Friday 8 July, 2022


Quote of the Day

”After days of high political drama in Britain, Boris Johnson’s government has collapsed at last. For months the prime minister wriggled out of one scandal after another with braggadocio and buffoonery. Now, irretrievably rejected by his own MPs, he has agreed first to quit as Conservative Party leader and then to leave office within months. That day cannot come soon enough.

Mr Johnson was brought down by his own dishonesty, so some may conclude that a simple change of leadership will be enough to get Britain back on course. If only. Although Mr Johnson’s fingerprints are all over today’s mess, the problems run deeper than one man. Unless the ruling Conservatives muster the fortitude to face that fact, Britain’s many social and economic difficulties will only deepen.

Britain is in a dangerous state. The country is poorer than it imagines. Its current-account deficit has ballooned, sterling has tumbled and debt-interest costs are rising. If the next government insists on raising spending and cutting taxes at the same time, it could stumble into a crisis. The time when everything was possible is over. With Mr Johnson’s departure, politics must once more become anchored to reality.”

  • The Economist, yesterday.

For those Tories anxious to succeed him, here’s a cautionary thought. Would you like to be Prime Minister on the day (in late August) when it dawns on British households that the cost of heating their homes is going up from £800 to at least £3,000 a year?

When ignorance really is bliss

Some interesting things about the media frenzy (at least those media trapped in the Westminster bubble) on Johnson’s last day of denial…

1. The way that Trumpian ideas have seeped into British media and political culture.

cf Johnson’s bluster in Parliament that, regardless of what was going on inside his own party, he had a “mandate” from the British people which entitled him to carry on regardless. This idea of a party leader having a popular ‘mandate’ is an American, presidentialist idea. The Conservative party, led by Johnson at the time, won the election. In a parliamentary democracy it’s the party that people vote for, not the leader.

2. The way some journalists — and some Tory politicians, who should have known better — spun this ‘mandate’ fantasy.

The massive Tory victory in the General Election was as much due to the fact that the Labour Party was, at the time, led by Jeremy Corbyn, as un-electable a politician that anyone could wish for. That, combined with Johnson’s pledge to “get Brexit done” was what clinched the outsome.

3. There was also an echo of Trump in the aftermath of the election.

Under the ragbag patchwork of concepts and conventions that constitutes the British ‘constitution’, the leader of a party that commands a significant majority in the House of Commons is, to all intents and purposes, an elected dictator who can more or less do what s/he likes. That’s the point of the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system — to deliver decisive power to the winning party. And yet Johnson — who was given that power free from the tiresome meddling of Brussels — didn’t seem to have a single coherent, worked-out idea about what he could do with it.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Handel | Zadok the Priest


Ironically, this is what the Massed Bands of the Household Division were playing on Horse Guards parade behind 10 Downing Street on Wednesday as breathless TV reporters tried to explain how Johnson was bluffing his way out of trouble. Handel wrote it for the coronation of George II in 1727.

Long Read of the Day

Oliver Sacks: The Machine Stops

Lovely New Yorker essay, by the most literary neurologist of his generation, on steam engines, smartphones, and fearing the future. And on E.M. Forster’s astonishing 1909 short story, from which the title of this essay is taken.

I have not adjusted as well as my aunt did to some aspects of the new—perhaps because the rate of social change associated with technological advances has been so rapid and so profound. I cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.

In his novel “Exit Ghost,” from 2007, Philip Roth speaks of how radically changed New York City appears to a reclusive writer who has been away from it for a decade. He is forced to overhear cell-phone conversations all around him, and he wonders, “What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? . . . I did not see how anyone could believe he was continuing to live a human existence by walking about talking into a phone for half his waking life.”

These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanizing…

The Forster story is indeed amazing, especially when you realise when it was written. The Wikipedia plot summary reads, in part:

The story describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard room, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted, but is unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine with which people conduct their only activity: the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge.

The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which, like most inhabitants of the world, she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand ‘ideas’. Her son Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He persuades a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his room. There, he tells her of his disenchantment with the sanitised, mechanical world.

He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. However, the Machine recaptures him, and he is threatened with ‘Homelessness’: expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son’s concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.


Finally, the Machine collapses, bringing ‘civilization’ down with it. Kuno comes to Vashti’s ruined room. Before they both perish, they realise that humanity and its connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated.

My Commonplace booklet

What to say when you can’t think of anything to say


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