Thursday, December 25, 2008

Stand by Me

At Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Message from Wile E. Coyote

Driving my truck to Fakenham to buy a tree I heard a dull thud. In the mirror I saw a small cloud of feathers but no corpse. At the garden centre I was lugging the tree in question - not high but wide -  back to the truck when I noticed a haunting shape on the front bumper - a wing spread as if glued, a tail projecting downwards and a single claw frozen in its attempt to reach the ground. A pheasant had, somehow, flung itself into a small, square void in the bumper. On closer examination, the composition took on a cartoon aspect. There was no blood and the poor creature had been distorted as if he had been hit by a frying pan or a piano. It was, I realised, Road Runner and I was Wile E. Coyote, triumphant at last. I couldn't eat him, it is, apparently illegal for the killer to eat road kill. The next guy in the next car - this being Norfolk, it will be a wondrously ancient man in a wondrously ancient Datsun Cherry - can feast to his heart's content. This is to stop people deliberately ramming deer and, I suppose, pheasants, but you'd have to be a pretty amazing driver deliberately to ram a pheasant.
Anyway, the big news this Christmas from the keyboard of Mr Coyote is that we are closing in on Escoffier's umami, the fifth taste. Meanwhile, here's a good laugh, hat tip Ironic Daughter. It's a small reminder that there is no such thing as a financial expert, there are only various grades of vain, deluded nutters. And, of course, we are at the glorious climax of The New Labour Project. The nation is crippled by insane levels of private and public debt, our military has been humiliated and we are over-run by prick-nosed bureaucrats with their CCTV cameras. Things could only get better, eh, Tone?
But it's Christmas, I must not be bitter and even Gordon Brown has feelings - mainly insensate rage, but that too is a feeling.  Finally nailing Road Runner was, I am sure, a good omen. No longer will I find myself running in mid-air before looking down, shrieking, and plunging into the abyss. The point was, you see, that I, Wile E., only plunged when I realised there was an abyss. On the way down, I always mentally quoted Shakespeare - 'I have drunk and seen the spider'. Without that terrible knowledge, I could have run on happily.  So my New Year Resolution is - I will look down no more. The abyss and the spider will remain unnoticed. I will run on confidently, trusting the 'sanity of my vessel' in the words of a poem and a poet, beloved by me and great, good Nige. And if the vessel sinks?

' may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.'

Thanks for reading and thanks to my consolingly witty, urbane and erudite commenters. Happy Christmas.

Wile E Coyote, Norfolk, 24/12/2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Dementia Tsar

How could I miss this? We have a 'dementia Tsar'. His name, to his best recollection, is Phil Hope, though this could also be a post-it note he wrote to remind himself to put petrol in his car, which he named, for reasons that escape him for the moment, Hope. The story is written by one Jenny Hope. Hopes spring eternal. And, incidentally, did you know we have a dementia Tsar.....?

Help, Please

Look, I'll be frank, the posts just aren't coming. I've got blogger's block. I want you all to come up with subjects and I'll post on them or try to - sort of charades, but then again not. Think of it as a Christmas thing, involving, like all cool Yules, exhaustion, imaginative impoverishment, silly games and a dodgy uncle. Or, of course, you might not care.

My First Swede

The curse of Thoughts Experiments has struck down my Jerk of the Decade, Horace Engdahl. I have had this effect on many people but I think he's the first Swede I've destroyed.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Caviar to the General

I know everything worth knowing is in Hamlet, so it should be no surprise that in Milan they actually are giving caviar to the general. But, somehow, it is. Mind you, the elites are still getting their sturgeon eggs and Frank Rich points out that American banks are not actually required to say what they are doing with public money so we can assume it's going in bonuses. Amazing. It's time for a few show trials, big ones with humiliating 'perp walks', long sentences and no Johnny Cash to make them feel like undeserving victims. I saw John Varley of Barclays saying the banks should apologise, but not, apparently, Barclays. Oh no. Nassim says 'wrong' is not a big enough word for what the banks were up to. I feel the same way about 'they don't get it'. Still, I suppose it's nice the Big Three are getting their money; now our Little Two will be getting theirs, more deserved since Jaguar and Land Rover have made a decent cars. It was, of course, a disaster that a lame soap star hoofer beat Rachel Stevens, a real dancer who suffers from self-esteem issues judging by her fiance. But at least the show prompted me to do something I've been promising myself for years - find out what Meat Loaf wouldn't do for love. At last I know. It all makes perfect sense, though it is a touch disappointing. It was better not to know and let the imagination run riot. Gonzo was yet another wallow in sixties nostalgia which made me care less and less about Dr Hunter S. Thompson as the movie progressed. He wrote some very funny stuff and he influenced Martin Amis more than anybody seems to mention and, er, that's it. His great political and literary significance is a sentimental boomer fantasy. One moment in the film, however, moved me, quite unexpectedly, to tears. It was footage of the eighth round of The Rumble in the Jungle when Ali took out Foreman with a superb right to the face. Thompson was floating in a nearby pool, having given away his tickets to the fight. He liked not to cover what he was supposed to cover and, previously, it had worked. This time it didn't. That straight right was more authentic than anything Raoul Duke and his Samoan attorney could possibly have imagined. The hack should, just this once, have quelled his ego. Of course, Foreman now sells lean mean grilling machines and Ali is wrecked by Parkinson's. I suppose knowing that future is what made me cry; that and the strange aura of innocence and goodness that always seemed to cling to Ali. He was the caviar when we were the general.

Daldry's Reader

In The Sunday Times I interview Stephen Daldry about The Reader, his film of Bernhard Schlink's novel, porcelain bunnies and other matters.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

For God's Sake Haggle

The West End has become a souk. Any price can be haggled down. Ask archly, 'When does your sale start?' and, at once, between ten and thirty per cent is knocked off the price. It's going to be a tough recession but a cheap one. Deflation - you know it makes sense.

Pre-Christmas Claustrophobia

I did not post yesterday because I was suffering from a truly terrible case of pre-Christmas claustrophobia (PCC). Give me flu any time. PCC  happens when you become oppressively aware of the funnel-like aspect of the season. At some point - in, say, mid-November - the world seems full of possibility, open and free. Then you fall into the funnel. Work builds up and becomes more difficult, mainly because the same thing is happening to everybody else. Mad, seasonal tasks appear from nowhere. (My dismay at the pointlessness of these tasks is the reason I have not sent any Christmas cards for the last two years. Sorry.) Everybody is is supposed to be 'entertaining' and yet everybody is edgy and irritable. Food, bizarrely, becomes a burning issue, requiring intense negotiation and D-Day-like organisation. (In this context the Michael Parkinson TV ad for M & S involving a 'tiff' with his wife about what they should eat for Christmas dinner is horrifically offensive. It makes Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross look tediously tasteful, grotesquely inhibited.) And, through it all, you are being bombarded by moronic media jollity and inane feelgood stories, punctuated by the same perfume ads you saw last year. But for this, I think I could get through it all intact. It's like being at the Cannes Film Festival. Forever. The funnel narrows, you can barely breathe and hardly scream. Finally, you fall from the narrow spout into January, free at last, free at last. You breathe in the cold, clear, empty air and the world returns to bleakly consoling normality. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Committee

It is generally known that the world is secretly run by a secret committee that meets in secret. What is not generally known is that this secretive four-man committee is known as The Committee. It has been in existence for about fifteen years, in which period, you will have observed, the world has improved enormously and become much more secretive. I am a member and we met last night - at a secret location to eat osso bucco, normally it's kleftico. The Committee likes soft meat. I cannot, of course, report on the proceedings - they are secret and we are secretive types - but I can confirm that, at the end of the evening, we concluded, 'It is all going according to plan.' I am in charge of establishing a new basis for metaphysics and I will do just that once this headache clears.

The Confession of Supremely Wisegood

Dickens was right - people do have names that reflect their character/place in the world. The moral climax of this crisis - not just funny money, no money - centres on a man named Bernie Madoff (made off - geddit?). And, meanwhile, somebody called Anurag Dikshit has been fined $300 million dollars for running illegal internet gambling. Years ago I changed my name from Supremely Wisegood, it was just too obvious.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Missing Ironist

It's okay, as you were. It's not an asteroid we should be worrying about, it's volcanoes.  Oh and Einstein was right. It's all coming together. We will figure out how it all works just as we are blasted to extinction by a mega-eruption. Sadly there will be no ironist around to appreciate this.

White, White Wine

Last night's Sunday Times party was at the Saatchi Gallery. The Saatchi Gallery does not serve red wine  - it might damage the paintings or the flooring. There was only white wine. I do not like white wine. Good party though.
*This corruscatingly brilliant photograph is my entry for next year's Turner Prize... or Strictly Come Dancing.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Torture

I have long admired Andrew Sullivan's dogged and conscientious insistence that the endorsement of torture destroyed the legitimacy of the American right. There can be no doubt that the Bush administration permitted and encouraged the use of torture. The justification was that, though they said the fight against terrorism was, indeed, a war, it was a war unlike others. Asymmetric wars require unconventional tactics. The example always given was a captured terrorist who knew where a ticking bomb was located. He could and should be tortured into giving up the information. The obvious problem with this kind of argument is that it is so open-ended - the term 'ticking bomb' could be expanded to mean anything, maybe even the location of a man who might, in the future, plant such a bomb. At that point, control is lost. Furthermore, the idea of official torture creates a climate in which appalling abuses like Abu Ghraib occur. (It's cultural also - I notice the BBC series Spooks seems to have internalised the zeitgeisty view that torture is okay; in fact, rather fine in a manly kind of way.) Whatever the actual chain of command that led to this, the moral chain of command is clear. Intellectual legitimacy was given to this view by arguments like those of Alan Dershowitz who admitted torture was a step backwards but, sometimes, civilisation has to take two steps backward to move three steps forward and it is better to have formally regulated torture than unacknowledged backroom torture. John Gray, however, used the legitimation of torture as evidence of his conviction that there is no such thing as progress. This makes more sense as it rests on a more persuasive definition of civilisation, not as an absolute progression, but as temporary respite from at least some aspects of our fallen condition. To Gray, torture is an inevitable human crime that, with luck, we can periodically suppress. I take this to be a validation of Sullivan's view that torture must be absolutely forbidden. The reason is that civilisations can only exist on the basis of absolutes. These may be delusory, they may be brutal, but their role is vital - the sustenance of a civilisation's self-belief. Via Christanity and the Enlightenment, our civilisation is based on the irreducibility of the individual, on restraint and on the quality of mercy, on, in fact, the absolute wrong of torture. Maybe we can fight a war better with torture, but only by sacrificing our civilisation, which is what Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld chose to do. And it is the fact that they, not their underlings, did it that raises the stakes so high. Politics will decide what will be done about this sad episode of American history, but, for the moment, go, Andrew, and have a good one.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Westfield, Property, Brain, Yoghurt

Time to invest in property - a banker says prices are going to fall heavily next year so it's boom, boom, boom. That's all I have to say as I just visited the Westfield shopping centre in what used to be known as Shepherds Bush and my brain has gone yoghurt; in fact, I'm now not entirely convinced it wasn't all a dream. 

Pity the Poor Banker

I see - so our banks fell for a pyramid selling scheme. Is anybody anywhere ever going to believe a word a banker says? They do seem to be the most pathetic creatures.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Hallelujah it's the X-Factor!

Watching The X-Factor - as I did, I think, for the first time last night - is a wonderful endorsement of the view that failure, misery and loneliness are good for you. There's just too much happiness, not to mention ecstasy, on show. Also I don't like the look of a lot of pumped-up, screaming people in a confined space. I was in such a situation when I sat in on a recording of some Ant & Dec show and, to be frank, it did not smell good. But, of course, the really strange thing about The X-Factor last night was that the two finalists were required to sing Hallelujah - a song about my old friends misery, failure and loneliness decorated with the image of David and Bathsheba. Odd really to see it used/murdered here, but quite funny. Oh and, Iain, Hallelujah is not by Jeff Buckley. It is by Leonard Cohen and it took him a year to write. I think he deserves the attribution.

August, Arthur, After

In The Sunday Times today:
1)I interview Tracy Letts, writer of August: Osage County.
2)I review the new biography of Arthur Miller.
3)I ponder the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Britney Spears' Rack

Ben Goldacre exposes the nonsensical equations generated by William Hartston about, not to put too fine a point on it, Britney Spears' rack. Fair enough, I suppose, though I'm not sure it does that much harm to the cause of science. But how much harm have the idiot wonks in Downing Street done with their breaking of their boss's rules about the use of statistics? Goldacre wants to preserve the purity of science, Hartston and the wonks want to corrupt it to their own ends. This raises the question: is there purity in science? It would be nice to think it is represented by the wonderfully dessicated - and named - Sir Michael Scholar of the UK Statistics Authority. And I cannot ignore the fact that Primo Levi clung on to thoughts of the periodic table in Auschwitz. But I'm not sure the line between the pure and the human is ever all that clear.

Even More Word News: Devastated

Both Ed Stourton and Carol Vorderman are 'devastated'. People are always 'devastated' these days. I wonder why this word seems to be so necessary. 'Upset' is a bit weak, I suppose, and 'shocked' doesn't suggest any harm to the person. 'Violated' is, perhaps, a little intimate and 'depressed' carries overtones of mental illness. Personally, I'd go for 'pissed-off', it signals that your pride is intact and will make people want to buy you a drink. But, to be honest, if Ed and Carol want to feel 'devastated', well, so do I.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Yet More Word News

How can we resurrect the word 'fine'? I just received an email from a PR saying 'Okay, fine' and I immediately assumed I had offended her, though I cannot imagine how. 'Fine' has come to suggest either a flounce or something not quite good enough - 'Yes, it's fine' means 'it barely passes muster' or 'I lack the energy to put this horseshit right'.  But this, surely, is not what 'fine' is for; surely is should stand for something wonderful, elegant, superior. You don't agree? Fine.

Al Qaeda Eyes

My attention is drawn to a slightly odd use of a photograph by CNN. How did they know they had the right person? And, having only her eyes to photograph, how did they manage to give her red-eye? It's quite easy not to do this.

European Politics Explained

If the Americans have no press and no cars, how are they going to drive down to the store and pick up a paper to read about the latest fascinating developments in European politics? Speaking as a Europhilephobe, I think I can help. Basically, guys, Euro-pols are currently kicking the Irish until they give the right answer which is, 'Yes, yes, dammit, stop kicking me!'. The Germans, meanwhile, think Gordon Brown is wrong about everything and this makes Ed Balls cross.  The Czechs are upsetting David Cameron, but I don't understand this, and, meanwhile, the Poles want to burn lots of polluting brown coal because it gets cold in Poland and they quite like the idea of global warming. Oh and we don't want to invade the Congo and a move to set the Barclay brothers on Mugabe may well prove a tough sell with the French. All clear? Jaw-jaw, as Churchill said, is better than war-war, but sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

Every Flight in the World

It's weirdly hypnotic and, somehow, pathetic, the way we just rush about in our thin film of air. The flights in and out of Atlanta - third vid down - are very ant-like.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Loud Voicers - We Must Have Pity

I am killing time reading Private Eye in a pub in Soho when some youngish, affluent people come in. One of them is a beefy girl who stands at the bar thinking for a moment and then starts ordering, complete with footnotes and digressions. Her voice is so loud that I and the other lonely drinkers reflexively attempt to cover our ears with our shoulders. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I can't shout as loud as that. I have to leave. Outside on the pavement she is still clearly audible. How do people get through life without discovering they are deafening everybody in the immediate vicinity? The loud or, more insidious, penetrating voice is an appalling handicap. Is there no caring body to which these people can turn? It would make a most moving subject for a Radio 4 Appeal delivered by Stephen Fry.

Book Sex

'The men polled said they would be most impressed by women who read news websites, Shakespeare or song lyrics. Women said men should have read Nelson Mandela's autobiography or Shakespeare.' People, it seems, lie about what they have read to impress others with whom they plan to 'bump uglies' as Turk puts it in Scrubs. News websites? Why's that a turn-on? Shakespeare - fair enough, but the word's just mood music really. I suppose the Mandela shows you are nice and feeling. I haven't read it, obviously. The crucial sexual aspect is, sadly, left out of this rather ponderous discussion of great books in which the Encyclopaedia Britannica has tried to interest me. Pity. I would have liked to know how far Schopenhauer will get you. But a point is being missed here. What would be most attractive is not the worthy, boastful reader, but rather the discovery that your lover has read the same fantastically obscure book as you. 'What you too have read Julian Jaynes' The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind! Take me now!

Fire Sale

More deaths on TV. This time it's Gordon Brown and Britain. Brown, as Martin Kettle points out, uttered a career-defining/ending revelation in the Commons when he said, 'We not only saved the world....'  In fact, he's been doing this for a while. On Mumbai he started a sentence with the words, 'I think I speak for the world...' One wouldn't mind were it not the the fact that he can't save Britain. Our financial position is now truly nightmarish and, humiliatingly, the Germans have noticed the ineptitude of our policies. The fire sale at Woolworths is, under the circumstances, an all too obvious image of the nation's plight. Probably we should do a Bear Stearns and sell ourselves to J.P.Morgan. After all a country can't be allowed to fail like Lehman Brothers. Can it?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Death on TV

Nige beat me to a post on this story. And, of course, he's right, the moment of death has become a taboo. This was first identified in 1955 by Geoffrey Gorer in his essay The Pornography of Death. Gorer compared our queasiness about death with the queasiness of Victorians about sex. This was taken up by the great Philippe Aries in his book The Hour of Our Death. It's obvious that the reaction to the TV show betrays a fear of exposing what should not be exposed, that seeing death is, somehow, unhealthy. But, as Aries shows, watching death was once see as very healthy, indeed edifying. The good death used to mean passing away in full awareness, your affairs - spiritual and worldly -  in order and your family at your bedside. Obviously this is not quite the same as dying on prime time, but is that just the way we do it now? I wouldn't want to die on TV, but I'm not that worried about watching somebody else do it. Either way, you're not going to live to regret it.


Sark seems to be voting  for or against the Daily Telegraph. It is a good basis for the island's first election. I dimly remember going to Sark and being told that the neighbouring island of Alderney was no more than a bunch of drunks clinging to a rock in the Channel. There are some elements of pot and kettle in this since my last memory of the place involved the consumption of heroic quantities of sloe gin and the worst hangover of my life. But I am sure they will approach the important issue of the Daily Telegraph with all the earnest sobriety it deserves.

Bush Goes Randy

I'm worried about George Bush. His low approval ratings have finally got to him and, in the last days of his administration, he has decided to adopt Randy Newman's Political Science approach. He has just enacted a law which allows concealed, loaded guns in national parks. This is comically wicked - rather like cancelling Christmas or culling polar bears. On his last day in power I anticipate the nuking of the Lake District for its continued refusal to allow the bearing of concealed, loaded guns by visiting Americans.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Don't Watch the Cats

In the continued absence - or, more correctly, dissipation into dead tree media - of my higher thought processes, I must thank Andrew Sullivan for the light relief of The Ten Greatest Videos of Animals Playing Sports. Don't watch number 5, cats are involved. 

Still too Busy to Post

Monday, December 08, 2008

Repro Bank

A busy day has got in the way of the vital matter of blogging. So just to say I heard on Sky News that the Lehman Brothers boardroom in London was furnished with fake Chippendale. Is there no end to the horrors emerging from this crisis?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

On Asteroids

And, on the matter of risk, how are we to respond to the possibility of an asteroid impact? There's running around screaming, of course, or, at the other end of the scale, there's the if-an-asteroid's-got my-number-on-it shrug. The anti-asteroid programme being suggested is over at the screaming end of things and seems to be a very ambitious attempt to make the universe a bit safer for people.  The short-sighted dinosaurs never saw the need. I am tempted to see such impacts as forest fires - violent but necessary. After all, if the one that wiped out the dinosaurs hadn't happened, the mammals could never have made their move. Come, friendly asteroids, and fall on earth.

Awkward Questions

I remember chatting to Claus von Bulow at a party long ago. I was carefully avoiding any mention of his wife when some bloke came up and plunged straight in - 'How's the wife?' He was perfectly happy to discuss the state of her health and, indeed, the charge that he poisoned her. The moral is: always ask the awkward question because it probably isn't. The next time I run into Gordon Brown I intend to ask him if he really does have a ping-pong ball in his mouth.

Rise of the Minigarch

I am told that many oligarchs in Russia are now known as minigarchs. They're down to their last £100 million.

Comic Book Guys

And, while on the subject of intelligence, Frank Rich wonders if Obama is making the Kennedy mistake of thinking clever people understand the real world. It depends what you mean by clever, of course. There's clever meaning stupid, as in those bankers and mathematicians who created VAR, or there's clever meaning smart, as thinkers like Nassim who can both talk the talk and walk the walk. The difference is the degree of attachment to the real world, Nassim being very attached. Yet cleverness tends to be associated with detachment, valuable in the case of Einstein, fatal in the case of anybody with power. The image that should haunt us all is that of Comic Book Guy, the cleverest man in Springfield. 

Saturday, December 06, 2008


I just heard a man - well, a financial 'expert' - say something like, 'If you do not understand risk, do not invest in the stock market.' Ahem, well, excuse me. Let us be clear - over the past twenty years no 'expert', no financial journalist, no broker, no politician, no trader and, above all, not a single banker has shown the slightest understanding of risk. Of all the astounding revelations that have emerged from this crisis, none is more staggering that the continued deployment by the banks of a mathematical system called Value at Risk. This involves some very sophisticated mathematics designed to console. Some grand fromage at Goldmans or wherever would daily be told that his 'value at risk' was x, he would smile and calmy spend the day drinking camomile tea and thinking he was a master of the universe. But VAR is nothing more than the bell curve in a fancy suit. The bell curve is useless in assessing complex system. Almost everybody outside the financial system has known this for years. But people in the City were too stupid and too impatient to read academic papers and they sat back with their VAR report thinking everything would happen inside the bell curve and anything that didn't couldn't possibly matter. What real statisticians and scientists know and what should be the lesson that sinks in from this crisis - but it won't - is that catastrophe will happen, it will happen sooner than you think and its impact will be worse than you expect. Get used to it, guys - but you won't.

On the Matter of Emission

I've been saying this for years.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Party Time

This being this time of year, I ask: what is the correct arrival time protocol? I am inclined to turn up at parties early, but, in this, I am regarded as irredeemably gauche. Turning up late and appearing, therefore, busy and hard to get is the preferred style of the socially adept. Indeed, at some, as it were, professional parties, it is the done thing to turn up five minutes before the end, grab whatever freebies are on offer, sign the guest book to satisfy the public relations people and rush home to curl up in front of Men in Black. But I still regard turning up anything more than half an hour after the start time as, somehow, wrong, against nature, if you will. Am I alone in this?

The Bored Need-a-Laugh Caption Contest

Shannon Matthews

The Shannon Matthews case - deftly summarised by Andrew Norfolk - was very 'fish and chippy'. This is an expression Fleet Street newsdesks  once used. It meant that a story was sordid and low life. They didn't say this out of snobbery, they said it because such stories should not be given too much prominence - or reported at all - because they were simply grim and added nothing to human wisdom. That's all changed, of course, fish and chippiness is now the media's default mode. TV news bulletins at 6pm blithely detail crimes that were once never discussed and the newspapers report Matthews-like cases in frenetic and slavering detail. The inevitable 'public interest' line has emerged - was this another social services cock-up? - so the fish and chips are now flavoured with the salt and vinegar of social concern. Well, yes, but anybody who thinks that's why the media was reporting this in such detail is, of course, naive. But why do we report it? Because, I suppose, it's exciting in a ghoulish, lurid way and because it makes people feel that, however bad they are, they're not this bad. But there's another aspect to the meaning of 'fish and chippy'. It also means routine, it contains within it the wisdom that, however good our social services, however concerned out society, children will continue to be abducted, abused and exploited, probably at more or less the same rate as they have been throughout history. It may seem a terrible thing to say but child abuse is a banality, an evil banality certainly, but a banality nonetheless. Maybe we can do a more now to limit the damage, and so we should, but I doubt that we can do much. These stories are blank walls on which we scribble our fantasies and our need for moral sustenance. Perhaps they should be put back in the file labelled 'too fish and chippy'.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

She's Back!

Oh all right, Gwyneth's latest is in.  It's full of - eeeurgh I can hardly bring myself to write this - holiday gift ideas. But don't forget: 'There are big gaps to make up this year for charitable organizations, giving is down and people need help. Donating to your local foodbank is always a very good idea. So whatever you can, on whatever scale you can. It's all about the intention.' I'm going for the Bamboo Utensil Set at only $24.74. It's recycled. 

The Iodine God

'Iodine deficiency results in a needless loss of 1 billion IQ points around the world.' Well thanks for that Nicholas D. Kristof, though I fear that such an exotic quantification may impair the undoubted strength of your case. The readers is pulled up short by a series of intrusive thoughts - 'Hang on that's only one sixth of an IQ point per person, no need for me to worry - Oh and IQ is now known to be culturally determined so how can points be meaningfully aggregated across cultures? - And, hey, what would it be like to have an IQ of one billion? - Oh, wait a minute, I have... 'People of the world, do not be afraid. I am your new god. Call me Iodine, I am here to help.'' 

The Difference between Television and Radio

Somebody says to me- 'Television distracts you from what you're not doing; radio distracts you from what you are doing.' This sound good but is it right?


I've had a vague sense that the outrageous plundering of Damian Green's office reminded me of something. This story made me realise what it was - the Watergate break-in. Have we at last found, in Brown, our own Nixon? 

More Word News

I posted recently on the viral spread of the word 'look'. On both sides of the Atlantic interviewees on television and radio were beginning sentences with 'Look....'. It's irritating because, as I said, it suggests either brutality or lies. But is 'look' now being replaced by 'so'? I just heard somebody talking about something or other in the Today programme beginning every sentence with 'So...'. The word suggests a highly connected and relevant sentence is about to follow but its continued use - it really was like a facial twitch - undermines this by implying the speaker has no idea what he is talking about and is desperately relying on 'so' to provide the illusion that he does. Is there, I wonder, some kind of interviewee-training guru putting them up to this - saying, perhaps, that these pointless words provide a valuable micro-second of thinking time? If so - whoops there I go - he is either a fool or a brilliantly subversive wit.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Which Part of 'It's Over' Don't You Understand, Mugabe?

For some reason Harrison Ford movies produce memorable lines. There was, of course, Blade Runner and Roy Batty's dying speech. There was also the brilliant exchange with Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive - Ford: 'I didn't kill my wife', Jones: 'I don't care.' Tom Stoppard once admitted to me that he found that line as thrilling as I do. But there's also also a line in Witness when Ford confronts an armed bad guy and says simply, 'It's over.' The bad guy capitulates. He has been overwhelmed by the logic of his situation. There's no longer any point in being bad. Why, one wonders, does this never happen to Robert Mugabe? He is surrounded by evidence of his abject failure and wickedness and yet still he clings on. In fact, you don't even have to seek out such extreme examples. I've known - and still know - petty tyrants who are plainly doing nothing but harm and yet they persist. This preoccupies me because I keep wondering what I would do if I were such a failed tyrant. I think I would capitulate, not because I am especially virtuous but because my mind is easily changed and I have little sense of my own importance to anybody but myself. This makes me amazed and usually appalled at the spectacle of the 'strong' leader - or, perhaps, any leader. How, on earth, do they do it? What do they think they know that gives them any expertise in running the lives of others? Sorry, strange stuff, but that's the way I am this morning.

Brit's Haircut

Great Brit, formerly of this blog, is up and posting at Think of England - a very demanding title, how does one think of England these days? Read the terrifying social comedy/tragedy of his haircut now.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Another Appleyard on the Turner Prize

Read this at once. The dynasty-forming project is going well.

The Baseline Anxiety

Okay - movies, books and now anxieties. Oddly enough, an asteroid strike is not one of mine, though it seems to concern Professor Richard Crowther. Neither am I prone to hypochondria, though it's new web incarnation - cyberchondria - sounds entertaining.  This was research by Microsoft so it's no surprise that they conclude that desperate surfing to discover the cause of that appalling pain in your chest and a sudden and unprecedented desire to pray can lead to 'significant interruption at work'. My baseline anxiety is a journey that goes horribly wrong - it haunts my dreams - forgotten passports, lost luggage, arrest as terrorist etc etc. This is a very modern anxiety brought on by the cunning way airports have been designed to make you worry about everything.  Also, of course, travel often does go horribly wrong so, unlike asteroids, the threat is scarcely remote. Oh and machines breaking down - planes, obviously, and, since a 747 once did when I was on the flight deck, I feel I am being entirely rational. Long term readers will know I have gone some way to solving this problem by always travelling with a poached egg in each pocket

How Not to Battle Obesity

Canada, as ever, doesn't get it.

The Baseline Book

Okay, you've given me your baseline movies, what about your baseline books? I can remember when mine was The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill, then it was Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then it was Nabokov's Lolita. But now I don't seem to have one. Poems yes - Intimations of Immortality, The Skaters etc - but whole books, no. This is not, remember, a question of great books, but of books one rereads for the consolation of familiarity. You?

Jamie's Mag

I am - who wouldn't be? - intrigued by the new Jamie magazine, not least because it has one of the worst cover lines ever - '48 Hours in Stockholm'. Gosh, there's a must read if ever there was one.

Monday, December 01, 2008

American Airlines Loves Me

And something else of which I'm slightly ashamed - my pathetic glee at finding myself an American Airlines Platinum Member, elevated from the ranks of the gold peons. The card came in the post with a platinum-coloured 'Benefits Guide' which I read from cover to cover. I have trashed the idea of loyalty cards recently, but, somehow, airline ones are so much more glamorous than the rest - even when it's from the often rather shabby American. It's to do with the public nature of travel, the visible status involved in, for example, always being able to check in at the first class desk - one 'benefit' now available to me. It's pathetic I know, but, in spite of rumours to the contrary, I am only human.

The Baseline Movie

Does everybody have a baseline film that they watch - something utterly undemanding and familiar? I have two - Men in Black and Men in Black II. I've probably watched each half a dozen times. I cannot explain why. It's a slightly shameful admission, surely I should be watching nothing but Tarkovsky and Bergman. But I was consoled recently when I heard that the great director Terrence Malick watches Zoolander over and over again. The MIBs and Zoolander have something in common - I think it's timing. This lulls and relaxes. Anyway, I just wondered if I was alone in this.

Efficiently Meeting Marilynne

Here is a long interview with the great Marilynne Robinson in the Paris Review. It's very good, though there's nothing in there that I didn't get from Marilynnne when we met and much that isn't in there that I did. (A good deal of this was not included in The Sunday Times piece for reasons of length.) But what is striking about the article is the author's statement in the introduction - 'For this interview, we met on six occasions over a five-month period.' Bloody hell. I spent half a day interviewing Marilynne. Sometimes I just feel so.... so... so... efficient.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Book Endures

But, on the other hand, James Gleick in the NYT makes a stirring case for the (upmarket) survival of another dead tree technology, the book.
'What should an old-fashioned book publisher do with this gift? Forget about cost-cutting and the mass market. You won't win on quick distribution, and you won't win on price. Cyberspace has that covered.
'Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it.'
Ditch downmarket - it is the way of the future.

Pym, Hampden and Damian Green

And, of course, the death of newspapers is a threat to democracy. I don't like to say things like that because there are certain people who squeal about the death of democracy every other day. Blair took a lot of flak from them. But, on the whole, I thought that, under Blair, Mandelson and Campbell would always be contained by a certain sinuous irony in their boss. Brown, Mandelson and Campbell, however, appear to be a different matter. I don't believe the denials, the arrest of Damian Green is a nasty and sinister set-up. Cameron is right to jump on this. It is not hyperbole to evoke 4th January 1642 when Charles 1st entered the House of Commons to seize his opponents and thereby precipitated the Civil War. Brown is a dangerous man.

The Serenity of an Old Hack

There was a depressing piece about the decline of newspapers in the FT and, today, there's an even more depressing piece on the same subject by Maureen Dowd in the NYT. In fact, neither article mentions one of the most ominous developments for papers - the sudden rise of the netbook. Online newspapers have been held back by portability. Phones are too small and laptops too large and expensive to compete with the dead tree product. Netbooks are small, light, cheap and flying out of the box shops in Tottenham Court Road. They fit in the inside pocket of a Barbour (I tried yesterday). Assuming wireless connectivity becomes commonplace and free in the near future, netbooks or something similar will do yet more damage to circulations. This will accelerate the inevitable cull of titles, leaving only a few upmarket papers - downmarket ones already do not make sense - that can charge for online access. In this climate I console myself that it's better to be an old hack than a young one and even better, of course, to be an upmarket one.

For Jorn Utzon

The Sydney Opera House is the most perfect use of a site in modern architecture. In combination with the Harbour Bridge, it forms one of the greatest urban spectacles in the world. And now Jorn Utzon is dead.


In The Sunday Times I write about Outnumbered, the best British sitcom in years.

Friday, November 28, 2008

For Rauschenberg

I was obliged to go to North Acton this morning. I had to walk about half a mile from the underground station. The walk took me along an alley sandwiched between a graveyard and the railway tracks. It was littered with dead leaves, plastic bottles and sodden newspapers. The steel railings, warehouse walls and lamp posts were all covered with graffiti. A mournful sign on the railway tracks said 'Whistle'. It was cold and raining. I would not, on balance, walk through there at night. But this morning it made me deliriously happy for reasons I did not at first understand. Then I realised this place had been romanticised and redeemed by the work of that recently late and timelessly great artist Robert Rauschenberg. And it was Rauschenberg, I also now realise, that prompted me to take the above picture on a quite different occasion.

Mumbai 2

CaptainB removes some of the opacity of Mumbai.

Long Live the Recession

We seem to be gambling in a V-shaped recession, that it will all be over by Christmas '09. I see no basis for this hope. We have emerged from a credit-fed boom. It is certain that credit will not return to previous levels, so even if we do emerge from the recession, growth will be slow or non-existent. In addition, people are giving up spending on a large scale. Stephen S. Roache points out that the decline in US retail spending has been the sharpest ever. This is not a bad thing- consumer spending was accounting for 72 per cent of the economy, which is absurd. In fact, I'm not sure any of this is a bad thing. London became a nastier place during the boom. Funny money corrupts and depraves. But present policies seem designed to restore a climate of easy credit and high consumer spending. They will, if people have any sense, fail. A longer recession will give us more time to root out delusions.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Inner Kettle

Oh dear, Gwyneth has been in touch again. It's a pretty clear case of stalking. The latest missive from Goop consists of a series of meditations on Thanksgiving. I particularly liked this lady's thought - 'Fill your inner kettle with love and hope and you will know what it is to be thankful.' I would but I'm not sure which is the spout.

The Weird Wonder of Woolworth's

Having injected a new rationality into our  view of bankers - thick, two-bit grifters, basically - the Crunch/Crash/Bad Thing is now turning its clear-eyed gaze on the High Street. I mean Woolworth's - what was that all about? Was it, in fact, a shop or some kind of hammy simulacrum? The last time I was inside one - in Fakenham - it never even crossed my mind that they were trying to sell me something. It was like a museum of the early fifties with Britain just poised to escape from austerity. I think at least one branch should be saved for the nation - perhaps the V & A can get involved. The High Street will now make a little more sense, though our hopes for any greater level of coherence must await the disappearance of W.H.Smith.

Good Cops

I have always regarded the British police with disdain, both here and in conversation. Almost every contact I have ever had with them provided clear evidence of a decayed and demoralised institution. All that has changed. My wife had her bag stolen yesterday in All Bar One in Notting Hill Gate. About five hours later I was out at dinner when a policeman called to say they had caught the thieves. They then went to enormous trouble to contact my wife at another restaurant, her mobile had been in the bag. There has been a rash of such thefts - apparently in the same place - and the police had been watching the gang of three responsible. I think my wife's case sealed their fate as they followed them until the tried it again (this seems to have been a very dumb gang). The police involved were intelligent and sensitive and, above all, they caught the bastards. From now on, in my book, the cops are okay. Mind how you go.


What does one say about the attacks in Mumbai? Emitting the sort of pious condemnations required of politicians is worthless and attempting to understand the context is futile. Furthermore, the attackers seem to belong to a previously unknown faction. So one cannot even make sage judgments about Al Qaeda strategy - the Deccan Mujahideen may be unconnected. Then there is the strangely chaotic, almost random nature of the DM's tactics. This is, in short, a curiously and frustratingly opaque event - at least for the moment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Stupidity Explanation

Were the bankers who landed us in this mess wicked or stupid? It has to be one or another. Some are now going for stupid, see Friedman and Lewis. I think this is right, but it's a particular kind of stupidity - the stupidity of isolation. I've blogged in the past about the loathsome behaviour of City boys and hedgies at the height of their success. It was the behaviour of people without culture and without any sense of their connection to other people. They were isolated within their own phenomenally narrow set of values. Such isolation breeds stupidity because judgment is discarded as it might threaten the gamblers' groupthink. Outsiders are mocked because they 'don't understand'. And it's true, we didn't, we just thought they did and we were wrong.

Poet Laureate Prynne?

Musing about a successor to Andrew Motion as Poet Laureate, Charlotte Higgins boldly throws the hat of J.H.Prynne into the ring. I'm with her on this if only because I like the thought of the incandescent, uncomprehending rage of Big Phil on encountering poems like On the Matter of Thermal Packing. God knows what he'd write when the Queen dies. But, Prynne aside, who else is there? In terms of sheer quality, Geoffrey Hill should get it, of course, but he's difficult, old and infinitely unclubbable. Given that we don't have a spare Dryden, Wordsworth or Tennyson, all previous laureates, lying around, I suspect it will be Wendy Cope or Roger McGough, both of whom would be solid on the subject of a dead queen, but, of course and as ever, I know nothing.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

World's Greatest Ever Picture Caption

From a genius at the BBC - 'Keeping upright for Cilla Black requires a lot more force.' There'll be plenty of nods of agreement in the clubs of St James tonight.

Death of the Big Three

Here's a striking suggestion - simultaneous bankruptcy filings from the big three American car makers. This, say the authors, would reduce stigma and would not be 'an indication that American manufacturers produce inferior cars and trucks.' But they do - the clearest evidence of which is the fact that Toyota's market capitalisation is now twenty times that of Ford, Chrysler and GM combined. It's simply not credible that there's nothing wrong with their products. Otherwise, the simultaneous filing makes perfect sense.

Ashbery on the Crisis

I am aware that I should have something to say - other than observing the baldness of Darling - about the latest phase in The Crisis. Alas, I seem to have nothing. Lots of other bloggers and columnists are banging away about this but my credulity has snapped. They're just pretending to know something and, alarmingly, clear ideological divisions are now appearing between neo-liberals and neo-Keynsians. This will have the effect of entrenching positions which - and this I do know - are wrong because not determined by reference to present reality. Indeed, they are smothering present reality. Far from knowing what should be done, most of us - actually all of us - don't know what is happening or has happened. 'Uncharted waters' is a phrase often used, which is true enough in its way but the full implications of the words are not understood. People tend to use the phrase as a prelude to the pretence that they know how to do the charting and, anyway, all waters are uncharted, a truth which the comment culture finds hard to accept. So sod them all, only great poets can handle this stuff. Here's Ashbery on the true meaning of uncharted.

Tomorrow is easy but today is uncharted,
Desolate, reluctant as any landscape
To yield what are laws of perspective
After all only to the painter's deep
Mistrust, a weak instrument though
Necessary. Of course some things 
Are possible, it knows, but it doesn't know
Which ones. Some day we will try
To do as many things as are possible
And perhaps we shall succeed at a handful
Of them, but this will not have anything
To do with what is promised today, our
Landscape sweeping out from us to disappear
On the horizon.

Monday, November 24, 2008

How to Battle Obesity

I think I can help the airlines in their present crisis. My recent jaunt was in a country of immensely fat people - fatter, in fact, than the Americans. Their internal flights, perversely perhaps, had a rigorous baggage weight policy. Check-in baggage could be no more than 15 kgs and carry-on no more than 7kgs. As I currently weigh under 71kgs, this made my total airborne weight 93kgs. Yet I saw plenty of people on these flights who weighed at least 90 kgs. This made their total airborne weight 112 kgs. I am being discriminated against for being thin. Why not, instead of baggage allowances, simply permit passengers a total airborne weight of, to be generous, 100 kgs? This would mean I could have 29 kgs of baggage and the 90 kg fatties could have 10 kgs. This would be a potent weapon in the battle against obesity as the more weight people lost, the better they could dress on holiday. 

My Thoughts on the Pre-Budget Statement

What's happened to Alistair Darling's hair? It seems to have vanished. The crisis is taking its toll. He was already grey, baldness was all his scalp had left by way of protest at his workload.

The Limited Forgiving of Lennon

There's an important omission from the Vatican forgiving of John Lennon for his Beatles more popular than Jesus remark. They don't say they forgive him for Imagine. As it is one of the soppiest, most irritating and vacuous songs ever written, I'm with Benny on this one.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama Art

Oh and read this, you bastards. Having me as a block, the chip needs all the help she can get.

Subjectivity, Science and the Off-Ramp

Blimey. That mild expletive apart, posting is proving difficult as I have the worst case of jet lag ever and one of the most persistent chest infections - both signs, I suspect, that life's off-ramp is somewhere round the next bend. My chest has never been much good - as a chest at least. Every winter for the last five years or so I have caught a cold that turns into a sinus infection followed immediately by a chest infection. The solution is two courses of antibiotics accompanied by inhalations of Seretide, a steroid in powder form which I suck in from a small hole in the side of a purple plastic flying saucer. Bones increased my Seretide dose this time round - yep, that's the off-ramp - and, returning for my second lot of antiobiotics, I remarked that this higher dose gave me a slight steroid rush. This rush will be familiar to anybody who has been on high doses of oral steroids - it's pleasant in that it gives you energy but unpleasant in that it destroys your concentration. Bones responded to my rush report by saying, 'Hmmmm, it's supposed to have only a local effect.' Translation: 'You're imagining the rush.' I found this troubling. Obviously, at one level, I simply can't be imagining the rush. Only I have access to this rush and, if I feel it, then it's happening. But that's precisely the kind of epistemology that screws up doctors and drugs companies. If they have to acknowledge the legitimacy of every reported side effect, then the warnings on American TV drug ads will wipe out the schedules, every time you turn on the TV on the Holiday Inn Express you'll be told that Seretide can give you a mild rush and the little slips of paper that come with your drugs will be replaced by telephone directories. They will say, of course, that I am not to be believed as Seretide's effect is purely local - probably an aspect of molecular size - but this is unpersuasive as we now know that drugs have wildly different effects on people, probably because of subtle genetic variations called riflips. This is all further confused by the placebo effect. It's worked on me - since encountering Bones's scepticism, I haven't been getting the rush. I might up the dose further just to convince myself a non-local effect is possible, so if the next thing you read is my obit, you'll know what's happened. This liminal land between subjectivity and science is, as ever, a fun and risky place to be.