söndag 29 juli 2007

Is monarch the key to Britain's liberty?

In today's Observer is an article by journalist John Gray with the title "Monarchy is the key to our liberty - The institutions that attract the keenest scorn are actually what protect our democracy today."

This has attracted plenty of comment. Most of it is hostile and ridicules the stance he is taking.

I am no flag-waver and would not bother to turn out on the street to see the Queen if she came to town on an official visit. However, I find it depressing to read the barrage of comment which shows how little the British "intelligentsia" understand the way the British constitution works and where the built-in safeguards lie. The problems with reform of the House of Lords have demonstrated the problems that can come with attempts to change matters of constitution. The growing inequalities in British society have nothing to do with the monarchy and everything to do with poor economic management by elected politicians and the advisers they have chosen.

For what it is worth, this was my own reply...

"A recent survey showed that the happiest children in world were to be found in the Netherlands, closely followed by the four Scandinavian countries. Four of these five are low-key monarchies. They are also, arguably, the most equal countries in Europe (and probably the world), and the most democratic.

"Sweden managed to engineer an (arguably) successful socialist revolution which is, more or less, still functioning. It has been able to absorb (not without continuing problems) a large flow of immigrants, mostly refugees, in the last 40 years, to the extent that incomers and their children now form over 10% of the population. The outskirts of the cities have large areas of what look to British eyes like grim council estates for the underclass, but they are generally well constructed, well planned, well maintained inside and out, and there doesn't seem to be an underclass, or if there is, it is scarcely visible. Public services are good, the streets are well cleaned and maintained, and public spaces are a pleasure to be in. And you don't see people living in shop doorways.

"Whether the fact that these countries are monarchies is relevant is a question at least worth asking. There may be no connection but I suspect there is.

"It is questionable whether the UK can make a transition to a fair society without undue inequalities, but the presence of a monarchy does not appear to be a major obstacle. Certainly, the monarchy did not get in the way of the radical changes that were made immediately after World War 2.

"Since the 1980s, Britain has suffered from politicians with a megalomaniac streak - arguably, those who most want to govern are, by personality and temperament, the ones who are least suitable for the task. To put the point as politely as possible, they see themselves in a presidential role. In the circumstances, the monarchy could well be acting as the safeguard against tyranny."

lördag 28 juli 2007

Skoklosters Slott


Skoklosters slott
Originally uploaded by Björn Sahlberg.

This was one of the organised visits we made. Due to the coldness of the winters here, the fact that the house has been little occupied throughout its history and that the tides of war have never swept over this part of the world, what can be seen is a time capsule. The upper floors do not have electricity and the curtains are kept drawn to preserve the colours of the textiles.

There is a most magnificent collection of largely seventeenth century artefacts including paintings, tapestries, furniture and weapons.

Strangely, there is also an English long case clock with a brass and silvered dial and case in the Chinese style.

Such palaces were no doubt not so unusual in Europe before the First World War, but now one has to come to Sweden to see this kind of thing.

The Swedes have a minimally-invasive approach to conservation and avoid the over-restoration seen elsewhere. But it does mean that that things can appear dull, and flaking paint is tolerated. The same can be seen in the Gävle railway museum.

Small areas are sometimes restored so that visitors can gain an impression of the original appearance.

torsdag 26 juli 2007

Comment is free

I have been looking at the Guardian's comment pages over the last few days here. A few of my own responses have been copied into this blog.

On the whole the comments to be found on the Guardian's discussion pages are thoughtful but neither the readers nor the authors of the original articles seem to go to the core of the issues they are talking about.

This is strange because often the issues are at root simple and straightforward. Perhaps it is the starkness of the issues that makes people ignore basic principles and get immersed in the complexity of the details.

Staying in a student hostel in Uppsala and the other activities I have been engaged in has given me the opportunity to engage with local people, many of them young. So many of the discussions I have had would just not be possible with British people of the same age and social group. IN my own circles there is a widespread refusal to look beneath the surface of things. People here seem to be more willing able to stand back and take a balanced and critical view of what is happening in their country.

The worrying thing about the Guardian's discussion pages is that it seems as if this ability is scarce in Britain. If the people in a country cannot see what their problems are, they cannot even begin to solve them and things will just go on getting worse.

Still, it is nice to know that the government has just voted £3.9 billion for two new aircraft carriers. We have people living in shop doorways, the streets in our cities are broken and filthy, young people cannot afford homes of their own, large tracts of the country are an economic wasteland, the roads are over-congested and the railways are a basket case, but the British government obviously sees the country as an exemplar for the rest of the world and able to play its part as international policeman.

onsdag 25 juli 2007

Jeffrey Sachs on development

Economics pundit Jeffrey Sachs was writing on the subject today, with a lot of comment afterwards.

If the issue of land tenure and land ownership is not addressed, development results only in an increasing gap between rich and poor.

Mostly, the land issue is just ignored. As there was next to nothing on the subject either in the original article or in the discussion, despair is the most appropriate response.

Giving aid to poor countries

There was an article on this subject in the Guardian today, with reference to India. It begged the perpetual question of precisely who pays and who benefits from aid.

There are many poor people in Britain and most other "first world countries". This is due to maldistribution. Because of the way tax structures are loaded against them, the poor in the rich countries contribute disproportionately to any aid that comes from their governments.

Conversely, there are plenty of wealthy people in "poor" countries. Indeed, some "poor" countries are blessed with great natural resources such as mineral wealth and the problem is one of distribution within the countries concerned.

It is also the case that the main beneficiaries of aid from "rich" countries to "poor" ones tend to be the wealthy people in the poor countries. There is no "trickle-down" mechanism. Again, there is maldistribution.

Ultimately, the problem can be resolved only by the people in the countries with the problems. Aid from governments can exacerbate the problems or delay the time when people actually get to grips with them intelligently.

This raises a further question. Given the marked failure of most "rich" countries to prevent undue and now growing inequalities, and the historic failure of socialist measures to address the problem either, it is evident that current accepted economic theory is not up to the task of explaining what is happening. Consequently, governments who genuinely wished to address the problem have no means of developing and evaluating policies that might be effective.

In the circumstances, the best that people in "rich" countries can do is to support the better charities, those which devote their efforts to front-line work rather than misguided political campaigning. Government should keep out of the picture.

Viper's nest of tax avoiders

This was the title of an article in the Guardian today. The big accountancy firms were blamed. But surely it is the tax system that is at fault?

Neither the author of the original article, nor any of he commentators, made this point.

Underneath all the fog of discussion there lies a simple reality. Taxes can ultimately be levied only on one of the three factors of production. These three factors are land, capital and labour. Wealth is created when people, with the aid of capital, apply their labour to land.

If labour is taxed, this increases the cost of labour and discourages people from employing. This has two results. The first is unemployment. The other is to encourage people to move the employment elsewhere. If individuals are taxed, they will move themselves, if they can.

If capital is taxed, then the tendency again will be for capital either not to be created in the first place of for it to be destroyed (remember the de-roofing of factories to avoid rates, and look at the large areas of brownfield sites all over the country) - or for it to be moved elsewhere. How many factories have been moved lock, stock and barrel to China and India in recent years?

The third option is to tax land. There are many ways of doing this, eg when land is sold or when planning consents are granted. These cause stagnation of the land market and are harmful. But a tax falling on the rental value of land, based on market assessments, has the effect of bringing land into its most productive use.

Since land cannot be hidden or removed to a tax haven, and development of the land does not increase the amount payable, there is no way of avoiding the tax.

Instead of blaming accountants and the wealthy for acting in their own interest, mostly taking account of the legal loopholes in the tax laws, it is up to governments to address the problem by reforming their tax systems.

tisdag 24 juli 2007

Things I am not missing while I am away


Just passing Through :)))
Originally uploaded by UK Yorkie.

I was reflecting on this as I walked into the town centre at Uppsala this morning. You can see the trains going over the bridge. You will not see a Virgin train or a train in any of the other absurd liveries that have been applied to Britain's trains since 1996. And if you have to travel in a train, you will find enough space for your legs, elbows and luggage.

Which made me think about what else I was not missing and then compare with the other UK students who are here. So, here are a few more things that are part of the familiar British scene but rare or non-existent in Sweden.

Broken pavements
Street litter
Gobs of old chewing gum all over the place
CCTV cameras
Tesco
Virgin
Chavs
People living in shop doorways
Drunken young men fighting in the streets
Vandalism
The flag, used with xenophobic intent
Large numbers of seriously obese men, women and children

This is not to say that the Swedes are a race of saints or that there isn't any crime or that they are completely accepting of foreigns. But the British, collectively, seem to have lost their grip.

Why has this happened?

Sorry, I have no enthusiasm about returning.

söndag 22 juli 2007

Tree of Life


This poster in the Uppsala University Botanic Gardens shows the family relationship between flowering plants. It was built up not from fossils but from DNA analysis, which largely corroborates what has been deduced from fossils. Why, therefore, anyone should deny the overwhelming evidence for evolution is a mystery.

A few months ago I got into a discussion with some Christian evangelicals who had a display, including some anti-evolution books, on a table in the main shopping square in Brighton. I mentioned that I was a Christian and that I didn't have a problem with evolution. I asked why they did.

The answer, I was told, is Scripture, so I asked which translation. "The King James version", was the reply. I asked him which language this had been made from, but the fellow didn't know. "Hebrew", I said, and asked which was the oldest version of scripture. He didn't know that either, so I said it was the Septuagint, an early translation into Greek. At this point he went into rant mode so I walked off and let him rant by himself.

But the problem for people who want to accept a literal interpretation of scripture is this. The meaning of words changes with the passing of the years. Styles of writing change. Poetic writing is not intended to be taken literally but metaphorically. And Hebrew presents particular difficulties of its own as it is written without vowels, and the same written word can often represent one of several possibilities.

As for Genesis, the Hebrew word for "day", as in "...on the seventh day", can mean an epoch or period. Even if one does not want to take the Genesis text as a reworking of older accounts of the order of creation, there is no reason to assume that "day" refers to a 24 hour period.

So it is bizarre that anyone should wish to do interpret an ancient text in such a way. Why they should do so, and in large numbers, would be an interesting subject for study in itself.

Will ignorance triumph?

söndag 15 juli 2007

Should we build on Green Field sites?

This was the subject of an article in today's Observer. To judge from the article and comments, the issue is not being explored in the necessary depth.

85% of Britain's population live within an area of about 150 miles radius centred roughly on Leicester. This is not because they particularly want to but because that is where the jobs are.

There are many reasons for this but the main explanation is that it is an example of the workings of Ricardo's Law of Rent, as it interacts with a tax system that ignores the facts of geographical advantage and disadvantage. The tax per unit of wealth production is the same in, say, the far north of Scotland as it is in the middle of London, and the effect is to make large tracts of the country sub-marginal for economic activity. With a different tax system, taking account of geographical advantage and disadvantage, these marginal areas could sustain viable economies; one need only look at places like Jersey and Iceland where it would be impossible to make a livelihood under the UK tax system.

The present concentration of population gives rise to a collection of problems - high housing costs, road and rail congestion, shortage of people to run essential service industries. In the absence of other measures, building on green field land in London and the South East will do little to alleviate rising costs of housing and will create other problems in its wake.

As regards high densities and quality of living space, typical Victorian suburbs with two-storey terrace houses have densities of around 45 houses per hectare whilst still leaving a decent amount of garden space and without feeling oppressively over-built. The trick of the better Victorian developers was to have efficiently designed houses laid out in a way that used the land efficiently. This is a technique - I would not call it an art -that has been forgotten.

torsdag 12 juli 2007

Planning Gain Supplement shelved


Housing Development Burgess Hill
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

The Guardian reported today that government's proposed Planning Gain Supplement would be shelved if a better alternative could be found.

This is after about four years of work by various appointed committees headed by highflyers like Kate Barker, who came up with the idea, and Sir Michael Lyons, who addressed the issue as part of his remit to reform local government finance.

The Land Value Taxation Campaign made submissions pointing out that the most appropriate and practicable way of collecting development value was through the form of Land Value Taxation advocated by the Campaign. When the proposals for the Planning Gain Supplement were announced, the Campaign, amongst many other groups, pointed out that similar legislation had been adopted and failed in Britain four times since 1945 and that precisely the same thing would happen again.

So it seems as if after all the work now done, at vast expense, the government has just backed off. At least that is some kind of victory for commonsense, but what a wasteful way to run the country, and the problem of finding an effective solution remains. One might remind Gordon Brown of the alternative of Land Value Taxation, but it is a safe bet that he will not take any notice.

Of course, the objectors are motivated solely by self-interest, but what is depressing is that those who recognise that the PGS is an attempt to deal with a genuine problem are unable to look at the issue in any depth and suggest a workable alternative.

Here is the text of the Guardian article, headed "Brown retreats over tax on property developers"

"Gordon Brown rowed back from a row with Britain's property developers today, postponing a move that would have seen a levy on the profits made by housebuilders.

The new prime minister announced the controversial "planning gain supplement" (PGS) - intended to be part of this autumn's Queen speech - would be shelved if a "better alternative" could be found.

The dry-sounding bill was intended to fund local infrastructure projects from the windfall profits often made by developers when planning permission is granted.

Instead, Mr Brown promised to consult over the summer on alternative measures, with the bill only being provisionally tabled this autumn. The House Builders' Federation, which represents Taylor-Wimpey and Barretts as well as 300 other homebuilders, welcomed the apparent U-turn. The Organisation's director of economic affairs, John Stewart, said: "We're pleased the prime minister is not charging ahead with something we don't think would have the benefits expected of it. "There are better alternatives to a property gain tax and we were concerned this wasn't a workable proposal. "Homebuilders want to see funding for new communities, but there are better alternatives - none of them perfect - and we would like to see a degree of flexibility."

The planning gain supplement had been intended to replace existing section 106 agreements between developers and local authorites, whereby builders agree to construct a road or playground or other amenity in return for planning permission.

The building industry complained the new tax could make developments less profitable leading to a stall in construction, and that 30% of any revenue would be used to fund regional projects, rather than local ones.

The PGS would have levied a "modest" tax on the uplift in value on land when it was granted planning permission. The original intention was to have the bill in the Queen's speech and on the statute book by 2009.

The British Property Federation, which represents commercial builders and investors, said they were "delighted" the "deeply flawed" PGS had been delayed.

Faraz Baber, director for planning and regeneration, said: "The PGS tax is not supported by the property industry and has received lacklustre support amongst a wide range of stakeholders."

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors also welcomed the consultation, saying PGS was "not the most appropriate mechanism" for increasing the supply of housing.

The RICS, along with some other players in the industry, would rather see a straightforward fixed-price tariff, as has been piloted in Milton Keynes, rather than a percentage of the windfall gain.

However, there was consternation at the possible loss of the scheme from other sectors of the industry.The National Housing Federation, which represents not-for-profit housing associations, said: "We strongly support the planning gain supplement and urge the government to go ahead with it."

tisdag 10 juli 2007

Sveriges Riksdag


sveriges riksdag
Originally uploaded by bendus.

You can walk through the neat formal gardens in front of the Swedish parliament building and nobody will try and stop you.

You would not be allowed to do this anywhere near the British Houses of Parliament, which is fortified, defended and stiff with armed police.

Perhaps there is a difference between the British and Swedish parliaments which makes one a more attractive target than the other. What could it be, I wonder?

måndag 9 juli 2007

Proliferating Piffle

Piffle proliferates. Today's Guardian carries a report of a study which accuses Gordon Brown of pricing first-time buyers out of the property market. Its research showed that they faced an average stamp duty bill approaching £1,500.

'"Policy Exchange, the centre-right thinktank, called for the charge to be cut or abolished after finding that it now posed a barrier to would-be homeowners in most regions.

Today's report points out that, although the stamp duty threshold has been doubled to apply to homes sold for £125,000 or more, it has failed to keep up with fast-rising prices.

Oliver Marc Hartwich, the thinktank's chief economist, said: "Hundreds of thousands of first-time buyers now have to pay the government to get on the property ladder, whereas they wouldn't have had to pay anything a decade ago.

"The government cannot directly control house prices, but it does control stamp duty, and it should help first-time buyers by cutting it or even abolishing altogether for first-time buyers." '


I am not in favour of Stamp Duty on the sale of houses, but it is evident that neither the economists at the "Think Tank" nor Guardian's journalist have a proper understanding of the land market.

There are two effects at work here, the coarse one and the subtle one. If the tax came off, there would be more money in the pockets of house buyers, and they would bid up house prices by about the amount of the tax. Thus, the coarse effect of the tax is to take money from sellers, money which they would otherwise be able to realise through the sale of their houses.

The subtle effect is that the tax discourages people from selling property they already own as it adds to the cost of moving, This is creating a shortage of places to buy and discouraging people from moving into smaller accommodation when their homes are larger than they need. So to that extent, it is indeed keeping house prices higher than they might otherwise be. But this is not, apparently, what the commentators are saying.
The full article

The solution is to get rid of the tax and replace it, and all the other taxes which fall on the value of land, with a annual tax on site rental values.

söndag 8 juli 2007

Estonian War Memorial Row


Pronkssõdur
Originally uploaded by kalevkevad.

A few weeks ago there was Russian outrage at the moving of the war memorial from a prominent situatin in Tallinn.

Here is a picture of it in its new location, which seems to me a sensitive and respectful solution, given the sufferings, over a period of 60 years, of the Estonians under Soviet occupation - and I do not recall any protests about that occupation from the kind of people who are so critical of the Israelis.

Surely no government in the world has acted more generously towards its former invaders? As citizens of the EU, they must be the luckiest Russians in the world.

lördag 7 juli 2007

English and American - two languages


Two languages - two dictionaries. But I am not sure if they are different inside.

Anti Mosque petition which I will not be signing



Originally uploaded by Karin in Paris.

I received an email asking me to sign a petition against a proposed mosque in east London. I will not be signing it.

It was not clear exactly what was proposed nor exactly what was opposed but it referred to Britain as being a Christian country. As the email had come from and been circulated among people, whom I have never known to darken the doors of a church, this looks like bare racism and I said as much to the person from Brighton Swimming Club who had sent me the request to sign the petition. If the originator of this is traced and reprimanded, it will be well deserved, but as I am far away, it isn't going to be me.

However, all this is not to say that I do not regard the unintegrated Muslim presence as problematic.

I am at present in Sweden, which like Denmark, has generously offered hospitality to people in need of refuge, in line with a long and honourable tradition, only to find it abused. So to claim there is not a problem is a dangerous pretence. On the whole, Moslems are not integrating. They come from such a different culture that they are inevitably going to be at odds with our secular materialist one. In this respect they differ utterly from the large number of Christian immigrants from the Middle East and Asia who now make up a significant minority and have mostly integrated well. So this is not a question of racism.

A further layer of complexity is created by an unholy alliance anti-Christians masquerading as liberals who are anxious to pretend that there is not a problem. The trouble with petitions like the one I was asked to sign is is that they play into the hands of stupid little Englanders like those who dominate Brighton Swimming Club through which I received the request. And equally, it enables the unholy alliance to dismiss the problem as mere prejudice and bigotry.

Religion and stuff


For some reason I have been pondering religion and stuff lately. As a Catholic, I take it for granted, go to Mass on Sundays and sometimes during the week, and confession once a month, which makes it as much a part of my routine as going shopping and washing. It helps me make sense of life, keeps me out of the worst sort of mischief and gets me through the rocky passages that we encounter from time to time. But increasingly I find myself coming under attack, openly, or in an attitude of sniggering, or in a kind of coldness, because I hold to this position. So why do I stick with it?

I find the clergy mediocre on the whole, and the hierarchy, at least in England and Wales, unimpressive. And a lot of trouble has been caused by people acting, or claiming to act, in the church's name, to say nothing of recent scandals where people in authority have covered up.

On the other hand, there are plenty of front line clergy who do a first-rate job, often in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances, having given up the opportunity to enjoy a well-paid job and comfortable life.

In the final analysis however, the quality of the clergy and the disreputable events in the history of the church are beside the point. It is the message that counts. I have no problem with that message, and it is important to distinguish between the teaching that is being put across and the, sometimes bad, teachers who are carriers of the message. One has to look behind the messengers and their own behaviour. This is difficult but has to be done.

In this respect it helps to be a Catholic as it possesses the authority given to Peter by Christ (Matthew 16)

'And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.'


Now I know that the meaning of this has been argued over for more than 1000 years, but to ascribe any other meaning to this text demands mental gymnastics, and for what?

If one does not hold to the authority of the magisterium of the church, then what authority do you go to? One cannot work these things out for oneself - there just is not enough time in an individual's lifetime. The Catholic church has built up a body of tradition over 2000 years during which time everything that could possibly be argued over has been debated and discussed to the minutest degree.

One consequence is that all the arguments have been thoroughly tested in all conceivable circumstances and the orthodox line can be relied upon. When at times it has seen unfashionably restrictive, events have had a habit of proving it right.

And so I regard the Catholic church as giving good guidance and helping me to maintain what is, I hope, a reasonably balanced view and understanding of the world and what goes on in it. The price is that I am told I cannot, or should do all sorts of things I would rather enjoy doing, which I think is what really puts most people off.

I make no apologies for posting a picture of the Pope as someone who is steadfast in maintaining what was entrusted to Peter in the event described in Matthew 18.

onsdag 4 juli 2007

A Ghost

An hour's research last week turned up a few facts which were both strange and shocking.

Long ago, when I was at school, I ate at the same table as a boy from Sweden, the same age as myself. While I was in Stockholm, I looked in the telephone directory, thinking perhaps that we might meet up. His name, which was unusual, was not there so I looked him up on the internet and discovered some disturbing things.

First, that he had died earlier this year. Second, that he had been a rabbi, which slightly surprised me as he did not seem the kind of person to go in for that kind of thing. Third, he had become well known as the author of a biography of someone who had become famous as a result of his work in the Second World War, And, finally, that he had been convicted of a serious crime and spent time in prison.

This seems to suggest that all sorts of people can get drawn into all sorts of things, without premeditation, probably through just a moment's lapse.

Learning Swedish in Uppsala


Uppsala Sweden
Originally uploaded by lydurs.

It is strange the way things happen. We do things we never imagined we could possibly do or would ever have been likely to do.

For some reason I can't explain, after three visits to Sweden last year, the first two just passing through when I was on the way to Estonia and back, I have felt the urge to come back yet again, so I signed up for a Summer School run by the Swedish Institute and I am staying for the whole summer and learning the language.

So that is a strange experience as one does not expect to be living the life of a student when most of one's contemporaries have long been retired. I am finding I can hold my own with with classmates who are young enough to be my children.

With less than ten million speaking it, Swedish is not a language anyone would learn on account of its great utility, unlike French, Spanish or Portuguese, especially for an English-speaking person in a country where English is widely spoken. But if you want to get to know what makes a place tick, you need to know the language as you can't expect people in a group to all speak English just for your benefit.

So the whole experience prompts many reflections.

Most of the people on the course already have some kind of connection with the country, usually through family, even if the link is, like mine, a tenuous one through Estonia. Most are also here, in some sense or other, to get away from something, an issue which has brought many waves of people to Sweden over the years. That goes for me. Britain is not the country I grew up in and it has become increasingly unpleasant - a place to move away from if one can. This was a widespread view amongst contemporaries I met earlier in the year.

The student come from many countries - the largest contingents are from the US, the UK and Germany, with a few from Korea, Japan and China. A desire to get away from something is a widespread theme; this morning, when the class I am in was asked if anyone felt homesick, the overwhelming majority were emphatic that they did not.

The students from Britain are suffering because of the state of the British education system, in particular the fact that grammar is almost never taught.

Related to this is the general issue of foreign language teaching in Britain, which continues to be contentious. It used to be that French was the first foreign language to be taught, presumably on the grounds that it was a diplomatic language and that France is the nearest foreign country. The second foreign language was usually German, which was important, amongst other things, for its use in science.

In the past forty years, both languages have been declining in popularity. During the Cold War, there was a vogue for Russian, and Spanish has come up due to the number people speaking it and the growing number of people who go to Spain on holiday or to retire. Other languages which have grown in popularity include Arabic and Chinese.

The truth is, however, that one never knows what language one will need to learn, and so perhaps the most useful one is a dead one which can act as a model for many languages. On that basis, the future should be bright for Latin.

As for Uppsala, it is a clean and pleasant town with jackdaws in the main shopping street and a medieval cathedral so heavily restored that it looks like a nineteenth century building. But it suffers from the Swedish syndrome that so much built in the past seventy years looks bland, possibly as a reflection of the near-Soviet Social Democratic politics which have held sway here, with the result that much of the town looks like a post-war British New Town but without the litter and all the fat scruffy people.

"New Town aesthetic" describes the student apartment I am living it, which is hardly worth even a photograph. The place is built as solidly as a bomb shelter, the planning is very well thought-out right through to the detail design level, the amenities are superb and the rooms themselves are nice and big and I have a pleasant open view with lots of trees. But it all lacks a certain something and as so many of the buildings look much the same and there are few landmarks outside the city centre, I keep getting lost!

tisdag 3 juli 2007

Andres Serrano - cultural hooligan


I was recently on a trip away with a friend who suggested that we go to a gallery which was exhibiting photographs by Andres Serrano, whose name meant nothing to me.

The gallery was closed, so I asked my friend about what we had missed. The reply was that his work was "extreme" - that he had done something called "Piss Christ", which I will not reproduce on my blog, but is a photograph of a cheap plastic crucifix in a basin of the photographer's urine. My friend is ok but has a hang-up about Christianity and presumably approves of the work. Apparently, so does the contemplative nun Sister Wendy Beckett, and her's is a valid interpretation, but I doubt if the photographer's intention was anything other than to mock Christianity. Defacing other people's devotional objects is a species of cultural hooliganism no different in principle from leaving pig's heads on the doorsteps of mosques.

This sort of thing does not bother me, as the Lord can look after himself, but it is odd how people can't leave religion alone when they claim to have walked away from it, as though they imagine bits of plastic and other representations still have power over them. It is the ultimate superstition when governments blow up statues and people who purport to be artists deface gimcrack religious artefacts.

What sad people they must be that they cannot let it go. C S Lewis made a reference to it in his book That Hideous Strength, when the hero is asked to tread on a crucifix and comes to realise at that moment that there is a spiritual force driving those who are asking him to perform this act.

In praise of Aspergers

We should take a moment now and again to acknowledge the fact that civilisation as we know it would never have arisen if it were not for the...