Patrick and I talk about Northern Ireland

Sadly, even doing a posting every Monday, which I vaguely remember hoping to do, has proved more than I can conveniently manage. My apologies to all those who still seem to be dropping by here on the off chance. A nice way of putting it: digestive issues. Here’s hoping I at least manage to stagger over to the IEA on September 3rd, for my Life of Brian thing.

Meanwhile, another chat with Patrick, this time about Northern Ireland. It’s a very low key conversation, given the passions that this issue often arouses, and given that in a former life, Patrick was a devoted Ulster Unionist himself. But his views have softened somewhat, and my views on Ulster have always been very soft, what with me being a born-and-bread Home Counties boy and then a Londoner, to whom Ulster is a far away place of which I know little.

For me this conversation was a delightful escape, both from my medical difficulties (see above) and from the apparently frightful state of the world right now.

Bernstein’s posthumous victory

Last Saturday morning they chose the best recorded version of Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. In the course of this, the guest chooser, Edward Seckerson, read out this excerpt from a poem that Bernstein sent to the New York Times:

For hours on end, I brooded and mused
On materiae musicae, used and abused;
On aspects of unconventionality,
Over the death in our time of tonality, …
Pieces for nattering, clucking sopranos
With squadrons of vibraphones, fleets of pianos
Played with forearms, the fists and the palms
— And then I came up with the Chichester Psalms.
These psalms are a simple and modest affair,
Tonal and tuneful and somewhat square,
Certain to sicken a stout John Cager
With its tonics and triads in E-flat major,
But there it stands — the result of my pondering,
Two long months of avant-garde wandering —
My youngest child, old-fashioned and sweet.
And he stands on his own two tonal feet.

Backstory to this here.

When Bernstein wrote the Chichester Psalms, and this poetic description of how he created the Chichester Psalms, the self-styled musical “avant garde”, inspired by the theoretical musings and compositions of Arnold Schoenberg and his comrades in the “Second Viennese School”, was fast approaching its decline and replacement by more appealing sorts of music. As the change in the dominant atmosphere at the BBC, Radio 3 in particular, illustrates.

There are many reasons for this transformation. Classical music, although still very popular, no longer has the effortless cultural clout that it had then. Then, classical music was an eternal fact, and the only questions were things like: Where is classical music (which was typically then referred to as “music”) going? Where should it go? Now, classical music jobs are as appealing as ever and students are being cranked out by the colleges as never before. But now that the core repertoire is all recorded, pretty much, performers now make their livings by performing to live audiences, and post-Schoenbergery may be enough to sell some records around the world, but it won’t fill a particular hall in a particular place, unless they make it part of the price of the ticket by surrounding it with popular favourites. Which only turns indifference into active hatred.

If you like Schoenberg and his post-WW2 imitators and followers, then I’m very happy for you. But if you do, you are in a minority within a minority. Since the time when Bernstein wrote as he did above, tunefulness and melodiousness and rhythm has come back into the classical world with a bang. (Well, often more like a tinkle.) Christians have refused to stop writing their stuff, and though fewer now believe in such Christian messages, they (we) still love the sounds that they can inspire.

On Radio 3, you are now far more likely to hear old jazz classics, or famous French chansons or South American tangos, than you are to be subjected to 12-tone dissonance. Successful music contains at least some melody, some harmony, some rhythm, and some novelty. When they first arrived, the atonalists at least sounded different, but by the end of their brief moment, they weren’t even doing novelty, because it all sounded alike, and all equally off-putting.

Oddly enough, some of the “avant garde” music of those days has kept its appeal, to a few. But that’s typically because some of it deviated from the theoretical template, and actually smuggled in melody, harmony, rhythm, and novelty of the sort that wasn’t just novel in being so very horrible to listen to. One of the most obnoxiously bullying prophets of all this stuff, Pierre Boulez, often wrote music which broke his own rules, by sounding more like post-Debussy and post-Ravel rather than post-Schoenberg. Boulez used to announce that recent composers he disapproved of were not “important”, as if lots of people just liking these guys was an irrelevance. Well, Sibelius and Shostakovich, and now Adams and Glass and Ligeti, are embedded into the classical canon, put there by the audiences and the orchestral musicians, who loved them from the get-go, and institutions like BBC Radio 3 had to either go along with that or fold their tents.

LATER: And as I forgot to mention, the late Lenny’s own first recording of his Chichester Psalms was the one that Edward Seckerson said is still his favourite. 30 mins 20 secs in for that part of the programme.

Neptune appears on the south coast

Seen by me on Twitter:

I think it said that this was claimed to have been photoed this morning. Unfortunately I lost the tweet where I saw this and could not find it again, so do not know the provenance of this photo. I hate it when clickbait sites omit their sources for such things, and apologise for doing this myself.

But, good I think. I especially hope that 6k likes this photo.

As well as the face, I like the hand.

“This video makes me feel like CRT is a cult …”

CRT, as referred to in this posting, and in this tweet, stands for Critical Race Theory. I say that because I very much like the idea that at least some of my readers here have no notion of what “CRT” stands for. After all I do not bang on here very much about such things, having other preoccupations nowadays, here anyway.

However, this snatch of video strikes me a truly remarkable:

(“CRT” also causes me to remember a libertarian collaborator from my earlier late twentieth century life, Christopher Ronald Tame. Chris would have detested what CRT means now.)

I doubt that “Cardinal Pritchard” is really a cardinal, and if he’s not then I don’t know what else he is besides a (Not The) Babylon Bee writer, but this is what the Cardinal says about this bit of video.

In all seriousness though, this is one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a while. And I’m willing to bet that only like four people in that entire group found the experience “a little weird.” Cuz it seems like most of them are super into it.

If this feels like a “cult”, then I say that, in the days of my youth when I was an unwilling participant in it, Church of England congregations sounded to me just like this also. I suppose a religion is a cult that has achieved social respectability, by stabilising into a part of the social furniture and by becoming less pushy and obnoxious, and people no longer want to complain about it by calling it a cult.

But cult, religion, whatever. This is very clearly a religion-like event.

National Geographic on the evidence for evolution

Following my recent medical disappointments, I have been pondering, as you do in such circumstances, the big questions. Like: What Do I Really Believe? And it turns out that one of the biggest things I believe in is evolution, as the best explanation for why we humans are the sort of creatures we are, altruistic and selfish, affectionate and murderously aggressive, doomed to die, and so on. I was raised by Church of England atheists, and that is what I still am. The older I get the more this is so.

But what is the evidence for the truth of evolution, as opposed to the rival god-did-it explanations which evolution is slowly but surely replacing?

Was Darwin Wrong? asks a recent National Geographic cover. Inside, in very big capitals, the answer: NO. (Thank you Steve Stewart-Williams.) I opened up the article, to learn what I hoped would be more about all this evidence.

No one observation of the natural world would be enough to convert a convinced god-ist, because after all, god can do anything he pleases. Atheism is hard to prove with one knock-out punch. But evolution wins, for me, overwhelmingly, on points. Point after point after point, each point being made perfect sense of by the idea of natural selection of chance variations, and each point meaning that any god is going to have to have been the kind of god who, for no very obvious reason, wanted all creatures without exception to look exactly as if they had all evolved. Simply, evolution makes sense to me, while god, especially the idea of God that Christians and Muslims proclaim, makes, to me, no sense at all. It’s the range and volume of evidence that is so convincing.

Two of the many points made in the National Geographic article made particular sense to me. It’s not that I’d never thought before about such things, just that this time around, they both hit home with particular force.

Point one:

All vertebrate animals have backbones. Among vertebrates, birds have feathers, whereas reptiles have scales. Mammals have fur and mammary glands, not feathers or scales. Among mammals, some have pouches in which they nurse their tiny young. Among these species, the marsupials, some have huge rear legs and strong tails by which they go hopping across miles of arid outback; we call them kangaroos. Bring in modern microscopic and molecular evidence, and you can trace the similarities still further back. All plants and fungi, as well as animals, have nuclei within their cells. All living organisms contain DNA and RNA (except some viruses with RNA only), two related forms of information-coding molecules.

Such a pattern of tiered resemblances — groups of similar species nested within broader groupings, and all descending from a single source — isn’t naturally present among other collections of items. You won’t find anything equivalent if you try to categorize rocks, or musical instruments, or jewelry. Why not? Because rock types and styles of jewelry don’t reflect unbroken descent from common ancestors. Biological diversity does. …

Point two:

Vestigial characteristics are still another form of morphological evidence, illuminating to contemplate because they show that the living world is full of small, tolerable imperfections. Why do male mammals (including human males) have nipples? Why do some snakes (notably boa constrictors) carry the rudiments of a pelvis and tiny legs buried inside their sleek profiles? Why do certain species of flightless beetle have wings, sealed beneath wing covers that never open? Darwin raised all these questions, and answered them, in The Origin of Species. Vestigial structures stand as remnants of the evolutionary history of a lineage.

As I tried to explain in this conversation with Patrick Crozier, evolution performs, for me, many of the functions of a religion, in that it gives the best answers we humans have to the “big questions”, like: Where did we come from? And: Why does life feel the way it does for us? It even makes sense of things which we personally reproach ourselves for feeling, like an extreme and “irrational” fear of irrationally hostile strangers.

What I do not feel, now or ever, is any need to believe anything to be true that I do not in fact believe to be true. In that sense, evolution is not my “faith”, if that’s what faith is. Doubting Thomas, in the Bible (here comes my Church of England upbringing), says to Jesus: “Lord I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.” I simply believe what I believe, and doubt whatever I doubt. I believe in evolution, not just as true but as very helpfully and very illuminatingly true, and I do not doubt it.

When checking the links in the above, I discovered that National Geographic doesn’t want me to read that article again. It seems I have gone beyond my limit. I hope that if you want to read it, you’ll be luckier.

Anton Howes on how printing got started

Anton Howes has been asking himself Why Didn’t the Ottomans Print More? In the course of sketching an answer, he says interesting things about how printing did get started in Europe:

When we think of the invention of the Gutenberg press, we often associate it with the spread of the Reformation a few decades later. We imagine presses hidden away in people’s basements, where ordinary citizens might churn out subversive tracts. The printing press, with the benefit of hindsight, seems inextricably linked with the spread of heresy, radicalism, and revolution. Yet in the late fifteenth century, before the Reformation, it was a technology that usually enjoyed, and perhaps even required, extraordinary encouragement from the authorities. Printing presses on their own are huge and heavy, even before accounting for the cases of type, the moulds or matrices required to cast new type when it began to wear out, and the punches used to make the moulds in the first place. It was a costly, capital-intensive business, requiring huge investment before you could print your very first page.

Many of the very first printers were either directly funded by rulers, or else obtained special privileges from them. The Gutenberg press didn’t immediately spread from Mainz to the major nearby cities of Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Würzburg, or Koblenz, as we might expect, but leapfrogged them all to Bamberg, where one was set up by the secretary to the city’s prince-bishop. Many of the much closer and larger cities don’t seem to have got their first presses until decades later. Even Venice gained printing earlier, in 1469, when its senate granted a five-year patent monopoly to a German to introduce the art. And when the printing market became over-crowded, Venice also granted temporary monopolies over the printing of particular texts — an extraordinary level of interference in an industry, which was only justifiable in light of the major up-front costs of deciding to print a book.

Such policies were soon replicated abroad. The first press in France was set up by the university of Paris, and the king granted citizenship to the foreign workmen who installed it. The first Italian press, too, was introduced with the support of a cardinal to the monastery of Subiaco, after which it moved to Rome. When it ran into financial difficulties after printing too much, it was bailed out by the Pope. And as the press spread even further afield, the greater the encouragement it required. Far-off Scotland in 1507 granted a monopoly to two printers not just over the use of a printing press, but over all imports of printed works too.

Are you thinking: internet. I am. That also kicked off as an official, government-sponsored project, did it not? Only later did it spread outwards, to mere people, to do more disruptive stuff, which now looks like it may include reversing many of the original nationalistic impacts of printing.

Governments start by seeing only the advantages to themselves of whatever it is, only later to discover that others become empowered also.

See also: drones.

The Howes thesis is that, at first, the Islamic world didn’t so much suppress printing as merely fail to encourage it, at the time when it needed encouraging. And I guess that once printing then got into its disruptive stride, then it became clear what a threat it might be to established beliefs and established government, and the Islamic discouragement, so to speak, kicked in.

I have just signed up to give Howes £100 a year. This may not got on for long, but it’s something. This item of person-to-person internet support is a first for me. I wonder how many such supporters he has?

BMNB quote of the day: If you feel something is missing …

Here we go:

It’s been a quiet day here at BMNB, which is not surprising given how wonderful the weather has been. Just the right amount of warm. Not a cloud in the sky. Perfect. Who, on a day like this, spends their time looking at a mere blog? Well, a few of you did, but fewer even than usual, and that’s absolutely fine by me given how fine the weather was today.

I journeyed out into south London to visit friends, the above photo being of a big biscuit tin they showed me, which provoked a brief discussion of the decidedly odd role played by biscuits in Roman Catholicism. I had not seen these friends face-to-face since the Plague struck, and it was a hugely enjoyable day, not least because of the chance I had to get to know the young son of the household. I was awake for at least half of last night fretting about whether I’d wake up in time, so was severely sleep deprived this morning. But the company from lunchtime onwards, to say nothing of the lunch itself, was so good that it had me completely forgetting that, and even though it is now nearly midnight I’m still wide awake. Nothing like reconnecting with friends to wake you up, by which I mean wake me up, especially when that company includes a boisterous boy.

As for the weather, well, I seriously doubt whether weather this year will ever be any better than it was today:

1: View from my friends’ garden; 2: Kent House Railway Station, a station whose platform clutter is particularly noticeable; 3: The towers of Vauxhall, as seen through the window of the train back to Victoria, which also reflects the view out of the train window opposite; 4: The same towers through the same window, this time with Brixtonian graffiti in the foreground: 5: More Quite Big Things, this time those surrounding the now dwarfed US Embassy and the newly redeveloped Battersea Power Station. Total number of clouds to be seen: zero.

What has actually been missing from my life in recent months is not biscuits. It has been the chance to meet up with more than only a tiny few good friends. An Osimertinib a day is still way out in front as the best way for my lung cancer to be kept at bay. But, if how today felt is anything to go by, then a very creditable second in that contest is: the best sort of company in the best sort of weather.

Diabolical Davies

I’ve just been catching up with my Facebook lurking, and therefore have only just come across this:

I started listening and didn’t stop until it did. And I learned a lot.

I really like how Davies writes, and am particularly looking forward to reading his book about the history of the horse, which I trust is still happening.


Seen recently at a Facebook Friend’s page:

While searching for more about this, I came upon this recent story:

A single pill home cure for Covid could be available by the end of the year, according to reports.

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, whose coronavirus vaccine has been successfully rolled out around the world, has begun human trials of the first pill specifically designed to stop the virus at its buildings in the United States and the European manufacturers’ base in Belgium.

The company, which brought the first US-approved Covid-19 vaccine to market, is conducting the stage one clinical trial on an oral antiviral therapy that a patient could take when they first develop symptoms, which would make it the first oral antiviral treatment of its kind in the world for coronavirus.

My take on Covid as of now (guess (reserve the right to change mind without embarrassment)) is: Lockdown CROSS, Treatment TICK, Vaccines TICK. Most of “They” were wrong to obsess about Lockdown, wrong that treatment wouldn’t work, and right about vaccines being something worth throwing a ton of money at. Good that the treatment error seems now to be being corrected.

Alas, Lockdown, is something that many now love, for quasi-religious reasons, and want to continue with.

A gallery of Michael Jennings photos

For the last few weeks, a strange glitch has been afflicting this blog, involving spacing. If I stick up just the one photo, stretching all the way across the width of the blog’s column of text, all is well. But if I stick up a gallery of photos, which is something I very much like doing, there has been a problem. Too much space was suddenly, ever since a recent software update or some such thing, created below the gallery. Any attempt I made to remove this space only resulted in further spatial havoc below, in the form of too much space between subsequent paragraphs of text.

But now, either because the guardians of this software have sorted this out, or because the technical curator of this blog, Michael Jennings, has sorted this out, things are back to how they were. Good. Very good. I attach great importance to how this blog looks. If it looks wrong, I hate that. It demoralises me and makes me want to ignore the damn thing rather than keep on updating it the way I actually do. This was especially so given that galleries look so very good when they are working properly.

Well, as I say, things have now reverted to their previous state of visual just-so-ness. And I will now celebrate, with yet another gallery:

The above gallery, however, is not a gallery of my photos, but rather a gallery of photos photoed by Michael Jennings, all, I believe, with his mobile phone. Not having got out much lately, I have found the photos Michael has photoed while taking exercise, and then stuck up on Facebook, reminding me of how my beloved London has been looking, to be a great source of comfort during the last few months. And I actually like photoing in his part of London more than I do in my own part. This may just be familiarity breeding something like contempt, but is still a definite thing with me.

I started out having in mind to pick just four photos, which makes a convenient gallery. Then I thought, make it nine. I ended up with twenty four. It would have been twenty five (also a convenient number), except that one of the ones I chose was a different shape, which might have complicated things, so I scrubbed that one from the gallery.

But you can still look at that one. Because none of this means that you need be confined only to my particular favourites. Go here and keep on right clicking to see all of them.

I have displayed my picks here in chronological order, the first of the above photos having been photoed in October of last year. The final photo (which is what you get to if you follow the second link in the previous paragraph), of the church, which I learned of today, and which is the only one done outside London, is something of a celebration, of the fact that Michael is now able to travel outside London without breaking any rules, or such is my understanding. (Plus, I like those unnatural trees (see also photo number 9)).

Patrick Crozier, the man I do recorded conversations with (see the previous post), is a particular fan of Viscount Alanbrooke, Churchill’s long suffering chief military adviser during WW2. So he’ll like that this church is where Alanbrooke is buried.