Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The Poison of Bonuses

I worked in the financial services sector of the City for nearly 40 years, and from the 1980s onwards was increasingly astonished at the offering of US-style bonuses for doing an honest day's work. Such bonuses serve to skew individuals' performance towards a particular easily identified course of action - usually involving more risk - but more importantly are likely to erode people's personal values. Our work is performed as our duty to ourselves, our families and our colleagues and we should discharge it to the best of our ability at all times. We should not need the carrot of more money to do a difficult job; we do it because it is our job. Sometimes one just happens to be in the hot seat at the relevant time; if we weren't any good, we wouldn't be there. The chap at Barclays said to be getting additional compensation for finding outside capital is also just doing his job, and should need no more of shareholders' funds than his normal pay for doing it. To offer people large bonuses is to insult peoples' characters.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Favourite Writings - The Lycian Shore

Photo by Kei Lawford. Click to enlarge

As I came down from the causeway through the theatre, a black snake like a shy god slid into the laurel thicket; I stepped over the stones rattled by earthquakes on their foundations, and climbed from terrace to terrace of corn where peasants built shallow walls round the pockets of ancient houses. The full ears, ready for harvest, beat their slight weight against my passing hand, as if they to would spend their weak resistance for the headland's warm and living peace. So remote, so undisturbed was the great hollow, that its own particular divinity seemed to fill it - complete in being as a cup is filled to the brim. There was no judgement here but only the consequence of actions; the good corn filled itself out in deeper places and the bad dwindled among stones, and all things were a part of each other in a soil that someone's building two thousand or more years ago had flattened or spoiled. A fair-haired woman, still beautiful, with green eyes, was reaping. I asked if I might photograph, and she called her husband, who came climbing up and stood beside her, and glanced at her and smiled when I said that she was like the English to look at: they were both pleased by her fairness, and there was a happy friendliness between them. He had the oval face of the Mediterranean, and she the straight northern brows: and the history of the world had washed over Cnidus to produce them both, from the days when their ancestors, in the oldest city of the peninsular, joined in building the Hellenium in Egypt, or sent the first caryatid to Delphi.

Freya Stark-- The Lycian Shore
(I make no excuse for resuing one of my favourite writings, as no one reads back to when this was first posted, least of all me)

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The National Gardens Scheme

I don't know if The National Gardens Scheme is replicated in other coutries, but I do know that nothing epitomises the spirit of the British Isles so well.

The piece below by Paul Johnson in the Spectator says most of what there is to say about gardening in England, though he properly concentrates on the relatively modest gardens that are on show for only a day or two while only alluding to the grander ones - which at the end of the day are equally the expression of one mind's love of nature, but are even more extraordinary in their compass - like the great garden at Athelhampton which we visited last week.

One of the best ways to appreciate gardens is through the eyes of a good photographer - and my personal favourite is Nigel Birkett, who kindly puts his photos on Flick for all to see.

'A gardener must be a philosopher but never an atheist'
There is no more English activity than gardening, and it has been so for over a thousand years. Indeed, there were Anglo-Saxon gardens before: traces remain. Gardens grew under castle walls, and were tended by the wives of men who wore chain mail. They took the place of water lilies when the moats were peaceably drained. The first great English essay, written by Francis Bacon early in the 17th century, is ‘Of Gardens’. I have just reread it. It is long, elegant but detailed and full of ripe knowledge, about nature and our intimate relationship with her.

Bacon is particularly good on the scents and smells of a garden which, stirred by faint breezes, he compares, in its coming and going, to the warbling of music. Thus he gives advice on planting accordingly, to create varying odours all the year round. He distinguishes between passive smells, and those you can arouse. Thus: ‘Those which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed, are three: that is, burnet, wild-thyme and watermints. Therefore you are to set whole alleys of them, to have the pleasure when you walk or tread.’ Of course, you say, flowers had much stronger scents in that golden age. Not necessarily so: Bacon complains that some flowers which ought to smell gloriously do not, and instances bays, rosemary and sweet marjoram; and he complains that some flowers, once in bloom, expend their scent quickly: ‘Roses, damask and red, are fast flowers of their smell, so that you may walk by a whole row of them, and find nothing of their sweetness; yea, though it be in a morning’s dew.’ The flower, he says, that ‘yields the sweetest smell in the air, is the violet, especially the white double violet’. As true today as when he wrote.

I was thinking of Bacon the other weekend when I went to an open garden day at one of our finest Somerset villages, Stogumber. There were 15 gardens on display, all within easy walking distance so each could be visited without undue fatigue. It is a noble place, crowded with old houses, kept beautifully painted, and with a pleasing mediaeval church, whose collection of silver vessels was likewise on show. Walking its sleepy lanes, and popping in every few paces to inspect a garden behind its proud cottage, was a rare delight. One sometimes thinks that Old England is gone for good, and looking around parts of London nowadays with its atmosphere of a degraded Levantine bazaar crowded with embittered people, it is hard to deny the malign change. But in West Somerset, on such an occasion, Old England is very much alive: gentle, personal, courteous, smiling, welcoming, anxious to show you what has been created, and explain it.

These small gardens on show at their best time of year are more fun and interesting than the grander affairs. To begin with, each is totally individual, made by one devoted person, or a couple. Then, the creators are there, on the spot, to answer your questions and tell of the experiments, surprises, disappointments and glories of their craft. What is so remarkable is the ingenuity with which each square foot of garden is put to use, to create intensity, variety and contrasts, an air of spaciousness and generosity in an acre or less. I saw nothing repetitive, no horticultural clich├ęs, but on the contrary, originality and imagination, especially in the juxtaposition of colour, shape, size and texture of leaf, as though the gardener was a painter, composing carefully not only for the telling detail but the general effect. And they are quick to tell you of the happy accident, the surprise emergence in due season of an unusual bloom, unexpected but refreshing, and welcome. ‘That was a surprise,’ they say. ‘But then you never know exactly what is going to come up, or what precisely is happening in the winter under the soil.’ Gardening is like raising children, in a way: full of unexpected changes, even shocks; requiring a great deal of patience and love, and willingness to go with nature instead of trying to bend it to your will.

Gardens, especially small ones tended by one person, reflect character, and express aesthetic temperament, even a philosophy of life. I was particularly taken by one delicately composed of pale shades, which put me in mind of Milton’s Lycidas:

Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freaked with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk-rose, and the well-attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears.

By contrast, there was the blazing border based upon what Bacon calls the ‘French marigold’, but composed of many other fierce orange and yellow blooms, and a few furnace-reds. It sounds a horror but was actually, in its own bold way, a masterpiece of taste and vivacity, as though van Gogh, wisely advised by Fantin-Latour, had designed it in an inspired moment. But as the lady who created it said: ‘Oh, a lot of it was sheer luck, you know. Never happen again, most likely. But then, you don’t want too many repeats in gardening do you? I’m all for changing each year.’

I admired, too, the lady who had created a neat, spruce, serpentine path leading into the heart of her garden, with variegated mosses and plants of many shades of green, punctuating the granite squares — a miniature work of grand art, worthy of Vermeer. Gardens display tidy minds and tempestuous ones, the energies of the adventurous spirit and the cosy conservation of the virtuous one. Odd that Freud took no interest in the gardener’s mind; but then he was a city Herr, all parterres and privets. As well as all kinds of primitive instincts and irrational skills, there is a strong intellectual and spiritual element in raising plants, which both reflects personality and helps to shape it. All gardeners are economists, but of various kinds: expansionists and gradualists, exuberant or cautious. As Keynes said, gardeners can be bulls and bears, too. There is the kind, for instance, who can make perfectionist use of the daisy, recognising the truth of Chaucer’s point in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women:

That wel by reson men it calle may
The ‘dayesye’ or elles the ‘ye of day’,
The emperice and flour of floures alle.

There is also the kind that makes superb use of contrasting light and dark leaves in shrubs, and multiple shades of green, signs of a subtle, highly observant temperament — what you might call a Dorothy Wordsworth mind.

The Old Testament is full of references to flowers, especially their fragility, their evanescence. Samuel warns: ‘All the increase of thy house shall die in the flower of their age,’ and the Voice in Isaiah says: ‘All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.’ Gardeners know this. They perceive that dying is inherent in nature, and so is rebirth and renewal. Gardeners come close to the spirit of life and its creator. They are not wild enthusiasts, but gentle philosophers, and we may be sure that no great gardener is an atheist.'

Paul Johnson - The Spectator

Monday, 7 July 2008

Great Houses

Corfe Castle, Dorset (National Trust) Click here for rather too many photos of the castle

One of the beauties of our countryside are the many great houses which survive, often in glorious grounds, by allowing people to visit them. The Historic Houses Association lists 1500 such places and The National Trust a further 300.

Athelhampton, Dorset (Historic Houses Association) Click here for some photos of Athelhampton and its garden taken on a rainy day in July
Added to which the late Sir John Smith's Landmark Trust now lets out over 180 restored old buildings for short periods so that you can experience what it's like to actually live in such places.

The East Banqueting House, Chipping Campden (The Landmark Trust)
Many of the larger houses have cafes which, like the pubs, have undergone a huge improvement in quality and can give you a decent lunch or tea.

Apart from their beauty, they are important for the history that surrounds each of them. Click on the names of these houses for a brief summary - except the site of the East Banqueting House which, like Corfe Castle, fell in the Civil War. The Landmark Trust site records that 'In 1613, the newly enriched Sir Baptist Hicks began work on a house in Chipping Campden. It was a noble house in the latest fashion, with elaborate gardens. Thirty-two years later it was destroyed, wantonly, by the Royalists, as they withdraw from the town. Only a shell was left, now shrunk to a single fragment, but other buildings escaped the fire and are still there, together with the raised walks of the garden'.

Click on each photo for a better view