While You Were Out…

I try to shop in actual places as often as I can, but when you’ve walked all the way to B&Q because your car has a flat battery and the website says they sell jump leads, only to discover when you arrive that the car-care section has been reduced to a couple of square inches in aisle 64, what can you do?  It’s too far to walk to Halford’s in my current condition and I don’t like Halford’s anyway, so I did what I had to do: I clicked and I ordered.  And lo! the jump leads came.

I have to confess, I’m way out of my comfort zone with all this stuff, not only because I don’t know much about it (cars I mean) but because any men you ask are likely to indulge in a prolonged bout of mansplaining which will leave you feeling two inches tall and none the wiser.  But I couldn’t have been more wrong about this: my neighbour was only too willing to help and confessed he ‘hadn’t a clue’ about using jump leads – in fact most of the people I spoke to had never used them. 

This is what’s happening with technology nowadays; people are becoming de-skilled.  Not only do we not know how to fix our cars, we couldn’t if we did because the whole thing has to be hooked up to a computer and done by a recognised mechanic.  I think my car is the last generation of vehicles to have no computerised components.

Well, once the neighbour and I had failed to locate his negative terminal another neighbour came across, one with experience, it appeared.  He offered a battery charger.  I accepted.  In the meantime more neighbours came to join us, so at one point half the street was leaning in and inspecting my innards (so to speak.)  The battery was on charge all night and lo! nothing happened.  I’m going to put it back in and try it, just in case the indicator’s not working, but my hopes are not high.  I fear a new battery is required.

Oh well.  Could be worse; it’s not like it needs a new engine.

And of course since the new jump leads were being delivered and since we were in all day except between 1.30 and 3.30, guess when the delivery window was?  Yep.

Lucky the son was awake…

Kirk out

Could You Redistribute Yourselves a Bit Please?

As I mentioned the other week I’ve started a Quakers’ sustainability blog here.  Since I’ve been ill I haven’t posted much so it’s feeling a bit lonely at the moment so if you could take a look here the blog would really appreciate some company.  I’ve added a couple of posts this week, one on the advantages to the planet of a vegan diet and the other on the best brand of loo rolls, covering both ends, so to speak: these posts could use some comments.

So head on over.  It’s all here.

And here.

Kirk out

Leavis and Butthead, or The Wrong Sort of Snow (Part 1: Intro)

My F R Leavis response to ‘The Two Cultures’ has come.  I expect this is something I ought to have read years ago but never mind, here it is.  I don’t expect to be edified, I expect to be pontificated at: Leavis seems to speak ex cathedra more often than the Pope (especially this current Pope) but I shall try to approach it with an open mind.

Incidentally this reminds me of a ‘joke’ in the Readers’ Digest.  My grandparents used to get this bizarre monthly magazine and you found back issues piled up in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms.  I never bothered with the articles but scrolled through reading the cartoons and so-called jokes: the humour in the RD was of such a subdued and conventional kind that I always imagined a retired colonel somewhere in Sussex chortling mirthlessly over his poached egg.  Where was I?  Oh yes, the joke (this is getting more and more like one of Ronnie Corbett’s rambling monologues) – the joke, or perhaps it was intended as an aphorism, was: ‘Some open minds should be closed for repairs.’  I read that forty years ago and I still have no idea what it means (if anything) but I imagine the Colonel harrumphing in approval as he cuts into his poached egg.

Incidentally, does anyone still have poached eggs?  I’ve not had one for years; the only time you see them is in hotels at the breakfast bar.

I started this post last week, since when I have re-read Snow’s original lecture and Leavis’s response.  I am formulating a number of complicated thoughts on this which may take some time and even when they are formulated I don’t suppose there will be space for them all here.  But it’s jolly stimulating.  Basically what I think we’re looking at is a clash of two other kinds of culture; the elitist and the meritocratic.  Snow, high priest of the meritocracy, represents the future and Leavis, pontiff of elitist tradition, knows it – which explains why he reacts as he does.  Basically Leavis is fighting for his life.

But more on this anon when I’ve got all my ducks in a row.  In the meantime I’ve also gone and ordered Leavis’s ‘The Great Tradition’ (get all your books from Alibris and give Amazon the finger; they’re cheap and reliable and they pay their taxes) which I read years ago and have mostly forgotten.  (I started to read it online but I’m no good at reading from a screen.)  He chooses six authors worthy of this Great Tradition, and while the gender balance isn’t too bad (Jane Austen and George Eliot make the cut) his criteria of greatness are so narrow and elitist that one is tempted to paraphrase Elizabeth Bennett and say, ‘I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six great writers; I rather wonder at your knowing any.’

More on this when it comes.

Kirk out


Withnail and I and Me Myself Personally

I expect I’m teaching my grandmother to suck eggs here as you’re all terribly literate bods but I’m sure you’ve noticed, just as I have, that there’s an increasing tendency for people to say I when it should be me.  ‘Something happened along the way to my friend and I,’ they say; and I want to scream, ‘No it didn’t!  Something happened along the way to my friend and me!!!’  This is what’s known as hyper-correction; the mistaken belief that a correct construction is wrong because it sounds like an incorrect one.  Like, for example, saying ‘slither’ instead of ‘sliver’ in the mistaken impression that the word has suffered from some sort of Cockney takeover from which it must be rescued forthwith.

It’s very straightforward really.  ‘I’ is the subject of the sentence, the person doing whatever it is – but if something happens to them, the ‘I’ becomes ‘me.’  Hence it’s ‘I, Claudius’ because Claudius is speaking about himself as the subject of the action, the doer (and yes, I know a lot of things happen to him but that is not the point of the title; the title makes him the subject of the book, not its object.)  Conversely, it’s a #metoo movement, not an #Itoo movement precisely because it’s about things that have happened to me that were not of my doing.  Withnail and I have come on holiday by mistake; but on this mistaken holiday a number of things happened to Withnail and Me.

But you don’t even have to delve into grammar to get this.  There’s a very simple test: just go back to the original sentence and take away my friend.  You wouldn’t say ‘a funny thing happened to I,’ would you?  Because you’d sound like a Rastafarian and only a Rastafarian should do that.  So why do so many people make this mistake?  I think it’s because something takes over when you hear yourself say ‘my friend and…’ and supplies the word ‘I’ as sounding correct; just as in the brain of some people an ‘s’ always implies an apostrophe.

Here endeth the lesson…

Kirk out


I’ve kept up with the bizarre and incomprehensible MotherFatherSon out of sheer dumb curiosity – because, having given it four hours of my life already I can’t bring myself to jettison the entire series and besides, there’s a certain voyeuristic thrill to be had from seeing just what will happen.  But god, it’s hard work.

This week in episode 5 we learn about Max’s childhood with an abusive and controlling father (yeah, I’d never have guessed) and how Max thinks he was horrible but right, rather like the Roundheads in ‘1066 and All That’ who were ‘Right but Repulsive.’  The central scene is a dinner ‘conversation’ between the three protagonists which is staged in a symbolic glass house, some of which goes like this:

Son:  Why are you here?

Father:  To tell you that I don’t think we should talk.  The plate you dropped – it was deliberate

Mother:  Max, you can’t do this

F:  Caden, you’re in love.  Why would you want to fight with me?

S:  We have to talk about this

F:  If we talk, we fight!  This is the line.  If you want to go over the line, this is it.  It’s the end.  There’s no coming back.

M:  How does it end?

F:  The way all fights end – badly

S:  Then good for you

F:  Good for me, for all of us

S:  A cover-up!

F:  Families are hundreds of cover-ups.  Let’s finish our meal

S:  And then we talk

F:  All right, let’s talk.  This is you.  Your mother’s doing it for you

S:  Fuck you Dad

F:  Well, there we have it.  We can pretend that this is about the news or ethics but it’s not.  Good.  Now do you feel better?  Fine.  Now be a man.  Tell your mother you don’t need her to fight your fights.

S:  All this make-believe.  All this fake family.  There’s no love.

F:  You hear him?  He’s wrong

M:  I’m not part of your conspiracy.  And I’m not afraid of you.

F:  Should I be afraid of you?

M:  We are going to talk about extortion, blackmail…

F:  Stop!  We have one more chance.  Please.  End this.

M:  You’re brilliant.

F:  I’m belligerent when I’m right.

M:  Are you ever wrong?

F:  I didn’t realise you wanted to save our marriage.

There’s more of this, acres more – and yes, I have taken some bits out but I promise you it makes no more sense with them left in.  It’s like odd bits of dialogue downloaded from schlocky dramas by someone with no idea about how people actually talk – which makes it all the more astonishing that this was written by the same person who wrote ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’ and ‘London Spy’, both of which were excellent dramas. I simply cannot understand how the same person could have written such strikingly different scripts.  Here he is talking about his work and shedding no light at all on that question – and here, should you wish to use it, is a link to the series.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Kirk out






B**locks to Brexit

You have reached the headquarters of the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ campaign.  I’m sorry we can’t take your call right now; please leave your death threat after the tone.


I’m pleased to report that yesterday’s ‘New European’ was much more sensible than last week’s extended vitriol from Will Self.  The letters page shows some readers agree with me and I have heard from at least one reader of this blog who considers it a ‘self-indulgent rant.’

But this week sees a return to form, with intelligent contributions including a page by Mitch Benn in which he channels Spooner by coining the word ‘fustercluck’ and other contributions on various aspects of our daily deepening hell-hole.  The cover shows a detumescent Big Ben and several searing cartoons express satisfactorily the anger and despair most of us are feeling right now.  I would of course order my Bollocks to Brexit mug, t-shirt, coaster and front-of-house banner, but for the fact that such things are deeply divisive and likely to provoke little except ire.  For the same reason I have not signed the petition for a second referendum (or to revoke article 50 or whatever it was) because, much as I would love a second referendum, it would prove horribly divisive and lead to millions of leave voters feeling utterly betrayed.

I can’t remember a time when we as a nation were so divided.  During the Thatcher years it was sometimes hard to talk to people on the other side; but that was a walk in the park compared to this.  And there’s no solution in sight…


I don’t know how much this has to do with social media: certainly the ‘echo chambers’ everyone talks about seem real enough to me (at any rate I have very few friends on Facebook who are not politically on the left) and unquestionably what passes for debate on there consists of people lining up on one side and slagging the other side off.  I’ve been off Facebook for six months now: I honestly thought I’d never make it this far, imagining that when the original month was up I’d be champing at the bit and rushing to log on again.  But no.  The more time goes by the less I feel the pull of its blue pages and the more acutely I become aware of the effect it was having on me.

Basically to scroll the news feed is to experience whirlpools of emotion; one image, one story after another all demanding React!  React!  React!  Here’s a variety of emoticons you can use if words fail you!  React!  What with angry political items and heartwarming photos of cats it’s like being alternately slapped around the face and offered chocolate.  There’s very little genuine interaction (less and less all the time in my experience) even with people I know in real life, so that the reason for ‘doing Facebook’ in the first place, ie to have some social intercourse in what is essentially the solitary life of a writer, has gone.  I guess I’ll have to resort to meeting real people in actual cafes now…

Kirk out






So apparently you all think there is such a thing as a left-handed version of ‘A Suitable Boy’.  Eh?  Is that what you all think?  Really?  Because no-one commented on my April Fool the other day.  No-one!  Not one single person, not even when I dropped a hint yesterday.  Could it be that you just don’t read my blog posts carefully enough?  Hmm?  Well, what have you got to say for yourselves?  Eh?

Or could it be that I was just too good at smuggling it in there?  Was it just too understated and unobtrusive?  There’s the rub; because you don’t want to make it obvious but then again if it’s worked too seamlessly into the text, nobody notices.

Well you can consider yourselves all in detention…

It makes me think of ‘The Unbelievable Truth‘; the radio 4 programme based on unbelievable facts and barely-credible lies where contestants try to smuggle truths into a lecture consisting otherwise of falsehoods.  This is harder than it sounds.  Not only do you have to make lies sound like truths; you have also to make truths sound like lies.  But there’s more to it than that; inexperienced players tend to fall into the ‘rule of three’ trap where they will tell two falsehoods followed by a truth because there’s something in that rhythm that comes naturally.  And there’s the rub: in playing the game you have to go against your own nature, because in the end it’s much harder for most of us to tell a lie than it is to tell a truth, and we all tend to signal in some way when we do lie. 

The police know this, at least in crime fiction they do and I don’t see why they wouldn’t in real life (though I never cease to be amazed by what professionals in all fields do and don’t know).  They know that we signal when we lie; that unless we are practised liars, so practised that lies are woven seamlessly into the fabric of our conversation, we will give out clues.  The direction of the eyes, for example, which indicates which part of the brain we are accessing (whether memory or invention) or blinking at just the wrong moment, or fidgeting; or betraying discomfort in a million different ways.  It’s very hard to lie in a sustained and convincing way, so while you might get away with a quick ‘It wasn’t me, Miss, it was him!’ you’re unlikely to sustain this under detailed and prolonged questioning.  Which brings us back to detention.  Now: wait a moment while I shine this uncomfortably bright light in your eyes and tell me: did you really read my blog post properly the other day?  Do you really think there’s such a thing as a left-handed copy of a book?

Go on, go home now.  And make sure you read properly in future because I’ll be asking questions.

Kirk out


How Many Cultures Was It Now?

One of my valued readers, Taskerdunham, has gone and started me off on the whole C P Snow/F R Leavis debate again.  To recap quickly, Snow presented a lecture in 1959 (I was two at the time and had very little culture at all) suggesting that there was a gap between the arts and the sciences in both academia and popular culture.  The advantage, he said, was generally on the side of the scientists because although most of them had read the usual books * most people on the arts side couldn’t even tell you the first law of thermodynamics which, he suggests, is equivalent to asking ‘have you read a book?’

*it was of course much easier to say which were ‘the usual books’ in those days, as indeed Leavis did, at great length (see below.)

Hm.  Let me think: I know the second law of thermodynamics is ‘heat cannot of itself travel from a cooler to a hotter body,’ but the first?  I seem to think it’s something like, ‘whatever temperature a thing is at, that’s how hot it is.’  Yeah, that was it… I have consulted the Oracle and It says the first law is, ‘heat is work and work is heat’ which means energy can’t be created or destroyed.  So there.

Aaaanyway, long story short, dear old F R L who had already written what many see as an elitist account of what constitutes Great Literature, takes huge exception to this and slags Snow off in no uncertain terms.  I have yet to read the full lecture (I’ve gone all scholarly on this and ordered both books, which are due to arrive within a few days) but his criticisms of Snow personally are uncalled-for* and his strictures on the novels somewhat unfair.  I’ll get back to this when I’ve read both lectures but meanwhile Snow’s novels are something I can talk about as I’ve read them a number of times.

*possibly the only thing Thatcher ever said that I agree with is: ‘If they criticise you personally they have shown they do not have a single argument left.’

I first came across Snow by accident.  It was my habit, not really knowing what to read, to browse library shelves and open books at random to see if anything grabbed me.  By chance one day I opened a book called The Masters and read a sentence that said something like: ‘he apologised too much for a man who was often so easy.’  And I thought, ‘here’s a man who understands me’ (I was eighteen at the time.)  Well, he wasn’t – at least not in the way that I thought – and yet he did understand diffident people, so I checked out ‘The Masters’ and read it avidly even though I had no idea that university colleges had Masters or what manner of man these might be.  Nevertheless it engaged me (which ought to say something about Snow’s powers as a writer) and this set me off on the whole ‘Strangers and Brothers‘ series.  (Shortly afterwards in my interview for Nottingham University the panel were very impressed by the inclusion of Snow on my reading list.)

Many people have since pointed out his shortcomings as a novelist.  Yes, he can be sententious; his prose style can be heavy and his characters speak wordily.  But I know of no-one who could begin to make committee meetings exciting or indeed to elicit any interest whatsoever in the election of a Master to an obscure Cambridge college in an eighteen-year-old woman; but Snow does.  His involvement in every nuance, every balance and shift of power and his insight into what each character wants; all these draw us in without the need to resort to grand dramas or intrigues – which means that when an affair does come such as in ‘Corridors of Power’ the drama is all the more effective for being understated.

The world Snow wrote about has gone: it was a world with men at its heart and women round the periphery; in fact the word ‘men’ resounds like a gong through the books.  His is a world we would now call ‘pale, stale and male’ – the world between and after the wars (the novels run from the ‘twenties to the ‘sixties) and although his women are rounded, even powerful characters in their own right, they very much inhabit their own sphere and Snow, both as narrator Lewis Elliott and as author, exhibits an attitude best described as Olympian.  You’d never know there were any women in the professions: when he comes across a young woman with meticulous observation skills he remarks that she would ‘make a good nurse’ and he once disparages a woman scientist as ‘not as good as her husband.’  The world will not forgive him for this and neither will I, but nor will I forget the insights his books offered me.

Next exciting instalment on the – ahem – 55-year-old Two Cultures debate coming up… and I won’t even have a rant this time on how the city of Leicester has forgotten him.

Or will I?  By the way, did anyone at all spot the carefully-concealed April Fool on Monday?

Kirk out


Present (and Future?) Tense

Life as an artist is one headache after another.  Just when you think you’ve got things sorted, just when you have a plan, it all goes horribly wrong and like walking through treacle there comes a point where you Can’t Do It Any More.  I woke up this morning around five with a horrible headache and a Quasimodo shoulder up by my left ear (fortunately it was the left shoulder, not the right, ho ho: my left arm is my writing arm, so it’s logical.)  I took a couple of paracetamol and went back to sleep but the headache hovered over my pillow like a bad angel and clobbered me as soon as I woke.  It’s a mysterious thing how our muscles and joints express internal realities: I was talking the other day to someone who has a very tense working life and is now plagued by backache.  I rarely have backache: for me, tension is usually expressed in the neck and shoulders giving me headaches which I interpret as thoughts wanting to reach the brain but being prevented (if you think the brain is the only centre of awareness I would take issue with you: I think each part of the body is a centre of a particular kind of awareness.)  Only if I’m extra-specially tense do I get backaches and even more rarely, stomach aches.

How to engage with society is a big problem for most artists.  Some, like C P Snow, are lucky enough to fit in quite nicely and be able not only to hold down a job and write but also to write about that job (Snow was by turns a barrister, an academic and a civil servant who gave us the phrases ‘corridors of power’ and ‘the two cultures’.)  Then again, he never had to vacuum the sitting-room or run to Sainsbury’s for more marge.*  But for most of us fitting in – which means at the very least the financial imperative to work, and therefore to tick whatever educational and social boxes will persuade someone to hire you – is as problematic as it was for Larkin; ** and even when you are able to write full-time, there’s the problem of getting published.  And that’s a whole-nother way of fitting in (or not.)  When you write full-time the question is refined.  No longer do I ask myself which jobs I am suited for and would be able to do without going off my chump: now, the question is, how far do I write what publishers want (insofar as I know what that is) and how far do I write like myself (insofar as I can tell what that is)?  It’s a constant juggle: if you go too far in the direction of publishers you may be successful but at the cost of ignoring your own uniqueness; if you go too far the other way you risk never being published.  But maybe, just maybe – there’s a third option, which is that in truly being yourself you may produce something publishers didn’t know they wanted but actually really do.

I’ve blogged about C P Snow a few times.  Here’s one of the posts.

*They probably had butter anyway

** For me the problem was not only getting work but keeping it: I’ve had jobs which nearly sent me off my chump with boredom and other jobs where the work wasn’t so bad but I couldn’t fit in socially – and that seemed to be just as important.

Kirk out

On the First April Fools Day My True Love Said to Me

How well I remember our first April Fools Day together!  It was 1993; we’d agreed to get married (which I suppose constitutes ‘getting engaged’ though we didn’t call it that) a few months back.  On April 1st 1993 we were having a drink when I turned and said very seriously: ‘I don’t want to get married any more.’  I’d thought about this for all of ten seconds and the reaction I expected was a moment of reflection before the penny dropped, and then we’d laugh about it.  Oh dear.  No sooner had the words left my tongue than OH looked utterly stricken.  He moistened his lips and whispered ‘Why?’  Oh, how awful I felt then and how utterly inadequate were the triumphant words ‘April Fool!’

I never did that again.

My April Fools have never been that successful, to tell the truth: either I misjudge my audience or I’m not a very good bullshitter.  But I do enjoy a well-constructed spoof in the press or on the radio and OH is off to buy a Guardian to see whether there’s one on offer or whether like everyone else they’ve decided that Brexit is such an omnishambles that no practical joke comes close.  Oh!  Would that Dave and Nige would just jump out of a hat and say ‘April Fool!  We never had a referendum after all!’  But of course like everything else what gives joy to one half of the country will enrage the other half.  No-one can win.

One of my favourite novels begins with an April Fool.  ‘A Suitable Boy‘ by Vikram Seth opens with one of Lata’s brothers telling the family that she is engaged to a very unsuitable boy indeed: when everyone gets in an uproar he calmly tell them all to check the date.  This April Fool prefigures a genuine near-tragedy in which Lata, a Hindu, falls in love with a Muslim boy.  His family don’t care but hers would disown her, and in the end she sadly breaks it off.   (Actually now that I look it up A Suitable Boy begins with a wedding, so the April Fool scene must come after that.)  Why has no-one made a film or box set of this yet?  It’s a brilliant book – and they’ve just issued a left-handed version too, which is great.

That’s enough April Fools for today.  And I haven’t even tried to slip one in to this post.

Or have I?

Kirk out