Jun. 2nd, 2015

From Korea by Simon Winchester:


One of the more famous Zen masters in Korea was Hyobong, who was a judge during the Japanese occupation—in fact, the first Korean to be allowed to sit on the Colonial bench. But after having to sentence a man to death, he became suddenly disenchanted with the whole idea of colonial justice, resigned, and became an itinerant toffee seller, during which time he thought deeply about how he could best lead a decent life. He finally decided to become a Buddhist monk and to start proper meditation. He then chose the hwadu “No!” and in 1931­—though it might be difficult to accept this kind of thing happened so recently, so much does it sound the stuff of legend—had himself walled into a tiny hermitage, with only a tiny hole for food to be passed in and out. He stayed there for 18 months, until one day in 1933 he realised that all of his doubts had been resolved. He had himself unwalled, and as a conclusion to his lengthy meditation on the hwadu “No!” wrote the following lines:

At the bottom of the ocean, a deer hatches an egg in a swallow’s nest.
In the heart of a fire, a fish boils tea in a spider’s web.
Who knows what is happening in this house?
White clouds float westward; the moon rises in the east.

After which revelation, Hyobong became a Zen Master, a respected teacher, and was appointed spiritual head of the Chogye order—the principal order in Korea. Thus, while cynics might not accept the validity of the hwadu system nor the sense of the poem that resulted, it has to be accepted that the man who so meditated, and the man who came up with this answer, was appointed to a position equivalent to the head of a major Western church—a church whose rituals must seem as strange to Zen Buddhists as their ways must seem back West.

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The Daily Mail: A Warning from History

From a biography of writer Edgar Wallace, a salutary tale from 1906:


Alfred Harmsworth, later Lord Northcliffe

From time to time it is considered good business for a newspaper to engage in what is euphemistically described as a “crusade”, and in the autumn of 1906 [Daily Mail editor] Alfred Harmsworth decided to undertake a Napoleonic campaign against the rising price of soap. This increase in price had been agreed on by the soap manufacturers, following the sudden rise in the cost of raw materials; it had recently been discovered that some of the ingredients of soap could also be converted into margarine and other foodstuffs suitable for the poor, and to balance the consequent rise in the costs of production the soap manufacturers had put up the price of their products. More, at the suggestion of Mr Lever (later Lord Leverhulme), the Sunlight soap millionaire, they were planning an amalgamation of the principal firms to eliminate the tremendous costs of competitive advertising. Such an amalgamation would, of course, have enormously reduced the advertisement revenue of the newspapers, and rumours immediately spread about that it was part of the scheme to corner all the raw materials available and substantially increase the price of soap to the public. This latter consideration was, according to the statement of his newspapers, the sole inspiration of the philanthropic Harmsworth scheme to fight the “soap trust” and protect the public, and the poor washerwoman who would be most hardly hit by an increase in supervisors became an object of passionate editorial concern.

The attack on the “soap trust” was launched with all the vigour and thoroughness of which Alfred Harmsworth was capable, and most of the Daily Mail reporters, including Edgar, were sooner or later pressed into the fray. A “black list” of all the soap firms involved in the amalgamation scheme was published, with the names of their products, as also a list of firms not so involved, whose products the public was recommended to buy without fear of being instantly strangled by the great soap octopus. Lever Brothers came in for the heaviest punishment, for not only was Mr Lever the originator of the scheme, but he had also, on the advice of his agents, reduced the weight of the standard bar of Sunlight soap by an ounce, a diplomatic alternative to an increase in retail prices. The attention of the retailer had been expressly called to this reduction in weight by a small label gummed on the end of the soap carton, but the Daily Mail fell on the expedient with a yell of outrage which suggested that the “fifteen-ounce pound” was a deliberate attempt to deceive and vampirise the public.



In common with other members of the reporting staff it fell to Edgar to supply colourful detail of the suffering caused to the British public by the increased cost of soap, and he was specifically instructed to voice the laments of the poor struggling washerwoman. Accordingly, with great feeling (and, one cannot help suspecting, from the comfort of his study in Elgin Crescent) he contributed to the general Daily Mail philippics under the moving headline of “Cruel Blow to the Poor”. “Out of the region of high finance,” he wrote, ”away from the battleground where an indefinite public fights a very tangible twelve million pound trust, you are nearer to the crux of the whole question when you get to the place where the washing hangs out on the line and the steam and soapy scent of washing day permeates the neighbourhood… 'From early Monday morning to late on Saturday night'”—it is an unspecified washerwoman who is speaking—“I stand at my wash-tub—and very often well into the early hours of Sunday morning. To meet the competition of the laundries I have reduced my price to 9d. a dozen—and at this price the rise in the price of soap means all the difference between bread-and-butter for my children and dry bread.” This affecting account was inserted anonymously into the columns set aside daily in the Daily Mail for the attack on the soap trust, but it achieved unexpected and somewhat embarrassing prominence when it was quoted in court during the shattering libel action which ultimately followed.

Lever Brothers had borne the assault as long as they could, and then had announced that the amalgamation scheme was to be abandoned. It was an undeniable triumph for the power of the Press, and the Harmsworth newspapers were not slow to drive home to the public the philanthropic magnitude of their achievement. So great was the triumph, indeed, that Harmsworth found himself completely unable to relinquish the subject, and when, a few weeks later, Lever Brothers made an attempt to retrieve the damage by a vast scheme of advertising (not, curiously enough, in the Daily Mail) he returned to the attack with open and exuberant scoffing. This sudden resumption of hostilities was too much for Lever. The Daily Mail campaign had already had a disastrous effect on the sales of Sunlight soap and the value of Lever shares; he had owned himself beaten, abandoned the trust, and restored the sixteen-ounce pound. More he could not do, and when he found himself and his firm still victims of hostile publicity he took legal advice, briefed Sir Edward Carson and F.E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) and sued the Daily Mail and associated newspapers for libel.


Edgar Wallace

It was a lively case, and with such brilliant counsel it soon became apparent that the Harmsworth crusade to protect the British public was going to be expensive. With masterly succinctness Sir Edward Carson drew up the case for the prosecution. The Daily Mail, according to the plaintiffs, had accused Levers of selling soap in a fraudulent manner; they also claimed that large numbers of employees had been dismissed as a result of the combine. They had, moreover, charged them with cornering the raw materials market, with attempting to bribe the Press, with using unsavoury fish oil in their products, and with pursuing a policy in regard to the combine which “tended to the oppression of the poor”. Up to the present, said Sir Edward, the trading losses of the plaintiffs had, as a result of these public accusations, already amounted to £40,000, and two million preference shares had been reduced in value with a loss to the shareholders of £200,000.

The charge of oppression of the poor particularly took the ironic fancy of the prosecution, and in the published reports of the proceedings (for the case was being followed by other newspapers with hilarious interest) Edgar's story of the piteous washerwoman occupied a prominent and unenviable place. “Turning,” said The Times report, “to another article entitled 'Cruel Blow to the Poor', Sir Edward said it told a story of a poor widow who supported a large family of small children by washing, and who lost 1s. 6d. a week through the increase in the price of soap. She must, said counsel, have used ninety-six 3d. tablets. (Laughter.) They had asked where this poor widow who was using ninety-six tablets a week and was being driven to the pawn shop by Mr Lever was to be found, and in answer to interrogatories the reply they got was that the story was contributed by a reporter on tne staff who was now in the south of France reporting the wine riots. (Laughter.)”

The defence pleaded in reply that their charges were true, that the conduct of the plaintiffs had been fraudulent and dishonest, and that the articles complained of were fair comment—but the jury thought otherwise. Judgment was given for Lever Brothers, who were awarded £50,000 damages—the largest sum up to that time that had ever been awarded in a libel action. Encouraged by this promising result the lesser soap companies which, with Levers, had borne the brunt of the attack, rushed into litigation, and Mr Lever's damages having set an opulent example, Sir Alfred Harmsworth found himself finally liable for damages amounting in all to a quarter of a million. It was a crushing blow, even to so rich an organisation as the Harmworth Press, and a panic of economy swept through Carmelite House. In the course of the anxious conferences and discussions which followed Sir Alfred asked irritably who was the reporter whose ridiculous calculations on the losses of washerwomen had provoked such malicious amusement at the Daily Mail's expense. Edgar, returning innocently from Narbonne, where he had, indeed, been covering the wine riots, found a black mark of disfavour registered against him.

Margaret Lane, Edgar Wallace: A biography, 1939

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Selsdon Tonight: Ukraine




Debate on the Report of the European Union Committee on The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine

Full speech hereCollapse ) Ukraine is a country that I love and respect. If any of your Lordships would like a bit of fun, I would willingly take you down to look at the old missile factory, although it is not producing missiles anymore. The people there are still nice. [Hansard]

Etc.Collapse )

Mar. 23rd, 2015

“Who’s going to win the election, then?” It’s a question whose elements float around the building like a nebula, coating everything in it with an unsettling film of uncertainty, but rarely do they gather enough momentum to coalesce into a planetoid that can, say, be bowled at me slightly mischievously by one of our cleaners, a lady in her 50s originally from Mauritius. I run through my usual spiel that basically no-one knows anything at this point, and demoralisation nationally is such that any of the grab-bag of horrors running for office might scrape into power on the pitiful smattering of votes that people will be bothered to cast.

“I think it will be Ukip,” she says. I say that, despite everything I just said, this is still powerfully unlikely. “I shall be voting Ukip,” she says proudly. I look at her, wide-eyed. “But… you know that they don’t like you, right?” I venture. She raises her chin in defiance and pride. “I have been here for 40 years and I have worked for all that time,” she says, “and now I see all these immigrants coming here and getting everything for free.”

We bat back and forth a bit on the veracity of the relentless media reports of hordes of immigrants swarming across the Channel like flying ants to find themselves greeted with cries of joy from self-hating white do-gooders, wrapped in a carpet of money and gifted all the mansions they can eat [1], but she’s immovable. She firmly believes every word they print. “I have always worked for my money,” she says.

“And so do most of them!” I reply, but she’s having none of it. Finally I have no choice but to approach the more delicate aspect of all this. “Okay, but you do know that most Ukip members and voters are really racist?”

“I think that I also am becoming a bit racist,” she confides with a sheepish grin, before launching into an account of the welfare fiddles she reckons her Pakistani neighbours are getting up to. Her own experiences as a black woman emigrating to the UK in the mid-1970s, which are unlikely to have been too rosy, have faded enough that they can be overwritten by the same poisonous far-right narrative that can always be counted on to snare those who have very little: that lot over there are already getting more than you for doing nothing, and if you’re not careful they’ll come and get your stuff too. (Yes, this narrative can be used by the far left too, but in their case they’re talking about the hyper-rich and privileged rather than people who also have very little—and it can’t be quite so easily dismissed as untrue.)


Doomed, I persist. “And you know that they don’t think your children are British? Ukip, and the papers that support them, don’t care if someone is born here and has grown up here—they will always see them as ‘hidden migrants’ and use that to attack them.” Here she sidetracks unexpectedly into a story about having been told officially (by a never identified “them”) that she would be allowed to call her children English but not British, a claim I've never heard before and which sounds a lot like a misunderstanding, but it derails us from confronting the central issue of whether, having voted for them, she would honestly be invited to remain in he adopted country were her chosen party ever to win any kind of majority. Not, I suspect, that she would ever give this scenario any headspace to begin with; she has the monomania, and ability to ignore troublesome and conflicting ideas, of the true believer. She'd still vote for them if Farage himself beeped her nose and daubed a racist slur on her coat.

So when pundits note that the votes of immigrant citizens will play an increasing role in future elections, bear in mind that it isn’t necessarily obvious just who those votes will be cast for. It is at least as likely that someone who has come into a society from outside and had to fight for their place will be minded to pull up the ladder behind them as it is that they might be sympathetic to the plight of anyone following in their wake—especially if there’re encouraged to feel that way by cynical politicians looking to hit the electoral jackpot that is always guaranteed by spreading distrust and fear.



[1] You couldn't make it up.

Positive spin hall-of-famer

Baroness Sherlock (Lab): When this Government brought in the Pensions Act 2011, they introduced an earnings trigger for auto-enrolment… and every year since then we have seen more and more people excluded.

She produces these figures:

2011-12: 600,000 people excluded, 75% of them women.

2012-13: 100,000 people excluded, 82% of them women.

2013-14: 420,000 people excluded, 72% of them women.

2014-15: 170,000 people excluded, 69% of them women.

Total: 1,290,000 people excluded from auto-enrolment in four years, the majority of them women.


The Minister chides her for being so negative.

Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth (Con): I appreciate that the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, would want to go on a historical journey rather than review the current good news in the present order, but 20,000 more people being brought within auto-enrolment, 70% of whom are women, is of course good news*.

He doesn’t use the term "Rejoice!", but it's left hanging in the air.


* 1.55%, if you were wondering.

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You. Could. Be. Smoking. Gold. There is no more extravagant act. So if you've got cash to burn and love rolling in money (sort of) then get yourself these princely papers today. [Firebox]

Firebox's copyrighter is particularly proud of having spotted the potential for wordplay involving the word "rolling", deploying it on three occasions on one page.

Importantly, this product "comes with a certificate to authenticate its golden credentials".

Waugh stories

I was told this recently at a party. It doesn't matter that all this happened within the past five years; it's still straight out of an Evelyn Waugh novel.

“My friend in the Army had to go and visit some Italian troops in Iraq. Different NATO countries had divided up different areas to watch over, and the Italians had been placed in charge of a stretch of road that coalition troops would need to use frequently. After six months, this road was incident-free; no-one had reported being attacked, and the Italians themselves had not encountered a single problem. The British and Americans were stunned, and went to see for themselves just what it was the Italians had been doing right.

“When they arrived at the highway in question, the Italians were nowhere to be seen. Eventually they were found about half a mile away, guarding an empty road that turned out to be a long drive leading to someone’s house. They’d been there by mistake for the entire six months while the busy highway, frequently used by coalition troops, had been entirely unguarded. It was a total fluke that no-one had been attacked.

“Less amusing, because of the subsequent body count, when French troops handed over to the Americans an area that they’d been tasked with guarding, where they, too, had done an impressive job of keeping the peace, they didn’t tell the incoming force that this was because they’d bee paying off anyone in the region who might have given them trouble. Whether the Americans would have acted differently if they’d known this is moot; it became clear that no more payments were being made, and violence skyrocketed.”

Feb. 3rd, 2015

Lord Cameron of Dillington: This long-lasting sore on the face of responsible access to the countryside has got to be firmly gripped, and soon.

Tory Book Club: Freud In The City

It may not be the headline issue in the recent report of Lord Freud’s unguarded comments at a Tory conference fringe meeting, but there’s something gratifying about seeing a verbatim transcript of the noble Lord’s pronouncements, displaying his characteristic crispness and clarity of thought, suddenly being flung into the public domain like a sack of soiled underwear. Compared with some of his more gnomic babblings this is still pretty straightforward, but it gives a sense of the amount of industrial activity required to make him make sense on the pages of Parliament’s Official Report. For those who missed it:

“You make a really good point about the disabled. Now I had not thought through, and we have not got a system for, you know, kind of going below the minimum wage. But we do have… you know, universal credit is really useful for people with the fluctuating conditions who can do some work—go up and down—because they can earn and get… and get, you know, bolstered through universal credit, and they can move that amount up and down.

“Now, there is a small… there is a group, and I know exactly who you mean, where actually as you say they’re not worth the full wage and actually I’m going to go and think about that particular issue, whether there is something we can do nationally, and without distorting the whole thing, which actually if someone wants to work for £2 an hour, and it’s working can we actually…”
Here either the transcript or his actual sentence just tails off, possibly out of sheer ennui. Unfortunately, the part of that passage that's clearest, that requires the least parsing or interpretation, is the part where he readily agrees with the contention that disabled people are worth less, and this is worth building into policy.

The problem for the noble Lord is that this is what his opponents have contended all along that he thinks and says in private. However much he denies that, the fact that he agreed with such alacrity, safe in the knowledge that could speak freely as he was among Conservative friends, will from now on trail round after him like a swarm of angry bees. “I care passionately about disabled people,” he says in his apology, a statement—in the light of what’s being done to them with the sweeping away of vital benefits and meaningful support—eerily similar to the dependable claim that “I love women” made by irredeemable misogynists.

His manner is very controlled—he speaks quietly, even when he's winging it and not making any sense, and smiles when he is told stories of the hardships his reforms are causing—but his claim last year not to understand why there was a huge increase in people visiting food banks, coming from a man whose entire career was built on analysis, suggested a deadpan sarcasm at work, a knowing wink to the right-wing gallery.

But what makes this inscrutable man tick? What are his inner thoughts? Oh God, there’s only one thing for it, isn’t there?



2. David Freud, Freud In the City, 2006



You"ll laugh, you"ll cry, you"ll be sick in a binCollapse )

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