Sunday, April 12, 2015

Signposts: 001

Pointing to some excellent writing -- mostly longer essays. 


Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison

Mark Binelli writes at length in the New York Times magazine about the "United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility", generally known as "the ADX", which is in Colorado.

The ADX was designed to be escape-proof, the Alcatraz of the Rockies, a place to incarcerate the worst, most unredeemable class of criminal — “a very small subset of the inmate population who show,” in the words of Norman Carlson, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, “absolutely no concern for human life.”

Binelli elaborates on the terrible toll that the facility has taken on the mental health of its occupants, particularly those -- like Jack Powers -- who were certainly not "irredeemable".

“If you looked at Jack’s criminal history, at the bizarre, unhappy confluence of circumstances that led him to the ADX and into this incredible descent into madness, it’s impossible to believe what happened to him has nothing to do with his conditions of confinement.”

Many of the details of what the ADX is -- what it has become -- are horrifying and sobering.


Follow the White Ball

You needn't be a fan of snooker to derive great pleasure from Sam Knight's long essay on the game and on the purity of Ronnie O'Sullivan's gifts with a cue.

In the professional game, frames tend to unfold with vivid, unsettling ease—the balls slide into the pockets as if there were nowhere else for them to go—or with staggering, metaphysical difficulty, as the players foil one another by arranging the balls in illogical patterns, a type of play known as “safety,” and everyone’s nerves go to hell.


Can the greatest darts player of all time step away from the game that made him?

In a similar vein to Sam Knight's piece, Ed Caesar writes about a man and a game: Phil Taylor and darts.

When you see Taylor in public, it is clear that his sense of self is intimately connected to darts. He is a genuine celebrity, unable to walk down a street without being asked for an autograph or a selfie. His professional success is only part of his appeal. In an era of Ferrari-crashing Premiership footballers, Taylor seems attuned to earlier, more modest generations of British sportsmen: Stanley Matthews, Gordon Banks, Steve Davis. He rarely drinks alcohol. He is polite. Although he has a terrible memory for names, he covers by calling people “bud” or “buddy”. (If he really should know the person’s name he calls them “Reggie”.) He hates to say no to autograph-hunters, and has developed a code with his driver to prise him from difficult crowd situations: if he asks for “oatcakes” then his driver will intervene.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blay Whitby

A hat-tip to the great Rory Sutherland for this very fine, fluent 30-minute talk by Blay Whitby -- "a philosopher and ethicist concerned with the social impact of new and emerging technologies" -- about the confluence of psychology, UX, cultural factors and technology, and how all of these things collectively play their part in the immense challenge of piloting commercial planes safely.

As Whitby states at the outset, the phrase "not quite right" is used in aviation. "Not quite right" is what leads to planes flying into mountains.

"If you're working in a discipline where 'not quite right' is acceptable, then you're very lucky; because aviation is a discipline where 'not quite right' is not considered acceptable."

We also learn about CFIT: controlled flight into terrain which "describes an accident in which an airworthy aircraft, under pilot control, is unintentionally flown into the ground, a mountain, water, or an obstacle." 

Whitby's exploration of the influence of cultural factors in serious incidents (and "compliant co-pilot accidents") is especially fascinating. While Malcolm Gladwell wrongly claims in his book Outliers that these factors are solely responsible for serious incidents, their influence is nonetheless arresting. National cultures possess a power difference index or power distance index (PDI)...

"Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally." Individuals in a society that exhibits a high degree of power distance accept hierarchies in which everyone has a place without the need for justification. Societies with low power distance seek to have equal distribution of power."

As Whitby states, the countries with the lowest PDI -- Australia and New Zealand -- also fly the safest ... "It's deep in their culture, not to have a power difference index."


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Esmé Patterson

Good stuff here from Esmé Patterson...


Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Runners

The Runners, a wonderful short film by Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley, is based on a compelling premise: people are more open about their lives while they are running.

"These questions (Are you in love? Who do you care about most? What do you want to do with your life?) are hard to ask and are not often answered sincerely. Through their steps, their breaths and their focus, runners can answer them."

They also discuss the film, the runners and their discoveries in an article on the Guardian, here.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Adam Boyd

I took this picture of Adam Boyd's shop in late 1991, and developed it in the dark room at Crieff High School. 

I wonder how few daily newspapers are still sold here, in late 2013, compared to 22 years ago?  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ian Jack -- Seawards the Great Ships

A useful purpose for this blog -- now seven years old, and only just hanging on to life by its fingernails -- would be to act as a repository for Ian Jack's weekly Guardian column.

Empress Of Britain
The Canadian Pacific liner Empress of Britain at John Brown's shipyard in the Clyde after her launch in 1930. Photograph: J Gaiger/Getty Images

Jack's column this week -- about Britain's failure to provide ferries and oil rig support vessels for itself -- was, even by the man's high standards, unusually absorbing and informative...

"...consider a few facts. Germany's coastline measures 2,389km along the North Sea and the Baltic. Poland's is just 500km, or double that if you add two lagoons. The coast of mainland Scotland, on the other hand, runs to 9,911km, or 16,490km if the islands are included.

As well as this complex and ship-dependent geography stretching from Arran in the south to the furthest Shetland in the north, there are hundreds of oil platforms in the North Sea to serve and supply from ports such as Aberdeen. These were surely ideal conditions to sustain at least a kernel of what was once the world's most celebrated shipbuilding industry. General cargo ships and Atlantic liners no longer exist; bulk carriers and tankers are the monopoly of China, Japan and Korea; cruise ships have become the specialism of Finland, Italy and Germany; black-funneled freighters no longer sail into Glasgow and Tilbury with imperial tea.

But Britain still needs the humble stuff of ferries, coasters, tugs and oil-rig support vessels. Over the past 20 years we have built very few of them, and in some categories none. Warships have become the last ships that Britain really does. For a country that easily within living memory owned the world's largest merchant fleet, this looks like a savage form of self-harm."

He also linked to a fascinating Oscar-winning documentary, made in 1961 and called Seawards the Great Ships, about the industry on the Clyde.

The notably melodramatic opening is of its time, certainly, but after about 7 minutes it settles into a perfectly shot, scripted and directed lesson. There is some fine writing:

"...measuring, marking, centre-punching -- you might call this a kind of superhuman tailoring." 

"...flanging machines exert forces on a plate which are at once brutal and loving .. and uncompromising." 

Also look out for the wonderful continuous shot (just after 16m30s) which tracks up the scaffold at the side of the ship, up over its edge then on still further, high up above the deck (the cinematographer's shadow is visible at the beginning of the shot, cast onto the side of the ship). 

Jack's piece ends elegiacally...

And so the only two decent-sized shipyards left in Britain build warships. How cheering it would be if other enterprises learned, or re-learned, to build peaceful craft that could rebalance the economy. Pollyannaish, I said this a year or two ago to a marine engineer from Port Glasgow. "But where would you find the men?" he replied. "You would need to look in the cemetery." which one may respond: well, where did the men come from the first time round?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Apple Inc. as religion

Wonderful stuff, by Edward Mendelson in the New York Review of Books.

(Let the record show that this was posted on my £200 Samsung Chromebook.)

" everyone knows, the world-religion of the educated and prosperous in the twenty-first century is Apple, with its Vatican in Cupertino and its cathedrals in the light-filled Apple Stores that draw pilgrims gripping iPhones and iPads like rosaries. Apple’s flock is secured against heresy by censors who rule the online App Store; only applications with Apple’s imprimatur are allowed on an iPhone. Programmers risk excommunication—with all their works condemned to being listed in an Index of Prohibited Software—if they violate canon law by bypassing Apple’s banking system or ignoring its infallible doctrine. Rebellious heretics can “jailbreak” an iPhone and induce it to accept software anathematized by Apple, but a heretic’s phone is refused communion when presented for repair at the Apple Store."

Monday, June 10, 2013

Paul Curreri, Greenville

Greenville is a beautiful little tune, which shows to good effect Paul Curreri's nimble, flowing fingerstyle guitar playing .. and this is a fine little live version of it, well shot in south London too...

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

What a fine way to pass a Tuesday evening, after being very kindly invited by Ian and Simon -- with Ben and Aska -- to visit The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Farringdon.

What you're here to do is make merry while drinking whisky from single cask bottlings...

Single malt whisky can vary significantly from cask to cask (even casks from the same distillery that have lain side by side for the same number of years). It is this variation that the Society celebrates, as the casks selected by the Society's Tasting Panel often do not conform to usual regional whisky identities.

I can second this claim -- the single cask drams we drank last night had an immense amount of character and intensity: powerfully assertive on the nose, and with a vivid liveliness in the gob. You'll be needing that wee jug of water, too -- some of these specimens come in north of 55%, or even 60%, alcohol.

A nice touch is the entertaining, impressionistic yet detailed tasting notes accompanying the whiskies, which appear to have been written by a dandyish synaesthete -- one recent bottling is named Pea and ham soup in a steam train.

See if you can get a member to take you on a visit; and then, who knows? Perhaps you could join, and this view could become a regular one...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ian Nairn

"And finally I suppose that, all the time, now, 1972, for as long as we've got left, we must just go on building cathedrals." Ian Nairn

I first heard of Ian Nairn (1930-1983), the writer on architecture and topography, in this fine piece written by Jonathan Glancey in The Guardian in 2010. He made his name in the 1950s with his book Outrage, in which he coined the term subtopia...

"The Outrage is that the whole land surface is becoming covered by the creeping mildew that already circumscribes all of our towns ... Subtopia is the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern."

Then, a few days ago, via Owen Hatherley on Twitter, I came across Nairn's BBC film about his journey on the Orient Express in the very early 1970s. You can watch Part 1 here.

This film was the first time I had seen Nairn: and here he was, time-travelling to my laptop screen in 2013 from a washed-out telly in 1972 -- I admit to being instantly fascinated by him.

Why? For the same reasons that he has fascinated so many others: the depth and originality of his insights and opinions, and the silken elegance of his language.

One also has the palpable sense that here is a man who wouldn't stand the remotest chance of appearing on post-millennial British television -- and that's to pay him a strong praise, rather than to bemoan his lack of telegenic slickness. He expressed a sincere depth of feeling in his pieces to camera which would be hard to imagine these days.

His voice, Jonathan Meades says, was...

"...full of quiet despair. The repetitively falling cadence suggests an acute awareness of human impermanence and death's proximity. It knows, however, that even though everything's going to the dogs Canute's example must be followed."

Glancey put it well...

"On film, you catch something of his abiding melancholy, along with his habitual scruffiness and a haunting sense that here was a man as much in search of himself as he was of the inspired new architecture that eluded him. And in search, too, of a romantic, everyday Britain that, from Millwall to Manchester, was vanishing under a tide of crude public and private development. Those falling cadences, the way his sentences drop quietly into ideas left hanging, things unsaid, are as haunting as they are disturbing. There was an ineffable sadness at work. Nairn truly detested the way we were selling (as we continue to) our landscape, our townscapes, for a mess of nothing worth looking at, much less living in or handing down to our children."

I solemnly insist that your duty is to watch the 30-minute film covering his journey from Leeds to Edinburgh, via Carlisle.

He was a fascinating man.

I must now set about trying to get my hands on his writing...

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Frederick Douglass

Sam Leith, in his fine little book, You Talkin' To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, describes the breathtaking oratory of one Frederick Douglass, an autodidact escapee from American slavery.

Douglass is best known for the speech he gave (on 5 July 1852) in Rochester, New York, commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence; and what a speech it was...
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy -- a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Michael Marra

Mum texted me yesterday with the news of Michael Marra's death. I was sad. When I lived in Glasgow I saw him perform a good few times: at the Royal Concert Hall, the Tron Theatre and the wonderful Cottiers Theatre. I think the Tron gig might even have been a full Semple family trip.

His songs are stories: rich, eccentric and funny stories. And, in a live setting, every song was prefaced with a languid introduction which used that brilliant 50-a-day voice, as well as much Scots dialect. Music inspired by Americana combined with Dundonian lingo was always going to be a compelling mix for me.

He was a brilliant writer and I'm sad I won't get to see him play again.

Try If I was an Englishman and If Dundee was Africa if you're unfamiliar with his work.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


A hat-tip to my Dad -- of appropriate and deferential seriousness -- is in order I think.

He did many remarkable things in 2009 – besides celebrating his 60th birthday – including running the Glasgow 10k in a shade over 45 minutes, and donating his 100th pint of blood to the Scottish National Blood Tranfusion Service.

My Dad took 38 years to reach this wonderful milestone. During the first 20-odd years or so of his blood-donating career he was more committed than the average punter, although his pattern of giving wasn’t monitored and scheduled especially assiduously.

This, however, was to change. The years passed. The donations mounted up. In time, he reached the 75-pint mark, and realised that the once-distant century was attainable. Then he really became committed to the cause.

There was no more waiting, willing but unable to donate, for the mobile service to roll into town. He began maximising the amount of blood he donated every year by regularly timing his visits, every 16 weeks, to the permanent blood centre in Glasgow. I suspect he had also noticed that the metropolitan airs of the Glasgow facility entailed a higher class of chocolate biscuit than that on offer from the roving team in Perthshire.

When British people donate their 50th or 75th pint of blood the selflessness of the years-long gesture is recognised with a restrained, modest token. After parting company with his 100th pint, Dad was invited to a ceremony with a handful of others who had reached the century, and several dozen more who had reached the half century and three-quarter century stages.

The event sounds like it was perfectly judged: informal in the sense that there was no standing on any sort of sartorial ceremony, yet appropriately serious in driving home the deep appreciation felt by the recipients for the altruism of what a donor does.

A short film was shown which movingly demonstrated the connection between the donors and those reliant on transfusions for their survival. Dad is in rarefied company indeed – Scotland’s population of 5m includes fewer than 175,000 registered donors. The simple truth for the transfusion services is that not enough people ever give blood at all.

Below is a photograph of the quaich given to Dad, engraved with his name and the magic number, which we christened at the weekend with a drop of the gold stuff.

Dad has in fact now donated 102 pints and continues to give up his blood just as diligently as ever.

The transfusion service offers no higher award or recognition beyond 100 pints – when you reach the century I suppose you have unarguably proved your wonderful point.

- - -

* A "pint" (568ml) of blood actually contains 470ml. 

If you were to decide tomorrow, as a virgin donor, that you would like to emulate Dad, the shortest time it could take you is 1,600 weeks - or just under 31 years.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The wall of plenty

Here's a reliable phenomenon which always brings a smile to my face: London pavement freecycling. Got some random, broken old clobber you want rid of? Well, if you live hereabouts, just stick it outside your front door and it will be a matter of 1-2 hours before it vanishes.

It worked, and rapidly too, for a late-1990s computer monitor on the Uxbridge Road in Shepherd's Bush in 2008. And, here in Herne Hill, it works with a speed and consistency which is amusing.

Last night I stuck five wonky old bike wheels out (a couple of backs and three fronts), alongside two rather disreputable, non-matching folding garden chairs -- all of it went within the hour. There's still 6-ft of standard black downpipe out there -- but it'll go soon enough too. Other objects previously placed out on the wall of plenty include a tired looking -- but quite large -- Ikea bookcase, a plasticky CD rack, a brown tie, a martini glass, a long-defunct dishwasher, a pair of paint-spattered shorts and various DVDs of films which came free with The Observer or The Guardian ... a litany of largely useless crap. But still they come for it -- whoever they are...

Friday, August 10, 2012


The majority of the trains which pass the back of my house (in Herne Hill) for 18 hours or so every day -- variously on their way to places like Orpington and Ramsgate in deepest Kent, or Blackfriars, St Pancras and Victoria -- are those post-millennial commuter jobs: plasticky, unglamorous and stolid. If they were a meal they would be a limp, prepackaged cheese sandwich (like the ones available on board these days). These are trains with no allure, unconnected to those still-appealing notions of cliched romance -- see Sean Connery here, in From Russia with Love -- which most of us are too young to have experienced.

Still. Other trains do roll by: there's the what-the-fuck incongruity of the Orient Express, on Saturdays and Sundays I think; and there are the daily, or twice daily, freight trains, apt to rattle the crockery as they pass, heavily, unhurriedly.

I wouldn't hop a freight in Herne Hill but, like Geoff Dyer, it's something I wish I had done, or could have done way out west in the USA, not on a railway, but on a railroad. This passage by Dyer is from Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It (which you should definitely read) and I love it, and its evocative sense of longing, very much...
"As I sat by the Mississippi one afternoon, a freight rumbled past on the railroad track behind me, moving very slowly. I’d always wanted to hop a freight, and I sprang up, trying to muster up the courage to leap aboard. The length of the train and its slow speed meant that I had a long time — too long — to contemplate hauling myself aboard, but I was frightened of getting into trouble or injuring myself, and I stood there for five minutes, watching the boxcars clank past, until finally there were no more carriages and the train had passed. Watching it curve out of sight, I was filled with magnolia-tinted regret, the kind of feeling you get when you see a woman in the street, when your eyes meet for a moment but you make no effort to speak to her and then she is gone and you spend the rest of the day thinking that, had you spoken, she would have been pleased, not offended, and you would, perhaps, have fallen in love with each other. You wonder what her name might have been. Angela perhaps. Instead of hopping the freight, I went back to my apartment on Esplanade and had the character in the novel I was working on do so."