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Hat chat

There was a story by Vanessa Friedman in The New York Times recently about the dress code in the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot, which included the startlingly specific fact that hats:

must include a base that is at least four inches in diameter. That means “fascinators,” those bizarre concoctions of net and sparkle that sit on the edge of a headband like a bird on a twig, are not allowed.

There are few things I’m less likely ever to need to know than this dress code, but it made me wonder quite how specific the requirements could possibly be. The answer is ‘very’.

Friedman quotes a milliner: ‘To err on the side of extravagance as opposed to modesty is a joy for everyone.’

I find within myself a surprising degree of sympathy for that perspective, but it seems a shame that it applies only to women. Men are prohibited any hint of extravagance: my choice is only of a grey or black top hat, about which colour ribbons, feathers or other embellishments are expressly prohibited. Even for ties—the definition of a useless embellishment—‘novelty patterns’ are disallowed. It’s just a sea of boring men in dull grey (or black or navy) suits.

It feels like such a strange choice in the modern world. It doesn’t even feel particularly traditional for a country with quite outlandish masculine fashion traditions—there will be working blokes there wearing scarlet jackets, gold buttons, winged epaulets with bloody great bear skins on their heads for goodness’ sake, with a far longer history than a Moss Bros top hat.

If it were me, I’d go full on ‘suits of armour’, ‘gold-threaded royal tabards’ and ’mandatory codpieces’. The current option just seems terribly boring… but then, it was never my thing to begin with.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Art, News and Comment, , , , .

Room with a view

This post was filed under: Photos, , .

‘The Problem with My Normal Penis’ by Obioma Ugoala

As you can see, I bought this book by renowned actor Obioma Ugoala when it was first released; it has since been re-released with the much better title The Making of a Man. It is a memoir focusing on Ugoala’s experiences of racism and sexism in his life and career, along with reflections on the complexities of masculinity. It’s also an argument for change, and a challenge to us all to improve society.

There was much in Ugoala’s account that I found shocking. For example, we’re of a broadly similar age, and it is astonishing to me that someone growing up at the same time as me could have been the victim of openly racist remarks from his teachers. It opened my eyes, as did many of the experiences that followed. His account of being told, as part of his upbringing, that ‘racism is not your fault, but it’s going to be your challenge’ was deeply moving—and to hear that having this sort of conversation is a ‘standard’ part of childhood for black children in the UK is heartbreaking.

And yet, the thing that struck me most about this book was Ugoala’s capacity for forgiveness. He talks about forgiving his teachers, for example, and explains repeatedly how he does not blame many of those who have demonstrated terrible behaviour towards him. His deep-rooted belief in the need to improve society, to tackle problems systemically and at a population level, results in an inspiring and superhuman ability to avoid pouring opprobrium on individuals. I found it extraordinary, and I can only aspire to his capacity.

This was an inspiring and insightful read, perhaps even uplifting, albeit one that reveals some deep-seated problems in our society.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, .

Relaxing greenery

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It’s not an original observation, but I’m of the strong opinion that the role of the doctor and the role of the priest are more closely related than many people realise. I think I’d have made a great priest, though I’m probably better paid as a doctor, and my atheism might have proven a barrier to the alternative.

This is perhaps even more true in public health than other specialties: I often ask people to do things which are to their own detriment—staying of work or isolating themselves—for the benefit of the greater good. The parallels with priesthood are inviolable.

When either role is done well, a large part—perhaps the majority—is listening. The act of simply listening while someone unburdens themselves provides a therapeutic benefit in itself—perhaps most of the benefit in many cases.

But, as Richard Smith reflects, this isn’t easy.

We interrupt because we mistakenly think people want answers, solutions. I’ve been making this mistake most days for 50 years.

Keeping quiet disguises the lack of solutions—but even with that impure motivation, allowing people to express themselves by keeping quiet provides a lot of therapeutic benefit.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , .

Stockport isn’t shit

On Tuesday, I recommended an election-themed tour of Britain from Le Magazine du Monde. Perhaps I just like plebiscite travelogues, because today I’m recommending this one from Jennifer Williams in the FT Magazine, where she tours parts of Northern England.

At Stockport’s recently renovated train station, the familiar words, “We are sorry to announce… ” bounced from the tannoys and around the platforms like abandoned campaign promises. My eastbound train was late. The westbound Liverpool train was also late. So was the northbound service from London to Manchester.

It was 11am on a weekday, but my train was standing room only. It was so tightly packed with passengers clutching luggage from nearby Manchester airport, so crammed with students, business people, families and pensioners headed towards Sheffield, that the member of staff pulling the catering trolley struggled to get it past us.

A couple of days later, a friend sent me a TikTok of the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who had apparently caught a train. “The train was great, thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “Been taking lots of pictures and videos and sending them back to my kids.” My eyes narrowed.

I liked how Williams captured the sense that ‘everywhere, people were doing remarkable things to move their places forward, but were losing faith in the state’s will or ability to help.’

That chimes with my experience, and I think offers a good explanation as to why the election polls portend poorly for the incumbent Government. It’s a theme she returns to at the end of the article, with the ’Stockport isn’t shit’ carrier bags.

I also smirked at a line from one of Williams’s interviewees:

On a visit to Grimsby in summer 2022, the levelling-up secretary Michael Gove toured the East Marsh estate. “We call it the poverty safari, don’t we, when all the rich white men come.”

In my line of work, we have similar epithets for when politicians or other national leaders visit, one of which is ‘the fascination tour’—for the number of times we’re told how ‘fascinating’ our work is.

Williams mentions the dominant narrative of ‘broken Britain’ in politics, which is clichéd—but clichéd for a reason. Across this article and the one I recommended yesterday, the fundamental observation seems to be that the state isn’t working, not just at one level, but at many.

The state is not protecting the most vulnerable in society, as exemplified by James Picken from Hartlepool in yesterday’s article, or the tripling of the number of tooth extractions in Bradford’s children in William’s article. But nor is it working at the higher level, as shown by yesterday’s observation about the pound losing 20% of its value, or Williams’s point about Local Authority bankruptcies.

The problem for Labour—if we accept that Labour is almost certain to form a Government next week—is that none of this is easily fixed.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , .

‘How to Have Sex’

In November last year, the FT’s Associate Editor Stephen Bush encouraged readers of his daily political email to see the film How to Have Sex, which he called ‘a peerless film about friendships, relationships and consent’. It has been on my ‘to watch’ list ever since, and I’ve finally got around to streaming it.

The film follows three sixteen-year-old girls, played by Mia McKenna-Bruce, Lara Peake and Enva Lewis, as they go on a boozy holiday in the party town of Malia, Crete, with the express intention of engaging in casual sex. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that, at least for the central character played by Mia McKenna-Bruce, this intention is fulfilled—but that this leads to some complicated and often dark emotional places. The film is understated, and somehow both devastating and yet, by the end, weirdly uplifting.

This is a film that is observational rather than judgemental. The acting and cinematography are so astoundingly good that it feels at times indistinguishable from an artfully constructed observational documentary. All three of the female leads have the capacity to communicate profound shifts in emotional states with the slightest change of expression. They must surely all be on the road to becoming giant stars.

It’s a film which I think I could watch over again and see entirely different things within it. It’s also one of very few films I’ve seen where I’ve thought that the medium is essential: I can’t imagine this working as well as a novel, for example, the ambiguity of seeing events and emotions makes it.

I concur with Stephen Bush: this is peerless.

This post was filed under: Film, , , .

A broken nation

In Le Magazine du Monde, Eric Albert—Le Monde’s departing London correspondent—takes a tour around the country to assess how it has changed since he first arrived:

On May 31, 2003, on an unusually warm spring day, I arrived in London somewhat by chance. I was living in Thailand at the time, and my partner had found a job in the UK capital. Arriving with no particular preconceptions, I discovered a surprisingly dynamic country, open to the world and happy with its multiculturalism.

At the time, the French were arriving in droves. An organization was set up to welcome young adventurers who arrived on the Eurostar with their rucksacks, helping them find a job and accommodation within a matter of days. At the other end of the social spectrum, graduates of France’s top business and engineering schools were snapping up trading jobs in the City. The fee-paying French Lycée in London could no longer keep up with demand.

Twenty-one years later, I’m about to return to France for professional reasons. The UK I’m leaving bears no resemblance to the one that welcomed me. The pound has fallen by almost 20%, immigration has become an obsession and the French Lycée has closed its doors, after many families left.

It is well worth reading the whole thing. The distance afforded by both time and an outsider’s perspective brings into sharp relief the sense of decline across the country.

It feels to me like so much of our election coverage in the UK focuses on the political parties rather than the state of the nation. I think Albert’s article offers more insight into the state of the election polls than any number of headlines about senior Tories’ alleged gambling crimes, or any other of the myriad campaign gaffes. The campaign isn’t working because the country isn’t working.

I was particularly struck by Albert’s mention of James Picken, a Hartlepool resident. It feels to me like this sums up so much:

Picken’s story is complicated. The 42-year-old didn’t need the current British decline to fall into poverty. His mother died of a Valium overdose when he was 15. His brother died of a heroin overdose. Having been a welder on gas platforms and worked in Norway, among other places, he then fell into a downward spiral. Alcohol, drugs and prison – the vicious circle began almost two decades ago.

What has been more recent is the harshness of the system, which pushes him back into a rut each time he tries to climb out of it. A few months ago, he missed an appointment at the Jobcentre state employment agency. The penalty was immediate. “Normally, I get £276 in welfare benefits every month. My rent is taken care of, but that has to cover all my bills – electricity, gas and phone – and all my food. After the penalty, I only got £18 for the whole month.”

What was bound to happen happened: Picken stole a stash of chocolate bars (“I was craving sugar”) and some chicken from a store. “When I got caught, I was almost relieved, thinking that at least in prison I’d have two guaranteed meals a day.” This system infuriates Bedding from the Annexe organization. “Who benefits from this situation? We put him in prison for eight weeks, which cost society thousands of pounds, because they wanted to save £200 initially on his welfare benefits. What was the point?”

‘What was the point?’ is, perhaps, a question with wider relevance and resonance.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , .

More than one volcano

At work, I was recently briefed on the potential public health effects in the UK of volcano eruptions, one of many threats on the national risk register. I learned the word ‘tephra’, which refers to the fragments of volcanic material that are ejected during an eruption. This includes the ash which caused such a nuisance when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010.

There was a linguistic element to the presentation that caught my eye: some slides referred to ‘volcanos’ and others to ‘volcanoes’. Which is the preferred term?

Quick: to the Oxford English Dictionary!

Linguistically, Mount Etna was the first volcano. Vulcan was the Roman god of fire, and the Romans considered Mount Etna his forge. Italian thus inherited the word ‘vulcano’, which English initially used interchangeably with the anglicised form ‘volcano’. From the 1600s, ‘volcano’ became the standard option. In terms of pluralising, the general approach was to add ‘es’, as with many other nouns ending in ‘o’ inherited from Italian (‘echo’, ‘motto’, and ‘buffalo’, for example).

It was that pesky Samuel Johnson who stole the ‘e’, omitting it from his mid-1700s dictionary. Noah Webster also omitted it when simplifying English for Americans, so ‘volcanos’ has been widely adopted in the USA. As someone born and raised east of the Atlantic, I’m duty-bound to prefer the spelling ‘volcanoes’—and the OED feels the same. The Google Ngram viewer suggests that everyone else does, too, regardless of what Johnson and Webster thought:

Now that I’ve learned that ‘volcanos’ was most popular in the late 1700s, I reserve the right to refer to anyone using that spelling with contemporary language: those who drop the ‘e’ are simply coxcombs and popinjays.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Miscellaneous, , , .


Sixty years before this film was released, James Burge QC found himself in court defending Stephen Ward in the trial associated with the Profumo affair. He famously described his client as ‘a man with an artistic temperament and obviously with high sexual proclivities leading a dissolute life’.

Ira Sachs’s Passages, released last year, features a central character could be similarly described. Sixty years on, however, the social outrage is mostly absent, and there’s no hint of political intrigue in this story. And so we’re left with ninety minutes of modern Parisian melodrama, a loose love triangle that I found neither interesting nor absorbing.

I don’t really mean to lay into it too much: it’s clear that the film is held in high regard by critics, so it must surely have a lot of technical merit, even if it didn’t stand out to me. The film had the feel of a passion project for the director and cast, and in that sense, I’m glad that it exists. The cinematography was impressive, capturing Paris beautifully, and the performances were compelling, even if the characters didn’t resonate with me.

It just wasn’t for me. Sitting on the sofa, my mind kept wandering, and it took some effort not to just give up on the film around the 30-minute mark. For all its abundant qualities, I simply didn’t feel any personal connection with it. Your mileage may vary.

This post was filed under: Film, , , , .

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