Hwæt

After the over-whelming success of a post titled in Russian – I have never experienced silence like it – I have taken a different path through the complex manifold of spacetime in my hunt for today’s moniker.  I’ve stuck with the lingua franca of my current location, but have travelled back through time (you may wish to imagine a harp-based glissando at this point) to the heyday of the kingdom of Wessex and called upon the ghost of Anglo-Saxon or Old English.  Out of the goodness of my heart (I store all my virtues in a pump of some description – my humility is held in an old ballet shoe), I have spared you the Runic version (but this will only prove a brief respite for the regular reader).

We have a curious relationship with the Anglo-Saxon, using it to name an economic system which would be anathema to a housecarl or thegn.  It is not even used by those descendants of the Angles or Saxons who chose to stay at home, but only by those who left and were later subject to the Danelaw and Norman conquest (secondhand Vikings in all but name).  I really feel that economists could have put more effort into finding a better adjective – it is not as though they have covered themselves in glory with the meat of their subject, so a little time off considering their nomenclature might have benefitted us all.

But why is the old duffer using Anglo-Saxon in the first place and what the Sam Hill does the title mean?  Parsing backwards through that last sentence, the title can have a number of meanings, the Anglo-Saxons liked to sweat their lexical assets, but I’m using it in the sense of “listen” or “hark”.

Today is Bloomsday, but I find myself at some distance from Dublin’s fair city (where the girls are – allegedly – so pretty and, according to the WHO, more than 80% of them will be obese by 2030) though I may yet sample a pint of the black stuff in its honour.  I have never read Ulysses (always more of a fan of Odysseus as a boy, in fact Greek myth over the Roman derivative every time) but still know that the book’s characters have recourse to language described as Anglo-Saxon on a regular basis.  However, this is not the reason for the title – but did tilt the balance of my mind to thoughts about writing (and the good stuff, not just this nonsense).

One of the two books acquired on Sunday was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf – a work I have been meaning to acquire for many, many years (though less than fifteen it would seem).  Whilst I shouldn’t really be starting it yet, I couldn’t resist a quick peek at the opening stanzas – and I don’t think it is going to disappoint (despite the years of anticipation – all my own fault).  Even better, for the first page (and only that page) the translation is accompanied by the original in Anglo-Saxon.  The first word of the epic is hwæt – and hence we have our title.  I have never studied Anglo-Saxon, but can recognise a thorn (from my time in Iceland) and an eth (did she ever marry Ron?) when I see them and, with a little creative fudging via German, I can have a go at reading a few stanzas in an approximation to the original language.  Even in this hopelessly amateurish form and with my voice (which others may appreciate, but is hopelessly commonplace to me), it sounds incredible – you can immediately understand why it might have survived for so long.  I find myself prey to a strange urge to learn Anglo-Saxon – so many enthusiasms, so little time!

Words were very much the currency last night at 451 – the regularly poetry night at the Nuffield.  As well as a swathe of open-mikers we had headline sets from Jemima Foxtrot and Stephen Morrison-Burke (that rarest of creatures: the boxer-poet).  Coupled with my recent listening to The Verb‘s close reading of the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock this has reminded me of how incredibly varied and powerful poetry can be.  It has also suggested that I may have misjudged T S Eliot by basing my opinion solely on the musical Cats – perhaps not entirely typical of his full body of work?

Finally, this morning between breakfast and serious foundational training for my life as a gymnast, I found myself with a few minutes in hand.  So, I read the next short story from All the Rage – in the mere nine pages of These Small Pieces, A L Kennedy reduced me to tears.  It might be thought that tears before 10am are not a good thing, but the universe is having those few minutes back over my dead body (and I fully intend to rise from my grave and continue the fight, if necessary).

Given the number of written (or spoken) works deserving my attention far exceeds my ability to consume them (unless the singularity arrives a lot earlier than I’m expecting), I sometimes wonder why I do anything else.  I think the answer must lie in the need to reflect on, and recover from, writing of quality and power.  My poor brain cannot accept such rich input too often without suffering even greater degeneration than is already evident.  Plus, I’m both too tall and physically graceless to swoon with any style (and, more importantly, injury-free).  Once again, it seems the therapeutic effect of GofaDM (on me, if no-one else) is laid bare.

Election fever

With a bare 10 days to go until the General Election here in the UK, politicians are becoming increasingly febrile – while the populace are engulfed in a thick fog of ennui.  I am finding it rather hard to get excited about the vote, though I’m finding feelings of horror and depression much easier to generate.  It seems that no news bulletin can pass without a political bigwig taking a further swing with a sledgehammer at the very fragile foundations of my respect for their party and the political process – perhaps this is a deliberate process to get the masses to disenfranchise themselves?

Over the last couple of days, those hot-beds of revolutionary fervour – the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph – have done sterling work to identify those people who will be first up against the wall come the glorious revolution.  Share and enjoy!  But otherwise, the more reactionary elements of the press (i.e. most of it) seem determined (like Chicken Licken) to convince us that the sky will fall-in should the next government by formed by the Labour party with assistance from the SNP – and this collapse of the heavens will find the poor English suffering a forced diet of haggis and Irn-Bru while wearing a kilt.  Of course, a coalition government dominated by its junior partner is a real risk in this country, as the last five years of rule by the Liberal Democrats with barely a whimper heard from the poor Tories has ably demonstrated.  Given the probable experience of the LibDems, if I was in control of the SNP (unlikely I’ll admit) I’d be very reluctant to be the junior partner in a coalition – it does seem to be electoral suicide (though Nick Clegg may yet surprise us – and himself).  And what about the poor Unionists in Northern Ireland – where are the scare stories about them being the junior partner in a Coalition?  I, for one, am not keen on the forced daily marches past my flat (which has the misfortune to lie near a Catholic church) and I really don’t look good in orange, though who does?  Still, I suppose it would be good for the mural industry.

Curiously given the very consistent predictions made by those paid to forecast such things, both major parties seem to be in denial about having to work with a hung parliament (sadly, this involves neither rope nor gibbet – though this might be a way to increase voter turnout!).  Given that a majority government seems rather less likely than Glen Miller winning the National Lottery and investing his winnings in a unicorn farm, it does make me wonder just how well considered the promises about the future contained in their manifestos might be – wishful thinking is all very well, but I’m not sure it’s any way to run a country.

However, despite my disillusionment (which does rather suggest that I once had illusions) I do feel that it is my civic duty to vote – people did die etc, though I’m not sure when laying down their lives the conduct of this current election was quite what they had in mind (though lacking access to a necromancer, I shall never know).  Oddly, when seeking advice as to how to exercise my very limited power, it all seems to assume that I will vote entirely to improve my financial position.  Now, as this blog makes clear, I am at least as self-centred as the next man (unless he happens to be Kanye West) but I feel it would be terribly inappropriate (downright rude in fact) to assume that a vague hope of my slight enrichment is the biggest issue facing this country at the moment.  I feel that my vote should be used to improve the lot of the population at large, to the extent that is feasible.  As a result, I fear I will be seen as a dangerous aberration by many economists (and a source of horror to the late Ayn Rand).

By chance, I have been reading The Price of Inequality by George Stiglitz in the run-up to the election and he has something to say of some relevance to this process.  Initially, I found this work rather irritating as he kept repeating the blindingly obvious but after a while I found whilst he was still saying the obvious, it was stuff I’d never previously realised or thought about.  Whilst I am not necessarily convinced by all his conclusions – he is a much better economist than me and so may well be able to cover my eyes with wool – he has made me doubt (and largely abandon) some previously quite firmly held beliefs.  As I hurtle towards the grave, I have come to realise that conventional wisdom is much stronger on the “conventional” than it is on the “wisdom”.

The book is mostly based around the US-experience – though he does take time out to lambast the ECB and the Euro – but many of the conclusions seem to apply very directly to dear old Blighty.  In particular, in a world in which political parties gain the vast majority of their funding from a few very rich individuals and major corporations it is perhaps no surprise that their priorities do not align with those of the typical voter.  With most of the media also controlled by much the same interests (though The Guardian is, I believe, controlled (or at least bank-rolled) by Autotrader – and so in the hands of the second-hand car business and sheepskin coat) we can begin to see why the public may be disengaged from politics and grabbing at the lifebelt which the fringe parties seem to offer.  It also struck me that whilst we – the great unwashed – get to influence the political process once every five years and have to pick a whole raft of (probably fictional) policies, if you have enough money to pay for a lobbyist you can influence politics every day of the week and on very specific policies.  Money may not buy you happiness, but I suspect it does buy you quite a lot of influence over the world of Westminster, if you chose to use it in that way.

However, I think it may well be the sterling work of Tim Harford and Ruth Alexander on More-or-Less which may have the greatest impact on my voting choice in 7 May.  For now, I remain a floating voter – or perhaps a sinking one.

Hand waving

The regular reader will have quickly realised that this post will be about economics – a discipline usually considered by mathematicians to be little better than hand waving (but given the state of the economy and the attempts at improvement this may be better equated with drowning).

I revealed that the somewhat maligned play, If you don’t let us dream etc, had made me think and this post is the fruit of that thinking made flesh. I should point out that I have not yet read the book on economics I purchased and the delay in producing this post does not indicate mature reflection – just a backlog (backblog?) of posts to send out into the aether.

The play made reference to Sovereign debt, in particular that of Ecuador (which probably doesn’t count as it as achieved at altitude), and who should be responsible for it. This made me think of the case of the oppressive, kleptocratic regimes which are all too common in the world today. When a people finally manage to dispose of such a poisonous form of governance – whether by revolution or a combination of patience and the ageing process – they are often left with huge debts run up by their former oppressors. It does seem, to me at least, somewhat iniquitous to expect them to spend the following decades (or longer) repaying those who helped to fund the rape and oppression of their country and its people. Rather, I might expect them to be entitled to significant compensation from these same financiers who had assisted their erstwhile rulers in their murderous rapine. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case in international law – if it were, I should imagine there would be some truly massive shifts in funds between the developed and developing world and quite possibly new impetus to responsible lending and good governance the world over. Somehow I can’t see vested interests letting this happen, but I would love to see at least one country sue those who funded their oppressors for damages (and win, obviously).

Following this thought, I went on to ponder states rather closer to home and that are nominally democratic and so govern for the benefit of a slightly larger share of their citizens. Even in such states, I do have to wonder what benefit some of the spending in our name gives to the citizenry at large – how exactly do we benefit from Trident or its replacement (for example)? It enables our political masters to feel important on the world stage but does seem an awfully expensive way to massage their delicate little egos – surely counselling to enable them to come to terms with the UK’s diminished importance since the glory days of the 1890s would be cheaper? I can’t help feeling that with a few more lasses in parliament, we wouldn’t be wasting quite so much money on dick-swinging – but I am digressing (hard to believe, I know).

The big complaint here is the cost of “bailing out the bankers” who seem to have been holed below the water line. This was not debt run up by the State, but by commercial entities operating within the State (though probably not paying much in the way of tax to it). Their size and embedded nature meant that government felt obliged to fund their debts, i.e. the State was providing an implicit corporate guarantee to the Banks. I say, let’s make it explicit! The provision of corporate guarantees (or irrevocable letters of credit) to stand behind a corporate entity is a normal part of “the market” – and can attract very significant fees, especially if the entity in question is indulging in risky business. I say we charge the Banks for the guarantees that the State is offering them at the going market rate. Clearly, we can’t trust the existing rating agencies to measure risk as they only seem to recognise the patient is sick some months after the corpse has been buried ‘neath the clay – but there are a fair few States with the issue, so funding an independent agency should be feasible (we can probably fund it from the guarantee fees anyway). Banks can either choose to pay for a guarantee or they can survive on their own, but in such circumstances they may be restricted from taking deposits from the retail and smaller commercial side of the business (or if they can, such investors would have to be made aware that their investment was highly risky – as should already be the case for existing high-risk investments). The “market” can then decide how much demand there is for very risky banks and how much for their safer brethren. Banks that want to attract investment from the more risk-averse would pay for the sovereign guarantee and manage their business accordingly. Any future bail-outs should have already been funded and the State will not end-up trying to run troubled Banks, plus the country will have made a nice income to pay for less sexy items like libraries, decent support for the disabled and the Arts.

Hey, this is turning into a manifesto – albeit a rather unachievable one if I only control a single nation state, I think I need to be aiming for world domination (or at least a decent chunk thereof). Does anyone know of a hollow volcano (preferably extinct) coming up for sale (I would consider a long-term rental) in the near term?

A stage I’m going through…

As I set hands to keyboard, I see it is a good six weeks since I last posted.  Well, ‘good’ if you view the arrival of a new post from GofaDM in much the same way as a zebra greets the tender, watery embrace of a peckish crocodile.

This period of neglect follows a rather heavy period of work (something the regular reader will know that I usually try to avoid) which has left me with little time or energy to render my musings in electronic type.  Despite, or perhaps as a result of, this lack of new material visitors continue to come to my shop door and this has shamed me into returning to my laptop.  I also have whole heaps of plans for posts, s many that they are now keeping me awake at night and the only way to exorcise them is to send them out into the unfeeling world (or at least the only way I am currently going to try).

In a, probably vain, attempt to retain my somewhat tenuous grasp on sanity I have been turning to the Arts over these difficult early weeks of 2013.  Little do the philistines in charge of this country’s purse-strings realise what a vital role the Arts play in the continued economic viability of the UK (or at least in my part thereof).  Still, on the basis that most government policy is decided on the basis of anecdotes – at best (certainly evidence seems to be largely ignored)  – I hope this may have a salutary effect on future funding.  Whilst books, music, comedy, television and cinema are all important – the main plank of my strategy to keep the “men in white coats” (with their vans with such nicely tinted windows) from my door has been the theatre.  This would have astounded the me of little more than 18 months ago who had barely been in a theatre for more than a decade.  It would seem that the theatre is rather more addictive than is generally realised – maybe it’s the smell of the grease paint?

My theatre-going began with classics from ages past – and this continues.  Among these classics, I’ve seen two plays this year (both farces) by Arthur Wing Pinero, a character I had previously assumed was a fictional creation from the late night Radio 4 show Date with Fate hosted by the splendid voice of Charles Gray in the guise of AWP.  Turns out he (AWP not CG)  was also a real playwright of the late nineteenth century and despite choosing The Magistrate on the basis of a complete misunderstanding, it was a scream and on the strength of this example I went on to see Trelawney of the Wells at the Donmar Warehouse last week.  This was also good fun – though less farcical, but with more heart – and the interval ice cream whilst on the expensive side was rather larger than the usual theatre fare.  Interval snack mention: tick.

However, the most exciting theatre I’ve seen has been new (or at least recent) writing.  This often also has the benefit of being staged in smaller, more intimate venues.  I have come to realise that I am much more willing to take a chance on a play that may be outside my traditional “comfort zone” than I am with a film or a TV programme – rather an odd choice to make from a cost perspective as I’m taking chances with the most expensive option, but so far it has worked really well.  Most of my choices have proven to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.  Many I’ve chosen on the basis of proper, broadsheet reviews (which give me some idea of what I’m going to see) but some, as this past weekend, on much flimsier criteria.

My first was selected on the basis of a single actor (though it later transpired to include Meera Syal as well, so two actors).  The actor in question, Damian Molony, I think is quite excellent as Hal in Being Human and was also great in Travelling Light at the National last year.  However, more important than his acting chops was the fact that he is the man who introduced me, via the medium of Twitter, to 10 Greek Street – so I owed him one and the least I could go was go and see his latest play in partial recompense.  This play, if you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep has the longest title of anything I’ve seen and was the most overtly political.  It has received mixed reviews – the Torygraph particularly took against it – but I found it darkly entertaining, if occasionally uncomfortable, and the most thought-provoking thing I’ve seen yet.  Criticism seem to fall into two camps: either that it would not be suitable as an undergraduate economics course (though something that was suitable would have made very poor theatre in the absence of a truly remarkable lecturer) or that it lacked character development.  This later would have been tricky to fix with more than 20 characters played by 8 actors across a mere 75 minutes.  I’d say it was highly successful at achieving the author’s aims in a very buttock and bladder friendly period of time.  The acting was also first rate and, as it turned out, I recognised fully half of the cast.  So successful was it that I went out and bought a book (from a flesh-and-blood bookshop) on economics directly afterwards – not something I ever saw myself doing.  I should perhaps note the stirling work of Tim Harford on More or Less and John Kay on a Point of View (both on BBC Radio 4) in rehabilitating the whole field of economics for me in the period prior to Saturday’s play and book purchase.  Expect the standard of economic discourse on GofaDM to improve markedly in the weeks to come (well, I say ‘expect’ but perhaps that may be building expectations too high , only time will tell).

Saturday’s second play was in the basement of the Hampstead Theatre which meant I visited Swiss Cottage tube station which is quite lovely (I’d recommend a visit), largely as it appears rather less “improved” than many of its brethren.  Another play with a long title, I know how I feel about Eve, this time chosen on the basis of a tweet by the stand-up comic Rob Rouse.  By the way, I have been to new plays with shorter titles – the previous week I went to see Port at the National (nothing to do with the delicious drink from Iberia, bur rather a reference to Stockport) which was also very good.  ikhIfaE was excellent, despite a subject matter I probably wouldn’t have chosen with greater advanced information, and in shades of the first (and best, for my money) of the latest series of Black Mirror raised interesting questions about the nature of identity when trying to replace the dead.  Again, in and out in a very reasonable 70 minutes – I find I’m rather liking these tighter plays, even though you do miss out on the interval ice cream.

Whilst I now find myself starting to becoming twitchy if I haven’t been to the theatre for more than a few days, even at my current (accelerating?) rate of consumption I cannot keep new (and old) British theatre going alone.  So, can I urge all GofaDM readers to make the effort to visit the theatre – it need not be that expensive (oddly new theatre is often cheaper than old, despite the works being stubbornly within copyright) – and they could use the money (as to be honest can the Arts more generally).  Why not try something new or just different to your normal fare?  It has certainly worked for me!  If it affects you as it has me, we can form a new take on AA – Audience Anonymous – to try and manage our condition (something Hal would certainly understand).

Yawn free?

My Fringe binge is drawing towards its close and I have this morning “off”, except for a modicum of IT support (which is the currency that I exchange for my accommodation), so I felt it was time to bring my readership up to date with my “doings”.

Booking later and to a less rigid plan, coupled with fewer late night gigs, has definitely been a success – though, perhaps oddly, has failed to result in my aged limbs finding the duvet’s embrace any earlier.  My gig choices have generally been sufficiently obscure (or, indeed, unpopular) that I have failed to obtain tickets to very few of my original selections – and the resulting need to explore more interesting alternatives has resulted in some excellent choices.

This is the first year I have tried Fringe theatre and my two examples so far have been excellent – with my third to come just after lunch.  I can thoroughly recommend Blink! at the Traverse and Oh the humanity… at St Stephen’s: both combined small casts and minimal sets but still provoked real laughs and some serious thinking, as already established it is much easier to sneak a “message” past my defences if it is accompanied by a good sprinkling of jokes (though whether I’m thinking the “intended” thoughts I’m never wholly convinced).

With the exception of the theatre, none of my Fringe choices have cost more than a tenner (obscurity is your friend), and even those have been some of my cheapest theatre going experiences of the past year.  As treasurer of an arts charity, I now found myself counting seats and worrying about the financial viability of the artists who have been entertaining me over the course of this last week.  Even if the venues are very cheap to hire (which I suspect may not be the case, despite their rather ad-hoc nature), the costs of a month in the Athens of the North (which given the collapse of the RBS and Bank of Scotland may be a more appropriate choice of alias than in days of yore) are going to make break-even little more than a dream for most.  Laundry costs alone must be substantial given the small and very sweaty nature of most of the performance spaces.  If I were ever to perform at the Fringe, the music played while the audience are waiting for my (not-so-grand) entry would be a recording of me playing a piece of 100+ year-old music on the piano or recorder to save on PRS costs, though oddly no-one has gone this route, yet…

Most stand-up is just the one person, but I’ve been to see a couple of sketch groups – which must have higher accommodation costs or else be very close.  Both Jigsaw and the Three Englishmen (Spoiler Alert: ** contains four men **) were very good (and extremely silly) and far more hit than miss (unless you count Nat Luurtsema as a miss).  Both shows may provide fodder for future nightmares: in the case of Jigsaw relating to fellation of Tom Craine (one of the risks of sitting in the front row) and for the “beef” Englishmen (ask Tom Goodliffe) I shall never be able to watch Nigella again.  I think sketch comedy, which was a mainstay of my late night Radio 4 listening when a lad (for some reason it seemed to be banished to the post 23:00 slot), may be having a bit of resurgence.

Perhaps my biggest insight from this year has been the joys of the Free Fringe.  These events have no tickets or entry cost, you make a donation on exit, and the artists don’t pay for the venue – which I think is funded through bar sales (as they seem to take place in pub basements, usually of establishments offering a rather better range of beer than the paid Fringe).  I am wondering if this can be a funding model for classical music?  I’ve been to three FF (and now I abbreviate it, it is obviously my natural home) events so far: all have been excellent and include my two top Fringe shows of 2012.  Domestic Science was good fun, and properly educational: I shall never look at turmeric in quite the same way again and now want a stick dulcimer.  Thom Tuck Goes Straight to DVD was hysterical and I’ve now booked to see his new show this evening.  However, this year’s winner of the comedy Fringe is Nick Doody and his soi-disant Massive Face.  Most shows have been good for 50-55 minutes – a few with material for only around 40 – but have reached a conclusion after an hour and I’m happy to leave. I reckon Nick did a good 70 minutes and I would have been happy to stay all night.  I’ve only really seen him once before, also in Edinburgh, and he was brilliant then as well (a show I still remember bits of years later) – this man ought to be properly famous and not just to those of us who haunt late night Radio 4 and listen to the full list of writers at the end of the show to pick their choices for next year’s Fringe.

I know readers worry about the level of my calorific intake, so let me put your minds at rest.  I am now so well-known in Bonsai, that they know my usual – not bad in a bar-bistro more than 300 miles from my home.  Yesterday I also discovered the Edinburgh Larder – which provided quite the finest takeaway sandwich I can ever remember consuming and the accompanying brownie was pretty special too.  I may have to return in around 90 minutes time… (assuming I can hold out that long).

I have also learned some stuff about myself – and not just that I am now obsessed about the financing of the arts.  I have now reached an age where I am no longer afraid to sit in the front row – it usually has the best leg room, and that is way more important than the risk of being “picked on”.  I have also let go of yet another element of my masculinity.  I used to find the individual rooms at some of the larger venues using my own skill (or an exhaustive search): now I just ask some child employee (there seems to be almost no-one employed who would have had their own door key in my youth) or, at a pinch, anyone wearing a lanyard.  It is so liberating – and quick – I think the rest of my masculinity may not be long for this world (if only I had a feminine side to fall back on).  Or is this just the last of my shame finally departing for a less challenging assignment?