Friday 27 January, 2023

Whence KM came

My notes the other day about Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield prompted Andy Linton to send this photograph of her birthplace in New Zealand where, he says, Mansfield is a “minor deity”.

For which picture, many thanks.

Quote of the Day

”Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.”

  • P.J. O’Rourke

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Casals | Song of the Birds (Arr. Sally Beamish) | Steven Isserlis


Casals once played it to the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Long Read of the Day

The Crypto Collapse and the End of Magical Thinking

Terrific NYT essay by Mihir A. Desai

I have come to view cryptocurrencies not simply as exotic assets but as a manifestation of a magical thinking that had come to infect part of the generation who grew up in the aftermath of the Great Recession — and American capitalism, more broadly.

For these purposes, magical thinking is the assumption that favored conditions will continue on forever without regard for history. It is the minimizing of constraints and trade-offs in favor of techno-utopianism and the exclusive emphasis on positive outcomes and novelty. It is the conflation of virtue with commerce.

Where did this ideology come from? An exceptional period of low interest rates and excess liquidity provided the fertile soil for fantastical dreams to flourish. Pervasive consumer-facing technology allowed individuals to believe that the latest platform company or arrogant tech entrepreneur could change everything. Anger after the 2008 global financial crisis created a receptivity to radical economic solutions, and disappointment with traditional politics displaced social ambitions onto the world of commerce. The hothouse of Covid’s peaks turbocharged all these impulses as we sat bored in front of screens, fueled by seemingly free money.

With Bitcoin now trading at around $17,000, and amid declining stock valuations and tech sector layoffs, these ideas have begun to crack. The unwinding of magical thinking will dominate this decade in painful but ultimately restorative ways — and that unwinding will be most painful to the generation conditioned to believe these fantasies.

Is life in the UK really as bad as the numbers suggest?

Yes, it is, says economist Tim Harford, writing in the Financial Times on what has happened to the UK.

TL;DR version: The past 15 years have been a disappointment on a scale we could hardly have imagined.

The British economy is in a generation-long slough of despond, a slow-burning economic catastrophe. Real household disposable income per capita has barely increased for 15 years.

This is not normal. Since 1948, this measure of spending power reliably increased in the UK, doubling every 30 years. It was about twice as high in 1978 as in 1948 and was in touching distance of doubling again by 2008, before the financial crisis intervened. Today, it’s back at those pre-crisis levels.

It’s worth lingering on this point because it is so extraordinary. Had the pre-crisis trend continued, the typical Brit would by now be 40 per cent richer. Instead, no progress has been made at all. No wonder the Institute for Fiscal Studies is now talking of a second lost decade…


Many people struggle to pay for the basics. A large survey conducted by the Resolution Foundation in late November found that about a quarter of people said they couldn’t afford regular savings of £10 a month, couldn’t afford to spend small sums on themselves, couldn’t afford to replace electrical goods and couldn’t afford to switch on the heating when needed. Three years ago, only an unlucky few — between 2 and 8 per cent — described themselves as having such concerns over spending. More than 10 per cent of respondents said that at times over the previous 30 days, they’d not eaten when hungry because they didn’t have money for food.

This is not supposed to happen in one of the world’s richest countries. But then, the UK is no longer in that club. As my colleague John Burn-Murdoch has recently shown, median incomes in the UK are well below those in places such as Norway, Switzerland or the US and well below the average of developed countries. Incomes of the poor, those at the 10th percentile, are lower in the UK than in Slovenia.

My commonplace booklet

Yehudi Menuhin gets his Blue Plaque

The plaque, which is awarded by English Heritage, will commemorate the six-storey house in Belgravia, London, where he lived, worked and entertained for the last 16 years of his life until 1999.

The news triggered a memory of a story I was once told about him when he visited the painter Derek Hill at his lovely house on the shores of Lake Cartan in Co Donegal.

The house (which is maintained as it was when Hill was alive), has a large old-fashioned kitchen, in which Hill, who was a convivial soul and very popular with the people of the locality, used occasionally to invite local musicians to drop in on Saturday evenings for drinks, singing, dancing and music-making. Since Donegal is famous for its tradition of fiddle-playing, Hill set up such an evening when Yehudi Menuhin was staying, and the great violinist joined in wholeheartedly. A good night was had by all, but it seems that some of the locals had no idea who the visitor was, and when the party was breaking up one of the departing musicians was heard saying to Hill “Yon Hughdie McMenamin is a fine fiddler!”

‘Hughdie’ was a popular adaption of ‘Hugh’ when I lived in Donegal as a child. And McMenamin is a common family name thereabouts.

Hill left his house and land to the Irish state on his death and there’s now a lovely gallery in the grounds. If you’re ever in Donegal, don’t miss it.

Grey Gowrie has written a nice book about Hill, whom he knew well.

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