Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Madeley Honoured

I have, in a condition of some bemusement at the day's events, added the astounding Richard Madeley to my blogroll. It is, Richard, the equivalent of a Cardinal's Hat.

Hair Parts And True Mirrors

I must draw bloggers' attention to this weighty matter. It appears to be a serious contribution to a happily non-existent science. Looking into a True Mirror is surely best avoided - a reversing one is bad enough.

A Great Dane

The more I find out (from pretty much a standing start) about the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, the more I like him. Quite apart from the quantum stuff - which, as he pointed out, you can't have understood if you think you understand it (or something like that) - there's the story of his escape flight from Denmark in 1943 on board an RAF Mosquito, when he absent-mindedly omitted to don an oxygen mask, and would have died if the pilot hadn't lowered his altitude. Bohr 'slept like a baby' throughout, and arrived in Britain refreshed.
He was, it seems, influenced by another great Dane, Kierkegaard - and , more intriguingly, he habitually read The Pickwick Papers to perfect his English. It would surely have been a joy to hear him speaking English, especially if he'd picked up some of Sam Weller's way of talking ('Battledore and shuttlecock's a wery good game, ven you ain't the shuttlecock and two lawyers the battledores, in which case it gets too excitin' to be pleasant'). Bohr must be the most quotable physicist, and one of the wisest: 'A triviality is a statement whose opposite is false. However, a great truth is a statement whose opposite may well be another great truth.' He also said 'There are some thing so serious you have to laugh at them' - and with that, surely, Sam Weller would have agreed.

More Bird News: The Pigeon Pill

Troubling news from Hollywood. Pigeons are to be given the contraceptive pill. Pigeons hoping to make it in the movies have been flooding into Tinsel Town, encouraged by the Bird Lady who leaves 25 pound bags of seeds at 29 strategic locations. The Pill will, of course, lead to family breakdown, teenage promiscuity, drunken driving, depression, rehab-jail syndrome and confessional, sadder but wiser appearances on Richard & Judy. We should encourage condom use before it is too late.

Marge Simpson and the IDF

While noting that Marge Simpson is one of the Girls of Maxim, a MILF apparently, I stumbled across the startling fact that Maxim has a special sections for girls of the Israeli Defense Forces - 'They're drop-dead gorgeous and can take apart an Uzi in seconds. Are the women of the Israeli Defense Forces the world's sexiest soldiers?' 
Well, I don't know, are they? And, if so, why are they?

Richard & Judy

As a tribute to Richard Madeley my new celebrity commenter - and yes, it really does seem to be him - I have posted my profile of Richard & Judy in Selected Articles. Richard seems to be new to blogging. For my American readers, Richard & Judy is best translated as Oprah & Winfrey. Richard, as I make clear in the article, is not of this world.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Moorhen - A Deplorable Development

I was eating a sandwich in a park conveniently close to Nigecorp HQ, sitting in a favourite spot near a water garden, moodily observing the depredations of the scavenging pigeons and squirrels all around, when I was shocked to see that a moorhen had joined them, and, with the help of its unfeasibly large feet, was outplaying the pigeons at their feral game, beating them to any scrap of 'food' going, even a hunk of bread from the hand of a deluded pigeon feeder (there's always one). What has got into the moorhen, once a shy and mannerly bird, a model citizen of the riverbank? Something is going on. It's only a matter of time before they've joined the unprepossessing ranks of the flying rats. Remember: you read it here first.

Killer Cats: The Pattern is Clear

The indomitable Frank Wilson draws my attention to this. A Seattle nursing home now has Buckwheat, a killer cat with the same modus operandi as Oscar, the Rhode Island feline felon. Again the sentimental staff think this Buckwheat is sensing when people are going to die, but, of course, like Oscar, he is selecting victims. They are closing in.

So Long, Ingmar

Ingmar Bergman is dead. Always having been drawn to bleak art, I shall miss him. I rarely say that about Scandinavians. My extended thoughts on the man can be found here

Cats - From Aaargh to Aaaah....

Alarming developments, too, on the cat front. Mr Lee is not alone - there's an army of them out there on the prowl, all catcam-enabled, as a quick Google search will reveal. And somewhere in one of those picture galleries is the one captioned 'Here's that bastard Appleyard. At last...'
On the other hand, my son has just acquired an entirely delightful blue-eyed ginger tom kitten, 3 months old and cute as they come. All together now (except Appleyard) - Aaaah...

Giant Birds 3: The Thunderbird

Nige and I - what a team! - are, in addition to our other proclivities, cutting edge scientists. In two momentous posts, we identified the phenomenon of giantism in the bird population. News from San Antonio provides further evidence of this disturbing phenomenon. Unidentified birds with wingspans of up to 20 feet have been buzzing the local population. They are thought to be the Thunderbirds of native American mythology. In fact, I saw one of these creatures in the Scottish Highlands. Above is the picture I took. Sadly, the creature turns out to have some sort of Klingon cloaking device. 

Fat Again: The Politics of Vanity and Fear

Looking back over some recent posts, I discover I have an unhealthy obsession with fat. And 'unhealthy' turns out to be le mot. Seemingly, we are programmed to be repelled by fat people as some part of our brain takes fatness as a sign of disease. As ever, people react to this kind of information with special pleading. One of the Two Fat Ladies, Clarissa Dickson Wright, for example, says its nonsense. Fatism happens, she says, because racism, sexism etc became unacceptable and prejudice had to go somewhere. Er, but.... And then Beth Ditto, leader singer of The Gossip, says it's a way of  putting 'sexism on the agenda and 'all this stuff completely negates what feminism stands for, and you can't act like that's not connected with other issues.' Oh right. On the whole this kind of 'we are programmed to' story should be treated with scepticism. One usually finds evidence of scientists finding what they want to find. But the reactions are interesting, almost always because people are confused about 'is' and 'ought'. They should, for example, have the confidence to make statements like this, 'Even if fat revulsion 'is' pre-programmed, we 'ought' not to treat obese people badly.' Instead, they say something entirely illogical - 'Treating obese people badly is wrong, therefore fat revulsion cannot be pre-programmed.' This is to misunderstand both morality and science and it is a misunderstanding perpetuated in almost every science story about genetics/ evolutionary psychology. It is a compound of vanity - about the rightness of our own convictions - and fear - of the revelation of our evolved natures. And it renders serious debate about science impossible. 

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reflections on the Present Condition of the Principality, by One Newly Returned

I am back from Wales, happily still with the rake-thin silhouette that fits me to consort with Bryan (see Who's Your Fat Friend? below). Had I been longer there and succumbed to the local diet - vast piles of fried food and chips, washed down with bad beer - it might have been a different story. The locals divide into two physical types: one wiry, dwarfish and fast-moving, with a face like a bag of spanners; the other a bulging lard mountain, only mobile when in quest of the next 'meal' or 'beer'. Outside the big cities, what one might call the cultural life of the nation appears to be non-existent. Eating, drinking and chatter of mind-numbing banality and repetitiveness fill the days perfectly adequately for local taste. After a couple of days of this, it was apparent to me that to live for even a week in provincial Wales would be a living death, and would unfailingly drive me to strong drink and insanity. Happily, though, I had no such plans - I was there to walk, and the landscapes of Wales are indeed superb. What's more, in a rare departure from tradition, the sun shone. In Wales.
Anyway, I am back, as one returning from a strange journey in time - about 40 years back, I'd say - and space. Sadly, I have no interesting butterfly sightings to report, but I did have a pleasing encounter with one of these.

Spam, Shag and Turd

'The problem is,' writes Peter Hitchens today, 'that people don't like the Tories any more, just as they have stopped liking Spam, Austin Princess cars and shag tobacco.' I'm not sure how shag tobacco is different from just tobacco and I think Spam is due for a revival. The Austin Princess ('A triumph of British engineering and design.') was known - with good reason - as 'the Flying Turd' by the guys who made it, but I'm sure enough voters to swing a couple of seats remember it with fond memories. But, of course, Hitchens has a point and, as I have said, it is beginning to look as though the Tories are on the way out. Perhaps the Conservative Party is, indeed, a Flying Turd, amusing in theory but not desirable in practice. Its one hope is that, after the next election, Gordon Brown unleashes his inner Leninist, thereby restarting real politics and driving all thinking people back into the embrace of the Turd. The problem with this is that Brown's been a stealthy Leninist for some time and yet still he wins the support of a press that has convinced itself he is actually quite right wing. There's nothing quite so deluded as a deluded newspaper. Iain Dale has suggested there may be a staff revolt against the Mail's pro-Brown posture, but this sounds like wishful thinking. So, yes, we might indeed by witnessing the big political flush.
PS. The Independent is on to the Mail-Brown story, suggesting a rift between Paul Dacre and his proprietor.

Web Celebs and Nathan Englander

In The Sunday Times today I interview Nathan Englander, a novelist taught by my hero Marilynne Robinson. And I mull over the new narcissism of the internet as I go down among the web slebs. This involved me in my first ever online video interview. It was with Amanda Congdon. It seemed, paradoxically, more intimate than a face-to-face interview. I was in the gloomy chaos of books and papers of my study - the perfect correlative of the penny-farthing hell I call my mind - she in a fresh, sun-drenched room in LA - the equally perfect correlative of hers. It was, you might say, poignant.
PS In the web celebs piece I mentioned the way YouTube videos have lost their innocence; most of them are now concealed advertising. Here are some of the weirdest examples I've seen, deriving their style from the off-hand surrealism which always seems to work with the young. Warning: crazy dyke action involved.
The picture shows an old WWII building in Norfolk. It is of no significance whatsoever.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Thoughts for the Day

1)Germaine Greer has trashed Princess Diana. Big deal, you might say. But Greer reveals that Diana was regarded as so thick by her siblings that they called her Brian after the snail in The Magic Roundabout. I've been there. I too was mocked for my association with this snail. It was futile to point out my name had a 'y' in it and was pronounced quite differently. At last, I feel at one with Diana or Dyana as I shall now call her.
2)Why are all the greatest American heroes suddenly succumbing to the impulse to operate heavy machinery while intoxicated? First there was Paris Hilton, now there is Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan. And, as if that weren't enough, astronauts have been attempting to stagger aboard the Shuttle clutching quarts of Jack Daniels, six-packs of Budweiser and a party-sized bucket of pork scratchings. Well, I suppose it gets boring up there, but really.... Truly things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

A Helping Hand for Saintly Guido

Great Guido, the saintly Sage of Westminster, has always suffered, uncomplainingly, from the commenters on his blog. Every Friday, doggedly, bloggedly, Guido runs a caption contest, hoping to get a few laughs from the entries. And, every week, a hundred or more utterly unfunny comments appear from contributors who, apparently, wouldn't know a joke if it leapt up screaming 'I am a joke!' prior to biting them on the nose. Lately I have taken to submitting my own entries. I see myself in this role as the cavalry, adding tone to what might otherwise be little more than a vulgar brawl. This week my entry was so good, I have decided to steal Guido's pic. Any funny alternatives will be welcomed, but I am looking for quality, not quantity. Anyway, my caption is:
'David has coped well with his Rwandan hemicorporectomy.'

Friday, July 27, 2007

Spielberg and the Beijing Olympics

Steven Spielberg was the nicest super-famous, super-rich person I ever interviewed. I liked Bill Gates, but I wouldn't accuse him of being nice. I seem to have been urgently engaged watching Scrubs or something when Spielberg was appointed artistic director of the Beijing Olympics. Anyway, now, it seems, he may resign because of China's policy - or lack of it - in Darfur. 'Does Mr Spielberg really want to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games?' Mia Farrow asked. On the other hand, does he want to go down in history as the man who took political advice from Mia Farrow? Nevertheless, he has a problem. Nice, liberal Steve has been confronted with the harsh reality of a political system and mentality capable of horrific, smiling-faced cynicism. Hu Jintao's response to Spielberg's resignation threat will be interesting. If he bothers, my guess would be a smokescreen of fake concern. Steve should then leave them to do their own opening ceremony.

Who's Your Fat Friend?

So, fat friends make you fat. A friend becoming obese increases your own chances of becoming obese by 57 per cent. One fattens oneself to belong, I suppose; it would be both lonely and visually grotesque to be the skinny one in a crowd of wobbling porkers as they contentedly compared the ripples that spread across their flesh with each passing breath of wind. In fact, Beau Brummell knew this intuitively. He fell out with the Prince Regent who, subsequently, cut him during the introductions at a ball.  Brummell turned to Lord Alvanley, who had been greeted by the Prince, and said, 'Alvanley, who's your fat friend?' A fat friend was a stylistic disaster and now we know he would be contagious. Nige and I are, it goes without saying, rake-like in the extreme. But he's currently in Wales, so anything might happen.

On The Sopranos

There's a wonderful article in the New York Review of Books by Geoffrey O'Brien about The Sopranos. British readers may want to avoid this as it ends with a spoiler about the last episode. Two non-spoiling points are worth noting. O'Brien remarks on the way the show absolutely convinces us that the characters go on living their lives when not on screen. The viewer doesn't feel, as he does in lesser shows, that he is being led through a plot - in fact, as O'Brien says, the plot hardly matters at all -  rather that he is being shown glimpses of ongoing lives. This shows an indebtedness to Scorsese's Goodfellas. But David Chase's genius was to sustain it through 86 episodes of a TV series. The second point is Chase's revulsion at the values of network TV. 'I loathe and despise almost every second of it...I considered network TV to be propaganda for the corporate state.' And of Northern Exposure, one of his own shows, he says, 'It rammed home every week the message that life is nothing but great, Americans are great and heartfelt emotion and sharing conquers everything.' But he had to do that to get where he is and, when he got there, he made The Sopranos - a show that rejects every one of those cosy nostrums. On the other hand, of course, American TV made this amazing show and that, surely, is a sign of some greatness.

Oscar the Serial Killer

My feelings about spitballs - cats to all you weak-minded types - are well known, as is my conviction that their saliva-soaked fur will, one day, be the death of me. Not only that - this death by anaphylatic shock will, in fact, be murder. The cats know exactly what they are doing. I know when I rant on these matters, people tap their heads with their forefingers when I am not looking. But, I tell you, I am not mad and here is hard evidence. This Oscar is said to know when nursing home patients are going to die. He sniffs them and, if he detects imminent death, lies down beside them. Dr David Dosa at Brown University seems very excited about this and says relatives 'appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved ones.' Dr Dosa is, of course, the victim of a false correlation. He sees a cat detecting a dying patient, I see a cat choosing patients to kill. Dr Dosa may be on the brink of understanding this. 'This is not a cat that's friendly to people,' he observes. He can say that again.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Dada Chinese Takeaway

It's all falling into place... On the very day that Bryan declares a neo-Dadaist Recipe of the Day, a flyer comes through my door for the Dada Chinese Takeaway (honestly - I'd post a link if they had a website). This is glad news - we were all getting fed up with the Surrealist takeaway (nothing but fish, and pancakes with clock faces). Here's an example of neo-Dadaist food if ever there was one - food you can drive...
And while we're talking art, I forced myself to visit an exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday which labours under the blatantly come-and-get-it title of Impressionists At The Seaside. It turns out to contain several of Courbet's seascapes - stunning works which really need to be seen - and three wholly unexpected Whistler gems (all from America). Much else of interest too - and the Impressionist stuff mostly confined to one heaving room.
Enough art- I'm ringing the Dada takeaway. Got some food I want taking away.

Multiple Personality, Phone Masts and Madeleine

Much disease, mental or physical, expresses itself in the symptoms made available at the time. This was one of the great insights of Ian Hacking's superb book Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Multiple personality disorder was virtually unknown for most of the nineteenth century, then a few cases were discovered and more began to appear. But, even by 1972, it was said, fewer than a dozen cases had appeared in the previous fifty years in the US. In 1973 the book of Sybil appeared and, in 1976, it became a film. By 1992, every town in America had MPD cases, often hundreds. It is easy to say this was just hysteria, but Hacking's point is that these people are genuinely sick. MPD is simply the language they seize upon to express their sickness. 
In recent years, people have been complaining of an allergy to phone masts. But now a fairly definitive study has concluded there is no direct physical connection between signals from the masts and the symptoms. 'Belief,' says the leader of the study, 'is a powerful thing.' The people suffering the symptoms were ill and fixed on mobile phone masts as the cause. 
Madeleine McCann's father has been to America to meet the Attorney General to discuss child abduction. This makes no practical sense and is best seen as a symptom of a kind of madness brought on by grief. Ever since the abduction, the McCanns have expressed this madness in the symptoms made available by our age - they have pursued fame and publicity in the name of their cause and they have exhibited a manic desire to be seen 'doing something', even though much of what is done is of no relevance to the attempt to find their daughter.
Human disease is endlessly creative.

Recipe of the Day: The Mivvi

My Tomatoes and Milk post inspired worldwide interest and a very handy recipe from Susan in Philadelphia. While mulling over this turn of events, I happened upon a Dave Barry post. This revealed that Donald Trump's new book is called Think Big and Kick Ass: In Business and in Life. Right, I thought, it's time to TB and KA, I shall try a recipe of the day on Thought Experiments. Unfortunately, being an instinctive, neo-Dadaist kind of cook, I have none. But, as a child, I used to pursue something called a Mivvi. This was a fruit lolly with ice cream inside. I assumed that, like so much else, Mivvis had gone the way of all flesh, but they haven't. In fact, here they are actually reviewed. Where, I wonder, did the strangely attractive name come from? It has such a pleasant fifties and Formica feel. Anyway, the reason this came up was my discovery of Waitrose's Fruit Splits. They are Mivvis in all but name and they are better than the Mivvis of my infancy. So the Recipe of the Day is this: remove a Waitrose Fruit Split from the freezer, unwrap and eat it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nige Gives The Public What They Want

Sensing a sudden resurgence of interest in butterflies - and not having anything else on what remains of my mind (I am absent again from that endelssly stimulating hub of world affairs, the Nigecorp HQ)- I must yield to overwhelming public demand and reveal that yesterday, walking in the Surrey hills, I was privileged to see so many of these beauties sailing majestically through the air and 'nectaring' on the buddleia bushes, that I gave up counting them. I also saw four of this much better known beauty, which has been far from common this year.
Just in case there are some who regard my butterfly fixation as some kind of old-fangled English eccentricity, I draw your attention to this great man's aurelian activities (see section 4). His insistence on the microscopic comparison of genitalia is touching and characteristic.

After the Tories

I shall miss the Conservative Party. I suppose it all started to go wrong when some bright spark, fresh from the Oxford Union, decided what the Tories needed was their own Tony Blair, just as the nation had decided that it was the last thing we needed. In the last few weeks, with Cameron's comically ill-judged trip to Rwanda, the Boris fiasco and Brown's cunning reengineering of his political vices - notably dourness - as virtues, it has become clear that the Tories are just too strategically inept to survive. But what will replace Labour when Brown wins the next election, launches an Old Labour assault on all that we hold dear and then founders in fiscal chaos? That easy-listenin' combo, Ming and the Libdems, hardly seems to be the answer. And the nation is not ready for my own dream ticket - Homer Simpson as PM, Tommy Cooper (he sleeps but he shall wake) as Chancellor and The Moustache Brothers at the Foreign Office. What will probably happen is that we shall become a one party state and be perpetually subject to the internal conflicts of the Labour Party. It may not be too bad if they can pick up a few Tory stragglers with a sense of humour. 

Tomatoes and Milk

In Ford Madox Ford's book on Joseph Conrad - like The Soul of London, a joy - the latter finds himself in a situation where he only has tomatoes to eat and milk to drink. Is this the most disgusting food combination imaginable, worse even that the cod in chocolate that crops up in some Mike Leigh film? Others have struggled to unite these two ingredients with the aid of soup as catalyst and I can see their point, but, in truth, I fear it cannot be done. Perhaps the Higgs Boson will provide the solution to this conundrum, as it will, I am assured, to everything else.

St Pancras

It is, occasionally, nice to feel unconditionally enthusiastic about something and, about St Pancras, I do. Here I explain why.

Auden on the Uglies

'Idle curiosity is an ineradicable vice of the human mind. All of us like to discover the secrets of our neighbours, particularly the ugly ones.' This is W.H.Auden in a typically brilliant introduction to - strangely - Shakespeare's Sonnets. Of course, he anticipates celebrity culture, but, with those last four words, he also includes contemporary political journalism. But why are the ugly ones so interesting?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Alarming News of American Fluid Intake

I am increasingly concerned about American drinking habits - meet the Hugo and the caffeine crutch. They should come over here and consume some of our liquid excess. Incidentally, the caffeine freaks say 'sleep is a crutch'. Well, of course, it is; we all have appalling limps.

Wiley Post

Well I don't know about you, but if I was asked who made the first solo flight around the world, the name Wiley Post would not spring to my lips. But Wiley, who sounds like one hell of a fellow - despite the handicap of a Chuck Jones-style name - did just that, among much else in the aviation field. And he died in a plane crash with the cornball humorist and man of many parts Will Rogers, who once observed that 'We are all here for a spell; get all the good laughs you can' - and did his best to live up to it.
He also said 'An ignorant person is one who doesn't know what you have just found out' - so apologies if the whole world bar me already knew all about Wiley Post.

Fonts And Fontmen

New font eh? Look like yours is bigger than mine, Bryan - might have known. Can I have one of these? Rather like the look of Monk.
This post is for font-testing purposes, but I think we should also reassure insomniac bloggers on East Coast USA that an unfamiliar luminous yellow object has appeared over London today, the skies are a startling and unnatural blue, and an eerie silence has replaced the din of sheeting rain. Can't last, of course...

William Lobdell's Loss of Faith

This is a long but extraordinarily engrossing article by William Lobdell, who was the LA Times religious columnist. He lost his faith because of the job. Part of the fascination lies in the exotica of American religion. There is, for example, the Mormon Jello-O belt and it is quite amazing that former Mormons hold conferences. There is also the usual cast of high-living Holy Rollers. Equally fascinating - and equally American - are the glimpses into Lobdell's mind. In prayer, for example, he senses God has a plan for him - 'To write about religion for The Times and bring light into the newsroom, if only by my stories and example.' But the big theme is the clash between faith and institutional brutality and corruption. The suffering this causes Lobdell is acute. Anyway, just to say, this is a very rare kind of read - unpretentious, informative and moving. 
PS: I just realised you have to register with the LA Times to read this and I can't work out how I got in in the first place. Anyway, it's free and worth it.

The Ordinary Aggression of Signs

Amazingly Amanda draws my attention to this. This mania for posting instructions is, indeed, a horrible thing. I now refuse to enter a famous fish and chip shop in Norfolk because of its monumentally depressing signs. But I'm not convinced by this site's labelling of the impulse as passive-aggressive. It's just normally aggressive as far as I can see. Of course, very occasionally, it can be poetry.

The Brain Again

David suggested Nige and I should distinguish ourselves with different fonts, so here's a trial post. I am now human133607. I have been given this name by humanbraincloud.com. This is a word association game that seems to have got out of hand. But, when it does, it is hypnotic and utterly time-wasting. I was on my way from boring through life to breakfast and cereal, hoping, naturally, to find my way to Shreddies, but then the site crashed again. Still, as I said, the brain's clearly the thing.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Assorted Points of Immense Importance

1)Two people have now emailed to say they saw me on TV on Sunday. They saw me with an ironic grin wading behind David Cameron in flooded Witney. It was not me, I have a cast-iron alibi and, anyway, this character was wearing a duffle coat. As if.
2)Read this as a follow-up to this. Fodor is a class act and here he outlines with style and charm the whole consciousness problem.
3) Read this and this and this as a follow-up to this. Roger Scruton in the thick of it.

Instant Water

Meanwhile at my local supermarket the shelves are predictably denuded of all bottled water. This is because the local water company issued advice to boil drinking water after a processing plant was contaminated by, er, rain. Yes, some heavily chlorinated water was 'contaminated' by rain - though, in order to damp down the inevitable panic, the water company thoughtfully added that the rain was 'diluted'. Er, with what? Was this a case of Instant Water: Just add water? Truly a mad world out there.
PS: Bryan adds: And, Nige, with east coast US coming online, I think we ought to reassure our regular American readers that we'll be okay. Really. Fine. Honestly. 

Flat Food: The Way of the Future

Doctor: You have an unusual combination of typhoid, smallpox and ebola. Patient: Ohmygod! Is there anything you can do? Doctor: (Chuckling) Of course, we keep you in a special room on a diet of pizzas, pancakes and papadoms. Patient: Does that work? Doctor: No, but those are the only things we can slide under the door.
In fact, now there are many more dietary possibilities for this poor man. Flat food is the new black - 'Many foods benefit from a good pounding and leveling.' Many people too. I'm all for two-dimensional food. Posh restaurants have been making 3-D food towers since the eighties. Flat is the way ahead. Up in Norfolk, of course, we've had flat food for years. It is known as roadkill.

Apres Moi Le Deluge...

... as Louis XV/ Prince Metternich/ Mme Pompadour or whoever once said (or not). Blair, as he jets around the world flogging his latest brand of snake oil, must be hugely amused by the discomfiture of his successor. In his wildest dreams, he wouldn't have come up with this one - a long-running national weather catastophe at the height of summer, just the kind of thing with which Broon is conspicuously ill-equipped to cope (he doesn't do events, they're outside his control) - and an emergency that can easily be traced back to the malign impact of his Big Clunking Fist - insisting on cuts in flood defence expenditure, with the active co-operation of the dunce Beckett (who'd run up massive EU fines by cocking up the Single Payments Scheme) and head boy Milliband. If Cameron can't make capital out of this... Actually, I'm not going to finish that sentence.
(Oh and the sinister RSPB is deeply involved, with its insistence on nice wet places for the wading birds rather than properly drained land. Not to mention decades of disastrously bad New Housing...)


Addressing the nation from a Royal Navy frigate moored at Stonehenge, the Queen evoked the spirit of the Blitz and urged people not to panic buy at the branch of Tesco that has been hastily assembled on the summit of Ben Nevis. Meanwhile, housing minister Yvette Cooper-Balls, speaking from her Toyota Prius bathyscaphe off the Pennine coast, said she was grateful to Kevin Costner for his advice on conserving soil, underwater housing and the evolution of gills. Boris - the Tory's answer to John Prescott -  said that, as Mayor of London, he would be relocating his offices to Zermatt and promised that the bloated body of his predecessor, Ken, would lie in state on a barge drifting aimlessly in the Hampstead Deeps. Gordon Brown cannot, at this point, be found. Meanwhile, the Met office says that, once the jet stream relocates itself to the north, the tourist industry of the British Isles - a sun-kissed archipelago off the coast of Switzerland - will boom.  Breaking News: Gordon Brown still cannot be found.

Phil the Gypsy

I just heard someone say Prince Philip has been patron of the Caravan Club since 1952. I assumed, naturally, that I was dreaming. But, it turns out, he is.  Until some lunatic appoints Tony Blair as a Middle East peace envoy, I nominate this as the most preposterous example ever of the wrong man in the wrong job... Ohmygod!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Bring on the Brain

And, following on from psychometrics, there always seems to be a particular science through which we aspire to understand ourselves. Anatomy encouraged the view that we were like the machines of the industrial revolution. Darwinism inspired despair, eugenics or social determinism among late Victorians. Physics after Einstein convinced us we were elements in a gigantic and bizarre mathematical system. Molecular biology, after DNA, portrayed us as fundamentally simple computers. And now the various branches of brain science are converging on the view that we are rather like the internet, a system of connectivity. This is a view that is now very deeply embedded in the cultural mainstream. David Brooks, for example, writes a column about it in the New York Times and I've just read a rather good novel - The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - which starts with a case of Capgras's syndrome and then expands into a meditation on the nature of the self in the light of current findings in neurology. Meanwhile, scientists continue to struggle to cross the final frontier of the brain. As with all previous scientific models, people are assuming that brain science is the discipline that will deliver the final truth of our predicament. Brooks, for example, does what all journalists do when considering the most confident and imaginatively gripping science of the moment, he uses it to confirm his own values. This is understandable - I've been guilty of it myself - because, at any one time, the dominant science seems to be on the verge of finality. In the late eighties, it was the Theory of Everything promised by the physicists. This also was used to under-write values; the physicist Steven Weinberg, for example, said the ToE would have the effect of stopping people reading their horoscopes. The reality is, of course, that we can never know if a science is approaching - or, indeed, has reached - finality. (This is not cheap postmodernism, truth or finality is an essential aspect of scientific thought and science obviously works in ways that other systems of thought do not.) And, if we can't know, then retro-fitting our values to the latest scientific news story is simply superstition. Brain science will move on and we'll move on from brain science. Something remains, but it isn't science. Perhaps, it is nothing at all.

I Am a Simpson

This, believe it or not, is me. I put my blog pic into this machine and this is what it produced. Either it doesn't work or my inner child has finally been discovered. Never mind, it's good to be yellow. Ah, just realised I didn't put my age in. I am, in reality, the guy with the red tie. I don't think Homer would like me, but I'm sure Marge would.

Psychometrics, IQ and the Technocracy

I write about psychometrics in The Sunday Times today. I'd be interested to hear of the psychometric testing experiences of any readers. It's a weird world and, I think, a dangerous one.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Desire Lines

The world is full of things that need names and don't have them (Douglas Adams created a small lexicon of them, The Meaning Of Liff). As one who walks rather a lot (see many a previous post), I'd always counted among those nameless things the unofficial, unacknowledged - and, frustratingly, unmapped - paths beaten by generations of people and/or animals taking, usually, the shortest or easiest route from A to B. Now I discover they have a name! I find this deeply pleasing, for some reason.
I wonder, though, if another kind of paths have a name - the curving, meandering ones that are especially abundant on scrubby downland and are anything but the shortest route from A to B. Or perhaps these wayward markings are the true desire lines, topologising the crooked timber of humanity, out of which nothing straight was ever made...
Anyway, that headline should ensure plenty of hits.

The Spectator Loses It. All of It.

It's been a bad few weeks for the Tories with the combination of the Brown bounce and his subsequent face-stamping proving remarkably effective in making Cameron look like yet another failed leader prototype. The by-election results were so bad that they might reasonably have raised expectations that Conservative fortunes had bottomed out and, now, things could only get better. But then The Spectator hit the streets. On the front cover is a cartoon of Boris Johnson dressed as a pearly king. The main headline is 'King Boris of London'. The subsidiary headline is 'Are Fat People Allowed to Have Fun?' On closer inspection this latter does not, despite the clear impression given by the layout, refer to Boris. Inside Boris is covered by a leader, a reference in the Diary of a Notting Hill Nobody, a long article by Toby Young, who is 'to cover the campaign in these pages and online', and a slightly shorter article by Stanley, Boris's dad. Naturally, The Spectator is backing its former editor. He is, after all, as the leader headline says, 'One of Us.' The reasons given are various but, in the end, they boil down to the fact that Boris is 'a character'. I have commented on this lamentable combination of sentimentality, misconception and delusion previously, so here I shall just draw your attention to one point in the leader. Boris, runs the argument, is accused of debasing politics, but: 'The absurd implication of this is that politics cannot and should not be entertaining. In fact, the humourlessness of modern politics is one of many reasons that it so conspicuously fails to engage the interest or sympathies of so many people.' Where to start? Okay, for the last thirteen years British politics has been covered as pure soap opera and/or comedy. Political journalism has become light entertainment, an aspect, like Boris, of celebrity culture. If people are disaffected, then it is surely because they see the Westminster comedy routine as a singularly heartless spectacle in the light of the abject failure of this government to reform the police, the NHS or the education system. In fact, I suspect the public no longer bothers to make any connection at all between the interminable installments of the political soap opera and what actually happens in their lives. Yet The Spectator, once a great intellectual weekly, seems to think  we don't have enough political entertainment, that a B list celeb is the answer to our prayers. Toby Young, meanwhile, rebuts Ken Livingstone's charge that Boris has no experience of practical management with a point so absurd that I can only think he must be joking. Boris, he says, 'successfully ran Britain's leading political weekly for five years.' Oh come on, Toby, both you and I could put The Spectator together in a day - and, er, it's a lot smaller than London. If The Spectator is any indicator of Tory fortunes, then Brown might as well go ahead and do what he secretly wants to do anyway - suspend elections and declare himself leader for life.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Why Nothing Makes Sense Any More

Mark Lawson in the Guardian convincingly analyses the BBC's fraudulent phone-in problems. They were driven, he says, not by a desire to increase ratings but by the desperation of producers to show they were doing their masters' bidding by 'connecting with the public'. This connection creed, as Lawson says, is a peculiarly inane ideology that has seized and corrupted all media. But, in the case of the BBC, it is not the whole story. The truth of these little cheats is that they were all, in fact, pretty trivial. But, as Michael Portillo pointed out on television, the press fury at their exposure was driven by a deep loathing of the BBC that springs from its left-wing bias. This loathing is intensified by the fact, as I can testify, that very few people within the BBC actually believe they are biased. This drives papers like the Daily Mail to apoplectic anathemas against the corporation. Such condemnations would not work too well if the story was just about bias - most people don't care - but it turns stories like the phone-in tricks - about which many people do care - into opportunities for spittle-flecked scorn. The further oddity about all this is that the BBC left-wingers no longer support Labour and the right-wing press no longer supports the Tories. In fact, no single paper currently seems to support David Cameron. The Mail itself seems to be pretty much Brownist.  Nothing, in short makes sense any more, and I shall now, once again, leave this politics business to Guidale

Labour: Stoned and Stamping

The revelation that the laid-back, hard-tokin' Labour front bench - motto 'keep on truckin' -  is, in reality, just the latest incarnation of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters means that an early election is certain. I even have this exclusive photo of the Home Secretary's Battle Bus - it's loosely modelled on Kesey's strangely named vehicle, Further.
Now I don't really do politics at this level but I think it's pretty clear that the only reason the ol' night trippers have suddenly come clean about their heroic consumption of controlled substances is, of course, to crush Cameron by embarrassing him on the drugs issue. In fact, crushing Cameron is the only reason Brown has done anything since he came to power. When I interviewed Cameron, he said of Brown's method of parliamentary debate, 'It is literally 'you are evil, you are dead, I will kill you. I will stamp you into the ground until my boot is banging up and down on your face.'' Even so, I think he underestimated the extent of the problem. Brown has been successfully stamping on his face for some weeks now and the Tories don't know what to do - not entirely surprising as, let's face it, this seems to be a pretty thick bunch. And that's not all the stamping he's been doing. He's also stamped on the face of the one threat to his power within his own party. Miliband the Elder, the foreign secretary, seemed to be entirely out of the loop on that 'we may cut loose from America' exercise in plausible deniability. The scale and the fury of this stamping - Brown has not actually done any running of the country - indicates an early election. The likely date seems to be in February and, unless the Tories can find an IQ pill before then, Brown will win and Old Labour will re-emerge to stamp on all our faces. But, as I say, I don't really do politics.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Wave Goodbye To Smoke-Free Pub Misery

The health fascists may have stamped out smoking in pubs, but here's
a glimmer of light in the darkness. Tasty...

The Banality of Evil 2

Arising from the fiery exchanges among the comments on my previous post, here is some clarification. Seeing banality in Eichmann and concluding there is some deep connection between banality and evil is like seeing a man with a red hat catch a fish and concluding there is some intrinsic connection between manness, red hatness and fish catching. Furthermore, as CaptainB points out, with his usual erudition and wisdom, Eichmann was not really that banal; Arendt was being superficial. But, behind all this, lies the superstition that we can find a key that will unlock the problem of evil and, somehow, 'cure' the condition. In order to do this, we must first diminish evil into something manageable, by, for example, classifying it as 'banal'. Another, more common, way is to classify it as dwelling in society; the individual, in this case, is innocent until corrupted. This is a very romantic view, inspired, essentially, by Rousseau. It is also wildly illogical since it evades the question of how evil found its way into society in the first place. I covered all this almost ten years ago in my review of Gitta Sereny's deeply deluded book Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell.

Jane Austen In The Slush Pile

So, what are we to make of this story? Of course, publishers and literary agents are mostly crap, know little about books and less about literature. But isn't it also true that, if a Jane Austen novel were to be published as a new novel today, it would not be the same work? See the Borges story, Pierre Menard, Author Of Don Quixote. (And try and keep you eyes off the 'bum pincher' pic next to the 'aspiring author').

Twitter 2: The Defence

There were some protests in response to my dismissal of the social networking site Twitter. So, fair-minded as ever, I bring you a defence of this new triumph of hyper-connectivity.  Clive Thompson argues that, using Twitter, he began 'to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.' He goes on, 'Twitter and other constant-contact create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.' Hmmm, well, yes. But Thompson does then admit that Twitter can be a 'massive time-suck'.  Exactly. Twitter consumes your days with contact. But other people, when they are there all the time, are hell. Twitter creates a constant state of being interrupted. Why, therefore, is it not simply a massive increase in the power of one of the most irritating and enervating aspects of the modern world?

Birth of a Nation

'Britain became separated from mainland Europe,' runs a BBC news story, ' after a catastrophic flood...' Catastrophic? I'm sorry to add to the corporation's woes but this is as clear an example of BBC bias as you are likely to find. The europhiles see this event as catastrophic when, obviously, it was the best thing that could have happened, allowing us to take French holidays without having to mix with the French on a daily basis. I suggest we construct a great mythology around this flood, creating a religion of national birth and destiny. Perhaps, in answer to British prayers, a god, looking not unlike Boris Johnson or, if you prefer, Gordon Brown, or, as I would prefer, Frank Field, swept the mighty waters southward to the dismay of thousands of gesticulating French people. Anyway, this glorious flood now seems to have turned us into this sceptered isle some 200,000 years ago. When I became the first hack through the hole - the Channel Tunnel - it was said to have happened 8,000 years ago. I did try to stop the miner Graham Fagg breaking through to the French side, but, as he so poignantly put it, 'It's a bit late now.' It is, always, too late.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Potter 3: Amanda, Arendt and The Banality of Evil

Darling Amanda rushes to the defence of Harry Potter. Plainly you should not read this for fear of making your brain turn to yoghurt. I didn't, but the last sentence caught my eye - 'I don't know if it was intended to read that way, but it did read that way, and the movie captured the whole banality-of-evil (right down to the way that torture suddenly seems justified overnight) theme to a T.' That phrase 'banality of evil' gets everywhere. People are drawn to it because, I suppose, it involves a kind of double vengeance - 'You - Hitler, Bush, Blair, whoever - are not only evil, you're also banal.' Evil is doubly condemned by being not only wrong but also in bad - or, at least, shallow - taste. The phrase was born in Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Arendt saw in Eichmann a dull deskman, just doing his job. He remained banal until his execution by the Israelis. He was banal but also evil and from this, she inferred, that evil itself was banal. Indeed, her later gloss on the phrase indicated that she thought a certain shallowness was the necessary attribute of the evildoer since deep thought would turn anyone away from evil. This is absurd. A deep thinker can obviously do evil. You may argue that he is being shallow when he does the evil, but that is to balance a very large upturned pyramid of assumptions and wishful thinking on a very small, fleeting and, in fact, impossible point of psychological analysis. What I think Arendt  - and all her casual quoters - actually mean is 'the evil of banality'. They don't like the look of what they see as banal, so they associate it with evil. This amounts to a domestication, a shrinkage, of evil, and it provides the satisfaction of a child when the monsters have been chased out of his bedroom. The success of the phrase, in short, lies not in its truth but in its offer of easy consolation. Or, to put it another way, if you think there's something banal about evil, you don't understand the word.

Who thought of this?

The desperate neologism - not to mention desperate measure - of the day is this.

The Blog that Says Aaaah...

In keeping with the new cuddly spirit of the blog, here's a treat.

Poor Posh

Our own dear Vicky Becks seems to have been given a hard time by American TV critics. She is, after all, just another thin blonde in expensive frocks at a time when there's a global surplus of such creatures - the strip mines in Essex and Southern California have been over-producing for some time now. Vicky has been trying to offset the career damaged effects of this glut by claiming that, unlike most thin blondes in California, she is English and has irony. I'm not convinced this is the right approach. The Times, meanwhile, joins in the fun by giving us pictures of Vicky's eight worst LA outfits. Poor Posh. She should be given a break. Unless, of course, she has become a scientologist

Tom Hunt: The Opposite of Waste

When I interviewed Bill Gates in 1995, he said his children, who had not then be born, would not inherit his fortune which stood at what now seems a modest $6 billion. He intended to give it all away. I was sceptical, but he seems to be sticking to his plan and to a grand tradition of American philanthropy. Now we seem to have our own big giver in Sir Tom Hunt, who intends to give away £1 billion before he dies. He says he does not want to 'burden' his children with massive inheritances, but 'they will be well looked after.' Meanwhile, sundry hedge funders and other louts wreck the Mirabelle and pour £4,500 bottles of Cristal over each other. Of course, they will move on to better things - like an $80 million submarine. 'I'm a poet who builds submersible yachts for rich people,' says the sub builder. (Everybody I have ever met who sells ludicrously expensive things to insanely rich people claims to be either a poet or a philosopher. Funny that.) But will these louts grow up and move on to philanthropy like Hunt and Gates? Britain, I am often told, is acquiring the American philanthropic spirit. Perhaps this is because we have stopped taxing the rich into submission and because more people now doubt the competence of government to handle things like the arts, poverty alleviation and overseas aid. Perhaps also the native tradition of hating the rich is beginning to fade. After all, Britain is a land full of working class heroes who are very rich indeed. Philanthropy is a very high kind of sanity, a way of saying we belong to one another. It is the opposite of submarines and Cristal, it is the opposite of waste.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Spitball Makes Me Money

This is a picture of a spitball or cat, as some bleeding heart liberals call these creatures. It is saying, 'I can has cheezburger?' It is saying this because one Eric Nakagawa put that caption on a cat picture and, as a result, his blog took off and now he can charge $4,000 for for an ad. I'm not proud. If I have to make a deal with these sinister creatures, then so be it. Actually, to be honest, this 'cat' is saying, 'Speak to my agent, scumsucker.'

More, Worse Potter

The latest Harry Potter outrage is a set of commemorative stamps. Having refused to mark the various anniversaries of two of our greatest poets and one of our greatest composers (Blake, Auden, Elgar), the Royal Mail sees fit to publicise the latest in a hugely over-hyped sequence of children's books. A philatelic survey of the Queen's reign offers a dismal, all-too-recognisable picture of what's happened to Britain in the past half century. Back in the 50s and 60s, years went by with no commemorative issues at all, and on the rare occasions one appeared it was decently, sometimes beautifully designed (e.g. David Gentleman's Shakespeare quatercentenary set). Now it's a free-for-all , with 20 or more issues a year of mostly trashy designs that barely look like postage stamps. Hell, handcart, etc...

Which Buster Keaton?

Here's a fine but slightly infuriating list of great opening scenes in movies.  It's a fair enough list but it chooses Scorsese's Goodfellas; the opening of his Casino, with De Niro dropping through flames to the sound of Bach's Matthew Passion, is far better. Also it fails to mention the greatest opening sequence of all. Train wheels are rushing by and then a horizontal Buster Keaton drops into the shot. Immaculate. Unfortunately, I can't remember which Keaton film it is. Any ideas? 

Poverty Maps

There's something intriguing about this wealth-poverty map of Britain. I find oneself staring at it, drawing all sorts of conclusions, though, to be honest, I'm not even sure how it works. Charles Booth's Poverty Map of London from 1889 is much more direct. The categories range from 'Upper-middle and Upper Classes. Wealthy' to 'Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal.' Commercial Street had a particularly crunchy social mix with the vicious and the well-to-do living cheek by jowl and not a decent plumber to be had even for ready money. Happily, I find that, even in 1889, there was very little viciousness in my part of the world. 

Boris versus Frank Field

The trouble with Boris, regardless of whatever political talents he may have, is that he's a 'character'. Andrew Roberts discusses this in The Times, though the word he uses is 'maverick'.  Roberts is right to complain about the grey, whipped conformists who have no life other than politics and who now form the vast majority of MPs. But he is utterly wrong to regard a 'colourful character' like Boris or the late Alan Clark as the opposite of this. The opposite of the grey ones is, in fact, Frank Field. Field may look and sound grey but he does two things neither the 'characters' nor the whipped ones ever do: he works very hard, reading everything, and he thinks for himself. He is also very courageous. Celebrating 'character' as the antidote to conformity further marginalises politicians like Field. It is the easiest thing in the world to be a 'character', a role that is in danger of becoming the default mode for people who want to be in politics to be famous but not to work very hard or think very deeply 

Happy Days in the Guardian Tub

First, sorry for what we cutting edge techies call an 'outage' yesterday between 5pm and 8pm. A few hundred thousand sites were down because of an organisation called Fasthosts (ha!). Anyway, I'm back and ready to rumble.
There's a Guardian leader on the expulsion of the four Russian diplomats in response to Moscow's refusal to hand over Andrei Lugovoi. The leader ends: 'Confrontation is in no-one's interest. But nor is letting freelance murders take place on the streets of London.' Therefore, I would have thought, confrontation IS in our interest. But, no, see sentence one, confrontation is in NO-ONE's interests and that must include us, even though confrontation IS in our interest, see sentence two. I always wanted to be a Guardianista, it's such a drowsy, comfortable life, like one long hot bath where you don't have to make up your mind about anything.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Boris, Norris, Doris and Horace

Now that Boris is definitely standing for Mayor of London, Iain Dale argues that Steve Norris should stand against him for the Tory candidature. I can only applaud this excellent idea. It could, as I suggested on Iain's blog, be improved yet further if we were to persuade Doris Saatchi to stand as well. Another commenter then threw the hat of the poet Horace into the ring. We could then have a four way fight between Boris, Norris, Doris and Horace. I'm sure there are even more suitable candidates for a battle that promises, at last, to be interesting, if only from the perspective of those with a weakness for double rhymes.

Taxonomy - the New Black?

Mark's mention of the happy rediscovery of David Attenborough's Zaglossus Attenboroughi (see Comments under Atheism Pays) puts me in mind of another great man who gave his name to a species. Read more here. As forms of (as it were) immortality go, it's not a bad one, is it? Nigei - yes I lke it...

Atheism Pays

The irrepressible CaptainB draws my attention to an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Berkowitz about  the new atheism. The link may not work as the WSJ operates a subscription system. But here are some killer facts for any writer:
'According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, in less than 12 months atheism's newest champions have sold close to a million books. Some 500,000 hardcover copies are in print of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion; 296,000 copies of Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great; How Religion Poisons Everything; 185,000 copies of Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation ; 64,100 copies of Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; and 60,000 copies of Victor J. Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does not Exist.'
I observe that 60 per cent of these bestselling militant atheists have names ending in 's'. My career course is now clear and I shall be on to my agent immediately to instruct him to sell my new book - The Not Great God Delusion Hypothesis: How on Earth Did We Ever Fall for That One? by Bryan Appleyards

Gambling: The Special Relationship

Pure gambling - I exclude betting games like poker where any skill is involved - is always stupid and pointless. The belief that you might win is based on the patently absurd conviction that you have some special relationship with fate and the workings of chance. Promoters of gambling must, therefore, be promoters of this delusion. It is, therefore, quite fantastic that the morally stern Daily Mail should be involved and entirely right that this should be exposed by the Observer, though there seems to be no sign that the Mail is pulling out. It is also entirely right that Gordon Brown should call for a review of  the grotesque super-casinos plan. Meanwhile, there are the horrible TV gambling shows - I wrote about these last year - and all the scandals arising from dumb, rigged games. People want to gamble. It is a form of faith, a belief in the imminent possibility of a transformative event. It is always and everywhere - especially at Monte Carlo - corrupting. 

Harry Potter

I have almost nothing to say about Harry Potter. I conscientiously read the first book some time ago as research for a report I wrote from the set of the first film. I thought it okay, if rather heavily influenced by E. Nesbit. I read Nesbit's The Complete History of the Bastable Family about a dozen times when I was a child and, therefore, see all children's books as variously half-hearted attempts to aspire to the condition of the Bastables. Now, of course, one can't be seen reading Harry Potter, the name is so heavily branded that it would be like browsing a Burger King menu. If you must, however, a solution is at hand - these quite brilliant covers intended to camouflage the book. I particularly like Terry Normal by Salman Rushdie - 'The land of absolutely no wizards or anything like that.'
PS And, I suddenly discover, the sublime Amanda is a Harry Potter fan. She posts on the film and the new book like an excited schoolgirl. 
PPS The Potter magic really does seem to be wearing thin

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Verb or Noun?

It's his day, this man of whom, gratifyingly, very little is known. Sunny in London so far... Meanwhile, on Desert Island Discs, this great man describes himself as 'a verb rather than a noun'. Neat. We bloggers, I guess, are mostly abstract nouns.

Enough with the Drums Already

And, following on from this, Roger Scruton in his book on Culture remarks on the way rock and pop music separates out the rhythm. In classical music, the rhythm tends to be at one with the music. In rock and pop, the drums accompany the music. This point is in the air. It is also made by a character in Ian McEwan's Chesil Beach. Perhaps the depressing sounds of electronic drum beats have started to get on people's nerves. Certainly, I have begun to notice the excessive presence of drums in both recorded and live music and, once noticed, it can never be unnoticed. But could The Beatles have managed without Ringo, The Who without Keith Moon or The Velvet Underground without Mo Tucker? I think we should be told.

Happy Hmong

The Hmong just keep on coming. They seem to be happy at the moment but, in general, they sound a touch violent, though one cannot help but admire their refusal to be written out of history or neglected. Tom Wolfe, when I interviewed him, was much exercised about the Hmong. I wonder if he still is. 

How to Make Me Feel Old

Kevin Ayers is making a comeback. I always had a fondness for Shouting in a Bucket Blues - 'Sometimes I get too drunk,/I feel so goddamed low.' He also made June 1st 1974 at the Rainbow - ah, the Rainbow - with Nico, John Cale and Brian Eno, a platter that mattered in a not very good kind of way. But I hope the recent return of Take That and the imminent comeback of The Spice Girls have not turned his head. Old rockers may not die sometimes they should just fade away.

Roger Scruton versus Saatchi & Saatchi

Today I explain the title of The Sunday Times arts magazine and my part in its invention.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


... watch it and weep.

Alliss in Wonderland

Apart from the matter of Fat Monty, I have no interest golf, but I do periodically find myself watching it on television in a light trance. This is solely because of the mad, commentating improvisations of Peter Alliss. Just now I learned, as a direct result of some fragment of Alliss whimsy, that Australians use rubber snakes to keep ducks out of their gardens. I also now learn that he weighed 14lbs 11oz at birth and never learned to swim - 'I can float on my back across the Atlantic, but turn me face down and it's over...' Find out more at weird and wonderful web site.  Alliss holds out the hope that behind every golf bore there lurks a good old English fruitcake. 

Serving In A Suit

Aynone still harbouring fond dreams that things might change under Brown will have been finally disillusioned by this 'initiative', launched yesterday to the accompaniment of a stiffly besuited Brown attempting a tennis serve. There are things that can be usefully done in schools - notably achieving functional literacy and numeracy, maybe even learning stuff - but five hours of sport a week! This is a classically otiose Blairite stunt - the only difference being that he'd have worn casual sportswear to launch it, and probably kicked a football.
Needless to say, things were different in my schooldays.

More Alastair Campbell

Newsnight Review managed to make some sense of Alastair Campbell, whose book, weirdly, I find being advertised on this site. But I still don't think they got to the heart of the matter. From the psychological perspective, David Hare edges a little closer in the Guardian.  Now let me try. Campbell is a shrewd and intelligent man who knows nothing. All his actions and all his accounts of those actions are utterly devoid of context and wisdom. There is never any sense of why Tony Blair is a good thing, nor, as Michael Portillo pointed out, any idea of what the 'New Labour Project' is.  Neither, as Hare says, does he have any psychological curiosity or insight about those around him. Campbell simply operates from moment to moment and, as a result, cannot ever fully grasp the consequences of his actions. Thus he cannot see that the mere fact that he landed his boss with the catastrophe of the Hutton Inquiry utterly invalidates his own claims to have been vindicated by the foolishly compliant lord. Fair enough, you might say, that is his job. And it would, indeed, be fair enough but for the fact that he was not just a spinner, he was a policy maker. His membership of the tiny Blair inner circle meant that he was not just handling decisions made by others, he was one of the decision makers. This is an alarming development. Previously Prime Ministers called in their press chiefs after decisions had been made. Now they help make policy and, as a result, presentation is no longer an aspect of policy, it is policy. The real world, however, goes on, regardless of this nonsense. If we could stand back for a moment and see this, it would be obvious that Campbell, by any meaningful standards, is a trivial figure, his concerns pathetically parochial, a mere symptom of a diseased episode in British politics. Unfortunately, we don't seem to be able to stand back and, alarmingly, we don't seem to be able to recover from the disease. 

Memory, Starbucks and Mao

Mao Tse-Tung tried to eradicate Chinese culture. He almost succeeded. Respect for tradition, however, survives. Or does it? A Starbucks in the Forbidden City has closed after a 500,000 signature petition claimed it was 'trampling on Chinese culture'. My suspicions are aroused by this line in the BBC story - 'The Starbucks branch was told it could stay open if it sold other brands but has declined.' This doesn't sound like a popular uprising, it sounds like another commie plot. So perhaps Mao succeeded. He wouldn't have any problem if he were around now. Some clever people in Colorado have worked how how we can be made to suppress memories. I am drawn to this idea. The first thing I'd do, of course, is eradicate all memories of a coffee shop called Starbucks.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Forward to the Past

Good quiz this, I managed to get humanity through to the seventeenth century. It's probably where I belong. 

The Metric System - We Are All Guilty

The news that an Englishman invented the dastardly metric system 120 years before the French got round to it comes as a bit of a blow. The story has a pleasingly English aspect though: the work which contains this precocious description of the metric system - the Rt Rev John Wilkins' An Essay Towards A Real Character And A Philosophical Language - is so stupefyingly tedious that no one, even at the Royal Society, noticed it was there. Or maybe the idea was just so obviously French that it simply could not register on an honest English mind.

Fall of Weird Conrad

So Conrad Black is guilty of fraud etc but not racketeering etc. I met the man three times and never found him anything less than weird. On each occasion he had some specific agenda - porn, opera and how well the French speak French (really) - which he pursued irrespective of what anybody else said. Perhaps he did this because he found me weird and/or boring. You never know and, given that the charges of which he has been found guilty could carry a sentence of up to 35 years, now I never will.

Books and Bookmen

The excellent Ian Russell, in a comment on I've Heard Of Dutch Blinds, But..., raises an interesting point: Are books worth the money, the trouble? The answer to the first question is probably No, if you're buying new in a bookshop (and, in spades, if you're buying contemporary fiction). But the trouble - ah the trouble, especially the agonising business of getting rid of books we once thought worth the effort of acquiring. The trouble with books is that they reflect our lives - to some extent accurately, but also wishfully. Some books are mere totemic presences on our shelves, representing things we would read if we were really the person we like to pretend we might be (I have preserved an unopened copy of Auerbach's Mimesis for decades in this symbolic role), or good things we once read and feel should remain on our shelves as a kind of literary spoor, the furniture of a civilised mind, though we might never look at them again. Much of this, then, is self-projection, the laborious creation and maintenance of a meta-life. In weeding our bookshelves, we're editing our lives - it's not easy. And it's a dangerous business, all this - here's what can happen. Bibliophagy sounds especially intriguing - one way of avoiding the trudge to the charity shop? Impeccably green, too...

The Queen and the Snapper 2

So Betty didn't flounce. There is, however, expected to be some serious flouncing at the BBC today. Who complained first I wonder? Annie Leibovitz or the Palace? Still the snapper-monarch dialogue remains intact. The Queen's response to the request to take her crown off to look less dressy at first puzzled me. "Less dressy? What do you think this is?" Did she means the vast concoction of velvet, silk and gold thread she was wearing wasn't dressy, that she was, in fact, dressed down for the occasion? No, of course she meant taking the crown off wouldn't do much to reduce the overwhelming dressiness of the entire ensemble. Well, quite. Perhaps Annie was taking the first tentative step to getting her to strip completely - the Queen as nature intended. Anyway the whole thing was worth it for that shot of Betty striding down a corridor - TO the shoot not FROM - looking like a cross Womble accompanied by a woman in a business suit and a nose-up, Ruritanian flunky holding the end of her robe. As Daphne once said in Frasier, you can't buy memories like that.