Sunday, July 31, 2011

Do Not Read Edwin Drood

Despite being a literary type of sorts, reading a lot of books, teaching English literature when necessary, and having a library which doesn't really fit in the house, I've never read much Dickens. As a teenager I watched a serialized 'Great Expectations', and a film of 'Nicholas Nickleby', both of which strove to convey the exquisitely stifling dullness of life in Victorian England and the inability of anyone who lived there to speak like a human being or experience any form of emotion- doubtless squeezed out of them by the collars and corsets- and conveyed these ideas very successfully; watched the musical film of Oliver Twist, which is quite fun in parts but doesn't send you running to the bookshop, and read some revolting story in which everyone ends up being nice to each other for no reason that makes any narrative sense, and decided Dickens was hugely overrated and I needn't waste my time with him.

It was only quite recently that I was finally persuaded I could be wrong. A few years ago I read 'Bleak House', and thought hmmm, there might be something here. So I read some ghost stories, and another novel here and there. And now I have read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. And I urge you strongly not to be tempted.

My readership, being highly erudite, doubtless read it years ago, but this post might serve as a warning to someone, and I hope it does.

It's not that's it's a bad book. Not at all. It starts with a magnificent scene in an opium den, riddled with dramatic tension, that tells you this is going to be worth it. There is a highly complicated and largely unhappy love story, some regular fun with the local drunk and the boy he pays to stone him home at night, some witty repartee between the Misses Twinkleton and Billickin, some deeply symbolic architecture, both in Cloisterham and London, and lots of mysterious characters and activities whose identities and motives you keep trying to guess at, and a murder, probably, and you keep turning the pages to discover how Dickens unfolds and ties up all of this and whether you were right.

But you never do. You turn a page like any other and there are no more. The story stops in the middle of nowhere in particular. You never learn who the killer is- though you might think you know- nor even whether Drood is in fact dead- though everyone assumes he is- nor who the pretty young girl will marry- there are several options here- because Dickens dropped dead at this point in his labours and never got to tell us the rest of the story.

I knew it was an unfinished work. As I said, I have taught classes on Dickens and you have to know these things (no one seemed to care that I knew very little else), but I had always assumed that 'unfinished' meant that he left a few loose ends untied, or some dialogue unpolished, or the ending only in note form, or something like that. I didn't imagine it just stopped cold, leaving you feeling like Hancock in that sketch where he has a similar experience with a mystery novel.

So do not read Edwin Drood. You will find it draws you into its language and its world, and will throw you back out into the cold just when you are most keen to learn its secrets. Dickens managed to leave his last Mystery unsolved forever, perhaps a fitting tribute to what I now recognise as his genius.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sex and Repression...

I've written before about Bronislav Malinowski, an anthropologist of the first half of the 20th C who did important research in Papua New Guineau and Australia in particular. He often called himself a sociologist, since in those days it was a field that used observation and analysis and was motivated by a search for truth. Today it has degenerated into an attempt to justify its own prejudices, and serious scientists avoid the term. Anthropology is a field that is in danger of going the same way, but in his day both words referred to the authentic pursuit of knowledge.

I spoke last time about ‘Argonauts of the Western Pacific’, a description of life among the Trobriand Islanders, and particularly of the remarkable Kula system of ceremonial trading.

In ‘Sex and Repression in Savage Society’ he criticises the then relatively new discipline of psycho-analysis, on a number of grounds, but he starts by pointing out that Freud based his work mainly on observations of upper-middle classes families from Vienna, and was almost completely ignorant of other kinds of family and social structure, even within Europe, let alone the great variation that exists around the world, from the most primitive tribes to the wealthiest western nations, and that, if he had learnt about them, he would have reached very different conclusions.

Malinowski also challenges the founding myth of Freudian psycho-analysis, the Oedipal desire to replace the patriarch, by showing clearly, first that it could not have been a real event which created this supposed aspect of human culture, and secondly that the relations between one generation and the next are played out in far too many different ways, and were historically quite unlike the situations Freud studied, for there to be any such common cultural element in the human psyche.

I say 'shows' because he does. He doesn’t express doubt, take issue, shout, torture the terms until they scream, or throw dogmatic nonsense about; he simply states what he has observes and explains why Freud’s theories, the very basis of his psycho-analysis, are so deficient as to be worthless.

I can’t link to it, or even copy and paste, for technical reasons related to my rural idyll, but the books are at Project Gutenberg and are worth reading. Sex and Repression is quite short and readable, and much of the demolition is in the first pages.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Of Brush-Covered Hills and Markets

Yesterday I went walking through a farm just north of ours, a mostly low mountain (brush) area that is mainly used for hunting. It’s called El Marañal, which I suppose you would translate as thicket, which about describes the place. It has a few small arable areas, and some old water courses which are also sown, but not harvested. I imagine this is something to do with the CAP. The grain is poor and sparse.

Despite the dense undergrowth, I don’t have to hack my through with a machete, as you might be imagining. The truth is much simpler. The gamekeeper and the farm workers have to move around it somehow, and so there is, as on all such farms, a network of usable paths. I do sometimes go through the brush, for the fun of it or as an intended shortcut, but I find a stick is quite sufficient. It isn’t the Amazon out there.

Probably the best thing about walking there is that at a couple of points you climb to spots that have views over the whole of the surrounding area. From the windows of an old lodge you can see three towns, and towns are a long way apart here, and four houses, which are also well spread. The sense of being a small part of something big and powerful, and dry and dangerous, is very strong up there.

The rest of the path goes through woody hills, mainly holm oaks, and the gaps are filled in with rosemary and sage and thyme and wormwood. You can smell them as you pass, and the rabbits taste of them because that’s what they eat. The track comes out at the road to the village, which I took because it was market day and I wanted to have a look.

The market occupies a few streets in the lower part of the village by the river, and is always busy in the summer. There is colour and life and the girls looking for cheap t-shirts, the housewives buying fresh fruit and veg, the older women afraid of missing something, and the observers of humanity documenting it all, give it a feel of being the place to be. The swimming pool doesn’t become busy until midday on Fridays, such is the pull of the market.

Friday, July 22, 2011

On the Need to be Right

One of things that strikes this Englishman when he returns to his homeland from time to time is how keen my compatriots are to be take sides on any matter, and how much they desire their position to be not only right but virtuous.

The biggest of these in terms of actual importance is probably global warming. It follows the pattern of the minor religions. There are powerful interests on both sides, and very dodgy science going on. Some of the things that are said and done just don’t look like science. Everyone believes, almost no one has a clue what they’re talking about. Everyone must have an opinion, there are angels and demons, and everyone knows whether they are one or the other.

Diet was long ago turned into a religion. Practices and beliefs are expressed in the language of theology. There are virtues and vices, ‘being good’ and sinning. There are heretics who must be condemned, doctrines and dogmas to suit every taste. No one cares about the truth. You will hear self-proclaimed experts declare that some nutrient-free chewy stuff sold in small, tasteless lumps is ‘good for you’, whereas anything with fat or sugar is ‘evil’. Those who suffer by eating the ‘good’ stuff expect to wake up the next morning looking like (insert slim attractive young woman of your choice), without regard to the way the metabolism actually works. It’s like grace, a prize for performing sacrifice and having the right intention.

Cycling is also like this, as I was told in an exchange on another blog (or was it this one) recently, and have now realized is perfectly true. People who ride bikes think that they are worthier human beings, deserving of abasement from the common masses. It isn’t even a matter of riding a bike, which I do regularly without expecting it to take me to heaven; it’s a state of mind. The irritating people who accused me of failing to recognise their worth were surprised when I said I also rode. They couldn’t accept that it was possible to ride a bike without being a total prat.

There is a desperate need to be right, and to condemn, those who won’t believe. There is a grim joylessness about the whole thing. I also passed, while out walking, a group of hikers who were kitted out with thick boots, rucksacks and long sticks for a route I knew was no more than three miles over flat country. Ok, so there’s nothing wrong with being prepared, but it was clear from the snippets of conversation I overheard that they were walking that path not in search of beauty or wonder, or for the pleasure of exercise in the open air, but because they were jolly well allowed to. They were not having fun at all, they had forgotten that it used to be fun, if it ever was, they were doing their duty. They were trying to pay attention to a dull sermon. They were abstaining from meat on Good Friday. Just look at the bloody flowers, FFS.

I was surprised, though I don’t know why, to learn that the act of drinking water has also become a religion. There are those who say you must drink a certain amount of water a day, and those who say you mustn’t. In the furtherance of her creed, a medical practitioner was quoted as saying that ‘dehydration is a myth.’ (Someone on my blogroll had a link to the article, but I can’t remember who, sorry.) Try doing strenuous exercise for a few hours under a hot sun and you will soon discover what it means to suffer for your faith. Or getting very, very drunk. It’s perfectly true that an hour’s aerobics isn’t going to dehydrate you dangerously, but there’s no harm in drinking water afterwards, especially if it contains a little salt and sugar. And of course it makes no sense to decree that we ingest a fixed amount per diem, since the rate at which we lose and take up fluid varies enormously from person to person, and activity to activity.

The point is that no one seems to care much about the facts. Belief is everything. I’ve known people who think that lottery numbers are more (or less) likely to come up again if they have been drawn recently, and I’ve also known people (possibly apostatising former believers) who are so convinced they understand the laws of probability better than the ignorant masses that they won’t accept there is a way of increasing your expected winning however many diagrams you draw.

The English are not alone in any of this, I’m sure, but there is a much larger proportion of the population there than here who feel a need to be on the right, wholesome and morally superior side of anything, however trivial it may be, and however little they understand it. Perhaps it’s centuries of arguing with the neighbours about the height of their hedge.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On Darwin

Having just re-read (I had sort of flicked through them both before, years ago) Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, I have a much clearer idea of what he was actually saying. There is a tendency, even among experts, to conflate ‘Darwinism’ with the theory of evolution in general, and even with the whole field of genetics. This is useful shorthand, but it can hide the differences in a way that becomes important in a subject which is often discussed more from the perspective of religion and politics than from that of science. So let’s look at what Darwin actually did.

A Disclaimer: I remind readers once more that I am not a geneticist or evolutionary biologist, any more than I am a linguistician, historian, palaeoanthropologist, indologist or any of the other things I like to chat about so breezily here. I was once a mathematician, but that was a long time ago. I state the facts as far as I know them, and quote from people who seem to know what they’re talking about the rest of the time.

Anyhow, Darwin didn’t invent the theory of evolution. Plenty of people had proposed such a theory before him. What he did that was revolutionary, and the reason his name is so closely associated with the concept, was to collate thousands of detailed and precise observations on form and behaviour of life of all kinds from all over the world, including skeletal structure, internal organs, body covering, colour, predatory, defensive and sexual behaviour, dimorphism, and history. Much of this information was his own, gathered in the course of long and difficult voyages by sea to just about everywhere- he was in Australia, Tierra del Fuego, the Pacific Islands, the Phillipines and the Galapagos, as well as many more places closer to home- and where the data are second hand he is careful to establish the competence of his informant and the extent to which the information can be trusted.

His inescapable conclusion from analysing all of these data was that all life forms change with time, that many have once been very different from how we see them now, that some have derived from an earlier common form, and that this occurs in nature because of pressure of two kinds- forms better adapted to the specific circumstances they live in tend to live longer and leave more offspring, and forms better suited to defeating rival males and attracting females tend also to leave more offspring.

That organisms can change over the generations was already well known, from experiments on short-lived insects which can be observed through hundreds of generations over a period of years, and from breeding of domesticated animals, detailed records of which exist going back hundreds or even thousands of years, but that the same thing happened in nature, without the intervention of man, was the subject of considerable doubt. Darwin effectively dispelled that doubt. And by applying the same observations to primates, he showed the very high probability that man shared a common ancestor with the extant apes, and these with the primates in general.

However, although he described clearly the behavioural and environmental pressures which bring about change in organisms, what he did not do was identify the biological mechanism by which this process occurs. He had no idea what a gene was, as they were not discovered until many decades later. Nor did he postulate anything remotely like them. He speaks of passing on individual characteristics from parent to offspring, but the nearest he comes to conceiving of genes is when he speaks of ‘gemmules’, which are poorly defined and are in any case a very long way from being genes. The theory of gemmules is not his, and when he mentions them he doesn’t sound very happy about the idea. It’s just that he had nothing else.

He also had very limited information about man. With the exception of the Neanderthals, no early hominid remains had been clearly identified at that time. All he had to go on was morphology. Nevertheless, in placing the origin of modern man in Africa he was almost certainly right.

He was wrong about certain things. I’m sure there were errors, minor ones, in some of the observations. It would be extraordinary if there were not. But his main error is perhaps the residual Lamarckism. He often refers to the inheritance of acquired characteristics, along with chance variations at birth. He had no reason at that time to imagine that only variations brought about in a particular way could be transmitted to offspring, again because he had no conception of the mechanisms involved.

The real genius of Darwin was not his foresight, nor his conceptual brilliance, but his ability to gather and analyse data on such an enormous scale, and with such attention to detail.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Random Thought

Just a thought, but I wonder, if they ever construct a space elevator, how long it will be before someone tries to organise a clandestine free-climbing competition up it.

Things to do at the Lakes

The system of lakes we have near the farm is not only an area of considerable beauty*, and there is nothing comparable in a couple of hundred miles, but also a place that inspires different people to do different things. Some of them involve moving.

It attracts people from a wide area, as there are good bathing spots and we’re a very long way from the beach. It’s cheap tourism mostly, campsites and rural pensions. After all, if you have money you drive to the beach and stay in a proper hotel. We may be inland but we’re not on Mars.

There are obvious things to do. Many people come to relax, to rest, to do as little as possible, so they lie on deckchairs, sunbeds or on the ground, on towels. There is a bit of earth in some places, in others it’s just stone. You take what you can get. Most will bathe from time to time to cool off, although some will just make a fuss about how cold the water is before dangling their legs in it and going off to the towel again. Swimming, in the sense of continued limb movements taking you over an appreciable distance, is not really possible at most of the good bathing spots, meaning you have to find somewhere else to enter the water, and bring your own beer. People do this. You occasionally see someone out in the middle of a lake, happily floating, or crossing to the other side, and perhaps wishing when they got there that they’d checked there was somewhere to get a foothold on the other bank.

The young of a certain age, about 18-20, tend to like boating, windsurfing, canoeing, diving, and if you can’t bring your own there’s a place that will provide equipment and tuition. The less adventurous prefer pedalos and unsinkable kayak-shaped tubes of plastic that you sit on waving a stick in the general direction of the water.

People eat and drink. It’s part of the point of it, or it is the whole point, or it passes the time, or you’ve been there for hours and you’re feeling a bit peckish, or you just always bring sandwiches and coffee and beer whenever you go anywhere.

There are good places to fish, and plenty of fishermen making the most of them. I assume the fishing is controlled to some extent, but no one seems too bothered. I’ve never got the point of fishing- as I’ve probably said before, it strikes me as the quantum unit of human activity; it’s impossible to do less than to fish- but a lot of people love it, especially Rumanians, who are crazy about water.

If you don’t do any of these things, you can always watch the fish, the birds, the water, or the people. Or you can cycle or walk around them, or invent your own activities. I saw a father and young daughter the other day paddling in the shallows on horseback.

My brother-in-law the almost-retired colonel regularly takes his kayak (very sinkable indeed, it’s like riding a bike with no hands) and paddles several miles up and down the lakes. My sister-in-law the biochemist prefers to visit one of the little-known spots on an out-of-the-way lake, to swim and catch frogs, or to try to throw her niece into the water from a pedal boat. The lakes inspire creativity in some, while others just take the chance to cool off and do nothing much for a while. Something for everyone.

*and it hasn’t so far been ruined by having great signs placed all over it telling us insistently how beautiful it is and how we mustn’t do anything whatsoever except shuffle through it in line with our heads down.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Government Property: Keep Out

Every time we see some variation of this sign, every time a public employee tries to give us an order, we need to remember and remind them of a few things.

It isn’t government property or council property or some other level or branch of authority. It is public property* and belongs to us, not them**.

For practical reasons someone has to be responsible for administering such property and making appropriate rules about admission, use etc, to the benefit of all. That much is obvious, and so is the fact that many such rules are necessary (you can’t have just anybody wandering about a nuclear submarine base, we probably don’t want people shouting in libraries) but many decisions of that kind are clearly made for the convenience of the staff and to satisfy the ego of a middle manager.

The point is that the manager/council/ministry or whatever, is supposedly administering on our behalf property and institutions bought and run with our money. We are entitled, and we owe it to ourselves and others, to require that they answer for and justify the decisions they take. All of them. High and low. Remind them where they get their power from. And who pays them. The fact that many such decision and rules will be perfectly sound and necessary doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be explained openly and subjected to analysis and criticism.

The next time you’re told that you can’t park there, you can’t wear Wellington boots in the Town Hall lobby, or you see a door marked ‘Private’ in a public building, ask why, and keep asking until you find someone who can give a satisfactory answer.

No, I probably won’t do it either, but the world would be a better place if we did.

I’d been thinking about this (in a vague sort of way) for a few days, since I saw a door marked Private in a town hall in one of the villages we passed through in the North, and I wondered why the citizens who pay for it all and whose representatives and employees these people were, were not allowed in that room. No, I didn’t ask, and there may have been a good reason, but sometimes, at least, there is not. I had been thinking about it vaguely, as I say, when a remark yesterday in a comment by Vincent (A Wayfarer’s Notes, on the blogroll; I can’t put in a link as deep in the country here connections are a little temperamental and I’m effectively blogging via a piece of string connected to a broken coat hanger hooked up to the light bulb) reminded me about it.

*This is not in fact true and never has been. Power, even in benign democracies under the rule of law, is not, in practice, entrusted to our leaders by the rest of us, but arrogated by them to themselves. However, in countries like Britain they need to maintain the fiction that they are merely representatives acting in our name with our consent, and that can be used to our advantage.

**Yes, it is ‘us’ and ‘them’. They are not doing it for you and me, but for themselves. Therefore they are not us. And they need to be reminded that we know this.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Meerkats off Duty

Life is being on the road. The rest is just killing time.

There are moments when this is dangerously close to being true. I start to feel that I should pick up the rucksack and set out on a journey without a destination, without maps, without limit, without end, without any purpose but to be life itself. When the journey is life it doesn’t matter what you see, what you experience, or where you are. What matters is that you are somewhere, that it is never the same place, never the same events, that you see and appreciate it clearly, that you advance through it and along it. To nowhere.

Life doesn’t take us anywhere but to death. Life doesn’t culminate, there is no denouement, katastrophe or resolution. It just ends. When it starts we have no idea of when or where or how it will end. We do not live in preparation for death. We don’t think about it too much, or we try not to. We try to make the most of it while it lasts.

It makes sense to me that life should literally be a journey, and that the journey should be what matters, not whatever place it takes you too. When you arrive at your destination you stop travelling. It’s like death. And you have to reincarnate yourself (stretching the metaphor a little) and travel once more.

If this is so then why stop at all? Why stop anywhere? Journey constantly. All time is new, and the world is so large and our lives so short that all space can, in effect, be new as well. So why constrain yourself to one place, one set of circumstances, the daily repetition of arbitrary activities?

I can answer the question, at least with regard to myself. There is enough of the practical in me to recognise that I would not enjoy being lost in the Australian outback, with severe dysentery, a flat battery on the phone and no money after being robbed by Lithuanian bikers, to take a random example. It shouldn’t matter. The journey is important, the form it takes is not. But somehow I think the philosophy would then turn to dust and be blown about the sands.

There is another, more important answer. The journey is only part of life. Mrs Hickory, though happy to come walking in the mountains for a week or so when everything is planned and we know where we’re going and how far and which hotel we’ll be staying at, she would draw the line rather sharply at a journey without limits. In the absence of Mrs Hickory, the journey that is life would not be worth making. There are many paths we could choose. The trick is to choose right. And there are other parts of life, too, which are important enough to mean that an endless journey is not the only thing life can be.

Yesterday I was riding through the hills and along by the central lakes. The hills are dry, dusty browns and faded yellows and decaying greens that the opposite of lush. A fox wandered by and loped and bounced its way ahead of me for several hundred yards. I don’t know what his purpose was, but travelling was an important part of it.

There was nobody by the water. Even the bars and the swimming places were almost empty. The ducks and the fish prefer it that way, and the insects which provide the aural backdrop are easier to hear.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The things we learn from Darwin part 2

The definitive test of the quality of a finch’s singing, and therefore of its value to a fancier, is whether it continues to sing while you swing its cage around your head.

-The Descent of Man

‘Tabloid hacks will do anything to get a story’ shock

In other news, a large body of water has been discovered west of Portugal, the French language may be closely related to Italian, and studies suggest that native Norwegians have lighter skin tone than the Sudanese.

Let me explain this in very simple terms, not for the benefit of regular readers, who are a bright lot, but more for my own benefit, to see if I have missed something, because an awful lot of people don’t seem to understand it:

Newspapers are businesses. They exist to make money. The major papers are part of international corporations which are big enough to influence governments and legislators in their favour, and when they can they do so. People who work for these corporations are mostly interested in providing for their families and knocking off early on Fridays. Rupert Murdoch allows about 100,000 people to do this.

In order to make money a business must give its customers what they want. What most people want from newspapers is gossip, weird sex, and having their prejudices and intellect pandered to. And so the media provide a lot of that. Enough people are interested in a semblance of truth and serious analysis to keep the broadsheets loosely anchored in reality, but that is just the way things turn out, not what journalism is.

Journalists are employed by media to sell stuff and make money for their employee, like the rest of us. We have no value to our employer but what we can earn for them. They have no value to us but what we can get them to pay us*. (True artists, young sportsman and public employees are exceptions to this, perhaps).

The purpose of newspapers is not to uncover the truth, to hold the government to account (that’s supposed to be Parliament’s job, but you could easily fail to notice), or to defend our democratic freedoms. Their purpose, the purpose of journalists, is to construct a story that people will pay to read. Nothing else matters.

To discover that a company has used reprehensible or even illegal methods to enhance its profits is no great surprise. It happens all the time. The collapse of said company causes loss to its employees and to such customers as had an attachment to its products, but to the rest of us it doesn’t matter at all. If there is a market for that product someone will replace it and if there isn’t they won’t.

The media, like most organizations, are full of ambitious people- and journalists tend to take themselves far more seriously than they should- who will exceed the limits that even the organization itself sets on its conduct, in order to advance within it. That the editor of a national newspaper, with access to government and her own personal soapbox, should try to maintain her position by any means available, is not much of a surprise either.

Those who have broken the law will, I imagine, be punished. Those who have cost their company money and power will also be punished. Anyone who wants to punish News International can stop buying the Sun or watching the Simpsons**. The politicians have decided that the best solution is for them to decide who can own a newspaper and what they can print. Amazingly, a lot of people seem to agree with them.

*Of course it’s more complex than that. I enjoy my work, on the whole, and, like many people, take some pride and pleasure in doing it well, but mostly I do it for the money, and so does everyone else.

**A lot of people seem to think that are entitled to have their sex, gossip and cartoons provided by someone who is to their own personal taste. It doesn’t work like that. You may have to make a choice. It might even hurt.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Running by the River

One of the pleasures my old home town has to offer, one I discovered for the first time this year for various reasons, is running by the river.

The river runs below the old town, through the park and through and between a few more modern areas of houses. The most easily accessible bit for most people runs from one edge of the town to not quite the other, from an open bend in the river which was transformed into a natural swimming pool every summer, from the fifties to around the early seventies. I don’t remember it, but I have seen photos, and I know it was still there when I was a young boy. It has since been used by a rowing club, and for the last few years by a gym. A road bridge crosses it just at that point and at water level, in the brickwork, were the old changing rooms which have also served the later businesses which set up home there.

It runs from there, as I say, through an area now built on but until a couple of years ago green and quiet, among reeds and rushes with willows dangling their branches in the water. Swans still nest there, and in summer glide up and down in formation with the cygnets  between them, looking for anything edible and displaying themselves for the benefit of any casual photographer who happens to be passing.

Then it enters the park, near where the rye gate was in the Roman wall. At that point there’s a dam, which served a mill that was the last of a line that stretched back to Roman times. In the park the path is overhung by more willows, and runs past the cricket ground. The combination of these things produces a view which, at the right season and time of day, would have caused Orwell and Wodehouse to write poetry about the timeless joy of being English, and Evelyn Waugh to emigrate.

Thence it continues, flanked by meadows, used by ducks and moorfowl and coots and more swans, to another mill, by a lock below the east gate, that is used to control the level of water in the old port. The whole length from pool to lock is about two miles, and, although you can keep walking at either end for some miles, this section is the heart of the river to most people.

I have walked there many times, hundreds of times in fact, but I’d never run there until this year. It’s completely flat, which, after a week of walking in the mountains, was a great relief, and you get all of the lazy, natural beauty at a different pace. Every year I realize there are still new things to discover about the old place.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Homeland, and a Little Ranting

It's been a bit quiet around here lately. I am back at the homestead, eating my mother's roast beef and apple crumble, and life seems be very slow and blogging, or almost anything connected with the outside world, seems like a great effort and not to matter anyway. It always happens.

To round off the story of the walking, last Friday we went from the beach at Plentzia to Las Arenas, where the river of Bilbao reaches the sea, and where I used to live many years ago. We swam there on another fine beach I often used to use, had a look around at some old haunts- it hadn't changed very much, only the names of the shops- and caught a plane to England.

Everything moves at a different pace here. I like my fellow-countrymen but I sometimes find them hard to understand. The way they accept pointless, repressive and cumbersome regulations is extraordinary. The council only collects rubbish once a week, insists that highly detailed and time-consuming rules are followed in the presentation of that rubbish, won't touch a large number of things at all, and won't allow you simply to bag it all up yourself and sling it on the tip. Then they wonder why there's an increase in fly-tipping. Clue- it's because you won't do the job you're paid for and people don't like having food rotting by their back door for a week.

At the airport people just accept that air travel must be uncomfortable and tedious. If you want to fly cheaply you have to sacrifice some things, certainly, but much of the inconvenience, and it can be very serious inconvenience, is manufactured by bureaucrats, not an artifact of the desire for cheapness. Having to arrive hours in advance, the security circus which is more irritating and farcical every time I travel, the endless queues, standing up, pressed against sweaty bodies and listening to screaming brats, the border controls, both entering and leaving, where three different people wanted to see my passport and three others my boarding card, meaning that you either have to grow an extra pair of arms or juggle all the way through the departure area. The passport checks on entering Britain, with far too few people making a hugely self-important show of checking every detail and ordering people about- stand behind the line, don't come forward until I call you, take your passport out its case, wait, I haven't finished yet. I imagine the border agency types are failed wouldbe policemen with chips on their shoulders, but why do we put up with it? And it isn't to stop terrorists entering the country, which might be a form of justification, because it doesn't, not even the checking itself, and certainly not the bossiness.

We need to challenge more the rules that state employees impose on us. Not just the petty ones whose sole purpose is to make them feel they are in charge of the situation, but all of them. If part or all of a publicly owned building is closed to the public that owns it, we should ask why. If some regulation is mandated in a public place we should ask why. If we are asked to provide information or told we can't do something we should ask why. In many cases there may be good reasons for such regulations but we should be ready to make certain that they are justified, and to make the specific individual who is trying to give us orders articulate and defend the reason for the imposition/regulation/demand.

The British respect the law, any law, because the law was once worthy of respect. Now, many laws aren't, yet we follow blindly an instinct that belongs to another age.

We went to a car boot sale the other day. For the uninitiated, this involves a hundred odd people in a field offering for sale all kinds of objects, from broken sixties table lamps that were naff before they even left the creator's mind, to 19th C military medals struck in silver, passing through second hand books, old cameras and candlesticks, spare wheels with burst tyres, very used dolls, and unidentifiable things that someone just pulled out of their auntie's attic. And food and drink as well.

A farmer rents a field to the organizers, they arrange to charge the sellers a fee, and a small parking fee to the buyers, they direct traffic, provide toilets and first aid, people buy and sell things that some want to have and others want to get rid of. People interact with complete freedom, in an organized, calm and quite enjoyable way, and their is not a regulation anywhere. It is quite amazing that councils have allowed these events to continue for so long without trying to tell people how they must buy and sell, what information they must provide to the buyer about the product, what data the buyer must provide to the seller on purchase- date of birth, credit card number, email, the usual thing- and without trying to recover VAT on every old postcard and grimy Age of Aquarius lampshade bought and sold.

It offers a little hope for freedom in the modern world. You cannot make a phone call without someone potentially knowing who you are and who you're talking to; you can't walk down a street without a camera tracking your every move, but you can, in these places, acquire things you want without having to justify your existence to anybody. Long may it last. I bought a 1940's cine camera in perfect condition and the original leather case for a tenner. In a junk shop,m let alone an antique shop, it would have cost five times that. There was a pervasive smell of fried onions and chocolate ice-cream. People were, for once, doing what they felt like, unselfconsciously and naturally.

A friend of mine was complaining last night that a developer has bought the rather attractive Priory in the village we both used to play cricket in and wants to build houses in the grounds. The village is up in arms and wants it stopped. I pointed out that, although planning laws are probably very much on their side, they don't own the Priory and it shouldn't be up to them what happens to it. I suggested that if they want to decide what happens to the Priory they should club together and buy it, but that isn't the way things are done these days. The correct procedure for getting other people to do what you think they should do, it seems, is bullying and legal threats. Not very British. Or perhaps. sadly, it is.

If anyone's got this far, congratulations. The sun is coming out again and Hickory is going to try to get to the beach, where I shall meditate on how our democratic freedoms will survive now that the News of the World is no longer holding our masters up to scrutiny.