Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sarkozy in Scooter Scandal

I am not sure I understand this story, but then the French have always been a closed book as far as I am concerned. Seemingly the police used DNA tests to nail the stealers of Nicolas Sarkozy's son's scooter. This is regarded as excessive since 7,000 scooters a year are stolen in France - amazing, I never knew that - and DNA tests in every case would be seen as profligate. As he is Interior Minister, it looks as though Le Grand Sark has been getting preferential treatment. At least I think that's what's going on. In a world in which Chuck Norris can be a Fox News anchor, it's difficult to be sure of anything. I can only resort to drawing your attention once again to my favourite picture in the entire world.

What Remains of What was Left

I shall in the next week or so read Nick Cohen's book What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way. But, for now, the gist of it is that the British left was utterly outflanked by the fall of communism and the success of the market and, as a result, fell back on reflex anti-Americanism and a sinister sympathy for fascist Islamism. Socialism is dead. For the most part, this seems to have produced sad nods of agreement from others on the left, but today John Harris bites back. For Harris, Cohen's left is a straw man, the real movement is 'more Methodist than Marxist, and replete with its own sacred tenets - equality through redistribution, internationalism, a gentle faith in Fabianite gradualism.' This left's antipathy to the invasion of Iraq was based on memories of colonialism rather than anti-Americanism or fascist sympathies. This is a theological dispute, and none the worse for that. Socialism is the mutually agreed god and America and the free market constitute the faith-corroding onrush of science. Cohen once believed in the immanence of his deity, but now finds He has been exiled from the material world by the sheer success of unbelief. Harris embraces a 'god of the gaps' argument - God lives on in the spaces still inaccessible to science, in the interstices of the American ascendancy and the market. Theology still exposes the structures of human thought, it should be taught to children from the age of five at the latest.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Secret Steal

Leo Benedictus provides evidence for my own suspicion that conventional advertising is dead, killed by fatigue among both advertisers and their audience. Much as one would like to celebrate this, there is a serious downside. The new fashion is for 'stealth' and 'buzz' marketing, all of which is basically deception. 'Ethical,' says Graham Goodkind of the Sneeze marketing agency, 'is a funny word.' How very true. Meanwhile, we are to have a 'Las Vegas-style super-casino' in Manchester. The thing about pure gambling of the type involved in this joint - not skill games like poker - is that it is an elaborate attempt to conceal from the punter one glaringly obvious truth. He is bound to lose. It is, in other words, another form of stealth marketing. The conspiracy to conceal the real takes many forms, not that one would notice.

Google and the Libraries

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article in The Sunday Times about Google's digitisation of the world's libraries. Some - Google included - seemed to think I said this was about to destroy civilisation. This does not fill me with hope about the ability of these people - Google included - to read. Anyway, I have been too busy to reply to all the emailed responses so I have decided to include some of them as comments on this post with, in fairness, a degree of anonymity. They demonstrate, if nothing else, the strength of feelings involved.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Publication Curse

I am beginning to scare myself. Since the publication of my book on immortality on January 22nd, the two oldest people in the world have both died. On Sunday night Emma Faust Tillman expired at the age of 114. She had only held the title for a week. A 115-year-old man in Puerto Rico checked out a few days earlier. I fear for the well-being of Yone Minagawa, a Japanese lady who is now said to be the world's oldest person. Years ago, on the set of The Sheltering Sky, Bernardo Bertolucci warned me not to come near his film as 'it is contaged'. Perhaps my book is the same. But, what the hell, buy it anyway. You've got to die of something.

Shilpa, Jade and Jeremy

So Shilpa Shetty wins Big Brother; there would, presumably, have been a further diplomatic incident if she hadn't. In victory, she is very magnanimous to Jade Goody, her racist abuser. 'People make mistakes,' she says, 'and we're all human beings, we're all fallible.' Sweet, but then Jade did make Shilpa's day by giving her more global exposure in about five seconds than the whole output of Bollywood could hope to do in a decade. If smart Shilpa intended to use thick Jade to advance her career, then she played a blinder. Meanwhile, Top Gear returns with an unscarred Richard Hammond. In the course of the programme, Jeremy Clarkson referred to Jade as 'a racist, pig-faced waste of blood and organs.' The study audience roared its approval. I know Jeremy and I like him but he really shouldn't have let himself get involved in this disgusting freak show of mob-manipulation.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Reg Foster and Augustine's Jukebox

Father Reginald Foster is concerned that Latin is dying out. This is, of course, terrible news, but one's spirits are lifted by Father Reg's thoughts on the matter. He, it seems, has been Papal Latinist for 38 years and is now hoping to attract 130 students to his new Latin academy in Rome. He comments with rarefied, cantankerous charm, 'St Augustine thought in Latin, you can't read his text in English, it's like listening to Mozart through a jukebox.' He also suggests that, instead of taking a siesta, Pope Benedict should announce he will be reading Latin in his private quarters. One observes with awe and gratitude the workings of a mind utterly, blissfully disconnected from contemporary life.

The Knock Out Mouse 2: The Poached Eggs Solution

In a comment on my last post, the indefatigble Wisconsin librarian Dave Lull draws my attention to The Journal of Spurious Correlations: Qualitative and Quantitative Results in the Social Sciences. This seems to answer the same need expressed in the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine. It's all too easy to publish positive scientific results, almost impossible to publish negative ones. But negative results are at last as important as positive ones. If they are not published, then science will slow to a crawl as thousands of scientists replicate experiments that they have not been told will fail. This is a very profound issue. It demonstrates how human failings can so easily compromise the super-human aspirations of science. Or, to put it another way, it is an example of how these super-human aspirations are, in fact, illusions. Whatever we do, it will always be infected by what Christians so resonantly call 'original sin'. That said, I have always been inordinately fond of spurious correlations. Indeed, I am not entirely sure they are all spurious. Take, for example, the poached egg solution to airline safety. On any flight, you should always carry a poached egg in each pocket of your jacket. This is because no air crash victim has ever been found with a poached egg in each pocket. Call me a sentimental old fool, but I find this very suggestive.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Knock Out Mouse that Stayed the Same

A brilliant young scientist draws my attention to the Journal of Negative Results on Biomedicine. So, for example, suppose you knock out a gene in a mouse - a very common procedure - in the hope that this will make it blue-eyed, blond, bi-polar, a Daily Express reader, immortal or whatever. If none of these things happen, then you have a negative result. Unfortunately, my friend tells me, fewer and fewer of these negative results are being published. For reasons of pride, ensuring the flow of grant money or of editorial policy in the journals, scientists are not reporting failure. PhD students, therefore, might spend three years of their life conducting an investigation that has already been proved fruitless at some other lab. If this is true and if it is happening on a large scale, then the implications for science are ominous. As more and more people replicate work already done elsewhere, progress will become a slow crawl, not a headlong rush, into the future. It might have already stopped and this is, scientifically speaking, as good as it gets. One can admire the journal's game attempt to put things right, but, somehow, I find the thought of thousands of scientists pursuing tasks of zen-like futility strangely consoling.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Nicole Kidman in Zombie Horror Crash

Ohmygod, ohmygod. Nicole Kidman has been involved in a zombie horror crash. Her publicist Catherine Olim explains that the star was 'trying to shake zombies off the bonnet of her Jaguar'. I am amazed, even outraged, that in a zombie-infested city like Los Angeles she doesn't have someone to do that for her.

The Tax Spider

Having just paid my tax, I was in no mood to read this. Austria, Denmark, Britain and Canada have adopted a Dutch - wouldn't you know it? - technology called Xenon. a reference not to the noble gas but to car headlights. Such poets, these people. This crawls the web seeking out tax evaders, though I am not quite clear how. One odd feature of Xenon is that, unlike Google, it is slow. This means it doesn't draw attention to itself by creating excessive traffic on a site. Clever, very. This creepy crawler could be watching me now, as could one Simon Bird, who works for HM Revenue and Customs. He declined to comment on Xenon's data retention policies. I bet he did. Bird is head of the 'Web Robot Team'. Really. He is, of course, a third generation office 'droid built on the planet Znaaarg and his favourite colour is mauve..

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Three Password Torture Protocol

I am reeling somewhat after stumbling across a comment on this Guido post. Anonymous says, 'Isn't there now encryption that gives you two passwords to give out under torture, which lead to innocent material, whilst it's the third one that hides the shit people are looking for.' Now everybody knows this, the torturers will just demand password three at once. So the trick will be to make one or two the right one. Or, even better, make it necessary to enter the passwords in a special order. I could go on, but there is only one password-code story worth telling. Find it here. The site is not password protected. But there is torture.

Reviews of THAT Book

It occurs to me that, as I linked to the Spectator review of my book, you might think my subsequent silence on the matter means the reviews have been bad. They haven't, they have been excellent. So thanks to John Preston in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Conrad in the Observer, Kathryn Hughes in the Mail on Sunday and any others I have missed. I exclude Mary Wakefield in the Daily Telegraph as she appears to have read a different book from everybody else, or, perhaps, not finished this one. Anyway, the reasons to buy How to Live Forever or Die Trying are now pretty much overwhelming.


The World Economic Forum - now running in Davos - always gives me a pang of nostalgia. For two years in the nineties, I was a fellow of the WEF, which meant I was one of the invited speakers. I have since been dropped, probably because I spent my time telling everybody they were wrong about everything, as, indeed, they were. It was a riot. The show is run by Klaus Schwab - with the sole aim, his staff bitched, of getting the Nobel Peace Prize - and, when I met him for the first time, he said, 'Nice to meet you again.' I realised this was because he assumed, reasonably enough, that he had, in fact, met everybody in the world at least once. On one occasion Bill Clinton addressed us via a big video screen and Klaus's introduction was so fulsome that Big Bill actually cracked up with laughter. Then there was Richard Dawkins storming out of a dinner because a soul band - superb, nothing but the best at Davos - started playing. He was ushered sheepishly back in by a nice, nursey sort of lady. Then there was the time I addressed the Media Group - all the big bosses. It was snowing heavily when I left this meeting. Two figures were standing outside the hotel and they summoned me over. One was David Montgomery and the other was Conrad Black. We chatted about what I had said and then, suddenly, Black said apropos of nothing, 'Isn't it wonderful how well the French speak French?' He expanded on this theme for fifteen minutes to our utter bafflement. By the time I finished, all three of us were covered by an inch or so of snow. I made my excuses and left. Good, though disturbing, times.

China Eyes 2

Commenting on my last China Eyes post, Yi said he read this blog to learn English and asked me why my headline read 'China Eyes' and not 'Chinese Eyes'. More poetic, I explained, and it reminded me of a line from Tim Buckley - 'She had those sad China eyes'. Yi had broken ranks. As I said, China has become the country from which I receive the greatest number of visits. Indeed, their ascendancy has since increased further. But, until Yi, none of them seemed to have commented. Anyway, now I learn, that China will pass the US as the biggest internet user within two years. Also the Chinese economy grew by 10.7 per cent last year. All the expert commentary I have read on this phenomenon has been deeply implausible. I'd like to hear from my loyal but silent fan base. So come on, guys, what's going on?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The English Pirates

A ponderous beat-up - an old hack term for, basically, a phone-around - by the BBC elicits the views of psychologists about the salvage fest on Branscombe Beach following the break-up of the container ship Napoli. Amidst the platitudes, one psychologist, Ian Vine, says something interesting, 'In most situations we know what the moral code is, and the role that's expected of us. But in situations where there's not a clear role or several possible roles then we turn elsewhere for guidance on what we should do - we look to see what others are doing.' So, confronted by a beachful of goodies, the locals succumbed to a kind of cascade effect. One of them did a little light looting and the rest followed. Vine's interpretation also sounds like a version of the finding of the Milgram Experiment. Essentially, people's morals are formed by context. This is probably not wrong but it leaves out culture. There is a tradition of looting wrecks in the West Country, salvage is a form of local produce. I am sure this, as much as any universal human trait, explains the beach party. In fact, I would go further and say the English in general have a deep piratical streak that is usually buried beneath the English gentleman (or, more usually, cad) stereotype. Francis Drake, after all, was a pirate. Meanwhile, it transpires, the English are less happy about calling themselves British. The reason is, of course, that they are tired of playing the bad guys while the plucky Scots, Welsh and Irish always get to be the heroes. Pirates, cads or gentlemen, the English want their culture back. And, if it's lying around on the beach, they'll grab it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On Liverpool 2

In my last post on Liverpool, I remarked, 'this is probably the only city in the world that specialises in wringing apologies out of people.' Well, here we go again. Unbelievable.

How Not to Write 'By' Blair

In haste again, I'm afraid. But I would like to note this. It is a blah-blah-blah-blah, yadda-yadda-yadda piece 'by' Tony Blair about the Olympic Games in London, justified by the rather obscure fact that today it is 2,012 days to the start of the games in 2012. Geddit? Obviously it is not 'by' Tony Blair at all. Nevertheless it is an interesting study in political prose. It is insanely, deliriously, hilariously badly written. It should be taught in schools as a lesson in how not to write English prose. Anyway, as I said, in haste.....

Monday, January 22, 2007

Cassilis the Lost Blogger

In less haste than I thought. Iain Dale draws out attention to this. It is the sad farewell of the blogger Cassilis. It's a very painful and intense read for all sorts of reasons, some intended by the author, some not. But I won't attempt psychoanalysis, I shall just look at his thoughts on blogging. His central point is that blogging is a closed circle - 'most of us read blogs to see if anyone has read our blogs' - and not the limitless open space promised by the prophets of citizens' journalism. He adds: 'It's all about traffic no matter what anyone tells you.' Well, Cassilis is more right than the prophets, but I don't think he's quite right. The, as far as I know, unnoticed oddity about blogging is that the blogger is both performer and audience. When I write for The Sunday Times or produce a book, I know I am performing from a privileged position. That privilege vanishes when I blog, not just because there are a lot of other bloggers, but, more importantly, because I blog as an outsider, observing things the way readers of The Sunday Times do. It may all be about traffic, as Cassilis says, but, in a less depressing sense, everything is about traffic - not mere popularity but contact, belonging, acknowledgment. Cassilis aspires to be a political writer and thought that blogging was the way. His mistake, perhaps, was that he allowed the circularity to get the better of him. He shouldn't have read so many blogs, he should have read other things and then blogged. But he should ditch the politics - a bad subject for real writing these days - and keep at it. His prose has a peculiar intensity, which is why I felt impelled to write this when I should have been rushing out of the house.


In haste I cannot resist drawing your attention to this. It is a list of ideas for Apple's next product created by crazed Photoshop geeks and it is utterly engrossing. My favourite is the iNuke to be marketed with the slogan, 'Say goodbye.'

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Scotland: Too Funny for Independence?

On the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union Scotland appears to be going through one of its Independence Now phases. They should be encouraged solely because this would maximise the embarrassment of uber-Scot Gordon Brown. However, I fear an independent Scotland may not thrive. Scots suffer from a compulsion to parody themselves. On my recent visit I entered a small shop. I was followed by a small tweed-clad man. 'Hellooooo, Finlay!' cried the woman behind the counter. 'Helloooo, Susan!' he cried back. Both spoke in a comedy Scots falsetto, which, I am convinced, was dropped the moment I left. I have also heard that on the Isle of Skye they switch into Gaelic at the sight of any foreigner and switch back to English the moment they think are alone with their own folk. Now the Scottish nationalist Alex Salmond has suggested the Edinburgh assembly should impose a £1 million toll on every Trident nuclear warhead that enters Scotland. This is brilliantly witty but ill-advised - obviously we would retaliate with a swingeing impost on claymores entering England. Is there something fundamentally unserious about contemporary Scotland? And, if so, can they hope to rule themselves without sinking, giggling, beneath the gloomy waters of the loch?

Little Ol' Fox Stamper Phil

In my New Year predictions for 2007 I forecast that Prince Philip and Donald Rumsfeld would become partners in a venture to build a retirement home for the diplomatically challenged called Lousy Bastards. This has yet to happen. What has happened is that the Prince has been photographed presiding over the rather brutal killing of a fox. One can imagine him even now clutching a piece of toast and stamping about in his Paisley silk dressing gown wondering why the bloody hell such things are of any possible interest to the press or their proletarian readers. I sympathise. As I have said here before, I would have nothing against blood sports if there were an equal chance of the animal or human being killed. But the Prince is a man of another age. He belongs, one feels, in 1907 or thereabouts. His imagination was not formed to cope with a world in which people worried about the sufferings of foxes. Such dislocations must come to us all. Doubtless, I shall one day find myself sitting in some plastic armchair in a 'rest' home raging against the critics' revaluation of Jeffrey Archer as the greatest novelist of his generation. Such things may be painful, but they will, surely, make death all the more welcome.

The Moon and the Book

In The Sunday Times I go back to the moon and contemplate digital libraries.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome

Party hacks have attempted to spin our attention away from the real significance of the arrest of 'Blair's Gatekeeper' Ruth Turner by complaining about the 'theatricality' of the police action. We are expected to focus not on what was done and why, but on how it was done. Saddam's execution is now largely discussed in terms of whether the media should have shown any of the grisly pictures of the hanging and on the failure of management that led to mobile phones being able to film the whole thing. Racism on Big Brother, meanwhile, has taken on national and global significance. This is, remember, only an unusually mindless TV show about nothing. The medium, all too obviously, has become the message. Most big news stories - and almost all political ones - now have presentation, how things are seen, as their primary theme. In France, the far right has taken the logical next step. Jean-Marie Le Pen has set up an HQ in the virtual world of Second Life. The New Labour project is often seen as a failure. In fact, as these developments demonstrate, it has been a triumphant success. In 1997 Blair inaugurated his Pleasure Dome of Virtuality. In 1999 it was literally embodied in the Millennium Dome; today its avatar is the Big Brother House. The Dome's dominion now spans the entire world, our imaginations included.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Big Dylan Question Answered

Anyway, I just thought I'd say that, following a long, detailed and very, very sober evening with Nige, we decided to issue the following bulletin: Sign on the Window from the New Morning album (1970) is Bob Dylan's greatest song. I'm sure you'll agree that it's good to clear that one up.

The Propeller in my Head

'Credibility is an expanding field...,' wrote Tom Stoppard in Jumpers, '...Sheer disbelief hardly registers on the face before the head is nodding with all the wisdom of instant hindsight.' Conversations about my book - the most recent being Nightwaves last night on Radio 3 - always start from a position of rank incredulity that the technology to extend our lives is ever going to happen. 'This is all science fiction,' people routinely say. In fact, bits of the technology are falling into place every day. Here, for example, I read of the development of a 'microbot', a tiny machine with a propeller which will fly through the veins and arteries in my head. This is not to say that the procedure that will deliver medical immortality is imminent. But it is to say that there is enough going on to convince perfectly sane people that it could be. This is why, I suspect, we shall see more and more people pursuing radical regimes - 250 supplements a day, very low calorie intake, constant monitoring of blood chemistry - intended to keep them alive long enough to benefit from immortalising technology. To die the day before it arrived, as one scientist put it to me 'would suck'. Meanwhile, sheer vanity demands that I draw your attention to the lead review in The Spectator this week. William Leith is a man of depth, wisdom and extraordinarily refined judgment. The only words I object to in his article are 'at times' in that first paragraph.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Shilpa Shetty 2: Satire is Dead

The Big Brother Racism story reveals another terrible truth about our world - it can no longer be satirised. The simple facts of the case are so wildly implausible, so deliriously stupid, that satirists can only stand back in awe and admiration. Some very coarse individuals on a TV game show that involves being imprisoned inside a house express, in terms of laughable ignorance, a degree of racial prejudice against another inmate. Professionally outraged people become professional outraged and Gordon Brown's visit to India is turned into a ludicrous pantomime in which people burn effigies of somebody or other connected with Big Brother, newspaper headlines crow about the racism of the British and Brown himself has to keep grinding out the platitudes about what a terrible thing racism is - yadda-yadda-yadda. Meanwhile, back in the house, the contestants don't know any of this has happened. Not, it has to be said, that they would understand if they were told. This Jade Goody character in particular seems desperately thick. Anyway, here is some, if not satire, then biting comment. The Doomsday Clock kept by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has been moved two minutes closer to midnight. It is now five minutes to midnight - the end of the world. The move is a result of including climate change in the calculations. This has brought us as close to doomsday as we were in the bleakest days of the Cold War. The peaks were at two minutes in 1953 and three minutes in 1984. Still, I am sure it is very important that we take the anger of the Indians and the complaints of Shilpa's mother very seriously indeed. I mean - who knows? - the incident might result in her winning the show. That would be very exciting.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Shilpa Shetty: Reality Bites Back

Ten years ago I wrote this article about fly on the wall documentary film makers. The most celebrated of these was Paul Watson. The article was inspired by his film The Dinner Party. The eight diners were, of course, utterly humiliated, all in the name of Watson's declared mission to be 'subversive'. In fact, Watson was being dishonest. What we saw was a second dinner party, the first had been judged too incoherent and Watson decided to reshoot the whole thing. In other words, what we were seeing was not reality, but a deliberate construct by a left wing film maker determined to portray his victims as fascists. Now the 'reality' TV show Big Brother has run into trouble over racist remarks about the Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty. Channel 4's first response was to dismiss the remarks as 'girly rivalry', which sounds pretty damned sexist to me, a clear case of a press office making matters worse. The matter is to be raised in Parliament and 4 has had to change its tune - 'Big Brother does not tolerate bullying or racist abuse in any form....' Blah blah blah. This I find very funny. Both cases expose these 'reality' shows for what they really are - cynical manipulations and the most artificial and unreal forms of TV ever devised. This exposure happens in both cases because a tiny sliver of real reality intruded on this process - the first, chaotic dinner party or the mildly racist remarks. This dangerous intruder from the real world must at once be crushed. The viewers must not, under any circumstances, be woken from their complacent slumber. They might discover they were only dreaming.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

In Praise of John Ashbery

The ever alert Frank Wilson, vice president of the FIS, draws my attention to a strange little interview with John Ashbery. I interviewed Ashbery years ago. I asked him about the criticism that he was a poet who did not think. 'Well, I think I think, but I don't thinking thinking is what it is thought to be.' Here, in this New York Times interview, he is asked if he feels any nostalgia for the NY Bohemia of the fifties. 'I left the country in 1955,' he replies, 'and stayed away for 10 years, in France. So I missed out on a very crucial period. I am still trying to piece together things that happened while I was gone, like the Everly Brothers, for instance.' Anyway, this is just an excuse to say that this man has written some of the most beautiful English of our time and the music of poems like The Skaters and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror as well as collections like Houseboat Days and Vermont Notebook runs through my head daily, making my world brighter, more astounding and easier to live in.
From Houseboat Days:
'The roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices
Of the days.'

A Webcast on That Book

Sorry, sorry, another book plug. See me here talking about it with blog maestro Iain Dale.

Monday, January 15, 2007

China Eyes

There was much talk of China on Start the Week and, coincidentally, I have just discovered that more Chinese are visiting this site than either Brits or Americans. They are, as one would expect, inscrutable. They leave no comments. Perhaps they are eagerly buying my book. Who knows? I feel as though I am dining at the Royal China in Queensway, a vast restaurant where the waiters say nothing and just watch. I wonder what they are thinking. Anyway, er, hi, guys.

Random Post With Useful Map

I am about to talk about the outstanding spelling in my book on Radio 4's estimable chat fest Start the Week and I find myself unsure as to what constitutes the most bloggable item of the day. Here, therefore, is an indecisive tour d'horizon of the world as I find it. There is this curious piece about the way nothing gets repaired any more, toasters being a particular sore point. There is OJ not really confessing and there is the news that British property is now worth £3.8 trillion. For geeks there is this strangely engrossing map which draws the battle lines in the war between Microsoft and everybody else. The 'nobody saw that one coming' aspect of human affairs is covered by the Californian, usefully called Jennifer Strange, who took part in a radio contest - Hold Your Wee for a Wii - involving the new Nintendo game. Strange died of water intoxication. But perhaps the most appropriate tale in the light of my impending radio triumph is this one. It seems that statins - cholesterol lowering drugs - may cause Parkinson's Disease. I met some self-dosing, aspirant-immortal doctors while researching my book and they took very high levels of statins. (They also liked to keep their blood pressure at levels just above the point at which they would pass out.) They may now need to rethink their regime. So that's the way it is this morning. I'm off to Broadcasting House.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Liverpool

My friend, Stephen Bayley, writes an excellent article on the subject of Liverpool, European Capital of Culture 2008. Stephen, having been brought up there, likes the place; I, having been raised near Manchester, don't. The last time I was there I was continually accosted by drunks in the city centre in the course of an early evening walk and, in a dark alley, I was convinced I was about to be mugged by a figure crouched in the shadows. It turned out to be a bronze statue of John Lennon. The great architecture of the city is all but buried by the ineptitude of successive ideologically-crazed councils. Furthermore, Liverpool inspires glutinous sentimentality, not least from Liverpudlians. I once wrote - my tone was light - that Liverpudlians weren't actually very funny. I received tear-stained letters demanding I apologise. In fact, as Boris Johnson knows to his cost, this is probably the only city in the world that specialises in wringing apologies out of people. I am convinced every stranger arriving in the city feels a special little shiver of anomie. Even Stephen remarks that it was the alienation peculiar to Merseyside that inspired Paul Simon to write Homeward Bound. But I'm sure he's right when he says Liverpool is getting better. As John Lennon himself interpolated in the Beatles song of that title, 'it can't get much worse.'

Me and Immortality

There is an extract from my book in The Sunday Times today. This will at once make it apparent why you must buy it at once. The fine spelling is an additional bonus.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage

Thrusting my aged features close to their spotty ones and temporarily stunning them with a gust of 40-year-old Laphroaig, I often say to aspiring young journalists, 'Nobody buys the paper to read you, sunshine.' In fact, discovering why people read newspaper can be a very shocking and lowering experience. This thought is inspired by an email I have received from the New York Times listing their most viewed articles of 2006. Top of the list is What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage. The first sentence of this milestone in contemporary journalism is: 'As I wash dishes at the kitchen sink, my husband paces behind me, irritated. "Have you seen my keys?" he snarls, then huffs out a loud sigh and stomps from the room with our dog, Dixie, at his heels, anxious over her favorite human's upset.' My knuckles are now white with the effort of not commenting on this. I shall content myself with a silent scream. Elsewhere in the top ten are two other lists - best American fiction of the last 25 years and best books of 2006. Where is the lists of lists, the supreme meta-list? Nothing on Iraq, though there is one story about climate change. All serious journalism seems to float on a sea of dogs called Dixie and dumb ass relationship babble like (number 3) Questions Couples Should Ask (Or Wish They Had) Before Marrying, which, of course, has the added bonus of an illiterate and ungrammatical headline. If only all these people could be persuaded to read grammatically sound books with excellent spelling like this one.

Friday, January 12, 2007


People now routinely say that our involvement in Iraq is the worst foreign policy disaster since Suez. What they do not say is that Iraq may mirror Suez exactly. The lesson we learned from our Egyptian adventure in 1956 was that we had no choice but to act in concert with the Americans. The lesson we draw from Iraq may be exactly the opposite. And that would, indeed, be disastrous.

Air Travel and the Blair Insurgency

In the course of an interview intended to outgreen David Cameron, Gordon Brown said, 'I don't do actually at the moment very much international travel for leisure.' This is an important remark for two reasons. First, yet again it reveals Brown's complete inability to resist an opportunity to stab Blair in the back. Blair had just said he wouldn't be giving up his long haul holidays for the sake of the environment. When - if - Blair stands down and when - if - Brown succeeds, I forecast British politics will mirror Iraq's. The Shias - Brownists - having gained power, they will do all they can to suppress the Sunnis - Blairists. The Sunnis, meanwhile, will launch a fantastically brutal insurgency, the main weapon of which will be Blair's insistence that the entire New Labour projected was, from its inception, crippled by Brown's vengeful bitterness. Shia death squads will then be sent in and US troops will ... well, perhaps not. The second reason Brown's aside is interesting is that it raises the question of whether giving up air travel is entirely rational. Anatole Kaletsky thinks not, primarily because it accounts for only a very small proportion of global emissions and we have no viable substitute for kerosene, whereas we do for the petrol, coal and gas used in cars and power stations and we can, conceivably, stop the Brazilians and Indonesians tearing down the rainforests. Al Gore, on the other hand, takes the Tesco line - 'Every little helps.' I don't know the answer to this, but since global warming is real and since green credentials are now a serious force in politics, I do know it matters.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

PoshnBecks: The Twilight Years

David Beckham, it seems, is to spend more time with his haircut. Real Madrid don't seem to want him any more and neither does the worst football team in the world. This is, of course, not too serious as football has not, for some time, been his primary career. He is far more famous - and probably earns more - as one half of the celebrity entity PoshnBecks. Nothing he does or doesn't do on the field is likely to affect that in the immediate future. In fact, I would guess PnB will become even more famous as he declines as a footballer and she loses her looks - extreme emaciation does not look good after the age of 25. (For further evidence of this go and see the film Bobby. Heather Graham, Helen Hunt, Demi Moore and Sharon Stone don't just look bad, they look awful.) PoshnBecks: The Twilight Years will be as good a story as The Golden Couple. I see it as an essentially cosy decline. They will soon appear on Ready, Steady, Cook and, in about thirty years, they will be co-presenters of The Antiques Roadshow. As ever, you read it here first.
PS. In fact, it occurs to me that they would be the perfect successors to Carol Vorderman and Des Lynam on Countdown.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Violent Young Men

I posted previously on the sad destruction of the Mirabelle restaurant in Mayfair. It had been colonised by loutish hedgefunders, possessed of money and nothing else. Over at the Movida club, meanwhile, the City bonus slobs buy methusaleh's of Cristal champagne at £24,000 a shot and spray £4,500 jeroboams of the stuff over each other. Table bills go up to £100,000. The wise Frank Wilson, co-founder of the Failed Intellectuals Society, observed of my Mirabelle post that the problem with capitalism is capitalists. I agree. But, hitherto, I have regarded the barbarity of these people as simply an unfortunate necessity, the grim underpinnings of civilisation and culture. They work so I can think. Fair enough. After the Mirabelle, however, I find myself less tolerant. Why can't they do something with their money other than spend it? Anyway - a bit of a leap here, but bear with me - in the FT Christopher Caldwell makes an interesting demographic point about the current violence within the Palestinian territories. Its cause, he argues, is the excessive number of young men. When 15 to 29 year olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence happens. This seems to be true throughout the developing world in which 900 million sons were born between 1988 and 2002. I am sceptical of all attempts to invent laws about human behaviour, but this feels convincing. It becomes even more convincing when you observe the young men in the Mirabelle or at Movida. They don't kill each other, they spray each other with champagne and they trash once decent restaurants. No big bill at Movida has ever been paid by a woman. Civilisation, it seems, rests on a society's abililty to find something stupid, pointless and not too violent for young men to do.

A Bad Start

They were drinking lattes al fresco in London yesterday and, in New York, it's spring. Global warming is happening and we're sneering about Blair's holiday plans. The Home Office celebrated the end of holiday festivities with the news that it has lost track of murderers and rapists. Meanwhile, marshalling my vast resources of geopolitical wisdom, I am finally ready to issue my New Year world report: we're screwed. Russia has decided to restart the Cold War using energy supplies. Israel is, of course, planning to nuke Iran. Iran will then, backed by Russia, destroy the world's energy markets. Iraq is going badly and will go no better with 20,000 more US troops, whatever the so-called 'anti-surgency' experts say. In Afghanistan, the Taleban are back in action. An assault on Somalia may or may not have hit terrorist targets, but, after the catastrophically inept Rumsfeld-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, it is hard to believe it went according to plan. That is the worst news of all. Throughout my life I have gratefully accepted America as the guarantor of my freedom. But now she is weakened by her own poor judgment and incompetence. US strategy has become unfathomable even to one as intuitively sympathetic as me. So here we are. The New Year is ten days old and 2007 is already looking like a really bad idea. On the bright side, you can still buy my book and the new Apple phone looks pretty cool. Straws were made for clutching at.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Running Around Screaming Day

I have posted on threat levels before, but my thoughts on the matter have now been refined in the light of the news that MI5 is to offer a service - Threat Level Only - whereby we shall be emailed every time the threat level changes. Texts may also be sent. A premium version of this service - What's New - will provide updates of MI5 news. You can register for these services at spook central, though not quite yet as far as I can make out. I intend to register as soon as I can for I know exactly how to use this information. At the current level - 'severe' - I shall run around screaming. At the highest level - 'critical' - I shall put a brown paper bag over my head and dive under a table. At the lowest - 'low' - I shall just gnaw my fingernails. Of course, the reality is that these alerts are of no use whatsoever to you and me. They are simply a way of ensuring we don't forget there's a war on. Fair enough, I suppose, but I'd feel a lot safer if MI5 didn't feel obliged to go in for such gimmicks, if they didn't have a web site and if they didn't officially exist. I know they've got some dud information on me - I once failed to get security clearance from them - but, somehow, I still trust them to do the right thing without having to keep telling me about it.

Dawkins, Dark Matter, Dead Martians and Gordon Plays God

Deluged with science this morning. Demolishing Dawkins has become a distinct literary form. Here is another fine example by H.Allen Orr, a biology professor, in the New York Review of Books. Meanwhile, we seem to have mapped the invisible by producing a model of dark matter. There is some dispute about the accuracy of this, but, in a wonderfully tortured response to the doubts of others, the lead modeller says, 'The discrepancies are not yet at a level of significance where I am definitively convinced they are something other than noise or isolated defects in our analysis.' As Eric Morecambe used to say, there's no answer to that. There also seems to be a halo of giant stars surrounding the Andromeda Galaxy. This is my favourite galaxy as a sci-fi show on TV called A for Andromeda scared me as a child. That four syllable rumble still sends a shiver. And, in case we thought we were getting on top of this universe thingy, it turns out we may have killed Martians back in the seventies. That decade has a lot to answer for. All this, however, is but a prelude to this. My loyal and learned commenter Gordon McCabe has decided to spend the week creating a universe in his living room using kit purchased from eBay and In a few billion years, I confidently expect this domestic cosmos to produce its own Dawkins, whose book The Gordon Delusion will be a runaway bestseller.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Jeffrey and Judas

Right, that's it. The rehabilitation of Jeffrey Archer has gone too far. My last post on 'Lord' Archer mentioned his two new television shows. Fair enough, I thought, the man has to eat. But yesterday I was emailed a press release so absurd that it has taken me some hours to convince myself it is not some kind of joke. In March, it seems, a book called The Gospel According to Judas is to be published. This is a fiction that purports to be written by Judas Iscariot's son, Benjamin. It is, in fact, written by Professor Francis J. Moloney - a very distinguished theologian and one time adviser to the Pope - and - wait for it, wait for it - Jeffrey Archer. I quote: 'Both authors worked on the project intensively for nine months. Lord Archer was steered throughout by Professor Moloney and has included nothing with which the Professor disagreed; both acknowledge that 80 per cent of the storytelling is Jeffrey Archer's, and 80 per cent of the scholarship is Professor Moloney's.' Does that mean 20 per cent of the scholarship is Jeffrey's? Desmond Tutu has said the book is 'riveting and plausible' and Archbishop Lord Carey said he liked it 'very much indeed' before tapping his pipe out on the grate and walking stiffly from the room in a state of some embarrassment. And to think, for a while, up there in Scotland, everything seemed to make some kind of sense.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Meditations on a Hanging 2

Gordon Brown now having condemned the manner of Saddam's hanging and the Iraqis being upset by all the international condemnation, it is clear the whole affair has gone the Middle Eastern way - ie badly. To clarify one point about my previous and hurried post on this matter: I was merely quoting Chris's thoughts. For me, it is obvious Saddam had to die for purely pragmatic reasons. Alive in prison, he would have become just another bargaining chip - his release, for example, becoming a useful Sunni-placatory mechanism. The manner of his death, however, has plainly been a catastrophe for all the reasons given by others. Its replaying as a YouTube video will confirm the views of embittered Islamists that we are, indeed, a decadent culture. But one point in particular bothers me. The taunting of Saddam seconds before his death will have convinced him that his savage, tribal view of the world was correct. He would have died, in his own mind, justified. A silent, dignified execution may not have inspired remorse, but it may have given him at least a glimpse of the possibility that he was deluded. Perhaps this is mad, perhaps writing a book on immortality has addled my brain and perhaps it is true that Saddam's final thoughts are irrelevant. But, for some reason, I can't bring myself to think so.

Buy This Book You Bastards

Though my excellent, enthralling, profound, beautifully written and extremely well spelt new book How to Live Forever or Die Trying is not supposed to be published until January 22nd, I notice Amazon now have copies in stock. I have never been impressed by subtle marketing devices. They tend to draw attention away from the product. An honest directness is the right approach to intelligent buyers. My favourite advertising campaign was Australian, the slogan was 'Eat More Beef You Bastards.' What more needs to be said? So, now, make my day, just do it.

Scotland, Me and Idi Amin

Back blogging at last after a curious jaunt in the Highlands. Up in the Glens and Bens, it is important to remember that avocados only made it to Scotland in 2005 and muesli but a couple of weeks ago, a convenient internet connection was, therefore, never very likely. But, thanks for continuing to comment and visit. Having been staring for into the middle distance for the last week, my mind is blank, but, for the moment, you can read my interview with Forest Whitaker about his performance as Idi Amin. The film, curiously, is called The Last King of Scotland.