City Living

(Extended essay alert)

I wasn’t expecting it. I wasn’t looking for it. But a couple of weeks ago I walked into the National Portrait Gallery on a whim, and came face-to-face with Grayson Perry.

Here, laid out for my inspection upon four etching-plates, was the citadel of his life and character–Vauban-impregnable, pregnant with the paradox and the passion of his personality. Entrenched fortifications are there for his most trenchant opinions; buildings from the once-stately to the now-ramshackle; public monuments and boulevards; hiding-places for “the parts of me I cannot easily face up to”.

Grayson Perry, Map of Days, 2012–2013. Courtesy the Artist and Paragon Press, London. © Grayson Perry. Linked from

I have an almost obsessive fascination with the idea of The City–a vast organism, post-human in scale, yet which exists solely, as Richard Rogers once observed, as a place for people to meet. The City belongs to all of us, collectively and personally, and to none of us. It means something unique to everyone, as a place of commerce and government and industry and culture, of life and obscurity and fear and love, of conviviality and of alienation–yet like a great work of art which has weathered countless contradictory interpretations, it still stands big and vibrant enough to hold all those meanings and more.

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Carnal Delights

CarnalCarnal to the Point of Scandal by Kevin Jackson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kevin Jackson had me at “Hello”.

(It’s tempting to say that he had me at “Perge, scelus, mihi diem perficias” (p. 129) – of which more anon – but it’s not strictly true. He got me roughly 128 pages sooner.)

Carnal is a collection of essays spanning the last twenty-odd years, essays on film and photography and writing and more besides. Individually, they are sparkling vignettes of people and the worlds they create. Assembled, they are a powerful, penetrating commentary on the social and cultural forces that have shaped the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

It may save you time if you just accept that Dr Jackson knows everything. It is probably true, though unprovable, since the scientific instrument has not yet been invented that can accurately measure the scope of his knowledge. (In the words of the Preface: “I have heard it plausibly suggested that were the last 1,000 years of Western literary culture, and all of its cinematographic culture, to disappear from the earth, one of the things you’d need to be able to recreate it would be the contents of his brain.”)

It can go one of two ways, that kind of omniscience. It can lead either to insufferable one-upmanship or, as in Jackson’s case, to an unparalleled generosity. He is neither brash nor self-effacing about his omniscience; he has too much to share with us, and is having far too much fun sharing it. He moves fluidly, effortlessly, from the Simpsons to the occult, from graffiti to vampires to money, from George Melly to Georges Méliès. He is a true polymath among polymaths; he describes one of his subjects as “only interested in everything”; it is an epithet which applies equally well to Jackson himself.

He has a knack for treating every subject, however populist or arcane, with equal respect and without fear, witness, for example, his essay “The pataphysical Flook” or his treatment of Maya Deren’s research into voodoo. Moreover, however mainstream or obscure his subject matter, he has a gift for explaining both it and its cultural context to a reader who, whilst moderately well-educated and well-informed, may have little or no previous frame of reference for some of the material under advisement.

Items on my newly- and vastly-expanded bucket list include… well, I think to do them justice I would need to be kidnapped and held hostage in an undisclosed location, with unlimited access to his collection of books and films. Films too numerous to mention, from Kind Hearts and Coronets (which I last saw when I was a skinny youth) to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (which I last saw… er, to my shame, never). Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan; William Hayward’s It Never Gets Dark All Night. Gilbert Adair’s Buenas Noches, Buenos Aires (not least for the tantalising statement that it is “the only novel I can think of in which the emotional power of the last line – which is considerable – turns on a question of typography”). Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Donald Davie and Charles Cuddon. The entire literary and musical output of Anthony Burgess… Enough to keep me going for a lifetime or two. And, of course, Jackson’s own films, starting with Exquisite Corpse (yes, I promise to read the book too).

Three particularly delicious morsels stand out amongst this smorgasbord. There is the inspired parody of Prufrock – The Lahv Song of J. Arfur Rank – which concludes his essay on Eliot. There is the opening of “Cocktails with Genesis”, describing his encounter with Genesis P-Orridge. Both led to helpless laughter in public places, and the latter resulted in extensive coffee-damage to my shirtfront. You have been warned. No spoilers for either: buy the book and see for yourself.

And then there is the revelation that Sir Christopher Frayling (another polymath, of course, lately Rector of the Royal College of Art and Chairman of the Arts Council) had, upon being knighted, selected as his motto “Perge, scelus, mihi diem perficias”, translated by the College of Heralds as “Proceed, varlet, and may the day be perfected for my benefit”, and by Clint Eastwood as “Go ahead, punk, make my day”. I have had huge respect for Sir Christopher since hearing an RSA lecture he gave ten years ago (which contributed largely to the provocation of my own thought), and I would go more than a few miles out of my way to hear him again; but this little nugget makes me see him in an entirely different light, and really did perfect the day for my benefit.

It’s important stuff, this, for two reasons. Firstly, because Jackson’s vocabulary – like Russell Baker’s – is the language of wit, not of hate. He can and does deploy his huge critical talent without needing to belittle, snipe or trivialise. Secondly, because his commentary on the cultural oxygen we all breathe – whether or not we are aware of it – is an essential counterbalance to the omnipresent online narratives of social entrepreneurs and political commentators – always passionate, sometimes coherent – who would otherwise have us believe that the entirety of human experience can be defined in socio-political terms. (Pergite, sceli…)

Which brings me back to Christopher Frayling, who first introduced me (in that RSA lecture in 2005) to Ruskin’s statement: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. … [O]f the three the only trustworthy one is the last…”

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kevin Jackson’s Carnal, the book of our art. It is a wholly trustworthy book.

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In Loving Memory…

My daughter’s deeply moving tribute to her mother.

M.M. Bennetts

On 25th August 2014, MM Bennetts passed away at her home in Hampshire, England. We can tell you all that it was painless and she was very peaceful.


Although she had been fighting her illness for some time, MM Bennetts was determined not to be known or remembered as the victim of a disease. She wanted people to know her as a writer, historian, keen horse-rider, great friend, mother and general smarty-pants.

002Many people have asked or wondered if MM was every inch the person that she seemed to be on this blog. The simple answer is yes. She was exactly as witty and knowledgeable in person as she was in writing, and talking to her was delightful. She had a quirky sense of humour that appreciated both sophisticated word-play and plastic slug pranks. And what she wrote was based on experience or extensive research.

When it came to…

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Going round in circles

I woke up yesterday morning with this Schumann song in my head:

I’d known Hugo Wolf’s setting of Mörike’s text since my teens, but had only discovered Schumann’s during a compare-and-contrast exercise in my final year at Oxford. (Thank you, John Warrack – your seminar was the undisputed highlight of my time there.) I’d been reminded of it at a discussion at Lake District Summer Music earlier this month, where the panellists were considering how different settings can bring out different facets of a poem – even facets that aren’t obvious in the words themselves. And then yesterday morning… well, there it was.

For me, the power of Schumann’s setting is the way the music accentuates the trapped, hopeless situaton the singer finds herself in. Listen to the rising and falling motif of the third and fourth lines (0:30-0:47) which reappears throughout the song. Listen too to the way the vocal line begins in the upper register, but is quickly and repeatedly dragged down to a lower register by that motif, despite a brave attempt to escape into the upper reaches with the flying sparks of the fire.

This song doesn’t offer its singer anything in the way of hope or escape, but it does offer her one thing: companionship. Sometimes that’s all we can cope with – not encouragement, not a well-meaning comment that things will get better, and God knows not a pep talk or a Bible verse – but just quiet, patient companionship. (Curiously enough I was listening to a podcast just last week which said exactly the same thing.) Continue reading

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The perils of the written word

Having (as you may have noticed) indulged in a surfeit of bloggery during the last couple of weeks, I’ve realised there is a problem with the written word. Two, actually.

It’s a well-known fact that when someone is talking to us, only a small proportion of what we “hear” comes from the words that are used. I’ve found it hard to pinpoint reliable numbers, but I have heard figures like this: 50% of what we take in is from body language, 43% from the tone of voice, and only 7% from the words that are used.

Rather revealing, really. It means that even if I pick up the phone to someone rather than emailing them, they are still only going to get half the message I might convey if we were speaking in person.

(If anyone can point me towards some reliable data about this, by the way, I’d be very interested to see it.)

I realised last weekend – talking to a friend in the pub, as it happens, face to face – that even these percentages only tell part of the story. When we’re doing the talking, particularly if we have something important to say, we are consciously or unconsciously watching the other person, gauging their reaction, checking to see if we have lost their interest, modifying our language and tone and body language to get the message across.

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Living from the heart


Every once in a while I read a book that seems in some way to be describing me, and seems somehow to understand me better than I do myself. The latest is The Shack by William P. Young.

The Shack describes perhaps the worst experience a father can go through – the loss of a daughter to a kidnapper and murderer. The enormity of that experience is something most of us will never have to face, and it would be an insult to pretend that I could understand the shock waves of grief, despair and self-recrimination that ricocheted through the lives of the protagonist and his family after the tragedy.

But there is something about the way Mr Young tells the story, a warmth and an inclusiveness, a generosity, that somehow makes it about all of us – at least, if we want it to be.

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A voice that needs to be heard

QuietQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This may be one of the most important books of the last one hundred years. It is certain to be one of the most underrated.

I pick the timescale advisedly. Susan Cain starts the first chapter of Quiet in 1902 with the story of Dale Carnegie, whom she views as marking the beginning of America’s “culture of personality” – a fixation with an “extrovert ideal” which has come to dominate everything from the preschool classroom to the Wall Street boardroom. And not just in the USA, but increasingly in the rest of the Western world.

There’s a problem with that, she says. I would agree.

The problem is that one-third to one-half of the population, if they were subjected to a Myers-Briggs test, would identify themselves as introverts. And introvert has, particularly in America, become a dirty word.

Cain takes pains to point out that introversion and extrovertion are not value judgments; they define where we get and where we spend our energy. Extroverts draw energy from social situations and find themselves drained by solitude. The introvert draws energy from solitude and is drained by the crowd. Most of us will recognise one or other of these about ourselves.

It is not only that the culture of personality and participation leaves many introverts feeling left out, though it does. Cain records case study after case study where the most influential voice in the room is the loudest, rather than the one with the most valuable things to say. She is alarmed by teaching styles which reward participation over achievement, everywhere from first grade to Harvard Business School. (I might have said something about these teaching styles myself a while ago…)

More disturbing, though, is the marginalisation of the the particular qualities that introverts offer. Continue reading

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Falling Upward

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of LifeFalling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any book that quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot in its first few pages is going to speak to me quite personally. I knew from the outset this would be a book to be taken seriously and considered thoughtfully. I guessed it might be hard work. I was not wrong.

Falling Upward is a book for those who are on a journey. Richard Rohr illustrates his thesis with the journey of Odysseus, but the journey he describes and seeks to explain is a spiritual and emotional one – and moreover a journey that, according to him, not everyone will be ready, willing or equipped to make.

Rohr’s central point is that we live a life of two halves, each with its own task: “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold”. The world’s focus, he says, is fixated on the first task: establishing one’s identity, creating boundaries, seeking security and status, building community. That is all our society and culture seems aware of or demands of us. But it is only half the story.

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Taking responsibility for our words

Someonimagee in the NHS ought to be feeling very embarrassed this week. As The Independent reported on Thursday, there has been a major public outcry over this poster, which dates from 2005-07 but has recently been seen on NHS premises and elsewhere.

I know, I know. It was a perfectly sincere attempt by the NHS and the Home Office to encourage people to drink responsibly.

It was also completely irresponsible.

As The Independent and others (including a former Solicitor-General) have pointed out, it implies strongly that rape sometimes happens because the victim is drunk. It doesn’t. Rape may sometimes happen when a victim is drunk, but rape only happens because of one thing. Rapists.

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A larger identity

Every now and then my inbox feeds me something unexpected that changes the way I see things. This week it was Matthew Taylor’s RSA Chief Executive’s lecture, The Power to Create:

It came at the right time. Having been made redundant a couple of months ago, I have been thinking a good deal about what I should be doing with my life. It’s not a quick or straightforward process, but neither should it be. It has certainly not come up with a slick answer, but it has been a surprising gift of an opportunity, and has started what I hope will be a long and fruitful train of thought.

The problem is this. In the meantime I am expected to apply for jobs. I have edited and dissected and refined and polished my CV; I have submitted applications by the megabyte. In the process, I am starting to learn some awkward things about what makes employers tick.

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