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Clement clementines

Here’s a question that popped into my mind while swimming: what’s the connection between the word ‘clement’ and the fruit ‘clementine’? It seemed especially puzzling given that ‘clement’ is an adjective, and we often add suffixes like ‘-ine’ to convert nouns to adjectives (‘alpine’, ‘bovine’, ‘crystalline’—that kind of thing).

As you probably know, ‘clement’ comes to us from the Latin ‘clemens’ meaning something like ‘merciful’ when applied to a person (who might grant ‘clemency’), and the same sense of ‘mild’ or ‘gentle’ when applied to the weather, as we do today. According to some sources, ‘clemens’ originally derived from ‘clino’ (as in incline) and ‘menos’ (as in minus), putting us in mind of an easy, gentle downhill slope.

So, are ‘clementines’ named for a mild, non-acidic flavour? Or perhaps they grow best in ‘clement’ weather? Or maybe we’re reaching back even further, and they’re cultivated on gentle sunny slopes?

Sadly, it’s none of the above. They were first cultivated by a French missionary called Clément Rodier in Algeria and are named after him. That’s an etymological disappointment, but at least I learned something along the way.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023.

I’ve been reading ‘Why is This Lying Bastard Lying to Me?’ by Rob Burley

This is Rob Burley’s account of his 25-year-long career making political television programmes, mostly for the BBC. He starts with the political interviews that he watched as a child between Brian Walden and Margaret Thatcher, and concludes with thoughts on the start of Rishi Sunak’s term as Prime Minister.

There were some great insights into the work that goes into making such programmes, with a particular focus on long-form interviews. Burley’s views on many of the topics he discusses are almost diametrically opposed to my own, and his passionate arguments were therefore interesting to read.

Burley believes that television interviews are particularly important, and perhaps the best way of testing political candidates. I think that radio, television, and press interviews and profiles all have equally significant roles to play. Burley argues that the failure of Truss and Johnson to participate in set-piece 30-minute television interviews is almost an affront to democracy—I don’t think they would have changed a thing. I don’t think it’s reasonable to argue that the electorate didn’t know what they were getting from the acres of coverage and dissection of both of their campaigns. I think their choice not to face a forensic interview was revealing in its own way. Burley didn’t convince me of his perspective, but I appreciated his insights.

The book was also very funny in parts. It was light and very readable. I enjoyed it.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

I’ve visited the Chris Killip retrospective

Before I visited this exhibition, I had no idea who Chris Killip was: perhaps that makes me too ignorant to have an opinion on this major retrospective of his work.

If you are as clueless as me, then I should explain that he was one of the most celebrated and important post-war documentary photographers of the UK. He was especially known for his 1980s photography of Tyneside, published in a landmark book called In Flagrante in 1988. His work intended to show, as he put it, ‘not those who made history, but those who had history done to them.’ He was born on the Isle of Man in 1946 and died from lung cancer in 2020.

Killip was a co-founder at the original creator of the Side Gallery in Newcastle, which—with unbelievable timing—closed due to a lack of funding in April 2023, while this major retrospective exhibition was running just a stone’s throw away.

When I visited last week, a couple of months into the run, the exhibition was heaving. It was like something at the British Museum. The place was packed.

I’m waffling. And I’m waffling because I’m trying to minimise the fact that this sort of photography does very little for me. I don’t feel any emotional connection to it, and I don’t feel drawn to it. It just isn’t my kind of thing. I much preferred the personality and humour on display in Mark Pinder’s retrospective earlier this year. I also wasn’t keen on the decision to display the photos in glass frames in a brightly lit environment, which meant that reflections made them—in a very practical sense—quite hard to actually see.

I’m trying to minimise that because I don’t want to put you off. Even The Telegraph—the newspaper least likely to enjoy photographs of poor people from the North—gave it four stars. The interest and joy that the photographs in this exhibition inspired in other visitors was greater than anything else I’ve seen this year, bar Vermeer. I don’t to hold back anyone from having that kind of experience… even if it didn’t have that effect on me.

The Chris Killip retrospective continues at the Baltic until 3 September.

The picture at the top is my photograph of Killip’s photograph called Bus Stop I. I chose this entirely because the name reminded me of Diamond Geezer’s detailed coverage of Bus Stop M. This probably says something about my level of engagement with the work.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

The worth of a life

Last week, the news paid open-ended attention to the loss at sea of the Titan submersible and its wealthy crew. Days earlier, the plight of 750 people, many of them children, on the sunken Adriana didn’t even make the top story on the bulletins I saw.

Ours can’t have been the only sofa in Britain on which the comparison was made with dismay.

On the LRB Blog, Michael Chessum suggests:

The mass drowning of migrants does not meet the media’s criteria for a human-interest story because the victims have been dehumanised. Centuries of racist conditioning have led us to this point, but there is a new strategy at work, too. Donald Trump and Suella Braverman have an air of performative stupidity, and it comforts the liberal commentariat to believe that the far right’s spell in power is a blip. But their project is deadly serious and for the long term. Trump’s ‘big, beautiful wall’ and the UK government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. The core narrative of the nationalist right, that migrants and foreigners are to blame for falling living standards, now dominates the mainstream. It feeds popular demand for the militarisation of our borders.

I’m not certain that I fully agree: I think there’s an element to which the loss of life of migrants has become normalised and ‘expected’, whereas the Titan story was unlike any story we’ve heard in recent years. Yet, the balance of coverage—not to mention the relative willingness of nation-states to spend money on each rescue effort—did feel like an upsetting new low to me.

Twenty years ago, Aaron Sorkin tried to shock us by including a ballsy line in the fourth season of The West Wing making the case that, from the President’s perspective, ‘a Kundunese life is worth less than an American life.’1

These days, it’s no longer the shocking subtext: it’s beamed into each of our homes in full technicolour, so routine that it no longer attracts on-air comment.

  1. Equatorial Kundu is one of Sorkin’s most successful fictional countries, originating in The West Wing, making a cameo in The Newsroom, escaping the Sorkin universe in iZombie, and turning up in any number of fictional exercises and assignments. Qumar never quite caught on in the same way.

This post was filed under: Media, News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, , , , .

Motivating lines and rings

Yesterday, I enjoyed Jonathan Rothwell’s blog post reflecting on the motivation he derives—without realising it—from his smartwatch.

Like Jonathan, my energy levels go up and down over time, and sporadically, I benefit from a prompt to move a little more. But I’ve never been good at ‘recovering’: I had an Apple Watch ‘streak’ lasting over a year, for example, and once I broke it, I didn’t really feel motivated any more.

Over the years, I’ve found a slightly mad solution: I use many systems to motivate myself so that there’s always at least one I’m interested in. I look at Apple Watch stats, I use Gentler Streak, I use Streaks, I pay for Conqueror medals, I maintain spreadsheets, and more besides. They are all tracking, in one way or another, how much exercise I get—but all in slightly different ways based on different metrics and targets.

Jonathan says he’s worried that his motivation is a sign of addiction. My level of tracking myself is vaguely obsessive. But I think that if it keeps us both moving more than we would otherwise, then that’s probably a good thing overall.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney. Midjourney’s idea of what someone who is motivated to exercise by spreadsheets looks like is, to put it mildly, not exactly true to life. I often wear socks with my shorts.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, .

I’ve been reading ‘I’m Not as Well as I Thought I Was’ by Ruby Wax

Ruby Wax has written many books; this is the first I’ve read. I decided to read it because I’d seen from a two-line newspaper review that it was about Wax’s admission to an in-patient psychiatric hospital for a depressive episode, and was an account of her time there. I’m often interested in reading first-person accounts of this sort of thing, particularly as my experience in these settings has been entirely from the professional perspective, and it’s interesting to get the other perspective. Although fictional, Jasper Gibon’s The Octopus Man did this very well, and I enjoyed reading it back in February.

Unfortunately, this is only a small part of this book. The bulk of it is a collection of autobiographical anecdotes, many of which have no obvious connection with the mental health aspect. It’s a bit like a celebrity autobiography: a chunk of the book is a behind-the-scenes account of the making of a television documentary about Isabella Bird, there’s another chunk about working with refugees, and so on. This isn’t what I was expecting, and I’m not certain that I would have picked up the book if I’d understood the content to be so varied, but there were some interesting observations in there.

This didn’t inspire me to explore the back catalogue.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

The risk of everything else

I recently came across one of Krishan Coupland’s posts on The Liminal Residency, in which he reflects on deaths at theme parks. In part, Coupland reflects on the difference in the reaction to deaths and injuries according to the setting in which they occur. Specifically, he contrasts the giant reaction to the life-changing injuries experienced in an accident aboard the Smiler rollercoaster at Alton Towers with the muted reaction to a much higher number of injuries and deaths experienced on a particularly dangerous road to Alton Towers.

This is not a new observation: we all know that fear of flying in the aftermath of 9/11 led to people taking a much riskier car journey, perversely increasing the rate of death and serious injury among travellers. I wrote about something similar on 14 April 2021, when I did some back-of-an-envelope calculations about covid vaccine risks versus the risk of travelling to venues.

But I’ve never thought about it in a theme park context, and—perhaps partly because I’ve recently visited The Hoppings—I thoroughly enjoyed Coupland’s reflections.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve been reading ‘The People Who Report More Stress’ by Alejandro Varela

I didn’t find out until after I read this book that Alejandro Varela is a specialist in public health. That explains the focus of many of the short stories in this collection, and also why they intersected with many of my own interests.

Verela is based in New York, which serves as the setting for these interconnected stories. The focus is on people who are at the margins of society, either as a result of being quietly introverted or due to more structural issues. The main themes in the book are around romantic relationships (particularly among men), parenting, and everyday racism.

The ‘book is also very funny. ‘Carlitos in Charge,’ a comedic piece about the absurdity of the United Nations (and the sexual encounters between the staff) stood out to me as riotously good fun, not least because the satire had the sting of underlying truth to it.

As in any collection, some stories were more successful than others. Short stories are not my favourite medium, but I enjoyed this book, and will add Varela’s much praised first book, The Town of Babylon, to my list.

Some quotations I noted down:

That doesn’t matter, Dear. My grandmother said this in response to almost everything: marital spats, earthquakes, authoritarianism, late-stage cancer. Whether it was the tone or the pith that made her words so persuasive was unclear. But whomever heard her say them understood that she knew well the distinction between problems and pain.

The transportation app on my phone flashes a warning about the F train: it’s been rerouted and delayed. In other words, one can be late for a place they never intended to visit.

In a short period of time, I learned that the United States was immune to easily interpretable, common-sense data on everything -pollution, tuberculosis, birth control, abortion, breastfeeding, war, rape, white phosphorous, blue phosphorous, red phosphorous, lithium, PTSD, GMOs, slavery, winged migration, lions, tigers, polar bears, grizzly bears, panda bears, capital punishment, corporal punishment, spanking, poverty, drug decriminalization, incarceration, labor unions, cooperative business structures, racist mascots, climate change, Puerto Rico, Yemen, Syria, Flint, Michigan, women, children, wheelchairs, factory farms, bees, whales, sharks, daylight saving, roman numerals, centimeters, condoms, coal, cockfighting, horse betting, dog racing, doping, wealth redistribution, mass transit, the IMF, CIA, IDF, MI5, MI6, TNT, snap bracelets, Pez dispensers, Banksy. It didn’t matter what it was. If the Human Rights Council (or Cuba) advocated one way, the United States went the other.

She’s wearing a gold band, but no engagement ring. I’m relieved. Literate women who wear engagement rings destabilize all my notions of feminism. I’m grateful this tradition seems to be falling by the wayside.

As if on cue, my little wombat skulks into the room with a guilty but also aggrieved turbulence in his eyes and brow. We adopted Julio, and he looks nothing like me, not his hair, not his teeth, not his marshmallow face, but he is me, almost more so than I am.

“Did you hear that, Julio?” I shout toward my son as he and his friend take off down the hallway. “One hour. I don’t want to hear any crying or screaming. I’m setting a timer too.”

Timers. Christ.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for any tools or techniques that facilitate the trauma-free domestication of our small, wild humans, but the gulf between my childhood and my children’s is vast and vertigo inducing. My parents used to set timers with the backs of their hands. Sometimes, the timers were made of leather. But those were different times, I’ve heard people say. I assume they meant different income brackets.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, .

It’s not always a crisis

I was recently struck by this post on Dan Cullum’s blog. A lot of my professional time is spent explaining to people why something isn’t a crisis, and why they ought not to be panicking about it. It’s not an easy skill, but it’s one that I think I’ve become quite good at over the years.

I find it much harder to do the opposite, and convince someone that something is a crisis when they’re not treating it as one. This applies as much to things that are small and specific (‘this approach to this problem is fundamentally unsafe’) as to things that are large and general (‘the planet’s climate is becoming incompatible with life’).

This is a nut I haven’t cracked.

It strikes me that this is not dissimilar to a challenge I faced in clinical medicine. One of my strengths was my ability to reassure people, to address and calm their fears. But, like most doctors, I struggled with convincing people to change their behaviour, particularly when they judged it to be acceptable, no matter the risk to their personal health.

It’s not always a crisis, but sometimes it is, even when you think otherwise.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, .

I’ve been ogling ‘Apollo Remastered’ by Andy Saunders

This book is a collection of photographs of the Apollo missions to the moon. I managed to pick it up for £10 in a sale, while Waterstones are still listing it at £60.

The photographs taken during the missions were obviously taken on film. The film has been stored in a secure freezer ever since, the better to stop it degrading. The films were recently defrosted, cleaned, and scanned at extremely high resolution. Despite this, the quality of the images themselves remains relatively poor: for example, as they were designed to be back-lit, they tend to be underexposed.

Andy Saunders took those detailed scans and manipulated them to produce authentic yet extremely clear versions. He talks in detail in the book about how he went about this, and how he chose to judge the line between accurate representation and artistic manipulation.

I found this fascinating to flick through. I had expected to be drawn mostly to the detailed photography of the technology of the era, but in fact, that didn’t affect me much at all.

There were three things that stood out.

Firstly, the wonderful photographs of the astronauts. Many of these look like beautifully shot and lit portraits. They bring out the humanity of the endeavour, and it helped me to understand the personal risk each of them took by participating in this programme. Every human being who has ever walked on the moon is included in this book. It is also impossible not to be struck by the fact that all twelve are white American men.

Secondly, the astonishing pictures of the earth. I’ve seen many of these pictures countless times over the years, but seeing them presented in this book, in stunning clarity, gives something of a new perspective.

Thirdly, the focus on the USA. It has never really struck me before how absurd it is to have a spacecraft floating in magnificent isolation with the letters ‘USA’ painted on it. I’ve never truly considered the madness of planting an American flag on the moon. But there is something about contemplating the astonishing photographs in this book which made me think about how narrow one’s view of the world must be to ‘brand’ the mission as the product of a country.

A couple of months ago, I watched and recommended the film Apollo 11, composed entirely of archive footage of that mission. My reaction to the film was to be awed; my reaction to these photographs was more contemplative. I think both are worth seeking out.

This post was filed under: Art, Post-a-day 2023, , .

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