Dabbler Diary – Gabriel’s Oboe

The Health Visitor (why do these public sector job titles always seem like Orwellian euphemisms for something sinister?) knocked on the door. She had come to assess my eldest daughter (Brit Jnr, but hereafter in this Diary known as ‘C’) for her hearing and speech development. I opened up and in came a Force of Nature, hurling me backwards down my own hallway on a tidal wave of chatter. Nula, for that was her name, was one of those tiny middle-aged women who fill a room. In her wake came a trainee called Becky who was physically about three times the size of Nula in all directions but by comparison left no impression whatsoever. Nula sat me down at my own table and unleashed a battery of pleasantries followed by a battery of questions. At some point I recovered enough of my wits to offer a cup of tea. “Sweet of you, no thank you” she said, waving away the offer for both of them before Becky could make a squeak.

Taking her in I realised that Nula was a tremendous luvvie, with bold purple eyeliner and a needlessly flamboyant scarf, but also that she was a stander for no nonsense. More than a touch of Mrs T, or at the very least Edwina Currie. C fell instantly under her spell. Tests in the form of little games were performed with efficiency, actions taken, dates made, rat a ta tat and out the door they went. We waved from the window as they headed for the next appointment. Nula’s can’t be an easy patch. There are many non-Anglophones and Precariats. Just across the road there lived a young couple dependent on methadone (which, it seems, the welfare state uses to keep heroin addicts quiet when it has given up trying to either punish or save them). When their baby boy Jayden-Lee wouldn’t sleep they gave him doses of the drug, which killed him and they are now both in prison. You need to be compassionate and indomitable to be a good public sector health worker, with a skin like a rhinoceros.  “Can Nula come and play that game again tomorrow?” asked C.


The term ‘Monbiot Apology’ refers to any public statement of apparent contrition in which the apologiser seeks to convey that a less noble person would not have performed the act for which the apology is deemed necessary, and is named after George Monbiot’s explanation that he falsely called Lord McAlpine a paedophile on Twitter because he, George Monbiot, is very brave (I felt a powerful compulsion to do what I have done throughout my career: to help the voiceless be heard.”).

Further evidence of Monbiot’s innate nobility was revealed, by Monbiot himself, in this article, in which he allowed himself a rare pat on the back for launching a Twitter campaign demanding that Iain Duncan Smith prove that he can live on the £53 per week which a market trader from County Durham doesn’t.

What Monbiot has done here is to harness the power of ‘slacktivism’ – the business of ’supporting’ a cause or protest campaign merely by clicking a link or a ‘Like’ on Facebook, retweeting a Tweet or forwarding an email. And how feeble that power is, since the quantity of causes available for one-click support means that a person with sufficient self-righteousness can literally spend all day doing it while scanning comments on Comment is Free and pirating episodes of Game of Thrones.

We now need some kind of metric for measuring the ‘campaign inflation’ that slacktivism has caused. How many slactivist ‘signatures’ equals one real signature in an old-fashioned petition collected by people with clipboards and pens? It’s hard to say, but I would estimate that at the time that Monbiot’s IDS campaign had 300,000 supporters, the ratio was about 1,000:1, so his effort was equivalent to handing over to IDS in person a sheet of paper with 300 signatures on it. Only without, of course, the impact of actually handing it over in person. However, I also guess that this campaign inflation is increasing exponentially, so that by the time he had 350,000 supporters the left-hand side of the ratio had doubled, making it equivalent to only 175 signatures. And before long a campaigner such as Monbiot will need millions if not billions of Tweets and Likes before anybody important will pay the slightest bit of attention.


How petty our politics seem compared to Thatcher versus the North. So dominant in public life was Mrs T when I was growing up (she won the 1979 election on my second birthday) that for a good while I actually thought ‘Prime Minister’ was the feminine form of ‘President’, as ‘Queen’ is to ‘King’. Watching the obit programmes, it is still startling to see a major politician be so uninterested in tact and make no efforts whatsoever towards conciliatory language. Who do we have now in that mould? Actually there is one minister who seems to revel in taking to a stage to be booed by his implacable enemies. I suspect Michael Gove’s main regret is that Spitting Image is no longer around to make his puppet.


Never bring up religion or politics with strangers, but if you do somehow stray onto the latter, for goodness’ sake don’t discuss Margaret Thatcher. Those who hate her do so unconditionally and no shade of grey is permitted to smudge the line between black and white in their binary world. But this past week it has been impossible to avoid, and I’ve had a couple of awkward meetings where everyone, unsure of where the others stand, has floundered around for a safe remark about Mrs T. Turns out there are two basic gambits: (1) “She was certainly divisive”; and (2) “She lived on four hours sleep a night, you know.”

So I was pleased last week to read two articles (both, alas, behind The Times’ paywall) debunking these received wisdoms. Matthew Parris revealed that although she certainly worked long hours, when she skipped on sleep she got knackered. And Daniel Finkelstein argued, convincingly, that it misses the point to say she was ‘divisive’ because it takes two to make a division and Thatcher merely refused to accept impossible demands and didn’t put off fights til tomorrow if they had to be had today.


In an attempt to calm our youngest daughter (herafter ‘E’) as bedtime approaches we have taken to playing Classic FM. A few weeks’ exposure to that station’s soothing tones has made me realise what a limited playlist it has: I reckon I’ve heard the slow movement of the Concerto de Aranjuez at least four times, Albinoni’s Adagio at least six and Rachmaninov’s second Piano Concerto even more than that. They also play a lot of John Williams’ film music, particularly Jurassic Park. All lovely, but the conservatism is stifling. Say what you like about the license fee, a diet of commercial radio alone would leave us culturally a much poorer place.

Anyway, some Dabblers may recall that last summer’s Olympic Games were somewhat blighted for me by an attack of severe conjunctivitis with secondary uveitis, which effectively blinded me for a week or so. During the worst moments of that episode I was unable to keep my eyes open due to the pain but also unable to keep them closed because the build-up of fluid would put unbearable pressure on my eyelids and I dwelt in a timeless hinterland where day and night and sleep and wakefulness lost all meaning, and during this ordeal a nameless tune kept weaving round and round in my head as in a fever. I was able to whistle it, but could not for the life of me identify it and the struggle to do so became yet another torture in that twilight purgatory. Well, the other day I heard it again, on Classic FM. It is Ennio Morricone’s piece Gabriel’s Oboe, from the film The Mission, which, I now recall, I watched some months before the eye-plague. It is a very nice melody, and at least now that I know its name it might help ease my misery rather than add to it the next time nature throws some beastliness my way. Thank you, Classic FM.


On the subject of blindness, I visited the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road for the first time last week, and came across (a copy of) the most horrible painting in the world. It is The Blind Leading the Blind by Bruegel, and I recommend that you don’t look at it.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.
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18 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – Gabriel’s Oboe

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    April 15, 2013 at 10:14

    It was one of those rare summer days, temperatures soaring and sun glaring, the doorbell rang, one of those seventies acacia avenue jobbies, all G-Plan and Ercol. She stood there, resplendent in tweed twin-set, pearls, winter overcoat and seventy litre handbag, the ‘elf visitor, introducing herself as Miss…., a wonderful background for the job in hand. A combination of Ever Decreasing Circle’s Martin and an Abrams M1A1 she was looking for bovver, she received it. Did we look like trailer park trash or was it the accent clash or the fact that junior had donned every stitch of clothing he could find, a length of my best 9mm perlon rope and was practising garrotting the chair. “He shouldn’t be dressed like that on a day like this, bad for his health.” that was as far as she got, frau m bristled, bristled again and asked her to leave, accompanied by an appraisal of her suitability for the job, followed by a very long letter to her ‘department’.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      April 16, 2013 at 08:46

      Sounds like Frau Malty is pretty formidable herself…

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    April 15, 2013 at 10:19

    Are the BBC unaware of or unable to spell the word ‘Baroness’ they know how to spell ‘Lord’, as in Mandelson.

  3. wormstir@gmail.com'
    April 15, 2013 at 12:45

    Interesting what you say about Monbiot and slacktivism – there is currently a war being raged in social media marketing between the evangelical consultants and media professionals who all sing the praises of facebook ‘likes’ and the small minority who question the actual value of simply being ‘liked’ by an idly clicking teenager. Expect this to move into the spotlight further as facebook increases its advertising in an attempt to justify its share price (of course increased ads will lower customer satisfaction, thus lowering share price as they all leave in disgust, but there you go)

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      April 16, 2013 at 08:47

      Isn’t it funny how as soon as a new techno craze comes along there is an instant army of ‘experts’ charging for advice on how to use them. LinkedIn Gurus and what have you, all saying exactly the same boilerplate bollocks.

      • wormstir@gmail.com'
        April 16, 2013 at 12:39

        yep, and depressingly there’s obviously a large pool of desperate marketing managers and CEOs falling over themselves to throw their cash at them

  4. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    April 15, 2013 at 13:26

    Say what you like about the license fee, a diet of commercial radio alone would leave us culturally a much poorer place.

    Perhaps, but beware the internal politics of the BBC when the “bright young men/women” pull a coup. CBC (a.k.a. Mother Corp) FM radio was admired and beloved for many years, in large part for the classical music that played all afternoon. A mix of light and serious that appealed to both the Mahlermans and dilattantes like me who kept the car radio tuned to it. Even doctrinaire privatizers made an exception. Then it went through one of its periodic masturbatory mandate reviews, complete with fierce internal turf wars and nights of long knives. Suddenly the old familiar melodious voices that guided us through paradise were put out to pasture and replaced with young bucks treating us to the works of “little-known Canadian artists.” Be still, my beating heart. They called it modernization.

    Those of us who mourned the end of civilization as we know it, and we were many, soon discovered private FM and satellite radio moved in quickly to fill the vacuum and haven’t looked back since. Not surprising in this era of a gazillion stations.

  5. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    April 16, 2013 at 08:10

    Thanks Peter – I didn’t realize I had become a part of speech(!) Back in January I rambled-on about the downward march of commercial radio in the search for what I believe is called ‘audience share’ (Is Classical Music Dead?) and Classic FM found their mojo quite quickly by doing a ‘Mother Corp’. And what is wrong, you might say, in giving the listening public what they obviously want? Nothing, I would answer, particularly if you want to make some money – ‘nobody ever went broke underestimating the public’s appetite…..etc’.
    The BBC, funded by the taxpayer to the tune of £5bn (yes, that is billion)every year should, instead of chasing the shirt-tails of Classic FM, be doing what they were put there to do after the war – and did for many years; educate, inform and entertain.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      April 16, 2013 at 15:15

      Yes, Mahlerman, you are now a figure of speech. Would you prefer to be a noun or an adjective?

  6. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    April 16, 2013 at 08:45

    The BBC is brilliant at radio and the internet, but in the age of on demand, LoveFilm, Tesco telly etc it is surely soon going to become untenable for it to be charging what is effectively a poll tax for a ‘television license’.

  7. Gaw
    April 17, 2013 at 07:49

    Your brilliantly observed ‘Monbiot Apology’ sounds like the cousin of the ‘humble-brag’, which I think has also come to prominence in the age of the internet. Perhaps one could describe it as the ‘brag-apology’?

    • Brit
      April 17, 2013 at 14:00

      Apoloboast? I like ‘Monbiot Apology’ except I never remember how to pronounce Monbiot.

      • Gaw
        April 17, 2013 at 20:44

        Apolo-brag would have the virtue of consistency.

  8. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    April 17, 2013 at 17:14

    Hmm, it’s not quite translating into American. Why is this omnicompetent state servitor coming to your house? And why are you letting her in?

    • Brit
      April 17, 2013 at 20:14

      We did in fact request the visit, though I did make it sound very Soviet, I can see that.

      • Gaw
        April 17, 2013 at 20:43

        They call everyone as a matter of course at least once. I think they often just turn up on your doorstep.

        Our youngest was invited with his mother back into hospital for feeding on a drip because his weight was getting dangerously low. I therefore naturally think it’s a good thing though I have no idea whether it’s mandatory in any way. But why would one refuse?

  9. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    April 18, 2013 at 10:31

    I didn’t think Soviet, but I did wonder whether there is a human rights exemption for that job, because only an older woman could pull it off by playing a surrogate non-nonsense grandmother. A younger women would meet the clench-teethed protective instinct young mothers are prone to and a man would be lucky to get out of the house alive. “Can George come and play that game tomorrow?” I don’t think so.

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