Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Inducted into Leonard Cohen's Unified Heart

Funny the things that happen to one.

The Ghost Road

Stung by my suggestion in the The Sunday Times in July that there was no British highway mythology to compare with the great, evocative yarn of The American Road, one of our motorways has risen to the challenge. The M6 is our longest motorway and also, it seems, our most haunted. Roman soldiers, distraught hitchhikers and phantom trucks have been marching, stumbling and roaring all over the place. The new toll section around Birmingham has even acquired its own Roman cohort - 'men walking through the tarmac as you would through water.' In my original article I tentatively made the point that American roads, being newer, had clung on to their ghostly associations. This seems to be the case here. The ghosts rise up because they feel uncomfortable with these big new highways that, physically and mentally, bury the land. I am now hoping to meet John Clare on the M11. And the world never quite makes sense. Pick the bones out of that, Richard Dawkins.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Rumsfeld: I Don't Get It

I am off to a foreign city early tomorrow, to a location I cannot divulge since it might aid my villainous stalkers on the Obsgraph and the Teleserver. Before I go, however, I would just like to ask one question. It is primarily directed at my American readers. Donald Rumsfeld - why? I have asked everybody I know with any knowledge of these matters: why did Bush fail to sack him years ago? Everything he has done has been wrong from the initial troop deployments in Iraq to Abu Ghraib. If he had been sacked on about day two of the invasion, Bush would now be infinitely stronger than he is. 'Texan loyalty,' was one explanation. But can that be right? Perhaps it is his dry turn of phrase. But, seriously, why Rumsfeld? I genuinely want to know.


Headless chickens are everywhere after Sir Nicholas Stern's report on the effects of climate change. How do we react to news that, apart from hundreds of millions of refugees, deaths etc, this thing is going to cost us £3.68 trillion? (The money is the headline because Stern is an economist and lots of dead poor people don't register unless Geldof, Bono and Madonna are involved.) Gordon Brown reacts by appointing Al Gore as an adviser while drooling slightly at the prospect of more taxes; Tony Blair, radical as ever, reacts by writing for The Sun. Blair and Brown both make a point of saying that this is an international issue. Inevitably, therefore, the response becomes: why should we do anything when the US, India and China are the real culprits? Oddly enough the greatest of all greens, James Lovelock, agrees with the sentiment behind this question. I once asked him what Britain should do and he said, 'Burn the carbon.' As far as Jim's concerned, it won't make any difference either way since it is highly unlikely that a bunch of tribal carnivores will suppress their tribal carnivorous natures in order to do something as sensible as preventing The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI). 'We can't save the planet,' says Jim, 'we never could.' This is the truly profound issue here. We know that climate change is happening and we have known for 30 years what we must do to prevent it. But we have done nothing, less than nothing in fact since emissions are rising exponentially. Will we ever do anything? Can our reason overcome our tribal natures? This far from the Enlightenment and after the unprecedented savagery of the twentieth century, the answer would appear to be no.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Naomi Campbell Punches World

I don't usually take in stories about Naomi Campbell's reign of terror. A headline that begins 'Naomi Assaults....' is just, to me, further evidence that the cosmos is proceeding smoothly along its ordained path. I have only just discovered, therefore, that the latest person she seems to have attacked is her own drugs counsellor. Somebody brought in to solve one of Naomi's problems only succeeds in exacerbating another. Has she ever punched her anger management counsellor or attempted to drown her swimming instructor? Such hermetic circularity would suggest some wider plan. Is it possible that Naomi has Zen-like depths, that this is all some kind of elaborate Koan? Probably not, but it does suggest to me another six worder: ''Come in,' smiled Naomi. Biff! 'Aaaaaargh!''

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Birth of a Masterpiece

Like alcohol, Wired.com is the cause of and solution to all blogging problems. Yesterday I came across this, a feature based on what Hemingway regarded as his best short story. It is six words long, 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.' Wired asked sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers to come up with their own six-worders. The results were pretty dismal, my least favourite being Margaret Atwood's 'Longed for him. Got him. Shit.' Naturally, I began to consider my own entry, realising after an hour or two that Hemingway had all but perfected the form. But then Wired came to the rescue. Prosopagnosia is a condition in which sufferers see familiar faces but don't recognise them. The scientific implication of this is that 'the brain may actually be a grouping of stand-alone computational machines that are wired together.' Far more important, however, is the literary implication. I had my killer six-worder.
'' And you are?' said my mother.'
Read it and weep, Ernie, though doubtless my erudite gang of commenters can do better.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The BBC and our Tragically Deprived Lives

Audience research has revealed a discontinuity between the views of BBC staff and most of its audience. Corporate political correctness, suggests an executive, may have gone too far. Out there, the people are not remotely PC. Rather, they are concerned about, ' 'stranger danger', the 'death of childhood', lack of respect in society, law and order, local poverty, debt and poor maternity care. But respondents also felt comfortable saying they did not care about Aids or Africa - highlighting a gap between local and global concerns.' What must be done? Perhaps, muses, the executive, the BBC should 'break the constraints of the PC police.'
Richard Klein, commissioning editor for documentaries, says, 'Most people at the BBC don't live lives like this but these are our licence payers. It's our job to reflect and engage.'
If Klein is being quoted correctly here, he is suffering from a degree of arrogance that would glaze over the eyes of mad King Xerxes. Note that he does not say, "Most people at the BBC don't hold these opinions...', he says they 'don't live lives like this...'. The BBC's obvious bias has never angered me as much as it does others. But, if these people really think their lives and not just their opinions are better than ours, then the problem is far worse than I realised.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


I just had dinner with a very well-connected man who convinced me that America will attack Iran next year. I came back to read this. Russia knows exactly what it is doing. Geo-politics is no longer a bearable subject for anybody with children. On 11th September 2001, I said to a friend, 'At the end of this process, somebody will launch a nuclear attack.' Nothing since has caused me to doubt that prediction.

Bryan, Where Are You?

A bizarre site offers to tell me how many people in the United States share my name. None, I assumed. Up come the results - 284,970 called Bryan and 870 called Appleyard. And then - gasp - one called Bryan Appleyard! One! How are you, mate? Who are you? Do we speak the same language? Never mind. Scientists are working on a machine that will make us appear bilingual. I mouth the words, sensors on my head detect what I intend to say and a computer translates it into the rare Sioux dialect which, I like to imagine, is what my new friend, Bryan, speaks. I always did have a soft spot for the Sioux. Troublingly, however, this device makes one's conversation resemble that of a dubbed movie.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

What is Left Unsaid

We don't want other countries to get nuclear weapons, but, specificially, we don't want irrational countries led by irrational men - Kim Jong-Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - to get them. So what goes unsaid when other nations complain that the West says little about Israel's nukes is that Israel is, potentially at least, rational and the complainants are not. Something similar also goes unsaid about the British decision to restrict immigration from Romania and Bulgaria when they join the EU. After all, we let in hundreds of thousands of Poles when their nation joined. What is unsaid is that we prefer Poles to Hungarians and Romanians. It is not said because people will say it is racist. The truth is, however, some countries are worse than others. We would be crazy, for example, currently to allow mass immigration from Algeria or any number of other warring, violent or chaotic states. Bulgaria and Romania have problems that Poland does not, politicians are, therefore, being cautious. This is to say nothing against individuals - and cannot, therefore, be said to be racist - it is merely a practical observation about the state of other cultures. Since I am half Romanian myself, I am sad about this, but not angry.

An Archeresque Plug for My Wonderful Life

The matter of print on demand books and their impending destruction of horrible bookshop chains won't leave me alone. Having survived almost two weeks of abuse and, horror, praise for my article on this in The Sunday Times, I now find myself about to appear on that bizarre Radio Four lunchtime show You and Yours, confronted, doubtless, by an outraged bookseller brandishing implausible figures. But he will not be my main concern. What troubles me is that I don't understand You and Yours. Nobody does. At high levels of the BBC they shrug their shoulders when the show is mentioned. Maybe I'll bring it up on air. This evening I shall be on 18 Doughty Street discussing the same subject. Again I shall be uncomprehending as, when I tried to see this web show, I couldn't. Jeffrey, in contrast, has merely been to the Affordable Art Fair and Spamalot. He is struggling, no doubt about it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

An Apology

I am aware that there have been problems with my site for the past few days. Cyber-wonks are working on this as we speak and all should be well soon. This is to apologise to anybody who has been unable to air urgent thoughts about Cornish pasties, cannibal footballers, Jeffrey Archer, Madonna's African tot, babyboomers, corporate babble, torture or The Moustache Brothers. All manner of thing shall be well when the server in question has been taken out and shot. Its last cigarette is now lit.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Forty Years of Hurt and Now This

Manchester City having lost 4-0 to Wigan, the England cricket team having collapsed and my own forty years of patience with the England football team having expired, there is not much left in my life. However, this at least fires my amazement and dismay. Tottenham's Jermain Defoe bit West Ham's Javier Mascherano. Weird enough. However, the last great consoling thing about football is not what happens on the pitch but the fabulously deranged excuses provided by the managers afterwards. Here is Tottenham's Martin Jol, who described the incident as 'a comical nibble'.
'He was nibbling his arm - there will be no mark. Ask Mascherano if he has got a mark. It is part of the game. They kicked him three times from behind in 10 minutes and he wanted to show his frustration in a nice, comical way.'
Sweet and yet, somehow, fantastically disturbing.

Madonna's African Jaunt

An Australian blogger says I can be 'fairly pompous'. I console myself with the thought that Australians can detect pomposity in a waffle iron. And, in fact, it is fear of sounding pompous that has so far stopped me from posting on the subject of Madonna and her adopted baby David Banda. (My possibly pompous views, incidentally, on Madonna the artist can be found here. ) Predictably, the adoption process has begun to turn tricky with David's father saying he didn't realise his child had gone for good. The pompous thing to say - and everybody has said it - is there is something grotesque about the likes of Madonna and Angelina Jolie grabbing cute African babies as if they were shopping for accessories at Prada. But, of course, this baby will not suffer poverty, disease and, almost certainly, an early death. David will enjoy all the fruits the first world can offer. If the individual life is of absolute value, then what Madonna has done is absolutely good. Yet Africa is diminished. The casual, impulsive embrace of the star makes it look as though nothing can be done for the continent apart from the selective removal of its inhabitants. Furthermore, both Madonna and the posturing Bono are shamed by the systematic intelligence, hard work and massive personal funds being put into Africa by Bill Gates. The truth is, I suspect, that Madonna in middle age is bored and she has discovered the idea of doing good as a distraction. Doing good is cool, but working as hard as Gates at doing good is not. Grabbing babies is simply a satisfactory compromise for the ageing star.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pasties: Why?

In a characteristically insane and selfless act of futile courage, Nige, the sage of Ken High Street, has raised the matter of the Cornish Pasty. This is like strolling through Blackburn in a niqab when the pubs are chucking out. The Cornish can get ugly about pasties. Nige has noticed that the West Cornwall Pasty Co has opened in, yes, Ken High Street. Reasonably enough, he asks me, 'Why?' Nobody ever buys pasties, nobody ever eats them and yet here are these new fast fooderies opening everywhere, ostensibly to sell these highly indegistible comestibles. There is something odd here, something made odder by the fact that the company's web site seems to reveal that it has no branches actually in Cornwall. Is some kind of insurrection afoot with these shops forming a fifth column in our midst? Quite possibly. However, the Cornish do not resort to terrorism. A frontal assault against overwhelming odds is more their style. It should take no more than a brigade or two of light infantry, armed with flails and boathooks and stationed at the Hammersmith flyover, to see them off.

The Strange Case of Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov

From a book I reviewed this week, I learned of Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. He was a commander on a Soviet submarine during the Cuban missile crisis. This sub was surrounded and depth-charged by American destroyers in an attempt to force it to the surface. Unknown to the Americans, the sub carried nuclear-tipped torpedoes. Three keys help by commanders needed to be turned to launch these. Two commanders were ready to launch, only Arkhipov refused. As a nuclear explosion would have almost certainly provoked a US retaliation in kind, Arkhipov saved the world. Some of this story is disputed, but not, it seems, the two essentials - the depth-charging and the nuclear torpedoes. I have always known I lived on borrowed time, I just didn't realise my creditor had a name - Vasili.

The Old versus the Young

Politicians have discovered me and my people - the baby boomers. After years of grovelling to malodorous youth, they have, it seems, finally stumbled upon my fragrant generation. They have, naturally, completely screwed up their initial attempts at boomer seduction. David Cameron says we are an 'old' country and Labour is plainly struggling with the distinction between youth and age. What they don't realise is that every one of the nation's 11 million boomers really does think that denial is just a river in Egypt. Listen carefully, boys, we DON'T KNOW we are old. If you say, 'Look at that old guy!', we'll turn round to see whom you are talking about. Telling us we are old will produce two deeply undesirable outcomes: a) we will think you are mad and b)when the message sinks in we shall slump into terminal depression at which point the economy - which we alone run - will grind to a halt because the young will all be out clubbing seals or whatever it is they do. Meanwhile, the British are terrified of young people. We regard them with fear and we don't mix with them. Well, quite. In order to sustain the illusion that we are not old, it is absolutely essential to have nothing to do with young people. They might club us, mug us or draw attention to our embarrassingly youthful clothes; but the real problem is that they look young and we don't. We cross the street, not, primarily, to avoid violence, but to avoid the harrowing spectacle of smooth, unslackened skin and ungreyed hair.
Of course, this is all nonsense because, boomer or baby,
'Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both...'

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Blogger's Guide to Corporate Babble

The easiest American habit to lampoon is babbling, corporate enthusiasm. Judge, then, of my delight when I received Debbie's Weil's masterpiece The Corporate Blogging Book: Absolutely Everything You Need to Know to Get it Right. It's a pity Debbie wasted that sub-title - it would be far better on a new edition of The Bible. This book is not about blogging at all, but about corporate babbling. It is, therefore, unreadable by anybody with a life. However, it does contain the corporate blogging policies of IBM and Sun Microsystems. IBM has eleven rules. Alas, I have broken only ten - I cannot claim to have provided anybody with any of IBM's confidential or proprietary information, though, of course, I would if I could. The Sun guidelines are more sane, they include, for example, the demanding injunction to 'be interesting'. However, here, too, I have failed; I do not, when blogging, 'Think about the consequences'. Never mastered that. If you don't have a life, incidentally, or need a good laugh, Debbie is here.

The Harmful Helmet

I have posted about the Australian philosopher Peter Singer once before when I chaired a debate at Foyle's. By inspiring the animal rights and liberation movements, he has become, perhaps, the most celebrated and effective philosopher in the world. I was vaguely disappointed at that debate, feeling my own aversion to utilitarianism had not seriously been challenged. I am even more disappointed by an article by Singer in the Guardian today. This is an extraordinarily muddled piece of thinking in which he starts out by discussing gay rights and then swerves weirdly into an irrelevancy about motorcyle helmets. Should the state have the right to make people wear helmets in order to prevent them harming themselves? This is legal paternalism, though Singer then argues it is, in fact, moral paternalism. In either form, it appears to breach John Stuart Mill's cardinal principle that the state can only intervene in the life of the individual to prevent harm to others. Harm to oneself is one's own business. What Singer leaves out is that not wearing a helmet can cause harm to others - by, for example, imposing avoidable costs of treatment in the event of an accident or by involving another road user in an incident made more serious by the lack of a helmet. Mill could not convincingly argue against helmets and Singer, I fear, has lost it.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Invisibility is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Scientists have developed a cloaking device that can make objects invisible to radar, though not yet to the eye. The mind races. As Dr Ulf Leonhardt, physicist and probable anagram, says, 'Invisibility is just the tip of the iceberg." Meanwhile, David Cameron is tying himself in knots in an attempt to deal with Labour's risky attempt to outflank him from the right by bringing up the subject of veiled Muslim women. Jack Straw started this by saying he asked fully-veiled women to expose their faces in his constituency surgery. Veiled, they are as invisible as one of Dr Anagram's cloaked objects. Like these objects they remain visible to the naked eye, but invisible to radar - in this case the permanently switched on radar of our cultural, psychological and social associations. All fully veiled women look roughly the same so, in the conversation-free zone of the street, what can be said or thought about them? How, if we knew them, could we greet them? They might be somebody else. And what do their visible eyes see in us? Invisibility, as the wise Dr Ulf says, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Moustache Brothers 2

That last post was so depressing that I feel obliged once again to draw your attention to the happiest, most consoling picture in the world.

Torture: Just What We Do 2

Earlier I discussed torture. This was about the quiet but clear drift towards an official acceptance of torture as a weapon against terrorism. I broadly agreed with my friend John Gray. Torture is just what human beings do. It cannot be banished from human affairs by human rationality or aspiration. Gray has used the return of torture as evidence supporting his own scepticism about the idea of progress. Now a BBC survey shows that, globally, about one in three people believe that some degree of torture should be perimissible. Since there was no previous survey to provide comparable figures, this is not evidence of increasing support for torture. But two points: the overall figure is remarkably high and the reponse in individual countries seems significant. In Israel 43 per cent are in favour of torture, the highest figure of all, and only 48 per cent against. Second is Iraq (42 per cent) followed by Indonesia and the Philippines (40 per cent). China is at 37 per cent, as is Russia, and the US figure is 36 per cent. At 24 per cent Britain is the highest of the Western European countries polled and Italy (14 per cent) the lowest. There appears to be a clear correlation with the immediate experience of terrorism, though the Madrid bombings do not seem to have persuaded the Spanish (16 per cent). No firm conclusions can be drawn from one survey. But it is striking how many people are prepared to support torture openly and in the unthreatening moment of being questioned by a pollster. When the terrorist chips are down and when the question is not being asked of an individual but of a group, then support would certainly be much higher. To repeat the conclusion of my last post, torture, like gentleness, compassion and art, is just what we do.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Fatal Symmetry

I never bought into my generation's belief in the moral equivalence between America and her enemies. In the postwar period, the US was plainly a better country than China or the Soviet Union. Geo-political lines may have been blurred since 1989, but America's hat, for me, looks battered yet still basically white. This, however, has never been an easy position to maintain. America's global PR has always been terrible, never more so than now. Pro-American intellectuals I know are in despair over this. The Iraq War was lost on day one when it became clear that it was just a shooting war - there was no visible sign of the necessary hearts and minds campaign that was a prerequisite for victory. Such errors confirm the easy anti-Americanism of my coevals, the lazy assumption that, between our ally and her enemies, there is a fatal symmetry. All of which is inspired by the curious symmetry between these two stories: in Iran high speed internet access has been banned apparently to thwart Western influences and, meanwhile, the US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been speaking of people's ability to 'radicalize themselves over the internet.' Chertoff is not banning anything, of course, but there is something deeply stupid about his remarks. To anybody, like me, who partially lives online, warning about the dangers lurking on the web is like putting a health advisory on oxygen - of course, it causes cancer, but we're stuck with it. As fatal symmetries go, this connection between Michael and the mullahs is a very small thing. It is just one more ounce added to the very heavy burden carried by America's friends. But, well, hey, he ain't heavy, he's my.....Brother?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Pods, Blogs and Books 2

I am still reeling from - and trying to deal with - the international response to my previous post on this subject combined with the link to my article in The Sunday Times. People feel very strongly about books and almost everybody dislikes bookshops. A few points arise.
Independent bookshops can, indeed, be very good. The big chains were my primary target.
Current POD books are often of poor quality; however, I am assured the technology now exists to match the quality of conventionally published books.
Of course, browsing in bookshops can be nice; my point was that this pleasure is systematically denied real readers in the chain bookstores.
I used 'chick lit' as an example of the way the supermarket attitude of the chains has forced publishers into apparently risk-free generic books. There is good chick lit - Pride and Prejudice comes to mind.
New technology, from Amazon to POD, is, in this context, an unalloyed good.
The underlying theme is one I often address: marketing people tend to destroy brand values and ethos in their pursuit of short term gain. That (see previous post) is what it is really like to be alive in 17th October 2006.

My Message to the Future

I have just had two cups of tea and a bowl of Quaker Oat Granola. The tea was nice, the Granola wasn't. It looks as though it is going to be a sunny day. I have a headache......
The above is my entry for One Day in History. Today everybody is supposed to record the details of their lives at the History Matters site, thus leaving behind a gigantic blog record of what it was like to be alive on 17th October 2006. 'We should include as much banal normal stuff as possible,' says Dan Snow, a historian.
Five hundred years later: 'As to why these boring idiots,' writes the historian Zeeb Haflop, 'should think we had the slightest interest in their bowls of horrible granola, we can only speculate.'

Monday, October 16, 2006

Ray Winstone Invades Poland

A few weeks ago, nobody told me it was Talk Like a Pirate Day, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that nobody told me yesterday was Ray Winstone Day. I saw him in Scorsese's The Departed - wonderful - as Jack Nicholson's muscle, I saw him in trailers for some ITV show and I saw him advertising Kelloggs' latest assault on our colons and aortas, Optivita. Also I think I dreamed about him. Doubtless, today he's in Iraq sorting out that unpleasantness. What is it about Winstone? Unquestionably a superb actor, he's also The Consoling Cockney. He's the bloke that knows a 'fing' or two and will get you through, as long, of course, as he's on your side. He's the conceptual bouncer, the cerebral fixer who, if the chips ever fall, can take off his smart jacket and deck the bad guy. In the cereal ad he says he can't tell us what to do. Oh, but he could. And he's called Ray - solid, working class - Winstone - dogged, Brit determination. You couldn't make him up, but, somehow, we did.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Pods, Blogs and Books

An article of mine in The Sunday Times today about literary blogs, new publishing technology and the love of the book has stirred extraordinary levels of interest. This rather proves my point that enthusiasm for the book far exceeds the deluded and banal dreams of marketing people, who claim to understand only the 'mass market'. In fact, they seldom understand even that. Bookshops have so badly failed to grasp this that much of my correspondence seems to consist of anti-bookshop venom. Real readers don't like being seen there any more.

Dead Cats and DNA

Sadly, the California company of Genetic Savings & Clone is to close at the end of this year. This company offered to clone pets and it did manage to do five cats, though only two were sold. This doesn't surprise me, $50,000 is a lot for a cat. GSC did recently reduce its price to $32,000, though it still seems a bit steep. But, of course, the justification of the price was that you were buying not just any old cat, but your cat. Indeed, the company was founded by one John Sperling who wanted to have his own dog, Missy, cloned. This never happened. The idea that a cloned version of your pet is still your pet is absurd. I suppose with cats - behaviourally dull creatures - one could maintain this illusion. The reality, however, is that GSC was trying to make its money out of one of the great contemporary superstitions. This susperstition is faith in the magical powers of DNA. There is, I noticed yesterday, a film production company called DNA and cosmetics are daily sold that claim to protect or repair our DNA. 'It's in our DNA,' is a routine corporate cliche. Scientists have tended to encourage this. When I visited the appalling James Watson in his Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories on Long Island, the first thing I saw was a huge sculpture of the double helix in the lobby. It was the image of a god which I can imagine being unearthed by some future people who will find it as distant and incomprehensible as the wooden statue of A'a or Tangaroa (we don't know which) in the British Museum. The DNA superstition is based on two misunderstandings. First, it is popularly thought that we have established a clear link between DNA and the whole organism. We haven't. It has turned out to be fantastically complex and the effect of environment from the womb onwards is far from being understood. Secondly, personality, the thing we most value in each other, is thought to be somehow encoded in DNA. It isn't. Certain traits may well be, as identical twins demonstrate, but even such twins are still alone in their imaginations with their own thoughts and impulses. William Empson wrote a great poem. Homage to the British Museum, about Tangaroa, that alien god. It includes the line, 'Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.' Empson knew much more than James Watson and a dead cat, whatever its associations, is never anything but dead.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

For Lt Col Simon Brown (On Politics 5)

General Sir Richard Dannatt caused a storm which he plainly wasn't expecting. He told a journalist that the presence of British troops in Southern Iraq 'exacerbates the security problems'. Today The Guardian talks to soldiers on the ground about this. The reporter elicits this quote from Lt Col Simon Brown:
'We are in a tribal society in Basra and we are in effect one of these tribes. As long as we are here the others will attack us because we are the most influential tribe. We cramp their style.'
This is the most profound statement I have read in the aftermath of Dannatt's remarks.

Friday, October 13, 2006

There is a God

Having finally abandoned the England football team when the ball bounced over Paul Robinson's foot and into the goal - see below - I am delighted to read that the valiant Belgian club Charleroi is doing its best to destroy international football. Go, Charleroi. Meanwhile, Robinson himself has responded robustly to the press coverage of his, er, misfortune. 'I can't see what I did that badly wrong,' he says. Hmmm, now let me see. Ah yes, I remember. You omitted to kick the damn thing, you big girl's haircut. (Thanks to Cecil, see comments.)

On Politics 4

The old politics survives in the form of purely tribal badges. That is what all the name-calling and abuse is about and it is why blogs have become so politically active. They naturally lend themselves to this kind of tribal warfare, though not necessarily. There are blogs of political ideas, though they seem to be more common in the US.
Cameron's key insight is that there will be people voting in the next election whose lives have been lived entirely in the post-Cold War world. They will naturally tend to think that this tribalism is the whole of politics. Real issues - the environment, terrorism - will be evoked in any campaign to lure these voters but only as the frame that gives apparent meaning to the picture. The picture itself will be profoundly abstract, shifting planes of colour representing various content-free tribalisms.
Actual political issues - global warming, China, terrorism, irrational possessors of nuclear weapons - will, we can hope, be unaffected by this froth. A very hard pragmatism indeed is going to be required of the next generation of leaders. It is impossible to tell if they are up to the task but, so far, this looks improbable. They too appear to have been lost in the petty world of local tribalisms. It is as if, having stared at Ulster so long, we have ourselves become a new kind of Ulster.
All of which is to say that I do get Guido: indeed, I admire him. But he scares the hell out of me.

On Politics 3

The problem was that people - myself included - couldn't define politics any more. Right and left were further artefacts of the old dispensation with almost no relevance to the new politics. Naturally, therefore, they resorted to personalities and presentation as the key determinants of political power.
I am, by instinct, conservative. But I know of no issues on which I can maintain a definably right wing posture for very long. The only reason to try and do so would be to signal my membership of a tribe - in this instance, the Tory party - and I can see absolutely no reason why I should want to do such a thing. Equally, conservatism is, to me, a constellation of feelings - imperfectly invoked by words like culture, ethos, history, stability, imaginative continuity, cherished ways of life - that does not entail any political affiliation. George Orwell was, in my terms, a conservative as is Nick Cohen today. In power, Margaret Thatcher evidently was not, she was an, at the time, necessary revolutionary and that is the one thing a conservative can never be. This frequently makes conservatives dangerous and stupid, but I don't claim my instincts are necessarily right, just that they are my instincts.

On Politics 2

But, of course, in another sense, I did 'get' Guido as the latest version of the Westminster soap. Brilliantly done, it has, like many current political blogs, beaten the mainstream press at its own game. And that game is, essentially, tribal.
The other explanation for the political change that happened in the mid-nineties is that it was the inevitable outcome of the end of fundamental ideological conflict signalled by the collapse of communism. Henceforth, politics would be about relatively trivial managerial differences. No Labour Party could get into power by offering massively higher taxes and renationalisation and no Conservative Party could win by offering privatisation of the NHS, welfare cuts and so on.
I used to believe this. But, in fact, it's wrong for the same reason that Francis Fukuyama's End of History argument is wrong. The mere fact that a confrontation between two local, Enlightenment-based, humanist ideologies - communism and capitalism - had ended is, as we have discovered, no reason to assume that history or fundamental conflict is at an end. And it is certainly no reason to assume that politics must, thereafter, be a trivial matter of personalities and management differences.

On Politics 1

Last night I put a comment on Guido Fawkes. The post was about the Sion Simon video. Most of the 50 odd comments then (like the 100 plus now) were dim-wittedly abusive - 'What a prat!' etc. I couldn't understand why anybody should bother to do this - of course, he's a prat, haven't you anything to ADD? My comment was, 'What are you all actually talking about. Politics? No. What then?' A subsequent response pointed out that I just didn't 'get' Guido's blog. I have been thinking about this. (This is On Politics 1 because it is potentially very long and I don't like the look of long posts.)
Politics, as I understand it, is argument, debate, conflict and manoeuvre about the best way to run the country and the world. Individuals are important in this context, but only onsofar as they influence these matters in the outside world. In the mid-nineties politics was redefined. The second term of my definition - 'about the best way....' - was downgraded or even removed and the first term became dominant. Blair and his spinners are usually blamed for this, but, in fact, the roots are much deeper. Apart from anything else, Blair had no choice but to protect himself against the kind of press savaging John Major endured. Either way, it happened, and the political press accepted it. Subsequently political coverage became, in essence, either a Westminster soap opera or a juggling of government-defined 'issues' or 'initiatives'. A decade later, this has become what, in most people's minds, politics is. So, in that sense, my question to Guido was misguided (misguidoed?) . All these dumb-ass abusers were talking about politics.
On Politics 2 to follow and possibly 3, 4 and 5.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Worst Football Team in the World

The part of me that I like loves cricket; the part of me that I hate loves football. Also I did slump into an orgy of love while watching the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final in a pub in Earls Court, but that was a temporary aberration. Last night the moment the ball bounced over Paul Robinson's foot to give Croatia a 2-0 lead over England, I finally slayed the part of me that I hate. The English league is the richest, most pampered and best supported in the world. Yet the national team is no more than eleven ill-tempered haircuts in search of a salon. Discounting for all their privileges and wealth, I think there is a reasonable case for saying it is the worst football team in the world. The reason I hung on until now was that, as a child, I watched Manchester City and felt a warm glow of belonging. Also my brother was at Wembley on 30th July 1966 and he came home as the happiest human being I have ever seen. But forty years later, it's all over. At the national level, the game has seen a gradual and now total collapse of ethos. And, in the last analysis, sport is only ethos, anything else is just inane brawling. Say what you like about cricket, it is not yet that.

Let's Get the Fat Bastards

The Diet Doctors, a stupendously unpleasant show on Channel 5 last night, involved two nasty thin women humiliating a very unhappy fat woman. It was disgusting, inhumane and pointless - nobody, including, I bet, the woman in question, will get thinner or healthier as a result. Modern life gives us lots of food and then lots of medicine to treat the effects. The rational reponse is that of Dr Kelso in Scrubs, whose perfect meal is a 16 ounce steak and a fistful of blood thinners. This fat thing just won't go away. Britain, it transpires, is the fattest nation in Europe. We are catching up with the Americans, whose serene obesity I always regarded as one of that great nation's finest tourist attractions. Andrew O'Hagan gets fantastically worked up about the fat Brits, demanding taxes on junk food. He is especially disgusted by the Rotherham mothers who shoved fat sweet things to their children through the school fence - see my earlier post. He concludes, 'Obesity is a refusal of life, or, more horrifyingly, an acceptance of the kind of life that puts an end to life. It is shocking to think that Britain is now at the head of the nihilists' league, chomping McDonald's in the places where we once dug for victory.' Steady on. ALL kinds of life put an end to life. Furthermore, the drive to eat fat, sugary things - presumably evolved in conditions of scarcity in the African savanna - might more accurately be seen as a joyous cry of 'Yes!' to life than a refusal. Also we dug for victory to get freedom, peace and plenty. If we can't handle them - and we can't - then plainly we don't need diets, we need wars. Obviously we should go for Kim Jong-il. He's a fat bastard after all.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Jeffrey: Another Ominous Silence

Sorry, but I can't help pointing out that Jeffrey has once again lapsed into silence. It has been a week since the moving, decorous, yet witty 'Britten Sinfonia at the South Bank'. I worry.

Universal Disdain and Poured Scorn

I'm pretty sure I don't understand anything any more. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, it seems, have made up their differences and agreed to be children's camp counsellors in a new series of The Simple Life. Producer Jon Murray also intends to send them to a desert island with a bunch of survivalists. He says, 'They reached out to each other in universal disdain for the island concept and rekindled their friendship.' I've got to get out of the irony business, I'm being outclassed. Meanwhile, a fashion/celebrity website coos flatteringly about a short piece of mine on Paris in The Sunday Times Style magazine. Since the bit they quote so approvingly trashes more or less everything they stand for - Paris is 'the empty carrier for the entire culture of pallid, inattentive distraction.' - I'm not quite sure whether I'm up against more irony from a world I don't understand or they just can't read. I can, however, console myself with this headline from the Guardian, "Canoeists pour scorn on deals to open up 40 miles of waterways.' I've never heard or seen a canoeist pour scorn on anything, but it's very consoling - and understandable - to know that they do.

GooppleTube and the Death of Microsoft

Yesterday on BBC's deranged and now psychotically genial Breakfast show, there was a scare story based on the BBC's own research showing that online PCs were attacked once every 15 minutes. A BBC expert suit solemnly told us everything we must do, including visiting Microsoft's site for checks, downloads, whatever, getting updates, checking firewalls blah blah blah. What he did not offer was the one-stop solution to all these problems: buy an Apple Mac. That, I guess the BBC would have said, would have been advertising. But they DID advertise Microsoft. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Zune music player is heading for failure and its Soapbox Beta is hopelessly outclassed by YouTube which, as we know, now belongs to Google. Having no inside knowledge whatsoever, I assume the arrival of Google's CEO Eric Schmidt on the Apple board means he is the successor to Steve Jobs and, in time, Google and Apple will merge to form GooppleTube or some such. Microsoft will then be finished. I once interviewed Bill Gates at length and I liked him. I also think his charitable foundation is one of the most impressive stories of our time and should earn him the Nobel Peace Prize. His software, however, is crap. It has probably held back computing by a decade. I still stare, nauseous, at my IBM Windows laptop. It became more or less unuseable within less than a year. In spite of all the most hyped protection systems, it had been raped by bugs, spyware and an HP printer that, for reasons best known to itself, had decided to kill it. Everything was wrong with this horrible machine. There is nothing wrong with this beautiful Mac. Microsoft is dead; long live Bill Gates.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Schizophrenia and the Tate Slides

Schizophrenia, it seems, has suffered a bad case of semantic bloat. Scientists have decided that the term has expanded to cover so many symptoms that it is now largely meaningless and its use is interfering with the treatment of mental illness. Meanwhile, over at Tate Modern, huge slides have been installed in the Turbine Hall. A Tate curator says, yes, they are fun, but also they are art because they are beautiful. The artist responsible, Carsten Holler, says they can help mental health problems, being particularly useful in relieving stress. Semantic bloat is becoming convergent and circular. Art can be fun, therefore it can be a fairground ride and can also help with mental health problems which, it now seems, have become all but indefinable, like art. It's a small world conceptually, but you wouldn't want to paint it.

Happiness to Our People

I wake to discover North Korea has conducted a nuclear test. It is, says the official statement, 'a historic event that brought happiness to our military and people.' For Kim Jong-il, it is a rational step. People are much nicer to you if you can turn Beijing or Tokyo into an ash tray. But, in general, Kim is not rational. The Soviet Union was rational, its leaders made legible calculations, which is why we survived the Cold War. Now we have to deal with irrational possessors of nuclear weapons. I seem to remember Edward O.Wilson observing that if Hamadryas Baboons had nukes, the world would be destroyed in a couple of days. Slowly, irrevocably, unusually hairy fingers are finding the triggers.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

St Frank and the Rainforest

I have long suspected that Frank Field is a saint. Now I know he is. This is his simple and brilliant scheme to protect the rainforests. Sign up. I have. There's an email - info@coolearth.org - or go to this site.

Free Associative Post with a Kick in My Balls

There's s sad story on The UK Daily Pundit about Harold Pinter. He seems to have mistaken a flood stricken Bangladeshi girl for an American and said, 'Do you know who I am sonny? Well? Do you? Do you know how many times I've saved this stinking reeking filthy whorehouse of a world of ours from Americans like you? Well? Do you?' Harold and I used to have an amiable enough acquaintanceship until a recent encounter at a party. I had interviewed him and my piece was, for the most part, glowing, though I made the obvious point that his politics were not quite grown-up. This is not because of his actual opinions, but because of the way he holds them - as unarguable truths to which anybody who does not assent is evil and deserving of violent assault. We spoke warmly until he remembered my aside and then said savagely, 'I ought to kick you in the balls.' I considered encouraging him on the basis that, once the agony had abated, I could get a piece or even a post out of it. I have now done so, but without the agony. Meanwhile, there is this about T.S.Eliot's anti-semitism. All the arguments about this matter are in the comments. Do I like Pinter's work less because of his dismal politics? Would I dislike Eliot's poetry more if he was shown to be anti-semitic? No and no. The man who wrote the standard work on this - T.S.Eliot and Prejudice - is Christopher Ricks. When, after the war, Eliot cleared Wyndham Lewis of any fascist leanings, Ricks could not resist writing that this amounted to a very rare case of the pot calling the kettle white, at which Eliot consulted his lawyers. I had dinner with Ricks in Boston. The head waiter was doing the usual high queeny reading of the 'specials' when the great critic interrupted him. 'That's three times you've used the word 'exotic',' he said, 'what exactly do you mean by it?' Queeny waiter collapsed and we never did hear of the other 'specials'. Ricks, you will gather, is a funny guy. I am aware all of this is very tenuously connected, though there is a thread. I am trying to create a new literary form out of the blog post - random and impressionistic rather than precise. I think I may be on to something. Or I may have gone mad. It is sunday.

Yasukuni and the Glorious Dead

I was once at a dinner party in Tokyo when the host, a couple of sakis over the line, suddenly exploded in anger. He shouted his belief that the Japanese were righteous defenders of Asia against American imperialism in 1942. Their own invasion of the mainland was all part of a grand plan to save Asian nationalities and identities. At the Ministry of Education, I was shown an English translation of a history text book. In the paragraph on the Nanking Massacre , it went to far as to say, 'some said' it had taken place. They were trying to prove they no longer denied this terrible event. The last Prime Minister, Koizumi, got in trouble with foreigners for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine where the spirits - kami - of the nation's war dead are said to reside. In foreign eyes, at least fourteen of these are the kami of first grade war criminals. It is yet to be seen whether Shinzo Abe will visit the site. Now there is controversy over a display at the shrine that seems to say Japan was provoked into war by the US.
I don't claim to understand any of this but I have read - and I recommend you to read - the extensive English version of the Yasukuni site, linked above. It raises one crucial point. Why shouldn't the Japanese celebrate their war dead? Even if the regime at the time was wicked - as, indeed, it was - these soldiers died for their country. War criminals may be a slightly different matter, though not necessarily in the eyes of the Yasukuni authorities, but may not the kami of the war dead be saved irrespective of the particular cause because the general cause was and is Japan? At the Nuremberg Trials, we chose, rightly I think, a different path. That, deep in their hearts, the Japanese will not join us on that path is just another example of the refusal of Western universalism that is increasingly defining the new world order.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Trashing Deepak Chopra

Fabulously entertaining this. Poor Deepak Chopra, world expert on life and stuff, seems to have annoyed the geneticists. I have to say that, irrespective of the science, deep Deep does seem to bring it on himself with his writing.
'That's an awful lot of mysteries hanging around. None of them represent a novel, rebellious, or skeptical point of view.'

Smiles and Cuddles

Yesterday, I discover to my horror, was World Smile Day, the theme, as always, was 'Do an act of kindness. Help one person smile.' It was rather wasted in Blackburn where everybody, including Jack Straw, now wears a full veil. Okay, I failed on Smile Day. But all is not lost because tomorrow Britain's first ever Cuddle Party is to be held in London. Here is where you can find out about this cuddle phenomena which is, apparently, sweeping the world. I'm not sure where it is in London because the Guardian blogger doesn't seem to tell me and the London event is not mentioned at the Cuddle Party site. It may be a hoax, one hopes so. You can also apply to train as a Cuddle Party Facilitator, a CV item of some value, I'm sure. Anyway, it seems, 'pyjamas must stay on at all times, there is no touching without permission, and participants should be 'hygienically savvy'. Nothing too threatening there and my hygienic savvies are impeccable. In addition, you never know, I might run into Gordon Brown. Blair's always at these events, of course. David Cameron is, thus far, undecided about the matter. He may be wondering, as I am, what the point of these fatuous, sentimental orgies of self-indulgence, self-congratulation, idiot grins and soppy psychobable actually is. But, then again, he may not.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Jack Straw: Firestarter

Not long ago, when he was a confident foreign secretary, little thinking he was about to be replaced by a none too bright caravan owner, Jack Straw entertained Condoleezza Rice in his Blackburn constituency. This was an odd thing to do but it did say, "Look at me!" For years, we had hardly noticed this man with his curiously bobbing head when being interviewed and his large-nosed, greyish features surmounted by that 1956 Angry Young Man haircut. Now he's shouting, 'Look at me!' again with his suggestion that the Muslim veil is socially divisive and his request that they remove the veil when discussing Blackburn stuff in his surgery. He prefers to talk face to face. That profoundly repellent slimeball George Galloway has, of course, intervened to interpret Straw's request as 'a male politician telling women to wear less' - as laughably transparent a manipulation of language as one would expect from a losing Big Brother contestant. But what is Straw up to? Of course, in a sane world there would nothing faintly controversial in what he said. In this neurotically short-tempered world, however, it is plainly a little match that could start a big fire. But whose house, apart from his own, is threatened?
4.14pm: Now he's said nobody should wear veils. This is definitely a Muslim macho match with John 'You'd better get that seen to' Reid. I propose everybody should wear veils and have done with it.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

China: Kowtow Now?

On Sky News, Dominic Waghorn reveals that the Chinese have improved the efficiency of their judiciary by using execution buses. These travel around the country killing people found guilty, frequently of something they haven't done. More than 99 per cent of people charged with a capital crime in China are executed. Evidence is irrelevant, confessions are extracted by torture. Somewhere between 3,500 and 10,000 people are executed annually so, just on official figures, China executes more people than the rest of the world put together. Why do they do this? To harvest organs for profit certainly. But that can't be all. Social control? But they don't seem to execute with that end in mind. No, there must be some form of deep acceptance that capricious judicial killing is somehow just the way of things.
And so one comes to the matter of the Olympics. Once I thought this was an obscenity, if only because of the brutal occupation of Tibet. Then I was persuaded that engaging with China was the way to civilise her and, of course, Chinese productivity has been one of the primary factors behind low world inflation and high growth. But Waghorn's fine and shocking reporting is the second thing in recent days that has made me think again. The first was a friend who, on returning from China, told me he had discussed Mao's blood bath - 70 million dead - with a highly intelligent Chinese, who said present day Chinese didn't care because, after all, they weren't dead were they? The blood - mine this time - ran cold. Kowtow now? After this, how?

George Michael....?

Handy roundup in the Telegraph of all the recent vicissitudes in the career of George Michael, though the writer omits to note that the picture accompanying the article seems to prove that he is morphing slowly into Michael Jackson via one of the villains in Thunderbirds. Quite a witty move. I interviewed Michael many years ago, but I can remember nothing of the occasion but for the chauffeur driven BMW that picked me up from Maida Vale - why? I found out where his house was since they omitted to blindfold me - and the cheap gag I made in the piece about him living 'alone with his hair in its ever changing moods.' Along with Elton John and many others, he is one of those stars whose music does absolutely nothing for me. But an autumnal pity descended as I read this article. The writer asks, "What's up with George Michael?' Doctor Elton, diagnoses a 'deep-rooted unhappiness', so plainly that can't be right. I would say poor George really doesn't know who he is. He looks pathetic in that picture, garlanded with the attributes of his trade - the right, suit, hair, beard etc - but the person is absent, not quite elsewhere, but not there either. The crumbling pop star is one of the standard tales of our time, but seldom has a crumbling been so strange, so prolonged and so pitiful.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Cameron's Speech: A Considered Response

After some hours deep thought, I have come to the following conclusions about David Cameron's conference speech.
1)As a song, it was considerably worse than Tom Waits' The Heart of Saturday Night but hugely superior to George Michael's Faith.
2)As a car, it far outstripped the Austin Allegro but fell somewhat short of the Ferrari F40.
3)As a human being, it was not up to Abraham Lincoln, but definitely improved on Jeffrey Dahmer.
4)As a country, it left Burma far behind, but could not keep up with Italy.
5)As comedy, it fell far short of The Moustache Brothers, but represented a marked improvement on Ben Elton.
6) As a speech, well, it was a speech.
Steady as she goes then. The truly heartening thing, however, was that he plainly hates his party even more than Blair loathes his. The marginally less ghastly may be yet to come.

Women in Politics

Martin Kettle in the Guardian wonders why there are still so few woman in politics.
'Why, nearly a century after women got the vote and were able to stand for parliament,' he asks, 'do so few women get to the very top? Is it prejudice and glass ceilings, as a survey on British business suggests today? Or is it that, in some significant way, most women politicians aren't as good as Thatcher? And if not, why not?'
It's a very Guardian thing not even to consider the one possibility that would threaten their own perspective. In this case, it does not occur to Kettle that perhaps women don't want to go into politics. Why should they? They'd only be told to talk about Paxman's Package. Labour, as we now know, is so desperate that it has employed an android called Chairbot3 - known to us as Hazel Blears - as its chairman.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Jeremy Paxman's Package

Dazed by the party conference coverage, I am only hearing about one word in ten. And - here's the weird thing - it's always the same word! Package! Everybody keeps saying 'package'! Party hacks appear with their pale, sticky, ham-like faces and they say to Jeremy Paxman, 'I think your package was inaccurate/accurate/utterly deranged'. What they are referring to is the previous film report. But nobody in the real world describes a film report as a 'package'. The only people who do are those who have been briefed by some supposedly media-savvy wonk. But the first thing anybody with real media-savvy would say is, 'Don't under any circumstances use the word 'package'.' Apart from anything else, 'your package' addressed to Paxo sounds distractingly obscene.

Marilynne Robinson: the Greatest Living Novelist?

This question is an experiment. Having just read Housekeeping and Gilead as well as her essays The Death of Adam, I have been babbling about Robinson ever since. I just want to provoke a few responses to the idea of her fictional ascendancy. Where does she stand amidst the Bloggerati?

The Amish Killings: Bring on The Bug

In the movie Men in Black, a flying saucer destroys the truck of some rural hick. Edgar, the hick, goes out with his gun to investigate the crater. The alien 'Bug' tells him to place his 'projectile weapon' on the ground; Edgar replies, 'You can have my gun, when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.'. The Bug, of course, takes both Edgar and the gun. I saw Charlton Heston do that 'cold dead fingers' line at, I presume, a meeting of the National Rifle Association. It is plainly the rallying cry of the gun lobbyists who will, I am sure, be unmoved by the three school shootings in the US this week, culminating in yesterday's horror in Lancaster County. Like most Europeans, I have tended to regard American gun fascination with disgust. I have, however, gone to some lengths to try to understand. The constitutional justification is, it need hardly be said, absurd as it so obviously applied to a different world. But some time ago an argument put by, I think, Mark Steyn, did give me pause. He pointed out that there were large areas of America that were burglar free simply because most householders possessed guns and could legally use them if anybody attempted to break into their property. Here, of course, burglaries happen all the time and our wondrously rude and inept police force can't be bothered to do anything about them. And, if we should happen to kill or even upset a burglar, we are likely to find ourselves in court. But the truth is, whatever law and order benefits flow from US gun ownership are vastly outweighed by the routine horrors perpetrated in a land flooded with firearms, not to mention the thousands of accidental shootings that happen annually. I know in detail the cultural and historical arguments, but I could not bring myself to advance them with the blood of children on my hands. So bring on the Bug to prise the weapons from as many cold dead fingers as it takes.

Dawkins, Riemann and the Laughing Bones

There are three things I have never understood : the bizarre adulation accorded to Richard Dawkins, the Riemann Hypothesis and gambling. The first two need no further comment. The third, however, has come up because of this sudden transatlantic spat over online gambling. The British, I note gloomily, are the big players in this business, and, by stopping winnings being paid out in the US, Congress has lopped several billions off their revenue. 'Protectionism' is being muttered darkly and various gleaming men in tight suits - think Fat Tony in The Simpsons - have been complaining in low threatening voices on TV. I'm with congress. I just don't get gambling. I understand betting on games - poker, horseracing etc - in which one's input of skill, wisdom or information plays some significant part. But I emphatically do not understand betting on roulette and the like. The odds are rigged in the house's favour and, over time, you are bound to lose unless you quit the moment you are ahead. Some exotic scams apart, any belief that you can beat this is pure faith. You need to believe that you in particular are blessed with a special ability to overcome the most elementary workings of chance. You must, in short, be insane, which is why, I suppose, the grand Mayfair clubs are dressed up by lunatic interior designers to look like asylums. British governments have, because of the lottery, been forced, disastrously, to open the up the gambling market. Congress will have none of it. Go, Congress, let Fat Tony sleep with the fish. (The Laughing Bones are dice in The Grateful Dead's Candyman - lovely metaphor, lovely song.)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Reading the First Lady

I am indebted once again to Frank Wilson. He draws my attention to this list consisting of Laura Bush's choice of five books that 'inspired me to champion literacy'. Four of the books are predictable enough - Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Alcott's Little Women, Dr Seuss's Hop on Pop and Wilder's Little House series. But the fifth is Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. I am at a loss. Did Mrs Bush choose the first four dutifully as sound, all-American reads and then chuck in old Dusty as a sample of what she really likes? Or was it the other way round - Karamazov to give her lit cred, the other four being her real favourites? Either way, Fyodor sticks out like a sore thumb, a raging beast behind the frosty exterior. It makes one wonder.

Al Gore - Globally Warmed

Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth is superb - see it for the obvious reason that he is right, global warming is threatening us all - but also see it to learn how stupid political, advisers, consultants, spin nurses and policy wonks must be in the States and, therefore, here. During the election campaign against Bush, Gore was robotic, tongue-tied, paralysingly cautious and he lost. You may say he didn't really lose, but the point is that, if he had communicated in the way he does in this film, he would have won by a landslide. He was destroyed by flashy, dim-witted people who knew nothing. See them at work on The West Wing in which, unaccountably, they are portrayed as heroes. Watch out, Dave.

Cameron: Convictions and Lies

Herr Doktor Nietzsche has been stalking this blog recently. In his comment on Cameron in Kitchen (below), he quotes himself - 'Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies'. The point being, in this context, that it is all very well to sneer at his horrible videos but he is emphatically a better option than Gordon Blair or Tony Brown, precisely because he lacks convictions. Blair and especially Brown have convictions - no matter how bizarre and virtualised they may be. The world they see is highly coloured by prejudices arising from these convictions. Brown, for example, thinks he understands America, but it is Roosevelt's America he knows; Blair thinks he is a thwarted radical and that, having failed to bring this radicalism to Britain, he dreams in his last months (if they are, indeed, last months, which I doubt) of bringing it to the world. Blair thinks people can be micro-managed into social virtue; Brown, who is more of a neocon than Blair, believes virtue arises only from central command.
Herr Doktor tells us to be ruthless with these 'convictions'. They are truth's real enemies.
Cameron's emetic videos are lies, of a kind, but they are not convictions, for he has none. I remember when I spent time with him the word 'unformed' hovered continually in my mind. In Nietzsche's terms, he is, therefore, less an enemy of truth than the shower in power. Let the savage pragmatism of the good Doktor push you off the fence on which you are probably sitting. Dave's your man, but we must continue to mock.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Exclusive! Pre-Release! New Cameron Video!

You saw it here first.

Neil Armstrong Somewhat Redeemed

Wired News comes up with the bizarre information that Neil Armstrong did, in fact, say, 'That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.' when he first stepped on to the lunar surface. Previously, he had been accused of leaving out the 'a'. This would have made the sentence contradictory as 'man' is generally synonymous with 'mankind'. Happily, an Australian geek has found the missing word. Sadly, however, young Bruce or Shane or whatever did not also find the words, 'Good luck, Mr Gorsky.' This, James R. Hansen assures us in his massive biography of Armstrong (see my review), was a myth. The remark, since you ask, was explained by the fact that, as a child in Ohio, Armstrong had heard their neighbour, Mrs Gorsky, shouting, 'Oral sex! You want oral sex? You'll get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!' For all his gifts and achievements, a vague but palpable air of disappointment has always clung to the Neil Armstrong story - and, of course, to that of the ever hopeful Mr Gorsky.

Torture: Just What We Do

John Reid seems to be intent on relaxing legal restrictions on torture. At the Labour conference last week, he argued, 'It cannot be right that the rights of an individual suspected terrorist be placed above the rights, life and limb of the British people.' In the states, meanwhile, the lawyer Alan Dershowitz has been arguing for the granting of legal status to torture, not because he is in favour of it but because, as he put it to me, 'We now have ticking bomb terrorists and it's an empirical fact that every civilised democracy would use torture in those circumstances.' He doesn't like the 'surreptitious hypocrisy' involved in torturing beneath a blanket of official denial. The position of absolute opposition to this is, of course, put by the left and civil rights groups, but also by the right. Here, for example, is Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Dish - 'Now conservatives are the ones justifying torture - by the United States. They have become what they once fought. Unchecked power does that to you.' Meanwhile, John Gray (see previous post) has argued that the new enthusiasm for torture is further evidence (as if any were needed) that progress (see a full treatment of this here in Selected articles) is an illusion. Once progressives would have argued that the banning of torture was an irrevocable step towards a better future. Now, if they are honest, they will be forced to admit they were wrong. The progressive Dershowitz gets round this by saying that's just the way progress is - three steps forward, two steps back - 'Terrorism is a major step backwards in civilisation... Sometimes we have to step backwards too to combat such things.'
Gray's argument is the most fundamental. His is not a moral observation about whether we should or shouldn't permit torture. He is simply saying that it is an illusion that such things can be banished from human affairs by human aspiration. Our reason, our moralities, our hopes can do nothing against the dark logic of our tribal natures. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out, it would be nice if we really were the rational beings of which the Enlightenment thinkers dreamed, but we aren't, we are tribal carnivores.
Torture, like gentleness, compassion and art, is just what we do.