Saturday, 11 July 2015

Social Suicide



My Guilty Secret

There is a groundswell of public opinion against fox hunting in the UK, and public opinion should rule, unless it is punishingly irrational. That's democracy. And yet...

Don't get me wrong; I have never hunted and I don't much care for the people that hunt. I mean, I've met and liked or loved many of them off the hunting field. My mother hunted in the 30s. My uncle was a Master of Foxhounds, as was my sister-in-law, and I dated the daughter of an MFH in Cornwall and once tried to stop her 'hollering' to alert a hunt to a fox when we were following on foot (it got away). But there is an arrogance and a supercilious and latterly arriviste disport of wealth and/or superiority amongst them in the field that is not endearing. Nor do I care for making a sport out of hunting or killing any animals.

But I start from the other end. I like foxes (at least up to a point; if you keep any form of livestock that they prey on, that love affair can quickly fade). I would not want to see them wiped out – it is a thrill to spot a fox in the wild, and they are a magnificent native species. But without natural predators (we eliminated the big cats, wolves and eagles which once took them) there seems to be a need for population control – and certainly present post-ban law permits unlimited culling with knobs on (I can only remember my parents having one row, and that was when my father gave the local farmer permission to shoot foxes on our land, and my mother, the hunting one, objected. The permission was withdrawn).

Since fox hunting was banned in the UK, the main forms of control have been trapping, snaring and shooting. All are legal. There is ample evidence that poisoning and gassing still occur too, and I know of at least two friends' pet dogs that died from eating poisoned eggs and meat left on moor and woodland. All these methods are indiscriminate, and can result in terrible suffering and wounded animals. Hunting had one or two irreplaceable advantages, and they were important ones. It provided a selective cull, closest to natural selection, at no cost to the consumer or the public purse; and it almost always resulted in a clean and relatively swift kill or a clear escape, unlike trapping, snaring or shooting.

No hunt ever aimed to eradicate foxes; without a healthy fox population, there would be no hunt. Hunting was a form of control – and respected for that, in that local farmers experiencing a particular problem with foxes would call the hunt in. By its nature, hunting tended to cull the sick and the weak and the stupid, as natural selection would. The fox population remained fleet and wily and cunning. There is no conceivable or publicly affordable alternative mechanism for culling in that selective way.

So I swallowed my prejudice against the hunters, and put my respect for the fox first. That was over thirty years ago. Since then I have renounced Christianity and a host of other irrational prejudices but nothing, even public opinion, has yet managed to convince me to reject hunting.

I have read that when he left office Tony Blair regretted the hunting ban more than any other action in his time as Prime Minister – including the Iraq War – claiming that he had failed to understand the issue. My recollection is that the Burns Report commissioned by his government did not find hunting with hounds any more cruel than alternative methods of control – although possibly less effective, in that it was not particularly good at reducing fox populations. The government had promised to act by the Inquiry's advice. There is no question that, when the Inquiry came up with the 'wrong' answer, its advice was ignored and, as the Guardian said at the time, the vote for a ban was offered as a carrot to bring Labour MPs on board for the Iraq War. This was not good government (“a very nasty piece of political work indeed and what it says about the Labour party is truly horrible” - The Guardian, 14 Feb 2005). There are compelling parallels here with the current government's rejection of scientific advice on the ineffectiveness of badger culling, purely to win the votes of the farming lobby.

Mine is not a popular stance, and it is probably massively unwise to stick my head above the parapet at all. I am solely concerned by the way foxes are culled, and the implications for a valuable species. And I strive to remain moved by reason, not heart. I am open to fact and sound argument, not preconception (credit me at least for not raising the arguments about rural employment, or landscape conservation, or national heritage, and all that guff). I hope my friends will respect my motive, even if they do not agree.

I am open-minded and ready, even eager, to be converted. You would have to persuade me firstly, that fox populations do not need to be controlled – and that is do-able (although I am mindful of the time a few years back when the National Trust took on the Farne Islands and halted the annual seal cull; within a few years the seal population had exploded and they were dying unspeakably of disease until the cull was resumed) and secondly; that the, to my mind crueller and more indiscriminate methods of control, will be outlawed. In return, I ask you who oppose hunting, to search your souls and consider whether opposing hunting is enough. Because if you stop at that, you are by default supporting shooting, snaring and trapping, and the indescribable and ecologically pointless cruelties of those. And you're almost certainly doing the fox no favours either.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Curse of the Witching Tree



This atmospheric British film punches well above its budget. Underlying tension is built through parallel themes of threat and impending loss, in a delicate overlay of past and present. The action benefits from the freshness of the cast, confident camera work and a well-balanced soundtrack. One senses that Director and Producer James Crow is so steeped in the genre that invoking the sinister is second nature. 'Curse of the Witching Tree' is that rare beast which has both mainstream appeal and the makings of a cult classic.

Released in the UK on 18 May and in the US on 19 May.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Thursday, 10 July 2014

French Polish



I wrote a reminder note for myself last night, for something I'd just run out of, which amused me this morning. It says, 'French Polish'.

French polish is lovely, not only for the deep shine it gives to wood – a french polish finish (this phrase gives me particular joy) is second to none – but because it is so rewarding to use, providing a quick-drying lacquer which is compatible with traditional furniture polish. It has now largely been replaced by varnish made from nitrocellulose (the stuff that gun cotton is made from, which has six times the explosive power of gunpowder) which is not. Compatible with traditional polish, that is.

Shellac is exotic stuff, made from a resin secreted on branches by female lac bugs. It is harvested from trees in India and Thailand. India still produces around 18,000 metric tons of it a year, which is remarkable when one learns that up to 300,000 insects are required to produce each kilogram.

Shellac was used for dyeing, to secure the windings in electric motors, provide the blue and green colour in fireworks, and stick the rubber reservoirs to fountain pens. It is still used in the manufacture of such diverse things as top hats, hair spray, lipstick, and ballet shoes, and as a glazing agent on pills, fruit and chocolate-coated raisins.

It also has thermoplastic qualities; before the advent of vinyl thousands of tons – more than half the annual production - were used to make 78 rpm records. Many of these records involved another well known French Polish product, Frédéric Chopin, more of whom later.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Defacing of the Kurt Vile Mural


I had not heard of the Kurt Vile mural until yesterday. To be honest I had not heard of Kurt Vile either. This picture was retweeted by a band I followed, with appropriate 'unchill', 'uncool' twitterings. I looked into it.

It appears that a former graffitti artist named Steve Powers aka ESPO was commissioned to paint the mural by indie musician Kurt Vile. Consisting of track titles and lyrics, it preceded the launch of Vile's 2013 album, Wakin on a Pretty Daze. A picture of the mural provided the album's cover art.

This year a local DJ named Lee Mayjahs painted over the lower part of the mural. He thought it was an eyesore, and believed that it had sparked a rash of graffiti around the city that he loved.

A photographer who captured this iconoclastic/public-spirited citizen during the clean up wrote, 'So this is the ignorant piece of shit that took it upon himself to buff the Kurt Ville (sic) mural. When I asked if he knew it was a commissioned piece by a world renown (sic) artist he said he did and he didn't give a shit. He claimed it attracted graffiti to the neighborhood.'

There is irony in the indignant condemnation of the unauthorised destruction of an artwork which draws its credentials from graffiti and pretends to be graffiti – an art form rooted in anarchy and illegality. And frankly, when one looks at images of the original, I have sympathy for the evil/admirable citizen. A Banksy or a Best this is not. In fact, it looked crap. It looks better on the album, but that is because of its context. The artwork alone would be underwhelming; it is the anarchic image of graffiti in an urban context which provides the edge. And in this, it is a masquerade; this was not a vox populi statement, it was the commissioned product of a hard-headed, commercial marketing strategy. Not quite so chill then.

As Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program decries the violation, I wonder too at the principle of institutional support for what is essentially an advertisement. I gather the mural is to be recreated in London, Los Angeles and New York. Wakin on a Pretty Daze reached forty-one in the UK charts and is now available in a de luxe edition. McDonalds should be so lucky.

DJ Lee Mayjahs appears to be mortified by what he has done. He had no idea about the significance and popularity of the mural and was simply seeking to clean up his city. He has offered to pay for the repainting of the mural, and it will indeed be repainted. Graffiti is an ephemeral art form; in believing this mural to be graffiti, Mayjahs was perhaps unconsciously paying it the highest compliment. He has also generated more world-wide publicity in defacing it than Kurt Vile could have dreamed of. A cynic might be forgiven for wondering if the defacing was a planned element of the album marketing strategy.

Maybe DJ Lee Mayjahs, anarchically chill to his own principles, deserves a break from the bile of the Twittersphere.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Kitchen Talk

Before Christmas a new neighbour came to dinner. She enthused about our kitchen, which she described as a bang-up-to-date retro gem. I'm not sure whether she was being kind or whether she really meant that, because I've since seen her kitchen, which is a wonderland of open-planned elegance, with round basins recessed in marble worktops, questing taps like cranes' necks, and discreet utilities concealed behind panelled doors.

Retro ours is. I suppose it was the first generation of fitted kitchen, in that the sink is built into a cupboard unit which matches a similar unit on either side. The cupboards and drawers are a mushroomy cream colour. The sink unit has 'Dairymaid' written on it in cast metal, cursive script, like something on the boot of a 1950s Cadillac. And indeed, inside one of the cupboards, recorded by the sort of office stamp that had rubber belts turned by knurled wheels, is stamped, '23 February 1959'. The sink is stainless steel and the worktops are Formica, patterned, on close inspection, with tiny, ochre leaves.

The shelves and cupboards either side of the chimney breast date from the 1930s, when the house was built. There is a cream-coloured Standard 1941 Model C Aga cooker, a second-hand 1970s electric cooker inherited from neighbours, a scrubbed deal table, upright Victorian windsor chairs, and a bookcase for cookery books made from one of the children's bunk beds.

When we visit other people's houses and admire their newly refurbished kitchens, I have pangs of conscience that the Social Secretary has never had her own new kitchen. But then, none of my family ever had new kitchens. Their kitchens were practical, and cosy, and worked. None aspired to be show-pieces. They were about function, not fashion, and Vermeer would have felt at home in them.

In 2006 The Department of Communities and Local Government published 'A Decent Home: Definition and Guidance for Implementation'. It identified 'a reasonably modern kitchen (20 years old or less)' as one of the criteria defining a decent home. As our kitchen had its last make-over over half a century ago, I guess that officially we don't have a decent home - except that, apparently, 1950s kitchens are back in fashion, and there are people out there stripping out the so-yesterday granite and stainless steel, and putting in Formica just like ours.

I read that kitchens can be expected to last ten years. According to Which the average cost of a new kitchen is £8000. This means that not replacing our kitchen since the 1950s has saved around £40,000. It's also reduced quarrying, deforestation, ore extraction and consumption of petrochemicals. Granite, for example, is one of the most energy-thirsty materials available, and it is currently being mined at an unimaginable rate.

Maybe green is the new granite.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013


Here is the video for Kirsty's new single, 'Foundations' - produced by the legendary Stuart Epps, and set to photographer Mark Gee's breathtaking real-time footage of the rising full moon over Mount Victoria, New Zealand.