A dead-end design and a template for the future

In 2009 the British Steam Car Challenge vehicle Inspiration set a new World Land Speed Record for a steam-powered car. The team behind it were awarded the Simms Medal by the Royal Automobile Club, named for its founder Frederick Simms, intended to recognise ‘a genuine contribution to motoring innovation by individuals or small companies that also exemplify the spirit of adventure.’

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The citation by John Wood, Chairman of the Royal Automobile Club’s Awards Sub-Committee, is interesting:

“No one is going to suggest that this vehicle represents a major technical breakthrough, a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity but it is unquestionably a triumph of determination, persistence and absolute refusal to give up in the face of adversity. Does it exemplify the “spirit of adventure”? Unquestionably! And that is why the British Steam Car Challenge Team, in memory of the late Frank Swanston, has been awarded the Simms Medal 2009.”

There is an implicit admission here that the award is not actually merited: while the courage, gallantry and dedication of the team cannot be questioned, the other criterion for the award has not been met. This was not a ‘genuine contribution to motoring innovation’ .

In the words of the citation, ‘a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity.’ The scale of both the improvement and the complexity we will consider shortly, but first we need to look at the value (or otherwise) of land speed records.

For some, travelling supremely fast is an achievement in itself, but the main justification for trying to go as fast as possible has always been that the technical development it entails has a broader application that can be of general benefit. Creating a car that will travel safely at tremendous speed challenges engineers and designers on every front and the solutions they come up with, whether in terms of materials, streamlining, or the design of the engine and ancillary systems can often , within a few years, find their place in mainstream manufacture.

Conversely, if they remain ad hocsolutions for the sole purpose of record breaking, their value is questionable – for instance, the use of jet propulsion may have raised the absolute LSR to supersonic levels ( 763 mph in 1997) with the ultimate aim of attaining 1000mph in the near future, but it is difficult to see what practical benefits this will bring – no-one considers jet propulsion as suitable for cars, and in any case, the cutting edge of jet propulsion is in its aeronautical applications, which already exceed anything that might be attempted on land. While there might be some peripheral benefits (in terms of materials and tyre technology, say, though of course the tyres are not driven) much of the technical effort, somewhat perversely, is directed to overcoming the inherent unsuitability of the power unit for this application.

Against this background, let us consider both the ‘enormous complexity’ of Inspiration and the ‘relatively small improvement’ won by it.

Inspiration weighs in at a hefty 3 tonnes. It is 7.66 m long by 1.7m wide and 1.7m tall. It is powered by a two stage turbine rotating at 13000 rpm for which steam is generated in 12 watertube boilers with 3km of tubing. This requires 3 Megawatts of heat from Liquid Petroleum Gas burners, enough to heat 1500 kettles or make 23 cups of tea per second. This complexity is clad in a combination of carbon composite to the front and and aluminium panels to the rear.

Generating a relatively modest 360bhp, the car had a design top speed of 170 mph (for comparison, the Bentley Continental GT, a luxury production car, produces 626 bhp and is capable of 207 mph)

In the event, it took the record with a run of 139.843mph for a measured mile, subsequently raised to 148.308mph in two runs over the measured kilometre.

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The previous record stood at 127.659 mph. It was set in 1906 by the redoubtable Fred Marriott driving the Rocket, a modified version of the production Stanley Steam Car. Its two-cylinder double-acting steam reciprocating engine generated around 150bhp and required 350 revolutions to travel a mile – so that 350 rpm would be a mile a minute, 700rpm would be twice that – 120 mph – and the record would require 740 rpm (for comparison, this equates to the typical idle speed of an internal combustion engine – 600-1000rpm – at which it generates sufficient power to run smoothly and operate various ancillaries like pumps etc. but not enough to move the car).

Rocket weighed in at 1675 lbs, with the entire power plant – boiler, engine, burner and firebox, pumps, tanks etc – contributing just under half the total (835 lbs). Its body was, in effect, an upturned canoe, consisting of canvas stretched over a cedar frame. It was 16′ long and 3′ wide and was made by a noted Boston canoe builder. The car was steered with a tiller.

Unlike Inspiration’s, the record set by Rocket was absolute – Marriott was the fastest man on the planet, by any means. The following year, he went faster still, but the car crashed when it hit two ruts in the sand at Florida beach. At the time of the crash, he is conservatively reported as having reached a speed of of between 140 and 150mph, though Marriott himself – who survived the wreck – said that it was timed at ‘a hair under 190 mph’. 


A couple of decades later, in 1925, the young Howard Hughes reportedly drove his Doble E20 roadster at 133mph. Hughes’s car was no record-breaking special, but a lightly modified standard production car in full road-going trim, with a huge flat condenser at the front, which can hardly have contributed to its aerodymaics. It is still on the road today, in the care of Jay Leno

My point is a simple one. As with the jet-powered. Bloodhound SSC, much of the design effort in the British Steam Car Challenge Inspiration was devoted to overcoming the inherent unsuitability of the power unit for its intended purpose. Steam turbines are best suited to running at constant high speed under heavy load, which makes them ideal for marine propulsion and generating electricity but ill-suited to use in cars. Although Rover experimented with a gas-turbine car in the fifties, no-one to my knowledge had successfully put a steam turbine in a car before Inspiration.


On the other hand, the one proven aspect of Rocket was the power unit. The motor-car was in its infancy but steam had been around as a motive force for nearly two centuries and by then drove shipping, railways, pumping stations and power plants. The steam reciprocating engine was well understood, simple and robust – the Stanley boasted a total of thirteen moving parts and its relatively low running-speed meant that it was unstressed and highly durable.

It was at its zenith in that first decade of the century when the motor-car was still a rich man’s plaything, so that the superior smoothness and quietness of the steam engine outweighed its expense both initially, in running and in maintenance; the fact that it took a good half-hour or so to raise steam mattered little if you could pay a chauffeur to do that for you. By the time Abner Doble had overcome most of these difficulties in the 1920s, it was too late: Henry Ford had already established the internal combustion engine as reliable, robust and cheap to run.

Nonetheless, the advance in performance and design that Doble’s car demonstrated in rather less than twenty tears surely make it a far better template for a record-breaking car than the one chosen by the British Steam car Challenge. And while Inspirationis a dead-end, as far as practical application goes, a Doble-based car that took advantage of the advances in design and materials in the last ninety years could be just what the world is looking for.

Many countries in Europe have already fixed dates for the end of internal combustion as a motive force in cars, and most people think that the future lies with electricity. But with improvements in burner technology, sustainable fuels, economic high-pressure steam generation, ultra-low friction engine materials (such as ceramics) and improvements to condensers and autonomous systems, a strong case could be made for steam.

It is certainly an experiment worth trying.


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A man deceiving himself in the hope of deceiving others

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This curious speech by Alistair Darling bears listening to twice. If you wish to have the text in front of you, here it is:

‘I do not believe there will be another Scottish referendum in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.

I’ll tell you why not.

Firstly, the public don’t want it. Most of the British public, never mind the Scottish public, are heartily sick of referendums. They divide, they turn people against each other – the scars are deep, they’re still there in Scotland. And people don’t want to go through that again.

Secondly, the emotion of what happened in 2014, it’s still there, but the economics have got worse. Oil prices are a case in point. It’s interesting that the nationalists now openly talk about the virtual fraudulent nature of the document they produced in 2013 which set out the economic case. None of them will stand by it now, yet there’s another one coming out on Friday. What seems to be different is we’re now going to have a Scottish pound: sharing the pound is off the agenda. They’ve probably noticed that if you spend a lifetime abusing the people that you don’t like and then you break away and say, now can we have a close relationship with you, it doesn’t somehow work. Look for example at what’s going on at the present time. But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

I used to like Alistair Darling well enough; I even met him once, in a surreal moment at the height of the economic crisis in Autumn 2008, when he as Chancellor of the Exchequer was for some reason touring the BBC in Glasgow, where I was part of a group of writers learning about writing for radio.

But I do not believe, on the strength of that speech, that I will be able to trust Alistair Darling, now or in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime.

I’ll tell you why not.

Firstly, he equates democratic debate with civil war: here we have a politician asserting that people do not want to have their say on matters that concern them, that they are fed up with being asked, because it just provokes strife. It is assertions like this that distinguish the career politician from the genuine democrat, the time-server from the public servant. I wonder which the people of the Balkans would have preferred – a divisive referendum on the future of Yugoslavia, and the figurative scars that went with it, or what actually happened to them?

Secondly, the dishonesty that was there in 2014, it’s still there, but it’s got worse. Oil prices are a case in point: at the very time Mr Darling was giving this speech, oil prices were at the highest they have been for four years, and are set to rise still further . Yet he implies the opposite. I am not aware of any nationalists talking openly about the ‘virtual fraudulent nature’ of their 2013 document [what does that actually mean? that it wasn’t fraudulent? that it wasn’t an actual document?] but I certainly don’t hear Mr Darling acknowledging the blatant dishonesty of his own campaign – that Scotland would be left without a currency, that Scotland would have to leave the EU unless it voted ‘No’ (how did that one work out, Alistair?).

At the very time the pro-union coalition were asserting that they would never enter a currency union, each of them knew that in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, the first thing that would happen would be a round-table negotiation on that and related matters – that, after all, is how politics works.

(In fact, it was the sheer ineptitude of the ‘better together’ campaign – fronted (one can hardly say ‘led’) by the same Mr Darling – that led me to shift from an initial ‘No’ to an increasingly certain ‘Yes’ as time went on:

(And while we’re on the matter of currency unions between countries where one breaks away after a long history of friction and indeed open rebellion, we might ask if Alistair has any knowledge of our financial relations with the Republic of Ireland – Eire –- from its inception in 1937 as successor to the Free State. The Irish Pound, which was tied to sterling for 40 years – how did that work out, Alistair?)

Finally, there is the strange incoherence that lies below the polished rhetoric: which referendum is he actually talking about? From the initial conflation of the British public with the Scottish (but never mind them) through his reference to deep, scarring division, to that curious statement about wanting a close relationship with people you have broken away from having spent a lifetime abusing them and the invitation to ‘look… at what’s going on at the present time’ it is almost as if he had forgotten the intended subject of his speech and switched to talking about Brexit instead.

And what on earth is he trying to say in that final paragraph?

‘But the economic argument has changed, and to make the economic case I think will be very difficult. But to assume therefore that’s it, is a huge mistake – not just because I said there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action but because if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

From emphatically telling us at the outset that no-one wants to talk about independence, let alone be asked to vote on it, he now makes the astonishing concession that ‘there is a core of people in Scotland who do believe that independence is the right course of action’ (and let us remember that ‘core’ means ‘heart’) and furthermore ‘if people come to believe that the union is not delivering for them what is important then the argument for breaking away will gather strength.’

And there, if you like, he lets the cat out of the bag. He senses (as I do) that in the wake of Brexit – where Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain* only to be told that they must accept the desire of a large minority of the British electorate (17.4 million out of 46.5) – there is a growing feeling that we would be better not shackled to an England heading resolutely in the wrong direction, trying to revive an idea of itself as a major player on a world stage that has changed out of all recognition (do not forget that we joined the EEC precisely because the old order had changed).

I think that Darling senses, as I do, that the Scottish people would rather like to revisit the question of independence, not because they are dyed-in-the-wool nationalists – I certainly am not – but because they would prefer to be a small nation acting in concert with our neighbours in the largest trading bloc in an interdependent world than part of a larger nation pursuing a solo course with neither economic nor strategic power to sustain it.

I may be wrong, of course; but I would be perfectly happy to ask the people again what they think now, on both matters – Scottish Independence and Membership of the EU. Isn’t that how democracy is meant to work?

Never trust a politician who says that people do not want to be consulted on matters that concern them.

*interestingly, the Scottish vote exactly mirrors the percentage of the electorate who did not vote to leave (i.e. those who voted remain plus those who did not vote) to those who voted to leave – 62% to 38% in both cases.




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Why Colin can’t remember – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’


Cave paintings, Lascaux, France (image courtesy of Prof saxx, via Wikimedia Commons)

Boneland must be one of the strangest sequels ever written. It is not Alan Garner’s best book, but for the questions it poses, it is of great interest to all of us who write for children.

It purports to complete the trilogy begun fifty years ago with his earliest books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. The first made a powerful impression on me, perhaps because I heard it on the wireless before I read it (and I was startled to discover, on rereading it, that it was the source of a key part of the climactic scene in my own first book, The Secret of the Alchemist – a borrowing of which I was entirely unconscious). Yet the second made so little impact that only when I took it out of the library last year, in preparation for reading Boneland, did I realise I had read it before.

The strangeness of Boneland as a sequel stems from its lack of sequence: of the two characters who feature centrally in the other books, one – Susan – is conspicuous by her absence, while the other – her brother Colin – is effectively a different character: as the result of a traumatic experience in adolescence, he has undergone a personality change, becoming an autistic polymath who is now, in adult life, a professor of astronomy.

He has also lost all memory of the events of those first two books. In other words, to all intents and purposes, he has no connection with the earlier books at all (and even things that seem like links – the fact that Colin and Susan are twins, that she addresses him as ‘Col’, that their parents are killed in an aircrash, that Susan disappears – none of these actually features in the earlier books).

At first sight this seems almost perverse, as if Boneland were less a sequel, more a repudiation of that earlier work – and in a way, it is; but the question to ask is, could it have been otherwise?

Let us suppose that Colin survives into adulthood with his memory intact: here is someone who has personally encountered wizards, witches and warlocks, elves, dwarves and goblins, sleeping Arthurian knights and house-high troll-women, all in the Cheshire countryside; at the very least, he would have become a professor of comparative folklore rather than astronomy – it is impossible to believe that such events would not have shaped the rest of his life.

But the truth of the matter is that it simply will not do: elves and goblins belong in storybooks; there is no way to reconcile Colin’s childhood encounters with the reality of his adult life that would be believable. The only thing is to have him conveniently forget it all.

So am I conceding what some critics have long asserted, that fantasy is childish stuff, of no interest to adults, and of doubtful value to children, who would be better served by books about the ‘real world’ ?

By no means.

Fantasy, as it happens, does succeed best with children of a certain age, but for reasons that are the opposite of those put forward by its detractors: far from being an escape from the real world, it is for them an image of it.

Consider that the child entering adolescence stands on the verge of a mysterious world that he must soon enter, a world of which he knows little, governed by powerful hidden forces, a place where anything might happen: it is a prospect both daunting and exciting, in equal measure. Mapped, that world would resemble the products of mediaeval cartographers – a tiny area (home, school) that is familiar, surrounded by huge blank spaces furnished by the imagination, where be dragons.


Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 (image from Wikimedia Commons: public domain)

In other words, fantasy literature is a metaphorical embodiment of the fears and hopes we all experience on the verge of adulthood, when, though we long for freedom and independence, we are still the responsibility of other people – our parents, or those who stand in their stead. We seek reassurance that we can enter that world alone and survive on our own resources, and the emotional experience of doing that is what fantasy adventures allow us to try out.

Garner’s problems with Boneland do not arise from the fact that the earlier books are fantasy, but from his failure to keep the worlds in them separate. Colin and Susan’s encounters take place where they live; they do not go to the monsters – the monsters come to them. And because Colin, as an adult, continues to inhabit the same landscape, the question of what happened to all those fabulous creatures becomes an awkward one.

In his later story, Elidor – a fine work that manages to evoke an epic world without being of epic length – Garner ensures that there is a portal (in the liminal space of an abandoned church in the process of being demolished) so that the children in that tale pass into another world for their magical encounters; even the magical objects they bring back with them are transformed, in the mundane world, into mundane things.

But Colin, if he could remember, would know that the Weirdstone of Brisingamen – Susan’s Tear – is under Alderley Edge, in Fundindelve, where the knights and their stallions lie asleep; he would know that Angharad Golden-hand’s floating island is somewhere on Redesmere – and it is unlikely that he would be more interested in distant galaxies, with that on his doorstep.


The View from Sormy Point, Alderley Edge (image courtesy of Randomgurn via Wikimedia Commons)

However, there is a second reason for Colin’s inability to remember, which has to do with Garner himself, and how he has come to view the business of storytelling. It is interesting that he rejects the label of ‘children’s writer’ – “I certainly have never written for children” – though it is hard to argue that his first two books are not primarily aimed at a young audience.

What he is, first and foremost, is a writer rooted in a particular landscape – what Orkney was to George Mackay Brown, the Cheshire countryside in the vicinity of Alderley Edge is to him. However, in those first two books the spirit of place is heavily overlaid with a rather motley heap of borrowings from Arthurian, Norse and Celtic myth.

In his later writing, he dispenses with this: increasingly, it is the landscape itself, its history and prehistory, that furnishes the element of wonder that legendary borrowings supplied before. The prehistoric bull-painting in the cavern that features in The Stone Book establishes a theme that runs through all his later work. That is the other reason why Garner has Colin forget his earlier adventures: that way of telling stories no longer works for him.

Boneland, in fact, has much more in common with Garner’s more recent works, Thursbitch and Strandloper. A key figure in all three is the Shaman, who mediates between the tribe and the forces beyond – forces that imbue the landscape, with which the tribe must come to terms if it is to survive, controlling (or at least harnessing) them by enmeshing them in a web of ritual and story.

In Boneland, the Shaman (who is also an aspect of Colin himself) is the last survivor of an extinguished human species, probably Neanderthals; in Strandloper, it is an 18th century Cheshire labourer who is transported for sedition and becomes an Aboriginal medicine man; in Thursbitch, it is a Cheshire packman, who keeps alive the ancient Mithraic bull-cult among the country folk residing in a remote valley.

The implication is that the storyteller stands in a direct line of descent from the shaman of old, and the ideas and images on which he draws are an inheritance we all share from our earliest beginnings, but which in modern times we are doing our best to deny and forget.

The world of the fantasy story resonates with the child on the verge of adolescence because she recognises it as an image of her own situation, something the adult is unable to do, because the very process of ‘growing up’ and entering ‘the real world’ is actually about acquiring a whole set of elaborate constructs to protect us from reality (which, as Eliot wisely remarked, humankind cannot bear very much).

We have work, we have mortgages, we have ‘lifestyles’ (a fine pretence, that we are actually able to shape and style our lives as we please, as if the unexpected was not at any moment liable to come down on us like a giant hammer) and – in the developed world at least, and in those countries where the social fabric still holds together and order is not breaking down – we collude in the communal self-deception that we have everything under control, that it’s all sorted, pretty much.

What Garner reminds us, as writers, is that our task is to open a crack in the walls of that complacency, and let in the light of wonder.


(This piece, here very slightly edited, originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of  An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, (ABBA) – the online presence of the SAS – The Scattered Authors Society)


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The (limited) meaning of existence

Never mind God – do I exist?

I don’t mean that feeling – familiar enough to some of us – that you have somehow become invisible to those around you, nor am I suggesting that I might be a figment of your imagination (a kind of reverse solipsism) – rather I am concerned with the scope and application of that often-used term ‘exist’.

‘Existence’ is generally coupled with ‘reality’ – what is real is what can be said to exist, and vice versa; the branch of philosophy that deals with these matters is called ontology. Before we go into philosophy, though, let us tarry a moment with commonsense. Dr Johnson may not have understood what Berkeley was talking about , but his memorable refutation is interesting  – ‘he struck his foot against a rock with such force that he rebounded from it and said, ‘I refute it thus”.

What interests me here is that the commonsense definition of reality – the conviction that something is real – is a feeling : specifically, the feeling we get when we encounter something solid, as when we strike our hand upon the table or our head against the wall, or as Dr Johnson did, our foot against a stone. Real is real for us – which, ironically, is just what Berkeley was arguing with his esse est percipi.

The aim of Wittgenstein’s early work, the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, as he states in his preface, is

‘to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts’.

Here is what he has to say on the matter of the subject (in the philosophical sense of what is denoted by the pronoun ‘I’– as opposed to ‘me’, which denotes my objective aspect: what I see in the mirror is not I, but me):


Here is the section that precedes it:


It is interesting to compare Wittgenstein on the Subject with Hume on the Self:

‘I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity. If any one, upon serious and unprejudic’d reflection thinks he has a different notion of himself, I must confess I can reason no longer with him. All I can allow him is, that he may be in the right as well as I, and that we are essentially different in this particular. He may, perhaps, perceive something simple and continu’d, which he calls himself; tho’ I am certain there is no such principle in me.

But setting aside some metaphysicians of this kind, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’
(A Treatise of Human Nature, sect VI, ‘of personal identity’)

Are Wittgenstein and Hume saying the same thing? It may be a matter of where you put the emphasis – is it ‘there is no such thing as the subject’ or ‘there is no such thing as the subject’? (the latter allowing that there may be subjects, but they are not things).

Of course we find that language is against us here: if what we are talking about is no thing, then it is nothing, surely? And if it is nothing – well, it is simply nothing, an absence, a non-entity.

Not necessarily: it may be that the coverage that language provides is not universal – it does not cover all there is  – and that calls to mind the final section of the Tractatus:

‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’

It might be that there is a process of mutual reinforcement (or indeed validation) going on here – if language stands to the world as a picture does to what it pictures – which is what Wittgenstein proposes in the Tractatus* – then the content of the one is the content of the other; so that once we move to a general level, things (or reality, which means the same) are what exist, and what exist are things. Whatever falls outside the sphere defined by language is nothing: it does not exist.

However, it may be that Hume cannot find the self because he is looking for it: you can find things by looking, but what if what you seek is not a thing?

This puzzle becomes clearer if we go back, via Descartes, to S. Augustine. Descartes, seeking for some certain foundation on which he could build, asserts cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore I am’ – making it seem a logical deduction; Augustine, over a thousand years earlier, observed that ‘the man who says ‘I know that I am alive’ can neither be deceived nor lie.’ (meaning he could neither be mistaken about it, nor pretending) – which makes ‘being alive’ seem a matter of knowledge.

However, my being alive is not something I know; it is not something I discovered as the result of research, after a period of doubt, nor is it subject to any verification**; rather it is what I am. Indeed, my being alive is surely the ground of my knowing anything. Likewise, to take the Cartesian formulation, we do not deduce from reflection that we are – we simply are; and our being is a prerequisite for any deduction. Wittgenstein says ‘you do not see the eye’ but he might equally have said ‘you do not see the ‘I’ ‘

This relation, the subject-object interface, is a problem for philosophers; it does not trouble commonsense, as the Johnson story I began with illustrates. And like many philosophical problems, its root can be traced back to Plato, whose discrediting of the senses is equally a discrediting, marginalisation and suppression of the Subject, which henceforth is regarded by philosophers as an obstacle to be overcome, preferably by discounting it altogether, particularly when it comes to rational thought – consider the pejorative sense that ‘subjective’ has in any discussion in that field: to say that a viewpoint is ‘subjective’ is to brand it partial, biased, distorted by personal considerations and generally not worth heeding: it is involved, rather than detached (a telling distinction).

I think the time has come to rehabilitate the subject.

It is, as I said above, the ground of our knowing anything (and that resonates interestingly with a definition that some theologians – including Hans Kung, if I remember right – use of God: ‘the ground of our being’). I would suggest the model below to express the relationship between the subject and the world of  ‘independent objective reality’ (a treble redundancy, since ‘reality’ in its philosophical use carries with it the notion of being objective and independent, though it does not in its commonsense or Johnsonian one):
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I think the implications of this model are worth unfolding, and I will return to it in a later article. For the present I will say only that Language (in its philosophical sense) operates only in the red area; Art operates in the blue (which is the universal set, and contains the red).

*though he later abandoned the picture theory – where meaning is a correspondence between words and a state of affairs in the world – for the idea that meaning is the use of a word, a shift of the most profound significance.

**this in fact is the theme of Wittgenstein’s last work, On Certainty



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Eight questions

My estimable friend Jackie Morris, artist and illustrator, writer of books, friend of bears, has some questions she would like us to answer (you can find more details here – http://www.jackiemorris.co.uk/blog/a-survey/ – including the prospect of prizes if you so incline).

Here are the questions:

  1. If you could see through someone else’s eyes who would that be?
  2. If you could see something one more time, what would that be?
  3. If you could make something, anything, what would you choose to make?
  4. How would you describe your desire?
  5. Do you make wishes?
  6. Do you dream?
  7. If you could develop a skill before you die what would you choose?
  8. Do you have any regrets? if the answer is no please move to question 8a.

8a. What are your regrets?

I  like 8a. Honesty is the best policy (apart from outright brazen lying)

My first reaction was to feel sad and think that I could not really answer any of those questions. Then I decided I would try anyway.

So, first question, through whose eyes would I see?

an albatross, I think. I like the idea of that lone cruising

‘Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise.’

as Mr Eliot so admirably puts it.

Next, what something would I see again? ‘Something‘ excludes people, and a host of bittersweet possibilities; so I would say – what? I do not know. Perhaps I do not believe you can see anything again – it will always be different. As Heraclitus observed, you cannot step in the same river twice.

What to make? I have lately become enamoured of the whole process of making books, having recently made one hundred of my own (see here: Making McAvinchey) So, something possible and specific – a hydraulic printing press like this one: http://affordablebindingequipment.com/hydraulic-letterpress-printing-press/

How would I describe my desire?

Not fervent enough, alas, but I will try to burn hotter.

Do I make wishes?


Do I dream?

yes, both waking and sleeping.

What skill would I develop? Letterpress printing or working a lathe.


That I did not do more; that I held back and lacked courage; that I thought too much and felt too little; that I did not love enough.




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Another way to misrepresent the EU referendum result: the Charles Moore Defence

Charles_Moore,_former_editor_of_the_Daily_Telegraph,_at_Edmund_Burke_Philosopher,_Politician,_Prophet[photo by Policy Exchange – Flickr: Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, at Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30224977%5D

As we have seen ( in Liars in public places) the usual method of misrepresenting the 2016 referendum result, as employed by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin and Johnson, is to lie outright –  these honourable men equate those who voted to leave with ‘the British people’ whose voice, we are told, must be heeded, and whose will must not be thwarted. Yet if we look at the actual figures, this arithmetic is downright dishonest:

British People (total) = 65.5 million

British People (eligible to vote in 2016 referendum) = 46.5 million

“British People” (as defined by messrs Rees-Mogg, Jenkin & Johnson) = 17.4 million.

(i.e. 38% of the electorate, 26.4% of the population – a large minority by any honest measure)

This morning, Mr Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, made another sort of misrepresentation to the people – he told us that the vote to leave was  ‘a massive vote – 17.4 million people, the largest number to vote for anything in our history’   (Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 15 February)

This is a claim I have heard before, from others who, like Mr Moore, are keen to present the 2016 referendum result as something it is not. For what it’s worth, the assertion is true (though only barely so) – but to be honest, it is not worth much at all.

For a start, we must ask ourselves on how many occasions ‘in our history’ the British people have voted on a single issue such as this*.

The answer is 3.

In 2016, as we have seen, 17,410,742 voted to leave the EU;

in 2011, 13,013,123 voted to reject the alternative vote and stick with first past the post;

and in 1973 17,378,581 voted to remain in the EU

that is only 32,161 fewer (or 0.18% less) than the ‘massive’ 2016 tally – from a substantially smaller electorate (40 million against 46.5) and a slightly lower turnout (64.67% v. 72.21%) – sufficient, I would say, to render Mr Moore’s grand-sounding claim void of any worth and confirm it as a clear attempt to misrepresent the 2016 referendum result as some sort of overwhelming landslide which it would be futile to challenge, whereas it was actually very close on the day – 51.89% v 48.11% – and in percentage terms meant that only 38% of the electorate actually voted to leave as against 34.7% who wished to stay and a further 27% who did not offer an opinion.

For comparison, the 1975 result was decisive –  67% to 33%,  17.378 million v. 8.47 million, 43% of the electorate for, 21% against with 36% not offering an opinion.

I have said elsewhere that the 2016 result would be more honestly presented by saying that 62% did not vote to leave. In case I am accused of duplicity, we should consider the 1975 referendum in the same light.

Can we say that 57% ‘did not vote to stay’ ? I suppose we could; on the other hand, since the status quo then, as now, was that we were already in the EU, then voting to leave is the vote for change; so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that in 1975, 79% did not wish to leave the EU, since only 21% expressed a desire to do so.

What is undeniable is that a number of public figures – many of them elected representatives – consistently misrepresent the 2016 result as so overwhelming that to challenge it would be futile and an affront to democracy. 

They do so because they fear that the result – which was actually very close and showed the country to be deeply divided on the issue – will certainly be reversed in a second referendum.

For them, that makes a second referendum something to be avoided at all costs. For us – the British people – it makes it a democratic imperative.


*There have been 11 referendums since 1973, but only 3 involved the whole of the UK. General elections, which involve multiple parties, constituency votes and complex manifestos, are clearly not the same as single-issue referendums in  which the overall vote is what counts. For information, since the war, the winning party has generally gained around 13 million votes, with the lowest being Tony Blair’s victory in 2005 (9.55 million votes giving a majority of 31) and the highest John Major’s 14 million in 1992, which gave him a slimmer majority of 10; while Teresa May’s total of 13.63 milion in 2017, though among the highest, left her short of an overall majority – which shows that the total popular vote is of little significance in these contests.

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Johnson now certain Britain wishes to remain and would reverse Brexit in second referendum


Screenshot 2018-02-14 14.50.48     picture: BBC Website

Boris Johnson has admitted that a second referendum would reverse Brexit and see Britain vote to remain in the EU.

In his speech today, Mr Johnson said holding another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU – as some campaigners are calling for – would be a “disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal”.

Since Mr Johnson presents himself as a firm advocate of Brexit, it is inconceivable that he would describe a referendum that confirmed Brexit in those terms or as having these effects; if anything, it would silence the Remainers.

His words can only mean that Mr Johnson expects a second referendum would reverse Brexit and leave the 38% of the electorate who voted for it feeling betrayed.

His words are open to no other construction.

But if he believes that the British people wish to stay in the EU, why is he intent on denying them the chance to say so? Can it be that he puts his own career above democracy?

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