Friday 27 May, 2022

Our new neighbours

We have a breeding pair of Canada geese in the village and they recently produced their latest brood — who started as tiny fluffballs and are already turning into lanky teenagers.

Quote of the Day

”He talked on for ever; and you wished him to talk on for ever.”

  • William Hazlitt on Coleridge

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

The Maguires at Temple Bar Tradfest 2017


A remarkable Irish family of musicians. This clip opens with an extraordinary long solo by Séan (then aged 11) on the bodhrán (pronounced ‘bow-rawn’).

Long Read of the Day

The Fiction That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Long, interesting essay by Morten Høi Jensen on the travails of those who write biographies of writers.


On the whole, very little happens to writers in the practice of writing, even to those who, like Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Mann, or Naguib Mahfouz lived in the thick of history, with all its peril and precariousness. Consider Mann: born four years after the unification of Germany, he lived through the First World War, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the Second World War, and the postwar division of Germany. He was hurled into exile, stripped of his citizenship, put on an arrest warrant for Dachau, and surveilled by the FBI for alleged communist sympathies. In America, his social circle included Albert Einstein, Theodor Adorno, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, among others. All of which amounts to an exceptionally fascinating life, but it tells us little or nothing about what finally matters: the fiction. In every account of his life, every time he sits down at his desk, whether in Munich, Küsnacht, Princeton, or Los Angeles, Mann disappears from view. We can reconstruct his punctilious routine, we can describe the texture of his desk, we can even name the various brands of cigar that he liked to smoke — but we cannot be present for the moment when the author of Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice, and The Magic Mountain put pen to paper and chose this word over that word and refined this idea or that idea and generally brought his fictional world to life.

So, is literary biography just a form of higher gossip? Or a way of prolonging our intimacy with an author, as John Updike charitably put it? Read on for a sensitive exploration of the question.

The billable hour is a trap

Thoughtful column by Tim Harford.

Twenty years ago, M Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology, began an article with the observation that “Many lawyers are very unhappy, particularly lawyers who work in big firms. They may be rich, and getting even richer, but they are also miserable, or so they say.” Was this sad state of affairs caused by long hours or stressful work? Perhaps.

But Kaveny identified a more specific culprit: the “billable hour” — or even more precisely, the billable six-minute increment. By accounting for every moment of their working lives, and defining each moment as either “billable” or, regrettably, “non-billable”, lawyers were being tugged inexorably towards an unhappy, unhealthy attitude to the way they spent their time. Not all lawyers, of course. And not only lawyers, either.

Kaveny had several concerns. She noted that lawyers would focus on narrow short-term goals rather than broader or deeper values such as maintaining skills, mentoring young colleagues, or living up to the highest ideals of the law. She worried about the explicit commodification of time.

But perhaps more relevant today than ever is that the billable hour encourages us to view all time as fungible. If time is money, that’s as true for 6am on Christmas morning as it is for 2pm on Friday the 29th of April…

In my time I’ve met quite a few unhappy lawyers. And a Managing Partner at a big firm once told me that mid-40s ‘burnout’ of his colleagues was one of the problems he was increasingly having to deal with.

And then, of course, I fell to wondering how long it takes my subscribers to read this blog/newsletter, and how much they could be earning if they weren’t frivolously dodging work by being here!

My commonplace booklet

Julian Barnes never wrote an ugly sentence (IMHO). And this week I ran into yet another proof of that proposition — a review he wrote years ago of John Updike’s Golf Dreams. Since golf is the only game I’ve ever loved, I have a dog in this fight, but even so I loved both the book and Julian’s essay about it.

Here’s a sample:

You can see what enrages the non-golfist (a golfist, as opposed to a golfer, is anyone whose life has been, even once, long in the past, touched by the sudden beauties of the game). There’s the false, tailored landscape; the enormous pauses between brief and seemingly similar pieces of action; the wanky, transparently Freudian object of propelling a little ball long distances into a tiny hole (Updike has a poem about showering players whose ‘genitals/ hang dead as practice balls’); and the cloney nerdishness of the players. They wear terrible clothes; they seem to escape the general rule, clung to by sportists, that each sport throws up at least one player of high natural intelligence (we are thinking Gullit, not Gascoigne); and when they try to show ‘character’ – ie submit to marketing devices – they make fools of themselves. Look at Greg Norman: nice enough fellow by all accounts, but a complete wally when it comes to that ‘White Shark’ sobriquet and hat trim. A piece of hubris just made for Nick Faldo at Augusta.

Yet the game, as literary golfists keep trying to explain, has much to offer the non-golfist reader. There is the ambiguity of the setting, poised between rus in urbe and urbs in rure. There is the social mix of the players, wider than non-golfists imagine (though admittedly not that wide)…

And so it goes. Wonderful.

(I should perhaps explain that Julian preceded me as the television critic of the Observer, and that I once gave his first novel a — richly deserved — rave review.)

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