Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Harry Harries Harriers (not)

It seems it's not only Blackmailed Binky in trouble this week. If the cops can stand this up, it will provide a heaven-sent opportunity to use the above headline. I should, however, point out that there is not a jot or scintilla of suspicion that any such unpleasantness has occurred, etc, etc...

Viability - A Thought Experiment

The abortion debate grumbles on, and this time round Viability has become the watchword. But is viability really the point? As this is the Thought Experiments blog, let's try one. Suppose a foetus/embryo was viable at every stage of its existence - and with the development of 'artificial wombs' etc, this might even become a possibility - would that make abortion at any stage impermissible? Or suppose human beings were so consituted as to be viable only after live birth at full term - would that make abortion at any stage short of full-term labour permissible?

A Warning To Us All

Somehow I missed the recent passing of this man, whose bizarre life should stand as a warning to all diarists - and, more especially, bloggers. Just imagine if he'd gone online...
I note that he was a Swedenborgian.

Time to Shrink the BBC

The strange phenomenon that is Nigella Express has also disturbed Jim Shelley. The show is an easy target because it's absurd, grotesque and, not to put to fine a point on it, bad. Somebody at the BBC thought it was a good idea to turn the poor woman into a slurping, slavering clown. Meanwhile, somebody else at the BBC thought it was a good idea to make James May look like an idiot. May made his TV name as the best informed of the Top Gear presenters - he's the one who knows that a certain Cadillac is really a Saab. He has a certain indefinable presence which is not that of the mere lad, but something more inward. He plainly cares about something, though it is not clear what. Ignoring all such nuances, the BBC gave him a show with Oz Clarke in which they drive around California in a big bus drinking wine. It makes no sense, it's desperately unfunny and Clarke and May plainly dislike each other. It doesn't even achieve the grotesque comedy of Nigella.  Such sloppy, ill-conceived shows - there have been many others - have begun to convince me that it is time to rethink my support of the BBC. This strange entity exists because of 'market failure' - a free broadcasting market would not result in certain standards being maintained so we agree to pay for a broadcaster with a special tax. But 'market failure' would only demand one TV channel and one radio station. So the BBC justifies its vast size by saying it exists not just to provide programmes that wouldn't otherwise exist but also to produce high quality versions of programme types that are available elsewhere - game, cooking, car shows, soap operas whatever. Clearly this second argument would place no logical limit on the size of the BBC. I have always gone along with this on the basis that, though the second leg of its justification is pretty wobbly, losing large parts of the BBC would, on the whole, make things worse. But the second leg depends on the BBC's ability consistently to make higher quality shows than the opposition. Increasingly, this isn't happening. Its schedules are heavy with dross. The second leg is buckling and, meanwhile, the corporation seems to be as enmired in phone-in and fakery scandals as everybody else. Is it time to cut the licence fee by 80 per cent and reduce the BBC to one TV channel - BBC2 - one radio station - an amalgam of Radios 3 and 4 - and, perhaps, a web presence? I am beginning to think so.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Curious Matter of Moist

Amanda, second only to Nigella in the domestic goddess awards, points me in the direction of this. It's all about the way women - mainly - have a deep aversion to the word 'moist'. The lengthy discussion is strange and wonderful. Lots of other hated words appear, but 'moist' is the most consistent. I don't get this. I like 'moist', but then I'm a man. It's curious that the word 'used' seems to go along with 'moist'. But this is a family-friendly blog. I've always loathed the word 'promulgate'. Some sub once wanted to insert this horror in some copy of my and I started screeching. 'Sticky', now that's a bad word. What's brown and sticky? A stick. 
PS Rereading this, I realise I have an aversion to the word 'stakes'. I was going to write 'in the domestic goddess stakes' and I couldn't.

Taking to the Trees

We've all felt like this from time to time. But you'd have thought a half-naked wolfman might have managed a better quote than 'That's a bit inappropriate'.

Joey Chestnut, Burger King

This mind-boggling feat has received much attention. In the world of competitive eating, it is being described as a 'Roger Bannister moment'. Who know where competitive eating will go from here? Poor Joey (nickname Jaws) describes himself as 'drained'. Roger Bannister, had he been able to speak at the time and had anyone had the cheek to ask for a quote, would probably have said much the same. The things we humans do.

Anthony Clare and the White Coat Effect

More sad news (tho not on a Coren scale) for radio listeners - the death of Anthony Clare. He was a brilliant 'in-depth' interviewer who, with his long-running In The Psychiatrist's Chair series, conducted some of the most revealing and intimate interviews ever broadcast. It was a brilliant exploitation of what I call the 'white coat effect' - the transforming impact of professional mystique, which shrouds common sense (or indeed nonsense) in an oracular aura, ensuring that it is listened to with heightened attention and even acted on. With that inspired title, Clare was able to create a pseudo-clinical atmosphere and, while doing very little himself, come up with revelations that his subjects would never dream of spilling in a mere interview. Not everyone fell for it of course - Geoffrey Boycott gave a characteristic display of straight-batted stonewalling, while Jimmy Savile disarmed Clare by cheerfully owning up to being a psycho. However, when it worked - and most of the time it did - it created some riveting interviews. Interviews is all they were - the psychiatric content was really nothing beyond a vague assumption that early experiences in life have an effect - but Clare was one of the very best. He made some great radio (it never quite worked on TV) and I hope Radio 4 at least devotes an Archive Hour to him.

The Suicide Hotline

Having spent an inordinate amount of time recently on automated phone lines, this made me laugh or rather cackle bitterly.

Lovelock and Nigella

Last night, returning from a superb lecture at the Royal Society by the great James Lovelock, I think I heard Nigella say something like 'I don't know of a time when I don't want to eat a tortilla.' Having been pondering the end of the world as we know it, I suddenly found myself imagining Nigella playing tennis while eating a tortilla, swimming while eating a tortilla, having sex.... No I'd better stop there. Jim was saying the world must go into wartime mode not to stop global warming - we can't - but to adapt to its consequences. He has always said Britain was at her best during the Second World War and he dreams of a world similarly unified against a common enemy. Gaia - our mother - is now our enemy. But a man from Zimbabwe stood up and said people in his country were starving to death while, across the border, there was an obesity problem. People don't, in the end, make sacrifices for their neighbours. Jim nodded sadly.

Poetry and the English Imagination

Months, maybe even a year ago, I wrote an article on poetry and the English imagination for The Liberal magazine. I forgot all about this until today when I saw this article being mentioned on various blogs, notably Frank Wilson's. At last The Liberal has appeared and here's the article. It's like finding a lost child or, perhaps, an article written by somebody else with which I heartily agree.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Binky's Bad Morning

It's been a tough morning for 'Binky', prince of Godalming. First, it turns out there's a defect in the fabric of space time, then - horror! - his distant cousin Charlie Wales was right about organic foods and, finally, the reptiles are going on about his spot of bother with Strachan and McGuigan. Old King Abdullah would have the lot of them beheaded while lecturing the British on their inability to deal with Saudi-backed terrorism. Spot on, in Binky's humble opinion, that's how to run a royal business. 

Remembering Raleigh

On this day in 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh, explorer, adventurer, courtier and great writer, was beheaded at Whitehall. See the Death section of this for the story. Then read his last poem, written, it is believed, on the night before his death. They knew how to die - and live - and write - in those far off times.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

For Ming

No, no that Ming - this Ming, the peace-loving clam who gave up his life, all 405 years of it, for science. On the face of it, the secret of long life would seem to be to do nothing. File under useless information.

Will Child Labour End Child Labour?

Anything that dents the massive self-righteous smugness of that odious store chain Gap is to be welcomed (and this is not the first time such discoveries have been made). However, I feel obliged to ask, What is so wrong about child labour? Harsh, yes, and undesirable, but it's an inevitable feature of all societies which haven't achieved the undreamt-of wealth that comes with widespread industrialisation - and, like it or not, it can be one of the routes out of poverty. Aren't these child workers helping to lift their families above the level of dire poverty at which they live and towards the small surplus that will enable them to get on? By this argument child labour is itself ending child labour, and our 'enlightened' intervention is - as in so many areas - serving to keep the really poor really poor, while making us, the really rich, feel good.

My Booze Cruise

I was in Dunkirk - I said I would return after that previous unpleasantness - buying wine yesterday. As I did so, the dream ended, as dreams involving City always do. Never mind, the day produced great consolations. I've never done this booze cruise bulk buying thing before. (The truck, obviously, came in handy.) Now I shall never buy wine in this country again. The festival at Dunkirk demonstrated how ruthlessly we are ripped off by the government and the booze industry. A direct comparison would probably show that the wine was half the price, but really it was much less than that because what appeared to be similar wine to that sold over here was, in fact, much better. We get the dross and we are charged a fortune for it. And, while I am on the subject of the French Way, before getting over-emotional about the rugby in Paris, I went to the Rue Cler, not far from the Eiffel Tower. It was sublime, there is nothing like it in London - decently priced shops and superb service. This is because, I am told, an act was passed in the seventies making it illegal for the big stores to move in on areas like this. Rents fell and real shops thrived. This is a typical Enarque idea - highly intelligent, highly educated bureaucrats, groomed for public service, look out for threats to the French Way and then put a stop to them. It's not Our Way and it can go horribly wrong. But, at Dunkirk and in the Rue Cler, it goes very right indeed. Sarkozy may change all that and make the French more like us. If he succeeds, we may well find them more sympathique, but also much less enviable.

Venter, Sacks and Sex

Today in The Sunday Times I interview Craig Venter,  I review Oliver Sacks and I discuss sex on television
This excess explains why I have been a bad blogger this week.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Smile You're On CCTV

Uhoh, looks like Bryan's off on another mission of national, nay planetary importance - and on a Saturday. He works too hard. Slow down, Bryan, say No...
Meanwhile, this is from the Daily Mail, which I know is unlikely to commend it to many of you out there, but it is excerpted from a book, by a good journalist, and it is at least interesting. The growth of surveillance in recent years really has been one of the biggest changes to our national life, and yet it goes largely unremarked, and most people seem to find it reassuring if anything. Are they right no to worry? It does suggest a touching faith in the good intentions of those running these systems. Should we apply Lenin's Who Whom analysis to this? Should we, with the government identity card still looming on the horizon and ever more cards carrying ever more information becoming available and being heavily sold (e.g. the ever-expanding,soon to be compulsory, Oyster phenomenon in London). All this and CCTV everywhere - all but impossible, as Clark's piece demonstrates, to evade. This cannot, surely, be a healthy state of affairs. At the very least it creates the infrastructure for state (in broad terms) oppression. Is it anything more than good luck that the state at present isn't particularly oppressive (tho becoming more so)? We'd be rash to assume this is going to last, wouldn't we?
Don't forget to 'Scroll down for more'!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Fat Felon Caged

Here's a gratifying sight - a grey 'squirrel' behind bars. Naturally the brute was released, and has no doubt set fire to several house by now.

Flamehaired Cavemen

I draw your attention to possibly the least interesting, least story-like 'story' of the day - cop this. Earth-shattering eh? Almost as exciting as Gordo's announcement that he's thinking about cutting the 30-year rule to 20 (to embarrass the Tories) and moving towards, God help us all, a Bill of Rights and Duties. You are feeling sleepy........

Don't Stone the Crows

Crows have been on my mind a lot lately (maybe I do have too much time on my hands after all). This is partly because I'm reading Mark Cocker's rather wonderful book about them, Crow Country, and, in tandem, W.H. Hudson's still more wonderful Birds In London, which is largely about crows in their various forms. I'm trying to love these big black birds, with their slouching posture, ugly gait, preposterous beaks and malicious-seeming eyes - and it's not easy. Rooks are one thing (Cocker points out something I'd never consciously noticed before - that the instant shorthand for a British rural location, on TV, flim or radio, is a background of rookery sounds). But the carrion crows that are invading my corner of Surrey suburbia in ever increasing numbers are another matter. This morning, as I left the house, the racket was amazing - so loud and hideous I thought the local parakeets and jays must be contributing, but no, it was some kind of ferocious territorial battle among the rooftops and chimneys, between crows and magpies. Crows have been known to eat young magpies, and for that they should be applauded. If it was reciprocal, they might even get each other's numbers down, but there's no sign of it - and the crows, now, are definitely in the ascendant. The unfortunate effect of this burgeoning corvid population is a decline in songbird numbers - smaller birds, their young and their eggs are all grist to the corvid mill - but of course that sinister organisation the RSPB won't blame any bird for anything. Still, crows can be loved - as Cocker and Hudson and even this demonstrate. I'm beginning to come round to them already...

The Dolls' House and Pegs Caption

Actually, this is the still too busy to blog anything but a caption caption.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Airbus A380

An insanely busy day has kept me from the blog, but I am overcome with the need to point out that the Airbus A 380 is a bloody ugly machine. It appears to be suffering from hydrocephalus. It also looks as though it was designed by a child as just a fatter version of any old plane. The 747 is one of the most beautiful machines ever built and almost all Boeing planes show clear signs of the workings of a high aesthetic intelligence. Airbus is just a committee. Flying is hell these days. Making it ugly as well is the last straw.

Comedy With a Point?

A new series of The Armstrong and Miller Show begins tomorrow on BBC1 (a television channel, for those of you who have lost touch). It's sketch comedy - surprisingly funny, much of it - and the recurrent sketch that everyone's going to be talking about features a pair of stereotypical World War II fighter pilots talking over the day's action. The joke is that they do this entirely in present-day pseudo-black teenage street talk - and the result is quite alarmingly funny. This is, of course, comedy with a point - the point being the immense gulf in attitudes, language and world view between those young men, many of whom died in action in their teens, and today's teenagers. The steepness of our national decline could hardly be more eloquently embodied. But is it the point that makes it funny? Picking up from comments after yesterday's Alan Coren post, I think we should always be cautious about finding a point, or a message, in comedy. Real comedy cuts so much deeper than that - which is what Wilde meant when he said that 'Life is too important to be taken seriously'. Serious consideration tends to throw the obvious back at us - comedy, at its best, is an act of oblique reimagination that yields something altogether new, a second creation.

Naked Sleepwalking - A Cause For Concern

Duh - where's Bryan? Probably naked sleepwalking somewhere. Yes, another social menace has been drawn to our attention by the tireless efforts of the media/PR machine. I'm gratified to note that this, like everything else, can be attributed to booze - but also, note, 'not breathing properly' through the night. So best say no to the booze and stay awake all night to check you're breathing properly. You know it makes sense. But why the seven-fold increase? And why Travelodge? I guess the answer to the latter's easy enough - these people are so desperate to check out they're not even bothering to get dressed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dog Oil

Browsing just now in Holland & Barretts, I was startled to see little tubs on sale that proudly bore the legend Dog Oil. Have I, I asked myself, strayed into a Korean delicatessen? No, it was H&B all right, and Dog Oil, it seems, is such a well know and well loved (and entirely dog-free) product that it even has a website with Frequently Asked Questions. It sounds lovely (and I bet Big Chip Dale knows of this product)... But that's not all - there is also this far from lovely, but very funny story by Ambrose Bierce. Now there was a fine comic writer, albeit of the blackest hue. If you don't know it, get your hands on The Devil's Dictionary and keep it by your side through life. You won't be sorry.

Satnav Politics?

Lame catchphrase of the day comes courtesy of Lib Dem leadership candidate Nick Clegg/ Satnav politics eh? Dashed clever, that'll surely catch on, that'll inflame the electorate... I thought Chris Huhne was the one on drugs.

For Brian the Gardener

I have been watching, off and on, the new series by the much improved Jamie Oliver, Jamie At Home. Increasingly I find myself intrigued by the mysterious figure of 'Brian', designated only thus and as 'Jamie's gardener'. This man deserves a spin-off series, if he could be bothered to make it, which I doubt. With his soft, languid drawl and damaged air, he gives the impression of a distressed gentleman, or a drug casualty, or quite possibly both. He seems to have stared into the abyss, to have gained some kind of wisdom and repose, and to care little about this sublunary world. He talks very little, and that barely audibly, but always to the point. He also has a formidable capacity for hot chilli peppers... But above all he has, in spades, that quality so rare among TV personages - stillness. Perhaps he is a Buddhist. We have come full circle.

For Bryan the Buddhist

I received an e-fan-mail the other day expressing gratitude that I was such a wonderful writer and a Buddhist to boot - 'Your writing is absolutely delicious, and it's also nice to know that you're a teacher in what makes ultimate sense to me.' This is because I share a name with a great good man, Bryan Appleyard, who is vice-president of the Buddhist Society. Today, I note, he is advocating meditation in schools as a way of producing 'greater concentration, awareness, clarity, equanimity and tranquillity'. Well, I'm all for that. To tell the truth, the more I hear about this Appleyard chap, the more I like the cut of his jib. Lately, I have begun to wonder if we are, in fact, the same person - it's a very rare name after all, there's only one Bryan Appleyard in the whole of the US. Anyway, since Buddhists reincarnate, is it not possible that, through some kharmic cock-up, one of us has reincarnated while still alive? It's the sort of thing that happens all the time on Stargate SG9. I hope Bryan the Buddhist is my reincarnation; he's plainly a better person than me so it would mean I was on an upward path and not destined to be a snail or anything.

Alan Coren 2

I was lost in France when Alan Coren's death was made public. Nige said it all, of course, but I feel a need to be involved. Here, thanks to a pointer from Frank Wilson, is one of his great late columns. This is a prodigious piece of writing - note, for example, his games with prepositions - that seems utterly effortless. Having read it, you feel you could do it, but you can't. It reminds me of one of his Punch columns about getting up in the middle of the night with a hangover. His description of the head-splitting effect of the fridge light consoles me still. Through such effects, Coren redeemed our ordinary sufferings. He made little things so funny that they seemed to glow with greatness. For me, thanks to Coren, fridge lights have become aspects of a fabulous,though absurd, adventure. He glamorised our incompetence. In the face of this ridiculous world, Coren tells us, just getting by is heroic. Nige says Coren was the funniest man in Britain after the death of Peter Cook. I'd also put Auberon Waugh up there. In fact, Waugh was a greater prose writer but, perhaps, not quite so comically inventive. V.S.Naipaul once told me, that, after considerable thought, he had decided Bron was a better writer than his father, Evelyn. He may well be right. Either way, both Coren and Waugh were funnier than, say, James Thurber and, as writers, they were way ahead of almost all of our currently feted 'literary' authors. But, unlike Thurber and those authors, neither seems destined to enjoy post-mortem literary acceptance. This is absurd. The British tend to over-rate everything about themselves - from football teams to the NHS - but they massively under-rate their comic writers. They just end up being consigned to the least funny shelves in Waterstone's - those labelled 'Humour'. Collected Waughs and Corens in distinguished 'literary' jackets should now be flying off the shelves. Blue plaques should track their lives and academics should write learned texts on their techniques. It's not going to happen. Those of us who know will just have to remain quietly grateful to have been alive when Coren and Waugh were making life seem lighter, better, funnier and so much more bearable.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Britain's Booze Shame

I blush to bring this to your attention. When decoded and deconstructed, it reveals the shocking truth that the UK is 13th in the European drinking league, just barely above the EU average and struggling to drink even two-thirds as much as the doughty Luxembourgeois, Czechs and Estonians. Come on Britain, pull your socks up - you're just not trying!

Britain's Obesity Shame - Plus Trevor Redux

It's almost too much to bear. After a weekend of dashed hopes in the sporting arena, news comes that we don't even head the world rankings in obesity. This is a poor show, in the one league we surely could, with a little more application, win.
But, talking of the decline of TV, there's news that ITV is to wheel the sainted Trevor McDonald back in front of the cameras to front a new-look News At Ten. Why??? Was there ever a more wooden, unresponsive, rabbit-in-the headlights newsreader? Okay, Huw Edwards maybe - but at least he's not revered as some kind of national icon. Except perhaps in Wales...

Eat the Badgers

Of course, killing all the badgers to save the cows is just silly. What we should be doing is releasing the cows into the wild, rounding up the badgers and demanding exciting new badger steak recipes from the sublime but apparently insane Nigella. Last night she gave Alan Yentob salted peanuts in chocolate sauce. He nodded approvingly. Badger, I am given to understand, goes very well with jam.

The Goldfish Check-In

Air Canada is an airline at the cutting edge. Its latest innovation is the goldfish check-in. The brains of its staff are specially programmed to forget everything as soon as they have checked somebody in. So, when a new customer appears before them, something like this goes through their minds:
'An entity in my visual field is occupying space and reflecting light. It moves. It is shaped like me. But what am I? This entity is pushing something towards me. What does it want me to do?'
And so on until they succeed in identifying themselves as people who check in passengers, usually by calling somebody on what they have finally worked out is a phone and then hanging on for half an hour. This, of course, takes a long time. But Air Canada passengers don't mind. In fact, airline passengers in general don't seem to care how badly they are treated. Is there any industry that has so ruthlessly and systematically lowered its standards and got away with it? Well, maybe television.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Apples - Can Things Be Getting Better?

I can't believe I failed to mention yesterday's Apple Day - especially as I was so recently in Normandy, where strange and wonderful varietals hang from every tree (and people actually bother to pick them and use them). This Day is the work of the excellent Common Ground organisation, and has undoubtedly improved matters in England. Several supermarkets now stock interesting English varieties, at least for a while, and they stick litle union jack stickers on their English apples - of which there are many more than there used to be. This is a great improvement on the situation even ten years ago, and shows that, counter-intuitively, things can, in some small ways, get better rather than worse. On the other hand, the hell-bound handcart trundles ever on - the egregious Alan Johnson is at it again. Why stop at children? Why not send the rest of us letters telling us we're fat? I'd love to know, by the way, what the current definition of 'obese' is. A couple of years ago, I had a medical for insurance purposes and the doc declared, with a straight face, that I was 'just' the right side of obesity. I am 6ft 4in tall and weigh about 12 and a half stone.

Paris, Paranoia and Ed Balls

Sorry, sorry, here I am. Things got a little out of hand in Paris and these old bones and this grizzled head needed some downtime. Having saved the world in Canada, I failed to save English rugby in France in spite of some Mission Impossible heroics in a phone box surrounded by agitated French riot police. (As ever, I thought they were after me. It's my special paranoia. I always think ambulances with their sirens going have been sent for me, and, at the sight of fire engines, I assume flames are spurting of out of my clothes.) Some English guy had declined to pay for a drink and Sarkozy had sent down an executive order to terminate him with extreme prejudice. Great city for a neutron bomb, Paris, take out the people and leave the buildings. And so we lost the cup, the worst football team in the world reverted to type and Lewis Hamilton did not become World Champion. A bereft nation must cling gratefully to Sven's wild ride at Manchester City. Sven rocks - two words that would once have seemed as unlikely as 'Cool Gordon' does today. And speaking of Brown, I note that his 'most trusted' apparatchik Ed Balls has been screaming that his boss is a coward. I've never liked Balls, with his glibly impervious face he looks like the sort of man who does not know what he does not know, a fatal failing and one that is all too common among political courtiers. We have democracy because politicians were finally forced to accept the depths of their ignorance. To forget this is to forget everything. I think Balls and many others, encouraged by our dumb need for simple stories, are showing signs of amnesia.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Morning After

Sacré bleu! Ou est Appleyard? Empty bottles, broken hearts, shattered dreams... Me I took adavantage of last night's rugby madness to dine out, all the restaurants being pleasingly empty. Having been obliged to play rugby at an impressionable age, I'm afraid I am unable to see it as anything more than institutionalised homoerotic sadism. No doubt I'm missing something...
Anyway, two stories have caught my eye this morning. When Lib Dems and Class A drugs collide, the result can only be top comedy - and so it proves here. The 'can't remember' defence has seldom been employed more elegantly and more plausibly. My previously undetectable admiration for Huhne has suddenly rocketed - and I could say much the same for the man who bored a generation into life-threatening stupor with Tubular Bells. That strikes me as a pretty good summing-up of (some of) what's wrong with this benighted country. Maybe Bryan's decided to emigrate too...

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sanity Sensation!

A rare moment of sanity in the ongoing Drink madness, courtesy of The Times. It will make no difference, of course - the wowsers, having made smoking all but impossible, are now hellbent on doing the same for drinking. It's too late for us helpless drunks down in 'leafy' Surrey though - cheers!
I wonder what Bryan's up to in Paris... Is something happening there?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Alan Coren

Really sad news this time - the death of Alan Coren, England's finest humorist by many a mile. After Peter Cook gave up and died, Coren was surely the funniest man in Britain - a superb comic writer, whose style was forged by prodigiously wide reading and an equally prodigious intellect, but was always entirely natural, and often killingly funny. And he kept on being funny - always the hardest part - over four decades and more. I remember reading him in Punch before I was even into my teens and being dazzled and astonished that anyone was writing like this (no one else was, especially in Punch). Later I crossed his path a few times, but knew him mostly at second hand. Anyway, it would make no difference if I'd never known him at all - he was one of those vanishingly rare people of whom you can truly say that his death leaves the world a sadder and a slightly darker place.

Butterflies Again

Sad news - the London Butterfly House at Syon Park is closing down and relocating to Lincolnshire - a fine county in many ways, but a long way from London. I hope someone seizes the opportunity to open another butterfly house elsewhere in London. When I was in Lisbon a couple of weeks ago, I visited the butterfly house in the excellent botanical gardens there and found it full - very full - of Monarch butterflies. They were everywhere, and I even had one on my head briefly - but alas no photograph.
Talking of photographs, with Bryan off on his travels again, I thought bloggers might like so see this sneak pic of a corner of his funkadelic Seventies pad.

James Watson

I am delighted to see James Watson is in trouble again. He was offered to me as an interview in connection with his book Avoid Boring People (no link, I don't want you to buy it); I declined on the basis that one possible title for my own memoirs was Avoid James Watson. My own dealings with him - too boring to recount - convinced me this was a petulant little man, best avoided at all costs. He's now saying blacks do worse in IQ tests, which is true. It doesn't mean they are less intelligent as IQ tests are highly culturally determined. Blacks brought up in societies which value IQ tests - and which don't confine them to ghettos - do as well as anybody else. Lots of people deny this, but I'm afraid the evidence is against them. When I spoke to Watson we discussed the kind of choices that would be offered to people as a result of our genetic knowledge - for example, he thought the prenatal detection of homosexuality meant that most parents would abort any gay child. What effect would that have on society? He thought for a moment and then said, 'Less ballet.' This may be a harmless joke in the pub but, when you are a public figure with a tape recorder running, it's just nasty. Watson is arrogant enough to think it doesn't matter.
PS. The subject of Watson came up a few years ago when I was talking to some academics. They all murmured, 'Wonderful man, great men.' I said, 'No, he's not and you know it.' At once they agreed and a torrent of Watson horror stories emerged.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Ultimate Weapon

Bryan - somebody's missing you.
(If this doesn't make him break cover, nothing will...)

From the Blog that Likes to Say Aaaah...

Cop this lot. Personally I think they should be wearing little knitted coats...

Art Upside Down

It was on this day in 1961 that Matisse's Le Bateau went on display in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Forty-seven days later, someone noticed that the picture was hanging upside down. An isolated incident? Far from it - check this. The George Baselitz exhibtion at the Tate must have been a nightmare to hang...

Fish, Quotes, Quiet

Uh-oh - no Appleyard, and barely a thought in my head... At times like this, it's good to contemplate the mangrove killifish. Here, it seems to me, is a fish that has got life sorted - and the quotation from the scientist is a gem of its kind. Oddly, I heard another good quote from a scientist on the radio this morning: 'It would be a very quiet world if nobody spoke outside their own area of competence.' A very quiet blogosphere too...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Team Building

Returning from Normandy last Sunday, I missed this by a day. The detail I particularly like is that these guys were on a 'team building exercise'. There's a strangely beautiful song by Grandaddy about a team building exercise that goes awry - The Group That Couldn't Say on the worryingly addictive album Sumday.

The Guess Where I Am Caption

A moody phone shot from the middle left of Canada. The bean bags are a huge clue.

The Canada Post

I don't believe it. Here I am in the middle of Canada - well, more to the left, in fact - I find a wi-fi connection and Sky News and, at once, I discover Blighty has gone to the dogs in my absence. You appear to have mislaid the leader of the Libdems, ageing crooner Bing Campbell. And why? Because you would not stop discussing his socks. 'People write articles on what kind of socks I wear,' said Bing. Well, I've often wondered myself - not the great Muji 90 degree socks, I suspect, possibly something by Timberland - but we really must keep things in perspective. Meanwhile, the moment I landed in the middle-left of Canada you all became incredibly fat. Most people will be obese by 2050, at which point, of course, we will need to redefine obesity. Anything above 25 stone for a man and 20 for a woman would be fine. Out here in middle-left Canada, of course, nobody's fat and they all wear Timberland socks. They keep thin by taking trucks apart and putting them back together again. I have driven through miles of emptiness interrupted only by houses surrounded by trucks in various states of dismemberment. Whatever floats their boat, I suppose. 


Big bastards, hornets. Can give you a nasty sting, if sufficiently provoked. If, on top of that, you happen to be anaphylactically inclined, this can kill you - though the culprit is vastly more likely to be a wasp, or indeed a peanut. Needless to say, someone has managed to stir up a hornet scare, amid much dark talk of killer hornets swarming in from the continent to wreak havoc (not true - it's just that our native hornets are benefiting from a string of mild winters). Yesterday, in the House of Lords, Lord Rooker - formerly Jeff, a man immortalised by the Rooker-Wise Amendment, whatever that was - had to admit that 'there is no minister for hornets'. No minister for hornets? Why not? This admission will surely, er, sting Gordo into action - another national crisis to tackle. Unfortunately, though, the poor man seems to be suffering from his own form of anaphylactic shock just now...

It's The Obesogenic Environment, Stupid

Groundhog Day again, as 'obesity' once more elbows its lardy way to the top of the news agenda. In a development entirely unrelated to the government's discreet abandonment of its childhood obesity targets, this report has been published. Such is the state's desperation that they're now roping in evolutionary biology to make their case - though it's hard to discern a case at all. We live, it seems, in an 'obesogenic environment'. Well, the only way to sort that is to apply a totalitarian solution - or, the next best thing, bring back rationing. This would surely appeal to the frugal Son of the Manse. The hugely popular, inexpensive and bang-on-time ID card could be adapted to serve as a ration card as we queue in the grocers. Sustained by nourishing snoek, curiously shaped root vegetables and Wilton pie, Britain could stride leanly forward into a slimmer, brighter future. Sorted.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Great Storm and After

Mindful of the 20th anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987 (so named, for once, without exaggeration - well, not much), I took a walk yesterday in local woods that had been all but flattened on that memorable night. These woods had boasted large numbers of fine mature beeches and, surveying the post-storm devastation 20 years ago, it seemed that few of them - and very little else - had been left standing. You've probably guessed where this is going - 20 years on, you would hardly know the storm had happened. There are fewer really tall beeches, but, lower down, the regeneration has been awesomely impressive: sycamore, ash, hornbeam, elder, birch and lime have seized the chance to take over, and there are plenty of young beeches growing up too. The diversity of the wood's flora - and fauna, especially in terms of invertebrates - has been greatly enhanced (and many trunks of fallen trees have been left in situ, furthering the process). Those of the older trees that were shaken, but not felled, by the mighty wind have also benefited, the aeration of the roots having given them a new lease of life. None of this should surprise us - and yet it always does, as we cannot bring ourselves to believe that nature, unaided by man, has such astonishing powers of regeneration. It is all one with the anthropocentric arrogance that puts us centre stage in a drama where we were never more than bit part players (see my past posts on climate change, etc).
The great Richard Mabey has written what sounds like a brilliant book about all this - beech-centred, as it happens. There's an excellent review of it here.

The Fattie Fightback Begins

Heartening news from Germany, where, in a noble gesture of self-sacrifice, a fat man has demonstrated that the well upholstered can save the health services considerable sums of money and much unpleasantness. The Fattie Fightback has begun...
And engimatic news from Canada, where Bryan is at large on the endless prairie, doing heaven knows what - but whatever it is, it will be for the benefit of human kind and the planet in general, of that you may be sure.

An Abstainer Writes

Having spent the past fortnight abstaining altogether from newspapers - one form of abstinence I can heartily recommend - it is peculiarly dispiriting to be back in the world of British 'news' and find the same old stuff still churning round and round. Today the anti-alcohol wowsers return to the fray, declaring war on those notorious menaces to society, the middle-class drinkers. The aim now, it seems, is to make drinking as 'socially unacceptable' as smoking. Does any sane person seriously believe in these nonsensical 'safe drinking' guidelines? I trust not. Meanwhile, I bang my head lightly against the wall... Oh and the Nasty Party (i.e. the Lib Dems - the filthies fighters in any electoral battle) have pointed poor old Ming's zimmer frame towards the exit and given him a helpful shove. Another unsavoury bloodbath will follow, and in due course another coup. They seem to come around every few weeks. Like so much else in the 'news'.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Nige News

I am back from my latest (and, sadly, last for the year) jaunt in France, the fragant, smoke-wreathed Land of the Free. This was based on walking, ruin-bibbing, eating and drinking in Normandy with a convivial group of fellow misfits and misanthropes. We were based in the achingly pretty little harbour town of Honfleur, which has suffered for its good looks and charm by attracting more seriously bad artists and a denser concentration of seriously bad art than anywhere else I know. The jaunt, as ever, served to rub my English nose in how much there is to admire in the French way of life, and in the extraordinary richness and strength of their rural and urban culture, as compared to ours. There is, there must be, a downside - very probably one so oppressive that to actually live there, as part of it, would be grim. It's just that there are so many things that they do so well and so confidently - things to do with the simple arts of living, which we Brits seem now to be losing, and with getting the important stuff (e.g. 'infrastructure') done, and done well.
One thing they don't do well, though, is TV news, which seems extraordinarily boring, self-important and wordy, lacking all visual interest - footage of avocats, in their agreeably parsonical robes, going in and out of court, is about as good as it gets. Not that that is worse than the imbecile gimmickry and lame-brained editorial of the BBC 6 o'clock News. Nor is it worse than arriving back in Blighty to find Alan Thompson's and Dawn Primarolo's (surely a mobile phone brand?) Fatties (see Bryan's post below) dominating the 'news agenda' - and John Hutton taking over from Hal to drone on about 'vision'. Check out Hutton's website and weep. At least his News section is defiantly out of date though, having apparently ground to a halt some time last year.
Now I must get on with all the depressing things that have to be done at the end of a holiday. Hey ho...

I Leave You in the Capable Hands of Hal

I find myself about to board a plane. I am off to Canada, a country which eludes definition, on a secret mission to save, of course, the world. I am uncertain as to my availability for blogging on this trip. If I can, I will. But, otherwise, there may be a hiatus until Thursday or thereabouts. I have no idea of Nige's movement so I cannot promise he will keep you entertained and informed. But you don't really need either of us. You've got Hal and the Little Sods. Meanwhile, regard this as an open thread, say what you like about anything, but keep the noise down.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Fatties Threaten Civilisation

Here's a simile that should make us all stop and think. Alan Johnson, the health secretary, says obesity is like climate change. I would go further - fat people cause climate change. Fat people emits greenhouse gases and, because they tend to wear dark clothes to hide their immense guts, they reduce the reflectivity of the planet. When they dive into the sea they cause warm water to be drawn up to the surface, killing carbon-sequestrating algae. Because they eat so much, meat especially, fat people need large areas of agricultural land that might otherwise be returned to wilderness and, because they are heavy, they increase the fuel consumption and emissions of cars. When fat people go on adventure holidays to the Arctic, they help break up the pack ice. Fat people can't be bothered to turn their televisions off. They would cycle instead of drive but for the fact that they can see the pedals but not their feet. On the plus side, when they jump or dance, fat people cause volcanic eruptions which fling clouds of dust into the air and temporarily cool the planet. On balance, however, fat people are most like global warming because they are a bad thing.

Irritating Words: To Source

Some words suddenly detach themselves from ordinary discourse. This may be pleasant - I'm okay with most current yoofspeak - but, especially in the commercial world, it can be fantastically irritating. The word that inspires these thoughts is 'source' used as a verb. It is said by antique dealers, builders, architects, designers, presenters of house makeover shows, gardeners and, soon, everybody. Typically, it appears in sentences like 'I can source those for you'. Yesterday, it was said to me by somebody in an antique shop. 'Do you often have these kind of lights?" I asked, 'Yes,' he replied, 'we can usually source those.' Now, consider what this actually means. The word 'source' is a membership card. He did not say 'get' or 'find' because they are things that one feels anybody can do. 'Source' professionalises the getting and finding process. To 'source' something is an expert or elite activity. Furthermore, 'sourcing' makes it clear that the elite have access to a club of providers to which you have no access. This immediately raises the value of the product in question. One 'buys' baked beans but one 'sources' original thirties Anglepoise lamps. Thus the world is divided into those that can 'source' and those that can't. And, if you can't, you must pay the prices demanded by those that can. 'Source' is, in fact, a euphemism for 'I have a lock on this market. I can get hold of this for about £10 and you can't. Therefore you must pay £763.47 exactly.' Perhaps, - and here is the final twist of the knife - you could actually find the thing in question for £10, but the word 'source' is intended to intimidate you into thinking that you can't. Anyway, with that, I will go and source the papers.

Pinker and Space

In The Sunday Times - I interview Steven Pinker and write about the second space race.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Ultimate List

What is it about lists? Bloggers do lists and blog lists seem to get millions of hits. I suppose lists provide two consolations - either you learn something or you feel you know better. I've done lists. Readers will remember the galactically popular Tolerable Equanimity list that transformed the lives of billions. My RSS reader having just bombarded me with hundreds of lists, I have decided to make a list of my favourite lists - my top ten of top tens.
10: Top ten ways of turning your iPhone into a Ducati
9: Top ten MPs with the best clipped nose hair whose constituency names begin with 'P'. 
8: Best chat-up lines when in Bali with a cold sore
7: Most disgusting uses of a cat. 
6: Most effective ways of convincing yourself that somebody is reading your blog
5:Best ways of disposing of your body
4: The greatest movies of all time that have not previously been in a list of the greatest movies of all time. 
3: Ten best ways of turning your 802.11g wireless network into a nuclear-hardened sleeping bag
2: Ten best one paragraph summaries of the late poetry of Wallace Stevens.
1: The list of lists of things not listed on other lists. 

O Body Swayed to Music, O Brightening Glance...

Thanks - I think - to David Mackinder for sending me this. Apparently if you see the dancer spinning clockwise then the right side of your brain - feeling imagination etc - predominates; if you see her spinning anti-clockwise the the left side - logical, realistic - is on top. She span clockwise for me at first, then anti-clockwise, then clockwise again. The changes were so extreme that her movements were actually rigged. I must be confused. How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Just So You Know....

.... here's another brilliant article by one of my heroes, Jerry Fodor. This time he knocks down Darwin. Fodor is known by those who - amiably - oppose him as a trampoline. Jump on him and he just flings you back into the air. My kind of guy.

A Happy, Happy Post

Yesterday I recorded an edition of Private Passions, Radio 3's very superior version of Desert Island Discs. The show is made in Michael Berkeley's house. Bob Dylan, it is said, once lived there. The recording studio is a tiny bedroom. The guest - me - is seated between two single beds. Berkeley admitted he gets a little embarrassed about this setup when a glamorous woman is involved. Isaiah Berlin and countless others have sat in that chair between those beds. The recording is 'as live'. They play all the music you have chosen though an antique radio emblazoned with the show's name. Berkeley does not take the direct question approach of DID. Instead, he asks for stories. 'I think it brings out more,' he says. He's right, I babbled. People often tell Berkeley before the show that they cannot possibly discuss their feelings for music, but they always do. He talks about each track with lucid exactitude and, as they play, he conducts and sings along, beaming with delight at moments of particular quality. Intensely musical people, I have often noticed, live in the joyous condition of not being fully in the world of the less musical. They are very lucky. The picture shows how I felt when I left. Long live Michael Berkeley! Long live Private Passions! And, most importantly, long live Radio 3!

C. Difficile

Hmmm, now who should really be answering questions about the killer hospitals? Let me see. Ah - 'But the board had other priorities. It was focusing on plans to build a hospital under the private finance initiative to replace outdated premises.' The private finance initative!
Open the pod bay doors, Hal.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Beach Huts Are Coming Caption

I stopped doing captions and did I hear a word of protest? No. I wept copiously for a few days and then thought, 'Bugger them, I'll do a caption anyway.'

Gore, the Judge and the Nobel

It is strange that in the same week that everybody says Al Gore will win the Nobel Peace Prize, a British judge has drawn attention to inaccuracies in his film An Inconvenient Truth. The judge is right, of course, the film is a polemic by a politician that cleverly confuses truth and wild speculation. It is true, for example, that almost all scientists agree that global warming is happening and that humans are, to a greater or lesser extent, responsible. It is wild speculation to say that this entails an imminent 20 foot rise in sea levels. The bad end of the worst official estimates is about two feet by 2100. Nevertheless, Gore plainly thinks that his message is too important to be buried under uncertainties. Humankind, in the wisdom of contemporary politics, cannot bear very much uncertainty. But, to a rough approximation, everything is uncertain and, therefore, to an equally rough approximation, all current political rhetoric is meaningless. In the case of global warming this is an especially serious problem. Gore and the greens spout 'certainties', sceptics shoot holes in them and the public is left thinking it's like watching Hal and the boy David at the despatch boxes. But, of course, it's nothing like that. Either continuing to chuck 30 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year is going to do us serious damage or it isn't. Intelligent sceptics like Bjorn Lomborg say it may do us some damage but not enough to cause panic. Intelligent deep greens Like James Lovelock think it may soon destroy our civilisation. (People who think it will do nothing do not qualify as 'intelligent'.) But the truth is we don't know - I'm nearer Lovelock, but only tentatively and I am fully aware that my temperament plays a part in this  - and the only real political issue is how we assess the risk. This is a fantastically complex subject and, if politicians want to tell the truth, they should admit that to the public. Merely taking a position, like Gore and the dumber sceptics, should not be a serious option. Having an opinion on global warming is about as meaningful as having an opinion on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The law and the warming will go on no matter what you think. Personally, I think it's bloody obvious that we should cut emissions and develop green technologies. But it's equally bloody obvious that Gore would be a very odd choice for the Peace Prize.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Retro Fever Latest

As Appleyard-inspired retro fever sweeps the world, Cuba celebrates Che, the famous 70s poster. Meanwhile, the British 'government' is secretly at work on plans for a national That Bird In The Tennis Dress Rubbing The Ball On Her Arse Day. That'll give the nation some much-needed retro cheer and take our minds off inheritance tax.
(And meanwhile again, I grieve (not) to report that I am off to France for a few days, so I'll soon be obliged to fall blog silent till next week.)

Nigella: I Worry

I saw Nigella Lawson's show Nigella Express the other night and I have to ask: is she all right? She seemed to be suffering from several overlapping manias - a need to eat all the time AND talk about it, an overwhelming desire to tell us how busy she is and a compulsion to speak in a manner so excessively, glutinously upbeat that one can only conclude she must be concealing some appalling depression or, perhaps, malfunction like the Stepford Wife who carries on gabbling after she has been stabbed. I shall not, under the circumstances, be trying her recipes.

Ponder Post 15: Political Parties. Why?

With Hal smirking unattractively on the front bench, Al, his laptop, stole all the Tories' tax ideas. This means, of course, that political parties are now pointless. There was a time when Tory backbenchers with halitosis, tweeds, labradors and wives called Edith would bay for tax cuts while Labour apparatchiks with steel-rimmed glasses, cord trousers, red ties, foot odour and wives called Olga promised that, come the revolution, Edith and her husband would be hanging from the nearest lamp post. They believed in things - bad things, largely, but at least we knew we could choose in whose handcart we could go to hell. Now the choice is between two identical parties whose only aim in life is to get elected.  The one differentiation appears to be age. The Tories are all twelve, Labour are all in their fifties and the main Libdems - Ming and Vince - have to be given heart massage as they speak.  (Another indicator of change, incidentally, is an unfilled semantic gap. A Labour individual could once comfortably be described as a socialist. That is now absurd, but no word has appeared to take its place.) So the ponder is: political parties - why bother?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dr Owen's Diagnosis

Gordie appears to have succumbed to the Hubris Syndrome - an exciting new medical condition identified by big-arsed Dr Owen. The syndrome has struck poor blameless Gordo at an unprecedentedly early stage in his tenure of prime ministerial power and has already had, as we saw over the weekend, catastrophic consequences (nemesis, as we doctors call it). This could be a new, exceptionally virulent form of the syndrome.
Apparently the root meaning of Hubris is a good beating-up - but it seems the pugilistic era in politics finally died with the Mighty Prezza. Ah well, a man can dream - and Dave did promise us a bare knuckle fight at some point, didn't he?

Hal and the Little Sods

Westminster politics is in danger of becoming amusing. Since Hal's crash and only partially successful reboot - he kept saying 'vision' over and over again at the press conference, it's plainly a hardware problem - the members of the junta have been madly stabbing each other in the back. They are fighting, Rachel Sylvester informs us, 'like ferrets in sack' and people are talking about the'cack-handedness of these arrogant little sods'. On the other hand, Polly Toynbee thinks Hal 'faced down the braying press for an hour without flinching and with good humour'. Sylvester thinks these are the beginnings of a leadership battle. This might, with a little luck, recreate the good old days of the Blair-Hal feud. Tee-hee. Toynbee, however, thinks that Hal's best bet is to go for incompetence, though her reasoning is a little odd - 'The accident of flood, bombs, bank run and animal pestilence may have established his competence - but, in truth, what does a Prime Minister do about any of those except hope they go away? Competence is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient.' But I thought you just said he didn't need competence for those things..... He needs, apparently, to be courageous and competence can be forgotten. I think she underestimates what a novelty competence would be in Hal's career. But, anyway, there's blood on the ferret sack, the little sods are trying to kill each other, it's the seventies and Hal's hardware is still playing up. Oh and City are still winning. It's going to be a fun winter.

The Postal Workers: A Retro Strike

When the letters I tried to post yesterday slid out of the postbox - it was full of estate agents' junk and repossession threats - I realised that the postal strike is just the latest evidence of our nation's mad dash back to the seventies. In that good old, incredibly disturbing decade there were strikes all the time. Going into work at all was regarded as a rather capricious gesture, rather like not wearing platforms. The strikers are sensitively keeping everything 'in period', holding up signs that say 'A decent living wage for postal workers'.  Such a sign would have been incomprehensible in the eighties and quaintly amusing in the nineties, but now, suddenly, it seems as right as an Afro on a white guy. But what does it mean? I do pretty well - I can afford to eat at the cinema about once every three months - but is my wage 'decent' and 'living'? The sign became incomprehensible in the eighties because the idea of the market took hold of all our imaginations and people were expected to earn what they were worth according to a strictly abstract calculus. Perhaps it makes sense now because we have acquired a slightly more sophisticated grasp of the idea of the market in which the workers' power to organise a strike is as significant as the simple power of money. Anyway, I am feeling increasingly comfortable now that I am back in my default decade. I am even considering going on strike. I did once and I loved every minute.

Monday, October 08, 2007

I Wondered What Happened to that Kidney

This explains everything.

What I Did on My Holiday, by Nige

My short (too short) break in the fine city of Lisbon with my daughter began with a classic hotel booking cockup (I am about to threaten the travel company with terrible reprisals, never fear) and included at least one quite bizarre incident. This was on the Metro, where a group of amiable middle-aged men blocked the door as we got on and made a big drama of hauling us aboard. This, as I soon realised, was all by way of nicking my wallet - in my case a wallet containing only cards, which I then saw, looking over their shoulders, that they were examining (with some distaste). I politely pointed out that the wallet was mine, and they, equally politely and with great good humour, handed it back. It was as if this was some kind of colourful folkloric entertainment. Very strange.
Later, I made a discovery that I must pass on for the benefit of humanity at large - nothing less than a cure for a nosebleed. For no obvious reason I had had two nosebleeds in the course of the day, and a third came on as I sat down to dinner in a restaurant. An elderly lady had a word with the waiter, who then bore down on me, clutching a plug of cotton wool, which he rammed firmly into the affected nostril. It was soaked in vinegar (wine vinegar - but no doubt malt works just as well) - and it stopped my nose bleeding. Just like that. This is the only effective cure I've ever come across, and I owe it - the world owes it - to an old lady in a Lisbon restaurant. Lisbon - the city that nicks your wallet then cures your nosebleed. (And cocks up your hotel booking - but they all do that.)
It was, of course, a joy to return to Blighty and find The Great Helmsman's face resembling an explosion in an egg factory.

Secrets of the West London Screamers

I have just worked out what the rich of West London do with their children all week. Every evening after school, they take them to special screaming classes. Highly-paid specialists sharpen and intensify the screams until they reach just the pitch and timbre that will most distress all around them. Once a year there is a secret competition at which the children of bankers and antique dealers compete to produce the most annoying noise in the world. On Sundays, the rich get out their giant buggies and take their children to cafes and restaurants. There they watch proudly as their expensively-trained tots reduce all the other customers to nervous, anguished wrecks, driving them back to their homes, bought with sub-prime loans from the bankers with the screaming brats. How they must laugh.

The Brown 9000 Series

When Dave Bowman disconnects Hal in 2001, the computer suffers a slow mental breakdown. Just before he expires, he sings Daisy, Daisy. The dying Hal came to mind when I was watching Gordon Brown being interviewed by Andrew Marr. Large parts of his brain had clearly shut down and the bits that remained where just chanting familiar words taught his by his programmer - 'change', 'vision', 'Daisy, Daisy...'. This morning he is lying in a bath of coolant undergoing a hard reset in preparation for his press conference. But can the junta's cyberwonks stop him saying 'change'? It keeps raising the awkward question: change from what to what? Perhaps he intends to wallpaper the UK in a fetching pink stripe or set it on fire. Of course, he originally used the word to signal that he was not Tony Blair - remember him? But politicians in general use 'change' because they know most of the electorate is discontented most of the time. In this they are encouraged by those newspapers that, daily, tell us we are discontented. But there is a higher form of discontent, based on the certainty that 'change' changes nothing and that contentment is not bestowed by politicians. Their job is to stop things getting worse. It's hard and it's boring, but nobody made them go into politics. Meanwhile, I have an exclusive copy of the Brown statement at his press conference - 'Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do...'

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Rage of Adam Boulton

This post or something like it managed to delete itself, so here's a rough approximation:

The best thing so far about the Great Brown Cock-Up was the sight of Adam Boulton on Sky News. He was incandescent, having, like everybody else, been told by Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and Ed Milliband that there was certain to be an election in November. Worse still, Brown was making his non-announcement to 'a journalist' - Boulton spat out the word - meaning Andrew Marr. I have never seen a TV political correspondent so angry with his own contacts. With newspapers defecting from Brown daily, the junta has now managed to alienate the entire press pack. This is great news. Contemporary political courtiers - 'advisers' they are called - are a bad breed. They sell only snake oil and they virtualise politics by turning it into an end in itself. Brown's 'advisers' are an unusually supercilious bunch. Balls has what we call - for reasons lost in the mists of time - a 'Wapshott face'.  Anything that makes these people look like idiots should be welcomed by all right thinking people.

The Child in Me

I note that number one in the Twenty Five Signs You Have Grown Up is 'Your houseplants are alive'. Plants top themselves at the mere mention of my name. I have - Glory be! - not grown up.

Forgotten Springfield

A comment from VTvid has just arrived on my Springfield is in Vermont post. A site has been started to protest about the way the real Springfielders who made the video that won the town The Simpsons Movie premier have been treated. Sad.

Michael Clayton

I am not the only one with an unhealthy fascination with the seventies. Yesterday I saw the movie Michael Clayton. Film critics, who, like the Bourbons, remember everything and learn nothing, will not have noticed that this is a seventies movie - the dark wood and hard sheen of the corporate interiors, the sense of an indecipherable and brutal world, the lost hero struggling to acquire a moral identity etc. I liked it a lot, but, I fear, this may be nostalgia.

Meet Bjorn

In The Sunday Times I interview Bjorn Lomborg, the environmental sceptic.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Hedgehog Caption

Friday, October 05, 2007

Recommending Eca

I'm off to Lisbon today for a long weekend. I only mention this to explain my impending blog silence - and to urge anyone who hasn't to read this great Portuguese writer. You won't be sorry. Try Cousin Basilio - up there with Flaubert and Balzac, but with an entirely distinctive voice.

Olympic Mind Games

Sorry if my use of this headline gets the blog closed down, Bryan. Apparently it infringes the IOC's protected brand - as an unfortunate children's author found out when he titled his latest yarn this. The IOC came down on him and his publishers like a ton of bricks, threatening legal action to get the book withdrawn. They only backed down when the media got interested - and then only on the grounds that it had sold so few copies. So presumably if we all go and buy it, they'll pounce again... The first fags I ever bought (as a fresh-faced 9-yr-old lad) were called Olympic. Innocent times.

Was Beckham Murdered?

I intend to call for an inquest into the death of David Beckham. I know he's not dead but he will die eventually. If we wait until he does snuff it, then we'll be stuck with another decade of tabloid and lawyer-driven lunacy. My own theory, for what it is worth, is that the soft-spoken soccer superstar was the victim of a conspiracy involving Alec Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and that weirdly camp BBC weatherman. The piano that fell on him was provided by Elton John.


The Japanese associate sex with toys - note the eleven interchangeable heads - and the Americans with food - 'the big hit was mayonnaise'. The British, of course, associate sex with the loss of empire and house prices. 

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Mindlessness: The Carey-Appleyard Shootout

Following my post John Carey and the Mindlessness of Ballet, I have been engaged in an email debate with John. Slightly edited - ie stripped of small talk - here it is.

John: I meant that ballet cannot transmit concepts, any more than football can, since only language can transmit concepts, and ballet and football do not use language. Hence, while it would be possible to teach a chimpanzee to dance or play football, one could not teach it concepts and would be justified (I think) in calling it mindless by comparison with human beings. Sorry I did not make that clear.
Me: The 'mindless' point was intriguing because it implied a particular view of art which I don't think I share.  In your chimpanzee example - you could,  I suppose, teach a chimp to play football or dance after a fashion but the point is it could not play football as well as Elano ( I am a Man City supporter) or dance as well as Nureyev and that's the point. They play or dance that well because of the presence of mind - not just their own but also the minds of others who create the context. It may not be mind in the sense of high cerebral intelligence but it is mind nonetheless. The further point is that all art is a conceptualised version of something or other. In this sense, dance is a series of concepts as much as any poem or novel.
John: I dare say that the 'mindless' thing comes down, like to many other disputes, to the meaning of words. I'm sure you are right that professional footballers and ballet dancers play football and dance better than chimps (in the opinion of football and ballet fans, if not of chimps). But no matter how well they played or danced they could not transmit concepts. Words can. Take, for example, your email to me. It is made of concepts linked together into an argument and is therefore undoubtedly an expression of mind. You could not have transmitted the same concepts by dancing or running after a ball. That is why, although I might say I disagree with your email, it would be absurd to say that I disagree with a ballet or a football match. They do not contain any concepts to disagree with. Or so it seems to me - but I'm well aware that all such opinions are subjective - which was, indeed, the main point of the book I wrote about the arts.
Me: I think you are setting too much store by agree/disagree. Art expresses concepts by other means. It may not do so as clearly as the verbal statement of those concepts, but that is not its intention. Poetry, on the whole, does not present a series of concepts with which one could agree or disagree. I don't see why, therefore, it's any different from ballet or music.

To be, I am sure, continued.

Sputnik: My Part in its Downfall

Amidst all this fiftieth anniversary stuff, I've been trying all morning to think of a way of standing up that headline. But I can't. Though, a few years later, I do remember thinking too much fuss was being made about all such projects in view of what had been happening in sci-fi for decades. So perhaps my dandyish indifference was my part in Sputnik's downfall. Anyway, that gives me a chance to recommend, in case I have not done so already, the works of Stanislaw Lem, the second greatest SF writer after H.G.Wells. Everybody knows Solaris, of course, but try Fiasco, a compelling and utterly weird read.

The How to Crab Safely and Effectively Caption

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

One Small Step For Mann..

On this day in 1965, a British band became the first to play behind the Iron Curtain. Bet you can't guess who it was... Give up? It was Manfred Mann, of Doo-Wah-Diddy fame. In 1965, the Reds could have done a lot worse.