Monday 19 February 2024

Syndromes We Don't Have a Name For 10: Organisations

Like gangs, fundamentalist sects demand substantial "sacrifices" as proof of loyalty. (Athena Andreadis)

It is with great sadness and regret that I have to report the @sheffielduni executive board had decided to press ahead with their plan to close @UniShefArch and move only two small elements of our teaching into dispersed departments where they shall surely wither and quickly die. (@Hugh_Willmott)

High-handed rule by an arrogant inner group.
(Lucy Worsley)

Founders are often charismatic individuals who can attract well-known public figures and large sums of money to their cause. However, they are not necessarily well suited to running and sustaining the organisations they create. The initial money and the supporters are drawn in by the passion and commitment of these strong personalities, rather than by evidence of their effectiveness… (Peter Kent, letter Guardian, 2007 (He was talking about the late Camila Batmangelidgh.)

Beware of backing the wrong horse. Today the “Lambertist” organisation, now known as the Parti des Travailleurs, is a shadow of its former self. It has lost the thousands-strong activist base which Pierre Lambert won in the 1970s; it retains only some cranky ideas and a bureaucratic internal regime to remind Lambert’s disciples of what once was. The death of the sect-leader Lambert is far less sad than the tale of those who followed him, committed revolutionaries who acquiesced to the rule of a petty tyrant and his coterie in the belief that they were contributing to the cause of socialism and the liberation of humanity, and were politically destroyed and demoralised by the experience. (Read about it here.)

Entryists jump from organisation to organisation, and are adept at manipulating internal structures for their own advantage: sitting out long boring meetings, coordinating interventions, playing victim when it suits.
(Guardian, 2016)

The bigger and more established [a campaigning] organisation becomes the more timid and conformist it seems to get, until it’s almost indistinguishable from the interests it should be confronting. (George Monbiot. See the critical outfit that is in hock to the phenomenon it is criticising, or even set up by it as a front, and intended to be toothless. See internal tribunals that never find bullies or harassers guilty, or force victims to reconcile with perps. See government enquiries set up to not find abuse or discrimination, headed by people who don’t believe it ever happens. See anti-racism initiatives that never lead to change. See many foxes in charge of henhouses.)

UK minister for building pylons loses role after campaigning against them. (Guardian, 2024. And "loses role" is a great euphemism.)

A friendly group recruits you – because they need someone to do the boring jobs. 

If you set up an efficient and well-funded organisation to do anything, beware of a takeover by a charming hard worker. He brings in many of “his people” and turns the purpose of the group into something completely different. A few of the original members cling on, either trying to continue the original project, or being brainwashed into working for the new goal and spreading the new word and repeating the new mantras. 

Or he may just want an important role and eventually a paying job.

A movement arises. It gathers momentum and has some influence on public affairs. Just when success seems to be approaching, it divides into Extremists and Moderates over a minor matter of principle. The factions quickly acquire names. The enemy is no longer the evil the movement started off fighting. What is the next act? The movement tears itself apart? Voices of reason say: "Of course you'll have to give up your more extreme demands." The movement is watered down until not even a molecule is left. The Moderates take over the official organisations and they become bandaid or astroturf outfits – and are known as "the reasonable face of...". 

Boy, some of these foremen are all crazy on this socialistic stuff and they want a union. So management has got up this Associated Foremen to have meetings and speakers to show them they’re part of top management and get ‘em over this union idea. (7 1/2 Cents, Richard Bissell)

But some organisations are set up to fight some evil, while knowing that if they succeed they’ll all be out of a job. What do they do when that happens? Find a new evil?

Perhaps the truth is that, after success in our great 20th-century drive for equality, Stonewall was left with bricks and mortar, an admirable staff, a CEO and a fund-raising team and, unconsciously, craved another big, newsworthy cause. Well, sometimes a big army with only small battles to fight does best simply to scale back. (Matthew Parris) 

They looked up and the times had changed. ( review of John Le Carré’s The Looking-Glass War)

The foreign branch of military intelligence (“The Blackfriars Boys”), a ghost of its wartime self now reduced to gathering remote intelligence and conducting research. (Goodreads commenter on The Looking-Glass War. It’s also known as “the department”.)

LeClerc and his ridiculous “department”. (The Looking-Glass War)

Interpol was once a dozy outfit where officials did a little desultory work in the mornings, went out for a boozy lunch, had a siesta and never came back. They were probably using ancient computers that weren’t linked to Europe’s police forces. A new director came in and made them work all day. 

In the 80s, a church in the East End gave a feminist group a free space to hold meetings. It did nothing but hold meetings – probably about "this group’s attitude to Nicaragua". The vicar eventually took his church hall back and turned it into an outfit that actually did something.

There are four magazines devoted to carp fishing. There are multiple methods of teaching children to read, and depending which is in power at the moment parents must get involved/mustn't intervene/must read a 40-page brochure on the method/must/mustn't mix reading methods. And that’s before we get started on the psychotherapists and the Palestinian Front for Liberation... The humanist societies were eventually persuaded to at least set up their offices in the same building. There were several organisations devoted to reviving Cornish who all thought they had the one true way of spelling, grammar, vocab etc. (Same for Breton, says a Brittany native.) In both countries, they have split their differences and concentrate on teaching the languages.

There are two factions in the Corrugated Iron Appreciation Society and they have furious disagreements in their Facebook group.

A small organisation has too many managers – too many lions and not enough Christians.

The monks of St Athos bar women from their mountain peak. Their tiny domain is big enough to accommodate a breakaway group – the monks of St. Esphigmenou who won’t pray for the Greek Orthodox patriarch because he’s too friendly with the Pope. The Eastern Orthodox broke away from the Catholic Church over a disagreement about the nature of Christ. Is he of the same substance as the Father: homoousion? Or a similar substance: homoiousion? An iota of difference.

There are several schools of dendrochronology, and they don't speak to each other. It's just bigotree.

More here, and links to the rest.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Received Ideas in Quotes 37

“Aye!” said Nancy, “If you listen to sea yarns, young shaver, you’ve got to sort out what’s yarn and what’s spindrift.”
 (Worzel Gummidge and the Treasure Ship, Barbara Euphan Todd. Spindrift is "windblown sea spray", says the Free Dictionary. Nancy is a ship’s figurehead.)

@naomirwolf: I was excited to see the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm but sadly the formerly compelling cast all look desiccated and grayish-yellow now, and have that ‘what’s-the-point’ vibe of the multiply vaccinated. Sad for the cast; but also, what a blow this all is for the arts, including for comedy. (@Hardley76 points out “They’re just older”.)

@DesigningMind: Couldn't stick with it...the whining got to me. Now they are REALLY whining as I'm sure they are all vaxed and losing health, friends and co-workers left and right... but mostly Left.

@CuriousBunnie12: "Mothers of the past always had an army of female family members to help them raise babies" is becoming one of those random ahistorical exaggerations touted as fact, along with "peasants worked less than modern people" and "everyone died at age 26".

Her parents died when she was three months old, in an age when the average lifespan was 50, even in the developed world. ( on Anne of Green Gables. Average life expectancy at birth again?) 

@wylfcen: The origin of the word “heathen” is funny to me. It’s derived from “heath,” meaning wilderness or wasteland, since Christianity originally spread in the cities, leaving heathens disproportionately in rural areas... so it was an Old English way of calling people “backwoods.”

@wylfcen I love how Anglo-Saxons would ‘adapt’ foreign words. The Old English word for a pearl was meregrot ‘sea pebble’. They took Latin margarīta (“pearl”) and then bent it into the native words mere ‘sea’ + grot ‘pebble’, so it was simultaneously a loanword and pure native English.

Acne is caused by modern junk food – you never see people with acne in old photographs. (Via Twitter: Photos that were kept were carefully selected, and in the 19th and early 20th centuries they were airbrushed – the Photoshop of its day.)

@mere_rain: American self-mythos valorizes go-getting badass protagonists. It's part of the lie that everyone should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. 

@NatalieKelda: Yep! I'm sure that has a lot to do with it. The whole mentality of "every person for themselves" influences so much media and cultural values but that's not how we think in other countries. In Denmark it's quite literally the opposite. (Her publisher complained that her central character “didn’t have agency”.) 

@richmondie: "Romantic love is a bourgeois construct invented by poets in the 18th century. Before that all marriages were arranged."

@JustinSadur: I can't believe this rot ever got any traction. It just doesn't pass the smell test. It's one of those things people mindlessly repeat to sound smart and "above it all."

All Old Masters were “mainly created by studio assistants”. @super_claude: What about Dumas (I think it was him) who got his assistants to write the filler bits of his novels?

@lauren_wilford: The best case for exercise I currently have is that experiencing your body being able to do something it could not do before is a visceral, undeniable message to your subconscious that change in your life is possible. (See many claims, eg: I bicycled up Mount Everest to prove to myself that I could do anything I put my mind to.)

@MarkHay55822123: On the site of King's Cross Station there was once a huge rubbish pile, one of several in the area. The main constituents were ash and clinker from innumerable coal fires. The material was likely sold for brick making to rebuild Moscow after 1812. (Sometimes it's "foundations of St Petersburg. See Dickens' Our Mutual Friend.)

It’s not illegal to fly over Antarctica, the Nazis didn’t establish a base there, and the continent wasn’t a ‘flourishing land’ in the 1500s. (Says

Plato divided the soul into three parts: the logistikon (reason), the thymoeides (spirit, which houses anger, as well as other emotions), and the epithymetikon (appetite or desire, which houses the desire for physical pleasures). (Wikipedia. Freud was not the first to divide up the human soul/psyche/mind/spirit.)

@NicholasPegg: It’s always adorable when twits reveal that they seriously think Great Britain means “Fantastic Britain”. It just means “large Brittany”. The 12th-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth referred to the island as “Britannia major”, as distinct from Brittany, “Britannia minor”. “Great Britain” was first used 1000 years before Geoffrey of Monmouth by the Greco-Egyptian scholar Ptolemy, for whom it meant “Large Britain”, as opposed to “Small Britain”, which was what he called Ireland. Of COURSE he didn’t mean “Fab Britain”. That would be ridiculous. (Or does it mean mainland Britain, including the islands?) 

@RigelRilling: "The bad parts of New World colonization" denial was national policy within living memory, and "post-Roman pre-Enlightenment progress" denialism was the stuff of textbooks before that.

@QuetzalThoughts: As an immigrant, some American racial stereotypes still leave me baffled. Why is it such a joke that Black people enjoy fried chicken & watermelon? It's so confusing since everyone eats these foods to the point that I have no idea how the premise even took off. 

@Ken67547214: Food bigotry has always been a thing in the US, lobsters were hobo food until they weren't. 

@AndrewLivingst2: Because watermelon and fried chicken were supposedly routine meals or snacks for slaves living on 19th century farms. 

Others add:

It’s just an observation. Add grape soda to the list. Slaves were allowed to raise chickens and grow watermelon. Both are popular in the American south and “are widely considered to be low status as a result”. “They used to make fun of Mexicans for eating tacos.”

Something to do with a “watermelon grin”? Wikipedia has an entry on the "Watermelon stereotype".

@soulmeaning: Energy, vibration and frequency is encoded in your words, and this happens without your conscious awareness. And people "receive" and decode that energy easily.

@uncle_deluge: My favourite nationalist conspiracy theory is that Japan influenced the world to spell Korea with a K rather than a C ("Corea") so it came after Japan in alphabetical order.

@PrettiestFrog: So one of my co-workers apparently believes that people in Europe don't get to pick where they live. He claims its assigned to them by the government and that's why the US is better. This is a teacher.

@meaning_enjoyer: "Thinking for yourself" is a psyop to prevent people from doing just that. There is a massive amount of thinking outsourced to culture, language, etc.

@urbanponds101: With the arrival of the ice I’m wondering who will be the first to rehash one of the silliest myths going - ‘add a tennis ball to your pond to stop it from freezing over’. Don’t do it!

@ded_ruckus: Buddhism is 110% a religion. This "not a religion" meme came about solely in order to make ideologically secular Westerners feel better about "practicing" the mangled pieces of Buddhism that became trendy in the West.

@70s80s90sKids: Liquorice Allsorts. They were invented by accident in 1899 when a Bassett’s sales rep tripped up, mixing up samples of sweets.

@mermaidwrites: Do you ever dream you die? I heard if you dream that you die you will die in real life.

@made_in_cosmos: My parents are reluctant to talk about their childhoods, but from what I've put together and read about rural life back in the day, it seems less like "people used to raise children in COMMUNITY" and more like "nobody really paid attention to kids, except for older kids".

@garicgymro: Some people really seem to want "Welsh" to have once meant "foreign" or "foreigner”. 

@germany_iam: I still remember when, after one month of cold, the Kinderarzt prescribed "Zwiebelsaft". Take some onion, put it in honey and leave to rest. Then drink the liquid. 

More here, and links to the rest. All this and more in What You Know that Ain't So.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Talkin’ ’Bout my – Generation

I know who I am – a Boomer. When I was a teenager, suddenly there were more young people than usual, thanks to the "post-war Baby Boom". There was a Generation Gap, meaning that we couldn’t trust anybody over 30. “I hope I die before I get old,” sang the Kinks. We were hippies. We had the Summer of Love (over by September, say those who were there). Behold, we were going to make all things new.  We are aged 60 and up.

Like, they seem to constantly be in a bad mood, always looking to argue with someone.

But who are all these other generations? These “Gens”? 

Gen X

Born around 1965–1980. Aged 43-59.

Gen-X is getting tired, and very annoyed, by the surrounding generations and their entitled, self-absorbed attitudes. Quora

Gen Z

In a 2022 report, the U.S. Census designates Generation Z as "the youngest generation with adult members (born 1997 to 2013)." Statistics Canada used 1997 to 2012, citing Pew Research Center, in a 2022 publication analyzing their 2021 census. Other news outlets have used 1995 as the starting birth year of Generation Z. (Wikipedia) This means they are mid-20s to mid-30s.

Gen Z has good reason to be angry. Will they burn it all down? LA Times


Surely anyone born after 2000? No, they’re: Born 1981-1996 (27-42). Some were 20 in 2000.

Millennials aren’t angry because they’re coddled. They’re angry because riches are in the hands of the few.

Gen Alpha

Born 2010 and up. 0 to mid-teens. 

Perhaps they aren’t old enough to be peeved yet.

The trouble with this system is that you have to know when the Gens were born, requiring you to memorise dates. Then you have to subtract that date from the current year – in your head! Can't we go back to talking about 40-year-olds, etc?

Thursday 8 February 2024

The Mystery of the Kneeling Woman by Moray Dalton

Moray Dalton’s The Mystery of the Kneeling Woman is set in a small village surrounded by wet, wintry and rather sinister woods. Cottages are “picturesque but insanitary” (earth closet in the garden). A small boy finds a dying man while searching for conkers. Meanwhile someone has brained a local recluse, Mr Killick. Enter Hugh Collier from the Yard to battle with the Chief Constable and the extremely miffed local cop Inspector Brett. Collier and his sidekick, the solid Duffield, settle in to the local hotel and eat buttered crumpets.

The plot thickens. We are given a lot of information in the first chapter that the cops don’t discover until practically the last. There’s a saintly, ailing white-haired clergyman. There are two sons, killed in WWI, who haunt their parents and the narrative. The Kneeling Woman turns out to be a memorial brass in an abandoned church – an envelope was hidden behind it, that's now gone.

Collier befriends the boy, Toby, and his young mother, Sandra. A couple of loathsome bullies from Toby’s school, and their heartless rich mother, Lady Webber (“She was gracious merely to serve her own ends”), turn up almost out of the blue but rapidly eat the wrong chocolates.

Killick formerly worked for the May Morning cosmetics company, and Collier interviews the local chemist: “We’ve got the May Morning compacts and beauty sets... perfumes: daisy, buttercup, clover, and meadow sweet in the two shilling and three and sixpenny sizes.” He later visits the factory and we get a brief glance at the mainly female staff (“Most of our workers are young girls who come here when they leave school and leave us to get married”), but Dalton misses a trick – we don’t get to meet any of them or find out how the stuff is made.

Some attitudes are “of their time” – this is partly why I read 90-year-old mysteries: Sandra is “modern enough to have read a good deal about repressions and complexes”. And Lady Webber opines about Toby: “I suppose his people are all right or he wouldn’t be at that school.” It must be she who says: “Dear me, you sound as if you’d been reading that awful man Freud or something.” (Dalton was 42 when she started writing mysteries, and may have thought psychoanalysis a silly fad.)

“Lady Webber’s attitude to life was summed up in one sentence. ‘It’s no use being morbid.’

Dalton also evokes a world of fire buckets, Thermoses, nursing homes, shrubberies, bun shops and Cadena cafés. Lady Webber wears “a white sports suit of superlative cut. Her black gloves and a black velvet beret clinging precariously to one side of her golden head indicated that she was in mourning” – also that the date is circa 1935. (This is for Clothes in Books.)

I like Dalton’s mix of mystery, thriller and the bizarre. And she writes very well: “He glanced towards the parrot who was moving with ineffable dignity and in a crab-like manner along his perch and stopping at intervals to bow to an imaginary audience.” Sandra looks into the rich woman’s car and has a “confused impression of carnations in a silver vase, fur rugs, fur coats, and smiles that were somehow not reassuring”.

I guessed the culprit, something I don’t often do. There is a trial, briskly carried out, followed by a twist. Back in their comfortable digs, Collier and Duffield unwind. Collier laments the waste of life in the Great War, and the two lost boys.                

Duffield relit his pipe. “Are you a pacifist, Inspector? I’ve sometimes wondered from the things you say — ” “I’ve a right to be, haven’t I, after three years of hell? You were in it, too. What do you say?” “Nothing. What’s the good? Once I started I might not be able to stop.”

With horrible prescience Collier hopes that no such conflict will blight Toby’s life. They talk about something called “the Peace Ballot”.

“Wouldn’t God stop it? But God had given men free will,” muses Dalton.

Hardly dated and irrelevant. This book is followed by one equally bizarre, Death in the Dark, featuring professional acrobats and a failing private zoo. 

More here, and links to the rest. 

Thursday 1 February 2024

Darkness Falls from the Air, by Nigel Balchin

Nigel Balchin was a civil servant and government/business advisor who wrote popular novels on the side. In the early days of the Blitz, middle-class characters, occupied by their jobs and affairs, carry on visiting their favourite restaurants, conveniently sited in basements. There isn’t much of a plot, and I kept expecting a mandarin to be found brained by a Remington typewriter, mystery to be solved by Bill Sarratt, the central character and narrator.

Bill and his wife Marcia are in a three-way relationship with “writer” Stephen, who plays the tortured artist for all it’s worth. At least, Marcia is having an affair with Stephen, but it is played out practically on her own doorstep, and the three keep meeting over dinner.

Meanwhile Bill is frustrated by his job. He has plans to simplify the way things are run in wartime (the “Area Unit Scheme”), but nobody will listen. Instead they hold endless pointless meetings and try to stab each other in the back. (Balchin was employed by the Ministry of Food.)

In these parallel scenarios, something is slightly “off”. Like the films Nashville and Waking Life: it looks like reality but has a dreamlike quality. The endless conversations over hors d’oeuvres and round boardroom tables add up to nothing. 

Marcia and Stephen see Bill as a thinking machine, but of course he’s as emotional as the rest of them. He has a slangy, contemporary style: people have a thin time, they’re fed up, they’re told to pipe down and stop gassing. “This sort of thing” (which we "can't have") is usually an expression of emotion. “Anyhow I vote we just stay here,” says Marcia as the first bombs fall. 

Bill’s colleagues come out with several of Jeremy Bentham’s political fallacies: “But you mustn’t try to change the structure of society overnight. I agree in principle. But it’s got to come gradually.” Bill comments: We had the usual shattering exhibition of cold feet that we always got when someone wanted to do something... We organize our peacetime Civil Service on the basis that there’s only one sin – to do something.

He writes and speaks with wit – or what we’d now call snark. “Did I tell you about my bomb?’ said Luigi. ‘No,’ I said. ‘And you aren’t going to now. Otherwise I shall show you my operation.'

‘How far is your life a settled policy and how far is it an accident?’ said Stephen suddenly. ‘Go on,’ I said. ‘There’s an explanatory footnote to that, isn’t there?’ Another character “looked like a painting by somebody who couldn’t draw and had a nasty mind”.

Yes, there are “problematic contemporary attitudes”. Don’t we know by now that people thought differently in the Bad Old Days until we came along to put them right? We should be pleased to find evidence of how wrong they were. Bill slaps his secretary’s bottom and suggests she wear her hair behind her ears (height of wartime fashion). He thinks he can tell if someone’s Jewish just by looking at them, including a friendly taxi driver. A gay coterie is introduced just to be guyed.

Clive James revisited Balchin’s work in depth.  I was disappointed to learn that most of the novels repeat the same basic plot. The Small Back Room was made into an excellent film, and Balchin wrote the script for The Man Who Never Was. He claimed to be influenced by the Icelandic Sagas, in which you were told only what people said or did, and had to work out what they thought from that. “Kingsley Amis would vehemently deny any direct influence from Balchin, but it remains true that Balchin helped create the audience which read Amis in the Fifties,” says James. I'd love to read his How to Run a Bassoon Factory, published under the alias Mark Spade. And did John Le Carré lift Bill’s surname for his spy college?

The Darkness falls in the shape of death-dealing German bombs. I’ll be haunted for ever by the last chapter.

Reviewed by Moira Redmond at Clothes in Books.