David Goodhart on city policy in the UK

People today are less individualistic and mobile than we often imagine (the majority of people continue to live within 20 miles of where they lived when aged 14) and if the increasingly important role of grandparents in childcare is to be believed then the extended family still lives too. Most of us, even if we prefer to “keep ourselves to ourselves”, still want to live in places with high trust, low crime, some continuity in the faces we see in the street and the local shops. 

So policies that try to dampen population churn, promote the integration of minorities and preserve meeting places like sub-post offices and pubs would be welcomed by most people, especially those generational groups that most appreciate stability: children, old people and young families. 

To the extent that politicians have failed to do much about those things, at least in big urban centres, it is arguably because the political nation – especially the left part of it – remains haunted by the “thick”, and now unobtainable, community of [James] Walvin’s Failsworth [in the 1950s]. Nostalgia for lost intimacy is the enemy of achievable community today. – David Goodhart, Prospect, June 2015

Mary Renault on power

To stand for the people before the gods, that is kingship. Power by itself is the bronze without the gold. (Mary Renault, The bull from the sea, 1962)

I read historical fiction before I ever read history: Mary Renault, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease. Mary Renault’s book before this one, about the Minotaur, The King Must Die, is a better book I think. The ones of hers I love most are the Alexander the Great trilogy.

David Graeber on technology

There is a secret shame hovering over all of us in the twenty-first century… I am referring here to… a very specific generational promise – given above all to those were children in the fifties, sixties, seventies or even eighties – one that was never quite articulated as a promise but rather as a set of assumptions about what our adult world would be like. And since it was never quite promised, now that it has spectactularly failed to come true, we’re left confused; indignant, ashamed we were ever so silly to believe our elders to beginning with. 

I am referring, of course, to the conspicuous absence, in 2015, of flying cars. 

Well, all right, not just flying cars. I don’t really care about flying cars – especially because I don’t drive. What I have in mind are all the technological wonders that any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century simply assumed would exist by 2015. We all know the list: Force fields. Teleportation. Antigravity fields. Tricorders. Tractor beams. Immortality drugs. Suspended animation. Androids. Colonies on Mars. What happened to them? Every now and then it’s widely trumpeted that one is about to materialise – clones, for instance, or cryogenics, or invisibility cloaks – but when these don’t prove to be false promises, which they usually are, they emerge hopelessly flawed. Point any of this out, and the usual response is a ritual invocation of the wonders of computers – why would you want an antigravity sled when you can have second life? – as if this is some sort of unanticipated compensation. But, even here, we’re not nearly where people in the fifties imagined we’d have been by now. We still don’t have computers you can have an interesting conversation with, or robots that can walk the dog or fold your laundry.

– David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, 2015

On work

A study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990)… found, [Nicholas] Carr reports, that “people were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work rather than during their leisure hours” – Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books, 2 April 2015

Charles Moore on writing history with and without computers

The Spectator, 20 June: In a few weeks, I shall have finished the second volume of my three-part biography of Margaret Thatcher. I am now at the checking and revising stage – 3,000 endnotes to be made shipshape, 2,000 quotations to be cleared with interviewees, 300,000 words to be re-imagined as if read fresh. This involves the exchange of scores of emails every day. The question arises, ‘How did enterprises of this kind ever happen before computers?’ The answer, I think, is that the sources used were much narrower than they are today. Authors were extremely dependent on where archives physically were. Press, radio and television records were restricted, unobtainable or nonexistent. International exchange was much harder. We live in a golden age for historical research. It won’t last. My own work depends heavily on the fact that those in government kept excellent, confidential, largely truthful, written records. Now, because of emails and the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), they daren’t. No. 10 Downing Street has a system, quietly introduced just before FOI, in which all emails self-destruct after three months unless ‘actively saved’. For a brief period in history, a window opened and I have been able to climb through it. Now it is closing again.

I wonder what information future historians of the European Commission will be drawing on.

Paul Theroux on towns and cities

How people live in market towns in the bush [in Africa] is how people once lived in Europe – congregating to flirt, to sell their wares and show off their animals, to dazzle onlookers, to make music, to find a wife or husband.

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[On Capetown] I thought then, and I still believe, that the only way to understand a city is to see its periphery, because that’s where the workers generally live, the people who are employed to maintain it.

– Paul Theroux, Last train to Zona Verde, 2013.

Concrete church in Schaerbeek

Yesterday evening I visited a friend in Schaerbeek, Brussels. On the way I saw this wonderful church. From a distance it looked like a reduced-scale version of the Ukraina hotel in Moscow. My friend told me it was the first concrete church in Europe. It looks half-derelict, but it is well used, he said. The sound of African hymn-singing often wafts out into the city.

church Schaerbeek 615 1