Category Archives: General Musings

Time for a rest

I can’t believe that it’s the 30th November already. I think this may be my fifth year of posting every day for a month; and this has probably been the year that I have most enjoyed the experience. In part that’s probably a reflection of the fact that frankly there hasn’t been much else to encroach on blogging time. Formal covid restrictions and a personal reluctance to place myself at any undue risk where it’s not strictly necessary, have combined to limit the number of times that I leave the house in any given week. Beyond a walk at lunchtime most days, an occasional early morning run, and even less occasional visits to food shops when it’s my turn to stock up the cupboard, I have spent a lot of time in the house. And I have also significantly increased the time that I spend reading – both actual books and internet content. There’s no doubt that this is a good formula for a daily blogging marathon – in TV drama terms, I have had both motive and opportunity. Plenty of ideas from the reading and plenty of time to convert those ideas into something resembling a coherent train of thought.

It’s also been good this month to devote a few more posts than usual to some creative writing, mainly in the form of haiku, but also some prose and more free-form poetry. I enjoy the challenge of stripping back language to fit the strict conventions of haiku – ensuring that every syllable counts (and is counted!). Writing poetry and prose still feels contrived at the moment, and I’m not sure that I’ve yet uncovered my real voice, but I’ll keep plugging away at it.

For now though, I’ll be taking a bit of a break from the daily posts. Thanks to those of you who have followed my ramblings this month (and especially to those who have commented on or liked a post). I like to pretend that this blog is something that I do just for me, but the truth of the matter is that it’s nice to see that others are reading it and occasionally reacting to things that they read here. For now, though, please continue to take care. There is light at the end of the tunnel in terms of covid and vaccines, but that will be no consolation at all if you contract the virus before they are readily available. Good luck everybody!

Isn’t all history relatively fictional?

One of things I enjoy most about my annual blogging marathon is stumbling across a potential topic for the day’s post and then following threads that emerge and disappearing off down a whole series of rabbit holes, discovering all sorts of interesting ideas along the way. This post started with a story that appeared on Politics Home this morning. In summary, the UK’s most senior government minister with responsibility for culture and media is on the verge of writing to Netflix (an on-line video streaming service) asking them to place an advisory notice to the start of each edition of their highly popular and critically acclaimed series on the Bristish monarchy The Crown. The Minister, Oliver Dowden, is quoted as saying : “It’s a beautifully produced work of fiction, so as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that. Without this, I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.”

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in Netflix series The Crown

I was going to write about the irony of a Minister in a government that has an at best tenuous grasp on the difference between truth and fiction, having the temerity to require a TV company to state explicitly that a historical fiction drama series was (shock! horror!) fictional. I might have gone on to suggest that every time in the next month that a government minister stands up in Parliament (or more likely writes in a column for the Daily Telegraph) that a no-deal Brexit is the will of the British people as voted for in a referendum four years’ ago, coverage should also carry a warning that such accounts are also “beautifully produced works of fiction”. Surely, without such a warning, people who voted for Brexit on the basis that we would remain members of the European Single Market and Customs Union might also “mistake fiction for fact”.

I then started to reflect on the contrast between reactions to the idea that The Crown might in some way present a distorted view of history; and the outrage felt in some quarters at suggestions that ‘whitewashed’ histories of those implicated in slavery and other colonial abuses were themselves, if not works of fiction, then at least only partial versions of the truth. The quotes attributed to Dowden in the Independent piece are particularly interesting when juxtaposed with his views on the Netflix series : “History is ridden with moral complexity. Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong. Some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today.” It’s unclear whether that same analysis holds true for the behaviours and attitudes of the UK’s Royal Family during the real-life events that are the basis of the historical fiction that is The Crown.

Edward Colston statue dumped in Bristol dock during Black Lives Matter protest

History itself is a highly contentious subject. There is no absolutely objective, impartial, reliable and value-free account of any past event. Henry Ford is commonly believed to have stated that : “History is bunk”. But ironically, even that is historically questionable. The actual quote that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in May 1916 was : “History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today. That’s the trouble with the world. We’re living in books and history and tradition. We want to get away from that and take care of today. We’ve done too much looking back. What we want to do and do it quick is to make just history right now.” One interpretation of this is that Ford – who was known to be sceptical about US involvement in the First World War – was suggesting that a focus on history, on tradition, was not going to help address the problems facing the world as it was in May 1916. However, it’s not absolutely clear what he meant – and interpretations necessarily involve assumptions and attribution of motivation and values that Ford may hardly have recognised himself. Indeed, later in the same piece, Daniel Strohl writes that : “One explanation posits simply that Ford was trying to dissemble using a debate tactic he often deployed called the ‘Ford flurry’ or the ‘Gish gallop’ in which Ford threw out an array of arguments or statements of fact when cornered or when he couldn’t muster a sufficient response.” I wonder if it will take 100 years for somebody to write the same of the current President of the United States.

So is all history necessarily partly fiction then? This was the question posed in a fascinating essay published on the Evatt Foundation website and written by Australian historians Ann Curthoys and John Docker in 2006. Curthoys and Docker consider the question through the various lenses that have been applied to the academic study of history. They identify various dualities that exist in historical writing, including “nationalist historians [who] seek to justify and praise the nation through a particular version of its past, while revisionist historians aim to question national historical myths through what they see as an honest coming to terms with its darker aspects.” They also draw out the distinction between history as verifiable fact, and history as a literary art, “constituted through language, narrative, metaphor, rhetoric, and allegory”. It is in this “space between history as rigorous scrutiny of sources and history as part of the world of literary forms” that the discussion about the historical accuracy and validity of The Crown resides.

But there is another doubleness in academic history that is also described by Curthoys and Docker and of relevance here. They label them Herodotean and Thucydidean after the great historians of ancient Athenian conflicts. “The Herodotean is a mode of history which is expansive and inclusive, history as sexual, erotic, religious, social, cultural, as well as political and military. The Thucydidean is a mode that is highly focused on war and the state and the interaction of states, ignoring gender and social and cultural history, and is presented in an authoritative and magisterial tone and manner.” Arguably, this is the conflict that is playing out in Dowden’s proposed letter to Netflix. Dowden’s Thucydidean motive is to protect and preserve the dignity and solemnity of the state as embodied in the Royal Family. The literary narrative of The Crown is altogether more down and dirty, focusing on the characters not as officers of the state but rather less grandly as men and women subject to all the same desires, foibles and imperfections as all other men and women.

So is all history fiction? Curthoys and Docker think not, and I agree with them. “‘[W]e do indeed believe in truth and in the search for truth. We point out that no-one… would do history, would pursue historical research, unless [they] thought they could arrive, however provisionally, at some kind of truth about the past. We think, however, that the temptation to declare that the historian can objectively establish the truth about the past is to be resisted. There always has to be a question mark hovering over any claim to having attained an objective, let alone scientific, status for one’s findings.”

I have never watched The Crown and I have no idea whether the fictionalised accounts that it contains of day to day going-on in the House of Windsor during the great historical events of the last century are even close to being accurate. But one thing I do know is that Oliver Dowden can’t know one way or the other either!

We’re all in the TARDIS now

“It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” The opening line of George Orwell’s 1984 has taken on a whole new meaning in the last eight months. Every day in work now lasts what seems like the equivalent of a week in pre-covid time; and 7.30am to 12.30pm lasts for at least 13 hours. If this is life imitating art, then we are all experiencing what it’s like to be in Doctor Who’s TARDIS (for the non-geek reader, this is the time travelling machine that derives its title from its ability to ‘bend’ Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). It’s clear that the additional emotional and mental health burdens imposed by a combination of covid-related restrictions on daily life, working from home, and the sheer pace of change as organisations seek to adapt and survive in an uncharted and hostile environment, are taking a major toll on many people. And nobody will have been untouched by this. With that in mind, and because you never know when it might come in handy, I’m including a link to the UK government guidance on looking after your health and wellbeing at this time. The guidance in turn includes links to a whole variety of further hints, tips and sources of detailed advice. It’s never wrong to ask for help; and now more than ever, we need to look out for ourselves and one another.

(I’m fine by the way – this post was prompted by a conversation that I had this afternoon with somebody who thankfully is now receiving the help and support that they need).

The TARDIS – Dr Who’s legendary time machine

Great British Bake Off finals night

As I write, the Great British Bake Off (GBBO) final is unfolding on the television downstairs. It’s possible that the winner will have been revealed by the time I get to hit the publish button on this post. Throughout this series, we have marked each episode of the possibly the most British reality TV show of all time, with a cake or other baked foodstuff that is more or less in line with that week’s theme. For the final tonight, we have gone with scones, jam and clotted cream. As somebody who naturally shies away from controversy, I’m not going to fall into the trap of disclosing the order in which the cream and jam are placed onto the scone. Nor do I offer any view on whether the correct pronunciation of scone rhymes with gone or stone. Suffice to say that whether you’re reading this in Devon, Cornwall or Nova Scotia, the combination of cream, jam and scone will be absolutely delicious!

Cream on top or…
…jam on top. It’s your call!!

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures

I’m not ashamed to say that we’ve gone early. Normally, we wait until the middle of December before getting the decorations out and re-arranging the furniture to accommodate the tree, but not this year. We have been slowly adding to the festive feel around the house for just over a week now, starting with the tree and this past weekend, moving on to some lights across the garden to the front and side of the house. I’m rationalising it on the basis that 2020 has already been 37 months long and – frankly – if we have to spend the better part of 23 hours a day under effective house arrest, we may as well make it as fun as possible!

To the horror of my Twitter follower, we’ve also gone early on the Christmas movies. So far we have already notched up The Muppets Christmas Carol, Home Alone, Elf, The Holiday, and a couple of ‘straight to Netflix’ offerings that (as far as I could make out) had exactly the same plot and characters but with different actors in them! In these unprecedented times, I’ve even managed to negotiate the inclusion of the big daddy of all Christmas movies onto the list of things to watch in the coming weeks. This will be the first ever family outing for Die Hard (and yes – it IS a Christmas movie, and that’s a hill that I will happily die on!).

Exactly what arrangements will be in place for families to meet and spend time together over the holiday remains unclear at the time of writing; but the general advice is still likely to be valid – don’t think about what you can do, but rather reflect on what you should do. Thankfully, it’s looking increasingly likely that there will be significant progress with the roll-out of vaccines to the population during the first half of 2021. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and one disrupted Christmas seems like a small price to pay to maximise the chances of all of us making it to a much more ‘normal’ one in 12 months’ time.

Reflections inspired by coffee in Cardiff Bay

It was a beautiful morning in Cardiff today – the first for what seems like weeks. A visit to the Bay for a cup of coffee and a stroll along the waterside provided today’s haiku inspiration

Blue sky shines above
Reflected in deep waters,
Reflecting times past

Pleasure boats moored now
Where black gold was cargo once,
Powering empire

No industry now :
Penthouse and modern office
Occupy this space

Fish and birds live where
Coal valley rivers flow clear :
Life's balance restored

Gentrification :
Now steam runs coffee machines
Where steel works once stood

It’s the way she tells ’em

Watching I’m a Celebrity last evening, and during one of the challenges, Russell Watson and Ruthie Henshall were having to read out jokes while being doused in rotten tomatoes. One of the jokes started : “What birds stick together?” The answer that was eventually given on the show was “Velcrows” – which was ok I suppose. But my daughter, without missing a beat, responded instantly to the question : “Glue tits!”

I have to tell you, dear reader, I have never been prouder!

PS note to self : never Google “Images of Glue Tits” on your work computer again…

Purrfect understanding

It’s good to know that despite the unrelenting gloom of the main news, there is still space for the sort of left-field report that makes you stop, blink, shake your head in astonished disbelief, and then read it again! This one from the BBC News website filled the bill nicely today.

At first site, the idea of an app that can translate your cat’s miaow so that it’s owner can understand what their feline friend is saying is really interesting. As a relative newcomer to the experience of being lorded over by our cat, I’m pretty sure that she only has three main phrases : “It’s time to feed me!”; “You’re sat in my chair!”; and “Worship the ground that I’m walking on, peasant!”. It would be fascinating to know what is really going on behind the sphinx-like look of disdainful superiority that she bestows on me, on those rare occasions when she even bothers to acknowledge my existence at all.

Unfortunately, it appears that the promise of the app has been somewhat overhyped. Reality starts to impinge on the marketing guff at the top of the press release with the acknowledgement that “cats do not share a language”. This seems to be a major obstacle for a translation app. And indeed it is, because this is not really a translation app at all. Rather, users will record their cat and then label the various sounds themselves. Over time, as more recordings and labels are added, the app’s developers claim that artificial intelligence and machine learning will enable it to differentiate between the recorded sounds and apply the relevant label to translate them. There’s even talk of a smart collar than will automatically respond the cat’s miaow and use data from the app to instantaneously convert the sound into the owner’s language.

Reviews from early adopters of the app are mixed, and animal behaviourists point out the inherent dangers of anthropomorphising the sounds made by any animal. Personally, I’m fine with living in a sense of benign ignorance. As things stand, I can at least kid myself into believing that there is the tiniest modicum of affection for me deep in my cat’s soul. There’s a great saying that goes something like : “It’s better to remain silent and have people think you’re an idiot, than to open your mouth and remove all possible doubt.” Translating that to my cat, I’ll continue to believe that her 5.30am miaow is one of enormous love and respect for me, and not simply a reminder that it’s nearly time for her breakfast and that I really should be waking up in preparation for a day’s obedient service to her!

In praise of sleep!

“There is no sunrise so beautiful that it is worth waking me up to see it.”

I’m usually awake quite early, and I wouldn’t normally associate with the sentiment of Mindy Kaling’s quote at the start of this post. Today, though, I completely get where she’s coming from. I managed to get about three and a half hours sleep last night, and I have spent most of the day today in a kind of twilight state – hovering somewhere between consciousness and oblivion.

I’ve never been one of those people like Margaret Thatcher or Florence Nightingale who were reputedly able to function perfectly satisfactorily on 4 hours of sleep a night. But equally, I’m not one for long lie-ins and sleeping until lunchtime either. If I can get a solid 7 or 8 hours of shut-eye then I’m quite happy to rise to meet the day (or more accurately, to feed the cat) at 6.30 or 7am.

Intriguingly, there is no obvious answer to the question of why humans sleep. The amount of energy that is saved during a typical night’s sleep is only marginally more than we’d gain from a piece of toast with jam. What we do know, though, is that depriving somebody of sleep seriously reduces their speech, memory, and ability to think innovatively or tackle new problems. There is also a suggestion that disrupted sleep is associated with obesity, as the body releases the hormones linked to appetite regulation and weight gain during periods of deep sleep.

There is a widely held misconception that we need less sleep as we get older. In fact, whilst our sleep patterns may change, the total amount of sleep that we need remains relatively constant through adult life. This at least provides me with some degree of reassurance as I sit bleary-eyed in front of the keyboard tapping out these words. It’s also quite reassuring to think that at some point the desire I now find almost overwhelming for a nap at 6.30 each evening is just part of the natural adjustment of my circadian rhythm.

Ultimately, though, and not for the first time in my life, I find myself wholly in agreement with Ernest Hemingway when he said : “I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” Until tomorrow – good night!

Short, sharp and to the point

It’s been quite the week this week. What with government announcements about Student Travel Windows, and the now usual flurry of short-notice changes to policies and procedures as we all continue to adapt to the constantly shifting sands upon which universities are seeking to operate, there hasn’t been much time for rest and relaxation. All of which is a thinly veiled excuse for a very short daily blogpost, and a very large gin and tonic instead!