“Happy New Year!” we say to one another, but do we say it in optimistic expectation or in fearful hopes: beseeching Fate that 2014 is not the year when one’s ordained calamity strikes? A bit of both, but increasingly the latter as we accumulate more new years, I suppose. We must doublethink and be Janus-faced about this and many other things; anyway we don’t have much choice in the matter, 2014 is here and already churning away. New Year’s Eves were fun for me around the turn of the millennium, with added spice in December 1999 because we all thought the Y2K bug might destroy civilisation. Boy, what a letdown that was, but it taught me a lot about humankind’s capacity for prognostication, particularly of the millennial kind. I prognosticate that in 2014 many unplanned events will occur, some of them with notable consequences and some without. Happy New Year!
We have a leaky roof so for the Christmas period our house has been adorned with festive scaffolding. It took us the best part of a year to find someone who was actually prepared to do both quote for and then turn up to do the job, and what we eventually found was John. The salient facts about John are: (1) he grew up amongst working-class white mining folk in what is now Zambia but was then Northern Rhodesia, (2) he has done every kind of building and construction work it is possible to do, (3) he is able to talk at quite some length about points (1) and (2), and also about the technical elements of fixing our roof (there being a staggering quantity of these. Despite it being mid-terrace and therefore very small there are apparently all sorts of coping stones and something-something-ridges and whatnots up there), and (4) he looks really old, moves like someone who ought to have been long retired from manual labour by now, and has an enormous white beard. Every time I watch him clamber painstakingly up the ladder I feel a wrinkle of concern creep o’er my brow. Should be really be on top of a roof at his age? It wouldn’t be very nice for some child to come skipping along the pavement on Christmas Eve, full of the joys of the season, only to trip over the splattered and bloody corpse of Santa, now would it?
I had to chuckle when I read Nick Cohen venting about the ‘racketeers’ of Mumsnet, who invited him to do an unpaid broadcast.
A finer example of a man pissing in the wind would be hard to find. Racketeers? To put it in the simplest economic terms, Nick has greatly overestimated the Ricardian rent value to the owners of Mumsnet of his eloquent opining ( i.e. how much more valuable an hour of Nick’s eloquent opining is than an hour of opining by the best available ‘marginal’ or free opiner) – that value being precisely zero, which is the offer they fairly and openly made to him.
In wider terms, Nick seems to think that Mumsnet had a strategy to gain large audiences by somehow tricking contributors into supplying free content. But the truth is bottom-up, not top-down: the internet has just allowed curious niche entities like Mumsnet (and, to a much lesser degree, The Dabbler) to gain large audiences even though they have no money to spend on content, by giving a platform to those who either can’t sell their work or who want to write more than just what they can sell. (Those audiences, I can tell you, do not translate into cash.)
But you know all that. An interesting question here is what the future holds for people of Nick’s profession – that is, people who express moral outrage in return for money – in the face of competition from people prepared to express moral outrage for free. Nick is pessimistic, but in fact, I think the future is quite bright. Twitter and blogs have provided an opportunity for the best pundits to cement reputations, find their natural audiences and gain large personal followings, and to be valued in themselves rather than being, essentially, salaried commentjockeys paid to fill the pages between the tittle-tattle in the front and the stuff in the back that used to actually sell newspapers (i.e. the horseracing, the crossword, the horoscopes and the telly). This new-found status might or might not lead to financial rewards – that will probably depend on the individuals being clever about using their platforms to flog books and talks to their online constituencies – but anyway, presumably nobody ever went into the moral outrage profession purely because they want money, even if that’s where they end up.
On Christmas Eve I was in the girls’ bedroom, trying to convince E that the world would be a more felicific place if only she would submit to her afternoon nap, when C came scuttling up the stairs to say that she had posted her letter to Father Christmas ‘up the chimbley’. ‘Ah, well done’, I said, carefully. ‘Can you show me exactly where you put the letter, just so I can make sure he’ll get it?’
After they’d gone to bed it took poor Mrs Brit an age of fiddling with a pair of extra-long barbecue tongs to fish it out from behind the electric fire.
Just before Christmas I was sitting at the hospital bedside of a dear friend, jabbering away, when we were approached by a sizzling Latina with dark eyes and cascading brunette curls and an outrageous accent. She reminded me of Sofia Vergara’s Colombian trophy wife character in the US sitcom Modern Family (Google her if you dare). So warm and tactile was this lady’s greeting that for a brief, impressed moment I took her for my friend’s mistress. But then she said (lasciviously) that my friend could ‘spend Chreeestmas at hhhhome’ and I realised that she was, in fact, the doctor.
‘Well there’s one bit of luck for you, at least,’ I remarked after Doctor Sanchez had left. ‘God bless the NHS and all who immigrate to work in her.’ 2014 is of course the year when we fling open our doors and heartily welcome our comrades from Romania and Bulgaria. On immigration I find myself once again Janus-faced. It is a democratic disgrace that the EU governments allowed migration to so rapidly transform towns and neighbourhoods without consulting electorates. But on the other hand, we need plentiful young immigrants for the good of our economic health and long dotages. The ideal would a steady flow, spread evenly around the country and gradually absorbed, rather than flash floods and spring-up ghettos. We don’t live in an ideal world, of course, but we could live in a slightly better one.
(Incidentally, I’ve sometimes seen much made of the theory that in the US people identify as ‘African-Americans’ or ‘Italian-Americans’ etc, whereas we have ‘British Asians’, and this nomenclature is supposed to reveal a healthier attitude to integration and patriotic priority on the other side of the Pond. But if that’s the case, why aren’t there ‘Mexican-Americans’ or ‘Colombian-Americans’ – they all just seem to get lumped together as ‘Hispanics’. The theory sounds like yet another load of cobblers to me.)
Cricket produces great sports writing, even occasionally on the anodyne BBC website. Four-fifths of the way through the horrorshow Tom Fordyce did a good job of capturing the particular agonies inflicted on the England cricket team Down Under:
No other sport extends the torture like Test cricket. If a big-name tennis player had blown his Australian Open chances so comprehensively at the adjacent Rod Laver Arena he would have been gone in half a day. If a top-ranked golfer falls apart at a major, he is spared further humiliation by the quick mercy of the cut.
England’s agony has gone on, day after day, like that same golfer being forced to play round after failing round, an Open every week, duffing drives and missing putts, swing in pieces, galleries guffawing.
As a rule we don’t appreciate Golden Ages until they’re over, but I have honestly cherished every moment of the Vaughan-Strauss-Cook ride which finally conked out in such spectacular fashion this winter. All things reach an end, though I didn’t expect this one to be brought about by Mitchell Johnson…Wasn’t the mind-scrambling demon fast bowler supposed to be a thing of the past?
The special cruelty of cricket is that it is a team game made up of individual games, so it burdens its players with the worst pressures from both worlds: batsmen play alone, yet each also carries the weight of the team (this nearly unique feature might be one of the reasons for the apparently disproportionate number of cases of mental health problems in the game). Perhaps that’s also why, like boxing, it produces such good sports writing – it attracts good writers, aka voyeurs, who are gripped by watching men doing things they’re rather glad they don’t have to do themselves.
(One other point to take from this Ashes catastrophe: the importance of good timing when it comes to retirement. Graeme Swann is one of England’s greats but his rat/sinking ship act has tainted his glory and you’re a very long time retired from a professional sporting career.)
The indispensable Dave Lull points me to this article which quite rightly calls for science and industry to ‘bring the Dabblers back’. In it we learn that:
the Girl Scouts once offered a fascinating merit badge: the Dabbler badge. This allowed a young scout who wanted to do a little bit of everything to not only generalize, but to be recognized for that achievement. Perhaps it’s time for the academic and business equivalent of the Dabbler badge: a way to acknowledge and foster those dabbling in different ideas, all the way from gradeschool to late career.
The Dabbler badge apparently looked like this. If anybody fancies having a go at designing an updated Dabbler badge for proper use here on The Dabbler itself, please do send to the usual address firstname.lastname@example.org