Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Upside of the Downturn

Ever since I was a financial journalist in the early eighties I have watched in wonder as, every few years, a new oligarchy is formed around the conviction that a novel win-win way has been found of beating the markets. From Jim Slater to Michael Milken and the Web 1.0 entrepreneurs, they have come, made and/or lost their money and gone. Any theory that claims to beat the markets over anything but the short term must be wrong, but, of course, the theorists, if they are smart, always get out before their particular delusion is exposed. Perhaps now is the time for the latest oligarchs - private equity, hedge fund, meta-market operators - to pack their tents and retire to the tax haven with the best beaches. Disapproval of their activities is mounting. In America Warren Buffett and in Britain Sir Ronald Cohen have broken ranks with the super-rich to say they should be properly taxed. And, meanwhile, the Bank of International Settlements has warned of a possible crash - each previous big downturn, says the bank 'was preceded by a period of non-inflationary growth exuberant enough to lead many commentators to suggest that a 'new era' had arrived.' As Chancellor Gordon Brown earned massive political capital from this present phase. But, if the BIS is even half right, as Prime Minister he will be mortgaged up to his alarming eyebrows. It will, of course, be very painful for the not-so-super-rich, but at least I should be able to eat at the Mirabelle again.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


On the historic day of the Blair-Brown handover, only one subject need concern us - the weather. There has, after all, been a lot of it lately - and it's in a foul mood, giving us a sharp, salutary reminder of just how feeble our human grip on the planet really is.
Weather is too easily dismissed as of little significance - the smallest small change of phatic communion, that without which the English would have nothing to say to each other. But, even in less extreme modes than at present, the weather has huge and deep effects on us, effects that seem to go beyond the merely physical. How we feel 'in ourselves' is greatly affected by the weather - from the various states of headachey gloom and apprehension that go with thundery weather to the euphoria of sunshine after days of cloud. Personally, I'm affected by the west wind, which makes me feel vaguely mad and (yet further) dissociated from reality. Others find an east wind bleakly depressing (this probably explains Cambridge). The terrible seasonal winds of the Mediterranean region drive people literally mad and render them incapable of functioning. And so it goes on - and that's just winds. The weather is us, it is inside us - even in our air-conditioned windowless boxes, it still affects us. To 'change the weather', in that useful phrase, is to change everything . Which, of course, Brown won't.

Ponder Post 6

CaptainB's characteristically in depth comment on my Dick Cheney post reminds me of a question I have been meaning to ask you to ponder for some time. The Captain speaks of the Republican Fred Thompson as a 'true conservative' as opposed to those currently in charge. This is an important point. The two right wing movements of the last thirty years have both been anti-conservative. Neo-liberalism's glorification of the market subverted community, locality, custom and tradition. Neo-conservatism's rabid idealism is an affront to the anti-idealistic pragmatism of old conservatism. Thus 'right wing' and 'conservative' can no longer be regarded as synonyms. In fact, they never should have been. It was commonplace for late Victorians and Edwardians to regard socialism as a conservative movement. And G.K.Chesterton defined his own high Toryism as the support of the working man against vested interests. It was probably when the Russian revolution polarised political debate that the idea of conservatism as an anti-working class movement was born. Conservatism is not a matter of any specific policies, but rather it is an attitude defined by realism and a reverence for custom and tradition. Both of these can be pursued through policies that might, in the sloppy terminology of contemporary political coverage, be called either 'left-wing' or 'right wing'. So the ponder is: where are the true conservatives now that we really need them? I'm guessing Gordon Brown, marinated as he is in neocon moral thought, is not the answer.

Birdsong - Be Amazed

A small treat for bird lovers (especially those who missed Why Birds Sing) - play this clip and be amazed...

The Mystery of Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney has become the focus for discontent with the Bush administration. The Washington Post is running a four-part series on Cheney as the sinister mastermind behind the legitimation of torture, the advocacy of war on Iran, the subversion of the science of global warming and the destruction of America's moral authority.  Meanwhile, he has started a complex constitutional row about the exact status of the vice-president. Plans are now being laid - by both Democrats and Republicans to get rid of Cheney. For many, perhaps most, people, both in America and the world, he has become the supreme  symbol of the cynical and destructive abuse of power, a man apparently dedicated to the cause of engaging the US in a perpetual war on multiple global and domestic fronts. I don't know whether any of this is fair, though I do find myself mystified by Cheney - rather as I was by Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton. There is about all these men a kind of vacuous defiance that seems to derive energy from strategic and political mayhem. Rumsfeld was incompetent and Bolton is a clown. What, then, is Cheney? He is not likely to be proved right about anything in his own lifetime, nor, probably, in anybody else's. The default justification at the moment seems to be that America has not been attacked since 9/11, but that, of course, leaves out the steady killing of US troops in Iraq. Cheney, I think, can only be vindicated by an Israelification of the American imagination. By persuading Americans that they are destined, perhaps for many generations, to fight this diffuse and costly war without any realistic hope of victory, he could create an Israel-like sense of national destiny. But even this project seems to have gone into reverse and, anyway, it is plainly impossible. Perhaps the grim reality is that Cheney is right, but, even if he is, he seems to be doing a desperately bad job of convincing anybody. So what is the grand plan behind all this? Is he right? I really want to know.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ponder Post 5

From Norfolk. Water. Why?

Science and Religion - It's getting out of hand

Visiting my local Waterstones just now - something I don't often do, being an inveterate web buyer - I was met a by a stand piled high with recently published volumes under the blazing headline, 'Science v Religion', with an exhortation to all of us to take our sides in the 'great debate'. Bryan, it's all your fault - look what this blog has unleashed...
Meanwhille, I note that Brown has a two-word mission statement - 'Progressive consensus'. Am I alone in feeling a chill run down my spine?

They Might Be Giants

Mark's mention of the fossilised giant penguin in his comment under Web Utopians - that's what I call lateral thinking - inspires me to put in word for this beauty. I particularly like the sound of the Megatherium Club at the Smithsonian, whose members devoted their days to research and their nights to revelry, aided by 'ale, oysters and eggnog'. That's the spirit!

On Web Utopians

So I had my two debates yesterday - on Radio 4 and at the ICA - with Andrew Keen. The radio one was, according to Simon Collister, 'a most depressing piece of listening' and, Collister adds, Keen thinks in 'a stupid, stunted, snobbish and condescending fashion'. At the ICA, the questions from the audience, with a couple of exceptions, were very hostile. Disagreement is one thing, outright hostility another. So why does Keen provoke the latter rather than the former? His broad argument is that Web 2.0 is destroying mainstream media and all systems of authority and replacing them with clamorous amateurism and vacuous self-promotion.  One cannot argue that these things are happening, but one can argue - as I did at the ICA - that Keen is massively overstating his case, that he takes too seriously the frequently rather thick boosters of Web 2.0 and that we are merely in a transitional stage after which the mania and mayhem surrounding Web 2.0 will subside. But, as I said in my previous post, the hostility comes, in part, because webbies have so closely identified themselves with new web technologies that they take any dissent as a personal insult. But also, I realised at the ICA, we are dealing here with utopians. This refers back to my assessment of John Gray. Utopianism is a recurrent delusion based on the idea - patently false to any rational observer - that history tells a story with a happy ending. Its persistence and ubiquity are astonishing. Every few years, for example, utopianism infects financial markets with the conviction that the secret of perpetual economic growth has been discovered or that some new way of outwitting the markets has been revealed to the initiated. Many hedge funders and private equity zealots are currently gripped by this delusion. Utopianism invariably accompanies new technologies. Perhaps because of the disappointments of Web 1.0, we now have a particularly bad case of the delusion associated with Web 2.0. Utopians are contemptuous of those who dissent from their vision. Quite often, like Lenin, they kill them, justifying the crime as  a necessary removal of all hindrances to a brighter future for mankind. Perhaps the web zealots won't go that far, but the contempt with which they respond to any questioning of their faith is a sure sign that they have been infected by a belief system more bizarre and implausible than anything dreamed up by orthodox religion.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Hail John Shepherd-Barron!

Time to remember this man. His invention - the cashpoint or ATM - is 40 years old this week, and where would we be without it? Queuing up in banks, I suppose, than which few experiences are more mind-numbingly dejecting. The first public use of a British cashpoint, be it noted, was entrusted to this unaccountably popular comedian of the day.
Shepherd-Barron's brainwave came to him in the bath - it does happen. It was his wife who scotched his original idea of a 6-figure PIN, pointing out that 4 would be more than enough. He now has the great satisfaction, when struggling to work an ATM, of exclaiming 'I should be able to use one of these things - I invented them!' Their days are numbered, he (and not he alone) reckons, as mobile phone technology will take over. Unfortunately he hasn't worked out how to use a mobile yet...

Ponder Post 4

Many people have remarked that this blog's interest in breakfast is crucial to its enduring popularity. We do seem to keep returning to the subject, most controversially with my shattering post on steel-cut oats. And today, I notice, my most popular post is XXX Shreddies XXX from April 27th, a thoughtful assessment of the idea of the adult cereal. So today the ponder is: what is it about breakfast?

Yo Blair?

Last night, while trying to still my racing heart after the high excitement of the Brown-Harman enthronement, I chanced on an interesting little programme on Radio 4's Westminster Hour - part one, in fact, of Great Political Myths, by Simon Hoggart (you can listen again via the excellent website). The gist was that Bush,in that notorious overheard exchange at the St Pertersburg summit, never said to Blair 'Yo Blair'. He simply said 'Yeah Blair' - a very different kettle of fish, with none of the implied hauteur and dismissiveness. However, 'Yo Blair' corresponded so perfectly to the perceived 'inner truth' of the Blair-Bush poodle-master relationship that the word was heard as 'Yo', transcribed as 'Yo' and subesequently entrenched as recorded fact as'Yo'. Easy to see how this happened (as it has done with many another non-quote that has entered the language for similar reasons) - but you might wonder why it was never denied. Probably, one hopes, because it would have been just too darned silly.

A Debate Between Elitist, Luddite Baby Roasters

I am posting in haste. I have to go to White City to appear on Radio 4's Today programme to talk to Andrew Keen about his book. This is slightly awkward as I shall be doing exactly the same thing this evening at the ICA. I think I shall be pro- this morning and anti- this evening. Though I have reservations about Keen's arguments - basically that the internet in its Web 2.0 incarnation is destroying culture - I don't take it personally. Web geeks do, however. Any suggestion that new web technologies are anything less than the harbingers of heaven on earth is greeted with howls of abuse and accusations of elitism, luddism, baby-roasting etc. This is, I suppose, because geeks 2.0 have, in their imaginations, become one with the web. Insult the web and you insult them. In time, their pale, meat bodies will fade away and they will become their Facebook profiles, immune and immortal. Anyway, as I said, this is in haste, but at least, thanks to Web 2.0, I can leave you with this - wonderful film title sequence.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

My Life as a Juggler

Fantastic vid over at Elberry's Lumber Room. He says it's me. I wish. 

A Trying Week

A trying week lies ahead for me. I have to find the right words with which to turn down the dukedom offered me in the Blair Resignation Honours List. Then I have to avoid being disappeared by Brown's VAT goons when they knock on my door at midnight. Meanwhile, everybody is going to be discussing politics and saying what a bold move it was to give Hazel Harman the job vacated by Hilary Prescott, just when we thought it would go to Jack Balls. Having watched our new Prime Minister being fairly well grilled on Newsnight, most of my suspicions have been confirmed. He had clearly been coached not to boil over with rancorous, Prestbyterian contempt at any hint of criticism, but when Evan Davis pointed out he always raised taxes after elections, usually in violation of manifesto promises, he did show signs of turning green, bursting out of his suit and trashing the studio. Also why, having got him to say he apologised for the miserable ineptitude of the handling of post-war Iraq, did John Simpson and the others fail to ask him what, exactly, he was apologising for? Was it the catastrophic American sacking of the entire Iraqi army? Yes or no, Gordon? Anyway, I now understand why it is so hard to follow what he is saying. He was plainly a foundling brought up by the Amazonian Piraha tribe. Research into the language used by these people suggests Naom Chomsky's idea of universal grammar may be wrong. They call any language other than their own 'crooked head'. Come to think of it, this may also explain Amanda. How could we crooked headers hope to understand this? Anyway, if blogging suddenly stops, you'll know either Brown's boys have got me or I have reluctantly agreed to take over the sadly delapidated Duchy of Dollis Hill.

John Gray

I write about a good friend in The Sunday Times - John Gray. Not to be mistaken with the guy who wrote Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, this John Gray is one of the great thinkers of our time, a true sceptic, and the man who invented memes long before Richard Dawkins. The difference is that Gray's memes - 'ergonemes' - were a joke - 'something as far away from genuine science as possible, something akin to creationism or alchemy.'

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Iggy and the Spice Girls

Iggy Pop on the Jonathan Ross show last night... What was that about? A grotesque old man stripped to the waist, attempting to perform the same schtick as 40 years ago, and looking more like one of the Tennants-drinking, outdoor-living 'characters' on a sink estate. Even if he'd managed to pull it off, IT WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN THE SAME. That was then, this is now (same river twice, etc). Rock musicians and their audiences seem incapable of grasping this point - blinded, respectively, by fame and money, and by nostalgia. The much-hyped Velvet Underground reunion concert a while back was a case in point - bored, metronomic, only-here-for-the-money-and-adulation performances, hailed as a blow-you-away historic event, genius reborn, etc, etc.
Still - it's good to hear the Spice Girls are re-forming. That's more like it.

Nature Notes

Calling all arachnophobes - these beauties are taking over. In my house, no other form of long-legged life survives (apart from myself - tho sometimes I wonder...). They have made short work of the (much larger)house spiders and much else, ruthlessly establishing an arachnid monoculture. And it's not just my house - it's happening all over the country apparently, and no one seems to know why. Let's hope it's nothing personal...

Do Not Stand Up to the French

Sublime headline in the Guardian. Blair's final humiliation is to be told by Brown to stand up to the French. Does he not realise what happens when you stand up to the French? Sex, if not something much worse.

Gossip God Gagged

Here's a weird thing. I was talking to web gossip god Perez Hilton for half an hour last night. He was in a car a in New York and muttering darkly about people trying to shut him down. I get up this morning to discover they have succeeded. Or have they? The site still seems to come up and, of course, where would we be without it?

Ponder Post 3

Has any reader ever used one of these things? I don't believe the no-hangover claim. Hangovers happen, it is the way of things and I can't see any reason why inhaling alcohol should make any difference. Yet the Christian Action League of North Carolina - motto 'Somebody really should do something' - has persuaded the state to ban the inhalers precisely because they don't cause hangovers. Plainly the hangover is seen as God's way of telling us not to drink quite so much. Unfettered by the morning after, all humans, not just students at provincial universities, would vomit, shriek and wreck town centres. People who claim not to have hangovers are usually exceptionally enthusiastic drinkers - ie journalists. Keith Waterhouse used to claim this, but then he gave up drinking for a week and realised he'd had a hangover for 38 years. The physiological impact of alcohol - inhaled or drunk - is unavoidable. But even if it had no such impact, I suspect the hangover would still happen. Getting out of your head necessarily mean you have to get back in. That is the real hangover. Anyway, this leads effortlessly to a another Ponder Post. How different would the world be without hangovers?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Ponder Post 2

After the sensational, global success of my Ponder Post 1, I have decided to cash in at once with Ponder Post 2. I have been mulling over a few possibles - Why Canada? How many roads must a man walk down? Is it better abort than be barren (thanks to Samuel Beckett)? Feel free to present your musings on these subsidiary matters. But the primary matter to be pondered on this occasion is: what, exactly, does the word 'like' mean when used, apparently randomly, by girls aged between 13 and 25? Or boys, I suppose, but with them it's often hard to be sure the word they are using is actually 'like'. 

Song Of The Decade

News reaches me that BBC Radio 5 Live's discerning listeners have voted Verve's Bittersweet Symphony the song that best sums up the Blair decade (worse, Robbie Williams' Angels was 2nd). Come on, bloggers - what's the real song of the Blair decade?

The Existential Fight - Eh?

The European Union is a subject too depressing to ponder for long, but today I caught some politiclal hack and Euro-plugger on the radio - Roger Liddle, I think he's called - talking about Blair's 'failure' to get us to sign up for the Euro, the 'ever closer union' and the whole shebang. Early in his premiership, said Liddle, Blair missed his opportunity for the 'existential fight' that would have settled it. 'Existential'? If that means anything, it must be something to do with our existence - as a soveriegn nation perhaps? However, as this is Eurospeak, total meaningless is the likelier option.
Meanwhile, a bracing blast of fresh air from over the Polish border has caused a mighty kerfuffle. It demonstrates all too clearly that the Poles haven't quite got the hang of Eurospeak, and, by extension, haven't a clue what they've let themselves in for. Oh well...

One-Liner - Plus, Free With This Post, More Giant Birds.

Here's a one-liner to make you ponder - though in my case it reduced me to helpless laughter when I saw it. Passing a parked coach, I noticed the company had a new slogan. Thus: 'Banstead Coaches. Moving in the right direction'.
Forgive me, but this surely is less a mission statement than a sine qua non of coach travel. If you were to board a coach for, say, Brighton and the driver, with a cheery cry of 'All aboard', engaged reverse gear and set course for Hatfiled and the North, you would have reason to feel the company hadn't quite got the hang of things. Maybe there are such companies, and Banstead Coaches is subtly wooing them with its new slogan - you never know these days...
Meanwhile, another Giant Bird alert is in order. And these beauties are BIIIIG!. They have, I believe, the widest wingspan of any British bird. You have been warned.

Ponder Post 1

Inspired by Samizdata's discussion points which consist of one-line posts intended to provoke deep thought - and, in particular, by this one - I have decided to steal the idea with a series of Ponder Posts. I shall begin with an easy one - what is the meaning of life?

Burchill to Seek God

So Julie Burchill is to leave journalism to spend more time with her theology. It's a pity, she made me laugh, she was consolingly weird and she was, in spite of everything, a good thing, as I tried to explain in the New Statesman in 1998.

Blog on, Blog on, Voltaire, Rousseau (Blake)

Thought Experiments ('That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented blog.' Yeats) was intended to play with imaginary possibilities, what ifs. I have not done much of this lately. Stricken with guilt, I now return to my roots. What if melting icebergs promoted phytoplankton blooms that absorbed carbon dioxide and thus helped prevent global warming, the phenomenon that caused more melting icebergs in the first place? Oh, hang on, they do. Okay, what if obese people, though more likely to suffer heart attacks, were better able to survive than people of average weight? Oh, hang on, they are. Reality manufactures its own what ifs without any assistance from this blog ('On Thought Experiments/I can connect/Nothing with nothing.' Eliot). Information is paradox.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Floreat Latvia

Good news from Latvia, a fine, proud nation, whose capital, Riga, has fallen prey to hordes of our least desirable male exports, indulging in the ghastly practice of the 'stag weekend'. Appalled by all this, the Latvians are taking action. And note that they are addressing this campaign to themselves, not adopting the whingeing victim posture that another city might - Liverpool, say (tho on the streets of that fair city no one would notice an invasion of rampaging stag weekenders...)

Birdsong 2

Again I find myself trespassing on Nige's ornithological territory, but, hey, I started this blog. I saw Why Birds Sing, a BBC4 documentary last night. This opposed the ideas of David Rothenberg - birdsong has something to do with beauty - to those of some rather bone-headed scientists - it is the result of sexual selection and a system of territorial marking. Rothenberg was sentimentally anthropomorphic and didn't really seem to know what he thought, but the scientists were worse because they failed to understand the limitations of their answers. Sexual selection may cause birds to do something but it does not explain why they do this. Even if we could show the production of sounds makes sense as a strategy, this would not explain the production of such extravagant sounds. 
Why do humans compose symphonies? Only a fool would be satisfied with the answer 'sexual selection'. The causal threads between the desire for a mate and an orchestral work in three movements have patently snapped long ago. What is true of symphonies is also true - though possibly to a lesser extent - of birdsong. 
Causality, even in the most basic scientific analysis, is seldom quite what it seems. Nige quoted Wallace Stevens in the comment to his Birdsong post - 'I am content when wakened birds, Before they fly, test the reality Of misty fields by their sweet questionings.' Raising oneself above the depraved Cartesianism of the boneheads, one can see from these exquisite words the possibility of an entirely new interpretation - perhaps birdsong is an epistemological tool. But this would be beyond the boneheads because a great deal of contemporary science seems to derive its rhetorical energy not from admitting the presence of the unknown, but from denying its existence.
The climax of the documentary was the plucking of another scientist-rabbit from the hat. He, apparently, had found a brain response in singing birds analogous to the human pleasure response. I can't imagine a more blindingly predictable finding. That singing does produce a brain response is obvious, that it produces one that seems to indicate pleasure is almost equally obvious. 
All of which is to say, people used to talk intelligently about such matters, now they just lurch from one conceited category error to the next. What we should be saying to the birds is what Shelley said to the skylark - 'Teach me half the gladness That thy brain must know...' Birds effortlessly know what they like doing - sing. We should be so lucky.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Blair to Lead Mars Simulation

Blair has been in talks with the White House about becoming a Middle East envoy. I can reveal, however, that he has already accepted a much more demanding post. He is to head the team that will simulate a trip to Mars. Though he is over 50, he does not smoke, drink heavily or take illicit drugs and he definitely needs to get away. Cherie is said to be incandescent.

Set Fire to the Sea

Is this true? We can burn salt water with radio waves. Why is the world not already a different place? And, if it works, what would we use to put out the fire?

Amanda: And...

... as I am experimenting with short, frequent posts for a day, this is more or less essential reading. Amanda is on top form and is leaving Jeff standing, definitely one for the anthologies.

'How could you possibly begrudge a kid an opportunity to show her mom that she appreciates how hard it is to raise you in an environment where the mere act of doing so makes you one of the top five favorite boogeymen scapegoats of the conservative punditry?'

How indeed?

A World without Archer, Marcotte and Hilton

Am I the last to know about Citizendium? It was started by Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, in an attempt to get away from the loonies masquerading as experts who kept tinkering with entries. Citizendium is still user-written but applies 'gentle expert oversight'. Unfortunately, it is, for the moment, very limited. Jeffrey Archer is not in there and neither is Amanda Marcotte, nor, amazingly is Paris Hilton. Perhaps this means it is the best encyclopaedia out there, but, for the moment, I have taken out a subscription to the online Britannica.

Egg Outrage

Unlike Bryan with his Steel-Cut Oats, I'm not a breakfast man - but I cannot let the Egg Outrage pass unremarked. It's hard to know which is the more otiose here - the assumption that viewers would mistake a notalgic ad revival for the latest 'nutritional advice' from Our Masters, or the related assumption that, if they did, they would follow said advice. Well, that's the world we live in - guidelines, compliance, box-ticking, targets - anything but the free exercise of sound judgment. And it will get worse...
As for eggs, it's probably best to say no more - I have known conversations about eggs and their proper cooking prove frighteningly impassioned and mind-numbingly interminable.

I am to be Disappeared by the New Regime

My days are numbered. For me, the Brown years have already begun and I expect a midnight knock on the door. Four Brown shirts will then escort me to a Ford Falcon and I shall be subjected to four days of torture in Essex after which, heavily drugged, I shall be dropped from a helicopter into the Thames Estuary. I say this because yesterday I was mysteriously harassed by HM Revenue and Customs. A lady so thick she had to be some kind of cover called me on my mobile and insisted I must be Andrew somebody or other. She asked me three times the name of my company and three times I told her I was self-employed. She repeatedly insisted I had left a message at HMRC, I told her I had never called them in my life. 'You do not even know who I am,' I said. She rifled noisily through some files; I whiled away my time composing a verse epic and a couple of novels. She concluded that, indeed, she did not know who I was. 'What is your VAT number?' 'You have heard of identity theft, I assume? I don't give any details to total strangers.' 'But,' she wailed, 'I am trying to arrange VAT inspection visits and I have a big pile of files on my desk.' 'But I am not in there, so there is no point in continuing this conversation is there?' 'Hmmmm, eerrrr, weeeelll, no.' 'Goodbye.' In Brownland this cannot go unpunished.

Manchester City: The Massage Club

With the body of the QE2 still warm, the gods are now mocking my lifelong loyalty to Manchester City. First, Joey Barton - the footballer who talked sense - leaves and now the club is to become some sort of Thai-Swedish operation. At least the massages will be good. But it's not right and the prospect of Sven delivering his solemn post-match homilies is unbearable. It is, I think, time I turned away from the team that taught me all I know about suffering. But, in the vulgar wasteland of the Premiership, what are the alternatives?

Coulrophobia 4: The Sicilian Connection

As I have reported no less than three times before, coulrophobia is a dangerous and rapidly spreading plague. Even I am a martyr to the condition. In the context of this epidemic, one can only admire the cruel, Sicilian genius that inspired a Mafia boss to name himself Joey 'The Clown' Lombardo. He only has to introduce himself to render ever larger sections of the population insensate with terror.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Free British Birds Poster With This Blog

The blog silence surrounding the vexed (or vexing) question of the Salman Rushdie knighthood is entirely understandable, in every way, and a fine thing. The award is a mysterium profundum, of which the less said the better. But does anyone remember a rather fine shaggy dog story I once heard, about a friendly, poetry-writing salmon called Rusty who was inspired by the wreck of the Titanic? The punchline, inevitably, was 'Surely you've heard of Salmon Rusty's Titanic Verses'... Superb. Oddly it wasn't mentioned in the Pakistan parliament yesterday.

Free DVD With This Post!!!

Having risen consistently throughout my first blogging year, traffic on this site has been on a plateau for three months. It is far higher than I ever imagined it could be, but this is not good enough. I am a junkie, I need hits. I am considering, therefore, a series of tabloidesque, circulation-grabbing devices. The amazing Frank Harris when editing the Evening News said readers wanted 'kissing and fighting.' There was also a joke about every story needing religion, sex, celebrity and mystery. Thus the perfect story was, ''My God,' said the Duchess, 'I'm pregnant. Who dunnit?'' Free DVDs that nobody ever wanted to watch in the first place seem to be the current solution for declining newspaper sales, but it's not working and, anyway, I don't think I can be bothered. I don't have any staggering revelations about Princess Diana and Big Brother seems to be adequately covered elsewhere. I don't go to the right parties so kissing and fighting are beyond me. I do religion and celebrity, but the former too seriously and the latter too flippantly. I don't like to rant because I have few fixed opinions - probably, in fact, none. Politicians I've never heard of - and most I have - bore me rigid. My only message to the world is taken from Hill Street Blues - 'Hey, let's be careful out there!' - and I am widely, though wrongly, regarded as having the world view of Marvin the Paranoid Android - 'I think you ought to know I'm very depressed.' My deepest interests, meanwhile, have all the circulation-grabbing power of a fire at the print works. I am stymied. The plateau - 'There ain't nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop/ And an illustrated book about birds.' - is where I must belong. But, at least, the company consists of none but the best and brightest.

Death of a Great Comedy Ship

So it's all over for the QE2. She is to be turned into a floating hotel in Dubai. Almost exactly twenty years ago, I sailed on the QE2. It was the maiden voyage after a big refit and nothing worked. Not knowing there were a bunch of hacks on board who had agreed not to file the increasingly wild stories, I blithely filed to The Times tales of floods, angry Americans and general chaos. This made me fantastically unpopular with Cunard and with the hacks, who suddenly had to work, and fantastically popular with The Times, the passengers I named who instantly got their money back and news organisations from around the world. Finally, it also made me popular with the crew. Things were so bad, Cunard had agreed to give them bonuses to persuade them to stay with the ship. Old American widows started rushing up to me and whispering, 'Flood in room 2012, Mr Appleyard.' 'Eeez it ze fault of ze sheepyard, Mr Appleyard?' a Hamburg radio station inquired. 'Ja,' I replied. 'How bad is it, Bryan?' asked The World at One. 'Pretty bad, Gordon, pretty bad.' Staggering off the ship in New York, I was confronted by a line of hacks. 'Is it true about the sniper in First Class?' 'Yes.' But then I admitted I was a journalist. 'From The Times?' 'Yes.' They embraced me. 'Best story of the week.' My stuff had gone round the world. It remains my funniest memory in journalism and I still occasionally wonder what happened to Cap'n Larry.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Irresistible Tenordom

This is rather cheering. A portly chap called Paul Potts, endowed with absolutely none of the requisites of stardom, but, like Leonard Cohen, 'born with the gift of a golden voice', wins Britain's Got Talent (a TV contest modelled on America's Got Talent). His voice (unlike old Len's) is a powerful tenor, and all he had to do was belt out Nessun Dorma. The biggest, boldest, most potent expression of irresistible tenordom - it never fails. There was nothing else he could have done that would have won him the contest. And now this touching latest on Paul Potts. I hope he enjoys his moment, maybe even makes a career - he seems a nice man, ravaged with self-doubt and beset by misfortune. No doubt the reptiles of showbiz and the gutter press are all over him like a rash. Let's hope he survives, strengthened in every way - and with better teeth.

Giant Birds 2

Once again, Bryan puts his finger on an important and puzzling phenomenon of our times. This giantism among the bird population - and only among the bird population - is perhaps most strikingly demonstrated by the reintroduced Red Kites(mentioned in my post 'More Nige Birds')that fly casually, and terrifyingly hugely, around the paddocks and suburban streets of Bucks. Like wood pigeons, pheasants are now so portly and overfed they can barely take to the air, and huge herons continue to spread alarm wherever there's a 'water feature'. The Ring Necked Parakeet which is now taking over London is not only out of place and raucous but also out of scale. A lot of this, oddly, is down to the same factors that are supersizing sections of the human population - too much of everything, especially fast food and waste (and 'water features') - but it seems counter-intuitive. We expect things to loom larger in our childhood and dwindle as we grow older. With birds, in this generation, the reverse has happened, and the birds of our childhood seem dainty little things compared to what's flapping laboriously around now. We rarely saw a cormorant or heron, let alone a red kite. It also runs counter to ideas of all Nature being huddled defensively against the onslaughts of wicked Man. Large creatures, for obvious reasons, have a harder time staying alive, and are dependent on large supplies of food and human goodwill (i.e. not shooting them). Yes, we've made our country too cushy for these avian giants, we softhearted British, egged on by the likes of cuddly Bill Oddie and that extremely powerful charity, the RSPB. We have made a land fit for gigantic birds, if not for very much else. I blame myself.

Nukes for All

Left to their own devices and given a few nukes, Dick Cheney and John Bolton would turn France into an ash tray prior to handing out Halliburton 'reconstruction' projects, but will they persuade Bush to attack Iran? Latest assessments suggest the argument may be swinging their way. The prospect of this Iranian regime having nukes is terrifying. But, equally, America's ability to do anything about it has been severely diminished by the Iraq debacle. Furthermore, any nation potentially in dispute with the US must regard getting nukes as essential. (Or, indeed, any nation in dispute with Iran - if the Iranians build a nuke, the Saudis will not be far behind.) There would be no question of attacking a nuclear-armed Iran and North Korea doesn't exactly seem ripe for a Halliburton 'reconstruction'. Bone-headed neocon aggression has created a 'get a nuke, get a life' mentality across the world. But, ultimately, all of this merely distracts from the reality with which, either now or later, we will all have to cope - massive nuclear proliferation. Stopping Iran will make no difference to this. I have nothing useful to say about this other than: the human species being what it is, I find it hard to believe there will not be a nuclear war in my lifetime and impossible to believe there will not be one in the lifetime of my daughter.

Giant Birds

I would, of course, normally leave ornithological matters to Nige. With his post Birdsong, he firmly established himself as the W.H.Hudson of the net and I well remember the disordered day when I saw ring ouzels in his company in the Pentland Hills. (Or it could have been the Himalayas, it was a very disordered day.) However, I have one urgent bird issue I must raise. Why are they getting bigger? Here in Norfolk I daily see buzzards, egret, heron and barn owls in the field behind our house. And, a few days ago, I stood, frozen in shock, as a cormorant suddenly leapt out of the river barely six feet from where I was standing. It gave me what used to be called an 'old-fashioned' look. England is a land of small birds but these are big bastards and they will soon outnumber the small ones. Even the wood pigeons seem to be suffering from an attack of giantism. We know that squirrels are preparing an assault on the human empire, but is is possible they are in alliance with the birds? I think we should be told.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Coffee Conundrums

Here's another of the tiny mysteries that make urban life so puzzling... Such is my craven addiction to caffeine that I often buy espressos as I make my way from place to place. Every time - yes, every time - I ask for a 'small espresso', I am asked 'single or double?' What, I wonder, would a small double look like? Very like a single, I'll warrant. (There is a mini-me version of the single espresso known as a ristretto, but that's available only at, er, restricted outlets, so I doubt if that is in their minds.) Then, at a later stage, I'm very often asked if I want milk with it (a macchiato, in my book). The milk question is also prompted, 9 times out of 10, by a request for an Americano, which by its very nature is black. Milk - there's no getting away from the stuff...

How to Appear on Television

People hate me so I'm pretty sure I shall never be asked to take part in either Radio 4's Any Questions? or BBC One's Question Time. Nevertheless, while listening with mounting distaste to Roy Hattersley on the last Any Questions, I evolved a strategy in case, through some clerical error or momentary lapse of attention on my part, I ever find myself on either of these shows. Hattersley is the supreme politician in that he has no grasp of or concern for reality whatsoever. Confronted by an audience, he simply mouths crowd-pleasing platitudes. He is perfect for these shows because both have evolved into a mindless competition between the panellists to milk the most applause from the audience. 'We must do something about Palestine!' Applause. 'We are all guilty!' Applause, 'But especially the Americans!' Applause. Ecstasy. 'Peace and love. People should be nice!' Yeah! My strategy, therefore, is obvious. I would try to get through the whole programme without provoking any applause whatsoever. 'The Palestinian problem is utterly intractable.' Silence. 'Your guilt is of as much use and of as much interest as a speck of dust on the nose of a rat that died several hundred years ago in Croydon.' Deathly hush, one cough. 'The other panellists are just trying to make you clap.' Silence interrupted by nervous shuffling. 'Every opinion you ever held is wrong.' Silence interrupted by weeping.

And Speaking of Sleeping...

... I don't. Well, not much. Every night, for people like me, is a dragon to be slain. But, in fact, very few people sleep enough. Before the invention of the light bulb in 1879, humans slept 10 hours a night, now they sleep about 7.5 hours. Thanks a lot, Thomas Edison. The entire world is tired and tetchy. This explains phenomena like the National Sleep Foundation, nobody is getting enough and everybody wants more. But I have a solution, inspired by a very funny article in the FT by Lucy Kellaway. I am going to fill my basket at Dream Essentials, whose products, apparently, make one sleep with a big grin on your face. My plan is to get a Mindfold mask, a herbal body wrap, foot cozys, a SleepMate Sound Conditioner, a neck wrap and, best of all, a Snoozer Full Body Pillow. My lonely nights will now be soothed by the project of building, using just these products, a small and very comfortable  hovercraft.

Alastair Campbell and the Non-Blog

Alastair Campbell has a blog. Sorry, as you were, Alastair Campbell does not have a blog. One of the essential features of a blog is interaction, comments. But Big Al does not allow comments - well, he wouldn't, would he?This, therefore, is an announcement, a press release if you will, but it is not a blog. The style suggests I may have happened upon another Jeff or Amanda. Al is a rambler, never using ten words when he can uses a hundred. I have a particular dislike of this type of prose as it puts me to sleep. It is a strange failing for Al, a former tabloid hack. Perhaps he thinks it is good writing. Anyway, as a result of the sedative effect of his words, I can't report on anything he may have written, but I'm sure it's fantastically important.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Good News Day In The Arran Banner

On a day when a cricketer, not a footballer, got a knighthood - and a comic genius (Barry Humphries) got a CBE, there is also very wonderful news in The Arran Banner. I'm not quite sure why, but these stories always cheer me up. They're certainly a reminder of the astonishing, endless diversity of nature - and the impossibility of ever having the faintest idea how many species there are in existence.

Breakfast Crisis Averted

Choosing the right - in every sense - breakfast cereal is a daily crisis for us all. Do we go for virtue - Kellogg's 190 per cent Vindaloo Bran with senna pods and plum concentrate - or vice - Nestle's Frosted Chocolate Bacon Nuggets with butter and beef dripping? I have, finally found the solution. John McCann's Steel Cut Irish Oatmeal is so much more than just food, it is an education. The tin alone can keep you occupied for hours. This stuff won gold medals at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and at the International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. You will be relieved to hear that it won its Uniformity of Granulation certificate on 28th June 1894, approved by John Boyd Thacher of the Chicago Committee of Awards, and, of course, that it is 'steel cut'. The oats themselves are, naturally, 'the golden heart of Ireland'. This is not a cereal, it is an education; no, it is an anthem. Furthermore, it takes half an hour to cook, giving one plenty of time to think, mutter and write a couple of posts. No doubt about it, you're a good man John McCann.

Let's Hear It for the Bot-Zombies

The FBI's Operation Bot Roast is intended to stops bots or zombies using your computer. Zombies, my preferred term, are more subtle and elusive than viruses. Indeed, you may never know of a zombie infestation. Your computer will be quietly used for some task of which you have no knowledge. The most interesting of these tasks - and, I am told, the one that most alarms the security services - is not mentioned in the BBC story. Zombies, it seems, can borrow money from any account it can access from your computer. The key word here is 'borrow'; the money is taken and then returned. You will never notice this has happened. If this is done on a large enough scale. the zombie masters will, presumably, have billions of short term cash to play the money markets. The technology is thus improving the efficiency of the world economy by putting idle funds to work. Zombies are also watching porn, taking out Second Life and MySpace accounts and starting blogs. I say: go, zombies.

Friday, June 15, 2007

An Urgent Question Regarding Property Prices

Okay, here's a question. It arises from Ford Madox Ford's The Soul of London. Writing in 1904, he said, '... the ground in front of the Mansion House is worth its area in sovereigns set on edge.' Can anybody calculate how many £1 coins set on edge would fill a square foot? Property prices in central London now start at £1,000 per square foot - I assume more than 1,000 coins could be stood in that space. But I just don't know and the demands of the day job make the experiment out of the question.


Reading G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography (as recommended a while back by a voice speaking as from a cloud), I came across this fine statement of his mission, to tackle ' the problem of how men could be made to realise the wonder and splendour of being alive in environments which their own daily criticism treated as dead-alive, and which their imagination had left for dead'. This was apropos the disparagements of the suburbs (specifically Clapham, in fact) by those who live in them, blind, deaf and unnoticing. In my suburban garden yesterday evening, a rather wonderful and heart-lifting thing happened. A couple of blackbirds were singing away, as blackbirds do, when a greenfinch alighted on a nearby tree, and took them on, either in competition or to urge them to greater heights of invention. One blackbird gave up immediately, but the other carried on, though clearly dubious about who this interloper was. Each time the blackbird fell silent, the finch would stir it into song again with some virtuoso trill or glissando, but the blackbird seemed reluctant, as if he knew he was being shown up by this improvising impostor. This went on for 20 minutes or so, until at last the blackbird gave up altogether. Why do birds sing? Who knows? Who wants to really? But it's somehow good to know they even sing in their sleep...

The Hunt for Tracey

Police have put on their special go-faster boots to catch the woman attempting to marry four footballers at once this weekend. Vast sums have been spent, mainly on tents, by guileless soccer maestros Neville, Terry, Gerrard and Carrick in the belief that they are all marrying a different girl. But close examination of photographs of Lisa, Toni, Alex and Emma has revealed they are one and the same person. Her real name is believed to be Tracey and the simultaneous weddings are the result of a dare at the smart Essex nite spot Hook-a-Footballer. 'Bigamy is a serious crime,' said a police spokesman, 'bigamy with four of England's most multiply talented soccer stars doubly so.'

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Michael Barrymore's Confusions

So the Michael Barrymore-body by the pool story is back. I interviewed Barrymore about all this in March 2003. Recently I heard that he remembers the interview because I was rude about his furniture. But what was most striking to me was the fact that he simply could not understand my question, 'Do you regret anything?' Part of his confusion seemed to be the conflicting messages he was taking from Alcoholics Anonymous. On the one hand he was told he had a disease; on the other he was expected to apologise to - and feel remorse towards - those he had hurt. But his form of apology didn't seem to involve remorse because he told himself he had a disease and it wasn't, therefore, his fault. If this is the message of AA, then I can't see how it works since it is promoting a degree of moral confusion that is almost as dangerous as the condition it aspires to treat. But, anyway, Barrymore - another celebrity crash story, but an unusually odd and sad one.

For Fordy

T.S.Eliot said Ford Madox Ford's Antwerp was the best poem written about the First World War. It's certainly the best I've read. Ford's The Soul of London - which I have just finished - is also the best book I've read about London.
'For London, if it attracts men from a distance with a glamour like that of a great and green gaming table, shows, when they are close to it, the indecipherable face of a desperate battle field without ranks, without order, without pity and with very little of discoverable purpose. Yet those that it has attracted it holds for ever, because in its want of logic it is so very human.'
Ford also wrote two of the finest novels of the twentieth century - The Good Soldier and the Parade's End tetralogy. These are easily available, almost all the rest of his massive output is out of print. He edited the most successful - in terms of quality, not profits or circulation - magazine of all time. In his few months in charge, the English Review published Conrad, Hardy, W.H.Hudson, W.H.Davies, Tolstoy, Galsworthy, Bennett, Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Yeats, Chesterton, Belloc, Forster and more. Known universally as Fordy, he cared more for the works of others than he did for his own. He had unerring literary judgment, he pronounced Lawrence a genius after reading one short paragraph. All of which is why, having just finished The Soul of London, I felt impelled to get off the treadmill of the topical and write something for Fordy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Thank You, Thank You, We Were Great, Thank You

Thanks to a relentless campaign of lies, bribery, coercion, nepotism, gerrymandering, cat-strangling, extortion, calling in favours, abuse, threats, blackmail, call-girls, sudden violence, drugs, mugging, hypnotism, brainwashing, abduction, ballot-rigging, burglary, driving without due care and attention, selling peerages and cooking, this blog has won the title of Most Consistently Entertaining Blog or Column in the Blogpower Awards. I came second in the Best Post of All Time category, pipped at the post by one Captain Smack. The post that should have won, but for this Smack character, was, of course, Science and Religion Again. Sorry. Thanks to all who voted for me  without requiring any exposure to my violent, criminal and dangerous persuasive methods. Thanks also to Nige for consistently entertaining. We now must continue to entertain consistently. No pressure then.

Parrot cured of cough

Saw a story today about a parrot cured of a cough by showering with his owner - under the firm impression he was back in the steamy rainforest, the parrot regained his squawk (and other irritating habits, no doubt). This, I now realise, was no story, as showering with parrots is commonplace - there are even (cop this) special perches available. The world is always stranger than we think it is.

Calvin Klein affront

I'm sorry, but really - I have to ask - What has the world come to when a a High Court judge wears Calvin Klein underpants? What became of the dignity of office (and bespoke silk undies)? And what, come to that, is he trying to prove? There's only one way to settle an indecent exposure case - come on, Judge, show us what you're made of...

The Apprentice Cartoon

I see The Apprentice is now reaching some kind of climax. I interviewed Sir Alan Sugar when this show began - a nice bloke but a rather rough and ready business type who evidently had problems with my corduroy suit - not sharp like Sugar's, but Issey Miyake. After the article appeared, he said somewhere that the remarks about the producers - 'these bloody arty-farty, creative a***holes, right?' - were off the record. They weren't, I never make that mistake. He thought they were because we had agreed he was off the record at one point and had forgotten we had gone back on. He speaks so impetuously when he gets excited, he evidently loses track. The show I now find unwatchable, primarily because of its dated and implausible view of the business exec. All these kids play at being hard-nosed, aggressive types who would trample on their grandmothers to make a sale because that's what the persona Sugar has adopted for the show seems to want. In practice, I find it hard to imagine any real businessman taking these people seriously and I certainly can't imagine trying to have a conversation with any of them. The show is, in short, a cartoon view of business. But that's television for you.

The Blair Decade 5: Doublethink

Blair is completely right in his observations about the 'feral' media. As I have said here many times before, politics is now covered as little more than a Westminster soap. But, of course, we all know that New Labour is at least as much at fault as the media. Blair partly acknowledges this by saying they did try to 'court' and 'assuage' the press in the early days. But this leaves out the way his entire administration has been defined by empty initiatives and endless manipulation, all intended to write the next day's headlines. What, in fact, this speech represents is Blair's limitless talent for holding two utterly opposed positions. The most spectacular example of this was during the G8 summit at Gleneagles. One minute he was chairing the summit; the next he was sitting next to Bob Geldof in a TV studio backing the Live 8 protesters against the summit. That was pure political genius because nobody seemed to notice it. This latest act of brazen doublethink is less impressive because everybody has noticed. Nevertheless, the speech is, as I say, true. It's as if a bank robber has told us that, sadly, there's a lot of bank robbery around these days. He's the expert, he should know.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Mutton-chop affront

I have just seen a young man, walking about as bold as brass (as they do), with a shaven head, a clean-shaven chin and upper lip - and a pair of large, apparently genuine mutton-chop sidewhiskers, hanging there amid all that hairless flesh. What was he trying to say? Presumably not 'Caution! Twat approaching'?

Vote for Me or the Cat Gets It

Right, I am now trailing Captain Smack in the Best Post Ever poll, but I am narrowly ahead of Rilly Super and Mr Eugenides in the Most Consistently Entertaining Blog. Time is running out and, with a brief gap or a switch to a different computer, voting more than once seems to be no problem. So vote vote vote for me in Best Post poll here or in Most Entertaining here and we'll fix fix fix this election. If you don't I shall strangle your cat. Well, of course, I shall do that anyway.

The Long Slow Death of the British Car

Once up a time there were Humbers, Hillmans, Armstrong Siddeleys, Morrises, Austins, MGs, Austin-Healeys, Singers, Jensens, Bond Bugs, Triumphs. Now our big car makers are all foreign-owned and the rest are too small to matter. Ford selling off Jaguar and Land Rover is, therefore, no more than business as usual for the British car industry... except that, in spite of everything, these two companies are unique in having retained some remnants of their national origins. So the real sadness now is that the buyer will probably be some private equity operation. Since such companies consist entirely of insensitive, culture-free hoodlums, we can be sure the few remaining fragments of the great British car are about to be eliminated.

The Olympics: London Forges Ahead

My clairvoyance today provides a startling insight into the conversations about to take place between inspectors from the International Olympic Committee and the London Olympics.:

International Olympic Committee: So, London, the cost...
London: Hi!
International Olympic Committee: Quite.... of the 2012 running and jumping thing is four times what you said it would be, everybody hates you, your logo causes epilepsy as well as a series of obscene and anti-semitic jokes and you have failed to buy the superb design offered by Mr Appleyard. Furthermore, following the Wembley fiasco - not to mention the NHS computer, tax credits, the Child Support Agency, the Millennium Dome and all the other things that cause Gordon Brown to vanish mysteriously - a piss-up in a brewery would plainly test your organisational powers to destruction. Have I missed anything?
London: Great! You certainly have! We've got this brilliant storage solution - drawers in stairs! How cool is that?
International Olympic Committee: Oh wow! Get some of those installed in my pad and I'll sign off on all this running and jumping nonsense - best Olympics ever, yadda-yadda-yadda.
London: Cool!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Best Ever TV Drama Ends - And...

The Sopranos is over. America had the finale last night and it seems to have left many viewers scratching their heads - no surprise there - David Chase (the genius behind the show) can be relied on not to do the obvious thing. The finale, we are told by the Salt Lake Tribune in a massive spoiler (hence no link), built to 'an almost existential, yet anxiety-drenched last scene'. Sounds good. The Sopranos sometimes lost its way and sometimes trod water, but as its best it was breathtakingly good - as good as TV drama has ever got. And now it's over.
However, on to matters of more moment. Today I saw my favourite butterfly - my first of the year, and a very early sighting (the first in the UK was 3 days ago). It flew up, towards me and over my head and was gone in a flash, flying strongly - a fleeting sighting then, and I'd half persuaded myself it was a Purple Emperor, but it probably wasn't...

Exclusive: The Sony-Cathedral 'Conversation'

My astonishing powers of clairvoyance enable me to bring you the conversation that will take place later today between Manchester Cathedral and Sony over the latter's use of the former's interior as the scene of a violent shoot-out in the game Resistance: Fall of Man.

Sony: So, Manchester Cathedral, help me to understand your concerns in more detail.
Manchester Cathedral: Well, Sony, glad you asked. Tea? My problem is that I am a place of worship, contemplation and peace and you have abused me by using my interior as the scene of a bloody massacre designed to inflame and deaden the sensibilities of young people too stupid and ill-educated to do anything other than play computer games in their smelly bedrooms and sublimate their dull and routine teenage anguish into fevered dreams of mass slaughter. This, I feel, is, if I maybe so bold, less than helpful.
Sony: No, sorry, still don't get it. Can I have a biscuit with this?

This story is, in short, a very fine example of what my esteemed buddy John Gray often calls 'incommensurable world views'.

The Vitally Important and Exciting Battle for Nothing

Unyielding as ever in the pursuit of truth, I decided to look into the contest for deputy leadership of the Labour Party. I don't care about it, of course, but the pol bloggers and the columnists seem to find it fantastically exciting, so, I reasoned, there must be something to say. I began - and ended, I am afraid - with Andrew Rawnsley's column in the Observer. Rawnsley gives two reasons why the contest is important - 'because the campaign and the result will send a message to the country about the state of the Labour party' and because it is something to do with 'the relationship between the deputy and the new occupant of Number 10'. Daily the country gets half a dozen messages about the state of the Labour Party - pretty bad, on the whole - and, well, yes, it is about the relations between Gordo and his deputy just as it would be about relations between the crazed Scottish moralist and his deputy minister of banana imports if that's who they happened to be electing. This contest seems to be important because it's important.
Rawnsley then goes on to say what a nice, gentle campaign it has been - it has not 'exposed a huge ideological chasm within the Labour party' and no one has come up with a 'strikingly original and sound new policy, even a single memorable phrase'. Wow, how important can you get? The truth is, of course, that this election is about precisely nothing. It is the empty apotheosis of the process that began in the mid-nineties whereby politics was virtualised as the media slavishly bought into the Blair project. Politics is now taken to mean what happens at Westminster and nothing more. That's why intelligent, informed people like Rawnsley have no choice but to take seriously a meaningless contest between a few cringeing greasy-pole climbers. Papers have this space and it must be filled. But you will, of course, be wanting my recommendation. I say vote here and here, now and often.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

International Affairs

Fresh from his visit to the Vatican, where he presented the Pope with an unfeasibly large stick, George W. travels today to Albania. This is a country where, rather alarmingly, women can become men simply by dressing like them and not having sex - see - (I think it's catching on in the West too...). Albania, however, is better known for its devotion to the pathos-tinged slapstick comedy of Norman Wisdom - I had a corking link here, but it's hit a technical glitch (Google 'Norman Wisdom Albania' and it's the top item). This Wisdom worship is the comedy equivalent of a cargo cult (though it is no more mysterious than the continued thriving of the 'comedy' careers of Lenny Henry and Billy Connolly). To inaugurate a new era in US-Albanian relations, all Bush has to do is execute a perfectly timed 'spontaneous' pratfall on the airport tarmac - they'll be eating out of his hands. Come to think - that comedy stick was clearly intended for Albania...

For Marriott Edgar

Internet Ronin's comment on Northampton on my previous post started me thinking about local identity, mine in particular. At once two lines of verse came into my head - 'In a place you'll have 'eard of called Bury;/You know, where black puddings is made.' This is from a sublime piece of nonsense called Three Ha'Pence a Foot by Marriott Edgar. Edgar wrote comic poems for the performer Stanley Holloway and there was a book of them in my house, which was, indeed, near Bury. Neither Edgar nor Holloway came originally from the north-west, but their work together displays an astonishing grasp of the flat, slightly detached humour of the place. I used to know the best of these works - Albert and the Lion, Marksman Sam, The Battle of Hastings, Gunner Joe - off by heart. Reading them now, I see they are touched by genius - mere talent could not come up with 'Where they'd lions and tigers and camels/And Old Ale and sandwiches too', nor with the line with which Noah introduces himself to Sam Oglethwaite in Three Ha'Pence a Foot - 'Came an old feller fair wreathed wi' whiskers;/T'ould chap said,'Good morning, I'm Noah.' The story of this latter poem is a joy. Edgar's verse yarns still makes me laugh out loud. And they remind that I came from a real place that I shall never leave.

Summer Show and Diana's Brother

In The Sunday Times - your blogmeister on the Royal Academy Summer Show. One of the pictures here is a peculiarly unflattering one of me in a Summer Show tee-shirt designed by Michael Craig-Martin, an old friend and, he is the chuckler to the left. Nothing wrong with the tee-shirt, of course, it's the camera angle. Also I interview Earl Spencer, Diana's brother. This piece is remarkable in that it required me to go to Northampton for the first time in my life. Its precise location and meaning had previously escaped my attention.
PS. And look here, guys, you vote for me as follows - go here and click on either or both of the categories Best Post of All Time or Most Consistently Entertaining Blog. Check the box next to mine name on each/either. Even if it means drowning in pork barrel blood, I am determined to fix this election as everybody else seems to be doing just that and there seems to have been some confusion about the procedure. It is, of course, largely meaningless as the great Danny Finkelstein isn't short-listed in the political or best UK blogs.
PPS. Thanks to Frank Wilson, I also have a book review in The Philadelphia Inquirer - Frank Tipler's The Physics of Christianity.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Persecuting Paris

Fox news anchor Gretchen Carlson had to move away from the desk and cover her ears - see weirdly entertaining vid - when a story about a man amputating his own leg came up. She feared she might pass out. Is this woman really in the right job? But, in fact, I find myself in sympathy with Gretchen - this is exactly what I want to do when confronted with the latest bizarre twists in the Paris Hilton story. The American legal system - the most regrettable and least English aspect of that country - is now persecuting her beyond endurance. I cover my ears because I feel guilt. I have long campaigned for the ritual persecution of celebrities, perhaps on special public holidays. But bouncing the poor girl in and out of prison as if she were a Monopoly piece is too much even for me to stomach. I say: free this blameless French hotel at once.

My Death by Cat 2

The cats are waging a vicious psychological campaign against me, prior to killing me with anaphylactic shock. This nightmarish image popped up on my screen this morning. It shows an Ashera, a cat that costs $22,000 and can weigh thirty pounds. What madman would give house room to such a thing? Note, in particular, the cold cynicism of its expression. I am not long for this world.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Vote, Vote, Vote 2

I know this sort of thing is undignified and rightly earns your disapproval, but, it seems, my previous post on this matter has failed to have the desired effect. A loyal fan emails me thusly - 'Bryan, I know you have better things to do with your time but can't you get your troops to give you a bit of a bunk up in the polls, category 19 - best post ever? Your score is ridiculously low just now.'
Here is the place, I think. Get to it, troops. Or don't.

Harvard Unearths My Racism

You will not thank me for drawing your attention to this. It's a set of Harvard University tests to determine your 'implicit associations', meaning, I guess, unthinking prejudices. I seem to have a moderate automatic preference for white people over black people. I couldn't do any more of the tests because life is short and I have a day job. Such things are, of course, manifestations of physics envy, desperate attempts by psychologists to give their subject a hard scientific basis. They shouldn't bother. Psychology is a perfectly respectable and interesting subject without the need for such laughably contrived and rigged mechanisms for persuading me that I am a racist. I probably do have some slight buried preference for whites over blacks. I know it doesn't affect my life and behaviour - I would be ashamed if it did - and, anyway, I prefer people called Bryan with a fondness for Norfolk, Manchester City, Wallace Stevens, cricket and Jeffrey Archer's increasingly error infested blog (the Hockney painting is of trees near Warter, not Water) to either.

Avoid Notting Hill and Save the Planet

Returning to Nige's A Shopper Writes... I must surprise those impatient with my belief in global warming by saying organic food leaves me unmoved. In quality terms, it is seldom worth the additional price - or never if bought from one of those absurd Notting Hill ponceterias patronised by neurotic people who really do think that food costs that much. In environmental terms, it is a useless or negative force. People obsessed with organic food tend to think environmentalism is about not getting cancer rather than saving the planet. (If, say, 90 per cent of us died of cancer tomorrow, that would save the planet. And we get cancer because we breathe oxygen and live longer, end of story.) Furthermore, of course, Nige is right, there's something unhealthy about the British-food relationship. In fact, the really environmentally friendly food to support is entirely synthetic. Meat made in the lab will soon be possible. This will remove the need for growing cattle, sheep and pigs, a fantastically inefficient and destructive way of producing food. Synthetic meat, I am assured, will be as good as you want it to be. It will be interesting to see if the neurotics still insist on the 'real' thing. Probably, fearing cancer, they will - after all they shop at Notting Hill when almost anything bought from Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range is half the price and twice as good.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Tipped for 2012

Here it is - Britain's Olympic secret weapon - the Distinguished Jumper. Watch out, Johnny Foreigner - and look out too for the Wormwood Moonshiner, bit of a dark horse (or, technically, beetle), that one... Olympic funding should be diverted forthwith to these plucky bugs - Our Bugs, as I think of them already.

My Death by Cat

Starvation, dehydration, drowning, melanoma or a bullet from a hedge funder's AK47 were all ways I expected to die from global warming. But now, I realise, it will be anaphylactic shock that finishes me off. I am very allergic to cats - it is the saliva which they constantly apply to their fur - and now the nasty little spitballs are reproducing wildly as a result of rising temperatures. Since my allergy is accompanied by an intense dislike of these creepy, exploitative cynics, this is, for me, nightmarish news. I am destined to end my days consumed with anger and loathing behind the blotched, weeping mass of a face the size of the London Eye. Dignity, at the end as always, will elude me.

Olympic Logo 2: Perfection Refined

In the manner pioneered by Gordon Brown, I have pretended to listen to your constructive and thoughtful remarks about my Olympic logo. As a result of not taking in a word you said, I have made crucial changes to the slogan and dropped the Buddha. Meanwhile, important new technology has appeared which projects my design right into the twenty-first century, if not beyond. Talking paper will speak my words the moment it is touched. These words are now: 'All being well, there will be, other things being equal, several weeks of running and jumping in London in 2012, God willing. You may wish to make alternative arrangements.'
PS. I am now considering using this picture on the basis that, as usual, we will win very few medals but we will, at least, drive the opposition mad.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Talking of problem drinkers, The Times today filed a ludicrous story - a prank, I can only assume - claiming that a Church of England report had concluded that the Bishop of Southwark (see Episcopal News 24 May 2007) was drunk after that infamous Irish Embassy party. I wish I could provide a link to this fantastic farrago, but it seems the Bish has had it pulled from the Times website. He's the Bishop of Southwark - it's what he does.

Olympic Logo Row Resolved

After literally minutes of careful thought, I have decided to resolve the unseemly row about the London Olympics logo by submitting my own design. I had considered using my famous Enola Gay model as a globally recognisable icon, but, on the whole, I felt this might cause diplomatic unpleasantness. The Buddha in my final mock-up fits the multi-cultural mood perfectly.

Wowser Rage

Yes that's all very well - but, while Britain sleeps and, as Bryan accurately observes, Nothing happens, the anti-alcohol wowsers tirelessly churn out their nonsense 'findings' - here's the latest - and drive the news agenda. So, examine your conscience: have you consumed more than (gasp) 8 'units of alcohol' in a week - or, ladies, 6? You, sir or madam, are a 'problem drinker'. The aim of this, all too clearly, is to turn respectable, middle-class, middle-aged drinkers into the Problem, thereby avoiding dealing with the real problem that is all too identifiable in its hideous roaring triumphalism in every town centre in the land every weekend. As with so many things, WE are the villains - and, by happy coincidence, we're docile, manageable and easily milked of our hard-earned money by the coercive State.
Never mind - the good news is that, once again, Springwatch (badgers, birds, otters etc) is beating Big Brother in the ratings.

Charity Stunts

An angry Dutch lady emails to complain about my article on crap TV. The Big Donor Show on Dutch TV, you will recall, seemed to be about finding a recipient for the kidney of a dying woman. It was, however, a hoax designed to encourage people to become organ donors. The lady spoils her main point by devoting most of her email to her irritation with British anti-Dutch feeling. 'Why is it that the British feel they have to axe the Dutch down, when the opportunity presents itself?' (Dunno, we just do; also, I'm afraid, don't care. The British often express fellow-feeling through mild mockery and abuse.) But her real point is that the show was solely designed to encourage organ donation and, apparently, it has worked. This, in her eyes, seems to put the entire project beyond criticism. Such charity stunts are, of course, everywhere. From Live Aid to your local fun-run, everybody raises money by doing something more than just asking for it. And, whatever they do, their goodness cannot be questioned. Not long ago policemen forced me to crawl for an hour through some Sussex lanes behind a man running more slowly than I walk. He was the tail-ender in some charity half-marathon. Everybody else had finished hours before, but the inane sanctity of the event could not be challenged. The police would not even listen when we pointed out we were hurrying to the house of a dying friend. There is something distinctly creepy and selfish about all this. Most people seem to be taking part for themselves rather than the cause and sponsored bike riders or runners now simply take your money in advance making the actual physical effort pointless. My new policy is to offer money to people not to do the stunt. The truth is that charity stunts are all about the priggish self-satisfaction of public caring, of flaunting your goodness in the market place. They subvert the morality of giving. The donor is cajoled and coerced and is assumed not to be able to make the decision and the sacrifice of his own accord. So, angry Dutch lady, pick the bones out of that.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Jeff, Paris and Amanda Update

Time for an update on three heroes I have acquired since starting this blog. First, 'Lord ' Jeff has delivered his verdict on Damien Hirst's skull, the intrinsic value of which is £14 million, not £4 million as Jeff says, and the correct title of which is For the Love of God and not For Love of God, as Jeff says. Anyway, he seems underwhelmed. I knew you'd need to know that. Meanwhile, Paris Hilton, having done the crime, is doing her time and she is said to be 'focused and co-operative', surely a first. And, finally, Amanda has a gripping post on the patriarchal oppressions of food. Prosewise, this post was going quite well until I reached this: 'Which is the first step down the road to aesthetic stalinism, because once you focus on this book or that movie for being what it is and not being the book or movie that you want, you are in essence arguing against the existence of the book or movie that's come into your sites.' It's downhill thereafter. All seems to be in order out there in the real world.

Man Matters: The Waistcoat/Vest

These man things - hats, bags, sheds, kayaks - seem to get you going, so let me chuck one more into the pot - waistcoats. Americans call these 'vests', of course, and, I notice, 'sweater vests' are frequently regarded as another attribute of the old like ugliness. I would have mocked the colonials' use of this word, but, apparently, it is correct - Pepys called them vests when Charles II introduced them in October 1666. I have several waistcoats and, partly at my wife's insistence, I wear them often. I also leave the lowest button undone. This, I now discover, is a solid English tradition which, like standing during the Hallelujah Chorus, was ordained by a King. Edward VII, who presided over the greatest English decade, grew fat and left that button undone. This was taken as a style statement, rather like those huge, creased baggy cargo shorts which were actually a manufacturing accident but which are now worn by young men all over the world in an earnest attempt to look as dumb and deformed as possible. Anyway, here's my point: waistcoats are The Thing, The Man Thing. They can be worn in sheds, kayaks or as a dashing accompaniment to bags and hats.

The Blair Decade 4: I Lose the Will to Live

My Blair Decade series has become an albatross round my neck. The truth is this Long Goodbye/Lame Duck/En Attendant Gordo phase has sapped my will to live. For some reason, ever since Labour MPs voted for Brown like so many dead bodies in Chicago (thanks Duck), everything, not just politics, has ground to a halt. There is nothing happening - apart from the impending shed shortage shocker, of course - and nothing to be said. This seems to be wiping my memory of the past decade. Perhaps that's the plan. In which case, I must fight the torpor of the time.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Vote, Vote, Vote

Okay, guys, here you will find a competition for best blogs/posts etc. I have been nominated in various categories. But it seems to me that the chances of getting voted for more than once are slim. This makes me suspect that some other blogs have done what I am about to do - ask my readers to vote for me. All you have to do, therefore, is get in there and nominate me (I think this just means vote). A rigged vote, as Boss Bill Tweed used to say, is an honest vote. Or maybe you will mean it. Either way, it's the law.

A Shopper Writes...

Just back from my local supermarket (a Sainsbury's, since you ask), which, like most, is becoming ever more self-consciously 'green', organic and 'ethical'. What dilemmas shopping poses for the caring shopper these days - I know, entire sections of the Guardian are given over to these thorny issues, which are always getting complicated by stuff like this.
I can't help thinking that if we Brits had a healthy relationship with food - i.e. appreciated it for taste, quality and what it does to our bodies - we wouldn't be in any of these pickles. We'd be eating mostly locally as a matter of course, and eating vastly better. We'd be, in fact, French - Zut alors! There's always a downside... Perhaps our sick ideas about food - notions of food as mere 'fuel', suspicion of taking pleasure in eating (and drinking), the prevalence of eating disorders and dieting (they go together) - are all a legacy of our Protestant deracination from nature, alienating us from our bodies and the simple pleasures of living. Time for lunch.

Shed Shocker

The Fencing Contractors Association, an august body - the members of its committee wear frock coats, wing collars and, on special occasions, gaiters, has soberly warned against panic buying in response to the desperate shortage of fencing panels. This crisis has been caused by wet summers and mild winters in Scandinavia (global warming - see!), building booms in China and Dubai and an export levy applied by the Russians as part of Putin's highly-successful programme to restart the Cold War. This story has not so far concerned me. I have no need of fencing panels and it is years since I bought a copy of What Fencing Panel magazine. But, on television this morning, I heard that the shortage will soon affect the supply of sheds. This is serious. Nige, my co-blogger, and I are of the conviction that we belong in sheds. A shed is a man's natural home, a place where he can quietly consider the mysteries of his predicament while pretending to do something important, probably involving plant pots. Nige has a shed and I do not. Thanks to Putin and global warming, that situation seems likely to remain unchanged for some time.

Blogger in Coma to Escape from 'Reality'

There's more grim news of the baleful effects of 'reality' TV - petrol on the flames of my weekend rant mode. But, first, I should note Nige's comment on that post. He points out that British 'reality' shows are much nastier than American ones. This is true. There's always some redemptive aspects to the US show; over here we prefer to humiliate and destroy our carefully selected inadequates. And, remember, when the Americans wanted nastiness, they imported Simon Cowell. Being incredibly old, I remember the days when we thought we had 'the best television in the world' and we laughed at the low life absurdities in American TV. Another time, another time. (Actually, I'm not old; that was about two years ago.) Anyway, the grim news is that Caryn Mandabach, writing in the Guardian, says that 'reality' shows - 'Thanks, Britain!' - are helping destroy character-based comedy. So, instead of Frasier, Seinfeld, Cheers, Scrubs, Taxi, Friends, Curb Your Enthusiasm and many others, we're going to get US versions of our own junk. These comedies of character are among the best television ever made and the 'reality' shows are among the worst. Time for a coma, I think.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Scientology 3: Hello, Linda Sarkovich

It was only a matter of time. After my two posts on scientology, I knew the church would be after me. I have, of course, taken precautions, wearing heavy disguise - actually Nige's Groucho face gear - and varying my route to my desk daily. But the first sign they are closing in arrives in the form of an email from one Linda Sarkovich. 'Hi Bryan,' it begins alarmingly. And then:
'I found your blog entry about John Sweeney losing it and entering the "Valhalla of YouTube immortals." I see from your book titles that you have an inquiring mind. You mentioned that the real story was the conduct of Scientologists (I am one) but I think the bigger story is journalistic integrity. Did you get a chance to view "Panorama Exposed" which you can link to via our website ( This documentary tells a fascinating story of a journalist who planned in advance how to make his show entertaining and sensational and was not too interested in finding out or portraying the truth. Would like your views on "Panorama Exposed" if you have a chance to watch it.'
Sorry, Linda, the truth is I don't have any inquiring mind so I won't be watching your vid. I am now relocating to Bhutan, discreet jewel of the East.

Negley is Back...

... to announce a brilliantly intemperate rant by Bryan about crap TV and a review of a biography of Einstein, both in The Sunday Times, a paper known since the destruction of the old Wembley as 'the venue of legends'.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

A Red Letter Day on which Nige is Hot

... not one, but two big, headline-grabbing, agenda-setting, zeitgeist-defining 'news' stories are revealed to be, in essence, the proverbial inverted pyramid of piss. England cricket coach Bob Woolmer did not, in fact, suffer any of the various murders detailed in the media, but died of natural causes. And the Dutch Big Brother-style kidney donor show was a hoax dreamt up to publicise the shortage of available kidneys. How many more stories are going to be similarly deconstructed over the coming weeks? The Cameron grammar school prank? The Labour deputy leadership contest - surely that's not actually happening? The Hirst skull? Me I'm too hot to think...

On Damien Hirst

It's hard to know what to say about Damien Hirst and his £50 million skull, but, as always with Hirst, one feels there is something to be said. He is, I don't doubt, brilliant - but brilliant at what? 'Art' is, I suppose, the answer. All art is, of course, defined by context, but Hirst's art seems to be narrowly defined by the market - a fact apparently acknowledged by the skull's egregious display of 'value'. The art market is currently the most effective absorber of surplus cash and that fact alone has the effect of creating more art. Furthermore, Hirst follows Duchamp and Warhol in eliminating craft from the equation. For the Love of God - the skull's title - is made by the jewellers Bentley & Skinner and his famous shark was even caught by somebody else. Hirst brings his idea to the party and then applies his taste and preferences to the process of manufacture. He plays very effectively with these ideas and, in the process, produces some very striking images - striking but, for me, unmoving. Unmoving because he is a quite fantastically literal artist. Like the pre-Raphaelites, he produces works with a clear moral message. All his work tends to the form of the simple memento mori, and, in case we miss the point, he uses very simple, explanatory titles. At one level, this is a reaction to the abstraction and aridity of much late modernism. This is work about something. At another level, this is about the contemporary rediscovery of death and its escape from behind the veil of modern medicine. And, finally, it is a way of reassuring rich but uninformed buyers that the cost of any piece is underwritten by something more than late modernist head-clutching. The moral makes it art in the most literal-minded sense. It is easy enough to say Hirst knows all this - as, I am sure, judging by the skull, he does - and therefore the whole thing is a brilliant, ironic commentary about the place of the artist. But this, surely, is just another form of aridity, a self-regarding contemplation of the evasiveness of content. But what do I know? Money talks.