Saturday, December 30, 2006

Meditations on a Hanging

Briefly on line, I received this from Chris about the hanging of Saddam, an event covered with grisly ghoulishness by all the media I have been able to see.

What was your immediate reaction to the hanging of Saddam Hussein? My stomach turned over. Why? If anyone 'deserved' 'capital punishment', I suppose he did. Surely no sane or decent person would regret his disappearance from the ranks of the living. And yet - how does another act of violence, another grisly, sordid killing make the world a better place? It certainly won't help the scores of Iraqis who die every day as they shop, walk, drive, live. However I suspect that's a rationalization. There is something very immediate and sickening, in the Sartrean sense, about the details of a state killing: and if one opposes justice that embodies killing in its armoury then why draw a line in the sand that excludes a murderous dictator?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Possible Hiatus

Until January 7th there may be a hiatus in my postings. Or there may not. Online opportunities in the immediate future are unclear. Do, however, stick around and comment. I shall moderate and post at every possible opportunity. If I fail, have a good one and may your God, as Dave Allen used to say, go with you.

My Resolutions

Scientists have embarked on this attempt to study the success rate of New Year's resolutions. Personally, I have resolved not to sign up. But I like the tip from the professor running the show as reported in The Guardian - '...make only one resolution: if you are an obese, misanthropic, SUV-driving smoker, Prof Wiseman recommends picking just one aspect of life to improve, to increase your chances of success.' Then it would take me four years to become a nice, thin person. Resolutions, I suppose, are expressions of the usual human unease with their place in the world. My favourite survey result - which I may have dreamt - is that on an average day, the average person feels a little worse than average. Even if he's not actually in pain, he's worried about his obesity, misanthropy etc. and oppressed by his failed attempts to do something about them. As well as not taking part in Wiseman's study, my resolutions are to get by and be funnier. Making people laugh is a generous act. And, as with all resolutions, it's even funnier when you fail. Look at any fat, smoking bastard in an X5 or a Cayenne. Funny? No?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Short Posts and World Domination

I subscribed to The Blog Herald feed in the vague hope that it would contain news of bloggery. Probably it does, but it is among the worst written and most insanely prolix publications I have ever encountered so I haven't been able to find out. I did, however, make it to the end of this lugubrious piece protesting about the use of the word 'user' when applied, in particular, to bloggers. 'User' implies passive consumption whereas bloggers are both publishers and audience. The writer - I use the term loosely - is saying something similar to commenter Car Geye in my previous post. As CG puts it, 'The citizen journalist is the best hope for world peace.' Microsoft seems to agree that bloggers are, at least, powerful. Along with chip maker AMD, it has sent out Acer Ferrari laptops as gifts to some of the most influential bloggers, presumably to promote Vista. Mine, I am sure, is held up in the post. This gesture acknowledges blogger power, but it is also an attempt to control that power by drawing it into the existing structures. Bloggers, therefore, beware. The ability to accept a bribe is a dangerous, though accurate, definition of power. The truth is that the claims for the power of bloggery are not wrong, they are simply premature. Many things can yet go wrong with the blog world domination project, one of which, as The Blog Herald proves, is the issuing of any posts that are significantly longer than this.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Internet Invents Sex

I am spoilt for choice. Shall I muse on the strange case of the 747 containing all the Blairs overshooting the runway at Miami? Or is there more meat in the Dumfries earthquake? Yet perhaps I should take a stroll around the invading skyscrapers. It's always like that at this time of year - too much and yet not quite enough. On balance, however, I think the naked cleaner revolution is the big story. This is about the craze - if such it is - for hiring naked cleaning men and women. It is driven, of course, by the net. What is interesting is not the idea itself, but the spin appplied to it by Sean Thomas, the First Post writer. 'The net is changing sex.' he writes 'Why? Because it is the subconscious of humankind: with all our strangest fears, desires, and fantasies written down and exposed to others.' This is precisely wrong. I am sure the net is changing sex, but to assume that it is a direct transcription of the human subconscious is absurd. Cro-magnon man didn't wander the African savannah thinking how nice it would be to have a naked cleaning lady. Such a desire is the creation of culture. The net has accelerated this creative process. It doesn't draw desires out of people, it implants them. This means, of course, that, though the net is a human creation, it is not fully human. It is already something else.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

You and Them

I'm worried about Time magazine. An ad for the Chrysler Sebring pops up as you go to the Time site. The slogan is 'You might not be Time person of the year, but you can drive like you are.' We then get to the front page and discover that the Time person of the year is, in fact, You. Hmmm, so I won't be needing a Sebring then. Meanwhile, Tony Blair is to consult the people by recruiting 100 members of the public to take part in a series of panel discussions about government policy. Er, but I thought that's what MPs were for. Anyway, both Time and Blair seem to have stumbled on the bright idea of flattering the public. Advertisers seem to have stumbled on the same idea. One ad after another tells us how great we are. The latest is a bizarre, balletic celebration of our skin. This turns out to be selling Vaseline. And, of course, there is the interminable L'Oreal 'Because you're worth it!' campaign. No I'm not and I'm not the person of the year either. Though, to be honest, I would like to sit on a people panel. With dazzling rhetoric I'd talk them into recommending free cigarettes for all over sixties. There's a serious death shortage in the developed world and the mad scientists are still trying to make people live longer. But, of course, I don't stand a chance. Blair is already selling panel places to Labour donors. It turns out, you see, his party will soon have no members, so he needs to turn it into a bank as quickly as possible. Next year, I gather, Time intends to make Them person of the year.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Touch of the Zim at Christmas

Chris sends me this. I hope it thrills you as much as it does me. And so to all my readers and commenters, the gypsies, tramps, thieves, truckers, kickers and cowboy angels, thanks for visiting and happy Christmas.

Forecasts for 2007 (5)

As the Americans are pinned down in the desert by film crews, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives an exclusive interview to Katie Couric. 'I always wanted,' he explains, 'to be Noel Coward or, failing that, Cary Grant, but I lacked the skin tone, figure, talent, charm, wit and pronounceable name. My struggle has been to come to terms with the fact that all I can do is irritate Americans.' With its entire population now relocated to Peebles, Romania is declared a World Heritage Site. President Putin cuts gas supplies to Falkirk in protest against the American attack and, on a visit to London, tries out an exciting new poison on Prime Minister Reid. Its only effect is to make him slightly less Scottish. George Best rises from the grave to make a moving appeal to the people of Ulster. 'You must get drunk and shoot at each other," he says. Sadly, this changes nothing. Kim Jong-Il tells Al-Jazeera he always wanted to be James Stewart. To universal disgust, Tony Blair calls for a new realism. 'We must engage with both Manchester United AND Chelsea,' he says. Cherie buys Arsenal and appeals for calm. And, finally, following the worldwide success of his book How to Live Forever or Die Trying, Bryan Appleyard announces the first volume of his memoirs, The Life of Bryan: I Am Born. He issues an appeal for calm.
Next: February.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Forecasts for 2007 (4)

The now headless Gordon Brown receives an asbo and a restraint order preventing him from being within 300 yards of your favourite blogger after an altercation in an Islington restaurant when I invite him to become the third member of the Failed Intellectuals Society. As the Great Fog lifts in June to reveal 200,000 Bulgarians, Michael Jackson and Tom Hanks camped on the Heathrow runways, Kim Jong-Il, fearful that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in danger of claiming the new Nobel Evil Bastard Prize, kills and eats a puppy in a CNN special prior to strangling Larry King with his braces (supenders?). In the interests of peace, Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Gordon Ramsay offer their own puppy recipes on a 24-hour telethon in aid of Bulgarians left behind in Bulgaria. Kofi Annan calls for a diplomatic solution. Saddam Hussein, just before his execution by his preferred method of being pelted with Kurds, is visited by a tearful Donald Rumsfeld. American invades Iran because it's right next to Iraq and Afghanistan. Kofi Annan calls for a diplomatic solution. As Microsoft Vista is withdrawn for another five years when it is found not to work on computers. Google takes over Canada, intending to take Seattle from the north. President Ahmadinejad appeals for calm.

Donald Trump on Rosie O'Donnell

Here's a real warm-hearted, christmassy treat for all my readers. The man just glows, does he not? And it's the way he just can't stop himself.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Seven Best Things I Did This Year

Oh dear, Iain Dale has engaged me in another blog meme (Bleme? Mog?). So, in the best spirit of the season and of bloggery in general, here goes.
1)Upset Manchester United.
2)Upset management consultants.
3)Had a jovial conversation with Charles Clarke about how much we disliked each other at Cambridge.
4)Discovered that Alexander Waugh is as funny and charming as his father Auberon.
5)Finished my book.
6)Started a blog.
7)Read Marilynne Robinson.

PS: Ah must tag seven others, not sure how this works, but:
Frank Wilson, Jeffrey Archer, Newscoma, Maxine, Jacob P.Murgatroid, Daniel Finkelstein, Stanley Fish.

Forecasts for 2007 (3)

As Jeremy Clarkson goes into hospital to have Richard Hammond removed from his elbow after another Top Gear stunt misfires, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies he ever held a Holocaust denial conference. Thomas Pynchon comes out of hiding to reveal that he ghosted all of Jeffrey Archer's novels and to announce his availability as a charity auctioneer. The Daily Mail gets so angry about everything that it eats its own head. Head-eating at once becomes a fashionable stunt at rural dinner parties, as does trying to read Pynchon. The first volume of Tony Blair's memoirs - I Was Just Too Good For You - is rushed into print in order to damage sales of the first three volumes of Gordon Brown's - The Wilderness Years I, II and III. Cherie Blair sells the Connaught Square house to an oligarch for an undisclosed sum which she describes as 'not unadjacent to lots'. Blair uses the proceeds to treat himself to the monarchy, the captaincy of the England cricket team and a Nobel Prize. Gordon Brown eats his own head.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Forecasts for 2007 (2)

As the onion domes rise over St Paul's and John Reid's government embarks on an affordable housing scheme in Hackney for Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Madonna, London finally pulls out of the 2012 Olympics on the grounds that the money and land would be better used to provide cardboard 'starter' homes for all the Polish nannies and builders required by the oligarchs. Prime Minister Reid - 'I used to be a communist. I used to believe in Santa Claus.' - returns to his roots with a KGB-inspired scheme to detect Islamic terrorists. Christian pacifists are arrested and beaten until they confess. Bono buys a new pair of sunglasses to remind us of all the suffering in the world. Prince Philip and Donald Rumsfeld join forces to build a retirement home for the diplomatically challenged. They name it Lousy Bastards.

Forecasts for 2007 (1)

Lombard Street Research forecasts UK house prices could rise by another 15 per cent next year. The fools. They aren't even close. House prices outside London will remain flat or fall slightly. Inside London they will rise to the point where any form of shelter more luxurious than a cardboard box in Old Street tube station will be affordable only by eerily glowing Russian oligarchs. Central London a year hence will thus be a)Russian speaking b)radioactive and c)oligarchical. More prophecies when my inner voice speaks. Or, of course, you may have your own.

The Truth Delusion

In my Santa post below, I said we were 'better off believing.' Timothy Garton Ash comes to the same conclusion. Both the article and the ensuing comment thread are worth reading. The most important point made by TGA, an atheist, is that Christianity has done more good than harm - 'In my judgment as a historian of modern Europe, the positive side is larger than the negative.' It is this that leads him to disagree with the 'Dawkins school of atheists.' The problem with all these arguments, Dawkins' included, is the word 'truth'. TGA himself uses it in a very slippery way when he writes of 'proselytising believers in the truths discovered by science'. Science is, by strict definition, the sum total of statements that are true. You cannot 'believe' in such statements because they are demonstrably true. Of course, the number of statements that fit this strict definition is quite small and science spends most of its time getting by on the basis of statements that are not true in this sense at all. Newtonian physics is the obvious example. Scientific truth is thus a very narrow field, indeed. The field of useable generalisations is much larger and more effective. But, still, it is safest to say with Richard Feynman that science is purely descriptive - it cannot, by definition, tell us how to live or what to do. Yet the new militant atheism entirely depends on the view that we would be better off without religious superstition. This is why TGA's article is important. He says that we are, on the whole, better off for religion. To argue against this on the basis that religion is not 'true' is a category error as atheist TGA is arguing instrumentally. Furthermore, as science has only speculation to offer in the human realm - there are no theories in the human sciences comparable to those in physics and certainly none worthy of practical application - it is absolutely accurate to say that, in our daily lives, science is no more 'true' than faith. Indeed, truth here is not even the issue. All that matters is our disposition towards the world. This is a compound of many things, one of which may be the memory of a consoling belief in Santa Claus.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Death of the Mirabelle

Once again the Guardian's Zoe Williams displays an eerie ability to write a column coinciding with my own preoccupations. She says the British are still burdened with class timidity in restaurants, failing to complain when they should. For once, I agree, though I hate complaining myself. However, last night I was at the Mirabelle in Mayfair. This used to be a serene and elegant joint where one went to be plied with Marco Pierre White's finest comestibles by waiters who yearned to lay down their lives for their customers. But it is years since I have been there and, in the interim, the secretive hedge fund industry has colonised the environs of Berkeley Square. The Mirabelle has become the factory canteen. The place was rotten with braying hedgers, toasting each other and generally revelling in their easy and pointless wealth, plundered from the meta-markets of the world. The marble steps down to the bar were littered with stubbed cigarettes. By the door a hedger was sitting on the floor, smoking and barking into his mobile. I was at once spotted by the now cold and haughty waiters as not one of them. The service was, as a result, appalling. A Mayfair institution has been destroyed by fast money. I'm all for the wealth these rootless, philistine hedgers bring to London But, last night, I realised I don't want to meet them, see them or hear them and, to be honest, I took a wicked delight in noting that they all seemed to smoke so heavily and some, though young, were remarkably fat. But no, Zoe, I didn't complain, I did something much better. I wrote this post.

Believing in Santa

A school has apologised for telling a class of nine and ten year olds that Santa Claus does not exist. 'As a school,' says the headteacher Jackie Jackson, 'we delight in the magic of childhood and believe that Christmas is a special time.' Parents had complained. 'What gives the school the right to decide when children should know the truth about such a harmless matter when knowing the truth does take away that little bit of magic?' asked one. Behind our delight in sustaining children's belief in Santa lies a very anti-Dawkins assumption - that we are better off believing. And so we are. Anyway, I believe in Santa. He left me some excellent Issey Miyake socks last year. Only Santa could possibly have known how richly I deserved them.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Ipswich and Diana: In Pursuit of the Surreal

Frank Furedi in The First Post says, 'Conspiracy theories save us the trouble of facing the confusions and uncertainties of our ever changing world.' Furedi observes that 30 per cent of the British public think there was some conspiracy behind Diana's death and 36 per cent of Americans think the same about 9/11. Leaving aside the truth or otherwise of these convictions, I think Furedi is missing something here. Look at the Ipswich murders. A man, as I write, is being questioned. The day before he was arrested he gave a bizarre interview to the Sunday Mirror and he had his own site on MySpace, now deleted. He was also interviewed about a disappearance before any body was found. The whole case has been investigated by hundreds of police watched by hundreds of journalists in a relatively small city. Conspiracy theories, I guarantee, will soon emerge. But they will not be inspired by a refusal to face 'confusions and uncertainties', quite the opposite. They will happen because of a yearning to make sense of the world we are offered. The truth is that massive coverage of both this kind of marginal story and of hyper-manipulated yarns like the Blair-Brown confrontation generates too much information and too little sense. News management, see my previous post, requires an excess of information to disguise its workings. Any possibility of a pattern must be concealed. And news management has been at work in Ipswich as much as in Westminster. The police, in such a climate, have no choice. The poor punters, meanwhile, are left with the vague conviction that all this stuff must mean something, but they don't know what. No wonder, then, that they resort to conspiracy theories, coherent narratives that rise above the chaos of mediated events. Conspiracy theories, in short, are an inevitable result of media saturation. The punters are pursuing the surreal, the meaning that lies just beyond and is systematically concealed by conventional 'reality'. Andre Breton would have made 'sense' of Ipswich.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ironic Cricket

As the English cricketers once again succumb in Australia, my anguished brother emails me from Spain: 'Why do English teams and sportsmen only win things once and then collapse?' He was at Wembley in 1966 and his life has been downhill ever since. Well, I've posted on the appalling England football team before. Their problem is they are celebrities, not sportsmen. But there does seem to be this wider issue of our habitual, languid, post-victory swoon into mediocrity if not downright ineptitude. Overcome with the effort and unexpectedness of our odd triumphs, we crumple on to the library chaise-longue and consume beef tea, arrowroot biscuits and, as our strength returns, the odd cucumber sandwich, until, decades later, we feel fully restored. Perhaps only Steve Redgrave, with gold medals in five consecutive Olympics, has truly resisted the temptation to swoon. Irony may be the problem; after all, it's just so unfunny to keep winning. Irony was certainly behind the award of BBC Sports Personality of the Year to a large bottomed royal who, I gather, rides horses

I Know I Shouldn't Laugh But....

Nige, a tall and sagacious type, draws my attention to the career of Thomas Midgley Jr.. This man grew up in Ohio, my favourite state though I have never been there, and went on to 'have more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in history.' Tom's first masterpiece was his idea of putting lead in petrol to prevent 'knocking'; unfortunately it also killed people. The car companies kept quiet about this, even though at one production facility the effects were disastrous. 'Within the first two months of its operation, the Bayway plant was plagued by more cases of lead poisoning, hallucinations, insanity, and then five deaths in quick succession.' Midgley himself had to retreat to Miami to rest his lungs. His next work of genius was the use of Freon, a CFC, for refrigeration. This, of course, was to result in the stripping of the ozone layer. Great Tom was disabled by polio in this fifties. With typical inventive energy, he devised a system of ropes and pulleys to lift him from the bed. Sadly, aged 55, he became entangled in the ropes of the machine and died of strangulation. Utter, blind, confident folly is so consoling.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Me: Crichton and 2006

In The Sunday Times today: me on Michael Crichton and me on the big ideas of 2006.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Political Science

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the situation in Downing Street now seems to be as follows. Gordon Brown at number 11 thinks Tony Blair at number 10 is stirring up the Smith Institute story with which our own dear Guido has been having such fun. This story implies there's something dodgy about the way Brown funds his backroom operations. Meanwhile, Tony Blair at number 10 thinks Gordon Brown at number 11 is stirring up the cash for honours story, which again involves dodgy funding. Interested? No, neither am I.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lawn Darts Were Real

When I was about four I was traumatised by an incident at a Norwegian Hotel. There was a game of lawn darts by the shores of the Fjord and I remember one dart missing the target completely and burying itself in the knee of a little boy who happened to come round the corner just at that moment. Over the years, never having seen this game anywhere else, I came to assume this was a dream with all sorts of banal Freudian overtones. Judge, then, of my delight, when I discovered this. Not only does this wonderful site confirm triumphantly the reality of the game of lawn darts, it also provides a glorious, seasonal list of the most lethal toys of an earlier, simpler, happier time before the health and safety commissars sucked all the fun out of boyhood. Don't you just have to have that Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab? First, however, you'd need to bring down the in-laws with enfilading fire from that Johnny Reb cannon.

The Ipswich Murders 2

My previous post on this grim matter concerned the curious emptiness of serial killer stories and the way they act as mirrors, reflecting not the thing itself but the faces of those who aspire to fill this void. Now the television coverage has become intolerable. As I write, Sky News is, a little too enthusiastically, recounting the terrible details of previous serial killings. Anchors have now been relocated to Ipswich and a curiously unsavoury band of 'experts' pass before my gaze, recycling theories about... what? Families of the dead girls are being paraded before the cameras. In the streets of Ipswich, people earnestly confirm that, yes, it is terrible and, yes, they are anxious. Book deals are doubtless being done. Last night I saw a senior policewoman taken to one of the murder sites to confirm that, yes, she too found it all very disturbing. Perhaps they thought she was like Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, but Jane Tennison would have snarled at any such intrusion. This is a grotesque circus composed of spin, ghoulishness and, if we are honest, some very nasty impulses indeed. And all is justified by a spurious public interest defence. Sometimes it's just better not to know.

On News Management

Blair is questioned by the police and the attack dogs of the Serious Fraud Office are called off the Saudi arms deal in response to Saudi blackmail. And - surprise, surprise - these two stories are smuggled out under the cover of the Ipswich murders and the police report into the death of Diana. That politicians should learn to manage the news in this way is unremarkable and generally accepted. Indeed, to the fast-talking heroes of The West Wing, news management is a noble and dignified occupation, all part of the great cause of keeping Martin Sheen in office. It is a skill, in short, that any competent politician is expected to possess. Nevertheless, convention still demands that denials must be issued. Yesterday party hacks were wheeled out to be shocked and appalled at the suggestion that the police interviews could be timetabled by Downing Street and, after 9/11, a government press officer had to be seen to resign after she was found to have suggested sneaking out bad news under cover of the World Trade Center attacks. These charades are necessary because, though accepted, news management is not respectable for three obvious reasons: a) it is an admission that there is news so bad it has to be covered up b) it is anti-democratic because it is an attempt to interfere with the objectivity of the electorate's perceptions and c) it is fantastically patronising because it assumes the voters are too stupid or complacent to see through these gross attempts at deception. But there is also a fourth, less obvious, reason. News management insults truth. And, call me a sentimental old fool, but I'd still quite like to believe that the insulting of truth is not a necessary adjunct to democratic politics.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Proceedings of the FIS: Naomi Campbell

As Supreme Failure I have noted an ambiguity in the title of our noble Failed Intellectuals Society. We have taken it to mean somebody who is/was an intellectual and failed; but it could mean somebody who failed to be an intellectual. While mulling this over, I came across this story about the great Naomi Campbell. I have posted on Naomi before. I considered then the possibility that she may have Zen-like depths. The remark she delivers in this latest story would seem to provide further evidence for this view - 'It's been really like a tough year in terms of like the accusations and stuff like that. It's been very hurtful and blown out of proportion. But I can't stop getting on with my life...I can't pay too much attention to this negative stuff. I don't like to live in the negative. I like to stay in the present moment and stay positive.' Plainly this woman has failed magnificently to be an intellectual. Perhaps we should extend an invitation. I know it would encourage Stephen Hawking to join our very select band, though it may lead to fisticuffs at the AGM.

To All Commenters

The learned Gordon McCabe tells me he has problems posting a comment. If any other would-be commenters have similar problems, email them to me and I shall put them on, linked, credited or not according to taste. Foolishly I have gone over to the new Blogger system whose features include many new and exciting ways of annoying its users.

Ringo Versus Jeffrey

The brilliant Daniel Finkelstein has, with typical assiduity, been testing a Downing Street system that attempts to give some popular respectability to our hopelessly debauched honours system. His method is to start a campaign to give Ringo Starr a knighthood. Today he gives ten reasons why the loveable moptop should become Sir Ringo. For me, number ten is the clincher - 'Ringo has an MBE. Jeffrey Archer has a peerage.' Case closed, I'd say, and, while we are on the subject, I fancy a dukedom. Meanwhile, Jeffrey has been busy. He is to be involved in two television shows. Plainly his rehabilitation programme is going well. Yet, sadly, success seems to have gone to Jeff's head and a jarring tetchiness has appeared in his blog. Both his last two posts end on a sour note. 'Fortune' concludes with the wholly unjustified implication that Lord Foster's wife is an airhead- 'His amusing wife had only one interest - seeing if I could get her tickets for The Sound of Music.' Ouch! And 'Last Week's Update' insults the organisers of one of his charity auctions - 'The auction raised £61,500, and frankly the audience were very generous, because one or two of the items would have been hard to sell at a car boot sale.' Double ouch! What happened to the charming, modest, tongue-tied, thoughtful Jeff we used to know and love?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Ipswich Murders

Serial killings are invariably opaque affairs. Even when - if - the killer is found, we are left unsatisfied. As at the end of Hitchcock's Psycho, the proffered psychological explanations are never quite big enough to fit the facts. The only honest thing to say about the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich is nothing. Like a black hole, the object itself lies beyond our categories and all we can discuss are its observable effects. And so the killings have become a neutral zone, a blank sheet on which people, unconsciously, write their autobiographies. The Telegraph leader, for example, notes the poignancy of such events happening in the midst of the English rural idyll, in villages with names like Copdock Mill, Hintlesham and Nacton. In The Times Alice Miles says its makes the case for legalised prostitution clear. Does it? In the Guardian Julie Bindel constructs a rather complex feminist case. The serious intent of this is somewhat undercut by the online Guardian's astoundingly tasteless and depressing interactive guide, as if already coachloads of ghoulish onlookers were setting out to tour the sites where the bodies were found. But something has to be said and so, baffled, we talk earnestly about ourselves. The truth is that serial killings say nothing, nothing, at least, that we did not already know.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

XXX! Hot! Teen! Lesbians! XXX!

The above headline is a serious experiment. Ever since my post Lolita: Life Slavishly Imitating Art, I have had daily referrals from porn sites and search engines. Today, I see yourdailyporn and sexlinks247 have been visting. Hi, guys, and I'm sorry to be so disappointing. The internet's mechanisation of the full, bizarre spectrum of sexual expression is an amazing thing. There's barely a search term left - including, now, Bryan Appleyard - that doesn't turn up a porn site somewhere. Does the availability of all these kinks on the web actually create and encourage them? Or was everyone always so weird? I think we should be told. And, er, sorry again, guys

Why I Love America

In my post about Jeff Russell's site, I noted the evident yearning for these vast, exotic spaceships to be real. Well, everything comes in threes and, sure enough, soon afterwards I saw the movie Happy Feet and, on DVD, watched Galaxy Quest for what must have been the tenth time - my daughter loves it. The joke in Galaxy Quest is that the spaceships are, indeed, real, in spite of the fact that they were invented for a clunky Star Trek-like TV series. The myth turns out to be true. Happy Feet, meanwhile, is - ignore, as usual, the critics - the best of Hollywood's computer generated cartoons. (Miyazaki's Spirited Away is better than any of them, but that's Japanese.) This penguin-fest is so good not because it is funny or cute, though it is both, but because of its aesthetic rigour. The significance of the central metaphor - the dance of the penguins - is sustained by every shot and its meaning - that the dance stands for the absolute value of all living behaviour on the planet, irrespective of its value for us - is profound. This is a post-humanist message and this is children's entertainment of the highest order. It is, once again, about the yearning for the myth to be true. Two other examples from great American popular art: in The Simpsons, Lisa discovers the truth about her town's local legend Jebediah Springfield, but concludes that it is better to sustain the myth and, in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (one of the very few films with a character called Appleyard), the journalist tells James Stewart, 'This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.' And one example from a less popular art: the magnificent late poetry of Wallace Stevens. There is, in the American soul, this urgent longing for the best and the highest to be true and, of course, the longing becomes the truth. And that, in a nutshell, is why I love America.
PS: And now I discover this. There's nothing like lowering all debate to the lowest common denominator of dumb left and stupid right. But it looks as though Neil Cavuto and Zoe Williams were made for each other. I have posted on Zoe's curious conclusions once before.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Gordon Brown: At Last They Get It

The only thing I really care about in British politics is Gordon Brown. I don't think Blair has been much of a Prime Minister and I find it hard to form any clear views on Cameron, but I have always known intuitively that Brown would be a hundred times worse than either. The man's instincts are vengeful, punitive, tribal and, when it comes to money, distinctly tricky. What I have never understood is why, given his persecution of their core readers and the polls that consistently show his deep unpopularity, the press has given him such an easy ride. I suppose it's our economic success, but the more you look at that, the less it seems to be his doing. Furthermore, try as I may, I can find no evidence whatsoever of the supposedly great Brown intellect. In some addle-headed way, he seems to want to create a monstrous political chimera out of Neocon moral and old Labour economic attitudes, out of, in short, two of the most comprehensively failed ideologies to be found on the shelves of the Kwiki Mart that is contemporary political thought.
But, at last, it seems, the tide has turned. My own paper has written a wonderfully scathing leader about the man. Hamish McRae in the Independent on Sunday has taken apart his dodgy figures. And with characteristically cool brilliance, Vicki Woods has quietly exposed the rank injustice embedded in Brown's attitudes. The 'libertarian' bloggers can shout and scream, the political columnists can rant and the Tories can shake their tiny fists, but Woods' infinitely subtle, indirect style gets to the heart of the matter. Brown hates our guts.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Simon Schama Moves Me

There has always been much to admire about Simon Schama, but I never expected him to move me - impress and inform yes, move no. But then, on two occasions within twelve hours of each other, he did, indeed, moisten my lids. The first was his programme on Mark Rothko, the last in his TV series Power of Art, a series so damaged by over-writing that I had stopped watching. But I just caught the end of this show and there he was in the Rothko room at Tate Modern affirming that those paintings intended for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York were, indeed, the real thing, a supreme example of the power of art to address directly the first and last things. This is what I thought when I first saw them, but I had forgotten. The second occasion was this article on Tom Waits in The Guardian. It speaks for itself, as does Waits, AND it includes Wallace Stevens. I used to think Schama was too smart for his own good, but, it turns out, he's much smarter than that.

Go With Gordon

One of my most loyal and erudite commenters has been inspired to set up his own blog. Yes, it is none other than the great Gordon McCabe, physicist and philosopher. Visit his blog now and regularly, it is called McCabism.

Me, Me, Me 4

Just a book review this week in The Sunday Times. But it's a funny book.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Football and the PR Canker

I have posted before on my feelings with regard to the condition of English football, at least as manifested in the national team. The clubs produce better teams - how could they produce worse? - but have become equally vile in their limitless arrogance. Chelsea, for example, has been going to outrageous lengths to control the press. The press, predictably, have been nauseatingly supine on the matter. Manchester United has also been infected with the disfiguring disease of PR. During my Copenhagen escapades with P Diddy, I did the right hack thing - burst into Manchester United's private room and wrote a mild satire about the incident. The United PR subsequenty complained in the most ludicrous terms. I replied, explaining the God-given basis of the PR-journalist relationship - eternal enmity. She replied with more nonsense, concluding, 'Manchester United will take this up with The Sunday Times.' The pomposity is beyond belief. None of this has anything to do with the fact the United are playing my team, Manchester City, today, though, of course, I hope I have the same effect on them as I did in Copenhagen where they lost 1-0. But it is to do with the dismal power now exerted by PRs, attempting, often successfully, to recruit journalists in their campaign against the public. See my article on this matter from 2003.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Jeff Russell's Geek Central

I have been wondering what to say about this site. But, on the whole, it is just so fantastically, geekishly, boyishly, pointlessly, fiendishly gripping that I will let it speak for itself. Then again, perhaps I will just say: the evident yearning for these things to be real is, for some reason, very moving.

Hawking to Join the FIS?

My Stephen Hawking article in The Sunday Times - see this post - has inspired the usual combination of ecstatic praise and savage abuse. What is it about this man? Anyway, last night I was authoritatively informed that, as a result of studying the mathematics of Kurt Godel, Hawking no longer believes in the possibility of a final Theory of Everything. Godel proved the incompletability of any arithmetical system. I and many others could never understand how, if Godel was right - and nobody said he was wrong - any final theory was possible. Hawking and his followers used to pour scorn on such doubts. Now, it seems, he agrees. I find this amusing - the Theory of Everything was the battle standard of the scientism that emerged in the wake of Hawking's A Brief History of Time - but then perhaps I am a little twisted.
Also, since much of the abuse involves an accusation that I do not understand these matters, I'd like to reiterate for the intellectually challenged the most important point I made in my article. Hawking says he is an instrumentalist. He does not believe scientific theories are true, he believes they are the best approximations available at the time, they are useful instruments. He was an instrumentalist when he did believe in a final theory. This is profoundly irrational since he would have to believe that all theories except the final one could be encompassed by his instrumentalism. The final one, to be genuinely final, had to be different - ie true. This glaring contradiction cannot be wished or calculated away by scornful physicists. It is an intellectual error, simple as that. Hawking, should he wish to apply, would be welcomed into the ranks of the Failed Intellectuals Society. It was, after all, his attempt to insult me that inspired the foundation of this great institution.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Woody Allen's Comedy Fatwa

As a result of a less than flattering article I wrote about him, Woody Allen has issued a comedy fatwa against me. I've mentioned my relations with Woody before, but only now have I decided to go public to report a series of highly suggestive events. I interviewed Woody in Venice. Soon after my jaundiced piece appeared, I walked out of my house to find half the road closed off. Young men with impressive looking utility belts were asking me to be quiet and stand still. I asked one what was going on. A Woody Allen film, he told me, and, sure enough, I glimpsed the man himself in a laundrette not 200 yards from my front door. A few months later the same thing happened and, yes, it was another Woody movie. Yesterday another film was being made in my street, I have not bothered to inquire as to the director. This time, however, the fatwaistas had raised their game. As I parked my car, a fire truck approached spewing fountains from its rear end. The ostensible reason was to make the street look wet with rain, but I knew better. A man stood on the back with a hose gushing yet more water. My car was drenched with me still in it, the man seeming to take particular pleasure in hosing me down. I opened the door and was soaked. Passers-by laughed and pointed. This, I thought, must surely be his last gag at my expense, but, this morning, a tornado touched down in Kensal Rise, a few miles from me. He missed this time, but I have to ask: how on earth did he do that?

On Spam

Hi there, Karyn Sheets and Lillian Bowers, but, I am afraid, I neither want a $269,000 loan nor any shares in Premier Holdings Group. And, ahem, Adara Dalton, I don't need any Viagra. Thanks anyway. The volume of spam has doubled and the ingenuity of spammers has, at least, quadrupled. They have breached every firewall, junk filter and even the US Can-Spam Act of 2003. Around 90 per cent of all email may now be spam. And, amazingly, it works. Those penny stocks they thrust at you do actually rise in the days after a mass mailing. That means, presumably, that people also try to buy Viagra or take up those loans. I don't do any of that, but I am drawn to spam because of its strange poetry. The names are a delight: Ezra Mcbride, Trinidad Forbes, Fluker D.Hysell, Dice H.Musser, Mahalath Weathersby and the enigmatic Lyubov Pettengill. Then there are those curious prose-poems attached to the messages: 'The turning past, indifference, and she would have imagined that bingley had received his sanction to be happy, had she...' wrote Karyn Sheets to me this morning at the foot of her loan offer. Surely, the great spam epic is waiting to be written, or possibly an anthology.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Moon: Alien Contact

Since we appear to be going back to the moon at last, I thought I would draw your attention to my entirely accurate vision of future lunar exploration.

Proceeding of the FIS 3: Sundries

Commenting on my post on Miami, James asks, 'What is art?' In my role as Supreme Failure, I affirm that art is that which provides the consoling illusion of infinite depth. In the same role, I would point out to Susan that I cannot be trapped by logic when I am trying to be funny. And, finally, the SF would like to make it clear that all intellectuals are failures. It is the nature of their calling, though, of course, some fail more spectacularly than others. Membership of the FIS is thus open to all intellectuals. However, only those with a healthy awareness of their ultimate ineptitude will be - or would want to be - admitted to full membership.

Say Hello to the Goodbye Gun

Douglas Adams invented a point of view gun for the film of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It caused your target to see the world from your perspective and it was the only funny thing in that dreadful movie. Now, it seems, we have a non-lethal weapon that gives you an overwhelming urge to say goodbye. Known as the Active Denial System, it is a beam that causes agonising burning pain accompanied by, unsurprisingly a sudden desire to run away or, as it were, say goodbye. I think I was being used as a test subject at a dinner last night. The curious thing about non-lethal weapons is they have to undergo extensive safety tests; your victim, after all, might sue. They can also produce amusingly unexpected results - 'Tasers can become dangerous if they are used on subjects who have previously been doused with flammable pepper spray.' (And, they might add, subsequently hit by a plastic bullet while being deafened by a rape alarm.) In the case of the Goodbye Gun, testing seems to have been one long comedy routine with subjects being given vodka to see if it helped them endure the pain. The good news is that wrapping yourself in layers of tinfoil like a turkey would provide some protection. All of which made me nostalgic for good, old-fashioned weapons like nukes, which, it seems, Tony Blair, sentimental old fool that he is, has decided to keep.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Miami: The Desperate Search for the Avant-Garde

The weirdly named Art Basel Miami Beach is about to start. Art Basel sounds about right, but adding Miami Beach sucks all the seriousness out of it. Meanwhile, the Turner Prize has been won by a painter and Damien Hirst is exhibiting his collection. Contemporary visual 'art' is highly successful. Like gold, it works as an absorber of surplus cash. But, unlike gold, it is not clear what it is. I have often heard fashionable gallery owners, over-excited critics and verbally-challenged academics explain works in terms that I can only describe as illiterate and ignorant. They are doing so, of course, because an unprecedented number of rich people, often with 'art advisers', want to fill their walls and spaces with stuff labelled as 'art'. But they seldom, if ever, make any sane distinctions between art and not-art. Instead, they just seem to endorse the whole lot. Yet I like looking at contemporary 'art'. It is often highly decorative and well-done. Occasionally, it is, without question art. But, most of the time, it is just pretty things done by pretty young things seeking to 'subvert' something or other. They are all in desperate pursuit of the avant-garde, the one thing they cannot have because what was avant-garde has become the orthodox mainstream. There is nothing to subvert and nobody to shock. There's too much 'art' because there's too much money. As for art, well there is as much as there always was - very little.

Proceedings of the FIS 1

The Failed Intellectuals Society now has applications from Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Francis Fukuyama, Alfred R. Wallace and Friedrich Engels. Not bad in less than 24 hours. All are, of course, magnificently qualified, but only one is alive and I'm not sure ol' End of History Frank has yet attained the self-knowledge necessary to be a fully engaged member. We have the further uncertainty of how we approach people we wish to join. There may be misunderstandings. In view of Harold Pinter's desire to kick me in the balls, either we won't invite him or I'll get my noble and dignified Veep, Frank Wilson, to issue the invite. Much deep thought is required. We do this well, of course, prior to getting it all horribly wrong.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A Historic Moment: Birth of the FIS

In my Stephen Hawking piece in The Sunday Times yesterday, I mentioned in passing that Hawking had once attacked me in print as a failed intellectual. This, I wrote, I wore as a badge of pride - what other kind of intellectuals are there? Now the great and good Frank Wilson has suggested the formation of a Failed Intellectuals Society.
'I think we should assume,' Frank writes, 'since Hawking directly designated you as such, that you are, as it were, the first in line of apostolic succession, with the power to confer dignity and powers on others.'
I have, with a simple but infinitely graceful flick of my diamond-encrusted mouse, accepted and given myself the title of Supreme Failure. Frank is vice-president. Others will be accepted according to demanding criteria which I haven't yet invented and following a ceremony much more bizarre than anything dreamed of by the Masons, though I may steal their noose and rolled up trouser leg.

Less is More, More or Less

I see calorie restriction is becoming fashionable. I looked into this phenomenon while researching my new book. The idea is that you restrict your calorie-intake to about 70 per cent of normal levels. Since the thirties, animal research has shown that this prolongs life. The reasons are unclear. Certain science-aware babyboomers are particularly drawn to CR. They have read that some scientists believe technologies providing significant life extension and perhaps even medical immortality may become available within thirty years. For a boomer aged between 45 and 60, this is a somewhat enervating forecast - they may die before they get a chance to extend their life, they may even be among the last people to die by the traditional methods of disease, old age, whatever. In the future only pianos falling on us or trucks hitting us will be terminal conditions. Boomers, who never thought they would die anyway, thus find themselves having to work like crazy to stay alive. I have met boomer doctors who dose themselves with dangerous levels of anti-cholesterol and blood pressure lowering drugs and all sorts of boomers who take 250 supplements a day. CR can be dangerous. Women, it seems, may miscarry. I also love the list of risks on the Calorie Restricriction Society web site. These include hunger and discomfort while sitting due to loss of 'cushioning' fat.
Octavio Paz once wrote, 'A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.'

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Retrieved from the Guido Maw

A rather elaborate comment I put on a Guido Fawkes post was buried in the usual tirade of rage, incoherence and occasional clarity. Guido has a rare gift for setting his comment crew aflame. Anyway, the post raised an interesting question about why the big political blogs were all right wing and/or libertarian and very few - any? - came from the left. My response was:

"It is, Guido, a question of rhetoric. The success of the rightish British blogs is based on the same rhetoric as that of American right wing shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh. The first point is that both blogging and radio chat form themselves naturally into a free, generally extreme form of expression. The second point is that the left's rhetoric has been inhibited by a variety of self-imposed restraints - broadly those known as 'politically correctness', but also by certain, as it were, theological dogmas such as the need to blame America for everything and to insist that America can only do evil. PC and dogmatism have progressively tightened the gag on the rhetoric of the left so that, in effect, they can say less and less about more and more. The right, in contrast, has not really acquired any such fixed dogmas. It is more pluralist. The reason for this is the left's dogmatism and package of prejudices combined with an 'if you're not for us, you're against us' mindset. This restricts entry to the left club and excludes anybody who might dissent too readily from the prevailing orthodoxy. This results in the right being defined not positively but negatively as 'not left' - both by the left and the right - and, therefore, it becomes a loose coalition of variously dissident voices. These derive their energy from the easy shockability of the dogmatic left and from their freedom to say anything about anything without being damned for heresy. This is, of course, very entertaining. Hence your success."

I just didn't think it should be lost.

Me, Me, Me 3: Pynchon and Hawking

Two more Sunday Times pieces you have to read, I'm afraid. The first is on Thomas Pynchon. I tried several times last week to convince people I was Pynchon - how, after all, would they know? They seemed curiously indifferent, perhaps I was a disappointment. The other is on Stephen Hawking. Any complaints about my conclusions in these pieces should be sent here.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Big Science

Panspermia- the theory that life on earth was seeded from space - finds support from the discovery of hollow spheres in meteorites. These could have rained organic molecules on to the surface and got the whole show on the road. In fact, panspermia does not seem to explain very much, but it's a theory of which I have always been fond. To my mind, it implies that we are the alien invaders of earth, which is exactly what it feels like early in the morning on the Norfolk saltmarshes. Meanwhile, the final superconducting magnet has been delivered to the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. In about a year this machine will start smashing particles into each other in an attempt to decipher the physics of the Big Bang. American interest in big physics seems to have declined and Europe is now in the lead. The pictures of the LHC are thrilling, not least because I - not being a physicist - don't really know what it is for. I am not convinced anybody does. This gives it the mad, heroic uselessness of one of the great Gothic cathedrals. The builders of the cathedral at Seville, the biggest Gothic church in the world, said they were doing it so that men would think they were mad. It is nice to think that something truly, magnificently mad is being done in Geneva of all places. All of which is to say that theology is, contrary to some reports, not dead. It lives on in the imaginations of the physicists and cosmologists, our contemporary cathedral builders and watchers of the heavens.

Friday, December 01, 2006

For Fraser Brown 2

In my previous post on the disability of Gordon Brown's son I was queasy about any attempt to lock the child's condition into a political calculus. Of course, Guido Fawkes has now done this - 'Call Guido cynical if you will...' Brown may be in trouble because of press interest in the affairs of the Smith Institute. He could have announced his son's condition at any time or, indeed, never said anything about it. So, Guido implies, this was a diversionary tactic, an involvement of Fraser in the calculus. I don't know and, in some sense, I don't care. Fraser's condition remains grievous. But the question does occur to me: how would we think differently about Brown if he had done this? One answer, I suspect, is that we would feel free to say anything we liked about the man and his family. Another is that we would shrug our shoulders - that's politicians for you. But, if he did do it, whose fault would it be? Ours, I suspect, for being the kind of electorate that is vulnerable to such easy manipulations.

Noam Chomsky in a Funny Hat

This, I am afraid, is funny enough to deserve its own post. It is about the worst ever Christmas Specials. (They're called Holiday Specials, but that's another American thing like cake-muffins which I really can't get my head round.) The Noam Chomsky special and Bob & Carol & Ted & Santa are particularly fine. Thanks, Nige.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

For Fraser Brown

People are necessarily treading carefully around the news that Gordon Brown's son Fraser has cystic fibrosis. His daughter, Jennifer, was born prematurely and died soon afterwards. That was, of course, easily described as a tragedy. To describe Fraser's affliction as a tragedy would be to insult the life of a child who may well live for many years. What also cannot be said is that this humanises a politician not known for his approachability and warmth. That involves the child in a political calculus. But, speaking from some experience, what can be said is that the role of the severely handicapped is to remind us that we are all handicapped. The only real crime is not to know this.

More Death

It's hard not to be gripped by the American Way of Death - the embalmed and exposed cadavers, the vast 'memorial parks', the baroque euphemisms, the whole Loved One palaver. And there is something consoling about the fact that this culture has spread to the internet in the form of online memorial web sites. Here is an example, complete with music. Unlike most Brits - including, of course, Evelyn Waugh and Jessica Mitford - I don't sneer at all this as evidence of Yank vulgarity and commercialism. In fact, I think the American attachment to elaborate rites is preferable to our detachment. A very great book indeed - Philippe Aries' The Hour of Our Death - explains why far better than I can. But, in a nutshell, secular society, deprived of the rites of death, resorts to the lonely technological death, free of all consolation. The Americans have their rites, we have our tongue-tied, embarrassed friends and relatives, waiting in quiet desperation for the earliest decent moment to leave. Anyway, while I am on the subject, it seems death is a problem for bloggers and other online hoodlums. They take their passwords to their grave. Their virtual identities, their work, their lives are locked in the immaterial vault of the web. Like ghosts, in fact, or souls in limbo. We need a web Dante to visit them. Oh and Harvard says bacon sandwiches can kill you. Have a good one and, hey, let's be careful out there.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

There's a Divinity That Shapes Our Ends

It's hard not to believe that Hamlet has a point when Allen Carr dies of lung cancer. Carr gave up a 100-a-day habit 23 years ago and went on, apparently, to cure millions of their nicotine addiction. But it's difficult to know exactly what the Divinity is up to here. Qutting smoking and saving others should, perhaps, have saved him from such a death. On the other hand, the message could be that the weed will always get you, so don't even start. Or something. I am more at ease with the death of Jim Fixx in 1984. He was the great prophet of jogging for health - we would rightly call it running now as jogging is a most horrible word, suggestive of an unwise bouncing movement that would inevitably result in skeletal damage. Fixx, of course, died of a heart attack while running. He was 52. Very neat of the Divinity if He is against running on principle. But I think His real point was that Fixx, in his Complete Book of Running, invoked Mao-Tse Tung as an authority. The old mass murderer approved of running. But, if there is one thing of which we can be sure, it is that Mao angered the Divinity more than any other human being. So, if you want to live a long time, don't smoke at all and never say anything nice about Mao. Obviously.

Personally, of course, I Regret Everything

Tony Blair expressed 'deep sorrow' for slavery. He didn't actually say he was sorry. This was wise. If there are going to be apologies for slavery then Africans - chiefs sold slaves - and Arabs - very enthusiastic traders - should also be bowing their heads. And, of course, slavery was finally banned because of the British. Meanwhile, Tim Willis in the First Post suggests the Romans should apologise for their invasion. This may have been 2,000 years ago but the British still haven't recovered from the 'collective trauma' that ensued. In addition, the Romans enslaved 100,000 of us. Willis does not go far enough. To my delight - see this post - we seem to have discovered that Norwegians served in the Roman legions. I have always wanted to wring an apology out of Oslo. But what about the French? They invaded in 1066 and I have had a slight headache ever since. Speaking of which, the Dutch have always made me uneasy. Who do they think they are? And don't get me started on the Swiss. Or the Austrians. I'll apologise for the British Empire - maybe - if they'll apologise for being annoying. And, ohmygod, cake-muffins! Just say it, America. Sorry. And I apologise to everybody I've ever offended in this blog. Except Yvette Cooper. And Ed Vaizey. And Richard Dawkins. And Jeffrey Archer.
*The wonderful headline, since you ask, is not mine but Samuel Beckett's.
**Good grief! And I just discovered this site. Go there and apologise now.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Email Manners and Ed Vaizey

I have just received an email from Ed Vaizey, Shadow Minister for the Arts. It asks: 'Where's your post on the death (and rebirth) of newspapers?' Leaving aside the fact that the post is on my blog in plain sight under the pretty much self-explanatory headline The Death of Print?, I want to draw your attention to the form of this Vaizey mail. His question is posed in the subject line. The body of the mail contains only his name, his title and his constituency (Wantage and Didcot, a jaunty pairing to my ear). This, I find, bloody rude. Emails can be fast and casual, but not one from a prominent politician sent to somebody he has never met. It's like being yelled at across the street - 'Oi, you, where's your post....?' etc. So just to say, 'Oi, Vaizey, get your frigging act together.'

An Important Contribution to the Polly Toynbee Debate

To the Cafe Royal - how often I have dreamed of writing those words! - for the International PEN quiz, dinner etc. I am on the Literary Review - 'An oasis of civilisation amidst the desert of cool Britannia.' B.Appleyard - team, which never wins but always has a much better time than anybody else. One of us, the great and gentle Alexander Waugh, grows increasingly angry at the dim-witted tackiness of the whole affair. PEN is supposedly a noble organisation with noble goals, yet the evening feels like any annual party of any company with a drunken lout recruitment policy. Knowing we are losing, Alexander and I agree that our preferred tactic is to give the same answer to every question - Polly Toynbee. We cannot persuade the rest of our table. During the picture round, however, which requires the identification of fragments of book jackets, a blonde lady from another table pleads with us to tell her the name of one book, any book, represented. We tell her that Philip Roth's The Plot Against America is, in fact, My Struggle by Polly Toynbee. This makes blonde happy. Alexander and I are flooded with a deep inner peace. For one brief moment, we have been true to PEN's highest ideals.

Monday, November 27, 2006


I reported the funeral of Princess Diana. Perhaps I went a little over the top. But I had just 80 minutes to write the piece and, inside the Abbey, only the dead kings would have been immune to some kind of intense emotion. Possibly my report would have depressed political blogger Stephen Tall. It seems internal BBC research has shown that 44 per cent of the population thought that media coverage of Diana's death was excessive and over-emotional. This, it seems, made them feel 'alienated'. Tall himself says he felt 'utterly disenfranchised'. These words are absurd. If such news coverage makes you feel alienated, then you must be pretty alienated to start with. If it makes you feel 'utterly disenfranchised', then your political sensitivities and your language are out of control. Now, here we go again, next year there is to be a charity concert to mark the tenth anniversary of Diana's death. This will re-start the attacks of the hard-ass right on the 'soppy' Diana cult and the attacks of the touchy-feely left on the 'cold' institution of the monarchy and the oppressive class system, yaddy-yadda-ya. I've been on both sides for the purposes of getting through dull dinner parties. In hard-ass mode, I agree that Diana and her entourage were a bunch of flakes. In touchy-feely mode, I accept that she seems to have been tortured. One book I reviewed, however, made me realise that my feelings on the matter were irrelevant. In The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class, Michael Collins shows, among other things, how such mass acts of mourning are a distinct tradition within the London working class. They confirm identity and perpetuate consoling stories of community and solidarity. After reading Collins, I abandoned my posturing. I am neutral on Diana for the simple reason that she was not meant for me. She was meant for people who had much more urgent needs and reasons to belong.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

I Am Not the World's Oldest Blogger

You probably all knew about this guy before I did, but, for me, it is a very consoling discovery. Good ol' Don is the world's oldest blogger. Will I blog on to my nineties? Will Jeffrey? All I can say is that I just bought my first pair of Converse All Stars, clear though disturbing proof, if any were needed, that I am not dead yet.

Jeffrey Archer - I Know, I'm Sorry

You people bring out the worst in me. Maxine, for example, draws my attention to this. He's downright viral this Archer. This is, in fact, odd because his blog is ranked only 2.6 millionth in the world, well below my own obscure and cantankerous offering. He just doesn't post enough, I guess, but when he does.... Consider, for example, the lyrical This Week's News with which he left us prior to departing for Australia. It contains the disturbing report that one prize in a charity auction he is conducting out there consists of 'a box for every day of the Sydney Test.' He can't surely mean....
(For my American readers, 'a box' in cricket is, I believe, the same as 'a cup' in baseball. Or it used to be. I see now they are called Anatomic Abdominal Guards. When did that happen? When muffins became cakes probably.)

Me, Me, Me 2

Two more Sunday Times pieces, I'm afraid. One about management consultants in government and one about a new wave of popular science books. I don't know how I do it what with this blog and all.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


Years ago I was involved in a Cold War caper when the Russian theatre director Yuri Lyubimov defected to the West in the course of an interview with me. To the horror of the management of the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, he sneered at the chinovniki - petty bureaucrats - who meddled with his work at the Tanganka Theatre. After that, in Yuri Andropov's Soviet Union, there was no going back and, in 1984, Yuri was stripped of his citizenship. It was an exciting time for me. I was given strange warnings by a man in a room full of mirrors - 'Very distracting,' he said ominously - and I raced around London with Yuri, his wife and friends, avoiding the rest of the press and the KGB, who, I was assured, would snatch him if they could. Oh and Yuri's production of Crime and Punishment at the Lyric was one of my great theatrical experiences. But all the time I was watched coldly by his Hungarian wife. She blamed me for all this. She had not known he had intended to defect and now she thought she would never see her family again. 'Look what happened to Tarkovsky,' she said to Yuri. Andrei Tarkovsky, that great, great artist, also defected and was separated from his family. He was to die, still in exile, in 1986.
All of which came to mind when I saw some Russian expert on television this morning. He used the word 'liquidate' to describe the killing of Alexander Litvinenko in London. 'Liquidate' is the verbal equivalent of my Cold War capers. I was enjoying the game, but the eyes of Yuri's wife spoke of the horrible reality. Similarly 'liquidate' sounds exciting and James Bondish. But what it really means is the torturing to death by evil people of a man whose only crime was to speak out.

Matters of High Art

You should know that a) I have won a fiercely competitive poetry competition and b) that Big Jeff is giving away his money. In both cases it's about time too.

Friday, November 24, 2006

To All Commenters

I have just discovered that some comments have gone astray. Blame this new Blogger software which promised me greater stability, at the price, seemingly, of lost comments. So, if you have left comments and they have not appeared, email me. They have not been censored. The only comments I don't publish are ones that contain potential libels for which I could take the hit.

Cricket, Also Muffins

On the subject of the first Ashes test, I am speechless. I note this, however, spoken by an English character in the new Thomas Pynchon novel.
'You might not as an American appreciate this, but among the last surviving bits of evidence that a civilization once existed on this island is the game of cricket.'
Pubs too, I'd say, and tweed, possibly also real muffins, not those ghastly American heart attack machines. Look, guys, which part of this sentence - Cake is not a breakfast food. - don't you understand?

The Death of Print?

I am indebted to the ineffable Frank Wilson for drawing my attention to this article from The Atlantic, for me one of the best magazines in the business. The article is inspired by a beautifully-made film - see it here - which presents a vision of the immediate future in which Microsoft and Googlezon (a merged Google and Amazon) fight for control of the world's media. Googlezon wins. Note the old media groups are not involved. So what happens to newspapers? In The Atlantic Michael Hirschorn provides one scenario. They go utterly digital, becoming social networks in which reporters blogs are the hubs. Something like this scenario is exactly what newspaper managements are currently contemplating. It is somewhat comforting for me in that it justifies the role of the writer and my own decision to blog. It is less comforting in that, digitised as I may be, I like newspapers and print on paper. They provide something that cannot be had online - a feeling of contemplation combined with the serendipity of finding something you weren't looking for. However, Hirschorn provides another scenario which, I am happy to say, exactly matches the one I have been propagating at dinner parties, in pubs etc. To quote Hirshorn: 'Counterintuitively, I'd argue that this disaggregation strategy could provide a renewed logic to the printed product. As news itself becomes more of an instantly available commodity, readers will crave an oasis of coherence and analysis ... Online news, microchunked, consumed on the fly, is fast food; the newspaper, fed by its newly invigorated journalist-brands, is the sit-down meal. In this marginally more optimistic future history, the roles of print and digital are inverted. Original news - in the form of stories, postings, and community - begins online, while print offers an intelligent digest/redaction that readers - and not only the elite and elderly - can peruse at their leisure.'
Exactly. Newspapers will go through a phase of trying to turn themselves into iPods and then, finally, return to what they do best - being newspapers.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Meaning of Complexity

Science stories like this always make me suspicious and not just when they are in The Independent. Scientist makes announcement. Journalist asks questions beginning, 'Does this mean that...?' Scientist shrugs and says, 'Well, yes, I suppose so.' Headline announces, 'World Changed Utterly: It's Official.' Anyway, leaving such doubts aside, the gist of this story is that the human genome turns out to be far more complicated than we thought. When Watson and Crick deciphered the molecule of DNA in 1953, there was general rejoicing at the fact that it all seemed so simple. Our blueprint was written in a code consisting of just four chemical letters. This simplicity has since been progressively revealed as ever more illusory. The complexity of the system means that it remains far beyond our understanding. When, some years ago, I interviewed Craig Venter, one of the leading figures in the genome project, he said something startling - 'It's clear from deciphering the genetic codes of viruses, bacteria, insects and humans that this is not something that man could have built. Billions of years of evolution have produced something more complex than the human mind can comprehend. It leaves the window open for some doubts...."
Watson and Crick were militant atheists. They thought their discovery in its computer-like simplicity was a blow against religion. Ironically, it has turned out to be a window on yet further mysteries.

What I Would Never Do

Iain Dale has started an infuriatingly irresistible Blog Meme - list the ten things you would never do. He has challenged a number of bloggers to respond, though hurtfully not me. Picking myself up from this insult, I shall heroically respond with my own list.
1)Shake hands with Bashar Assad. 2)Start another conversation with Harold Pinter. (See here for my reasons.) 3)Morris dancing (obviously). 4)Read the thirteen volumes of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics. (A long story.) 5)Start a land war in Asia. 6)Buy a pair of Hush Puppies. 7) Pilates. 8)Ski. 9)Take part in a marathon dressed as a chicken/horse/duck/banana. 10)Jump and shout with wild enthusiasm when told to do so by a TV show warm-up guy. ( I have been in this situation more times than you might imagine.)
The reverse list - ten things I would always do - is somewhat harder to imagine.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Litvinenko and the Syrians

Of course, there is plenty of plausible deniability available to the Russians in the case of the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko. It could have been a rogue element within the state or a gangster element outside. The same can be said of the poisoning of the Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko and the shooting of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The old KGB did specialise in the assassination of critics and dissidents and, for any unemployed Cold War veterans, it must be a hard habit to shake. The KGB also trained the Syrian secret service and there have been an awful lot of killings lately of critics of Bashar Assad's regime. This week there was the Lebanese minister Pierre Gemayel. Also in Lebanon there have been Samir Kassir, Rafik Hariri, George Hawi, Gibran Tueni and attacks on May Chidiac and Eias Murr, all open critics of Syria. There appear to be a large number of Soviet-trained killers on the loose busily engaged in murdering opponents of the Russian and Syrian governments. Perhaps they should try to cut down to just one murder a month prior, one hopes, to quitting completely. Anyway, at least I am sure that the nice Mr Assad's hands are clean. After all, he studied opthalmology in London.

Just to Say....

.... how much I agree with Lucy Mangan in the Guardian. Sex and the City is, indeed, a spectacularly horrible show. Mangan says it is about women who 'are marionettes playing out male sexual fantasies dressed as female fashion fantasies.' Personally, I'd go along with Homer Simpson who argued that it is about gay men played by women. Either way, it is a vile, dishonest, exploitative confection. Seinfeld, however, wasn't, so I am saddened by the news that Michael Richards, who played the gigantically grotesque Cosmo Kramer, is in trouble over a racist tirade. Richards' career seems to have gone nowhere since Seinfeld. The co-creator of the show, Larry David, however, went on to make Curb Your Enthusiasm, a masterpiece. Actually, what I really wanted to say was that, Sex and the City aside, American TV comedy has, for the last twenty years, been one of the great consolations of my life. Scrubs is the current consoler. I want to be Dr Cox, some say I am.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Sad Decline in Hack Bullying

I am shocked - do you hear me? - shocked by this story in The Guardian. And appalled. Shocked and appalled. Apparently only 40 per cent of newspaper journalists have experienced bullying. In TV and radio, the figure drops to a miserable 21 per cent. In my day, bullying and being bullied were essential aspects of our training. I dimly seem to remember an exam on the subject. Editors have plainly gone soft and are, therefore, nurturing a generation of whining, unbullied and unbullying hacks. I console myself, however, with the possibility that this article is not entirely reliable. It also tells us that 25 per cent of journalists working in PR have been bullied. Journalists in PR? Oh come on, even I know that's just an old urban myth.

London: What if...?..

Having strayed far and wide, it is time for me to return to the theme of this blog - the thought experiment. So here it is. What will happen when there is another major terrorist attack on London? Let us say it is worse than 7/7 and as bad as 9/11, possibly worse if a nuclear device is used. This is plainly at the almost unspoken heart of our politics at the moment. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller's alarming speech and Tony Blair's commitment to security - the word was continually used in the Queen's Speech - are both, I think, genuine. It is thought there is an attack coming and it may well be a big one. For David Cameron such an attack would be a disaster. He has been leading the Tories away from its old paranoid ways and has thus been underplaying such threats. In the event of an attack, he would, as a result, not be seen as the man for the job when confronting terrorism. Blair, too, would suffer, since many would blame the attack on an Iraq adventure. Gordon Brown, in short, would be the clear winner. Meanwhile, there would be street attacks on Muslims, particularly veiled women as they are the most visible emblems of difference. These would be made worse by the current opportunist campaigns by the vile Ken Livingstone as these will be seen as encouraging Muslim separation and, therefore, extremism. If Livingstone wants to do any good, he should be quietly persuading the so far inept gang of Muslim talking heads - is there any more stupid, self-serving title than 'community leader'? - to do a better job of distancing themselves from extremism. Internationally, our position will be unimaginably complex. Even a small nuclear warhead - obviously, a stolen Russian tactical device - would immediately project us into a new and unfamiliar world. Would we at once withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan or would we send yet more troops? Both responses have their rationale. I would be interested to hear the thoughts of, among other CaptainB and Dark Heart. In recent days, I have found that, almost unconsciously, I have been bracing myself for this horror.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Welcome Paul/Guido

Right. Paul Staines has left a superb comment on my post below about politics and bloggery. Assuming this is the Paul Staines who is, in fact, uber-blogger Guido Fawkes, this demands to be taken further. In response to my own opinion that politicians are now too debased by journalists and bloggers, Paul/Guido says, 'If our politicians were honest men with noble goals they could not be debased.' Well, yes. But he also dismisses my argument that British politicians are less corrupt than those in most developed countries by saying, 'The degree of corruption is not the issue.' But, of course, it's the issue - how else are we to judge whether they are worthy of debasement, whether there is honesty and nobility? Unless, of course, Paul/Guido is arguing that only absolute purity will protect the political system. Such an argument would, of course, be borderline crazy and, if applied, would result in a very unpleasant world indeed.
Paul/Guido also refers me to a post by Stephen Tall which, in turn, responds to the remarks of Matthew Taylor about the malign effects of blogging. Tall is a Labour apostate and he says the patronising assumptions behind Taylor's argument are why he left. In this, I absolutely agree with him. New Labour does not trust the citizenry and regards them as infants, worthy only of bullying and condescension.
But the deep flaw in Tall's position - and, for some time, it was a flaw in my own - is the failure to recognise that Labour's attitude to the people was the inevitable outcome of its acceptance of the power of the press. Once that had happened, hyper-democratic populism was the only possible political discourse. Everything was to be judged by instant, visceral reaction. Of course, the politicians are at fault in this, but, just as importantly, so are the people. Why did parents not demonstrate outside failing comprehensive schools or patients outside filthy NHS hospitals? Because they too had accepted the new agenda, they were willingly infantilised. Politics for the people, the press, the bloggers and the politicians had become nothing more than a gossip-laden Westminster soap.
Libertarian bloggers, says Paul/Guido, 'want to expand the non-political, non-governmental space in society. ' This suggests a discourse of ideas, debate and real reporting. This would, indeed, expand the civic space. But. of course, that is not what we get, we get a constricted hell-hole of gossip, distasteful abuse and back-stabbbing, all of which feed directly back into the New Labour policy of making sure that real politics can be concealed beneath the daily chatter. They are all inside Labour's big tent, riding the same roundabout. Outside, only a few are anxiously watching the gathering thunderheads.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Me, Me, Me

I have decided to adopt a self-publicising, cross-media personality. So, in case you are interested, here are my latest Sunday Times pieces - meeting Diddy and the literary biography business.

Cancel the Olympics 2

In my previous post on the London Olympics, I suggested they ought to be cancelled because of their environmental impact. Now that the likely cost has risen from £2.4 billion to perhaps £8 billion, the argument for cancellation would appear to be overwhelming. But, meanwhile, Mayor Ken Livingstone, with his usual genius for glib irresponsibility, has, in fact, sealed the fate of the games. Asked how much London taxpayers would now have to pay, he replied, 'I may not be here in 18 months. Any guarantee I give about what happens in 2012 is not worth the paper it is written on.' After some moments of reflection, I have concluded that this is the most vile, stupid, insane, arrogant, contemptible, disdainful, pissy, vain, cheap, disgusting, cynical, evasive, reptilian, low, creepy and - in the case of the last bit about not believing anything he says - true statement I have ever heard from a British public figure. Londoners with their sentimental love of all cheeky chappies will, of course, continue to vote for this ghastly, jumped-up little oik.

Libertarian Blogs and Voter Contempt 2

A friend of mine was a minister in the Thatcher government. He had a chauffeur driven car - a old brown Ford Mondeo. He turned up at an event one night and saw the editor of The Times getting out of his car. It was a new Jaguar. Journalists sit in judgment on the private lives and financial dealings of politicians. But journalists, in Britain at least, are richer and almost certainly more corrupt. (British politicians are almost certainly the least corrupt of any developed nation, whatever bloggers say. If you don't believe me, check out Japan, Italy, France or the US.) Yet it is the politicians who gave journalists this power in the mid-nineties when they suddenly decided that the next day's headline was all that mattered. This compromised both sides of the deal. The journalists accepted the politicians' agenda and the politicians accepted the journalists' power. Neither side was, therefore, able to do its job and neither side showed any concern whatsoever about the effect of politics in the real world. Of course, politicians should be monitored, called to account, jeered at if necessary, but only by a genuinely independent press, not one in thrall to tedious little Westminster games. Bloggers inherited the fatal mid-nineties deal. They, therefore, play this same game and, in order to do so, create this fiction that our politicians are, somehow, uniquely nasty people doing a uniquely nasty job. Insofar as they keep this up, yes, they are debasing politics. Unfortunately, it is the dumb politicians who continue to help them. Politicians look in the mirror, see Caliban and then issue a press release about it. The debased hacks and bloggers caper about in the happy knowledge that they are Caliban.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Libertarian Blogs and Voter Contempt 1

Both George Bush Snr and a close Tony Blair adviser have blamed bloggers for increasing voter apathy and contempt for politicians. Iain Dale jeers, arguing that the disrespectful tone of the blog is the fault of the politicians. All agree that bloggers tend to be disrespectful, anti-establishment and libertarian. I have a problem with the word 'libertarian'. I don't know what it means. Of course, we're all in favour of liberty, but also we all know there must be limits to liberty. Is a libertarian, therefore, somebody who merely gives a conventional banality a posh name? Or is he somebody who believes in no limits to liberty, a full-blooded anarchist? Neither posture is remotely interesting, so why would anybody claim to be a libertarian? It is certainly true that many political bloggers say they are libertarian, but this just seems to be a label intended to give respectability to the fun they are having trashing politicians. And this is where we come to the heart of the matter. But more than one post is involved and I shall now take some time to consider the content of the second.

Lolita: Life Slavishly Imitating Art

'It is known,' the BBC tells me, 'that predatory paedophiles often befriend single mothers as a way of gaining access to their children.' To prevent this happening, such women may be given access to lists of sex offenders. Had this service been available to Charlotte Haze, would she have checked on Humbert Humbert? It is indefinably unnerving to discover that the plot of Nabokov's Lolita is such a commonplace real world event that we can actually make laws to stop it.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Gordon the Memorious

Gordon Bell, a computer scientist, is attempting to preserve every detail of his life . 'His goal,' says Clive Thompson of Fast Company, 'is never to forget anything.' He has designed software called, with distressing banality, MyLifeBits which, has so far collected more than 101,000 emails, almost 15,000 Word and PDF documents, 99,000 Web pages, and 44,000 pictures. 'It gives you kind of a feeling of cleanliness," says Bell, 'I can offload my memory. I feel much freer about remembering something now. I've got this machine, this slave, that does it.' This reminds (!) me of two things. The first is an odd character called Greg Ryker whom I encountered on the Microsoft campus when I interviewed Bill Gates in 1995. Ryker was working on what he called the 'wallet PC' which would record every detail of a life. He was testing the idea with a Psion organiser and a voice recorder. This aspiration to record every moment, rather than let it be lost in time's capacious maw, plainly stems from a fear of death, a fear that the world which is your and yours only will be lost forever. But, like immortality, infinite memory has serious shortcomings. The second thing I am reminded (!) of is the magnificent story Funes, the Memorious by Jorge Luis Borges. As a result of a brain injury, Funes can forget nothing. 'In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it.' Funes is overcome by detail. He finds it hard to imagine how a creature seen at one moment is the same as a creature seen at another and that both can be called 'dog'. Realising all this, the narrator is 'benumbed by the fear of multiplying superfluous gestures', knowing each would add to the irreducible clutter of Funes' infinite memory. What Funes knew, and Gordon and Greg do not, is that to forget nothing is also to remember nothing. Read the Borges and note the placing of this line, 'The equivocal clarity of dawn penetrated along the earthen patio.' Genius beyond the dreams of technocrats.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

More on Dawkins' God

Terry Eagleton's trashing of Richard Dawkins in the London Review of Books is not in the same league as Marilynne Robinson's in Harper's. Eagleton is an oddity, a wild man of the left with some intensely conservative views and a sporadically brilliant thinker who seldom succeeds in being persuasive or convincing. But, crucially, he knows his theology, which is why it is worth reading this review alongside Robinson's. Robinson, a believer, goes out of her way to attack Dawkins in a straightforward, rational way, picking up on his inaccuracies and taking apart his logic. Eagleton, a Catholic turned Marxist, has no hesitation in attacking Dawkins theologically. This inversion of expectations is strange, though rhetorically effective. Eagleton and Robinson share a distaste for any shallow attempt to pretend that religion is not a serious matter. And this, I suspect, means they share something else - a loathing of the depraved humanist orthodoxy that passes for deep thought these days.

Save the Planet: Cancel the Olympics

Iain Dale, inspired by the Economist, argues that it is pointless to attempt to prevent climate change by torturing ourselves with devices like Mayor Ken Livingstone's £25 London congestion charge on high emission cars. Dale's point is that it would be much more effective use of our time to persuade and/or assist China and India to pursue low emission policies. They are the big new producers of atmospheric carbon with China likely to pass America within a decade. The obvious flaw in this argument is that neither China nor India will listen to us if we do nothing to cut our own carbon emissions. Why should they? So good for Mayor Ken then? Not quite. Livingstone is a big booster of the 2012 London Olympics. This project has, inevitably, slumped into the usual rows over cost and, judging by our experience with Wembley Stadium, I would not be surprised if we became the first country to hold the Games a year or three late. But, of course, we shouldn't be holding them at all. The project will result in massive new emissions of carbon both from the building work and by the Games themselves as athletes and those mysterious 'officials' fly in from all over the world and then fly out again. I bet that the reduction in emissions caused by the new congestion charge will be a tiny percentage of the increase caused by the Olympics. Ken hasn't gone green, he's still Ken, the same old smirking opportunist.