Wednesday, July 29, 2009

No Muse is Good Muse

As you may have noticed, the blog muse has deserted me. So much so that I have nothing to say about this. I do feel strangely better for it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Jim Lovelock and Emma Duncan

I was at James Lovelock's 90th birthday party at the Orangery of Blenheim Palace yesterday. Blenheim - a work of double genius, Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor - is in the English baroque style that inspired the purist revulsion which led to Holkham. It is a more purely English building in that nothing quite like this was ever built - could ever have been built - anywhere else. Also there are the supremely English grounds by a third genius, Capability Brown.
Jim, of course, is the most purely English man imaginable. At 90 he is fully vindicated. There are no serious challenges now to his Gaia Theory except from those who persist in believing it's some New Age nonsense about crystals. The earth is now routinely considered as a single complex system, though few give credit to the man who first worked out how and why, on the way inventing the electron capture detector and, apparently, the microwave oven. He never made money out of these things, it is not in his nature. He was further vindicated yesterday by the declassification of pictures suppressed by Bush showing the extent of ice melt in Alaska. Jim has said the speed of the ice melt proves current climate models are over-optimistic. He is one of the greatest men alive and, at 90, his genius is undimmed.
Judge, then, of my reaction on reading, when I got home, this article. It advocates active discrimination against gays, blacks and Muslims - sorry, sorry - against people over fifty. They are, it seems, inefficient or something. I won't bother taking it apart line by line. Why should I? Jim Lovelock is a friend of mine.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Shack

I have been reading The Shack, which has been on The New York Times bestseller list for 60 weeks. It was privately published and its initial success was based on internet word of mouth. This has sent shivers through publishing houses. They have glimpsed a possible future in which they are entirely unnecessary. It's a better novel than I expected. William P. Young organises his material well, a bit too well in fact. Reading it is such an effortless experience that, after a few pages, I was barely paying attention to passing detail. The hero loses his daughter to a kidnapper and then gets a note from God asking for a meeting. This takes places in the shack where his daughter's bloody dress was found. God is in the form of the Trinity - a black woman as father, a Jewish carpenter as son and an Asian girl as Holy Ghost. In the midst of their discussions - about half way through the book - I stalled, feeling I really ought to be reading something a little more substantial. Americans like the idea of chatting to God - see Bruce Almighty etc - or some equivalent - see the encounter with the Oracle in The Matrix. Or, at the top end of the scale, there's Frank O'Hara's marvellous A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island. The common theme is that the supreme being isn't what you expect him/her to be and doesn't say what you expect him/her to say. In The Shack she's a laid back mama with a nice line in happy banter and relaxed theology. This, I suppose, underwrites American down home individualism - she is emphatically not like the grand figures of mainstream churches - and the urge to believe that ultimate truth is straightforward, straight-talking and friendly. The novel is a fine example of consolation literature, a distinct American genre. We have no such genre - unless you count chick or mis lit, which, I suppose, you could. But the big point is that The Shack works as popular theology, as a story that reconciles its readers to life's vicissitudes. Reading it, one wonders what on earth the boneheaded atheist militants think they are doing. Trying to ban stories? No, boneheadedness is its own consolation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The World is Undetermined by Theory

James Purnell was on Newsnight declining to say how he felt about Brown and insisting on talking about ideas - primarily 'equality of capability' which is derived from the work of Amartya Sen. The left outside Westminster, Purnell said, was full of energy and fizzing with ideas. This contrast between high, noble abstractions and the concretion of personality politics has always been more characteristic of the left than the right. Tony Benn used it all the time as a way of suggesting the media were lowering the tone of political debate, which, to be fair, we were. Since the eighties, however, the right has deployed the high abstraction of the market as well as the flapdoodle of neocon universalism. Unlike Socrates, Plato will not lie down and drink his belladonna.
This is not to say that ideas in politics are necessarily a bad thing but they need to have what neuro-theorists call 'intentionality', they need to be about something. I'm not sure what Purnell was saying was about anything other than the need to have something to say at Brown's wake. If equality of capability means eliminating child poverty and massively improving state schools - and I think it does - then say so. But, I suppose, he can't say that because that's what Blair said and he failed on both counts and, for good measure, also increased inequality.
My point is that 'improving state schools' is the beginning of a political idea in that it is the prelude to specific actions whereas 'equality of capability', though a noble and interesting concept, does not. Saying the latter is a political idea is like saying quantum theory was a great way of building computers. There's a link but it's too tenuous to be meaningful. The word 'political' means something and it's not the same as 'political philosophy'.
In that context, I don't think Purnell was saying anything at all. There is only one issue for any future government, however noble its aspirations. This is how to make our economy work without repeating the fatal mistake of relying on financial services and with an appalling burden of debt. This is a very practical matter which Peter Mandelson, once the great virtualiser, seems to have grasped. All else is arm-waving and further flapdoodle.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Dennett Among the Loonies

I only just came across this by Daniel Dennett. The argument itself is trivial and uninteresting but the note at the end is a delight.
'This article was amended on Thursday 16 July 2009. Moon-landing sceptics were referred to as 'loonies', contrary to the Guardian style guide. This has been corrected.'
Does this mean the Guardian style guide bans 'loonies' completely or only when applied to moon-landing deniers? I think we should be told.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Watermelon, Guinea Pigs - Life is Good

Ironic Daughter draws my attention to this weirdly perfectly vid.

Henry Allingham

Henry Allingham is dead. I like formula for a long life - 'cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women - and a good sense of humour.' Apart from the women and the humour it's not true, but, of course, the significance of the remark is that there is no such formula, it's all chance so just live.

Big Ideas

Negley says:
'Tomorrow in The Sunday Times Bryan writes popular big ideas books from H.G.Wells to Malcolm Gladwell. As usual, if you don't read this you cannot seriously claim to have engaged with the zeigeist.'

Friday, July 17, 2009

Negative Equity

Krugman points out that the net effect of Goldman Sachs on the American economy is negative. I've been saying something like this for a while so he must be right. At the weekend Will Hutton said the same thing about hedge funds and, of course, it's also true of private equity operations which specialise in ruining perfectly decent companies like Boots. Why anybody should ever have thought that an insane proliferation of financial 'instruments' or 'products' was in any way a good thing is a mystery. I dimly recall some City type telling me it was a way of 'smoothing' markets but, when pressed, he couldn't explain what this meant. Anyway, it's all starting up again. Having seen Sir David Walker on television last night, it seems pretty clear that nothing will change and, in another few years, bankers will once again lose every penny they ever make. Smoothie Walker went further than Joanna Bourke when it came to the little people in places like Bromley. He came right out with it and said they wouldn't understand. I mean they haven't even got jobs have they?

Clever Words: A User's Guide

'Antichrist circles relentlessly around acts of transgression. The violence is defiantly excessive and beautiful. It is gendered but more misanthropic than misogynistic.'
Joanna Bourke, professor of history, Birkbeck College, in the Guardian.
Rough translation:
'Stuff happens in this film that will upset little people who lives in places like Bromley who are nowhere near as clever as me. The stuff is nasty but I, being sophisticated, find it beautiful. The humans involved are a man and a woman but we smart people know it's not that simple and, though Trier has a bit of form when it comes to being rotten to women, he's still one of us because he hates both sexes equally, sorry genders.'

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On Nukes

And, while on the subject of BBC4, I watched a gripping documentary called The Trials of Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, having created the atom bomb, was then persecuted because he was suspected of being a traitor, not least because he opposed the development of the 'super', the hydrogen bomb, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that it seemed a bit, well, de trop, a genocide device rather than a weapon. The doc said that, because of America's pursuit of ever more and ever bigger bombs, the Soviets had no choice but to follow suit. This was pure BBC ideology - the Soviets were just as keen on more and bigger - which weakened the show. Meanwhile, it is slightly startling to find Issey Miyake writing about nukes in the NYT. I have his clothes - they last forever and the buttons don't fall off - but I didn't know he was a Hiroshima survivor. He says he has always been reluctant to talk about this. Understandably, he wants to rid the world of nukes. Is this possible? Is it desirable? Any such agreement could be broken in secret and then those who conformed would be at the mercy of those who defected. On the other hand, that could be an argument for everybody having nukes, including assorted nutters who would definitely use them. Nukes - better with/better without?

The Stalled Chaucer

One of the geniuses (Roland White) at The Sunday Times, who was partly responsible for the burgeoning George & Lynne cult, now draws this to my attention. James McIntyre, the Chaucer of Cheese, is plainly Canada's McGonagall. The web site unkindly calls him Canada's worst poet - quite a claim. I was going to bring you a fragment of one of his cheese odes, but the web site has stalled.

Death in Switzerland

I was not required to discuss assisted dying on The Daily Politics, but I did discuss it in the corridor outside the studio with Frank Field and Lord Falconer. Field spoke of a woman planning suicide accompanied by a Dignitas man 'in a woolly hat'. The clothing detail was, somehow, devastating and convinced me I'd rather scoop out my own heart with a teaspoon than go to Switzerland to top myself - or have myself topped, as it were. Then there is this story, which is either a glorious affirmation of love or a horrific abuse depending on your perspective. Apart from the Swiss prejudice, I don't know what my perspective is. I use to be violently against this kind of thing - partly because of spending a couple of weeks in Holland researching a magazine article on euthanasia, which the Dutch then did with unattractive enthusiasm - but, these days, I am incapable of such certainties. This morning, however, I am all for assisted suicide at the first sign of any degenerative illness. This is because I watched Getting On on BBC4 - the best TV channel in the world - last night. Quite brilliant, very funny and utterly depressing, it will result in flights to Zurich packed with the only slightly unwell. Even death in Switzerland would seem to be preferable to life in a British hospital.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

For Peter Mandelson

In my motor industry article I noted that Peter Mandelson seemed to have seen the light in the shape of the real economy and real politics. He defied the (unstated) Treasury line that nothing could or should be done about British car manufacturing. Now he has rejected the previous government line that there would be no public spending cuts. It was, of course, utterly laughable, a blatant lie that assumed the voters were so thick they would not notice. Mandelson has, apparently, defeated the 'voters are thick' faction. I warm to the man.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

George & Lynne....?

Busy work has been getting in the way of blogging. But anyway.... A cult has formed around the George & Lynne cartoon strip in The Sun. It seems to be unsigned but afficionados know perfectly well that it is composed by Tristan Tzara, dadaist and writer of the immortal line 'Les cloches sonnent sans raison et nous aussi'. (Tristan, needless to say, is no more dead than Elvis.) They know this because of the masterly display of anti-meaning in George & Lynne. Emails are exchanged daily between cultists speculating about the semiotics of George, the dasein of Lynne. Some struggle desperately just to make sense of the apparent meaning, the proximate cause of this festival of unreason being a cartoon strip in The Sun. Leading this latter school of critics is one Hughesie, Man of Letters. Daily his blog meditates on the mystery that is George & Lynne. Go there at once. It is the very hub of our contemporary predicament.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Another Humuliation

Having been left feeling empty and subtly humiliated by my appearance on The Daily Politics, I blithely agreed to appear in Radio 4's Today this morning to talk about Antichrist. This was also a mistake. Today was better because it is a long way upmarket of The Daily Politics. Also in the past I have done come out of a Today encounter actually feeling I said something. On this occasion it didn't work because there was no time to discuss what I was actually saying - which is not, incidentally, ban the damn film, that was just the headline. Both shows share the same hurried need for soundbites. I loathe soundbites because, in general, they are untrue and inadequate. The world is complex and any one statement is unlikely to be any more complete than any other. It is one of the great failings of the media that they require people to make simple, general statements. These corrupt the imagination. But these appear to be the waters in which I am destined to swim.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Antichrist and Art

Negley says: 'Tomorrow in The Sunday Times Bryan trashes Lars von Trier's film Antichrist. He was so angry about the film he narrowly avoided a serious criminal offence. He also interviews the art collector David Khalili. Links later.'

Bad Shoes

It's always consoling to discover that everything you have ever been told about something is wrong. Now we learn that running shoes are bad for you. Even better, expensive ones are worse for you than cheap ones. Since running shoe companies account for a massive amount of advertising, I'm slightly surprised this story has come out at all.


I suppose the one thing nobody can say about the deaths in Afghanistan is that the numbers are remarkably low considering the intensity of the fighting. But equally, I suppose, the deaths feel worse because people don't really know why we're fighting and dying. Either the war aims have been forgotten or because, if the Taleban are so dangerous, why aren't there Germans, French, Italians etc instead of just Americans dying with us? NATO- schmato, let's just call it an Anglo-American war. I can't form a coherent opinion about this. One minute I feel it's a necessary conflict, the next I think it's madness and there must be better ways of containing terrorism in the region. But I do know that if we must fight our soldiers deserve a better government than this one.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Her Unusual Desires

Thanks, Andrew, for drawing my attention to this, the winners in a competition to produce the worst first line of an imaginary novel. Only one actually made me laugh - 'In a flurry of flame, fur, fangs and wicker, thus ended the world's first and only hot air baboon ride'. Thank you, Tony Alfieri from Los Angeles, where I know such things are a daily occurrence. I can improve on it, of course - 'With one flick of his loins he satisfied her unusual desires.' - though this could be Norman Mailer, not me. It's a line that has been in my head for years, but even the mighty internet cannot seem to establish its provenance.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Ashes That Matter

I almost forgot. In the hope that they will stop playing Rounders and Wrong Rugby, I should point out to any American readers that the only sporting event that matters has begun. All else is Vicodin.


Gapper comments on the effects of Vicodin, a painkiller containing an opiate and paracetamol. This is the pill to which House is addicted. I have not yet heard it mentioned in the case of Iatrogenic Mike, but it was probably somewhere in the mix. Gapper was initially puzzled by the idea of painkiller addiction, but a couple of days of 'pleasurable wooziness' on Vicodin convinced him of their allure. Anyway, after watching another few episodes, I realise I previously underestimated House. The addiction is, in fact, the point of the show. The iatrogenic effect is two way - afflicting both the patient and the doctor. House demands the response 'physician heal thyself' but he is also Eliot's 'wounded surgeon', Christ the victim and healer. Under the influence of Hugh Laurie's dazzling performance, I suddenly find the idea of the sick doctor very potent in ways I cannot fully explain. Long ago, an old GP suddenly barked angrily at me during a consultation. I later learned he was dying, Mercilessly, I thought, 'So what? Healing while dying is his chosen fate.' And, of course, 'wounded surgeon' is an insidiously memorable phrase. I remember an English teacher reading the whole passage from East Coker in a state of ecstatic abandon. I suppose the Christ analogy explains the inexplicable potency - the healer shares our affliction. Painkiller addiction is a very exact expression of the idea. It is not a specific condition that is being treated but pain itself. A pill that takes away our pain would seem to be the only technology we would ever require, a vision of heaven. The endless shelves of painkillers in American pharmacies are as clear an expression of that country's religiosity as the hot gospelling shows on TV. That these pills might kill you, as in Jacko's case, may be seen as one of their lesser side effects. After all, any faith is a way of helping you die and addiction is a form of worship. (Sorry, I seem to be feeling rather complex this morning.)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Gormley's Atomised Culture

I sort of gave Antony Gormley the benefit of the doubt when I interviewed him about his scheme for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. I usually do this when I interview people because I feel I should give subjects their say rather than just spraying attitude all over them. But, in this case, I can't help agreeing with Nige - this particular work of art is an invitation to the exhibitionist streak in the British public. What it cannot be is a picture of British society, as Gormley intended, since those who appear are, by definition, self-selected show-offs. It's also an example of the 'art is what I say it is' movement which began with Marcel Duchamp's strokes of genius and now ends with a dull freak show. Art cannot be what 'I' say it is because both art and 'I' are entities embedded products of a culture that is defined by millions, dead and alive, never by one. Duchamp worked because he drew attention to the heart of the modernist crisis which was, in essence, a fear that art had become impossible in the absence of any coherent culture. But the assumption now is that art can be what I say it is because the culture's coherence derives solely from a set of atomised individuals. A deeply pessimisic insight has been morphed into a shallowly optimistic one. The assumption that there could be such a culture is wildly irrational. But that, alas, is where we are.

Dying on Daily Politics

On the Daily Politics web site it says I am to appear on the show today to talk about assisted dying. This comes as a surprise to me as I have been booked to talk about political language. Given the state of the government, perhaps they are the same thing. But the reality is I am unfocused. I do not have a genre, rather I inhabit every genre. As a result, booking Bryan Appleyard does not in itself tell you what the subject is likely to be. It also puts pressure on me. Being an anxious type, I am now worried that Andrew Neil will demand a powerful and informed view on assisted dying, replete with examples and footnotes. In fact, I am only prepared to talk about political language. Kelvin Mackenzie's on too. A great piece of television is in prospect.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Brooklyn versus Mirka

Having discovered to my horror that I was not required for the Stiffkey cricket team - I blame my 'I Hate People' tee-shirt, it is very controversial - I watched Federer versus Roddick with judicious indifference. People seem to be very fond of Roddick's 'aw shucks' manner and in awe of Federer's, well, Swissness, and certainly the combination of the two should have made for an engaging human drama, but, for me at least, it didn't. The wives provided the best action. Roddick, apparently, selected his, Brooklyn Decker, from Sports Illustrated. Is this touching or a cold douche applied to the human warmth attributed to the man? Not sure. Brooklyn doesn't look, as it were, approachable. Federer's wife, Mirka Vavrinec, meanwhile, is pregnant and has gone all matronly and overwrought. I don't think Brooklyn and Mirka had much contact - apart from pulling each other's hair and spitting of course. For some reason they didn't show this on television.

Pies at Holkham

To Holkham Hall for a performance of Orpheus in the Underworld in the Marble Hall. It was all terribly Glyndebourne with picnics in the park during the long interval. Ah, England! There was even a cricket match winding up as we arrived. Kent's grounds were universally acclaimed, his house, as usual, universally excoriated. The problem is, I think, that it's not cosy and the contemporary imagination is surprisingly drawn to the cosy. The exterior is voraciously undecorated even by Palladian standards. This is part Kent, part his client, Thomas Coke. The result is a severe, hyper-symmetrical essay in anti-Baroque. But, if you suppress your desire for cosy and see this as a stern, Roman palace and if a low sun is casting Italianate shadows, it all makes perfect sense. Holkham is built for serene authority as much as for delight. The pork pies, needless to say, were excellent.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

More Madness

In The Sunday Times I review Richard Bentall's Doctoring the Mind.
Oh and I write about the Hebrides. I didn't know that was going in today.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Default Post on Gwyneth and Jeff

Somewhat busy, but here's some news of old favourites. Gwyneth emails me to say that ''Going Green' is no longer just the ideology of left-wing hippies.' Who knew? Cameron Diaz joins in with her 'Green List'. This includes high-heeled shoes by Olsen Haus which are, apparently, vegan. Once again, who knew? Meanwhile, good old Jeff comes up with a real thigh-slapper - 'Stuart Rose told an amusing story that he'd asked the board of Marks & Spencer if they were at any time considering sacking him could they do it in the morning as he hadn't had a relaxed lunch for several years.' The prose shimmers and inspires.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Iatrogenic Mike

And, on the subject of dubious medicine, it's pretty clear that poor old Wacko's death was iatrogenic - caused by medical treatment. This is one of the biggest killers in the US, up there with heart disease and cancer. It probably is in most developed countries, but the situation will be worse in America because of the powerful commercial and cultural incentives to over-medicate. The truth is that most drugs are either harmful or ineffective. But the idea that we can be fixed by a pill is one of our age's most entrenched delusions. Doctors should not write, they should talk. This will discourage people from making appointments. This will make them live longer and happier lives.

On Being Mad

'Unlocked: The Secrets of Schizophrenia' says The Independent. Well, er, in fact, no. The picture caption is the first clue that things aren't quite what they seem - 'A colour enhanced MRI image of the brain shows one of the theories into what may be the chemical basis of Schizophrenia.' Dear me, though I do like the idea of a picture of a theory. The story itself is a masterpiece of obfuscation but two things are clear: the 'secrets of schizophrenia' have not been unlocked and it's always difficult to spot the difference between medical statistics and Bernie Madoff's accounting practices. I don't, for example, know what '80 per cent of the total risk' means and I don't think Steve Connor does. But it is interesting that this is The Independent's splash. Mental illness is queasily fascinating and, I suspect, people want to be consoled by the news that it's all in the genes.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Stuffing the Thickos

Talentless Balls thought it was a good move to ring up a Spectator blogger and tell him to take down a post calling him a liar. The lie, I need hardly say, has been established beyond dispute. Not that it needed establishing. We have now entered a strange realm where everything a member of the cabinet says is assumed to be a lie unless there is hard evidence to the contrary. This appear to be a deliberate government strategy. It was exposed in the greatest newspaper in the observable universe.
''We don't care if the commentators or the economists turn against us,' said one minister, 'This is all about shoring up the base in the northern heartlands which we lost in the European elections. We don't want or need them to understand the nuance of the argument. We just want them to hate the Tories again.''
The inhabitants of the 'heartlands' are, in Labour's eyes, too thick to tell the difference between a blatant lie and the truth so it's pointless worrying about such nuances. Lenin would be delighted. Meanwhile, I commend this article to you. Brown's apparent climbdown on the Iraq inquiry was forced by Blair's worries. But, of course, the climbdown doesn't matter because the heartland thickos won't understand. That's why he blithely climbs down on everything. Nothing matters because the voters are idiots.
Of course, politics is a dirty business. But has it ever been this dirty, this pathetic, this cynical, this mendacious? My best hope is that this is mere decadence. Labour, exhausted and corrupted by power, has slumped into its death throes. Soon it will be gone. My worst fear is that this is not decadence but rather a fundamental change in the nature of British politics.