Dabbler Diary – For the birds

Saturday was Owl Day at the Speedwell Children’s Centre so we took the girls along. Bob the owl man looked like an owl. That sort of thing happens far too often to ascribe it all to coincidence, doesn’t it? Ken Livingstone looks like a newt. Same with aptronyms. Strong and disappointingly banal are the subaqueous currents that carry us through life while we laughably think we’re making ‘choices’. Anyway, Bob the owl man had a round moony face and tufty eyebrows and he sort of wobble-jerked his head about when he spoke. Before him was arranged a motley flockette of birds on low perches, consisting of two kinds of barn owl, an eagle owl, a very big Great Gray Owl and another middling owl the name of which I forget. There was also a red kite wearing a hood.

C is more of a do-er than a sit-quietly-and-listen-er, and so for that matter is Mrs Brit, so the two of them went off into the next room to do some owl-related crafts while E and I sat on the floor with other parents and children to hear Bob’s talk. Up very close, it was interesting how sharp the talons and beaks of the birds looked. I arranged my limbs carefully around E.

E is two years old and very keen on owls. She had brought along her snowy owl soft toy, Owly. While Bob talked she solemnly held Owly aloft for the owls to see and, we presumed, approve. They saw  – all except the blinded kite and the Great Gray, which was facing the window – but whether or not they approved was difficult to discern. Their eyes, though wide and round and unblinking, gave no clue.

Bob spoke at some length about the habitats and the habits of his owls. After a while it seemed to me that he was a bit of a silly sort of man. Whenever the red kite made a noise – the noise of a killer bringing sudden skewering gut-spreading death to mammalkind ­­ –  he said ‘Shurrup you!’, camply. He spoke about owl poo and wee and the business of pellets, whereby birds regurgitate the undigested bones, fur, feathers, claws, teeth and insect exoskeletons of their prey. The children shuffled and did not laugh.

We learned that although owls have good eyesight their front-on wide eyes and round skulls and eye-sockets primarily help them to identify the position of prey by sound. Bob asked whether we thought an owl would kill a little mouse with its beak or its talons. “With its beak,” offered a small boy. “No!” cried Bob in triumph, it would rip the mouse into pieces with its sharp talons. Owls liked eating things about the size of that toy that the young lady there is holding, he added, pointing to Owly. I pulled E a bit closer to my body. She pulled Owly closer to hers.

When he spoke Bob tapped his fingers on his tubby tummy. I noticed that his hands were covered in scratches, including on his right hand a long red angry scar running from the knuckle of his thumb to just above his wrist.

The birds continued to outstare us. I began to feel a creeping, almost certainly imaginary affinity with them and it was based on a shared animosity towards Bob, whose voice was starting to hurt my brain. Suddenly the Great Gray Owl whipped its face to us and with shocking power blasted open its wings, twitched, stretched, gaped. Then slowly it folded back into itself, and swivelled its head away again to the false azure in the windowpane.


Bristol has been named by the Sunday Times as the UK’s best city to live in. Admirably, in reporting this story the Western Daily Press does its best to prevent an influx of people from moving here and further driving up house prices by saying :

From Banksy to drum ‘n’ bass, Bristol has built up a reputation as a trendy place for young people to live and was at the forefront of the foodie revival.

But in fact the truth is, it really is a great place to live.


During his excellent lecture about nonsense, which preceded Frank Key’s reading at Bristol Grammar School, Roland Clare included a short film in which the headmaster of the school was shown standing on his desk holding a lobster, while the sublime melody from the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique piano sonata played. Much as I love that tune, I cannot alas ever hear it without also hearing Billy Joel singing ‘Thiiiiiis night you’re miiiiine, it’s ooooonly you aaaaand I’, because he used it, attributed, for the chorus of his song This Night, side one track four of his 80s blockbuster album An Innocent Man. I only mention this because it amuses me to think that there exists a song with the credit “Music and lyrics by Billy Joel/Ludwig van Beethoven.”


The Tories have just banned prisoners from reading books! Have you ever heard of anything more inhumane, more wrong-headed, more plain wicked in all your life? I first got wind of Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s draconian measure when I saw this Tweet from SALT publishing on Monday morning:

Those of us in the UK are waking up today in a country that is banning books for prisoners. What an utter disgrace.

Indeed. Soon some bold campaigners were taking up the cause, arguing, in some cases strongly, that prisoners being able to read books is a good thing rather than a bad thing. Organisation Voices For The Library pointed out that

Access to books and reading is important for many reasons. It has been found to support people’s development by extending opportunities for social participation and contributing to the development of cognitive thinking skills

while the author Mark Haddon went a bit further, saying:

we give books to children and we encourage other people to give books to children because we think of books as an unequivocal good which makes them better educated, more rounded people. Yet the ministry of justice seeks to improve the behaviour of prisoners by restricting access to books as if they were a different species of human being.

Even more pithy was this statement from children’s writer and keen atheist Philip Pullman:

It’s one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government.

Ouch! Soon enough, the Guardian was on board, with kooky restaurant critic Tanya Gold penning a well-reasoned and highly intellectual piece that opens with this sally:

…This terrifies, and so it should: civilisation is made of books – and where, even Conservatives can surely admit, is there a greater need for them than in “the prison estate” that is disproportionately filled with the illiterate?

Administrations that hate books ordinarily hate people too.

And who could argue with that? Surely everyone (even Conservatives!) would admit that hating people is less good than not hating people? On Wednesday a strongly worded letter to The Telegraph signed by 80 of Britain’s most respected authors and playwrights including Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Archer, Mary Beard, and the tireless pair Mark Haddon and Philip Pullman, opined that…

….Books represent a lifeline behind bars, a way of nourishing the mind and filling the many hours that prisoners spend locked in their cells.

By now the movement against the prison book ban was gaining unstoppable momentum. Using the hashting #shelfies, various writers tweeted pictures of their well-stocked and enviable bookshelves containing a selection of the sort of books they would send to prisoners if they were only allowed to by this barbaric government and happened to know any prisoners.

The campaign then culminated in a live event on Friday called ‘The Ballad Of Not Reading In Gaol’, lead by the Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy in which writers and actors including Kathy Lette, Vanessa Redgrave, Samuel West, David Hare and Ruth Padel read poems aloud outside Pentonville prison.


If you’ve done anything more than a spot of cursory reading about the hubbub above you’ll know that the remarkable thing about it is that under no definition whatsoever have prisoners actually been banned from reading books. Inmates have access to libraries, can buy books with money they earn and apparently can keep up to twelve books in their cells at a time, if they wish.

The root of the whole thing is in fact a change in rules which makes universal a previously inconsistently-applied ban on packages coming in to prisoners from friends and relatives. The ban appears to have been implemented for two reasons: because packages are a major source of contraband, especially drugs, entering prison; and because the ease with which prisoners can get access to small desirables undermines the government’s current policy of making prisoners earn rewards through good behaviour. Furthermore, the package ban has been in place since November 2013, not last week. Whether or not the ban is a good idea I am not qualified to comment, but it’s clear that not a single element of the SALT Publishing tweet “Those of us in the UK are waking up today in a country that is banning books for prisoners” has any basis in fact at all.

Now at this point you’re probably expecting me to launch into an assault on tweeting Guardianistas etc. But actually, I am going to tip my hat to the instigators of this salutary episode, namely The Howard League for Penal Reform, a progressive prison-matters pressure group led by Frances Crook. They have given us a genuine masterclass in twenty-first century propaganda, which is worth dissecting.

The Howard League disagrees with the package ban, but the ban in itself wasn’t unduly divisive or controversial – at any rate we didn’t hear a peep about it in November when it was introduced. But by ingeniously picking out the truism that sending packages containing books is now banned (along with packages containing anything else), they have managed to turn it into an Issue.

By exploiting the same foibles – self-righteousness, intellectual laziness, vanity, prejudice against politicians (especially Tories) –  that Chris Morris made use of in his infamous Brass Eye pranks to get celebs to endorse patent twaddle; and by combining that exploitation with the foibles of social media – gnat-like attention spans, look-at-me-ism, mob mentality, the urge to express instant, hyperbolic opinions (Philip Pullman: It’s one of the most disgusting, mean, vindictive acts of a barbaric government), the Howard League successfully mobilised the left-wing Twitterati, and from there the op-ed opinion pages. The Guardian has a whole army of writers relying for their pay on opportunties to express moral outrage against the Tories, and the Tanya Gold article quoted above is a marvellous example of the op-eder’s art, wherein she openly admits that the government has not, in fact, banned books for prisoners, but nonetheless carries on with her piece exactly as if they had (“Administrations that hate books ordinarily hate people too.”).

By the time the Howard League had pushed the banned-books meme up the ladder from the Twitterati via the Chatterati to the Literati (Salman Rushie! Carol Anne Duffy the Poet Laureate!), half the celebs and authors tweeting their ‘shelfies’ or standing proudly  to declaim poems outside Pentonville would have convinced even themselves that prior to this ban they were constantly in the habit of sending improving literature to various prison lags for the good of society.

It cannot be parodied. It is far beyond parody. It can only be admired. By Friday the Howard League had managed to get Sadiq Khan, the Shadow Justice Secretary, to say that Labour would “ditch the ‘ridiculous’ policy of preventing prisoners from receiving books in prison” if they won the next election. So within a week the Howard League had successfully turned an unnoticed five-month old policy into an urgent moral issue and got it onto the political agenda, simply through using social media and the tools of the hoaxer. By any measure, that’s damned impressive pressure-groupery.


This short film, showing a profoundly deaf lady hearing for the first time after cochlear implants, is just wonderful. Utopia is for the birds but against all odds and most of the evidence with which we’re daily presented, the world does somehow keep getting slightly better.

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15 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – For the birds

  1. Worm
    March 31, 2014 at 10:40

    nail.hit.head – I have been watching the prison books thing unfold with incredulity too – astounding how many apparently intelligent people will jump on a bandwagon without giving even a cursory look into what bandwagon they’re jumping onto…

    What fate could be worse than millions of years of evolution ending up as a “middling owl the name of which I forget..”?

    • Brit
      March 31, 2014 at 20:20

      It is quite a thing, isn’t it, the way so many are so confident about making instant judgements without knowing the first thing about the matter at hand (e.g. in this case, the problems faced by people trying to run prisons, stats about the quantities of books sent in by families versus books borrowed from libraries etc).

      It puts you off people at bit, too. For example, I really enjoyed ‘The Curious Incident…’ but knowing what a pillock he is I’d baulk at buying anything by Mark Haddon again.

    • Brit
      March 31, 2014 at 20:04

      It’s lucky you were able to find another Alpy – the problem with the ‘special’ toys is that you live in constant dread of leaving them in supermarket trolleys, park benches etc.

  2. peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
    March 31, 2014 at 11:24

    a genuine masterclass in twenty-first century propaganda

    Over here, the wicked Conservative government passed a law three years ago making the completion of a “long-form” census questionnaire sent to a certain percentage of citizens voluntary rather than mandatory. It was very lengthy and inquired about financial matters and personal lifestyle in detail. It was considered by many to invade their privacy . Others took a “none of your bloody business” line. Although I don’t believe anyone had actually been convicted, there were high-profile cases where the government had threatened to prosecute recalcitrants.

    The response was astounding. The Chief Statistitian resigned and groups from academia to business to lawyers to minority groups howled in protest at how they were being deprived of information crucial to preserving civilization as we know it. The statisitcs profession got its fifteen minutes of fame as incomprehensible explanations of “statistical bias” became front page news. For some unexplained reason, it was declared axiomatic that mainly the rich and the poor would decline to respond, and the policy consequences of that were simply too horrible to contemplate. Something called “the allocation of public resources”, heretofore determined strictly on scientific Enlightenment principles, would now be decided by scriptural authority, or perhaps blind-folded civil servants throwing darts at maps of the country. On the principle that every good cause needs a pithy rallying cry to encourage oppressed folks to march at dawn, this one was called the “War on Data”. Aux Barricades!

  3. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    March 31, 2014 at 11:36

    A masterly evocation of the weirdness of owl sanctuaries – as brilliantly exploited in a classic episode of I’m Alaan Partridge, where he takes his lady friend to one, having softened her up with a blast of Gaudete…
    Talking of which, you can’t have forgotten that other offence against Beethoven’s great melody, More than Love by Ken Dodd? Charted at no 14 in 1966, pop pickers…

    • Brit
      March 31, 2014 at 19:57

      Good grief – so there’s a Dodd/Beethoven composition out there … and here it is, with some lovely pictures of flowers.

  4. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    March 31, 2014 at 11:53

    Olly Beak languishes in the long forgotten corner of an underused cupboard, his companions are a Billingham bag full of sixties schmutter, Mary Quant frocks ‘n stuff, not mine I hasten to add, a pair of Asolo placky boots and a Joe Brown sit harness. One of his talons went awol in the mid seventies, the right eye now constantly glares at the left, his once pristine sage green livery has a distinctive camouflage pattern, pale puke swirls on a non-verdant background. During spring next year he will have attained two score years, one less than junior who’s constant companion he was, alongside Little Ted and Big Ted who, unfortunately, ended his bearing days in the Lac d’Annecy, RIP big Ted. At some point junior’s allegiance shifted from Olly to Cap’t Beaky, now there’s a proper owl, Hissing Sid’s nemesis.

    The bravest animals in the land are Captain Beaky and his band
    That’s Timid Toad, Reckless Rat, Artful Owl and Batty Bat
    They march through the woodlands singing songs
    That tell how they have righted wrongs

    Once Hissing Sid, an evil snake, kept the woodland folk awake
    In fear and trembling every night
    In case he gave someone a bite
    Said Artful Owl, ‘We’ll lie in wait
    And one of us will be the bait.”
    Said Captain Beaky, “Have no fear! For I alone will volunteer!”

    “No, make it me!” Said Reckless Rat
    I’ll stand there in my reckless hat
    When Hissing Sid picks up my trail,
    I’ll just lasso him with my tail!”

    “Oh, good idea” said Timid Toad, “We’ll hide a long way down the road.
    And when you’ve overcome resistance,
    We’ll rush along to your assistance.”

    Said Batty Bat, “I’ve got a wheeze!
    I’ll fly and hide up in the trees!
    If Hissing Sid should slither by
    I’ll drop a boulder from the sky!”

    Said Artful Owl, “The idea sound…how will you lift it off the ground?”
    Poor Batty Bat just scratched his head,
    “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said.

    Said Owl, “The rest of us hold back. There’s only one that he’ll attack.”
    Said Timid Toad, “I like your plan.”
    “Good luck,” said Owl, “For you’re the man!”

    So Timid Toad, his eyes a-popping,
    Into the woodland night went hopping
    Captain Beaky waved his hand, followed by his trusty band
    That’s Artful Owl and Reckless Rat, and above the trees flew Batty Bat.

    “Stop!” Said Beaky, “I hear squeaking!”
    “It’s Batty Bat” said Owl, “He’s speaking!”
    “It’s all in code,” said Reckless Rat
    Said Owl, “I’ll just decipher that.”

    “A dash, a dot, two short, two long…
    I rather think we’ve got it wrong.
    It reads ‘can clearly see the road,
    Hissing Sid has captured Toad!'”

    “Quick men!” said Beaky, “No delay!
    “You mustn’t let him get away!”
    And leaping off, said “Follow me!”
    And ran head first into a tree.

    “Dot dot dot” squeaked Batty Bat.
    Said Beaky, “Quick! Decipher that!”
    Said Reckless Rat, “Perhaps we’re gaining?”
    “No,” said Owl. “He says…it’s raining”

    Oh, how they ran to save poor Toad,
    For they must find that snake’s abode
    Guided by old Batty Bat
    Dot dot go this way dash, go that!

    Then Hissing Sid’s lair they spied
    Were they too late? Was he inside?
    Said Reckless Rat, “I’ll get a pole
    And stop him going down his hole!”

    Then into sight the snake came hopping,
    Right past his hole, no sign of stopping
    Said Reckless Rat, “That’s rather funny,
    “There’s something jumping in his tummy.”

    Said Captain Beaky, “Well I’m blowed!
    Hissing Sid has swallowed Toad!”
    And as the snake hopped out of sight,
    Off they chased into the night.

    At last they found him, tired and dizzy
    And pulled out Toad, who said “Where is he?
    For left alone, I felt quite sick,
    And hopped into a hollow stick

    Said Owl, “A clever step to take!
    You jumped into that slippery snake.”
    “That was brave of Toad”, said Rat
    “That’s just my sort of plan!” said Bat

    Said Captain Beaky to his men,
    “Well we’ll not see Hissing Sid again!”
    And as they marched off down the road,
    They sang in praise of Timid Toad

    Above them flew ol’ Batty Bat,
    With his wings stretched out, like that
    Owl’s idea, the clever fella
    To have a flying um-ber-ella

    I would add some filters to the lag’s library, no books on the law, for obvious reasons, no Semtex for Dummies for very obvious reasons and absolutely no 3D printing for Dummies, for glaringly obvious reasons.

    • Brit
      March 31, 2014 at 20:09

      Excellent -thanks for Capn Beaky, one of my faves too.

      Re the lags’ library, according to Chris Grayling the biggest book debate brought before him lately was whether to allow 50 Shades of Gray into the women’s prison library. He decided, on balance, yes.

  5. bensix@live.co.uk'
    March 31, 2014 at 12:08

    Nothing today is flawed, misguided, questionable or mistaken. Everything is barbaric, stupid, awful and obscene. This is by no means to say that there is nothing that befits the latter terms but the incessant hyperbole makes them harder to draw attention to. People have no rational means of identifying them.

    • Brit
      March 31, 2014 at 20:10

      Yes – although I’ve praised the Howard League for their skills in mobilising social media hyperbole, the drawback is that each such frenzy further devalues the currency,

  6. Gaw
    March 31, 2014 at 14:37

    I thought the prison books kerfuffle worked brilliantly for the Tories: the ‘policy’ must have appealed massively to UKIP-leaning hangers-and-floggers whilst distracting them from the advent of gay marriage. The symmetry offered by the lefty opposition was near perfect.

    However, I’m not sure this is an indication of an heretofore unnoticed Campbellesque cunning on their part.

  7. hooting.yard@googlemail.com'
    April 1, 2014 at 18:42

    So barbaric is this government that their latest iniquity has passed unnoticed. Apparently, of the twelve books prisoners are allowed to have in their cells, regulations require that at least eleven of them must be by Alain De Botton. Cruel and unusual punishment indeed.

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      April 1, 2014 at 20:48

      Hmmmmm……it was, was it not, the previous administration who heaped upon those poor victims of crime, the perpetrators, that most ignoble of acts, they banged up the bastard who wrote the books, himself, Jeffrey Archer. Mein Gott!.

  8. Douglas
    April 1, 2014 at 19:37

    Owl Day sounds like a winner to me. I wish we could have an Owl Day here at the office.

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