Wednesday, July 26, 2006


I don't use cocaine but I know a lot of people who do. In general, they don't know I know. Either I am reliably informed or I can just tell. It is pretty obvious, after all. Somebody who has just taken a line tends to be sweaty, energetic, optimistic, full of themselves and incapable of allowing their conversational flow to be interrupted. They are, in short, total bores. The problem is that cocaine enhances self-esteem and there are few things more irritating than excessive self-esteem. Cocaine users don't know this precisely because their self-esteem is so elevated. Also, when they are together, they can all agree on how wonderful they are and are, as a result, unaware of the waves of derision and boredom emanating from the surrounding non-users. I suggest, therefore, the establishment of cocaine communities in which users can live together happily - organising ads, interest rate swaps, videos, photo-shoots or whatever - leaving us the rest of us free to wallow in our interestingly low self-esteem, cracking jokes that are actually funny and not surfing on a tide of Columbian corpses, the effluent of the industry that sustains their self-esteem.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Knight's Move

Talking to Ian McEwan - you'll see why in the next Sunday Times - we came upon the term "knight's move" when used about a certain type of thinking. I attributed it to Nabokov. But, as it happened, Ian was with some brain scientist who said it was a term originally used in diagnoses of schizophrenia. This is true - "Odd, tangential disruptions in the smooth continuity of speech." But, I discover, there is also knight's move drinking. This from the Rochdale NHS Healthcare Trust:
"Sir: We believe that we have come across a new symptom of schizophrenia and would welcome comments. A 38-year-old male, with a history of schizophrenia, was admitted following a disturbance at a public house. Our only source of history was the landlady, who described increasingly bizarre behaviour over the preceding 4 weeks. After purchasing a pint of beer he would take two steps forwards, take a drink, move a step to the side, take another drink, then return to his start by completing the rectangle.
We have searched the literature, finding no evidence of such actions and therefore suggest this is the first description of "knight's move drinking"."
Amazing thing, the brain, as, indeed, is chess.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Yvette Again

My colleague, Simon Jenkins, in a fine piece about the ineptitude of this goverment - here - mentions my favourite politician(see below), Yvette Cooper. He describes her as "politically challenged" and "famous for her unreadable white papers." She was behind the compulsory "home improvement packs", a scheme that has mercifully collapsed. This woman is just so useful. She is rapidly superseding John Prescott as the best person to blame for all our woes.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Invented Illness

Brilliant artlce in New Scientist - here - about the way drugs companies invent illnesses to sell more drugs. It confirms my view (see below) that we need to start seeing sickness as a sin.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Coulrophobia: The Hidden Plague

My level-headed Yorkshire correspondent, David (motto: There's nowt so queer as folk.), draws my attention to the "organiser of some fete or other had to cancel the appearance of the clowns due to deluge of emails from potential attendees who would not be due to fear of same". Fear of clowns not only has a name - coulrophobia - but also seems to be on the increase. David sends me this , a site which appears to offer some kind of hope - "just 24 hours of commitment by the phobic individual" - to any of you who might suffer from this unfortunate condition. David's Yorkshire cast of mind makes him sceptical of the reality of this affliction. I'm not so sure. I once suffered a minor seizure while on the M11 because I heard somebody on Radio 4's Today programme ask a studio guest: "What do you think, Charlie the Clown?" My first reaction was to think, 'That's no way to talk to the (then) leader of the Liberal Democrats.' But then I was afflicted by the nightmarish spectacle of Charlie in full clown rig eyeing up John Humphrys or, worse still, Charlotte Green. Also Krusty, the cynical, chain-smoking clown in The Simpsons, is an emblem of the kind of horrors that might lurk behind the red nose and above the enormous shoes. Clowns, when you think about it, are frightening. Very.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Plastic Corks and Screwtops

My friend Nige - whose downtime consists of an emotionally-charged package of Schubert, country music and, crucially, wine - has become exercised about the use of plastic stoppers and screwtops rather than corks.
"Thanks to these abominations," he writes, "what should be one of the most enjoyable everyday experiences in life is robbed of all its pleasure, denatured and turned into a trial of brute strength between man and plastic. And nobody seems to care. I count on you to wake up the nation to this menace..."
Very well. Here is the story in full.
It is, you see, complicated. Do corks actually cause wine to be corked, as the plastic fantastic fanatics claim? Or is it something else, as the corksters assert? These are deep waters. Aesthetically, of course, Nige is right in this as in so many things. Corks are the more lovely closure and the gentle, sensual slide and pop of a cork goes better with the Flying Burrito Bros or Death and the Maiden than the nasty, rubbery slither of plastic. The British, it seems, import more wine than any other nation. Perhaps, then, it is the British who must turn the tide.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Not Taming the Sea

My article in The Sunday Times about the new government policy not necessarily to fight the sea with costly defences, but instead to let it reclaim its own land (see Selected Articles,) produced the usual angry responses from eco-sceptics who deny global warming, deny that it is our fault and insist that we need do nothing to protect the human species from its impact. The anger is puzzling. Science overwhelmingly shows that it is happening, the only debate is how serious the consequences will be. This should be a friendly debate. But I suspect there is a Marxist hangover in some of this eco-sceptic thought. Certain people simply cannot accept the possibility that some material problems are beyond our technical competence and grow angry at the very suggestion that this might be the case. The idea strikes at the heart of their faith. I am with my friend the great James Lovelock on this - "We can't save the planet. We never could." Our technical incompetence is absolute.

Halitosis: the Challenge to Darwinism

One of the best arguments against Darwinian evolution is the inept design of the human body. When it comes to the primary Darwinian requirements of survival and reproduction, the body is, in Ray Kurzweil's words, "dramatically sub-optimal", or, in the curious words of our sensitive and learned Home Secretary, "not fit for purpose." How can this be after the millions of years of painstaking tinkering by natural selection that we are assured brought us to our present condition/predicament? Take halitosis. Nature could have devised no more effective contraceptive and yet everybody suffers from it some of the time and some people suffer from it all of the time. Martin Amis aptly called the most acute form "ray-gun halitosis." Anyway, there is one solution - here - note that this overcomes one of nature's further perversities, the fact that it is very difficult to tell if one does have bad breath until it is too late. Pick the bones out of that, Clinton Richard Dawkins.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Please Help Me, Sister

The queue at the bank wasn't moving because only two tellers were working and one, a young woman, was tied up with a young man who was edgily demanding something beyond normal procedures. She wore a headscarf and was being polite and patient but firm. Then the young man leaned forward and said quietly, "Please help me, sister." He was embarrassed at saying it and he looked round to see if anybody had heard. He caught my eye. I was only a yard away and I had heard. He looked sheepish.
At first amused, I then began to think about this.
Perhaps it was nothing. After all, stuck in another country and entangled in unfamiliar bureaucracy, I would ask for help if I heard a British voice. But the teller and the man were both, judging by their accents, British.
Or perhaps it was just a case of claiming the privileges of membership. Freemasons do that with handshakes and signs all the time. This young man was simply saying, "Look, we're both Muslims, give me a hand."
Nevertheless, I was disturbed and remain so. Claiming the privileges of membership on the basis of a religion feels not quite right, perhaps because it offends against what I - because of a Christian upbringing - take to be the universality of religious principles. And the young man was plainly making an attempt to keep the gesture secret.
Anyway, I don't know what happened about the dodgy transaction. Just after I locked eyes with the young man, another teller appeared to deal with my routine business.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Zidane Has Sound Views On Yvette Cooper

Of course, what Marco Materazzi said to Zinedine Zidane was, "I quite fancy that British politician Yvette Cooper and I hear she is very good at her job." This left Zinedine with no option but to drive his head firmly into Marco's chest. I'm sure we would all have felt obliged to do the same in his position.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Speaking for England

See Selected Articles for an article of mine that appeared in The Sunday Times today about the resurgence of Englishness through sport. Peter Whittle has just responded one with the following points. I especially like the Chav-Elgar discontinuity.

"A couple of years ago, I proposed and researched at length almost the exact same piece for the Spectator. It was at the time of the Euro championship. In the end, they didn't want it, and for interesting reasons: they had a very snobby distaste for what they saw as all the aggressive, chavvy flag-waving. They were in favour of the mythical, quiet type of English patriotism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and a melancholy sense of loss. Well, I could certainly understand that, as I have more than a bit of that in myself.
"But what they didn't seem to understand was that that brand of Englishness relied on an assumption of effortless superiority. This no longer stands up, and I'd suggest that the various forces pitched around us now mean that a more in-your-face brand was bound to emerge.
"What struck me when I researched it was how completely this was a grass-roots development - in the face not only of no encouragement, but of active discouragement. I have to say I was astonished (and quite moved actually) by some of the things teenagers (in quite poor areas) said to me - their unironic attachment to their nationality.
"Apart from the odd comment, there was also no real racism evident, despite the way the metropolitan elite try to portray this. But this does lead me to one point which you didn't mention in your piece: along with the all-important effects of devolution, there's no question in my mind that this English revival is also a (possibly unconscious) product of the relentless drive for multiculturalism, and the concomitant hollowing out of the idea of Britishness. If everybody can seemingly be British, then nobody is British. As a result, people who would have once called themselves British are now increasingly calling themselves English. They are, in effect, trying to maintain their identity.
"This causes all manner of problems for the liberal elite. So they put their minds to deconstructing Englishness, calling it inherently racist, etc etc (Eddie Izzard's Mongrel Nation, AA Gill's bile-filled rant)."

Yvette Cooper Thinks You Are An Idiot

The time has come to anathematize Yvette Cooper and not simply because she is a supporter of Gordon Brown and married to supreme Brownie Ed Balls. No, the reason she must be subjected to our scorn is her cynicism and contempt for the electorate. A story emerged that there was some ancient planning law that flags could only be flown with the staff vertical. Most of the crosses of St George decorating the country in a desperate attempt to raise the playing standards of our dismal proletarian football team were, therefore, illegal. Step forward Yvette Cooper to announce she would be encouraging councils not to prosecute. No councils appear to have attempted to do so; none have even shown any awareness of this law. The story was a laughable, condescending concoction, probably by Ms Cooper's department, to make her appear to be on the side of the people. She thinks, in short, you are idiots. She's certainly right about the tame hacks who ran with this bullshit. But how can apparently intelligent people spend their lives doing this kind of thing? Mind you, I myself have unearthed an even more ancient law stipulating that supporters of any attempt to install vengeful, bad tempered Scots in the government of Britain shall be pelted with hub caps while tethered to a special pole in the nearest branch of Kwik Fit.

The Appalling Risks of Ian Schrager Hotels

I have written elsewhere about the appalling risks of staying at one of Ian Schrager's neurotically fashionable hotels - see Hudson Hotel Hell in Selected Articles. But even I could not have anticipated the possibility of being hit by a chandelier in a gym changing room. This is what happened to the great and wise David Hasselhof while staying at Schrager's Sanderson in London. Read about it here. The ingenuity with which Schrager persecutes even his celebrity guests is genuinely impressive.

Football and the Officer Class

Obviously, the unanswerable questions of motivational guru Watt (What?) Nicoll (see below) played a large part in England's dismal World Cup display - not least in the sending off of Wayne Rooney, a man whose limited intellect had been utterly macerated by Nicoll's question "Do you want to be a winner, a champion, a hero or a legend?" But another possibility has been nagging at me these last few days. Do we need middle class footballers? Talking to Michael Collins - author of the wonderful The Likes of Us, web site here - we found ourselves wondering if the real genius of Alf Ramsey was his constructed aura of being pure-bred, imperturbable English middle class, the sort of man for whom it would be only right to live and die. But perhaps the problem goes deeper. Plainly the present England squad is overwhelmingly under- or working class. This means we are ignoring as much as half of our population pool. Even if the proletariat is twice as good at football as any other social group, we would still be declining to use, say, 25 per cent of our best players. Furthermore, these players would tend to be more articulate when confronted with the likes of Nicoll, less liable to brawling and infinitely more consoling in post-match interviews. As a natural officer class, they would also have been able to explain to Sven, perhaps in faltering, schoolboy Swedish, the palpable idiocy of his tactics. It is time the middle class sorted out this shower, brought some tone to what so far has been little more than a vulgar brawl.