Monday, 22 May 2017

A Grammar Of Ascent?

(This post was originally published as an article in 2015 on another website, now defunct. If I wrote it now I'd change some things but it still reflects my overall thinking, more or less.)  

There are certain genres of article that crop up in the press with great regularity. Dreadful Leftie Hypocrite Sends Kids To Grammar/Private School! is one such. The most recent left-wing notable to be thus exposed was Seumas Milne, late of The Guardian and now in charge of PR for Jeremy Corbyn.

The reaction to such stories tends to be rather muted, not least, I suspect, because rather a lot of journalists (and indeed politicians) who are vocally pro-comprehensive in public are privately sending their children to independent schools or grammars, or to schools that are comprehensive only in name.

The general shape of the debate over selection has a wearying familiarity. Supporters praise the post-1944 system of state grammar schools as having enabled large numbers of clever but poor children to get a first-class academic education in the state sector, which they would not otherwise have been able to get. They suggest that post-war improvements in access to Oxbridge for state school pupils can be ascribed to the system. Although it’s hard to quantify such a claim, it must contain a certain amount of truth—in just 5 years between 1959 and 1964, the proportion of incoming Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates who had been educated at state schools rose by 11 percentage points, from 26% to 37%.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Book review: "Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction", by Eric H Kline

I enjoyed this, a well-written canter for the layman through an absolutely vast field. The book is divided in two. First, a summary of the development of Biblical archaeology over the last two centuries, from resourceful but not always very expert amateurs seeking to prove the historical truth of Scripture to the hi-tech and professional multi-disciplinary teams of twenty-first century archaeology. These MDTs are no longer primarily interested in establishing the veracity or otherwise of the Bible, but in answering a huge range of questions about how people in the Holy Land lived, fought, worshipped, ate, moved and died between approximately 2000 BC and the late first century AD.

Second, Kline gives us a brief survey of what exactly archaeology tells us about the reliability of the Biblical accounts, with a particular focus on the Old Testament, which is more amenable to archaeological proof or disproof as it covers a much longer span of time and is concerned with kings, conflict, migrations, settlements, conquests etc., in a way that the New Testament isn’t. The NT is mostly concerned with ideas and speech, and with a relatively small number of people who were for the most part socially and politically unimportant by contemporary standards. There are important NT details that can be checked archaeologically – the existence of Pilate was confirmed recently via a contemporary inscription, for example, and a plausible though not definitive identification has been made of the bones of Caiaphas the High Priest – but they are relatively few.

The general impression given is that the OT histories are relatively well supported by the archaeological data, e.g. the Tel Dan Stele that seems to confirm the existence of the House of David, though there is (as yet?) almost no evidence that the Exodus happened in the way that the Bible says, nor does the Israelite settlement of Canaan seem to have occurred quite as narrated. There is still a considerable scholarly debate about how and over what kind of timescale the people now known as the Jews came to inhabit the region in such numbers. That is not to say that the Biblical accounts of those events are entirely unreliable or false, merely that they must be read alongside the historical evidence and with a sensitivity to genre (for example, ancient accounts of battles were not intended to be read as literal descriptions of what had happened). It would also appear, as one might expect, that the Bible accounts become less well-evidenced archaeologically as you get further back into the past, and to semi-legendary figures like the patriarchs.  
The book ends with an entertaining and cautionary coda looking at some of the controversies around Holy Land archaeology, inevitable in such a politically and religiously contested region. One example is the incredible long-running saga of the Ossuary of James, the supposed last resting place of the supposed brother of Jesus. Kline warns us to be wary of non-specialists who come to Biblical archaeology with a clear agenda, as well as the charlatans and conmen only too happy to fake inscriptions.


Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Notes on a detective story binge

Taking a short break from War And Peace, I took advantage of a Kindle Unlimited offer to fill my 
boots with Golden Age classics (and an Agatha Christie short story collection). 

Some thoughts below for the murderati. 

Beware spoilers - in (3), (4), (5), (6) and (10)!

(1) Tuesday 17th January
The 12.30 From Croydon
Freeman Wills Crofts
Very good inverted whodunit. Like other works in the sub-genre, it follows a man who is, at least initially, weak and foolish and desperate rather than wicked. There is something pitiful and very human in Charles Swinburn’s attachment to the obviously unworthy and unpleasant Una Mellor and his determination to hang on to his upper middle-class respectability, at any cost. That’s not to say that Crofts – who was a fairly stern moralist – ever suggests that the murders committed are justified, only that he paints a plausible picture of the kind of thought processes by which a murderer might justify his actions to himself. There is a tantalising ambiguity in whether we are meant to take seriously the purportedly selfless aspects of Swinburn’s rationalisation of the first murder, i.e. his worries that if he does not get the money to save the works from his uncle his workers’ lives will be ruined.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Books read 2016


(1) Friday 1st January
And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie
Apparently the best-selling novel of all time. I revisited it after watching the BBC adaptation, about which I had quite a few reservations, and I’m still in two minds. As a story it is creepy and gripping and entertaining, and based on a great and psychologically interesting premise, although I definitely differ with Christie about the levels of culpability ascribed to each of the unpunished killers. But where others see the book as perfectly plotted, like a well-oiled machine, I cannot help but wonder about the logistics of the murderer’s scheme.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Modus mortis

He died twice – they all did then
when far from home. First in Biscay
with a cruel sou’wester raging,
driving to the hateful shore
untamed by devout entreaty
from a thousand mouths; the sailor
at the straining masthead, no less
than worry-weary wives at home.

And yet he lived, and thrived a while,
an absent presence, butt of jokes
deferred to at a rustic bar
in England, far from rock-bound coasts.
Until a week old paper, creased
with age and use along the way
by hearty travellers’ heedless hands
brought the second shattering death.

A different kind of absence,
the terrible long forgetting.
One expression then another
lost to time. How did he smile?
Was it to left or right, that tilt
of puzzled head? So gradually
the laugh, the voice, the eyes, recede
consumed by dull relentless fire.

We will linger as they did not.
The time-disdaining lens has caught
a thousand moments, faces, ways
of moving. Speech itself preserved.
The sacraments of memory
surround, and comfort – overwhelm,
perhaps, the truth: what’s gone is gone.
A thousand echoes are not one voice.

Tua maxima culpa

Let us now confess his sins
meekly kneeling on his knees.
Let us call to mind his faults
before the One he cannot please.

Seek forgiveness, you have failed,
from my ways you err and stray.
Rend your coat and beat your breast,
for your soul O Lord we pray.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

It’s A Wonderful Film

Attaboy, Clarence
'Tis the season of Christmas iconoclasm. One of the staples of this festive contrarianism – alongside “Scrooge was just a smart businessman doing the best for his clients!” – is the negative take on that Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life.

For those who haven’t seen it, the film follows the life of George Bailey, a native of the small town of Bedford Falls. Bailey is clever and ambitious, and has big dreams of moving to New York, travelling widely and forging a career in architecture. But after his father’s sudden death, he reluctantly takes over the family business, a rackety building society called the Building & Loan, realising that if he does not do so it will be subsumed into the empire of the grasping slum lord Mr Potter. Later George sacrifices his honeymoon savings to keep the B&L solvent during a run on the banks. Later still he turns down a well-paid job with Potter that would have fulfilled his dreams of travel.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Five interesting arguments against my views

This has turned out to be a bit of a weird list, partly I think because I don't have a very strong opinion about quite a lot of big political issues, e.g. economics. Also I don't read enough non-fiction, and what I do read tends to be non-polemical, and in any case I tend to be preoccupied with cultural and social issues rather than strictly political ones.


Practical Ethics, Peter Singer

The moral status of the foetus/unborn child is the central philosophical question in the abortion debate, but it is rare to encounter serious discussion of the issue. Most pro-abortion argument is long on hand-waving about irrelevancies and short on engagement with this central problem – largely, I suspect, because pro-abortion folk know that the premises on which the pro-abortion argument depends lead down some difficult conceptual roads. Singer, by contrast, cuts to the quick. He has a coherent and plausible (though in my view false) idea of which categories of human being have the right to life – and which don’t – and is happy to embrace all the logical outworkings of that idea, most famously perhaps in his argument that since there do not seem to be good reasons to regard birth as a morally significant boundary, young children also lack the right to life. Singer gives the abortion-sceptic a genuine argument to engage with, and is an honest interlocutor.

See also: another book arguing for a liberal position on abortion (and euthanasia) which I think makes a solid and well-argued if ultimately unconvincing case, Ronald Dworkin’s Life’s Dominion.

Sunday, 25 September 2016


Racing the headlights to the top of the moor
now comes the annual unadmitted fear
of nothing to say; no true friendship
except the ties of old tragedies,
the creaking family jokes,
overlapping memories now long-overlaid.
Old tapestries in a new house
sentimentally retained.
There is no rule that brothers must be friends.

And yet each year the building of a bond,
not new perhaps, but over and above
reiteration of the old,
beyond mere sharing of a grief.
We seek and find our solaces alike
unearthing joys and consolation
together, on the same high hills
where the heavens touch, and seem
to half-unfold, in silent air,
theodicy. Not explanation –
not a form of words. But truth,
the kind that lets us all go on.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Club

It costs a lot to join our secret club
but join you will, I guarantee, one day.
Your card will likely not come through the post
but face to face; “I don’t know what to say”,
the bearer of your membership might start.
For me it was “there’s been an accident”
and then I knew. I read the face. A wave
of misery, unmoved by words well-meant.
The long estrangement from the normal world
begins, and never quite recedes it seems:
some people walk despite a missing leg
and yet the leg is gone, except in dreams.

The meetings might be good – I never go,
I wonder if I should. I manage, though
if that is what to call it.