Saturday, 30 October 2010

That's quite enough of that

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Warning for intemperate language. Which is ironic, since I am always banging on about the wonders of moderation.

May we just stop with the whole liberal elite thing? I mean, really? It used to be one of those stupid things that stupid people say which was so stupid that it blended into white noise. Yeah, yeah, I thought: there go those Real America dog whistles again, sing me something else why don't you? It was this old, creaking plank in a certain kind of culture warrior Republican thinking that went something like: if we could only get rid of those latte-drinking, arugula-eating, Com-simping, fag-lovin', tree-hugging coastal types, then we can all be happy and go hunt some quail. (Or something.) The shining city on the hill would finally be built, without those ghastly liberals who hate America, and we can sit and dream of Ronald Reagan. It's what Sarah Palin means when she calls the Tea Partiers 'real Americans'. Which does slightly beg the question: are all the other Americans fake? Have they been kidnapped by space aliens and replaced with pods?

The odd thing is that the liberal elite idea has crept out from its right-wing corral and is tripping about in general discourse. Quite sensible commentators now use it without inverted commas, as if there does exist a cabal of leftist snobs who party with Arianna Huffington on the Upper East Side and look down their noses at people who shop at Wal-Mart and like guns. It was always an exclusively American thing, but recently one of the crosser bloggers over at The Telegraph has started using it. 'Is this the last gasp from America's liberal elites?' yells the headline. It is a reference to an article by the Nobel Laureate, Paul Krugman, which is, according to Crossly Crossington: 'the pathetic whimper of a decaying liberal Ancien Regime which is spectacularly crumbling'. As a humble blogger, I know my place. I too get grumpy about things, but I would think twice before accusing someone with a Nobel Prize of pathetic whimpering. I've seen Paul Krugman in interviews; his calm speech is the farthest thing from a whimper I've ever heard.

Now the liberal elite meme is knocking at my own door, I am digging in my heels. First of all, I could not bear it if liberal became a dirty word here as it so often is in American discourse. It has a storied and honourable tradition; it is Gladstone and Mill and Keynes. I am not going to have it grubbied up by cross people.

Second, what is this Ancien regime of which the grumpy blogger speaks? Until 2008, the Republicans had been in charge for eight years. Where was the Liberal Ancien Regime then? Buggering off to Paris to have its nails done? It's as if the writer is just making things up out of whole cloth.

Third, and perhaps most important: may we start a campaign to stop 'elite' being used as a term of abuse? Ironically, this derogatory usage has not quite caught on here, despite the British being famously anti-intellectual and fond of tall poppy syndrome. We have a blatant adoration of the underdog. It was the Americans always who were supposed to be puzzled by this, with their straightforward worship of success. The whole notion of the American dream is that John (or even Jane) Doe could become President; by definition joining an elite, for there is nothing more elitist than being the Leader of the Free World. So how is it that it is there that elite is becoming more and more a filthy word?

More ironically still, it was Barack Obama who personified this American dream more than anyone. The child of a single mother, brought up without money or power or houses in the Hamptons, he reached the highest office in the land through sheer hard work and force of personality. He has an elite mind, but his family could not be less elitist if it tried. By contrast, George W Bush came from the nearest thing to a dynasty which a young country without an official aristocracy can produce. His family was old school East Coast, with a compound on Kennebunkport, and friends in very high places, most notably the Saudi Royal Family. The Bushes are even related to Winston Churchill, if you believe the internets. Elitist enough for you?

This is why it baffles me that it is the party of George Bush who is always railing against these sinister elites. Do they not see how silly it makes them sound? And on a more general level, would you not want to celebrate elitism? If you have a surgeon operating on you, or a pilot flying the 747 on which you are travelling, or a professor teaching you history, or a scientist working on a possible cure for your mother with Alzheimer's, would you not want them to be the very best in their field? Would you not want them to be qualified and educated and trained up to their elitist ears?

All right. Better now. Time for some pictures of leaves, to calm me down.

This is the acer. Only two days ago it was a nondescript muddy brown. Now look at it. How did that happen?

30th Oct 1

The little Japanese cherry:

30th Oct 2

Fallen leaves, pretending they are in Vermont or somewhere:

30th Oct 3

The new blueberry bush:

30th Oct 4

The view to the south:

30th Oct 5

The eucalyptus, with the thick afternoon light dancing off it:

30th Oct 10

Yearny face:

30th Oct 8

Serious contemplating face:

30th Oct 9

We're just too sexy for our shirts faces:

30th Oct 7

Have a lovely weekend.

Friday, 29 October 2010


Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I was going to do a whole thing on feminism; then I thought about the nature of prejudice, mostly on account of my increasing obsession with The Trevor Project; then I wondered if I might give you a blast on the Tea Party. But it's Friday, and I've thrown quite a lot of politics at you lately, and so I thought I might do some lists. There must be light and shade, after all. And everyone loves a list.

List Number One.

The oldest brother is currently entranced with collective nouns, or what he more elegantly calls nouns of assemblage. I asked him his current favourites this morning, and here they are:

1. A disworship of Scots. (This is sadly derogatory, for which I apologise to my adopted homeland, but I love the word disworship, which does not get used often enough.)

2. A whisper of snipe. (Remember that part in High Society when Grace Kelly says, in that wonderful affected voice: 'Ah Deluth, it sounds like singing'? I think that a whisper of snipe sounds like singing.)

3. A muster of peacocks. (There is a marvellous martial urgency to this: come on, you damn peacocks, muster, muster.)

4. A fidget of choirboys.

5. A malapertness of peddlers. (I did not even know malapertness was a word. It means impudence or sauciness and comes, of course, from the French. According to the Free Dictionary, this particular collective noun dates back to 1486, when obviously there were many saucy peddlers roaming the streets.)

List Number Two.

My three favourite books to read whilst ill in bed:

1. Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford

2. The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

3. The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

I used to feel a furtive guilt about my inordinate love for Georgette Heyer. After all, her books were blatant romances, not Serious Literature. Then one day I heard AS Byatt on the radio, talking of her own adoration for Heyer. I thought: if it's good enough for Antonia Byatt, it's good enough for me.

And on the subject of books -

List Number Three.

Books I know I should love, but do not:

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. This is absolute heresy. Lolita is not only a cast-iron classic, but Nabokov is the writer's writer. I have tried three times. Can't do it.

2. Rabbit, Run by John Updike. I know that the Rabbit series is revered by people who know about books. I know that Updike is considered a master of the Great American Novel. I could not find a single thing to love. (Am beginning to wonder if this list was such a good idea; I feel there is a danger of people starting to throw things.)

3. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence. Lawrence makes me want to go and lie down in a darkened room. Curiously, I love his poetry, which is beautiful and unaffected and shoots like a silver arrow straight to the heart. I read Snake when I was eight years old, in a big old anthology I think my mother or one of my godparents had given me, and even though I was far too young to read between the lines or get the whole meaning of the thing, the language was so direct and vivid and strong that the image of the snake and the watching man and the searing heat and the sharp moment of regret shot straight into my childish mind and has stayed there ever since.

(Because one of my vices is a shaming streak of intellectual vanity, I would like to keep my end up by saying that I race through Henry James and TS Eliot as if I were reading comics. Oh yes, and Mrs Woolf too. I'm not a complete philistine.)

List Number Four.

Excellent scientific discoveries this week:

1. Dr Eric Anderson at the University of Bath has discovered that male students are busy kissing each other. This is tremendous news. 'The mean gruff homophobic macho man of the 1980s is dead,' said the professor. (RIP those mean gruff homophobes.) My favourite line in the reporting on this: 'It's not yet known how the trend of men kissing extends to non-university segments of the British population.'

2. Researchers at the Universities of California and Harvard have discovered a 'liberal gene'. Which they have sexily named DRD4. Actually, it's not quite as simple as that, although it makes a great headline. There is a great deal of hedging and qualification and nature plus nurture going on. The most fun is seeing how it has been reported. My favourite is from the bastion of rigorous fairness that is Fox News: 'Don't hold liberals responsible for their opinion - they can't help themselves.' (I know; it's like a disease.) The New York Daily News wins my headline of the day award: 'Being a liberal and hating Sarah Palin, may be a genetic trait, scientists say.' This despite the fact that no scientist breathed a word about Mrs Palin, because why would they, when they are exactly the kind of ghastly elites that she so despises?

3. Did you know there was a 'Travelling Salesman Problem'? (This sounds like something from a Carry On film, but apparently it is a very serious matter.) Did you know that researchers at the University of London have discovered that it could be solved by examining the actions of bees? I certainly did not. Dr Nigel Raine said: 'Despite their tiny brains, bees are capable of extraordinary feats of behaviour.'. Apparently, our apian cousins hold the key to solving traffic jams. So hurrah for the bees and their tiny brains.

List Number Five.

Random quotations, because if there is one thing people love more than a list, it's a quotation:

1. 'Why isn't there a special name for the tops of your feet?'

Lily Tomlin.

2. 'All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.'

James Russell Lowell

3. 'Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.  Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.'

Groucho Marx

That's quite enough lists. Here are some Friday pictures.


29th Oct 5


29th Oct 3


29th Oct 6

Leaves and lichen:

29th Oct 7

Spider's web on the old stone wall:

29th Oct 8

Tree bark:

29th Oct 4


20th Oct 10

The inevitability:

29th Oct 1

29th Oct 2

(Perhaps before the year is up, scientists will have discovered a can't help putting photographs of dogs on your blog gene. I can only live in hope.)

Happy Friday.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Family, and what do you do, exactly, on that blog of yours?

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Today the oldest brother was visiting, and it was his birthday, so there was a lunch. Despite the new austerity, there were extraordinarily elegant things to eat, and it turns out that the Heavenly Stepfather has a secret stash of 1990 Cheval Blanc, which is not something you drink every day, so I became rather over-excited.

I have been known to be cynical about family, when it is presented in the motherhood and apple pie and oh look everyone is just like the Waltons kind of way. But I must admit that it was very lovely today, with all of us gathered together, gossiping and teasing and chasing off down Memory Lane. Ours is not exactly the perfect nuclear unit. There have been mistaken marriages and noisy heartbreaks and the usual misunderstandings and crossness and non-speaks. Now we are all old enough to have been bashed about a bit by life, we have grown keenly grateful for the good parts. Blood is not always thicker than water, but I start to think that family is like the girl with the little curl: when it is good, it is very, very good.

The curious thing about leaving my desk and going out into the real world is that people always ask about the blog. 'What is it you do, on this blog?' they say, as if I am committing dark acts with farm animals.

'Oh you know,' I say. 'I write about politics, and food, and, well, stuff.'

It sounds hideously lame. At this stage I usually attempt to change the subject.

'You write recipes?' they say.

'Well, yes,' I say. 'I did a nice pea soup the other day.'

'And politics?'

'Yes,' I mutter. 'The American elections and things.'

The reason it is hard to explain is that I am not quite sure what it is that I am doing, or what the point of the whole damn thing is. I have a horrible lurking feeling that it is all a form of showing off - look at me, with my jazz hands. Who really cares what I think about The Coalition, or the mid-terms, or the keeping of dogs? Until very recently, I did not even put up links to the blog on Twitter, because I felt so shy about the whole shooting match.

'It can be quite funny,' my sister said, today, being supportive. A gentleman who had not visited before wrote yesterday that it was 'not insubstantial'. I love that. I'm thinking of asking for it to be written on my gravestone.

For all that I duck my head and blush when the subject comes up, I suppose one could turn the whole thing round and look at it from a diametrically different angle. The question could be not Why, but Why Not? I think the problem with blogs is that they are so new. There is no hinterland, no tradition, no honourable precedent. Nobody asks an author: why do you write books?, as if it were the most peculiar thing to do. No one challenges a columnist on a newspaper to justify putting her opinions into print. These things have been done for hundreds of years, and are expected and understood.

I'm not entirely certain there is a point. For whatever reason, despite my doubts and moments of reticence, I do love it. I love the freedom of it, because blogging is so young that there are not yet rules. I love the kind comments. I love that people come here from far-flung places, from Tucson to Sydney. I love that the dear readers put up patiently with the endless pictures of leaves and dogs. That is enough for me.

Pictures of the day are of the family.

The Mother:


Heavenly Stepfather:


Younger niece:


The Sister:


The Brother-in-Law is uncertain about all this online stuff, but I could not omit him, so I have bleached him out into an International Man of Mystery, which means that only someone who knows him very well will recognise him:


Oldest Brother's Other Half, who did the miraculous cooking:


Which looked like this:


(Can't really believe that pudding is real life, and not something faked up for a magazine. It was every bit as delicious as it looks.)

The Sister and me, trying not to giggle like six year olds:


The Birthday Boy:


And what he looked like when he was a serious little fellow:


The view from my mother's house, looking west:


And of course the ladyships, who had such a thrilling time that they had to go and have a little lie-down on the grass afterwards:


Well, not exactly substantial. Tomorrow: a great deal of serious thought about fiscal tightening.

More lovely men

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

There seems to be a bit of a theme developing on the blog over the last ten days or so. I think it must be because the mid-terms are really heating up, so I am geeking out on American politics just now, and there is a certain breed of Republican who cannot countenance the same sex lovin' and will insist on using that delightful bigotry for political advantage. This makes me sad and cross.

Luckily, the dear old interwebs are throwing up plenty of antidote. If you want something to make you smile and cry, watch this:

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Bonus post: Another astonishing moment of synchronicity

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

On the very day I indulge in a long rant about how I yearn for the moderate middle, and how tired I am of people taking entrenched positions and yelling at each other across the divide, I stumble upon a beautiful moment of humanity from a most unlikely source.

There, on the tremendous Daily Dish, waiting in my inbox, was a new creed from an American bishop. One of the things that makes me saddest and most baffled is the intemperance of the Religious Right in America (and, to a lesser extent, here). I find it genuinely hard to understand, and you know how I like to understand things.

Here is the antidote.

It is not just about so many in the church having a bizarre fear of The Gay, but for my money the most devastating quote is this:

'I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is "an abomination to God," about how homosexuality is a "chosen lifestyle," or about how through prayer and "spiritual counselling" homosexual persons can be "cured." Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy. I will no longer dignify by listening to the thoughts of those who advocate "reparative therapy," as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired.'

And if I had to distill it down to one haunting phrase, it would be that last one: 'as if homosexual persons are somehow broken and need to be repaired'.

It is a lovely reminder that in this hot political season, on both sides of the pond, there are shining voices of grace and reason.

PS For some reason, it seems to come from last year, but Andrew Sullivan has only just picked it up. I wonder why it did not become famous long before now, but that's a whole other subject.

Of teachers, ideology and Professor Jung

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

WARNING: idiotically long post.

When I woke this morning, I found myself thinking of Left and Right, and all the assumptions that shuttle along behind those labels. (These are the kind of things I ponder as I brush my teeth.)

I came of political age under Mrs Thatcher, so I went to the Left. It wasn't a considered decision. There were no politics in the house where I grew up; there was only what would win the 3.30 at Kempton. My father did have an anti-establishment streak; he quite enjoyed startling the respectable element by singing Irish rebel songs at entirely inappropriate moments. Perhaps some of that rubbed off. As a teenager, I read The Beats, and the Existentialists, and went to see a lot of Ken Loach films. (I was also obsessed with Scott Fitzgerald, which doesn't quite fit into this grand narrative, but never mind.) I went to the Left, because it was where the bleeding hearts were. Of course I did, what else would you expect?

Later, when I started thinking more forensically, I stayed there, because I believe in a robust state, think that free markets must be properly regulated, am wary of the amorality of large corporations, and think that while the pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is all very well, some people don't get the good fortune of bootstraps in the first place. The liberal in me also hated social conservatism: the idea that the married heterosexual couple was the ne plus ultra of arrangements, leaving the single mothers, the gays, and those of us who refuse to say I do as implicitly lesser creatures.

Now, something very strange is happening. The Left is angrier than at any time since the miners' strike. It's a curious rage, more than just the fury at losing an election. I think it is something to do with the loss of assumption. The old joke was that the Left was romantic but wrong, while the Right was repulsive but right. I believed this myself; I quite liked being romantic but wrong. You can see it playing now, in the attempt to paint the Conservatives as demonic, rubbing their hands with glee as they bash the poor. The Coalition, with the Lib Dems as the tragic deluded patsies, are hell bent on rewarding their plutocratic buddies while trashing the chances of the underprivileged. It's not politics, or pragmatism, it's class war, because everyone knows that, however much rebranding they try to do, the Right loathes poor people.

I suddenly realise that I held some of these assumptions myself. Not in the extreme good vs evil way, but in a horridly smug assumption that people on the Left were rather nicer than those on the other side. No wonder I drove some of my right of centre friends mad. And there's the point: I actually have right-wing friends, and relations too. The heavenly stepfather is a staunch One Nation Tory, and he is the kindest man I know. It was partly for this reason that I gave up tribalism, before the last election. It had been coming for some time, but now it is official. I can't bear the knee-jerk, school playground, finger-pointing, holier than thou, Manichean shouting that goes on from either side of the ideological divide.

I think the rage of the Left is because they can no longer claim the exclusive mantle of goodness and niceness for themselves. The Prime Minister may turn out to be wrong, politically, but it is patently clear that he is not evil. It is hard to transform a reasonable man into a cartoon monster. On the other side, it was obvious that Gordon Brown, despite his concern for child poverty and the poor of Africa, was capable, at times, of being not a very nice man. There was the petulant dismissal of Mrs Duffy, the fabled shouting at underlings, the hurling of telephones, the employing of the egregious Damien McBride, the overweening ambition.

In government, Labour did some very good things for social democracy. It also did some not so very nice things. There was complicity in extraordinary rendition, the locking up of children of asylum seekers in holding camps, the cosying up to the bankers it now vilifies, the ruthless briefing against anyone, within or without the government, who disagreed with the party line. Ministers who did not stay rigorously on message were cast into outer darkness. (Just ask Frank Field, who thought the unthinkable, just as he was asked, and paid the price.) Journalists who wrote disobliging things were frozen out. Say what you want about Alistair Campbell and Lord Mandelson of Foy as political operatives, but they were certainly not cuddly, fluffy creatures of the light. They were masters of the darker arts.

Just as I was contemplating all this, and recalibrating all over the shop, I came across a piece by Katherine Birbalsingh, the inspirational teacher who gave such a rousing speech on education at the Tory conference, and as a result was sacked by her school. It was a perfect example of Jungian synchronicity, always a good way to start the day. Although she is of the Left, once all the way out on the Marxist wing, she had the temerity to agree with some of the Coalition's ideas on education. As a result, her leftist friends no longer talk to her. Let us contemplate that for a moment. It's not very lovely, is it? It is neither romantic nor right. It's just petulant and stupid.

My principle objection to this kind of tribalism is that it is so intellectually lazy. By definition, there must be ideas on both sides of the political divide that are correct and incorrect. Neither party may lay claim to inerrant brilliance. One side is not automatically nicer and kinder than the other, any more than one side is automatically right. All politicians make mistakes, whichever drum they march to.

As I redefine myself as a small L liberal centrist, I yearn for arguments on the merits. It's not a very sexy thing to ask for, but it's what I want, not just for Christmas, but for life.

And now, to take your mind off the continuous political shouting, which infects the airways like white noise, some soothing autumnal pictures.

Can't get enough of the leaves:

27th Oct 2

27th Oct 3

27th Oct 4

27th Oct 5

The roses are still flowering as if it were high summer:

27th Oct 7

The sedum continues to delight:

27th Oct 8

The lavender is still putting out new buds, to my utter astonishment:

27th Oct 1

The dear salix is now bereft of leaves, but its bare branches have an austere beauty all their own:

27th Oct 6

Talking of beauty:

27th Oct 11

27th Oct 10

As you know, I sometimes like to fool about with contrast and light and colour and tints and general effects with my photographs. This one is utterly untouched. This actually was the colour of the rowan berries against the sky when I came outside this morning:

27th Oct 9

Sometimes people wonder why I choose to live in Scotland. This is why.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

In which I contemplate the curious nature of perspective

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

As I skittled through the 487 things which my Google reader said I should read this morning, I stumbled upon something which I thought was such an outrageous piece of good news that I had another Hold the Front Page moment. I was so bullish that I was going to title this post 'In which it turns out we are not fucked after all'. (I apologise for the swear, but it was that good.)

The 2010 Legatum Prosperity Index had come out with its rankings. Dear old Blighty was number 13 out of 110 countries. I thought this was tremendous. We are number 5 in Entrepreneurship and Opportunity, and number 9 in both Governance and Social Capital. Hurrah, I thought, it does not all have to be entropy, all the time.

Digging into the findings (because findings must always be dug into, as any fule no) I discovered even better news. Britain has the fourth largest percentage of people in the world who give to charity. We come second overall in the category of people believing that they can turn to friends or relatives for help, a glorious 96% saying Yes to that question. Grumpy old Britons turn out to have 'very high tolerance for racial and ethnic minorities', and 'extremely high levels of civil liberties'. And the hits just keep on coming: Great Britain has a 'low level of corruption', a 'robust democracy', and a (don't faint) 'highly effective government'.

By this stage, I was almost dancing in the streets. It's Good News Day. Let there be sounding brass. I wondered how the media would cover these astonishing findings. Surely there would be general rejoicing and, perhaps, over at those papers who adore to insist we are all going to three different kinds of hell in twenty-seven handcarts, a tiny mea culpa.

It turns out I rank number one in the world for naivety. Here is the headline over at the Guardian: 'Lord Mandelson: UK's poor place in prosperity league is not indictment of Labour'. I love how Mandy manages to shoehorn himself into the thing, and would expect nothing less from The Prince of Darkness. But 'poor place'? Poor place?

I slunk back to the drawing board, chastened. Clearly, I am misguided and wrong to think that number 13 out of 110 is pretty damn good. Personally, I blame Shakespeare. There is a curious psychological contradiction in the British mind. Because we produced the greatest writer in the world, and because we once ruled the waves, I think we still half believe that we should be number one. We invented cricket, for God's sake. We had The Beatles and The Stones. We bred Churchill and Sir Christopher Wren and Mrs Woolf and Charles Darwin and Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh. From this tiny isle came Jane Austen and Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell and Alan Turing and Watson and Crick. At the same time, there is the enduring gloomy glass half empty we are all going to the dogs idea that runs through the national psyche like Brighton through a stick of rock. Put these two clashing notions together, and you get the conclusion that number thirteen is rubbish.

The perception twist is also seen in the report itself. For instance, on Safety and Security we rank 23rd, which does not sound that marvellous. Once you read the thing, you see that this number is dragged down by the perception of crime. Only 2% of Britons were assaulted last year, but a staggering 40% do not feel safe walking home alone at night.

I still say it cannot be all bad. I like understated sentences like this: 'There were no casualties from civil or ethnic violence in the UK in 2009'. Or the rather poetic 'Human flight is very low'. Two cheers for low human flight. Despite what you might read in some of the more hysterical tabloids or the antic message boards, the fact is that emigration of 'professionals, intellectuals and the middle class' is the seventh lowest in the world. At least we still have our intellectuals, although historically we do not always love them. (Too clever by half is traditionally one of the most favoured British insults.)

I am going to continue to regard this as a good news moment. I shall go on searching for sunshine if it kills me, whatever naughty Lord Mandelson of Foy and the Guardian headline writers have to say on the matter.

Here is a little symphony in green to celebrate:

26th Oct 2

26th Oct 4

26th Oct 9

26th Oct 5

26th Oct 8

26th Oct 6

26th Oct 11

26th Oct 10

Some people of course have far more important things than numbers to think of, like the eating of sticks:

 26th Oct 7

Or the contemplation of first principles:

26th Oct 12

Or just generally going about their business:

26th October 13


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