Category Archives: John Rentoul

A quick fisking

Two prefatory notes:
1. Each week-day morning I get three emails:

    • The Times is usually first out of the traps with Matt Chorley’s Red Box;
    • Paul Waugh shrewdly chips in with Waugh Zone, the political lead of HuffPo UK;
    • and, trailing the rear, because he has been mulling yet another excruciatingly-brilliant punning headline, comes the New Statesman‘s Stephen Bush.

2. Back in the days of yore, when social media were in their infancy, we took umbrage at the utterances of Robert Fisk. Because we were so much more intelligent than Fisk, we would “fisk” his columns, with counter arguments.

So, this grey Yorkshire morning, I’m fisking Paul Waugh.

REALITY BITES

Way back in 2010, David Cameron made the Liberal Democrats “a big, open and comprehensive offer” to join him in Government. Tomorrow, Theresa May will make what looks to Labour like a small, closed and limited offer to prop her up in power.

Without exception — and for once even the Torygraph is on board — the commentariat do not like the idea.

May’s relaunch speech has been well trailed overnight and includes a line that she will accept “the new reality” of her loss of a Parliamentary majority. But given her lifelong instinct of trusting only a tight-knit team around her, can May reach out to her own party, let alone Labour and others? May rightly wants to build consensus on areas like social care, but just ask Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham how open to cross-party working she has been in the past. On the Today programme, even the impeccably moderate Damian Green underlined the difficulties of any cross-party working, ridiculing Angela Rayner over the cost of wiping out all student debt. No wonder Labour’s Andrew Gwynne dismissed May’s olive branch, saying “they’re having to beg for policy proposals from Labour”.

We are not — heaven forfend! — to see this as a “relaunch”. Such lèse-majesté would deny the glory of Number 10.

The rest of that paragraph amount to a recital of so many current metropolitan political memes. Memes they may be; but they seem copper-bottomed. The jibe about student debt should not be over-looked: all sides are now coming around to recognising what a total disaster, educationally and financially — as well as electorally, the ConDem government inflicted by cranking up student fees and debt to the highest in the developed world. Predictably, the Tories continue, officially, to impale themselves while, behind the arras, scratching around for a way to climb-down.

If the UK were Germany, we might have seen some sort of ‘grand coalition’ in the wake of the snap election, driven by a sense of national mission to deliver a consensual Brexit (I remember Gisela Stuart floating the Tory-Labour coalition idea if the 2015 election had seen a hung Parliament). But we are not Germany and it takes world wars, rather than impending trade wars, to make our opposing parties work together on that level.

The essential differences between English and continental political practices derive from:

  • the shape of the Commons chamber, itself a distant legacy from the choir-stalls of St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. Once there are two sides, each individual member of the Commons had to decide whether he (and it was always a “he”) was right of the Speaker (the Administration) or left (Opposition). Not for nothing are the two front benches traditionally two swords’ lengths apart.
  • over the centuries, the main supply of parliamentarians has been the Law, they are a contrarian, disputatious and forensic lot. Each argument has to be set against a counter-argument. Remember Swift’s satire of the Little-Endians versus the BigEndians.

Of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s success so far has been built on vigorously opposing the Tories, not working with them. And everyone in Parliament remembers just how badly burned the Lib Dems were by the Tories in coalition, never given credit for the good stuff, blamed for the bad stuff. May will say tomorrow that through cross-party working, “ideas can be clarified and improved and a better way forward found”. But in fact she’s admitting the reality that just 7 Tory MPs is all it takes to defeat the Government. And critics will say the only true way to get her to make concessions is to threaten rebellion after rebellion.

“Jeremy Corbyn’s success so far“: notice two presumptions there. “Success” in practice amounts to gaining 30 seats when all the indicators were for a possible loss of as many as sixty. However, in all truth, Labour opposition has been remarkably limited: in particular on the #Brexit thing. When 49 Labour MPs voted against the Government to keep the UK in the single market, they were abused and worse by Corbynite supporters.

One person who could more credibly make a genuinely big, bold offer to Labour is David Davis, precisely because he would be trusted by his own side not to sell out on the big principles, while being pragmatic enough on how to deliver them. I’ve said before that DD is the Martin McGuinness of the Brexit movement, capable of compromise without abandoning his supporters’ main strategic goal. And despite errors from key allies like Andrew Mitchell, he looks increasingly like the favourite in any Tory leadership race. Green this morning reiterated David Lidington’s line about “the warm Prosecco problem” of Tory MPs gossiping about the leadership. But Mitchell’s parties feature only the finest Champagne, and DD himself likes a pint of bitter. That’s the kind of cross-class, party consensus that May will need to worry about most.

For little obvious reason — but mainly, one has to suspect, for want of a better — David Davis has emerged as the Tory front-runner for a new leader (and, in the present dispensation, Prime Minister). I cannot help musing the Waugh over-eggs his pudding with the “trusted by his own side”. The ultras on the frothing right of the Tory Party trust no-one but themselves — which is why Theresa May keeps head-bangers and second-raters like Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom as household pets. As of now, Davis’s key strength is keeping in line. Were he to go rogue, he could easily bring down the whole shebang.

One final, dislocated thought:

John Rentoul (another commentator of value) is, but of course, cocking an ironic eye there. Irony on irony: that Paul Staines (by name and by nature) felt moved to protect “the establishment”.

On Saturday I was at the Big Meeting, the Durham Miners’ Gala. The Red Banners flew free. The Red Flag was sung, and — uniquely — the singers knew more than the first verse and chorus.  Tee-shirts proclaimed ¡No pasarán! and La lutte continue! I even heard a scratch band bash out The Internationale. I could have bought books, badges and posters celebrating Lenin, Trotsky, James Connolly.

It was all festive, and slightly tongue-in-cheek. For all the revolutionary ardor, these subversives were set on little more than getting down the next pint.

And yet, according to Guido Fawkes: they had already won! These north-easterners had voted #Brexit. They were successfully challenging the Establishment.

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Filed under Beer, Britain, British Left, Conservative Party policy., democracy, Europe, Guido Fawkes, International Brigade, John Rentoul, Labour Party, leftist politics., Paul Waugh, politics, socialism., Spanish Civil War, Theresa May, Times, Tories., Vince Cable

The not-so-great and the not-so-good, revisited: an extended intro

A while back I attempted a succession of these: blog-efforts on rediscovered and overlooked characters, mainly from Irish history. Many of them were scions and by-products of the Ascendancy.

But first the prologue (the main event is the next post):

The Tory-people-friendly UK government press offices put out a couple of images of the Chancellor:

cx8rag4weaaauib-jpg-large cx8ze-pxaaa_mfd

Th estimable @JohnRentoul nailed one of the portraits:

William Pitt the Younger on the left, I think. Who’s on the right?

While I was rootling madly through the Government’s Art collection, the answer came from elsewhere:

Gordon, John Watson; Sir George Cornewall Lewis (1806-1863), 2nd Bt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Editor of the 'Edinburgh Review'; Government Art Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sir-george-cornewall-lewis-18061863-2nd-bt-chancellor-of-the-exchequer-editor-of-the-edinburgh-review-28284

Gordon, John Watson; Sir George Cornewall Lewis (1806-1863), 2nd Bt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Editor of the ‘Edinburgh Review’.

Not a “well-known” name, but Lewis deserves a bit of a boost — around 1862 — stone-walling the ultras who wanted the UK to go for the Confederates in the American Civil War.

His origins were in the Welsh Marches, but his Irish connection was a worthy one.

As  a young, rising, and talented lawyer, freshly-minted by the Middle Temple, with an interest in the “public service”, in 1833 Lewis  became “an assistant commissioner of the inquiry into the condition of the poorer classes of Ireland”. He spent some time in 1834 researching the problems among the Irish diaspora across the developing industrial towns of England. Then he turned to the state of Irish education, which took him into heavy reading on the land question and on the Irish established church.

Out of that, in 1836, came a substantial document:  On Local Disturbances in Ireland; and on the Irish Church Question:

title-page

Don’t rush past that: note the dedication. Charles Sumner was in England in 1838, as part of a European tour. Sumner would go on to be a potent force in American politics, as an abolitionist, founding member of the Republican Party, and Radical during the Reconstruction.

Lewis’s book was seminal in looking to balance the ecclesiastical situation in Ireland, by ‘concurrent endowment’ (he invented the term), and in advocating ‘a legal provision for the poor’, which amounted to applying to Ireland the principles of the 1834 English poor law. It doesn’t need a genius to spot where that one would go adrift in the Great Famine, particularly as Lewis was also rejecting ‘the principle that it is the duty of the state to find employment for the people’.

Rapid promotion

lewisLewis became Chancellor of the Exchequer in a wholly mid-Victorian manner.

His father died in January 1855, and Lewis inherited the baronetcy and, on 8th February 1855, unopposed, the seat as MP for the Radnorshire boroughs. On 22nd February he became Gladstone’s successor at the Treasury, and on 28th February a Privy Councillor.

We might wonder at Phillip Hammond’s choice of such a figure, to look over his shoulder in the study of Number 11, Downing Street.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

First, am I wholly adrift in seeing some facial similarities between the image on the right, and Hammond, himself?

Second, Lewis came to the Chancellorship in a moment of financial crisis — how to pay for the Crimean War. Hammond has even greater problems, in the aftermath of the #Brexit vote.

Allow me to filch from the Dictionary of National Biography:

Lewis remained chancellor until the government was defeated in February 1858. Gladstone at first was helpfulness incarnate to his successor, but Lewis deviated from Gladstone’s canons of financial rectitude, especially with respect to the question of whether to finance the Crimean War by taxation or by loans. Lewis faced a severe crisis in the nation’s finances, brought on by a war more prolonged and expensive than anyone had expected. His first budget, on 20 April 1855, had to meet a deficit of £23 million. Lewis raised £16 million by a loan, £3 million by exchequer bills (later increased to £7 million), and the remaining £4 million by raising income tax from the already high 14d. to 16d. in the pound and by raising indirect taxes. The £68 million thus raised was easily the largest sum raised up to this time by a British government. Lewis’s budget set aside the Gladstonian view that war abroad should be met by corresponding taxation-pain at home but, in terms of practical politics, financing by loans (to which Lewis resorted again in his second budget of 19 May 1856) was probably unavoidable if Palmerston’s government was to survive. In 1855 Lewis carried through the Commons the Newspaper Stamp Duties Bill, an inheritance from Gladstone and an important step in repealing the ‘taxes on knowledge’ (as the duties on newspapers and paper were called). Lewis’s policy of loans meant excellent commissions and profits for the City of London, which greatly preferred him to Gladstone.

Such parallel: almost uncanny.

 

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Filed under Britain, Conservative Party policy., EU referendum, History, Ireland, John Rentoul, Tories., United States

Skeuomorphs?

RENTOUL1

I am collecting nominations for future Top 10s, my feature in The New Review, the Independent on Sunday magazine. Andrew Denny suggested anachronistic skeuomorphs, symbols such as the floppy disk to mean “save” and a bellows camera as a speed camera sign. I am also compiling a Top 10 People Who Would Have Been Good On Twitter, with Twitter name and a sample tweet. Best so far from Rob Warm: @Schrödinger: “wow! check out this possibly cute cat pic”

There’s a covert reminder in there: Rentoul is not just a son-of-the-manse, but a King’s, Cambridge, English-graduate.

NotesAnd I’m not going to pretend I’d ever personally met a “skeuomorph” until that moment. I think with the information so far, I’d be calling it a “pictogram” or an “icon”.

Indeed, on this evidence, I’m not convinced “skeuomorph” is the proper term here.

As I understand “skeuomorph”, it implies “visual metaphor”. As used by Rentoul, it’s a metaphor of a metaphor: the term (see below) seems to originate in archaeology. The Greek roots suggest: “implement”+””shape”. So, when — in the old pre-MacOs7 dispensation,  — I opened Notes, and got something that looked like an American yellow legal pad, that was a skeuomorph (as right).

My doubts increase when I refer to the OED:

skeuomorph

Even though I note the side-bar admonition, in red — This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1933) — there’s absolutely nothing there to suggest why we should prefer “skeuomorph” to the generally-accepted, and simpler “icon”.

kettles

As I now understand the term, a “skeuomorph” is brought about when a new product (say an electric kettle) mimics the form of its predecessor, with disregard to the change of function. There is no functional reason why the electric kettle should mimic the form of the stick-it-on-the-hob job, except (a) innate conservatism, (b) customer familiarity. There actually are good reasons why not: stick the electric job on the hob, and you’ve possibly buggered it. Yet pretty well every technological innovation begins the same way: early railway carriages retained the format of horse-drawn coaches. It takes the designer some time for form to follow function.

If we refer to the wikipedia entry, which seems — at least to me — severely disconnected,  the confusion becomes greater, and Apple-specific:

Apple Inc., while under the direction of Steve Jobs, was known for its wide usage of skeuomorphic designs in various applications. The debate over the merits of Apple’s extensive use of skeuomorphism became the subject of substantial media attention in October 2012, a year after Jobs’ death, largely as the result of the reported resignation of Scott Forstall, described as “the most vocal and high-ranking proponent of the visual design style favored by Mr. Jobs”. Apple designer Jonathan Ive, who took over some of Forstall’s responsibilities and had “made his distaste for the visual ornamentation in Apple’s mobile software known within the company”, was expected to move the company toward a less skeuomorphic aesthetic. With the announcement of iOS 7 at WWDC, Apple officially shifted from skeuomorphism to a more simplified design, thus beginning the so-called “death of skeuomorphism.”

Someone must be to blame, and I finger Professor Dan O’Hara.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I reckon Rentoul’s borrowing of “skeuomorph” is precisely the kind of inflated language he would deplore in others.

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Only a question-mark protects the guilty?

The essential difference between the outer fringes of cat-litter sensationalism (e.g. The National Enquirer) and the likes of the Daily Mail is the query [?] replacing the screamer [!]:

Compound

MAil

Uncanny, huh?

51x93lkZ6-L._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_That ornament to The Independent, John Rentoul, has dined out on that appended punctuation for years for years. He reduces it to an acronym, QTWTAIN, and — at the last count — had collected a thousand. At which, he wisely gave up and left it to others. On occasions even its onlie true begetter seems to regret the passing of this constant in the media.

I think this must be the last, or at least one of the last, of the QTWTAIN:

iPad

QTWTAINs are easy to spot, and easy to mock. In most cases, were the notion presented as  direct positive statement, rather than a mind-worm, it would be derided as infantile, gross fallacy, or trite nonsense. Only the question-mark gives it any kind of validity. For the briefest moment of time, before logic and sanity cut in, we may be beguiled — rather as if struck by a truly clever pun or punch-line.

And then there’s the occasional thing like this:

Tweet

To which  the only slightly-stunned response has to be “Err …? What? Why? How?”

When we hunt that link we find something very different. The heading becomes:

How to finance an Emperor’s Election

The piece kicks off:

The outsider candidate in the Imperial election of 1519, which was meant to choose a Holy Roman Emperor, was Henry VIII of England. He had no particular dynastic claim to the title, and, though he had one of his representatives spread the word that he had some command of the “German tongue,” he did not have much of a connection to the people he would rule. He mostly got in the race because, then as now, both of the main candidates, despite their inherited positions and elaborate claims, seemed vulnerable, if not implausible. And people, including the Pope—this was when Henry was young, before the divorces and beheadings—kept telling him that what the field needed was an energetic, competent monarch like him. Who could resist?

The last sentence there itself has some of the smack of a QTWTAIN.

Even this far in, and that’s the first of just six compact paragraphs, were it not for the accompanying image, we would be wholly mystified where we are being taken. The image, though, is:

FuggerThe caption below it is:

Jacob Fugger, pictured here in a 1518 portrait by Albrecht Dürer, was the moneyman behind the 1519 election of a new Holy Roman Emperor.

The painting is in the Bavarian State collection at the Staatsgalarie in Augsburg. It is more usually entitled: Jakob Fugger der Reiche. “The Rich”: forsooth. Now the pfennig drops: this is a brief nod, hardly a review, of a recently-published book by Greg Steinmetz, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Life and Times of Jacob Fugger.

I first encountered Fugger via the Fuggerei in the heart of old Augsburg. This is an expansive cottage-estate development, claimed as the first social housing scheme in the world, founded in 1521. What we see is the post-World War II rebuild:

On the day after the bombing [24 February 1944], three prominent Fugger descendants signed a pledge to rebuild the Fuggerei out of their own funds. They worried that if they didn’t, their name would be forgotten. These Fuggers, seventeen generations after Jacob Fugger, were nowhere near as rich as their ancestors, but they still enjoyed income on land Jacob acquired centuries earlier. In rebuilding the complex, they got materials from the American occupying forces and followed the original plans except with better plumbing. They increased the number of units from 106 to 140. [Steinmetz, Epilogue]

Like everything else to do with Fugger (compare David Dale’s New Lanark, Titus Salt’s Saltaire, George Cadbury’s Bourneville, William Lever’s Port Sunlight) the Fuggerie was not entirely altruistic: it located the workforce conveniently close to the manufactory. The Fuggerei was, actually, cottage industries.

What made Fugger rich was:

  • lowliness is young ambition’s ladder: a comfortable family origin in the cloth trade (just when cloth was no longer the one industry in town), but being at that historical moment when “new men”, with a lick of education and numeracy, were breaking through the strict medieval class hierarchy;
  • the location of Augsburg, as a centre of European affairs:

In Renaissance Germany, few cities matched the energy and excitement of Augsburg. Markets overflowed with everything from ostrich eggs to the skulls of saints. Ladies brought falcons to church. Hungarian cowboys drove cattle through the streets. If the emperor came to town, knights jousted in the squares. If a murderer was caught in the morning, a hanging followed in the afternoon for all to see. Augsburg had a high tolerance for sin. Beer flowed in the bathhouses as freely as in the taverns. The city not only allowed prostitution but maintained the brothel.J,

Jacob Fugger was born here in 1459. Augsburg was a textile town and Fugger’s family had grown rich buying cloth made by local weavers and selling it at fairs in Frankfurt, Cologne and over the Alps, in Venice. Fugger was youngest of seven boys. His father died when he was ten and his mother took over the business. She had enough sons to work the fairs, bribe highway robbers, and inspect cloth in the bleaching fields, so she decided to take him away from the jousts and bathhouses and put him on a different course. She decided he should be a priest.  [Steinmetz, Chapter 1]

  • information systems: he built a network of “branches”, which provided economic intelligence, and he connected himself to them and controlled the flow of information by inventing a postal system;
  • accountancy — Fugger served an apprenticeship in Venice, that free-booting Italian Business School at the European end of the Spice Road:

he was among the first businessmen north of the Alps to use double-entry bookkeeping and the first anywhere to consolidate the results of multiple operations in a single financial statement [Steinmetz, Introduction]

  • bribery, and its deployment for political control at the highest levels (which is the essential point of that New Yorker piece);
  • his control of several industries crucial to proto-capitalism, and a ruthless approach to making money:

Fugger made his fortune in mining and banking, but he also sold textiles, spices, jewels and holy relics such as bones of martyrs and splinters of the cross. For a time, he held a monopoly on guaiacum, a Brazilian tree bark believed to cure syphilis. He minted papal coins and funded the first regiment of Swiss papal guards.  [Steinmetz, Introduction]

  • above all, exploiting the moment when Northern Europe was going soft on usury:

Venetians lived by the motto of “First Venetians, then Christians.” They preferred making money to pleasing God. They ignored the ban and invented bank deposits. Venetian investors could leave their money with a bank, return a year later and get more back than they put in. Deposits gave banks a new way to grow and gave their customers an easy way to put their money to work. Everyone was happy except the church. The rest of Italy recognized the brilliance of savings accounts and offered their own. Germans respected canon law more than the Italians and observed the usury ban more faithfully but they, too, eventually came around. [Steinmetz, Chapter 4]

Fugger adopted the “Augsburg Contract”, which promised his investors a 5% p.a. return. This was risking his all on the turn of a Papal card — but it was already a marked card:

Fugger was taking a risk. The Augsburg Contract may or may not have been legal under church law. But it was in wide use and Fugger needed it to raise money. If Eck lost the debate and the judges declared the contract usurious, Fugger’s depositors would refuse to give him money. This would be lethal. It was one thing to operate in a gray area. It was another to engage in a practice specifically ruled heretical. Fugger must have felt extremely confident because he sought nothing short of a Scopes trial, a winner-take-all smackdown pitting dogma against modernity, but with money instead of monkeys at the center. He had at least one precedent on his side. After theologians squared off over the subject of annuities—the interest-earning pension schemes that cities sold to raise money—the pope had sanctioned them. Maybe Pope Leo, who had replaced the “Warrior Pope” Julius II earlier that year, would do the same with the Augsburg Contract. There was also the fact that Leo was a member of the Medici banking family. Legalization would serve his personal interests. Even better was that Leo himself was a borrower of Fugger’s. It goes without saying that Leo would be favorably inclined towards someone who gave him money. [Steinmetz, Chapter 6]

No doubt about it, Steinmetz is highly readable. My QTWTAIN: does that New Yorker piece, by Amy Davidson, do the book justice?

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Filed under History, Independent, John Rentoul, New Yorker, reading

Time’s wingèd chariot, etc

middlemarch-160lThank you so much, John Rentoul, I really needed this cold drench of mortality:

I was jolted by one a few years back when someone pointed out that the Sex Pistols were closer to the Second World War than the present day. Last year, the same became true of Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister, the first election in which I could vote (I voted for Sunny Jim Callaghan). And when the Rolling Stones played Glastonbury in 2013, someone pointed out to the young people rushing to see them that it was as if young people in 1964, when the Stones had their first UK hit, had clamoured to see a band that was first big in 1915.

By that token, I was born closer to the publication of Middlemarch than to that of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

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No more “mulling”

The sagacious and sane John Rentoul, mainly resident at the Independent, keeps me amused and thoughtful. First there was his #QTWTAIN. Then the #TopTen. But, for any word-user, his style-guide, the #bannedlist,  is a constant flagellation.

Now here’s a verb that really makes me fume:

PM mulls military action

There as a politicshome headline, but I seem to recall it being a standard option for sub-editors this last week.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists eleven uses of mull as a noun, and six as a verb.

In this context, let me list the verbs:

  1. to become wet or liquid;
  2. to warm wine or beer with the addition of sugar, spices, fruit, etc, to produce a hot drink;
  3. to massage;
  4. to allow a problem to be resolved by inaction;
  5. to give a granular surface to a lithographic plate;
  6. to moisten leather.

In the context of David Cameron, choose your implication.

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Crapulous

And so it began:

Tweets

Pennine TalesI have good reason for liking that book (as right). I have just rescued my well-foxed paperback, from 1985, which had lurked itself between the complete run of Donna Leon‘s Brunettis and Whisky Galore. All of which must say more about my reading taste than is decent.

It is a collection of fifteen short stories, some of which first appeared in The Guardian, others were broadcast by BBC Radio, with Livings’ own voice narrating. Confession time: I pillaged a couple, at least, of the stories for classroom use.

Livings’ fictional village of Ravensgill is high in the Pennine Hills: my assumption would be to impose it upon Greenfield, near Oldham, whence the old trackway across grim Saddleworth Moor and to Summer Winey Holmfirth in South Yorkshire once ran. It’s now, officially, the A635 — though you’ll still find locals referring to it as the “Isle of Skye Road”, from a long-lost pub at the head of the Wessenden Valley.

  • What is crapulous?
  • Why is Livings so good?

Try a prime example:

Dog Race Coup

Nobody outside this village ever believes me when I tell about Harpo, people think I’ve invented him. This is not so: Harpo invented himself. On the subject of wine, for instance, he knows there are three sorts: red, pink, and white. On this basis he will give you an extended account of wine and its uses, normally ending with ‘I wouldn’t give you tuppence for champagne; cider is every bit as adequate.’ He’s an expert on everything, and a rivetting anecdotalist; I won’t spoil your meal, but his account of being taken short leaping a low wall in pursuit of the 183 bus, told with a semaphore of mime worthy of Marceau, and ending with the conductor remarking, ‘My word, you’ll have to get off this bus if anyone else wants to come on,’ is a cherished classic.

Take the matter of his dog, Benji. ‘It’s definitely a Basenji,’ he said, walking round the Co-op freezer with the animal sticking its nose into everything, ‘ancient Egyptian hunting dog; I’ve seen a picture in a dog book, same curved tail; that’s why we called it Benji, after the ancient Egyptian dog breed. Fastest dog in Ravensgill, even though it’s had a broken leg.’

Why do we rise to such things? Why challenge obvious balderdash? Why not just let him rattle on? He’s entertaining, original, a lunatic. How in the world would anyone get a Basenji out of the Dog’s Home? Come to think of it, how come Harpo got his dog free when everyone else has to pay £7? Imponderables.

‘Do me a favour,’ I said, ‘mine’s a damn lurcher; that thing wouldn’t have a chance. Get off.’ (Benji was licking the butter packs and I was after buying some.)

‘I’ll definitely challenge any dog against mine,’ he said.

‘Get that stinking pooch out of here,’ said Mr Bacon.

‘D’you mind,’ sajd Harpo, ‘that’s no pooch, it’s a Basenji.’

The word got about. A small committee was formed, rules framed. No reference was made to broken legs, but it was to be for mongrels only (Harpo was wounded, but confident, after this slur), the length of the football pitch, and started with a shotgun blank by the landlord of the Tinker and Budget, entrance fee ten shillings. (We’re waiting for the older end to die off before we introduce metrication.) The book was to be held by Nipper Schofield, well experienced in illegal book-making at bowls matches, known absconder. Once, when he was really in trouble, he phoned up the landlord of the other pub, the Shanter, from the kiosk outside, and stuck a pencil in his mouth, on a Sunday, mark.

‘Peeppeeppeep … Hallo? This is Mr Schofield’s bank manager; he tells me he’s cashed a cheque with you; he’s asked me to tell you not to bother presenting it, he’ll come in and settle it Monday.’

Another imponderable: what were we doing putting money into his hands? I suppose to a certain extent we relish the consistency of his depradations. Be it understood that no money was to change hands on the bets till after the race, but nevertheless. Everybody paid their entrance fee, except Harpo.

Blatantly furtive training sessions began; you could hardly go into the playing fields without someone speedily and casually pocketing a pigeon-watch or elaborately not looking at his digital as he threw a stick for a scampering ragmop. The women were the most obsessive: Mrs Hirst, fifteen stone and a compulsive nibbler who didn’t like to leave the dog out, had a good half stone off her Labrador/Alsatian by switching from chocolate digestive biscuits to dogchews for its between-meals snacks, and throwing its ball down a banking for half an hour every day; she promised it verbally a biscuit if it won, but its eyes grew more desperate by the day and it had to go on Valium after the race.

Then there’s Marrie, who’s been going to obedience classes for four years. ‘He’s all right when there’s other dogs, it’s when you get him on his own he goes mutton-headed.’ I saw her in a back lane; she’d devised a scheme whereby she was at one end of the course and her husband at the other, so that, when loosed, Duke had a quick decision to make as to which of its owners it was going to run away from.

In my opinion, my Bounty was the strongest entry, on the grounds of obedience: she comes to me when I call, and of course she was bred mostly for speed anyway. Early morning I sat her on the touchline, told her to stay, walked to the other end, called, and she ran to me. Nine seconds. Not world class, but good enough for the mutts of Ravensgill I thought, in my pride. The dog gave evidence that it thought I’d gone potty: where were the rabbits if it was required to run? On the fourth morning it lay down and yawned on the touchline, so I knocked off the training.

11.30 am. The football field. A prize of £9.50 (Harpo still hasn’t paid). Starter and finishing judge in position. Nineteen dogs, from terrier-style to lolloping Labrador crosses (there’s a large black dog on the estate that’s always first on a bitch’s doorstep). Every knuckle white. Maybe thirty spectators. Nipper in his dad’s velour trilby, bawling the odds. No Harpo, no Benji.

He’s chickened out. He’ll be watching from behind the curtains at his Auntie Alice’s. We shan’t see him for weeks, until he thinks we’ve forgotten. It was like this when he was telling us about his skill at unarmed combat and then we found out that the husband of one of his paramours, a karate enthusiast from Ashton, was standing in the other bar.

11.45 Harpo comes, pale from Saturday, the dog on a brand new lead, steadily the length of the pitch, daughter Linda beside him, clearly wishing herself elsewhere, cheeks aflame. A crossword fanatic, he was delighted to find that ‘crapulous’ means poorly through the effects of drink. ‘You’ll have to excuse me, gentlemen,’ he will say at a Sunday morning bowls match, ‘I’m feeling a little crapulous today.’

‘Benji’s been sick,’ he tells us by way of excuse, ‘I told him he was in a race, and I had to wait while he was sick on the way down.’

He takes the lead off Benji, and Linda holds the animal among the competitors, by now strung like banjos. ‘Come on, Benji,’ he says, ‘c’mon boy.’

Finishers set off for the other touchline.

‘C’mon Benji, c’mon.’

‘Shut it, Harpo, you drive us mad when you’re not here, and you drive us mad when you’re here.’

‘It’s my method, Henry. C’mon Benji!’

Finishers all in place, handlers in place, judge signals with white hankie, starter raises the shotgun. You can almost hear false teeth being tested to destruction. ‘BOCK!’ and they’re off.

Twenty throats roar for their dogs, women screaming with unpent fury, urging the animals. Marrie’s scheme falls to pieces at once: Duke runs away from the both of them, and is found at home later, staring with punished eyes from under the hen hut. Mrs Hirst’s pudding dog leads the pack with joyous yelps, its mind mayhap on chocolate digestive biscuits. Benji well up and going strongly. Where the devil’s Bounty? Good grief, she’s run straight to the starter and sits, eager, ears up, bright and ready to be waved on to the rabbit. What did I have in my head to think I could call her in all this din? My wife dashes across to wave her on, frenzied, and the dog sets off, a blur of speed after the others. Can she make it through the pack?

They’re bunching, and then bundling as the pudding dog wheels back, eager to be among its friends, Mrs Hirst’s imprecations rising above the clamour like exploding rockets. Benji is through and over the line, passes Harpo at an easy gallop, across the road, and into the Tinker and Budget, it being opening time.

For the record, would Harpo’s bet — not having paid his ten shilling dibs to the bookie — be (a) fungible?

Ahem! Let us refer to John Erskine’s An institute of the law of Scotland (1773):

Hence those things only can be the subject of mutuum, which consists pondere, numero, et mensura ; which may be estimated generically by weight, number, and measure; otherwise called fungibles, quæ jvnctionem recipiunt. By this description, pictures, horses, jewels, are not fungibles; for as their values differ in almost every individual, each must be rated by itself: But grain and coin are fungibles; because one guinea, or one bushel or boll of sufficient merchantable wheat, precisely supplies the place of another. It is true, that some subjects which are not of their nature fungible, are converted into fungibles, or held for such, in the contract of steelbow, explained supr. B. 2 T. 6. § 12.; which is undoubtedly a species of mutuum, the property of the steelbow goods being thereby transferred to the tenant; and yet those goods consist frequently, not only of corns, and other fungibles, but of horses, cows, and most of the implements of tillage. But the reason of this specialty is obvious. It would be a most unequal bargain for the landlord, if the tenant should have it in his power to discharge his obligation to him by the redelivery of the steelbow horses, carts, &c. after they had, by a use of perhaps a dozen or twenty years, been rendered quite unfit for service.

The estimable Mr John Rentoul, c/o The Independent, will doubtless explicate.

And in the future, we may look at that other useful term from Scottish law, a wad set:

A right, by which lands, or other heritable subjects, are impignorated by the proprietor to his creditor in security of his debt; and,like other heritable rights, is perfected by seisin.

Which amounts to a mortgage. But impigniorated … ? Sounds like something involving bodily fluids and done to sows.

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