Clock Watching

More tales from France. . .

Some years ago my friend found a chiming wall clock in Brussels, in a place called the ‘Troc”, a kind of second-hand warehouse, which was fairly notorious (to us, anyway) for being pretty casual about taking care of what they sold. This was a good example: finials broken off,  a pediment loose,  glass held on to the case with a couple of tacks, that sort of thing. The clock mechanism wasn’t even fixed to the case. But it worked . . .

And it’s very pretty: light-ish wood veneers, not that deadly dark unrelieved mahogany you see a lot of. And the clock face was unusual: Roman numerals round the outside, and Arabic inside to make it a 24-hour clock. But: as I discovered putting it all back together, the face was actually moulded paper. Never seen that before, I thought they were always brass or steel, but I’ve seen others since.

Anyway, I got it together and polished it all up, realizing that it was probably somewhere along the line at least three clocks originally. And it was the wrong pendulum for that mechanism . . .So at first it raced around, either gaining or losing anything up to ten minutes an hour . . .It took me about a week to get it more or less keeping time; and about the same to get it to go ‘boing’ instead of ‘clonk’. It’s been decorating the dining room here in France, for the last couple of years, but never ticking.

That’s because my friends lost my instructions. . . There’s a sort of point to this tale, which we’ll come to later. Friend’s husband, you see, is very logical, while Squirrel works more on intuition and lateral thinking. So, the actual clock mechanism is slightly skewed in the case, because it simply wouldn’t work at all otherwise. You can’t tell from outside, but knowing it upset friend’s husband, so he straightened it . . .And it wouldn’t work, of course. And when he did get it to, it went galloping off gaining about fifteen minutes every hour . . .

So. I’ve spent the last couple of days ‘unfixing’ it, and, hooray! it’s now more or less keeping time. At least, the last eighteen hours it’s only lost about half a minute, so I’m tediously adjusting the pendulum millimetre by millimetre in hope that by the end of the week it might be down to about half  minute a week instead.

As I said, friend’s husband is all very logical and rational, and, being mathematical and engineerish, still believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that mechanical things like clocks, especially, should work logically. They don’t. My grandmother had one;  the night my grandfather died it stopped, just like that old Victorian sentimental parlour song, at midnight, after striking a hundred times exactly, and could never be got to work again.

Which leads  me to the village clock up on top of the old Chateau now the Hotel de Ville, which is a perfect example of the kind of logic which pursues a mechanical path like a toy train, ignoring possible diversions, and heading straight for a goal regardless of unexpected consequences or even worthwhile distractions. I call it ‘French Logic’. It’s something the French are very prone to: just look at any example of French municipal bureaucracy (got a tale about that, too . . .).

A few years ago, the village clock decided time no longer mattered to the inhabitants. Some of the older of whom have certainly been ignoring its progress, some since the end of the last war,  some since Napoleon went on his vacances to Elba, and some since the St Bartholomew Day Massacre.  (it was a Protestant village once.*) One day it abandoned trying to keep it—though without a death knell of a hundred chimes as far ass we know. After it was restored it struck (and still does) the hour twice. With a space of two minutes in between.

For a while, we thought there were two clocks, but couldn’t find the other one.

We know the man who fixed it. Best Friend asked why. (We’d decided it must be just in case no-one was paying attention the first time.  But that rather begged the question, we thought, applying a little logic, if they didn’t hear it the first time, why would they the second? Unless the first round was supposed to  subliminally prepare them for it? And if no-one cared whether they heard it once, why should the time they wanted to forget or ignore be imposed on them again anyway as if by some Napoleonic edict?

Or if it was to avoid people being taken by surprise, and give them the opportunity to get the count right the second time, why not have a preliminary chime before it struck anyway?

We know the man who fixed the clock. So we asked why he’d made it strike twice. His reply answered none of our growing psychological, philosophical or political musings about time and the village. Without prompting, he said, simply, and without the slightest trace of irony “In case people don’t hear it the first time.”

Pure ‘French Logic’ you see? But it’s the only town clock any of us have ever come across that does that. As far as we can tell, and believe me, we listen for it everywhere now, everywhere else may give the residents an opportunity to hear the time struck more than once, but by different clocks, and, we presume, pretty much randomly and unplanned. Which is logical. After all, if this ‘French Logic’ was applied at home, and every clock in London followed Big Ben until the most inattentive from Kew to Bow had heard the time, the last one would still probably be striking twelve midnight when it was six in the morning . . .

* It seems to have gone pretty universally atheist during the French Revolution; but there’s another village in the area which is literally divided down the middle: Catholics on one side, Protetstants on the other.

Donkey is well; went to present him with carrots yesterday evening. (Squ’s been a bit crippled the last couple of days and couldn’t make it, though he’s only a few hundred metres away.) He’s obviously feeling his age though now; he was a lot slower coming over when he saw me than he used to be. (He was fast asleep  the first time; and he seems to stay in his shed a lot more than he used to.) So we sympathised over carrots. Friend said she’d like to stroke his ears (he’s got nice big soft furry ears) so he thought for a minute then turned and put his head and one ear close to the fence so she could . . .We were surprised, he’s not let her do that before, just me, all these years . . .The younger goat (who’s  very small and we’ve called Cappuccino because of her colour) is very friendly; the older one’s a bit grumpy.

Going Dutch

So it seems some kind of report of the CIA’s torture, oh, sorry, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ is to see (some of?) the light of day?

“They bound a thick piece of canvas about his neck and face, leaving an opening at the top. . .they poured the water softly upon his head until the cloth was full, yup to the mouth and nostrils, and somewhat higher, so that he could not draw breath but must suck in all the water.”

This was continued for hours, “until water came out of his nose, ears and eyes; and often as it were choking and stifling him, at length took away his breath and brought him to a swoune or fainting.”

The victim, John Clarke, was ‘waterboarded’ four times, “until his body was swollen twice or thrice as bigge as before, his cheekes like great bladders and his eyes staring and strutting out beyond his forehead.”

Several of those tortured managed to scribble a message to the outside world; this is one of just a couple that got out:

“We through torment, were constrained to speake that which we never meant, nor once imagined; the which we take upon our deaths and salvation, that tortured as with that extreme torment of fire and water, that flesh and blood could not endure. And so farewell. Written in the dark.”

This occurred in Amboyna, in what became the ‘Dutch East Indies’, in 1623. The torture, ahem, ‘enhanced interrogation’ was performed by Dutchmen ‘only obeying orders’. The Dutch, in fact (something that seems to have been forgotten or very successfully swept under a lot of thick carpet) were notorious for their cruelty in all their colonies in the East Indies and the West. Especially to the indigenous inhabitants and slaves.

When this became known in England it got widespread publicity, caused a great deal of anger and revulsion, and came close to causing a full-scale war.

The Staats General ordered an inquiry, which concluded: “the torture of the water is much more civill and less dangerous than other tortures for the paine of the water doth but cause and produce an oppression and anxiety of breath and respiration.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Eventually, thirty years later, the Dutch paid £4,000 to the families of the victims.

[Quotations from Nathaniels' Nutmeg by Giles Milton.]

Statistics Silver’d o’er

Or, How to Make Statistics Mean Not Very Much. . .

Warning: Squirrel Rant. (Tantrum?) So you can all just skip to something else.

I’d actually forgotten, but Nate Silver’s ‘new journalism’ site has started up, and (it appears) he’s rowing with Paul Krugman about it. It was, you may remember, supposed to be a new way of writing journalism based on facts, all the facts, and nothing but the facts. Well I had a look.

It’s the time of that American festival where they dye the head on a pint of Guinness green. So, we have Mona Chalabi explaining to us, with accompanying statistics and graphs, what might have happened if people hadn’t emigrated from Ireland to the United States.  Well, for one thing, one imagines various city police forces would have developed somewhat differently, maybe some American crime fiction would have gone off on a totally different track, and perhaps there wouldn’t have been quite the same problems with Catholic priests that have turned up of late. And ‘whisky’ wouldn’t be spelt with an ‘e’ in it.

But perhaps there aren’t any easily accessible statistics for  any of that. So, according to the article, what might have happened is that the population density of Ireland would now be much higher. (Heading for that of England or the Netherlands.) But, wait a minute; much Irish emigration was because of the potato famine; so maybe many more would have died and the population density would not have ended up any different? Or perhaps, had the emigration ships across the Atlantic not existed, and the British governments of the time not been so laissez-faire, who knows but that the population of half the Caribbean islands or Sierra Leone or Tasmania would now be 99.991% Irish? Or more railways would have been built throughout Britain even earlier and faster?

In any case, as many people left Ireland in the 30 years before the potato famine without that providing an impetus. And apparently up to a quarter of those who emigrated to Canada during it died soon after arrival. If that (or anything like it) was also true of emigrants to the US, then the numbers for emigration are no guide through a series of suspect extrapolations to the numbers of Americans who can now claim (justifiably or not) Irish ancestry, obviously.

To do 538′s readers justice, many of those who’ve commented have spotted the flimsiness and the innumerable flaws. But if this is ‘new journalism’ or ‘data-lead journalism’ or whatever Silver wants to call it, is it actually any different to ‘Five (oops: ’5′) Things We Thought Up About the Irish for St Patrick’s Day While Casting Around in Desperation for Something to Write Today’?

I’ve glanced at a couple of other articles, and they’re much the same. Using statistics to support simple assertions or assumptions that they were never intended to support. And ‘Do American marriages last longer  than American businesses’  (or was it the other way round?) has a feeble fatuity that might not even make it to HuffPo’s right-hand column . . .

From that we may learn American businesses last longer than Latvian marriages. Well, as Sir Humphrey famously said, I may be none the wiser after reading that, but I am certainly better informed. Though as yet I can’t quite see why I needed to be . . .Possibly I could enliven a dinner conversation with my new-found knowledge? Though if I’m going to be reduced to that, maybe it would have been the sort of dinner invitation I shouldn’t have accepted in the first place.


a note from kurt

In 2006 Ms. Lockwood, an English teacher at Xavier High School, asked her students to write a letter to a famous author. She wanted them discuss the author’s work and ask for advice.

Kurt Vonnegut (who died in 2007) was the only one to write back.


There’s a transcript below the fold if you need it. (via TwistedSifter)

Continue reading

An Eighteenth Century House of Cards?

Rodelinda Prod 1 large


Look,  you can all skip this one, but I was so excited after last night’s opera, I wanted to explain why. Not that I expect to convince Madame, of course . . .

Handel’s Rodelinda at the Coliseum last night was absolutely brilliant. We’re really on a roll in England with Handel operas. They’re often a bit weird at first sight (hearing?) because the stories can be rather odd and out of the way, taken from Bible stories or history nobody’s at all familiar with any more, and they often have some kind of pop at Georgian politics and thinking: some of the things that get said—well, sung—were very avant-garde Enlightenment stuff.

But over here—they don’t seem to be able to really do it on the continent for some reason—they can get translated into contemporary terms. So the story last night was a ‘King’ who buggers off suddenly (er, sort of like Yanukopvich?) and a ‘tyrant’ usurper takes over. 

All set in a kind of cross between a Mafia famiglia power struggle, complete with hitman, 1984 and your standard sex-obsessed and voyeuristically inclined dictator. .

Where it goes a bit off here and there is there was obviously a political commentary going on that the Georgian audience would have spotted and gone ‘nudge, nudge, wink wink’ which we can’t. 

Where ENO twisted it a bit is that it’s supposed to end with both real tyrant and would-be bosses from the family—one of whom is female, btw—with everyone recognizing the error of their ways and getting back to ‘reason’ and everyone’s supposed to live happily ever after. At the end of the ENO production, though, it’s obvious the power struggles are going to carry on, and though up to then they actually didn’t kill each other, that’s not what the future’s going to be like.

Once you get one regime change going, without the Enlightenment looking over your shoulders . . .well, it’s hard to stop, and . . .well, we’re not so optimistic any more to really believe that ‘truth and reconciliation’ are going to work as often as we once thought, are we?

And the poor young bugger who’s the ‘new’ boss’s  aide de camp, who’s been trying all the way through to surreptitiously help the ‘usurped’ family so no-one gets killed or tortured too much, gets near-fatally stabbed accidentally by the guy he’s been trying to help most, and, of course at the end, the family, once back in control, totally ignore the poor bastard and leave him bleeding to death. . .

It’s all about real ‘suspension of disbelief” going to the opera; the ‘story’ is just a story, Like a fairy tale, you have to take it for what it is. The emotion comes along with the singing. (And there are some really heart-tugging arias in Rodelinda; even if it sounds rather as though Handel nicked a good idea for one of them from one of Purcell’s most famous ones.) And acting: at Covent Garden and ENO, we don’t get that many famous ‘names’ now, but we do get bloody good singers who can act. The days when opera singers just occasionally stalked up to the front of the stage and sang at you, thank god, are long gone. And we get stage sets and lighting that are as brilliant as any multi-million dollar Broadway musical.

There’s an amazing scene set in a bar, all 1950′s pink neon lit, where the protagonist is drowning his sorrows at one point It was such a suprize and so garishly over the top, yet really very simple, the whole audience gasped as the flat rose and revealed it all, and then collapsed laughing as it revealed two enormous neon hands pouring bottles of wine  above it. . . ENO could probably flog that for a fortune to a ‘gentleman’s club’ . . .Nearly a full house, too: around 90+ per cent, and quite a lot of people in their 20′s, both of which a couple of decades ago would have been quite unimaginable for a Handel opera.

This is why I love going to the opera here: and last night, all that for just £20! (Well, I did buy two large glasses of very good dry white Chablis at the bar for us which cost nearly as much as the ticket, but what the hell . . .Best friend bought the M&S sandwiches . . .Very comfy seats too, those £80-£90 ones! Squ has paid up for another ‘secret seat’ for another opera in June . . .)

NB: the usurping ‘capo di famiglia’—an outsider, btw— builds an enormous Stalinist monument which he blows up towards the end. Which we see happening on a huge screen ‘television’ in grainy 425 line black and white—even with the disappearing dot!—accompanied by a very, very loud surround sound explosion crashing around the auditorium. Great! Squirrel rather likes loud bangs in the theatre . . .

PS: wanted a bigger pic than that, but couldn’t manage it.


Then toward the other end of the entertainment spectrum, we have this guy. George.


He’s a Downy Woodpecker and a permanent resident around here, though we see less of him in the summertime. Versatile little fucker. Bug eradicator. Alarm clock. That oak limb is just a few feet away from the window and is kinda hollow in places, so pounding on it like he does makes a fair amount of racket.

Now that the sun is well on its journey northwards again, we’re getting some temperatures high enough to melt the snow and some real pretty light conditions too, as here. It’s not quite Spring yet, but it sure is thinking about it.

bo burnham

This guy is, like, 22 years old or something like that. Which is young for a standup comic (always been my favorite art form) of any caliber, but to be operating with completely 100% original material as smart as this, and with this kind of stunning assurance at that age is approaching spooky.

There’s a fair bit of his stuff on the YouTube and it’s worth a look. He’s not one for letting his audience get real comfortable. A good thing, that.

A song from the perspective of God;

The books you think I wrote are way too thick,
who needs a thousand metaphors to figure out
you shouldn’t be a dick?
And I don’t watch you when you sleep,
surprisingly I don’t use my omnipotence
to be a fucking creep.
You’re not going to heaven
why the fuck would you think I’d ever
kick it with you?
None of you are going to heaven,
there’s a trillion aliens
cooler than you….

Oh and yeah, everything’s bumping along just fine at chez gunnison and thanks for the inquiries. Appreciated.
I’ve just been distracted and kinda reprocessing the meaning of life.
And making sausage for the first time ever. I love good sausage, but the only stuff available in the US, or at least around here in the US, all has unbalanced seasoning and is most always dramatically oversalted. Only one way to fix problems like that.

Anyway, one more, ‘cos this kid is clever.

Remember when this guy was news?

It’s not brief, but this piece by Andrew O’Hagan in the LRB about his dealings with Julian Assange, is probably worth the time. Assange will hate it, of course, but O’Hagan does seem at least to be trying to give a balanced view. I’ve met a few of the personalities O’Hagan describes (of those involved in the debacle around the publishing or non-publishing of autobiography that never was) and I can at least vouch for the seeming accuracy of some of his descriptions of those personalities. I also know some people not mentioned in the article, who went to visit with Assange when he was under house arrest, before he fled to the embassy, and nothing in any of their descriptions of Assange at the time contradicts anything O’Hagan describes.