Saturday, December 05, 2009

It Was Tiny, And Purple

My friend S. dropped in for a cup of tea today on her way home from shopping in Truro, where she'd bought a dress for her birthday do tonight.

S: They didn't have a size 8*, so I had to get a size 6**.

ME: Bloody hell. Does it fit?

S: Just about. Bit of a squeeze to get the last bit of the zip done up, but I think it'll be OK.

S. is eight months pregnant.

* US size 6
** US size 4

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Unusual Media Epiphany

I had an unusual media epiphany last week, and it had nothing to do with Trafigura, Jan Moir or the balloon boy, whatever that last one was all about.

No, what happened was this. I was sitting on a train, reading an article in the financial pages of the Guardian, on my way to a conference in Exeter.

So far, so unremarkable. The article was about WH Smith's business plans. It's going to open 80 new outlets inside office buildings, based on the success of a number of shops it's set up inside hospitals. Profits are up at WH Smith, the article added, thanks to the canny strategies of its CEO, Kate Swann.

It was at that point that I had my epiphany. Here was an article in a newspaper about a successful FTSE 250 company that happens to have a female CEO. Not only that, but it had been written by a female journalist (Julia Finch), and was being read by a female business person (me).

And yet at no point was the gender of the reader, writer or subject made an issue. The article didn't appear in the women's pages, or in a glossy women's supplement. The reporter didn't mention what Kate Swann looks like, what she habitually wears, or whether she has a partner and kids at home. There was no accompanying picture. There were no allusions to the glass ceiling. Readers were not invited to view Ms Swann's success as an exceptional achievement for someone of her gender.

It was just an ordinary article about business in the business pages of a national newspaper.

And I thought: 'This must be what reading the paper is like for men all the time.'

I know that by drawing attention to it I'm bursting the bubble of ordinariness surrounding this article, and turning it into something remarkable, and therefore defeating the whole object. But for a little while it did give me a glimpse of a glorious future media landscape in which women are just people, and our gender is neither here nor there. And that made me very happy.

Oh, and hello again everyone, I seem to be back!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sunday, May 31, 2009

There's Such A Thing As Too Much Self-Awareness


PATROCLUS and JAMES BLUE CAT are sitting in companionable silence. Eventually:

MR BC: What are you thinking about?

ME: I was just mentally going through everyone who follows me on Twitter, and imagining all the ways in which I disappoint, annoy or otherwise fail to meet the expectations of each and every one of them.

MR BC: Crikey.

ME: Why, what are you thinking about?

MR BC: Goblins.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Public Trust Shaken By Fresh Revelations

The nation's trust in its chosen vanity products is being sorely tested by continuing revelations on the Quinquireme blog about improper copywriting in the toiletries industry, reports today's Daily Telegraph.

In what is coming to be seen as the scoop of the decade, Quinquireme editor-in-chief Patroclus reportedly paid £4.79 for the exclusive right to reveal the widespread linguistic and grammatical inaccuracies pervading the sector.

The scandal started as far back as August 2008, with an exposé of poor translation skills at upmarket hotel-toiletries firm Gilchrist & Soames, but it was not until this month that the Quinquireme began a full-scale investigation into the extent of the problem.

The blog's decision to drip-feed its revelations day by day is causing anxiety not only among makers of shampoo, conditioner and other bathroom essentials, but also among a populace that is finding its faith in its personal grooming products severely shaken.

Today's blog post caused embarrassment for shampoo manufacturer Aussie, maker of such products as the 'Three Minute Miracle' deep-treatment conditioner and 'Dual Personality' shine serum. In particular, the blog cited the unnecessary insertion of a comma into the copy on the reverse of the 'Miracle Moist' shampoo bottle.

Nowhere to hide: blog reveals comma misuse by haircare firm Aussie

As well as publishing a damning photograph of the misplaced punctuation mark, the blog also transcribed the copy in full for the benefit of readers lacking 20/20 eyesight.

Our unique formula, with Australian Macadamia Nut extract, helps condition and smooth hair.
Native to the land down under, the Queensland Macadamia Nut is rich in oils, and has been used in Australia for centuries. And it would have stayed their little secret if it hadn't been for, an intrepid 19th century explorer who schlepped half way across the world and brought it back for the rest of us. What a guy.

"I don't know how they thought they could get away with this," said Jibby McBib, a disappointed Aussie customer. "Just because it's on the back of the bottle doesn't mean people won't find out it's there."

McBib said she would no longer buy Aussie products, but was unsure of which haircare products she could now trust. "You never read about this kind of thing in the media," she said. "It's always all about how it makes your hair look, what it smells like, and that kind of thing. To imagine this kind of thing has been going on all the time behind our backs...well, it makes me sick."

Forensic literary science expert Bilbo McCrum believes the problem runs deeper than simple improper comma use. "Here is a company that promotes itself as being Australian, yet clearly refers to the country of Australia as a place from which macadamia nuts have to be 'brought back' for 'the rest of us'," he said.

"This, combined with the failure to name the explorer who brought back the nuts, or indeed to specify where the nuts were brought back to, very much points to the presence of an unreliable narrator," McCrum continued. "And if the brand's narrator is unreliable, that does not bode well for the trustworthiness of the brand itself."

Ursula Mop, senior analyst at personal-grooming think-tank HAIR, said that the crisis in public trust could have serious repercussions for the country's future. "With so many mainstream cosmetics brands being 'outed' by the Quinquireme, there is a real risk that people will turn their backs on the haircare establishment," she warned.

"I think there's a danger that people will increasingly turn to fringe shampoos as they become disillusioned with the major players."

It's a danger that, for the moment, remains academic, as the public reveals itself to have more common sense than is imputed to it by think-tanks.

"There's no way I'm buying a fringe shampoo," said Jibby McBib. "What would I use on the rest of my hair? It just doesn't make sense."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Polyglottal Bottle Plot

Assiduous readers of this blog will recall that I once had occasion to take to task the hotel-toiletries firm Gilchrist & Soames for its reckless and cavalier approach to labelling its bottles in what it endearingly imagined to be French.

You, dear reader, have no doubt moved on since then, caught up in the ebb and flow of daily life and its attendant demands. Rest assured, though, that I have remained steadfast and alert to the linguistical shortcomings of the companies that furnish our nation's hotels with tiny plastic bottles of goo.

It's a lonely and desolate beat, untroubled by sensational revelations, media scrums or mass outbreaks of public outrage, but I like to think that I'm performing a vital service in shining the uncompromising spotlight of scrutiny into a dark and neglected corner of consumer affairs.

Today that spotlight falls upon Elsyl, a range of hotel toiletries whose bottles, according to this hotel-toiletries website, have an aluminium lid that gives this unique range a little extra.

Look carefully, however, and you'll notice that the aluminium lid is not the only notable feature of the Elsyl range:

[Click picture for bigness]

It's hardly surprising that the makers of Elsyl are trying to distract you with their shiny lids, for their labels represent an attempt at international jet-set chic that can best be described as 'woeful'.

I wonder if I can imagine the process by which they were created.

...Wibbly lines descend across the screen...

BRANDING EXECUTIVE 1: What we need is a label that lends the product an air of continental elegance. An atmosphere of cosmopolitan élan. An aura of European finesse.

BRANDING EXECUTIVE 2: So what you're saying is that the label has to be in English and French.

EXECUTIVE 1: Yes, yes, good. But not just French, that's so parochial. That's the kind of narrow-sighted caper you'd expect from Gilchrist & Soames. No, we need to project an image of truly international refinement.

EXECUTIVE 2: So, English, French...and Italian?

EXECUTIVE 1: Yes. And - what's the other one? - German.

There is a brief pause for reflection.

EXECUTIVE 2: Can you speak any of these languages?

EXECUTIVE 1: Not really. Except English. I can speak English. Can you?

EXECUTIVE 2: I can speak English too.

EXECUTIVE 1: No, I mean any of the others.


EXECUTIVE 1: We could look the words up in a dictionary.

EXECUTIVE 2: (sucking teeth) I don't know...that's what Gilchrist & Soames did, and they got stick for it on Patroclus's blog.

EXECUTIVE 1: You're right. We don't want to get stick on Patroclus's blog. That's the very essence of what we don't want.

EXECUTIVE 2: It would be a PR disaster.

EXECUTIVE 1: Yes, you don't want to get on the wrong side of the blogs. I've heard that Patroclus has literally tens of readers.

EXECUTIVE 2: I have a marvellous idea!

EXECUTIVE 1: Hurrah!

EXECUTIVE 2: You said we only need to provide an air of continental elegance. An atmosphere of cosmopolitan élan. An aura of European...what was it again?

EXECUTIVE 1: Finesse.

EXECUTIVE 2: Finesse. Well, how about we just translate one word into each language?

EXECUTIVE 1: Brilliant! Which one shall we translate?

EXECUTIVE 2: How about 'with'? It's the easiest one.

EXECUTIVE 1: Fantastic! Quick - to Babelfish!

Some moments later...

EXECUTIVE 2: There, look. Perfect.

EXECUTIVE 1: 'Bath cream avec ginseng'. Oh yeah, baby. That's cosmopolitanism, right there.

EXECUTIVE 2: We're surely the best branding executives in the whole world.

EXECUTIVE 1: We surely are.

NEXT WEEK: Patroclus fearlessly exposes the unnecessary comma on the reverse of the Aussie 'Miracle Moist' shampoo bottle.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Ooh Dear

The blog seems to have ground to a halt somewhat, what with the twin disciplines of Work and Baby (and to a lesser extent Garden, Twitter, Dungeons & Dragons and Making Biscuits) taking up all my waking hours, including a good many hours when no sensible person should be awake at all.

I really hope to be back before too long, as not blogging makes me terribly unhappy, but I fear it's not going to be anytime very soon. In the meantime, I shall set you a jolly Dave-style quiz, which is:

1. Who is this?


2. What does he have to do with this field?

A prize will be awarded for the most entertaining answer, irrespective of correctness.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mrs BC

Last night I get a phone call from my friend S.

S: So, about the wedding. What time shall I come round and help you with your dress?

ME: I don't think I need any help with my dress. I was just planning to put it on over my head and stuff. Put my arms through the armholes and so on. I can probably do it on my own.

S: What about a bouquet?

ME: I haven't got a bouquet.

S: Do you want one?

ME: I don't think I do, thank you though.

S: What are we doing after the ceremony?

ME: We're going to have pasties on the beach.

S: Is that all?

ME: Yes. It's quite low-key.

S: What about the evening thing?

ME: There isn't an evening thing. It's just the ceremony, then pasties on the beach. That's essentially it.

S: I don't understand. What are you actually getting married for, then?

ME: Because we love each other. You know, we want to be married, we just aren't fussed about having an actual wedding.

A brief pause ensues.

S: Hmm, you know, all these years I think I've been getting it the wrong way round.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

People Who Are From Cornwall

1. John Nettles, future star of Absolutely Bergerac, a dark reimagining of a 1980s Bergerac spinoff series that was never made, also starring Patsy Palmer as Patsy Stone, a jewel thief originally played - with, I feel, a different character name - by Liza Goddard.

(Mr BC maintains the series will be called Bergeracly Fabulous and keeps muttering about format rights.)

2. Jenny Agutter, to whom I once offered a seat on the Truro to Paddington train (she declined).

3. Rosie and the Goldbug, a tip-top indie-pop combo who are responsible for this fabulous slice of early-80s-style electro:

4. Our lovely daughter the Blue Kitten, who is six months old today and has just graduated to apple purée:

5. I can't think of any more. By popular demand, King Arthur, the once and future king. Although, like thingy out of Highlander, King Arthur is really from lots of different places.

6. The Owlman of Mawnan, although he's probably just a big owl.

7. Jethro

8. The Frontier Editor's brother

9. Kristin Scott-Thomas

10. Dolly Pentreath, the vaudeville fisherman/woman

11. That's enough people from Cornwall now - Ed.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

It's Twitter Article Bingo!

Readers! Do you remember the old days, when you couldn't pick up a newspaper without seeing some columnist or other ranting about how bloggers are socially-maladroit saddos with empty lives, who do nothing but spout tedious drivel on tedious blogs which are read by no one but their mums?

(Then after a bit, the papers decided that blogging was actually the future of journalism, and immediately set about pretending they'd thought of it first.)

Well, pine no more for the days when we bloggers were daring, sexy outcasts, condemned by the establishment and forced to survive on our wits, cake and nice comments left by alluring strangers. For the papers are at it again, only this time they've got it in for Twitter.

You can barely pick up a newspaper these days without seeing some columnist or other ranting about how people who use Twitter are socially-maladroit saddos with empty lives, who do nothing but spout tedious drivel in tedious messages of 140 characters or fewer, which are read by no one at all, or at least no one who's remotely interested.

First, I wondered if this kind of pattern has actually been going on since Caveman Urgh berated Caveman Blurgh and Caveman Wurgh for making tedious cave paintings about their tedious little animal-chasing lives that no one except their mums was ever going to look at or be remotely interested in.

Then I thought that instead I would make it all a bit more fun by inventing a game of Twitter Article Bingo.

Next time you see some Janet Street-Porter type spouting off about Twitter in the national press, you can amuse yourself by seeing how many points you can score from this list:

Twitter Article Bingo

1. Article mentions the following individuals:

Stephen Fry (1 point) [add 1 if it mentions S. Fry getting stuck in lift]
Jonathan Ross (1 point)
Barack Obama (1 point)
Britney Spears (2 points)
Lily Allen (1 point)

2. Article contains the phrase '140 characters or less' in a manner that suggests that any message of this brevity must be devoid of merit (2 points) [1 point off for good behaviour if it says '140 characters or fewer'.]

3. Article hilariously refers to Twitterers as 'twits' (5 points)

4. Article says that the point of Twitter is to answer the question 'What are you doing?' in a manner that suggests that no answer to this question can possibly be in any way interesting or enlightening (2 points)

5. Article quotes an eminent psychologist making unfavourable pronouncements about the mental state of anyone who uses Twitter (5 points) [add an extra 5 points if it's obvious the psychologist in question has never been near Twitter and has no real idea what it is.]

6. Article suggests that the only reason people join Twitter is to 'follow' celebrities (3 points)

7. Article claims that no one on Twitter has anything interesting to say, not even Stephen Fry (2 points)

8. Article makes one or more attempts to coin hilarious new word by replacing the first letter of any existing word with 'tw' (one point per rubbish neologism)

9. Article concludes that Twitter is incontrovertible proof that entire world is going to dogs (5 points)

10. Writer of article appears unable to recognise that if Twitter really was that dull, they wouldn't be writing yet another big article about it (5 points)

NEXT WEEK: Janet Street-Porter hails Twitter as the future of journalism.

UPDATE: Good work, Hadley Freeman!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Let The Pamphleteering Commence!

It's only taken seven years and several sleepless nights of paranoid agony right at the end, but I've finally taken the plunge and written something under my real name.

(Which isn't actually my real name at all, but let's not go into that now. Also I have written loads of stuff under my real name before, I used to have a whole blog written under my real name, or one of them, so I don't really know what I'm talking about, but I've been up since 5am and I'm very tired, so if I'm making any sense at all it's a bonus.)

Anyway, you can find it here in The Pamphleteer, LC's marvellously titled new blogzine, to which he has kindly allowed me to contribute. It also features articles by notable bloggers Tim Footman, Great She Elephant and LC himself.

More will follow. And if you're a blogger and would like to contribute, and if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can get in touch with LC. (Clue: you can probably find him here.)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cryptid Corner: The Beast Of Falmouth

The whole of the greater Falmouth and Penryn area is abuzz with the news that a mysterious animal has been spotted on the coastal path between Maenporth and Swanpool beaches.

The beast was spotted by 23 year old Sam Bradbury, who had the presence of mind to go home and make a frankly excellent drawing of the mystery creature:

Speculation about the animal's identity is almost rife. Richard Freeman from Exeter thinks it could be an aye-aye or a spring hare, escaped from a private collection. Falmouth Packet reporter Emma Goodfellow, clearly not letting facts, the evidence presented in the above sketch or common sense get in the way of the Packet's best story of the year so far, suggests that it might be a lion or a kangaroo.

Yet despite the paper calling on the local community to identify the animal once and for all, it seems that so far no one has managed to solve the mystery.

Fortunately, past experience has made me something of an expert in cryptozoology, and over the years I have built up an extensive library of arcane literature on the subject. While gazing absent-mindedly at Sam Bradbury's drawing, it suddenly struck me that I'd seen something very like it before, in one of the books in my collection.

Fired with the thrill of intellectual pursuit, I made a cup of peppermint tea, repaired to the library and began rifling through the dusty, leather-bound tomes.

It wasn't in any of those, though, so I turned my attention to more recent works.

It wasn't long before I found what I'd been looking for: a series of rough anatomical sketches bearing a striking resemblance to the creature in Sam's drawing:

Setting stylistic differences aside, the illustration at the top left-hand side of the page clearly depicts the creature adopting the same hind-legged stance that Sam so memorably describes. Combined with the uncannily similar references to a bushy (or 'fluffy') tail, I think we can quite safely conclude that the Beast of Falmouth and the beast described in this book are of one and the same species.

It seems that John Meek, animal collections manager at Newquay Zoo, wasn't far from the truth when he gave his expert opinion to the West Briton newspaper: "It doesn't look like anything I have ever seen. The closest thing is a wallaby, although that does not have a cat's face."

Indeed it doesn't, John, indeed it doesn't.

NEXT WEEK: Legendary Owlman of Mawnan 'probably just a big owl'.

UPDATE: Occasional Poster of Comments points out that Sam has a history of inventing bizarre animals, including these ones (more here):

Never trust anything you read in a town full of art students.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I Can Tie A Knot In A Cherry Stem, I Can Tell You About Leif Erikson

What with Obama getting in and closing down Guantanamo Bay, and now GlaxoSmithKline saying it's going to slash the price of drugs to poor countries and fund their hospitals and clinics, my favourite song of last year is already looking like a historical document from a nastier, more brutal time:

And long may it continue to do so.

UPDATE: Many, many congratulations to Stef and Wifey on the arrival of Baby Peanut. I'm sure Baby PEANUT will be delighted to know he has a namesake!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Mothers: Know Your Place

Rachel Cooke has written a 2,000 word article in today's Observer Woman magazine about how boring it is when middle-class mums start telling her about their kids.

Rachel doesn't want kids, you see, and so she finds it boring when other people try to tell her about theirs.

Rachel thinks that people should be more sensitive to her feelings, and not engage her in conversation about things she finds boring.

Rachel would prefer it if you could talk to her about "books, or Michelle Obama, or Mad Men".

OK Rachel, I will talk to you about Mad Men. Mad Men is a television programme that portrays (among other things) misogyny and sexism in 1960s New York. In Mad Men, men lark about drinking whisky and copping off with their secretaries, while mothers are confined to the home, where they are neither seen nor heard.

I can see why this programme has struck a chord with you, Rachel, because you also seem to be quite keen on the idea that mothers should be confined to the home and neither seen nor heard.

According to you, not only should mothers not talk to you about their kids (which is fair enough), but they shouldn't talk to each other about their kids, either:

The other morning, while I was thinking about writing this piece, I logged on to one of the dozens of websites now devoted to all things baby-related. The discussion subject of the day - email us! - was the funny ways kids mispronounce words. Really. To which I say: new mothers, by all means, tell your own parents, or a close friend, about how your son said the word "bottle" and made it sound like "bottom". But don't be incontinent. Don't tell the entire world. Telling the entire world will make people, and not without reason, think that you have lost your mind.

Mothers: know your place. No matter how lonely or bored you get at home, do not seek out the company of other mothers on the internet. Do not ever discuss your baby's foibles, not even in an internet forum designed exclusively for mothers. Do not make friends with other mothers on the internet, not even if you don't know any other mothers in your real life. Not even if your own mother is no longer there to talk to about baby things. Not even if you use a pseudonym to hide your terrible shame.

Because Rachel Cooke might log on to Mumsnet and read what you say. And Rachel Cooke might find it boring, because Rachel Cooke doesn't want a baby.

But you don't hear her telling the entire world about it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Obligatory Snow Picture

Apparently it hasn't snowed this much in Cornwall for a long time. It's even snowing in the Isles of Scilly, for the first time in 22 years. Here's a photo of a snow-covered palm tree in our back garden:

UPDATE: The enveloping snow has not, however, dimmed the enthusiasm of the good ladies of the Network Cornwall mailing list, whose latest offering is thus:







G********* XX

I've been trying to think of a Plan B, should the recession take its toll on my copywriting business. I was thinking of buying a van and selling old tat on eBay, like I did during the post-dotcom bust, but now I think I might do better business selling dream interpretations from the bench outside the old fire station.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Journey To Meet Your Power Animal

I'm beginning to think the Network Cornwall mailing list needs its own blog. Today's choice offering:

Shamanic Sounds Workshop

Journey to meet your power animal. Experience the power of healing sound with drum, voice and rattle and learn Mongolian Overtone Singing.

A one day workshop teaching the basics of Shamanic Journeying and some powerful sound healing techniques.

With warmest wishes and Happy 2009

V** S****
Voice Facilitator/ Sound Healer/ Shamanic Healer/ Reiki Master-Teacher/ Shiatsu Practitioner

Normal service will be resumed just as soon as I can think of something to blog about. Twitter chums will already have an inkling of the depths to which I am about to sink...

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Contracting World Atmosphere

More from the Network Cornwall mailing list. I'm at a loss to understand what's being recommended here, unless it's some sort of belly button fluff alchemy:

"Releasing, revealing and restorative - just had the first of a few sessions with M****** D***** at Marazion (magic mix of therapies). Priceless and expansive! I was very tempted not to indulge in this, given the apparently contracting world atmosphere. But the dross that turned into gold by putting myself and body on the receiving end means it's already paid for itself."

In other news, my stats tell me that someone who works for DaimlerChrysler has been researching machine guns on the internet. I wonder if they're planning bloody revenge for this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I Don't Think You Can Buy Stardust In Tesco's

One of the many things the Blue Kitten was given for Christmas was this lovely seasonal sleepsuit, bearing the legend 'Little Pudding Recipe':

Look a little closer, however, and it becomes clear that this so-called 'recipe' is deeply deficient:

To be specific, it reads as follows:

A sprinkle of sugar
A spoonful of stardust
And lots and lots of love

This is optimistically illustrated with a picture of a Christmas pudding.

I don't think you have to be Delia Smith to recognise that combining these four ingredients is not going to result in anything resembling a Christmas pudding.

At best, and I feel that the end result will depend very heavily on your interpretation of 'stardust', you might end up with a slightly gritty pancake.

Alternatively, you might end up with a slightly gritty omelette, depending on how many eggs you choose to use. The recipe itself is quite vague on the subject, but the accompanying illustration suggests that there should be two, and moreover that they should have smiling faces and be wielding spoons.

I am not sure what to make of this. Should we infer that the eggs are to be actively involved somehow in preparing the pudding? Are they to be persuaded to collude unwittingly - even cheerfully - in their own gastronomical demise, like Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb in the castle of Harfang?

Should the eggs be made to beat themselves?

There's no real way of telling, because the recipe is unhelpfully tight-lipped on the actual preparation method. But a trembling finger of suspicion must be pointed in the direction of the sinister character at top left, whose broad smile and jolly demeanour may well have lured the hapless, trusting eggs to their imminent and untimely demise.

Fortunately, the Blue Kitten remains blissfully unaware of this grotesque subtext, and contents herself with sucking on the sleepsuit's stripy sleeve and dribbling liberally down its front. The time for her edification in the twin disciplines of cookery and battling evil will come, but not yet.

IN OTHER NEWS: I woke up this morning to learn that I'd been canonised during the night. It had to happen sometime.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Coffee And The Connected History Of Everything

Everything I've been reading recently seems to be weirdly connected, which either means that some enormous underlying pattern is about to reveal itself to me, like when Jodie Foster lays out all those pieces of paper on the floor in Contact, or that I'm going nuts, like when Russell Crowe starts circling random things in the newspaper in A Beautiful Mind.

Or it could just be because I've started drinking coffee again after a whole year's abstinence. Possibly-not-coincidentally, coffee seems to be the major connecting theme running through all this reading material. So before I get hauled off by aliens or men in white coats, here's a sampling of the Amazingly Connected Things I've Read Recently:

1. An article from the Boston Globe about how living in the city rots your brain (via Extemporanea). Apparently city life not only erodes your ability to concentrate, but also your ability to resist temptation. This is apparently why people who live in cities drink more coffee, which is apparently why people who live in cities come up with more innovative ideas than people who live in the countryside, even though their brains are more fried.

(Some or all of this may help to explain the sheer rubbishness of most of the ideas conceived during the dotcom boom.)

2. The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson, which readers of my last post will recall makes a lot of the fact that people drinking coffee in cities in the 18th century led directly to the massive efflorescence of new ideas that we now call the Enlightenment. Johnson in turn got this idea from Tom Standage's book A History Of The World in Six Glasses, which is next on my reading list.

3. An article in One magazine by my good chum Andrew B. Smith about George Orwell's antipathy towards the so-called Machine Age, which quotes Orwell putting the boot (not the one that stamps on a human face forever; a different boot) into the coffee-shops of the 1940s. Orwell was having none of this flowering-of-innovative-ideas nonsense; he thought that the function of coffee-shops in society was to *prevent* people from thinking, by numbing their brains with constant muzak:

"The music - and if possible it should be the same music for everybody - is the most important ingredient. Its function is to prevent thought and conversation, and to shut out any natural sound, such as the song of birds or the whistling of the wind, that might otherwise intrude."

Orwell's misguided pessimism about the effect of coffee-shops and piped music on people's ability to think was shared by a bunch of contemporaries including Richard Hoggart and Theodor Adorno, but I haven't been reading them recently, so they don't count for this list. But that last bit about shutting out the sounds of nature tallies very nicely with:

4. An enormous article about the financial crisis from Prospect magazine that BiB mentioned in the comments of the Wedgwood post. In it, Robert Skidelsky points out that *even* J.M. Keynes, the 'father of modern theoretical macroeconomics', liked to hear the birdies singing sometimes:

"We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendours of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and stars because they do not pay a dividend."

Fortunately the National Trust later seized upon this missed opportunity and started charging people to look at trees and flowers. But this is going off the point, which is that everything I've been reading has had stuff to say about the function of coffee-shops in society, including the book I'm currently reading, which is:

5. The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which is all about how cities function as living organisms and why city planners usually get it completely wrong. It's a brilliant book and fascinating reading for anyone who lives or has lived in a big city.

Jacobs has opinions about coffee-shops as well, but they're eminently pragmatic - none of Orwell's cultural pessimism or Johnson's hipster intellectualism for her. For Jacobs, coffee-shops play a vital role in city life simply because they provide a place where people can mingle with other people without anyone's need for privacy being compromised.

(She also nicely puts the boot into Le Corbusier, dryly mocking his vision of a 'Radiant City' of soaring skyscrapers, a vision which degenerated pretty quickly into the faceless concrete high-rises of so many miserable postwar housing estates. For another great example of Le Corbusier having the boot put into him, see the character of Otto Silenus in Evelyn Waugh's 'Decline and Fall', but I'm wandering off the point again now.)

And with that, as though pre-ordained in some kind of grand cosmic plan, my copy of A History of the World in Six Glasses has just arrived. I must immediately go and circle the bits that are clearly trying to send me a message, like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

Or maybe I'll just have another latte.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Invention Of Air

It's been a good couple of weeks for 18th-century British luminaries. While the collapse of Waterford Wedgwood on Monday provoked a flurry of media articles about its illustrious founder Josiah Wedgwood, the publication of Steven Johnson's new book, The Invention of Air, has simultaneously thrust another Enlightenment figure, Joseph Priestley, into the limelight.

Like Wedgwood, Priestley was a core member of the Lunar Society, a small group of Midlands-based industrialists, intellectuals and 'natural philosophers' (the 18th century term for scientists), who used to meet at each full moon to discuss the experiments and inventions they were working on.

(There was nothing sinister about the timing of these meetings: in the days before street lighting, the full moon simply made it easier for the Society's members to find their way home in the early hours of the morning.)

None of the Lunar Society's members were professional scientists; in the late 1700s there was no such thing. 'Natural philosophy' was a fashionable hobby for anyone who had sufficient money, free time and intellectual curiosity to dedicate to it. Neither were their scientific experiments particularly rigorous, at least not compared with the way scientific research is conducted today. Experimentation was largely driven by an enthusiasm for creating unusual effects, rather than for patiently testing and refining theories.

As a result, experiments were often more showmanship than science. The painting that Chuffy! mentioned in the comments of my Wedgwood post depicts a natural philosopher 'performing' an experiment in which a bird in a jar is observed to fall unconscious when the air around it is sucked out with a pump. Similarly showy experiments demonstrating the strange and recently-discovered properties of electricity were also very popular.

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768

The above painting slightly pre-dates Joseph Priestley's experiments on air, but it's easy to imagine Priestley in the role of Wright's natural philosopher.

Priestley performed hundreds of experiments involving air and the absence of it, using a succession of unfortunate mice to observe how long an animal could survive in conditions such as a sealed jar; a sealed jar with the air sucked out of it; a sealed jar with a mint plant growing in it; and, most famously, a sealed jar filled with a gas Priestley had created from burning mercury calx, in which a mouse miraculously survived for half an hour or more.

Despite the fact that these experiments earned Priestley the Copley Medal, the equivalent in its day of Nobel Prize, Priestley was barely aware of what he'd discovered. He thought he had created air that was free of 'phlogiston', a gas that medieval scientists believed was released by burning substances and which, when absorbed to saturation point by the surrounding air, caused fires to go out. Even though the phlogiston theory was already obsolescent in Priestley's time, he continued to believe in it, preventing him from seeing that what he had actually done was to create pure oxygen.

One of the many themes of Johnson's book is to question the 'Great Man' approach to history by showing that Priestley, in isolation, was in fact quite a rubbish scientist. He performed hugely important experiments and made hugely important discoveries, but consistently failed to apprehend their meaning. If Priestley had been operating in an intellectual vacuum, his contribution to scientific progress might have been negligible.

Fortunately, what he did very well was to share the information about his experiments with anyone who was interested. When Priestley discovered that, contrary to expectations, a mint plant not only flourished happily in a sealed jar but also allowed a mouse sealed in the same jar to stay alive for a surprisingly long time, it was his chum Benjamin Franklin who realised that Priestley had stumbled upon something of fundamental importance to the way our planet works:

"That the vegetable creation should restore the air which is spoiled by the animal part of it looks like a rational system, and seems to be of a piece with the rest."
Franklin glimpsed in the experiment something that Priestley couldn't see: that plants and animals need each other to survive, not just in tiny microcosmic environments like Priestley's sealed jar, but also on a planetary scale. If he'd thought about it any more, Franklin might have anticipated ecosystem theory by about two hundred years, but he was too bound up with the revolutionary politics of the nascent United States to devote much time to thinking about Priestley's mint experiments.

The fact that both Franklin and Priestley were as active politically as they were scientifically gives Johnson's book its major theme: how the interconnectedness of different disciplines (science, business, religion, politics) in the 18th century fuelled an explosion in scientific discovery, political progress and cultural advancement. Whereas today, scientists are scientists, politicians are politicians, captains of industry are captains of industry and religious leaders are religious leaders, during the Enlightenment it was eminently possible to be all of these things simultaneously - with each discipline informing and illuminating the others.

The free flow of ideas between disciplines is one of the reasons for the sudden flowering of science and culture in the late 18th century. In his book, Johnson also argues for the significance of geographical location, both at the micro scale (in the late 18th century, intellectuals from different walks of life congregated in the coffee-house opposite St Paul's cathedral, excitedly discussing their ideas while hopped up on this new imported brew) and the macro one (Johnson makes a lot of the fact that the Lunar Society was based adjacent to the coalfields of the north of England; the great store of energy laid down in the carboniferous era - thanks to the very process of photosynthesis that Priestley and Franklin had glimpsed - fuelling intellectual progress as well as the furnaces and engines of the world's first factories.)

Information flows, patterns repeating at different scales and the importance of geographical location are all classic Steven Johnson themes and are presented very well and very entertainingly in The Invention of Air. Which is just as well, because as a biography it's not great: Johnson seems far more interested in what Priestley symbolised than what Priestley was actually like. But perhaps this is deliberate - after all, Johnson doesn't subscribe to the Great Man view of history, preferring to see progress as a collaborative and often accidental process that owes more to information exchange and quirks of geography than to individual genius.

(Which incidentally makes a nonsense of the first two endorsements on the back cover of the book, praising Johnson for presenting Priestley as ' of the most fascinating personalities of his era' and as 'a new American hero'.)

It's a view that resonates well today: one of the things I like very much about Twitter, for example, is that you get intellectuals from different disciplines - including Steven Johnson himself - discussing their thoughts and ideas in a public forum where anyone can follow and contribute to the conversation, like an Information Age version of the London coffee-house.

Whether Twitter will give rise to a new Enlightenment remains to be seen, but one of the messages of this book is that the oxygen of information exchange can cause important ideas to grow and flourish, resulting in bursts of progress that change the world for the better. And I like that thought very much.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sad Light

Seen today on the Network Cornwall mailing list, which is proving to be a rich seam of unintentional comedy:

We have the answer to this SAD problem: we have a "SAD LIGHT" and the facility for you to sit by it for half an hour at a minimal cost of only £5.

UPDATE: Fortunately the 'facility' has an altogether different temperament:

(Image found on AfinShou's Flickr stream)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Great Blogger Book Deal Handicap 2009




Annie Rhiannon, To The Left Of The Midwest, picaresque account of travel through interregnum United States, 4-1

Christopher Campbell-Howes, Thirty-Six Steps To Vienna, picaresque account of travel to Vienna to pay homage at the grave of Beethoven, 5-2

Robert Self-Pierson, Moonwalking: Discovering Britain By Full-Moon, picaresque account of travel through Britain under a full moon, 6-1

James Henry, The Curious Cabinet, children's fantasy novel, 8-1

Geoff, Contains Mild Beryl, acerbic comic poetry, 9-1

Great She Elephant, The Trouble With Toyboys, a work of what I'm reliably informed is termed 'women's commercial fiction', 6-8

Tim Footman, as yet untitled biography of Leonard Cohen, 3-1

Hannah Blonde, Blonde Moments, 'Sex and the City meets This Life', 8-5

NEW ENTRY Dave East, My Dear Sally, second edition of definitive biography of female Methodist preacher Sarah Mallet, 7-4 on

Patroclus, The Pictish Trial, pop-academic rebuttal of Dr Richard Cox's 'Language of the Ogham Inscriptions of Scotland', 100-1

Which of our redoubtable bloggers will follow Bête de Jour's early lead and score a book deal this year? Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, and let the great Blogger Book Deal Handicap 2009 commence!

Monday, January 05, 2009

Wedgwood RIP

I was sad to read this morning that the china firm Wedgwood (now Waterford Wedgwood) has gone bust, the latest victim of the credit crunch and its attendant woes.

For anyone given to taking an eschatological view of the current financial crisis, the demise of Wedgwood must seem particularly symbolic. After all, the Wedgwood company pretty much heralded the dawn of capitalism. Its foundation in 1759 ushered in the Industrial Revolution and its founder, Josiah Wedgwood, invented many of the techniques of industrial manufacturing and business management that are still used today.

Many of the problems faced by Wedgwood in the 18th century will still seem painfully familiar to 21st century business owners. Here's Josiah, for example, wondering in 1771 why his booming company hasn't got more cash in the bank:

"How do you think, my dear Friend, it happens that I am so very poor, or at least so very needy, as I am at the present time, when it appears by my accounts that I clear enough money by the business to do allmost anything with."

(It turned out the problem was that Wedgwood had no idea how much each of his products cost to make, with the result that he was charging too little for his fancy vases and tableware. As a result, he invented cost accounting, the practice of pricing things according to the cost of the labour and materials that go into producing them.)

I'm a big fan of Josiah Wedgwood, not because of his accounting expertise or because he helped to develop an economic model that benefits the few at the expense of the masses, but because he was an artisan first and a businessman second. If he was around today, he wouldn't be one of those talentless middle-managerial types who have to take an MBA to justify their existence. Wedgwood was a master potter in his own right, as is evident from this account of the opening day in 1769 of his brand new factory in Staffordshire, named Etruria:

'On the slopes behind the factory a great feast was laid out on trestle tables in the shade of the trees. The factory was nearly finished, covering seven acres of land, bounded by walls except on the canal. Land was marked out for Wedgwood's own house - Etruria Hall - and a village was being built for the workmen with houses for two dozen (and eventually two hundred) families. In the sunshine, surrounded by Wedgwood relations and old friends such as the Whieldons and the Brindleys, Wedgwood put on his 'slops', the old potter's smock. Sitting down at the wheel he threw six perfect copies of a black Etruscan vase, while [Wedgwood's business partner Thomas] Bentley turned the crank.'

Here's a picture of one of those 'first day' vases that Wedgwood casually threw that day on the lawn. Not bad, eh?

Image courtesy of Michael Shanks at Stanford University

In today's BBC news article about Wedgwood's demise, Robert Peston says that 'Waterford Wedgwood's collapse is a resonant event, that speaks of a noxious global squeeze on consumer spending. Almost everything that it manufactures is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. And most of us are thinking twice about shelling out on nice-to-haves.'

I can't help but think Josiah himself would have found this kind of problem trifling. He was always finding ways to market his pottery and fund new ventures, churning out tonnes of cheaply-priced everyday tableware in order to raise cash to finance the development and production of his more exotic, luxury wares. He was also very good at identifying and seizing market opportunities. Jenny Uglow notes in her multi-biographical work The Lunar Men that 'when Wedgwood heard of the new craze for women bleaching their hands with arsenic in 1772, he promoted his sale of black basalt teapots to make a good contrast at the table.'*

It's thanks to Jenny Uglow's book - from which come all the quotes in this post - that I know anything about Wedgwood at all, and I highly recommend it to everyone. It focuses on the industrialists, engineers and thinkers who made up the 'Lunar Society', a group of proto-scientists who congregated in Birmingham in the latter part of the 18th century, and who together laid the foundations for modern British science, industry and innovation. It's an epic and fascinating read which brings the likes of Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Joseph Priestley - and their experiments, inventions and enthusiasms - vividly and brilliantly to life.

It's also because of the depth and brilliance of The Lunar Men that I'm finding Steven Johnson's new book about Joseph Priestley, The Invention of Air, rather unsatisfying, but that's a post for another time. For the moment, I'll just mourn the passing of one of Britain's oldest companies, and wonder if it means that capitalism has indeed come full circle. And if so, what's next?

* Women: doing idiotic and dangerous things in the name of beauty since time immemorial.