Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dancing monks

Tomorrow in The Sunday Times I interview dancing Chinese monks in Luxembourg. Link later. Here.

MPs are the New Jews

Danny's email from the unspeakable Irving reminds one yet again of the human need to group others together and blame, if not actually kill, them. Irving says the Jews in Germany should have asked, 'Why us?' The implication is that there must be a reason, but, of course, there isn't. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was a Jewish screenwriter - this, I think, is a true story and I apologise if I've told it before - who had to visit a wealthy woman to persuade her to back a movie. She had a wall of shelves on which stood priceless Chinese vases. She complained about the Jews, saying she didn't like them but she didn't really have a reason. Our Jew, no longer interested in her money, stood up, brought the shelves crashing down and said, 'Now you gotta reason!' My kinda guy. MPs have been smashing vases, mostly John Lewis rather than Ming. Doubtless many are at fault and some should go. But even the most guilty should be treated with at least the respect we offer to the accused in court -'due process' it's called. Instead, they are sneered and snarled at. The scrawling of 'That's Life' on the door of Margaret Moran's constituency office, which evoked 'Juden' on the doors of Jewish shops, indicates pretty clearly where we are going here. Daily I hear supposedly angered constituents emitting anti-MP bile. They're not remotely angry, they're loving it; their little lives have been validated by hatred. TV, in particular, is whipping up this feeding frenzy. Television presenters have, for some time, been involved in a sporting competition to see who can sneer most effectively at politicians. This is, for them, the Olympics. MPs are fools like us, greedy like us and, like us, they find themselves set loose in a world devoid of ethos, custom and effective institutions. Like us, they behave badly. And then, suddenly, they find themelves in the wrong place at the wrong time, at the mercy of the mob. 'Why us?' No reason, just following orders.
PS And just as I write this, Guido does this. The Nazis hung Jews with piano wire.

The Herb Boxer

Greatest ever standfirst - 'Tarragon always punches above its weight, says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.' Well he would, wouldn't he?

Matthew and Marilynne

Matthew Parris climbs on board the careering bandwagon of my Brown gone in June forecast. But who cares when there's this? Marilynne being in the running for the Orange Prize is rather like Ian Bostridge putting his name down for Britain's Got Talent, but still...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I Told You I Was Right

My one mistake was saying Brown would be 'gone by June 1st'. If I'd put it back a week or two, I would have been bang on the money. And that was in January - sometimes I scare myself. Guido has finally caught up with my fabulous political instincts.

The Match

I was at a talk by John Gray - the thinking man's Lionel Messi - last night so I missed all but the last ten minutes of The Match. Obviously, as a supporter of the only Manchester side with soul, I - the thinking man's Richard Dunne - glowed. There is always this assumption about English Premier League teams - as there was about the national team at the last World Cup - that they are the world's best and that United in particular are unassailable. Well, we know what happened to the worst football team in the world and, from the ten minutes I saw of Barcelona's exquisite performance, I found it hard to believe that clumsy, imagination-free United were even playing the same game. City would, of course, have wiped the floor with the bull-fighting bandits and braggarts of Barca.

The Secular Delusion

Andrew Brown reports on the rise of Calvinism in China. I don't think that was in the secular-progressive game plan. It gives a timely endorsement to this book review by John Gray - and to the book, of course, though it does seem a little too Americentric. Either way, the point is that the humanist fantasy that modernity necessarily entailed the decline of religion was always absurd, now it is demonstrably so. As John points out, religion is on the rise among the most defiantly modern people. You can say this is a bad thing, but you can't say it can't happen, as so many have done. This is an important point. Dawkins's The God Delusion was attacked because he plainly knew nothing about theology. His defenders said that was not the point, theology was irrelevant if God was, indeed, no more than a delusion. Okay, but as Calvinism in China (and many other resurgent faiths) demonstrate, to say God doesn't exist therefore I'm not going to think about him in any detail is to cut yourself from the world as it is. Or, to put it another way, to say that God is merely a delusion - and no more than that - is to imply you have some higher standard of understanding than the merely human. But there is no super-human realm in which ranks of Dawkins's 'brights' bask in the brilliant glare of unbelief. They're here, in this world, and they also have their delusions of which the most bizarre and eccentric is their faith in the imminent death of religion.


I know that North Korea's nuke technology came from A.Q.Khan, but does anybody know where they learned to build missiles? We keep being told what a hopeless, backward country this is, yet missiles are very tricky, engineeringwise. Anyway, just wondered. But, meanwhile, here is John Bolton, the man in permanent disguise, dishing out the hard line on nuclear strategy and here is Seamus Milne selling the soft touch scenario. Neither is quite credible. Bolton blames Obama for adopting a weak position towards Russia and then says the Russians have refused his approaches; probably they saw something Bolton doesn't, his view being obscured by his ludicrous facial hair. Milne thinks North Korea is negotiation-ready. I doubt it. The fundamental difference is between the nukes are here to stay, be realistic, analysis and the nukes provoke more nukes and we can get rid of them position. Humans being what they are, I tend towards the former though not if the appalling Bolton is running the show. Banning nukes seems historically implausible and aggressive disarmament by the nuclear powers will convince others that this is their big chance. On the other hand, proliferation is now certain and that means, at some point, nukes will be used in anger. We can only hope millions rather than billions die. Edward O.Wilson said that if hamadryas baboons had nukes the world would be destroyed in a week. Individuals may have their virtues and gifts, but humanity as a whole is a baboon colony. And so my conclusion is: nukes are like women - can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.
PS. All of which made me forget a superbly appropriate joke. What do you call a monkey in a minefield? A BaBOOM!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Synecdoche, New York 2: On Pretension

I was interested in Circus Monkey's comment on Synecdoche, New York - 'Sounds like a load of pretentious rubbish to me. Does Private Eye still publish its Pseuds' Corner?' As I responded, I used to appear in PC all the time, but no longer. O tempora! O mores! Sorry, bit pretentious that. But what is pretension? Unearned intellectual display, I'd say, just as sentimentality is, according to Joyce, unearned emotion. Well, I reckon Charlie Kaufman earned his emotion and intellectual display, others may differ but I think they would miss the point of the film. It is incontinent and self-indulgent because that's what it's about. The wider point is: who decides what is or is not earned? Private Eye, obviously and quite often accurately. But the danger is that any intellectual display attracts the charge of pseudery. Then nobody can say anything serious about anything for fear of being called pretentious. This may be seen as a desirable outcome but, on the whole, I don't think so. There is, in fact, a kind of pretension in seeking out and lampooning pretension since it implies the seeker is claiming a more competent level of intellectual judgment that his target. How, otherwise, would he know the display was truly unearned? A false accusation of pretension can be a serious thing; in the case of Kaufman it defames a real artist. And what, anyway, does it mean to say he is pretentious - that he doesn't deliver cinema's predictable cheap thrills and low optimism? Yet jeering at pretension is often a necessary thing. Fake intellectual displays debase the coinage for us all. I could give you a hundred examples from an hour or so's output on the web. But, personally, I'm in favour of pretension. It lifts the spirits and is a valuable source of the fibre of irony.

Synecdoche, New York

I know, I know, here I am buried in work and forgetting to tell you what you're all gagging to hear - what I think of Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. There are two ways of doing this: the long way and the short way. The long way involves thousands of words on contingency, control, disease, unease, death, the usual really. I'll go the short way - frigging wonderful. Now leave me alone.

Read This Now

Busy. But, for the moment, this is a good story by an exceptionally wise and fine human being of solid parentage. Read it, pass it on, generate TRAFFIC.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Downhill Racing

Reading Hill yesterday left me incapable of taking anything seriously - anything but Hill, that is - particularly the latest from Westminster. I see nice Alan and weird Ed have broken ranks.... er, hmmm, well, I suppose these people are necessary to maintain a country in which Hill is free to write, not that one hears much about freedom these days - only about 'rights' or crazy babbling from 'libertarians' - , or writing. This state of mind makes me feel young again - younger, purer and nastier. As I think I have said before, for at least half of my life I regarded an interest in politics as a sure sign of low intelligence and high insensitivity. There were much more important and urgent matters with which one could concern oneself, many involving the shattering volume available from the giant old radio Nige used as a speaker in his room at Cambridge. There was also poetry, for example... er, hmmm, well, no that can turn political on you in an instant. Being young for me meant withdrawal into colder, higher ground - a delusion, of course, but I'm not making any claims here, only outlining a pathology, a disease of feeling. This time, however, it is impossible to ignore the connection between the higher and the lower. Hill's meditations in Style and Faith concern the England of the seventeenth century when modern Westminster was formed, not least in the imaginations of our writers, the very Westminster that now snivels for our attention with its lynch mobs, its lobby-fodder wretches and our ghastly leader who can't even make a decision not to make a decision. Of course, I'm not saying it's all been downhill.... er, hmmm, well, yes I am.

Hill, Burton, England

In my article yesterday, I said 'Who are we?' was the real question people were asking. At 11am in Coffee Republic in Marylebone High Street I came across one English, not British, answer.
In Geoffrey Hill's essay Keeping to the Middle Way, he quotes Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy on the subject of exorcism - 'all those jugling circumstances, Astrologicall Elections, of time, place, prodigious habits, fustian, sesquipedall words, spells, crosses, characters, which Exorcists ordinarily use...'
Far better, says Burton, to following the example of the curing of the lame man in Acts 3 - 'In the name of Christ Jesus rise and walke.' The simplicity contrasts not just with the holy rolling exorcists but also with Burton's own expansive style - the 'loose, referential edifice' of his book. Burton thus makes his point by implicitly decrying his own style in the light of scripture, a moment that, Hill says, is 'wonderful almost beyond words'.
A few pages later, Hill quotes Burton again - 'Want of faith, no feeling of grace for the present, are not fit directions, we must live by faith, not by feeling, 'tis the beginning of grace to wish for grace: we must expect and tarry.'
Hill says, ''We must live by faith not by feeling': this at the heart of several hundred thousand words dedicated to an 'anatomy' of diseased feeling. 'In the name of Christ Jesus rise and walke.''
He said it of Burton so I'll say it of Hill - 'wonderful almost beyond words'. And English to the core.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Stoke the Vile

This is why I was doing all that driving and why I can never return to Stoke-on-Trent.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Strange Fruit

A good story is one thing, a lynching is another. We have become a very nasty nation.

Why Grow Up?

I have been driving a long way and, in the absence of anything to say, I shall merely share with you a txt exchange between me 'n' Nige to give you a flavour of my last couple of days.
Me: Byrds' Chimes of Freedom made me v happy. Stoke is vile.
Nige: God yes. On both counts I'm sure (tho I remember q liking Burton). Mind you, Dylan's Chimes at Newport....
Me: It is the most wonderful song and I don't think I rated it at the time. Probably the slight Ginsberg feel. I like that now. Came into S.... after 600 miles with top down and Mr Tambourine Man by Byrds at full ear bleed. I must grow up. Also there were rainbows.
Nige: Me neither. That sounds a perfect jrney. Why grow up? And rainbows!
Me: I know - the rainbows were a bit de trop.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New Labour: A Sober Assessment

With Speaker Martin about to resign, it is a good time to list some of the achievements of New Labour since 1997.
1)They destroyed trust in politics by creating a culture of spin, bullying and manipulation culminating in the Damian McBride affair.
2)They failed to reform the National Health Service or, indeed, any public service.
3)They betrayed their own primary promise by increasing inequality.
4)They embarked on an ill-judged military partnership with an incompetent American administration.
5)They humiliated and under-funded the military.
6)They mismanaged the public finances, leaving us with massive borrowings in the face of the worst economic crisis in 80 years.
7)They permitted a coup, on the basis of bullying and threats, which installed the worst Prime Minister of my lifetime.
8)And now, with the resignation of Brown's puppet Speaker, they have precipitated a constitutional crisis of historic proportions.
Have I missed anything?

New Zealand Pimps

I see New Zealand, having tried everything else, has now decided to pimp its population in the name of marketing - 'And let's not forget the Kiwi accent, what more could an American guy or girl looking for love ask for?' Personally, I find antipodean accents pleasant but anaphrodisiac. Sorry.

How to Write History

Norman Stone on the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in February 1918:
'On the other [side] were representatives of a new state, soon to be called the Russian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republic - some Jewish intellectuals, but various others, including a Madame Bitsenko who had recently been released from a Siberian prison where she had been put for assassinating a governor-general, a 'delegate of the peasantry' who had been picked up from the street in the Russian capital at the last minute as useful furniture (he, understandably, drank), and various Russians of the old order, an admiral and some staff officers, who had been brought along because they knew about the technicalities of ending a war and evacuating a front line (one was an expert in black humour and kept a diary).'

Wolfram Alpha Forgets to Floss

I suppose I'm the last to become aware that Wolfram Alpha is the latest web thing to change the world. It's certainly hit the ground running. 'Is there a God?' I asked WA, hoping for the response, 'There is now.' But it was way ahead of me. 'Additional functionality for this topic is under development...' Witty or what? Humiliated, I returned to what I do best - reading Heather Mills on Twitter. 'Ooh just a thought while I remember to floss my teeth, let's get more in depth who are you, crusty 1, where were you born hairless heart.' Now that's what I call a new world.

Solipsistic Rancour

'I have no desire to add my voice to the chorus of contemporary cultural lament, a centrifugal movement in which immense generalizations are produced out of solipsistic rancour.'
Geoffrey Hill, Style and Faith.
That reminds me of somebody - oh, hang on, it's me.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Greg Knight's Second Palace Allowance.

There's an astounding story buried on page 4 of the print edition (I can't find it on the web site) of The Sunday Telegraph. Tory MP 'Greg' Knight claimed £20,886 for his second home allowance in 2006-7. Then, the next year, he claimed £183,052,007. Amazing and nobody has followed it up. Well, evidently it's a misprint. Most newspapers are sub-edited in Ulan Bator these days.

The Guns of Norwich

I wandered idly into one of those army surplus shops (ah, here it is!) in the groovy students' area of Norwich yesterday. It was a cave of military clothes, knives, hand grenades, survival gear and guns. Weakened by the claustrophobic atmosphere I bought a shirt (at least I think it's a shirt, it's got so much structure and metal it could well be a motor bike) for £9.99. The main behind the counter - shaved head, three ear-rings in one ear - was serving me wordlessly until suddenly he announced, 'I am in a world of pain.' Feeling I had stumbled into a Coen brothers movie, I prepared to signal my assent while gesturing at the encircling militaria. The words 'Well, quite' were just forming in my lips when I realised he was looking over my shoulder. He was, in fact, addressing an old man behind me who was nodding sympathetically. The pain in question was not that of war but of some secret emotional or possibly medical turmoil. I learned a valuable lesson - silent, shaved-headed men surrounded by weaponry and wearing three ear-rings in one ear have feelings too.


'And where is the poor soul who washes his smalls and must surely, of late, had some dreadful scraping to do?
Quentin Letts on the plight of Speaker Martin.
Do they write like this in the Daily Mail these days? I had no idea.

MPs' Expenses: All You Need to Read

The two best articles on the expenses unpleasantness:
They say quite different things. But Kettle knows everything worth knowing about politics and Field is a saint so they are both right.

The Fools of Forecasting

Bull-minded friends have been claiming that this is turning out to be a V-shaped recession - fast in, fast out. They may be right. Knowing nothing of the future, I am not qualified to comment. However, speaking only of the past, one can't help be struck by the elegant analysis of John Authers in the FT.
'In the short term, the past months show us, it is earnings forecasts that drive markets. This is awkward, because the past year should also have taught us not to place any trust whatsoever in the collective wisdom of the analysts brokers employ to forecast earnings.'
Last July the brokers' hotshots were forecasting a rise of one third in corporate earnings in the first quarter of this year. They fell by a third. Analysts were fantastically slow to adjust their forecasts in the light of events. When they finally did, they just threw up their hands in horror. As a result, when the companies started reporting the stock markets rallied because, bad as the figures were, they weren't quite as bad as the monsters stalking the demoralised hotshots' imaginations.
Financial forecasting is a dangerous, stupid business, nobody should waste their intelligence on such a futile and dishonest activity. Yet it appears to rule our lives and, I predict, it will continue to do so.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Iggy Pop

Tomorrow in The Sunday Times I interview Iggy Pop - which is why I was in Miami - I review two books on the first moon landing and I write a strange and possibly incomprehensible piece about the web. Links when available.
Here they are:

Friday, May 15, 2009


Apologies for the absence of posts, this is because I have been told that blogging is so 2005. If they had said 1969, I would have been posting like crazy. Well, no, it's that pesky work thing again, paid employment is the curse of the blogging classes. I have nothing to report other than the fact that, though still adhering to my near zero carb diet, I have discovered that 85 per cent Lindt chocolate smeared with Marscarpone is so delicious that it brings tears to my eyes even to mention it. I have no idea why that came into my head.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

MP's Expenses - The Mini-Milgram

I note that my post on Pretty Polly and Grisly Gordon has inspired comments on the Great Swimming Pool, Manure, Moat, Chandelier, Light Bulb and Flip Scandal. This draws my attention to my own dilatoriness in failing to comment further on the matter. I have been held back by the fact that, whenever it comes on the TV or radio, I stick my fingers in my ears and sing 'La-la-La' at the top of my voice. I can't even look at the papers. But, insofar as it has penetrated my do-it-yourself sensory deprivation chamber, I am prepared to say the following.
I was ticked off by a Sunday Times reader recently for casually observing that humans are 'lecherous, tribal carnivores'. 'Not like that down here in Surrey,' he said or some such. Then, last night, I watched Horizon. They did a rerun of the Milgram Experiment. Michael Portillo watched in horror as, yes indeed, perfectly ordinary, run-of-the-mill humans tortured and killed people at the behest of a plausible man in a white coat. Oh and then I noted they are hard at it in Swat, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe etc, etc.. They're at it in Surrey also but they avoid visible marks.
People, given the opportunity and encouragement, do bad things. What is clear about the GSPMMCLBFS is that the rules were disobeyed not just by the MPs but, more importantly, by the people accepting their claims. These people are, in fact, the real guilty parties. They created a little Milgram - look, it's all right to do this, everybody's at it, it helps with the smooth running of the place etc etc.. In that climate, of course people claimed what they could. This is because - read this slowly and repeat - they are human beings.
Now Chris Dillow points out that MPs are, in fact, very well paid. This is true. But it ignores another demonic element in Westminster's Mini-Milgram. MPs spend their lives with businessmen, various media types, potentates, whatever, all of whom earn much more than they do. They do a job in which they might have to be sneered at on Newsnight by £1m-a-year Paxo. This further softens them up by giving them a sense that doing bad things is a form of justice.
Finally, since the mid nineties when New Labour seduced the press corps, Westminster has looked only at itself. Spin and gossip have been its primary preoccupations. In this context, the Damian Macbride scandal was much worse than this one - it represented the climax of a dismal and corrupt phase of British politics - but that now seems to be forgotten. Politics, in this period, was professionalised in that politicians tended to be people who had done nothing else. In fact, I note that, when I take my fingers from my ears, people keep talking about the profession of being an MP. It is not a profession, it is a vocation, or should be. It is a vocation that should be pursued in the midst of or in between other things. MPs should be amateurs. Professionalisation and the formation of an inward looking, club-like group is a further element in this Mini-Milgram. Seeing themselves as people making a living out of politics and as members of a self-important, self-defining little group, MPs took their expenses as no more than their right. And, once again, everyone was at it.
Now amiably mediocre MPs who just followed the herd are being asked to pay back quite large sums of money. They are pathetic creatures, made more pathetic by the fact that they'll have trouble raising a loan thanks to Grisly's inept handling of the economy these last twelve years. Best to put my fingers in my ears - 'La-la-la, can't hear you.'

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Star Trek: The Franchise Becomes a Myth

Last night I saw Star Trek. I teared up at the first shot of the Enterprise, at the appearance of Leonard Nimoy, at the inevitable shot of Enterprise emerging unscathed from some cosmic fireball, at the enthusiastic walk-on crew member we all knew must die in the next two minutes, even at the ponderous moralising. Basically, I saw the entire thing through a haze of moisture. Why? Because this movie marks the moment when the franchise became a myth. Until now, Star Trek has been fun in a post-modern, ironic kind of way. Even under the command of the super-solemn Jean-Luc Picard, the show seemed cuddly, a familiar joke told over and over again. Galaxy Quest was a brilliant spoof, but it was hardly necessary, Trek spoofed itself. But J.J.Abrams - plainly an ego of Borg Cube proportions judging by his gigantic name spread across the screen at the start of the closing credits - has cut through the accretions of exhausted irony and started all over again. He has done so - I will not spoil the plot - with a device that allows an almost infinity of sequels. As with all good myths, the story is freed to be told again. Abrams has started a new Star Trek wave. Now there will always be new Star Trek waves. Like Peter Pan or Superman, the Trek myth is established across the generations. Abrams treats it with innocence and respect in the certain knowledge that he is handling meanings and imagery that preceded him and will outlast him. It's an American thing, this triumphant naivete emerging from chaos and cynicism, this sanctification of story. Or, if you prefer, it's a blast.

Gone by June - Polly On Board

My Brown gone by June prediction is going down to the wire. Now Polly has specified a date - June 5th - and backs nice Alan Johnson to lead Labour to a more graceful defeat than would be possible under Swooping Gordon the Gurner. Polly's argument is from reason, mine from my deep connection with the underlying Way of Things. She is Athens, I am Jerusalem. This morning Brown will see that, together, we are irresistible.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Morbid Age

Tomorrow in The Sunday Times I interview the historian Richard Overy and discuss his book The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars. This was, incidentally, the 'hardback, very fat and possessed of an unusually depressing title' that I was reading in that groovy bar in Miami.
Here's the link.

Real Corruption

You call this corruption? Forget it. This is corruption. Union barons still run the Labour Party. As Gerry Adams once said of the Provisional IRA, 'They've not gone away you know.'

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Ink Will Win

You probably think this blog has a staff of one, me. You're wrong. I employ thousands, maybe tens of thousands. I don't pay them and most of them don't even know I am their employer, but I exploit them ruthlessly. Say, for example, I link to this story - it is chosen at random. I employ the journalist who wrote it and his contacts book and I didn't even pay his expenses. I also employ the editors who put it in the paper, the sub-editors, the layout guys, the photographer, the lawyers who check it for libel, the printers who print it and the web guys who put it up on the web. Since it is from a newspaper site, I also employ the marketing and advertising departments, the distributors and the newsagents. Each time I link to Ink I reckon I employ a hundred people or more and I don't pay them a penny.
I say this because I saw the great and good Andrew Sullivan on Channel 4 News talking about the even greater and even gooder Rupert Murdoch, who in his infinite wisdom puts low carb food on my table, and his intention to charge for access to News Corp's web content. This, needless to say, produced some sneering from would-be technocrats - sorry, love, I employed you for a moment there. Anyway, Andrew got everything right until the last moment when he seemed to imply the blogscape and the web as a whole are standalone, autonomous news organisations. They're not. Andrew employs millions in the same way I employ thousands. Guido repeatedly makes the same mistake. I don't know the thinking behind Great Rupert's remarks but, say, for example, he plans to take all his content off the web - very unlikely I know. I, then, wouldn't even be able to link to me and I wouldn't be able to free-ride on his investments. He saves large amounts of money and advertisers and readers have to go back to dead trees. Everybody notices and everybody starts to do the same. Large parts of 'citizen journalism' would collapse overnight because they only exist by exploiting the work of the hundreds of thousands employed in mainstream media
The truth is that if the web makes no money or, at least, not enough to sustain proper news operations - and it doesn't - then you will either get no proper news or just none on the web. Think on, as they say where I come from, you need Ink, all of you, and one way or another you will have to pay for it. But think on further - Ink may not be free but it makes you free.

More Jobs for Joanna?

Okay, guys, what can we use Joanna Lumley for? She seems to be dictating government policy. Resignation of Brown obviously, but also forcible repatriation of Drogbar and Ballack under armed guard? I don't think we should hold back, we have a terrible and wonderful weapon at our disposal.

Let's Hear it for Norway

Of course, like all right thinking people, Tom Henning Ovrebo just wanted Chelsea to lose. It was a no-brainer. Ballack and Drogba play for Chelsea and the Barcelona manager is very skinny, looks like a villain in Miami Vice and wears - I think - a Dior suit and leather tie while standing on the touchline, such a refreshing change from our own sickly band of ashen-faced Ron Knees. His tactics also kept me absorbed in spite of the fact that I had acute jet lag. For 91 minutes Barcelona did not appear to be trying to score, rather they seemed intent on irritating Chelsea's sociopaths just for the hell of it. Nothing wrong with that, but I couldn't help feeling a goal would have been the smart move. Saving it until the 92nd minute was a stroke of genius beyond the imaginings of even the sainted Sir Alex. There were also some great shots of Chelsea fans crying. All in all a night to remember.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Hitch, Fish and Tel

While in the States, I heard Christopher Hitchens lacerating some Christianist on one of those God-bothering radio stations they have over there. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Not that Hitch was remotely persuasive but he has mastered the art of using expensive words and arcane references crushingly. I've tried this on my occasional appearances on American radio and I've failed. But Hitch has a kind of fruity loquacity that seems to make the yanks feel like downtrodden colonials with a bad case of culture cringe. Admirable but, of course, wrong about everything of importance. This came to mind while reading Stanley Fish. I don't normally do this as Fish always uses 500 words when five will do, but something kept me going. He's writing about Terry Eagleton, a thinker I admire slightly less than I mistrust. He always seems to be about to say something amazing and then doesn't. On that basis, I won't, unless paid to do so, read the Eagleton book Fish is writing about, Reason, Faith and Revolution. Yet what he seems to be saying - that science, reason etc don't fulfil the human needs that religion does - seems sound if a touch obvious to all but the Hitchs of this world. Also he is right to defend faith for the sake of his forebears - 'against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void'. Right on, Tel. Fish ends with a swipe at 'the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens'. Well, it was just enough to cheer me up in Luxembourg airport.

Remember: Bankers Are Bad

I see Guido has consigned my vocation to the dustbin of history. But I take some comfort from the Center for Public Integrity, a journalists' organisation that does stuff no blogger will ever do. Notably, today, they are responsible for this story. The top 25 subprime lenders, backed or owned by the big banks, spent $370 million over the past decade lobbying against attempts to regulate their industry. We have been in danger, lately, of easing off on our banker loathing. Indeed, if, as now seems possible, the recession has bottomed out, there is a real danger that we shall just let them go back to business as usual. So it's as well to be reminded of the fact that they were - are? - a bunch of incompetent shysters.

Not Breakfast in America

One thing, however, I won't miss is the American breakfast. I've eaten breakfasts across the country - cheap and expensive - and they have ranged from just bearable to disgusting. Muffin-cakes are an abomination, apparently designed to sustain the medico-industrial complex, there's something seriously wrong with the American egg, they can make neither coffee nor tea, porridge is beyond them and their local cereals accelerate the cardiovascular damage done by the muffin-cakes. Fruit has an entirely different meaning over there. It denotes multi-coloured solids tasting vaguely of slightly acidic water. Bacon, I will acknowledge, is passable.
Well, now I seem to be in Luxembourg, probably another computer error. I just had breakfast consisting of a fruit salad so delicious I almost ate the hotel's entire supply, a perfect omelette and sublime coffee. Guys, which part of this don't you understand?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Pig That Did Not Fly

I seem to have returned to a cat-fight between Hears and Blarman. Meanwhile, Polly does not, as the headline suggests, think Brown can forge a triumph, she thinks, quite rightly, that Post Offices are horrible and should be better. Brown forging a triumph, flu-free flying pigs - not going to happen in this life. I'm still sticking by my gone by June forecast, though I admit time is short and everybody is saying it can't happen. Still, even if I am wrong, you have to acknowledge it's damn close. His departure would usher in a new Summer of Love, a great wave of national rejoicing, even if Blarman gets the job. But sadly, at 50,000, the petition is well short of the 60 million required.

Smug Pools

I may have dreamed this but strange things happen in transit and Philadelphia. Wandering through the airport, I paused by a TV screen to see a spectacle so shocking, so appalling, so awful, so stupid, so shattering, so undermining of one's equanimity that I actually looked around for somebody with whom I could share my horror. But it was late and the enormous room was empty. So, 30 hours later, I shall tell you. It was on CNN, two men were sitting opposite each other in a studio, discussing stuff. One was Bono and the other was George Clooney. The subject of their discussion was their mutual wonderfulness. Treacle-like smugness flooded out of the screen and formed dark pools around my feet.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Leaving America

I have never been so sorry to leave America. I want to stay. I realised this a couple of days ago when Brian Williams wrapped the NBC news. The grand, pompous music played over a helicopter shot of the State of Liberty. There was then a brutal cut from this rhapsody to some brilliantined sleazeball plugging an upcoming Hollywood gossip show. Historically, foreigners writing about America have concentrated on the sleazeball - for Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One, for example, the sleazeball was Los Angeles funeral rites. What is most instantly exotic about this country is its crude, greedy, sentimental populism. But to see only that is to miss the point of the NBC news sign-off. Far more profoundly exotic, to the British at least, is the combination of this populism with the nation's destiny-laden sense of self. Contrast the way - to pick one apparently trivial example among millions - the hacks at presidential press conference stand when the Prez enters with Gordon Brown's horrible, nationally-shaming video. Contrast further the way Obama - or, indeed, any president - must use a certain high solemnity and grandiloquence when addressing national issues. This is a nation that believes in itself. Britain mislaid that belief surprisingly quickly after 1945. The sub-text of Republican attacks on Obama - including those that claim he is a closet socialist - is that he is betraying this sense of self. Absurd as this may sound coming from a party that betrayed its own sense of self so conclusively, I have some sympathy. There is a future danger that America may lose its distinct identity and become just another nation that believes nothing, though I don't think Obama embodies this danger. Relative decline may turn out to be the real culprit. It will be a sad day when - if - it happens.
Anyway, that's a roundabout way of saying God Bless America. And so I return to buggered-up Blighty.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Swine Flu: Ralph the Pig Speaks

'People in the town of Chipping Sodbury were shocked to learn today that a member of their community had swine flu.' Guardian.
Nothing much happens in Chipping Sodbury, you see, they're easily shocked. When a Chipping Sod gets a mild form of flu, they're convulsed.
Meanwhile, the search for The Smoking Pig continues. He called me yesterday. His name is Ralph and he's on the lam in South Dakota. 'I'm with Willie Nelson,' he said, 'they can take me back to Texas but they won't take me back alive.' I invited him over to Palm Springs, it's pretty quiet here except for a closed school in Indio. But he likes seafood and, as my wife put it, 'You can't get a decent prawn in the desert.'
There is, on the face of it, no reason whatsoever to be concerned about this flu. It's killing people at a considerably slower rate than your average winter mutant. I know that the big fear is that once a virus jumps from animals to people it can mutate into something truly nasty and wipe out millions. Scientists and politicians, therefore, cannot afford to look anything but grave. Also, here in the US, the health system works by generating the maximum amount of anxiety which, in turn, has created the most over-medicated population on earth. If I believed any of the pill and potion ads on TV, I would be eating and sleeping at the pharmacy. I offered a cup of coffee to a guy fixing the toilet in this house yesterday. 'Can't,' he said, 'too much medication.' He looked damned healthy to me. Meanwhile, I heard Rush Limbaugh, the leader of the Republican Party, quoting 'the London Times' which said, apparently, the virus was not airborne but carried by droplets. This, he crowed, disproves that all this nonsense about catching it on buses and trains and wearing masks. Poor Rush hasn't grasped the concept of the aerosol and, anyway, since he believes that the present health system is a free market, why isn't he saying it's all terrible and flogging Tamiflu from the back of his Chevy Malibu? (He was flogging that car the last time I was here.) Oh, hang on, Tamiflu was developed in the US but is now sold by Roche, a Swiss firm, so it's probably unAmerican.
Anyway, the real pandemic here is hysterical hypochondria. Or, as Ralph puts it, 'Get a friggin' life.'

Ish and the Absence of the iPod

Tomorrow in The Sunday Times I interview Kazuo Ishiguro and I meditate on the technology of 1989. I shall be in transit so I may not be able to insert the links at once.
Ah, I am not yet in transit, here's Ish and here's 1989.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Hill Again

' - Urge to unmake
all wrought finalities, become a babbler
in the crowd's face - '
Geoffrey Hill defines my highest aspiration.

Where Dylan Does and Does Not Live

I can't seem to get it online but everybody should read the Bob Dylan interview by Douglas Brinkley in Rolling Stone. It doesn't uncover anything new but it's strangely touching and, I think, says something about the man. I would be worth it just for the Bobster's answer to Sarkozy's question, 'Where do you live?' The Zim: 'Right here.... No, I'm joking. I'm from the Lone Star State.' The first answer is always right - where else could one live? The second answer is untrue he is neither from nor does he live in Texas. Throughout one is aware of the strangeness of genius.

Important Numbers

Just under 40,000 people have now signed the petition calling on Brown to resign. This may not seem many - optimists were hoping for 60 million - but, on the bright side, it's about 200 times the number of people who have died from swine flu.