@LindaGrant on #ageing and reading

Ageing and death are of course classic subjects for our contemplation. But I don’t think I’m specially contemplating them at the moment.

It’s just that I was struck by yesterday’s quote about dying and reading


– then this afternoon by a Jacques Brel song about ageing that came up at random on my laptop


– and now by an interesting set of remarks, by Linda Grant in today’s Guardian, about ageing and reading.

In later life some people, including novelists themselves, stop reading fiction. Aged 78, Philip Roth said he’d “wised up” and was now only reading books that told him how the world worked… Other writers have said that as they grow older they have less patience with the novel. Is that being aged 70 and older, we no longer want to experience the world, but need to have it explained to us before it’s too late? When your friends are dying, when you’re sick. when the big dreams of your youth have come to not much, you may feel you have enough on your plate without the trials and tribulations of people who don’t even exist. You don’t want to escape from the world you know into the lives of others, but to hang on to the one you now fully understand you have for only a limited period… One might expect old age to be more introspective, but that seems to be the preserve of the young and uncertain. Once identity is solidified, perhaps the attention turns to what you don’t know about the world you’re shortly leaving, such as the sudden realisation that you really must go to India before it’s too late instead of lounging around in your pyjamas reading Amitav Ghosh. 

(I’ve just finished Sea of Poppies, by the way. I like the language, but found it more schematic than River of Smoke. Like I did when I was young with Lord of the Rings, I’ve read the volumes in the wrong order. I never really liked the first volume of Lord of the Rings either.)

Bookworm cafe Beijing 812

(Bookworm café, Beijing, 2012)

Clive James on #death and books

books office 1210

[A]fter being diagnosed with leukemia in 2010, he wondered if it was worth the effort of going on reading: the cure for this was an invigorating plunge into Boswell’s Life of Johnson. The pleasure he derived from that great work, which he had not read in its entirety until then, showed him what he would be missing, in even the short span he believed was left to him, if he gave up on books. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights go out, you might as well read until they do.”

– John Banville, New York Review of Books, 24 September 2015

Elinor Ostrom on what makes Common Pool Resource #governance work (+ #discountrates)

agriculture irrigation Perolada 407 (irrigation, Perolada, Catalonia, 2007)

The common resources Ostrom describes are mountain commons and irrigation systems.

[T]he populations in these locations have remained stable over long periods of time. Individuals have shared a past and expect to share a future. It is important for individuals to maintain their reputations as reliable members of the community. These individuals live side by side and farm the same plots year after year. They expect their children and their grandchildren to inherit their land. In other words, their discount rates are low. If costly investments in provision are made at one point in time, the proprietors – or their families – are likely to reap the benefits. 

Extensive norms have evolved in all of these settings that narrowly define “proper” behavior. Many of these norms make it feasible for individuals to live in close interdependence on many fronts without excessive conflict. Further, a reputation for keeping promises, honest dealings, and reliability… is a valuable asset. Prudent, long-term self-interest reinforces the acceptance of the norms of proper behavior. None of these situations involves participants who vary greatly in regard to ownership of assets, skills, knowledge, ethnicity, race, or other variables that could strongly divide a group of individuals… 

(I don’t think it is necessary to exclude altruism, suppression of self, etc. in explaining these stories. But I think she wants to argue on their own terms with other economists.) 

These cases were specifically selected because they have endured while others have failed. Now the task is to begin to explain their sustainability and robustness, given how difficult it must have been to achieve this record in such complex, uncertain, and interdependent environments in which individuals have continuously faced substantial incentives to behave opportunistically. 

Ostrom sets out seven design principles that, she speculates, long-enduring CPR institutions need to fulfil:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries (of the CPR and of the people with the right to withdraw resource units from it).
  1. The appropriation rules (who can take what, when, how) are related to local conditions. 
  1. Most individuals affected by the operational rules can participate in modifying the operational rules. 
  1. Monitors, who actively audit CPR conditions and appropriator behavior, are accountable to the appropriators or are the appropriators. 
  1. Graduated sanctions.
  1. Conflict-resolution mechanisms. 
  1. The rights of appropriators to devise their own institutions are not challenged by external governmental authorities.

– Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons – the evolution of institutions for collective action, 1990

I love her rigour.

On the prosecution for obscenity in 1960 of D.H. Lawrence’s #LadyChatterley’sLover

music Beatles monument Ekaterinburg 812 2 (Beatles monument, Ekaterinburg, Russia, August 2012)

The opening statements of prosecution and defence having concluded, the court was required to consider how and where the members of the jury should read the book. The jury room was considered by Mr Justice Byrne as the appropriate place, notwithstanding [leading defence barrister] Gerald Gardiner’s submission that the ‘hard wooden chairs’ provided there were inimical to a comfortable reading of the novel.. In the end, the jury were given a special room provided with deep leather armchairs, and read in comfort. 

– Thomas Grant, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories (2015)

The most famous moment of the trial is when prosecuting counsel invited the jury to ask yourselves the question when you read it through: would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read? My father, who loved Lawrence, had a copy of the Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley on his bookshelf. I certainly approve of him reading it, although I find it difficult to imagine discussing it with him.

Reading about the case is an excuse to look up Philip Larkin’s poem Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP

I now realise that the dates in the Larkin poem are a bit odd: the Lady Chatterley case ended on 2 November 1960 while the Beatles’ first LP came out on 22 March 1963.

On #suburbs and #Rueil-Malmaison

I was interested in cities long before I was interested in energy.

Perhaps I should not write about cities in an energy blog. Still, when cities are places we want to be, it’s good for energy efficiency – because in cities we walk, cycle and take public transport.

Maybe what got me started on cities was one of my first jobs, for the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, working on inner city policy. (At that time the central parts of cities were where deprivation was concentrated.) But I think that what triggered my love of cities is that I didn’t grow up in one. I grew up in a suburb – Wilmslow, in the county of Cheshire.

When people ask where I’m from in the UK, I say Manchester. I pretend this is because if you’re not British, you won’t have heard of Wilmslow. But it’s also because if you are British, coming from Wilmslow can be embarrassing.

Now I live in Brussels. I love cities and I love the country, I say. Just don’t make me spend time in the suburbs.

cinema Rueil 1015

I came back last night, however, from a short visit to a place called Rueil-Malmaison, in the département of Hauts de Seine. I had never heard of it before. It is a suburb, and for all I know an embarassing one to come from. Still, I liked it – it felt like a place I wanted to be – and I’m trying to work out why.

Rueil 1015 3

It has tailored trees and a mixture of straight and winding roads. It is on a hill looking over the Seine. Most of the buildings, old or new, are light in colour. People were a step friendlier than you’d expect, about the rugby, about my trip back to Brussels. A boulangerie sold scallop pizza (coquille St Jacques). There were more public buildings, from theatres to training centres, than you’d see in a British suburb. It has a square named after the inventor of the taxi.

(Wikipedia: Un certain Nicolas Sauvage, facteur des maîtres de cochers d’Amiens, s’établit à Paris et y ouvre vers 1637 un dépôt de voitures de louage avec cocher dans la rue Saint-Martin. Son parc de 20 carrosses se trouve en face d’un hôtel à l’enseigne de Saint Fiacre et offre le premier service de voitures à disposition du public, les fiacres — ancêtres des taxis parisiens — qui remplacent progressivement les chaises à porteurs.)

It has traffic calming that gives a “centre of the village” feeling. Cars aren’t banned but don’t dominate. I can imagine, because it’s a nice place, that people who live in Reuil-Malmaison hop less into their cars and drive off less to other places.

(But “transport”, meaning public transport, as someone from the nearby town of Asnières told me, is like Wilmslow’s: you get a train, not a metro, from town, and then there’s a fair old walk from the station.)

Energy-energy: the car club was prominent and electric.

enn electric cars Rueil 1015

I haven’t worked out what I liked – but it was a good visit.

Terminus du Nord 1015

Despite Rueil-Malmaison and last weekend in Guildford, I haven’t lost my liking for cities though: I ended my visit to France at the eminently urban Terminus du Nord, opposite the Gare du Nord, in Paris, where I ate fish soup.

Yuval Noah Harari on the #Cognitive Revolution


Three important revolutions shaped the course of history: the Cognitive Revolution kick-started history about 70,000 years ago. The Agricultural Revolution sped it up about 12,000 years ago. The Scientific Revolution, which got under way only 500 years ago, may well end history and start something completely different. 


The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish. 


The period from about 70,000 years ago to about 30,000 years ago witnessed the invention of boats, oil lamps, bow and arrows and needles (essential for sewing warm clothing). The first objects that can reliably be called art date from this era (see the Stradel lion-man…) 


The appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, constitutes the Cognitive Revolution… The most commonly believed theory argues that accidental genetic mutations changed the inner wiring of the brains of Sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communication using an altogether new type of language.

– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of humankind (2011, tr. 2014)

The photo isn’t mine, I found it on the web. The lion man is 32,000 years old. I find it wonderful.

Jeremy Hutchinson on #localism in the justice system

For ten years from 1961 he [Hutchinson] sat as the Recorder of Bath… [A]s a result of the Courts Act 1971, the Quarter Session courts were abolished and the title of Recorder of Bath was swept away…. ‘There had been a Recorder of Bath for almost 700 years. As a result of the changes the concept of local justice conducted in the interests of and with the participation of local inhabitants was removed in the name of efficiency. In my view this was a fundamental error.’

– Thomas Grant, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories (2015)

(Interesting to reflect on this on a day when the UK Parliament is considering ‘English votes for English laws’)