Archive for March, 2007

O tempora, o mores!! Do we need it?

March 29, 2007
Re: Clive on The Colbert Report
« Reply #5: Yesterday at 21:57 »

On a related topic, Mr James’s conversation with Jeremy Isaacs, in his “In the Library” series – on Sky Arts, I think –  last week, was superb.  
Particularly apposite were their comments on the decline of Channel 4 since its 1980s intellectual heyday.
O tempora, o mores, say I.

I’m not in principle opposed to using Latin phrases to express some profound thought when that that thought has been well expressed in that language.

A phrase like  O tempora, o mores, which roughly translated means means “what an age, what princilpes”  cannot be said to be much more profound that the good English exclamation “What a Life!!!”

The man who first credited with first exclaiming “O tempora, o mores!” (Oh the age, O its principles), Marcus Tullius  Cicero did so, not because the age was producing low-brow television, but because the senate he was addressing was allowing Lucieus Sergius Catlina, whom he believed –with some justification – to be hatching a plot to kill both him and some of the senators, to sit in and participate in its discussions. The exclamation was a mere rhetorical flourish with which Cicero, one of Rome’s most renowned rhetoricians was wont to pepper his speeches. In other words, the phrase’s originator was using it for effect and not to make any sort of commentary or observation.

If the phrases originator used the phrase for dramatic effect and not as a device for calling attention to some serious flaw in life or morals, then one must conclude that it has never carried much weight.


A colleague, Kevin McCloskey, passes away.

March 28, 2007


For Whom the Bell Tolls

John Donne

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.


 Carnations on the Roof 

Words Clive James & music Pete Atkin

How long before Bush goes?

March 27, 2007

How long more will George Bush be in office? For your answer click here.

Remember, of course, that while you are wishing him gone, you are wishing yourself gone also.

Two poems about Coventry

March 26, 2007

I have been thinking about some of the poems written about my adopted city. One was written by the Irish poet, and onetime director of Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum John Hewitt.



A full year since, I took this eager city,
the tolerance that laced its blatant roar,
its famous steeples and its web of girders,
as image of the state hope argued for,
and scarcely flung a bitter thought behind me
on all that flaws the glory and the grace
which ribbons through the sick, guilt-clotted legend
of my creed-haunted, godforsaken race.
My rhetoric swung round from steel’s high promise
to the precision of the well-gauged tool,
tracing the logic in the vast glass headlands,
the clockwork horse, the comprehensive school.
Then, sudden, by occasion’s chance concerted,
in enclave of my nation, but apart,
the jigging dances and the lilting fiddle
stirred the old rage and pity in my heart.
The faces and the voices blurring round me,
the strong hands long familiar with the spade,
the whiskey-tinctured breath, the pious buttons,
called up a people endlessly betrayed
by our own weakness, by the wrongs we suffered
in that long twilight over bog and glen,
by force, by famine and by glittering fables
which gave us martyrs when we needed men,
by faith which had no charity to offer,
by poisoned memory, and by ready wit,
with poverty corroded into malice,
to hit and run and howl when it is hit.
This is our fate: eight hundred years’ disaster,
crazily tangled as the Book of Kells;
the dream’s distortion and the land’s division,
the midnight raiders and the prison cells.
Yet like Lir’s children, banished to the waters,
our hearts still listen for the landward bells.

The other is by Philp Larkin, who, by the by, was born a few hundred yards away from where I now sit and who grew up in the city. 

I Remember, I Remember 

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
'Why, Coventry!' I exclaimed. 'I was born here.'

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been 'mine'
So long, but found I wasn't even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
'Was that,' my friend smiled, 'where you "have your roots"?'
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I've got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
'Really myself'. I'll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn't call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead -
'You look as though you wished the place in Hell,'
My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well,
I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.

'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'

Sent to Coventry.

March 26, 2007

I was wondering today what the origins of the phrase “sent to Coventry”, meaning to be ostracised, were. These explanations come from a site called

Sent to Coventry

The old saying “sent to Coventry” is a frequently quoted phrase, meaning to be completely ignored or snubbed by everyone, yet few who use it are aware of its origin. As with much historical ‘storytelling’, the true origin is blurred in the mists of time, but here are some possible reasons for its usage: –

By far the most popularly believed reason is the story about the Civil War. Around 1648 Oliver Cromwell sent many Scottish Royalist prisoners (who had been fighting for Charles I) to be imprisoned in St. Johns Church in Fleet Street. While exercising in the streets, it was said that the soldiers were completely ostracised by the strongly parliamentarian Coventry folk, hence; people who have been shunned in that way were said to have been “sent toCoventry“.
It has also been suggested that because Coventry was a place used to carry out executions, for example, the so called ‘heretics’ brought here to be burned in the 16th century, another theory is that to be “sent to Coventry” had far more serious connotations. Certainly those poor souls would never have been spoken to again!

In the light of information from David McGrory, severe doubt can be cast upon both of the above reasons. The story based in the Civil War might be nearer to the mark, but as with the myth of Godiva’s ride, that tale was not related until a century after it had apparently happened. There is reason to believe, however, that the true origin does lie with the soldiers based here in the 17th century. For obvious reasons, it was not popular with the locals for rowdy and possibly ill-disciplined troops to be billeted here, and young girls would probably have been forbidden to mix with the soldiery. Therefore, it is suggested that the soldiers felt their presence here was unwelcome, giving rise to them being “sent to Coventry“.

I wonder whether that is really worth knowing. I suppose after residing for more than forty years in the city that is the very least I should know.

We have to be taught to behave as economists say we do.

March 25, 2007

In what is a characteristically thoughtful piece in today’s edition of The Observer, the paper’s management editor, Simon Caulkin claims that New Labour is so wedded to the principles of the so-called free market that “the assault on professionalism – teachers, doctors, lecturers, police – suddenly appears not an unfortunate byproduct of policy: it is the policy (my emphasis). Ministers want doctors and lecturers to be motivated by money and league tables. It is only by ridding them of pesky notions of doing good or knowing best that game theory and public choice can be made to work”. 

To understand how he has arrived at this conclusion, a conclusion I have long felt to be true, the remander of his column has to be read.

Clever animation of Leherer

March 22, 2007

John Naughton made this entry to his online diary yesterday. I’m sure there are a few people out there who will like it as much as he and I did.
Quote as shown on The Pete Atkin Web Forum (Midnight Voices)

Flash elements
This is just beautiful — a Flash animation of Tom Lehrer’s* The Elements Song.
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The wonders of an online diary

March 21, 2007

This thought, which I have posted to the The Pete Atkin Web Forum (Midnight Voices), occurred to me this morning.


What a wonderful thing keeping an online diary (or blogging, if you like)  is? Here are Professor Joseph Duemer* thoughts on the NYT review of Clive’s Cultural Amnesia, posted hours before (jd | 19 Mar 2007 05:40 pm) the actual review came online. How about that?
Clive James
I’ve only read a few pieces here & there by Clive James, but if this is a accurate review, Cultural Amnesia looks to be worth both the price & the heft:
In many cases the portrait of the individual in question is simply a launching pad for the author’s free-associative musings, which tend to spiral around several recurrent themes: the shattering legacy of Nazism and Communism, the two totalitarian movements that overshadowed the 20th century; the dangers posed by ideologies that try to reduce the world’s dazzling complexity to simplistic formulas; and the preciousness and fragility of humanism as a cultural ideal”.

Humanism has gotten a good & sometimes deserved drubbing from post-modernism & from scientism, but what the hell else have we got? I aspire to a capacious & generous humanism — I’ll do without the capital H.


Kevin Cryan

*Joseph Duemer is Professor of Humanities at
University in northern New York. He is a poet and the poetry editor of The Wallace Stevens Journal. His own most recent book is Magical Thinking (2001). He has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2000 – 2001 he was a Fulbright Research Fellow in Hanoi, Vietnam. He blogs at


The more I think about it the more wonderful it is. Who would have imagined, could imagine, a few years ago that there would come a time when you would know what a professor reading the New York Times thousands of miles away thought of the item he was reading minutes after he’d read it? Wow!!

Reflections on Clive James “Cultural Amnesia” 4

March 20, 2007

I posted this little piece to The Pete Atkin Web Forum (see blogroll), Midnight Voices early this morning. As it deals with another aspect of Clive James’s writing that seems to me to be important, and as it looks at a review of his Cultural Amnesia written by someone who is thought to be one of America’s toughest literary critics, I think that it should also be posted this online diary.  

Re: Clive’s Cultural Amnesia.
« Reply #19: Today at 07:20 »

Michiko Kakutani, in her  New York Times review of Clive’s Cultural Amnesia, published today, spots in this volume something that has been one of the great strengths of all Clive’s writing.  
In the end, one of the most valuable things about this volume is that Mr. James not only sends the reader in search of original texts written by or about his subjects, but also provides lots of other useful reading suggestions. On Vienna, there is Carl E. Schorske’s classic “Fin-de-Siècle Vienna” and Stefan Zweig’s “World of Yesterday,” as well as lesser-known works like Friedrich Torberg’s memoir “Die Tante Jolesch” and George Clare’s “Last Waltz in Vienna.” On Ludwig Wittgenstein, he recommends both Ray Monk’s first-rate biography, “The Duty of Genius,” and David Pears’s short book “Wittgenstein.”
“Given thirty seconds to recommend a single book that might start a serious young student on the hard road to understanding the political tragedies of the twentieth century,” Mr. James singles out Heda Margolius Kovaly’s  “Prague Farewell.” And pressed to name “one of the great books of the modern world,” he cites Arthur Schnitzler’s little 200-page odd collection, “Book of Sayings and Thoughts.”
“Cultural Amnesia,” of course, is itself a book of Sayings and Thoughts, though on a wildly more inflated scale. It’s not the sort of volume most people will want to read straight through, but rather one to dip into here and there — a volume to be treasured less for its own sake than for all the other books it will make the reader want to read
(my italics).

Much of Clive’s critical effort has been focused on making his “reader want to read”. So it comes as no surprise to me – and I’m sure to others – that Cultural Amnesia has that effect on Ms. Kakutani. Many of us would say that she has just learned from reading Cultural Amnesia  what quite a few of us have known for a long time.

Kevin Cryan


Academic plagerism – A Modest Proposal.

March 20, 2007

Writing in The Guardian on Friday the 16th of March, John Sutherland argued  that students copy and cheat because the circumstances that we have created encourage them to.  

….. who is robbing who? The price of science books, law books, and humanities anthologies, given the captive market and predictable sales levels, is exorbitant. The cost of science journals even more so. Where, rightly or wrongly, the merchandisers of knowledge are perceived to be exploitative, brigandage on the photocopier or at the keyboard is not dishonesty, but Robin Hoodism.

It’s particularly difficult to create an ethos of honesty when big structural changes are happening. Turning students into customers through charging tuition fees is one such change. When lectures, seminars and tutorials are, effectively, ‘sold’ not ‘given’ a bond is broken. Dishonesty is a consequence. There are other ruptures.

One of the perverse triumphs of the National Union of Public Employees in the 1960s was to get a decent wage and benefits package for cleaning staff. Cleaners were, for a decade or two longer, university employees. They belonged. One could think of them as colleagues. Then, in the 1980s, with financial squeezes, room cleaning was outsourced. The work was now done by casual employees, at the lowest legal rate. They did not belong. The incidence of office burglary soared.

There are techniques for enforcing honesty that are less expensive and more efficient than anti-plagiarism software. Desk exams, rather than takeaway papers, or coursework, for example. Invigilation and timed public examination are a pain: but they do keep the student on the straight and narrow. Nor is it necessary to return to the loathed ‘finals hell’ fortnight. A mixed diet of desk and takeaways will show up any anomalies in performance that require investigation.

Some of these suggestions seem to me to be just plain common sense. They certainly should be given more than passing thought. My guess is that because everybody is convinced that the only way of catching plagerists is to use various gismos for idntifying the of the plagerist and devices of watching and listening in on the cheats -gadgets, or “software solutions” as the peroson will call them, that will no doubt cost academic institutions the earth – it’s unlikely that remedies such as the ones Sutherland proposes will be given much consideration.  

The full article is here.