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Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Words on Wednesday: Norman MacCaig 'Rings on a Tree' 1968

I recently 'discovered' poet Norman MacCaig in typically circuitous fashion. I was recommended Andrew Greig's excellent memoir/homage/meditation 'At the Loch of the Green Corrie' (2010) which I would also recommend to you dear reader.

In these pages I read about the author's connection to this spindly spiky Edinburgh schoolmaster, poet and sometime fisherman, Norman MacCaig, who was one of the explosive set of Scottish poets from the middle to later half of the last century, a group that included such legendary figures as; Edwin Morgan, Sorley MacLean, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Iain Crichton Smith, George MacKay Brown, Hugh MacDiarmid, and others, some of whom I'll be writing about at a later date.

Knowing that my local public library and employer has a reasonable collection of 20th Century Scottish poetry I investigated the reserve and choose this collection to start with based purely on the name, Rings on a Tree (1968). Here are a few from that collection.

Rings on a Tree
Norman MacCaig
The Phoenix Living Poets
Chatto and Windus with the Hogarth Press
SBN 7012 0304 8


Can you keep it so,
cool tree, making a blue cage
for an obstreperous population? -
for a congregation of mediaeval scholars
quarrelling in several languages? -
for busybodies marketing
in the bazaar of green leaves? -
for clockwork fossils that can't be still even
when the Spring runs down?
No tree, no blue cage can contain
that restlessness.  They whirr off
and sow themselves in a scattered handful
on the grass - and are
bustling monks
tilling their green precincts.

Crossing the Border

I sit with my back to the engine, watching
the landscape pouring away out of my eyes.
I think I know where I'm going and have
some choice in the matter.
I think, too, that this was a country
of bog-trotters, moss-troopers,
fired ricks and roof-trees in the black night — glinting
on tossed horns and red blades.
I think of lives
bubbling into the harsh grass.
What difference now?
I sit with my back to the future, watching
time pouring away into the past. I sit, being helplessly
lugged backwards
through the Debatable Lands of history, listening
to the execrations, the scattered cries, the
falling of roof-trees
in the lamentable dark.


Because I see the world poisoned
by cant and brutal self-seeking,
must I be silent about
the useless waterlily, the dunnock's nest
in the hedgeback?

Because I am fifty-six years old
must I love, if I love at all,
only ideas -- not people, but only
the idea of people?

Because there is work to do, to steady
a world jarred off balance,
must a man meet only a fellow-worker
and never a man?

There are more meanings than those
in text books of economics
and a part of the worst slum
is the moon rising over it
and eyes weeping and
mouths laughing.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Sports on Sunday: Football Lads

Yesterday, 'my team', Chelsea beat Manchester City 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. During the match Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling reported that there was racist abuse directed at him from among the home supporters. That this is not surprising to me is much to do with the history of Chelsea's support, a portion of whom have been long acknowledged as violent racists. Indeed, like many firms, for them this is a badge of honour.

It has been a recent fantasy that since 1990 the 'bad old days' of hooliganism had been expunged from football. That it had instead been replaced with a family-friendly inclusive and modern way of supporting teams and following the game. Something that meant that 'being a fan' was paying for a Sky Sports subscription, rather than actually attending matches and experiencing the game itself. A more distant and impersonal attachment to sport, something that allowed for a global reach, that was more like marketing a brand, and was to many something that started to feel plastic and hollow. Football support, that is watching and not playing, is about the crowd and belonging. This is something that Bill Buford recognised.

'Among the Thugs' (1990) by Bill Buford captures a certain restless self-destructive energy that describes the society of the hooligan. A willing giving of the self to the crowd, to throw away individuality into a nihilistic ecstasy of frenzied togetherness. The wish to belong, to be part of something, and to feel that you are special in that. What makes you worthy is ironically that you have given up your personality for membership of the crowd, you have ceased being singular and are now part of a collective. That this collective is dedicated to violence is bizarre, irrational, even utterly foolish, but more than the collective wish to enjoy music or sport or be together in some ideological spirit, instead the hooligan embraces their outsider otherness, their wilful destructive hate. It is more enlivening, more thrilling, more real, because it is so anti-conventional. A line has been crossed. It is this 'line' that Buford seeks to describe in other crowd behaviours; the Yugoslav protest turned violent, the football crowd pushing themselves to cross the street, and in doing so make a physical sign that they have transgressed the rules of normalcy and that now, anarchy rules, the mob rules. Standard practice is being, temporarily, abandoned in favour of; self-abnegation, public destruction, social disorder, and the joy, the thrill, the excitement of violence. Whether an individual participant threw a punch or not, they were there when it all "went off."

Joe Kennedy's 'Games Without Frontiers' (2016) also points to another development in this resurgent hooligan attitude in football. That it is the working-class man's game and that the behaviours that they, the ultras, engage in are those that are 'true' to the authentic British male's experience. This experience rejects the hollow and plastic commodification of the game, but it also rejects the perceived middle-class gentrification of what is 'theirs' in another way. It labels the social improvements (as I would see it) of anti-racism, anti-misogyny, anti-homophobia (in short, anti-bigotry) as itself being unauthentic to the British working-class. A nonsense that effectively denies the fact that any working-class person could ever be anti-racist (f.e.) without being either a class traitor or a fake. So, something that started being about rejecting commercialisation of sport is now about the definition of what 'real' British maleness is, or at least, this is what the politicisation leads towards. And what counts as 'real' is the anti-feminist, anti-Islam, anti-immigration agenda of the far-right, which portrays itself as the 'real' voice of the working-class.

Racially abusing a black player on the other team therefore is, in this mindset, merely a case of a 'bit of banter', as it wasn't directed at all black players on both sides, it was just 'part of the game', just a bit of ridiculing the opposition and what if the middle-class PC SJW snowflakes don't like the language used, it's 'only words'.

Something that Buford also highlighted in his book was the attempted politicisation of these football firms in the 1980s by the National Front. He describes attending a gathering at a remote country pub that was organised by Nick Griffin. Then of the NF but who would later lead the British National Party to their, thankful, demise after a modicum of political success. However, although the BNP has dissolved back into the shadows. The people involved and, more importantly, their ideas did not.The attempts to hold influence over various different football firms coalesced into the English Defence League, which was founded in 2009 with 'Tommy Robinson' soon becoming the group's leader.

The Football Lads Alliance was founded in 2017, but represents only the most recent part of this ongoing politicisation of football fans, or more expansively, of the white working-class male. That this has also come on the rising tide of nationalism and of anti-Islamic feeling in Britain is no surprise. It was no surprise, because this has always been their intent. Our contemporary Nick Griffin, 'Tommy Robinson' is today participating in the Brexit betrayal march in London and like the attention parasite he is, this has particularly prescient timing. The ongoing 'yellow vest' riots in Paris (to which many in the far-right have added their support), and planned for only two days before a major vote on the future of Brexit in parliament. This march represents another attempt to infest one cause, Ukip's obsessive "Will of the people" hard Brexit, with the opinions and attitudes of the far-right.

Let's bring this back to the original case, which I see has now already turned into a 'one bad fan' story and carries with it the ubiquitous allegedly. It is also unhelpfully tinged by the excessive reporting on Raheem Sterling, who is a somewhat controversial figure in football, in that he seems to have opinions and the ability to articulate them (and he's black). Of course, it will be a simple enough matter to dismiss this as one rare occurrence and not in the 'true spirit' of the everyday fan. Well, of course, this is the case, it is not as if the far-right's opinion of the British working-class is in fact true. Worryingly though many other (non-working-class) people seem to buy into this depiction and (f.e.) blame Brexit on this stereotyped view of the thuggish racist working-class, something aided no doubt by sensationalist media coverage.

Certainly the attitudes and behaviours of many 'everyday' football fans don't help their case in the public eye, but then this is confusing an ebullient, albeit aggressive, atmosphere at football matches with something inherently dangerous. Much like the conservatives reaction to punk, or rock n' roll, or anything that seems counter-cultural (to them). In short, it is partly motivated by a fear of the working-class, something that only helps strengthen the far-right's attempts to show that they, the white working-class men, are the 'real victims' or other such falsehoods to gain recruits to their agenda of hate.

I will be writing more about Stephen Yaxley-Lennon AKA 'Tommy Robinson' and the recent soft coup of Ukip and the general 'crowd behaviour' dynamic of many online communities, but this story felt like it needed an immediate response and it's been a subject on my mind for some time.

P.S. Although this should really have been titled 'Secular Sunday: Football Lads' I couldn't resist.

Both are recommended reading.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Foodie Fridays: Butternut Squash Pasta

I suppose I could speak about the reasons for nearly deleting my blog (again) but instead let's just breeze over that and talk about one of my staple foods, as it's tailor made for this time of year, because I don't know where you are, but at the moment in Scotland it's definitely winter and despite my desire to continue to eat healthily (see some of my previous years winter salads, some healthier than other) sometimes you just need a bit of comfort.

& this meal is the physical manifestation of comfort!

I've given up on measurements, go by the eye and stomach of the chef.


  • 1+ Butternut Squash
  • Some Mushrooms, closed caps like chestnuts are best
  • Rosemary, fresh or dried
  • Mascapone
  • Something "green and fresh" (this is a JJ addition and can include; peppers, courgettes, spinach etc.)
  • More cheese, Parmesan or the closest approximation
  • Pasta (conchiglie is our #1 choice, but anything that 'holds sauce')
  • Olive Oil
  • Roasting Tin of a 'certain size' (i.e. it must hold everything)

Modus Operandi:

  • Pre-heat oven to around 200c/fan180c/gas6/400f
  • Peel, deseed and chop the squash into whatever consitutes bite-sized chunks for you.
  • Roll the squash about in the roasting tin with some oil and rosemary.
  • Roast it!
  • After about 25 minutes add your mushrooms (chopped) and diced peppers/courgette (if using)
  • At this point also:
  • Boil a pan of salted water and cook the pasta, don't drain it yet!
  • Once the mushrooms and squash (and others) have had another 15 minutes take out.
  • Place on the hob, still in pan, add a ladle or two of the pasta water.
  • Add the mascapone and heat on the hob while stirring.
  • Drain pasta and add (and add spinach if using).
  • Serve with plenty of ground black pepper and parmesan grated on the top.

Good with a rocket and tomato salad, garlic bread, and a good cold white wine.

There is presently no photographic representation, because it doesn't last long enough to get a snap!

Does not contain...

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Songs on Sunday: Maxïmo Park

The 2005 debut album by Maxïmo Park 'A Certain Trigger' was an exceptional piece of British Indie Rock. It was more of a shock for me, because at the time I was mostly listening to Electronica, Ambient and Techno, indeed, I probably only heard Maxïmo Park because they were signed on Warp Records.

I'm slightly upset that a number of previous YouTube video I've shared have since been deleted, leaving me with an ugly empty grey box, but I'm hopeful that this video (posted by the band) is less likely to be removed.

Warp Records are a music label that mostly focuses upon electronic music, so everyone was slightly surprised when they signed this post-punk slightly abrasive Newcastle indie rock band. There's not much I can say about the album other than it was my most listened to album for 2005 and for a considerable period after that as well.

However, although I continued to appreciate the excellent lyricism of the next two albums; 'Our Earthly Pleasures' (2007) and 'Quicken the Heart' (2009) they weren't reaching me in the same way and I drifted out of contact with the band.

Very recently, last week, I made an arbitrary decision to update the music on my smartphone and came across Maxïmo Park on my hard drive storage (which contains a great deal of not listened to and not watched films that makes me feel occasionally strangely guilty).

Listening to the first three albums I was surprised to discover that I found the later albums (particularity 'Quicken the Heart') were much more musically interesting to me than my old favourite 'Certain Trigger'. Although I would definitely still consider their debut a thing of real beauty, now I found I was more able to appreciate the subtlety and the word play more.

Intrigued (and aware the band were still around) I looked them up. Starting with their most recent album, the excellent 'Risk to Exist' (2017) and working back.

I feel strangely smug as if I've 'discovered' something, which is of course ridiculous. It's not like they were in hiding or anything. I suppose I'm just pleased that I've reconnected, albeit in a different way, with something that I appreciated so much before and to find it's not the same, it's better.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Filosophy on Friday: Vegetarian or not

Non-ethical Vegetarianism. Written and unpublished in 2009.

Vegetarianism is often described as an ethical lifestyle choice. I became a 'vegetarian' primarily for health reasons, this is something other vegetarians have a tough time figuring out. First, let me describe my position. My diet is not correctly vegetarian, but pescetarian or what is amusingly called 'semi-vegetarianism', basically, I occasionally eat fish. About twelve years ago I decided to stop eating all other meat, I did not have to provide a reasoned argument to myself, but I have since had to retrospectively provide one for other people who cannot understand either; why I wouldn't eat meat or why I wouldn't call it an ethical position. Before that, let's look at what other proper vegetarians are likely to say about their reasons.

A less-than-common ethical vegetarian position is “animals are people too.” The argument of this position is that animals have complex emotion lives, feel pain, are in other ways similar to us and therefore they should be respected and (presumably) cared for in the same way we care for other people. This argument is based on a flawed premise (several actually), it is the fallacious position of 'argument by analogy'. This argument has also been used to describe why we would react to seeing a person in pain or to put it another way, 'how do we know that that person is in pain and not acting?' The argument from analogy says that because they seem to be in pain and we have experienced similar pain we can then surmise that they are probably in pain. This argument is extremely problematic (which is polite philosophical term used when something is obviously wrong) for a number of reasons, so I'll just stick to the ones that help our human/animal picture, it presupposes that every perceptual experience of an event requires a mental process. Now, science may describe something like a process, light in the form of radiation effects the eyes and neurons fire in the brain inciting memory and so forth, but this sort of 'subconscious' activity isn't particularly illuminating in how we phenomenologically encounter things (whether they be people or animals in pain) in the world. I'll summarise my position as “we see pain.” We might say that we simply recognise another in pain and our reaction to that may be called ethical, i.e. we don't start on the assumption that she might NOT be in pain (unless we have grounds for that conclusion) but that she is and the decision to help or aid them (secondary to the recognition of pain) depends on who we are and where we are (to simplify matter). Our reaction to other life forms is more complex, we would (I assume) react with more emotion to the death of a horse or dog than we would to the death of a rabbit or pigeon. This shows that our reactions to animals in pain is somewhat cultural convention and leads to a more sensible vegetarian position.

A more common-sense vegetarian position is that “animals are living beings that do not deserve to suffer.” This is further elaborated with the argument that we, as the dominant intelligence, do not need to kill animals for food anymore. Of course, the 'we' in question might only be the developed 'West' as in developing countries there really isn't always much choice over what to eat. If you have meat and the other option is starving, then it isn't much of a choice, although the poor in the developing countries also tend to have a 'vegetarian' diet as well, but this isn't an ethical choice either (more of an imposition). So, let's just focus on people with enough food to make a choice of what to eat.

A common argument against vegetarianism (and that we do not need to eat meat to sustain a healthy diet) is simply, “I LIKE eating meat and dislike vegetables, why should I give it up?” One might reply with moral or environmental (more common nowadays) reasons. The environmental position for vegetarianism is that cattle (etc.) use up so many resources in their rearing and adversely effect the environmental in the process that it is in our best interests to cut down the amount of cattle we have. The simple-minded reaction to this (carrying on with the theme) is, “what would you do with all the cows, kill them all?” Well, no, it wouldn't need to be immediate. The amount of cattle born would simply be controlled more rigorously. However, an appeal to environmental grounds is unlikely to convince our steak-loving friend to whom the prospect of Global warming is seen as an opportunity to work on his tan. For the environmental argument to be more persuasive there needs to be a cultural shift in the acceptance of environmental issues, however this still does not address the practice of rearing animals for meat as a moral wrong. So, let's return to that position.

We might say, with the common-sense vegetarians, that although animals are not equal to people that they ARE fellow life-forms and that we, as intellectually superior beings, have a duty to protect and not exploit them, especially when the vegetarian or vegan diet is show to be more healthy and sustainable than a meat-based diet. Let's call this the 'guardian' position. First, the claim for vegetarianism as a more healthy and sustainable diet is refuted by other claims, also backed up with scientific 'evidence', only going to prove (I think) that science can pretty much prove anything (especially if properly funded). The guardian position leads back into the environmental picture quite easily, "our reasons for adopting this ethical stance are due to a holistic understanding of the planet." That is, accepting our place in the Global ecosystem is also to realise the importance how we source our food and how that effects every other structure. Perhaps, this guardian position leads not to total vegetarianism but to a more balanced diet. However, in this holistic picture a certain religious view also becomes apparent. A new-age, pseudo-buddhist/hindu, that advocates vegetarianism as a 'higher' calling. To this, as with most religious views, there is little argument (that will be heard).

Of course, we might say “are we the ones to protect the planet, can't it look after itself?” However, this position probably just looks cavalier and arrogant (if not slightly ignorant). A less extreme version of this could be to say that "we kill as we live, everything we do adversely effects the planet anyway." I say, less extreme, but this nihilistic position is really just the reverse of the guardian position. That is, “it's all fucked anyway so let's have a burger and fuck 'em.” To these young men (as they mostly are) I would reply that, it is true that everything we do effects others in some ways. Even sustainably sourced food (vegetarian or not) might be construed to have negative implications, but that it makes more sense to try and limit one's impact than to simply wave one's hands in the air and give up.

Finally then, what are my apparent non-ethical reasons? As I stated at the beginning it was for 'health' reasons, now, that's not particularly true. Since I've stopped eating (most) meat my diet HAS improved, and I've become a much better cook too, but I was never overweight or had any particular reason that my diet needed to change radically for health reasons. In fact, my position might just be the opposite of the man that loves his steak and chips. But that's not quite it either. Really, I suppose, I just don't have a reason. If you ask me, I might tell you something, but there's no great philosophical reasoning behind it and why must there be? Must we have a complex set of reasons behind every benign choice (or seeming 'choice') we make with our lives?

My 2018 Reply: Non-ethical Morals

I stopped being a vegetarian, or more correctly a pescetarian, in February 2012. The defining meal was not as impressive, it was a reduced to clear chicken sandwich from Tesco's in Coventry, but the action was a total rejection of the 'lifestyle' I had lived up until that point. There were several resons behind my change, some of which I had been internally debating for some time, but the final push came about because of the death of my close friend. It should be noted that after Thomas died, I also fully withdrew from my PhD and made other decisions that were more or less motivated by grief. Some of which, I retracted from (that is, I didn't kill myself), others I regretted, and others (like this decision) I did not change from. In the case of vegetarianism, it was because, as I said, there was an already exisiting conflict within myself concerning my 'lifestyle' at the time, as well as a cultural shift (as I perceived it) towards what would become known as 'virtue signalling'. Although that term has been quickly corrupted by the alt-right and is now merely a term of abuse rather than anything worthwhile. For a contemporary history of the term 'virture signal' watch the informative youtube video by hbomberguy.

You might wonder how could I proclaim (in 2009) that I had 'no complex set of reasons' behind my ethical lifestyle and also state that I was conflicted about said choice. Perhaps I would have been less conflicted if I had adopted a more militant ethical position? It would have at least given me a stock answer to every time as I was challenged about my behaviour, which was almost constantly.

However, as I have said in other discussions on other topics, to do so would not be to act as I am. Being in state of anxious self-questioning is my default position. Why then cease to be a vegetarian?

If my reason to stop vegetarianism was to have an end to the repeated questioning about why am I doing such-and-such then it was a monumental failure. As I now have the question 'why did you stop?' as well as people expecting that I am vegetarian (because they have forgotten or, more interestingly, they are simply assuming it in me) and then having to describe both why someone might want to be vegetarian and why they would not. Luckily that was not the reason.

Did I miss eating meat? Well, not really, certainly not at any point while I was a vegetarian, although it is true that I have found several things that I ate before and have only recently tried that I do now enjoy. We never used to eat roast chicken when I was younger, for example, something that I now quite look forward to. However, I felt constrained by my choices certainly and as someone who at that time (in 2012) was living on very little money, I found it difficuly to get a proper meal within my budget. Potatoes, lentils and cabbage only provide so much.

It was such that when a vegetarian meal would always cost the same as a meat-based meal despite being essentially the same meals, but with one of them including meat, it started to highlight some social attitudes. The fact that by weight tofu would cost more than chicken, or that some cheeses would cost more than beef, or that asparagus would cost more than fish. That the former 'peasant' staples of polenta, bulgur wheat, couscous, and quinoa would also find their value increasing as the demand for such items increased, showed that vegetarianism had become profitable.

Once a 'style' has shown itself as a marketable commodity we can expect saturation, followed by a backlash and then either a return to a previous early state (and it's later revival) or the disappearance of said style. As fashions have always been about more than clothing and music, but also hold a particular worldview, then their cultural appeal and limited lifespan can be well expected. However, when these 'fashions' were (or are) about rejecting this commodification it is something of an abhorrence to find them comercialised in such a manner. In a sense, it can be seen as the further success of 'capitalism realism' in the cuture wars, in that all perspectives are shown to be reducible to capitalism as such there is no other possible way of existence. At least, that is the perspective being sold to you.

However, even if we bypass this aspect of the effect of capitalism and anti-capitalism (there is yet no such word to successfully encapsulate the opposition as no such opposition has yet been successfully formed) upon our 'lifestyles' there is the more generic position to be considered. If you want to belong to such-and-such a group then you must be prepared to pay for your membership.

Although the cynical perspective is to dismiss such-and-such a lifestyle as a 'fad' (something in itself unarguable) this does not lessen their present cultural impact (not unless this view becomes the majority view and even if it does counter-cultural is very marketable right now). Although it might draw some attention to the shallowness of the actual lifestyle being portrayed. That is, as a performative cultural display of a lifestyle, rather than one that holds onto any actual ethical values. Those who are vegan today for stylistic reasons are unlikely to have the moral wherewithall to withstand even a slight cultural shift against their 'beliefs'.

You might now turn this argument upon myself. Was then my own dissolutionment with pescetarianism because my beliefs lacked the certitude of a definite background argument? Was it, in fact, nothing more than a performance of having a identity, one that I lacked the backbone to critically support when placed under any sort of pressure?

Perhaps. Perhaps I've never really cared. Perhaps my environmentalism is rather born out of my own fear of death. Perhaps people do not really care for others, but only for their own sake, but then the thief also believes that everyone else steals. However, I believe in the truth and value of care.

My personal perspective does not refute or deny vegetarianism, nor is my argument with capitalism one that denies others a moral life within capitalism. I do believe it is possible to be a moral being in even the most non-ethical states of being.

So, when I eat my burger now I do not say “fuck 'em” but neither do I interrogate my own actions for moral reasoning at every step. I do retain an awareness that allowing these 'breaches' in moral culpability is the slippery slope of middle-aged acceptance of dogma. I try and eat a balanced diet within my budget, I consider my environmental impact, but I do not punish myself for when I cannot live up to certain ideals.

Tangentially Related Photo of a Favourite Public House