Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Notes on a detective story binge

Taking a short break from War And Peace, I took advantage of a Kindle Unlimited offer to fill my 
boots with Golden Age classics (and an Agatha Christie short story collection). 

Some thoughts below for the murderati. 

Beware spoilers - in (3), (4), (5), (6) and (10)!

(1) Tuesday 17th January
The 12.30 From Croydon
Freeman Wills Crofts
Very good inverted whodunit. Like other works in the sub-genre, it follows a man who is, at least initially, weak and foolish and desperate rather than wicked. There is something pitiful and very human in Charles Swinburn’s attachment to the obviously unworthy and unpleasant Una Mellor and his determination to hang on to his upper middle-class respectability, at any cost. That’s not to say that Crofts – who was a fairly stern moralist – ever suggests that the murders committed are justified, only that he paints a plausible picture of the kind of thought processes by which a murderer might justify his actions to himself. There is a tantalising ambiguity in whether we are meant to take seriously the purportedly selfless aspects of Swinburn’s rationalisation of the first murder, i.e. his worries that if he does not get the money to save the works from his uncle his workers’ lives will be ruined.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Books read 2016


(1) Friday 1st January
And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie
Apparently the best-selling novel of all time. I revisited it after watching the BBC adaptation, about which I had quite a few reservations, and I’m still in two minds. As a story it is creepy and gripping and entertaining, and based on a great and psychologically interesting premise, although I definitely differ with Christie about the levels of culpability ascribed to each of the unpunished killers. But where others see the book as perfectly plotted, like a well-oiled machine, I cannot help but wonder about the logistics of the murderer’s scheme.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Modus mortis

He died twice – they all did then
when far from home. First in Biscay
with a cruel sou’wester raging,
driving to the hateful shore
untamed by devout entreaty
from a thousand mouths; the sailor
at the straining masthead, no less
than worry-weary wives at home.

And yet he lived, and thrived a while,
an absent presence, butt of jokes
deferred to at a rustic bar
in England, far from rock-bound coasts.
Until a week old paper, creased
with age and use along the way
by hearty travellers’ heedless hands
brought the second shattering death.

A different kind of absence,
the terrible long forgetting.
One expression then another
lost to time. How did he smile?
Was it to left or right, that tilt
of puzzled head? So gradually
the laugh, the voice, the eyes, recede
consumed by dull relentless fire.

We will linger as they did not.
The time-disdaining lens has caught
a thousand moments, faces, ways
of moving. Speech itself preserved.
The sacraments of memory
surround, and comfort – overwhelm,
perhaps, the truth: what’s gone is gone.
A thousand echoes are not one voice.

Tua maxima culpa

Let us now confess his sins
meekly kneeling on his knees.
Let us call to mind his faults
before the One he cannot please.

Seek forgiveness, you have failed,
from my ways you err and stray.
Rend your coat and beat your breast,
for your soul O Lord we pray.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

It’s A Wonderful Film

Attaboy, Clarence
'Tis the season of Christmas iconoclasm. One of the staples of this festive contrarianism – alongside “Scrooge was just a smart businessman doing the best for his clients!” – is the negative take on that Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life.

For those who haven’t seen it, the film follows the life of George Bailey, a native of the small town of Bedford Falls. Bailey is clever and ambitious, and has big dreams of moving to New York, travelling widely and forging a career in architecture. But after his father’s sudden death, he reluctantly takes over the family business, a rackety building society called the Building & Loan, realising that if he does not do so it will be subsumed into the empire of the grasping slum lord Mr Potter. Later George sacrifices his honeymoon savings to keep the B&L solvent during a run on the banks. Later still he turns down a well-paid job with Potter that would have fulfilled his dreams of travel.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Five interesting arguments against my views

This has turned out to be a bit of a weird list, partly I think because I don't have a very strong opinion about quite a lot of big political issues, e.g. economics. Also I don't read enough non-fiction, and what I do read tends to be non-polemical, and in any case I tend to be preoccupied with cultural and social issues rather than strictly political ones.


Practical Ethics, Peter Singer

The moral status of the foetus/unborn child is the central philosophical question in the abortion debate, but it is rare to encounter serious discussion of the issue. Most pro-abortion argument is long on hand-waving about irrelevancies and short on engagement with this central problem – largely, I suspect, because pro-abortion folk know that the premises on which the pro-abortion argument depends lead down some difficult conceptual roads. Singer, by contrast, cuts to the quick. He has a coherent and plausible (though in my view false) idea of which categories of human being have the right to life – and which don’t – and is happy to embrace all the logical outworkings of that idea, most famously perhaps in his argument that since there do not seem to be good reasons to regard birth as a morally significant boundary, young children also lack the right to life. Singer gives the abortion-sceptic a genuine argument to engage with, and is an honest interlocutor.

See also: another book arguing for a liberal position on abortion (and euthanasia) which I think makes a solid and well-argued if ultimately unconvincing case, Ronald Dworkin’s Life’s Dominion.

Sunday, 25 September 2016


Racing the headlights to the top of the moor
now comes the annual unadmitted fear
of nothing to say; no true friendship
except the ties of old tragedies,
the creaking family jokes,
overlapping memories now long-overlaid.
Old tapestries in a new house
sentimentally retained.
There is no rule that brothers must be friends.

And yet each year the building of a bond,
not new perhaps, but over and above
reiteration of the old,
beyond mere sharing of a grief.
We seek and find our solaces alike
unearthing joys and consolation
together, on the same high hills
where the heavens touch, and seem
to half-unfold, in silent air,
theodicy. Not explanation –
not a form of words. But truth,
the kind that lets us all go on.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Club

It costs a lot to join our secret club
but join you will, I guarantee, one day.
Your card will likely not come through the post
but face to face; “I don’t know what to say”,
the bearer of your membership might start.
For me it was “there’s been an accident”
and then I knew. I read the face. A wave
of misery, unmoved by words well-meant.
The long estrangement from the normal world
begins, and never quite recedes it seems:
some people walk despite a missing leg
and yet the leg is gone, except in dreams.

The meetings might be good – I never go,
I wonder if I should. I manage, though
if that is what to call it.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Is Britain a nation of immigrants? Plus some thoughts on the "British Values" problem

At no time in the last 25 years has total immigration into the United Kingdom fallen below 250,000 per year. In only one year since 2002 has it been below 500,000 (and even then it was only just below - 498,000). Between the censuses of 1951 and 2011, so over much less than a lifetime, the proportion of the population born overseas increased more than threefold, from a little over 4% to 13.4%.

Many people are concerned by the sustained high level of settlement by people from outside the UK that has persisted, on and off, since the late 1940s. Others are not. Those who favour mass immigration often insist that Britain is a "nation of immigrants".

But is this actually true?

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Is it just ideology all the way down?

A while back, an astute Twitter friend raised a good question. I had criticised a successful campaign by some faculty and students at Cambridge to have Dr David Starkey removed from a publicity campaign for the university. They found some of Dr Starkey’s views about criminal justice and the 2011 riots uncongenial and so believed that the university should not be publicly associated with him, despite his longstanding links with the place – he won a scholarship to Fitzwilliam, took a PhD there, and remains a Fellow, albeit an honorary one who has not taught full-time at England's second-best university since the 1970s. I objected to this as an example of politicisation and characterised the attacks on Starkey as ideological: the friend countered that supporting Starkey and giving him prominence was equally ideological, that what looks like an absence of ideology is often nothing of the sort, and that conservatives tend to ignore the ideologies embedded in established or existing practices and norms.