Sunday, August 31, 2008

Darling's New Deal

Help me on this, I am no expert. Isn't 'in sixty years' the most significant phrase in Alistair Darling's interview? Here is my theory. All the exotic financial instruments that flowered in the markets in recent decades were off-balance sheet ways of circumventing the capital adequacy requirements imposed on banks in an attempt to prevent another Wall Street Crash. Whatever the claimed benefits of these instruments, the financial system was in breach of the spirit of the law. The banks cheated and failed to be the one thing they sell themselves as being - prudent. That system has now collapsed. By 'sixty years' Darling means Britain's financial difficulties after the war, but he is also indicating that the massive breach in the post-Crash banking provisions requires a new wave of regulation and control of the markets - not necessarily more but different. If things are as bad as Darling says and unemployment rises significantly, then this new wave - New Deal? - will be more radical than we can yet imagine.

Marilynne on the Election

Marilynne Robinson has written about the election in The New York Times. She speaks of a meeting in Iowa some months ago addressed by all the Democratic candidates. In a cheap, cynical manoeuvre, Hillary's supporters left immediately she had spoken, thus insulting all those who attended and took part.
'It was the intrusion of another idiom, an assertion that what passed between these speakers and their audience was beside the point, that elections were decided elsewhere and on other terms.'
Lucid, direct, elevated and true, you will read nothing better on politics this year.

Permanently Red

In The Sunday Times I interview John Berger

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Schama on Obama

For some, probably copyright, reason I don't seem to be able to link to Simon Schama's brilliant piece on the Obamoration in the Guardian. You will have to buy the paper - and I do mean you will have to. Killer line on Cheney - 'Obama is Cheney's worst nightmare, for he represents the antidote to the unanswerably laconic. Has there ever been a politician who revelled in deadly quietness quite so much as Cheney?'

Explaining Wallash

Often, late at night, I have been known to announce to a startled dinner guest, 'Wallash Shtevens, thassyerman. Sholves all outshtanding problemsh...." Days or weeks later, I hear that my baffled interlocutor has dipped into Stevens and then given up. This has just happened again so I set myself the task of a one sentence introduction to his poetry. After some thought, I came up with this - 'Two things are certain, that the world is made by my imagination and that it is not.' This, of course, may make matters worse, but it is at least accurate.

Sandpoint, Idaho

So McCain's Snow Queen wants creationism taught in schools. This is no big deal, so does Richard Dawkins. When, some time ago, I pointed out to him that you can only understand Darwinism if, first, you understand previous explanations for the 'design' of nature, he agreed. How could he disagree? It is obvious. The Alaskan Fox also wants to kill polar bears by drilling for oil. This is a big deal since, on the whole, polar bears seem nicer than humans. But the elephant party will drill as will the donkey. This is, presumably, part of the Obama plan to make the US independent of Middle Eastern oil in ten years. It's a really, really dumb idea. But, on the other hand, nobody seems to have noticed the one really big, good thing about Sarah Palin. She was born in Sandpoint, Idaho. Only 7000 people live there but it has now produced the Republican Veep candidate and the great Marilynne Robinson. The primary function of all politicians (they do not know this and they must not be told) is to make the world safe for and compatible with artistic genius. And, of course, polar bears. You can learn a lot thinking about Sandpoint. I must find an excuse to go there.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Vinyl 3

As I didn't see it and I haven't heard of her, the exact words to describe my feelings about the Obamoration and McCain's choice of Governor Palin (no relation, I trust, though Michael did do that pole to pole thing) as his Veep. As a concerned citizen of the mother country, however, I feel obliged to point out that, with the sole exception of American Beauty - an album, as Nige recently observed, made immortal by the bass playing of Phil Lesh - the Grateful Dead do not age well, even on Vinyl.

The Happy Fatty Implausibility

Am I the only one to have noticed that Wales comes out the fattest in the Fat Map of Britain and happiest in the Happy Map? No conclusions should be drawn from this spurious correlation. Happiness is only available to perilously thin people suffering, according to their wives, from body dysmorphia. Feeding on air, they skip though their days, only occasionally being toppled by gentle breezes or the slipstream of passing baby buggies.

Cynicism and The Wire

Thanks to the ubiquitous Dave Lull for sending me this essay. Of David Simon, the creator of The Wire, the authors conclude, 'He may think he's the crusading journalist exposing injustice, but he's really a cynic who takes pity on the poor, yet can't imagine a world where things could be different.' They say this because, though the city of Baltimore is the dark star of the show, all the positive initiatives that have happened there are ignored. They acknowledge there are virtuous characters in the show - McNulty, Freaman, Omar, Whalen, the Deacon and Cutty - but they are individuals helping individuals. The possibility of institutional change or reform is not even considered. They also acknowledge that this kind of balance is not an obligation on the artist - 'Shakespeare was not wrong because he did not write about good kings, Dante was not wrong because he wrote about hell...' This last point, of course, loses them the argument - why, then, is Simon wrong to use Baltimore in this way? However inaccurate he may be in providing detailed correspondences with the real city, he is entirely accurate in his portrayal of certain destructive eternals in human nature. Also, whatever initiatives are involved, the authors cannot possibly claim there is any hope of solving the drug problem in Baltimore or anywhere else. Simon may or may not be a cynic, but his belief that human beings are incorrigible is certainly not cynicism, it is absolute realism. What he is, without question, is an artist, one of the most interesting of  our age. The old left, the bienpensants, the chatterers, the progressives, like to say art should be subversive. But they run from the room screaming 'Cynicism!' when they are the ones being subverted.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fukuyama and Russia

It's hard to decide how seriously to take Russia. Seamus Milne says the Caucasus adventure is not August 1914, neither does it mark the advent of a new Cold War. But he does say it marks the end of the period when one power - America - could 'bestride the world like a colossus'. (Why do people write like that?) This may be true, though I think that moment came some time ago - perhaps with the failure of the original militarily minimalist strategy in Iraq. Or perhaps unipolarity was always an illusion. I seemed to think so in 2002. My argument then was with the Francis Fukuyama view that liberal democracy represented the end of history, which was, essentially, the ideological explanation for the end of the Cold War. I disagreed at once because, historically, dominant orthodoxies always think they are the last word and they are always wrong and because history is not a linear narrative but a succession of tragic contingencies. Some continue to defend the Fukuyama position by saying that the end of history did not mean the end of conflict, it meant merely that the fundamental ideological issue had been settled. Liberal democracy was the only acceptable and efficient way of organising society. This argument can be sustained indefinitely because any sign of resurgent history, however dramatic, can always be classified as a mere speed bump on the one way street down which we are all travelling. Another aspect of dominant orthodoxies is their habit of brandishing of an imagined future point at which the whole world will come to accept the truth of their vision. Such an argument is irrefutable in logic and, therefore, wrong. In practice, I think the surviving Fukuyamists are reading too much into the fact that global rhetoric, including that of Russia, does pay lip service to liberal democracy. The reality is that this is a thin disguise for massive ideological divergence. As Milne says, the example of Georgia will inspire more anti-American manoeuvres around the world - but even these will not be ideologically consistent. Unipolarity was an illusion; beneath its surface, as we now know, were a thousand cantankerous poles waiting for the moment which has now come. Welcome back as I said in 2002, to history as usual.

The Livingstone-Chavez Joke

'Ken' Livingstone has become an 'adviser' to Hugo Chavez. I have nothing to say about this. But the name Livingstone does always remind me of the following joke.

To what question is the answer 'Dr Livingstone I presume.'?

'What is your full name Dr Presume?'

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Sorrows of the Sofa

We will the biggest nation in Europe by 2060 and it will be interesting to see whether our anybody in our crowded island will, by that time, have discovered the secret of breakfast television. I have previously remarked on the amazing beneficence of the BBC in making a morning show for just one viewer, me. I watch out of pity, wondering why on earth they can't just drop the lame attempts at tabloid junk and do a TV version of Radio 4's Today programme. This morning pity failed and, while on the old exercise bike, I turned over to GMTV. Dear God! This has a funeral parlour set and is presented by an estate agent and some chick who hasn't learned the first lesson of Fox News - the hair, sweetheart, should not move at all. It was so boring and inane that even poor Penny Smith, now reduced to reading the news, felt obliged to call the sofa duo Ken and Barbie, a cut so cruel that I'm amazed they stayed on air. Perhaps they didn't; cringing with shock and embarrassment, I had to turn back to the quiet ineptitude of my own private show.

Suicide of the Democrats

The defence is in ruins, the 'keeper has died and, miraculously, the striker is on side and facing an open goal. That, roughly, was the position of the Democratic Party at the start of the American election campaign. Bush was less popular than cancer, Cheney was out-sinistering The Joker and the economy had gone weird. But then, in the great tradition of the Donkey party, the Democrats proceeded to shoot themselves in both feet prior to stepping on a rake. Denver is a debacle with hordes of mad, Hillary-briefed women stealing the coverage while McCain creeps ahead in the polls. Hillary said as little as she could get away with and God knows what Bill will say - he'll probably take credit for motherhood, the McFlurry and Michael Phelps. Post-primary Obama is over-cautious. Standing before that open goal, he's lining up his shot like Tiger planning a putt. He is, I would guess, within a few days of losing the election.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Cow Faces North

There is a field of cows to the south of where I live. The cows tend to face north. This is nothing to do with the earth's magnetic field, it is because they are staring in envy at a very thin man. Equally, the whales are losing blubber because, like everybody else, they have been convinced by my example to ditch the carbs. And, finally, I would be more impressed of these guys had driven to Greece, not on grease but on Corn Flakes, a far better use of that toxic breakfast food. But, I know, I did say I would stop talking about this diet thing.

Paxman Among the Women

Jane Martinson reponds to Jeremy Paxman's whine about the difficulties of being a middle class white male. Susan Faludi explains the bitterness of the Clintonistas. Michelle Obama addresses the Democratic Convention. Faludi and Martinson argue that the progress of women is stalled, that male dominance is intact. This is true in terms of the body count of women at the top. It is also true that the incontinent Alpha Male remains a blight on workplaces and, indeed, life. What is not clear, however, is the extent to which the desires of women are involved. Perhaps they just don't want the jobs enough or in sufficient numbers. I wouldn't blame them, neither do I. In any case, rhetorically if not politically, women have utterly defeated men. Rabid sexism against men is now accepted, indeed approved, throughout the media. Men only appear in ads to look foolish. As I said, in the face of this much of male culture is just a way of saying 'okay, you win'. And Michelle? Well, she's only there as a consort, but she is, after all, black and that, in the American context, is much much more important.

Not Ozymandias

I find the resurrection of Marcus Aurelius strangely moving. I can't stop looking at the great foot, the arm clutching a fragment of a globe and the stupendous head. It may be an Ozymandias moment, but I don't think so. Perhaps because he was a thinker as much as an emperor, it is the survival of Marcus one notices, not his fragmentation.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Ashbery and Alsop - More Capsules

My time capsule article has now given birth to two works of art. The above was made by Will Alsop - he forgot to meet my deadline and this was by way of compensation as well as being a time capsule list and a fine birthday present. Meanwhile, John Ashbery, having said he could think of nothing, changes his mind in this exquisite email.
'On second thought (and it may be too late for your deadline), I thought of contributing a ChapStick to the time capsule.  Do they exist in England?  It's a lip salve in the form of a lipstick, has a pleasant medicinal smell, is available everywhere (in the US) for a dollar or so, and is always there to soothe one's aged dry lips (unlike those who flee me now who sometime did me seek).  In other words, to use the blurbists'  hallowed formula, it "fills a long-felt need."'

Body Shop Sells Out

The slogan of L'Oreal, the smellies, face paint and hair soap company, is 'Because you're worth it.' The slogan of the environmental movement is, to a rough approximation, 'Oh no you're not.' Which makes it all the stranger that L'Oreal owns Body Shop. Now, under this ethically contradictory ownership, Body Shop is going to advertise globally for the first time. This is a bad move, partly because it will draw attention to L'Oreal's animal testing etc and partly because I am now convinced that advertising does not work. This came to me while watching an American TV ad for a bank that had merged with another bank. The ad said that 'with' was a wonderful word and, therefore, Bank A being 'with' Bank B was a good thing. This was deliriously stupid. But inventing a virtue and attaching it to any old random product is now a standard advertising trope. Its prevalence means that it cannot possibly be effective. A slogan that said simply, 'Bank A and Bank B have merged' would be cheaper and more helpful. Body Shop did not need advertising because it was itself an ad, its message was an important as its products. Now it's 'core values' are to be flaunted and will, as  result, end up being no more persuasive than the idea that 'with' is a word possessed of intrinsic virtue.

Book News

After damp start Brypat Books - open 1/365 - once against managed to pay for a few more repairs to the Stiffkey church. Two books, however, disappointed. Victoria Beckham's autobiography could not be shifted at any price and Frank Lampard's Totally Frank - hardback, first edition - was only taken off our hands when it was reduced to 5p. Popular culture is, perhaps, not quite as popular as publishers think. Or perhaps it is simply that Lampard's eyes are too close together and Vicky is slightly foxed.

The Diet Monster

At my birthday festivities following the Stiffkey Fete I was, of course, desperate to engage my guests in discussions of Wittgenstein's private language argument and the late poetry of Wallace Stevens. This turned out to be little more than a pious hope. For what was the only thing these cultivated, witty folk wanted to discuss? My frigging diet, that's what! I have created a monster that is taking over my life. I'm thin, okay, get used to it. Actually, I'm considering getting fat just to shut people up.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More Time Capsules

A couple of submissions for my time capsule article came in too late for the paper, so here they are in the blog. They are from a great thinker and a great poet.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: '1) Paul Samuelson's Textbook on Economics (or any current textbook) - so people can study our brain defects.
2) The "food pyramid" proposed by the American Medical Association so they understand how we practice "science".
3) A national flag, any nation.
4) A taped (digitalized) conversation in Aramaic from Maaloula, in Syria, (with a player so it could be played back).
5) If possible, aTexan and/or a Frenchman (randomly selected).'

John Ashbery: 'I'd love to help, but after racking my brain for several days I can't seem to come up with anything worthy of inclusion in a time capsule.  So sorry!'

Capsules, Albarn, Barenboim, Books and a Birthday

As it is my birthday I have decided to write The Sunday Times. I review Daniel Barenboim's book Everything is Connected. I interview Damon Albarn. And, finally I express a view on the strange world of time capsules.
Also, once again, it is the day of the Stiffkey Village Fete or, more precisely, the day of BryPat Books - all the gentry's reading needs, never knowingly oversold, who needs TV, open 1/365 etc.. This afternoon Grabber and I will be flogging mind expanding matter to the grateful Nor-folk. It is a great day, very English, very strange and, by the looks of things, very wet.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Carla and the Lama

The mystery of where Carlo Bruni would go after Nick Sarcastic has been solved. I'd been betting on the Pope - close but no cigar. In fact, it is to be the Dalai Lama. The pictures of the two of them together say it all. She even managed to outrobe him.

Vinyl 2

And, on the matter of platters that matter, one album that definitely sounds better on vinyl is John Phillips' Wolfking of LA. Nige and I agree - or did in the hazy days at the edge of memory - that this is one of the most insidiously perfect rock/pop albums ever made. Phillips, I note, subsequently sank into 'drug abuse, infidelity and failed artistic expression'. Insidiously perfect was not good enough; the album had bombed.

Friday, August 22, 2008

King Arthur

More news on the diet front to back the ideas of Arthur, Superman's Grandad.
First the irrepressible Dave Lull sends this news of a study that suggests carbohydrates and sugar destroy appetite control cells in the brain.
And then this from Nassim Nicholas Taleb who introduced me to Arthur's world.
'He specializes in uncertainty in the movies/ complexity in economics  and contacted me after the publication of my book Fooled by Randomness as we had similar views concerning the Black Swan  structure of uncertainty --we tried to collaborate on a paper. I used most of his results for The Black Swan and the accompanying papers --as movie returns provided great empirical evidence of fat tails in economic life.  As I was then a workout fanatic, he convinced me that my views of the structure of randomness in the world did not match my views on energy expenditure on the part of humans. Then I realized that in fact my energy output (and to some extent my input) needed to match the randomness in my natural habitat: long periods of inertia, burst of expenditure with a FRACTAL power law distribution (alpha ~2).  This is how we humans spent most of our time. Even heartbeat follows a power law! Mandelbrot had showed that much of biology was a power law (medicine took a lot of ideas from fractals).'

Secrets of the Green Room

After my stellar, life-changing, world-transforming, gold medal-winning performance on Richard & Judy, I retired to the Green Room. Ricky Gervais, Amanda Ross, the producer and brilliant manager of the R & J Book Club, Richard, Judy and assorted girls who had previously carried clipboards and worn headsets joined me. We talked of Arthur de Vany and the diet or way of life as I prefer to call it. Ricky was especially interested but apparently too devoted to carbs to be entirely enthusiastic. They all asked me detailed questions. 'I am not the expert,' I said, 'I am the evidence.' Perhaps disappointed by this, they then began to talk among themselves of various celebrities of whom I had never heard. They spoke in particular of the tribulations of their private lives. I realised suddenly how strange this is. The exposure of the private life has become an essential aspect - sometimes the only aspect - of being a celebrity. Yet these private lives are seldom especially extraordinary. Anybody's sexual history would be made to look chaotic and/or weird if exposed to public scrutiny. Perhaps celebrity heightens this a little, but, judging by the stories one hears and reads, not by much. Personally, unless there is some deep, structural reason why it is important, I am not interested in the private life. If I am interviewing somebody who is famous for being more than just famous - ie for actually having done something unusual or worthwhile - then trawling through the usual relationship nonsense seems like a waste of time and space. In this, I know I am hopelessly out of touch. And I have to acknowledge there may be some useful purpose being served by this exposure; we may be using celebrity lives as stories that reconcile us to our own failings, as, in effect, folk legends. That was how it sounded in the Green Room. People sat around the fire - sorry, canapes - and shared tales that would help them make sense of the storms and darkness outside their tiny circle.

No Country for Gold Medals

Speaking as a nattering nabob of negativism, the Olympics have been a trying time for me. Britain is still third in the medals table and the nation is in clear and present danger of succumbing to a nasty wave of increased self esteem. This, as I point out in the linked article, can only led to yet more drug-taking, violence and Ed Balls. We must I suppose, be grateful to the pampered jerks who comprise the worst football team in the world for continuing to remind us that it is in our nature to be bad at games. Only if irate disillusion, country pub gloom, C-list celebrities and sour nurses were to become Olympic events could we ever really feel at home with being third in the world.

No Country for Bad People

Is there a place on earth that is not a country, just a place? It must be liveable - not the Arctic or Antarctica. If not, such a no-country should be created at once. In recent days we have seen confusion about where both Pervez Musharraf and Paul 'Gary Glitter' Gadd should live. There would have been none of this fuss had we had the foresight to create No Country. Here convicted paedophiles and deposed despots could live out their natural lives. (You wouldn't want to go there in holiday, though my experience of the British abroad suggests they wouldn't notice anything particularly odd.) It may be, of course, that nationalism runs so deep in human nature that a No Country dictator would arise to forge an army of paedophiles and launch an attack on a neighbouring country on the basis of some imagined insult or threat. A horrific prospect, but not one we need fear. If this should happen, nobody would protest if we nuked No Country and started all over again.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Best Football Quote Ever

Quote of the decade from England captain John Terry after another dismal performance by the worst football team in the world.
'Hopefully,'  said the ashen-faced skipper, 'we can get off to a good start against Andorra and go from there.'
The poverty of ambition of England footballers never ceases to amaze.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Andrew Sullivan is one brave blogger; he has broached the matter of the semi-colon. I know Nige has strong feelings about this - he is very much in favour. He finds it, as I recall, an even more total cessation than a full stop. I have strong feelings also, but of inferiority. Someone - a teacher, I presume - once said to me, 'Not really at home with the semi-colon; are we?' and I have never fully recovered. Lately, with considerable effort, I have begin to use them with some frequency; they seem to come almost naturally at last. Yet I still fear Kurt Vonnegut's description of them as 'transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing' as well as the charge that real men neither eat quiche nor use semi-colons. In the end, however, the semi-colon is like death; we must all face it alone.

When Paris Met Harold

Suggestions please for Paris Hilton's British best friend. I nominate my own new best friend Judy or, of course, that party animal Harold Pinter.


I am falling in love with the melancholy late Victorian/Edwardian sense that we can never be fully alive.
This from Conrad's Victory: 'But even then there still lingered in him a sense of incompleteness not altogether overcome - which, it seemed, nothing would ever overcome - the fatal imperfection of all the gifts of life, which makes them a delusion and a snare.'
And this from Edward Thomas's Glory: 'I cannot bite the day to the core.'
Why did they suddenly feel this?

Meanwhile, in Beijing...

Having been dazed by Badminton, I now find myself baffled by wind-surfing. I didn't realise they had to keep waggling the sail like that. It's very undignified. And they spread out so much you can't see who's winning and the 'expert' commentators make little sense. I know I should care - especially now we are in the freakish position of being two places above the convicts in the medals table - but I can't.  And it would certainly be a disaster if national morale rose to such stratospheric levels that we forgot that Gordon Brown is very depressing and Ed Balls is in the wrong business. Also there's the matter of 2012. I see we are now trying to limit the increase in costs since the bid to a mere 400 per cent.  Any more medals and we shall weaken, permitting another £10 billion or so to go down the tubes. Why not, since the Chinese appear to like doing this stuff, let them do it again? Only Brown can suggest this - the ensuing unpopularity would be water off the back of a duck that is no longer lame but dead. Go for it, Gordo, history will absolve you.
PS And why do the female beach volleyball players wear tiny bikinis? The males just wear ordinary floppy gear. Is there some hidden agenda at work here?

Pity the Bulldog

Puppy-cloning and the breeding of pedigree dogs have both been attacked for causing canine suffering. Both activities are, of course, merely accelerations of  a very ancient process - the construction of animals that flatter and please humans. The domestic dog is an invented creature; it is, therefore, meaningless so speak of a wild type by which to judge contemporary variations. But these accelerations cause suffering and, thereby, draw attention to the enormity of what we have done. Inbred freaks designed to win beauty contests and perfect clones, constructed on the corpses and agonies of thousands of failure, are horrible evidence of our true feelings about animals - not that we love them but that we own them, body and soul. The fate of that emblematic creature the bulldog - now reduced to a wheezing, crumple-faced, massive-skulled cripple -  says it all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Use of Reason

Sitting in my dressing room waiting for the call from R & J, I read Conrad's Under Western Eyes and came across this:
'For the use of reason is to justify the obscure reasons that move our conduct, impulses, passions, prejudices and follies, and also our fears.'

Neither Fate Nor the Astrolabe

I don't know. I spend my life in a condition of existential dread as I plumb the depths of the human mind, scour the cosmos for clues, teeter above the abyss of knowledge and cling to the rock face of metaphysical speculation. Or I wander the golden paths of art and the green tunnels of nature. Or, pausing only to refute Kant on the basis of  a crude misreading, I empty language of the vulgar meaning. Or I observe with a wry smile while toying with an exquisite Persian miniature the follies and petty aspirations of my age. Few care, fewer understand, none remember.
And then, one fine day, I write one - one! - article about a frigging diet and suddenly everybody takes notice. Fat, not fate, is what lures the masses. But they seem to need me and noblesse oblige, so, at 5pm this afternoon on Channel 4, you will see me discussing my regime and my boyish body with none other than Richard and Judy. Richard is particularly excited.
I shall then promptly return to my astrolabe, retorts and incunabula to continue my voyage through strange seas of thought alone.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Undropped Shoe

The economic/financial crisis/cock-up, though now a year old, is having less political impact than one would expect. (Brownies who claim Gordon's unpopularity is due to the credit crunch etc are wrong; it's because he's depressing and weak.) People are in pain but the real pain, unemployment, has yet to come. In time, I assume it must. But, for the moment, it is the unbarking dog, the undropped shoe of British politics. We are in a period of waiting.

Epistemological Crisis in Beijing

And, speaking of paradigm shifts, Britain is third in the medals table. People were discussing this at lunch yesterday as if the earth had dropped from beneath their feet, leaving them floating in a free conceptual space where anything might be true. As the afternoon wore on, the issue inevitably became entangled with the matter of the Higgs Boson. For your average Brit, the world makes less sense today. But, chin up, at least the weather's awful and house prices are plunging.

The Full Detroit

Peggy Noonan - excellent columnist - is rooting for Tim Kaine for Democrat VP. Her reasoning is sound; she supports him because he has a 'wonderful American Man haircut'. She adds, 'He looks like he goes once every ten days to Jimmy Hoffa's barber and says, 'Gimme a full Detroit.''. What, pray, is a full Detroit? I would previously have assumed it was a Cadillac Escalade.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


For years I have stared at a long shelf full of vinyl LPs, my soul flooded with conflicting feels of irritation, nostalgia, bafflement, longing. What should I do with them? Throwing them away was out of the question; but, equally, what were they actually for? The conflict was such that I never actually dared look at them. But, yesterday, I received an early birthday present - a turntable to go with my now ageing stereo system. Having been bought this device in Norwich, I then immediately stumbled upon a bewildering number of shops selling vinyl - Norwich is a strange and wonderful city. Blood rushed to my head and I bought LPs by Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Cocker and The Hollies. Emboldened, I returned home to flick through my own collection. Tears filled my eyes as two tracks I thought I would never hear again - The Byrds' Truck Stop Girl and Kevin Ayers' Shouting in a Bucket Blues - filled my room. Much has been said about the quality of vinyl versus CD. I'm still struggling with it. But there is something about the sound, a certain, for want of a better word, materiality. It is, perhaps, the lack of the absolute silence you get with CDs. The air seems, somehow, more occupied with sound by Vinyl. But this requires more thought.

Superman's Grandad and Traffic

In The Sunday Times I interview Arthur de Vany, the man behind the new, thin, sunflower-like, me. That's Arthur on the left, looking like Superman's fitter grandad.  I also review Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic.
The articles are connected. Both involve the overthrow of a paradigm. De Vany says our carbohydrates good fat bad nutritional orthodoxy is entirely wrong; Vanderbilt says our traffic safety systems don't work - streets and cars should be more dangerous, not safer.

Friday, August 15, 2008

White-Spunner on the Job

Today is a gift that keeps on giving. I learn that our commander in Iraq is called Major General Barney White-Spunner. The chest swells. With White-Spunner at the front, what hope could there ever have been for those insurgent johnnies? 

Lads' Mags

'Anthony Gibson-Watt, buying director at media agency Zed Media....' I love that line. In a novel it would sound forced, too much worn-on-the-sleeve research and calculation (especially in that aristo surname), but in Guardian Media it could not be more at home. Anyway, AGW, as he is known by his embittered underlings ( I am making this bit up), says 'I don't think there are many blokes who would be happy to read Zoo or Nuts on public transport.' For delicately-souled readers of Thought Experiments, I should explain these are 'lads' mags' and AGW is trying to explain the huge decline in this market sector. Some say the drooling, smelly imbecile implied by these mags is no longer a viable male role model - surely not! Others say the drooling smellies find the internet less stressful than a trip to the newsagent. Yet more others believe the mags were just a flash in the pan, novelty products. I don't know what I believe. But I do think the mags were expressions of failure. In The War Between Men and Women the drooling smellies were the male response to rampant feminism. Basically, it was an 'okay, you win' posture. Does the decline of the mags mean men are now ready to get up off their knees? Unlikely.

Georgia and the Archduke

Paul Krugman raises the possibility that the present phase of globalisation may die just as the last phase died in 1914. Once again nationalism will be the killer and Georgia, like the assassination of the Archduke, may be the portent. Both phases of globalisation were bolstered by the conviction that the opening up of world trade was an irrevocable, permanent and benign state of affairs. Crucially, the profits of trade were expected to overcome the seductions of war. This is not, as Krugman says, 'a safe assumption'. Indeed. But he does add that this globalisation phase seems slightly more solid than the last because it is inconceivable that the countries of western Europe would ever go to war. This is possible but I suspect the frock-coated beneficiary of globalisation in 1913 thought his economic world was more stable than any other because of empire. People always find a special reason to believe they are special. I also suspect that nationalistic destruction of this phase has been going on for some time. The process will intensify under pressure from resource shortages. Georgia feels portentous mainly because of the startlingly aggressive behaviour of Russia, a member of G8, the globalisation club. But if you want the real portents, look no further than the price of oil and the depleted aquifers.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Technology and Boots

And, on the subject of technology, the new iPhone doesn't work. I'd noticed this myself, but early-adopting fool that I am, I said nothing. It's called 'defence of purchase' I believe, even though, on this occasion, no readies actually changed hands. Also an 'upgrade' to Freeview boxes has deprived 250,000 people of television. This word 'upgrade' is everywhere. It means 'spend more, bastard'. Consumer technology sells us things we didn't know we wanted, makes us dependent and then stops working. This induces panic, depression and hunger pangs. Luckily, I don't care because I have every reason to expect my fourth pair of cowboy boots will be arriving any day now and they just work.

Buying the Body Suit

There's a studiedly non-committal editorial in The New York Times about technology at the Olympics. The athletes, it says, have become 'techno-probes' and the games are relayed to us by an unprecedented variety of media. The swimmers - well, Phelps - are breaking records with ease thanks to the new body suits and wave-dissipation in the pools. Without getting all luddite about this, I do find the bland tone of the leader remarkable - surely there is something to be said about this phenomenon beyond mere reportage. Of course, it wouldn't be true to say that the science sucks all the sport out of it. Assuming everybody has equal access, the technology itself is sportingly neutral and the outcome continues to be determined by individual, human effort. But, given that some athletes will certainly be doping themselves, the doctrine of sportingly neutral technology should also mean they are all allowed to take drugs. One this was permitted, of course, everybody would have to take them. This would really make them into 'techno-probes'. Furthermore, the technology is definitely not commercially neutral. The Olympics would be equally fair if body suits and wave dissipation were banned. The technology is not necessary, it's only effect is to increase absolute speeds and to shift product. Within weeks, if not days, I expect to see body suits, if not wave dissipators, all over my local pool. Aside from the matter of individual effort and, of course, the Chinese rulers' need to daze their people, the games are overwhelmingly about consumption, about finding new things and new ways for us to consume. And that is their true power.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Russia, it is said, is reverting to autocratic type. A writer I know was working on something about that country, but gave up because he found it too depressing. With this partly in mind, I am reading Conrad's Under Western Eyes - a touch mechanical to be counted among his best. But it contains this:
'Whenever two Russians come together, the shadow of autocracy is with them, tinging their thoughts, their views, their most intimate feelings, their private life, their public utterances - haunting the secret of their silences.'
Putin knows his Conrad.

Liverpool: Some Sense at Last

The only thing wrong with the Policy Exchange's Cities Unlimited is its apparent moderation. One must be grateful, however, for its recognition of the shortcomings of Liverpool with its drunks, its sinister statues of John Lennon and its compulsive need to wring apologies out of people. A little more thought would have led them to the obvious policy recommendation which I feel sure would have been wholeheartedly embraced by David Cameron - tow it out to sea and nuke it.

Brightness Falls from the Hair

Good grief! I was just looking up another phrase sticking in my mind - 'Brightness falls from the air' on which Stephen Dedalus meditates in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - and I discover that Nashe almost certainly wrote 'Brightness falls from the hair'. It's more mundane but it makes a lot more sense. The source of this wisdom is a quite remarkable blog, whose author claims to have been 'culling my readers to a manageable elite since 2002'. I particularly like his negative testimonials - 'As wrong as it is possible for a human being to be',  'a humorous blog about T.S.Eliot' and, my favourite, 'not a genius'. This tempts me to use what Colin Tudge once said about me - 'a charlatan' - on my own front page. 

Phelps Takes Badminton Gold

Or I may have misheard something on the radio. The morning lacks coherence. I will simply observe that the phrase 'golden vision' has been going through my head for days and I finally realise it comes from this lovely little thing by Eliot. Also, thanks to Andrew Sullivan, I now know there is a web site that keeps us up to date on who was executed on each day. And, finally, I note that Charles has gone postal about GM foods.  As ever, I can't focus on the story properly because of the language used - in particular, his words 'unsustainable, unmanageable, degraded and dysfunctional conurbations of unmentionable awfulness'. Much as I like Charles, I do think he needs to watch his speechwriters. 'Unmentionable awfulness' sounds like Bertie Wooster complaining about having to eat a macaroon in an ABC tea shop

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The China Collective

There's a strange and ambivalent column in the New York Times by David Brooks about collectivism versus individualism in the light of the Olympic opening ceremony. 'The ideal of the harmonious collective,' he writes, 'may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream.' He concludes: 'It's certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.' As with discussions of libertarianism, the outer edge of individualism, this is a debate in which the terms are just too slippery. Individualism is defined by a collective just as the self is defined by the collective enterprise of language. Collectivism is defined by the individual just as society is defined by individual judgment. Seeing China as solely collectivist and America as nothing but individualist is an illusion. To a large extent, these are matters of rhetoric. That these two countries are different is indisputable, but differences between nations can seldom be reduced to a simply duality. Brooks rightly says that the rise of China is cultural. But he means it is not just economic. I think it is only cultural and culture can only be felt.

Olympic Update

My first and possibly last Olympic viewing consisted of a Badminton match which we lost to the Chinese. Apparently, we weren't keeping the shuttle flat enough. It's nice that Badminton players get their day in court once every four years. The rest of the time I suppose they just play Badminton. And then we have these expert commentators on Badminton. What do they do the rest of the time? Discuss flat shuttles among themselves I suppose. It's people like these who have swollen the BBC contingent in Beijing to the point where it just slightly outnumbers the People's Liberation Army. Arm and train these guys and we could stop being humiliated at Badminton and turn regime changing into an Olympic event. Oh and I saw a bit of fencing, but we lost that too.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Conrad's Intellect

Barbara Amiel's defence of her husband yesterday can be taken apart by others more certain of themselves than your blogmeister. But one phrase catches in my throat - 'My husband's exuberant displays of intellectual prowess....' Hang on, hang on. I once encountered Conrad Black's prowess at a think tank lunch and, frankly, if he had not been proprietor of the Telegraph at the time, I would have wacked him over the boundary as effortlessly as Andrew Flintoff, except that, unlike Flintoff, I would have had half of my brain tied behind my back.

Guido and Libertarianism

The excitable Guido posted a few days ago on libertarianism. I think he agrees with me that the new cult of 'Nudge' is a sophisticated evasion. It doesn't sound as nasty as ordering people about nor as frightening as letting the free market rip, but, in reality, it doesn't evade either possibility. Who is nudging whom and why will remain at the centre of political discourse in a democracy. But, as ever, I am puzzled by the word 'libertarian'. Guido says 'libertarians care about family values' - but why should they? Surely they must be free not to care. Yet he has a point when he notes the absence of the word 'freedom' from British political rhetoric - in America it is everywhere. I suppose we take it for granted and that, combined with a national inclination to believe that the government ought to do something about everything, means freedom has become an easily ignorable abstraction. Guido wants the Conservatives to talk more about freedom, but that would probably lose them the next election as people don't really know what it means or, if they do, they're afraid. Perhaps the only freedom they currently desire is freedom from the depressing spectacle of Gordon Brown eking out his tenure. Libertarianism remains a puzzle for me; it's a question rather than an answer. More freedom? Possibly. But how much? That is the question not answered by the 'L' word. But I guess people like the sound of it.

The Medal Disaster: A Blogger Protests

I'm not blogging in protest at the two gold medals we appear to have won. This can only make matters worse. Another one and I shall go on hunger strike - oh I already have.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Watch for the Leafless Trees

Read Nick Cohen at once. He is on fire today. The story from Solzhenitsyn reminds me that Simone de Beauvoir was once very impressed by the paradise being created by Mao in China. She was shown what she wanted to see and returned to tell the French left of the greatness and humanity of the biggest serial killer the world has ever known - 70 million corpses at least. At about the same time a Russian diplomat noted there were no leaves on the trees. He knew why. The people, having been starved by Mao's decision to sell the harvests abroad to pay for his nuclear programme, were eating them. Nick is right to ask: have we learned nothing from the twentieth century?

Kissin and Disgust

And, while I am on the subject of music, last night I came upon a CD I had forgotten I owned and have certainly never played. It was Evgeny Kissin's 'legendary' 1984 concert in Moscow. He played the two Chopin piano concertos. It was breathtaking and disgusting. Disgusting because, for some reason, I could not get beyond the fact that Kissin was twelve at the time and, amidst this emotional extravagance, it felt wrong, offensive, a circus trick. I know, I know, Mozart could have done this and more and would he have disgusted me? I don't know. I did not expect this and I cannot explain it.

Screensaver Songs

When the mind wanders it starts singing to itself. In general, it's always the same song. These private performances are the mind's screensavers.  One friend - he comments under the name Grabber  -  starts singing Willie Nelson's On the Road Again quite audibly the moment he loses interest in proceedings, which happens a lot. I have no idea whether he knows he's doing this.  I, like, I think, most people, sing only in my head. My screensaver song has, for years, been Townes Van Zandt's Pancho and Lefty as sung by Emmylou Harris on Luxury Liner. (And incidentally, God, I wish I was called Townes Van Zandt.) I only realised it had been my SS yesterday when I tripped up over the words and awoke myself to the fact that I was singing 'All the federales say/They could have had him any day...'. I hadn't actually listened to the song for years. This led me to the realisation that my previous SS had been Bob Dylan's Joey. They plainly have a lot in common - sad story, tuneful, direct, strong chorus, easily memorable etc.. But they're not stand-out songs. Joey was not one of Dylan's best and P & L was, I thought, not one of Emmylou's. Actually, having now blasted it out several times on my good stereo, I've decided P & L is up there. It's certainly a lovely piece of writing by TVZ (even the initials sound great), the way it hints at rather than describes Lefty's betrayal and the way the music follows the shift between narrative and meditation. How strange it is that songs do this to us. They console, we cling on to them unknowingly. And all, I suppose, to stop the mind wandering too far.

Negroproponte's Laptop

In The Sunday Times I write about Microsoft and Intel's attempted assassination of Nicholas Negroponte's laptop for the poor.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


The first Airfix kit I ever had was the HMS Cossack. She bravely defended the perilous straits between the two beds in my room. She also left me with an ineradicable fascination with the word 'Cossack' - not what it means, I have always vaguely had an impression of fierce men in fur hats, but how it sounds - the central, serpentine hiss and the parenthetical 'k'. Now, I discover, the fierce men are deeply involved in our latest killing people scheme. The Guardian defines Cossacks as 'descendants of runaway serfs and outlaws' Wikipedia seems to disagree. The word itself comes to us from French, Polish, Ukrainian and Turkish. I feel innocence has been lost. Once Cossack was a plucky British destroyer, now it's just some bad tempered alpha males with droopy moustaches. I have considered joining the HMS Cossack Association in a desperate attempt to shore up what remains of my childhood dreams, but it probably wouldn't work.

Zen Swiss

In Geneva Airport there is an automatic door that opens, obligingly, as I approach it. No more than a yard beyond the door there is a gate consisting of two steel arms. Judge of my confusion when, the door having opened for me, the gate remains stubbornly shut. Have all my efforts - and the door's - been in vain? No! My anxiety is shortlived. A couple of seconds after the opening of the door, the arms of the gate swing aside to allow me to go about my business. This barrier is not at any strategic location; it is just there, interrupting a long walkway. It is the Swiss answer to Japan's mighty Zen gates which are designed to infuse your soul with a sense of the difficulty involved in passing from one state into another.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Very Clean

My apologies, commenters, I had urgent business in the French Alps. Very clean. Now in Geneva Airport, also clean. Normal service will resume when I am back in dirty Blighty.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

All Aboard the Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman stories are like buses - nothing for hours then two come along at once.

Monbiot v Burchill

George Monbiot and Julie Burchill have what John Gray would call incommensurable world views. In this case I back Monbiot partly because he is right and partly because Burchill is an experience rather than a proposition. You can't actually agree with her any more than you can agree with a Keith Richards solo. Monbiot rightly defends hypocrisy as better than cynicism or, as he should have said, as the tribute vice pays to virtue. I'm less keen on his statement 'Greens have high aspirations - they want to live more ethically...'. Actually, I'd rather they didn't. If global warming is happening, I want practical people, engineers basically, to put it right, not high-minded guilt fiends. If the oxygen masks have come down and the plane's in a steep dive, I for one am not going to ask the pilot to clarify his position on the activities of Big Pharma in Africa. The word 'ethics' tends to make people think in packages which is one reason why the Greens keep getting it wrong. If they'd worked out some years ago - as, I gather, Monbiot is now beginning to do - that nuclear was our only hope, then we'd be a little bit further away from catastrophe than we currently are. But nuclear was a big part of the 'unethical' package so it never happened. Ethics are what you do, not what you say.

The Mystery of the Primark Barfers

It's summer and, once again, I am seeing TV pictures of dumpy British Primark babes leering, barfing and falling over on some island in the Med. Is the issue, why do our young drink so much? Or is it, why do they behave so vilely when they do drink? The joys of drunkenly sitting and staring into the middle distance seem to have passed them by. But, seriously, why does this happen? They can't all be from Glasgow East.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Wallace Stevens the Inexhaustible

I introduced John Gray to Wallace Stevens some time ago, since when he appears, typically, to have become a world class Stevens scholar. An email arrives from John - 'Stevens is inexhaustible.' In celebration of this unassailable truth, I suggest you exhaust yourself with this great and lovely thing.

Jenkins on Toynbee

This is a fine article by Simon Jenkins about our undemocratic way of choosing Prime Ministers. It contains the following: 'The thesis, much espoused by Guardian contributors, that Brown has totally changed and thus polluted their constancy of judgment is ludicrous. Their former presentation - indeed, eulogising - of him was plain wrong.' Quite. This is is plainly aimed at Polly Toynbee and others - remarkable in view of the fact that Jenkins is writing in The Guardian.

On Sport

I notice 'Andy' Burnham, the sports minister, says we are 'about to enter a glorious new era for British sport.' This will, presumably, be like the glorious new era for British cinema that was promised after the success of Chariots of Fire. Or not - but, either way, politicians in a democracy should never use the word 'glorious'. It is, like the word 'people's', tainted by association with murderous tyrannies. But, with the Beijing running and jumping contest about to start, what about this sport thing? Hamish McRae mounts a stout defence of sport as a good which is, I suppose, fair enough. There is, however, a big difference between the sport McRae is defending and the grotesque, bloated, politically-compromised corruption-fest the Olympics has become. McRae also says people who cycle 'may not think of themselves as taking part in a sport, but in a way they are.' I can see what he means but, by the same logic, couldn't I argue that I am taking part in a sport - motor racing - when I drive? Exercise and sport are often confused and I suspect it is this confusion that has inflated the Olympics to its present absurd proportions. Exercise is good for you, no question. Sport is a specific sub-set of exercise involving competition. This does not mean sport is good for you except to the extent that it helps you exercise. In fact, some sports - notably marathon running and snooker - are very bad for you. Also, if you need sport to make you exercise, then it may discourage you because it is harder to organise than simply exercising on your own. It is the idea of exercise and therefore sport as an unconditional good that has made the Olympics into the sacred lunacy it has become. Preening themselves in the glory of their unchallengeable virtue, the Olympics boosters are the Pharisees of the cult of exercise. The fact that this cult has failed - people have got fatter and sicker faster than ever since the workout cult go going in the seventies - and the fact that the Olympics is just another excuse to flake out in front of the TV are beside the point. We must bow down before the keepers of the flame.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Under the Bed

Bill Clinton says Gordon Brown has 'a big brain and a good heart.' I wonder whose they were and where he keeps them. Peter Ackroyd used to boast he had the body of a fourteen-year-old girl. He kept it under his bed. 

Meanwhile, over at Boris's Puzzle Palace...

That's it. It's official. Nothing makes sense.

Obama: Just Another Politician?

I see Obama is trimming on the matter of offshore drilling. You read it here first. In spite of his European Feel the Love tour, it is clear that, since the primaries, Obama has been turning gradually into just another politician . This is called moving to the centre, but, like everything ever dreamed up by policy wonks and marketing peons, it doesn't work. McCain is moving ahead. I note that Guido and Danny Finkelstein are divided on McCain's tactics; the former thinking that the negative ads are working in the heartland, the latter believing they are self-destructive. The key ad is this one which starts by saying Obama is 'the biggest celebrity in the world'.  This is, indeed, a startling manoeuvre since a cynic might think that the American masses would want to be led by a Paris Hilton or Britney Spears surrogate. But, in fact, they don't. I tend to think, therefore, that Guido has a point; McCain is playing to Obama's weaknesses and it's working. The response should be strength, but Obama's wonks have evidently gone for feeble trimming. Much more of this and he'll lose, which will, in the circumstances, be a remarkable achievement.