Saturday, September 30, 2006

For Tivadar Soros

A Blug - blog plug - I'm afraid, but sometimes it has to be done. There is a sensational essay by my friend John Gray in The New York Review of Books - it's here but you have to pay - on George Soros. John is the most dazzling thinker and here he is at full throttle. This piece is unsummarisable, but one story stopped me in my tracks. Soros is a Jew and was, therefore, in mortal danger when the Nazis invaded Hungary. His father, Tivadar, had been imprisoned by the Russians in Siberia. He knew what to expect and acted swiftly to save his family. He told George, 'There are times when the normal rules do not apply, and if you obey the rules at those times you are liable to perish.' This was some man. L'Chiam, Tivadar.

The Queen 2: What is Manohla Dargis Talking About?

Film critics are strange people, amiable, enthusiastic and, to a rough approximation, wrong. But Manohla Dargis of The New York Times is simply bewildering. I have posted before on her wrong-headed review of the excellent A Scanner Darkly, but she has excelled herself with her review of The Queen. She starts by describing it with hair-raising inaccuracy as 'a sublimely nimble evisceration of that cult of celebrity known as the British royal family.' Er, what? The rest of the review goes on to confirm she hasn't a clue about the crucial dynamics of this film. Let me offer her some help derived from that great novel Giuseppe de Lampedusa's The Leopard. The trick is to change in order to stay the same. See?

Cameron in Kitchen with Kid Noises Off Shock

Oh no, oh no, oh no. I recently nearly vomited over my wheatibangs at the spectacle of Gordon Brown getting his children into the very first sentence of an interview. But now we have this. Yes, it's a video of David Cameron in his kitchen with his children making horrible noises in the background. I can't comment on how it ends because I couldn't watch. Right, managed it in the cause of Thought Experiments. The camera does an autistic Godardian pan to catch a random baby in the frame. Oh, Herr Doktor Nietzsche, tell us: what, then, must we do?

People Read Too Much

A strange article by Nick Hornby today pursues the rather tenuous theme of what people read during the long hot summer. (Long? Hot? Well, July yes, but August emphatically no.) Hornby wanders through a random list of the books he saw people reading in Islington. From this somewhat arbitrary sample, he seems to draw two distinctly inconclusive conclusions. First, people don't necessarily read books that are among the bestsellers. Secondly, neither do they read heavyweight literature in large quantities - he provides the excuse that the summer was very 'hot'. Neither of these conclusions arise in any meaningful way from his observations. But - and this is the real point - he then goes on to defend reading for reading's sake, quoting disapprovingly Harold Bloom's observation that he'd rather his children read nothing at all than read Harry Potter. Hornby concludes with the usual consolingly conventional thought that the book is not dead, lots of them are, in fact, read. Well, I'm with Bloom. Reading almost all books currently being published is even worse for your soul than watching home makeover shows or eating Yakult. People should not read more, they should read better. Or, failing that, they should sit quietly in a darkened room thinking.

Friday, September 29, 2006

A Curious Incident Involving John Reid in a Lift

A curious incident reported by one of the masters of the blogging trade, Daniel Finkelstein. Making small talk, having just bumped into the Home Secretary in a lift, Daniel said he felt hungover, though he only ever touches Diet Coke. Watch out for that Aspartame, Danny. Reid, in return, quotes a union leader to the effect that sleep is the cause of all hangovers. This appears to be an interesting case of a dodgy correlation - you tend to sleep before you get a hangover, but that does not implicate the sleep itself. It's dodgy because heavy lunches often produce hangovers without the aid of sleep. But it's not necessarily dodgy because of the common sense assumption that alcohol causes hangovers. Say, for example, everybody smoked heavily. Smoking would not then be the cause of lung cancer. Think about it.

The Jeffrey Archer Campaign Must Stop

A small group of regular contributors to this blog - henceforth known as The Guys - have taken to putting cunningly disguised comments on the great Jeffrey's 'official' blog. I know, in this, they are following my lead but I fear this is getting out of hand and becoming a full-blooded guerilla campaign. One recent comment by Jack turned out to be a savage and rather brilliant acrostic. Now look, The Guys, Jeffrey is fair game, but do we really want to turn his magnificent blog into an occasion for our childish humour? Do we really want to drive out every serious fan, swamping the site with subversive questions like 'What happened to Bill Oddie?' Do we? Really?

Tory in Bus is The Last Man

Here you can read about the gosh-golly, spiffing wheeze of Nick Boles, a potential candidate for Mayor of London. He's taking a London bus to the Tory conference! Don't you just love that zany, madcap Tory humour? Well, of course, no. People my age or younger go into politics for all the wrong reasons - for the 'important" discussions and the jolly japes. Now that New Labour has turned the electorate into a mass of mewling toddlers, the important discussions are a thing of the past and it is the japes that everybody wants. The japsters are Nietzsche's last men, they have invented happiness and they blink. The Tories are going along with this. The party is full of wet-lipped, swivel-eyed, deeply unfunny gagsters, all with curiously deformed hind-quarters - why is that? There is, however, hope. I was at college with Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary. We loathed each other then, but have now made it up. In fact, we like each other. At Cambridge, he was a wet-lipped, bearded student politico talking the usual nonsense. In his last days at the Home Office and since then, he has started making sense. The stupid brutality of his sacking must have shocked him out of bad politics. I find myself admiring him. Perhaps the condescending pranksters need a few good sackings to make them see sense. I'd quite like to do it myself.

Jerk in Space Threat

I read that Richard Branson is to run a pop idol type TV show to select one of the first passengers on his new spacecraft . Well, Branson's a nice guy and generally a good thing, but, I'm afraid, he would wouldn't he? Virgin lacks taste. Its shops are tacky without being funny, his aircraft - well it's difficult to make a 747 unlovely, but, somehow, Virgin does. Being on one of his new trains is liked being trappd inside a really cheap toy. Space Idol or whatever it will be called is born of the same tacky, vulgar streak that disfigures Virgin. For me, it's hard because, as you can read here, I was very impressed with this entire project and its presiding genius Burt Rutan. This was engineering and beauty at a very high level. And planes and rockets look good in the Mojave Desert. The carrier plane - White Knight - is, in the flesh, simply gorgeous. Tacky Virgin decals would be vandalism. Since Sigourney Weaver was one of the frontrunners for a seat on the first flight, one can imagine her reaction when she sees the tatooed, spotty, lardball, Hull-born winner of Space Idol munching on his/her pork scratchings. She'll zap him with a flamethrower, grab the cat and dive into the escape pod.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Gordon Brown: the Last Straw

It's been a bad week for Gordon Brown but this really puts the cherry on the cake. Prescott's given him his backing. Here is an open letter I wrote to John Prescott explaining why he would be better employed elsewhere. Since I wrote that, things became even weirder in Prezzaworld. This man simply couldn't exist in other countries. It is hard to imagine him, for example, rising to the top in American politics. However, the moment I wrote that, Dan Quayle came to mind. No, even Quayle cannot match the bizarre, well, wrongness of Prezza. How is he still there? What does he know?

Metabolic Syndrome and the Human Condition

A fascinating, though over long, article in Wired outlines the metabolic syndrome controversy. This is said to be a disease that afflicts 75 million Americans, causing, among other things, obesity. The drugs companies are now racing to produce treatments. However, many now dispute whether MS is a discrete condition and evidence suggests, contrary to the warnings of MS boosters, that it is no indicator of future health problems. This is a very profound issue and one that is seldom intelligently debated. One book - Ian Hacking's Rewriting the Soul - gets to the heart of the matter. Here is an article I wrote about this book some time ago. This is about multiple personality disorder. This used to be an unknown condition, but, as soon as it was defined, it became an epidemic. Hacking, reasonably enough, started from the position that these people were suffering from mass hysteria, not a real condition. But he arrived at a more subtle conclusion. These people were unwell, but they expressed their illness in the symptoms offered them by the age. In MS, unease becomes disease in the form of MS. Nothing is changed, however. The unease is the real condition, the human condition.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Blair's Speech and the Essence of Politics

Blair has, not surprisingly, done up poor, slow-witted Brown like a kipper. Even the dim Labour footsoldiers must by now have grasped that they will lose with Brown and might not with Blair himself or his surrogate Alan Johnson. (My friend, the historian Michael Burleigh, tipped Johnson to me almost two years, a breathtaking forecast, way ahead of the press pack.) About all of which I care very little. Go to Iain Dale or some such if you're really interested. What matters is how Blair has redefined politics as the sort of thing that Dale and all the columnists write about. He has been the greatest politician of his generation and a truly awful Prime Minister. This distinction can be made so clearly in his case because he has so successfuly separated the acquisition and sustenance of power from its exercise. Having made his crucial mistake - not sacking Brown - ten years ago, Blair has effectively been unable to do anything domestically. Brown has blocked or wrecked every initiative. Meanwhile, New Labour's management ineptitude has produced one financial catastrope after another - the NHS computer, tax credits and so on. This has driven Blair to undertake foreign adventures and to redefine politics not as what actually happens but as a combination of what is said and the tedious, personality-driven soap opera of Westminster. Incredibly, my colleagues have gone along with this and, as a result, the average political column is now unreadably detached from the real world and from any kind of sane assessment. The truth of this unedifying spectacle has been concealed by a very successful economy, driven by the reforms of the eighties and Brown's only two genuine achievements - freeing the Bank of England and dragging his feet on joining the Euro to the point where it is no longer an issue any more. It was, once, Blair's primary mission. Blair's speech was, thus, a cosmetic masterpiece - piss and wind, basically - and no more. Mind you, nobody else is actually discussing the real so perhaps this amazing hollowing out of politics doesn't matter; perhaps that's how the world is now. But, to me, it's frightening.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Bill Oddie Mystery Solved

Close readers of the comments on my post My Guilt Lifts...He's Back! will have been wondering what happened to Bill Oddie (a fat bearded television birdist). He appeared in a list of celebrities in the epic Jeffrey Archer post Snowdon one night, but had vanished by the next morning. I put the question to Jeff via a comment, cunningly concealing my identity by deploying the entirely accurate pseudonym An Admirer. Now, to my delight, Jeffrey has responded - 'an admirer - I'm afraid I was thinking of a different night and a different event that week when I'd seen Bill.' Hang on, hang on. The gist of the Snowdon post was how inept some journalists had been in not spotting how many celebs there had been at this jolly. But here's Jeff mixing up his events. Never mind. Homer has been known to nod and Jeff is very busy.

Pool with Jackass Johnny

It is gratifying to see that the movie Jackass Number Two is doing so well. I liked Johnny Knoxville when I met him , though he did turn a touch moody after I beat him at pool. The success of a macho loco suicidal stunt film reminds us of the attempt over here to turn the crash of the Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond into an "ishoo" with all sorts of health and safety concerns. There are plainly too many people on the planet. If a few of them want to risk their lives in entertaining ways, then I can't see how this is anything other than a good idea. I met Johnny in an excellent sports bar called Barney's Beanery. It was just down the hill from the Mondrian Hotel where I was staying. We could have done the interview there except Johnny was banned, something to do with potted palm trees in the pool. Of course, I wouldn't dream of staying at the Mondrian now - see here - as it belongs to Ian Schrager.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Prince Charles and the Eggs 3

I am a bit out of touch so there may be developments in the Prince and the boiled eggs story of which I am unaware. However, while driving down the M11, the solution to all our current problems came to me in a dazzling flash of whiteish light. Not only would it put an end to the egg harassment of the Royals, it would also strike a blow against the public culture of cynical, populist infantilism (see previous post). All the Prince has to do is issue the following statement.
'I will boil as many eggs as I like, I'm going to be your bleeding King for God's sake. So hop it back to your 'orrible little hovels."
The nation would find a new peace with itself and our former colonies would be demanding to be readmitted to the Empire.

Politicians Make Me Sick

I just saw Gordon Brown get his bloody kids into the first sentence of an interview as an explanation of his sleepless nights. Oh no, he wasn't losing sleep over his conference speech. Nausea gripped me. George Walden is right - cheap, infantilising populism is rotting public life.

Breathing Kills

I am seldom more at peace than when reading about a good health scare. Judge, then, of my contentment when I read this story. It tells us, apparently, that smokers are at greater risk of HIV. But, as with all health scare stories, this is not what it seems. Smoking does seem to impair the immune system so you might be more likely to get HIV or, indeed, Dengue Fever. But, in fact, the slender statistical link they seem to have discovered could also arise because smokers take more sexual risks than non-smokers. This is, of course, not science but pure speculation based on the vague prejudice that smokers are bad people. By the time we get to the end of the story the scientist has been reduced to saying that people with HIV shouldn't smoke because of the risks of heart disease and cancer. Well, er, yes. Meanwhile, I am also flooded with a great sense of peace by the news that gentle walking is no good for your health. In fact, only more intensive exercise works. That said, intensive exercise does release more free radicals, increasing your risk from cancer. Also quite a lot of people have heart attacks during exercise. The great James Lovelock once pointed out to me that, to a rough approximation, there is only one cause of cancer - our unwise decision to breath oxygen, a fabulously toxic substance. All else, smoking included, is statistically irrelevant. Breathing kills. Now there's a real health scare.

Mitsubishi Jihad

And so to Ohio where The Columbus Dispatch brings us the story of Dennis Mistubishi's rather startling radio ad for their vehicles. This involves Keith Dennis himself announcing that his company is 'launching a jihad on the automotive market' and promises his sales reps 'will be wearing burqas all weekend long'. He adds that one of his cars 'can comfortably seat up to 12 jihadists in the back'. And then: 'Our prices are lower than the evildoers' every day. Just ask the pope!...Friday is fatwa Friday, with free rubber swords for the kiddies.' Everybody is fantastically upset by the ad, though radio executives decided it was 'extremely funny'. Their minds did freeze on the words 'fatwa', 'Pope' and 'terrorists', but then they thought, what the hell! The thing I really like about America is that, once you get away from the thin film of more or less recognisable conduct on the coasts, it is just one Keith Dennis after another.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Prince and the Eggs 2

The plot thickens on the matter of Prince Charles's boiled eggs (see below). Though strong denials have been issued about Jeremy Paxman's story that his staff provide him with seven differently boiled eggs to choose from, their words seem undermined by an apparent confirmation that 'several' eggs are, indeed, made for him in the morning. At least, in the midst of this story's deep and troubling uncertainties, we now seem to know that he likes them cooked between four and five minutes depending on the size of the egg. On the hard side then, although it is not clear whether they are started in cold or hot water; if the former, then possibly quite runny, though it might mean four to five minutes boiling time in which case we are back to hard, with the inevitable uncertainty, of course, about the size of the egg and about whether 'boiling' in this context means a full-blooded rolling boil or a simmer. Sorry, I appear to be back where I started. Anyway, even if the seven egg story is true, the Prince can console himself with the thought that fastidiousness about one's eggs is by no means a sign of stupidity. According to Samuel Beckett in the footnotes to his poem Whoroscope, Descartes 'liked his omelette made of eggs hatched from eight to ten days; shorter or longer under the hen and the result, he says, is disgusting.' Eggs are, indeed, foodstuffs that can so easily topple over into the category of disgusting.

Edward O.Wilson

Edward O.Wilson also makes me happy - see my article about him in The Sunday Times today. Wilson's single greatest virtue is the concept of value that underlies his love of life. He wants to save every living species. In part, this is because they may be useful to us either by providing drugs or whatever or by sustaining the environment that sustains us. But, mostly, it is because species are of absolute value in themselves, a value that lies far beyond our ephemeral concerns and categories. That, in our day, a scientist should arrive at a such a concept of supra-human value is of profound significance. Read Ed and be grateful.

Blair, Cat Stevens and the Moustache Brothers

Rotten with politics as we are this week, I made another game attempt to get on board by watching the Blair interview this morning. Unfortunately, as the previous item was about the return of Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens, as a performer, the Blair thing just seemed like a rather tedious interruption. What was clear is that Phoebe hasn't the slightest intention of backing Sulky in a leadership contest. This could make politics mildly interesting for a while, though I still think Blair won't go. None of which, however, is of the slightest interest next to the story of The Moustache Brothers who are plainly the only funny thing about Burma. This, of course, got them flung in prison. This picture of the guys has been making me deliriously happy for 24 hours now. I identify with the one on the left, though I'd rather be the one on the right.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Jeffrey Archer's Ghost

Oh and my friend George, see below, has suggested I offer to ghost write Jeffrey Archer's blog. 'There must be money in it,' he said, 'he's a lot richer than you.' How true. I found myself, however, in a stylistic quandary. I could attempt to push the envelope of his style - 'I awoke this morning with a slight pain in my left big toe. Happily, it soon cleared.' Or I could go for something as hard-boiled as one of the Prince's eggs - 'Did a charity auction. Killed a guy. Guess we all do auctions. And kill guys.' Or Johnsonian - 'A man is seldom so innocently employed as when he is auctioning for charity.' But I'm sure I could come up with something. Would Jeffrey buy it?

The Velvet Underground and the Neocons

I was gamely going to attempt a serious political blog this morning inspired by this analysis of David Cameron's seemingly anti-neocon foreign policy speech on the Henry Jackson Society site. Sadly, the prose is so leaden that I only got half way through and, for the second time today, lost the will to live. Instead, I shall note the fact that, sitting in a cafe in Holt in Norfolk this morning, where Bob Dylan was playing, I read a review of a new book about The Velvet Underground. It struck me that, had I fallen asleep forty years ago and woken up now, I would probably note at once how gratifyingly little had changed. Anyway, it reminded me that John Cale told me many years ago that he would never forgive Lou Reed for changing a line in Heroin. Cale had wanted the first Velvets album to be utterly hard, without a chink of sentimentality or easy humanity. But Reed had compromised that great song by letting in a sliver of ordinary feeling. The changed line was either 'I don't know just where I'm going' or 'And I guess that I just don't know', both of which, to me, seem to compromise slightly the song's ferocious nihilism. Cale, of course, got exactly what he wanted on the next album with Sister Ray, which, to cleanse my mind of the prose of the Henry Jackson Society, I shall now play.

The Prince's Boiled Eggs

For my increasing and loyal band of American readers, I should explain that a book by our television presenter Jeremy Paxman - aka The Great Paxo and The Supreme Paxometer - has claimed that Prince Charles, on returning from a day's hunting, likes a boiled egg done just so. His flunkies, therefore, provide a row of seven eggs from which he can choose. This has earned a stern denial from the Prince's staff and Paxo the Magnificent has shown signs of backing down. There seems to be some confusion about whether the perfect egg is soft or hard, but doubtless this will be clarified in due course. All of which says a great deal about the state of our nation. But I have lost the will to live - partly because my friend Nige has just told me that the National Health Service will account for 0.3 per cent of world GDP by 2008 - and you will have to work it out for yourselves.

Not Funny

As a plug for his new 'comedy' web site, John O'Farrell complains that the British don't do internet humour. Inevitably his site is about as funny as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. This reminds me that, years ago, there was some poll in which people were asked if they had a sense of humour - 98 per cent said they had. This precisely reflects my own intuition that about 2 per cent of the population actually have a sense of humour. A Russian TV crew once interviewed me about British comedy."So,' came the final question in comedy Russian accent, 'Mr Appleyard, do you have sense of humour?' 'No,' I replied. They fell about.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Toff to Thrash Scot

Superb article by my good friend George Walden. George tells truth to power, a tough job when the powerful persist in denying how powerful they are. For him, David Cameron, like Blair, is a condescending toff, a familiar figure in British politics. I'm not quite sure how George will feel about the poll in the same edition of the Guardian which shows that people prefer Cameron to Gordon Brown for just about every imaginable reason. The one question they didn't ask was whether they prefer a Toff to a Scot. But I think I know the answer. This will provide Blair with further justification for what I suspect may have been his game plan all along - to keep his job through the next election. All he has to say is that a leadership contest will be too divisive and all his spin-fiends have to say is that polls show that Brown wouldn't win anyway. I am probably wrong, I dislike and know little about politics. But, in case I'm right, you read it here first.

The Worst Idea Ever

This has to be the worst idea of all time. It is a dating service designed to promote romance among like-minded media types. 'Our members,' they warble, 'are journalists, photographers, designers, camera crew and technicians, as well as public relations, advertising and marketing bods, along with hard-pressed administrative staff.' And 'We'll block dodgy profiles faster than you can say 'Hold the front page'.' Good grief, who, in this business, doesn't have a dodgy profile? And, 'you're definitely at the wrong address if all you're after is a meaningless shag.' Since they expect their lovers to be busy exchanging media gossip, a uniquely anaphrodisiac activity, any shag, meaningless or otherwise, is unlikely.

Turkey: Incoming

I used to feel about Turkey the way I feel about Norway or Canada - don't get it, what's the point? This has now changed because Turkey seems to be on the way to becoming the centre of the world. Lately, we learn that the Pope is resisting the idea of Turkey joining the European Union as he does not regard it as part of Christian Europe and that Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who shot the last Pope, has suggested this one doesn't visit Turkey. Meanwhile, the novelist Elif Shafak has been acquitted on charges of insulting Turkish national identity, a crime that the EU would like to see abolished. The country is torn between Islamic theocratic and secular nationalisms. The EU is torn because theocrats may be a threat if Turkey is admitted or, worse still, they may be encouraged if Turkey is rejected. The great fault line that is forming in the world runs through Turkey. There are 74 million Turks; suddenly what they want seems to be the incoming issue. So what DO they want?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

My Guilt Lifts.... He's Back!

Thank heaven, Jeffrey's back with three stonking posts. The sentence about Paul Collingwood's wife going into Labour is especially fine with a use of the word 'understandably' that should be taught in schools. I am free of my guilt, I have not ironised him offline.

Richard Hammond and Kate Moss: the Issues

The world is rotten with issues. Richard Hammond is badly injured in a dragster stunt for Top Gear. Following, as it does, Steve Irwin's death, this becomes an 'issue' about the safety of TV presenters. Meanwhile, Kate Moss becomes a model for Topshop. This is an issue because of her 'alleged' cocaine problems. Grownups know neither of these are real issues. The whole point of Hammond's Top Gear stunts is that they were frequently dangerous. It is what the audience wants. Hedging them about with health and safety concerns to the point where they are absolutely safe makes them, in essence, fake. (I note, incidentally, that the policemen who killed Jean Charles de Menezes have been charged under health and safety laws. This, being warped, I find funny.) Equally, anybody employing any model knows there is a very good chance he/she will have encountered illegal substances. But news schedules demand that there is always more to be said, that there is 'a debate'. No, there isn't. There is only the clamour of hacks filling space and still further enervating their audience.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

My Kind of Woman

I am indebted to the redoubtable Frank Wilson for drawing my attention to one Amanda McKittrick Ros. She is claimed to be the world's worst writer. I cannot agree. She described her critics as 'the auctioneering agents of Satan', a brilliant evasion of cliche and a sentiment I absolutely share. For no special reason, this reminds me that I must draw your attention to the fact that Jeffrey Archer's worrying silence persists. Nothing since September 14th.

Back to the Past with Priceless NASA

NASA has said the moon is 'priceless to planetary scientists' in its attempt to justify the cost of the antique technology of its planned Orion system. It won't work because NASA doesn't listen to the right people. Me, to be exact. Almost ten years ago I had a vision of the future in which I saw exactly what was going to happen. Ultimately, you will be pleased to hear, as a by-product of the great moon wars, Microsoft software is banned as subversive and Apple finally gets its big break

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Talk Like a Pirate Day

One of my favourite blogs tells me it's Talk Like a Pirate Day. You probably didn't know that.

The Goat Bride

A goat - unnamed, so I shall call her Edith - has been obliged to marry one Mr Tombe in Sudan. Mr Tombe has also had to pay a dowry of $50 to Mr Alifi. Apparently, Mr Tombe was found in flagrante with Edith and the village elders decided marriage was the only option. This is not quite what I had in mind when I spoke of respecting the non-human wilderness. Edith, however, professes herself "over the moon" and says Mr Tombe is a "very gentle lover".

Banksy, Steve Irwin and the Wilderness

Banksy's Los Angeles exhibit - a live, painted elephant in a living room - has run into trouble with the Animal Services Department. The practical charge concerns the kind of paint, but the head of the ASD is regretting giving permission for much broader reasons - for, in fact, "frivolous abuse of animals". Banksy's installation is very much in his prig style. World poverty is the elephant in the room, geddit? Oh yeah, wow, deep, Banksy. Meanwhile, Steve Irwin lives on in the form of a signed toy stingray. Banksy's work is politically correct in one way but outrageously incorrect in another in that it involves the humiliation of an elephant and, therefore, an insult to the wild environment. Irwin is sainted as a champion of the wilderness, but, to be honest, I agree with those who argue that he also humiliated its inhabitants. A wilderness occupied by a capering Steve Irwin is not a wilderness. The deep truth, way beyond the wit of Banksy and Irwin but encompassed by the minds of their far greater contemporaries James Lovelock (see Selected Articles) and Edward O.Wilson, is that the wilderness, the non-human, must return if life on earth is to survive. There's a bigger elephant in Banksy's room and a bigger croc in Irwin's swamp. They are the wilderness that exists not for us but for itself.

Is He All Right?

Since his momentous missed gym session last Wednesday, Jeffrey Archer has only issued one dull - and I mean really dull, not just ironic dull - post. I fear I may have put him off. I feel, I confess, concerned and not a little guilty.

Monday, September 18, 2006

An Offending Organ and Memories of Bobbitt

This is a curious story that somehow manages to tell us both too much and too little. I don't want to hear about it, but, once I have, I want to know exactly the nature of his wife's problems. It reminds me of my own encounter with John Wayne Bobbitt, the man whose penis was lopped off by his wife. It was then sewn back on by enterprising surgeons in Virginia. I have seldom felt quite so sorry for anybody I have interviewed - and not for the reason you might expect. John had deep problems with postmodernity and suffered from acute cognitive dissonance.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Pope and Islam

I have just added an article to this site giving some of my views on religion. More light, possibly, made be added in my forthcoming book How to Live Forever or Die Trying. I shall not, in the interim, pretend to be a theologian and attempt to unravel the present Catholic-Islamic crisis. I have read the offending lecture and I am inclined to agree with a Catholic friend who remarks that a lot of Muslims seem in need of anger management. Moreover, without wishing to make things worse, should they consult the online Catholic Encylopaedia on the subject of Islam, they may become even angrier. But human tribes disagree, it is fatuous to deny that and wise not to make too much of it.
The coverage that I have seen has been remarkable for its shallowness and opacity. I will add to it two clear - I think - points.
First, though I do not sympathise with any violent Muslim reaction, I am puzzled as to why the Pope used the offending quotation from the Byzantine emperor. It is not essential to his argument. Rhetorically and logically, it is superfluous. One wonders...
Secondly, there is a lazy view among the ignorant that Islam and Christianity are very much alike. Both have the same roots that they share with Judaism and, as one often hears at dinner parties, Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a prophet. The reality is - and this is at the core of the Pope's lecture - the two religions differ fundamentally in their conception of God. I encountered this myself in the course of a debate with a British convert to Islam at London University. He described the Christian tradition of "justifying the ways of God to man" - theodicy, essentially - as blasphemous to a Muslim. This is because man can aspire to have no such access to the mind of God in Islam. In Christianity, in contrast, man is made in the image of God and this means, crucially, that our reason is an aspect of the mind of God. We do, therefore, have some access to His mind in this world and this life.
That difference explains a very great deal about our present world. Either God is utterly beyond us or God is here and now, though veiled. The distinction is so deep, so fundamental, that it is largely unseen.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Queen Helen

I have placed a Helen Mirren interview from some years back in Selected Articles. Much as I hate saying what everyone else is saying, her performance in The Queen is staggering. Indeed, it feels as though she actually directed the film just with her facial expressions. She also - see the article - gives great, if confusing, dinner. As for the story - well, plainly, the writer was briefed by Blair people as he comes out of it unbelievably well, Cherie doesn't and, happily, neither does the eternally superfluous Alastair Campbell. Gordon Brown is just a noise off. All very satisfying.

The Ethics of Cemetery Eating

What is going on in Rotherham? Parents at the Rawmarsh Comprehensive School have been feeding their children through the fencing. Apparently, their little tykes would not eat the healthy school food and the caring, if terrifying, matriarchs were simply providing the deep fried curry they crave. This inspired mixed feelings in me - warm ones because it provided further evidence, if any were needed, that there is really no chance we shall ever become Scandinavian; cold ones in that I feared for the zit-spattered,artery-clogged future of these Yorkshire butterballs. But, in fact, the mothers claim the fence feeding is caused by problems with the school timetable. Some say they are providing healthy food at the fence as well as the more traditional pork scratchings in butter sauce. I wonder if I believe this - hmmmm, no I don't. That would have been that, but then the headmaster, one John Lambert, intervenes with an entirely new issue: "I have to question the morality of delivering it from the grounds of a cemetery." You can't deliver food from a cemetery!? I am already immersed in my 2,000 volumes of Canon Law. Nothing yet.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Some Depth from Philadelphia

The excellent Frank Wilson, blogger and books editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, adds some depth to my previous post on the Scandinavia question. (I wonder what Walker Lundy got up to, Frank seems to recall him with some distaste.) Anyway, it seems Sweden has 22,000 retirees under the age of 30. It just gets worse.

Scandinavia: an Ongoing Problem

In Norfolk, I have often vaguely hoped that the many war planes flying out over the North Sea indicated that our long-delayed invasion of Norway had at last begun. This is because, like most of my compatriots, I resent Norway and, indeed, all of Scandinavia. Throughout my entire life, I have been told that things are better there. In Sweden, we used to be assured, everybody had sensational sex all the time. Later we were told that the Scandinavian economic path was the brilliant Third Way between capitalism and communism. Now, television tells me, public services there are much better run than ours and, thanks to excellent school lunches, Finnish children are miraculously thin and nice and compared to our own sweet lard arses, scowling and torching up gaspers behind the disused bike sheds. And today I wake up to the news that the Swedes are in the midst of an Indie band boom. Well, let's be clear, Abba were over-rated and only the British - and, occasionally, the Americans - do proper guitar bands. Burning with resentment, I was about to torch a Swedish flag outside the embassy when I discovered, half way down the article, that these Swedish so-called 'Indie' bands are proliferating because of government arts funding. Only the Scandinavians could have come up with an idea so insanely po-faced, so patently ludicrous, so grotesquely smug, as goverment funding for 'Indie' bands. False alarm, recall the invasion barges.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Jeffrey Archer, Neanderthals, Gibraltar

Moving on from the disturbing news that Jeffrey Archer missed his gym session yesterday, it seems that a cave in Gibraltar was the last redoubt of the Neanderthals. The story is illustrated - I presume mistakenly - with the picture of a heavy metal rock singer whose name escapes me. I have always felt sorry for the Neanderthals but never more so than now. Gibraltar is a dismal place. Apart from the rather surly and spoilt apes, I associate The Rock with a large branch of Dixons, the second most unpleasant British company after Carphone Warehouse. Meanwhile, across the border are the glories of southern Spain. The Neanderthals retreated there in response to the capricious northern European weather and the onslaught of Cro-Magnon man - ie us. Finally, 24,000 years ago, they became extinct in Gib, leaving behind only a handful of worthless Dixons extended warranties. We owe them an apology.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Condoleezza's Deluded Darwinism

Condoleezza Rice spoke of 'an Afghanistan that does not complete its democratic evolution'. This is a metaphor based on bad science. There is no evidence of an evolutionary process in politics and history. There is certainly no evidence that democracy represents any kind of end point of any such process. But the metaphor was intended, consciously or not, to evoke a benign, directional process that leads from worms to apes to people. Democracy thus become the crowning achievement of politics just as people are the crowning achievement of evolution. But evolution has no direction and we are no kind of achievement. We just happened and we could equally easily cease to happen. Rice's words betray the scientistic nature of both her imagination and that of the secular neo-cons. In the end, Bush's failure should be seen not as the result of an excess of God - as many claim - but as an excess of science. No image more precisely captures baffled and frustrated scientism than the crumpled, crushed features of the increasingly inarticulate Donald Rumsfeld.

Saul Bellow and Steve Jobs

I was at the big Apple event in London yesterday. Sundry hacks, geeks and, for some reason, French people gathered to watch Steve Jobs deliver his latest revelations on a big screen fed live from San Francisco. It was, as I expected, more like a prayer meeting than a product presentation. Brilliantly, Jobs has turned Apple into a cult rather than a company. That's okay by me, I bought my way back into the cult about a year ago and am now embarked on a programme to eradicate the loathsome PC from my life. And so, like everybody else, I gasped at each revelation from our Dear Leader. But, in fact, I emerged disappointed. I wanted to hear about computers, creative machines, not about new ways in which we can be distracted by bad music, dumb games and awful films. Ingenious and beautifully designed as are all Apple's entertainment devices, the world they portend is one of permanent, passive distraction. 'Our steady state,' said Saul Bellow, 'is distraction.' It is hard, in that context, not to agree with the signatories of a letter published yesterday in the Daily Telegraph. Signed by, among others, Philip Pullman, it claims that distraction - notably 'sedentary, screen-based entertainment' - is contributing to the increase in childhood depression. New entertainment technology is all about perpetual novelty and creating the expectation that every moment of consciousness can contain something different, fast and exciting, something distracting. But what are we being distracted from? I understand precisely how this can lead to depression.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stingrays Form Vigilante Squads Shock

It seems that, following the death of Steve 'Crocodile Hunter' Irwin, Australians are seeking vengeance by killing innocent stingrays. Said a stingray community leader, 'We are organising defence teams against this wholly unprovoked, speciesist terror campaign. Just because we're flat doesn't mean we'll take this lying down. Wally was very depressed when Mr Irwin swam by and he only meant to scare him. We are a small, tight-knit community trying to come to terms with this.'

We Are All Going to Die

On my first trip to Paris, it was the sign on the Metro doors that struck me. It was something like, 'There is danger of death'. How true, I thought, how universally, eternally true. These days, of course, we go out of our way to pretend this is not, in fact, true. The architects Skidmore Owings and Merrill, for example, have been bragging about the way they have made their new Freedom Tower, now going up on Ground Zero in New York, impossible to knock over by crashing a plane into it. In spite of the fact that such an incident did happen twice five years ago, this still sounds somewhat surreal - as if they had decided to protect the building from an attack by 20 foot killer bees. But it is the sort of thing SOM had to say because every time a novel way of dying appears, everybody runs around trying to stamp it out. We also have these new alert levels designed to tell us the likelihood of a terrorist attack. In the US, it is called the Homeland Security Advisory System and it has five levels running from low to severe. That word 'advisory' strikes me as dangerously non-committal. Once 'advised', do we just mutter anxiously to ourselves at 'low' and run around screaming with paper bags on our heads at 'severe'? There are many other more imminent risks than terrorism. There is always danger of death. Being ready from moment to moment to die seems to me to be the essence of the life well lived. Lives in the present climate of fear and litigation are not being lived well.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Otters Prompt Vole Resurgence

Unashamedly lifted that wonderful headline from a BBC page. Otters, it seems, are killing the American mink. These have been feasting on our natives voles. Voles have always been close to my heart since that line in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop - "Feather-footed through the plashy fen hurries the questing vole". So go, otters, I say. But, to be honest, I just did this for the headline.

The Mental Illness Myth

As British newspapers struggle to turn themselves into one gigantic iPod, it is consoling to note that, at the high end, the Americans are keeping the faith by continung to do the best journals and serious magazines in the business. I've just been sent another - The New Atlantis - which,as usual, grips and informs more effectively than anything similar over here. Read this , for example. It is about Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who came to believe there was no such thing as mental illness. He was crushed by the profession, of course, but, if doctors can find no material basis for mental disorders, would we have to call them something other than diseases? I am inclined to think we would. In the same issue there is a related article about definitions of disease. I have thought for some time that this matter of disease and its parameters is one of the most fundamental issues of our time. The New Atlantis - long may it not be an iPod - seems to agree.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

No Degrees of Separation

Funny the things you find on Saturdays. I found the Literature Map, for example. I won't bother to explain but it lost my confidence when it listed Vladimir Nobakov, Oscar Wild and Shakespear. What really rattled me, however, was the fact that Tolkien came up on the same page as Marilynne Robinson.

Friday, September 08, 2006

See A Scanner Darkly

Film critics - what's that all about? Here's Joe Queenan in The Guardian and here's Manohla Dargis in The New York Times on Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly. (In Queenan: what is a strunt, by the way?)
They move me to point out that A Scanner Darkly contends with Blade Runner as the best adaptation of a Philip K.Dick novel. In fact, it is better than Blade Runner at capturing Dick's Chandleresque side - his baffled and not quite sentimental humanism. Philip French - here - gets it right.

Singer, Scruton and the Limits of Utilitarianism

The Australian newspaper helpfully provides us with a list of the top ten Australian intellectuals - here . This being Australia, there are, of course, twenty of them. I have heard of two - the historian Geoffrey Blainey, whom I used to know, and the philosopher Peter Singer. I chaired an event at Foyles on Wednesday to publicise Singer's latest book - see here.
A friend, the philosopher Roger Scruton, used to have a pig named after Singer. Unfortunately, Peter tells me with some delight, he slaughtered it rather late and the meat was a touch stringy.
Anyway, Singer, a very sophisticated utilitarian, is the leading thinker in the animal liberation movement. He and Scruton are in complete agreement that factory farming is an outrage, as, indeed, are most of the methods through which we currently bring meat to the table. Scruton, however, thinks that eating meat is okay, Singer does not.
I have a possibly sub-rational aversion to utilitarianism, and, long ago, I lost much of my interest in the system of arguments about arguments that is philosophy. But, until Wednesday, I was not quite clear how I felt about Singer's position. In the course of the evening, he was honest enough to admit that there was no strict philosophical argument against eating animals that had been humanely cared for and slaughtered and that had only been so treated because they were being raised to be eaten. And yet he was still against eating them. This reminded me of a moment some years ago when I asked another utilitarian philosopher, John Harris, what he would NOT do irrespective of the utilitarian calculus and he would not answer. That's the real problem with utilitarianism - when it reaches the crucial point, it just stops.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Whereof one cannot speak....

...thereof one must be silent. 'Thereof' in this case being the appalling condition of British public life, dominated as it is by Sulky Brown's standoff with Phoebe Blair. In fact, is Brown actually Ross? No, no, I mustn't go there. I will disobey Wittgenstein in order to make two points, however. Blair's strategy is - I hope - to create so much turmoil that he will simply announce at some point that a handover to Ross, sorry, Sulky would be too divisive and, therefore, he is staying, well, forever. I hope this because I dislike and mistrust Sulky, not because I like Phoebe. The second thing is: perhaps Phoebe's greatest coup in the present crisis is the appointment of an android as party chairman. Hazel Blears - known to her makers as Chairperson 3.0 - is a masterpiece of the geek arts with her deranged grin and her amazing immobility. This morning the director of BBC Breakfast simply faded her our in mid interview, a brilliant touch that drew sudden attention to her machinehood. Perhaps Phoebe is an android too and the handover, if it comes, will actually be like the last scene in Blade Runner with Sulky being Deckard cradling the dying Blairbot and musing, "All he'd wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Blair to Appear in Remake of Friends

Okay I lied. But I was considering the content of this leaked Downing Street memo - here - and it's idea of a farewell tour for the Prime Minister complete with TV appearances and crowds of adoring admirers. Of course, if Friends were still running, the Number 10 wonks would have been agitating to get him on. But my point is this memo is not just about bad taste and vanity, it is about delusion. Think of it as Phoebe trying to book Wembley Arena to sing Smelly Cat.
PS: Go to the Jeffrey Archer blog, he is really cooking.

Prig Alert 2: Cyclists

I have been sitting here looking for prigs and, suddenly, I have realised they are all around me. In July 2002, I wrote an attack on the behaviour of cyclists - see Selected Articles. It was greeted with howls of outrage, in spite of the fact that every non-cyclist I knew regarded cyclists in London with fear and loathing. I like to think that article turned the tide. Now the criminal behaviour of cyclists is a national joke and even Ken Livingstone has suggested bikes should have to carry number plates - see here. I say 'even' because Mayor Foxy-Woxy is in the habit of supporting any politically correct minority at any cost and cyclists are definitely PC. In fact, that is what makes them prigs. Cycling is environmentally sound - a truism - and cyclists ride around bathed in easy virtue. (I like to think that it is Coldplay on their iPods, dull music intended to make self-regarding people feel good.) This is why they are so full of righteous anger at any hint of criticism, they think they have God on their side so they can do anything they want. They continue to make driving in London a nervy hell because of their refusal to obey traffic laws. They are major prigs - and dangerous ones too.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Possible Prig Attack on Paris Hilton

I have been considering the artist Banksy as the subject of my second Prig Alert (see below). Banksy, who carefully preserves his anonymity, pursues his art by intervening with graffiti and other devices in public places. The latest stunt - read about it here - involves replacing Paris Hilton CDs in shops with his own and changing the covers. This is obviously an outrageous abuse of a fine if rather odd-looking woman. But the priggishness involves the dully conventional nature of the message. Banksy's CD tracks have titles like Why Am I Famous? and What Am I For? So, yeah yeah, Paris is famous for being famous. Priggishness involves the seizing of moral authority by the adoption of banal, conventional attitudes and, in this, as in many other works, Banksy seems to be doing just that. Indeed, some of his work is irredeemably banal - see his web site here - as when he draws a circle and writes inside "Most things look better when you put them in a circle" or vacuously moralistic, a pale shadow of the artistic insurrections of the early twentieth century.
But I have decided not to give Banksy the honour of a Prig Alert for two reasons. First, he is, when not being banal, a rather gifted and witty draughtsman. But, secondly, there is the remark of a spokesman for one of the shops where Banksy intervened. He said that people had bought the altered CDs but none had been returned and there had been no complaints. Banksy, it seems, is not being banal, merely horribly realistic. People really are that stupid.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Jellyfish, Stingray, Malaria and Steve Irwin

A friend, returning from the South of France, complains he was unable to swim in the sea because of the enormous number of jellyfish. There is, indeed, a plague of these things - see here - and the most common explanation seems to be warmer seas due to climate change, though it may also be caused by overfishing destroying their natural predators. Meanwhile, here, climate change is threatening Europe with a new wave of infectious diseases, including malaria. Some pathogens, normally found in much warmer waters, have, it seems, also been attacking holiday swimmers.
In which context, I can't help finding the killing of Steve Irwin, the crazed Australian who toyed with wild animals, by a stingray as somehow symbolic. Nature will not be mocked.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari: a Considered View

While idly looking up something about Venice, I stumbled upon this revew of Santa Maria Gloriosa de Frari, a church which, among other things, includes the great Titian Assumption, a sublime Bellini and a Donatello which leaves you speechless. The review is from a site called Igougo which claims to offer "honest advice to get you going". I have a suspicion it is by none other than globetrotting Jeffrey Archer. There are stylistic clues and it does give one that familiar, eerie feeling of being dead.

"Average Rating ? 9, Estimated time to allot ? 1 hour, Cost $1.50
This church taught us an important lesson. You can be the best planner in the world and use the most up-to-date resource and still find yourself in a predicament in Venice. When they say that the opening times are subject to change, they mean it! We walked a long ways to the Frari, only to discover that it is no longer open on Sundays. Because of this, we avoided anymore church visits on Sundays, even during Visiting Hours. This is a wise move. Sunday is the first day to find its way off of the schedule for a church.
Even if you have to walk here two different times, this church is worth the trip. The Frari is incredibly large with high ceilings. There are paintings and marble sculptures along the sides. The altar has a beautiful painting with deep reds and blues, and it's surrounded by old stained glass. On the sides of the altar are marble statues, probably of saints. The floor is worn peach and bone marble. The stones make this basilica very cold!"

All Physicists are Wrong all the Time

It seems now that all physicists have been wrong about everything - see here. This is good news, but I think, secretly, they've known for some time that they don't have a clue. In 1992 I took part in a debate in Cambridge that lasted until 3am. At that point, only two of us were left in the room - me and a guy from CERN, the European particle collider. Having attacked me all evening, he suddenly slumped.
"You know you're right," he said, "we ARE making this stuff up as we go along."
I like to think he became a better man as a result of getting that off his chest.

The American Truck

I have a truck - see Selected Articles for my justification - but I don't have what the Americans would call a truck. Mine is a mere Ford Ranger, built for non-American wimps. What the Americans mean by a truck is the Dodge Ram SRT10, which is brilliantly reviewed here.
What is striking about this review - and, indeed, all American truckery - is the defiant tone. These machines are environmentally insane and don't even make any practical sense - who needs a 510 hp truck? What for? But a lot of defiant American exceptionalism goes into these trucks. I think this is because, unlike cars, trucks are self-contained. You could load one up with supplies and take off into the wilderness. They advertise the fact that you can do what you damn well please, including, if you have an SRT10, overtaking cars by driving over them. Trucks are a right, which is why, in the US, they are utterly classless. Here, of course, they are class poison. One friend said sniffily that he couldn't buy a truck because he'd look like a painter and decorator. In fact, I'm now thinking of getting an SRT10 precisely to redecorate his house. Terminally.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

After the Shuttle. Disaster.

When the Columbia Shuttle broke up in February 2003, I wrote a rapid reaction piece (it was a Saturday) in The Sunday Times - see Selected Articles. The gist of that piece was that the Shuttle programme as a whole had been one long disaster. I also glowed nostalgically about the days of the great white rockets of the Apollo programme. NASA, catastrophically, has plainly misunderstood and taken my words too literally. They have decided - see here - to replicate Apollo with only minor adjustments. They have given this $3.9 billion contract to Lockheed Martin.
This craft, I forecast, will never get built. Private sector space programmes like Burt Rutan's - also see Selected Articles - will render its technology obsolete within five years. And, even if that doesn't happen, the Indians or the Chinese will get back to the moon first with something better. NASA should have been broken up as soon as it became clear just how bad the Shuttle was. Instead, it is ploughing on with bad technology and the same old relationships with its suppliers. I wouldn't mind - but, well, something in me still misses the great days of The Right Stuff. It's a boy thing.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Blair: the Madness Hypothesis

I was going to blog on this but Gordon beat me to it, sending in this remark:
"Here's one for you Bryan: Tony Blair has had the temerity to suggest that children growing up in, say, single-parent families, or families suffering from drug and alcohol problems, may have a disposition to criminal activity. Here. According to this report from the BBC News website, Anastasia de Waal, head of the 'family and education unit' at 'think' tank Civitas, said: "It is teetering on genetic determinism this kind of saying that before children are even born they are labelled as problematic." Which, of course, is exactly the opposite of what Tony Blair was suggesting! In terms of the nature/nuture debate, Tony Blair was suggesting that nurture, the environment people grow up in, makes people predisposed to certain types of behaviour. This is the opposite of genetic determinism! It would be funny, if it wasn't so tragic."
Well, quite, Gordon. Ms de Waal plainly has problems with elementary scientific concepts. But there are many confusions here, are there not? Blair's apparent environmental determinism is being pursued in an insanely personal way. Surely, it is the job of the politician to do what he/she can about the environment, not to dive in and sort out individual families on the basis that their children look like hoodlums in waiting. Imagine what would happen if he started to conduct the "war on terror" that way.
Of course, it doesn't matter because the actual implementation - never mind, success - rate of Blair "initiatives" is close to zero. They are only ever mood music. But I do think that the idea of intervening prenatally to prevent crime throws petrol on the flames of the Blair Madness hypothesis. He had a post-holiday tan when he talked about it on television, but there was definitely something crazed about the mouth and eyes.