Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Let's Hear it for Horace

With only two years to go I've been worrying about who to pick for my world-famous Jerk of the Decade award. Now, at a stroke, my problem has been solved. Step forward Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy, which awards Nobel Prizes for, among other things, literature. Horace the Swede says American literature just isn't good enough, not a patch on European. 'The US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.' This would explain some recent eccentric awards.... Well, Mr Engdahl is plainly a Grade A jerk and I can't imagine anybody coming up with anything more jerkish in the next two years, so yes, Horace, you are the Jerk of the Decade. (If, as chief and only judge, I may put in a personal word - it was that 'big dialogue of literature' that stitched up the deal for Horace. The language of the bullshitter changes little down the ages.)

Fern Flies In

Nothing from Gwyneth yet, but Fern makes an important contribution to the crisis talks.

Where Are All the Jews?

Of course, the real joke about this whole thing is that money has gone wrong and the Jews are on holiday  - well, not me, but I'm only half way there. Truly we are doomed. 

My Life is Good Because I Am Not Passive About It

Thank God for Gwyneth in these trying times. I've signed up for the newsletter.

Welcome to the Quantum Flux

The ideological chaos on the Republican side yesterday was understandable. The backwoodsmen persisted in thinking they were supposed to believe in the free market, apparently unaware that their party was penetrated some time ago by entryist neocons still in thrall to Irving Kristol's admiration of Trotsky's Fourth International.  Neocons are statists, $700 billion bailouts are approved by the politburo. What this made clear, yet again, is that the categories of right and left are now entirely meaningless other than as tribal badges. One stares in wonder at phenomena like Iain Dale's Top 100 Right-Wingers.  What can this mean? The confusion is compounded by the presence of the great Frank Field at 100. It's as if he's been paintballed by a bunch of giggling pol-geeks. I suppose people find it hard to accept the loss of these categories and the ensuing spectacle of a featureless flux of events and characters. Get used to it, geeks, and welcome to post-classical, quantum politics.

CNN's Living Golf and Dead Football

Waking horribly early, I turn on CNN to check how things are going end of the worldwise.  It turns out there is a show called Living Golf - well, it made me laugh. Also they did something about football - real football, guys. No matter how enthusiastic or informed they may be, Americans cannot talk about 'soccer' convincingly. They probably lack the psychic hinterland of fatigue, irony and suffering.

Frank O'Hara

Thanks to Frank for this excellent essay on the great - and, in Britain, hardly known - poet Frank O'Hara. In America he is just big enough to provide background commentary on big TV shows. I had forgotten 'we fight for what we love, not are' - an eloquent, spare and psychologically decisive dismissal of the politics of identity.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Flash: Civilisation Over

Civilisation appears to be having a near death experience. You read it here first. And, if Wall Street continues to plummet at this rate, last.

Conrad on Turgenev

'In truth, it is not the convulsed terror-haunted Dostoievski but the serene Turgenev who is under a curse. For only think! Every gift has been heaped on his cradle: absolute sanity and the deepest sensibility, the clearest vision and the quickest responsiveness, penetrating insight and unfailing generosity of judgement, an exquisite perception of the world and an unerring instinct for the significant, for the essential in the life of men and women, the clearest mind, the warmest heart, the largest sympathy - and all that in perfect measure. There's enough there to ruin the prospects of any writer.'

Funeral in Berlin

And, incidentally, there's a damn fine Jeff post to brighten your day. More than ever like being dead.  

Far Right Shock Horror

I see Austrians are rushing into the arms of the far right. This is probably a bad thing but it's curious how 'the far right' remains the ultimate scary political headline. 'The far left' should be more frightening as the left's corpse count in the twentieth century was much higher than the right's. But 'the far left' is still a rather cosy concept, as in 'poor dears, they meant well.'

St Pancras and Westfield

The beautifully restored St Pancras has been scarred by a terrible sign - dumb, blockish san-serif interrupted by a silly Gothic 't'. This is not funny. What is funny is the sign on the giant Westfield shopping centre that is about to transform West London. Having commissioned some rather refined architecture - not good, my pal Will Alsop did that wall of syncopated shades of a single colour much better twenty years ago, but not actually bad - they then stuck Westfield's horrible red sign with its student mag/burger bar lettering on the outside. This does not bode well for their 'vision'. But neither, I suppose, does the fact that by the time it opens next month nobody will have any money and the visionary halls of Westfield will be inhabited by tumble weeds and beggars warming their hands on the dying embers of 'international designer and luxury brands.' 


Back in the days when Condoleezza Rice and Jasper Carrott were an item - and why not? - Manchester City was a fantastically inconsistent team. Nothing changes. Money, Mr New Arab Owner, can buy you neither love nor a consistent City.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On Not Being a Ghost

I found myself talking to people about ghosting a book recently. This was because I had misunderstood the original approach - I thought I was being asked to be co-author. I would have done that as I liked the idea and the author. Also the money would have been pretty good - if, that is, I had been co-author, judging by Wikipedia, ghosts don't make that much. Unfortunately it turned out what he meant by 'co-author' was 'ghost' so I pulled out. Like accepting a knighthood, ghosting is something I feel I shouldn't do. Why? Writing for money is what I do and that's a kind of performance. Actors perform and they don't feel queasy about speaking with someone else's voice. So if writer equals actor, then ghosting should be just another job. But it isn't. Perhaps it's the journalism thing. I can't see anything wrong with a struggling novelist ghosting his way through the gas bills. I'd be pretty startled if he continued to ghost when he was making millions, but that's not an ethical matter. Journalism, however, implies an unspoken contract - a silent voice saying, 'Right or wrong, this is me.' Of course, the market demands one adapts one's voice. This is, at first, training and, perhaps later, compromise. You don't have to be a fully-fledged ghost to be a bit of a ventriloquist - operating a dummy that only looks like you. But the dummy, if consistent, has a kind of integrity and he doesn't try to hide the ventriloquist; in fact, they usually engage in lively discussions. When the ventriloquist is a ghost, the dummy is a disconnected other and that - call me a sentimental old fool - I can't handle.

Brown's Boozers

And Nick Cohen suggests - with very sound evidence - that drink may be Gordo's main problem.

Hedge Fund Britain

John Gray writes brilliantly on the true meaning of the crisis - the end of one extremely aberrant model of capitalism and the decline of American power. I like the idea that Britain is a hedge fund, I remember when we were an American aircraft carrier.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Jon Cannon's Cathedrals

I still think the BBC should be shrunk, but only shrunk, not extinguished entirely. Occasionally it justifies itself and the licence fee. It does so with Jon Cannon's How to Build a Cathedral. Passionate, lucid and utterly uncondescending, it inspires piety, that rarest and most valuable emotion. The lantern at Ely is the climax - as it should be.

Friday, September 26, 2008


Ah, I appear to be back. Blogger shot me down there for a while. Disturbingly, my stats seem unaffected by the lack of posts, suggesting I need not blog at all. But, somehow, I still feel have to get a grip on things before I put on the cloak of silence. Or not.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

All the News that Fits 2

I return to Blighty to find the place has gone quite mad. People are saying Gordon Brown made 'a good speech', one friend even enthusiastically sent me a link, on which I declined to click. To top that one of Gordo's 'advisers' has come up with a plan to allow Catholics and first-born daughters to succeed to the throne. Paul McCartney, meanwhile, is our latest attempt to bring peace to the Middle East. And you've broken Stuart. I blame all this light-headedness on 'Hank' Paulson's $700 billion plan to save Goldman Sucks. Don't be alarmed here, at least, sanity prevails.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Kind of Alaska

I am too jet-lagged to blog but I do feel I should celebrate my new-found enthusiasm for Tony 'every time I leave the house something dies' Russ. He is the author of three masterworks of Alaskan - well, to be exact Wasillan - life. If you want to know how to kill bears and stalk and kill sheep, Russ is your man.  That sublime Lancome rep, Sarah Palin, has truly put Alaska - well, Wasilla - on the map, right up there at the top left. Sure, she's thick as a brick, but I suppose the bears and sheep aren't too bright either.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Out here in the Big Apple one can lose touch with the important things in life.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Death of Capitalism Update

William Kristol and Paul Krugman say Comrade Paulson's $700 billion Great Leap Forward won't work. Kristol doesn't have an argument but Krugman says buying in toxic paper is beside the point, they money should be used to recapitalise banks. This would involve further nationalisation as the government would take equity in return for capital. Truly we are in a new world. Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sucks have admitted that they were wrong about everything. I expect there are a few 'investment' 'bankers' hunkered down like Hitler in his bunker, blaming it all on the cowardice and stupidity of of the American people, but, basically, the game is up. The effect of the 'innovations' in the financial system for the past 25 years has been entirely negative. This raises two questions: what, exactly, does 'free' mean in 'free markets'? Markets are a product of state action; all neo-liberal denials of this truth are as the babblings of the lunatics in Times Square. Secondly, will the bonus culture be allowed to continue? This encouraged deals that were risky for banks and the rest of us but not for the trader, a glaring absurdity. Bonuses have encouraged a generation of smart young people to do destructive things. Maybe now they can get round to reading books and stuff.

Back in the PRA

In New York unexpectedly. The last time I was in the States it was a capitalist country, but now that Comrades Bush and Paulson have seized the commanding heights of the economy it has formally been renamed the People's Republic of America. Thanks to Gapper, I see that Paulson in particular seems to have pulled off one of the good old commie tricks. As the head of Goldman Sucks he presided over the issue of toxic paper, an activity he now condemns as 'terrible, inexcusable'.  Ex-KGB Putin would be impressed. Soon we'll be seeing photos of Lehman staff outings with Comrade Fuld airbrushed out and Greenspan, of course, will become an unperson. Meanwhile, the news seems to be full of the closing down of some old rounders stadium. As Nige observed, this game is not cricket. Perhaps now the Americans have joined the cause of International Socialism, they can ditch rounders and 'football' and take up games that are actually watched by people in other countries. But I must go - there is a display of mass office worker gymnastics followed by joyous executions of thought criminals in Central Park. All foreigners are being driven out of their hotels to sing proletarian songs and applaud the Glorious Revolution. 

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Today in The Sunday Times I interview/sit at the feet of Marilynne Robinson. The picture is of her chair in the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

The Endarkenment

Right. I have controlled my anger sufficiently after my encounter with Professor Chris Higgins on the Radio 4 Today show this morning. The subject of our discussion was the resignation of Michael Reiss from the Royal Society, he was driven out because of some remarks he made about creationism. I commented on this briefly in an earlier post, deliberately refraining from going into the depths of this issue. After talking to Higgins, however, I cannot continue to be so restrained. First, a thought experiment for Prof Higgins. You are a biology teacher in an average, multicultural British classroom. Say 30 per cent have been brought up in and continue to adhere to one of the monotheistic religions. You are teaching Darwin and you begin by saying all their creation stories are 'complete nonsense' - not outside the realm of science, not even complete scientific nonsense, but complete nonsense. This is what you said about creationism in response to Reiss. At this point you have lost a third of your students. All Reiss did was suggest a sensible and humane way around this problem. Furthermore, how are you going to teach Darwinism to even the remaining 70 per cent without explaining what preceded it? It is one of the most grotesque and vulgar superstitions of contemporary scientism that science renders all previous forms of human wisdom meaningless.
In fact, since Prof Higgins kept doggedly repeating the same category error in our debate, I have a feeling he didn't believe a word of what he was saying.
Okay let's move to to Anonymous's comment on my previous post - 'The simple point you evaded is this: Do we believe it is possible to seek truth from observed facts?' Oi vei! Yes, Anon, I have read Popper and Kuhn. I could write a book about this - oh I have.  Well, Anon, it all depends on what you mean by a)truth b)observed and c)facts; I'll let you have 'evaded' even though I didn't. Are my thought processes and imagination 'observed facts'? If no, then observed facts are clearly not the road to Truth, though they may provide access to subsidiary truths. If yes - they are certainly observed facts to me - then we can seek but there's no prospect of us ever finding. Can we seriously expect science to explain the how and the why of my current desire to fry a tomato? Not now and probably not ever. And don't give me any contemporary neuroscience. I know what it says and there's nothing there about me and tomatoes. 
This leads on to the central point. I am perfectly happy to say that creationism has nothing to do with science and can be excluded from science lessons, subject to my condition that it is a necessary tool in the understanding of Darwinism and to Reiss's point that it may help in the teaching biology if it is accepted as a world view rather than simply something that is wrong. What I am not perfectly happy with is supporters and members of the Royal Society - the greatest and oldest body of its type in the world - stomping around saying creation myths are 'complete nonsense'. This is vulgar, philistine, inhumane, intolerant, wrong-headed and vicious. We live and die by metaphor - as the genius I write about tomorrow in The Sunday Times knows better than anybody - and these myths tell us deep truth about the human condition that are accessible in no other way. When we stop thinking like that we shall cease to be human which is, perhaps, what the Royal Society wants.
But it doesn't. The RS is a great and glorious product of the Enlightenment, which is why this should never have happened. At the heart of the matter is the delusion of certain scientists that they, uniquely, are the heirs of the Enlightenment and that this great cultural moment was primarily about the extirpation of religion. Tell that to two of the Enlightment's greatest figures, Isaac Newton and Samuel Johnson, I dare you. The Enlightenment was primarily about the spread of tolerance, of liberal human acceptance. Newton and Johnson would have poured such wondrous - and, of course, beautifully written - scorn on the hounding of Reiss that he would, by now, be RS president.
It has been said before, but it needs saying again. Scientific fundamentalism is no different from Islamist and Christianist fundamentalism. It is equally intolerant and an equal betrayal of the great institution from which it springs. We are, therefore, in the midst of The Endarkenment, an assault on reason by those who claim to be its greatest defenders. Good science has no need to fear creationism and it has certainly no need to fear Reiss's humane and thoughtful paper, which is what, incredible as it may seem, has led the Royal Society to disgrace itself in this extraordinary way.

All the News that Fits

It has been a momentous week. Ever since I failed to take him up on a lunch invite, Guido has gone mad - 'The FSA is depised and nobody in the City respects it.' Now let me see, how can I put this? Ah I know - who gives a flying frick what anybody in the City respects? The FSA may be hopeless, but in view of what the City has lately done to the world economy, jobs, lives etc - a trillion here, a trillion there soon adds up to real money, boys - we must all hope that whatever replaces it is loathed and feared by the City. And, speaking of City, Robinho scored on his first appearance and then discovered he was playing for a team with no defence to speak of. Don't worry, Robbo, unlike United, they are authentic. Meanwhile, I have probably met more geniuses than most. I was only absolutely certain of two - Samuel Beckett and John Ashbery - now I am certain of a third. See tomorrow in The Sunday Times. I think I just heard that J.K.Rowling, not a genius, is donating £1 million to the Labour Party because it helps children. Er.....? Is there something wrong with Blair's teeth? This is troubliing because American viewers of The Daily Show will be confirmed in their ancient prejudice about British dentistry. They're right, of course, but that's not the point.
Now I am off to White City to discuss the grievous stupidity of the Royal Society on Radio 4's Today programme.
That's the way it is this morning. Mind how you go. Good night and good luck.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Democracies at War

Tony Blair in The Daily Show makes a great deal of the statement that no two democracies have ever gone to war with each other. Georgia and Russia?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More Suicidal Advertising

Another inspired attempt to sell fewer PCs by drawing attention to the brilliance of Apple's ad campaign.

Richard & Judy Latest

I guess they won't have me on ever again.

Saggy Jeans Legal Horror

Oh cruel, unthinking judge.

Gordon Brown is Still There

I had forgotten about Gordon Brown. He still appears - doubtless due to some clerical error - to be Prime Minister. He is now more unpopular than anybody ever. I would like to think this is because he is a really bad PM. But it's probably less rational than that. In my case, I used to feel a wave of intense depression whenever he appeared on TV. Now I'm just embarrassed, as if the room is full of incredulous foreigners asking 'Why?'

Behind the Financial Crisis - the Wrong Drug

I went to see Pineapple Express. Why is the condition of being stoned so timelessly funny? It is the awkwardness of disconnected incompetence - 'It's almost a shame to smoke it. It's like killing a unicorn... with, like, a bomb' - which, after a moment's reflection, reveals itself as more true than the grace of connected competence. The City boys should have used dope rather than cocaine.

I Am Right Again. Sorry

Around August '07 I was in conversation with a rather grand City figure (RGCF). He was doing the 'we know a thing or two, Bryan' nonsense. The trick is to suggest there is some permanent financial wisdom passed on like fob watches from generation to generation. I pointed out the absurdity of this, saying, at one point, that Goldman Sachs was an upstart with a rather improbable and fragile business model over the long term. He fell about, suggesting, as everybody once did, that GS was a company staffed exclusively by geniuses who, in time, would not only take over the world but also produce great works of art in the process. I am afraid, therefore, I cannot help deriving some satisfaction from the disintegraton of the investment bank business model, a disintegration which is even now besieging the rather tatty Camelot of GS. I must look up that RGCF; I do love a good crow.

On the Dullness of Scientists

Scientists - they're so, so.... dull. The Royal Society of Chemistry ran a context to rename the Large Hadron Collider. The winner was Halo. Even Wired was struck dumb by the monumental dullness of this and has started its own contest. I expect the winner will be Zak. As far as I am concerned, it is Stuart and that's that. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Creationism and the Royal Society

This is so obviously scandalous that it barely requires comment. Reiss said nothing remotely objectionable. The Royal Society even acknowledges this but adds that his remarks 'could be misinterpreted'. So no member of the Royal Society has ever said or written anything that might under any circumstances be open to the merest scintilla of misinterpretation? Yeah, right.  Reiss only said that creationism should be discussed - I would add (and Dawkins agreed with me) must be discussed if Darwinism is to be understood. Lord Rees, the society's president, is a good man who has been involved in a very bad thing.

Guilt and the Apocalypse

So, to sum up, the banks have lost all the money they ever made - Nassim explains how - AIG has been nationalised prior, probably, to liquidation, Merrill Lynch and Lehman no longer exist and HBOS doesn't look too great. I find myself feeling nostalgic for the dim, distant days of Northern Rock, a memory of simpler, happier times when it was clear that only Gordon Brown's catastrophic chancellorship was to blame. But is there, in this context, such a thing as blame? There was, on Monday, an exchange on Newsnight between Jeremy Paxman and Diana Choyleva. She said the high liquidity, low interest rate policies of governments were to blame, the banks had, in effect, no choice but to take what we now know were insane risks. Paxman scoffed. But did she have a point? At the level of individual bankers, she did. They had to compete to survive. But, at the level of the banking system as a whole, Paxman was right to scoff. If banks were as smart as they claimed to be, they could have got together to assess and limit risk, but they didn't. Instead, they behaved like fools - except, of course, that they keep their bonuses. Choyleva, though she was defending the banks, could only do so by describing them as insensate beasts, reacting dumbly to their environment. They rise to partial consciousness only when demanding government intervention. Is this just the way of the human world or is it fixable, by, for example, as Nassim woud probably suggest, sacking all the statisticians?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Brokers Roaring Like Beasts

As the markets plunge, the wise and the cultivated will, of course, be reading this Auden poem. In particular, they will, with a wry smile, be noting these lines:
'But in the importance and noise of tomorrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse.
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.'
Yeats died 70 years ago on the eve of an earlier apocalypse.

Just Another Apocalypse

Human beings always believe that the present condition - especially if it is favourable to themselves - will persist into the future. They assume radical change is unlikely. Typical of this way of thinking is Guido's disturbing and, in the circumstances, very unconsoling remark, 'Wall Street will figure out a way of making money again'. Radical change, however, is normal. History is one apocalypse after another. So, when I asked John Gray how he thought the present financial crisis would end, he replied wisely, 'It will end with a different world. And not for the first time....' All detailed forecasting at the moment is absurd. I have seen one expert after another pretend that what is happening does little more than confirm the accuracy of their narrow perspective, in spite of the fact that, a few days ago their perspective did not include the collapse of Lehman, the sale of Merrill Lynch and the desperation of AIG. But it should be clear that the issue is no longer money or the cupidity and stupidity of bankers, it is politics. McCain was much quicker and clearer in his response than Obama. He said Wall Street greed had betrayed the American worker, thus confirming his new Palinesque, nativist position. Given the success of Palin, this is a smart, if cynical, move in that it seizes the economy, previously a McCain weakness, from Obama. I think Andrew Sullivan is wrong on this. It also builds on the fact that, in power and in spite of their rhetoric, Republicans have adopted hyper-Keynsian economic policies. This allows McCain to say he will intervene in the markets far more ruthlessly than the Democrats. If he wins, then the hope of the European bienpensants that America is destined to become 'more like us' will be deferred if not cancelled. America will become more like Palin's Alaska than Merkel's Germany. Balancing this, however, will be the increasing weakness of America. This had already become militarily evident; now it is clear that, financially, America is not the power it once was or thought it was. In August the falling dollar was leading to talk of China using the nuclear option of dollar sales. The dollar has since strengthened - was this quiet interventon by Hank Paulson and friends? If so, who is really in charge here? With American banks, especially in the case of Lehmans, now having their comfortably piratical ineptitude exposed, US credibility is at a very now ebb indeed. Apocalypse? Who knows? Personally I want America to remain as strong as possible. All the alternative global bosses seem so much worse in the sense of more alien to my way of life. But apocalypses are such routine events, we should learn to rise above such attachments. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, 'You find peace by coming to terms with what you don't know.'

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Hovis Identity

In between reading Penelope Fitzgerald - brilliant - and dreaming idly of bankers' bodies swinging from the lamp posts of Notting Hill - only a matter of time -  I have been pondering the new Hovis ad. It is a montage of historical events: Titanic, suffragettes, World Wars I and II, a Mark I Cortina and so on. All are experienced by the running boy with a loaf under his arm. Of course, this is just a way of saying the Hovis loaf goes back a long way. But it's the pay-off that intrigues. The mother calls, 'Is that you home, love?' The boy responds 'Yeah' with evident satisfaction. The word 'home' is made ambiguous - he is back in the house, but also he is at home in this history.  American advertisements are full of the joy of being at home in America, but British advertisers don't usually risk it for the simple reason that we don't feel at home in our history. But this boy is at one with the doomed tommies marching off to the trenches and the pithead confrontations of the eighties. Is this a change of heart or just another loafload of killer carbs?

Lehman 2

The important point in Gapper's article on Lehman Brothers is this: 'By doing so he (Dick Fuld) would tacitly have admitted that Lehman was worth merely the sum of its parts. In other words, all the effort he had invested over his career in making Lehman a match to Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch would have come to naught.' Gapper is, perhaps wisely, keeping a very narrow focus here. He is writing about Lehman as a specific failure. Fair enough, but, in view of the fact, also overnight, that Merrill Lynch was sold to the Bank of America, AIG begged for support and everybody is now waiting for the next big failure, Fuld's incompetence is merely an acute form of the chronic incompetence of the financial system as a whole. City boosters like Guido claim this is all part of the same old game. It isn't. Lehman lost everything it ever made - except salaries and bonuses -  but all the banks have now lost the investment profits they made in recent years. They have done so knowing they are, in practical terms, one big bank and, as such, their risks will be underwritten by governments. This market wasn't free, it was ineptly rigged. Governments will now have to use regulation to make banks as boring and safe as possible. If they want ultimate state support - and they always do when the chips are down - then that is the price they must pay.


Sotheby's shares were dropping last week because of rumours that the Damien Hirst auction that starts today would go badly. Lehman Brothers has just collapsed. The timing of the auction thus becomes very bad for Damien, but very good for future historians of the end of an era of foolish money. Unless, of course, investors decide Damiens are a safe haven. Folly can be very persistent.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Super Symmetry

Inspired, I don't doubt, by moi - no shame in that - Will Hutton links 2008 to 1979 and the power of financiers now to the power of the unions then. This symmetry is becoming an orthodoxy.

Palin's Small Town

Frank Rich draws attention to an aspect of  Palin - Nick Cohen's personal Zahir - that has preoccupied me, her claim to small town authenticity. 'We grow good people in our small towns with honesty, integrity and dignity,' she said her her acceptance speech. Well yes, as undoubtedly they do in their big cities. H, I and D are not monopolies of the rural backwater. Judging by my own experience, I'd say the proportion of lying, corrupt bastards in the country is about the same as it is in the city, though it is probably true to say they are less able to express their unpleasant personalities in a rural context simply because their behaviour is more visible. Perhaps it's different in the States, but I doubt it. Anywhere in the world, the virtues of the country are the virtues of non-human nature. But sentimental political rhetoric often evokes the small town as some kind of paradise of hard work and solid values. It is, in America especially, a right-wing thing. The Republican 'base' is seen as predominantly non- and anti-urban by cynical party operators who wouldn't know one end of a pig from another, with or without the aid of lipstick. The left, in contrast, is more sentimental about the city; experience of the ghetto of the sink estate is seen as the true badge of political authenticity. None of this is true of British political rhetoric. Nobody's going to try and run with the small town thing since John Major sort of tried to do it with cricket matches and old ladies cycling to church. Nevertheless, the British left broadly derives its own unspoken idea of authenticity from the city and the right from the country. The country pub bore spouting Daily Mail leaders and pining for the return of Thatcher is as much a national figure as the Dave Spart demanding more 'resources' for his latest scheme to alleviate poverty and fight racism on South London estates. The apparent success of Palin suggests small town sentimentality is still a very potent force in American politics. It relates, I suppose, to the yearning of a young country for the simplification of life, for an essential purity. I sympathise. The possibility of truly escaping to simpler, stranger places is one of the things about America that makes me think when I am not there that I should be. But Palin is all too obviously a fake and, for the moment, a puppet. Even if she weren't, I think in the real world I'd rather have an urban sophisticate of the right or the left in charge than a rural hick. Big politics is a ghetto, not a village.

Wilder's Bidet, Beckett's Hopes

Watching The Lost Weekend I found myself trying to remember an anecdote about Billy Wilder, his wife and a shower. Via the Google God, I found it. He was in Paris and his wife asked him to arrange for a bidet to be shipped back to America. This proved impossible. Wilder cabled home, 'Impossible to obtain order stop suggest you do handstands in the shower.'
This further reminded me of the importance of telegramese to artists of genius. I was once persuaded, against my better judgment, to write to Samuel Beckett in Paris - I knew him slightly - asking him about his hopes and resolutions for the new year. The telegram arrived - 'Hopes colon zero stop resolutions colon zero stop.' Christopher Ricks subsequently used this in his superb book Beckett's Dying Words as an example of Great Sam's mastery of punctuation.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Lehman Brothers Sign

An important, unasked question about the Lehman Brothers crisis is what will happen to their neon sign? I've have watched this sign entranced many times on Manhattan evenings. It is the most beautiful I have ever seen, a colourist of genius was involved. I don't care what happens to the bank, but the sign must stay.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Here to Help

A reader (Nick Cohen) writes, 'Bryan, I can't stop thinking about Palin. Does that make me one of those perverts one reads so much about in the Sunday papers?'
Dear Nick,
Of course, I am not sure which Sunday newspapers you are talking about, but I assume you are referring to the political commentaries in the 'heavies' in which case you are, I'm afraid, a pervert and, if you have a shred of decency, you should sign the Political Offenders Register at once. But take heart, though your condition is both incurable and terminal, it is not serious. Many, perhaps most, people around the world suffer from the same affliction and seem to lead otherwise normal lives, restricting their Sarahphilia to no more than ten or twelve hours a day in front of the computer, lapping up WiredAndrew Sullivan, Maureen Dowd, assorted feminists, Barack Obama, The Onion and a respectable slice of the 17 million Google results now generated by the Arctic Fox. You probably find yourself turning over and over in your mind intriguing details like the effect of Moose Killer on spectacle sales. I hope at least you have not sunk so low as to toy with your Photoshop. All I can suggest is that you eat your five portions of fruit and veg a day and set aside some 'Nick not Sarah time' in your local sensory deprivation chamber. But, if succumb you must, I hear the Agate Inn is quite nice. And, remember, I'm listening.
Caringly yours,
'Agony' Appleyard.

Gates-Seinfeld: Deep 2

Here we go again. Bill's acting seems improved, the family is wonderful and it's still deep. But I can only imagine it will increase Apple sales yet further.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Rooney's Pass

As it looks, judging by the comment flow, as though a freak accident somewhere beneath Geneva has destroyed all of the universe except for this small corner of Notting Hill and, as it appears that the worst football team in the world has suddenly defied all our expectations, I thought perhaps I should point out that the Wayne Rooney pass that set up Walcott's second bears comparison with Pele's pass to Carlos Alberto in the 1970 World Cup Final. I just thought it ought to be said even though you're all dead. 

The Randomness of Life and the Triviality of their own Existence

The Onion videos are always brilliant, but this is perfect. 'It sounds like the only answer for them is suicide.'

Damien Hirst

Damien Hirst was meeting and greeting his buyers at Sotheby's yesterday. Smart move. One art man told me the auction next Monday will account for 90 per cent of the turnover in next week's world art market. Only Hirst could pull off this direct to auction stunt. There have been equally popular artists before - Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton, Augustus John, Graham Sutherland, David Hockney - but Hirst lives in a world of hot money and hot media so the stakes are much higher. Walking round Sotheby's yesterday I was oppressively aware of the philistine power of sheer wealth. As Michael Craig-Martin said to me a while ago, the one thing you can say about the contemporary art world is that it is not Bohemian. But I was also oppressively aware of something I've noticed before - Hirst is a pre-modern artist, to be precise he is a Victorian artist. This has been evident from the beginning when his interminable variations on the theme of the memento mori quite clearly echoed those edifying pre-Raphaelite message paintings. Equally, his use of glass cases with formidably engineered frames for his sharks etc echoed the display cases in the Natural History Museum. And, finally, his decorative butterfly and spin paintings are almost absurdly Victorian-domestic - look at Paradise. At its best this nineteenth century style produces undemanding, pleasantly decorative effects; at its worst it produces the most astounding vulgarity. It's a long time since I saw anything quite as crass in a serious exhibition as Transience. This is kitsch for the rich. Hirst's genius lies in his acute sense of the market. These works make his rich patrons feel safe. Either they look simply nice or they wear their meanings on their sleeves. How can they go wrong, even at these prices? But, if you fear all this sugared gold is making you fat, go round the corner to Cork Street and the Bernard Jacobson Gallery. There you can see an an exhibition of difficult, beautiful works by William Tillyer, a real artist who couldn't enslave himself to the market if his life depended on it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Last Post

With the LHC about to be fired up in the next hour or so I feel I must post in spite of the fact that a night of magic with Nige has left me a little below par. The world might end - you read it here first - a prospect made more alarming by the fact that Kim Jong-il may not be around to see it. Meanwhile, John McCain would have been certain to win because all non-Americans prefer Obama.  As Randy Newman so acutely observed, the American 'base' is none too keen on the non-American world. If you really know what the LHC is all about, here is an excellent guide to the physics as opposed to the junk being emitted by the mainstream media. Oh and the world isn't really going to end today because they're only firing the proton beam in one direction - no collisions, therefore. No, wait a minute, a physicist just said, 'Don't worry', the phrase I like to think is inscribed on all airbags and oxygen masks. That's it. We're doomed. I'd just like to say...

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Afternoons Redeemed

An irritating afternoon made messy by PRs and television producers was suddenly redeemed by the receipt of a book - The Landscapist by Pierre Martory, translated by John Ashbery. The book fell open at a poem called The Return of the Birds, the second half of which I now quote to redeem all your afternoons. For copyright purposes I claim fair use, abject admiration and gratitude.
'And a thousand tongues
Chatter in the gathering night
Commenting on the journey and
The sanctuary found at last
And a thousand tiny brains
Who never knew that tree that night
And still found it as we come back
Perhaps always to the first stupor
Happy without knowing what happiness is
Knowing we are there where we don't know where we are.'

Toynbee is Almost Right

Since she abandoned her one time political god Gordon Brown and since I found myself drifting to the left, probably through thinking too much about America, Polly Toynbee has started to make some kind of sense. In fact, I find I agree with a surprising amount of this column. The truth is, I think, that the right has abused its three decades of ascendancy in economic thought (especially in the New Labour years) just as the left abused its previous ascendancy. The 1979 Winter of Discontent was the climax of the left's abuse and it now looks as though the Credit Crunch will be the climax of the right's. This analysis suggests a new Thatcher figure will emerge in about 2038 to break the power of corrupted organised labour. The same returns.

Max Ophuls and Happiness

Last night I watched Max Ophuls' magnificent Le Plaisir - if there is a greater master of the tracking shot than Ophuls, I do not wish to know. The last line of this film, based on Maupassant short stories, is, 'But, my friend, happiness is not a joyful thing.' This morning on my breakfast show I see a discussion about whether children should have happiness classes in school. This would, of course, produce a generation of depressives. Will we never stop whining about happiness and get on with the real business of life which is, my friend, reading the stories of Maupassant and watching the films of Ophuls?

Monday, September 08, 2008

A Foul Quest, Manco

It has come to my attention that, despite our best efforts, we have failed to get the title of the new James Bond film changed. It is still the clunky and barely literate Quantum of Solace. In one last effort to have the title changed at no additional cost to the producers save that of inserting a villain named Manco - very Bondian in my view - I have come up with the anagram in this headline.

Brownian Motion

Thanks to Guido. I am much taken with this statement of Gordon Brown's - 'My own response to the great challenges in my own life has been to confront them, resolute in the belief that there would always be something that could be done to overcome them.' It is obviously odd, therefore, that this is not his response to great challenges in his political life. He confronts nothing and, if he does have a resolute belief that something can be done, it is flawlessly concealed. Brown does not act, he is acted upon. Which is why it suddenly came to me that there is a perfectly named scientific metaphor for his conduct in power. He is the big blue ball, the little red ones are his allies, his enemies and events, dear boy, events.  

Poverty and the LHC

The former government chief scientist Sir David King, a good man, suggests we should redirect our research efforts towards the most pressing practical problems - climate change, African poverty - and away from particle physics and space exploration. This, of course, is the week in which the LHC - a wonderfully abstract and impractical way of spending several billions - is to be fired up for the first time. Personally I am drawn to the poetry and architecture of the LHC. Constructing large interior spaces to discover or express what is seen in any particular age as the ultimate truth of the world is a distinguished human tradition. On the other hand, Sir David may be right. People are dying in Africa and climate change may threaten our species so now is perhaps not the time to glory in abstractions. This reminds me of my teenage years when I decided not to follow the rest of my family into the sciences. I used to wonder about the difference between 'pure' and 'applied' maths. Could any maths be applied, could any be pure? Sir David's distinction may seem clearer, but I'm not sure it is. As in all religions, in science the abstract and the practical are entwined. We can't, for the moment, see the ethical content of the LHC, but one day, in the distant future, somebody will.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Epistemology of Sarah Palin

Of course, the Noble Lie is wrong-headed in the same way that all purely intellectual political analysis is wrong-headed. The intellectual thinks the masses are incapable of reason, which is true, but he then thinks that he is capable of reason, which is false. His idea of reason may be more sophisticated, but it is still subject to the same forces of irrationality as everybody else's. In all human beings, reason is just one form of commentary on the world; there are many others. Believers in the Noble Lie - or, indeed, PR, management consultancy, marketing and countless other contemporary delusions - reject this in favour of a commitment to their own rationality and expertise. They do not understand that democracy is intended to smooth out the irrationalities of the elites as much as those of the masses. That it does not always does so is neither here nor there, it does so more often than any other system. Palin is thus a creation of an anti-democratic and deluded rationality and of a failure to understand the sources of our knowledge. She is an epistemological error.

Sarah Palin and Global Warming

Of course, Palin is an environmental sceptic; this also enhances her standing as the unleasher of the chthonic forces of the 'base'. She will be further enhanced by the recommendation from the United Nations that we should eat less beef. The 'base' hates the UN as much as it loves beef and it loves beef as fervently as it disbelieves in anthropogenic global warming. This is a further example of the way in which contemporary conservatives do not understand conservatism. The primary message of environmentalism is that we should be very wary indeed of disturbing complex systems. It is now beyond doubt that we are disturbing the complex system of the planet by chucking 26 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. The effects of this are uncertain but they are not likely to promote human flourishing. Not disturbing complex systems is as true of the human world as it is of the non-human. Edmund Burke, the true conservative, was an early complexity scientist. In fact, it is the very essence of real conservatism not to want to disturb complex systems in the forms of human cultures and practices. It is baffling, therefore, that a proud badge worn by many contemporary 'conservatives' is that of eco-sceptic. Leaving out the science and the unknown outcomes, they should, on principle, reject any and all radical human disturbance of the planetary system. But, corrupted by anti-conservative ideologies like neoliberalism and neoconservatism, they don't.

Sarah Palin and the Noble Lie

Sarah Palin continues to swing through the media like a wrecking ball. Nick Cohen attacks American liberals for succumbing to hatred, Andrew Sullivan seethes at her long concealment from tough questioning, William Kristol hails her as an example of McCain's courage, Oprah is in trouble for not having her on the show and so on. The point on which all agree is that she is an attempt to activate the Republican 'base'. Peggy Noonan's open mike incident indicated that she thought this was futile as the 'base' is no longer what the Republicans think it is. The 'base' is, I suppose, the God-fearing, if not outright fundamentalist, patriotic, gun-toting, abortion hating working and lower middle classes. If Noonan is right and the 'base' has moved on in a way that the Republicans have not, then it is, presumably, because of Iraq and the perception of the limitations of American power and the economy, not least the oil price. Patriotism and God, however, remain intact so, in spite of everything, Palin may turn out to be very effective indeed. My own view is that, like many others, I am horrified at the prospect of her getting her hands on the nuclear codes, but I guess I feel the same about many politicians. My Palin theory, for what it is worth, is that she is a clear example of the Noble Lie. This idea, derived from Plato, is that the people must be shielded by various mythologies - religion, patriotism, whatever - because only a few high intellectuals can cope with the full glare of the truth. It is said that the neo-cons were much taken with the idea of the Noble Lie, as taught by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago and, by the left, that the WMDs in Iraq were a clear example of neo-con, Straussian manipulation. Maybe. But, whatever the potency of its specifically intellectual lineage, I do believe that a version of the Noble Lie is now generally accepted by democratic political establishments. It is a useful theory in a climate of media saturation in which sound bites and mood music are more effective than balanced analysis and in which power-hungry intellectuals are obliged to resort to manipulation - or lying as it is more properly called. The Republican 'base' - real or imagined - is predicated on a Noble Lie: that, with guns and fundamentalist Christianity, American can either conquer the world or render it permanently safe for the American Way. Nobody with any intelligence or experience believes this. Palin - I am assuming she is not Straussian - does, however, and it is the very fact of her evident conviction that makes her such a potent weapon. She offers the activation of the 'base' by saying it is still possible to believe in this particular Noble Lie. In this context, she can be seen to be the puppet of the lying elites, not, as some have suggested, an American Margaret Thatcher.

Whitehouse and Enfield

In The Sunday Times: I interview Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Do Not Look at This Picture

I am shocked - do you hear me? - shocked that my own daughter should stoop to the level of sending me this plainly doctored picture of a woman who may well be the next Vice-President of the United States. It should not be seen anywhere at any time ever.


Stephen Pollard and I have both been rendered speechless by shop displays of golliwogs. Mine was in a local seaside knick-knack/gew-gaw joint. I also discover a Gollyfest in the US. The supplier of the gollies in my shop do not list them on their site, so perhaps this is very old stock. Or are these things now acceptable? I think we should be told.

Gates-Seinfeld: Deep

I have almost too much to say about this so I am going to say very little. It is an ad for Microsoft starring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld. It is intended to be as groovy as Apple's Get a Mac ads. It isn't, but it's, well, deeper. Commenters, if you can be bothered this chilly Friday, suggest short psycho-social-aesthetic analyses of this very odd film. There will be a prize for the best entry - a kind word.

Standing on One Leg 2

My previous post on the matter of standing on one leg - or, more correctly, foot - was frivolous and an affront to the great explorer C.M.Doughty, author of Travels in Arabia Deserta, who used one foot standing as a form of exercise and self-discipline. Now the inconceivable Dave Lull brings me further evidence of the seriousness of this matter. Standing on one foot improves your sleep. Rigorous testing by Seth seems to establish this remarkable finding beyond, as Doughty would have said, peradventure. AA (After Arthur) insomnia is no longer a problem for me, but, if it is for you, try Seth.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Lookalikes - Rove/Lacey

Karl Rove and Ronald Lacey as Major Arnold Toht in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's the glinting torturer's spectacles and the ominous smile.

Boredom, Noonan, Gapper, London Library and Google Chrome

Forgive my silence, I have been feeling bored with myself this morning. Boredom with oneself, rather than with the world, is, of course, the killer argument against immortality. But, anyway, it's worth checking out what happens when, through no fault of their own, hacks tell the truth. Here's Peggy Noonan's not entirely persuasive explanation. Meanwhile, Gapper tells us all we need to know about the Google Chrome browser. Well, not quite all. What I need to know is why the hell these things are called browsers. A browser is one of those peculiarly dressed people with an affected stoop, large shoes and a morbid fear of human contact that I come across in the stacks of the London Library. They always look panic-stricken as I attempt to squeeze past and probably have sandwiches and a tangerine in a Tupperware container waiting for them in the lobby cloakroom. I assume they live alone - if you can call it living - in Dollis Hill which, as Nige so memorably observed, probably inaccurately, is the bad end of Neasden. An internet thingy would, one assumes, be called something groovier, a surfer perhaps, a web window or a.... well, anything but a browser, which also suggests, now I come to think of it, one of those water tanks they bring out when... Ah no, bowser ... or somebody with a forked stick ... no, dowser. Still bored.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

For Don the Trailer Man

Oh no! Just when things were looking up - Don LaFontaine is dead. Movie trailers will never be the same again. How, I wonder, would he have trailed his own demise? 'In a world where Don LaFontaine is dead and Ed Balls claims to be a politician, monsters walk....'

Health News

Exercise improves the memory. Well, there's always something that does that. Personally I favour Pelmanism, now only know as a solitary card game but once the wonder of the world. Junkies are taking Valium. In my experience junkies will take anything that isn't actually screwed down. 'A few vallies can buy a bit of time and ease the symptoms of withdrawal,' says a Torquay drug worker. It's not encouraging when 'drug workers' talk like this. Finally, statins increase the risk of cancer. No they don't; yes they do. Who knows? Everything increases the risk of cancer, not least being born which, in health and safety terms, is A Bad Move. I am not well disposed towards this life business today. Or I wasn't until this - yes, Prezza: My Story, a moving personal account of one man's battle with inappropriate career advice, is the most discarded book in hotel rooms. The sun breaks through the clouds.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Demise of the Arctic Fox

I just saw Karl Rove on Fox News saying Sarah Palin was a great choice but, anyway, the Veep candidate didn't make much difference. The Arctic Fox won't last until November.