being used to describe the impact of lives that are increasingly mediated through technology (television, computers, smartphones, tablets), and where many people spend virtually no time in the open air and green spaces, simply ‘being’ in nature. There is an emerging body of evidence that this is bad for us both psychologically and physiologically. Actually spending time in a green space looking at plants and trees, watching squirrels and birds, is good for our bodies and minds. And denying ourselves these simple pleasures can lead to physical and mental ill-health.

Mindfulness has gained something of a cure-all reputation in recent months, and there is (probably rightly) some cynicism about the extent to which it can really have all the positive effects that are claimed for it. Nevertheless, at the most fundamental level, creating space to simply be, focusing on the here and now in the physical world and concentrating on really experiencing the world around you as it is, seems to offer one route to addressing the damaging side-effects of an over-reliance on technology and indoor-living.

Perhaps we all need to think about designing in some time to appreciate the natural world around us as much as the wider, virtual world accessed through our screens. Have a good week everybody.

Didn’t we have a lovely time…

The day we went to Chester. There has been a settlement on the banks of the River Dee at the place that we now know as Chester, since the Romans established a fort there in the first century AD. Much of the land and key property around Chester is part of the Grosvenor Estates, the company that manages the holdings of the Duke of Westminster. The ancestral home of the Grosvenor family is situated at Eaton Hall on the outskirts of the city.

Our visit today was in part to see the Christmas market, focused around the Cathedral in the heart of the city, and in part to catch up with Dan, Bex and Bex’s parents before Christmas. The market layout is well planned, allowing large numbers of people to move leisurely through the stalls without ever feeling that the place was over-crowded or uncomfortable.

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Christmas market stalls with the Cathedral behind

In truth, on this fifth Saturday before Christmas, Chester was unsurprisingly very busy; but there was also a fantastic buzz about the place, helped by some of the most talented street entertainers that I’ve witnessed for a long time.

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Play the violin? Check. Singing? Check. High wire balance? Check. Bonkers?? Probably!

One of the great things about Chester is the architecture, drawing on styles from the city’s two thousand years of history. On a crisp, sunny, November day, the city looked magnificent (even through the lens of my smartphone).

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The only challenge today, was actually finding somewhere with six spare seats for lunch! There can’t have been many pubs in the city centre that we DIDN’T walk into in the vain hope that we might find a place to sit down and get something to eat. In the end, we opted for the loiter and stare technique, snaffling some space at a table in a JD Wetherspoon’s establishment just when all hope was almost gone!

A lovely day, followed by a glorious drive home as the sun sank behind the hills to the west.

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Danny Dyer – simply a legend

So – tonight’s planned post has been usurped. I’ve been completely absorbed in the new series of Who Do You Think You Are on BBC1. Tonight, it’s Danny Dyer – and he’s basically a legend. The clash of cultures between the East End wide boy and the ‘old money’ that he shares an ancestry with is brilliant television! If you missed it, do try and catch up with it on the BBC iPlayer. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

Back to more substantive stuff tomorrow!

Facebook wisdom : an unrepresentative sample!

For today’s post, I am drawing on some of the accumulated wisdom of Facebook that I’be collected over the past couple of years. These are the memes, cartoons and pictures that have either made me laugh, or touched a nerve, or otherwise given me pause for thought.

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This first cartoon fits firmly in the laugh out loud category. The look of trepidation on the sock facing the washing machine, and the reassuring appeal of his ‘partner’ to remember the buddy system is beautifully observed.

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This second one is both funny, but also touches on a more profound truth for anybody who is involved in education professionally, or who is simply a parent. Children and young people spend far more time being controlled, and exhorted to conform, than being encouraged to develop their creativity and flair. Another favourite meme features the slogan, “In a world of Kardashians, don’t be afraid to be a bit more Bonham Carter”, and appeals to the same principles as the dog cartoon.

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For reasons* that I can’t write about today, but that I will almost certainly return to when the time is right in the future, this final Peanuts cartoon carries a particular poignancy at the moment. It gently reminds us that however difficult things may get, life always deserves a chance to win through. That helps me to smile even at very sad times.

 

 

* In case anybody is concerned, this is about work rather than anything to do with family or my personal situation.

I’m on the train…

I’m travelling to Manchester on a Virgin Cross Country service from Bristol Temple Meads. I don’t get to travel by train very often these days (and when I do, it’s usually by Great Western to London) so this is something of a novelty to me. Two things that have struck me already (an hour into the three hour journey) : one, that the seats seem to have been made smaller; and two, passengers have become a lot quieter.

I’m sure that when I was regularly travelling from Cardiff to Paddington, it was possible to curl up sideways on the seat and fall asleep comfortably without risking waking up dribbling on the shoulder of the person next to me. There’s no chance of that on this train. If I sit bolt upright in the seat, I can just about move my legs without having to thrust my knees out into the aisle first; but there is absolutely no way that I could put my head back on the seat and go to sleep (the headrest actually ends just above my shoulders!).

The inability to sleep would normally be compensated for by the entertainment that can be derived from overhearing snippets of conversations and one-sided telephone calls being held by fellow-passengers. There was inevitably the one person in the carriage who insisted on giving some poor subordinate back in the office a hard time over some minor administrative error, kidding himself (it’s always a man) that he’s the big ‘I am’ whilst actually simply coming across as a bit of an arse. Elsewhere, there’d be people talking about the meeting that they were on their way to, planning their negotiation strategy, anticipating the counter-plays of the other side, establishing their red lines. And then there would be the lawyer or civil servant opposite, working on official papers, furiously writing notes in the margin, or highlighting portentous paragraphs that were clearly critical to the business at hand. I became quite adept at surreptitiously reading upside-down documents, many of which meant little or nothing out of context, but around which it was possible to weave fantastic narratives that would allow the journey to fly by.

Unfortunately though, there’s very little informal, passenger-led entertainment on this train today – although the woman opposite me has just complained very loudly on the phone to her PA that she’s been booked in a seat opposite someone who is obviously reading her work papers upside down. I must be losing my touch!