Thursday, March 27, 2008

Mr Ben Digs

Mhmm. It's that time again. I've been listening to the Tom Robinson show a lot this week, and here is my musical harvest.

Johnny Flynn
Continuing my strangely folk/bluegrass bent of late, I've been digging this geezer's twangy goodness.

As above, but less bluegrass and more like your standard unusual indie (if you see what I mean)

That's about it for new discoveries for me, although you should get some Future of the Left in your head, as it makes everyone sexier.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Raoul Wallenberg

Most of the information I deal with at work is things that I either already know, or don’t much care about (it’s hard to be enthused by the major exports of South American countries), but every now and then I find myself editing something that I find genuinely interesting.

Take for example, the story of Raoul Wallenberg. I’ll give you a quick summary here, although I recommend you read the full article at some point.

His early life is fairly unremarkable; he was born into a very rich family, gifted with languages, and was, by all accounts, very charming and likeable. His life becomes interesting in 1944 when, at the age of 32, he was sent to Hungary to co-ordinate the diplomatic efforts to save as much of the country’s Jewish population from the death camps. He is partly responsible for saving the lives of thousands of people, through cleverly exploiting the fact that pretty much the entire Nazi military establishment was, by this point, either bent, disillusioned, or terrified of what was going to happen when what they’d done caught up with them. He tricked and conned, bribed and threatened, and, sometimes, just waved enough official-looking paper around to spread confusion.

He was, in some small and completely non-violent way, a hero.

However, as is often the way with the real world, and probably the reason why no-one has made a blockbuster film about him, he never lived to see his achievements recognised. In January 1945 he left Budapest to meet some Russian Army officers, and was never seen again.

No-one really knows what happened to him, but the most likely explanation is probably that he was falsely accused of espionage, and executed in prison by the KGB in 1947.


Sorry about the rather second rather genocide-fixated post, it's just the way my work's been leaning recently.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


I came across an article about this man today. Read it, it’s interesting.

It’s strange to think, when you look at that article, that it wasn’t so long ago that Eugenics was considered by many to be a legitimate avenue of scientific study. These days, when you hear the word ‘Eugenics’ you think of Hitler’s goons measuring Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies with callipers, but, whilst it’d be nice to pretend that subscribing to such an unpleasant idea was the preserve of the batshit-crazy, it was considered an subfield of evolutionary theory for a long time.

It’s my scraps of knowledge on this subject that always make me rather frustrated by Richard Dawkins and his ‘Religion = root of all evil’ argument. Just look at how evolutionary theory was manipulated and twisted by oppressors worldwide to justify and excuse the killing and marginalisation of millions of people and ask yourself, how is this different from people interpreting “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”* as “kill the unbelievers with the pointy stick of divine justice!”.

I wouldn’t count myself in the god fan club, but the fact is that people will look to whatever authority they can find, whether it is scripture or science, to justify their murderousness – the source they choose to cite is normally as much of an innocent bystander as the people that end up in the ground.

This has all reminded me of ‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale. Which is a damn good book.


*Matthew 7:12, I make no apologies for the archaic language, I like the KJV – it just doesn’t feel like proper religion if it doesn’t include the second person singular pronoun.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


The project I'm currently working on (let us call it El Projecto for reasons of not wanting to talk shop) involves me emailing and phoning up the army of freelancers and experts we have commissioned to explain the various topics covered by El Projecto.

Now when I say experts, this usually means academics from that field. The following is the general gist of a conversation on the phone between me (a recent graduate) and an academic:

Me: Do you have article?
Prof: No, I do not have article yet, but I'm nearly finished
Me: Well, I'm afraid that the deadline was a few days ago
Prof: Oh dear! I'll work hard, really, I just got a little distracted
Me: Well, I suppose I could extend the deadline a little, another week or so.
Prof: Thanks, I'll really try and finish it by then.

The giggles started when I put the phone down and thought:

'wait, that conversation was like university, but backwards.'


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

Today lunchtime found me standing in front of the war memorial on Islington green. I was eating my sandwiches while the weather caught its breath; before it tried to soak me again. It’s been one of those days where the world appears to have been placed behind a sheet of dirty glass, like looking out the window of a grimy train. I was standing in front of the war memorial because it was too wet to sit down, but too windy to stand out in the open. With that peculiar curiosity that comes with sufficient bread for a few minutes thoughtful chewing, I was examining the war memorial, taking in every detail.

It’s unusual, you see, no lists of names, no campaigns fought. There are four stone slabs set into the ground – air, sea, land, home – and a giant granite ring, 4 metres in diameter and as thick as an old tree, propped up against the low stone wall like a wreath. It’s obviously a modern creation, and a discreet tablet set into the grass nearby mentions that it replaced an older, probably crumbling memorial, probably at great expense. I like it, though. Despite its modernity, it manages, though being enigmatic in its minimalism, an appreciable likeness of the stomach churning impact that those old crosses, covered from base to tip in names, tend to create.

I’m fascinated by things like this, with the mechanics of mass grief. I know it’s a little macabre, but it’s such an interesting area of study. The struggle to memorialise the lost has created, perversely, some of the most beautiful artistic and symbolic statements humanity has managed, tokens of collective remorse for mankind’s many sins. Also, these memorials speak volumes about the society in which they stand (the best example of this being the Neue Wache.)

What I find interesting is the point in history when these memorials took their current form in the aftermath of the First World War. First of all, though, a little context is needed. Every British schoolchild is told the figures, but I don’t think many people really sit down and think about how they compare. The total coalition losses in Iraq since the invasion, for example, probably add up to less than the casualties of the first five minutes of the battle of the Ypres. American losses in the entire Vietnam War equal less than half those of the first Battle of the Somme. At its worst the British army suffered one hundred thousand casualties a month.

When the armistice came, the problem, essentially, was one of scale. When you consider how long it takes life to return to normal after bereavement, you realise the task facing a country that was one million men poorer than it had been just four years earlier, and encumbered countless more scarred and damaged survivors.

If you look at the war memorials of earlier centuries, you see the names are arranged, as in life, by rank and importance – usually only the officers, sometimes only senior officers, get their names on the alabaster; the enlisted dead are recording with a number, footnote-like, at the bottom of the plaque.

With the ones that sprang up on every village green and town square in the years after the armistice, however, the design is different. Each person’s name is recorded, with the same spacing and same font size as all the others regardless of their standing amongst the living. This uniformity is important, both because it gives each life an equal mention, but because it allows the broader scale of the loss to be more easily understood. A mother might look at her son’s name on the stone slab, in writing one inch high, and be able to stand back and look at the list, 10 feet high, and understand that every inch of that represents a loss as great as hers. It provides a visualisation of the numbers, making the loss less abstract.

The origin of this style of memorial is fairly blurry. One explanation I’ve read states that they started with wooden signs found in northern mining towns, as proud roll-calls on street corners, recording all the young men who’d joined up to fight for queen and country. As fewer and fewer came home with each battle, however, the significance of the names listed began to change, and at some stage these lists were simply repurposed, the survivors’ names taken off and the inscriptions changed. It’s a nice idea, yet I think that the truth of the matter was rather less organic.

In the years that followed the armistice, the countries of Europe found themselves in a situation that no one really knew how to deal with. There wasn’t a precedent or established procedure for understanding and remembering the violent, early deaths of 20 million people. Society, as a whole, had to figure it out from scratch. The traditions of mass mourning that we are familiar with today – the minute’s silence, the tomb of the unknown warrior, the uniform lists of names – are in fact, mostly the result of the ideas of single people, of clergymen and poets, statesmen and soldiers, who had to invent a way for the country as a whole to quantify and comprehend their loss.

The most interesting of all of these ways is the aforementioned unknown warrior. His story is covered in more detail than I have space for here. He is, most importantly, more than an unknown soldier – because he is unknown, he could be any of them, and therefore, with a sort of quantum logic, he is all of them. This was so important because the unknown soldiers of a war of choking, liquid mud and easily corroded dogtags are still dug out of Flanders fields to this day.

Nonetheless, the living need to live, and the easiest way for them to do this is to mark their respect on appointed days but, for most of the year, block the whole experience out. It is in this context that the blind eye turned to the Third Reich for so long becomes more understandable. Modern eyes can look at see the inevitable descent into war that was so little opposed by the world’s leaders, but at the time, the spectre of another war, of another generation lost, was more than most could bear to consider.

I look at these memorials and can't help but think that if there is a god, then his relationship with humanity must be similar to that of an abused spouse and their partner. We commit these terrible, unforgivable acts, and he readies the thunderbolts and floods - ready to give up and start over, but then we are so eloquent in our remorse, and sincere in our resolve never to do it again that he's mollified. At least, until he sees the next mountain of skulls, and it starts all over again.


Sunday, March 09, 2008

Mr Ben Digs

Today I have been rather enjoying the shins-esque sounds of Throw me the Statue.

In other news I've had one of the most incredibly sundaytacular sundays in ages - it felt like the 'long dark teatime of the soul' lasted damn near all day. Seriously boring.

So er, yeah, not really got anything else to say, excepting a mention to this Onion article which made me giggle much, but unfortunately probably wouldn't be so funny if you'd not written 4000 words on the book that is being referred to.


Friday, March 07, 2008

Mr Ben Digs

The song proper starts about 2:40, but the preamble is quite entertaining.


Also, it has an electric thumb piano! how cool is that?


We can never know what to want,
because, living only one life, we can neither
compare it with our previous lives
nor perfect it in our lives to come.

-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being*

I had an interesting journey to work today. There was a ‘customer incident’** at Lewisham station, which meant that I had to get the bus (or buses as it turned out) to North Greenwich tube Station and make my way into London from there. It was a little arduous two-hour commute, my MP3 player went flat midway there, and I got very wet in the process as it was pissing down with rain.

That is, I think you’ll agree, not exactly a description of a smooth journey. And yet, whilst listening to my fellow commuters moaning and whinging about it on the train this evening, I could summon no indignation of my own. I couldn’t even really summon a nasty word to say about the unknown corpse who so effectively sabotaged my journey to work. All around me, nonetheless, the stiff was called all manner of rude words, the railways and the government were blamed, plans to move to the country or, better still, another country entirely, were discussed in wistful tones.

I looked away from this scene to read my paper, only to remember that the free papers use a lot of ‘user generated content’. It’s a cheap way of filling the gaps between the pictures of celebrities looking the worse for wear and the extraneous pictures of pretty women illustrating irrelevant stories. I learned quite soon after I started reading these papers (they’re a good way of making the journey home pass by largely unnoticed) that the sort of people who write for them, as with the content of just about any public forum, seem to be permanently outraged about something.

I’m often faced with this sort of avalanche of righteous indignation - the worst is if you read the comments on the ‘have your say’ section of the BBC website*** - and I’m never quite sure how to react to it. It’s like when someone decides to vent at me about something, I’m always completely lost for words. I’m unable to make the necessary empathetic noises but at the same time I don’t really care enough about the subject to argue. It’s like if someone launched an angry tirade about having only one nose – I just don’t know what to say to outraged people.

It’s in this atmosphere that I start to think that I’m seriously socially aberrant – I can’t recall ever being outraged about anything. Honestly. I think the closest I’ve ever got to outrage was after the 7/7 bombings, but they upset me more than they made me angry – way more so than I could have expected.

I’m not evangelising about my approach to life, or at least I'm trying not to. I am aware, however, that I'm probably smug as hell about it, because that's how I am and I like it - same reason why I like being from London, it's because I'm not from anywhere else, so I like it by default. Still, to evangelise would be to suggest that it was something about which I made a conscious decision, or that I’ve got any experience of living any other way. That’s what always amuses me about self help books; the idea that you can, through conscious will, effect some kind of change in your fundamental self. Personalities change, but the idea that this can be done deliberately is ridiculous, like suggesting that you can grab your ankles and lift yourself off the ground. I think that most of the dissatisfaction that people feel with their lives or lifestyles comes not from choosing the wrong approach to life, but from trying to choose one at all.


*I know this quote from 'Where I'm Calling From' by Raymond Carver, I've never actually read the book it's from

**‘One under’ if you catch my drift. A fatality, or so the rumour goes.

***Consider that a warning, really, don’t look, it’ll just make you want to curl up in a ball and cry.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


I've not got round to downloading it yet, but it looks interesting.

Via Bad Science


EDIT: I've just downloaded it, and yes, tis awesome. Very cool although it uses computer power like the beastliest of games. I'm guessing that's because it was programmed in some esoteric academic's programming language and the code hasn't really been optimised, what with it being a one man job.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Tonight, I feel stupid. Not because I’ve done or said anything I regret - doing that usually just leaves me feeling guilty - but because I’ve been operating to close to my limits. I always feel stupid, in effect, after I try and do or say something really smart.

Tonight I was trying to write something about visual art, I walked past the tate modern and I remembered how strange it is that I, a generally fairly cultured bloke, can’t look at the stuff in there without giggling. I was trying to make some kind of intelligent point about authorship and interpretation, but my argument just writhed around, getting longer and longer, each sentence gaining more and more clauses and sub clauses, until it finally wound round, bit itself on the arse, and collapsed under its own weight. Like writing a fifty word sentence with 6 commas about how annoying it is when you write long sentences.

I’ve always been a little baffled by the reception that my writing used to get at university. Lecturers would use words like ‘lucid’ and ‘articulate’ to describe prose that looked, to me, like a pale, fumbling imitation of the fluid ideas that I could never quite put into words. That sentence, for example, doesn’t really cover it. It makes it sound like I’ve got amazing ideas in my head that I can’t put into words. That’s not it. Ideas are words. I’ve realised that, for me at least, there’s no abstract firmament from which I pluck the raw inspiration for what I write or say. I think in English, usually poorly punctuated, inarticulate English, and what comes out in writing and speech is really as refined as my ideas get, sad though that is. What I meant was that the writing always looked like a pale imitation of the words of others who thought in much clearer English than I.

Now I’m dethinking myself, in the hope of being able to get to sleep, by writing this dense little Blog post. A post which, if it is coherent in the slightest, is only coherent because it’s the same line I’ve been wheeling out over and over again in an attempt to make myself sound brainy, by pointing out how inarticulate I am in the most flowery language I can manage.

I’ll probably post the arty ramble when I’ve talked to my dad about it, and plundered his ideas to fill the gaps in my own thinking.

On a lighter, less emo note. Devon Sproule is rather good. Even if she does have a really weird name.