Sunday, March 30, 2008

Moving Things

More from Salle. The most moving thing about old pews and choir stalls is the way the tops of them shine. They are polished by hundreds of years of human hands. A peregrine just grounded a pigeon in my garden. It must have missed the kill on the way down, otherwise I would have heard the pigeon's neck snap in mid air. The pigeon got away; the peregrine was not that impressive in level flight. I see what Baker meant about these birds. They are moving.

From Prozzze to LOL

Having mocked at length (see, for example, this) the previous occupant of Radio 4's Point Of View slot, I should alert anyone who hasn't noticed to the fact that the great Clive James is now back, and on brilliant form. This, which I caught this morning, had me laughing out loud, almost throughout - no mean feat so early in the day and after a night cruelly truncated by the move to BST.

Cheeta again

Me Cheeta, the eagerly awaited memoirs of Hollywood's senior chimp (since the death of George Burns), have yet to be published, but early reports are promising. Apparently, in his retirement, the resourceful primate has been earning good money as a body double for Robin Williams. Cheeta also recalls how he and his erstwhile co-star Johnny Weismuller both went for the part of Terry in On The Waterfront. Nothing came of it, but Cheeta was the one who got called back. This book is dynamite - get your order in.

Robot Sex and the Ontological Proof

The Sunday Times web site being down, I cannot link to my fascinating article on robot sex - ah now I can. But here is a picture of the choir stalls at Salle, one of the great churches of England and, therefore, the world. Executed about 500 years before we were born, it shows me (left) and Nige (right) discussing the ontological proof.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Giant Bird News

While Bryan recovers his right mind, I must return to one of the long-running themes of this blog - the invasion of our fair land by Giant Birds. My latest posting told of an incongruous sighting of an Egret (giving rise to a flurry of sparkling wordplay). Since then, things have been a little quieter - but, to coin a phrase, They haven't gone away, you know. This morning, walking down my Surrey suburban high street, scanning the skies as usual (all part of the service), I saw an impressively large Cormorant, flying due south in a very determined manner. A long way from the Thames, a much longer way from the coast - what was it doing? We can only speculate, but it is surely a sign of Things to Come... Ugly bastards, cormorants.

Mice, UFOs and Seasick Steve

I can't help feeling these stories - here and here - are linked in ways known only to a very few people indeed. On the other hand, I am listening to Seasick Steve  - CaptainB brought over the CDs - and my mind is not right.

Death Watch

I want one.

Old Ashbery

Thanks, Frank, for this excellent essay on John Ashbery.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Banning Death

Talking of Brazil (see Emo Wars), here's a notable municipal initiative from the land where the nuts come from. I can see this one catching on - the likes of Dawn Motorola would just love to make us all crims for failing to look after ourselves. Meanwhile, the 'vertical cemeteries' mentioned in passing sound like rather a good space-saving wheeze. I suppose cremation's out of the question?

The Laughter of Charlotte

Yesterday, it was Richard Widmark, today it's Abby Mann, who wrote the screenplay for Judgment At Nuremberg, in which, of course, Widmark starred. News of Mann's death apparently reduced Radio 4 newsreader Charlotte Greeen to helpless laughter on the Today programme. However, it was the preceding item that had done the damage - a recording of the human voice dating from 1860, which personally I found more sinister than funny. This uncharacteristic mishap will only enhance Miss Green's status as sex symbol of choice for a certain kind of male Radio 4 listener. I know what they mean, actually...

Gilding the Iron Lily

Is it my imagination or will this actually improve the Eiffel Tower?


And so Fitna, Geert Wilders' film, is not as dangerous as expected. I just watched it and felt nothing in particular beyond a certain hopelessness. It links Islamic terrorism directly to verses in the Koran and compares Islamicism with communism and fascism. We defeated those threats to European freedom, now we must defeat this one. Of course, we must - 'we' includes Muslims  - but this is a very different kind of campaign in which it is impossible to assess the extent and nature of the threat. And it is, primarily, cultural rather than military. Pursuing internal terrorism through body counts would be absurd and counter-productive; pursuing it through an absolute refusal to compromise our freedoms will, in the long run, work. In that context, Fitna is no help at all. It calls on Muslims to tear offending pages out of the Koran and implies that Islam is intrinsically violent. It thus pushes its viewers towards a blasphemous and potentially murderous absolutism which is the mirror image of Islamism - hence the feeling of hopelessness. I guess we'll carry on killing each other as we usually do. Like I said, completely stupid.

Emo Wars

Street wars have broken out in Mexico between lovers and haters of emo - music, I gather. You've got to hand it to human beings, they're completely stupid.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Lesson in Prose

Jeff has just posted on Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, the exhibition at Tate Britain. You may recall Nige posted on the same subject. Compare the two - it's amazing how much prose can do and how little.

Hanami, Anyone?

Much excitement in Japan as the cherry blossom season gets under way, a few days earlier than usual (oh yes, that'll be the global warming). Those Hanami parties (ostensibly for viewing the blossom and thinking deep thoughts about the transience of life etc) sound like fun. As an excuse for getting drunk and having a good time, 'going to view the cherry blossom' could hardly be topped - but somehow I can't see it catching on over here.
The Japanese tendency towards exquisitely refined sensibility in one direction and sadistic brutality in the other seems puzzling, but is hardly unique (are they even different directions?). One thinks of all those concentration camp officers with their precious string quartets, of fastidious AH and his dainty manners - or indeed of refined cineaste and crooner Kim Jong Il ('I'm so ronery'... OK, maybe that was fiction). We humans are a strange bunch (observes Nige, admitting defeat and looking forward to cherry blossom time in Kensington Gardens).
By the way, was there ever a more unsuitable name for any product than Cherry Blossom shoe polish?

Richard Widmark

Just a word (from Nige) to mark the death of Richard Widmark, one of those great, capable, characterful, instantly recognisable screen presences who are easily taken for granted - until you realise that they're not making them any more. Nor are they making film stars as publicity shy as Widmark - these days it's more a case of strategically backing into the limelight. Widmark vowed never to appear in a talk show, and he stuck to it. He also stuck to his first wife for nearly 55 years. He made few public comments, but here's one: 'I know I've made kind of a half-assed career out of violence, but I abhor violence.' Half-assed it wasn't. RIP.

The Prisoner and the Internet

In the Wall Street Journal Daniel Henninger compares the internet to the large white balloon that prevents people escaping from the island in The Prisoner. The balloon, like the web, 'pacifies' its victims. I like that.

On Narcissism

Okay I'll drop 'meism' and just call it narcissism. Susan asks, 'Honestly, is there such a thing as a politician who is not a narcissist?' But then admits she can't 'warm to' Hillary. This is my point, Susan, narcissists are incapable of empathy, nobody can warm to them. It is certainly plausible to say that all politicians are egotists and it is certainly possible to warm to them - many speak of Bill Clinton with nostalgic affection. He may, politically speaking, be as bad as her, but he had the one thing she, as a narcissist, cannot have, charm. There are, in politics as in life, very few narcissists but they are usually very prominent. I always notice them - I seem to have a very accurate detector, I spotted most of the narcissists I know within a few seconds of meeting them - and become, for a time, gripped by their absolute remoteness. A psychotherapist I knew set out on her career convinced she could crack the narcissist's complex dance of denial and auto-justification. But, finally, she gave up, concluding they were untreatable; they just danced away whenever she got close. This is, I think, because unlike, say, depression, narcissism is not an affliction or accretion of the self, it is the self itself. People are born narcissists and die narcissists; to cure them would be to destroy them.  Many years ago, I remember interrupting one narcissist to point out that what he had just said was factually incorrect and, in fact, absurd. He just waited for me to stop and then carried on. What I said didn't matter because it did not reflect back his own self-image. Since that self-image does not include the statement 'I am a narcissist', in the unlikely event that he reads this he won't recognise himself. Anyway, I am letting my obsession show so I'd better stop.

Altered Images

'The decline of the church parallels the mass manufacture of cameras' - David Hockney. The church controlled images, then the media, now everybody does. In a brilliant report on Newsnight last night, Paul Mason showed Chinese strikers taking pictures with their phones. These were then disseminated to show others, against all their recent political experience, that strikes were possible. On the other hand, as Hockney says, Photoshop has convinced us that many, if not most, contemporary images are no more 'real' than Hillary's 'experience'. The image has been simultaneously freed and debauched. For every three steps the world takes forward, it takes three back. Or four.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Meism of Hillary Clinton

All my life I have known a certain type of person who does not live in quite the same world as me. They lack irony and everything they say sounds slightly false, a little too transparently self-promoting and often quite unbelievable. I suppose it's narcissism. I was going to call them Narcs, but this has other overtones, and egotist isn't quite right, so let's call them Meists. Meism need not be a terrible thing. I like some of these people, some have been my friends. But always, when I am with them, I am aware of having to falsify myself in order to get on their wavelength. Basically, as is usual with narcissists, one has to accept their self-estimation otherwise one will simply be rejected. I sense that Hillary Clinton is one of these people, though not Bill. When I interviewed him, he seemed full of irony and a sort of grand insouciance; he was an egotist but not really a meist. I have always been fascinated by meists - at one end of the scale this explains my obsession with Jeffrey Archer, one of the most outrageous meists in the business. And so, at the moment, I'm fascinated by Hillary, in particular by the criticism and abuse her increasingly obvious meism is attracting. I linked to this David Brooks column earlier, but also here is Maureen Dowd who suggests Hillary wants McCain to win so she will have another shot in 2012. Most scathing of all there is Andrew Sullivan - a self-confessed Hillary-hater - who, in post after post, takes the woman apart. The commentary indicates that people now see that Hillary's is not the harmless, garden-variety meism that afflicts many politicians (and journalists); it is the more dangerous type in which the survival of the meist's self-image is a value that trumps all others and which requires the destruction of anybody who does not subscribe to that self-image. Allowing for the fact that I don't know her, I suspect this is right. The way she is now tossing any abuse she can in Obama's direction and the increasing transparency of her lies suggest she is in an acute meist phase in which the self thrashes around and clutches any available weapon to sustain its coherence. One shudders at the onset of such a phase in the Oval Office. All of which is to say - Obama or McCain, but, please, under no circumstances Hillary.

Oi, Darling - You're Barred!

This seems to me to be an excellent idea (and Moe - just say No). We should all get behind it - but don't go mistaking the similarly pied Bryan for wee Alistair (as if). And meanwhile, another entirely arbitrary revision of these so-called 'guidelines' - just to make it very clear to everyone who's in charge (i.e. the wowsers).

The Bright Red Page

Focus. You will not have noticed that there is a new tab called 'Immortality' on the front page of this site. Clicking on it will bring up a bright red page containing some of the nice things that were said about my last book. Having read these nice things, you will buy the book.
PS I note my cyberwonks in Brighton have reduced the redness. As with barbers, I wouldn't dream of arguing.

Clinton, Brown and the Content-Free Wave

David Brooks in the New York Times - 'No wonder the Clinton campaign feels impersonal. It's like a machine for the production of politics.' 
This is brilliant; it is also a very exact description of the Brown campaign.
From the same column - '... the tens of thousands of times she pretended to be delighted to see someone she doesn't know...' 
Of course, that silly, empty wave at nobody.... why do they do that?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Streets Full of Water

On this day in 421AD, the city of Venice was founded. How can they possibly know that? Happy 1,587th birthday anyway, Venice - and here's a rather nice ever changing blog for all lovers of La Serenissima.

The Teachers and Sir Bobby

Dear me, the anger management is going very badly today. I mean I did know that the National Union of Teachers consisted of a bunch of cretinous, anti-democratic, anti-social, anti-education, anti-life twerps, but I don't think I realised the full extent of the problem until now
On the other hand I was soothed by the great Sir Bobby Robson's press conference about his cancer charity. He said, when he was given the bad news by his doctor, that he thought Malignant Melanoma played for Benfica.
Life, to be sure, is a matter of swings and roundabouts. 

Brown Digs On

Brown really has dug himself into a hole over this embryo business, hasn't he? And, to judge by this, he's still digging. This 'compromise' doesn't resolve anything, does it? Or maybe I'm missing the point...

Anger Management

The Mental Health Foundation tells us that people who cannot control their anger have nowhere to go - 'It's the elephant in the room in mental health.'  Too right, it's a bloody outrage and somebody get this elephant out of here at once, I'm having to type with my nose. In short, control your anger, start a blog.

God Etc 2

I'm sorry I know I said I wasn't going to get all ad hominem about this, but this story - Dawkins sneaks in to see terrible film about creationism shock - has weakened my resolve. On his site Dawkins  devotes 3,530 words to the incident. This, I would remind you, is the holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. Now, let me see, what if the same thing had happened to a real intellectual, say, Isaiah Berlin? Just wondered.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Light the Passion, Share the Dream

In the apparent absence of Bryan, let me nip in with this comedy highlight of the day. What's worse is the unprecedented scale of this enterprise. Are the Chinese trying to tell us something, do you think?
The Torch Relay, significantly, was introduced by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics. They were certainly trying to tell us something. Never mind eh? Let the 'Journey of Harmony' begin - 'Light the Passion, Share the Dream'...

God Etc

An email from Newtonabbey informs me that I have an enemy who is 'constantly irritated' by my 'dopey musings'. I'm with him on that one. But what struck me about the email is the last sentence - 'But then, as the person who declared that Richard Dawkins is the strangest man you've ever met, your judgment of what does or doesn't make sense is hardly top notch.' I don't understand that at all. Dawkins IS strange. And, even if others don't think he is, what's so terrible about me thinking he is? But the wider point is - why Dawkins? Any breath of criticism of the man and his ideas are now treated by large numbers of people as offensive if not blasphemous. But I don't want to get all ad hominem this Easter, so I'll address the wider issue behind this - God, previously discussed in terms of Anglicanism by Nige. John Gray has dealt far better than I ever could with the intellectual failings of the new wave of militant atheists. I'll just make a simpler point. From about the age of thirteen I knew that God didn't exist in any sense that would satisfy the scientific imagination. I didn't become an atheist as a result, I simply concluded that either he didn't exist in any sense at all or he - or something like him - existed in a way that was inaccessible to our reason. I thought, and still think, that this was a pretty straightforward position that needed no further analysis. It also left me free to take God very seriously indeed, which I do. I defy anybody who doesn't take God seriously to come up with a credible reading of Titian's Assumption, which is another way of saying not to take God seriously is not to be fully alive. I became aware of the rise of militant atheism in the late eighties and concluded at once that it was a)stupid and b)cruel. Worst of all, it was c) wildly superstitious. The superstition was the belief that if everybody stopped believing in God then the world would become a better place. I still find it quite incredible that otherwise intelligent people believe this. When the new wave of God-doesn't-exist-and-good-riddance books came out, I was staggered. Of course, he doesn't exist in any meaningful sense and, since proving he doesn't will either persuade nobody or, if it does, it will achieve nothing, then what on earth is the point of these books, apart from making an awful lot of money? This is my problem with Dawkins and friends - I honestly don't know what they are talking about. I can't argue with them because there is, quite simply, nothing whatsoever to argue about. 

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Church this morning was unusually heartening. Arriving a little early, I found the place remarkably full and in the kind of noisy cheerful bustle that we are told was usual in medieval parish churches. This was the tail end of a family service - plenty of children still racketing around - and the hubbub had barely died down when the next service got under way. This too was not far short of a full house - in a large church, offering only the traditional satisfactions of high Anglican holy communion. No guitars, no ecstatic poses, no fatuous exhortations, just men in vestments, incense, the words of the Book of Common Prayer only lightly modified, a sensible sermon, a sonorous organ and a choir in notably good voice (a fine Samuel Wesley anthem) - and, by way of surroundings, a handsome old church done over by late Victorian Anglo-Catholics with good taste and a lavish budget. Although grey was the predominant hair colour, the congregation were of all ages, both sexes, several races and, by the look of it, social classes.
Anyone looking ahead from even ten years ago, let alone 20 or 30, would, I think, have been surprised to find that, rather than discreet decline, what seems to be going on here is a story of recovery and newfound confidence. As I said, very heartening. I wonder if similar scenes were being enacted all around the country, and, if so, what it means - the first signs that Christian England is at last waking up to itself? Listening to the forthright words of John Sentamu on the radio earlier today only reinforced the impression that, yes, perhaps it could be so...
(By the way, I am not a regular churchgoer - little more than Christmas and Easter. Nor am I at all sure I can even describe myself as a Christian.)


The elections in Bhutan sound like a really bad idea. William Dalrymple summarises the issues. (This must be a good piece as I normally try and avoid linking to the excremental mess that is the Telegraph web site.) Bhutan has successfully held out against modernity and the people don't seem to want or need democracy. (I like the fact that tourists are taxed at the rate of $200 a day. This should be applied globally.) But the King insists and, as Bhutan is not yet a democracy, there will be elections. It is strange how the idea of democracy has become such an absolute, incontestable good. I wonder if it really is. Anyway my message to the good people of Bhutan is, 'Unite, you have nothing to lose but your votes. Abstain in the name of freedom!'

Happy Easter

Happy Easter, Bryan - and all bloggers out there. This global warming eh? My fingers are almost too numb to type...

On Peter Doig

Outside the Peter Doig exhibition at Tate Britain, a video shows the artist talking about the show. People crowd round the screen, but some of the words are difficult to hear because of a booming sound coming from a nearby darkened room. I go into the dark room to discover it's a video installation. One of the grumpy old ladies who was plainly having trouble hearing Doig buttonholes an attendant - 'What is this?' 'It's a work of art.' 'But we can't hear anything.'  I suspect a lot of people are like that lady, they like Doig but they don't like contemporary art. On the other hand, he is also embraced by the mandarins of the art world. His White Canoe sold for $10 million and the critics I have read have been, at worst, indulgent, at best ecstatic. His paintings are, unquestionably lovely things. You see them, you like them. The next moment, you'll be picking up the references - the religious iconography, Picasso, van Gogh, any number of impressionists and, perhaps pre-eminently, Gaugin. There's also various movies including Blade Runner, this being one that nobody else seems to have noticed. In short, the moment you walk into the show, you are seduced by the paintings. I was particularly taken with some paintings of a Le Corbusier building seen through trees. But then, I realised, these would have worked better as photographs. This led to the further realisation that I was completely unengaged by any the paintings, that it was all just being laid out in front of me, the elements of a certain kind of art but not art. Is, I began to wonder, Doig - instantly accessible and artistically aware -  just the painter we need to reassure us that painting is not dead? Or perhaps I was just in a bad mood.

Kris Kristofferson

In The Sunday Times I interview Kris Kristofferson. This was the first interview I have conducted in the car park of Tesco, West Kensington, the first of many I trust.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Telegraph and the School Orgy

I lost interest in the Telegraph when it caught technophilia and tried to turn itself into an iPod. I know newspapers feel they have to do this - they'll realise the error of their ways in about five years - but the Telegraph in particular should have stood - hands thrust in cardigan pockets, pipe gripped firmly in teeth - against the tide. Yet it remains an interesting paper that, in so many ways, embodies the intellectual problems of conservatism. Here, for example, Charles Moore remembers 1968, not as the year of protest, but as the year of Enoch Powell's river of blood speech and Paul VI's Humanae Vitae encyclical. Good point - intense social conservatism was also, in its own way, on the streets. And here, Simon Heffer defends capitalism, the events of the week having induced some scepticism about the ability of markets to cope with globalised abuses. Heffer argues we just need to enforce on a global scale. 'Strict economic sanctions... of the sort America has operated for half a century against Cuba,' may be necessary against states that harbour market abusers. And there you have it. The 'freedom' of markets has to be severely limited by state power. Vassals of the state is not quite how the loathsome hedgies saw themselves. Furthermore, the ideology behind that 'freedom' will, inevitably, be in conflict with the social aspirations of conservatism - the hedgies were as much of a threat to Moore's dream of social order as were the 68ers. That's the trouble with freedom; as Kris Kristofferson sang, it's just another word for nothing left to lose. In which context, another story in the Telegraph casts lights on the heart of the matter, the human default mode.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Sullivan's Anguish

A must read, this.

Good Friday Politics

I read John Harris pining for the spirit of 1968 just as Tariq Ali was on Desert Island Discs pining, in his grandiloquent, toff tones, for much the same thing.  Meanwhile, here's Polly trying once again to get Gordon back on track by embracing, if not quite the spirit of '68, at least some distant approximation. Without actually agreeing with them, one can see their point. The right, from the later eighties onwards, abandoned conservatism in favour of, first, neoliberalism and then neoconservatism. Thanks to the abject failure of their Iraq strategy, which has weakened appallingly America's position in the world, the neocons are now dead, but, like Mick Jagger in the Randy Newman song, they don't know it. (I regard the current Iraq strategy - military realism - as the polar opposite of the neocons' war-lite, knock 'em down and they'll be fine strategy.) Neocons like William Kristol are still convincing themselves they are among the living by trying to swift-boat Barack Obama. The neocons being what they are - cliquish, gangsterish - they'll probably succeed. But they're still dead. Meanwhile, under the shadow of the credit crunch, the neolibs once again find their vision of  markets free of all state encumbrances looking a touch implausible. Paul Krugman - with whom I often disagree - gets it about right. In this context, once can see why the left should feel it's time has come again. But the '68ers, the neocons and the neolibs have one big thing in common, they are all fantasists. Nobody with any insight into history and human nature could possibly believe such nonsensical programmes. I've dabbled in them all at one time or another, so, with some small authority, I can tell you they're all the bleeding same - self-aggrandising, cruel simplifications that satisfy the need of the faithless to believe. I don't know what remains. Sane pragmatists with a solid tragic sense are hard to find these days.  But, trust me, one day they'll be back - wry, sceptical, occasionally drunk, and never so dumb as to dazzled by the spectre of a perfect future.

The Sanitary Boycott

I have thus far taken the measured view that the Beijing Olympics should not be boycotted because of Tibet or Darfur. But a new issue has now arisen. This is wholly unacceptable, the Chinese should be made to feel the lash of international outrage.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Easter Caption

This is not me. In fact, I don't know who it is. It's another of those photos I can't remember taking. But he looks happy enough. I'm wondering if I should invite people to send in pictures. But I fear the consequences. Anyway, have a good Easter.

Pepys Goes Online

Talking of diaries, I can recommend this, which is updated daily, though it appears to be always one day behind...

On the Other Hand...

Reasonable men agree that this is the first day of spring - if there was any sun, we'd note with delight or alarm, according to choice, that its light lasts exactly as long as the darkness (an illusion in fact, but never mind). Here's how one cheerful cove greeted this day in 1967:
'Long walk through Regent's Park. Sunshine and the first ghastliness of spring... Sat in the blazing light and noticed how hideous the bright sunshine made everyone (myself included) appear.'
Any guesses?

To Loot or Not to Loot Tesco

I was going to blog about the imminent collapse of capitalism - you know the sort of thing, where to get hold of an AK47, how to loot your local Tesco, the tastiest way to poach a rat and the best way to handle a warlord. But, somehow, I don't think you'd get it. There is, you see, this colossal disconnect about this whole credit crunch story (I now follow it through the superb Alphaville blog at the FT, I suggest you do the same). On one side, appalling things are happening in the financial system which, not long ago, grand City experts were telling us couldn't possibly happen. And, on the other hand, nothing much seems to be happening in the real world. There is, I think, a feeling that this will all blow over and things will return to normal except there will no booming house prices. That might happen. But, reading Alphaville and watching the latest panics unfold, I do feel that things are getting seriously out of control and that real people will soon be suffering real pain - apart, of course, from the poor blacks in America who were mis-sold mortgages by Wall Street-backed bastards, but nobody seems to care about them. What is most alarming is that America's key weakness - the scale of dollar holdings by less than sympathetic regimes - is in danger of being exposed. The run on the dollar may have only just begun. And, since you ask, loot counter-clockwise starting with the litre bottles of Bells.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Alarmed, Depressed...?

Why does this both alarm and depress me? (asks Nige). Is it that it 's a simultaneous reminder of how dangerous the world is and how little the government can do about it, least of all by setting up some kind of super committee, which seems to be about all this boils down to? Maybe it's no more than another 'I'm in charge' move by Brown. If so, it doesn't look like a very wise one. It's the catalogue of (known) risks that's likely to impress people more than any proposed action...

For Mark Skipworth

I don't mix much with journalists. I go into The Sunday Times offices about once a year and I rarely attend gatherings of hacks unless not to do so would have career implications. But last night I went to a farewell party for Mark Skipworth, head of news at the ST, who is going to the Telegraph. I couldn't call Skip a friend, I can only remember a couple of non-professional conversations with him - one involving Emmylou Harris. Skip likes Schubert and Emmylou, as do I, as do all sensitive people. I haven't worked with him that much, since I don't work for news that often, but he has been involved as, so to speak, master of ceremonies for some of my most satisfying assignments - the Pope's funeral, the '03 Rugby World Cup Final and Diana's funeral. I'll always remember the measured tone of his phone calls - carefully balancing his awareness of the constant possibility that I might crack and fail to meet his terrifying deadlines with his need to convey the appalling consequences if I did. Skip, you will gather, smells of journalism. He talks excitedly of scams, scoops and stunts. He ran the news show with benign scepticism - benign because he loves journalism, sceptical because he knows journalists. Like all truly serious people, he finds life and people funny. Skip is old school, a man from the great days before marketing and advertising tightened their grip on the business. I shall miss him. I hope the Telegraph people know what they've got.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Dalai Lama

Many years ago I interviewed the Dalai Lama at Heathrow. He wore big brown brogues under his saffron robes, chuckled a lot and held my hand throughout. I was charmed; I still am. He has achieved two things. First, he has preserved the identity of Tibet while in exile in India. Secondly, he has exploited the mystique of Tibet to keep the injustice of its subjugation by China constantly in the minds and imaginations of the West. Now he says he will resign if the violence continues - I didn't know resignation was an option for the holder of his office - and the Chinese are saying he is behind the violence. I'm sure the Chinese have no evidence for this. The calls for a boycott of the Olympics will get louder. As I have said before, this would not be a good idea however flattering it might be to our consciences. If the violence continues, the boycott is a real possibility followed by an insulted China full of resurgent Maoist nasties saying 'we told you so' and the prospect of economic revenge on the West. Even the sale of a small proportion of her dollar reserves would make a bad situation much worse. His Holiness doesn't want this, he just wants a little more autonomy for his people so that they are not drowned by the tide of Han Chinese flooding into their territory. For some reason, the Chinese leaders can't get it into their heads that they can talk to him. One day, they'll have to.

Education, Education...

This bit of news from Peru makes me wonder how many would pass a basic competency test if our own classroom teachers were set one. Apparently the situation in Peru is the product of years of 60s-style 'progressive' - nay 'revolutionary' - (anti)educational ideology, which eschewed all forms of testing, even of teachers, most of whom are wholly unqualified. The result is that Peru is near the bottom in the world league of educational attainment. Hey ho.

Heather Mills

From Anecdotal Evidence, Patrick Kurp's superb literary blog:
'One despairs of a future in which the dominant mood is one of aggrieved entitlement.'
It made me think of Heather Mills. She spoke outside the courtroom as though aggrieved entitlement was the only language she or anybody else could understand.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Nine Lords a'Blogging

An email arrives from the aristocracy:
'I wanted to let you know about a new blog launched today called 'Lords of the Blog'. You will be pleased to know that we have added your blog on our blogroll so if you could reciprocate or post a short story on your blog about the new pilot, that would be much appreciated. Here's some more information about the initiative: Lords of the Blog is a new collaborative online blog, launched and written by Members of the House of Lords to increase public engagement with the work of the Upper House and its Members. Nine Peers have come together from across the House to make short regular entries providing an insight into the business of the House of Lords and to talk about their own activities in and around the Chamber. Members will write and upload material and moderate user comments themselves.'
A cursory glance at the blog suggests it is all rather jolly, so go there - after all, they are telling people to come here. My American readers may be interested to know that protocol requires that the Lords blog in full ermine, their feet resting on a foundling child.

Gray Demolishes the God-Bothered Atheists

I am a little late in directing you to this article by John Gray. For some reason, John is persistently misunderstood by those who should be most inclined to agree with him. One recent American attack on him - I will not link to it - was so blind to the fact that the writer probably agreed with Gray that it seemed like a desperate act of self-wounding. In the case of this long Guardian article, his absolute demolition of the case of the militant atheists - Dawkins etc - should be read, in part, as a way of understanding the way his mind works. It's a wild ride inside the Gray head if you can just drop the attitude before you dive in.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Blog's Missed Birthday

And, good grief, I missed the second birthday of this blog yesterday. I didn't even give myself a present. I will be furious with me.

Emily Dickinson

Andrew Sullivan quotes a wonderful passage about Emily Dickinson - her eyes 'like the sherry the guest leaves in the glass'. I draw your attention to this because it's good and because one of my posts today was slightly nuts and the other was about politics in the lowest sense of the word. I felt I needed to raise the tone.

Mad Men and Wowsers

Here's a fabulously stupid idea, which will no doubt get implemented, if only in Liverpool. I must admit this SmokeFree Liverpool organisation had so far escaped my attention - but this confirms that it does indeed exist, and is every bit as ghastly as one would expect. Happily, what they seem not to have noticed is the proliferation of TV dramas in which - gasp - men smoke! A lot. All the time. The new US import Mad Men (the best thing since The Sopranos, and from one of that show's producers) features men - and women, even pregnant women! - smoking as if they're in training for some kind of international all-comers' smoke-off with huge cash prizes. Of course, all they're really doing is what people in their milieu in 1960 did - which includes equally heroic drinking, and world-beating elegance in the wearing of superbly cut suits and stylish hats.
On a less exalted level, in Ashes To Ashes (1980s) and its far superior predecessor Life On Mars (1970s), the action takes place in a thick fug of tobacco smoke. A forthcoming gangster drama, He Kills Coppers, which begins in the 1960s, features similar dizzying levels of nicotine intake. Why this spate of smoke-filled dramas - all, happily, taking place outside the scope of the BBFC? I think a powerul nostalgia is tugging at us, nostalgia for a recent past that seems so distant already - one where men were men, wore hats, smoked, drank and just got on with it, unimpeded, in a world that was very much theirs. Yes, distant indeed - and in all kinds of ways (and for all its faults) deeply enviable. These dramas touch a nerve, but maybe it's just a passing fashion. If the likes of SmokeFree Liverpool have their way, they'll soon be done for. The wowsers are bound to notice sooner or later and turn their attention to TV. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Balls is Prescott

Ever since the Today programme on Friday March 7th, Ed Balls, our Secretary of State for Schools, Family and Children, has been destroying my concentration. He runs through my head like a cheap tune whose title I can't remember. He has come up in almost every conversation I've had. I am now thinking of stopping people in the street and saying 'That Ed Balls eh....'. I'm pretty sure what will follow is that now familiar explosion of anger beginning, 'That bastard, he.....!'. The first problem is that Balls is so flagrantly not cut out to be a politician. His appearance on that Today show was heroically incompetent. John Humphrys sliced, diced and sauteed the poor fool so effectively that I began to sorry for him in spite of the fact that he appeared to be doing to A levels what he has done to everything else he touches - ballsing them up. The second problem is that he exudes invincible arrogance. As I think I have said before, he has a 'Wapshott' face in which a certain airy blandness is combined with a shadowy smirk suggesting absolutely groundless faith in his own intellectual powers. There is something so utterly tasteless about the man. Look, for example, at the house he owns in Castleford - it appears to have no windows which may explain why he blinks so much when he goes outside. The point is, I now realise, that he is John Prescott's replacement. Prezza was employed by Blair and Brown to be so perfectly ridiculous that he made them look good. Ever since his departure, the government has been dangerously exposed. But now Balls has risen to such prominence, now he is routinely blamed for everything from bad schools to bad weather, he has become the new Prescott. Normal service has been resumed.

Meet Bryan

In The Sunday Times I discuss the computer games Sims and Spore and interview their creator, Will Wright. The picture shows the creature I created while playing Spore. He is called Bryan. Unlike me, he is a Capricorn, he likes late Jeffrey Archer, he has two eyes on his haunches and his favourite colour is off-white.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Benylin and the Mind Body Problem

Having, so it is said, established that drugs and counselling don't work against depression, we now learn that anti-oxidants are powerless against cancer and antibiotics are useless against sinusitis. I don't know whether these things are true or not, but the mere fact that the efficacy of these treatments can be seriously challenged indicates a problem. The problem is a combination of excessive faith in the possibility of a cure and the placebo effect. Placebos work very well as long as the patients don't realise they are placebos. I would guess almost everything sold over the counter of the average pharmacy is a placebo, but they make people feel better because the context - pharmacist, packaging, names of obscure ingredients on the box - is so convincing. Any honest doctor will tell you that 90 per cent of prescriptions are useless, primarily because most conditions clear up of their own accord. But, feeling unwell, we just like to think something is being done and that should be enough to sustain the placebo effect and the pharmaceutical industry. This, of course, raises the question of how, exactly, the placebo effect works - how can the mind affect the body in this way? These are ancient, deep waters on which we float, unaware, every time we buy a bottle of Benylin.

Ear Hair

Following on from Nige's much loved Stubble? Beard? What Is It? post, I feel the time has come to break the taboo on the matter of ear hair. This (not for the faint hearted) dramatises the issue - if this man goes bald, he could have the most amazing comb-over - but it is a matter that has troubled me ever since I conducted an appalling interview with a very prominent figure, appalling because I was so fixated on his prominent ear tufts that I barely took in a word he said. The lady who cuts my hair recently told me she's always having to trim her husband's ears. Imagine what would happen if she slipped... Yes, I'm afraid there is something deeply troubling about ear hair, the locks that dare not speak their name.

Friday, March 14, 2008

You Can't Judge A Book... (Well, Maybe You Can)

As I spend a good deal of my working week on trains, above and below ground, I can't help but notice what my fellow passengers are reading. Surprisingly often - especially above ground - it is the Bible or related religious tracts. But large numbers are always reading the kind of big selling, respectable, emotionally correct titles endorsed by Richard and Judy and co, and I've noticed lately that they're all beginining to look the same. Jacket designers have gone big on sepia tones, singed parchment effects and faded photographs, often with a washed-out, hand-coloured look - le style Nemirovsky, you might call it (though Suite Francaise is a far far better book than most of these). It's odd how jacket design goes in phases - a while back, wherever I looked it was larky, spidery, all-over-the-place chick lit jackets, or a faux 50s hand-painted style for the marginally more serious works - this sparked perhaps by the ubiquitous Captain Corelli's Mandolin. Before that there was a phase of sunny escapism - tables in the sun, chairs, sun hats... These things come and (mercifully) go, but the present style suggests a strong tug of nostalgia for an elusive past when it seemed that things were serious and real and had meaning - perhaps it explains too the pull of those pseudo-enigmatic images of men in hats by Jack Vettriano. Something must.

The John Lewis List: A Life More Ordinary

I can't get too worked up about MPs expenses. Their pay is poor and their status low. There are too many of them, of course, and, because of the way our party system works, they are expected to act as pathetically obedient lobby fodder. It's not much of a job and only a few members - Frank Field being the glowing example -  seem to be able to rise above it all. Tripling their pay might help, it might also attract a better quality of candidate. That said, one stares at the list of second home allowances with sickly fascination. The sideboard and the rugs, the food mixer and the coffee maker, the nest of tables. It is simply outrageous they haven't included a hostess trolley and hardboard panelling to conceal any remaining period features. For this is a home circa 1962 when Barry Bucknell and Fanny Craddock were on TV, prawn cocktail and goulash were on the menu, people set fire to their liqueurs and Ikea was just a distant dream. Happy days.

Alarming Caption Contest

Work and life are intruding on blogging, so, for the moment, here is a truly terrifying picture that I intend to enter for the Turner Prize. Provenance might be a problem, however, as the really terrifying things is I can't remember taking it.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Stubble? Beard? What Is It?

Here's another distressing phenomenon of our times - middle-aged men who, agonisingly impaled on the horns of the beard-or-no-beard dilemma, settle for the halfway house of stubble that's a little too long to be stubble but a good deal too short to be a beard. The result, gentlemen, is that you end up looking as scruffy and suspect as Charles Clark or the BBC's head razor dodger Mark Thompson - and you just can't wear a suit when your chin's in that state, not without looking like The Defendant. Combined (as it often is) with the all too popular cropped head, the effect is still more displeasing. I know the stubbly head is supposed to disguise a follicular challenge, but, in older, greyer men I contend that it is Not a Good Look. Think Magwich.
I wonder what Selena Dreamy has to say...

New Meanings 2

Another new meaning. Everybody is suddenly saying, 'do the math'. It's been picked up from the American election campaign. We don't say 'math', we say 'maths'. I think it used to be 'crunch the numbers' or something. That, too, was American. I'm not convinced of the need for 'do the math', but, if it is needed, I think we should go for 'do the sums' or, possibly, 'perpetrate the calculus'. I suppose the meaning intended here is , 'Don't be stupid, the numbers make the situation perfectly clear'. But, if put like that, one would immediately suspect the speaker of being a fool.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

More on the Revolting Tattoo Habit

I am still insulted daily for my dislike of tattoos and that post remains my most hit ever, with many visitors still coming from Folsom in California, which, I trust, means the great prison. The last commenter but one said he had no idea that people like me existed. Well - what can I say? - here I am. Meanwhile, the great Elberry draws my attention to the thoughts on the subject of Adolf Loos, the modernist architect who equated ornament with crime. Pick the bones out of this one, guys:
'The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his oars, in short, everything within his reach. He is no criminal. The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons in which eighty percent of the prisoners are tattooed. The tattooed men who are not in prison are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed man dies in freedom, then he has died just a few years before committing a murder... Since the ornament is no longer organically connected with our culture, it is therefore no longer the expression of our culture.'


It's been a while since sheds came into it - and in the interval this splendid blog devoted to sheds and shedmen has been launched. Check out Alan Cook's shed (follow the links to Metro or The Sun) and marvel. Sheer shedonism...

On Blasphemy

A TV ad for a hair styler has been judged offensive by the Advertising Standards Authority. The ad uses part of the Lord's Prayer - 'Thy will be done' - and the initial 't' is made to resemble the cross. This is combined with erotic images of women. There's a very pale echo here of Theo van Gogh's film Submission in which verses from the Koran were projected on to the naked bodies of women. Van Gogh was killed, the ADA only requires the withdrawal of the ad and I don't think there are many British Christians like Mohammed Bouyeri. Then, of course, there were the Danish cartoons of the Prophet. Here's the question - is blasphemy a category of expression so distinct from any other that it cannot claim the defence of free speech? The strong liberal position is that it cannot, people are free to believe anything they like but must accept that those beliefs are open to criticism and abuse. The strong anti-liberal position is that a religion embodies a final truth, insulting which represents a crime against God. To permit such insults in the name of preserving freedom or social order is to misunderstand human destiny. I incline towards the first position for many reasons, not least because the second position is self-compromising - if a truth is so final, how can a few earthly insults be so important; indeed, how can they happen at all if the truth has been so thoroughly finalised? On the other hand, religious belief is, to a rough approximation, a universal human phenomenon and insults to belief do cause believers real anguish. The more genuine and pragmatic liberal position, therefore, might be an acceptance of this and the proscription of certain levels of blasphemy. We do, after all, proscribe racist 'hate' speech. The problem is that blasphemy is too easily self-defined and, as a result, this latter sort of liberalism is now being abused by Muslim extremists whose agitators are trying to turn almost every non-Muslim reference to Islam into blasphemy. Theo van Gogh's film is the flip side of that - religious extremism produces liberal extremism in response. The ordinary, respectful and very English acceptance of the faith of others that requires recourse to neither law nor murder seems to be a thing of the past. Which is a pity because, on the whole, neither lawyers nor murderers are the best hope for the future of the species.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

CaptainB Unmasked

Right, we've all got to pile in here. CaptainB is a regular commenter on this blog. He takes the name from our mutual rock 'n' roll nemesis Captain Beefheart. Anyway, CaptainB now authorises me to expose him as none other than the distinguished and distinguishable historian Michael Burleigh. The occasion for this revelation is the launch of his blog - here. I don't think he's quite got the hang of it since he's asking people to post. The idea, Burgley, is that you post and we comment or something like that. Get in there. The picture shows CaptainB and me being uncomfortable and trying not to be recognised in the rear facing seats of somebody's car. The poor quality of the photograph is explained by the fact that I didn't take it.

Weather Event Not Caused By Climate Change Shock

I could scarcely believe my ears this morning when this item made the BBC news bulletins, and was reported straight. The normal practice is to ignore or scornfully attack such heretical pronouncements. Don't expect the warmists to drop it from their 'evidence' base any time soon, though - any more than they did with Hurrican Katrina, etc. (This is Nige, by the way, not Bryan).

Human Enhancement Project in Deep Trouble

So anti-depressants don't work and, it seems, neither does counselling. Ultimately, I think this is because of the extraordinary deviousness of the human mind. Make it feel better in one way and it will find new ways of feeling worse. Depression, as Dorothy Rowe has pointed out, brings its rewards and the pills probably just improve your ability to savour those rewards. Counselling is a different matter. Judging by this article, it can be disastrous in that, in making people confront the sources of their trauma/depression, it makes matter worse. Common sense would suggest that this would be the case but common sense was subverted by the post-Freudian idea that exposing the suppressed trauma would help us to get over it. There is no reason why this should be the case. 'We forget these things for a reason,' as Peter Fonagy of UCL puts it. This is, of course, one more reason why coffee didn't cause the enlightenment - if the action of complex anti-depressants cannot be assessed then the action of a simple stimulant certainly can't -  and human enhancement is an incoherent concept.

The Brownies and the Illusion of Expertise

The left's frustration with Brown has become obsessive. In the Guardian John Harris was at it last week and today there's Polly Toynbee complaining about Labour's sickly fixation on the rich. She's right about that, but she doesn't get under the skin of this strange neurosis. Blair wanted non-civil service expertise so he turned to wealthy business men - not, on the whole, real ones but management consultants. Brown has continued this (it is his continuance of most things Blair that is the main source of the left's frustration). Now, in David Pitt-Watson we have a fund manager General Secretary of the party, a post once occupied by inarticulate but consoling trade unionists with pleasantly lumpy faces. The illusion of the expertise of the rich and successful is twofold. First, their expertise tends to be either non-existent in the case of the consultants or very narrow. The points about the narrowness has been made many times in the context of the banking crisis. Very few highly paid bankers whose bonuses bear no relation to the success of their businesses could, it has been pointed out, actually get jobs anywhere else so it would be quite safe for shareholders to insist on a cut in their 'packages'. Secondly, expertise itself is an illusion because, in the management of human affairs, a set of skills acquired in one culture will not transfer to another. Running a business is not like running a government; it can't and shouldn't be. There is no magical concept like 'efficiency' that can be frictionlessly transferred from one to the other. You only have to look at the fantastic wastefulness of this and the previous administration to see it's not working. Excessive faith in this kind external expertise is a sign of fear and weakness. Which brings me back to Brown and the frustrated left. Don't you get it? He's weak. 

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Imperfect Storm

I was unable to blog this morning as I was hastily constructing a raft from excitingly contemporary furniture. I am now floating down Bayswater Road, my Designers Guild bedspread sail puffed out by the mighty gale from the west. Bankers seated in Eames chairs are drifting past me. Their wives, clutching giant baby buggies, are balancing precariously on Conran tables and trying not to look at the children of the poor clinging on to their Ikea wardrobes. West London is a series of islands, the highest points crowded with writers, art dealers, hedge funders and nannies. Royal Navy helicopters have just begun pick up the most famous and those with the most plausible VAT records. A vast cruise ship can be seen in the distance. It is carrying Ken Livingstone and his 'advisers' to safety.
But, seriously, where is this storm? It just looks like an averagely bad day out there. It is very disappointing. With the Budget due, is this another Brownian plot to distract us from the appalling state of the public finances?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Crazy Name, Crazy Guy

I hadn't come across this fine fellow before, and pass on his details for their not inconsiderable comedy value. I particularly like the bit where he falls out of a tree in Thames Ditton...

London Deadlocked as Demonstrators Demand Niceness

Much of central London was shut down yesterday. A taxi driver gave one of those immemorial taxi driver shrugs when I asked him why. A seven-foot tall motor-cycle cop was standing in the middle of Lower Regent Street next to a temporary no-entry sign erected to prevent traffic reaching Piccadilly Circus. I asked him what was going on. The answer was interrupted by a scooter attempting to sneak past him. 'If,' said the cop to the scooterist with a deadly pause between each heavily italicised word, his leather pants creaking as he bowed, the better to fix the attention of the offender, 'you don't know what this sign means, sir, perhaps you ought to get a 'Ighway Code. I pointed that way...' he gestured down Jermyn Street, '... because I wanted you to go that way.' He turned back to me, his back straightening stiffly. 'It is a demonstration ...' his tone had now become ironic/official, '... about the rights of women in the Middle East and countries like that.' 'Oh,' I said, baffled. Soon afterwards I found the vanguard of the demo bearing down on me. I tried to work out from the signs what it was all about. The word 'women' was visible everywhere and there was a big sign promoting the view that violence against women was a bad thing. Rows of bystanders were watching, bemused. It was, I now know, International Women's Day. Neither I not the women in my life had ever heard of this and nobody had the faintest idea why a demonstration closing down central London was necessary. No particular, urgent issue was a stake, rather there was simply a determination to support women. They may as well have been marching to demand niceness or good manners. I suppose it was happening because, when the organisers approached the authorities, nobody had the balls to say no. I bet that cop would have told them where to get off.
'Madame, I cannot get my 'ed round your desire to paralyse the 'ub of empire on a Saturday afternoon all in the name of your deep hintuition that women is a good thing.'

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Smoothies Enigma

What are the Lib Dems for? Why, for coming up with such inspired initiatives as this.
For myself, I don't like smoothies - even their name is offputting - but there's no denying they're popular with the ladies. No doubt it's down to all manner of primitive urges, sanctified by what's known as the 'health halo' effect. Smoothies have an unearned reputation for being 'healthier' than mere juice, despite being more calorific and sugar-packed and, often, thickened with all manner of gunk, plus 'natural' sweetening. Still, hats off to the Lib Dems - the nation's binge drinkers will no doubt 'do the math' and switch instantly from alcopops to smoothies.

What LibDems are For

I am startled to see that Iain Dale objects to Nick Clegg's use of the word 'sclerotic' as being over the heads of his audience. Really? I would have thought that, since arteriosclerosis is so common, almost everybody would have come in contact with the word. Furthermore, it seems like only yesterday that Andrew Neil was referring to the German economy as 'sclerotic' in almost everything he wrote or said. (Andrew was prone to wishful-thinking.) Anyway, what good are LibDem politicians if they can't improve our vocabulary? Labour can't do it. Brown once lectured us on 'post neo-classical endogenous growth theory' and just sounded as though he hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about. The Tories can't do it because the only words most of their backbenchers understand are 'Margaret' and 'kill kill' and even those only fitfully. Ignore the knockers, Nick, swallow a thesaurus that we may engorge on your recondite multiloquence.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Jeff on Art

The great Jeff is on fire as never before, what with publication day looming. But he still finds time to spot an artist of prodigous gifts and high promise - this fellow. I think we should post appreciative comments and thank him for the tipoff...

Heyer We Go Again

My father (who, on one memorable occasion, did dye his hair, to hilarious effect) was, as I might have remarked before, a man of simple tastes - but they were often also markedly contradictory. One of his two favourite novelists - the two he would read and reread endlessly - was Nevil Shute, a more than competent writer who celebrated the kind of quiet male virtues that are now quite out of fashion (though, in more exalted and subtle forms, they are central to Shirley Hazzard's work). His other favourite was, by way of contrast, Georgette Heyer, a 'woman's writer' if ever there was one. I thought she too, with her sub-Austen Regency romances, had been long forgotten - but no: the current Book At Bedtime on Radio 4 is her Arabella. It seems there's a bit of a Heyer revival going on - and we really shouldn't be surprised. With Austen mania at fever pitch, it's bound to spill over into sub-Austen, pseudo-Austen, post-Austen, meta-Austen and the rest, simply to meet demand. Heyer's efficient - and notably well researched - romances may lack all that makes Jane Austen great, but they have found their moment. Again.

Men, Do Not Dye Your Hair

And, speaking of human enhancement, do not, gentlemen, dye your hair. The matter of male hair dye has intruded on almost every conversation I have had recently. It even came up in relation to Nick Cave's new album. Each of my interlocutors has retreated, traumatised, in the face of my vehement opposition to the artificial colouring of the ageing male's hair. It doesn't matter with women - they start dying their hair soon after they're born. For them, the process has been normalised. Older rock stars like Cave are expected not to look quite right. But a hair dyer who is neither female nor a rock star is an abomination. They never look right. This is partly because they always get the colour wrong. I have seen wealthy, prominent grandees who look like Duracell batteries - copper-coloured top -  and ordinary drones with lined faces surmounted by improbably black mops. Some think they can mitigate the worst effects by 'leaving a little grey around the temples'. This, of course, makes matters worse by establishing a stark and deeply implausible contrast. But chromatic ineptitude is not the only issue. Dyed hair always, for some reason, makes men look older, an effect that rapidly descends into grotesquerie as the years go by. Also I cannot get over the rather old-fashioned idea that it is not a masculine thing to do. Men should face the body's rotting with a heroic chin, a glass of whisky, a good book and a wry smile, not with a bottle of Grecian 2000.

Did Coffee Cause the Enlightenment?

Quinn Norton imagines a future drug called Morvigil which would cut your need for sleep, improve your concentration and make you smarter. She compares the effect of such a drug to the effects of coffee on the eighteenth century. It caused all sorts of problems but it also led to the Enlightenment. Morvigil would cause a second Enlightenment. The idea that coffee caused the Enlightenment is, to say the least, contentious. It doesn't make sense - the arrival of a simple stimulant would be equally likely to be correlated with a new Dark Age; that, in this case, it wasn't is neither here not there. But what is interesting is the technocratic rhetoric. Human enhancement is a dangerous delusion that will not go away. As demonstrated by the coffee-Enlightenment point, it is a consolingly simple idea. Obviously we can't enhance ourselves because, being human, we don't know what an enhancement would be. An interminable argument follows from this. I've had it a hundred times, but nobody has yet dented my ironclad scepticism on the matter. And now for some coffee, which, as it happens, always makes me deeply irrational.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Shirley Hazzard - Bryan Is Right

Acting on Bryan's urgent recommendations of Shirley Hazzard, I bought both The Transit of Venus and The Great Fire, and, slow reader that I am, I have finally completed both. I have to say, He Is Not Wrong. These are two novels quite unlike anything I'd ever come across in contemporary fiction (though there's a distant affinity with the great Marilynne). They deal primarily with love and, of all things, goodness, and they do so with a subtlety and layered complexity that is rarely encountered (though often imitated in works that are merely dull). The Transit of Venus works through the gradual unveiling of its characters' depths in a plot of extraordinarily ingenious construction and enormous range, in which things yet seem to happen as they do in life - i.e. not at all, then all at once, and often, crucially, beyond our control. The Great Fire inhabits a similar world, but is more intensely focused on a handful of characters across a shorter stretch of time (shortly after the Second World War). One of the results of this intense focus is that, as Bryan notes, by the end the emotional pressure is almost unbearable. Read it and weep (or not, according to choice) - but read it, and read The Transit of Venus. Indeed, it's probably safe to recommend every word Shirley Hazzard has written.
Here are the basics.

For Felix Hoffman and Hermann Dreser

As I feel a headache coming on, it seems only right to pay tribute to Felix Hoffman and Hermann Dreser, who - on this very day in 1899 - patented Aspirin, which seems to me to be the nearest thing we have to an everyday superdrug. Not only does it kill pain pretty effectively (especially in combination with codeine), cool fevers and thin the blood - there's also good evidence that it's preventative against a wide range of illnesses, including various forms of cancer. And yet - perhaps because it's so cheap and easily available - it's grievously undervalued, and many people (especially, in my experience, women) never go near it. They don't know what they're missing.

Still Smiling Through

The only thing that surprises me about this is how positive the outlook of the white working class remains (44 percent think immigration is 'a good thing'!) and how little different from the middle class's view of things. This poll is, it seems, linked to the BBC's White season - which begins well, on Friday, with an extraordinary documentary (made by an American film-maker), Last Orders. After that it lapses back into something more in line with the familiar BBC world view. The best account of the plight of the white working class (in London at least) is Michael Collins' excellent book, The Likes Of Us. Bryan will no doubt furnish us with a link to his very fine review...

My Kinda Guy

My enthusiasm for Apple has been on the wane lately - I have been subject to a series of appalling computer crises. But it perked up on reading this quote from Steve Jobs - 'We do no market research. We don't hire consultants.' I have long held that the quality of a company is inversely proportional to the size of its marketing department and the number of its management consultants. Needless to say, Apple is officially the most admired company in the world.

The Footedness of Beaches

Discussing the three right feet - each wearing a trainer - that have washed ashore in Canada, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer, said, 'Left footwear and right footwear often tend to wash up at different times at different places because they float differently. There are beaches that collect mostly rights and other beaches that collect mostly lefts.'I was in danger of never finding that out. My mild OCD will now oblige me to check every beach I visit for its footedness.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

On Patriotism 2

Let your chest - if you are English, okay British - swell a little when you read this letter to the New York Times.