Saturday, 31 December 2011

Time has no divisions

I wonder how many diaries will be started tomorrow, and how many will outlive the month? In my experience of reading them, the most diligent diarists don't tend to write much on new year's day, as though they felt that the date itself was already too overburdened with significance. (This blog, by the way, waited until 17 January 2009 to get going.) Here is a brief selection of those that did bother to write something on the first day of the year. Happy new year everyone.

'Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry, and to sleep again.' - Samuel Pepys, 1 January 1662

'We were kept awake last night by New Year Bells. At first I thought they were ringing for a victory.' - Virginia Woolf, 1 January 1915 (her first diary entry).

'I felt the "blues" I'd missed last night enfold me like a mist, helped no doubt by an article in an American magazine the Atkinsons sent in, speaking of war as inevitable after 1951, and hinting at atomic bombs being puerile when compared to the germ bombs Russia was concentrating on. All my fears and conjectures of before this last one rushed over me.' - Nella Last, 1 January 1950

'It is the first time in my life that this day has been a national holiday. The only papers were evening ones! It is little short of scandalous.' - Kenneth Williams, 1 January 1974

'New Year's Day. These are my New Year's resolutions:
1. I will revise for my 'O' Levels at least two hours a night. 2. I will stop using my mother's Buff-Puff to clean the bath. 3. I will buy a suede brush for my coat. 4. I will stop thinking erotic thoughts during school hours. 5. I will oil my bike once a week. 6. I will try to like Bert Baxter once again. 7. I will pay my library fines (88 pence) and rejoin the library. 8. I will get my mother and father together again. 9. I will cancel the Beano.' - Adrian Mole, 1 January 1983

'Through a chink in the bedroom curtains my unenthusiastic eye caught an early-morning glimpse of the New Year: it looked battleship-grey. As I reluctantly swung out of bed I noticed my feet - never something on which I like to dwell. They appeared to be crumbling, sandstone monuments, the soles criss-crossed with ancient, indecipherable runes, which probably hold the secrets of eighty years of living and partly living - of happiness and fears, of distresses, of rather embarrassing successes and expected failures.' - Alec Guinness, 1 January 1995

Mundane quote for the day: 'Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm of blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and  fire off pistols.' - Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Millennium resolutions

At the end of 1999, the Daily Mirror published a nationwide survey of New Year's resolutions by teenagers. The top 10 resolutions for the next millennium were:

1. Watch less television.

2. Exercise every day.

3. Become a pop star.

4. Drink more water.

5. Get drunk more often.

6. Study harder.

7. Buy fewer CDs.

8. Ask parents for less.

9. Keep secrets better.

10. Enjoy life more.

I hope these now late 20-somethings managed to keep their 21st-century resolutions.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Christmas cookbook nativity

A slightly longer version of my piece in Monday's Guardian.

Unlike the celebrity memoir, the cookbook aimed at the Christmas market seems to be remarkably recession-resistant: last Christmas, Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals became the fastest selling non-fiction book ever, and books by Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Lorraine Pascale and others are among the bestsellers so far this year. A pagan Rip van Winkle, just waking up after a 2000 year sleep, would feel quite at home, observing a celebration taking place around the winter solstice organised around feasting, with little evidence of the intervening two millennia of Christianity. The kitchen has replaced the church as the focal point of Christmas: it is where we are supposed to unleash our creative, sociable, better selves.

The Christmas cookbook nativity goes like this. In the autumn of 1995, a visionary woman emerged out of the culinary wilderness, and her name was Delia. She had written a book, with a TV series attached, called Delia’s Winter Collection. And although this book created great anguish across the land, for it produced a terrible cranberry famine, it did help to slay a 95-year-old tyrant called the Net Book Agreement, which was cruelly forcing all books to be sold at the full price. Suddenly a small number of titles could be sold at huge discounts and millions came to our modern shrine, the supermarket, to pay homage to a new-born phenomenon: the hardback bestseller. Between 1960 and 1995, Elizabeth David's most successful book, French Provincial Cooking, sold just under 250,000 copies; by the end of 1995, Delia’s Winter Collection had sold a million.

Wise men began to spread the good tidings. In his 1999 book Living on Thin Air, Charles Leadbeater saw the cookery book boom as a paradigm of the new economy, “a worldwide upgrade of the software which runs our kitchens”, introducing us to food from around the world in a way that proved that “globalization is good for our palates”. While a chocolate cake could only be eaten once, Leadbeater pointed out, the same chocolate cake recipe could be endlessly replicated without anyone being worse off - just like the new weightless, knowledge economy which would be driven by ideas, information and networking.

People don’t talk so much about the new economy now: its vision of an endless expansion of knowhow and opportunity in which everyone would benefit has not yet materialised. And Delianomics didn’t explain the relationship between our obsession with cookery and our continuing culinary illiteracy: a new generation of amateur chefs with Smeg Ovens and River Cafe Cook Books was also sustaining the biggest market for ready meals in Europe. But the celebrity cookbook is still thriving, probably because people buy it for reasons more complicated than just following the recipes. These books are often given as presents and, as the sociologist Marcel Mauss pointed out in his classic 1925 work, The Gift, the ritual of gift-giving is a tangled web of mutual obligation, duty and status-seeking which doesn’t necessarily follow conventional economic rules.

Leadbeater called the exchange of cookbooks at Christmas “an annual, global knowledge transfer on a vast scale”. In retrospect, it seems to be the product not so much of a democratic exchange of information and skills as a heavily centralised and constrained market. Television programmes have become commercial opportunities to spawn books and merchandise, and the big chains can afford to offer such large discounts that small, independent booksellers are forced to buy celebrity cookbooks from supermarkets because it is cheaper than buying them wholesale. The books themselves are packaged not just as collections of recipes but as fetishised objects: food photography, in which meals are made to look delicious with the aid of hairspray and cigarette smoke, is now an art form and industry in its own right. These books may teach us how to cook, but they also promise to satisfy more nebulous cravings and desires.

Not that there is anything new about that. Before the 1970s, it was difficult to purchase Elizabeth David’s more “exotic” ingredients (like anchovies or aubergines) outside of Soho delicatessens or the food shops off Tottenham Court Road. For the middle classes, David’s sensuous descriptions of continental foodstuffs had a partly vicarious appeal, evoking fond memories of the foreign holidays they were beginning to take in places like Tuscany and Provence. The best food writing is, like David’s, an artful combination of precision and sensuality. And the cookery book may be selling us desires, but, should we ever get round to following the recipes, they are satisfiable ones. The new economy may be an insubstantial memory, but meals can be tweaked to take account of straitened circumstances and, however long our age of austerity lasts, we are unlikely to go hungry.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A Christmas Poem

A poem by Chris Green called 'Christmas Tree Lots':

Christmas trees lined like war refugees,
a fallen army made to stand in their greens.
Cut down at the foot, on their last leg,

they pull themselves up, arms raised.
We drop them like wood;
tied, they are driven through the streets,

dragged through the door, cornered
in a room, given a single blanket,
only water to drink, surrounded by joy.

Forced to wear a gaudy gold star,
to surrender their pride,
they do their best to look alive.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Great Snow

In his unfinished story ‘The Great Snow’ the English nature writer Richard Jefferies, best known for his post-apocalyptic novel After London (1885), describes a London that has been  entirely buried by a mammoth snowfall. The dome of St Paul's just about pokes out above the snow drifts; polar bears plod along the frozen Thames. A demagogic preacher addresses the remaining population:

'Where now is your mighty city that defied Nature and despised the conquering elements – where now is your pride when so simple and contemptible an agent as a few flakes of snow can utterly destroy it? Where are your steam-engines, your telegraphs and your printing-presses – all powerless and against what – only a little snow!'

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Soon the success or failure of Christmas will be rung up on the high-street tills. If we have spent more than last year we shall be succeeding as a nation. Supermarkets must look as though the Goths and Vandals have swept into them and the young shelf-fillers will see where they broke through their lines.’ - Ronald Blythe

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Cognitive aliens

Last week I introduced and led another Conversation Dinner at the School of Life in London and was again touched and surprised at the capacity of a sample of strangers - admittedly a self-selecting sample - to conduct a pleasant, informed conversation with each other. All the more so as I've been toying with the sobering thought lately how often we are simply cognitive aliens who talk different languages to each other while happening by accident to live on the same planet and look vaguely alike. 'Cognitive alien' is the term used by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget to describe children up to (I think) the age of seven. Piaget argues that there is no point trying to converse with a young child in the way that we would with an older child or adult: they are simply aliens who inhabit an entirely different mental universe to us. It's not their fault they won't do as they're told; their brains are just wired differently. 
The only problem with this theory is that I often think it is also true about adults: they might as well be speaking in tongues for all the sense they make to each other. There seems to be an assumption in current affairs TV and radio that talk and discussion are a public good in themselves, but I wonder how much good the debate about Europe, the economy, the public and private sector and so on actually does, given that it simply seems to entrench people even further in their own versions of reality. Any author will be familiar with this feeling: people just get the wrong end of the stick about what you have written, or maybe you have failed to make it clear - but the tone and voice underlying your words (and sometimes even, although this is usually the least important thing, the content) has simply bounced off them as if you were two surly magnets repelling each other. 'A joke isn’t a joke if it has to be explained, let alone justified,' Christopher Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair in 1994, 'and the same goes for many sorts of allusion, nuance, and affect – the invisible bits of writing and conversation that actually make it possible.' More often, what you have written is simply ignored: the writer Gilbert Adair, who died last week, liked to refer to himself as 'unread Adair'.

Still we remain what David Attenborough, in the last episode of Life on Earth, called the 'compulsive communicators'. It's just something we do and can't help doing, and sometimes our misunderstandings and misreadings of each other can be creative, funny and life-enhancing. So thanks to everyone who came to the Conversation Dinner for reminding me that, however hard it is, we shouldn't give up on trying to converse with other.

Mundane quote for the day: Habit, n. A shackle for the free. - Ambrose Bierce

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Höger Day

In October 1961, in part of a post-Suez spirit of Europhilia that led to the first serious discussions about a channel tunnel, the minister of transport Ernest Marples announced a public inquiry to explore the feasibility of shifting to driving on the right. Soon there was a precedent that showed it was possible for a country to make the switch.    

Nazism had ironed out some of the differences in continental practice, Austria and Czechoslovakia having switched to right-side driving when they were invaded in 1938. So after the war, there was only one mainland European country still driving on the left: Sweden. As the number of vehicles crossing its frontiers rose in the postwar era, Sweden began to worry that it was the only country left driving on the left, particularly since it had frontiers with two right-hand driving countries, Finland and Norway. Almost all Swedes bought cars with steering wheels on the left.

In 1955, the Swedish government held a plebiscite on the issue. 'Leftists' and 'rightists' waged a fierce propaganda war, at the end of which 82 per cent voted to keep left. But the two main parties ignored this thumping majority and in 1963 cut a deal to force the change through. In a project masterminded by Lars Skiöld, director of the Right-Hand Traffic Commission, Sweden would switch to the right at 5am on Sunday 3 September 1967, the so-called Dagen-H or Höger Day (Right Day). A joke doing the rounds before Höger Day was that the Swedes, being confirmed social gradualists, would make bicycles switch to driving on the left first, then cars, then buses, trams and lorries.

What happened instead resembled a Situationist artwork, a poetic transformation of daily life. The changeover was preceded by a ban on all but essential traffic, while new traffic signs were uncovered and old ones covered up. Despite the early hour and the ban on traffic, traffic jams developed as tourists and TV cameramen swarmed on to the road to witness the change. At 4.50am all the traffic on Sweden's 60,000 miles of road was moved over to the right side, and ten minutes later it started moving. Within two days of the changeover, the police registered 13,000 cases of relapsing to the left side, and 58 per cent of drivers admitting doing so in the first week. Despite a big increase in head-on collisions, though, the overall accident rate was actually lower than normal. During the first year, road deaths dropped by 17 per cent – before returning to their previous levels.

Why, if Sweden had managed the seemingly impossible, could Britain not do the same? A big problem was that Britain had a much bigger bus population than Sweden, and ministry of transport studies showed that the conversion of buses to have entrances on the right-hand side would have been the costliest aspect of the operation. The issue rumbled on and, after Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, some Europhobes were worried that the Economic Commission for Europe would press for uniformity. But by the end of that decade, the costs - in new road signs, road layouts, right-hand drive cars and buses - were too high to contemplate a change. Driving on the left side of the road has become so ingrained that the suicidally absent-minded motorist who drives the wrong way down a British motorway today – a fairly common occurrence in the 1960s – usually makes the evening news.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Anarchy in the UK?

It is exactly 35 years since the Sex Pistols appeared on the live teatime magazine programme, Today, on 1 December 1976, to promote their first single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – a mere two-minute segment of the show in which the presenter Bill Grundy invited the group to ‘say something outrageous’ and they responded with some rude words. The tabloids played their required role in publicising a band clearly seeking notoriety, introducing the Sex Pistols to the nation as part of ‘the new “punk rock” cult’ which ‘specialise[s] in songs that preach destruction’ (Daily Mail, 2 December 1976). Thames Television broadcast an immediate, full apology on screen twice later that day, while Grundy was quickly suspended and his career never recovered.

Historians of punk have tended to see this moment, combined with the release of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ at the end of November, as a pivotal event. In his book England’s Dreaming, Jon Savage argues that the song’s ‘ringing phrases … were powerful enough to insert the idea of anarchy, like a homoeopathic remedy, into a society that was already becoming polarized’. But punk’s success in ‘inserting’ these ideas into society may be exaggerated. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ sold 1800 copies on the day after the band’s appearance on Today but by Christmas it had only reached number 28. The number one record was ‘When a Child is Born’ by the easy-listening singer Johnny Mathis, with ‘Under the Moon of Love’ by Showaddywaddy (a rock’n’roll revivalist band discovered on New Faces) at number two. The atmosphere of moral panic around punk soon abated, reignited briefly during the Jubilee summer of 1977 when the Sex Pistols’ song ‘God Save the Queen’ improbably described the Callaghan government as a ‘fascist regime’. But the cultural work had begun to incorporate punk safely into the mainstream. An issue of Woman’s Own in October 1977 carried an article, ‘Punks and Mothers’, which showed photographs of smiling punks with their mothers accompanying a text which stressed their benignity: ‘It’s not as rocky horror as it appears … punks as it happens are non-political … Johnny Rotten is as a big a household name as Hughie Green.’