Monday, June 30, 2008

On Marketing

This - I am late, I have been away - may be the most depressing story I have read in some time.  A marketing man is to be the new head of BBC Radio. Some weeks ago I realised why marketing complex products is such a scam. Slightly unsure of my ground, I tested my theory on a distinguished economist. 'Of course, you're right,' he said, so, emboldened, here I go. Products with a unitary and effectively unchangeable appeal can easily be marketed. 'Here are some baked beans, they taste like every baked bean you have eaten - sugary, vomitous - and they have the same appalling slithery, lumpy mouth feel, but, today, they are cheaper or you get a DVD of Battleship Potemkin, loaded with extras.' Job, as people keep saying, done. Complex products - radio stations, TV channels etc -  cannot be so marketed because their core appeal is an unstated and unstateable blend of different attributes. Nevertheless, the ad and marketing drones keep trying either with freebies or with some kind of slogan which supposedly captures the essence of the product. These are temporarily successful. The drones make up stories to explain why - the economist was very revealing about these absurd post-rationalisations - and get their feet in the door far enough to ensure that they can't be pushed out when their scam goes wrong, as it always does. With their feet thus trapped and their ideas failing, they then propagate the notion that the product is at fault. Note, wrong though this idea is, it can sound persuasive in the case of a complex product: you'd be wasting your breath arguing that baked beans were wrong, but complex products are being tweaked all the time so why not tweak to the tune of these guys with swollen feet? What happens then - and this is the gist of my theory - is that bits of the products are marketed. They thus achieve, obviously, more prominence. But what is lost is the initial and necessarily complex state. This will have been evolved through countless decisions by many different people - both producers and consumers - and will, as a result, be more robust than one idea coming from one small group. What was supposed to be marketed, the product itself, has been lost. Nevertheless, the apparent success of the idea will persuade managers that the swollen footed guys are on to something and so the folly persists. What is actually happening is only that which has been marketed is being marketed. This will fail in time because the inroads made by these decisions will finally destabilise the product's complex system and thus its only viable and enduring appeal. But, meanwhile, an increasingly baseless and empty 'vision' of the product will take over and the marketers will exert more power over product design. So, in essence, good bye, BBC radio, you used to be a great consolation.


So anyway, I was introduced to an Iranian fruit 'n' veg shop about a quarter of a mile to the west of the Odeon High Street Kensington. There I bought some curious peaches - they appeared flattened as if by a sharp blow from a croquet mallet. Now I am something of a peach man and I think I can safely say these were the most delicious I have ever tasted. I anticipated a deeply pleasurable half mile walk once or twice a week to stock up. Then I discover to my horror they are now sold in Marks & Spencer. This sucks the fun out of the entire project, even though the M & S peaches are nowhere near as good. It is the fact of them being in a supermarket. All the exoticism has gone, they have become banal. Worst of all, M & S calls them doughnut peaches. Sadly this seems to be accurate and none of the other names are any better. I shall, in spite of everything return to High Street Ken to buy what I shall stubbornly call Les Peches d'Isfahan

The Undead Novel

Having read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I went on to read Jim Crace's Being Dead. I liked them both - the Crace slightly more - though neither with wild enthusiasm. They are both - a poor word but I can't think of another - poetic novels. By this I mean they put the surface of the prose, mood, evocation, suggestion and a single, vivid central idea before narrative, character and all the old, solid virtues of fiction. There's also something dandyish about both books, a strong, look-at-me, gestural aspect to the prose. I used to like all these things in fiction, but, perhaps since my involvement with the divine Marilynne and the sublime Shirley, I have lost the taste. Or perhaps the poetic novel is simply showing signs of age. Its twin peaks in the twentieth century were Joyce's Ulysses and Beckett's Ill Seen Ill Said, both masterpieces, and nothing since, at least in the poetic novel category, can compare. The poetic novel - especially in the form of the nouveau roman - was always associated with the death of the novel, as if the form, with all its bourgeois overtones, was being exposed by the 'experiments' of the poetic novelists. But Crace and McCarthy aren't writing obituaries, nor are they subverting the form, rather they are adjusting its conventions. Fair enough, but, somehow, both seemed too closed off, too complete. My new taste seems to be for more fictional sprawl, more open-endedness, more unstructured life. Being jet-lagged in London, I just thought, probably wrongly, that this was worth mentioning.

Unloved Germany

Of course I wanted Spain to win. Except for the Germans, everybody wanted Spain to win. The TV commentators didn't even pretend to be neutral. The official reasons were that they were the better team and they played beautiful football. Their victory, therefore, was a matter of simple justice. But, it occurs to me, if Germany had been better and more beautiful, we would still have wanted Spain to win. Germany, as a nation, inspires little affection or enthusiasm. Is this still the hangover of the war and the still potent imagery of Nazism? Or is it merely the fact that, in Europe, they always feel like the overdog?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Guns and the Muskrat

On the subject of guns.... A levee in Winfield, Mo, burst because of a burrowing muskrat. 'It's so disappointing,' said Linda Wilmesherr, 'With all the guns in this country, couldn't we kill a muskrat?' Well, quite. Stuart (pictured) was unavailable for comment.

The Intractable Land

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for this. Oil prices will rise to $200 a barrel by 2010. Americans will be paying European prices - $7 a gallon. Jeff Rubin forecasts 10 million few vehicles on the roads and a massive drop in miles driven. The poor won't have cars at all. This being only two years away, there will be no time for new public transport infrastructure to be built and new fuel technologies will not make much of a difference - the latest American hybrids are not fuel efficient by world standards. Rubin's $200 a barrel will be wrong, of course, but significantly higher oil prices in the long term seem likely. 
Flying from Los Angeles to St George I saw nothing but desert, the few towns - settlements would be more accurate - being connected by just one road. If American mobility is to decrease rapidly, then the isolation of these places will be intensified. I spoke to one local woman about what it is like to be surrounded by endless desert. 'We don't think about it,' she said. They will very soon. This is about to become a more intractable land.

The Desert and Coincidence

St George, Utah. Very strange things happen in small town America. In Silicon Valley I bought Cormac McCarthy's The Road. On flights from San Francisco to Los Angeles and LA to St George I finished the book - good but not as good as everybody says and I felt I had dealt with McCarthy by reading this one book. At the Holiday Inn in St George I decided eating in the hotel was a bad idea. There was a swimming pool in the lobby, making everything smell of chlorine, and a lot of noisy children. I looked up the best restaurant in town and found The Painted Pony. My problem was that I was dining alone and I had nothing to read, an impossible situation. I drove round St George looking for a book or magazine shop. I stumbled upon an interesting looking bookshop, wandered in and found myself face to face with Steve Singular, the author of When Men Become Gods. I had met him a few weeks before in San Angelo while working on the FLDS story. He was giving a reading and signing copies of his marvellous, chilling book. Now I should have known Steve would be there because he had emailed me. But I had forgotten. So what was the coincidence? That he and I were there at the same time in a nation of 300 million mobile people, obviously. But, for me, this was more astounding because I had forgotten - the moment of seeing him was one of the most bizarre of my life. I froze. In St George it is 100 degrees all the time and, beyond the city limits, there is nothing but desert for miles. Empty desert - a McCarthy landscape. A man - an Englishman at least - could go crazy. At times like this The Twilight Zone feels like the most banal realism. Steve, who knows and loves the West, shrugged - stuff happens out here. We had a few drinks and talked about great open spaces.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Windbag in Boston

There is an interview with me here. I was on a mobile phone on a windy day in Boston - this explains the sound quality, but does not justify the tenuous quality of my thoughts. The latter might be explained by the phenomenally good steak I had just eaten at Abe & Louie's.

Bill Gates

Bye, bye, Bill. I had the impression that you had a sense of humour when I interviewed you all those years ago. But even I couldn't have predicted your last, best gag - Vista, an operating system that doesn't work on computers. Tommy Cooper would have approved. You always seemed to have a lively awareness of your company's deep commitment to user unfriendliness and it is consoling to discover you couldn't make Microsoftware work either. Your retirement job, giving away $58 billion, is, of course, your finest hour. You told me you'd give away all your money, I said you'd change your mind once you had children. But you didn't. This is admirable. Also admirable is your imperviousness to the demands of image and PR. Your appalling hair and clothes have remained unchanged, your peculiar, whining, high-pitched voice remains untutored. It will be interesting to see who they persuade to play you in the movie - The Gates Code - possibly a slimmed down Philip Seymour Hoffman. My guess is that your work on software will be, one day, largely forgotten but your philanthropy will endure. Microsoft will have been a means to an end. I like that.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Appleyard at Ferney

Sitting in the sunshine in Palo Alto I realise that it's downhill from now on. Two summits have been climbed. I have an Appreciation Society on Facebook - you are all required to join, it has only nine members one of whom is my daughter - and I have a page on IMDB thanks to a dazzling appearance which I can't remember on BBC's Breakfast in February 2007. My life's work is complete. Maintenant il faut cultiver notre jardin

Guns in America

I no longer try to understand the American acceptance of well over 30,000 gun-related deaths a year.  No other country comes close - though it should be noted that over half are suicides, in other countries people may just kill themselves in different ways so the total gun death figure may be misleading. Either way, the weird complacency remains. After today's decision, gun death acceptance seems to be as embedded in law as it is in the psyche. The bad guys have guns, people argue, therefore the good guys should have them. This is not a bad argument, though it would be refuted if the government seriously decided to remove guns from society as a whole. Others say it's not guns that kill people, it's people that kill people. This is a terrible argument for reasons that are so obvious I shan't bother to rehearse them here. Gun culture remains one of America's greatest aberrations. It baffles other nations. But there you go.

Karl Rove: How to be Ugly

I've been cherishing Karl Rove's remark about Obama - 'Even if you never met him, you know this guy. He's the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by.'  Everybody has commented on this, some pointing out that it's Rove who makes the snide remarks, some making the obvious point that it says more about Rove than Obama. But what does it say about Rove? It says he's ugly, simple as that. He's also clever, fat, bald and he smirks. The smirk is designed to signal that he's happy to be ugly because he's clever. I've known three people exactly like this. They chortle and babble and you don't listen because you're trying not to look at them and you find their manner embarrassing. When you do listen, you realise they are talking nonsense. But, since nobody likes to listen to them, they do very well because, without any evidence, people assume they really are as clever as they say they say are. In Texas an NBC reporter told me Rove was 'a political genius'. I knew at once he hadn't been listening.


Mountain View, California... but thinking of New York. First things first: no I am not taking the piss, Anonymous,  of course I could have stayed at hotels other than the Hudson. But I don't necessarily know where I'll be for how long, there's a time difference between me and the Sunday Times travel office and I'm not the kind of jerk who says he has to stay at the Pierre because they do a great BLT, which, I am sure, they don't. But, anyway, the Time Warner Center is close to the Hudson.  This was designed by some visually illiterate jerks from the once great firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In the city of Mies's Seagram Building and Hood's wonderfully slender and rhythmic 30 Rock, now known as the GE Building, the Time Warner Center is an affront to all civilised values and should be torn down at the first opportunity. It does, however, have an excellent branch of Borders where, for some reason, language teachers always go to correct their students' English - every time I go there it's happening. It was there that I found, generously displayed, a mag called Lapham's Quarterly.  This is an astonishing publication, a thematic anthology basically, which, in this latest issue, counts William Wordsworth, Dante Alighieri and Ovid among its contributors. At first I thought it must be the one-off whim of its founder, Lewis Lapham, but it turns out to have a massive, distinguished editorial board and a mighty staff. Its web site is here  Such a thing would be unimaginable in Britain. Ask for it in Waterstone's and they would try to flog you the latest Harry Potter if you were lucky, the latest Jeffrey Archer if you weren't. Worst of all, they might point you to the phoney 'staff picks'. Anyway, that said,  this anthology contained a fragment by Frederick Law Olmstead, defending this designs for Central Park - 'A broad stretch of slightly undulating meadow without a defined edge, its turf lost in a haze of the shadows of scattered trees under the branches of which the eye would range, would be of high value.'  The romanticism of Central Park - its rocks and chasms - as opposed to the classicism of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens has always fascinated me. We constructed the gardens of a country house, the New Yorkers constructed an urban fantasy of nature untamed. I'm not sure which refreshes more, but it's pleasant to think about it here in Silicon Valley.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The GDP Superstition

I notice Polly Toynbee casually refers to 'healthy GDP growth' and wondered why miserableness flourishes in such a climate. When will we be rid of this palpably stupid idea of GDP as any kind of measurement of, well, anything but certainly not of economic well-being? I draw your attention to the very sane testimony of Jonathan Rowe before a Senate Committee and to this old article. To put the point in a nutshell: the American economy, as measured by GDP, would undergo an unprecedented boom if every citizen were to contract a very slow acting cancer that required fabulously expensive drugs and heroic surgical interventions while simultaneously being subjected to appalling storms, earthquakes and fires that destroyed their homes and workplaces. So that's one way, Polly, in which miserableness and healthy GDP growth would march hand in hand. GDP is a contemporary superstition, a product of economists' science envy at its most virulent.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Heinz Laughs at Gays

I was going to post on the Heinz Deli Mayo TV ad that showed two men kissing, but, somehow, it all seemed so damned obvious - an 'ishoo' waiting to be discussed. Now, however, it has become interesting. Heinz has pulled the ad as a result of 200 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority. (I never know which word is funnier, 'standards' or 'authority'.) Nigel Dickie of Heinz said, in justification that the ad was meant to be humorous. What on earth does he mean by that? Are married gays making sandwiches funny? If not that, what? Perhaps we're just supposed to fall about laughing at the mere fact of two male partners. Come on, Dickie, stop squirming, what did you mean? Let me guess - it's funny because getting the ad being complained about and then pulled was all part of the game plan. As ever, the advertising industry succeeds in making the world just that little bit worse.

Back to the Hudson

New York.  The Sunday Times has booked me into the Hudson Hotel! This was the place that, in 2002, I decided was the worst hotel in the world and wrote two pages in Style magazine to justify my decision. Well, the power of the press seems to have had little effect. I still had to queue to check in, a process that at any other American hotel takes 30 seconds but at the Hudson takes twenty minutes. The staff still give the general impression that their jobs are beneath them. Nothing has been done to alleviate the nastiness of Phillipe Starck's design. Starck always tends to sacrifice useability to looks; at the Hudson he gave up on useability entirely. Perhaps he was depressed. His design not only makes you feel bad about the world - many if not most hotels do that effortlessly - but also bad about yourself. The music in the shocking acoutistics of the lobby is still frightening; I am not being an old fart here, I've checked with the grooviest New Yorkers I know and they also think it's horrible. Anyway, I am here for another 24 hours. I can take it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Avoiding the Void

Museums and galleries are too big. Both Tate Modern and MOMA in New York suffer from a giganticism that is more to do with institutional ambition than art. Both, oddly, are dominated by enormous, pointless voids which seem to push the art to the periphery. Perhaps this is a deliberate commentary - art enfolds emptiness. The small museum has no voids. Until yesterday my favourite museum in the entire world was the Frick in New York - a little palace full of masterpieces. Yesterday, however, it was replaced in my affections by the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston. I won't even try to evoke the genius of this place, but it's basically a Venetian fantasy and it has plenty of darkness. I like Venice and darkness. Of course, it also has masterpieces, a sublime early Rembrandt self portrait, a magnificent Velazquez, a perfect Fra Angelico and this late Titian, said by some to be the greatest painting in America. The one shortcoming of the ISG seems to be its vulnerability to theft. They have even lost a Vermeer which is a touch careless. Never mind, small is the future. It's time to break up the big collections and distribute them around local palaces designed and built by fiendishly rich aesthetes, if any are left.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Yearning for Zion: The Feds Move In

I have just been contacted by Steve Singular, author of When Men Become Gods, a tremendous book about Warren Jeffs the breakaway Mormon sect that built the Yearning of Zion Ranch in Texas - the subject of my Sunday Times magazine article today. The federal government may now be stepping in where the states - Arizona, Utah and Texas - have failed.
Steve writes: 'The night we went to dinner I'd just finished speaking with Senator Harry Reid. He'd read the book over that weekend and called to talk about it. He asked me to write a letter detailing potential FLDS federal crimes. The letter has been given to other Congressional leaders, as Reid is using it to help kick start a federal probe of the sect. He didn't want me to talk about this until now, so I couldn't bring it up earlier. I'll keep you informed as to where this leads. I'm going on a book tour through Utah this coming week and Senator Reid wanted me to talk about all this in Salt Lake City and St. George.'

Religion and Excretion

It is very dangerous to turn on the television in America on a Sunday morning. I just did and I was informed by Dr James Chappell that Westminster Abbey was built in 170AD. He also told the story of Thomas Parr - 'Old Parr' - who is buried in the Abbey. He was believed to have lived to the age of 152. The post-mortem was conducted by the great physician William Harvey who remarked on the child-like cleanliness of Parr's colon. In fact, the Old Parr claim has been discredited and the Abbey was started in 1045, though there was a shrine on the site in 616. But Dr Chappell had product to shift -  a colon scourer called Dual Action Cleanse - and he wasn't going to let a few facts get in the way of his golf buggy and speed boat in Boca Raton. 'Death starts in the colon' was Chappell's primary claim. It's an old superstition. Confronted with the contrast between their exalted self-image and the horrors of excretion, people are naturally drawn to the conviction that cleanliness - getting the shit out of the way - is, indeed, godliness. There is an obvious religious structure to the idea. Excretion is an emblem of our fallen condition, of our guilt. Cleansing our colons may be sold as a medical good - though it definitely isn't - but its true appeal is salvific.
Which drive round the block brings me to Robert Iddiols comment on my post Raj and the Scientologists. Robert says I'm comfortable exposing Scientology but I am much more sympathetic to conventional religious practices 'even though both assert a similar torrent of bullshit.' (See - shit and religion again.) This is a good point, made better by my dismay at the beliefs of the inhabitants of the Yearning for Zion ranch. I seem to be distinguishing between good and bad religion. Robert finds this absurd because the literal claims of all religions are more or less equally preposterous. I think I can save myself from absurdity with two related claims: first, religion isn't about belief and, secondly, religion is dynamic. Fundamentalism of any type is superstition, the opposite of religion. Dr Chappel, the Scientologists and the FLDS in Texas are offering false certainties - false because they are certainties - that exploit our unease. In each case belonging requires absolute submission to a system which cannot be allowed to change over time - unless, as in the case of the FLDS under Warren Jeffs, it is to become even more rigid. It is also important that they are all relatively recent. Conventional faiths are all much older and the passage of time has made them diversify, change and adapt. This process is no threat to religion, the idea of a revelation unfolding in time is entirely credible. Science is exactly that. The consolations of religion are nothing to do with certainties, they are to do with our wonder and gratitude that such stories can be told at all and that, mysteriously, they express something about our predicament that can be expressed in no other way. Belief in this context is largely meaningless and fundamentalism an outrage. Fundamentalists are particularly ridiculous because, at every turn, the world refutes their position and they are obliged to twist these refutations into evidence that only they are right, that Dual Action Cleanse is, indeed, the only answer. In contrast, the dynamically, metaphorically religious cannot be refuted because they expect the world to disgust and amaze.
So, Dr Chappell, scouring colons will not take you to Boca Raton and your customers to the promised land because shit happens and that, a supremely religious statement, is my message to my congregation on this Boston Sunday.

Yearning for Zion

In The Sunday Times - what went on at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas.
Oh and I just noticed something I said about Henry James.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Raj and the Scientologists

The one time I met Raj Persaud he was a bit too charming, but, other than that, he seemed to be just one more likeable self-promoter. I vaguely noticed the plagiarism charges against him and shrugged. He'd been stupidly sloppy but others do far worse and get away with it. Then, today, I realised it was a complaint from the Scientologists under the banner of The Citizens Commission on Human Rights - ha bloody ha - that landed him before the General Medical Council. I shrug no more. Raj is innocent. It's the aliens in the volcanos mob that should be in the dock.

Druids and Geeks

Boston. Better here than Stonehenge on Midsummer Day. My 'henge indifference is not shared by 30,000 aspirant Druids it seems. 'The best thing about Summer Solstice at the 'henge." says John Tarbuck, 'is you get to meet loads of new people.' Is that it? No human sacrifice? You can meet loads of new people at Sainsbury's. And, let's face it, Druids are a rum bunch. Paul Bowles once told me, 'If you see a Druid with a gun, get behind something solid.' (Actually he said 'Mexican', but he would have said Druid if he'd been in Wiltshire rather than Tangier.) That Druid/Mexican line was one of the only two ideas I had with a friend for a book called 'Things You Have to Find out for Yourself'. The other was 'Cellophane doesn't flush.' I'm actually in Cambridge, the other side of the river from Boston. It's a city inhabited by thousands of Lisa Simpsons, fantastically intelligent people who wander the streets with a distracted air of wounded idealism. Around MIT when the cab drivers say 'Howya doin'?' it turns out to be something to do with your quantum wave function. They're not big on human sacrifice or meeting loads of new people here. It's really just the city where the geeks come to be with their own kind. Malnourished, they stagger along the streets, barely able to sustain the weight of a Grande Latte. The non-geeks are all rowing on the Charles, building up their muscles for the nightly geek-beating ceremonies. It's Oxbridge really, Oxbridge with vast amounts of money and power. Like I said, better here than Stonehenge.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Texas 2

Austin Airport. On my way to Boston. The great charm of the story is that the locations cannot possibly be clues to what it is. Anyway, Pontiac G6 - a bearable American car. It handles! MSNBC, a politics TV channel, was, last night, given over to coverage of Tim Russert, his death. Perhaps UKTV Gold or some such could do the same for me - 'He was a strange man. Great boots though! Unfortunately, after a while they turned out to be his Zahir, he could think and talk about nothing else. He died, of course, wearing a handsome pair of Luccheses.'


I am in Texas again - I was here a month ago for reasons that will become clear on Sunday. (I texted 'Don't mess with Texas' to Nige last time; he replied, 'I never have and I never would.') Over ten days I became acclimatised. Landing in Austin in 100 degrees felt like coming home as did the part funny, part serious sense of identity of this state. Turning on the car radio, I heard a DJ running a quiz intended to find out how Texan you are. The first question was: do you think you need a passport to leave the state? I love this. I also love the fact that, judging by my experience last time, half the people in Texas are gifted musicians. An 8 hour afternoon in somebody's house consisted of about six hours of superb country music. One kid played Gram Parsons just for me and a rather grand oil boss sang Hank Williams exactly like Hank Williams. I felt ashamed, I can't do this. Roger Scruton, when he moved to Virginia, remarked to me that local music making was alive there. It seems to be true across America. Not in Britain, sadly. Impromptu music is often the best music and impromptu country, with its emotional directness, is best of all. But then there's also country's self-effacing comedy. This song seems to be played on the radio every hour or so.
'Oh, my eyebrows ain't plucked, there's a gun in my truck
Oh thank God I'm still a guy.'
Who could fail to sing - well, shout - along? I always do.
PS And I got the boots at Allens. You should go there sometime. My new ones are handsome Luccheses.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Back in the USA

I am going back to America early tomorrow morning to buy some more cowboy boots and fit in a little light journalism on the side. Blogging may or may not be intermittent.

The Flexible Art of Frank Sinatra

This is true. In the context of Bob Dylan's pictures, I am told that Frank Sinatra was also a painter. Aspiring to an exhibition, he sent one of his 'people' to talk to a gallery owner. The gallery man was sceptical but saw possibilities.
'In what style does he paint?' he asked.
'What style do you want?

Littlejohn, Toynbee and the Politics of Opinion

I've caught up with this clip of Richard Littlejohn and Polly Toynbee on Question Time rather late but it's too interesting - and entertaining - to ignore. The first point to make is they are both right. Toynbee sees the strategic issue, reducing our dependence on oil, correctly and Littlejohn is right about the tactical issues, the near impossibility of achieving this politically. The second point to make is they are both wrong because they both think that strategy and tactics are opposite sides of the argument. They think, in other words, they are expressing opinions and advocating viable policies when, in fact, what they are doing is merely defining the terms of the argument, terms with which any thinking person will be entirely familiar. They delude themselves and their audience into thinking that the future will involve a choice between their positions, but, of course, this is impossible. There is one point of substance on which they genuinely seem to disagree - global warming  - but here their opinions are of no value because neither is qualified to assess the evidence. Meanwhile, in the Guardian - late again I'm afraid - Peter Wilby questions the need for the non-expert commentariat, the columnists hired to express their opinions in areas in which they can only ever have minimal expertise. To summarise Wilby: qualified voices are rarely heard on the comment pages these days; instead, we have a large number of people paid to be superficial generalists with pungent but probably worthless opinions. Opinions have, in a word, become entertainment. He's right but wrong if he thinks sacking inexpert columnists is the answer. They are necessary, but the trick is to get them to write differently, just as the trick with Toynbee and Littlejohn is to get them to think differently.  For example, a decent columnist would write about the fuel price/global warming issue in the round - balancing political reality with strategic goals and, perhaps, coming up with a tentative way forward. It is called journalism and the need for it is called democracy. They should do this not least because it would circumvent and, in the long term, discourage the empty demagoguery to which politicians so readily descend. Of course, there are columnists that do this - Nick Cohen for one - but  not enough. They are an endangered species because opinion as entertainment has become just too seductive for editors and readers alike. Perhaps blogging is the answer

Monday, June 16, 2008

Internet Cruelty

A woman is being charged for pretending to be a boy on MySpace and then harassing the thirteen-year-old girl next door. Finally, the girl killed herself. She is being charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This may not work as the law has never been used in this way. If it fails - well, as one lawyer says, 'You can't start imposing liability on people for being cruel.' This is an odd remark as we do that all the time - though, usually, it involves physical cruelty. Does the internet require a special crime of mental cruelty or is there one already? Perhaps I could sue some of my more abrasive commenters or that guy whose headline calling me a wanker is still on the front page of my Google search. It hurts, I tell you, it hurts.

How Not to Keep Secrets

Melanie Phillips hints at the sheer oddity of the all these secret files being lost and then found by the media. This has puzzled me. Were I to leave some papers on a train I would assume they would be thrown away by the cleaners or, if I was very very lucky, they might turn up as lost property. Say one thousand documents are left on trains, I would guess 900 of them would never been found and the remainder might be successfully retrieved. But all these documents are found, recognised and passed on to the media. Or, of course, these found documents are just a small proportion of the thousands lost every year. Given these these appear to be obviously secret and important, the actual proportion recognised might be more than 10 per cent. But say it is twenty per cent. That still suggests officials are routinely losing telephone director-sized volumes of sensitive material. If this is not the case and all the secret documents that are being lost are being found and not by the loser, then, I'm afraid, something funny must be going on. Or not funny at all in view of the fact that our allies would now be crazy to trust us with anything.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Davis and the Irish

There's a curious symmetry about the day's big political stories. David Davis, by resigning, and the Irish by voting against the European constitution have both taken populist stands against political establishments. (Davis's position may not be intrinsically populist in that the Britsih seems to favour 42 days detention, but the way he has taken it has, at a stroke, made him a popular hero, as he intended.) I don't have strong feelings about either position. Brown's 42 days was a stupidity, but Davis's stance is probably also a stupidity. And I find both eurosceptics and europhiles equally wrong; the first because I would be prepared to sacrifice quite a lot for continued peace in Europe and the second because of the idiocy of trying to sell an incomprehensible legal document as a constitution - a simple list of generalisations like the American constitution would have easily won hearts and minds and allowed structural reform to continue. But the very fact that these gestures work in the way they do indicates a truth about our current political processes. The people's mistrust and distaste is now the primary political reality.

Tim Russert

First impressions of individuals are often right; first impressions of countries are always wrong. Over the years I have steadily corrected my own first impressions of America - primarily by spending less time in New York and Los Angeles, both cities that reflect themselves rather than the nation. One particularly stubborn first impression was that American journalism was terrible. I thought their newspapers were flabby and their TV journalism with its pompous, square-jawed, neurotically barbered anchors was ridiculous. I also regarded Americans' sentimental idealisation of their journalists as laughable. I remember years ago watching, bewildered, a long TV obit of some hack who seemed to have done less than I had in my first week at the Wimbledon News, yet whose passing was being mourned as if he had been a combination of Jefferson, Lincoln and Oprah. Perhaps I was jealous. There was truth in all these observations, but I now see that they were trivial. The reality is that, as a whole, American journalism is much better than British. I say 'as a whole' because their newspapers were, indeed, flabby, complacent through lack of direct competition, now they are underfunded and in serious decline. But, when it comes to TV news, we are simply not in their class. Having spent seven weeks utterly absorbed by their coverage of the primaries, I have been quite unable to watch the political coverage on British television. It is, with a few exceptions. idle, inept and uninvolved. Worst of all, it is cheap. Any fool can sneer at politicians, any fool can ask difficult questions. That doesn't serve the story, it serves the hack's self-image. The true art is to do it so politely and with such charm, authority and deference that the politician has no choice but to answer. One man did this better than any other - NBC's Tim Russert.  He was a joy to watch and now he's dead.

Richard & Judy's Books.

In The Sunday Times I write about the book club of Britain's two-headed Oprah.

Friday, June 13, 2008

David Davis is Dudley Moore

The resignation of David Davis combined with the bizarre prospect of a by-election in which he may end up standing against a few nutters reminds me of a great Beyond the Fringe sketch. It is World War II. Peter Cook is telling Dudley Moore to go over to Germany and get killed - 'We need a futile gesture at this stage, it will raise the whole tone of the war.'

Dylan's Paintings: In Search of the Uncool

A friend in the art business is very sad about the exhibition of Bob Dylan paintings. 'I mean they're all right, but you know... I wish he hadn't.' He feels Dylan has let himself down, even made a fool of himself; above all, he has been uncool. He worships Dylan, of course, both the man and the singer-songwriter. He sees him, as many do, as lying beyond criticism - like Shakespeare, Dylan is not just better than others, he is not even the best, he is the thing itself. I sympathise, I've been there myself, but I am untroubled by the paintings for the simple reason that Dylan has always combined the sublime with the ridiculous. If, for example, you think the paintings are not quite up to scratch, try listening to Empire Burlesque. And if you think that all aspects of his life should reflect his inner cool, what about the fact that he plays golf, a game that exemplifies all that is uncool? (It may not be true that he plays, I vaguely heard it some years ago and briefly lost the will to live. Anyway, it makes the point.) Dylan is a great artist, but he is seldom perfect and that, in fact, is the point of the man. He doesn't stand back and, after much careful thought, emit flawless jewels of art; he rushes in and flings out whatever seems right to him at that moment. It works - much of his greatest work is made greater by its roughness. Every so often - The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, I Want You, Sign on the Window - he is perfect, but perfection is not necessary. He would still be great without those songs. In his art as in his life, he spends a lot of time dabbling in the uncool. So do I, so do you. To misquote Beckett, the artist is he who dares to be uncool as no others dare to be uncool.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Golf: The McCain Game Plan Revealed

And, speaking of McCain, I heard this somewhere and I couldn't quite believe it. But it's true. He plugs his 'golf gear' on the front page of his web site.  In fact, it's a 'Father's Day McCain Golf Pack'. With this driver, this putter and this eco-friendly buggy, we shall lead the world to the clubhouse of the twenty-first century.

42 Days and the Price of Oil

Gordon Brown's narrow victory in the vote on 42 day detention for terrorist suspects .... Aaargh, no, will to live gone! I don't frigging care about Brown's ineptitude. I am beginning, however, to be interested in McCain's. His limited powers of expression and his ill-considered policies have landed him in further trouble over Iraq. His problem is he needs to distance himself from Bush without alienating the old neocon attack dogs because they're the ones most likely to get him elected by swift-boating Obama. But they really don't like him very much. Note the contempt with which the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger dismisses McCain at the end of this article about the need to the US to start exploiting its domestic oil reserves - 'You'd think the 'national security' nominee, John McCain, would get this. He's clueless - a don't drill zombie. We may mark this down as the year the US tired of being a serious country.'  Blimey! This brings me to the real point of this post and, in fact, what may be the most significant story of the moment - drilling for oil in hitherto protected areas. BP wants this to happen in, among other places, the Arctic and Henninger wants America to starts offshore drilling. Less eco-sensitive countries like Brazil are doing just that. Of course, burning more oil will lock us for another few decades into the hell of Saudi dependence, it won't lower the price, as BP seems to admit, and it will inhibit research into better cleaner energy. It will, however, happen. The Arctic and the seas will be filled with oil rigs. I doubt that either McCain or Obama will be able to resist the pressure. 
But, of course, I'm being frivolous. It's really, really interesting that the Ulster Unionists voted with Brown. Isn't it?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Back Now

Blogger has prevented the last two posts from appearing all day and stopped comments. Bastards. Back now.

Misuses of Emerson

A column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times includes this:

'In his history of 19th-century America, 'What Hath God Wrought', Daniel Walker Howe quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as telling a meeting of the Mercantile Library Association in 1844 that 'America is the country of the future. It is a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.'
'That's the America that got swallowed by the war on terrorism. And it's the America that many people want back.'

Er.... no. Go back eight years and the Emerson quote could have been the rallying cry of the neocons. The country of the future with its beginnings, projects, designs and expectations is precisely the country that thought it had attained the end of history, that democracy could be imposed by force and which felt obliged to convert the world to this view. Emerson was a great writer and, like all great writers, he is a little too casually deployed in inappropriate circumstances. Face it, Thomas, if you really want that country back, vote McCain.

Will the Oil Price Produce a Good American Car?

As I said, the rising price of oil is a painful but good thing. One benign outcome is that the Americans are beginning to see sense about their cars. Trucks and SUVs are finally giving way to smaller cars. I suspect the big car/truck mentality is what has held back American car design. While over there, I read a review of a car that said it 'handled like a truck'. This was intended as praise; over here it would be a grave insult. Since my first visit I have been baffled by the dreadful cars they drive. On my latest trip I drove a Chrysler Sebring for three weeks. Supposedly a sporty machine, its suspension was designed by a clown who liked to scare drivers on corners, its gear box was simply ludicrous. For two weeks I had a Toyota Camry which was better but still pretty bad. This points to another oddity of the American car market. The big companies go out of their way to produce bad cars for Americans. Toyotas anywhere else are superb and, in Europe, Ford produces the best car in the world, the Mondeo. But, in America, they both produce junk. Meanwhile, bring a Hummer, a Lincoln Navigator or a Cadillac Escalade over to Europe and they are reviewed with disbelief. These are primitive, third world machines. The few British owners have 'Prat' stamped on their foreheads in letters of fire - or 'footballer'. Europeans seem to understand driving pleasure, which is nothing to do with speed, size or power. Perhaps, now they are turning to smaller, saner cars, the Americans can begin to appreciate this little daily consolation.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Improve Your Home: Kill Your Husband

Zoe Kenealy took out a home improvement loan to hire a hit man to kill her husband - obviously a more prudent use of the money than home improvements in the present market. Tim Kenealy, meanwhile, forgives his wife and, on Sky News, described her plot to top him as 'a cry for help'. For some reason, this reminds me of, I think, a Monty Python sketch in which a woman says, 'Yeah, well, he did nail my 'ed to the floor.' Sometimes to err is human, to forgive just plain weird.

Why Did the Chicken Even Bother to Cross the Road?

I seem to remember James Thurber writing on the subject of what is not funny. He had received a letter from a reader recommending the humour of, I think, the Pawnee Indians which consisted of 'heavy banter'. Something similar has now happened to me. Don L.F.Nilsen, professor of English Linguistics at Arizona State University has sent me a flash drive 'full of humor-related PowerPoints and Video Clips.' Note that 'humor-related'. I missed it and, expecting some easy laughs, fired up the flash drive only to be confronted with some inscrutable PP presentations, the heavy banter of the business world and the hapless academic. One is called Onomastic Tropes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Bet you hadn't thought of that one had you? Prof. Nilsen is part of something called the International Society for Humor Studies. The front page of their web site announces that it's all about 'the advancement of humor research' and the society 'also includes professionals in the fields of counseling, management, nursing, journalism and theater'.  I am now trying to think of a funny payoff but I can't, I really can't. 

Death of the Future

So the housing ladder is now a snake and oil really is black gold, far too expensive just to stick in your car. Both of these may be reversed, but, if not, they will both be benign developments. A long term fall in house prices will cure the British of their unimaginative obsession with property and kill off all those neurotic TV shows about house makeovers. A long term rise in the oil price will force the application of new energy technologies - good for the planet and good for global politics. On the way, however, the pain will be excruciating and the politics distinctly tricky. Nobody seems to be thinking clearly about this, perhaps because it is assumed we are simply in the midst of a market convulsion that will pass or perhaps because, if it doesn't, nobody can imagine the politics of the future. Either way, there is a deathly hush about these matters. The future, having been the big cause of the Clintons and the Blairs, has become electorally toxic.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Obama the Apple Macbook Pro

I am often, notably by Frank, taken to task for my 'support' for Obama so I feel I ought to make myself clear. I don't support Obama, I have never in my life supported any politician and, in any case, support is pretty meaningless coming from a Brit. As I explained, perhaps too briefly, ideological passion is death in politics, as is hero-worship. The reason I hope Obama wins - a more passive posture than support - is that he opens up a space. The Republicans haven't been conservatives for 30 or 40 years; the Democrats have been lost in self-destruction and the machine and identity politics of the Clintons. I don't know whether Obama will be a good president or not but I am sure he would be better than the hapless McCain and certainly far better than the appalling 'Mark Antony' Clinton, both of whom are choking on rhetoric of their own devising. In McCain's case I'm not even sure it can be classed as rhetoric.  They are also both untrustworthy - as Peggy Noonan pointed out, you can be sure McCain and Hillary would lie in office, you can't be sure Obama would. The bigger point for me is they have no style and style in the widest sense is important. Hillary is a Windows laptop - all sorts of uncoordinated functions - and Obama is an Apple - many functions which, somehow, seem to the same function. Hillary tailored her method to her audiences and pulled any trick that came into her head. One is constantly aware, while watching her, of the calibrations of her manner, as one is aware of the clunking workings of a Windows computer. Obama seems to be one manner, whatever the situation. His delivery varies, but it is, essentially, all of a piece. He is neither of the debauched right nor the machine left, he is something else, something unlike any politician I can remember - though Reagan and Thatcher come close. But he is of the left - in American terms at least - and that, cyclically, is how it must be. He opens a space that is thus far uninhabited. He may well be destroyed by the rabid neocon thugs. But I hope not and so does everybody I know.

Insomnia - The Lack Of

Ian Russell asks if, as I not have not posted yet, I have cured my insomnia. I am a bit suspicious of the word 'cured' because I used to cherish my insomnia, but the short answer is, yes, my insomnia seems to have gone. This may be something to do with my bold adherence to Nassim Nicholas Taleb's low carb diet. I have not drunk and barely eaten a single gram of carbs for the last two and a half weeks. I am ten pounds lighter and I sleep like a baby - actually, I never understood that expression as babies generally wake up screaming; I've done that in my time but not lately. I am attaining a steady seven and a half hours of unconsciousness nightly. This hasn't happened in at least ten years, possibly more. I have also become optimistic, amiable and energetic. It may not be a good thing, but it's certainly a new thing.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


In The Sunday Times I interview Terry Pratchett.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hillary as Mark Antony

Is it my imagination or were there overtones of 'For Brutus is an honourable man' about Hillary's concession speech?

Newspapers and Politics

A good article by Martin Kettle in The Guardian makes the point that politicians should not bother wooing newspapers. This is because newspapers do not swing voters, rather voters choose newspapers that reflect their views. The entirely irrational conviction of politicians that newspapers are important vote swingers is a product of the last 15 years of spin. Brown is utterly dazzled by this illusion and seems convinced that the Daily Mail is his only hope. That said, I think Kettle is too nice to see the bigger picture. The real and very sinister political power of newspapers lies not in their leaders and political columns but in their exposes. As we know, it only takes one nasty little revelation to humiliate or even destroy a public figure. The real reason politicians woo newspapers is their fear of this above all else. A good lunch can keep a file closed.

'Sex' and the City

Just to recommend this elegant hatchet job - the stale Puritanism point is one I have made myself so it must be right. Do not jump to the last line which, I suspect, is where Lane began this review.

Bully for the Boffins

I have always found the word 'boffin' infinitely consoling. It has been in sad decline, perhaps because there are fewer boffins - obsessive, socially incompetent, necessarily British people in white coats with pipes (the men) and mascara where lipstick should be (the women) conducting improbable, unwise experiments of immense national significance. Barnes Wallis was, I suppose, the supreme boffin - at least when played by Michael Redgrave. These thoughts are inspired by this story about a British missile called - only a boffin could have come up with this, not because of feelings sexual inadequacy but because he didn't get the reference - The Penetrator. The video captures the grey-skied, windswept apparent futility of the perfect boffin experiment. 'So, guys, let me get this straight, you have made a missile that can be fired into a wall of sand, right?' 'Right.' 'I must be getting back to the ministry. Taxi!' My chest swelled. The boffins are back.

The Price of Oil

I assume we are all agreed that, if oil stays at anything like its present levels, then we shall within a year or two be living in a different world. The only question is: how different? I am ready. I have stockpiled low carb foods, AK 47s, obtained blood oaths of loyalty from the yokels and manoeuvred my tank into a strategic location.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Without Garfield

Strangely disturbing this. Removing Garfield from the trips turns them into potent documents of contemporary anomie. Possibilities proliferate. Remove Bart from The Simpsons and you have Homer strangling air. Take Jon Snow out of  Channel 4 News and the show keeps cutting back to the bleak spectacle of an empty desk. Metaphors made by removal - it feels like a breakthrough.

Meet the Normals

Norfolk, my adopted county, has something of a reputation for inbreeding - whether deserved not not I don't know. It is said that local doctors, when confronted with a backward, odd or 'special' child would write NFN on the notes. It means 'Normal for Norfolk'.  This has always been a very incorrect story we tell to visitors and, at weak moments, we describe drivers weaving about the road in sky blue Vauxhall Vivas as 'normals'. Judge, then, of my amazement to discover the name of a new shop that has opened in Wells-next-the-Sea - Normal for Norfolk. I intend to buy something there at the earliest opportunity.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

About Barack

For me, the two most significant statements about Barack Obama were made by John McCain and Rupert Murdoch. McCain said he was surprised such a young man should embrace so many failed ideas. Coming from a Republican with a wrecked economy, horrific over-spending and a hopeless war to his party's credit, this might seem a bit rich. But what he meant, of course, were the ideas of the postwar centrist consensus that dominated Western politics. This assumed big, economically pro-active governments with mildly redistributive and social engineering programmes. This began to unravel in 1968 and collapsed completely with the elections of Reagan and Thatcher. This neo-liberal phase (combined with the linked but contradictory neo-conservative phase) dominated politics until now - Blair and the Clintons (impossible just to say 'Bill' any more) were both neo-liberals and Blair became a full-blooded necon. Brown doesn't matter. McCain is obviously aware of this historical perspective - Pat Buchanan bangs on about it on TV with varying degrees of coherence and consistency - and is trying to pretend the 40-year reign of the right is intact and sustainable. This means, of course, that he is no conservative, but I've been through that one before. It also means he's in denial about the significance of Obama, which is where Murdoch comes in. Murdoch effectively endorsed Obama in an interview in which he described him as a 'rock star'. This means he has a market reality that is at least as, if not more, potent than any amount of political head-clutching. A big article by Joshua Green (taken from The Atlantic) in The Independent today (but unfindable on their web site) shows how this has happened through his fund raising techniques. These have effectively destroyed the old model of party funding.  What Obama means is the forty-year ascendancy of the neocon, neolib right is over and something new, so far indistinct and not necessarily left is rising to take its place. One can see this clearly as long as one doesn't attach any ideological passion to the idea. Neither is right, each corrects the other, that is all that needs to be said. But the emptiness of the McCain sentiment combined with the market savvy of Murdoch's remark make it clear, to me at least, that, with Hillary out of the way, Obama is unbeatable.

The Tank Caption

New Meanings 4

Where did 'going forward' come from? I keep hearing people - especially financial 'experts' - on radio and TV saying 'going forward' for no discernible reason. Anyway, going forward, 'take care' seems to have become our 'have a nice day'. An otherwise silent, blank, expressionless and wholly incompetent shop assistant said 'take care' to me yesterday. I was alarmed; it sounded like a threat as in 'I know where you live'. One should, of course, take are when going forward, but this is a personal matter. Strangers should not intrude. The old ways are better, so Thought Experimenters, in the future mind how you go.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Maureen Dowd

The quality of writing in the New York Times tends to be over-rated - usually by the New York Times - but there are exceptions. Maureen Dowd is one. Her latest column on Obama versus the Hillary Monster has one of the all-time great intros:
'He thought a little thing like winning would stop her? Oh, Bambi.'
At the earliest possible opportunity I intend to improve on this.

Bikers, Bars and Bog Roll

Here are the ten oldest bars in America - thanks, Frank. The oldest was established in 1772. We have many older, of course, but, precisely because they have a shorter history, Americans are more impressed by antiquity. Rightly so, antiquity is impressive and the spectacle of a hundred year old building in the midst of a townscape barely a decade old is a kind of relief, a cold drink on a hot day. It would be a spectacle even more consoling if the Americans could suppress their habit of over-restoring, but there you go.
And, speaking of old bars, I went into one in Wonder Valley near 29 Palms, California. It was, I was told proudly, 50 years old. A woman, a retired firefighter with staring eyes and long grey hair, told me the story of the bar and of Wonder Valley, a barely survivable place in the High Desert. The bar was full of Hell's Angels. I went to the toilet (Why do the Americans hate the word?), not really needing to but because the staring eyes were making me dizzy. An Angel burst out of the door and growled something at me. I assumed I had been given some kind of ultimatum, something about leaving the bar otherwise shackles and dragging behind a Harley would ensue. As I got into the toilet, I suddenly realised what he had actually said - 'No paper towels!' In fact, even this startling little kindess was a kind of euphemism, there was no toilet paper either. Bikers with spikes on their jackets can be so genteel, not to mention surprisingly inhibited. Or perhaps he was just too tough to say 'bathroom tissue'.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Bang and Stub

Banging your knee and stubbing your toe are unique among injuries in that they both produce an instant and very specific wave of depression. Why is this?

Hidden Valley

Early in the morning, I walk round Hidden Valley in the Joshua Tree National Park. A bowl of rocky hills gives the valley a slightly more benign climate than the surrounding country so the vegetation is more abundant and the air softer. It is perfectly quiet - the only other person I encounter is a large lady sitting on a rock and staring, the appropriate activity. It is a place of very rare perfection, the Garden of Eden. I lie on a rock for an hour and, apart from the wildlife, I hear only one distant plane. As I return to the narrow entry to the valley I hear human noises. A group of 20 or so young climbers in yellow helmets are assembling. A girl carries a huge bundle of purple rope on her shoulder and the boys are laughing and spitting. Their adult leader appears and begins to direct them. The large lady will soon be disturbed. Climbing is such an impiety.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Blogging and Self-Contradiction

Our very own Duck runs a poem by our very own Brit about blogging. Brit captures the self-tortured, obsessive absurdity of the enterprise.  I'd add one further oddity - it makes me aware of how often I change one's mind. Years ago, Nige - not a scoffer by nature - scoffed at my fondness for the Whitman quote, 'Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.' (I wonder if he'd scoff now. I like Whitman more and more. Since our ancient friendship exists now almost entirely online, I'll just wait for him to respond.)  I'm not sure about containing multitudes but I certainly contradict myself and blogging repeatedly draws this to my attention. Being moody and impressionable, self-contradiction comes naturally and, as usual, I feel it is important to defend this character flaw as a universal virtue. Self-contradiction is an entirely reasonable response to a word under-determined by generalisation.  Opinions, as I have said before, are both over-rated and transitory; they also, I might add, lie behind much of the strife in the world. I regard opinions, mine included, as of great anthropological interest but of little ultimate value in themselves. Blogging has brought me to this meta-opinion (actually, I regard it as a fact) and so, in one limited sense, it has set me free. Now I just need to work on containing multitudes.

'Iconic', the Word that must be Destroyed

What turbulent Thought Experimenter will rid me of the word 'iconic'? I just heard 'absolutely iconic' on Start the Week. It detonated my equanimity. Can this word be stopped? It does nothing, means nothing, enslaves the imagination. What must we do?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Nigeness Again

Why aren't you reading Nigeness? Uber-blogger and all round good thing Andrew Sullivan rates it very highly.

Portillo on Brown

Of course, in spite of what I just said, everybody who writes for The Sunday Times is an unalloyed genius. But I thought I would just note an oddity in Michael Portillo's column today. He does an excellent job of explaining why Brown is crap - and always has been - and then says he has a problem because there are no big beasts in the cabinet. He remarks: 'Today nobody in the cabinet measures up to Brown and that diminishes him.' But, on the basis of what Portillo had just said, everybody in the cabinet would seem to more than measure up to Brown. In fact, I can't see how Brown 'measures up' at all. I think we should stop giving Brown the Big Beast title, otherwise he will go down like Hitler in his bunker - blaming the people for not being good enough for him.

Word Verification On

I am suffering from a spam wave, so I have had to turn on word verification.

Irony, Torpor and God Bless America

In the FT yesterday, Joseph O'Neill, a novelist and once a Londoner, describes the experience of returning to Britain after six years living in New York. He has published a successful novel in America and he is here to promote it, but he finds himself 'having trouble understanding how literary effort is made visible these days.' A friend suggests the British are suffering from 'terminal irony'. This has been said many times since Peter Cook predicted that our islands would sink giggling beneath the waves, but it's still true. Lack of seriousness is a serious problem - and not just when it comes to taking books seriously.  I had a similar experience to O'Neill when I returned from just seven weeks in the US. I felt bereft. The Americans may be foolishly hopeful, they may place too much faith in the future, but at least their hope and faith make them alert. The inattentive torpor of Britain is shocking, especially in political discourse. Gordon Brown, when I left, was being written off, now he appears to be stone dead. The political analysis of this amounts to little more than a shrug of the shoulders - 'Oh well, he's crap.' Not long ago, the same political analysts were saying  'He's great'. But nobody studies the move from great to crap, they just run with the herd, unthinking. At least I can say - apart from a brief deluded period when I thought he was outwitting the Tories - that I always thought he was crap. In America, the political analysis, especially on MSNBC and, sometimes, CNN, is superb. It also contains information - remember that, guys? The British (and many Americans) don't notice it because they are distracted by the razzmatazz. While there, I found myself doubting Obama in many ways, but, finally, came round to the view that he is the only rational choice, not least for the genuinely conservative-minded, as Andrew Sullivan never tires of saying. But it's not just about politics, it's about a whole way of viewing the world. On my first day back home I was treated with casual, offhand contempt in a series of chance contacts. I wouldn't have noticed it before, but, after the extravagant politeness of America, it came as a shock. The British used to mock the 'have a nice day' culture as false and, somehow, corrupt. But it's a thousand times better than our own surly sub-culture and, anyway, if professionalisation and training produce good manners, what's wrong with that? And it's not cynical and skin-deep. Some of the most interesting conversations I had in the US were with waiters and shop assistants. Here I wouldn't bother. We have, as I wrote on my return, a problem, a dimming of our imaginations, a closing of our minds. Occasionally this results in pathetic, knee-jerk attitudinising. I couldn't believe that Standpoint magazine launched itself on the world with this story. But I suppose it's reliable, both the Mail and the Telegraph run it every six months or so. Yeah, yeah, Britain is going to the dogs and we just have to get back to middle class values/hanging and flogging/Christianity, whatever. It's just like the Brown thing - great to crap - it's just so easy, it requires no thought, no seriousness. So-called right-wingers are playing at being Old Tories, which is a joke. Old Tories were serious, the smug British right are just giggling like everybody else and don't get me started on the left. 
But I'm stuck here. I suppose I could start sorting the place out one surly shop assistant or one bad political column at a time or I could slump into the same old torpor. But, on the whole, I think I'll just focus on America and spend my time having nice days.

Black Swans in Newport Beach

In The Sunday Times - I meet Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Black Swan man and the reason I am trying this low carbohydrate diet, and I wander round London studying art as leisure.