Wednesday, 26 January 2022

What are courts for?

The verdict in the Colston statue case has thrown the jury system into the public eye and made many people question whether it is a Good Thing. 

I'm not terribly worried about what the Colston case tells us. I think the justice system should be much more embarrassed about some other recent but much less well-reported civil judgments that I mention below. But I will suggest that looking at what has gone wrong in the civil justice system reminds us what courts are really for, and that reminds us why we might well want to stick with juries, despite their problems.

(More below the break.)

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

On not taking the hint

This is Julian Barnes writing about Penelope Fitzgerald. (It's from 2008: never say that I fail to keep up with current affairs.) He talks about being on a panel with her at York University, about 10 years previously. (This is truly hot gossip.) He asked her to inscribe a couple of her books, which she did, with much thought. He put the books away without looking at the inscriptions. He describes the journey back to London as follows:

Afterwards, we were driven to York station to travel back to London together. When invited, I had been given the option of a modest fee and standard-class travel, or no fee and a first-class ticket. I had chosen the latter. The train drew in. I assumed that the university could not possibly have given an octogenarian of such literary distinction anything other than a first-class ticket. But when I set off towards what I assumed to be our carriage, I saw that she was heading in a more modest direction. Naturally, I joined her. I can't remember what we talked about on the journey down; perhaps I mentioned the odd coincidence that we had both made our first hardcover fictional appearance in the same book (The Times Anthology of Ghost Stories, 1975); probably I asked the usual daft questions about what she was working on and when the next novel would appear (I later learned that she frequently lied to interviewers). At King's Cross I suggested that we share a cab, since we both lived in the same part of north London. Oh no, she replied, she would take the Underground - after all, she had been given this splendid free pass by Ken Livingstone. Assuming it must feel an even longer day to her than to me, I pressed for the taxi option, but she was quietly obstinate, and came up with a clinching argument: she had to pick up a pint of milk on the way from the Underground station, and if she went home by cab it would mean having to go out again later. I ploddingly speculated that we could very easily stop the taxi outside the shop and have it wait while she bought her milk. "I hadn't thought of that," she said. But no, I still hadn't convinced her: she had decided to take the Underground, and that was that. So I waited beside her on the concourse while she looked for her free pass in the tumult of her carrier bag. It must be there, surely, but no, after much dredging, it didn't seem to be findable. I was by this point feeling - and perhaps exhibiting - a certain impatience, so I marched us to the ticket machine, bought our tickets, and squired her down the escalator to the Northern Line. As we waited for the train, she turned to me with an expression of gentle concern. "Oh dear," she said, "I do seem to have involved you in some low forms of transport." I was still laughing by the time I got home and opened her books to read those long-pondered inscriptions. In The Beginning of Spring she had written "best wishes - Penelope Fitzgerald"; while in The Blue Flower - a dedication that had taken considerably more thought - she had put "best wishes - Penelope".

Is it just me, or is this the story of a polite woman trying to shake off a bore? 

I can just imagine how the conversation went. "Do you recall the Times Anthology of Ghost Stories? 1974, I think it was. No, I tell a lie: it was 1975. Or perhaps 1976. No, 1975. Anyway, there's a funny coincidence ..." and all the while Fitzgerald was looking out of the window thinking that it was surprising how far Peterborough was from York and wishing she had brought some crochet so she had something to do with her hands. 

Surely, she must have thought that, as she pretended not to be able to find her travelcard in her handbag, the penny will drop? I'm sure this busy young man has important things to attend to and he'll have to make his excuses and leave. But no!  

No wonder she dithered so long about dropping her surname from the second inscription. She rightly read him as a bit of limpet and worried that it would look like a blatant come-on. She must have been scared stiff that he was going to invite himself in for a cup of tea. 

Still, Barnes is perceptive on the writing side of things. He picks out this bit of hers, which did raise a smile:

The Annual General meeting of the Clapham Antiquarians passed off quite well except when I went down to the Church hall kitchen to help Mrs Smith (the treasurer's wife, in a green hat and cardigan) get the tea (for 47 famished members) she was having a crise de nerfs, she told me she'd been worrying the whole of the week about the tea for the meeting, and, do what I could, I couldn't get her to put on more than one kettle, so the tea had to be made in small relays and the Antiquarians, who'd already sat down and eaten all the cakes, were getting quite riotous. I brought some sausage rolls but as soon as Daddy started handing them round they disappeared, everyone said they fancied something savoury. Unfortunately I dropped off to sleep during the talk with lantern slides, so missed many interesting facts about Clapham . . .

(Every well-equipped church hall should have a tea urn, but I don't know how they arrange these things in Clapham.) 

Now I come to think of it, I wonder whether, as he tetchily marched her to the ticket machine in King's Cross, Barnes reminded Fitzgerald of one of these riotous antiquarians who needed to be calmed by copious quantities of sausage rolls. He'll invite himself in for a cup of tea, she thought, and then he'll eat my food in the wrong order, and I had been saving that cold pie for Daddy.  

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Some lists you might want to look at

1. 52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2021. This is a relatively well-known annual list, on fair but not brilliant form this time around.

3. 100 ways to slightly improve your life without really trying. (The not so good original from 2000 is here.)

6. Finally, my predictions for 2022. I did this in 2018, with mixed results. This time, just the predictions - no reasoning.

(1) Macron will be re-elected President of France.

(2) Boris Johnson will cease to be Prime Minister.

(3) Article 16 of the Brexit Protocol will not be triggered.

(4) No new British political party, whether centrist, Corbynist or other, will get any real traction

(5) The cool new thing in European politics will be pro-natalist policies. 

Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Promising Young Woman: analysis and a solution

I shall follow up my post on It's a Wonderful Life by writing about another, quite different film - Promising Young Woman (PYW). (As it happens, I watched PYW over the Christmas holidays but not IAWL: infer from that what you will.) 

PYW is a clever and funny film. Both I and the people with whom I saw it thought that it deserved a bit of mulling over and perhaps even a re-watch. I have now given it some thought, had a look at the screenplay and I think I have solved it, so to speak. 

My thesis is that PYW is rather similar to Parasite: PYW and Parasite are both films which seem to have been instinctively understood to be "savage" (or "searing") indictments of the evils they undoubtedly depict (in Parasite's case, social inequality, and sexual misconduct in the case of PYW) simply because they depict them, but both films are rather more nuanced than first appear. In Parasite, for example, the rich family has made its money honestly by carrying out socially useful work, they behave broadly decently and they are trusting, while the poor family has wasted their talents and the opportunities that society has given them in favour of a life of crime: whatever you think about the film as a whole (and it's more complex than that summary suggests), it's plainly not merely a corruscating attack on the rich oppressing the poor. 

My view is that PYW is similarly complex. I set out below my theory that it is about something a little different from its most obvious subject matter. 

A couple of warnings before I go on. First, this is not a film review. If you just want a decent review of the film then this one does the job: if you like the sound of it from that review then you will probably enjoy the film (as I did). Second, and related to my first point, in what follows below there are spoilers galore: please don't read on if you have not seen the film. 

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

It's A Wonderful Life

It's nearly Christmas and even the dry lawyer who is Further or Alternatively feels the need to supply you with some seasonal content. It's A Wonderful Life (IAWL) is the obvious subject for FOA Christmas fare since there are, as we all know, two heartwarming films about a family man and financier called George and I have written the definitive work on the other one (Mary Poppins). 

However, it turns out that Niall Gooch has saved me much of the work of writing about IAWL by this piece, which I recommend to you. I have only a few points to add from a more or less Christmassy angle.

Wednesday, 8 December 2021

More on "On Bullshit"

Not long ago, I covered Harry Frankfurt's seminal work On Bullshit. Bullshit is, as we all know, everywhere and The Economist's most recent Charlemagne column purports to have discovered lots of the stuff in EU affairs. But on closer inspection, I am sorry to say, I think we have to conclude that Charlemagne has done nothing of the sort.

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

The Glittering Prizes, by Frederic Raphael

I have read some very good books recently. But you don't need me to tell you that Anna Karenina is excellent, or that Max Porter's oeuvre might be worth your time. Instead, I'm going to tell you about a book that is not terribly good, namely The Glittering Prizes by Frederic Raphael.

Despite its failings, there are a couple of interesting points about TGP. The first is the way in which it not that good. If a book is not very good then (in general) that's because it just falls down across the board: premise, plot, characters, description, dialogue. Genre fiction (a whodunnit or sci fi) might have a great premise or a good plot and fail to deliver elsewhere, but TGP is standard literary fiction. However, TGP is not a failure across the board - on the contrary, it has a notable strength, as I set out below.

The second interesting point about TGP is what it does (and doesn't) tell us about the world it so clearly sets out to encapsulate. More by omission than by what it includes, it tells us something about how the world used to be.