Friday, 31 January 2003

Gladstone, the dawn chorus ...

Listening to:

Brahms, piano concerto #2.

Just read:

Roy Jenkins, Gladstone.

This is a big fat biography of one the 19th century’s pre-eminent statesmen. Gladstone was Prime Minister four times, and came to dominate the British political scene for roughly 30 years, from the 1860s to the 1890s. He left Parliament just four years before he died, in his late eighties, and began his Parliamentary career in his early thirties. If Tony Blair were to do as well, he’d still be with us in 2020. The fact that this seems so inconceivable is perhaps a comment about modern age-ism more than anything else.

Jenkins is (was) a politician of the late 20th century, so it’s not surprising that his biography should concentrate on Gladstone as a politician. We don’t, for example, hear much about his relationship with his wife, nor what he liked to eat for breakfast (though there is a very interesting discussion about 19th century meal habits in general, dealing with, for example, how “lunch” gained its modern status as a meal of the day). On the other hand, Jenkins does describe many aspects of Gladstone’s more public life. In addition to his political career, Gladstone had a very busy life in other areas. He read approximately 20000 books, and wrote journal articles and books on a variety of often non-political subjects. Jenkins describes a number of occasions when one might have expected Gladstone to be giving all this time to political work (the night before presenting the Budget, for example), but when Gladstone took time off this to write poetry reviews and the like.

I had high hopes for this biography, and on the whole they were not disappointed. I found much of it quite fascinating. Jenkins is not stylistically perfect, and there were times when I couldn’t help but wonder if he was attempting to imitate Gladstone’s supposedly tortuous prose style. He also refuses to provide translations for his Latin quotations. Again this mirrors an aspect of Gladstone’s life: Jenkins has it that Gladstone was only comfortable with those politicians that shared a similar classical education, and with whom he could exchange Latin and Greek quotations. But these are relatively minor points. The biography brings a very interesting political period to life, and does it well. Parts I found particularly interesting were the discussion of Gladstone’s (increasingly bad) relations with Queen Victoria, his diary habits, and introductions to other significant people of the period (Disraeli, Palmerston, Peel, Parnell). For all his failings, Gladstone also comes across as quite a sympathetic subject, and this always helps.

It was 39°C yesterday, the hot wind gusted at up to 70km/h, and smoke from distant bush-fires filled the sky. Today it will reach a maximum of 26°, the breeze is cool and refreshing, and the sky is blue. Changeable Canberra!

One aspect of Canberra life that is novel to me is the large numbers of large birds around. In particular, there are lots of magpies, cockatoos and galahs (pink and grey parrots) about. They make an enormous noise as the Sun comes up. I wondered why the dawn chorus happens at all, and the Web came to my aid with this article, which is about why the different bird species in the chorus start at different times, but also says that it happens to make territorial claims and to attract mates.

A couple of links:

  • A web-collage, a constantly updating page of images randomly grabbed from the web. It occasionally features images that are probably not suitable for children, but it's usually just a strange and varied window on the world. (You can click on the images to find out where they came from.)
  • Stylish cartoons/art-pieces on the back of business cards.