Friday, 31 October 2008

The Meaning of Hallowe'en

The meaning of Hallowe'en, if it has any at all, is about spirits.

For centuries, Hallowe'en was merely the Eve of the Hallows (or Holies), that is the day before the significant feast of All Saints Day, which in turn is the day before All Souls Day.

These two hallowed days were a form of early Remembrance Sundays, where people thought of the souls of the departed. The eve before them merely was the start of this holy time, sometimes celebrated by bell ringing and visits to houses.

Hallowe'en, therefore, marked the start a celebration of life and death, of the transition from earthly existence to spiritual eternal life. Even for secularists (like me), it can be a time of remembrance and celebration.

Now, Hallowe'en - thanks to its very recent transformation in the American cultural melting pot - is associated with a confused hotchpotch of all the grotesques of the supernatural and paranormal world.

But historically the day has nothing to do with vampires (or mummies or zombies), which are merely survivals after death of ambitious or awkward corpses. Quite the reverse, the day is about the survival of the spirit not the body.

And the day certainly has nothing to do with witchcraft, which is the use of unseen forces (historically, usually the devil or various demons) to interfere with the everyday world.

In contrast, the day was a prelude to celebrations of those of hallowed memory, in very much a Christian context.

So when you see Vampire or Witch costumes and paraphernalia in the shops or at parties, just shake your head dismissively.

They are like Easter Bunnies on a Christmas Morning.

Instead, only the humble child with the simple sheet over his head has got it more-or-less right.

Happy Hallowe'en!

Thursday, 30 October 2008

On BCA v Simon Singh (continued)

I will be making a substantial post on developments in this case in the next few days.

On Brand, Ross, and Bursts of Public Morality

Only two people complained when they first heard the infamous show.

Now thousands have complained.

Of course, Brand and Ross are vulgar wallies. But the public reaction is strikingly disproportionate. One expects, as one with the last such hapless celebrity caught up in such a fit - Jade Goody - that the mob just want them to be hung and quartered.

The British public don't half like their periodic fits of self-righteous morality.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Why Are People Afraid of Ghosts?

Live people are scary: they can torture, they can steal, they can abuse.

Almost all the problems in the world derive from the cruelty, dishonesty, or stupidity, of living people.

I can easily see why one would be afraid of living people.

I can even understand why one could be afraid of the "living dead" such as vampires, mummies, or zombies; or even of monsters such as werewolves, trolls, or hobgoblins.

I would go so far to just about appreciate that one can fear certain invisible forces, such as a Devil or several malevolent demons: the genuinely-held concerns of our early modern ancestors about witchcraft were based on these fears. The witch was in league with, and a conduit for, such forces.

But ghosts? By which I mean the surviving spirits of particular dead people (not "evil spirits", which are really demons and unconnected to any particular dead person).

Why should they be scary? What harm could they actually do? Indeed, there are few examples of stories where any harm is done by a ghost, even in a "haunting".

However, ghosts are scary to many people. They used to scare me. Indeed, as a boy I was scared of ghosts but not any of the other "scary" supernatural things I mention above.

I ceased to fear ghosts, as I realised that they were unlikely to hurt me; and then I ceased to believe in them.

And now I cannot see why I was scared of them at all.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

On Capitalism

Some have said that the banking crisis is a failure of capitalism.

In one way that is correct: it is a failure to provide ever-growing, uncomplicated prosperity. You know, the sort our politicians like to promise, and the sort we like to think we get because we vote for it.

However, it also shows a terrifying confirmation of capitalism. The banks took risks which they just could not manage or offset: the day of reckoning could no longer be evaded with charming smiles or PR egoboosting.

Credit crunched.

Classical (and "neo-classical") economists tell us that markets will tend toward equilibrium. The last two weeks have shown this happening in dramatic terms, and it will affect millions of us.

So, will the resulting extreme state intervention provide a similarly emphatic confirmation of socialism?

Maybe. After all, the State, like the rich, is different from us: it has more money.

Accordingly, States have unique economic power; and multi-national State action supercharges this special power.

Such co-ordinated intervention may (at least for a while) calm a market draining (like a sink) towards equilibrium.

But there is nothing so far in our history to suggest that this central role for the State is sustainable outside of wartime.

If this new role of the State works, then some of us we will need to re-think our attitude to the State and the efficacy of its interventions into the economy. Like the collapse of communism in 1989-90, the 2008 Banking Crisis will perhaps force ideological partisans to think about things afresh.

It may not be the end of capitalism; but it may well be the end of capitalism being likeable for a while.

And it may mean that the State is back in political favour.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

On My Favourite Artists

Time for a list. These are my eight favourite artists. This list will reveal my bias towards painting and against "conceptual" art.

That is a bias in favour of the art for which art galleries were created, rather than the random things dubbed as "art" just because they are put in an art gallery.

This list also shows my preference for technical skill and interesting use of perspective, light, and colour.

1. Leonardo da Vinci
2. Masaccio
3. Durer
4. El Greco
5. Turner
6. Wright (of Derby)
7. Spencer
8. Bruegel (the Elder)

This list is valid until tomorrow, at least.

Just so you can locate my preferences more generally, I loathe Titian (I once - literally - almost vomited in the National Gallery in response to one), a great deal of the Impressionists, and almost all of the market-scamming of the last two generations.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

On Today in the City

I often walk through the City of London during lunch hour.

For the last week or so, lunch hour has been fairly quiet, almost like the usual mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Today, however, saw far more people out of the offices, daring to walk to the sandwich shop or cashpoint.

I wonder if this is a sign that City workers think the worst is over?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

On the History of Music

Making money out of recorded music is a passing fad, a mere hundred year or so blip in the history of music.

The first historical evidence of music is from ancient Mesopotamia, around 4000 BC, though there is no reason to doubt that it dates back many thousands of years before then. People performed and enjoyed live music: there was no other choice until the late 1800s. Recorded music was simply unimaginable.

The rise of recorded music was based on technology being able to create and play records which was not easily copied. Recorded music also fed the demand of radio producers and listeners. A great deal of money was to be made manufacturing recorded music. The "music industry" was born.

Now recorded music is easily copied. It is just digital data to be transferred, copied, and processed. We are in the "copy and paste" generation.

The music industry will hold on as long as possible, pushing intellectual property law as far as it will go. This position is unsustainable.

The music industry will also scream dire warnings for the future of music - bizarrely, as music thrived for thousands of years with no notion of recorded music.

But the idea that anyone made money out of recorded music will be as strange to our children as would have done to our pre-Victorian ancestors.

There will still be money to be made for the writers and live performers of music, as there always has been, but the relatively brief moment of the "music industry" has now come and gone.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

On the Welcome Return of Peter Mandelson

Peter Mandelson's return is a Good Thing.

First, he is an exceptionally good departmental head in a government where there are too few. Although I look forward to a Tory victory at the next general election, it would not be a bad idea to have a few departments functioning until then.

Second, he was a genuine and well-informed grasp of the importance of international free trade and the global economy. This was demonstrable at the European Commission. To have such a person in the Cabinet would be an asset in any government, Tory or New Labour.

Third and last, he is a political counterweight to a domineering Prime Minister. This may in turn lead to more broadly-based decision making. Again, this would be useful while we put up with this (generally-speaking) shambles of a government in the meantime.

However, the main cost of this appointment is the weakening of the UK's position in Brussels and a possible dilution of the EU's free trade stance.

A weaker European Commission is usually also a Good Thing, though perhaps not in this one policy area.

To be both missed and welcome is an unexpected development in Mandelson's career. I am surprised to feel both.

Friday, 3 October 2008

On Boris Getting Rid of Sir Ian Blair

I remember when the Left regarded Boris as a buffoon. Clowns, we were told, belong in the circus.

By ridding London (at last) of the hapless Sir Ian Blair - when there was no direct power of dismissal and flat against the wishes of the Home Secretary (no less) -demonstrates political skills of very highest order.

One may perhaps disagree with Blair going; but one no longer can dismiss Boris as an effective politician.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

On Expressing Nasty Fantasies About Girls Aloud

The Girls Aloud fantasies of Darryn Walker - see here - appear to be extreme, violent, nasty, and revolting.

He should not, however, be prosecuted for expressing these fantasies (and publishing them on the Web), unless it was part of an attempt or conspiracy to carry out the fantasised acts.

This is an awful case, and if the allegations are true then Walker is - in my view - a worthless human being, but even this case is not one which should buck the principle of free speech.

(Thanks Helen for forwarding this case to me.)

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

On the University of Oxford

I was in Oxford at the weekend for a wedding at a College chapel.

There I realised that the University of Oxford's greatest glories are not the Colleges and not the students.

After all, there are lovely old buildings in many towns, and the English school system deprives Oxford - and Cambridge - of most of the brightest young people, who of course do not go to the usual feeder private and selective schools.

Oxford's greatest glories are the collections and facilities: the books in the Bodleian and Blackwells, the works and artefacts in the museums and galleries, the trees and plants in the Botanical Gardens, the laboratories and the deskspace.

These collections and facilities mean that, whatever the intellectual fashion in any discipline, there is sufficient material - and space - for an original and independent thinker to take a different approach.

This real opportunity to be able to formulate a different but well-based view is why there will always be something interesting coming out of the University of Oxford.