Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Sunday 7 April 2024

Nightmares At The Museums

I started this year with a wonderful, predictably-brief period in work in which I had nothing much to do. Or rather, because no astronomer of any repute truly ever finds themselves in such a situation, I had nothing that needed to be done with any urgency. I'd just about finished my rewriting-code project that I started right at the beginning of the pandemic (of which more in a future post) so I was able to get on with the actually productive output of writing papers. And on the side, I also managed to completely overhaul my much-neglected website into a far more modern format, with plenty of science content as well as all the art stuff from the old days. 

Do be sure to check that out – unusually for me, I managed to keep everything there pretty concise.

Of the papers I managed to rattle off two, one of which is absolutely done as far as I'm concerned and another needing only a few more paragraphs. Both are, of course, now lying uselessly fallow. Partly this is because they're awaiting comments from colleagues but partly this is because the productive period has been replaced with the more typical too-busy-to-poop period instead. Currently I'm at the tail end of writing a grant (which has a negligible chance of success, yay), reviewing my Master's student's thesis, trying to get my other student to start a project, about to start getting the first's student's mock ALMA proposal turned into an actual proposal, occasionally having bouts of (remote) observing with a 1.4m telescope in Serbia, and about to be hit by a succession of visitors.

I dunno, sometimes I think this post-pandemic world isn't all it's cracked up to be...

Anyway, because this is absolutely perfect timing (read : irony), last week we went on a two-night jaunt to visit the museums of Berlin. Now I've done the major touristy stuff in Berlin before and stopped briefly on trips to the Netherlands many times, but I've never done any of the museums. Shame on me !

I love museums. In fact there's one thing I've wanted to see in Berlin for many years : the recreation of the Babylonian Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum. Literally, this has been in the back of my mind as something I should definitely do for years. Imagine my dismay to discover the Pergamon is "temporarily" closed... for 14 to 20 years.

This scarcely covers it.

Oh well. They'll probably reopen parts of it in 2027 so maybe I won't have to wait the full frickin' TWO DECADES to go and see it.

Fortunately Berlin has plenty of other museums, and it turned out there was one very big thing there I've wanted to see even longer than the Ishtar Gate. But I'll get back to that later.

We travelled up in the morning, had an afternoon for our first museum jaunt, a full day of museum-hiking, and then the following morning for another sneaky museum bout before we had to leave again. So about two full days total. We didn't do any sightseeing as such, so the best I can offer in terms of touristy photos is this little sequence of chance alignments of the TV tower with various buildings.

Most of the foreground buildings here are the Charité hospital, which has an excellent museum we visited on the final day.

Day 1

We began more-or-less at random with the New Museum, which is all about (obviously) ancient history. Although it does have a few quite spectacular pieces, honestly in that regard the museum in Bologna was better (having far more mummies and painted wooden sarcophagi). But Berlin beats Bologna for the weird and unexpected and downright silly stuff, which I find more interesting if undeniably less visually awesome : the ancient Egyptians may have had a death fixation, but they were also capable of being just as daft as the rest of us. 

This fine building is not the New Museum, but some art gallery or other. The New Museum is right next to it, but not nearly as photogenic. Actually it's a piece of history in its own right though, with many of the pillars of the colonnaded entrance being riddled with bullet holes, and some having been replaced entirely.

It becomes easier to understand why this chap was so happy when you look inside his coffin.

I love the snap-action of this toy crocodile. Kids will be kids, even thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt. Literally everyone want a crocodile whose jaws snap, because that's what crocodiles do. It's a perfectly normal toy in a culture that was socially, technologically, economically and religiously alien to the modern world.

There's a more human connection to the ancients when you discover they wanted to make statues of hideously-deformed pig ladies for some reason. As for what's going on with the Angry Bird and whatever the hell the other thing is, I have no idea.

And then in contrast we have these much more realistic miniature pieces. She looks a bit grumpy in the light but I found the stuff like this more impressive, in its way, than some of the larger pieces.

The early start, long bus trip, enormous currywurst lunch, excessive walking and heavy tapas dinner took its toll on me. This wasn't as bad as the hangover-like state I experienced in Bologna/Florence after failing to stay hydrated but I was still more than ready for an early night. I think I'm going to call this excessively first-world problem "mini gout". Or possibly gout bout ?

Day 2

The next day we began with the Natural History Museum.  This houses the 13m-tall Brachiosaurus skeleton (the world's tallest mounted dinosaur) which I've wanted to see since I was knee-high. In the pictures in my childhood books the hall looked rather minimalist, having nothing much in it besides the single Brachiosaurus. But this is 30-odd years later, and now it's rather more crowded, home also to a full-length Diplodocus and Allosaurus as well as several other somewhat lesser-known dinos. I was happy as a clam.

There's a universal tendency to create grandiose buildings and then enclose or otherwise obscure them so they can't be fully appreciated from the street, let alone photographed properly. 

They are, of course, quite a bit smaller than the depictions in Jurassic Park. Even so, when you get close to them you realise they were much bigger than any elephant.

This is apparently some variety of pachycephalosaur and not a dragon skull, though I beg to differ.

The Allosaurus is worth looking at if only for comparison to the next exhibit : a T-Rex. Say that again ? We have a T-Rex. The Allosaurus, on paper, has similar dimensions to a rex... but in fact is nowhere near as impressive. The sheer massiveness of the T-Rex's skull impresses itself on you immediately in way that makes it instantly apparent that the poor little Allosaurus would have lasted about thirty seconds in a bout with rexy. Cardiff has a rex skull as as well, though much smaller and mounted high on the wall so you don't get close to it. This is different, and it felt an awful lot like being next to the skull of Balerion the Dread. 

I'm sorry but the idea that this was a super-scavenger is just obviously a pile of crap. Utter crap.

The full skeleton only makes that even more evident. This thing was truly massive. True, it was once a living, breathing animal, with thoughts and emotions and babies to care for. But all the same, it's so remarkably different to any living creature that it almost has something of the supernaturally monstrous about it, in a way that the herbivorous dinosaurs simply don't (astonishing though they are). The is the sort of thing from which myths are born. Part of the effect of this is probably the result of putting the skeleton in a room which has a high ceiling but is nevertheless only just big enough to accommodate it : it really dominates the space in front of you.

Herbivorous dinosaurs are cool, no doubt about it. But predators actively want things. Sixty five million years ago this thing was stalking the Cretaceous and actively thinking about how to slice its massive jaws with teeth like steak knives into its victims-cum-dinner. And that's just way more interesting than the gigantic reptilian cows that were roving around alongside it.

There's more to the NHM than dinosaurs but they're definitely the highlight (for non-dinosaur exhibits, my favourite remains firmly with London's NHM for the crown of Best Museum Ever). The display of animals preserved in jars is however very impressive indeed, and compared to other such displays (which might be one or two specimens here and there) it is vast. It put me in mind of nothing so much as a Borg cube, except even creepier.

I mean... perhaps it's no wonder some people think science isn't for them when we're keeping stuff like this in the basement... ?

Finally the taxidermy section is worth a visit just for the sheer weirdness of it all. Combine that with the horrible-things-in-jars (of which there are more in this section, including hideously deformed unborn animals) any remake of Night At The Museum set in Berlin could only be a horror. It's all undeniably fascinating, but very strange.

This is surely the jewel in the crown of lifelike poses in taxidermy.

...and then there's this. Not so much Grumpy Cat as Gimpy Cat, and believe me this is his good idea. It's the taxidermic equivalent of the "very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic" painting restoration.

The NHM took the whole morning; it also featured a small section on space and the obligatory minerals collection, both are good but I need not dwell on them here. After lunch we returned to ancient history. We started this time in the Old Museum. This it must be said is noticeably old-school in its presentation and in need of some modernisation. While the New Museum subtly presents you with stories around the exhibits (e.g. their wider place in culture and what they say about society), the Old Museum tends to be more of a collection-dump : here are some artifacts, have a look at them. It isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, unless you're a moron. But it could be upgraded in its presentation, just a bit.

The museum is set in a large square, which features this rather nice minimalist fountain.

It clouded over by the time we were done, but this did make for more atmospheric photos. Also it's interesting to note that old museums are in themselves works of art, as much as any of the exhibits they hold.

I love this one – someone back in Roman times decided that what they wanted, what they'd pay top sesterce for from a sculptor of the utmost quality, was a really realistic statue of a doggy having a good scratch.

Again, it features some spectacular stuff, but I'm going to concentrate on the sillier and more interesting things. It really presents a very full range of antiquities, from the incredible first-rate workmanship that couldn't be improved if it was done by a machine, to the mediocre stuff that I'd guess you'd buy at the ancient equivalent of IKEA, to the... severely questionable stuff you might expect to get at a dodgy seaside souvenir shop. Seriously, who wants some of this ?

People complain about AI-generated hands today, but this mosaic looks a bit unintentionally-Picasso to me.

And now for the absurd : horse riding done wrong, a woman peeing in a pot in exquisite detail, and some phallus lamps. Every Roman home should have one !

I do wonder if ancient historians are a bit desperate sometimes. Faced with the overtly sexual content they often fall into trying to give its analysis as seriousness which might be a little... reaching. Far from assuming it all has some deep mystical symbolism that such imagery is not longer associated with, is it not perhaps more sensible to conclude that actually the ancient Greeks and Romans were in fact considerably sillier and hornier in their artistic leanings ? It just seems a good deal more likely to me than assigning them something deeper to stuff which seems so obviously ridiculous. Methinks there might be some academic self-censoring going on because perish the thought that their subjects might not have been entirely serious the whole time. Much as I don't like the ivory-tower-elitism trope, it doesn't come from nothing.

Especially when you consider that full range of quality of the art. It wasn't that they were exceptionally talented, because ancient peoples also produced a lot of abject crap. It wasn't that they were exceptionally useless either, because they also produced the undeniably beautiful. No, they were just people, and sometimes that means a weird desire to paint pictures of women urinating in jars and make oil lamps shaped like outrageously large phalluses. We need not try and assign anything deeper to this at all. It's just people being people.

I'm not sure where or what this one is but I'm quite sure it's the worst carving I've ever seen. I think we've got some weird selection effects going on with ancient art. We either get the top of the range stuff of the equivalent of drawing dicks on the toilet wall in an age when people had more time to kill.

After this we headed back to complete the New Museum to finish the two floors we didn't manage on the first morning. Here too there was something I've wanted to see for a long time : the golden Wizard's Hat. Half a kilo of gold in a wildly impractical "hat" dating from a thousand years BC, together with an accompanying disc it's believed to be part of an advanced calendar system. With the intricate metalwork and complex, abstract designs, it contradicts the popular notion of the barbarian Celts as the beard-wearing horde of bloodthirsty savages that the Romans depicted them as. Whether they did mathematics in the same way we do today, whether they even conceived of maths as an activity distinct from others... who knows ?

And that sort of thing is far more interesting to me than the museum's prize piece : the famous bust of Nefertiti. You can probably just about see this in the photo on the right, but you're not allowed to take photographs in the exhibit's own hall. This is a large room, a mini-rotunda all of its own, which houses Nefertiti and nothing else. It's an impressive work, but it isn't anything extraordinary to my eyes. It's yet another fine example of Egyptian art, to be sure, but it doesn't say anything about the Egyptian world view or alter our understanding of them as a people.

Day 3

The final day took us to the Charité medical museum. This is pretty interesting though it's not so much my thing. I liked that they seemed to be quite up-front about some of their less laudable moments. They don't shy away from telling you that at times the hospital was overcrowded, understaffed, and underpaid its employees to the extent that they robbed their patients, or that prostitutes brought in for treatment started plying their trade on hospital grounds. 

The modern hospital complex is huge, and the museum occupies just a few floors in one of the smaller buildings.

I didn't take many photos because there's not a lot worth photographing : medical instruments are interesting but not exactly aesthetically designed. But there's one section where you're not allowed to take photographs. This houses another set of things in jars, but they're quite different to what you get in the NHM : they're people. Sometimes parts of people, both normal and suffering from diseases (hilariously, a penis is given the laconic caption, "A normal phallus")... and sometimes whole people. Unborn babies who would, for various reasons, never have survived. We need not dwell on that. I didn't need to see everything in the room and deliberately didn't look at everything at the very end, with the exhibits getting progressively more and more the stuff of nightmares the further into the room you go.

I'm not sure if the museum took the right approach here or not. Not taking photographs : of course this is a sensible restriction, otherwise you risk demeaning the exhibit. And I can see the point of not putting in any titillating warnings about how "those of a nervous disposition should look away now" or suchlike. Their approach of making the exhibits at the start essentially bland and getting progressively more disturbing gives the viewer the chance to opt-out at any point, without any sort of reverse-advertising that would likely only inflame curiosity. But I'm not sure if any of this needs exhibiting to anyone except medical staff. On the other hand, should it be hidden ? Probably not.

Anyway, I'm not easily disturbed by such things, but I was pretty darn disturbed by that. So should you ever find yourself in Berlin, that's my recommendation : by all means see Charité (it's more interesting than you might expect), but you deserve fair warning about the floor where photographs are forbidden. They're banned for a very good reason that despite their honestly monstrous appearance, these were people, or at least people in potentia, and deserve a measure of dignity. 

Personally, I'm far more comfortable with the other-wordly remoteness of the T-Rex, a genuine monster you wouldn't feel guilty about running away from in mortal terror, than real people of the modern era. Even the shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers museum, grotesque though they are, at least have the virtue of being distant in both time and culture. The imagination can run a riot of fantasy about vicious jungle tribesmen or giant reptilian beasts while keeping a measure of detachment : it's fun to imagine such things. But with real people from the immediate past ? No such detachment is possible, and imagination has to give way before sensitivity. It's fascinating, but not for me, thanks.

And then we got on a bus and drove off quite literally into the sunset. But this didn't photograph well, so here's some clouds instead.

Monday 19 February 2024

Compromising Men

Nine years ago I wrote a piece entitled Uncompromising Men. It began with a quote from Braveheart :

Uncompromising men are easy to admire. He has courage; so does a dog. But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble.

That piece was all about the appeal of the demagogues, the ones who don't care about rationality. That was back in 2015, just before the rise of Trump and Brexit and all the other nonsense we've had to put up with. Don't get me started. The whole thing just makes me unbearably, viscerally angry.

Like, way more angry, righteously angry, than these two butthurt whiny little snowflakes.

But with the resurgence of Labour, I've been thinking about this quote a lot again lately. While last time I looked at it in the general terms of how rational thinking can lead to monstrously irrational, idiotic conclusions, this time I want to consider the quote from a different, much more specific perspective.

In fact I want to sell you something, or rather, someone

I want to sell you Keir Starmer.

Because, as I'll cover, I've been dead wrong about people before, I approach this with the utmost caution. And this will hardly be a conventional, "isn't he just sooooper lovely ?" sales pitch, far from it. There'll be a good deal more subtlety than that.

Prologue : The joy of self-righteous misery porn

It doesn't seem to matter how objectively successful Labour are, the more staunchly left are in a state of perpetual misery. Not legitimate concern, or being (quite rightly) overly-cautious about their thumping lead in the polls, but something quite different : genuine self-loathing. They complain endlessly about how Labour isn't doing enough to address this that and the other, despite the rather obvious fact that Labour are not yet in power and an election hasn't even been called. For Labour to not promise them a vision of paradise is quite literally, for some of them, an unforgiveable sin. In fact doing anything other than actually physically punching random Tories in the face is an act of cowardice that must be opposed.

Winning the election by appealing to the other side ? Hah ! That's for wimps. Only making ludicrously Utopian promises is acceptable, and even that, I think, is marginal, as though they dare not take actual power because to do so would inevitably sully their ideological purity. They enjoy having enemies on the right more than they do actually trying to effect change. They want to be the protest group, not the ones who have to get their hands dirty by cleaning up the mess.

I'll quote myself in response to one such piece :

I am not sure what crazed hell the author is living in, but it makes me want to tear my hair out and scream. Years and years we’ve been promised magical unicorns, fantasies of a no-deal-all-the-deals-Brexit, with or without ways of dealing with Schrodinger’s ethically different immigrant who’s coming over here to steal our jobs and our benefits… but, no. That’s not the problem at all. The author has decided it’s Starmer’s Labour who are the problem, for setting realistic expectations.

The barrel of nonsense is ever bottomless. Good grief.

Large parts of the left seem to have fallen into an ideological purity hole of self-hatred quite unlike anything the right have to deal with. True, a sizeable segment of the right do oppose any and all foreigners as though they were literal vermin, but by and large they possess a good deal of moral flexibility so long as they have the sweet scent of electoral victory. In contrast, for many left-leaning political commentators, sometimes the whole point seems to be in making claims that only a small fraction believe in : not to convince people these ideas are true, but more as a way of finding out who they want to have dealings with and who they'd prefer to spit on in disgust.

This is a form of toxicity I've likened to a horseshoe, with naivety on one side and cynicism on the other. True, criticism is a powerful engine of progress. But if you won't accept anything less than your own view of absolute perfection, if you can't accept that things have gotten better if they don't meet your exact demands, then you'll never be happy. Ever. All you'll accomplish is making both yourself and everyone else perpetually miserable. That's no way to live.

1) My abusive political ex

Full disclaimer : I used to be a Corbynite. It was a brief but real occurrence, because I fell victim myself to the appeal of the uncompromising attitude. Finally someone properly left, who wanted to nationalise things that damn well should be nationalised, who seemed to tick all the obvious morality boxes rather than trying to kowtow to big business and banks. I was prepared to go quite a long way in apologising for some of Corbyn's more (with hindsight) questionable statements, the ones about Hamas being our friends and suchlike. 


My disillusionment came quite suddenly, not completely out of the blue but even so there is a single moment which sealed it for me : his refusal to back down after losing a confidence vote. To me that went manifestly against all principles of common sense. No matter how great the policies are (and I still support many of them), if you can't actually work with your own team, you're politically dead, and no amount of CPR is going to save you at the point. Can't be done. Persisting in the face of this is just dragging everyone down.

"Rise, Corbyn, RISE !"

Had I known at the time about all the anti-Semitism and anti-NATO lunacy, I'd have jumped off the Corbyn bandwagon even sooner. I'm still pleased that at least my Corbynite period was short, a few months or so before I realised this guy really really wasn't the moral messiah he all but claimed to be. He was in fact quite a lot worse than a very naughty boy.

Later, I even compared Corbyn to Trump, painting them as two halves of the same coin. I think that's basically accurate : Corbyn is a raving ideologue whereas Trump is a fascist. Corbyn will go hell for leather after any policy he thinks is correct because his moral ideals dictate it so, even at the cost of actually being able to enact that very same policy. Trump will act without any moral scruples whatever so long as he believes it will further his own interest. They're both just leaders of different bizarre personality cults.

The unifying factor of these weird bedfellows is an incapability of rational, critical thinking. Neither of them ever stop to consider if their policies are sensible, optimal, or even workable. The one is so convinced of it that questioning them is like asking the old, "do owls exist ?" or "are there hats ?", while to the other, the correctness of their ideas is utterly besides the point. Neither are the least bit able to compromise, with Trump's inability to form a coherent sentence (let alone an actual policy that can't be expressed in three words or less) being little more than the random firing of whatever passes for neurons in the soup-like ectoplasm that substitutes for his brain. Being inconsistent is not at all the same as reappraising and re-evaluating one's position.

2) My new crush

Which brings me to this guy :

Be still my beating heart !

I thought about subtitling this post, "Why I Want To Marry Keir Starmer And Have His Babies", but I resisted. Not least because I've made such mistakes before (though I do at least try and record them publicly), but also because it would totally belittle my own point. Starmer is not a white knight, and so, paradoxically, this is precisely why I I think he's absolutely fucking amazing : he isn't trying to be one. He's not even trying to portray himself so. Rather the reverse : he's making it as clear as day that he's not a political saviour about to turn the tide of political omnishambles and lead us back to whatever rose-tinted view of the past one happens to have. He's just going to do as much as he can.

This, I have to say, is bloody genius. A would-be hero living in the real world can hardly help but fail against the onslaught of the cynics and brute reality. In fantasy, the plucky hero gets to slay the evil dragon. A more realistic version would be that the hero fights the dragon, gets badly wounded, but manages to negotiate with the dragon so that it has to stay in its cave most of the day and only venture out to eat a few sheep instead of the local maidens. The end result is actually pretty decent for all concerned, but the hero looks like a colossal tit for making absurd promises and everyone wanders off feeling disillusioned as fuck.

Starmer isn't doing this. He is, in effect, promising to negotiate with the dragon from the outset. You don't have to like this approach, but you can't exactly accuse him of attempting to promise things like, oh, I don't know, a feckin' bridge to Scotland over a munitions dump.

And the dragon analogy breaks down here because he's not really promising anything that I would say is anywhere near such gross appeasement. The hard left will see any appeal to Brexit-voters (or favourable comparisons with Thatcher) as unforgiveable, but that's because any mention of such things causes them to fly into a blind, chuck-the-toys-out-of-the-pram temper tantrum. And when you go back from the headlines and read what was actually said, all too often the headlines are deeply misleading. Especially the Thatcher thing, in which nothing he said actually praised Thatcher herself or even her methods : "sought to unlock Britian's potential" just speaks to her believing she was doing the right thing. There's nothing controversial about that.

Look, I hate Thatcher and would cheerfully spit on her grave if I wasn't afraid this would cause a ghastly zombie Thatcher to rise up and throttle me. She was detestable. But unlike the latest incumbents of the highest office in the land, at least she did genuinely believe she was acting in the interests of the country.

Or, preferably, several pieces.

And these supposed u-turns... hang on a minute, are they in power ? Has an election even been called ? No and no. So it's anyway a bit of a stretch to call merely "changing one's mind" a u-turn. And if you genuinely realise that either (a) a policy wouldn't be a good idea or (b) a policy wouldn't actually work, then the only responsible thing to do is to pull it. Carrying on regardless... that's the Rwanda madness. 

Incidentally, I don't have any problem with Starmer not labelling the Rwanda scheme for what is is : horrendously vile and utterly reprehensible. If not using the sort of chest-thumping language I'd agree with is the price to be paid for not getting the scheme enacted, then I am absolutely fine with that.

I'm not going to go through each of the supposed u-turns, but I will just pick up on the most prominent : a climb-down on the £28 billion climate investment. For a climbdown is what it is, not a u-turn. Nowhere have Labour said they no longer support green investment or any of the rest of the policy : quite the opposite. Now it's perfectly possible that not being able to invest that specific amount is the wrong economic choice; I'm not an economist but my instinct is that that is the case, that investing this money would be a good idea. But that's all I've got to go on, gut instinct. So I'm perfectly prepared to believe that it's also just not possible right now. And as I set out here, this change is pretty much bang-on the conditions I stated for the ideal u-turn a whole three years previously.

The ironic thing is that if anything this makes me trust them more, not less. Being able to say, "we considered this idea, found it wouldn't work, had to scale things back a bit here and cancel a few things there"... that's rational. That's sensible. Seeking actual workable solutions is far better – far better ! – than clinging madly to rabid ideological puritanism. I respect people who change their mind when they can justify why they've done so, especially when they've not used the delusional hyperbole that was the hallmark of the Johnson misadministration. At no point has Starmer given the impression of getting uncontrollable boners at the thought of green energy or whatnot, so having to tone things down a bit seems perfectly fair and reasonable in my view.

And of course they get extra credit for doing this ahead of time. Now is precisely the time to work out a coherent set of policies, which necessarily means ditching some. Doing this when in government would be a different story... for that, look to the current "government".

3) The rebound guy ?

I'm very much conscious that I could be making the same kind of apologies for Starmer as I did for Corbyn. And I'm not entirely sure that I'm not doing this, at least to some extent. That is of course the problem with the compromising man : one has to deal with their changes of stance and then decide whether they were correct or not. With the uncompromising men one always knows what their stance is, but they're usually right only by chance.

So do I want to actually celebrate these changes of opinion, rather than merely defending them ? No. Not because I don't agree with them, but because I want to avoid making political heroes out of my, ahem, political heroes. I think we'd all be a lot better off accepting imperfect-but-basically-honest leaders for what they are : as flawed as the rest of us. But surely seeing them in this way, accepting their faults with our eyes open, is an awful lot better than deifying them. Surely having someone who never promises paradise is better than someone who pretends everything is practically perfect already. I would love to have someone who would promise to nationalise all essential services and fund everything by a wealth tax on the richest, but even more than this, I'd love to have someone who can make real, tangible gains, even if they're not as brilliant as I might like.

This may seem like a strange sales pitch, but that's the point. Starmer has learned the lessons of Blair, especially that leadership means saying no to your own side. Not all the time, obviously, or they wouldn't be your own side. But sometimes, you mustn't promise people things they want but can't have even if they would work. There's no virtue in being uncompromising about the impossible : that's Brexiteer logic. 

My sales pitch then, is that not acting like a standard snake-oil salesman may lack the classical type of emotional appeal but it it's absolutely what we need right now. We need to wake up from the farce of austerity and Brexit fantasies with a good splash of cold water.

4) Limits

But when is compromise a virtue ? Not when it becomes appeasement. Not when you start acting against your moral principles. Saying, "we need more coal and oil" would be a step too far, as would "we need to support the Rwanda bill", and certainly, unforgivably, would be, "we need to help the rich more than we need to help the poor". Those sorts of policies would be the point where I would agree that Labour are no better than the Tories. But simply not investing as much in green energy as originally planned, not being afraid to help businesses (while protecting worker's rights), not being able to create certain schemes because of actual lack of resources to do so... nah, give me a break. Any driver knows that slowing down is not a u-turn !

And anyway, sometimes u-turns are a damn good idea...

I find this lack of perfectionism inspirational, in its own bizarre way. Here is something to believe in because it's achievable, not because it's utopian. To actually get back to really, really boring politics after years and years of increasing rabid, incoherent rhetorical nonsense... it's like a warm balm for the soul. I want things to be as utterly bland and dull as possible, much like Mark Drakeford in Wales (though for an excellent, detailed analysis, see this Wales Online piece).

I think I got sick of the exciting politics quite a lot sooner than everyone else, but it seems at last that most other people are finally seeing the virtues of not having to pay constant attention to Westminster as though it were a mandatory-viewing HBO drama. That actually, not having to worry about whatever crisis the idiots in government will bring today would be really quite enjoyable in its own way, even without suddenly giving everyone a puppy and a solid gold house. That slow but steady progress might be better than chaotic, unworkable revolutions, and that actually, while magical fantasies of puppies and gold houses for all might sound good in theory, perhaps in practise that's not really what we need.


Here, then, is the case for the ability to compromise as a form of nobility. To respond according to the evidence, at least to respond consistently within your own world view, that is noble. Evidence doesn't suggest anything by itself, but coupled with your own models about how things are, it definitely does. And when the evidence and your ideas conflict, it has to be the evidence that wins every time. If you think that the tax breaks for the rich should make everyone wealthier, okay... but when you find that they don't, then you change your damn mind. You don't double down and say you hadn't given them enough tax breaks or other bullshit.

And it has to be constrained in that it can't be counter to one's moral principles. You can't go around proclaiming that you want to help the poorest only to help the richest instead... but it's perfectly fine to do things for them as well. It may feel fantastic to tell people what you really think of them, but if you actually want to make progress, if you actually want to get things done rather than wishing for them... maybe it's better not to rub their noses in it. You don't have to tell the racists they're right. But you have to know when to fight and when not to fight. You have to know the difference between a casually-racist old granny in a country village and a hate-monger who'd willingly drown migrants at sea. One can be reasoned with, the other must be fought.

Far better to have honesty about what can be done and then actually deliver on it than inspirational but ultimately empty and disappointing rhetoric. Better to climb slowly and successfully than soar and crash.

Calm down, Icarus.

The final point is that people are still claiming Labour haven't said very much and don't stand for anything. This is garbage, perpetuated by a media determined to insist that this is still the case presumably because Labour's actual policies (of which there are many) are so boringly practical that they can't be bothered to discuss them. True, they had nothing much at all a couple of years ago, but it hasn't been this way for a good 18 months or so. What they stand for is green energy (the exact amount of investment being a total red herring on that point), stronger local government (I call it radical decentricism, I've read their 155-page report on this and it really is as radical as anything from the hard left), constitutional reform (true, you might not get what you want with Labour on this one, but you certainly won't with the Tories), stronger worker's rights, greater economic alignment with Europe, and above all, pragmatism. 

All of these appeal to boring, actually successful policies instead of trying to placate the fantasies of the racists. And that is more than enough for me. Sometimes the simplest gifts are the best ones.