Saturday, January 31, 2009

This Fatal January 2

Not long to go now. Mystic Malty wonders if this has been the worst month since October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis. He may be right. But February is not promising. The inevitable recessionary industrial unrest has begun and will get worse. Expect Jarrowesque marches on London. Meanwhile, Wendy Cope has added to the generally rancorous atmosphere by saying the post of Poet Laureate should be abolished. I don't like this because a)I quite like having a PL and b)by saying that she's poisoned the award for whoever actually gets it.  There's more slaughter to be depressed about in Sri Lanka. The weather's turned nasty - we're freezing and the Aussies are on fire and not in a good way. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that fewer of us will die. But, for the moment, so long, January '09, it wasn't remotely good to know you.

Join the Nassimers

And, on the subject of bankers, Nassim has started a Facebook group called Make the Bankers Accountable - J'Accuse!!!.  He wants it to go viral. Join now.

PS And, incidentally, Nassim has added a nuance to his call to nationalise the banks:
'Nationalise the banks, limit the rewards to those who work in what he calls the 'utility' part of the system and have a completely uninsured second leg that can take all the risks it wants and lose its shirt...'

Friday, January 30, 2009

This Fatal January

Great God, now the Bearded Wonder is dead! We shall never see his like again, they don't make them like that any more, they threw away the mould etc etc.. This after Updike. Is it me or is this a peculiarly fatal January? Two members of my (extended) family have died, my old solicitor just bought the farm. Others, many others, have gone into the dark. We should count ourselves lucky if we make it to February. Be careful tomorrow. Midnight should bring salvation.

Cull the Banks

My pal Nassim (thanks to the incomparable Dave Lull for the links) has been upsetting people. I like his remark, 'I hate traders' and his view that the only function of derivatives is to rip off clients. I sort of gathered this when various City types used to tell me they were essential to 'smooth' markets, a construction obviously designed simultaneously to soothe and baffle. Nassim also says the banks have to be nationalised, an idea that upsets Frank. Frank and many others mistrust the competence of governments, reasonably enough in view of the postwar history of nationalisation. But I think Nassim is saying this because he believes banking is an industry that has gone entirely rogue. It cannot be trusted to redeem itself. The best evidence for this was (is?) their continued use of risk models that, outside banking, have been discredited for at least 20 years. Further evidence in recent days has come from the bankers who have started actually talking. They so plainly still don't get the enormity of what they have done that an enforced cull of all bank boardrooms may well be the only option. They are, as I suspected they would, behaving like Hitler in his bunker. He blamed the German people for not being good enough; they're blaming the entire non-banking world and then tossing us the condescending admission that they did 'make a few mistakes'. We may have to move quickly with this cull - Dick Fuld flogged a house to his wife for $100 to protect his assets from the assorted law suits flying his way. God knows what the others are up to.

Blog Info Required

Right, stop sitting around like a bunch of bankers, I want you all to do some work. Tell me which you think are the best blogs in the world. We can take it as read that this one will be at the top of your list and your own second, so, like Shakespeare and the Bible on Desert Island Discs, you can have those. Please aim upmarket - I know about the skateboarding squirrels and stuff. Also anything about blog philosophy/psychology etc would be helpful. Spend all day doing this and most of the weekend. The fee will be my gratitude and high regard.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Belisha's Beacon

A night of magic with Nige resulted in a long discussion about the Belisha Beacon. There were two issues. First, how did such a whimsical, amiable and very British thing survive the depredations of modernity? And, secondly, why does nobody have names like Leslie Hore-Belisha any more?

Free Markets

Gapper reports on a loss of American faith in the free market and suggests we might be back in 1919 when 'the public's trust in institutions is exhausted'. The comments on his post should be read. I'm not sure public trust in institutions is the issue here. Of course, nobody would now trust a director of RBS or Citibank as far as they could throw them, but trust in the British Museum or MOMA is probably unaffected. Companies should not really be seen as institutions, however reassuring their advertising. The issue is the free market. One side says this all shows totally free markets lead to anarchy, the other says free markets are the only way and they've never been given their chance because of government interference. The latter argument is just plain stupid because a) it sounds like those dumb Marxists who still wander around saying they are right but have never been given a proper chance and b) governments create markets. (And please nobody say - as somebody always does - that paleolithic man made markets. It's just not the point and if you can't see why, I can't help you.) The problem is, I think, the phrase 'free market' because it is utopian, there has never been and will never be any such thing. (Paleolithic man would have thought he was trading freely until Ug turned up with his mates and beat him to death with a mammoth tusk. Free markets, you see, are human and therefore not free.) What we should be talking about is levels of competition without getting hung up on the non-existent extremes - zero and total competition. Extremes let in dogma and subvert reason.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

About twenty-five years ago, I think, I wrote John Updike's obituary for The Times. Nothing of it remains. I never met him, I always assumed I would. Now it's too late and Updike has become his work. He was once a pupil of Vladimir Nabokov. He later said of Nabokov, approximately, 'He writes prose the only way it should be written, ecstatically.' This is true of Nabokov, true of Updike and true of writing prose. Prose should be ecstasy because existence is. Surprisingly often.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

An Important New Theory of Comedy Numbers

I felt a pang the moment I published that last post because, of course, January 18th isn't funny. It should have been 17th or, preferably, 19th. I had a conversation recently with a prominent comedian and he went for 37 as his funny number. I've always favoured 19, but I admit the joke is beginning to wear a little thin. What is striking about these numbers is they are all odd. So the weak version of my new Theory of Comedy Numbers is that even numbers are not funny. Okay, 6 can raise a mild titter, but that's it. The strong version is that only prime numbers are truly funny. Look at 21, total downer, but both 23 and 19 are real thigh-slappers. Non-divisibility is the soul of wit. Of course, this requires more work and possibly a few hours on a Cray supercomputer. I may have to leave that to others.

Corruption on Both Sides of the Pond

On the whole I prefer I prefer American sitcoms and I certainly prefer American corruption. Over there, a curious entity called, implausibly, Rod Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell Obama's senate seat. Since, until Rod came along, I didn't even know seats could be allocated in this way, I feel he has taught me something. Also, since he plainly models his look on Roy Orbison, I feel he has a certain sense of history. Over here we have an entity called, implausibly, Lord Taylor of Blackburn, who is denying he was prepared to accept money for helping along changes in the law. (The offer was, of course, made by my guys at The Sunday Times. I feel privileged to know them because, I feel safe when accepting bribes knowing the briber is not one of their number.) Lord Taylor of Blackburn does not look like Roy Orbison. He looks like Blackburn on January 18th, it's raining and somebody just nicked your car.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Scarf Question

And another thing - I'm on fire this morning - a year or so ago male scarves with stripes across them  - ie at right angle to the length of the scarf - appeared everywhere. They have now gone to be replaced by pale, woolly ones with polychromatic longitudinal stripes. These seem to be particularly favoured by TV reporters. Why are male scarves so subject to instant fashion? Is it because of Christmas? Is it because men are fools? Is it because they keep losing their scarves (I know I do)? I think I should be told.

The Last Days of Brown

On the subject of Brown, his Hal-like responses in the Evan Davis interview on Friday seem to have launched a widespread acceptance that he is a)guilty and b) the problem as opposed to the solution he thinks he is. This is a relief as he has had a ridiculously easy ride from the press on the whole. Martin Kettle reacts here (and, outside the School of Athens that is The Sunday Times, is there any better political commentator than Kettle?). He seems to be saying that Brown can only get it right by becoming somebody else - Jack Straw maybe. I have now come to the view that Brown will be gone, destroyed by good old back bench treachery, by June 1st. I am considering placing a bet for the first time in about twenty years. These are hard times, we all need easy money. What do you think?


Obama, our imminent abject poverty and the final collapse of Brown over the weekend aside, this is the biggest story of the moment. Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic, makes the case against Pope Benedict's actions here and here. 'Bishop' Williamson denies the Holocaust on the basis of the evidence of Fred Leuchter. I saw Leuchter on television a while back. He seems to be a bit Jeff if you know what I mean. Williamson also thinks 9/11 was a Jewish plot and women should not wear trousers. This is a big story because of the issue of Benedict's motives. Why bring this shower back into the fold just now? Is it because Israel's global image is at an all time low? Anti-semitism has tended to move to the left lately but Williamson and his friends seem such a toxic package that one can imagine all sorts of leftish priests, in, for example, Latin America, finding this intolerable. I'm speculating, partly in ignorance, but this is just to say that such tensions in the mightiest institution on the planet are worth noting.

Three Films

An uncharacteristic surge of cultural conscientiousness sent me out to see the three hot films of the moment - Gus Van Sant's Milk (wonderful), Ron Howard's Frost Nixon (very good) and Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (bad). Milk was wonderful because Van Sant eats celluloid for breakfast, he's all movies and it shows in every shot and every cut. Frost Nixon was good because Howard had Peter Morgan's script, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen and he found a style for the content. Slumdog Millionaire was bad morally and aesthetically. The moral problem was... well, there must be many ways in which one can get from the blinding of a child to improve his begging to a Bollywood mass dance in Mumbai Station but Boyle had not found one and concluding that romantic love conquers all doesn't work too well if you've just spent the previous two hours showing that it emphatically does not. Aesthetically, the film has no style only effect and only two good performances - Anil Kapoor as the Indian Chris Tarrant and Irrfan Kahn as the police inspector. Everybody else is inert, probably immobilised beneath Boyle's frenetic fondness for any effect he can lay his hands on. As with his film Sunshine, one was permanently distracted by noticing random lifts from other movies - I got Billy Wilder's The Apartment once in this, which was odd. I guess it's in the Oscars because Hollywood wants a slice of the Indian action. Pity.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Saatchi, Slow-Tech and the Reticence of Neil MacGregor

In The Sunday Times I write about the exhibition of contemporary Middle Eastern art at the Saatchi Gallery, I review Andrew Price's book Slow-Tech and I talk to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. At the end of the MacGregor piece I mention his reticence, the way he has managed to remain 'hidden in plain view'. This was inspired by something Neil said as I turned off my recorders - 'You're so maddeningly reticent on these occasions!' After a moment, I realised he meant I didn't comment on what he was saying as he said it. This may be a weakness in my technique as, in the course of interviews, I tend to immerse myself in the world view of the interviewee and only afterwards do I start to judge it. Later I realised Neil's remark was a serious case of the pot calling the kettle black. He is more reticent than anybody else I know, politically and personally. Next to him, Rowan Atkinson is an open book. In fact, I admire this; there is too little reticence in the contemporary world. So perhaps what I meant was it was a nasty case of the pot calling the kettle white.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Never Trust a Computer You Can't Lift

So the Apple Mac is 25 years old today. 'Didn't Steve Jobs looks well?' is one's first thought on watching that vid. 'What a long way computers have come in that time', is one's second thought. One's third thought is, '25 years is roughly a third of a human life and, in fact, that first Mac did more or less what computers do know. Computers haven't come far at all.'  Duration and change are hard to measure because human life is always shorter than we think it is. So 25 years is only a long time if you happen to be a human being. For everything else it's a single tick of the clock or, rather, it's nothing at all because everything else does not perceive time. This raises doubts about the distinction between objective time and subjective time. Probably there's only time and we invented it. I hope Steve's all right. I like Macs and only he can make them.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Obama Poem

I winced so much on hearing Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem that I was unable, in the immediate aftermath of this train wreck, to comment. Never mind, that supreme literary blogger Patrick Kurp has done it for me. As Patrick says, the awful thing is that people 'will confuse Alexander's pieties and platitudes with poetry'. I would only add that Whitman and copious quantities of (bottled) water don't mix.

For Evan Davis

Evan Davis just had a row with Gordon Brown on Radio 4's Today that massively raised my estimation of the former and lowered even further my estimation of the latter. Davis seriously got in among Brown and exposed the implausible (and, maybe, deluded, it is hard to tell if he believes his own words) nature of his position. Stripping out the noise, Brown is saying he did all the right things as Chancellor and that he can't, therefore, be blamed for this unprecedented crisis. Everything is wrong with this in detail - he helped create the conditions that will now ensure that Britain will suffer more than most and he took his economic advice solely from the City - but it's the general point that matters as it implies that, along with his City buddies, he is refusing to learn any lessons. All crises are likely to be unprecedented. Crisis A will not be the same as Crisis B and it is probable that anything resembling Crisis A is very rare indeed, if not actually unprecedented. In short, all planning for specific crises is likely to be futile. What matters is ensuring your systems are robust and complex enough to survive the crises that will come. And they will, much more often than people think, come. Crisis A may be rare, but so are Crises B to Z. Brown failed to preserve a robust system. Evan Davis exposed his economic illiteracy - and, indeed, that of the City. Go, Evan.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Time to be a Warlord

I wonder what 'Sir' Fred - 'Fred the Shred' - Goodwin is up to these days. He is, of course, the world's worst banker, the man who destroyed RBS. One would like to think that, wracked with remorse, he is either sitting in a darkened room with a bottle of cheap (obviously) whisky and a service revolver or doing good work among the poor, cleaning toilets etc.. But I guess not. Thanks to him and his friends, I shall be a pauper next time I leave the country. You see, the UK, says Jim Rogers, has nothing to sell so, even at its present levels, the pound is, like Wile E. Coyote, running on air. Oh I don't know, we can sell a few used bankers and there's all this stuff lying around - lamp posts, garages, wheelie bins, trees, giant baby buggies, aluminium picnic tables with plastic, gingham-patterned surfaces, probiotic yoghurt - we could flog off cheap. Of course, Rogers is an 'investment guru' so there is no reason whatsoever to believe a word he says. But it's hard not to feel a touch edgy. Are we, in fact, broke? I think we should be told. If everything collapses and the country is about to descend into barbaric tribalism, then I should be signing on for the warlord course at LSE.

Word News: The 'Meet With' Invasion

I see 'meet with' is becoming standard useage over here. It creeps into this picture caption. It sounds wrong to me, even though I've been hearing it said by Americans all my life. The meaning of the word 'meet' surely makes 'with' unnecessary and, in fact, ungrammatical. But, if we must have 'meet with', then I think we should also have 'meet without' as in, 'Yesterday I met without Barack Obama'. It makes perfect sense to me.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's Way

As popular rhetoric, Obama's speech was a disaster. It was intellectually dense, harshly confrontational and very bleak. It provoked few tears and not that much applause. People were, I think, I disappointed. This, of course, is why I liked it so much. Now free of the requirements of the campaign, he's clearly chosen to lay it on the line, to be serious. He spoke rapidly and purposefully, paying little heed to the easy dramatic effects that signal condescension and contempt. I know of no British politician who would be capable of doing this. Let's all go to serious America and leave clown Brown to rule over the land laid waste by his banker friends

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome

Speaking as a snake-handling agnostic, I'm having some trouble with this inauguration thing. This is mainly because I can't think of the word 'inauguration' without thinking of a certain Kenneth Anger film which, for reasons now long forgotten, once played some part in my imaginative life. I'm also having trouble making sense of what people are saying. Polly Toynbee says it's a good thing and, er, that's it and David Brooks talks of a return to the cool pragmatism implicit in Daniel Bell's The End of Ideology. Boomer idealism, he says, disrupted our progress towards cool pragmatism, but not, apparently, the at least as corrosive ideologies of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. Weird. I suppose it's a case of everybody trying to say something without knowing exactly what. Personally I'm all for Obama, if only because the alternative seemed to be a continuation of a corrupt and incompetent administration too much in thrall to the Israeli model of perpetual war but also because I am inclined to go along with Andrew Sullivan's view that he's basically a Tory. That said, I've handled too many snakes to expect much of new, young politicians - nor of old old ones come to that. But, doubtless, my eyes will moisten this afternoon. Human hope - especially when you don't have much of it yourself - is a very moving thing, perhaps the most moving thing. 
Coincidentally, last night I happened upon a very great Edward Thomas poem. In the midst of the First World War, a ploughman considers the slaughter and says, '...if we could see all all might seem good'. Every prayer ever spoken is embodied in that line. So what the hell - go, Barack.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Darwin, Art, Atheism Etc.

The rows below about Darwin, art atheism etc took me back to 1992. It was then that I published Understanding the Present, the arguments of which seemed to me to be self-evident to the point of being boring. Others did not agree. For about three weeks I could not open a newspaper. Scientists queued up to abuse me. My reaction was my normal, weak-minded one - I assumed I was wrong about everything. When I recovered sufficiently to read the abuse I realised I was being too hard on myself. The arguments against me were simply rhetorical expressions of faith based on a concealed metaphysic. This has happened again with the comments on this blog. One commenter used the term 'qualia', a which makes my heart sink or, in certain moods, prompts me to reach for my revolver - even though, sadly, I do not own one. Qualia is an important word, however, a term of philosophical art used to identify the subjective and incommunicable quality of experience - the thing which, so to speak, is born with me and dies with me. The arguments surrounding the word are well summarised on Wikipedia. The striking thing about these arguments is that they are inconclusive. No open-minded person is likely to rise from the literature on qualia, ruffling his hair and exclaiming that the whole qualia problem has at last been solved. What he is more likely to conclude is that we do not yet have an account or an explanation of qualia and that, therefore, subjective experience remains a mystery or, if that word is too strong for you, a puzzle. What he cannot rationally conclude is either a) qualia have been accounted for or will necessarily be accounted for in the future or b) qualia therefore God, a position I think I was accused of taking. He cannot say materialism must be true nor that anti-materialism has been proved. He must be, in every sense of the word, agnostic. All the arguments are, therefore, expressions of faith or inclination. For the moment the puzzle/mystery remains. I incline to the view that there is something wrong with the strong physicalist view either that it is not a mystery or that it must necessarily be soluble. Art was my evidence, admittedly inconclusive. If I am proved wrong then I will admit it. But, for the moment, I can't see how that can happen and I will retain my possibly sentimental fondness for the thing that is born with me and will die with me. I think that's about all I was saying, but if you tell me I'm wrong I'll probably believe you.

The Melt

Global warming denial - the argument goes, basically, it's not happening and, anyway, it's not our fault and, besides, we can fix it - works on the principles that scientists have been wrong before and it's all about mathematical models that don't work. Both are true. Scientists are as prone to deluded groupthink as anybody else and 'wrong' was too weak a word for the mathematical models used by banks to calculate risk. Empirical evidence, however, is another matter and it is observation of melting ice that has made Jim Lovelock even more pessimistic than he was before. In fact, deniers also say that the ice isn't melting and stories like this are dismissed. But this Economist vid  says it all. Neither scientists, Guardian journalists nor tree-huggers are involved. Companies and countries are negotiating for the massive area of sea round the Arctic now made available by retreating ice. But I suppose they've just got it wrong and it's all some kind of weird trick of the light, snow blindness perhaps.

France.... ?

The French, it transpires, have an award that has been given to Bob Dylan, Salman Rushdie, Kylie Minogue and now Donovan. These people have something in common which is only visible to the French. There are so many things that are only visible to the French; they are probably the only nation that can still see Donovan.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Catherine Deneuve

In The Sunday Times I interview Catherine Deneuve and lose my heart. She liked my boots, you see.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Darwin for Idiots

Todd Smith, plainly an intellect to be reckoned with, emails me: 'Jesus, you're a dumb motherfucker.'  And here's Mark Hollingsworth, who would be a Nobel contender but for his spelling: 'Oh my god... that's got to be the most ignorant and dumfounded (sic) article on Evolution that I've read in a while. Aren't you embarrassed to display such ignorance?' Er, afraid not, Mark, I guess it's my unquenchable sense of fun. All these people keep treating my article as if it were an argument, it wasn't it was a survey. But, if Todd and Mark are anything to go by, literacy is in short supply in these parts. 
But that's boring. This is more interesting. Say I had written an article quoting people who disbelieved in plate tectonics or perhaps another headlined 'Quantum Theory: Yeah, Right'. Would either have aroused such anger? I doubt it. There's something about Darwinism. What?
The ruling ideas in any civilisation are always treated as conclusive. Perhaps this is necessary. Once a ruling idea is overthrown - like, for example, the divine right of kings - then so is the civilisation. Science, as the only genuinely cumulative form of knowledge, changes this but not as much as some people think. For, precisely because it is cumulative, science is constantly changing. Ruling scientific ideas may not be overthrown but they are certain to be modified over time, often radically. This is why it is dangerous to attempt to derive an ethical 'ought' from a scientific 'is'.  There is an ethic of science, but not one from science. Darwinism, uniquely, seems to attract and encourage such derivations. As a result, it is no longer simply a ruling scientific idea, it is also a ruling moral, social, religious and even political idea. This is a problem - not, Todd, Mark and the rest of you, because I think Darwinism is false, that the world was made with all species intact 6,000 years ago or that the evolution of the eye is inconceivable, but simply because it cannot sustain this load of extra-scientific implication. Darwinism, I am sure is right as far as it goes, but it could easily be seen in a different context, by, for example, higher levels of explanation like the mathematics of complex systems. In addition, its application to human society is dubious. Since we pass on ideas to successive generations, if there is an evolutionary force in society, then it would appear to follow Lamarckian rather than Darwinian principles.
Darwinism is one of the ruling ideas of our civilisation. This is why the slightest challenge to its ascendancy, even quotations from people who don't believe it, arouses such anger, such fear. It is a threat to a world view some people find consoling. It could probably only happen, as John Gray points out, in a monotheistic culture, even when the monotheists have convinced themselves they are atheists.
But that's enough of that. Aim higher by reading this, a wonderful essay Nige the ineffable has just drawn to my attention.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Art and Atheism 2

Lying at the centre of this issue is the status we accord to human experience. Say I have an aesthetic, religious or emotional experience of great, life-changing importance. Science has three primary accounts of this. Freud - not now regarded as a scientist, but his account was intended to be and, for some time, accepted as scientific - would describe the feeling as 'oceanic' and attribute it to the experience of the primitive ego. Neo-Darwinians would seek its roots in our evolved natures. Neuroscientists would locate the feeling in neuronal patterns of excitation. Freud we can discard. The evolutionary explanation remains speculative, though Neo-Darwinians will argue that it must be true. And neuroscience is in its early infancy. There is currently not even the shadow of an explanation of my feeling through the workings of my brain, we don't even have a coherent explanation of how matter becomes mind. All such arguments are, therefore, circular. It must be true, therefore it will be true. But what does true mean here? Even if I was offered final and complete Neo-Darwinian and neuroscientific accounts of my experience, what would that tell me? In effect, nothing. These would be accounts of the experience, not the experience itself. They would be based on the dubious conviction that there was something - scientific knowledge - that lay above the human experience. To accept these accounts as final would be to bow down before a disguised metaphysic, a concealed god. Of course, I could choose to do so. But why? What would I gain? Again nothing.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Art and Atheism

Gordon McCabe, having said that I use The Sunday Times for pro-religious campaigning - which, apart from being pretty Looney Tunes in itself, is also, since Gordon appears to have read so much I have written, a palpable lie - now traduces my journalism. I'm not going to respond to this nonsense but I will say something more about religion. In fact, I have long sought a theme for this blog and religion may be the very thing. I have no faith and no system to which I wish to convert people. Aggressive and militant atheists (MA), however, do. Garden variety atheists I can handle, but these people are philistines and usually fools and, on the whole, I would avoid their company, not for fear of their arguments but because those arguments are unlikely to be interesting. I have argued for agnosticism, but this can be advanced one step further. Bear with me, there are many ways in which what I shall try in vain to say next may be tried in vain to be said. Here's one. Some time ago Will Alsop and I concluded that the great dividing line in the human species lay between those who had had an aesthetic experience and those who had not. We further concluded that it was possible, with careful study, to distinguish between these people on the basis of even brief contact. And, finally, we concluded that those without aesthetic experience represented a large majority of the population. I do not believe any MA can ever have had an aesthetic experience - ordinary atheists yes, but MAs no. (In fact, I don't quite see how an aesthetic experience would not at least leave people agnostic, but I am a tolerant, understanding type.) The reason I say this is that genuine contact with art is a transcendent experience of such inexplicable and enduring intensity that it simply could not co-exist with the rank vulgarity of putting signs on buses saying God probably does not exist, nor with any certainty that he does not, nor with any desire to convert people to this view, nor, in fact, with any absolute certainty about anything. The fundamental, almost baptismal (Eeek! Sorry, Gordon.) mark that art leaves on people, the mark identified by Will and me, utterly precludes such behaviour. 
There is more to be said on this and I shall say it, but, for now, a family crisis may mean I shall be unable to blog for the next few days.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Patrick McGoohan

I don't know, you hear nothing of Patrick McGoohan for years and then yesterday I read they are remaking The Prisoner and today he's dead. Tomorrow he'll turn down a bid from Manchester City.

Outback Obesity

Australians, I gather, are now fatter than Americans. This is, apparently, causing problems for the Flying Doctors. I only report this because I loved this line in the story - '..mounting obesity is creating headaches for the aviation sector.' One feels the words could be arranged in any order.

Aga Saga

Where do we stand on Agas? George Monbiot is very much against and has launched an anti-Aga campaign. They emit tons of carbon dioxide, you see. On the other hand, a book I am reading suggests they are environmentally sound. They last forever, they can be converted to any available fuel and they are remarkably efficient. Monbiot uses Agas as an example of the class element in environmentalism. They tend to be owned by the very environmentally conscious rural middle class and, as a result, he argues, they have not incurred the green wrath poured on patio heaters. He has a point. Agas feel green in that they seem to embody an older, slower, more authentic way of doing things. But is this merely cosy imagery and must the truly environmentally sound machine look more like an iPod than a gigantic cast iron stove? I think we should be told.

More Darwin

'Bryan Appleyard continues to use The Sunday Times as a platform for pro-religious campaigning.' This is Gordon McCabe, the physicist I inspired to start a blog - 'How sharper than a serpent's tooth...'.  Perhaps because I am an unusual hybrid among journalists, some readers get confused about the difference between comment and reportage. In this case, my job was to survey the impact Darwin has had on the world with, certainly, a touch of my own spin, but the idea that this included 'pro-religious campaigning' is downright weird. Gordon says I quote the creationist Dr David Menton 'without reproach'. What was I supposed to say? 'says Dr David Menton, who, by the way, is completely wrong about everything.' This would make for a troublesome read. Menton represents the views of millions of people, probably many more than active, faithful Darwinians. I'm not sure writing them out of official history is quite the right way to proceed. The same may be said of the many scientists - like Steven Rose - who do not go along with the view of ultra-Darwinians like Richard Dawkins. Science is not an ideology, it does not require a continuous paranoid defence against every hint of doubt. But, by Gordon and, not long ago, by the Royal Society, this seems to have been forgotten.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On Newspapers

Working, as I do, in an industry whose three decade long history of management suicide attempts is at last bearing fruit, I try to avoid reading the wave of current stories telling me that, yes, at last, newspapers, having had their heads stuck in the oven for thirty years, have remembered to turn on the gas. Let me say it again, the only newspapers around in the future will be very upmarket, all the downmarket stuff being more readily available on the internet or in magazines made of  pulped squirrels that will be handed out free to the unemployable and the insane. Until that day of gentlemen print journalists dawns - more properly redawns - various schemes and scams will splutter and die. Here's one suggesting papers can be saved by Google, a company that has not been, in my experience, notably devoted to the culture of paper and ink. But patience, wood pulp, pigment and high intelligence will endure.

Spam - Help!

First things first - why am I getting so many spam comments? My post Sightings of Worried Man in Blue Car seems especially popular with spam that seems to be advertising WOW Gold, which, prolonged introspection suggests, may be something to do with World of Warcraft, a time murderer for idiots. I thought word verification was supposed to stop this. Any ideas?

Monday, January 12, 2009

I Don't Want to Upset You But...

... Mandy now has a blog AND an avatar! Is this what we have all been looking for - the new Jeff?

New Meanings 6

I just realised the real reason the Atheist Bus slogan - 'There's probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.' -  is so annoying. It's that 'enjoy'. People are always telling me to enjoy things. 'Enjoy your cheesecake with custard and organic pork gravy!' they trill in restaurants. If you buy anything, you are instructed to enjoy your computer/newspaper/boiled egg slicer. And not buying anything is no solution; then they just shriek 'Enjoy your day!' I think this only started a couple of years ago. It is obviously an American import. What gap does it fill? I suppose there is no conventional form for the seller to celebrate the conclusion of the deal with the buyer. Silence would be alarming, implying, perhaps, that the buyer is a sucker and the seller doesn't care. But there's something weird about the way 'enjoy' is scattered about the place. It's awkward to this English ear. 'Enjoy your life' is the worst of all because it is arrogant and implies that there might be some other life I could enjoy more... or less.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pianism, Darwinism and Yet More Atheism

In The Sunday Times I interview the pianist James Rhodes - an incredible and appalling life story - and I discuss Darwin. In the course of researching the latter, I reread Marilynne Robinson's review of Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. I love the bone dry line 'he is admired for his prose' and the description of Neo-Darwinian rhetoric as 'lost in the miasma of its own supposed implications'. But what struck me most was the Dawkins argument, summarised by Robinson thus, 'A creator God must be more complex than his creation, but that is impossible because if he existed he would be at the wrong end of evolutionary history. To be present in the beginning he must have been unevolved and therefore simple.' This is, as Robinson shows, an entirely futile argument. It is like saying God doesn't exist because he hasn't been seen shopping at Tesco. If, as theologians have always said, God is outside time and space, then the idea that he wouldn't have had time to evolve is absurd. Of course, such a God also lies outside Dawkins's rhetorical logic; indeed, it might be said he lies outside all logic. But that would seem to be the point of being God, though it should be added that Catholic theology does allow for the power of human reason to go some way to understanding God. Atheists would say this is all evasion. Maybe it is. But it is not as irrational as atheism. First, say Dawkins is right and God should be sought in the particular forms of materialism by which we currently understand the world. Since this materialism is, in every area, radically incomplete and since aspects of our knowledge indicate deep structures of matter and the universe, not to mention life and the human mind, of which we know nothing, then it is premature to say anything conclusive about the ultimate nature of material reality. Secondly, say God is not to be found in our forms of materialism, then it is vain to keep insisting that he must be there somewhere if he is to be said to exist. It is equally vain to construct an ideology - atheism - of simple negation. There is overwhelming evidence of the power of God in the human world and of our need to believe. This may not be evidence of his existence but, on the other hand, it may be. It is certainly evidence that there is something odd and probably unique about our place in the world. To say, in this context, that God does not exist is at least as irrational as to say that he does. In the absence of faith, the only rational position I can imagine is agnosticism. You may not think this is a very glorious position. I disagree. I'd go into battle beneath a flag bearing the legend 'we don't know'.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Great Sex and Burning?

It's troubling - so many things are - that the first atheist 'thought' on Radio 4 is to be delivered by the woman who created the Atheist Bus Campaign - which was, of course, the Agnostic Bus Campaign. It is still more troubling that she is photographed sprawled on the grass with a bare midriff and a 'take me now' look. This can only lead to an arms race. The Chief Rabbi will be photographed on a sofa in a pair of fetching silk boxers. And my pal Rowan - well, you get the picture(s). I suppose the pose of Ariane Sherine is intended to indicate that becoming an atheist means you have loads of great sex. This may well be true, though it doesn't really seem much compensation for burning for all eternity in the fires of Hell.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Dump

Pesky work has got in the way of blogging. It's also stripped my mind of coherent or original thought. It would be much easier to blog if I worked at the Wells-next-the-Sea Household Waste Recycling Centre. I have spent many happy hours there of late, discussing the finer points of what can and cannot be put in the various skips - no aluminium in the metal one, who knew? And paint, that's a real brain teaser. The staff are invariably amiable and funny - though not as funny as the guy in red overalls who put a plastic bowl on his head and shouted, 'Nanoo, nanoo!' after me. He seems to have gone. He used to decorate the place beautifully as well, using the flags, plastic flowers and soft toys that people always throw away. Great man, good eye. Now it's all streamlined and efficient and closed at times it never used to be. It was a riot just after New Year, packed with people in Barbours smashing embarrassing numbers of bottles into the weird-shaped - torso of a Dalek, basically - 'banks'. One Land Rover turned up towing a whole trailer load. How we laughed.  Recycling used to irritate me and I'm still sceptical about its environmental credentials, but, somehow, I have internalised it as a way of life with its own little consolations. There are three - the staff, the joy of virtuously smashing a big piece of metal into the right skip and the opposing joy of sneaking a bag full of recyclables into the non-recylables skip because you can't be bothered to unpack it. The Wells guys caught me at this when I was just about to swing a black sack containing paint into this skip and it burst, leaving a big, friendly dollop of mint green on the ground. I gave a Tony Blair 'Aw shucks, you got me' smirk.  It was enough. This delightful dump is on Warham Road if you ever feel like a spot of happy downtime. It's much better than Newsnight.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

More Atheist Nonsense

Oh dear, those atheist halfwits are in trouble in Barcelona with their agnostic bus. Pity is, I think, the appropriate response.

Maureen Dowd's Dynasties

Maureen Dowd - '...Americans still have enough British in their genes to be drawn to dynasties...' After Bush-Clinton-Bush and then almost Clinton again and the Caroline Kennedy she is supporting for a Senate seat, Dowd seems to be suggesting that we're the dynasty freaks. In fact, liberal democracy in Britain has produced far fewer dynasties than it has in the US. But, like many Americans, I guess Dowd thinks we still wander the fields touching our forelocks at the sight of the young master, who is, of course, wearing his best suit of armour and wielding a broad sword with which he periodically slays uppity yokels crying, 'A pox on you, scurvy knave!' Or perhaps that's just Norfolk.


Having read thousands of words on the subject, I find I have nothing intelligible or helpful to say about Gaza. But I do remember sitting in a history class in school in 1967. Before the teacher came in, one enthusiastically belligerent boy had drawn a map of the Israeli advance across the Sinai in the Six Day War. We cheered. We felt that these were our guys. That would be unthinkable now that Israel, a country I love, has allowed herself to be seen as the world's bully.

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

My article on Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is now finally up on the Sunday Times web site.

The Aardvark Asked for a Dagger

Sorry, I just needed to use that headline. It can be glimpsed in the predictive text list in this wonderful Onion video.

Paxman: Has He Lost It?

Call me a sentimental old fool, but I do actually want to hear what the energy minister Mike O'Brien has to say about the Russo-Ukrainian gas crisis. This is one of those very rare political stories which might actually interest intelligent and sensitive types. On Newsnight, however, Paxman was determined to thwart me. I know his withering drawl, his impatient interruptions, his languid sneer are as important to national life as knife crime, the wrong weather and Fear of the French, but this was absurd. The story was buried beneath Paxman's cartoonish mannerisms. O'Brien, apparently a rather straightforward individual, looked like a Bromley solicitor obliged to spend five minutes in a room with a Daffy Duck.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Mystic Socks

So 'detox' is a myth. And, I guess, my Richard James socks were not delivered by Santa. Oh and, in spite of L'Oreal's claims to the contrary, we are not worth it. I like this quote from Alice Tuff of Sense About Science - 'It is ridiculous that we're seeing a return to mystical properties being claimed for products in the 21st century....' As opposed, I presume, to all those other centuries when nobody claimed any mystical properties for any products. And another thing, Alice, my socks have helped me find inner peace, but it doesn't come cheap.


Sue Blackmore wants humanists, agnostics and atheists to be allowed to have a go at Radio 4's Thought for the Day. I don't have any problem with that - though it might get a touch boring - but I do find the atheists' urge to be like a religion a little, well, odd. For that it, in effect, what she is saying, that atheists should have the same voice as Christians, Hindus and so on. This is the correlative of the militant atheist movement which aspires to the condition of a missionary cause, seeking converts. They are all hung up on the idea of belief, which they don't seem to understand. If they want atheism to be a belief system like all others, then, fair enough, they will in time marginalise themselves utterly. The much stronger position would be to advocate an atheist conception of God as the highest and best we can imagine. This is not a paradox, it is merely a way of pointing out that God is not the problem the atheists are trying to solve; perhaps they sense that the one they are trying to solve is insoluble. Meanwhile, read this, a lucid defence of the idea of kindness which includes a neat dismissal of Dawkins' elitism. The modern dismisser of kindness as a form of selfishness is, as Hume foresaw, forgetting 'the movements of his heart'. More exactly, he is abusing language. In whose eyes is kindness 'really' selfishness? Not yours, not mine and, not, dear atheists, God's. To say kindness is not kindness, now that is a paradox worthy of explication on an atheist's Thought for the Day.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Wolves, Bears and Bankers

In The Observer Catherine Bennett muses on 'rewilding'  - the process of reintroducing animal species to places from which they have previously been ejected by the activities of humans. Not liking humans much and feeling a deep desire to see wolves and bears chasing bankers through the streets and alleys of the City, I'm a bit of a rewilder myself. But it's tricky. There are plans to reintroduce the sea eagle - more properly called the white-tailed eagle - to the area of the North Norfolk coast where I currently languish. Over Christmas, I was harangued by a local about the folly of this project. The sea eagle is a big and, for other animals, alarming bird. Just by circling over the vast tern nesting sites, it would scare birds off their nests and cause eggs to chill and die. Other predators - we have plenty of marsh harriers - would be threatened. Indeed, other reintroductions might also be jeopardised. Avocets, exquisite creatures, are just regaining their foothold. Would they survive the attentions of hungry sea eagles?
The point is that, especially in Britain, what we mean by nature is always modified by human activity. Some nature thrives on the presence of humans, some does not. Rewilders assume they can get back to an initial condition of nature. But it is not clear what that means and, anyway, it certainly cannot be achieved by the random introduction of species which, as Bennett points out, are simply those admired by the rewilders. Personally, I'd quite like to lie in a field watching a sea eagle circling over Burnham Market, considering its chances with a few braying City types. But if the price is the destruction of terns, marsh harriers and avocets, then probably not.

The Good Recession

In The Sunday Times I consider what good might come out of the recession. Readers of this blog will be unsurprised that I am most excited by the prospect of being able to return to the Mirabelle.

PS In fact, having now got the dead tree edition, I discover I also have an article in Culture on the new National Theatre production of Tom Stoppard's marvellous Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. It's a bloody good piece but, mysteriously, it does not seem to be on the web site. Where are the cyberwonks when you need them?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

In Screams Begin Responsibilities

The consensus among the City types I met over Christmas was that the banks did stupid things but they had no choice. They had to deal in toxic securities to keep up with the competition. But is this a Nuremberg 'I was just following orders argument'? If the banking system was at fault and there was no way the industry as a whole could stand back and see the big picture, then shouldn't that mean the individual - meaning one person or one bank - has more rather than less responsibiity? 
Meanwhile, Shakespeare lookalike and once great editor of The Economist Bill Emmott explains why he got it wrong when he said 'Crisis, what crisis?' back in August. He used the wrong model - Japan - and he didn't allow for psychology (bit of an oversight that, Bill). Fair enough but, unfortunately, he doesn't draw the only possible conclusion - that it is the very idea of prediction that is at fault. The safest assumption to make about the future is that we know nothing about it whatsoever and that any forecast about the behaviour of any complex system is virtually certain to be false. This may not be quite right but it will at least save us from catastrophes caused by our delusions of future competence. Emmott, like the bankers, was just following the orders of the system in which he operates. The big picture, again, goes unnoticed.
This is a fine interview  of Lynndie England by Emma Brockes. Brockes allows her material to unfold and presents a picture of unremitting bleakness. England was found guilty of abuses in Abu Ghraib. Everybody now knows the real guilty parties were the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld. England was just following the orders of a depraved and sadistic culture within the prison that was directly inspired by the administration's casual, criminal and diplomatically insane acceptance of torture. 
England seems to be a bewildered, hopeless type, apparently far removed from City sophisticates and former editors of The Economist. But they are all trapped by a failure to apply reasonable scepticism to the systems in which they are obliged to operate. They seem to remain  in denial about the deep folly of those systems. Competition drove the banks, the idea of prediction drove Emmott and a need to belong drove England. But they all ended up in the same place.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Comical Demise of Lady Anne

Laugh off the recession with this, a Telegraph obituary. It is the funniest thing you will read this year.

The Fatness of Others

'We want families to engage with the campaign and understand that obesity is not someone else's problem.'  - Dawn Primarolo.
'Yes it is.' - Bryan 'Invisible from the Side' Appleyard

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Have a Good One

Happy New Year. I have failed to post since Christmas Day. The season stunned me into silence. Two people I know died. Harold Pinter and I were friendly enough in a remote kind of way until he threatened to kick me in the balls. Apparently I wasn't showing him enough respect. It's difficult to know how much is enough. As far as his literary status is concerned, Nige got it about right. Other than that, I think I was pretty respectful but, as one or two Xmas guests may have noticed, I can turn sullen at short notice. The other death was that of Sam Huntington. A man of immense wisdom and learning, Sam was very good company on beaches. Thin, bespectacled and grinning, on a few occasions he sat in the sand on Martha's Vineyard with me and one or two others. He reminded me of a hyper-intelligent Olive Oyl. He was one of those Americans who periodically make me want to leave the blasted heath that is Blighty. Oh and I gave up on W.G.Sebald's Austerlitz. It just seemed too easy. Two thirds of the way through I resolved to fling the book aside if the phrase 'said Austerlitz' cropped up once more. A minute later, I flung the book aside.