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.