Monthly Archives: September 2015

Cultured, like what I am


Two ladies of my acquaintance were discussing how to eat sushi.

One wondered whether her method of eating sushi was cultured. Her method consists of picking it up with her fingers and putting it in her mouth.

Apparently the correct method is picking your sushi up with chopsticks; then dropping it on the floor, picking it up with your fingers and putting it in your mouth.

Getting back to the start of the discussion, somebody posted a link to an article which basically listed the stuff people think you need to know to be ‘cultured’.

Culture is strange stuff. Bacteria have culture, pearls are also cultured. So I looked at the article. It was in the Daily Mail, so obviously the people who read that newspaper feel that culture is especially important.

But then I looked at some of the things on the list. Some were obvious choices, ‘know what wine goes with what’, but others were things like ‘Doesn’t skip the news when it’s on TV’ and ‘Watch documentaries’.

Some threw me entirely, what common factor connects;-

Be able to use chopsticks

Collect music on vinyl

Read Wikipedia articles

Only eat local produce

Apparently if you do these things, you’re ‘cultured’.

Anyway you can see the whole list on

So perhaps to be cultured you’ve got be educated enough to read, smart enough to enjoy it, and wise enough to keep an eye on the world around you?

But actually this definition doesn’t work. The purpose of culture is that you (and those worthy souls you feel warrant inclusion) have a reason to look down on those who don’t fulfil your arbitrary criteria.

Culture is a ‘lay’ version of jargon. Professions have jargon which only the professionals are fluent in. This means members of the same profession can talk to each other, knowledgeably and incomprehensibly in front of those lesser beings without the law. This keeps the lower orders firmly in their place and by excluding them as unlearned justifies the professional’s well earned salary.

For groups who don’t share a common jargon, they need some other reason to look down on people and to flaunt their group superiority. It’s probably easier under these circumstances to flaunt their culture rather than invent a jargon. To be fair each succeeding generation of teenagers has gone down the developing a jargon route, but that might be because they’re not confident enough in their knowledge base to flaunt their culture.

Yet ironically everybody has culture. Teenagers have one which fluctuates and churns along with the group membership. Your culture might flaunt literacy, or involve chips, cheese and gravy, but it’s still a culture. Rest assured that whilst your neighbours might sneer at it, find somebody who lives far enough away and they will regard your culture as awesome and will copy aspects of it without really understanding them.

So, are you lost, short of a flauntable culture of your own with which to impress people?
Well at this point good old Jim can come to your rescue. I’ve got just the thing, a slim book of poems. Drop quotes from this into your conversation, smile knowingly when somebody else does; you too can be the very acme of cultural achievement.

For 99p that cannot be a bad deal!

Lambent Dreams Cover5

Waiting for the past to catch up

Some time ago I had an idea for a blog post. It was one of those which came at the point I was sitting down staring at the screen wondering what on earth to write. Suddenly I knew what it was I could write and it was a case of frantically writing it down before I forgot it. Thus and so the blog post ‘Send for Lauderdale’ was written, and Lauderdale entered the world.

But I’m stuck with Lauderdale and what on earth can I do with him? So I put him quietly back on the shelf and got on with whatever I had to do next.

But suddenly I found myself in an interesting place. My SF series is up to date, I’m written up ahead of the publishers. With the Fantasy I’ve got over a year to play with because I’ve the next five Benor stories ready to go. So what next?
Obviously, send for Lauderdale.

But where to put him?

And here another piece of the jigsaw dropped into place. I’ve always been quite keen on the steampunk genre. I like a lot of the art and I love the way you can play with history. So let’s give Lauderdale a Steampunk setting.

alfonso de la torre steampunk crusier boat space ship crash old mountain sci fi wreck wreckage

Picture by Alfonso De La Torre

But with Steampunk you’re talking about an alternative history. Normally something is assumed to happen during the 19th century which threw the points and sent our civilisation thundering down another track.

So for somebody who loves history, this was a chance to really get to play with the levers.

Where am I going to have history diverge, what will the world be like.

Years ago I caught the last faint echoes of that other train whistle as it went down the different track. When I moved from 5th form having done my O levels, to the 6th form to do my A levels we were taken into the Physics department library and it was suggested that we might want to do a little reading over the summer. (Younger readers might have to do some circumspect googling here, if only to work out what I mean by terms like 5th form, 6th form, and the concept of school departments having their own specialist libraries.)

I picked up one book, a general overview of physics. I confess I hadn’t really intended to read it, but somehow ended up getting hooked. Particles that act like waves and suchlike, what’s not to like. Especially as the book had a big chapter on the Aether.

So there was I, in 1972, with Dave Bowie singing about the Spiders of Mars, reading about the Aether.


So obviously I had to have the discovery of the Aether, and with the first interstellar flights and off world colonies, this would start to ease the pressure back on Earth and at the same time have an outbreak of common sense leading to the avoiding of the First World War.

So if there’s no First World War? It’s only when you stop and think about it that you realise just how fast technology advances and society changes during wartime.  So a century of peace could have seen far less developments than a century wracked by war and genocide.

It’s like Harry Lime says in ‘The Third Man.’

“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

So I’m playing with the ideas and trying to map out the consequences. No Russian Revolution, no collapse of Germany, no Spartacists. The Ottoman Empire lingers on, propped up by others who don’t want the job of keeping the peace in the areas where it still holds sway.

And the Anarchists? Are they still a force? Has Socialism joined Christianity as one of those ideas which works so much better when it’s believed by slaves and holy men than when it’s the tool of rulers.

And into this place and time whose shape is slowly solidifying, I’m going to fling Lauderdale.

But yes, it’s Steampunk, so there’ll have to be heroes and corsets and really wild things!

The trifling peccadilloes of the travelling artist.

Tallis Steelyard


Of course painters are artists. Yes, I admit that they often lack many of the finer graces and are prone to put on airs. The worst for this are those who have just sold something and gold runs through their fingers like quicksilver.

Still they are artists, of a sort, and I hold that their art should be respected. Indeed I have done my bit to encourage painters, even descending to a practical level and actually working.

It happened like this. As with so much else I was younger then and perhaps less wise, or less cautious, than I am now. There is an inn a long day’s walk south of Port Naain called ‘Painting and Strong Ale.’ In the days of my youth the Landlady was perhaps more prone than most to airs and graces. Inn landladies in my experience tend to be practical to the point of pragmatism…

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Building communities.


That’s what the meeting was about, although that wasn’t the title, that’s what it did and that was what drove people to attend.

And I drove up from the south, through St John’s in the Vale on a gorgeous September morning; the sort that you never get many of. The photo shows winter, still beautiful, but today the two crags at the front were bathed in bright sunlight. Blencathra behind was almost lost in a golden haze as the early morning sun burned off the last of the mist. It looked like nothing as much as a Chinese landscape painting.

And later in the day, travelling home, the good folk of the Vale were hard at work. Travelling up I’d seen one field that looked as if it might just bale today, and yes, they were hard at it. A tractor that was older than me pulling a baler which had once had paint on it but was now uniformly rust. New equipment and old, boys barely out of school driving tractors that cost more a month on lease than a terraced house in Barrow, old men with rakes, cleaning up the corners for the baler.

And in a field that men were mowing before Christianity came to these islands, a young man is loading bales onto a trailer. His surname and his accent are Cumbrian but his eyes are the grey as the waters of the Vistula and at least one of his daughters will have the high cheekbones of his mother and the smile that captured his father’s heart. And his grandfather is buried in the churchyard a world away from the Polish home he left to fly a Hurricane. Communities absorb, they take the good and they make it their own.

And if the world keeps turning and we don’t let the political pygmies screw up too badly, in half a century’s time a chap in his sixties will turn and say to his son who has eyes as grey as his own, “Stop fretting, we’ve made good hay in September before.”

In some parts of the county we’re not building communities, we’re trying to make it possible for them to survive, help them negotiate the minefield of tick-boxes and departmental objectives. Someone has to temper the wind to the shorn lamb.

And the communities roll on, season following season, year following year. I saw a chap at a funeral one day and at an agricultural show the next. Our conversation drifted to the funeral and he commented that he’s got to the stage when he wonders whether he ought to start leaving a few notes as to what he wants for his funeral.

And he is right. On a wet Mothering Sunday the old lad will go to church with his daughter-in-law because his grandchildren are singing. He’s walked from a steading that was old when the Normans finally came to the valley and the church isn’t all that much younger. He feels the place in his bones, and when the Grandchildren put a posy on his late wife’s grave he turns to his daughter and says, “And when my time comes, put me in there with her.”

And on a glorious day a month later, when his son takes him up onto the fell on the quad (one of the dogs being forced to run alongside to make room for the old man) and the ewes are looking well and the grass is growing and the lambs are bright, inquisitive and without fear; he breathes deeply and the world he loves floods over him. And when his son stops the quad and they look round, the old man says, “You know, when my time comes, cremate me and have my ashes scattered up here.”

And may the Lord have mercy on the clergyman who has to untangle that little lot!
But the cycle continues; the funeral with its grief and shared memories and meeting with old friends on the edge of an open grave. Then there’s the Baptism, bedlam in a small church, with those who know how to behave in church and those who’ve never darkened the doorstep before.

And if the vicar knows his job a young couple looking a bit serious because he’s explained just what’s going on and what they’re swearing to do, and asked them whether they really want to make that sort of commitment.

It’s funny really, at baptisms and funerals they sit in their cars, or they cluster outside the porch in the drizzle, waiting for enough of them to arrive so they can screw up enough courage to enter the church. A dangerous place where you might have to be silent, or even think.

And the wedding, which shouldn’t be sombre but sometimes is as women who were once girls and men who were once lads look down the aisle and the years fall away and they wonder. And the bride, wearing white as she marries the lad she has lived with for three years. But she’s right because today is a day where commitment means more than the technicalities of biology and the first time down the aisle is not a road you can walk twice, however often you marry.

And in spite of ourselves, we keep the show on the road somehow, knitting together somehow the threads that make the community and hold it together.


There again, what do I know? Check with somebody who does

As a reviewer commented, “I always enjoy Jim’s farming stories, as he has a way of telling a tale that is entertaining but informative at the same time. I’ve learned a lot about sheep while reading this book, and always wondered how on earth a sheepdog learns to do what it does – but I know now that a new dog will learn from an old one. There were a few chuckles too, particularly at how Jim dealt with unwanted salespeople. There were a couple of shocks regarding how the price of cattle has decreased over the years, and also sadly how the number of UK dairy farms has dropped from 196,000 in 1950 to about 10,000 now.
Jim has spent his whole life farming and has acquired a wealth of knowledge, some of which he shares in this delightful book.”

We’re the masters now.

You know what they say, “Always be careful whose fingers you tread on as you climb up the ladder. They may be attached to the backsides you’ll have to kiss on the way down.”

American citizens look away now, a lot of this stuff is European and I’m not sure you’ll like it anyway.

You see, I’m a big supporter of democracy. Whatever collection of incompetent monkeys the people in their madness elect is the government. No whinging, no slagging them off with supposedly witty internet memes, period.


But democracy is not without its problems. Democracy can ride roughshod over the interests of real people who happen to be in a minority. This is especially true if that minority is unpopular, misunderstood or merely unfashionable.

You can get situations where one interest group has a virtually guaranteed majority. In these circumstances it seems to be very difficult for the majority not to use this to disadvantage, disenfranchise, or even actively oppress the minority.

And so here we come to the human rights acts. As far as I can make out, you can be a known terrorist and multiple rapist with a penchant for brutal honour killings who entered this country illegally, but because your ex-girlfriend’s grandmother’s cat was conceived in Peckham or something along those lines, kicking you out would be against your human rights.  Or something like that anyway. Doubtless I exaggerate for comic effect but some of the real cases seem nearly as bizarre.

And I think the human rights act needs serious work to make it fit for purpose. But thanks to our Glorious American Allies, I’ve finally realised that it needs work, not scrapping.

Now there’s clerk in Kentucky who’s in jail because they couldn’t sack her seeing as how she’s an elected official who felt that her beliefs wouldn’t allow her to do something. Strangely enough we’ve had a similar sort of situation in the UK and eventually, after various court cases, it’s been decided that, fair enough, if that’s what you really believe, someone else in the department who doesn’t mind will do that stuff, and you’ll do the other stuff that’s never given you a problem.

But what has surprised me was not the case itself, US law is US law, and it’s different to ours. Also they elect clerks where we merely hire them. The individual involved is a person I’ve never met, I haven’t a clue whether I’d like her or find myself diving down side streets to avoid her when I saw her coming.

But that doesn’t matter, people’s rights don’t depend on whether I like or approve of them.

But what struck me first was the way this woman was ‘monstered.’ I saw this and sat waiting in anticipation for the vitriolic feminist backlash as the sisterhood piled in to defend a woman attacked for her appearance or her supposed sexuality. I’m still waiting.

But what also struck me was hearing Americans who call themselves Liberals stating that the will of the state overrides the individual conscience of the citizen and if the citizen doesn’t like it, tough, put up with it.

Hang on a minute, why was it the Founding Fathers left England again? What was it they believed?

Indeed I’m almost tempted to check there were Americans at Nuremburg where Nuremberg Principle IV states “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”

So if you have a moral choice, you may find yourself refusing to obey the orders of a government. So unless the American government is refusing to allow moral choice (sticking people in prison is probably getting close to this) then obeying a law which you cannot, in all conscience accept, is your duty.

I don’t want to get into detail of the Kentucky case, but if the individual was elected, then the obvious thing would be to wait until the next election and have the electorate solve your problem for you. The only trouble with this approach is where you suspect that actually the person is merely doing what their voters want and they could just re-elect her.

But the real surprise is that these people don’t appear to have any grasp of history. We have human rights for all sorts of reasons. Some are highfaluting and ethical; some are because they make us feel good. But when it boils down to it we have them because, at some point, we as individuals might need them. One unexpected election result and three unexpected deaths of Supreme Court judges and who is then throwing who into jail because they’re not obeying the legitimate orders of the state?

You might not like people, you might not agree with people, but you don’t monster them and you don’t slag them off or allow the state to dispose of them.

[As an aside, for details of the UK situation, the female registrar who wouldn’t conduct gay weddings and was sacked. She appealed to the court and was reinstated, they had to give her her job back.

Then we had the case of the cake shop in Northern Ireland where the owners refused to produce a cake decorated with slogans promoting gay marriage. They were fined and went through the courts. Actually thoughtful gay activists supported the family bakery, pointing out that the court judgement meant that somebody could go into a cake shop owned by an Islamic owner and demand they produced a cake covered with slogans damning the prophet.

We have to protect the rights of people we don’t agree with. ]


As  Martin Niemoller wrote:

“When Hitler attacked the Jews I was not a Jew, therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then, Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church — and there was nobody left to be concerned.”


There again what do I know?

The fourth of these collections of anecdotes, rants, pious maunderings and general observations on life. Yes we have dogs, quads, sheep and cattle, but in this one we follow the ‘lambing year.’ It starts with ewes being put to the tup in late autumn and finishes in summer with the last of the laggards lambing.
But as well as this we have endless rain, as well as sleeping in a manger. Be brave and you’ll meet young ladies in high heeled cowboy boots, Sir John Moore of Corunna, brassieres for cows, and, incidentally, David Essex.

As a reviewer commented, “Yet another quiet, but highly entertaining, amble through Jim Webster’s farming life, accompanied by Sal, his collie extraordinarie.
Sheep, cattle, government eccentricities and wry observations are all included.”